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Israel Sept 16-Oct 3 trip report;part one

Where to begin. This was my third trip to Israel, I am a Christian woman in her late 50’s who enjoys traveling solo. Each time I visit, I return to Pennsylvania, feeling slightly adrift, as if I am far from home. I love Israel. Make no doubt about it. With each visit the heart grows more fonder. I love the people, the land, the history, the food, the wine, the Western Wall visits late at night into the early morning.

I first made eye contact with her at Newark as we filed into our lanes for boarding. You are always put into lock-down by your gate, when flying into Tel Aviv, and since I have been through this before, I knew what to expect. Lock-down means you approach your gate, which is set up with wall barriers and you present your boarding pass along with your passport ( even though you have passed through TSA, which says a lot for them) and then you are allowed to enter , next you are wanded down, then you put all you belongings undo a table which are searched by hand, only then are you allowed to make yourself at home, by your gate to wait. Some people find this to be annoying, I find it highly comforting. I guess it all depends how you look at it.

Well, as I mentioned earlier, I first made eye contact with this older lady in her 60 's as she seemed confused as to which line you get into pre-boarding. (They really have a system here and they stick to it, which, once again, I love!) Well, I am now seated in my seat when who do you know shows up, but that same lady I helped earlier. She is my seat mate. I had the window seat, she was on the aisle, the one in the middle was empty. She was happy to see me, as I was her.

Well, we are now settled in and airborne and we get to talking. She says she is a non-Jew Jew. I ask her what does that mean? ( I am thinking she is not observant) imagine my surprise when she says she never visits Israel, but goes directly to the "Palestinians!" Well, I almost fell out of my seat! WHAT? How can this be, I ask myself? More importantly, I am now asking God why ? Why, did you put me next to her? Lol

So, I sit back and listen to her story. She was an only child, raised in New York City by two Jewish parents who had an arranged marriage, she said she never saw love between them or received love from them. She was never taught anything about God, or the Torah, or love or anything, except the feeling that she was never good enough. She told me her mother lived to be 104 years old and was miserable every minute of her life. She told me she died mean.

Well, I was flabbergasted. How do you answer that? So, I stayed silent and allowed her to talk, all the while asking God....why? She never married, never had any children, never knew any kind of love or joy in her life. And then, somehow, she found the Palestinians and she now relates to their suffering.

I finally couldn't take any more and said "you know, they throw rocks at Jews and kill them? That is terrorism!" She snorted and said "they don't have anything else to throw!" I said "but they kill people, simply because they are Jewish! And you are okay with that?" She shrugged and went on to say how they have nothing, how the Jews had it all.

I am getting angrier and angrier. And we are still in Canadian airspace, we haven't even made it to Icelandic airspace, this is going to be a LONG trip is what I am thinking!

She is getting distraught. I finally tell her that whatever she says, she will not change my mind, I am pro-Israel , I believe in the Bible, every single word of it and you will not change my mind, but I still love you anyway. She is taken back, almost as if I would have slapped her.

I then ask her, have you ever read the Torah, or the Bible? She shakes her head no. In exasperation I ask her how about the Koran? Once again, another shake of her head, no.
Have you ever heard about the stories of Abraham, Aaron, Miriam, Joshua, Daniel, Jeremiah, Elisha, David, or Solomon?? Another shake of her head, no. But....these are your people! She laughed and told me "you know more about them then I do." I sat there stunned.

Then I said, "do yourself a favor and open up the Torah, open up the Bible and just read it, " that is all I am asking, read it for yourself, and see what you will find." How can you know the truth if you don't know your past?

I arrived around 10 am on Wednesday September 16th to a hot and humid morning. Didn’t have to wait long at all, for my Nesher shuttle to fill up and we were on our way to Jerusalem. I was one of the last to be dropped off at Abraham Hostel. Lots of Yeshiva students were on my shuttle, I sat back and enjoyed the ride (and fretted about getting my rental car out of Jerusalem, next week) which ended up being a breeze! All that worrying for nothing!

I noticed all the extra security of the Israeli police force along Route 1 as we entered Jerusalem, but I had read about that on the internet and was happy to see it. They had promised to beef up the security for their holidays and they had delivered.

Abraham Hostel was hopping, the place was a buzz. Never saw such a busy lobby. Stowed my bags in their stored luggage closet (check in wasn’t until 2 PM) and headed upstairs to their dining room and made myself a very strong Turkish coffee, which I am not a big fan of, but I was in dire need of caffeine.

Headed down Jaffa street to the Hapoalim Bank where I know my ATM card works, then strolled around town (a very hot day) until it was time to head back and get checked in. Everybody is standing in line for check in. I get in line.

Get my room for the next eight days, then go back downstairs to book the Judean Desert Jeep tour for Friday. Also book their Meet the Ultra-Orthodox Jews tour for tomorrow evening and rent a bicycle for the two days over Yom Kippur.

Head back out for a walk around the Old City walls, stopping first by Christ Church’s coffee shop just inside the Jaffa Gate for a rich slice of chocolate cheesecake and double espresso. That seems to do the trick. Pass by the City of David, stop by the Western Wall but I forgot a pashima and I am wearing a sleeveless top, so I can’t approach it just yet, continue on making my way down into the now-shaded cooler sections by the Kidron Valley, loop back up pass Damascus Gate and enter through the New Gate and exit out of the Jaffa Gate.

By the time I get back to my hostel, I am exhausted, but I want to stay awake and get used to the time change. (+7hours)

Spent my night at the bar in Abraham Hostel. Very crowded, great music, meeting people from all around the world. Noticing quite a few people who are actually my age or older. J Next thing I know it is 1 AM and time for bed.

Thursday September 17 - Slept till 9. Stuffed myself on the breakfast buffet. Always look forward to their homemade muesli. Couple of double espresso cappuccinos and I am ready to go exploring, before it gets too hot!

Visit the Garden of Gethsemane, Church of All Nations, Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene, Mount of Olives, climb to the Church of Ascension which is now a mosque. Guy wants me to pay him 5 shekels to enter, last year I got in for free, so I shake my head no and head back down across the Kidron valley, stopping to visit Zedekiah’s Cave seeking shelter from the sun, before making my way back Jaffa Street to Abraham Hostel.

I am doing the “Meet the Ultra-Orthodox Jews Tour” at 4:30 PM through my hostel. There are two young ladies from Belguim and two guys from Switzerland and myself in our small tour group. Givsi (hope I am spelling her name right) meets us promptly at 4:30 and we spend the next three hours with her as she takes us through her neighborhood. First we visit a Yeshiva, then a girl’s school, then peek inside a Synagogue, stores for the women for clothes shopping and shops for the men’s attire, then we get to buy all kinds of goodies at a bakery. Lastly, she invites us into her home and she answers any questions we might have had as we got a look inside this very interesting way of life. She covered everything! What an incredible evening!

Back at my hostel I get an email stating that due to not enough people signing up for the Judean Desert Jeep tour tomorrow, it is now is cancelled.) I am disappointed, but on the other hand, I won‘t have to get up early.

Friday September 18 - Since my Judean desert tour got cancelled I spent most of the day at the Mehane Yehuda, or commonly known as the shuk. This wasn't what I had planned on doing, but I met a very nice young Israeli woman while having a tall iced coffee and she took it upon herself to show me all around the shuk, which can be extremely intimidating for tourists, due to the massive crowds and commotion. She walked me through the spice stalls, explaining what they are and how they are used, we tasted different Halvas, she showed me the Tahini press and we got to taste the Tahini. Her name was Hadar. Meaning Glory. She will be going to Germany in October to finish up on her Master's degree. Wising you all the best Hadar!

Back at my hostel by 3 pm. Shower, rest and downstairs just after the Shabbat horn sounds across Jerusalem, time to help prepare our Shabbat dinner. We have 64 people who signed up for Shabbat dinner, rumors are flying that it is one of the largest crowds Abraham Hostel ever had for a Shabbat dinner.

Only about a dozen have shown up to help prepare for the meal. Slicing, dicing, shredding and mashing, by 8pm we all sit down for the lighting of the candles, the prayer, and the reading, then we all indulge into our bountiful buffet which is spread before us.

Sitting next to me a is woman from Germany who is overseeing an archeological dig in Samaria. Across the table from me is a young lady from England who is working with the UN. The rest are mostly here for the same reason I am, here for the holidays, vacationing in a country that they love. Talking to them I discover that most of them have been here before.

After I am completely stuffed, and the tables are cleared and our dishes are washed, I decide to go for a long walk to relieve my bloated belly. I walk down the now empty and deserted Yafo street to the Old City. I catch the end part of the Rampart Walk and wander along the wall overlooking the twinkling lights of the neighborhoods which now lie quiet across the valleys. Feeling very much indeed like a watchman on the wall tonight.

The Kotel is surprisingly quite empty. A wonderful breeze has appeared after this stifling hot day ended and it is very pleasant and peaceful. I approach the wall and say my prayers, then wander back and sit on the concrete bench built into the wall at the back and contemplate on this beautiful night. The men on the other side of the partition are now singing with raised voices, they lift and fall, I find it mesmerizing and sit and listen. My heart sings along with them even if I don’t know the words.

A little lady comes walking in and sees me and we smile at each other. She comes over and asks if she can sit down next to me. I place my hand on the empty bench, patting it and nod my head. She is from Florida, she and her husband made aliyah sixteen years ago. We stay long into the night, most times talking, sometimes just listening to the men sing. She tells me about her family, I tell her why I am here.

I look at my watch and it is after 1:00 in the morning. I must go, I tell her, we hug and I part, slightly worried about the long walk back to my hostel in the dark. Turns out I had nothing to worry about, there were a lot of people walking the streets, some singing, some holding hands. It has been in the nineties during the day, ever since I arrived. I think everybody is out enjoying the cooler weather. Either that or they are night owls.

Saturday September 19- Another hot one in the forecast for today. After breakfast, I want to get a head start to beat the heat and set off for the Old City. A man from my church’s congregation has asked me to bring in a nativity scene made of olivewood. I have seen a lot of them, but nothing that I really liked. He had told me that when I see what I am supposed to get for him, I will know it. So far that didn’t happened.

I enter the Old City through the New Gate and it is not long before I am lost, in the Christian Quarter. I am seeing a lot of Greek flags, so I am somewhere around the Greek Orthodox churches. The first time I was here in Israel, in 2013, I had stumbled upon the Bethesda pools and an old Roman cistern, which I have never been able to find again, no matter how hard I try. I was looking for that again today, but now I am lost.

I pass by a tiny little shop. And spy some beautiful nativity scenes carved deeply out of one branch of olivewood. Just Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus nestled in the polished slab of wood with a nicely-detailed star emblazed across the sky above them. It has a nice weight to it, and very smooth to the touch. Not cheap and tacky-looking.

It is cost more than what I had intended on spending, but I have already decided that whatever I would buy for him would be presented as a gift and I would accept nothing in return for it. The store owner tells me it was made by Christians in Bethlehem.

I talk to the shopkeeper who has now laid down the book he was reading. I notice it is in Arabic and has a cross on it. He sees me looking at it and rifles through the pages showing me the Arabic script. It is the Bible, he tells me, the New Testament.

This is the one. Anthony was right. I would know it when I see it.

Shake hands with him and wish him well and with a smile on my face and my purchase tucked under my arm, I somehow find myself by the Lion’s Gate, choose not to exit, get lost again, see the Austrian Hospice, then Herod’s Ascent, get lost again, go up a tiny alley and find myself at the entrance for the Muslim’s to the Temple Mount, but since I can’t enter, I turn around and eventually find signs to the Western Wall and that is how I end up in the Jewish Quarter.

Regardless how many times I roam the streets inside the Old City, I always get lost. By now I am familiar with certain areas, but it is those tiny alleyways which if you linger in and wander down, you will most definitely lose your way. For me, anyway.

I scope out the Broad Wall, in the Jewish Quarter, mentally marking the paths I need to take for the Burnt House which I want to visit tomorrow, also where I need to go for the Western Walls tour, which I stumbled upon while I was lost earlier. Yes, I have a map of the Old City, but seldom do I remember to carry it with me.

Back to my hostel, shower and rest for awhile. I have been taking three showers a day, since I have been here. It has been relentlessly hot. Thank goodness for air-conditioning.

It is while I am resting and reading my Lonely Planet guidebook that I see the Garden Tomb is open till 5pm today. Back out and down the street to Damascus gate, cross the road to the busy market and end up in the bus station parking lot. I know it is around here somewhere. Keep snooping around and eventually I find my way.

It is beautiful here in this garden. Much cooler in the shaded growth of all the trees, bubbling little water fountains, butterflies and birds flitting by. In fact, you can’t hear any outside noise at all, in this little refuge. Enter the empty tomb, which when I had to stoop to enter through that doorway, I am almost overcome with tears, which surprises me, because I don’t cry easily. Having grown up with three older brothers who were terrible teasers, I learned at an early age not to show tears, that just brought on more teasing.

There is a very small group of people here. Take my time and truly enjoy this peaceful little garden, then visit the gift shop and buy some gifts for those back home. Walk out the back door shortly after 5pm when they closed and we are all pounced upon by vendors hawking their olivewood collectibles, shoving them in our faces, and following us as we escape. I might have been tempted to stop and look at their wares, but it was the hollering and yelling that put me off. Way too aggressive for me.

Make my way back across the highway and head back to Abraham Hostel for another shower, some rest and fresh clothes. By 8pm the restaurants and coffee shops were opening as I hit the street in search of food. Stopped for dinner at Nadin Pub on Rivlin 5. Had an excellent Prime Rib Sandwich, fries and salad with a glass of Cabernet. Food was good, but the service was awful. Hate to say that, because I am a server myself, and try hard not to find fault in other servers, but this guy could not have cared less. Nose to his phone the entire time. Manager had to remind him of any of my needs, One smile, one simple little smile would have helped. Nada. I was surprised, because when I ate here two years ago, the service was awesome! But anyway…

Another stop at the Western Wall. Sat and waited a long time for my friend to show up, the older lady whom I met the other night. She never came, so I headed back to my room.

Sunday, September 20- Get an early start, because it is going to be another hot day here in Jerusalem! 91 degrees in the forecast. Head for the Old City and do the Northern Ramparts walk. A couple people on here mentioned awhile back that the Southern Ramparts walk is much more visually appealing. They are correct. You do get a great view of Golgatha or Skull Hill, but there isn’t much else. And it was hot up here on the walls. Blazing hot!

I find my way down off the Ramparts at the very end and make my way over to the Western Wall Tunnel tour ticket office and show my email confirmation on my Iphone, they hand me a paper ticket. Got plenty of time, so I hang out by the Kotel. The Kotel is packed full with groups of children and their Rabbis. Yeshivas? Anybody know what this was about? Numerous groups of boys and groups of girls. There was a lot of singing, it was all very moving and beautiful. And extremely hot. I hung out by the entrance to the tunnels, in the cool corridor along with a lot of IDF soldiers, seeking shelter from the sweltering sun.

The Western Wall Tunnels tour was quite fascinating and educational! Our tour guide was a man from the Bronx, NYC who kept us highly entertained with not only the historical aspects which we were seeing, but some funny little insights of his own experiences. It was baffling to know that our feet were walking on the original streets of Herod’s reign, if I recall correctly.

After the tunnel tour I headed for the Burnt House and walked right into a huge, huge group of IDF soldiers who were eating, resting and hanging out. There was a young lady who was with and I donated money and got one of their T-shirts. I wanted an olive-colored one in small, they didn’t have it and gave me a black one in medium and told me I could come back later and trade it in for what I wanted, if they could locate one. I told her I was going to the Burnt House. She said “just check in with me on your way back.”

The Burnt House was again, very interesting and moving. The movie presentation was very good. The coolness of the location was a welcome reprieve. When I came back past the young lady’s stand, she lit up with a big smile and told me they located a T-shirt in my size and color. We switched out and I proudly put it on and walked back upYafo street to my hostel, stopping by Ofa, a falafel joint on HaHavatselet. Amazing food for 15 shekels. You get a warm pita with as many falafel you want, fries and salad bar with it. A shop owner on Yafo told me about it while buying two brass menorahs from them. She said it was excellent…and it was. I ate there a couple of times during my week in Jerusalem.

I had signed up for Abraham Hostel’s Humus Workshop and after yet another cool shower, I join the rest of our small group who are already seated at the dining room table. There are eight of us. After introductions are made all around, we learn all about humus and how you make it. It was very easy, a lot of fun and very delicious! Our instructor then showed us how to make the typical Israeli salad, what everybody eats for breakfast. Once again, very easy, but delicious and refreshing. He then brings us baskets of warm pita bread and we all get to indulge. I had brought a bottle of Gamla Cabernet down from my room and we finished it off. It is now open-mic night in the bar, we move towards the bar and hang out, listening to the good music. I love it here. I love Jerusalem! I love Israel!

Monday, September 21- Today I to the light rail to Mt Herzl. I had intended to see the Chagall Windows, but once again, got lost and by the time I walked back to Mt Herzl in the heat, I gave up and went to Yad Vashem. This time I rented the audio head phones. It was well after 4 PM when I left Yad Vashem. Always at a loss for words. Took the bus to Ein Kerem, for some time to contemplate and regroup as I wandered around this pretty little village. Stopped by the Church of John the Baptist, bought three beautiful cashmere pashimas for 60 shekels (in the Old City, they wanted 90 shekels for one) and climbed to the Church of Visitation. It was a beautiful evening, the sun was setting and the temperatures had dropped nicely.

Jumped on the light rail at 9PM to see the Tower of David Light Show, missed my stop thinking it would be the Jaffa Gate stop (which doesn’t exist) found myself getting off and catching the train back to where I got off at the City Center like I should have and hurriedly made my way to the Tower of David where the door is now closed. As I was frantically trying to figure out where to go in, two other ladies also showed up out of breath like me and we now have managed to attract the attention of a guard who directed us around to the back entrance and we were let in. We were 15 minutes late, sad to have missed the first part, but the rest was beautiful and I was just thankful that we were admitted in so late, show started at 9:30, we got in at 9:45. Afterwards, the young attendant who had admitted me sought me out and told me that I had purchased the combo ticket online and she took me to another attendant who printed out a ticket for the museum. Wow. I can’t believe I forgot that! They are closed tomorrow and Wednesday, and I leave Thursday for the Golan. Well, it is good for a year, she says.

I left the Tower of David and walked to the Western Wall. Sat down on the back bench and waited. And watched. Here she comes. My friend. For the life of me I can’t remember her name now, the lady from Florida who made Aliyah here with her husband. She sees me and says she doesn’t want to get too close to me, she has a terrible cold. Coughing and blowing her nose. She sounds awful. She sits a bit away from me, but still we talk. I am going to miss her, I think to myself after bidding our goodbyes. And I am going to miss these late night conversations at the Western Wall.

I am making my way back through the Jewish Quarter when a family approach me from behind and ask me how to get to the Jaffa gate which makes me smile. I ask them where they are from? New York, they say. We are neighbors, I tell them. Laughingly we make our way to the Jaffa Gate. They haven’t visited Israel in fifteen years, thought they would wait and bring the kids. How do you like it, I ask? “Well, we just got here today,” the wife tells me. Her husband says “I love it, she’s not sure yet!” Their two children laugh. Then I remember my museum ticket and tell them how I won’t get to use it, because I am leaving the day after Yom Kippur and give it to them. I know it is good for a year, but by next year, I will probably have either lost it or forget it again, so I offer it to them. Enjoy! Thanks, they say! We get to Jaffa Gate and say goodbye. I have a feeling they are going to fall in love with Israel, too.

Tuesday, September 22- Do some quick shopping at my favorite jewelry store on Yafo street, before everything closes. By 3 PM, most traffic has came to a halt with the exception of a few taxis, I claim my bike and ride to Mt Herzl and back. It is hot! 93ºF. The bikes aren’t in the best shape, mine only has two gears. And I am finding out that Jerusalem is all hills.

Rest of the day is spent resting.
Yom Kippur, Wednesday, September 23- Claim my bike and head to the Biblical Zoo. I know it is closed, but I am hoping to be able to see Noah’s Ark from a distance at least. I use Google maps on my phone and find the zoo without any problems. But I can’t see Noah’s Ark anywhere? Ride to the Old Train Station. Stop under a shade tree and try to put in my hostel on Google maps, Ain’t happening. Try the Old City. Nada. try to drop a pin, but once again, nothing. Hmm.

I get on my bike and come upon a bunch of young boys, about ten or twelve years old, who are hanging out on their bikes in the shade of an overpass of Highway 95. I stop and ask them directions. They sincerely want to help me, but they are all arguing amongst themselves the best way to get to the Old City. I ask them if they know how to use Google maps and their faces light up! Hand them my Iphone. They excitedly all try to use it, hand it back and forth between themselves, finally give up and hand it back to me. They are all so sweet. And trying so hard to assist me.

Two older boys, about the age of fifteen show up on their bikes. The younger boys ask them if they can help me. One of the older boys gives me perfect directions how to get back to Mt Herzl, where I will know my way from there. I wave goodbye to all of them, and head back up all the hills to my destination. I don’t know why my Iphone would work, when it functioned so well before. But the conversations I had with those happy little guys I shall always cherish. That and their smiles. They tried so hard to help.

Back to my room, enjoy a long wonderful refreshing shower, then make my way to the Old City and eventually to the Western Wall for one last visit. The Kotel is packed. Oh what a joy to be here tonight. Although I am told that the night before was the big night, when everybody was there. I see Christina, a lady who is staying at my hostel. We pull chairs over to the partition behind the men’s section and stand on them, captivated by the scene before us. Beauty and Holiness.

Take one last long slow stroll back to my hostel at HaDavidka. Tomorrow I pick up my car and head north to the Upper Galilee and the Golan.

Part two:

Thursday, September 24- Abraham Hostel has the Gettaxi setup just inside their door. Heard of it, but never used it. Easy as eating a piece of pie. My taxi arrives in two minutes. Takes me to Eldan’s branch office on 22 King David Street. My car pick-up is for 9 AM , I am twenty minutes early, but they don’t seem to mind. My application is processed quickly, there is a bit of a problem when I tried to switch credit cards from the one I had originally used to reserve my car online, it gets declined after numerous swipes, and I end up using my original credit card. The reason why I wanted to use my new card is it doesn’t charge any foreign transaction fees at either end. My original card does. But, that is what goes through, so not a problem.

I get into a van and their driver takes me to a parking garage where my car is waiting. Little white Fiat. Auto/manual? Which I shall discuss later. I am still extremely worried about getting out of Jerusalem. I see how they drive hear, heard the angry blaring horns during my week walking the streets. Not looking forward to this.

I went with full coverage for an additional $108, the car is handed off to me with quick instructions about the key code to start the ignition, lights, wipers etc. With that, I am on my way, my heart beating fast as I inch out of the parking garage and turn left, towards Tel Aviv. I had already put in Caesarea in my Iphone Google maps, queued it up and there it is! I found my way out of Jerusalem without a single car horn honking at me. Not one wave of the hand. Not a single wrong turn. Straight for Highway 1 and Caesarea. It was so easy.

I could feel my spirits rising as the highway traffic emptied out ahead of me. Caesarea, here we come! I am excited! I loved what little I saw of the north, last year, when I did the four-day northern Israel tour through Abraham hostel. Now, I can go anywhere and see whatever I want to see, because of my wheels! With a song in my heart, I leave all my worries behind me.

Got to Caesarea by 11 AM. It is even hotter here, and humid! Another surprise. Had not expected the humidity. Thought for sure that the breezes off the Mediterranean would make it much more pleasant. Wrong. Bought an Orange Park Pass for 150 shekels. Should be interesting to see how many punches will be applied.

I hung out in Caesarea for an hour and a half, would have liked to had relished the time I spent there, but the heat and the humidity was just so oppressive and with no shade to be found anywhere, I bailed out and got in my little car with the wonderful air-conditioner on me full blast and headed for Tel Megiddo.

An hour later I am in Tel Megiddo. Get my second punch on my Orange Pass and the sweet attendant asked me if I would like to watch the movie, since it is just ready to begin? There were only two other people inside, we sat in the cool dark room and enjoyed the presentation.

The majority of the time I spent at Tel Megiddo, I didn’t see a single person. I liked that and really took my time here, thoroughly enjoying the strong gusts of wind whipping around me, cooling me off. Make sure you wear sun glasses here, the blowing dust storms would blind you. Still sweating and now I am covered in a very fine gravelly coating of dirt.

From the majestic views across the valley to the deep water shaft below, I truly enjoyed Tel Megiddo more than I would have imagined. I could almost hear King Solomon’s horses whinnying and stamping their feet where the stables would have been.

If you take the time to explore the water shaft, which is quite remarkable in deed, just remember that the exit will bring you out at the other end of the park and you will have a good hike back to the park along the road.

Driving north I set off towards Mt Carmel. I am getting close to my exit when I notice that there is a red light now on my dashboard, my first thought was my little car was overheating and since I was running the air-conditioner full blast and it was so hot outside, I assumed my tiny vehicle was struggling. I pass up on Mt Carmel thinking my little car would never survive that climb.

Later on I would see that little red light in the gauges was not the thermostat which it looked like to me without my glasses, but an exclamation point. And I never did learn what that red exclamation point light was on for. It remained on the entire time I had my car. Lol And yes, I always wore my seat belt, so it wasn’t that. And no, it wasn’t the emergency brake.

For some reason, my GPS map decides to take me right through the heart of all the Kiryats suburbs just northeast of Haifa. It was bumper to bumper traffic. Touch and go. Stop. Touch and go. Stop. By the time I realized what had happened, I was in it for the long haul. Had to wait it out and finish that course, then it was north to Acre.

My intentions were stopping in Acre for dinner. I got there around 4:30 and couldn’t find a parking space anywhere. Again bumper to bumper traffic, this time they were showing no signs of patience and consideration to some poor hapless tourist trying to find a parking spot. I finally gave up and pulled up my app on my phone, pulled up my Shlomi Hostel reservation and hit the link for “directions to your hotel from here.” Take me home! Delivered me right to the hotel’s doorstep.

I would soon find out how wonderful that app truly is. It didn’t matter where you are at, whether you are on some isolated road out in the middle of nowhere or in the deepest, most integrated part of any major city, all you have to do is pull up your hotel on that app and hit that link and it will take you there! I loved it. It allowed you to go anywhere with no hesitations on how you are getting back.

Shlomi Hostel has a motorized security gate at the entrance. I was just ready to call them when it started to open, apparently by the man at the reception desk, whose name is “Adal. A-d-a-l. Adal.” I am writing this, because that is exactly how he introduced himself to me; this beautiful, charismatic, lively man who immediately also introduced himself as “I am Druze, I am not Jewish” he says to me. He has a fantastic personality, all smiles and charm, a bundle of energy. Very professional and proper, comes around to help me with my backpacks and I see he is discreetly wearing a sidearm. I like this guy! (this would be my first personal interaction with the Druze, whom I will come to see with the utmost respect)

Shlomi Hostel is much nicer than I had expected. My room has a little patio which faces the Mediterranean, it is impeccably clean and offers all the luxuries of home. During check in Adal, who corrected me after I addressed him by his name and thought it sounded the same way he said it, Adal, A-d-a-l, had asked me if I was hungry and wanted advice where to eat dinner at. I was and he told me his friend owns a Lebanese restaurant just three minutes from here, by car. “You take three rights,” he says. “Three rights, three minutes.”

I take him up on it and sure enough there it is. I notice the little restaurant is packed with people, as I pull in and park my car. I find it funny that for the first time, I am a bit apprehensive as I enter and then I am waved to a table as everyone’s attention is now on me. What? You never saw a woman out to eat dinner by herself, I am thinking as I glance around the room and now notice all the large families dining together. Makes me laugh. They probably haven’t.

The young lady who comes over to wait on me immediately announces “it’s okay, you can speak English!” before I even open up my mouth. She is very sweet and patiently explains their menu to me. I ordered a Heineken (they only had imported beer) falafel and humus with grilled lamb. Very good dinner, super friendly service, nice people who run this place.

When I attempted to start my car, it wouldn’t start. Recalled reading a trip report, I think it was from remi2000 where this had happened to them. I remember that she had called the car rental office and they unlocked it for here, from their office. I tried to call Eldan, but all their branch office in Jerusalem is closed. I tried the ignition again, still won’t start.

So, I went back into the restaurant, saying a prayer as I walked in, and asked a man sitting at a table with his two sons, if he could help me start my rental car? He immediately got up from him dinner and with his one son, came out and I gave him my keys, he asked me the code and presto, it started! He then told me you had to let it reset itself when this happens. I thanked him profusely and they went back to finish their dinner.

Found myself back at my hostel without any problems, called the hostel for admittance pass their gate, thanked Adal for his suggestion (got the pronunciation right this time, no correction needed) and went upstairs.

Got a couple of email alerts from both my credit cards, one showing numerous attempted swipes raising a suspicious activity alert and a hold of that card, which I had to answer in another email, releasing the freeze on that card. Both cards showed a $500 charge from Eldan for my rental car, along with the $300 actual charge for the car on the card I made the online reservation with. I worried about that for awhile, then gave up and went to bed. I shall call them tomorrow morning.

Friday, September 24- Called the Frenkels (Frenkels B&B) to give them an approximate time of my arrival later today, called Eldan and Shira, the very same lady who assisted me with my rental application, answered the phone. I explained all the charges, reminded her of how the numerous swipes on the first card she used were declined, but apparently one went through after all. She told me not to worry, it would be taken care of.

The breakfast buffet at Shlomi Hostel was an eye-opener and a jaw-dropper! They had everything you could think of and then some! Eggs, eggs, eggs! Egg casseroles, egg dishes, eggs prepared everyway possible, pancakes, waffles, hash browns, cheeses, pickled fish , fresh tuna salad, various other salads, olives, breads, rolls, muffins juices, I could go on and on, but for your sake I won‘t….Exceptional hostel! I will most certainly stay here again

All checked out and headed up the road to the Qeshet Arch. Or cave, which ever way you look at it. It is a long and winding road which takes you up to the top of this mountain, stop and walk to one of the lookout points just before the parking lot at Bezet Stream Nature Reserve. Much cooler at these altitudes, awesome sweeping views across the forests below, spanning out to the Mediterranean and up to the Lebanon border.

A couple of cows are grazing and wander over towards me. Born and raised on a dairy farm, which makes me very cow-friendly, I talk to them and they quietly dismiss me and move on. What a beautiful and blissful morning!

It is a very nice stroll to the Qeshet Arch. Families are here pushing baby strollers, little ones run on ahead, everybody greets me with smiles. I get to the arch, wow, very stunning! Impressive setting, gorgeous landscapes lie below, even the air smells good! Loving it all!

Next I am headed for Montfort fortress. The GPS takes me out 899 towards Goren where it stops and tells me to park the car and proceed by foot. You kidding me? From here I can’t see anything.
Then I kind of remember somebody on here telling me to take 89 and come in from there.

Coming in on 89, I see a sign for Montfort Fortress at the exit for Mi’ilya. Drive through Mi’ilya, out to Hila, and with my GPS still insisting that I go the whole way back to Goren, I turn it off. Circle completely through Hila, stop and ask someone who sends me off win the general direction I had taken earlier, but still can’t find the trail.

Come back into Mi’ilya, and stop at the Chocolate House for a double espresso and some delicious homemade chocolate cheesecake made by the owner‘s wife. The owner is very nice and helpful, chuckles at my dilemma in trying to find Monfort and draws me a very simple map showing me how to get there, where to park and where the trailhead is.

With map in hand, I find it without any problems.

The trail down is easy for the most part, the views across the rolling ridges of the greenest Israel I have ever seen are absolutely magnificent! This is one of my most favorite spots so far! The old fortress is a delight to explore, it is just me and another young couple. I take my time and immensely enjoy it. I want to come back and spend more time here, hiking the entire length of the stream. The owner of the Chocolate House told me it is very nice to do, if you have at least six hours!

Climbing back up, I pass a young couple coming down. The young man sees my bright red face and asks me if I have any water. Silly me, I left my water bottles back in my car. He and his girlfriend demand that I drink some of theirs and hands me a two liter bottle. “Drink,” he says. I do and hand it back to him. “Drink some more!” he insists. Once again, they ask me if I am okay. I am, I tell them. He then tells me ‘you never go anywhere in Israel without any water!” Thanking them, and lesson learned, I head back up the trail.

From Mi’ilya to Korazim, my GPS took me the long way around, the scenic route (which for some reason, happened to me a lot) passing by Hurfeish, Sasa, Jish, down towards Meron and turning east and then south past Safed to route 90 and eventually to Korazim. And no, I am not complaining! I saw some of the most incredible views coming across the greenest and some of the highest parts of Israel. It literally took my breath away.

It was after 5 pm when I arrived at the Frenkels B&B. I stayed here for two nights while traveling through the Galilee. Korazim is a tranquil little gated-community, with a north gate and a south gate. You will need to call them and let them know which gate you are entering if you stay here, so they can have it opened for you. From the south gate you can see the Sea of Galilee, the north gate you can't.

Irwin met me at the end of the driveway, just in case I missed it, and waved me in. He is such a sweet man, he helped me with my backpacks and showed me to my room. My "room" is more like a small apartment, it actually consist of three rooms; bedroom, living room and bath, with all the comforts of home.

He tells me after I get settled in, to come on over to their side of the house to meet Etha and have some cake. Etha and Irwin are a wonderful older couple who turned their house into a beautiful little B & B, offering solace and solitude to the weary traveler. And amazing home-baked and hand-cured food!

Over homemade cake and lemonade, we got acquainted and shared stories. I told him about that incredible drive I had coming across northern Israel. He smiles and says he hasn’t been up that way in a long time. I am invited to wander around their garden at leisure. Irwin's garden consist of a very large grove of olive trees, mango and citrus trees, flowers and herbs, birds and butterflies!

Dinner found me at the Peace Restaurant, an Arab place just minutes north of Korazim, off of 90. The restaurant was packed full of people, I had the humus appetizer entirely intending on ordering more when I finished that, but I was just too stuffed. Sated and satisfied, back to my apartment and chilled the rest of the evening.

Saturday, September 25- Up for breakfast at 9am the next morning. Walked into their kitchen to an appealing array of tempting delights cheerfully displayed on a bright and beautiful kitchen table. Big basket of homemade breads, dishes of hand cured olives, salads, spreads, jams, fresh salmon, eggs, yogurt, juice and coffee. What more could you possibly wish for? Maybe a bigger stomach?

After breakfast I headed south pass the sea of Galilee, stopping in at the Belvoir Fortress on my way to Bet She’an. It is a very long road which slowly winds it way up to the fortress above. Would be easily missed from the highway below. I enjoyed it at Belvoir. Very nice ruins, and surprisingly for as isolated as it seems, there were a lot of people here!

Reach Bet She’an by 1:30, and it is scorching hot! But the ruins are so mind-blowing, I somehow forget the heat. Impressive size and staggering remains of what was once a remarkable city. It is just me and two other ladies; an Israeli and her Ukrainian friend. We kind of drift through the ruins together, taking our time and gulping lots of water. And we also needed each other to take pictures of ourselves. Lol I can’t believe it took me three trips to Israel to get to Bet She’an!! Should be on everyone’s must-do list!

When I left Bet She’an, I came up by Mt. Tabor and drove up to the Church of Transfiguration. Spectacular views across the Galilee! Many crowds of people here at the church. There was also a Muslim wedding here on the outside grounds and the festivities are slowly winding down.

As I make my way down off the mountain, I remembered a cheese place at Kfar Kisch, just across the fields from here. I know that it is Shabbat, but still, since I am so close, I want to check it out. I drive into the Moshav, but just alike I thought, everything was closed.

Back to my B&B in Korazim for one more night.

There were two other couples staying here while I was here, each morning we would share our daily plans and previous day's travels. Etha and Irwin would give us excellent advice and suggestions, this place truly felt like home to me.
Comfortable bed, excellent air-conditioning, awesome shower, great wifi, TV with various channels in almost every language, DVDs, plenty of electrical outlets, everything you need.

The morning I was leaving I heard a lot of loud birds squawking and making a ruckus as I put my backpacks in my car. I looked up into the trees and saw a flock of big, florescent green parrots in the tree tops. They were gorgeous!

Thank you so very much, Etha and Irwin! I loved it all!

Tomorrow I head north to the Golan and Neve Ativ

Israel Sept 16- Oct 3. 2015; part two

Sunday, September 27- I tried to enter Nimrod’s fortress in my GPS, which for some reason wouldn’t recognize it, so I try to enter Nimrod, still nothing, so I dropped a pin on my GPS at Odem and left Korazim. For some reason my GPS isn’t speaking to me, the navigation turn by turn voice commands isn’t functioning, so now I am forced to track myself on the road. It list the steps, (but then you can’t see the map) and will track you on the road, but won’t give you any warnings with vocal commands or prompts. Why that is, I do not know.

From Korazim, it takes me on 8277 to 87, and I cross the Jordan river, where I pull over in a tiny parking area where there a couple of other cars, park, and walk back to the bridge to take pictures of the pretty green waters of the Jordan flowing below me. Down by the river’s edge people have tents pitched, bbq’s are smoking and children are laughing. Sounds like a lot of fun.

I continue on my way north up 888. Pass the road to Katsrin, where I will be staying in a couple of days. Up towards Ortal and then north on 978, pass Odem to Mas’ada, the Druze village where we ate lunch during that four-day northern Israel tour which I did with Abraham tours, last year.

Knowing that Nimrod’s Fortress is on the road to Neve Ativ (I was unable to enter that name also) I used my Booking app and hit the “take me home link” for Rimonim Hermon Holiday Village, where I will be staying for two nights.

Coming down out of Ma’sada, I can see the fortress sitting high on a bluff across the way.

Pulled into the parking lot at the fortress at 12:30 pm. A beautiful day, lots of other people, with a promising adventure laying before me, I set off to explore. The very well-maintained ruins and path is distinctly marked in numerical order for you to follow. Somehow I managed to end up doing the path in reverse, which doesn’t really surprise me. My mother told me I was a breech birth, meaning I was born backwards, and ever since I find myself doing a lot of things backwards. Sorry, I digressed.

Anyway, the reverse path takes me down over a very treacherous rocky cliff and I somehow find myself outside the old walls. Have to retrace my steps, down through a very small hole which you had to literally access on hands and knees, and then I was once again back inside the ancient walls of the fortress.

From seeing pictures of this fortress online, I knew there was an old cistern underneath it. You think I could find it anywhere? I looked everywhere, high and low, and finally found it at the very end of the path, which would have been at the very beginning… had I did it the correct way. Also want to duly note, had they known what A.D.D. was when I was a kid in elementary school, I would have been the poster child.

If you can recall when I was staying at the Frenkels B&B in Korazim, how the other two couples and I would share our daily explorations over breakfast with Etha and Irwin. The day I went to Bet She’an, the other two couples came north to visit Nimrod’s fortress and the next morning they shared how they could hear the conflict over in Syria while wandering around the fortress. Irwin had corrected them and told them it was the IDF running drills at a military post close by.

Well, the entire time I was roaming the grounds you could hear explosions and loud repercussions, sounded a lot like a severe thunderstorm looming in the distance, but with only blue skies overhead, that wasn‘t the case. I somehow found Irwin’s words to be comforting as I spent the afternoon searching the ruins.

By 3 pm I was at Tel Dan Nature Reserve exploring the ancient city of Dan. It was here that wicked king Jeroboam had set up a golden calf for the Israelites to worship. Very pretty ruins, somehow I missed the Canaanite gate, got to do a little of the stream hike before we were all rounded up by the park rangers and sent back to the gate. It was closing time. Guess I have to come back.

It is at this time that my car takes it upon itself to adjust the driving mode and now I am driving in manual shift mode. Luckily for me, I drove stick shift years ago. Also find that the little car now has a lot more power driving stick shift, which I like. Made my way back up the winding road past Nimrod’s fortress, up to the lovely moshav of Neve Ativ to my hotel. Very beautiful location,. The Rimonim Hermon Holiday Village is a resort which is nestled in a thick forest of sweet-smelling evergreens, the air is brisk and cool, the cabins are A-frames and dispersed in a very eye-appealing alpine setting! I am going to love it here!
Check in takes longer than I had expected, with the long line of Israelis families all arriving at the same time. I patiently wait for my turn.

Got the keys to my kingdom and head up the hill to cabin # 37. It is so cute and spotlessly clean! Great bed, comfy pillows, little refrigerator, upstairs loft with two more beds which would be great for kids, nice-sized bathroom, with a tub and a wonderful shower with awesome hot water which works wonders on my tired old body. Smile as I soak in the shower and watch the water at my feet turn brown from the dirt and grime.

All cleaned up and hungry as a horse. I had read from the reviews that the dinners served here aren’t the greatest, so I set off to look for a place to eat in Neve Ativ. Just happen upon three local ladies out for their evening jogs whom I stop and ask them for suggestions for a good dinner. They tell me to go to Nisan Restaurant just a short five minute drive to the Druze village of Mahdal Shams.

That is where I am headed. On my way up the road and see the full moon cresting the ridge ahead. It is a super moon, which makes it appear to be really, really big! Have to stop for pictures. Needing to get gas first, I stop at a gas station in Mahdal Shams, where two very pretty young ladies come out to assist me with my purchase, actually they do all the work and I stand by smiling helplessly. The one young girl speaks English very well, they are both so sweet and kind, wave goodbye to me as I drive away.

With a tank full of gas and an empty stomach , I’m off in search of Nisan Restaurant. Circle around the square a couple of times, finally stop and ask a guy for directions. He kindly points me in the right direction, up the road and around the bend and there it sits.

All lit up and shining brightly like a beacon light beckoning , I enter to find a dining room jammed-packed full with very large groups of Israeli families, probably all of them staying at Rimonim Hermon Holiday Village. I could have just followed them here!

Seated at a little table for two, just inside the doorway, where I can settle back and watch the show. Hectic and harried servers running to and fro, the owner happily assisting and accommodating everyone.
Service was prompt and friendly, the food was fantastic! I had ordered a Greek salad with a Humus appetizer. When the food came out, it barely fit on the table. I got them to pack the leftovers and I took them along with me, which was my next night’s dinner. Everything was awesome, thanks for the advice ladies, whoever you were!

The lunar eclipse is tomorrow morning. It starts at 3:15 and is over by 8:15. Hoping to get to see it, but for now it is lights out as I snuggle in my extremely comfortable bed.

Monday, September 28- Something nudged me awake around 5:45 and I remembered the eclipse. I go to my window and look out, not expecting to see much. Wow! There it is! A blood red moon! I hurriedly stumble around in the dark, forgetting where the light switches are, get dressed, grab my camera and go outside and sit on the stoop. I don’t have my contacts in, so I can’t see the best, but I do see a big moon the color of deep scarlet and get a couple of pictures of it, then the mists off the mountain roll down and obscure it from sight. But hey, I did get to see it!

Crawl back in my bed with a happy heart.

Got a lot to do today. Up and downstairs for breakfast before 9. The breakfast buffet is humongous! Everything you could possibly imagine. Very good, very happy. I am seated at the last table by the dining room entryway, facing the bufffet. There is a family arranging themselves at the first table in front of me, they have a little girl about the age of four, who is placed in her highchair. The parents take turns getting their food from the buffet. The little girl decides to act up, hits at her mom, when dad comes back and offers her food, she screams and shakes her head at him. He reprimands her. She does it again. He calmly and quietly gets up, removes her highchair tray, picks her up and sets her on her feet , takes her by the hand and they walk past me, and out of the restaurant. She has her head down. I am thinking “somebody’s gonna get it“ and wait to hear the outburst from the disciplinary action.

Silence. Then I see the mother raise her eyebrows, the father comes walking back in, the little girl demurely follows from behind. She climbs back up into the highchair, dad replaces her tray and she eats. Mom gets up and goes back to the buffet, the little girl reaches with her hand towards her dad, dad takes her hand and softly pats it. She gives him the biggest smile.

Please forgive me, I need to vent just a bit. This is how parenting should be, not what I am seeing here in the States. If you recall, I am a server/bartender at an airport. Been in the restaurant business for 30+ years. Worked a lot of different places, seen parenting skills go from good to horrific over the years. We get to see and hear children’s temper tantrums, hear their parent’s holler, yell, threaten them and then never carry through with their promised punishments, which of course, the child already knows.

We also see children running all around in the restaurant while their parents have their noses buried in their phones. Don’t even know their kid is gone. A couple of months ago, I watched a little girl go around to each empty table and unscrew the tops off all of the condiments, shaking salt and pepper everywhere, throwing sugar packets on the floor. Mom was completely oblivious of her child.

I can remember as a child how when we were acting up, we got one warning from dad. One. That is all it took.

I totally applaud the Israeli method of childrearing! I had also seen another occasion at the Belvoir fortress where a mother had to settle an argument between her two children; older sister was picking on her little brother, both were taken out of the fortress where I just happened to be shooting pictures of the doorway. Got to hear the entire conversation, although being that it was in Hebrew, didn’t understand it but I still caught the jest of it. When you remove the child from the scene for disciplinary actions, the child has lost it’s audience, with no reason to act up or put on a show. One on one. Good parenting makes for good families...just saying. Forgive me for venting. I guess I just want to say that I love it here. Everything.

After breakfast, I am in my car and on my way to Banais Springs first, then to Banais Waterfalls. Been to both of these before, but enjoyed them so much and I do have that Orange Park Pass, so I am hitting everything I can.

From there I want to go to the Snir Stream Reserve. Driving down the road I see a sign for Snir and make a left. Takes me back to the Snir kibbutz. I realize my mistake and turn around, come back out of the kibbutz and see a car pulling over to park where there are several other cars. I also pull in, get out and ask the lady who is getting out of the other car, “is this Snir Stream?” She nods and motions for me to come along.

I follow her and her companions as they head down the trail, down we go into the green, lush tall reeds and grasses and the trees which wait below, down the trail to a sign which reads Hermon Stream (Banais) Nature Reserve. And another sign with an arrow saying Syrian Tank, this way. Wow. This is where that tank is that I saw pictures of on Google Earth.

Down to the rushing sound of water and there lies the upside down Syrian tank. Israelis are picnicking all around and even on top of it. They seem surprised to see me, I smile and find a spot a little further on down the stream, sit down, take off my shoes, and soak my feet in the icy cold waters of the Hermon stream. Spend the next 45 minutes just sitting back and enjoying this shady, cool haven nestled so very deep in the Golan canyon. And to think I could have so very easily missed this spot, had I not have taken that wrong turn.

Climb back out of the canyon to the Golani cattle who are watching me from the pasture across the road, head down the road and see a sign for Horeshat Tai. Have no idea what it is, by hey, it is on my (orange) Green Park Pass. I pull up to the entrance, the man at the window sees me reaching for my orange paper and he gets out the old punch and starts air punching before I even hand it to him, which makes me laugh. He punches my pass and tells me “have a good day” with a big smile.

Horeshat Tai is a national park, with very impressive old, old oak trees and swimming pools and deep rushing waterways. Sports courts, bbq pits. It would be great for children. I walked around a bit and then came back to my car, tried to start it and for the second time since I got it, it wouldn’t start. I had to wait about ten minutes till it made up it’s mind, which I wasn’t happy about, since I now was impatient to get to Snir Stream.

Finally back on the road and on my way to Snir Stream reserve. Got there by 3:41pm, just under the wire. Last admittance was 4 pm. A park ranger gave us strict orders about closing time, I followed a group of people who were very determined to see it all and closely following them on their heels, I did too! We got it all in. It was amazing! This was my most favorite water hike of all. I had worn my hikers, which survived Tel Dan just fine, here they got soaked! But it was all good and a whole lot of fun! Came out at the bottom of the stream and had a nice long walk back to the parking lot, past rich verdant fields of vineyards and various other crops. Another awesome day!

Back to my sweet little alpine cabin and that delicious dinner waiting in the refrigerator. Also got a bottle of Cabernet with my name on it. Life is good.

Tuesday, September 29- After a great night’s sleep, probably the best one I had in Israel, and another awesome breakfast, I am on my way south to Katsrin. I had missed Mt. Bental on my way up here, heading that way now.

Mt Avital-Mt Bental Nature Reserve is a big mountain where there is a great lookout point over Syria, the UN are always stationed here also. This morning it is just me and a few other people. You can hear the conflict in Syria. You can hear explosions, some a mere thump, some of them booming. I think to myself, this is what I was hearing on Sunday, while crawling around the ruins of Nimrod’s fortress. The Californians were correct, when they mentioned it over our breakfast at the Frenkels.

It is while I am trying to take selfies of myself that the releif man who works for the UN, a Canadian according to his shoulder patch, says to me that my arms aren’t long enough and offers to take my photo. He asks me where I am from. I tell Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. He says he has been there many times, tells me that he was born and raised in Manitoba and how they have lots of Mennonites in Manitoba.

I tell him about Nimrod’s fortress and asked him if it was the conflict in Syria which I was hearing from the fortress? He confirms it. Hmm. And all that time I though it was the IDF doing drills.

After exploring the undergound bunkers, and taking in the views, I move on. South to Katzrin and the Golan Garden hostel.

Katzrin is a pretty little town, very neat and tidy, with a lot of things to do. I swung by the ancient Katzrin ruins for a quick look around, the park was very full with families celebrating their holidays, children with painted faces and little girls with flower wreaths around their heads.

My app delivers me to my doorstep. When I walk in the door of my hostel, Alon is seated behind the desk. “You must be Janice” he says with a smile. What a welcome! I am shown all around, get settled innn my room and then back downstairs to see what Alon can suggest for me to do today.

“Well, you could go to Mt Bental,” he says. I tell him I just came from there and ancient Katzrin. That makes him smile. “You could go to Gilbon Stream, that is a very nice hike,” he says. Well, then, that is where I am headed.
Now, I am thinking “stream” and put on my Keens, which are great water shoes. This time I am going to be prepared. Got my backpack with two water bottles. Off I go.

I had passed the road leading back to it on my way here, so this time I know where I am going. Back a long and dusty road, park my car, walk past fenced-off mine fields and artillery-riddled Syrian outposts, peek in the buildings, and then move on down the trail.

At first it is easy. Then, it gets hard. Downright challenging. Had I known this I would have worn my hikers, which by now have pretty much dried out. (I had dangled them one at a time out the car window as I made my way down from Neve Ativ to Katzrin.) Between the sun and the wind, it worked well.

This is more like a scramble, I am thinking to myself, as I slipslod around the rocks and over boulders, not trusting my Keens for this objective. All I need now is a twisted ankle. There are hand holds and foot anchors to climb the rock walls, I make it to the first waterfall. Very impressive! Wow. It was worth it.

Reassured, I move on, gingerly climbing down off the rocky cliffside to where the trail is more suitable and level. I startd coming into contact with families and small children picnicking which makes me feel much better. That means a better trail lies ahead.

The next waterfall is astounding. The trail loops around and you can get a very good view of it. From way down below, you could hear shrieks of sheer joy and laughter. And splashes. I stay up on top, by the trail and watch and listen. I’m content to be back on level ground here on this shaded trail.

Part four:

I was famished my the time I crawled my way up and out of the Gilbon Stream Reserve and made my way back up that long dusty dirt road to the parking lot. And it just happens that there is a great steak place in Katzrin, which I learned about on TripAdvisor. My mouth is watering just thinking about it, as I drive back to the Golan Garden Hostel.

Alon is sitting at the desk when I walk in and asks me how was Gilbon? “Awesome,” I tell him. But I do not tell him that I hadn’t expected it to be so tough and such a scramble. Nevertheless, that scramble has worked up an appetite and I tell Alon I am going to Meat Shos for dinner. “Meat Shos?” he exclaims, looking surprised, “how do you know about Meat Shos?” “I read about it on TripAdvisor,” I tell him. He says it is excellent, tells me to get the entrecote and also adds that he had worked there before they got the hostel.

Showered and dressed and go out to get in my car. Car refuses to start. Have to sit and wait…my car seems to be trying to teach me a lot of patience. It finally resets itself and I am off.

Meat Shos sits at the end of the industrial park, just east of Katzrin. Back behind the Goland Brewhouse and the Golan Heights Winery. Next to the emergency vehicles and fire trucks. It appears to have been some sort of a warehouse, it has just opened when I arrive, I am directed to a table and the friendly server quickly produces a menu.

I ordered a Golan Heights Double Bock beer. Delicious! Next comes my Entrecote, prepared medium rare with a side of veggies oven-roasted in a cast iron dish. Everything is perfectly scrumptious!

Back to my room and crash. Totally satisfied and totally exhausted.

Wednesday, September 30- Up before anybody else, help myself to the pancake batter in the refrigerator, make myself some pancakes and coffee. By this time Alon and another staff member have appeared. Over coffee, Alon suggest for me to do the Zavitan Stream hike today. Says he will drop me off down the road and I can do the loop, should take about four hours.

It is a little after 9 am when Alon drops me off at the Yehudiya Nature Reserve- Zavitan Stream trailhead. He tells me to just follow the stream which will take me down into th canyon and eventually to the waterfalls. I set off and follow the stream, the trail is nicely marked with a red stripe painted on rocks, boulders and tree trunks. Not long before I come upon two young Israeli girls, probably late-teens, sitting down sharing a cigarette. Very friendly, we chat for awhile, they seem surprised that I have traveled the whole way from Pennsylvania just to come hiking in the Golan when the United States is so big and has so much to see! This makes me laugh.

They also tell me that they came on this hike to go swimming and so far there are no pools of water anywhere. I tell them about the waterfalls and this seems to cheer them up and they set off with me, sometimes leading, sometimes falling behind.

Over an hour later another young couple arrive on the trail, coming down the road from Katzrin and we all set off together, arriving shortly at our first pool, which brightens the two young ladies faces immensely! They decided to stay and swim, the other couple and I head on down the stream to the waterfalls.

Forty minutes later we have reached the overlook above the falls. A trail leads down into the canyon, there is a ladder you have to climb down, a nice easy path around pretty pools in the canyon and then another scramble up over boulders with more hand holds, around the rock wall and there it is. The waterfalls with the big pool at the bottom, which is filled with many happy people. Floating, singing, boys diving from the steep canyon walls. The girls would love this, I think to myself.

Sat in the shade and watched the antics of the young boys diving from the cliffs and listened to the shrieks and screams of laughter amidst the many thunderous splashes. Everybody is having fun. A very large group of people have arrived and are moving up and over that rock wall. Make my way down and back around the pretty pools in the canyon, then back up the ladder and up the trail where a family is coming down towards me.

The mother, who is probably about my age, asks me something in Hebrew. I tell her “sorry, I don’t speak Hebrew“, which I am sure she didn’t understand, from her looks and the quick hearty laughter of her thirty-something daughter who explains to her mother. Her mother mutters something, and waves me away which brings more laughter from her lovely daughter. I tell the daughter I only know Shalom and Lehitraot, which brings more bubbling spontaneous laughter. She is pure joy to talk to, the kind of person you would be good friends with. What a sweet young lady! We wave goodbye, “Lehitraot” to each other and they head down towards the ladder and I continue up the path. Reached the top and see the two young girls who had stayed at the swimming pool earlier. So they have made it at last. “How was it?” they ask. “You are going to love it!” I tell them.

Back up the trail, climb out of the stream bed and then up the long hot road to Katzrin. Almost make it to Katzrin when a storm cloud moves in and it starts to sprinkle. By the time I get to my hostel it begins to pour! A thunderstorm in September!

It rains hard for forty minutes. Alon and I hang out in the living room, me drinking coffee and Alon sprawled out on the couch, talking about the strange weather Israel has been having. How the summer was extra-ordinarily hot and also about that huge sandstorm. Alon said it came from Syria, which is rare and oddly strange, since their sand storms usually come up from Egypt. We also talked about the lunar eclipse, which he had missed. (He looked for it before he went to bed, when it actually happened early next morning.)

The rain let up and I headed to the Golan Brewhouse for dinner. The place was just clearing out when I arrived. Sat at the bar and ordered the Golan Sampler which consists of four five-ounce beers; a Pilsner, a Lager, a Wheat and the Double Bock, which I already had last night. All very good! But the Double Bock was my favorite. Had the Portabello Mushrooms stuffed with chicken and cheese, and another Entrecote steak, medium rare. Exquisite!

After dinner I took a drive down along the Sea of Galilee, stopping for pictures as the sun set and enjoyed watching a lively family of hyraxes scampering around on the rocks. Headed back to Katzrin and took a long walk around town, enjoying the nice cool clean air after that thunderstorm.

Thursday, October 1- Leaving the Golan and headed south to Mazkeret Batya, a community of roughly 12,000 people, and interestingly Israel's oldest town, which by the way was established in 1883 by 11 families from Russia. (I did not know this when I booked here) I simply picked this town because it is close to Beit Guvrin where I have a dig tomorrow morning and it is only 15 minutes from the airport for my flight on Saturday.

I drove south along the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee with the intention of finding Kursi National Park, the place where Jesus cast out the legion of devils from a man and the devils entered a herd of swine and the pigs ran down off the cliffs of the mountain and into the sea.

I tried to enter Kursi into my Google maps and it wasn't happening. So I entered Geshur which was the closest idea i could come up with and set off down the road. I passed a young IDF soldier who was hitchhiking and he looked so tired and discouraged when I blew by him. Something made me turn around and go back. I pulled over and opened the car door and told him I was going to Kursi. He said he lives past Kursi, in a kibbutz.

I told him “okay, but do you want to drive, because I don't know where I am going?” He seemed surprised. I got out and handed him the keys. He tried to put his huge duffle bag in my tiny little trunk ( I am driving the smallest Fiat they got, they called it the pope mobile, when they handed it over to me) but it doesn't fit so he put it in the back seat. He got in the driver's seat and I climbed in beside him, next to his assault rifle, which he then took off his shoulder and placed it on top of his duffle bag in the back seat and down the road we went.

He looked tired. He said he was going home to be with his family for the holidays. He has been to the US five times, he has friends who live in South Dakota. When we got to his stop, he told me the way to get to Kursi, which I would have never found without his help. He thanked me and got out. I wished him well and told him to "stay safe."

Thanks to the young soldier I found Kursi. Another punch on my park pass, a quick visit and then I was back on the road.

Made it to Mazkeret Batya by 12:15pm, to my beautiful little boutique hotel, Hapina-Shel-Michal. Michal, the owner and her wonderful assistant Dorit, happily greeted me and showed me to my adorable room. Very, very pretty hotel. Settled in, then set off on foot to explore this attractive town and in search of food.

It is noticeably much warmer and more humid here, than it was up on the Golan. I find my lunch at an Italian Café just two doors down from my hotel. Ordered their Spicey Herb, Feta and Black Olive Pizza and a Stella Atoris. The pizza is superb, the beer cold, crisp and refreshing. Then I remembered that when I get back from my dig tomorrow, everything will be closed because of Shabbat, so I ordered another exact same type pizza to go, for my dinner tomorrow night.

Spent the rest of the day lazily exploring the lovely town.

Friday, October 2- Dorit had packed me a box breakfast because I had an early departure and I found it in their refrigerator in the dining room downstairs. I didn't expect much...boy, was I surprised! I couldn't even eat it all, saved some for later. Fresh tuna salad for my sandwiches, pepper salad, hard boiled egg, a cheese sandwich, yogurt, granola, jams! Delicious!

On the road this morning to Beit Guvrin when I noticed I only had a quarter of a tank of gas left, but my Google maps said it was a forty minute drive, and we are meeting at a gas station next to the dig, so I figured I could make it okay. Well, the gauge started dropping rapidly and I still had about nine more miles to go...and no gas stations in sight. I pulled over and turned off the ignition and called my contacts, asking them if I was going the right direction, ( I was) turns out I was 2.7 miles away and the gas gauge was on the last line. Trust me, I had did a lot of praying on the road.

Filled 'er off at the gas station. That was a close call.

The archeological dig at Beit Guvrin was a lot of fun! There were a coupe of families with a lot of small children. The children really enjoyed it! The instructor was awesome with the children! I highly recommend for families to do this dig! After our dig, we were shown a cave which was already excavated. Amazing! First, the Caananites would have been here, then the Edomites, then the Jewish people started to settle in here and around Jerusalem, which is approximately, 40 kilometers northeast. There are also inscriptions written in Greek, inside some of these caves. I love history!! Can't disprove it!

After our fascinating morning, which by the way, our instructor was a young lady from Philadelphia, I got to explore the rest of the Beit Guvrin National Park. The Bell Caves and the Sidion caves. Wow!! What can I say?

When I came back from my dig, there was a small bottle of wine, cookies and chocolates waiting in my room at Hapina-Shel-Michal Thank you Michal and staff for all your generosity, kindness and sincerity!

Had my pizza for dinner, finished off the bottle of wine and finished uploading my pictures on my tablet, then to bed.

Saturday, October 3- Head to the airport to return my car, when I am stopped at the security area before you drive up the ramps, I tell the handsome young man that I am returning my rental car. He asks me if I know where I am going. I tell him, “no, not really.” Which brings a soft laugh and a sweet smile. “Well, good luck” he says.

A couple of circles around the block and after finally looking through my rental agreement on the last page are the directions to Eldan’s parking lot in clear description. Pull in and I am met by a very happy man who takes my keys and we sign off on the deal. It was that easy.

If you ever wanted to visit Israel, but had your doubts, by all means...come! The people will surprise you and the land will satisfy you! I had an amazing trip, met so many friendly vibrant, helpful people, awesome food, great wine, strenuous hikes, beautiful drives….Incredible trip!!

Greece 2015; part one

Part one: Flight was out of Philadelphia direct to Athens; April 25, 5:00 pm,Saturday night. First three nights on Santorini. Stayed at Fira White Residence.

Sunday, April 26 - The plane started its descent and the approach offered a spectacular view, lots of snow-capped mountain peaks and wide vistas of green rolling ridges, then numerous islands in the shining sea. Touchdown at 9 am. I have another four hours to kill till my Santorini flight, but I will soon find out that you need a lot of time, with the long lines of confused tourists who insist on checking heavily-laden, life's supply of luggage, and carry-ons the size of Texas.

I patiently wait for my turn. I had purchased the "flex ticket" on my Olympic Air flight and am curious how this will end for me. They process my big backpack without any problems, then I walk it down to the checked luggage counter, hand it over and off it goes. That simple.

There is a tiny, but rather interesting museum upstairs at the airport. I wander through it, then pass through security and find a spot to recharge all my electronics, right next to some very expensive shops. I sit and watch the other women shop. Oh to have that kind of money....but where in the world would I wear that outfit?

Finally wander down to our gate, watch as the other island flights are called and then it is our turn. Once in our seats, the mood of everyone around me becomes very relaxed and jovial. We sit back and soar through the brilliant skies high above the sparkling Agean sea dotted with bumpy green islands below.

Takes awhile for our luggage to arrive on the belt, mine is one of the first ones through the chute, snag it, out the door I go and there stands Stelios holding the Fira White Residence sign. It was that easy. Stelios is a tall, handsome gentle giant. A man of few words, but his kind eyes and sweet smile make up for it. He takes my backpacks and I go to get in the backseat, he shakes his head and opens the passenger door to the front seat and waves me in. He speaks very little English, but a lengthy conversation is not necessary, the views along the way keep me highly occupied.

Stelios grabs both my backpacks and down the stairs he goes. His stride is long and fast, I struggle to keep up and to refrain from stumbling as my gaze falls on the breathtaking view of the caldera. After all the photos I saw online, still, one cannot be prepared for this stupendous beauty.

Stelios shows me around this gorgeous little two bedroom villa, so cute, so quaint and so charmingly delightful. With the big patio! And it is all mine, for the next two days! Stelios leaves, after presenting me with a bottle of his own homemade white wine. Oh what fun!

I make note of a few items I might want to stock my little refrigerator, then hike back up the stairs and find a little grocery store, buy some yogurt, some cheese to go with my wine, and some coffee and bottled water. Get back to my room to find that there was coffee in a jar on the counter, don't know how I missed that. Oh well.

I take the path along the caldera, which goes right by my patio, and head south till you start getting out of town , then turned around and stopped by my villa for a quick snack, my belly reminding me that I didn't have any breakfast. A glass of delicious, refreshing chilled homemade white wine, an apple and some cheese and then off again heading north. Eventually make it to Agios Nikolaos Monastery in Firostefani, where I choose to turn around. With views like these, you don't get very far, very fast. Clouds have rolled in, the wind has picked up and the sun is threatening to set. There is a chill in the air. I stop for dinner at a little place in Firostefani, Da Costa, for a Greek salad, bread and half liter of white wine. And get a ringside seat to a spectacular sunset. My first on Santorini.

The crowds have thinned with the setting sun, I make my way back down all the stairs, back down to Fira and my villa. Sit on the patio, drink more wine and watch the magnitude of stars appear in the night sky above. My first taste of Greece and I am head-over-heels in love.

Monday, April 27 - Woke up surprisingly, at 6:30 am, feeling completely rejuvenated. Amazed that I adjusted to the time change that easily. Go downstairs, turn on the TV expecting nothing but Greek channels, and…much to my delight, find Emmylou Harris singing the song "How She Could Sing The Wildwood Flower," now I have always been a huge fan of hers and I love that song, so I turned up the volume and made a pot of coffee.

Fresh fruit and yogurt for breakfast, then I went in search of the bus station. Stelios had suggested the archaeological ruins of the ancient city of Akrotiri, so that is where I was headed. A crowd of people were meandering around the busses, I was told you buy the ticket once on the bus, so now all I had to do was wait. Twenty minutes later, our bus departed and we were on our way. Ticket price was 1.60€. Dropped off at Akrotiri, took my time walking amongst the impressive ruins with walled structures still standing and some very beautiful large painted pots, some still partially submerged in the stony ground.

From the ruins of Akrotiri, I walked to the Red Beach. Lovely, easy stroll along the road through the countryside, wildflowers swaying in the wind, bees and butterflies blowing by, fluffy white clouds overhead chasing each other across the sky, warm sunshine, a picture perfect day. And I am in no hurry.

There is a beautiful little stark white church with a brilliant blue dome nestled up against the steep, rocky red cliffs, the sea next to it is reflecting the bright sunshine, so bright you can hardly look upon it. There is a group of people taking pictures, the wind is whipping around us, I happily wait to shoot away.

The group disperse and head up a trail and out of sight. I follow. At the top of the hill, you look down upon Red Beach. It's dark blood-red color is baffling, but beautiful. The crowd has stalled and taking more pictures. There is a man playing accordion along with a pre-recorded music set, some local boys are selling strawberries that smell so sweet you can almost taste them.

I pass the crowd and make my way over the rocky, slippery path that leads down onto the beach. If you come this way, wear good shoes. The path is a bit tricky. The beach is made of coarse, volcanic pebbles. Not the best for comfort. Some teenagers spread their towels and brave the chilly water anyway.

I make my way back up the rocky path, then pause on a boulder to take a picture. "No more memory" my camera card says. No problem, thank goodness I remembered to bring all my memory cards along with me. It is while I am changing my memory card that I happened to look up and see a young couple; the woman posing on the treacherous edge for an "amazing shot" slip and start to lose her balance. Her arm shoots out and her male companion luckily grabbed her hand. That was close! People, please, always be aware of your surroundings when posing for pictures!! You don't know how many times I heard of people dying while being a "tourist" and posing "on the edge!" That awesome photo you wanted so badly is not worth losing your life!

On the way back down the trail to the church, I stopped and bought some of those big sweet-smelling, luscious, juicy strawberries and ate them as I walked. Oh my, oh my, oh my, they were the best strawberries I have ever had!

I have just enough time to stop for a quick bite to eat at Melina's Fish Tavern, a stone's throw from the Akrotiri bus stop, had their wonderful Fried Cheese for 5€, turned out to be the best Fried Cheese plate I had while in Greece. The rest that I would have later, all paled in comparison to Melina's. Bus came and I headed back to Fira. Cost 1.60€.

Fresh change of clothes and socks, then I headed to Oia on foot to see the sunset. Got as far as Imerovigli. Hot, tired and sweaty, feet hurt, caught the bus to Oia. Blindingly stepped off the bus into the bright, blazing sunshine bouncing off the brilliant immaculately white buildings of Oia. Now I understand what all the fuss is about. Oia is literally breathtaking. Oia is also very crowded, because the sun will be setting in just a few short hours. And it seems like everybody is here!

I stop at a little kiosk for a bottle of water. The lady tells me "65." I play the stupid tourist and say "65?" She nods. I stare at her my jaw dropped...I then say "Euros?" She looks at me dumbfounded and laughs and laughs. "Cents!" she says. And laughs again. I realize my own stupidity and have to laugh too...I am sure she is still telling her family and friends about that! Silly me.

Stop for dinner, another Greek salad, basket of bread and half liter of wine. Their wine is so good and almost as cheap as their bottled water! Lol

Wandered on up the alleyway, always heading in the directing of the setting sun, knowing that at the end of the island is where all the action will be. Taking lots of picture, everything is so cute and charming. The crowd is getting bigger and bigger. The alleyway is getting tighter and tighter with the crowds.

People have already claimed the lookout point, the walls along the alley are being claimed, I pick one for myself. More people move in beside me, I am imaging the sunset and I decide to move on, I want that windmill framing my sunset photos and that ain't happening here. I get another spot, wait it out and then at the last moment, the people who had been sitting on the wall in front of me move on and I get my spot. It is perfect.

The sun puts on the magical performance we have all been waiting on. It was well-worth the wait.

Afterwards, we all make a mad dash for the bus station! I have to laugh out loud. Instead of just one bus, at the bus station, there are a couple, which fill up quickly! We are packed in like sardines, standing, hanging on to whatever we can as we wind our way back down the curved hilly road to Fira.

All in all, it was a lot of fun! The hype is worth it, at least once in your life!

Tuesday, April, 28 - Treated myself to breakfast at the Art Cafe. A group of six girls from England and Canada were sitting next to me. I heard them ask our waiter if it is always so cold here? It was a tad bit chilly and very breezy, but otherwise a truly stunningly beautiful day. Ordered the ham and cheese omelet with fresh squeezed orange juice and coffee. A very nice selection of breads were brought out also, in a basket. Some of the breads went into my backpack for later.

After breakfast, I walked down to see the mules and the donkeys. Reminded me of when I was in Petra, how they worked those poor animals constantly, up and down, all day long. I talked to them and rubbed their heads as I passed by them. Got behind an English lass who was trying to pass a group of mules who just happened to create a tight little knot of them, as she approached, entirely blocking her path. She called to somebody for help. "I can't get through," she yelled to a mule driver further on down the walkway. By this time I was right behind her. "Just follow me, I'm a farm girl" I told her as I walked up to the mules and took them by the halters, "you go first" she said as I steered them out of our way. They obediently followed my commands and allowed her to pass through. I rubbed their heads and softly praised them as she went merrily on her way, without so much as a smile or a thank you. Not even a pat or nose rub for the mules, either.

Walked around the port shoreline, than made my way back up past the little donkeys who would completely turn away from you, not even attempting to hide their disdain, past the mules who were much more forgiving, up to the top and then back up the path to Imerovigli, then down the trail and out to the Skaros rock.

This was a beautiful hike. It was quite windy which I was thankful for, didn't mind that intense blazing sun at all, the trail took you past pretty green grassy hills slathered in yellow daisies, daisies everywhere. I was tripping over daisies. And they smelled amazing! Met just a handful of other hikers on the trail, had most of that little piece of paradise to myself. Rested by the beautiful little white church at the point, than wandered up and found the path which you could climb up to a rocky overlook looking west. Now this would be a good spot for sunsets!

My last evening on the island. Stopped at a hopping spot for all the locals by the center plaza in Fira, little grill place, can't remember the name of it, and got a pita and a Greek salad to go. Went back to my little villa and had some of that delicious bottle of homemade wine that Stelios made with my dinner, then some quick shopping in Fira, finished off with a double-dip ice cream cone.

Back under the stars on my patio with what remained of the wine. What a wonderful three days on Santorini. Hate to leave, but anxious for the next leg of my journey to start. Tomorrow I fly back to Athens and get my rental car. Heading for the mountains up north.

Wednesday, April 29 - Stelios told me he would be here at 7:30 am to take me to the airport. He meant it. I was packed and ready and he was here. Just like he promised. Dropped off at the airport, then another beautiful flight back to Athens where Athens Car Rental guys were waiting just like they said they would be.

My little car was a Nissan Mikra smart car, almost brand new, white, snappy, and I loved it! I asked for a GPS with it, which I would soon discover could push my patience to it’s limits and there were numerous times I pictured myself bouncing that nifty little GPS right out the window.

The first time I got lost with my GPS was just on this side of Lamia. I stopped at a rest stop for a Red Bull. It was the rest stop at the Y where 1 splits off of E65 and E65 turns into 3. I pulled out of the rest stop from the rear entrance not knowing that the road I thought I came in on went the other direction and I was now heading due east.

It was also in this same parking lot that I tried to reprogram my GPS which kept wanting to take me back to Athens. This was the first time I wanted to toss it out the window. I turned it off instead…and ended up 40 minutes east of where I wanted to go. The clue came when the sun broke through the clouds overhead and the sun was shining on my passenger seat…which it should not have been. If anything, it should have been shining on my left shoulder.

I pulled over and got out my maps. Almost made it to Vathikilo. And boy, was I furious! About fourty miles in the wrong direction. Made it back towards Lamia and angrily reset the GPS and punched in Kalabaka, this time using the zip code for Kalabaka and then… it very nicely took me there.

Next three nights I stayed at Pyrgos Andrachti:
Pulled into Kastraki around 5 pm. The hotel is just gorgeous and I found it without any problems whatsoever, simply by just studying it’s location on Google Earth, back home. Ha! Sometimes this old lady’s memory still works better than any GPS! (Sometimes, not always.)

From the moment I pulled up the narrow steep street and got out of my car, I knew I made the right choice to stay here. The owner just happened to be outside chatting with another guest and he immediately grabbed my big backpack and carried it in the door for me. The family who own this beautiful hotel are exceedingly helpful, always available and very generous and kind. I had a wonderful room with a balcony which offered stupendous views of the rocks, the bed super comfortable and the breakfast buffet was awesome! If you are planning on visiting Meteora, do yourself a favor and stay here, in Kastraki, not in Kalabaka. Kastraki is much nicer!!

Gorgeous hotel, gorgeous views, gorgeous location! Kostos, the owner, was always at the desk, eager to assist and help in any way. He suggested Taverna Gardenia Plakias for dinner and I took him up on it. It was just down the street from the hotel and had a lovely setting, great atmosphere and friendly owners and staff. Another Greek salad, bread and wine. A sweet cake was delivered to me for desert, no charge. My waiter couldn’t make change for me to leave him a tip, I told him I would come back later with his tip. I wandered back to my hotel, got in my car and drove up to the rocks to watch the sunset. Then I remember my waiter and went back to the taverna and gave him his tip. The two guys who owned the place shook my hand and thanked me profusely. From that moment on, they were like family to me.

Returning to my hotel, I asked Kostos for a glass of wine and some conversation. He gladly chatted with me for a long time, we talked of politics and Greece’s financial problems. He is very intelligent, an honest hard-working man and eager to share his opinions. I liked that.

Hot shower and in my comfy, luxurious king-sized bed. Out like a light.

Thursday, April 30 - Up early and downstairs for a bountiful buffet-style breakfast spread. Everything you could wish for and then some. Loved the homemade cheese bread and spinach pie! After breakfast, I asked Kostos about any nice hikes, he suggested the one right out the door and down the street, round the tower of rock and back the path which takes you up to the monasteries, which I did.

The path was lovely, the air was heavily scented with lilac and wisteria, the bees and butterflies, swallows, and baby goats frolicked in the valley just below the hotel. The trail continued through a pretty little woods, crossed a creek and then up some steps and up through a wooded path, up more steps and eventually right up to the base of the Monastery of Varlaam.

From Varlaam I walked over to the Great Meteoron Monastery. Very impressive, again lots of people. Tour busses everywhere, people mulling around like cattle, I had to get out of there.

Started to walk to the next monastery when I looked across the valley and saw a storm clearly brewing. And I am on foot a long ways from my hotel. I distinctly remembered my waiter glancing up at the sky last night and grimacing. I asked him what was wrong? He said “tomorrow it will rain, with thunderstorms.”

I decided to hightail it back to my hotel and retraced my steps back down the way I had came up. I could hear thunder in the distance and you could feel the humidity moving in. I picked up my pace. When I reached level ground I ran for awhile, then the rain drops started to fall. I made it back to my hotel without getting soaked, my camera tucked safely inside my backpack.

Back to my room, donned my rain jacket, (yay I get to use it!) and walked down to Taverna Gardenia for a late lunch. Fried cheese and Tzatziki. More bread and wine. Nikos, one of the owners waited on me, he was very sweet and full of smiles.

Then the rain came. It rained and it rained. A family came in out of the rain and sat next to me, they ordered food and we all waited out the rain.

The rain let up, I went back to my hotel to get my camera thinking I would walk to Kalabaka. Soon as I started down the street, it started up again. Stopped by Taverna Gardenia for a latte. Rain stopped, finished my coffee and headed down the road to Kalabaka. The dark clouds were breaking up, blue skies peeking through, rays of sunlight spread across the valley, everything smelled so fresh and clean, great day to be alive!

As I strolled down main street through Kalabaka I thought how happy I was that I hadn't booked a hotel here. Didn't offer that cozy, intimate appeal, if you know what I mean. Stopped and bought a little purse, which was made in Crete, so the sales lady told me. Not much else to look at, I walked back to Kastraki. By now, it was time to get in my car and drive up to the rocks for the sunset. Should be a good one with all these different cloud formations.

It was stunning!

All that hiking today, sent me to bed early.

Friday, May 1 - Another awesome breakfast spread, than it was an early start heading up to the monasteries in my car this time. Today is a Greek national holiday, everybody has the day off. I need to keep one step ahead of all those tour busses.

I visit the Monastery of Rousanou/St. Barbara first. Paid my 3.00€ and then started rooting through the basket of wraps the monasteries supply for the ladies to wrap around their waists, for those wearing shorts, and promptly got yelled at by a stern and very angry nun. Yelled at, disciplined and humiliated before 9:30 am, I think to myself, good thing I wasn't raised Catholic, I would have never survived! (No offense!) And the monastery was so small, you turned around and you saw it all. Sisters, what a racket you are running, I wanted to say! (Once again, no offense!)

I quickly made my way back to my car and went to the Monastery of St. Stephen next, very beautiful, lots of uniforms and relics from WWII, vivid drawings, paintings and illustrations of the battles. I think I liked this one the best. And the nuns were much nicer, too.

Next one was the Agia Triada or Holy Trinity monastery. 140 steps cut into the rock, but boy, what a view going up! It took me awhile to figure out how to get to it, from the parking lot by the road, but eventually a man passed me and a couple of young guys who seemed as perplexed as me, and then we saw him making his way across the chasm to the monastery. Below the parking lot, there are some steps which are tucked away from sight and adequately hidden, I followed him and the young guys were right on my heels, eventually overtaking me, taking a shortcut which I considered, but then passed up, last thing I needed to do is slip and fall.

From the top you could look across the valley to the monastery of Varlaam. I counted roughly twenty-some tour busses parked along the road, that meant they were headed our way. Gotta keep moving!

t was as I was making my way back down those 140 steps that the first couple of busses had arrived. I walked to my car, by now police had arrived to direct traffic, I was coughing up bus fumes and lingering cigarette smoke from the bus drivers, time to get out of here. I saw all I could see and the ones I didn't aren't open today.

Take the long way back, down around Kalabaka and back to Kastraki, mostly to bypass the bus traffic and also, just for a different view on a road not yet traveled. Looking down over Kalabaka, I am reminded how the Nazis's burned it to the ground. It was all rebuilt, which is why all that old-town charm is gone.

Back to my hotel, it has gotten very hot. Seems Greece is having a heat wave! Kostos sends me off on another hike, this one far away from the crowds of people, up through the adjoining forests, up to the base of the pinnacles. I am glad for the shade and the quiet peacefulness of the woods. Nobody around, beautiful path surrounded by wildflowers of every color and green moss covered undergrowth. Really, really peaceful. I stop at the bottom of one of the pinnacles and have lunch, then I hear noises in the underbrush and voices, they are headed my way. A family appears with climbing gear, we chat and then I take my leave and move a bit higher up, to a rock base of another pinnacle. A turtle arrives, sees me and disappears back into the tall grass.

By the time I make my way back down pass the family of climbers, there is now a crowd of about two dozen more climbers, all prepared to scale the cliffs. I slip by unnoticed and head back to town for lunch, but the Gardenia is now backed to the gills, a tour bus has stopped so I go next door to the Batalogianni, yes for another Greek salad, but I just love them so much!

It is very good, and the service is friendly, but I miss the smiling staff at the Gardenia. I will have to do dinner there tonight and bid my farewells.

Back to Kostos and his lovely domain, sit on my shaded patio to escape the afternoon sun and plot the road which I will take tomorrow. I will have to be more careful, remembering how easy it was to lose your sense of directions on the road from Athens to here. Still mad at myself for having to pay all those tolls for all those tunnels and expressways, not only once, but twice, for a road I should have never even been on. Let that be a lesson to ya, I tell myself.

It is while I am sitting, plotting, thinking out my route, that I notice some people on a trail which passes below the hotel, down in a shaded glen, thick with trees and brush. It is now in the long-drawn-out shadow of the hotel, out of the intense heat. Hmm.

Head out the front door, straight into the hot glaring sun, turn the corner of the property and there is a trail which goes down, down into the shady glade. I take it. Very pretty path, can't believe I almost missed this one. It winds down into the vale, then takes a sharp steep turn and cuts across the goat pasture where I had watched the baby goats frolicking amongst the tall grass and boulders, from my patio the other day. The trail picks up again and narrowly passes between very large boulders and tight shoulders of rock walls. Then you come to a tiny ridge which runs upward, along the sheer rock wall of a pinnacle. Attached to the wall by steel bolts is a cable. Too much for me to resist. As long as I have something to hang on to...I can do it. Awesome views of my hotel and the valley it sits in.

Lovely, leisurely stroll back to the hotel, in the shade of the approaching evening, if you stay here make sure you take the path behind the hotel to the base of the rocks.

Dinner finds me back at the Taverna Gardenia for chicken souvlaki and white wine. My waiter is the same guy who I had the first time I ate here, he brings me a tsipouro with my dessert cake, no charge. Nikos comes over to tell me goodbye, everybody was so nice, I am going to miss this place.

Saturday, May 2 - Big breakfast, checked out and on the road, glance at my watch. It is 9:20 am. Funny, even though I am on vacation, I noticed I pretty much fell into the same routine, usually always on the road or setting out on foot at this exact time. Okay, let's see how long it takes for me to get to Kipi. Or, should I get lost again?

So far, so good. The drive has been a stunning one, beautiful vistas across vast rolling ridges of green forests and valleys sprinkled with bright purple Judas trees, anchored down by snow-capped mountain ranges on the distant horizons. Never knew Greece was so beautiful!

I see signs for Metsovo and the new expressway. I actually want to stop in Metsovo, for lunch. Heard they have really good cheese! I get off at the Metsovo exit, so far my GPS is working like a good little trooper, it takes me right down into the city center, just like I had programmed it to. Hmm. You think it might be the operator?

Metsovo is really quite picturesque; cobbled, narrow streets, alpine-type chalets built on steep hills overlooking the village, with those massive snow-capped mountains in the background, cheese shops and wood-carving shops, it all kind of reminds me of Switzerland!

I struggle to find a parking spot, kind of remember somebody on TripAdvisor saying how they got a parking ticket in Metsovo, for just parking and walking across the street. Really don't want to have to deal with that, so I look long and hard and finally find a legit parking space. The air is crisp and nippy with a good stiff wind blowing. I peek into a couple of shops, a silver shop with beautiful silver picture frames, the one I have my eye on he wants 75€ for. I ask if he takes credit cards, he doesn't. I am not willing to spend my cash, since there will be no ATM's where I am headed. Pass up the picture frame and settle for lunch instead.

A delightful little cheese plate and a cappuccino. The owner of the cafe explains the kinds of cheeses, but completely loses me in the translation. And now, I just want to eat them! They were awesome.

Time to hit the road, I find my way back up and out of Metsovo without any problems. Stop and look at the big map on the edge of town, just across the street from the monastery. I want to take the scenic road to Kipi. Another car just happens to stop to change drivers and I ask the man how do I get to Kipi? "Kipi?" he asks. I nod. "Go up to the top of the hill here and take the second left, it will take you to Kipi. Easy. Only one road. No Problem. " Famous last words. I go up to the top of the hill and see the absolutely stunning view behind me in the rear view mirrors. Have to pull over to take pictures, another car pulls in and does the same, we discuss how to get to Kipi, but they are from Italy and he thinks if I take that same road, it might get me to Kipi.

You might be wondering by now, why I didn't program Kipi into my GPS. I tried, but my GPS told me "destination unknown." So, I am alone with my road maps, the old-fashioned way of traveling, in my smart car. I sure do love the way it chirps at me, when I am getting to close to anything, while parking. Let's see it chirp me to Kipi, aye?

I take the second road on the left. Down the mountain it takes me, eventually to the lakes, hey I am on the right track! Pass the lakes, everything is good, life is good, beautiful scenery, stop and take pictures of those beautiful lakes. Keep driving. More lake. The road is in really bad shape; washouts, boulders, tree trunks strewn across the road, actually had to drive through a flooded area, that wasn't any fun, wouldn't want to do that again. Still more lake to the right of me. Shouldn't I be pass the lakes by now? There is no way that lake is so big! Then, a chilling thought comes to mind...what if there is a road with circles that lake? I pull over and check my map. Yep. There it is. It just goes right around that stinkin' lake...and by the looks of it, I am in it.

By now I am so frustrated, and fighting back tears, it is a cloudy day, can't even get any idea what side of the lake I am now on. So, I turn around. Have to once again retrace my steps. Back through that flooded area I was so relieved I got through the first time, back through the debris and muddy washouts, hey, there's that man riding his bicycle I passed a long time ago. I stop and ask him "how do I get to Kipi?"

Thankfully, he speaks some English, he tells me to take the second road on the right, the "new road." Now, I had just so happened to had taken that very same road about forty-five minutes ago and turned around, thinking I was on the wrong road. Turns out I was right, the first time. Now I am back on this road, "the new road" which isn't much of a road and in even worse shape than the one that went around the lake.

They say you are never too old to learn. I am learning that driving in the mountains of northern Greece can almost bring an older woman to tears. My GPS loses all contact with me. There are no road signs, no other cars, no nothing. I keep going down into the deep forest below. I am seeing signs of road construction activity, maybe from a few days ago, but no people.

After I have completely given up of ever being found again, I come to a T in the road and there is my first road sign and a map of Zagori. But everything is in Greek. But, of course! LOL

I get out my maps again and start looking for the Greek names of the villages listed on the road sign.

By golly, there they are. I am actually headed in the right direction, the road just has so many hairpin turns and curves, no idea how far the distances are and now I am half-nauseous and have a splitting headache, from all these curves.

But on a much brighter note, the scenery is breathtaking! I start taking pictures of the road signs now, instead of the scenery which I quit taking pictures of a long time ago.

I actually cheered when I saw my first sign for Kipi. Kipi 22 km it said. I didn’t care, as long as I was on the right road. Now I could relaxed and actually stopped at Fragades to take pictures of this pretty little village.

Got into Kipi around 5pm. Let’s see, I left at 9:20 am. Stopped for lunch in Metsovo around 11:45 am. I guess all in all, it wasn’t that bad, now that I am looking back on it. I sure did get to see Greece!

I am staying at the Hotel Machalas. Beautiful hotel in an apartment-like complex. I go into the reception, the lights are out and nobody is home. Wander outside just as the owner is coming across the street from his taverna. He asks me if he can help me, I show him my email and he shakes my hand and asks me “where have you been?” Good question, I think to myself, but instead I tell him I got lost. And made motions of the road I came in on with my finger going up and down and around in tight curves. He laughs. “Aw, but it was beautiful, right?” This makes me laugh and I have to agree with him, “Yes, it truly was beautiful!”

He shows me to my room, beautiful old farmhouse feel to it, hard-wood floors, fireplace, deep window sills with shutters, and a turbo-spa bathtub. That will come in handy tonight when I need to soak away my tension from today’s road trip.

He tells me to come over to the taverna for a free drink, I do and he gives whatever I want, I opt for a Mythos beer. Great guy, jolly, kind, sweet, sincere. Everybody is so nice and kind, not at all what I had expected when I booked my trip to Greece, but then again, I never expected it to be this beautiful either.

Like I said before, you are never too old to learn.
Enjoyed my Mythos beer, asked for the check and I was waved away, "it's on me," says Michaelis, the owner of this lovely little taverna and the beautiful hotel, right across the street. The afternoon is slipping away and I got some exploring to do, somewhere around here are those pretty arched stone bridges. I get up to leave and Michaelis comes over to see if I need anything at all, I ask him where the bridges are. "A couple down this way," and waves his arm towards that end of town, "and a couple down that way," and he points towards the other end of town.

I head off on foot, first up into town to see the church, then down through the stonewalled, narrow alleyways, eventually bringing me out at the edge of town and I set off down the road. There it is. The first stone arched bridge I have ever seen and it is the one with the three arches! How cool is that? Gorgeous turquoise green water underneath the bridge catches the bridge's stony reflection. So pretty. Stroll across it. This is going to be good, I think to myself! Six days in the Zagoria! I am loving these mountain villages made of stone with their slate roofs and narrow, cobblestone walkways, beautiful stone churches with their arched forebays and manors, stone roads leading through town, so appealing and full of old-world charm.

I head a little farther on down the road, around the curve and there is another beautiful stone bridge, this one has a single, high arch. There is now a chill in the early evening air, I head back to my room for some warmer clothes.

Dinner is another Greek salad, a side of french fries, bread and half liter white wine. The small crowd of people who had been finishing up their meals earlier are now getting on a tour bus and they depart, leaving me all to myself. The full moon appears over the horizon, the clouds have now parted and scurried away, going to be a beauty of a night. And I made it to Kipi.

Have to turn the heat on in my room, it is quite nippy tonight. My turbo-spa tub is calling my name. Fill it up, climb in
and turn it on. Sounds like a fighter jet ready for take off. I have to laugh, wonder what my neighbors below me are thinking....

Sunday, May 3 - First one up for breakfast, nice spread; meats, cheeses, hard-boiled eggs, breads, jams and juices, coffee and tea. Eat up, check out, head on down the road and there stands the mighty Kokoros bridge, tall and stately. Take lots of pictures, stroll across it, plenty of others doing the same thing.

Head on down to Aspraggeli to top off my car with gas, just like tsipouro on this forum told me to do. (Thanks!) 14 km out of my way, but hey, better safe than sorry. Won't be seeing any gas stations for the next five days.

The drive to Monodendri is a beautiful one and very nicely marked with road signs and village name signs, upon entering and when leaving each village. Impossible to get lost here. I don't even bother with my GPS. It's a slow and gradual climb as I make my way and the views are stupendous. Lots of snow-capped mountain peaks way off on the distant horizon. Puffing white clouds floating by, bright blue skies. I past by Vitsa and then I am in Monodendri.

Hotel Monodendri is straight ahead and I pull up, park my car and get out. I am stretching and enjoying the scenery when a man comes up to me and says, "excuse me, this is for hotel guests only." I smile and produce my email confirmation. "Ah, yes, (and he calls me by my name) I remember you, I got six emails from you! " I am so embarrassed. Yes, I had been very indecisive and couldn't make up my mind which village I wanted to stay in or for how long of a duration, and this poor gentleman got the brunt of it, and now I am embarrassed. I tell him so. "No problem," he tells me, "you are here now."

Marios shows me to my room, tells me I have the one with the best view, and yes, I can see that snow-capped mountain range from my windows. This hotel was a bit more luxurious than what I usually go for; beautiful hotel, marble staircases, elegant, rich linens and heavy velour tassled curtains, not really my style, but I got a really good deal on and that is why I am here now. Plus it sits so close to Vikos Gorge.

I go downstairs and ask Marios for suggestions on a nice easy hike, not the gorge, tomorrow I will want to go down into the gorge. He suggests the easy hike to Monastery of Agia Paraskevi, just take a left at the corner and keep following the walkway, it will take you down to the monastery.

It is a lovely walk, lots of people, I have no idea where they all came from because I didn't see hardly any other cars in town. First view of Vikos Gorge. Wow. Amazing. Enter through the little doorway into the monastery, hey, it's free, wander through the rooms and pretty courtyard, then just as I am about to leave, happen to see a small set of steps just to my right and take them. They lead to a lovely path edged with yellow wildflowers, through a little orchard, I do believe they are cherry trees with their beautiful white blooms, the view of the gorge ahead, one of those moments you want to last forever.

Linger behind and wait for the crowd to leave, then find my way back to my hotel, choosing the narrow, back alleyways, marveling at the rustic beauty of it all.

Mario's mentioned Oxia lookout point. I check my map, might as well go now, because I won't be heading that direction when I leave for Papigo, might as well go now, lest I forget it. Another breathtaking drive, higher altitude, the air is cold and crisp, views go on forever. Stop at the Stone Forest, with it's odd rock formations, but the thing that strikes me the most are all those pretty purple wildflowers growing out of the cracks of the sides of those tall structures.

Oxia lookout. Jaw dropping. I am at a lack of words to describe it. I spend a lot of time here, mesmerized. Gather up my courage and wander back to the end of the trail. Speechless. Sit and take it all in. Tomorrow, I am going down there.

It is while I am driving back the 8km to Monodendri that I recall tsipouro telling me about the mushroom guy who has a restaurant in Vitsa, Kanela & Garyfallo. I decide to check it out. There is sits, right along the road. The small group of people who were there are just leaving and once again, I have the entire place to myself. I wander in and find a table in the sunshine. The lady doesn’t speak English, but the gentleman who owns it does and he comes out and asked me if I wanted something to drink? I ordered the local white wine and told him I heard great things about him. He seems truly surprised and then asked me if I wanted to eat? I told him that is why I am here. Big grin appeared on his face and he comes back with a chalkboard menu. I told him I love mushrooms. Even bigger grin on his face. “Then you have come to the right place” he says.

I ordered the Fried Cheese for an appetizer, whoops, forgot I had Fried Cheese here, remember I said the best one was at Melina’s at Akrotiri on Santorini? Well, this was exceptional also! Main course was the Pork Tenderloin marinated in red wine and slow-roasted with shitake mushrooms. Exquisite! So glad I heard about this place! When I paid my check I had to go inside and the interior décor is very cute, trendy, yet romantic. It would be a very nice place to take that special someone. Remember that, guys.

Spent the evening walking around Monodendri, saw an orchard with brightly painted beehives, each one a different color, a herd of heifers were wandering across the road, saw me walking towards them and all hightailed it (literally) up the hill. I spoke to them in their language, yes, I mooed at them and their curiosity got the best of them, they stopped and all turned towards me, posing for a nice picture.

If you remember me saying, how the Israeli's vacation in the Greek mountains, and I only knew this because when I was booking my hotels, I kept seeing reviews of people from Israel.
Well, tonight, I finally met them. I'll be honest with you, I did put on my Golani T-shirt and strolled through town, but I had not expected any kind of response like the one I got.
FYI, the Golani Brigade is Israel's Special Forces, much like our SEALS or our Marines.
People were calling out "Golani!" to me and getting out of their lawn lounge chairs to talk to me. 'Where are you from?" "Are you Jewish?" "Did you fight in the war?" One lady told me to be careful, it is not safe to wear that T-shirt in certain parts of the world! I asked her "in Greece?" 'You should be okay here, but you got to be careful, a lot of people hate the Golani." I told her "Good, than I'll keep wearing it." That made her smile.
A very handsome man in his late 40's talked to me for awhile. I explained that I am coming back to Israel in September, and told him what all I will be doing. He was very interesting to talk to.
He also told me to be careful in Athens and not to wear my T-shirt in Athens. He said there are a lot of pro-Palestinian people in Athens.
He looked down at his beautiful fleece jacket with the Hebrew brand name label on it and said" even I won't wear this in Athens!"

After this conversation, I had to ‘get my head around this’ and walked back down to the Monastery of Agia Paraskevi for a quiet, peaceful view of the gorge as twilight set in.

Monday, May 4 - Woke up in the middle of the night to see the full moon over the Pindus mountains. What a sight! Up early for breakfast, got a big day ahead of me. Buffet-style, everything you could possibly want. Marios delivered a grilled ham and cheese Panini to my table and the other table where a couple are enjoying their breakfast, just them and me, that’s it. I find it kind of sad that there are so few tourists in such a beautiful area!

After breakfast I set off down the trail to enter Vikos Gorge. It is a little after 9am. My plan is to hike halfway, then turn around and come back, since I won’t have a ride to pick me up at the other end. Two German guys are ahead of me, they stop to take pictures, I slip on by them. Down, down I go. The day is promising to be a hot one.

Takes me an hour to hike down, spent three beautiful hours down in the gorge, entirely alone, never got really far, spending all my time taking pictures around the crystal clear, green pools of water in the rocky river beds, then spend another hour and ten minutes crawling back out of it. I would have loved to have gone further but I got to the real rocky part with the big boulders and didn’t want to have to traverse them twice, so I opted to turn around.

I thought I was going to throw up or die, or maybe both in that order, as I made my way up out of the gorge. As I was crawling back out, I passed a group of young adults all full of spark and spirit and they happily sailed on by me, asking me if I had come from Vikos? I wish, I’m thinking. But I tell them no. One of the young ladies asked me if I am here alone. Yep, I tell her. “You are very brave,” she tells me, “I don’t know if I could be that brave.”

Well, that made this tired old woman’s day! Thanks, young lady!

My reward is waiting in the scenic plaza by the church, a pitcher of ice cold water, a half liter of chilled white wine and a Greek salad. A pretty long-haired cat saunters over to me, the same cat I wanted to pet yesterday. He didn’t want anything to do with me yesterday…but yeah, now that I have food in front of me.

I ask Mario where is a pretty village I can visit, by car. He tells me Elafotopos. I drive to Elafotopos, doesn’t look like much but it does have a very nice view, come back and over my dinner of roasted lamb and potatoes later that night at Hotel Monodendri, I tell Marios I went to Elafotopos like he suggested. “Elafotopos?” he asks, throwing his hands up in the air. “Did I say that, I meant Ano Pedina!”

We both laugh.

Tomorrow I am off to Saxonis Houses, in Papigo, for three days.

Greece 2015; part two

Wake up to a beautiful morning, the mists roll across the leafy valleys, shrouding those snow-capped mountains to the south of us. Fill up on breakfast, check out and I am on my way. Back down past Vitsa, down into a lush green valley of flat fertile farmland and sheep pastures. It is on the road which runs by Kato Pedina that I have to stop for a flock of sheep and goats driven by their shepherd and about a dozen large working-dogs. Been seeing a lot of rather large dogs, appears that they might have some Saint Bernard mixed in them, from the looks of their spots and the tendency for some of them to drool.

First big drooling dog I saw was up at the section where you turn for the Katara Pass, which by the way, was closed. I had pulled over, thinking I had wanted to take that road and was quickly approached by a couple of rather aggressive big barking dogs, one was drooling. There was no way I was rolling down my window to talk to those dogs! When I turned my car around, I happened to catch a glimpse of their shepherd who had a large flock of sheep and goats on the chilly mountainside. The dogs weren’t random strays, but highly-trained farm dogs and they are very protective of their herds. Just doing their jobs.

Soon after the shepherd and his motley crew pass by me, I come upon the pretty little Church of the Taxiarches, just outside Kato Pedina. I get out to take some pictures. I hear a big dog barking, somewhere unseen behind me. Start walking towards the church and notice the barking is getting louder. Turn around and see this huge black and white, drooling dog coming my direction, this time it is me who turns and hightails it back to my car! Had to be another St. Bernard mixed breed. He gives up on me and wander down the road barking, I wait till he is out of sight and finish taking photos of that pretty church.

On up the road to Vikos first, then to Papigko. The road to Vikos is inarguably one of the prettiest roads I have been on yet. Great view of that windy road to Papigko. Views on both sides are breathtaking. Green wilderness dotted with purple Judas trees and white blossoms of wild cherry. And always behind, those snowy mountain tops. I will later learn that one snow-capped mountain range which dominates most of the horizon is in Albania.

Stop in the lovely little village of Vikos and wander out to the lookout point. Just gorgeous. This is such a beautiful setting, I can’t believe there aren’t any little b&b’s or inns. I would stay here. Gladly. There are signs pointing to trails leading down to hidden monasteries, wish I had the time to do them. Next time.

Walk back to my car, pass two little tavernas, both empty, both presented very invitingly with checkered table cloths and fresh flowers, but no people. The owners sit in the sunshine and try to entice me in, sorry, but I just ate breakfast. I’m stuffed. Coffee, they ask? No, sorry. Once again I feel sad that they have no business, how can you make a living that way? Next time, I tell myself. Next time I will have no reservations anywhere and wherever something tugs at my heart, that is where I will stop and linger awhile. Vikos is one of those places.

Back down the road , turn at Aristi, cross the bridge where rafters are entering the rushing waters of the Voidomatis River. Stop and take pictures, unbeknownst to me, I will be doing this tomorrow! Head up that windy, curvy road and then I almost drive right past Megalo Papigko. And then I recognize the parking lot. This is where I leave me car.

Walking up the stone alleyway, a lady asks me where I am going, I tell her Saxonis Houses and she motions for me straight ahead. I walk in the open doorway and there are two gentlemen inside having a lively conversation. The one guy stops and asks if he can help me. I tell him who I am. “Ah, I have been waiting for you!” he exclaims. Meet Vasilis, owner of Saxonis Houses. One of the nicest hosts I have ever met!

He shows me two different rooms, allows me to choose which one I want. Saxonis Houses is a collection of a couple different houses set around a lovely little courtyard. The oldest one, the original one was built in 1847. I pick a room in this one, not knowing it is the oldest, but the authentic old-feel and rustic charm lures me in. Beautiful room, original hardwood floors, Persian throw rugs, flokati wool rug, deep wooden windowsills painted that bright Santorini blue with interior shutters, wooden beamed ceiling, fireplace with lovely hand-painted floral mural, homey quilts, fresh cut lilacs and a glass flask of tsipouro sit on a lace doily on the table. Who could say no to that?

There are only two other guests staying here, two ladies from Switzerland and they are out for the day. Vasilis tells me of all the options I can choose from; whitewater rafting ✓ hiking in the gorge ✓ horseback riding ✓ there is also the hike to Drakolimni lake, but I pass on that one.

Spend the afternoon exploring both Megalo Papigko and Mikro Papigko. Beautiful old villages with the churches built entirely of stone, slate roofs, high walls of stone, walkways of stone, I think I count a total of six people that I see and that is both villages combined. I will learn later that it was "siesta time" while I was taking my afternoon stroll.

The ladies from Switzerland have returned to Saxonis Houses while I was out, I shower and change and Vasilis tell me he will show me where to eat, so we walk around town, "this place has good food," he says, "this place has good pizza", "this place has really good cheese pie" and on we go. Unfortunately, most of them aren't open yet. We stop at Niko's. He is open and waves us over.

Nikos is highly animated and excitedly talking to Vasilis in Greek. His wife comes out and takes my order. I get the cheese pie and a half liter of white wine. The men continue their talk, Nikos is now pointing to the mountain called Astraka, and then hurries over to where he was sitting and returns with a pair of binoculars. They are quickly passed to Vasilis. He looks for awhile, gives up and hands them to me. "What did he see?" I ask, hoping it is a bear or even better yet, a wolf! He explains to me that Nikos had seen some wild mountain goats up on the snow on Astraka. I scan the snowy regions. Nothing. I hand them back to Vasilis who returns them to Nikos. Nikos scans the mountain. I remember my pair of binoculars and go back to my room to retrieve them.

When I return, they are still diligently searching with Niko's binoculars. My cheese pie arrives, it is huge! I insist that Vasilis has a piece and some of the wine. A couple of other men from the village show up, both pair of binoculars are passed around, but alas, no wild mountain goats are to be seen anywhere.

More of Niko's friends arrive, they sit and smoke and scan the mountain. Vasilis and I have been waiting for two more people to sign up for the whitewater rafting tomorrow. Seems there is a subtle pipeline of messages going through the tiny village, finally Vasilis gets a bite. His phone rings, he answers it and promptly high-fives me. We got two more people for tomorrow! Yay, were going rafting! Vasilis goes back to his other guests, I finish up my dinner and pay my bill. Once again, Nikos doesn't have coins for me to leave a tip, so I promise him I will return with it.

I make my way back though the pretty alleyways, taking my time as I head back to my room. Notice some of the other tavernas are now open and have people. Good for them.

Wednesday, May 6- Beautiful morning, bright sunshine, birds singing. Vasilis and the lady who helps him, forgot her name, are preparing breakfast. There are breads, jams, fresh fruit, yogurt with honey, coffee or tea, Vasilis brings us fresh-squeezed orange juice and his lady staff person makes us eggs. It is all very wonderful.

The ladies from Switzerland are leaving this morning, I take another stroll up to the church to take pictures. By noon, Vasilis and I are picked up by Papigko Rafting. The couple who signed up yesterday are newlyweds, from Greece. Married four days ago. On their honeymoon. We climb into the van pulling the raft and gear and head down that curvy, windy road to the very spot I stopped at yesterday, on my way up here to Papigko. Funny how life can be sometimes.

After some brief instructions on safety in and out of the water, we climb in and set sail, down this beautiful aqua-blue crystal clear river, the Voidomatis.

What a great time we had, an awesome little adventure, the day was gorgeous, the river was beautiful, the water a bone-chilling 4° celsius, I should know, I swam in it. But we were wearing wetsuits, still it took your breath away when you jumped in...and I did it three times. We even cupped our hands and drank the water, it is that pure and good! Yannis would find me later in town and give me a DVD with videos and pictures! Very professional done, guys! Good job all around!

Coming back to Papigko, we passed a herd of beautiful horses, free-ranging by the road, with two people keeping watch over them. I will meet that fine young couple later, but I am getting ahead of myself.

Vasilis promised to take me hiking tomorrow, so I treated him to dinner tonight. We ate at the little cafe right on the corner of his street, shared a Greek salad for an appetizer, I ordered grilled sausage with french fries, he had the grilled pork steak with french fries. Finished our delightful dinners while small crowds of people have surprisingly appeared and they are checking menus and restaurant options. Vasilis excuses himself and goes back to the hotel. He has received an email, two guests from France are coming tomorrow.

I suddenly recall that I never returned to Niko to give him his tip, and now I have coins, so I wander on down to Niko's place. There is a small gathering of people at Niko's. I tell him I forgot his tip and hand it to him. He takes me by the arm, pulls out a chair and I am firmly placed into my seat. His wife appears from out of nowhere with a shot glass and the bottle of tsipouro. She pours me one.

A young couple from England are sitting next to me, we exchange introductions and they explain that they are here for a couple of months working for Stephanie, the lady who offers the horseback riding. “Oh yeah, we saw you today, you were coming back from the rafting trip!“ the young guy tells me. The bottle of tsipouro goes around again. The English couple and I are deep in conversation, more people join us, the tsipouro goes around again. I see the binoculars are on the table and ask Nikos who is now seated on the other side of me if he saw any wild goats? He says he saw a bear earlier. At this, the binoculars goes around and we all scan Astraka, but nothing. This prompts the tsipouro to circulate again.

I have now taken my shot glass and discreetly hid it from sight. The English couple laugh. It is getting late and I got a hike to do tomorrow, so I excuse myself.

Kali Nichta!

Thursday, May 7- The lady who makes breakfast has the morning off, so Vasilis offers to make me scrambled eggs. He does a great job. Besides being a perfect host, he is also a good cook. Bravo, Vasilis! After breakfast, we set off on our hike, cutting through town where we run into Stefanie, the lady with the horses. Unfortunately, she has to cancel the ride for tomorrow due to her son's event at school for a Mother's Day program, which I can totally understand.

Vasilis leads the way down a trail, crossing lots of scree, further down into the gorge where the Voidomatis river runs raging by. There are a lot of mountain springs bursting forth from the moss-covered rocky cliffs which border the river's edge. The water is pure and clean and frigid, we fill up our water bottles and eat our lunch here in this blissful place.

A couple of women from France appear, they wandered in from Vikos. We head back up and out of the gorge, nice four-hour 7 km hike. We stop at Giannis's (the guy who took us rafting) brother's taverna for a beer, suddenly all this food shows up. "For you," he says. We order another beer and split it. Vasilis has to get back, his guests are due at any moment.

They are an older couple from France. Seem in awe of Papigko, just like me when I first arrived...well, I still am.

Dinner finds me back at Giannis's brothers taverna for another Greek salad, probably the best I had yet. Dessert is Panna Cotta, actually originated in Italy, much like creme brulee. Excellent!

Friday, May 8- since the horseback riding excursion has been cancelled, I decide to leave beautiful Papigko a bit earlier. I am already fretting about that long drive to Athens. I have booked a hotel by the Plastira lakes, for tonight. I must have my car back at the airport in Athens by 5 pm on Saturday and I want one last peaceful night in the mountains, but closer to Athens. And by now I know that I have to give myself at least an extra hour to get lost and have a nervous breakdown, before reaching any of my destinations.

Vasilis has asked if he can ride along with me to Ioannina, since that is where his car is parked, and he is headed to Athens to spend time with his wife and children. My reply, "only if you drive!" I am going to take full advantage of this and sit in the passenger seat, enjoying the views the whole way to Ioannina.

Ioannina is hot and crowded, people everywhere. Vasilis shows me which way to go to get out of Ioannina, when I am ready to leave and then we say goodbye. Goodbye, my friend, I am going to miss you and all your friends and the beautiful, enchanting Papigko!

I don't linger long in Ioannina, looks lovely but way too hot and crowded for my tastes! I buy a silver picture frame, this one is bigger and nicer than the one I had my eye on in Metsovo, and a lot cheaper. Follow Vasilis's directions and find my way out of Ioannina without any problems, then I am on the expressway heading northeast, past Metsovo where I would have loved to visit again, eventually making my way down past Kalambaka, Trikala and then at Karditsa I made two little wrong turns, but this time my GPS was on red alert and let me know I was going the wrong direction.

Back on track and heading to the Plastira lakes. I am booked at the Pandion Lake View Resort in Neochori. According to, Neochori is supposed to be 11.8 miles from Karditsa. Maybe the way the crow flies. Finally get to Neochori and now I can't remember where my hotel is or what it even looks like. I can however, pull up my reservation on my tablet using data, but it won't load the pictures of the hotel and everything, I mean EVERYTHING out here by the lake is in Greek, so I don't even know what I am looking at. I stop at a lovely resort and ask the only person I can find, the cook, where Pandion Lake View Resort is? She doesn't speak English but motions me down the road, so I stop at the next place and ask the nice lady who is watering flowers at this pretty resort "where is Pandion Lake View Resort?"

She too, doesn't speak any English, but she does take me by the hand, leads me into the building, takes me upstairs and shows me two rooms, all the time I am thinking this must be it! Wow, I found it! I choose a lovely room with a nice balcony offering the best view, then I ask her (making driving motions) where I can park my car. She motions underneath the hotel, I park it and move in.

Her son, I am assuming he is her son, shows up and seems surprised to see me. He uses Google translate on their computer to tell me "welcome!" He then asks me via his computer where I am from? I tell him America. That makes him smile. I pay him the 50€ for the room, then it dawns on me to show him my reservation on I do. He nods. I will later learn that he didn't get any of that, because it was all in English. Duh! Stupid me.

I take a nice leisurely walk around the area, enjoying the peaceful views of the rolling countryside, little pastures with goats and that beautiful lake. Come back and order dinner; a Greek salad, basket of bread and wine via my translation app on my tablet. Cost 10€.

I am the only guest and find it kind of strange, since Pandion got so many awesome reviews on By tomorrow evening, I will understand.

Not much else to do here, take a hot shower and retire early. Got a lot more driving tomorrow.

Saturday, May 9- Up early, sit out on my balcony and watch the stunning sunrise, , go down the steps to the first floor, and find that I am locked out of the entire first floor. I see stairs leading to the basement where my car is parked, surprise, that door isn't locked and I go out through the basement and come back up on the patio and try the front door. Locked. Now, I am completely locked out of the hotel and nobody is home. This has got to be the strangest hotel, I'm thinking, how in the world did it get such awesome reviews?

I remember telling the son with my translation app that I wanted to eat breakfast at 9:00 am and he nodded. Look at my watch, 8:25. Well, at least it isn't raining. I sit and wait for someone to show up. And wish I had grabbed my fleece pullover, before I left the building.

It is while I am waiting that a big truck loudly laboring it's way up the hill drives slowly by me. Since the hotel is situated on the hillside, I am above the road and I look down at the truck transporting animals, peering closely, trying to decipher what kind of animals are in the hold, it is sheep, lots of them. I am looking so intently through the gaps in the side that I almost miss the fact that it is a double-decker, and up on top, riding in the open air are goats. Lots of cute little goaties. And they are all looking up at me. Awww...

I always feel sorry for animals in these type of trucks, because it usually means they are on their way to market. My heart sinks a little. Then I see that they are all still wearing their collars with their bells still attached, even the sheep. Now as a farmer's daughter, I know you always take these off when you ship animals to the slaughterhouse, so it happily appears that these guys get to live another day. Probably being moved to higher pastures.

8:50, mom and son arrive in their pickup truck. They seem surprised to find me waiting on the patio. The son and mom go about opening up their hotel, I sit outside on the sunny patio and wait. At promptly 9 am, the son brings me breakfast on the patio, a basket of breads, jams, a grilled ham and cheese Panini, orange juice and coffee.

Back on the road by 10, headed for Athens. My car rental drop-off is for 5 pm, but I am already planning on getting lost, ha ha, so I am giving myself a good head start. I got seven hours to get to the airport, and figure that it should be roughly a four hour drive, we'll see what happens.
Greece; the road to Athens

Since I came in from the northeast and down to Neochori, I take the southern route down and around the lake, many bends, curves and turns. Beautiful, beautiful area. At one turn I count five turtles on the road. Next turn, beautiful healthy-looking horses loitering in the middle of the road. Nice driving, no traffic, get to the dam, right before Moucha, lots of local people sitting up stands, vendors, would have been interesting to stop and look at what they had, but I was still a long way from Athens.

Was hoping to get gas in Kallithiro, but they were closed. A local man walking by waved me on down the road. I got gas somewhere around Kallifoni. Straight shot to Kedros, GPS took me very nicely around that sharp corner in Kedros and then eventually through Domokos, which is a peculiar, but pretty little town. Funny thing; I picked up the same radio station which seemed to be keen on “Rock songs from the ‘80’s” and I heard a couple of the same songs by Duran Duran, Scorpions, and the Hooters, which I had heard when I was passing through Domokos nine days earlier. Once again, I had those songs stuck in my head for the rest of that drive.

All was going well until I decided to take a different route back, wanting to escape the tolls on E75 and route 1. YOU would think I would have known better by now? Nope, not me. Looking at my map, I thought from Lamia I could cut down route 3 and catch E65, catch 3 again which would take me by Livadia, past Thiva and down to Athens.

It was all fun and good, beautiful drive from where I got on route 3 south of Lamia, the whole way to Bralos. Spectacular mountains looming on the western horizons, the clouds would gather, the sky would darken, then the sun would pierce through the sky, brightening the rolling forested hills to my east. All so pretty. Just southeast of Bralos I came upon a very confusing intersection. Even my GPS was confused. And of course, the towns are all now in their Greek names, not what they have on my English version of my map of Central Greece. I mean, they are there, in tiny print, if you look hard enough. But when you are getting frustrated, it is hard to focus on such tiny print.

I went the way I thought I should, (once again, I would be right the first time) but doubt crept in and I turned around and went back and parked in front of the road sign and tried to decipher it, it is one of those that has a vertical line straight up and then a horizontal line branching off to the left, but the thing is, the road I (was on) wanted didn’t actually turn left, it curved back and around…yeah, eventually you could say it went left, but from where I was standing and looking at the sign, it wasn’t even close. And my GPS kept wanting to take me north to Athens, I guess to catch E75 to route 1. There was no way I was backtracking all that distance!

So I drove straight for awhile, doubt overcame me and I came back. Still no clue by looking at that dang road sign. So I took the road I originally had taken the first time. It took me to Paleochori. I spotted a lady with her little girl, stopped and asked her, she spoke very little English, but when I said “Athens?” she pointed down the road. And then waved once again, down the road. Okay, guess I will keep going on down the road, then.

The road out of Paleochori takes me to another road which heads east. This, by the way, is route 3. The one I wanted BUT since it is not marked, I am not aware of that. I start seeing signs for the ancient ruins of Drymea, once again, I chicken out and turn around and go back to that road sign, this time I dig out my map and look closer, but by now I haven’t got a clue as to what area I am even in and all the names of those town’s on that road sign start with that Greek letter which looks like an A, but isn’t an A. And you know how many towns start with that letter in Central Greece? Let me tell you. Too many to try to sort out.

So, once again, I was literally going around circles. It was at Latitude 38°42'24.43"N and Longitude 22°29'53.52"E (I found that field on Google Earth, back home at my house, can you believe that?) that I spotted a farmer weed-whacking in his olive orchard and went stumping through his olive orchard to where he was working, sweat running in rivulets down his forehead into his eyes which he kept blearily wiping, sweat dripping from the tip of his nose and chin. Had I been thirty years younger and drop-dead gorgeous and had he been younger, unmarried and interested, this would have been stuff Hollywood movies are made of, but this isn’t, this is real life and he simply looked slightly annoyed as to why this middle-aged woman tourist was stumping across his recently cultivated ground through his olive orchard. He turned off his weed-whacker. I asked “how do I get to Athens?” “Athina?” he asks. “Yes!” I tell him. He motions down that very road I have been on, over and over….I thank him and walk back through his olive orchard thinking, you know, it really is quite pretty here, get in my car and turn it around and head east.

My GPS at first fights me, then it resets itself and starts tracking me on this road, heading east. I figure as long as I can keep the sun to my right and at my back, I am going in the right direction. Eventually, I start seeing signs for the names of the towns I had tried to put into my GPS, but there were too many towns with those names with another name added to them, I guess that was for their district or department, but I was in no mood for a guessing game, so I stopped trying. Then I see signs for Kastro. Yay! Kastro straddles route 1. That is all I need to see. Once I am on route 1, my anxiety leaves me, it is all smooth sailing and signs start to appear for Athina/Athens and guess what, I even have some time to kill. I slow down, sit back and enjoy the drive back to Athens airport.

My rental car was due back at 17:00 hours. I arrive at 16:24. I was told to meet them at door 4. Since they had picked me up at door 4, that is where I am assuming to return it. Maybe they will be early, that would be nice, make the exchange and hop on the bus, get into Athens a bit earlier than I had planned. That is not to be...

I slowly cruise by door 4, not seeing anybody I might recognize or who might recognize my car, do the loop, just out of curiosity, cruise by the Departures door 4, nobody, but it is still early, do another loop, pause and pull over by Arrivals door 4, watch and wait. And wait. The airport police are making their rounds and move all loiterers along. I do another loop, driving as slow as possible. This time I slide into a spot and go unnoticed by any policemen. Sit and wait. Whoops, here they come again and they are once again ordering loiterers to move. I do one more loop, it is now almost 5, so I give up and park it in short term.

Parking lot P1 offers free parking for twenty minutes or less. Thinking it will be less than that, I set off on foot to find the Athens Car Rental guy. Thoroughly scope out the area around Arrivals door 4. Then it occurs to me, maybe they did mean Departures door 4, so I cross the street and take the stairs to Departures. Check it out. Not seeing nobody who appears to be looking for me, go back downstairs and wait. 6pm rolls around, still no one. I didn't bring my phone with me to Greece, so I can't call them. I go inside and ask the nice young man at the Airport Information desk, but he can't help me, since Athens Car Rental is privately owned and not affiliated with the airport, he tells me. Sorry, he says.

By now, I have had the time to familiarize myself with all the buses and the bus stop. Now all I need is to exchange the car!

Around 7:00, I suddenly remember that I had sent myself a copy of ACR's email to my other email account, my Gmail account, since my primary one I use back home for some reason doesn't work out of the US. (Found that out the hard way too, while traveling in Switzerland the other year) Go back to the P1 parking lot and get my tablet, get online in the airport and open up my email account. Boy, do I have emails! From ACR wondering where I am which I promptly reply to "I am here, where are you?" to an email from showing a "NO SHOW" charge from Pandion Lake View Hotel. I rapidly send them an email explaining to them that I was there! Meanwhile another email comes in from ACR, telling me they have been here since 4 pm, why weren't you here, you are late!

I send them a reply, I have been here since 4:30. This goes back and forth, in the middle of another reply from telling me they will check it out and get back to me.

By the time the ACR guy shows up, he is mad and quite short with me. It gets worse when he learns that I had parked the car in short term. The conversation between us as we walk to P1 is a very heated one. He asks for my blue copy of our agreement, I give it to him pointing out where it clearly states 17:00 hours for the rental return time. Since it's impossible to argue with that, he then tells me I have to pay for the parking, which I tell him I don't see why when as you can clearly see on my parking ticket, that I was here before 17:00. In the end, I pay the 8.50€. To make a long story short, we didn't part on a happy note.

Grab my gear and get my bus ticket, jump on bus X95 which is right here. I am still mad; mad that I got charged 50€ for a "no-show" when I had already paid them 50€ cash, and mad about what just transpired between the car rental guy and me. I am so mad I don't make eye contact with anybody on the bus. Eventually I look up and smile at the young guy sitting across from me. He looks nervous and is intently studying a Greece guide book, it is open to the Athens section. He looks up at me. I say "hi" to him and ask him where he is from? "Latvia!" he replies. "And you, you are an American, right?" This makes me smile and I ask him "how can you tell?" "It is your accent" he says.

He livens up and we talk for the rest of the ride to Syntagma Square . Bright young guy, in his twenties, tells me his mom is arriving on Sunday, he is spending four days in Athens with her. We have arrived at Syntagma Square, there is a humongous crowd here and someone is talking on a loudspeaker, lots of noise and confusion. I assume it has to do with Greece's financial woes, he is thinking it might be a WWII 70th anniversary victory celebration day. Never did learn what it was about.

I find Arethusa Hotel without any problem, it sits right on the corner, you can see it from the bus stop which is why I chose it in the first place. Say goodbye to my new friend, and head for my hotel. Check in is a bit confusing, but it ends up well. When I had originally reserved my room on, I had made it for three nights, starting last night, but changed it to only two nights, for which I received a confirmation for. Lady at the desk sees both reservations, notes that yes, the two night reservation for tonight and tomorrow night was confirmed, but for some reason, they charged me as a "no-show" for last night.

Not again...I am thinking. Before I can argue with her, she tells me that it is their fault and last night's "no-show" charge will now count for tonight, so I only owe for tomorrow night. Sweet! Glad to hear that!

She checks me in, I drop my stuff and come back downstairs and ask her for suggestions for a good place to eat, I am now starving, haven't eaten since breakfast at the "Pandion." She sends me one block down, first left, two blocks down, second right. Second place on the right. I am sorry I didn't get the name of the little cafe, because it the food was exceptional! And no, I didn't get a Greek salad. Had some kind of cheese from Crete with prosciutto on crispy grilled ciabatta bread and a plate of fried tomato croquettes smothered with a pureed fava bean sauce. Exquisite!

Wandered around Plaka, did some more shopping for a friend of mine who is pet-sitting for me. That silver picture frame is for her, also.

Back to my room, pop in my earplugs to block all that commotion in the Syntagma Square and get a good night's sleep.

Sunday, May 10, Woke up at 6 am and now I am feeling remorseful for my actions at the airport concerning the car rental return, so I send out an email to ACR. Since they have very good reviews on here, I just want to attach my email which I sent to them, just to clear the air on here. Here it is.

"Just wanted to write you an email to tell you that I m sorry about the misunderstanding yesterday in the car rental return. The conversation got a little heated when we finally found each other.
Just so you understand, I had arrived early, around 16:26, and did four loops around the airport, first passing by the departures doors, then passing by the arrivals doors the last three times, pausing often only to have the police move me along.
I finally decided to park it in short term and try to find you in person. I parked the car at 17:00 in the P1 parking lot, thinking the exchange would be less than twenty minutes.
I waited by door 4 in Arrivals, crossed to the steps and walked upstairs to the Departures twice and checked door 4, then came back down to the Arrivals by door 4, and waited.
I even went inside and asked the guy at the airport information desk to help, but he said he couldn't because your company is not associated with the airport.
I then remembered that I had a copy of your email in this email account which I am writing from since the email at will not work out of the United States. That is when I walked back to my car to get my tablet and email you.
I apologize for not bringing my phone with me to Greece, I do not have an International plan.
The guy who met me told me the drop off was for 16:00 when it was clearly written on the blue paper I give back to him, 17:00 return. He then said I didn't fill the tank up with gas, when I received the car it only has two bars showing in the fuel tank. John, the man who arranged the paperwork along with a new employee, told me to bring it back with two bars showing in the fuel tank, which is what I did.
I was there at 17:00. The parking ticket stub proved it. Then your guy made me pay for the parking ticket, which I was not happy about, being that I had lived up to my terms of the agreement.
Why I am writing this is to say that I don't want anything to taint my impression of Greece. This was my first trip here and I loved it, Greece is simply amazing and beautiful, the people all were truly hospitable, and that is how I wish to remember it.
Please accept my apologies and tell the man who I spoke with yesterday that I am truly sorry for the way things went.
Please tell him to have a nice day also! He will understand.
Best regards,"

After a fabulous breakfast buffet at Arethusa, I spent the day exploring the Acropolis, the Parthenon, and the Tower of the Muse, up on top of that lovely hill overlooking Athens. Really enjoyed Athens much more than I thought I would. Good food, great city, nice people.

In the afternoon, I decided to walk up to the bus stop and check out the bus schedule, I don't want any surprises for tomorrow morning's ride back to the airport. As I am walking up the street, the X95 bus pulls up, a lady steps off and into the outstretched arms of her son who is offering her one long-stemmed red rose. It is the young lad from Latvia. Meeting his mom on Mother's Day! I start clapping my hands as I am walking towards them. They turn and look at me, his mother looks startled and confused, he gets a huge grin on his face! "Happy Mother's Day!" I tell her. She looks at her son with a perplexed look, he tells her "this is my friend, we met on the bus yesterday!" She then sizes me up and tells me "Happy Mother's Day to you also, if you happen to be a mother?" I tell her "I do, and I also have two grandchildren!" With that the son shakes my hand and says "well, then many, many Happy Mother's Days to you!" Two of the sweetest people!

Monday, May 11, on the bus and headed for the airport. It has all been such a fantastic experience! I loved Greece! And yes, hopefully, I will be back! Very soon. ASAP.

By late Monday morning, I had received a very nice email reply from ACR. Would I rent another car from them again? Yes! Absolutely! Everybody makes mistakes, has misunderstandings, this was simply a mix-up and a case of bad communication. The car was awesome! And the rate was fantastic! The GPS, well, that was me......

After note: I received another email from stating that Pandion said I was never there, they don't even have a room #6, which I had and described it to

Once home, I went online and learned that what I had thought was the Pandion was actually the Gis Chrisopeleia. I couldn't be mad at the Pandion because I was a "no-show," for them and I couldn't get mad at Gis Chrisopeleia, because they couldn't read English. I had no one to blame but myself.

Would I do it all over again? Absolutely! In a heartbeat! But next time, with no reservations outside of Athens, that is, and I will attempt to learn a little bit of Greek.

Israel/Jordan 2014

Friday, September 26- Stayed at the Best Western by Dulles Airport last night, woke up to a beautiful relaxing morning, no need for a mad rush to the airport. Checked in at United counter, the nice ticket agent put my backpack in a huge plastic bag for me, and I dropped it off at the luggage drop point, and walked to my gate, only to find total chaos. Today, some idiot in Chicago set fire in one of the terminals, causing a domino affect throughout all the major airports. Massive crowds everywhere, people being rerouted, luckily it does not mess with my flight to Newark.
Arrive in Newark right on time, walk to my gate and find it is in lockdown, they are not letting anybody in yet, so I have time for a quick salad and a glass of wine before entering. Now, what I mean by lockdown...when you fly to Tel Aviv via any airport outside of Israel, Israel requests that the flight be put into a secured, lockdown area by the gate prior to boarding. That means each person has to show their boarding pass, get wanded down, and place your carry-ons on a table to be handsearched and only then are you released into the locked-down area until boarding. No leaving this area. And yes, it is always a gate by a restroom. No worries. By the way, I like this idea.

I settle in by the gate next door for Rome and wait for the security guard to open the secured area for our Tel Aviv flight. It was then that I spotted her. A little elderly lady who was clearly showing signs of much impatience and approached the security guard. I couldn’t hear their conversation but the guard kept shaking her head no. The tiny woman persisted. Maybe it was just time or else the security guard finally relented, but they opened up and we all got in line to enter. The elderly woman was now through and being wanded down, then they inspected her bags. I was two people behind her, then it was my turn.

It is while I am sitting down in my secured, lock-downed area that I get out my tablet and go online, only to see that some radical, Muslim jihadist has beheaded a lady co-worker of his, in Oklahoma. I can't help but think if ALL of America would practice the necessary requirements of extra-security like Israel does, then maybe, just maybe we wouldn't be seeing things like this happen here in America??
I think that ALL of the good old USA's borders should all be secured and locked-down. And that should start with cleaning house and ridding ourselves with what we have in the White House.

I had forgotten about the little old lady until that is, they started boarding. We were all divided up into lines according to our boarding zones. The petite senior citizen appeared from out of nowhere, she was confused and in everybody’s way, then she made eye contact with me, approached me and asked me if she is boarding now. A quick glance at her ticket and I tell her no, not yet. (she was in my boarding zone) She then approached the ticket agent and asked her the same question which by now, it was our zone boarding so, the agent let her pass. The little old lady looked back at me with what I took as a huge victorious grin. I smiled back.

I make my way down the aisle only to get to my seat and find…yes, that very same little old woman. In my seat. The window seat. OH what irony. I politely tell her that is my seat, she gives me the biggest smile and gets up and hauls her carry-on bag off of the two seats next to her and looks up at the carry-on compartments. She is too tiny to reach it, so I heave her bag up and place my backpack beside it, she then waves me in to my window seat and sits down next to me. She is hyper and fidgeting and keeps smiling at me. This is going to be a long flight, I think to myself.

It is a long flight. We finally get airborne, she happens to be quite chatty and I soon learn from her that she lives in Israel, she was in NYC to visit her daughter who is 60 years old, she herself is 83 years old, she hardly speaks any English, tries talking to me in Hebrew, which I can’t speak and through all of this I hear her rattle off some Spanish which I do speak a little of and it is in Spanish that we have our conversations, this dear little elderly Jewish lady who was born in Yugoslavia, where she learned to speak Spanish. I learned to speak Spanish from all my travels in Latin America. We quickly become friends, she settles in closer beside me.

Our dinner is served, she allows me to choose first (the chicken) and makes me open mine up before she chooses the chicken dinner for herself. I eat mine and watch her with much amusement as she fusses over her dinner, apparently she doesn’t care for it and in the end she pours some of her water from her cup over the chicken, then blots it dry and fusses with it some more. Till it was all said and done, she hardly ate anything.

Then it was time to watch movies. I picked mine, and settled back to watch it, thinking she would soon be asleep. No such luck. This little woman had more energy than a kid on a sugar-kick. I helped her pick a movie, got her earphones on and adjusted for her and once again settled back. Well, that didn’t last long. Now she was waving at the flight attendant for more blankets and pillows, then getting more for me also. Now we are all set. Wrong. The drink cart comes by, she orders a coke. Great. Just what she needs, I think to myself. I get a apple juice for me and take the last half of Lorazepam that I have left. Hoping it will knock me out.

It does, for a very short time. When I open my eyes a crack, I find her now lying across the two seats next to me, (she is so tiny she almost fits) just lying there staring at me. The second she sees me crack my eyelids, she waves. I inwardly groan and close my eyes again. Please, I just want to sleep.

I got very little sleep. Most of the time was spent watching movies or paying games on the tiny tv screen. And assisting my hyperactive little neighbor. This was meant to be, I tell myself.

Saturday, September 27- I arrived via United Airlines in Israel at 10AM. Immigrations and customs at Ben Gurion was a breeze, walked out the door and got into a Nesher shuttle van to Jerusalem.
And who do I find sitting next to me inside the van? My seat mate, the little old lady on my plane. She smiles and waves excitedly at me as I climb in the shuttle van. I recalled seeing her catching a ride on one of those assistance vehicles in the terminal, that is how she beat me to the van. I have to laugh.

Dropped off at Abraham Hostel, an awesome place where I stayed last year. Stowed my backpacks in their storage room till check in time which is at 2, walked down to the Old City.
This is only my second time here in Israel, the first was last year over Passover, I immediately noticed the very small number of tourists. Really enjoyed my leisurely stroll through the uncrowded Old City, even if I couldn't find my way out of it. Found my way to the Western Wall by 4 PM.
It was a very hot day, by evening a strong wind picked up and it became a bit chilly. Grabbed a pizza and wine at my hostel's bar for happy hour. Off to bed for some much needed sleep.

September 28, Sunday- I went to the market adjacent to my hostel on Davidka Square, can't remember the name. Then I hoofed it down to the lovely forested area surrounding the Israel museum, the Shrine of the Book and the Bible Lands Museum. Fascinating and informative, down to the tiniest details!
I crossed on foot over the highways and tried to find my way back through the cute little neighborhoods of the residential areas, got lost many times over again, by the time I found my way back to my hostel, I have blisters on both feet, even in old shoes.
The sky had been overcast and cloudy, threatening of rain. Had a few very light sprinkles. It was a nice break from the blazing heat of yesterday. By the time I got back to Jaffa Street, wind gusts were whipping down the wide streets and cutting through the narrow alleyways. It was downright cold! People were donning heavy coats and bundling up.
I had the top floor, corner room at my hostel. The wind whipped around the building and reminded me of winter squalls back home. I am thoroughly enjoying my visit here. No sighs of worries or fear seen anywhere, just life as normal in beautiful Israel.
Just wanted to add, I ate dinner at the Israeli Grill House on Jaffa Street. I just wanted something light, my server was an excellent salesperson and talked me into two appetizers. I had the Iraqi Pita bread with eleven different salads/sauces for dipping and their Humus. Oh my! It was incredible! But more than enough to feed a small army. Everybody was so sweet, smiles seen and shared all around. Definitely be going back there again!

Monday, September 29- I am doing the 4-day Northern Israel tour offered by Abraham Tours. We left Jerusalem and headed for Caesarea, where we hit rain on the way. The sky looked bruised and angry over Caesarea, but passed over quickly and we had a gorgeous morning exploring the beautiful and impressive ruins. Then we went to Nazareth where we will be staying for three nights at the lovely Fauzi Inn. We had the rest of the day to explore Nazareth on our own.
Tomorrow will consist of the western side of the Galilee, including Haifa, Acre and Rosh Hanikra and Mount Precipice. The beautiful old city of Acre, with its crusader fortresses, ancient walls and beautiful mosques and marketplaces. Lastly, we’ll drive up to Rosh Hanikra, where the sea water has carved incredible caves into the cliffs.

Tuesday, September 30- Day two of my 4-day Northern Israel tour was amazing! I am truly pleased with this little adventure I am on. We left Nazareth at 8:30 in the morning, stopping at Mount Precipice on the way to Haifa. Took the B'nai garden tour and descended all those steps...the guide doing the garden tour was exceptional.
From there we went to Acre. Explored the ancient city for two hours, and had lunch here. Had a farfela pita with yummy vegetables for 10 shekels! Really good! Would of have liked to spend an entire day here. Leaving Acre we headed north to Rosh Hanrika where we took the cable car down to explore the grottos. This place was awesome and a lot of fun! Views of Israel's coastline was gorgeous, the beautiful weather made for great visibility.
Talked to a young IDF lady, expressed my love and support for Israel to her, she was a delight to converse with. Everybody is very relaxed and enjoying the peace and calm.
Don't think twice about coming, hurry up and get here! So glad I came!
Tomorrow we go to the Golan Heights and have lunch with the Druze!

Wednesday, October 1- Day three of the 4-day Northern Israel tour. Woke up at 6:10 to a gorgeous sunrise over the city of Nazareth. By the way, the Fauzi Azar Inn is incredible! A true little gem. Had a wonderful breakfast at our inn, then we were on the road by 7:30. We have picked up more people who were staying at our guesthouse, seems everybody wants to do this tour. We now have a full van.
First was Capernaum, the town of Jesus, then up to the Mount of Beatitudes. The weather was lovely, bright sunshine with a very nice breeze. From there we went up to Banias Nature Reserve and hiked to the waterfalls, the shrine of Pan and the pools. Next stop, a Druze village in the Golan where we have a huge and extremely delicious meal of farfela, french fries, salads, sauces, pita bread, humus, baklava and coffee. I was stuffed. And he kept offering us more food!
After all that food, we went to Odem Winery to sample some wines. They were quite good, but truthfully I was too full to enjoy anything. Then it was to Mount Bental to get to meet the UN who are watching the Israeli-Syrian border along with the Israeli army. This was intense and exciting for all of us, luckily it was peaceful and everyone was jovial. But standing high on that mountain overlooking Syria really was surreal.
We stopped in the Golan gift shop and bought souvenirs and a very nice bottle of Sion Golan Heights Cabernet, then back on the road and down off the Golan Heights to stop at the Sea of Galilee for a relaxing swim. This day's itinerary was set up very nicely, the swim in the sea at the end of the day was so soothing, nobody else but just us and the sea.
Drove back into Nazareth and the blazing red sunset. What a perfect end to a perfect day!

Thursday, October 2- Last day of our 4-day Northern Israel tour. Got to sleep in today. Up for breakfast at 8. Then we had a free walking tour of Old City Nazareth given by a sweet lady, Linda, who volunteers at our inn. Picked up at 12:30 for our ride back to Jerusalem, stopping at Mount Arbel and Yardent, the place of Jesus's baptism in the gorgeous green waters of the Jordan river.
I am now back in Jerusalem. Went out once again, to the Israeli Grill House for dinner. A couple of the young ladies who work there recognized me from five days ago and came over to talk to me. Super sweet people. Had the all-inclusive belly bulging delicious 79 shekel deal. Lots of leftovers to bring back with me. The place was packed! Everybody is out tonight. Feasting. :-)
Stopped by that little cheese shop I mentioned earlier and got all kinds of good cheese, hit the wine and liquor place next door to Abraham Hostel for some wine. All set for Yom Kippur. (I'm a Christian.) Who will be watching but not observing, if you know what I mean.

Friday, October 3- First time ever to experience Yom Kippur for me, here in Jerusalem or anywhere...only recently have become fascinated with Jewish customs and cultures and want to learn more about them, hence why I am now here in Israel, once again. I was here last year over Passover ( Easter for me.) I am loving it all! Did the Rampart Walk on the Old City walls of Jerusalem and explored the Old City. Back to my hostel, then headed out for the Mount of Olives hoping for some good sunset pictures over Jerusalem. Ran into the frantic lady from Argentina who couldn’t find her hotel. Together we found it, she ditched her stuff and joined me on my walk to the Mount of Olives, which ended up with a man picking us up and driving us there, for free. He stopped by the Garden of Gethsemane, and then up to the lookout with the exceptional panoramas of Jerusalem. He then took us to a gift shop and dropped us off. ;) I guess nothing is really ever for free… We walked back down and entered the Old City through the Lion’s Gate. Had our pictures taken with the Israeli Police who were gathered around the Arab entrance to the Temple Mount, anticipating riots, which happily didn’t happen that night. The mood in the Old City was a mellow one, lots of tourists hanging out in the Muslim Quarter.

Saturday, October 4- Yom Kippur brought me a day of much needed rest, for the most part. I did walk from my hostal to the Old City, enjoying the empty streets. Wandered down across the Kidron Valley to the Mount of Olives, stopping by the overlook once again. An Arab was dressed in his “attire” and allowing tourists to have their pictures taken with him and his little donkey, afterwards he would mutter quite loudly, which they didn’t seem to take notice to. I observed from a distance as they each took their turns and willingly handed over their shekels, as he complained and the donkey quietly obliged. One young lady excitedly had her picture taken with him, then her church group sang a hymn. I couldn’t help but laugh out loud as the little donkey suddenly swished it’s tail along with the tempo of the song. I had to think of Balaam’s donkey.
Walked back down from the Mount of Olives, then wandered through the Old City, once again. Back at my hostel for a nap by 2 pm, then rested the remaining of the day. Peaceful, quiet streets, no traffic, no trains, no horns, not even any signal lights working in the streets outside my windows. Lots of people and children on bicycles. If I wasn't so tired, I would have rented one. But tomorrow starts early for me, so tonight I call it quits and head for bed quite early.

Sunday, October 5- Up at 3:20 am to do the Masada sunrise hike. I am doing it through my hostal, our driver picks us up at 4 am and we all sleep on the way, except our wonderful driver, Alon. Arrive at 5:30, just barely make it to the top of Masada using the Snake Path ( I thought I was going to die and be left behind for the buzzards to pick clean) when the sun crested the horizon and we were treated to an amazing gift! The privilege to be up here on Masada and experience a beautiful, haze-free sunrise. Also liked how when the sun crested the horizon, the flocks of nesting ravens took to the sky above us, calling noisily. Just another surreal moment, in Israel.
After surveying the ruins of Herod's palace, and a couple of other sites, we hiked back down the Snake Path. (Just want to interject here, last year when I was here, I did Masada [not as the sunrise tour] and stupid me, as soon as I got off the cable car I turned left and walked the perimeter of the fortress and by the time I realized the majestic ruins of Herod's palace, it was time to go down. Just had to do a do-over.
After Masada, we went to Ein Gedi, also want to note that last year this place was packed full of people, being we got such an early start, we, the Ibex and the Hyrax are the only ones here! Sweet! The waterfalls were beautiful, the small group of people today were a lot of fun to be with.
Last, but not least, was the Dead Sea. I do want to say that last year I did not enjoy the Dead Sea. This year I loved it! Maybe it was our sensational driver this year, who explained everything to us and shared all kinds of facts and information, whereas, our driver last year said as little as possible. Maybe it was that this driver took us to another area. Or maybe it just was the camradarie of our small group. I don't know...all I do know is that we had a blast! And, that is all that truly matters.
Tomorrow, I leave Jerusalem. Flying to Eilat. And then going to Petra via Eco-desert tours.

Monday, October 6- Nesher shuttle pickup at my hostel at 8:00, drove all around Jerusalem picking up people on the way to the airport. I was a bit concerned about getting to the airport in time, but in the end it all worked out. My flight to Eilat was on Arkia, super smooth flight, flew right over Jerusalem and then out over the Dead Sea, turned right and headed south over the Judean desert, the Negev and eventually to Eilat. Landed in Eilat and was pleasantly surprised as I walked out the airport. It was very windy with an agreeable temperature. Not hot like I had expected. Short taxi cab to my adorable little b&b.
Walked down to the shore and beachfront, not my kind of town, but I am only passing through. It was very chaotic and hectic, with the holidays and all. Massive crowds. I hung around for the sunset photo ops, then walked back and had a delightful little dinner at Pedro's Bistro.

Tuesday, Oct 7: up early to meet with Eco-Desert tours and cross the border to Jordan. There are eight of us, takes us about twenty minutes for all our paperwork to be processed, fees paid and then we are met by Ali, our Jordanian guide. He gives us a wonderful narrative as we drive to Petra, explaining the Hashemite Kingdom and most of Jordan's history as to how it came about.
We are taken to the Eco-Desert Tour office in the village, drop off our backpacks and head down into the magnificently-colored red canyons of Petra. What an amazing and incredible experience. Ali walks us through the canyon, through most of the ruins, then leaves us with about six hours to explore Petra before we have to be back up at the office to be collected and delivered to the border, to our hotels or in my case, to the Bedouin camp. We have lunch which is included than climb to the Monastery, and wander around in awe.
Another couple has opted for the Bedouin camp also, so the three of us are taken to the Ammarin Bedouin camp, three head back across the border to Israel and another couple from Sweden opt for a hotel. I, along with the Swedish couple are doing Wadi Rum tomorrow.

At the Bedouin camp were I stayed they had showers, with surprisingly, extremely hot water. I was in the shower trying to adjust the temperature, to make it cooler. While struggling with that, I realized there was a wasp in the shower who had inadvertently managed to get trapped in the tiny room with me. And it wasn't happy.

It came at me and I cupped my hands with water which I then threw at it, hoping it would make it's wings too wet to fly. Well, that didn't work, but it did succeed to make it madder. It came at me again. I then grabbed my towel and threw it at the wasp, forcing it to the wet shower floor.. I had just lathered all up with soap, the water is still extremely hot, I tried to hurriedly rinse off the best I could, and turned the water off.
Now, I had no means to dry myself off and the angry little buzzing insect worked it's way out from under the towel and spotted it's source of frustration and came at me again. Once more I grabbed the now wet towel and threw it at the wasp. It went down, all the while complaining under the towel.

My dilemma now was to either exit the shower naked or to quickly try to pull on my clothes over a dripping wet body, as fast as I can, while listening to the wasp buzzing around under that towel. I did a lot of fast praying in that little shower room. And I opted for the second option.

Finally got my clothes on, which are now all wet, but hey it is the desert...they will dry rapidly...and reached down and grabbed the soggy wet towel, gave it a shake releasing the mad little guy and ran, closing the shower door quickly behind me.

I told the others about it on the ride through Wadi Rum. Ali said their are two types of wasp, one is red and yellow, one is black with a yellow head. The black one with the yellow head is the dangerous one. It has a very painful sting and is very aggressive. I happened to shower with the black one with the yellow head.

Awesome night, welcoming hosts, great dinner, music, firelight, comfortable beds in a goat hair tent, full moon rising over the mountains, moments to remember.

Wednesday, Oct 8: Woke up to a beautiful cool morning in the pretty sunlit canyon, had a hearty breakfast and then another Ali, Ali #2, arrives to take me to the hotel and collect the other couple and then to Wadi Rum. Ali #2 was in the Jordanian army for 16 years, great guide, knows the landscapes, shrubs, vegetation, insects, birds, everything by name. Awesome, loveable guy. And he likes scaring the living daylights out of us when we least expect it like buggying down sand dunes unannounced! Wadi Rum was gorgeous, the dunes were thrilling, great guide, great guy! He even prepared lunch for us, out in the desert, grilling chicken over a fire in a cool shady spot with million dollar views!
The border crossing went well, albeit all the intense questions and interrogations, but hey, I understand. Back in Eilat for one night, then I fly back to Tel Aviv. We had a very nice thunderstorm in Eilat that night. Scattered showers, very humid and muggy.

Thursday, Oct 9: Back in Tel Aviv, got a taxi for 138 shekels to the Maxim Hotel. Right across the street from the beach. Very nice, cute, chic, smartly decorated. I spend the afternoon swimming in the sea. Finally get to relax. That night, I walked to Jaffa and strolled around enjoying the festive moods of all the people, everybody celebrating their holidays.

Friday, Oct 10: Up for a extremely bountiful breakfast buffet. Worth staying here at the Maxim, just for the breakfast buffet alone! Had to work off my meal, walked back to Jaffa. Got to the port just as they were ringing a bell and everybody was boarding a boat, so I got on too and we had a nice little boat ride, the boat was decorated for sukkot, everybody is happy, families, children, laughing, smiling, singing. What a joyous time! Ate at The Old Man and the Sea, by the harbor, did lots of shopping and then wandered back to Tel Aviv.

Saturday, Oct 11: Flight back to USA.
What an incredible journey I had! I could not have wished for a better trip! The people I met, the places I got to see, my hotels, my tours, the guides/drivers, the restaurants, the flight connections...everything was AWESOME!

Bolivia 2014 (part one)

Wednesday April 9: Flew out of Dulles, Washington at 5 PM, got into Bogota at 9 PM. Hour layover, just enough time to get off the plane and find our gate. Boarded at 9:30, in the air by 10 PM.

Thursday, April 10: Arrived in La Paz at 3 AM. Breeze getting through customs, then it was a long wait at the airport for my 8 AM flight to Sucre. Feeling the altitude. Glad I opted to fly to Sucre to acclimate the first day. Ordered a huge cup of coca de mate at the little café in the airport, drank and watched all the activity as the passengers for other domestic flights starting showing up by 5 AM.

The sun arose and I get my very first glimpses of Illimani and Huayna Potosi rising above the Altiplano. My heart skips a beat and the thrill, the reality that I am finally here starts to sink in, through my weary state of mind. But I am tired of all this sitting around, anxious to get out there and start exploring!

Two more little legs and I will have my feet on the ground. My flight to Sucre via Cochabamba is finally called and I happily claim my window seat and strap myself in. We are off!

By sheer good fortune, my window seat is on the left side of the plane with the optimum views of the Cordillera Real. We fly past Illimani, then onward over the vast sloping ranges of the Cordillera Oriente. Cochabamba comes into view, we circle and land. I have ten minutes before I board the next flight and am worried about it. The man next to me tells me the flight to Sucre in on this same plane, he tells me to sit tight. Everyone else, except two other guys and I, get off the plane. The crew makes a quick sweep of the plane, picking up trash, then the plane is boarded and we are on our way to Sucre.

The flight to Sucre crosses some very interesting terrain. From up here looking down, it appears as if the earth had been a molten mass which slipped and sliced as it cooled, creating some strange formations and variations in the visible minerals layers and soil deposits. It isn’t long till we are approaching Sucre.

Stepping off the plane in Sucre, I am surprised as to how tropical it feels. Sunny, warm, a bit humid actually. I make my way through the tiny airport and am pounced on by a young taxi driver. He wants 30 Bolivians (Bs) to take me to Sucre, I try to get him for 20 Bs, but he is persistent.

I climb in and he peels off! His reckless driving, relentless horn beeping, daredevil tactics…I remind myself that I should have gotten an older cabbie. Never again, I tell myself. Surprisingly, nobody was killed enroute to my hotel. Lots of angry glares, hand signs and hurled insults from the other various drivers, but nobody died.

He tries to inform me that he can only take me to the plaza. For my hotel, it will be another 10 Bs. I tell him fine, and pull out a 20 and a 10 BS. I just want out. I don’t care how far I have to walk at this point, just let me out. He sees my money and for some reason, drops me off at the doorstep to my hotel. The additional 10Bs mentioned earlier never came up again.

I gladly climb out, pay him and he takes off like a lunatic. The doorman of my hotel, Hotel Boutique Mi Pueblo Samary, is already at my side, taking my backpacks and showing me into their lovely little hotel.

Peace and tranquility. The welcoming receptionist smiles at me as I look back out the door and shudder. I tell her “mucho loco taxi driver!” She says “I’m sorry.” I am instantly reminded that none of this is any of her fault and immediately am brought back to the present. I am alive, I am here, in beautiful Sucre, in this fabulous hotel surrounded by wonderful people. Life is good!

I am shown to my very pretty room, the bellhop opens the patio doors, shows me the safe, shows me around the room, I tip him and he courteously bows out. I slide into something much cooler and the day is mine!

Joanna, the very accommodating friendly receptionist, produces a map of Sucre, circles and highlights the touristy spots, indicates where the banks and casa de cambios are located, and I am off to get some dinero.

There is a lot of action going on in Sucre; marching bands, traffic jams, beeping horns, I find it very chaotic. I stop at a cute little café a few doors up the street from my hotel and get a delicious pollo empanada and a saltena.

Back to my hotel where I run into a group of seven retired couples who are studying Spanish in Sucre. One couple is from my area back home in Pennsylvania. Travel all this way to run into my neighbors. Small world.

Sucre was very pretty, but I am glad I listened to others and only booked one night here. Not much to do here. I wander up to the Mirador and the cute little plaza with the church, some of the classes have just left out at the school, the plaza is packed with school children in their parochial uniforms. Amidst shrieks, squeals and fits of laughter, I linger at the lookout point, then head back down the narrow cobbled streets in search of dinner.

One of the gentlemen in the group whom are taking Spanish lessons told me about a good place to eat which is right around the corner from my hotel, on Calle Avaroa. Cafe Restaurant Salamandra. I take his advice and stop by for dinner. Very beautiful interior, sleek wooden booths downstairs, there is an upstairs, but I gladly take the booth which is offered. Order a bottom of Campos de Solana, a very nice Bolivian Malbec and look at the menu, which is all in Spanish. And I forgot my Spanish Dictionary. I explain to them (the best I can) that I am leaving my camera as proof that I will be right back and run back to my hotel to get my Lonely Planet Spanish Phrasebook.

Upon entering the hotel, I trip over the concrete instep, a barrier about eight inches high, just inside the door. I assume it is to keep the water runoff from the steep street, after heavy rain. Land on my hands and knees. The staff hurriedly rush over to assist me, I assure them I am okay. (My left knee will be badly bruised and hurt for the entire duration of this trip.) I grab my book and return to Salamandra, and order the best beef tenderloin steak I have ever sank my teeth into. It is smothered in peppercorns and pesto pine nuts. Medium rare. Exceptional!

Back to my hotel, stop at the front desk and confirm my private taxi ride to Potosi for tomorrow. Cost 200 B's. Or $28. Not too bad for a two hour drive.

Friday, April 11- After a very satisfying breakfast, I take my backpacks downstairs. Joanna shows me the coca tea offered nearby and suggest that I have a cup while I wait for my taxi. She reminds me of the difference in altitude, between here and Potosi. I take her advice and have a cup. My taxi arrives, Joanna reassures me that my driver will be cautious and careful, not crazy like the one I had when I arrived here.

We are off to Potosi. We head southeast out of town, then through pretty red canyons with lush green weeping willows, then we are climbing out of the canyons, gaining altitude and dry vast landscapes. I am sitting comfortably in the back, languishing in the tranquil scenery when my driver points to the river we are approaching. There is that bridge I had seen pictures of, on Google Earth. It looks similar to the London Bridge. I had forgotten about it. He offers to pull over and we get out for pictures. He stops again, much later, at another scenic spot high above the valley and the road we just traveled. I like my driver, very decent and respectful.

Dropped off just a few doors down from Hostal Eucalyptus. I am breathing hard by the time I dump my gear and get checked in, then it is up two flights of steps, stopping once to catch my breath, let in my room and now lying on my bed gasping for air. Once my head stops spinning, I take a good look around. Nice little hostal, got a double with private bath, for $22 a night. Lots of electrical outlets. Awesome hot shower. Comfy bed. Great rooftop terrace with gorgeous views! What more could you want?

Potosi is amazing! I stayed here two nights, one more night would not have hurt. Lots to do and see. I did not do the mine tour. Too claustrophobic. I did tour the money museum which was fascinating indeed, even if you can't understand Spanish. Ate at the Cafe de la Plata, for all my meals, except breakfast, which was included with my room.  Had a wonderful ham and mushroom Fettuccini Alfredo dish, lots of enticingly delightful desserts and coffee drinks. Anytime I needed a quick fix, I popped in here for my pick-me-ups.

Potosi was at one time, the richest city in South America, so I'm told. The beautiful Spanish architecture in the old elegant churches was interesting to explore, the narrow crowded streets with the elaborately detailed balconies high above reminded me a little of Lima. By my second day, I had adjusted quite nicely to Potosi's high altitude. I could walk from the cathedral to my hostal without stopping or struggling for breath. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Potosi. If traveling in Bolivia, try not to pass Potosi by.

Sunday, April 13- After numerous unsuccessful attempts to buy a bus ticket yesterday, through Koala Tours, I finally wrangled up a ticket this morning. We leave at noon. I am all packed and waiting in the lobby of my hotel when a young couple join me, they too are going to Uyuni. The young man is the same man who came to my rescue the day before, when i was purchasing my ticket for the money museum.  He is from Argentina, his wife is from France. They both speak English. We share a taxi to the bus station.
On board our bus and awaiting departure, I watch the bus beside us being loaded with you name it, speakers, furniture, tires, produce, everything is going up on the roof of the bus and being strapped down. Then, coughing up a loud cloud of black smoke, they hit the highway. We're next.

The road from Potosi to Uyuni is a long one, the views are much nicer if you are on the right side of the bus. Unfortunately, I was on the left. It is a four hour ride, we arrived in Uyuni at 4 pm. Prepare yourself for a lot of tour touts and hawkers as soon as you get off the bus. Pretty chaotic for such a small town. It was also quite warm. I had packed a lot of warm clothes, thinking Bolivia was going to be cold. So far, the temperatures have been very pleasant.

Took me forever on foot, to find my hotel. I was surprised at how many people stopped to help me, sending me in the same general direction, but I was still going in circles. Finally found it. My own stupidity, walked right past it a half hour earlier....knocked and left in by Christophe, the owner, stepped over the concrete instep again (what is the deal with them?) And entered a very warm, sunny sauna-like environment, inviting corridor and then left into my beautiful room.

I am staying at La Petite Porte. Gorgeous place, immaculate spacious room, lovely bathroom with a huge shower the size of a walk-in closet. Christophe sends me to the Minuteman Revolutionary Pizza for dinner. On the way, I stop at Quechua Connections and pay for my tour I reserved with them online. 850B's. $123 for a three-day salt flat tour. Not bad. Minuteman Pizza, here I come! I find it inside the Tonita Hotel, which looks very charming, in the back is this little slice of heaven. I order a bottle of Malbec and the Hawaiian Pizza.  They are both to die for. The place fills up, a lively group sit at the table next to me. They have just returned from the salt flat tour. They invite me to join them. We drink our wine and talk travel.

Monday, April 14- Doing the three-day salt flat tour with Quechua Connections. Stopped to buy two 2 liter bottles of water, some snacks and toilet paper. At Quechua's office by 10 am. Watch the other tour companies pack up, load up and leave. I am getting antsy. We finally leave around 11:30. There are a total of seven of us, a couple from Australia, a couple from Spain, a guy from Thailand, me and our driver.

First, we stop at the train cemetery. Then it is to a vendor market place, then we are on the road to the salt flats. We are only about an hour outside of Uyuni, when we blow a tire. Our driver Miguel stops, we all bail out and Miguel gives us a quick lesson in how to change a tire, Bolivian-style. Looks downright dangerous, I am glad when the new tire is back on and Miguel is safely out from under the vehicle.

Stop at a salt cafe where we, along with many various other groups are having lunch. Grilled Alpaca steaks, quinoa and grilled veggies are brought to our table made of salt. The Alpaca is very good, reminds me of pork chops.

We drive onto the salt flat, stopping at the pyramids of salt, then to the island of flags. Ever since I learned of the salt flats, I yearned to see them. Now I am here. It is VERY IMPRESSIVE! Amazing. Sensory overload. Walking around on the rock-hard crusty rugged ridges and flat hexagons of salt, blinding white to the sight, wind in your ears, horizons shimmering mystifying in the distance, vehicles appearing to float above the surface. It messes with your head. In a good way. We do the silly photos shoot, then move on. Drive and drive. Reach Isla Incahuasi and are given forty-five minutes to climb to the top and back. Very pretty, unique little island with thousands of spiky cacti. The views from the summit are stupendous. The sun is sliding towards the western horizon as we set sail over the salt flats. Miguel takes us to a cave which sits on a rocky cliff, we climb into the cave and settle in to watch the sunset. Thank you Miguel, for the enchanting day.

Leaving the cave, driving across the salt flats, pink skies all around us, the full moon rising in the eastern sky, it is all so surreal. We drive and drive. Darkness is now upon us. Up ahead we see lights twinkling, civilization. We pass a couple of houses, the village of Chuvica, then to our salt hotel. It is cold. The wind whips around the buildings, we hurriedly go inside. Loose salt, a couple of inches thick is the floor. Walls, ceiling, tables, seats, everything is made of salt. We are shown to our rooms. The Thai guy and I share a room, we put our stuff on our beds. Anything you touch will leave salt on you, your clothes, your shoes. You hear constant crunching as people walk around. But, it is surprisingly, not at all cold or chilly in here.

We are informed that while dinner is being prepared, we will go star-gazing. Back out into our SUV, than Miguel takes us back out onto the salt flats. He turns the lights off and drives. So do the other drivers in their SUVs. There is a full moon overhead, the whiteness of the salt flats reflects back the soft light from the moon above us. We park and get out, turning our backs to the moon, so that we can see the stars. Another amazing moment. My roommate has a star map on his cell phone. We look at the stars together.
Then it is back to the salt hotel for an amazing dinner. Quinoa soup with vegetables, then grilled chicken with peppers, plantains and potatoes. So good! Dessert is a dish of  peaches.

Tuesday, April 15- Day two of our salt flat tour. After a wonderful night's sleep, in this salt hotel, everybody is eating breakfast, and jockeying for bathrooms and wash sink privileges. Then we reload our vehicle and off we go. We head for the volcanoes on the Chilean border, we stop close to Volcano Ollague to explore the corridors and canyons of the strange formations beside the road. Then to Laguna Pastos Grandes to see the numerous white flamingoes, stopping at Laguna Capina for a delicious lunch of Chicken Milanese with boiled potatoes and carrots.

After lunch we continued through the Salodore Dali desert to the Arbol de Piedra, with some other very cool rock structures. This was a very pretty area, would have been nice to have more time to climb and explore. This is when shelling out those mucha dineros for a private tour operator would have been awesome.

We continue on and enter the Avaroa National Reserve where we stop and pay our 150 B's admission fees, drive past the Laguna Colorado (our guide informs us we will come back to it tomorrow) and onward climbing in altitude to the Geiser Sol de Manana which sits at almost 16,000 feet. It is extremely windy and cold, I had pictured it a much larger area. It is quite small. We continue on to the very beautiful Laguna Verde and Laguna Blanca. The location of these high Altiplano lakes and the surrounding landscapes are simply astounding. Would have liked to have been able to spend more time here, also, but it is very windy and brutally cold. The green lake is whipped with whitecaps. We head back to Aguas Termales, the hot springs we passed along the way. Everyone but me another guy jump in. I had forgot to pack a swimsuit.

We spent about an hour here, seemed much longer for me since I wasn't one of them having all of the fun in the hot springs. My fault. Miguel has disappeared into the residence sitting across the road, I climb into the SUV along with the guy from Spain and we wait for the others to get dressed and join us. Miguel comes back and we head for our hostal. It is dark by the time we arrive.

Our hostal is a refuge just southeast of Laguna Colorado. The SUVs are lined up and parked next to each other, drivers are unloading their vehicles, we are taken in and shown to our rooms. The rooms are very basic, it is quite cold, so glad I rented that sleeping bag. I didn't need it last night. Tonight I most definitely will! I put more layers on, then go to find the others. The dining area is a big room with tables and chairs, large groups have already arrived, some are playing cards while they await their dinners. We get a table, the Australians produce  a pack of Uno cards and we entertain ourselves while we wait for our meals.

The night before, everyone had scrambled to find what few electrical outlets there were for charging batteries. Amazingly, we all got recharged. Tonight, there are no outlets,  the young lady from Australian seeks out our guide to find a place to recharge her phone, with the local family who live here. Our dinners arrive. Quinoa soup again (very good) and grilled chicken, grilled tomatoes and potatoes. The couple from Spain share their bottle of wine. After dinner we play Uno into the night. At 10 pm, the generator shuts off, our cue to hunt for our beds. Flashlights are searching through dark halls as we use the communal bathrooms and burrow into our beds.

Wednesday, April 16- Day three of our three-day salt flat tour. This morning finds us scrounging for breakfast. We all joke about those eggs we hauled in the back of our SUV...which we never got to eat...breakfast consists of yogurt, bread, coffee or tea and milk. Miguel pops in and tells us to be ready by 9. Doesn't take any of us long to pack, we all just brought small backpacks. We throw our stuff into the vehicle, the drivers are all removing the carpets and heavy blankets or tarps which they all threw over the front end of the jeeps...why? To keep them insulated? To keep them warm? I don't know. It got own to 23 degrees Fahrenheit last night, but that's not cold where I come from. I also remember hearing their motors run till late in the night. Maybe all night long?

We head straight for Laguna Colorado. The red lagoon. It is a beautiful day, the lake is a dark rust colored reddish brown, their are tons of flamingoes and llamas everywhere. Miguel drops us off and points to the bottom end of the lake where we are to be piked up at, then he drives there. It is a wonderful experience, to visualize this and have a lot of time to wander amongst the llamas and take pictures at our own pace. We take our time. The llamas move on ahead of us, we linger by the frosty frozen lake's edge, then eventually head for Miguel.

From there, Miguel heads north. Passing through more desert with glimpses of snow-capped volcanoes on the distant horizon. We are making good time, when we crest a hill and there is a tiny traffic jam caused by an SUV which tried to give more room on the road for the oncoming much larger truck. The SUV pulled off the road and was now snagged on a couple of huge boulders. It was stuck. Everbody bails out of all the vehicles. They rock, push and heave the heavy jeep up and over the boulders. Problem solved. We are all on the way again, heading to Mallku Villamar for lunch.

There are already five other SUVs parked by the road, we park behind them and get out to stretch our legs and walk around, while Miguel gets lunch ready. Then he comes out and waves us in. Seated next to us is the other group whom i met back in Uyuni, using another Quechua Connections guide, next to them is Red Planet. I see the couple whom i shared a taxi  and the bus with, in Potosi. Lunch is served. It is tuna with fresh veggies, cucumbers, tomatoes, shredded carrots and peas. Yummy! I noticed we are all eating the same menu. Even Red Planet.

After lunch, Miguel leaves the pack behind and makes tracks, breaking away from the road and heading deep, into a beautiful red rock canyon.  At some spots, the trail is so narrow that huge boulders almost brush our side mirrors as we pass. Then we are come down into a lush green valley with flowing streams seeping up out of springs. There are llamas everywhere. We are out and walking once again amongst llamas of every color and size. What a tranquil, peaceful place! High red rock canyon walls on both sides of us, pretty pasture in between them. Who would have knew this existed? This was one of my favorite stops on this three-day tour...and it was a very nice surprise! Thanks again, Miguel!
Back on the road, we pass through San Cristobal, pass the unique, pretty thatched-roof church, then we head straight for Uyuni. This journey has been an amazing one! I was a tad bit leery about doing this, not too thrilled about being stuck in a vehicle for hours and days on end, with complete strangers,  but it all went very well! The scenery was mind-blowing. The incredibly huge vastness far away from civilization, except for the times you saw other groups, gave you a feeling of a certain satisfying isolation. Peace. Quietness. Tranquility. You also start to think of the strangers you are traveling with as family.

The meals were amazing! Except for no eggs...haha...still a mystery to me, but not a problem. Seriously, the food was incredible. The lodging was much nicer than I had expected, even the bathrooms were pretty decent. Brushing your teeth next to strangers...not a biggie. Sharing a room with a stranger, not a problem at all. We were all on the same mission, we were all on the same team.

Out of the umpteen tour operators offered in Uyuni, I had decided on Quechua Connections due to their great reviews on Trip advisor. I wanted a safe driver, good food and at a reasonable price. We got all of that. Miguel was awesome! Not very talkative, but he took good care of us. And he was a great cook!

Back in Uyuni by 4pm. It felt SO GOOD to take a long, hot shower! I felt like a new person. Then back to the Revolutionary Minuteman Pizza for a mouth-watering Hawaiian pizza and an ice cold, crisp beer. Say goodbye to the owner Chris, my neighbor from the States, back to my night of luxury, in my gorgeous soft bed with down pillows and duvet.
Cristophe told me my flight to La Paz has been bumped up from 9:40am to 7am, before I went for dinner. I had hand-washed a pair of pants which he offered to hang on his wash line. I collect them and he asks me what I want for a packed breakfast to take with me to the airport? One other thing, had I stayed somewhere else, I never would have known about my flight getting bumped a couple of hours early. (For some reason my email wasn't working down here) Just so happens that Cristophe's wife works at Amaszonas. She told him, he told me. Thank you both very much, for everything!

One more thing I do want to mention, I really enjoyed Uyuni. I had read nothing but bad things about this tiny dusty town. I liked it. Wish I would of had more time to check it out.

Thursday, April 17- Up early for my taxi to the airport. The couple in the next room share the cab ride with me. Uyuni's airport is quite small, but very efficient. Our flight leaves on time and we are in the air, heading for La Paz. Been here a week already, finally getting to La Paz. I am both nervous and excited. So far my means of travel were relatively easy to juggle. La Paz will be a whole new ball game.

I try to talk the couple from Uyuni into sharing a taxi with me, but seems they already have a hotel transfer lined up. Not a big deal. As soon as I walk out of the airport, I pass the hawkers and barkers, then spot an older, more timid taxi driver and asks him how much for a ride to Hostal Sol Andino. 30B's he says. $4. I hop in. My taxi driver is very nice. He understands a little bit of English. I enjoy my taxi ride down into the strikingly beautiful city of La Paz.

My first impression of this massive, metropolitan city is...
A. It appears to be very safe. Reason being...everyone drives around with their windows down. (In Lima, the very first thing they tell you is to put your windows up and lock your doors!!!)
B. The drivers have a lot of patience with all other drivers. There is no angry hand signs, no horns blowing! No signs of road rage.
C. It is very clean.
D. Everybody appears relaxed and happy. I ask myself, am I still on planet earth?

We come upon a huge street market, roads are blocked, vendors have taken over the street corners, crowds crawl slowly across intersections. Still, my taxi driver is very placid. I notice another thing about La Paz. Pedestrians have the right of way, everywhere. They walk in front of busses, in front of trucks, in front of cars...anything, without any fear whatsoever. My driver pulls over and tells me my hotel is down that street and around the corner. He can't take me there, the street in under construction. He drops me off and I find it without any problem. The street is all torn up, I step over cement blocks and dirt piles and let myself into the lobby.

The staff at the front desk are full of smiles and very friendly. They also speak English. I am taken to my room, which is on the second floor. I am once again gasping for breath by the time I reach the first landing. One more flight of stairs to go, then I am inside. What a pretty room! Lovely hand painted murals on the walls, great bed with lots of pillows ranging from firm to soft, and ample electrical outlets, cute bathroom. The door I will have to slam every time I come and go, to get it to shut properly, but as far as I can tell, I am the only one on this side of the wing. Not a problem.

It is still chilly out when I set off on foot, to find Assisted Gravity's office, located on 16 de Julio. Well, I am up and down that highway's sidewalk, looking and looking. Finally it dawns on me that I am on the wrong side of the highway. I cross over and find it almost immediately. Hey, nobody ever said that I was a genius! I walk into their office and speak to Daniela whom I had spoke to via emails. She signs me up for both the Death Road and Flying Fox zip-line, for Sunday morning. She takes all my information, when she finds out where I am from she laughingly tells me where she grew up. Which is 10 minutes from where I live. Her mom still lives there. She is Bolivian, her family moved to the US when she was just a child. She moved back to Bolivia just recently. Small world.

Daniela has told me about the Red Caps tour, which she highly recommends. It is free, last about three hours. I have just enough time to grab a quick lunch at the Star of India, suggested by Daniela also, located on Called Cochabamba. Awesome lunch, for 35Bs. $5. Included a vegetarian soup, a curry main course and  a dessert! I will definitely be back!
I am at the plaza by the San Pedro prison by 2. Nobody here but gringos. I have to laugh. The two red caps show up, two highly entertaining and extremely animated sisters who give us an incredible, fascinating tour of fun facts, politics, scams and scandals along with the history of Bolivia. We cover a lot of ground, on foot. A thunderstorm rolls through La  Paz, we seek cover from the scattered showers underneath crowded canopies, balconies, market places, whatever refuge we can find. The three hours go by fast. Another best of Bolivia!

After the tour I head back to my room for warmer clothes, then to do some shopping on Linares street, stop by the Cafe Illampu, a Swiss place for coca tea and chocolate cake. Mosey on back to my room. I love La Paz. Feel completely at ease here.

Good Friday, April 18- Slept like a newborn baby last night. Up and hungry. The breakfast buffet is very filling; quinoa, cereal, fresh fruit, breads, yogurt, juice, milk, coffee, tea and eggs.:-)   My hunger sated, I sign up for the Chacaltaya/Valley de Luna trip for tomorrow, at the tour guide's desk in our lobby. Now, I got the entire day to myself.

Since it is Good Friday, I figure the best place to start will be at the cathedral. Just a couple of blocks down the street. The plaza and the alleyways are packed with people. People everywhere.  I leave the busy plaza and cross over the main highway and head up the hill, thinking I will eventually get to the park. A young lady hands me her camera and ask me to take her picture. She is traveling alone. I do. We set off together up the street, she is from Chile. A very stylish, nicely dressed man approaches us. Asks us if we are turistas? We tell him yes. He then asks us if we have a few moments and reaches for his blazer pocket. I am thinking he is going to give us his calling card and a sales pitch. Instead, he pulls out his wallet and shows us his "official tourist police" card. He then says he needs to see our passports. Well, way off in the distance in my foggy memory a far away bell rings. I am thinking, wait...I read about this somewhere, but I can't remember which country this pertains to....meanwhile, my little Chilean Amiga has already handed over her passport. He snaps his fingers and points to me. Which doesn't go over well at all with me. He asks again, more persistently. I am getting angry. I begrudgedly hand mine to him. "Ah, Americano " he says. Then he tells us that we must come with him, he has to write down all our information. By this time I have five-alarm bells ringing in my head. I tell him "no, absolutely not, I want my passport back, give it to me!" He seems startled. 'Give it back, now!' I grab it out of his hand. The little Chilean gal looks at me all aghast. I tell her "you take yours ,too! Take it, now" she does. He immediately disappears down the street. The young lady asks me what just happened? I tell her about the "fake tourist police" scam. She says "you think he was a fake?" I tell her "I don't know, but something didn't feel right!" I then tell her to never ever giver her passport to anyone, ever! She thanks me. We part ways.

Only now as I am writing this, it occurred to me that she might have been part of the scam. Both he and she seemed afraid of me, when I got mad. She didn't hang around long after he left...and her passport was red. Chilean passports are blue. What do you all think? Me thinks she was Bolivian too....

I am still angry and a bit shaken as I get lost in this part of the neighborhood.  In my mind, I imagine running into him later, kicking him in the shins and punching him. I am still mad as I head for the park. Stop to take pictures, gaze out over the highways, then I head back to more familiar stumping grounds.  Stop by La Cueva, a Mexican cafe, for lunch. Ordered the chili, which is served in a big fried tortilla shell, comes with rice and beans and awesome guacamole!

Another thunderstorm has rolled in, along with a light rain. I head back to my hotel to rest and check my Lonely Planet Bolivia guidebook. Yep. There it is under 'scams and annoyances.'  Beware of the fake tourists policia. Don't know if I am more angry at him or myself.
Three pm and I hear trumpets, drums, singing. A marching band. A parade. I follow the commotion. They haven't gotten very far. It is a Good Friday Procession. I walk along with them, then head for my favorite streets for shopping. Stop at The Steakhouse on Calle Tarija. Order a glass of wine and my waiter tells me that no alcohol is allowed to be served, on Good Friday. I look around me. Everybody is drinking coke. I ordered the Tenderloin and Grilled Shrimp. It was excellent. Lovely atmosphere, pretty place. I end my evening with more shopping along the way back to my hotel. Tomorrow, Chacaltaya!

Saturday, April 19-Asked for a 5:30 wake up call. Knock on my door. Good on their part, but I was already up and getting dressed. Downstairs and waiting for my 6 am pick-up. Lady comes and collects me, walk down the street and board a bus. We go around town, picking up other people, than we head to a higher portion of La Paz where we stop at a little tienda for snacks and drinks to take with us. I buy a Red Bull and some toilet paper. Never can have too much toilet paper, when traveling....

Another bus pulls up and we are divided up, some of us are going to Chacaltaya, some to Copacabana. Off we go, climbing up and unto the Altiplano. Took us about forty-five minutes to climb out of La Paz. The big bus chugs and bounces on it's way. I can see Illimani grandly sitting on the southern horizon, we continue to ascend. By now I am pretty well acclimated. I haven't noticed any problem with breathing. Was told that out must be acclimated to do this climb. I am ready!

The road is a winding one, hairpin turn after hairpin turn, we are finally here! We all get out. It is cold and damp. Scarves, hat and gloves appear. Everyone bundles up. Our guide tells us to take it slow. If we get dizzy, sit down. If you don't feel better after resting, you have to descend! Off we go, one at a time, single file, up the mountain. A few turn back. I keep going. A man from Brazil is having a hard time of it. He sits down a lot. I rest beside him. He tells me he must do this! I leave him behind and keep going. Getting to the ice and snow part, I stop.  Am thinking I can probably make it up, but how am I coming down off this snow without slipping. The Brazilian shows up and keeps going. I stand there debating with myself when two young women are coming back down and hesitate at the snow and ice. One sits down and slides very nicely down on her butt. The other follows, shrieking with joy. Well now, that look like fun. And that folks, is how I will come down.

I slowly climb up and over the snowy ice part and then I am on the summit!! 5,421 meters. Or 17,785 feet! The highest I have over stood, on planet earth! What a rush! Once the rush wears off, what a view!! You can continue your climb and descend a bit to ascend the next peak, but I am afraid I will run out of time, since others are already starting to come back down.

I turn and look back down on Paqu Quta, the mountain where the Chacaltaya refuge sits, on the extreme edge, at 15,312 feet. This is one of he most thrilling things I have ever done, along with the climb to Laguna Churup, in Peru. I take many selfies. :-)  Then back down to the snowy part, where other people are now hesitatng. Sitting down on my behind, I now can show them how it is done. A couple of women soon follow.

Back on the bus and headed for the southern part of La Paz, the Valle de Luna, or the Valley of the Moon. It is much nicer than I had anticipated. Beautiful easy stroll through strange rock formations, crossing chasms and deep drops, stunning views of La Paz and way across the Altiplano you can see Chacaltaya. I stood on that summit. :-)  Bolivia is amazing!

Dropped off at my hotel, in to change and then back to La Cueva for dinner. Tomorrow, the Death Road!

Bolivia (part two)

Sunday, April 20-  Never got my wake up call as promised, but fortunately for me, my nervous state of mind woke me up before 6. Taxi picked me up to take me to Oliver's, my taxi driver was confused and took me to the English Pub instead. This is where I am ashamed to say, I became the ugly American tourist. It was all my fault, too. I had the wrong street address and my taxi driver kept going around and around, I angrily insisted that he let me out, paid him and stumped off on foot.

I asked the first person I met on the street, she directed me down the next block. I realized my mistake. Felt terrible for getting so mad at my nice taxi driver. I am now heading that direction when here comes my taxi driver in his taxi and he tells me to get back in. He insists on delivering me to my intended destination. I am so ashamed. Get in. Tell him "lo siento." He grins and shakes my hand. And then...he backs up an entire block (it is a one-way street, and there is no traffic at this hour) to Oliver's, where he gladly points. I feel like a total jerk. After treating him the way I did and stomping off, he still hunted me down and made sure I got to my destination. THAT blew my mind.  His boundless kindness completely humbled me. What an awesome person!

Due to my own stupidity, I missed breakfast at Oliver's. The bikes were already loaded, I threw my backpacks into the bus, since I will be staying in Coroico, then we all got in and were on our way to La Cumba, where our starting point is. Moe keeps us highly entertained with stories of the Death Road and what we are to expect. Before we know it, we have arrived.

La Cumbre sits at 15,400 feet. We pull off at a parking area along the road. You can't see anything. Dense fog. We are inside the clouds. Fog and mist. Chilly. We layer up our clothes, then don the rugged pants, which are all but impossible to pull over shoes, should have taken the shoes off first, but now they are stuck. Tug, tug, pull...finally get them on. Then the jacket. We all line up, pictures are taken, Bolivian moonshine is sipped and tires are doused, then we are Off! All downhill from here on out.

Single file, just as we were taught. The mists start to lift. The valley we cross is beautiful below us! Then we stop and it is one last huddle and banos break at the drug checkpoint just before we turn onto the gravel "death road" of Bolivia. More instructions and repeated stern warnings. What to do, what not to do and what you really, really don't want to do!  Here we go!

The road is extremely bumpy, lots of rocks and pot holes. The edge lies only a few feet beside me, there where the fog envelopes the sidelines. Just ignore it and stay focused, I tell myself. Watch out for the rocks and big clumps of dirt, and the pot holes. They can throw you. As the mist melts away, the views are stunning, but you can't look. Have to stay focused. I stop at one point to take pictures. Our guide in the rear position chews me out, tells me we will stop for pictures farther down the road.  An hour later we stop for pictures , drinks and snacks. Some more instructions, then back on the bikes.

The bumpy road is a rampant bone-shaker. My butt hurts. The muscles in my forearms and hands ache. Forty-five minutes later, we stop for water. Most of us start peeling off the layers. It is quite warm and getting humid. We take a few minutes and enjoy the views. Lots of waterfalls in this next couple of kilometers. We are told we will get soaking wet. Suits me just fine.

We pass under the cascadas, now listening for the warning beeping horn and watching for oncoming traffic. Yes, people still drive this. We make one last group huddle, just before the last hairpin curve which includes a rather large waterfall with puddle. Told to pick up speed and never let up upon hitting the water. One by one we make our approach, gunning it just before when we hit the deep puddle. I make it through. There is a local family in their van doing laundry by the waterfalls. We are their entertainment.

It is one last stop at the edge of the cliff, across the valley from the pretty town of Coroico. From here on out it levels off, with even some slight uphill grade. I am extremely tired and will be glad when this ride is over. It is now quite hot. The road is very dry and dusty. Our throats are parched. A couple of other groups have stopped also. There is a huge water cooler on a picnic table. We help ourselves, then it is back on the bikes to the end of death road.

Yea! We made it. We are in the tiny village of La Senda. Sitting at a table, out come ice cold beers. Quite refreshing. Talk is of thirsty throats and tired muscles.  And the rough, rugged road behind us. When I had paid for this ride at Gravity-Assisted's office in La Paz, I had bought the combo package, which also includes the Flying Fox zip line experience. Which is what we are doing next. A couple of others decide to join me on this little adventure. Like I mentioned earlier, I am beat. Thinking it would be nice to just sit here and have another beer, but it is into the back of a pickup truck and we return to death road, this time going up.

It is only a couple of kilometers and then we hike up the mountain to where the first platform is. I zip-lined in Mexico and Honduras and loved it, now my weariness is fading away and the adrenalin is pumping. The first ride across the vast valley is fast and furious! The others have loosened up and are now enjoying this immensely. It is their first time and by the grins on their faces, well, they are loving it! A couple of more platforms and lines, than we return to the pickup truck and drive back to join those who chose to stay behind.

Next stop is La Senda Verde Animal Refuge, where we have lunch. It is a buffet lunch, we eat until we are stuffed. Afterwards, I wander around the animal refuge while I wait for my taxi to take me to Coroico. Clouds have moved in and it starts to rain.

My taxi ride to Coroico is included in my arrangement with Gravity-Assisted. He is a young man who is a careful driver, we make our way up the dirt road out of the valley and into Coroico. There is a huge traffic jam in this tiny little town. Big busses and trucks clog up the intersection, we wait patiently for our turn to slip through.

The street we need to take to get me to my hotel, Sol y Luna Ecolodge is pretty steep and with the recent rain, apparently rather slick. My driver keeps slipping and backs down. Makes another run for it. More slipping and sliding. Backs back down. Another try. Tires are spinning, going nowhere. He turns and tells me something, all I can make out is quatro and then he makes motions of spinning with his hands.

He puts it in reverse and we go back to the little plaza. Where I am handed off to another driver who has a four-wheel drive SUV. I am shortly delivered to my lovely hotel, which sits above town, in the lush forest overlooking the valley I just came through.

I am shown to my cabana Alaya, which happens to be the highest one on top of the hill. The path up zigzags it way through the wet tropical greenery. The young man who is carrying my largest backpack strides on ahead, I am struggling to catch up to his flashlight beam. The ground is slippery and tricky.

We get to the adorable cabana, he turns on the lights and shows me the outside shower and bathroom, then gives me the key and disappears down the path, into the pitch-blackness of the night. Nothing but the sounds of buzzing insects. This place is amazing!
I scope out my new digs. What a cute cabana. The windowed wall, the width of the room at the foot of my bed, promises for a great view tomorrow. I head back down the path with my trusty little flashlight to the hotel restaurant. Dinner is a delicious Pesto Alfredo Fettuccini with a glass of Bolivian Red, web surfing with the hotel’s free wifi, then back up the path to my lovely cabana.

I spot a huge hairy spider in my flashlight beam and gingerly step past it. Glad it is out here and not in my room.

Back in my cabana and all tucked in for the night, reach to turn off my light when out of the corner of my eye I see something scamper across the floor. It is one of those huge hairy spiders. Well…there will be no sleeping tonight, till it is out of my room.

I grab a plastic pitcher from my kitchen counter and carefully approach the corner and the hassock where I saw it scurry behind. A slight push of the hassock and I see it. Now, with my heart a-pounding, I place the pitcher in front of the spider and wave my hand behind it. It works! In the pitcher it goes. It is made of clear plastic so I watch it carefully as I take it outside and give it a toss into the night. Come back in and close the door. And then I have to laugh. The door has an inch gap under it, beckoning to all the wee little wonders of the world outside. I quickly crawl in bed and turn out the light.

Monday, April 21- I survived the night. Wake up and lift my head up off of my pillow to a spectacular view. The morning fog is slowly lifting and breaking up, over the Oriente mountain range. Past them you can see a couple of snow-capped mountains peaking over the various mist-enshrouded forested ridges on the horizon. In the foreground of this beautiful setting are lush tropical plants and brilliant blooms of bougainvillea. I hate to leave all of this, but I am hungry and breakfast is being served down over the hill at the little restaurant, below my cabana.

I wander on down the trail to the lobby and restaurant below. I find a lovely little table; pretty tablecloth, fresh-cut flowers for the centerpiece, sit down and order my breakfast. While breakfast is being prepared, I check out the lovely setting and all the fragrant flowers spilling over into the patio. Hummingbirds flash by, buzzing around the succulent flora. This place is so peaceful and quiet, would be a perfect place for someone or a couple seeking solitude. Hint, hint to all you romantic lovers.:-)

It is while I am reading my emails in the lobby, that I first meet Tom and Sharon from the UK, who just arrived and are getting checked in. Happy to meet somebody who speaks English,  we talk for awhile and I mention the hike to the waterfalls, which they too are interested in doing.  We agree on meeting back here at 11 am to set off on our little adventure.

We are told the hike to all three waterfalls and back will take 5-6 hours. Got our swimsuits, towels, water bottles in our backpacks and off we go. The dirt road is easy to follow. We pass plenty of fields and forests, come to a fork in the road, stop and ask two ladies who are resting from their fieldwork, they point us to the road we need and eventually get o the first falls. There are some children swimming in this falls, kind of crowded, so we head on to the next one.

We are getting hot and tired when we see a van hauling school children approaching us. I hold out my hand and he stops. We ask for a ride to the cascada, the grande cascada. He nods and we pile in. The boys are all amazed to have three tourists sharing their ride and they all giggle and laugh and hide their faces. The little guy beside me shyly makes eye contact with me. I smile and say "hola", that breaks the ice and soon they are all excitedly chattering away, pointing at the landscapes and telling us who knows what. They were all quite entertaining, but we have reached our destination and are dropped off. The boys are now emboldened and all wave goodbye frantically to us as they continue on their way.

The lady at the entrance to the waterfalls asks us for the small fee which it costs to get in. Tom and Sharon pay her. I don't have the correct amount and we deduce that she is telling us that she will have my change when we come back. It doesn't matter, it is only a a few coins, I forget how much. We climb the steps of the path up to the waterfalls.  A family is just finishing their swim and leave. We have the place to ourselves.

There is a changing room, it is dark inside and you can't see a thing, but once properly attired, Tom and I jump in. It takes your breath away. It is that cold. I swim over to the rock wall by the falls, but the rocks are extremely sharp. After awhile, our bodies get used to the frigid water and find it quite refreshing.

Change into our dry clothes and head back down the trail to the road when the lady I had paid comes running out after me with the exact change in her hand. Oh my, I had forgotten about that. Then I spot a toilet and notice that it takes the exact amount she had just given me, so I pay her for the toilet paper and use the toilet. This way she gets to keep the money. The people are so nice here. So sweet and eager to assist you in every way. Their constant kindness blows me away.

We stop by the second waterfalls which we passed by earlier in the van full of school kids. Climb the stairs and take a look around. This one is packed with teenagers. Head back down to the road and back to Coroico. We pick up two very friendly stray dogs along the way. One is a big beautiful German Shepherd, the other guy is a handsome Yellow Lab. They attach themselves to us, keeping pace right beside us. Can't help but marvel at how friendly the local dogs are here in Bolivia. During my different trips to Peru, all the local dogs I came across in the rural areas and the countryside were downright vicious creatures. You always had to walk with a stick or be prepared to pretend you were picking up a rock to hurl at them.  Here, every single dog I met was sweet-natured and docile. Makes you wonder why?

Somewhere along the road, we lose the German Shepherd. The Yellow Lab stays with us. We somehow managed to miss our road and end up in a little village. We ask a young lady who has a little food stand for directions back to the road we need. Tom shows her the little hand-drawn map he has. She tells us to take the steps leading up past the school, continue on up the hill which will bring us out to the road we want.

We pass the very impressive school, who would have thought in this tiny town?, up the hill and into a field of tall grass when we notice the dog has disappeared. We also lost our trail. I wander over to my left and find the trail hidden in between tall shrubs, bushes and brambles and there in the middle of the trail sits the dog. Waiting on us. We follow the dog who takes us up to the road and back to our lodge.

I go up to my cabana to get some money for dinner, with every intention of sharing some with the dog, who has now disappeared, for good.

Off to bed. Tomorrow, Tom, Sharon and I are taking a shuttle van back to La Paz.   
Tuesday, April 22- Packed last night, so it’s down to enjoy a scrumptious breakfast with Tom and Sharon, then hand in my borrowed flashlight for my B50 deposit. Then in a taxi back to the bus station in Coroico where we wait around for about twenty minutes till the shuttle van is full, then back on the road to La Paz. It is a four hour ride to La Paz. We take a shared taxi to my hotel, Hostal Sol Andino. Tom and Sharon get a room there also.

We make plans for dinner. At Star of India, where I had such a fabulous lunch last Thursday. Just so happens that the two Brits are huge fans of Indian food. We stop for cash at an ATM and happily head off for the restaurant. The curries are amazing, the Naan bread is delicious. We order a very nice bottle of red. And enjoy a leisurely delightful dinner shared between new friends.

After our scrumptious dinner, we stroll down through the witches' market,  and then back to our hostal. Tomorrow, I am leaving for Copacabana.

Wednesday, April 23- Got a 7:30 am departure to Copacabana on the tourist bus. It is a nice smooth four hour ride to Copacabana. I have the first seat directly behind the driver. Actually, I have the whole row to myself. Totally enjoy this ride. We stop for a banos break where we have to scoop a bucket of water out of a much larger bucket of water, to pour into the toilet tank for flushing. The larger bucket has to be replenished with water from a hose. I have to think of the fire brigade of olden days. Makes me smile. Nobody complains.

We pull into Copacabana around 11:30.  I get a taxi to my beautiful hotel, Las Olas. I climb the stairs to the locked door and push the button for the bell. Nothing happens. Ring the buzzer again. Still nothing. Knock loudly. Nothing. Bang on the door harder. Finally give up and walk down around to where the new construction is going on for the hotel, where one dear man walks me over and around all the construction and up the hill to the hotel office.

I am shown to my little cabana. It is adorable!! It is a two story suite, with astonishing views of Lake Titicaca. Cute, cute bathroom, kitchenette, sitting area with chimnea and a basket of firewood. And a wall of glass facing that brilliant, blindingly blue lake. Upstairs is a bed, hammock, and more incredible views of the water. I am a happy girl.

Get settled in and then go in search for lunch. Trip advisor says that the restaurant next door at the La Cupola, sister hotel, has awesome food. Cute little hotel with the restaurant upstairs. I get a table outside. Much to my utter surprise and delight, they have Gruyere Cheese Fondue on the menu! OH MY! Of course, I order it. IT is to die for. Served with quinoa, veggies, potatoes, pickles and bread cubes. I have enough left over for dinner which I take back to my cabana.

Take a nice nap in the hammock in the yard. Sun is warm and welcoming. Out and about exploring this cute little town. By 4:30 I start up the hill to El Calvario. Takes me about 45 minutes to climb to the top. It is a strenuous climb, passing all the stations of the cross along the way. The view from the top is stupendous. I find a good spot to sit, settle in and wait for the sunset. There are just a handful of people scattered around on the rocks. One guy is softly strumming his guitar and singing. The sun slowly sinks into the horizon.

When I stand up to leave and turn around I am shocked to see a rather large congregation of people who had arrived and spread out, behind me. Never heard them show up. Everybody smiles at each other as we scramble over rocks and boulders and make our way back down off the mountain. It is a quiet procession back into town.

Back in my cabana for the night, ate my leftover lunch, made a pot of hot coca tea with chamomile, started a fire and spent the night warming my feet by the fire, sipping on tea and watching the stars.

Thursday, April 24-  I had every intention of catching the 8:30 launcha to Isla del Sol, but the sky looked swollen and bruised, the weather threatening. I went to La Cupola for breakfast instead. Two hours later, the sky was cloudless and that perfect shade of blue. I took a nice, easy walk heading north around the lake's shore, then back to change into cooler clothes, it has gotten very warm.

Last evening, up on El Calvario, I had seen hikers on the opposite mountain and that is where I am now headed. The street past the cathedral takes you back to where you find the trail up to the "Horns of the Inca." I stop and buy a Red Bull at one of the vendors and then pay the small price to the little girl guarding the trail, and up I go. Lots of steps at first which then disappear in the layers of fascination formations of rocks and huge boulders. I climb the whole way up to the top. It is an amazing view! The wind buffets me and cools me off up here. What an awesome climb! And best of all, I am the only one here.

Making my way back down, I lose my trail. Then up over the rocks and into my view come two dogs. Happy dogs, smiling and wagging there tails. Then they turn and disappear. I walk over to where I saw them and there is the trail I needed! Hmm. I see one of the dogs again and follow it back down.

Sometimes I do believe that dogs are guardian angels. I had another interesting guardian angel dog show up for me, years ago in Guatemala. The little black dog walked, bounced, played with me along a dark street in Panajachel, the whole way back to my hotel. When I got to my hotel, I reached down to pet it and it wasn't there. It was gone.

But, anyway, made it back down off the mountain, then stopped by La Cupola for dinner, a very good steak dinner, by the way. Wandered round town, then watched the sunset from my own little front yard. Another warm fire. Hot tea and a wonderful bed facing a sky of blazing stars across the black still waters below.

Friday, April 25- Today I got the 1 PM bus back to La Paz. Checked out and luggage stowed in the lobby. Breakfast at La Cupola. Enjoying my delicious meal outside on the patio when I look down and see Tom coming out of a bungalow below me. He happens to glance up and see me. Says they just got here, spending two nights here before they head up to Peru. Tells me they did the "red hat tour" in La Paz and loved it. I highly urge anybody passing through La Paz, if you can squeeze this tour in, by all means do it! It is free, last three hours and it is very fascinating and informative!

Time to leave Copacabana and the beautiful lake. I walk down to the plaza where all the busses converge. Show them my ticket and I am directed to my bus. This isn't the tourist bus, this is the public bus which explains why I am told it will be a six hour ride. Sigh. Get in the already crowded bus and take the front seat, where the front row is still empty, much to my surprise. A cholita is her tall bowler hat and ruffled petticoats climbs in and takes the seat next to me. She smiles, revealing her gold-capped teeth. We are contented companions on the long haul, her leaning across me at each stop and watching the driver and his tout help the local passengers load and unload their cargo at every stop we make along the way. Since she is so concerned, I do the same, making sure my backpack doesn't disappear ...

We finally arrive in La Paz, at the cemetery. I flag a taxi down and for 30B's he takes me back to Hostal Sol Andino. I am spending a couple of hours here, hopefully get some sleep before I head for the airport for my flight back home. One last meal at La Cueva, then off to bed. My hostal has arranged a private taxi ride for me for 2 AM.

Saturday, April 26- The taxi back to the airport was nice, a personal car with a husband and wife team. Saw a lot of drunks stumbling around the dark, isolated streets. The wife kept shaking her head every time we saw one. Sad.

Arrived at the airport to find a very long line of people waiting to get through immigration. I would say it took me an hour to get through, paid my departure tax of $25USD, then got in line to go through screening. Passed without a problem, now standing in another line for customs. Each and every bag is hand-searched. People are selected at random to be searched. I had checked my big backpack, so happily it doesn't take me very long. One more screening process and I am finally through!

Please give yourself ample time at the airport, for international departures. The whole process is very time-consuming, nerve-racking and tedious.

My 4:30 AM Avianca flight is on time, passing through Bogota on the way home with an hour layover, just enough time to buy a lot of coffee in the Juan Valdez gift shop. Colombia looks beautiful! Make a mental note to plan a trip here, maybe next February.

I really, really enjoyed Bolivia. The people were amazing! Found everyone I met, with the exception of the "Bolivian Tourist Policeman" and his accomplice, to be extremely helpful, honest and kind.  The landscapes were surreal, food was excellent (I never got sick once) and the places I stayed were beautiful. I was surprised to find how many people spoke English. I never liked big cities, but La Paz was awesome! I would of had loved to have more time to spend at Lake Titicaca. Seeing the islands and spending a couple of days on the islands would have been nice. Maybe next time.

Switzerland 2013

Wednesday, August 29: Red-eye from Dulles to Heathrow, barely made my connection to Geneva after circling above Heathrow for 20 minutes. Finally board my Geneva flight and sit back to watch the white cliffs of Dover fade away below us, then we pass directly over Paris, eventually arriving into beautiful Switzerland. I make my way from the airport to the train station , buy my half fare Swiss card and then my ticket to Zermatt. Next train leaves in twenty minutes, great timing!

The ride around Lake Geneva is amazing and goes fast, then we head south to Zermatt. I only have one connection, I am nervous but it goes well. Now I can sit back and finally relax and watch the magnificent scenery pass by. We get into Zermatt at 7 PM. I find my hotel, Hotel Alpina, very easily, Zermatt isn't that big. Check in, pay, ask the lady at the desk for a wake-up call for 5AM. She produces a tiny little alarm clock and hands it to me. I take it with me upstairs to my room. The room is quite cute, albeit very small, but it has everything I need. Balcony with a view of the Matterhorn, wash sink, lots of white fluffy towels, down duvet, awesome mattress, soft pillows, and now my little alarm clock which works like a charm. (I had to test it out) since I am taking the train to Gornergrat tomorrow morning for a sunrise summit breakfast.

I stop by the front desk to ask for suggestions for dinner. She writes down the name of a couple of different restaurants, first one looks extremely pricey, the next one, Cafe du Point, looks just right. I go inside. Every table is taken. I am shown to a table where the people are preparing to leave. I order a glass of red and the cheese fondue. A basket of brown bread cut into cubes, a plate of potatoes and pickles arrive, then the bubbling caldron of cheese. It is WONDERFUL. I have to say, this is the first time I ever had cheese fondue. It is so good, I am looking forward to all my meals already, here in Switzerland.

After dinner, I stroll around the tiny town, checking out the shops. I am looking for a Swiss watch, since my old Bulova's battery keeps dying. Then it is off to bed for my early start tomorrow.

Thursday, August 30: Woke up on my own ahead of my nifty little alarm clock. Dressed and at the train station for Gornergrat by 5:15. A group of Japanese tourists are already there, I join in and we get a tickets punched and board the train. It is a cog rail, so is goes slow. As the darkness creeps away, and the pale dawn arises, I see the snowy white Matterhorn jutting above, then we are higher than the cloud cover which hovers above the valley.

An announcement is made which I can't understand, we stop at Rotenboden and few of us get off the train. I am excitedly taking pictures of the Matterhorn and turn to see the train is now leaving. Heading on up the mountain. I catch a glimpse of a couple of people who are hiking down over the ridge, I figure that I have to start climbing if I want to make it t the summit in time for my breakfast. I cross the train tracks and set off on foot, up the trail towards the Gornergrat, which I can see way up ahead.

I am getting closer when another cog train goes clacking up by me. I wave to the people. Nobody sees me. On and on I go. The climb is exhilarating and breathtaking, both literally and figuratively. Probably the best mistake I make on this trip. By the time I get to the top, the sun has crested the horizon . It is a brilliant blue sky kind of a day. I enter the Gornergrat and go upstairs, expecting to have missed my summit breakfast buffet, but much to my delight, it is still going on and I am seated in front of the woman who introduces herself as our guide. She asks me where I came from? I tell her USA. She laughs and says "no, I meant how did you get here. I didn't see you on the train." I explain to her how I missed the train and had to climb up. She finds that amusing, and by now, so do I.

The breakfast buffet is quite filling. And I was starving. After talking to our guide, I learn that only a handful of us are doing the alpine hike. Which consists of getting off the descending train at Rotenboden and hiking back down to Zermatt. Cool. That means I can technically say, I hiked the whole thing. We got off the train at Rotenboden, hiked to Riffelalp, which was an amazing, easy downhill hike, although it was marked red, and then at Riffelalp we finished with options to continue on our own or take the train to Zermatt. I took the train. My toes were killing me.

After changing socks and shoes, and still feeling my adrenalin rush, I stop by the front desk. The lady tells me about Z'mutt, an easy hour hike which promises to be kind to my toes.

Z'mutt is a charming, rustic little 400 year-old village which straddles a gorgeous, scenic valley just south of Zermatt. Offers a couple of tiny cafes. I stop for a glass of Cabernet . Pleasant hike back with a nice gentle slope in the trail, not too strenuous, doesn't hurt my tender toes. Then it is back to Cafe du Pont for Rosti; a wonderful hash browns and sausage Swiss casserole. More shopping, I buy a little cow backpack for my granddaughter. Stroll all around town, checking out the streets and views of the Matterhorn. Wish I would have planned on more time here.

Friday, August 31: Up by 7 for a lip-smacking good breakfast buffet, then a quick run to that little shop I saw, to buy that Swiss Wenger watch I had my eye on, back to grab my backpacks and on the train to Wengen by 9:20 AM. Still don't have the hang of buying train tickets, it was a close call. The train ride to Interlakken was nice, the connections were nerve-wracking. I had never traveled by train before, except on PeruRail and that was just from point A to point B, not a lot of different connections. I noticed people looked at their watches to ascertain of their connections. The times are exact. The schedules are precise. If your train leaves at 10:01, it will leave at 10:01. Not one minute before, not one minute after.

My second mistake cost me an hour. I got off at Interlakken West instead of Interlakken East. I had read of numerous other people doing this, during all my research and after reading all their accounts, I do the exact same thing. So, I had to wait twenty minutes till the next train, then another forty minutes at Interlakken East for my correct train to Lauterbrunnen. I got to meet a very nice Japanese couple while we waited. Probably the friendliest people I would get to meet on this trip, with the exception of Sarah Tadman and her friends.

Once on the train to Lauterbrunnen, making sure we were in the correct portion of the train, since it breaks in two and splits, we were on our way. I have to say that the first glimpse I got of the valley leading into Lauterbrunnen, with the sheer mountain cliffs on both sides was the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my whole life! From the looks on the other people's faces, I imagined they were thinking the same.

The trains are timed just right. As I was getting off of Lauterbrunnen's train, the mountain cog rail to Wengen was just pulling up. It was a hop, a skip and a jump and I was on the train to Wengen. The fifteen minute ride up the mountain now offered me another of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen in my life. If anyone is planning a trip to Switzerland, you absolutely HAVE to come to Wengen! I have been to a lot of different countries, seen a lot of amazing things in this world, but the views here are just indescribably stunning!

i found the path which leads to the Berghaus Hotel. It meandered past a pretty little green pasture, through the street lined with stained brown chalets which were now blazingly bright in the late afternoon sun, past the cheese shops, past the little mountain church and up the steps to the Berghaus. What an adorable hotel! Stayed here for six nights and didn't want to leave. The family who runs this gorgeous mountain house is extremely accommodating and always on hand, ready to assist your every need or request. The hotel is simply beautiful with the best views in Wengen, with exception of the gondola, of course, which passes overhead.

I had a south view room with a lovely balcony which offers the tranquil scenes of the small village, surrounded by all those magnificent snow-capped mountains and the valley far below. One can never ever grow tired of that phenomenal view. Since I arrived in the late afternoon, not much time to do anything else, except to explore the tiny village of Wengen and stop for dinner at Da Sina Pizzaria. The pizza was excellent, topped it off with some type of delicious cappuccino mousse dessert. The shops all closed at 6 pm, not much else to do after dinner but more strolling.

Saturday, September 1: Delicious breakfast buffet, then walked down the path just a few minutes away to take the gondola to Mannlichen. Awesome views via the gondola, hopped off and took the trail which is an easy paved stroll to Kleine Sheidegg. More amazing views. When I started on the trail, it was so misty you couldn't see anything, about twenty minutes later the sun broke through and you could see the magnificent snow-covered Eiger, Monch and Jungfau. Another twenty minutes later and I was buying my ticket on the train to Jungfraujoch.

The Jungraujoch train stops twice as it burrows it way through the mountain and glacier, allowing you time to get out, stretch your legs and take photos from the windows carved into the mountain side. Then it is one more leg and you are at the top, passing through the cafeteria as you make your way up the steps and out unto the snow mass and icy summit at the Top of Europe! It was a crystal clear day, the views of the massive glacier were stupendous! Such an incredible feat, this engineering masterpiece and accomplishment to tunnel through the mountain to the top!

After exploring the mountain summit, I went through the Ice Palace, which was another sight to behold, tunnels through ice, inside the glacier. You had to shuffle and slide your feet, gliding cautiously along the route, in the slick frozen land of ice.

What an adventure! Well worth the small fortune it cost to get here. I took the train back to Kleine Sheidegg, got off and took the pretty trail back to Wengenwald, which passes through sloping pastures with contented cows, surrounded by more of the magestic mountains. Took the train from Wengenwald back to Wengen.

Dinner at the Berneshof restaurant for delicious Raclette. Which is a huge block of Raclette cheese place under a miniature electric broiler which is brought to your table and you broil the cheese yourself, scraping the delectable dripping concoction onto your plate with boiled potatoes and pickles. In this land of cheeses, it does not take much to keep me happy! Cheese and chocolate. What more could you possibly wish for?

Another hike around town, window-shopping, then stopped by the little church to check out the service times, back to my hotel for a blissful night's sleep.

Sunday, September 2: Up early, bountiful breakfast, then went next door to the Church of England, which advertised that they speak English here. Cute little mountain chapel, excellent service which kept my interest, communion and then an invite back to my hotel where a bunch of ladies always meet afterwards for coffee on the patio. This is where I meet Sarah Tadman , an energetic young lass from England who is working in Lauterbrunnen for the summer. We make plans to spend Wednesday, together hiking. Then I bid them all farewell and head for Grindelwald via the Mannlichen gondola again.

The day is partly cloudy, misty once again at the top of Mannlichen. I catch the lift down to Grindelwald, far below. While riding in the ski lift, I see a chamois below, in a grove of evergreens. I think it is a baby goat, a domestic kid, but will learn later on that it was a chamois. Once at the bottom, I can't find the bus, which was included in my ticket price along with the train to Grindelwald station, so I hoof it on foot, into Grindelwald.

Grindelwald did not look that far from the ski lift station, but when you are on foot and it is all uphill, it can be a take bit strenuous. I stop by a charming little cafe which is packed with people for a tempting tiramisu and an invigorating cappuccino. They both do the trick and I walk down to the little church with the beautiful cemetery. Cemeteries in Switzerland are a wonder in themselves. Research them. The view from the cemetery across the valley to the mountains is awe-inspiring. Just when you think things can't get any more breathtaking, you get hit again with another WOW!

Grindelwald is a busy little town, lots of busses and cars, pedestrians, people. I miss the calm and tranquility of Wengen and head back to the ski lift for my ride back to sanity. I enjoy the ride back up and over the mountain, meanwhile reflecting on how I had considered staying in Grindelwald when I was setting up my itinerary. So glad I chose Wengen instead as my base camp, here in the Bernese Oberland.

Just as I was approaching the gondola station at Mannlichen, I heard a lot of mooing and here comes a herd of cows, over the horizon, driven by two Swiss locals. It is milking time. A small Jersey cow comes up to me and head butts me out of her way. I rub her on the crown of her head, she pauses, sniffs me, then head butts me again. I get out of her way and let her pass. As the cows slip into the barn, one by one, a thick mist rolls up from the valley below and obscures the remaining few. It starts to drizzle. I head for the gondola.

It is lightly raining as we come down into Wengen, I go back to my hotel for warmer clothes and then back to the Berneshof for Cheese fondue for dinner. Tomorrow, I will go down to Lauterbrunnen and check it out.

Monday, September 3: Another beautiful day, what to do, what to do? Martina informs me over breakfast that tomorrow is going to be a "brilliant" day, perfect day to go up to Schilthorn. Awesome! Sarah and I had talked bout doing this on Wednesday, but since Martina insists that tomorrow will be perfect for Schilthorn, well then, Schilthorn it will be. I ask Martina how to get to Trummelbach Falls? Martina tells me it is an easy hike from Lauterbrunnen. Martina tells me that from the falls I can walk to Stechelberg, a cute little quiet village and do lunch. Sounds nice. And cheap. I am off to the train to Lauterbrunnen, then it is easy to find the trail down by the river. It is a grand day for a gorgeous flat land hike. The walk along the river is refreshing and inviting, the views in the valley are splendid! The Trummelbach Falls were really cool. They are incased inside of a mountain. The trails are wet and slippery, everything is damp and slick.

Back outside and walking on the path to Stechelberg. It follows the river, passes the gondola station lift for Stilthorn, then onward to Stechelberg. I keep seeing these little concrete bunker structures, which turn out to be avalanche bunkers. Interesting. I stop in Stechelberg for a delicious cheese fondue, than back to the Stilthorn gondola station for a lift up to Gimmelwald. The ride up the mountain is amazing, even if they play that cheesy (pardon the pun) James Bond tune.

I get off at Gimmelwald and boy oh boy, I am in another place and time. Talk about pure bliss. Gimmelwald is so peaceful and quiet, I think I see a total of seven people while walking around the village. Two are elderly women sitting on a back porch, one lady is working in her garden next to the sock tree, one guy drives by in a tractor and the other three are tourist, like me. Stop at Pension Gimmelwald Biergarten for a delicious dessert and cappuccino. Take the gondolas back down and walk the trail back to Lauterbrunnen. The sun shines brightly on Wengen high above the valley, down here in shadows it is getting very chilly. Catch the train to Wengen, never tiring of the magnificent scenic view on the way up, stop for supper at my favorite restaurant, then it is to the Berghaus to get my tablet and the Rock's Cafe for a beer and free wifi.

Tuesday, September 4: Upon arriving here, I noticed a tour offered, tacked on the Berghaus bulletin board about an Alpine Dairy tour which is only on Tuesdays. I had signed up for it immediately. This morning, I have o be at the train station at 7 AM. I wake up at 6:50. Talk about a mad scramble as i dress, and make a dash to the station. Buy my ticket and only have seconds to spare when the young man who is giving the tour spots me. We board the train for Allmend. One more minute and i would have missed it. There are five of us in this tour, we get off the train at Allmend and walk down to the barn. The cows were already milked, the milk is already in a huge copper pot being heated. We are given an appetizing breakfast of their own homemade Alpine cheeses and fresh fruit and breads, then we go into the dairy to watch them make the cheese. They make three wheels of cheese from the morning's milking. They do this twice a day, every day. Each wheel sells for around $1000. The money is divided up between the cow's different owners. The entire tour lasted about three hours, then I hike the trail back down to Wengen.

Yesterday, Martina had mentioned an alternative hike back after visiting Schilthorn, getting off at Gimmlwald ,passing through Murren and hiking down back down to Lauterbrunnen. I knew I wouldn't have had enough time yesterday, when I was in Gimmelwald, so today I am going to do that. Take the train down to Lauterbrunnen, catch the bus to the Schilthorn gondola lift, catch the lift to Stilthorn. Up and up we keep going. One more station and then we are finally at the top! Martina was right. It is a brilliant day! What views! From here we can see the Eiger, the Monch, and the Jungfrau, all lined up like a royal crown. You can also see the lakes at Interlakken. I take my time and leisurely linger, loving every moment of this glorious day! are a marvel to behold. I am thrilled to have the opportunity to be here!

Take the gondolas down to the Murren station and stroll along the paved pathway which takes you into Murren. Murren is referred to as Wengen's twin. Similarities; cute, quaint, charming mountain setting, high above the valley, opposite of Wengen. I stop for lunch at the Hotel Alpenrub. Ordered the pesto cheese tortellini. Incredible! Dessert was ice cream!

Walked through Murren to the trail head which was marked Lauterbrunnen. The trail was a gradual downhill, following the train tracks, then crossed a road, then ran along the mountain ridge crossed the creek which becomes one of the falls, and passed a dairy. Back and forth it winds. It is getting dark. I now realize that I am taking the long way back into town. I finally am making a steep descent and then I am on a street leading into Lauterbrunnen. Never been so happy to be back in a town. I am a tired gal by the time I am on the train going up over the mountain to Wengen.

Wednesday, September 5: Told Martina over breakfast, about my little adventure yesterday. She told me I took the wrong trail, but I had already figured that out. Silly me. Today I am meeting Sarah in Lauterbrunnen. We meet for coffee and brownies, then we decide on hiking up to Isenfluh and onward to Sulwald. It is a gorgeous hike to Isenfluh, then we get to the cute little red gondola and we take it up to Sulwald. Sulwald is a tiny little farming community. Farmers are out raking hay, tractors are everywhere. We stop to eat a packed lunch which Sarah surprised me with. We sit in a beautiful meadow, mesmerized b the grandeur of the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau which sit across the valley from us. From here, we can also see the valley with the road leading into Grindelwald.

We reluctantly take our time down off the mountain and back into Lauterbrunnen. Sarah calls one of her friends and she joins us for some wonderful duo cheese fondues, one with herbs (the English gals are killing me with their 'herbal' pronounced with a very distinct H, which leads to an entertaining, humorous debate) and one with mushrooms. The herbal (pronounced with an E here) was the BEST! We linger over our beers and fits of laughter, mostly from the difficulty in understanding all our different English accents.

We bid our goodbyes. Tomorrow I am leaving for Gruyeres. Sarah runs with me as I try to catch my train, only to learn that it leaves in 15 minutes from now. We laugh again...and then she heads back to join her friend. Goodbye, Sarah! It was awesome getting to meet ya! Thanks for the laughs.

Thursday, September 6: Today, I leave this piece of paradise. It makes me sad. Moving on up the road to Gruyeres, the place where they make their own particular type of cheese. I say goodbye to Mr. Fontana, Martina and Marcella. Stop and do some light shopping, them to the train. I am nervous, got a lot of connections with this leg of the journey. One of them involves a bus connection. We shall see how that goes...

The trains take me back through Interlakken, passing by Spiez, through Thun which has me running for my platform, through Berne, pass Fribourg to Bulle where I catch my bus ( a small miracle in itself) from Bulle to Gruyeres. It is quite hot when I step off the bus. We are now at a lower altitude, green pastures, contented cows and farms everywhere. I can see the small medieval town of Gruyeres with it's walled fortress and jutting castle cresting the cliff. Up the path I go.

They say it is a ten minute walk uphill from the train station, but when you are carrying two backpacks it seemed much longer! By the time I got checked in and shown to my gorgeous room, the strenuous climb was well worth it!

I am staying at Hostellerie des Chevaliers. My room is simply delightful and the bathroom is so cute and cheerful! Can you say that about a bathroom? Also, probably the best shower in all of Europe! I arrived around 4 PM, just as the tour buses were leaving, allowing those of us who were staying here in Gruyeres time to explore the castle and the town, free of the crowds. I pay for my entrance fee inside the castle, and start on the ramparts first. Then I go inside. It is an amazing old castle, built in the 1600's.

Pop into a little cafe just below the grand entryway to the castle court yard for dinner. A cheese plate and a glass of wine, then back to my pretty hotel, which sits just outside of the walled village. The views of the rolling countryside are lovely, but I am already feeling like Heidi. I am missing my snow-capped mountains and the alpine forests.

Friday, September 7: My last day in Switzerland, the home of my ancestors. After an awesome breakfast buffet in a pretty sunlit dining area, I set off for those hills I see in the distance. I head over towards the train station and then continue pass, heading for higher ground. Up through a pretty wooded park, up a country road pass pastures of lazy cows, cut across a meadow dodging cow piles, then up to the ridge which looks out over the valley and the castle far below. It is a beautiful region here, but my favorite place was Wengen. It just doesn't really feel like Switzerland anymore. Feels more like France....even though I have never been there. :-)

Back to the walled fortress for dinner. Cheese fondue, of course. Then a walk around the castle, the southern ramparts, down to the church, through the gorgeous cemetery, then stop to buy cheese and chocolates at one of the shops before heading to my hotel. Back to my room to pack. I did enjoy my time here in Gruyeres, the town of Gruyeres is charming and very picturesque, the countryside lovely to roam, and my room was always anticipated to return to; the comfy bed, the serene setting. The breakfast buffet was very generous and satisfying.

Saturday, September 8: Up early, and waiting for my ticket man to my train ticket, on my way to Geneva Airport. Once at the airport, I forget to change currencies. End up buying $60 worth of cheese. Coming through Heathrow, security stopped me to check my "suspicious" packages...didn't have to open them up....they could smell what it was!

Switzerland was like living in a fairytale. It was the most beautiful country I have ever been to, almost unreal, like as if you were on an entirely different planet. I am so thankful that I had the chance to visit the land of my forefathers. I just wish they would have stayed there:-)

Mr. Fontana and Martina were superb with advice, always checking the weather forecast and offering hints with which days to do the Jungfraujoch and Schilthorn, what trails to hike and which villages to visit and the best ways to get back and forth i.e.; bus, gondola, train, trails. They aim to keep their guests content and satisfied and they do an awesome job of it.

I chose not to do the half-board, did the bed and breakfast option and thoroughly enjoyed the abundant selections offered each morning. Various local alpine cheeses, deli meats, all kinds of beads, eggs, fresh fruit, juices, milk, coffee, tea, yogurt, cereals and jams...what more could you possibly hope for? Martina and Marcella always greeted me with a cheerful 'good morning' and happy smiles, while they attended their hungry guests.

By the way, if you take the gondola to Mannlichen, it is a very easy, but rewarding hike to Kleine Sheidegg, where you can catch the train to Jungfraudoch, saving you some big bucks. For a more challenging climb, you can hike to Kleine Sheidegg directly from Wengen.

Before I booked my trip here, I was contemplating staying in different villages and moving every other day. After taking some very good advice from another well-seasoned traveler, I chose to base myself in Wengen and am so glad that I did! Out of all the villages I visited in the Jungfrau region; Grindelwald, Gimmelwald, Stechelberg, Murren, and Lauterbrunnen, I am so thrilled that I went with Wengen.

One last thing I do want to add, Wengen has very limited free-wifi available. Rock's Bar offers free unlimited wifi, you only have to purchase one drink. The Tourist Center offers free-wifi also, if you have a guest card which you can ask for at your hotel. Other than that, most hotels do charge for wifi. Hotel Berghaus offers free landline internet service, but I needed wifi to upload my photos to my tablet for my family (just to rub it in a bit) was a simple solution and a quick, easy walk to the local bar and a cold, refreshing beer.

Israel 2013 (part one)

Israel via Amsterdam

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Long drive to Newark, New Jersey. Left my house shortly after lunch for the three hour drive to Newark. Sunny and terribly windy, got into Newark around 3 PM, took me another 40 minutes looping around the terminal till I managed to find the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny little signs which showed you where the long term parking lot actually was, after many, many times of circling the airport and with a splitting headache and much anxiety, I finally parked my Jeep in long term and boarded the shuttle to the terminal.

The Delta counter was hard to locate, construction and more confusing signs as to which floor Delta is actually on, but finally made it and checked my bag, got in row for screening and was soon joined by a long line behind me. I am so glad I left my house extremely early, took me another 40 minutes just to get through security. TSA was calling out departures which were leaving soon and allowing people to get bumped ahead, which was considerate of them, judging by the looks on the worried passengers they were very agitated as well.

Grabbed a Chipotle Chicken Wrap at a food stand by my gate and finally settled down to rest and relax. A lady sat down next to me and started on her embroidery, another lady sat immediately behind me and we were soon all immersed in conversation, who is going where and where all have you been? The lady with the embroidery was flying to the Ukraine to visit her grandchildren, the other lady was going to Vienna to chaperone a bunch of teenage girls, her granddaughter included. Me, I was heading through Amsterdam on a 13 hour layover to Tel Aviv.

Our plane soon boarded and the lady going to Vienna managed to get the passenger seated next to her to switch seats with me. She also somehow managed to get a glass of champagne for us. We taxied the runway while viewing an incredible sunset, lifted off over NYC, headed northeast out over Long Island and up into the clouded atmosphere above.

The Delta plane was a Boeing 767. I counted a dozen flight attendants in our economy class, alone. With all the constant hustle and bustle of the busy attendants, offering drinks, dinners and breakfasts, and the hyper-active lady beside me, I got hardly any sleep whatsoever.

I must have dozed off at some point in time, because when I cracked open my window shade, the sun was arising over the western coasts of Europe. An hour later we landed in Amsterdam.

Thursday, March 28

Arrived in Schipol International Airport shortly before 8 AM. I found the lockers for stowed luggage, stashed my backpack and left the terminal, walked downstairs to the train station and spent a frustrating 15 minutes trying to figure out how to purchase a train ticket at a kiosk when I realized there was a counter behind me, over in the corner of the building with actual live people where I purchased a ticket to Central Amsterdam, after making a currency transfer, which is just around the corner from the ticket counters.

I happily boarded the train to Central Amsterdam. Didn’t seem long at all till I was getting off. With my little map in hand, I soon found Singel Street which is what I wanted and found my way to the Anne Frank House, where I am meeting up with my WWII walking tour and am surprised to see the Anne Frank House already had a long line of people waiting outside in the frigid temperatures. No problem, I think to myself, since I had bought my ticket for the 1 PM time slot online and won’t have to wait….when I suddenly remember that I stuck my ticket in my backpack which is now in the locker, back at the Schipold airport. Oh man, there goes that plan.

I grab a cappuccino at the nearby coffee shop and when I come back out, there is Peter, my tour guide and the small group of people who signed up for this three hour walking tour. Introductions are made and then we set off in the brutal cold to learn about Nazi-occupied Holland and see where all the fateful events took place. The tour is incredible and should not be missed for anyone who is interested in WWII history.

Three hours later of bone-chilling temperatures in blustery narrow streets where the sun refused to warm us and I am ready to head back to the train station. I have just enough Euros to get me through the entryway and make my way on the train to Schipold. Retrieve my backpack, grab a piece of pizza and then find my gate and try to catch some zzz’s.

It is a long wait and I just can’t seem to get warm. We finally are ushered through the screening area at our gate and then placed in the lockdown area at the gate anxiously awaiting to board our Tel Aviv flight.

Finally time to board. I am seated next to a sweet young lady from the Netherlands who is looking forward to soaking in some sun on the sandy beaches of Tel Aviv for the next couple of days. Me, I am looking forward to walking the streets of Jerusalem and seeing all the ancient wonders of the Holy Land.

The flight is relatively empty, so I jump in the vacant row behind us after we get airborne. Time for some shuteye, which I never get because a pesky KLM flight attendant keeps waking me up to tell me that there might be some passengers moving forward, since they are all cramped up, in the back of the plane. They never do and I never get any sleep.

The engines wind down and there is a slow pitch to the plane, signaling our descent into Israel. I shove up the window shade and gaze out over the blackness of the Mediterranean Sea and the bright lights of Tel Aviv. My heart starts thumping. Who would have ever though that I would someday make it here? The anticipation builds in my tired and weary body.

Friday March 29

We land in Tel Aviv shortly before 3 AM. After we enter through Foreign Arrivals and grab our luggage, I get in the long line at Immigrations. I had heard all kinds of stories of interrogation and questioning, so I am prepared to be delayed, but hey, I got all morning. When it is my turn, I am passed over quite quickly and find myself just a little bit disappointed, since I was curious about the infamous interrogations.

Just like that, I am through customs and walk out the terminal. There is a Nesher shuttle heading to Jerusalem. I put my backpack in the back and climb in. The van fills up and we are quickly on our way to Jerusalem.

It is 5:00 AM when I buzz the door at Abraham Hostel. A sleepy receptionist lets me in and explains that this is their first morning of daylight-savings time. She looks tired and a bit perplexed as to why I am showing up at this hour? I explain to her that I realize check-in is at 2 PM, but my flight arrived two hours ago and well, here I am. She tells me to stow my luggage in their luggage room and that I can feel free to make myself at home in the lobby area upstairs.

I am weary to the bone and barely functioning at this point, after two redeye flights with hardly any sleep in two days, I make my way upstairs and to my delight I see a pair of bunk beds in the lobby area. I claim the bottom one and am soon oblivious to the rest of my surroundings, for two hours… then the staff show up to start preparing the breakfast area and the buffet.

I look at my watch. It is 7:10 AM. It is Good Friday/Passover and I am here in Jerusalem! That very thought gets me up and going. I stumble over to where you help yourself to coffee and make myself a Turkish coffee, which is terribly strong, but probably just what I needed.

The Israeli breakfast buffet consist of cottage cheese, feta cheese, olives, sliced cucumbers and tomatoes, cereal, chocolate pudding, jam, butter and matzah bread. I clumsily try to figure out how everything goes together and watch the other early risers laden their plates. I copy them.

The bitter strong coffee does the job. I quickly devour my breakfast, wash my dishes and head out to explore the Old City. The streets of downtown Jerusalem are bare, there are only a couple of other people around, the morning sunlight is warm and very welcoming. With a song in my heart and a skip in my footsteps, I set off in the direction of the Old City.

I enter the Jaffa Gate, make a left and wander thru the narrow, winding streets of the Old City. I head for the Via Dolorosa where the many different varieties from the many different churches are doing their versions of the Good Friday processions. Sprinkled among the crowded streets are the IDF and the Israeli police, keeping watch over the massive multitudes. As the processions die down and the crowds thin out, I make my way over to the Pools of Bethesda, visit the churches at the different Stations of the Cross and eventually back to the Jaffa Gate where I am verbally accosted by an angry Arab who is across the street from me.

“Hello!” he shouts to me, as he makes his way towards me from across the busy street. I stop and wait for him, wondering what he could possibly want. He comes up to me and asks me where I am from. I tell him. He sees my cross necklace and tells me he is a taxi driver and asks me if I want to go to Bethlehem. I tell him no. He points to my necklace and asks me why I am wearing that here? “The cross is no good, you should not wear the cross here,” he states and points to the ground and all around us. I am blown away by his blatant aggression. Then I laugh and wave at him and tell him “bye bye.” He throws his hands up in the hands and stomps angrily away. I am thinking, yeah right, why would I even want to get into your taxi???

I see the Christ Church Guesthouse and stop by for a delightful cappuccino and the best chocolate espresso truffle I have ever had! The day is getting quite pleasant and warm. I bask in the bright sunlight and reflect on the confrontation I just had with the angry Arab. Little do I know that I will have a few more before this trip is over.

Refreshed and revived, I make my way into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City and walk along the ramparts high along the walls of Jerusalem. The views out over the city are stunning. I can see the Western Wall and head in that direction. The Kotel is packed with people, I patiently wait my turn to get through the security gates. I make my way through the masses to place my hand upon the ancient, sacred wall and say a prayer for Jerusalem and her people.

I leave the Western Wall and climb the steps ascending into the Jewish Quartet where I am questioned by an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man. He is asking for a monetary donation to feed the poor children of Jerusalem. I give him a $20 bill. A man ties a red thread around my wrist. Another Ultra-Orthodox man materializes and asks for money for him and his friend. I explain to them that the $20 I gave was for all of them, not per person. What he does with that money is now on him. What am I, a walking ATM? The man who holds the $20 quickly disappears. I am thinking to myself, I never saw anyone disappear that fast. The others seem disgruntled as I walk away. I am not too happy with this little encounter, but my hope is soon restored when I actually see another Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man handing out food to some children in a narrow alleyway I pass by. Maybe it was legit.

I wander deep into the heart of the Old City and find my way back out of the Jaffa Gate, and eventually back to my hostel. It is 4 PM and I am weary to the bone. I had signed up to help prepare the Shabbat meal at our hostel, starting at 6 PM. Right now, all I want to do is sleep, but that will have to wait.

I set the timer to heat the water for my shower and send out emails while I wait. The hot shower does the trick, clean and renewed, I dress for dinner.

The guests are returning to our hostel by 6, everyone who signed up for the Shabbat meal preparation are here and the staff immediately goes about assigning jobs to us. We are seated at the tables with numerous vegetables and fruits, some of which I have never seen before, and given directions on how to pare, peel, slice and dice them.

We introduce ourselves to each other and are soon engrossed in lively conversation and laughter. The preparations go fast, the oven is loaded, the tables are set, the bar is hopping, more people arrive, energy fills the room and I have soon forgotten my fatigue.

A female staff member explains the Passover Shabbat procedure, lights the candles and gives the blessing. A song is sung and I follow along reading the words in Hebrew. Then we get in line to serve ourselves, buffet-style. I am amazed at the delicious flavors which are intertwined in the arrangements of casseroles and salads which the cook has put together. Matzah bread is passed and broken and I am so grateful for being able to take part in this sacred and traditional aspect of the Jewish faith. What an incredible experience!

The conversation over the dinner table quickly turns to politics and religion. I am finding out that these are the two topics which are addressed wherever you go, here in Israel. I am enjoying this, since I relish in the debate of both.

After dinner, it is off to bed. I haven’t had hardly any sleep in 48 hours and now with my belly full, I am really feeling it.

Saturday, March 30

Up early for a quick breakfast and in the lobby by 7:15. I am going to Nazareth and the sea of Galilee today. I meet another young lady, Christina, who is waiting in the lobby and learn that she is also going on this tour. She is from DC. She also travels alone and has been to Peru. We get to talking and before you know it our ride is here. We climb in the shuttle van, along with two other guys and a wonderful young man riding shotgun by the name of Giovanni, who is from Italy.

Our driver heads north. Without me knowing it, we have crossed over into what is known to the rest of the world, the West Bank, but since I am writing this story, I will call it Samaria. We pass through this dry, barren land and it is outside Mitzpeh Yericho
at sea level in the Judean desert that we pick up two young ladies, Allison and Angela, and make our way up to Nazareth. We cross the fertile Jezreel Valley with Mount Tabor in the distance, burrowing our way through the Nazareth tunnels.

We arrive in Nazareth, park in a lot and walk up the street to the Church of Annunciation. I notice a huge billboard which is perched above the side of a building saying “And whoever seeks a religion other than Islam, it will never be accepted of him, and in the Hereafter he will be one of the losers.” -Holy Quran. I tell Allison I guess that makes me a loser.

We get to the entrance of the Church of Annunciation. The Arab guarding the gate tells Allison her dress is too short. She must cover her legs to enter. She pulls a large shawl out of her handbag and tries to figure out a way to wrap it around her legs. She drapes it around her hips so that it covers most of her legs. He takes one look at my sleeveless top and tells me I must cover my bare shoulders. I pull my jacket out of my backpack and slip it on.

Once we are properly and modestly attired, we are allowed to enter. The church is huge and we soon separate and explore on our own. After awhile, I am almost convinced that they left without me, but I soon spot our driver and Giovanni sitting by the entryway. I go over and sit with them.

Our driver is a friendly guy who likes to smoke. He and Giovanni go outside the entrance and smoke on the sidewalk. I wait for the others. Once they all show up, we get into the van and journey on our way to Cana, the place of Jesus’ first miracle.

The church of Cana is a very small church located in a small village with narrow streets. We explore the church and then cross the street to the little gift shop directly across from the church, where we are given samples of Cana Wedding Wine. It is way too sweet for my taste! Christina and I stop in another tiny shop and buy some miniature clay pots. Then we are on the way to the Sea of Galilee.

We arrive at the Sea of Galilee which lies in a lush, green valley surrounded by an abundance of fertile rolling hills edged with vibrant wildflowers blooming by the sides of the road. I am amazed as to how humid and tropical this area is. Palm trees, bougainvillea, azaleas, calla and canna lilies, ferns, birds and butterflies, it certainly doesn’t feel like how you would imagine the Middle-East to be.

We visit the chapel on the shore of Galilee where Jesus had appeared to His disciples, after His resurrection. I wade into the waters of Galilee. It is lukewarm, murky and reeks of fish. We wander around the pretty gardens enjoying the balmy, warm tropical climate.

We move on to Capernaum and visit the crumbling ruins of the ancient synagogue and then explore the area where the Apostle Peter’s house is thought to have once stood. Moving on, we stop for lunch at a huge restaurant on the shore of Galilee, which caters to bus tours. There is a large salad bar where we help ourselves while waiting for our Grilled Tilapia. The fish is incredible! I never thought I would be able to chow down on a fish which was still looking at me (head with eyes), but soon found out how easy it is to get pass all of that. Giovanni went back to the salad bar for a heaping plate of matzah bread and passed it around to all of us.

After lunch, while waiting for the others, I wander down to the lake shore. It is getting very humid and warm, the views across the lake are very hazy and there are some nasty, tiny little gnats who quickly located me on their radar and started biting, so I head back to the air-conditioner van. With our bellies all full, we are back on the road.

Our driver takes us up the hill to where the sermon on the mount was given. Unfortunately, the road up to the church is closed, so we pull over along the road at the highest spot we can find and take pictures. Allison reads Jesus’ words from the sermon on the mount in the New Testament, our driver says something like “that was nice, I wasn’t expecting that,” then we are back on the road heading for the baptismal site of Jesus, by the Jordan River.

The Jordan River is nothing like how it is portrayed in the old Gospel/Bluegrass songs. In real life, it is very narrow and I would imagine pretty shallow, very green in color (at least, at this location) and smells very fishy. There are people donning very large white T-shirts to be baptized. Sorry, I just can’t imagine submersing myself in this cloudy, smelly water, although the location is downright stunning. I wade into the river and watch the schools of little fish part, making way for my feet. The underwater concrete steps are slick and slimy. The little fishes curiously follow me. Huge, hungry catfish wait at the water’s edge for any morsels the tourists might toss them.

Once we are all rounded up and herded back into the van, our driver asks us if we want to see the Mount of Temptation. Our answer is a very quick, loud unanimous YES! I catch him smiling in his rear view mirror as he continues to drive.

The drive to Jericho was a long one, passing through Tiberias along the Sea of Galilee and onward through more arid, barren land where small flocks of sheep and goats are scattered on the rocky hillsides. It is along the road to Jericho where I see the most scariest thing I have ever seen in my entire life. It was a Muslim woman standing by the side of the road, covered from head to toe in a black burqa. Her head covering is grey and her entire face is hidden behind the screened material. To me, she looked like the Grim Reaper. A shudder goes through me as we continue on by.

We stopped for gas in Jericho and then head up to the Mount of Temptation, the place where Jesus fasted for forty days and forty nights and was tempted by the devil. A big old craggy mountain in a barren wasteland which overlooks a valley leading back down into Jericho. Our driver tells us that Jesus was actually baptized in the Jordan River just outside Jericho (which has since dried up) and that would make a lot more sense, since He immediately went to the mountain after His baptism. We drive up to the edge of an abyss and take more photos, use an Arab vendor’s bathroom (which was quite an adventure in itself) and then we are back on the road to Jerusalem.

Taking the Good Samaritan Highway on the way back to Jerusalem, we hit a slight traffic jam as we pass through a check point, then we finally arrive in Jerusalem. We choose to get out in East Jerusalem, close to the Palm Hotel, where Allison and Angela are staying, they run in for some things, Christina and I wait outside in the Arab marketplace, and then we head into the Old City through the Damascus Gate.

It is Saturday night, the night before Easter and we want to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We get in line with the faithful ones, who want to visit the place where some think Jesus’ body was lain, after His crucifixion. I feel like we are the women of Jesus’ time, coming to anoint His body. After visiting the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we wander back out of the Old City and make our way up Jaffa Street to find a place to eat.

We walk down Yosef Rivlin street and are approached by hawkers, who hand out menus and invite you in. After circling around we decide to come back to Zolli’s Pub and are seated at a table outside. Our server informs us you get a free drink with your meal. They also bring over a hukkah, which has a nice, smooth anise-flavored tobacco in it. I give it a few puffs. The others ordered burgers, I ordered fried cauliflower which was really, really good. They fried it without breading, which was different, but still very tasty.

It has gotten cooler as the night wears on, we linger over our drinks, pay our bill and our conversation soon turns to where and what time we are meeting tomorrow morning for Son-rise service at the Garden Tomb. We decide to meet at 5:45, by Derech Shchlem street, leading to the Garden Tomb. I check my watch, it is going on 11:30, oh my, better get off to my hostel and my bed.

Sunday, March 31

Much to my surprise, I wake at 4 AM. I go online and check out what is going on back home, then shower and dress and go downstairs to knock on Christina’s dorm door. I knock quietly, not wanting to wake everyone up, then a bit louder. Christina appears at her door, saying that it is only 5, we aren’t meeting till 5:45, but hey, so I got a bit confused.

By the time we get to the corner on Derech Shchlem, Allison and Angela are already waiting. We head off on the way to the Garden Tomb for a blessed Son-rise service. Throngs of Christians are moving ahead of us and we slide in with the mass of believers. Anticipation and excitement fills the air. I am wide awake even with out any coffee. I hear some people softly singing ahead of us. I get goose bumps. Who would have ever thought I would be at the Tomb on Easter morning? The gate is opened and we all quietly file in, slowly, in reverence and awe. We take the little wooden chalices which are being handed out by the volunteers, with their little portions of grape juice with a thin wafer attached for the communion offered, and humbly find our seats. The crowd continues to pour in, till you have standing room only. The service begins with much joy and praise and singing. What an phenomenal experience! What a blessed gift to be given; to be worshiping here and celebrating the empty tomb, the blessed hope bestowed upon us by our risen Saviour, Jesus Christ! Holy, Holy, Holy, Worthy is the Lamb! Amen.

We come away from the service with much joy in our hearts, making our way back to the Christ Church Guesthouse just inside the Jaffa gate of the Old City, for a delightful breakfast of deliciously strong cappuccinos and some enticingly sweet cakes. And chocolates truffles.

Christina wants to go to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Easter mass, Allison, Angela and I opt to explore King Hezekiah’s Tunnels. We agree upon meeting later for dinner and Christina heads out to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre , we all head down to the Jewish Quarter to get in line to go up to the Temple Mount, before we take in the tunnels. The line is a very long one and not moving. We are waiting about ten minutes when someone walks by announcing that they closed the Temple Mount down. (The next day I see online that the Arabs were throwing rocks and rioting, which cause the shut down.) Slightly disappointed, we set off for the City of David and the tunnels of King Hezekiah.

We pay the dues and get our wrist bands, stow all our stuff in the lockers provided and wait around (about twenty minutes) for the tour to start. The tour guide shows up and gathers us all together, then we follow him down the stairs into the ancient archeological ruins of the City of David. He is very thorough in his historical and Old Testament/Torah teachings, raising questions to our group and inviting us all to answer. I rise to the challenge, trying to intercept the children’s rapid fire responses. Boy oh boy, do they ever know their ancient history! Allison and I were only able to answer one question each, the rest were quickly answered by the little ones, leaving us greatly impressed with their exceptional knowledge.

Then it is down into Warren’s Shaft and further down into the watery tunnels. Allison and I opt for the water tunnel, Angela takes the dry one. We wait on the steps to descend into the fast flowing current, amidst screams and laughter of those who have gone ahead of us. One cute little boy breaks free and runs back up the stairs. The hidden screams were just too much for him. We all have to laugh.

Allison enters first with her tiny little pin light they have given us, I am right behind her. The water is cold and fast. The light is hardly capable of showing us anything, I start snapping photos using my flash which provides a lot more light. The pitch black, dark, narrowly confined tunnel makes a quick deep dip, up over the knees, causing my heart to race, (what did I get myself into?) I think for a brief moment, then the watery path rises and the water is once again only up past my ankles. I am sure this is the spot that caused the screams!

The tunnel goes on and on forever, twisting and turning it’s way, deep down under the very heart of the Old City. It is very remarkable and quite stirring, to know you are walking through the very places where the ancient people dug through, to bring the waters down off the hills surrounding Jerusalem and into the walled city where the people lived. Our guide told us that David, before he became King, entered the walled, secured city through these very same tunnels and captured the city from King Saul’s sons, thus getting him elected the true King of Israel.

And to take this one step further, King Hezekiah always held a special place in my heart. He was very sick and prayed to God to allow him to live for fifteen more years. I was working my way through the Old Testament when I was going through my third bout of Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, along with all the chemo, and so I too, prayed like King Hezekiah, asking for fifteen more years to live. The Lord has so far blessed me with seven more wonderful years, and counting!

We emerge from the dark, wet tunnel and gather by the pool of Shiloh. Our guide explains that the ruins of the pool run under an Arab neighbor man’s property, thus preventing them from digging. But, he states, that doesn’t mean it will never happen. I love the perseverance and the eternal hope which lives in the optimistic Jewish minds and souls.

We hike back up the long and winding street out of the City of David. Plans are made to meet later. We separate and I pass by a water fountain on my way to Jaffa Street and thirstily sup up the tepid water, which makes me wonder why I haven’t gotten sick over here, since I have been drinking water out of the pipes, everywhere. I usually only buy bottled water when I travel. So far, so good.

I get to my hostel, shower and change and find Christina in the lounge. She asks me to join her for a beer. We enjoy the good, crispy cold Maccabees. She runs down to her room, I grab another. Needless to say, I am a tad bit tipsy by the time we set off on foot to find Allison and Angela.

We decide on the same restaurant we ate at the night before. Minus the hukkah. Our server explains that this is the seventh night of Passover, marking the night the Israelites passed through the Red Sea. In accordance to the Jewish law, no wheat will be served tonight, which also includes beer, since beer contains wheat, rye, barley or some type of grain. No problem, we say.

We order our dinners, I have the steak sandwich (minus the bread) and a glass of wine. The others order their meals and wine or cocktails. Our server brings us shots of Arak, an Israeli liquor, which is very similar to Sambuca, an Italian anise-flavored liquor. After our meals he brings us another round. I am slightly buzzed, after my two beers at my hostel and the two glasses of wine and now the two shots. We all call it a day and head back up the street. This was our last night together, tomorrow I go to Masada and the Dead Sea, the others are spending their last days in Jerusalem.

Monday, April 1

Up bright and early for my day tour to Masada, Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. I have a slight headache from last night’s over-indulgence. I grab a quick breakfast of cold cereal, olives and feta cheese, strong coffee and then I go downstairs to the lobby. The driver we had for our Sea of Galilee tour shows up, looks like he will be my driver for this tour and I am elated! Such a nice guy! I climb in the van, soon others get in and we are off to Masada.

We are making our way through the streets of Jerusalem, when I see Allison and Angela through the windshield. They are wandering through the Arab marketplace. I want to wave, but know they will never see me. That was the last time I saw them. Our driver drops two young women off at the Dead Sea, then we follow the road south past the Dead Sea, down into the Judean desert and to the high mountain fortress of Masada. What a difference in temperature down here, it is incredibly hot and dry. Mirages shimmer across the desert landscapes. Nothing but sand, mountains of sand and a few sparsely-located shriveled palm trees desperately clinging to the earth’s hot surface.

We pull in the parking lot and get out. The heat is intense. We pay our entrance fee and take the cable car to the top. I follow the rim around the circumference of the plateau, marveling at the ancient ruins and the immense depths spanning below us. I find a deep cave with steps leading down into what looks to be a reservoir of some type. I carefully go down the steps. It is cool and inviting down here. Sunlight beams in through a solitary opening. Pigeons coo and flap about the lofty earthen ceiling high above me, nesting in small niches in the stone walls. I am alone with my thoughts and the birds overhead.

By the time I wander over and find, much to my amazement, the beautifully tiled and decorated, submerged rooms of King Herod’s palace, it is time to head down. Little did I know until much, much later, that the main attraction was just down over the opposite rim from where I had spent all of my time. Sigh. Guess I will have to go back.

I take the Snake Path down to the bottom of Masada. It is a grueling walk in the intense heat. My knee starts to hurt. I can’t wait to get down to the bottom. It takes about forty-five minutes. I soon find the others and we are on the road to Ein Gedi.

Ein Gedi is a Israeli National Park with lots of tumbling waterfalls cutting down through a ravine in a ragged mountain side. It was a long, hot walk back to where the trail starts to ascend, up over boulders and cliffs, jumping some streams and wading through others. I start to feel like a mountain goat. There is a small crowd of Israelis (barely-dressed) and Arabs (overly-dressed) sharing this natural wonder together. At first I stand back and watch them. They basically ignore each other. There are no politics to be played here, they are just mere people enjoying the cool spray of the cold water on this very hot day.

I climb to a higher falls, trailing behind some teenage girls in very skimpy string bikinis, climbing rocky pathways in their bare feet. I am beginning to understand that modesty doesn’t necessarily hold much value in the younger generation of Israelis today. Days later, I will come to understand and laugh out loud, while walking down a street in Tel Aviv, when I spot a spray-can painted verse on the side of a building say “all I want for my b-day is a modest-dressed Jew.”

I keep climbing and make my way up to David’s Falls. It is here at Ein Gedi that David is said to have hidden from the angry King Saul, when King Saul was seeking to kill him. I try to imagine hiding out here with your own small number of faithful warriors, hiding out from the stark-raving mad lunatic who was running the country, praying to God for guidance and protection. Many of the Psalms which were written by David, maybe in a place much like this, maybe even here in this very particular location, portrays the Psalmist David, crying out to God. We know how it turned out for him, but David could not have known that. His faith in his God was strong. And God saw him through it.

I slowly make my way back down off the mountain and catch a glimpse of a Nubian Ibex high up on a rocky edge, looking down on us. There is a little one right on her heels. I take that as a good sign and continue along my way.

A couple of us from our small tour group have gathered in a shady spot where families are picnicking. I see them passing lots of hard-boiled eggs around, but no bread. This is still the seventh day of Passover, at least until sundown. I am intrigued at how much they adhere to their laws, I keep thinking I would forget what day or what time it is, but I guess if you are taught from little on up, you learn to observe and to pay close attention. I wander up to the food counter to get myself an Israeli version of Red Bull. Right now, I really need it.

Everyone else shows up and we are on the road to the Dead Sea. The day is still blistering hot as I climb out of the van. We hurry off of the sizzling pavement, pay our entrance fee and quickly separate from one another. The group I am with today is nothing like what I had experienced a couple days ago, on the tour to the Sea of Galilee. Guess I just got lucky that day.

I change into my bathing suit in the women’s bathroom, walk down the boardwalk to the sea and find a plastic chair and drag it to the water’s edge. I take off my jewelry and put all the stuff on it and then step into the water. Ewww. It is very warm. Feels grimy and gritty from the salt. Looks stagnant. I walk in. My feet keep sinking into the boggy bottom, almost making me lose my balance. At one point I do and tumble into the water only to be bounced back up like a buoyant beach ball and ungracefully rolled over. I try to stand but can’t get my feet under me, they keep wanting to float out and up to the top. It is all that I can do to force myself up and out of the water and onto my feet without tipping over and around like a fishing bobber. I salty water stings my pores and any little scratch and all those tiny insect bites. I don’t like this.

Once I get my feet under me, I come to shore and scoop up the black oozing mud and begin to coat my body with it. It quickly dries. I then go out into the water and rub it off. I am again knocked over by a boggy bottom and flop helplessly around. I do not like this, I am getting out of here. I struggle to get my feet under me and then make my way back to the shore. I walk over to the many showers they have on the beach and shower myself off, put my jewelry back on, gather up my stuff and head up to the ladies showers to take a real shower, before slipping back into my clothes. I didn’t like the Dead Sea and I am happy to be out of it.

I find my driver who waves to me and mentions for me to grab a chair under a shady tree. I sit down next to the two young ladies who we had dropped off first thing this morning, on our way to Masada. They had spent the entire day here. I personally can’t imagine why you would even want to, but refrain from voicing my opinions on that issue. Tourists from all over the world come here to soak in the stagnant waters, why that is, I will never know.

The two young ladies are Germans who are here on holiday. They are spending half their time in Jordan and half their time in Israel/Palestine, as they put it. I let it slide. I am not in the mood for debating politics on Israel, but the one girl insists. She goes on and on about the poor Palestinians. I keep silent. Our driver gets up and walks away. Somehow, she starts in on American and that is when I can’t let it go. I let her have it. I back the truck up and dump it on her. About Obama and his agendas; gun control, his socialism and elitist dictatorship, healthcare, our near economic collapse, unemployment, drones, Benghazi, the Muslim Brotherhood, George Soros, the possibly of a civil war, voter fraud, decreasing our military….on and on till I noticed she was staring at me, speechless, with her jaw hanging wide open. “But America can’t have an economic collapse,” she states, “because we all (meaning Europe) depend on you.” I tell her “you would ALL better open your eyes, because it is coming.” Her friend who has remained quiet through all of our conversations suddenly pipes up, “my mother is very worried for America, she is worried it will become like our Germany was, when Hitler was living.” I look at her and realize that this girl’s mother got it right and hopefully she will have some influence on her daughter‘s direction in life. The other girl, I gave up on.

They soon get up and wander off. Our driver comes back. We get to talking. He was with me in the gift shop by the touristy Baptismal site on the Jordan River, where I had bought my necklace which I am now wearing. It is a replica of a bulla; a seal which was no bigger than a button, which they found in an archeological dig in the City of David. It would have been used to stamp the seal on all of the articles which were marked to enter the Second Temple. The inscription on the seal in hieroglyphics reads “Pure for God.” Each item which would enter the Temple had to be stamped “Pure for God” in order to enter the Temple. I liked the concept and bought the necklace. A day or two later, I had purchased a sterling silver Star of David in Jerusalem, which I now also proudly wore.

He asks me “are you Jewish?” as he eyes my Star of David necklace. I tell him “no, I am a Christian Zionist.” He looks away. I figure he opened the door, it is a fair game and ask him “are you Jewish?” He lowers his head and quietly laughs and shakes his head no. I ask him “are you Christian?” He again shakes his head no. I then say, “well, what are you, you got to be something, what are you?” With his head still lowered he answers “I am an Arab Palestinian.”

Well, for a second, I am speechless. Well, maybe longer than a second. A multitude of seconds lapse by. I am rewinding all the conversations in my head which we women had in the van on the way to the Sea of Galilee. When we crossed through the check point into Samaria (West Bank) and when we drove into Nazareth and how he explained to us that Nazareth is an Arab town. If he overheard us talking about that billboard we saw up in Nazareth. About how before we drove into Jericho (a Palestinian Arab town), I had noticed that Giovanni, who had been riding shotgun the whole time, had removed his yarmulke, and then put it back on before we arrived in Jerusalem. Had he told him to do that before we entered Jericho? I recalled the scrutinizing looks we got from the young gas station attendants, when we had stopped for gas. I thought about that Muslim women draped in her burqa, standing beside the road to Jericho. Had he seen me shudder?

All these things are running through my mind, along with the fact that before I had came to Israel, I had convinced myself that I would be able to immediately spot a Palestinian and I also swore I would never cross over into the “West Bank,” for safety’s sake (that lasted a day). I am now finding out how extremely difficult it is to see the invisible lines which separate these people, how to distinguish between these two different worlds, when sometimes it is so easy and sometimes it is next to the impossible. I end up saying nothing at all.

The rest of our group slowly venture back and we are soon back on the road to Jerusalem. Our driver invites me to ride shotgun and I do. I take it that he doesn’t hate me, after all. We are on the way to Jerusalem when we get hit by a huge sandstorm. He tells me to roll my window up, but just before I do, I stick my hand out and feel the sharp, stinging particles of sand hitting my hand. I quickly roll the window up.

I remember seeing a backpacker standing on a street corner, trying to hide his face from the driving sand. I remember feeling incredibly sorry for him.

My driver tells me he is off tomorrow and that he would be happy to take me anywhere I might want to go, if I am interested. I think it would be interesting to spend some time with him, but I have things to do tomorrow, like moving to my studio apartment and getting settled in there. And then I need to do some shopping. I tell him I will have to think about it. He gives me his card.

We get dropped off and I go in search of dinner, passing Christina who is on her way back to her room to pack and head for the airport. She tells me she spent the day on the Mount of Olives, in the sandstorm. I tell her goodbye and to say goodbye to Allison and Angela, who are sharing a taxi with her to the airport. Dinner finds me at our old stomping ground. I order a chicken sandwich and fries, but it is no fun without the girls. I head back to my room to pack.

It is while I am waiting to cross a street corner when a middle-aged man standing next to me angrily says to me “can I ask you a question?” I look at him. “Sure” I say, with a shrug. He raises his voice and says “You a Christian?” I nod. “How can this be, how can Yeshua…he stumbles, ah, ah, “Jesus?” I interject, “yes, Jesus, how can he be a prophet, God, Son on man, how can this be, how can this be?” he asks, his voice getting louder and louder and he is waving his arms madly in the air. I am taken back from so much anger. Then I simply say the only thing that comes to my mind. “All it takes is Faith, it is not based on works.” He draws back as if I would have slapped him. He glares at me and hurries away. I have no idea why I said what I said. It was the only thing which came to my mind, at that time. Looking back, I wish I would have said to him “May I ask you a question?” The question would have been “Why are you so angry?”

Israel 2013 (part two)

Tuesday April 2:

Up early, eat breakfast and check out. Today I move to my King George Street studio apartment. I had scoped out the area the night before, so I came prepared and am sitting on the stoop by noon, which is the scheduled time to meet with the owner and get my keys.

I sit and wait and wait. And wait. Many people walk by, but nobody I am looking for. Then an Arab man goes walking by, takes one look at me and stops. “I know you!” he declares. I shake my head. He says, “no? I am mistaken? No, I know you, you are Sandy, you live here!” I shake my head again. He tells me to lift my sunglasses, so he can see my eyes. I oblige him. “You are right, I don’t know you. I am sorry, I thought you were Sandy. What is your name? Where are you from?” I ask him “Why, why do you need to know my name?” He said “I just want to talk, you don’t want to talk?” I shake my head. “Why don’t you want to talk, we can have some coffee together, come, I will buy.” I shake my head again. I just want him to leave. “Why don’t you want to talk to me?” he asks. I have finally had it with him. I tell him I am waiting for someone and no, I don’t want any coffee and no, I don’t want to talk to him.

He looks hurt, then angry. He sees my Star of David necklace and asks me if I am Jewish. I shake my head. He points out the fact that I am wearing a Star of David necklace, “why you wear that, if you are not Jewish?” I tell him “I am a Christian Zionist!” “What?” he exclaims! “How can you be a Zionist, if you are not Jewish? How can this be, how can this be?” I tell him “You would be surprised!” And then I wave goodbye to him. He glares at me and stomps off. All because I did not care to chat with him. What is wrong with these people?

I am relieved that he has moved on and continue to wait. I have just about given up when a lady comes out of the building and stands by me, stating “you must be my tenant!” I nod yes. She tells me she has been waiting for me upstairs and had given up on me. I tell her I have been waiting down here and had almost given up on her. She takes me up to the apartment.

It is tiny, but cute! She gives me instructions and hands over the key. I make myself at home, then go downstairs and buy myself some lunch at the French Bakery. With my appetite satisfied, I set off. I am heading for the Mount of Olives.

Down past the Old City, past the Damascus gate, past the Dung Gate, cross the highway and the very busy intersection, past Mary’s Tomb, where an Arab calls out to me. I ignore him. He yells “hello” again. I feign no comprehension of the English language and hold my hands up and shrug. He mutters “Jew” at me and walks away. I take that as a compliment and smile. Then up the trail past Absalom’s Pillar, past Jehoshaphat’s Cave, then up the path into the Arab village of Silwan.

I noticed some pretty strange stares and quickly covered my bare shoulders with my scarf. I hug a narrow road up the steep hill and get a lot of glares. I am not too comfortable with this idea, so I take a quick left on the first street possible which puts me just outside the Jewish Cemetery. I had read that Shindler is buried here, somewhere, so I wander up the stairs and through the cemetery. It is a beautiful day, the views across the Kidron valley are amazing and the serenity of this tranquil place calms me after the unsettling feeling I got in Silwan.

I eventually find my way back out of the cemetery and ask some people who are gathered around a tour bus if this is the road to the Mount of Olives? They tell me it is and then ask me if I had been to the Garden of Gethsemane yet? No, I haven’t. They point the way down the hill, I would have missed it and have somehow forgotten about it, there is just so much to see here.

I hike back down the road and find the little Garden of Gethsemane which is simply wonderful! Tucked away along the steep road which takes you to the top of the Mount of Olives, it is easy to miss. Entering the little garden with the ancient, gnarled and twisted olive trees within the fenced in area, which sits beside the pretty church, the location is simply put, perfect. I press my fingers through the link fence and caress a smooth, old olive tree. It was in this general area where Jesus had prayed to His Father that this cup be passed from Him, while His disciples slept near by. It is here also, where He was seized by the Roman soldiers and taken away.

The adjacent church, the Basilica of Agony, is small, but quite impressive inside. There is handful of faithful followers, kneeling by the rock where Jesus had prayed. The mood inside is a reverent solemn one. Leaving the church I head back up the steep road and eventually up to the prominent overlook viewing Jerusalem, then over to the Pater Noster, where Jesus taught His disciples the Lord’s Prayer. It is a remarkable church perched on the top of the Mount of Olives with stunning marble corridors and many, many colorful mosaic tiled inscriptions of the Lord’s Prayer in various languages for the different countries represented. There is even one in Cherokee and Cree.

I head back down the road, stopping by Mary’s Tomb and descend down in to where she was lain to rest. It is deep in the earth and very dark and cool. The steps are smooth and well worn down, almost slick beneath my feet.

The sun has traveled across the sky and is casting a golden glow of the Mount of Olives as I make my way back across the Kidron valley. I take the path up to the walls of the Old City and traverse along the walls, which are now engulfed in shadow, making my way back past the crumbling ruins of the City of David, back through the Old City, through Mount Zion and King David’s Tomb, peek into the Upper Room and eventually find my way back to the Jaffa Gate.

Shops are browsed on my way back to King George Street, mentally marking which ones I will return to.

Wednesday, April 3:

After a wonderful night’s sleep, I rise and make myself some coffee. Unfortunately, there is only one pack of instant coffee, I am going to need more. I get dressed and go downstairs for a great cappuccino, then head out for Yad Vashem. I take the train to Mount Herzl, get off and walk down the street to the Yad Veshem Holocaust Memorial Museum. I find it without any problems, and walk in.

“Designed by world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie, the new Holocaust History Museum is a prism-like triangular structure that penetrates the mountain from one side to the other, with both ends dramatically cantilevering into the open air. The triangular form of the structure was chosen to support the pressure of the earth above the prism while bringing in daylight from above through a 200 meter-long glass skylight. The skylight allows gleams of daylight to contrast with darker areas required for multimedia presentations. Within the galleries, light enters through localized skylights varying from diffused to clear glass, depending on the requirements of each exhibit.
The entire structure of the museum — floors, wall, interior and exterior — are reinforced concrete. Throughout the prism, the triangular cross-section varies, becoming narrower at the center. The warped surface formed by this variation, amplified by a gently sloping floor, creates a changing sequence of spaces and gives the illusion of descending deep into the mountain. As the route nears its northern exit, the floor begins to ascend and the triangle opens up again, with the exit bursting forth from the mountain’s slope to a dramatic view of modern-day Jerusalem.” ~ Yad

I had heard somewhere that the solitary triangle represents half of the Star of David, with the other half lost in the earth, meaning the six million Jews, all whom were murdered in the Holocaust.

I went in knowing this wasn’t going to be easy to view, I came out feeling completely drained, both mentally and physically, and full of despair. I keep asking myself ‘how could God have allowed this to happen?’

The girls I had hung out with the first couple of days had told me to “go do something really, really fun afterwards,” implying it was going to be tough and that I would need something to lift my spirits back up, after visiting Yad Veshem. My landlady told me that there is a very cute, artsy village just down over the hill from Yad Veshem, by the name of Ein Kerem. It was the home of John the Baptist. That is where I intend to go.

I am standing on the hill where I can board the train from Mount Herzl back into central Jerusalem or get on a bus going down over the hill to the little villages below. I am hem-hawing around when I notice a road sign which says Ein Kerem Road. Well, that it what I am looking for! I cross over and stand at the bus shelter. A young Israeli lad comes over and sits down beside me, his face buried in a book. I ask him how much for the bus to Ein Kerem. He asks me if I took the train here. I tell him I did. He then informs me that the same ticket I bought to get on the train will cover the bus ride to Ein Kerem. Wow. How awesome is that?
We board the bus and it is a very short ride down to the beautiful little, former Arab village sprawling the heavily forested Judean hills and into the green valley below. I get off at the first stop and take a little narrow stepped pathway further down into the tiny village. The path turns into an alley which winds it’s way through old authentic Arab houses, which have since become Israeli artists and the upper crust’s homes and shops.

I stop by the Church of John the Baptist, which opens later in the afternoon, continue on through this pleasant little village till I come upon the café Pundak Ein Kerem.

The restaurant is surrounded by pretty gardens and has a cozy little stone courtyard with shaded tables, so I enter and am quickly led to a table outside. I order a Sparkling Water and the Fried Goat Cheese Rolls with Pesto Sauce. I am not disappointed. They were quite substantial and very delicious! I use their restroom and am impressed with how charming and cute it is. I leave with a smile on my face.

I continue on my way, stopping by Mary’s Spring, a very interesting little spot, then up the hill to the beautiful Church of Visitation. It is here that Jesus’ mother Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth. Elizabeth was pregnant with John (who would become John the Baptist) and when hearing Mary‘s greeting, her unborn child (John) leapt inside her womb.

The church is very picturesque and lovely, the setting has some gorgeous views, I take a lot of pictures and then wander back down the steep hill and stop by an ice cream store for the best ice cream cone I have ever had in my life! It costs about $6, but it is worth every penny!

Winding back up the hill on the other side of town, to the Church of John the Baptist, which is now open for visitors, I stop by for prayer and a quick visit, then back to the place where the bus stop is located, on the road back up to Mount Herzl.

A short bus ride up the hill to Mt. Herzl, then on the train back to Jaffa Street and the Davidka stop. This is my last day in Jerusalem, tomorrow I leave for Tel Aviv. It is time to do some serious shopping!

Two pewter Star of David candlesticks, a chalice and plate, a couple of pieces of pottery, some trinkets, two Israeli flags, two T shirts and a purse later and I am loaded up. I stop by a local Pita shop just catty-corner to my apartment where I have the best Pita in the world and regret I didn’t eat here more often. Then it is back to my apartment and up the stairs where I am followed by a young man inquiring what this building is and if I would like to join him for coffee? I tell him I am pressed for time, no, I can’t join you for coffee and wave good bye to him.

Packing all my newly obtained purchases turns out to be quite a challenge, since most of them are fragile. Then it is time to do my laundry. The dryer takes forever to dry my clothes, my neighbor keeps impatiently checking on the availability of the dryer, so I lug it all in and scatter it around, hanging it on every piece of furniture, railing and doorknob I can find, hoping it will be thoroughly dry by tomorrow morning.

Thursday, April 4:

Today I leave Jerusalem for Tel Aviv, to spend my last two days in Israel. I gather up all of my [thankfully now dry] clothes and pack my stuff. One last check around the apartment, run my trash out to the trash can on the street, hide the key and I am on my way to the train to take me to Central Jerusalem and the busses to Tel Aviv.

My landlady had told me to avoid, if at all possible, the bus station in central Tel Aviv, which was my intention, but still, somehow, I managed to get on the wrong bus and end up on the way to downtown Tel Aviv. I am not happy about this, once I realized my mistake, and try to dislodge my disappointment by admiring the lovely countryside along the way to Tel Aviv. At one point, I see an United Nations vehicle pass our bus, emblazed with their large blue UN painted on the white SUV. I try to take a picture of it, but it is too quick for me.

We pull into Tel Aviv. I am not looking forward to figuring out my next move. We all grab our gear out of the belly of the bus, then we are directed through the entrance to the busy, buzzing bus terminals. Intimidation gets the best of me as I ask around if anyone speaks English. I am getting nos, shrugs and nothing but negative responses. I wander back outside. I spot a young female IDF soldier and ask her. She happily shows me where to get on the next shuttle bus to take me to the Carmel market, which is located close by my hotel. I am assuming once I reach the market, I will be able to [hopefully] find my way.

The surly shuttle bus driver snarls at me as I wait for my change, telling me to take a seat. I find a seat and catch his angry glare in the rear view mirror. I get a smile from a woman sitting behind me, across the aisle and ask her if she speaks English. She is quite friendly and happy to assist me, telling me she will let me know where I need to get off.

I get off at a busy intersection, amidst the Carmel market and pull out my Lonely Planet guidebook, which is no help at all with the numerous alleys which are not marked in the book. I go into a little restaurant and ask a patron sitting at the bar. He is very animated and eager to chat. I tell him the name of my hotel. He pulls out his phone and searches for the location. I am only a few streets away and he points me in the right direction.

I set off and almost immediately, take the wrong alley and become lost. I stop and ask a couple of women accompanied with young teen-agers on the street, if they speak English. The women don’t, but the kids do. Unfortunately, they aren’t able to help me. I keep walking. Eventually I come across a lot of parked busses and realize that this is the bus station I had originally intended to get off at! Now, I know the way, since I had mapped my hotel from this very spot.

I follow the street I need, past three blocks and find my street. Sure enough, there it is. Eden House TLV. What an adorable, charming, elegant little hotel! I make my way to the front desk where I am greeted with a huge sincere smile by a vivacious gentleman. He tells me to dump both my backpacks and make myself at home while he happily checks me in. He informs me that after I have made my reservation online (my heart quickly sinks) they had upgraded me to a suite for free (my heart quickly rises and sings in my chest.)

After my tiring and trying little adventure to get here, I am delighted to be shown to my room, which is located in the guesthouse, down the street and around the corner from the main hotel. My room is a sweet little suite, tucked downstairs in a quiet corner, at the end of the building. It has an extra bed, sitting area, kitchenette, bathroom and a little outside patio, all for me, all which was added for free. I can’t stop smiling as he shows me around, excitedly telling me how much I am going to love Tel Aviv!

As much as I love my lovely, inviting accommodating suite, I can’t wait to hit the beaches of Tel Aviv and to see Jaffa. I set off, down the street and around the corner into the strong breeze blowing off of the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t see it, I can’t hear it, but I can smell it in the wind. At the crossroad I make a left and there it is.

I cross the busy main intersection, mentally memorizing the streets for my return to my hotel. Then all is behind me and I am on the promenade, getting blasted by the cool winds off of the bright blue, but rough and tumbling Mediterranean, making my way to Jaffa, which I can see in the distance, sitting by the rolling sea.

For the life of me, I can’t stop smiling. The wind whips at me, the sun blindingly bounces off of the water, birds are stationarily airborne, flapping with all their might, in the wind. They turn and are quickly driven the other direction. I am still smiling when I come upon a water rescue team which had just pulled a body out of the sea. They have put it in a body bag and placed it on a stretcher. My sheer delight comes to a screeching halt. I stumble, both physically and mentally, and I am directed around this awful scene, as my mind tries to comprehend all of this.

I make my way down the promenade. Life goes on; the sun is brilliant, the wind whips around me, the joggers race by, lovers stroll hand in hand, exchanging smiles, hugs and kisses, children frolic about on the beach, couples snuggle on blankets, and surfers ride out the surging, swelling water, awaiting the perfect wave. It is just another glorious Spring day in Tel Aviv.

I cross the street and make my way up the side walk to Jaffa. Stop by the Monastery of St Peter, then up into the plaza, where I stop at a little café for a much-needed double espresso and a delicious chocolate dessert, and chat with the African Grey parrot named Coco and her owners. I then find the tiny, narrow alleyways which meander their way through this ancient, beautiful and perfectly preserved old city. I am lost in thought when I come upon a door with a sign which reads ‘home of Simon the Tanner.’ Oh my. That is then and only then that I realize this is the town known as Joppa in the Bible. This is the town where Jonah boarded a boat, to hide from God, well, we all know how well that worked out for him. This is the town where Peter raised Tabitha from the dead. This beautiful old city holds so much history, so many feet have traveled these stone walkways making them slick and smooth beneath my own two feet. What an amazing place! I follow the alley down the stairs to the port of this old city. I imagine Jonah desperately seeking the first ship departing this port, trying to run, trying to hide and then thinking he made it…only to wind up in the belly of the whale. What irony.

The shadows are growing longer, the day is getting cooler. And the wind is downright nippy. I wish I had brought along a jacket. I head back the way I came, back to Tel Aviv and my hotel.

I shower and dress for dinner. I cut through the now closing Carmel market, dodging piles of rubbish, rotten vegetables, heaping barrels of refuse and overflowing trash cans. Vendors are hosing down their sidewalks, sanitation workers are sweeping the parking lot. Stray cats scurry around, looking for a free meal.

I soon find myself in a trendy neighborhood filled with fashionable restaurants and chic cafes. I pass by Lulu’s Kitchen & Bar, then eventually decide on eating there and come back, where I am invited in and shown to a table. I order the Goat Cheese Stuffed Ravioli with baby Portabellas, along with some wonderful, warm crusty Focaccia bread served with a side of olives. A nice hearty Malbec and I am in heaven! Dinner was divine!

I was seated beside a group of six people; the man who’s conversation carried to me had a thick German accent although he spoke in perfect English. He overtly expressed his concern of North Korean and their ongoing threats of a nuclear attack on the United States. I listened, but kept silent. Strange to be hearing this in Israel. Strange to find that the rest of the world seems more concerned for us, than our very own president. When they got up to leave, I asked them where they were from? One of the women told me “Germany.”

I made my way back to my hotel, using the tall, domineering skyscrapers as navigational points. Back to my room for a much wanted, optimal night’s sleep. Slept like a log in my wonderful, wonderful bed. No noise, a very blissful, uninterrupted sleep.

Friday, April 5:

Up early, anxious to get out and about. I loved Jaffa so much, I am going back to spend the entire day there. Made myself some coffee, dressed, then headed to the main hotel for a delightful breakfast of scrambled eggs with a variety of breads and sauces. Then it is back to my room to pack and check out. They let me stow all my stuff under their stairs for the day, free of charge, and arrange a taxi to pick me up later tonight. Then it is off to the beach and the promenade.

I am walking on the sidewalk, enjoying the perfect day, the blue water of the Mediterranean, the wind whipping me in my windbreaker, big smile on my face, when a man jogs by me and stops. He says something which I don’t understand, he has a strong Eastern European accent. He asks me again. In Hebrew. I tell him I don’t speak Hebrew. He ask me “where are you from?” All the time he is nervously glancing around, looking over his shoulder, turning, twisting, looking away the whole time he pretends to be talking to me. He makes me extremely uncomfortable. I tell him “America” as I back away from him. He seems confused and asks me again “where are you from?” I tell him more loudly, “United States.”

I ask him “where are YOU from?“ He has a slight smile and switches to a broken, but very rough and heavily-accented English. “Russia” he replies. “You want to come with me for some coffee?” he asks me, all the time still nervously looking around him. I back far away from him, make a point to look at my watch and then tell him, “I must go, I am meeting some friends of mine, and I am late.” I hurriedly walk away from him. I glance over my shoulder, making sure he is not following me. He isn’t.

THAT I did not like. For a second, I had an image of human trafficking run through my mind. I can recall reading that Russia runs a lot of women from Eastern European countries and the Ukraine in illegal human trafficking through Tel Aviv. A shiver runs down my spine. I walk faster.

As I get far from Tel Aviv and closer to Jaffa, I relax and enjoy the views, once again. What a gorgeous day to spend in a wonderful little city. I take a different path into the village, come across the suspended orange tree, stop in pomegranate wine shop, pass expensive, extravagant artisan shops, and find myself again down beside the harbor.

Today is Friday, or better known here as Shabbat. Everybody is out with their families, and loved ones. Eating, drinking, shopping, laughing, taking pictures. Enjoying life. I watch fluffy, white egrets try their skills at fishing, while balancing on bow lines or from the edges of the piers.

I wander back up to the plaza and have a delicious lunch at Abrage. An orange & mango smoothie, Mediterranean Goat Cheese Salad and toasty hot bread. Then over to the café where Coco the parrot lives for another espresso, the owner is excited that I have come back and takes me into his house, which is filled with impressive, old antiques from the Ottoman period, and shows me the view of the beautiful Mediterranean from inside his house.

I can’t quite figure him out. He looks almost Arab, but yesterday I happened to see his gold necklace slip out of his shirt and he was wearing the Star of David, on the gold chain, so I know he is Jewish. But, he acts more like an Arab. (For those who have never been to Israel, you won’t know what I mean by this, but for those who have been here, you will catch my drift) Maybe he is originally from Turkey? He gets a tad bit too friendly and I take my leave.

I wander over to a little shop where the young man behind the counter is wearing a yarmulke. I buy some beautiful handmade stained-glass coasters from him and leave. He promptly closes up shop. He needs to go home and prepare for Shabbat.

I spend the rest of the late afternoon hours, sitting on a park bench, basking in the warm sunshine, watching the people. The doves hover around my feet begging for bread crumbs, which they have all quickly learned I just happen to have in my pocket.

As the crowds thin out, I go along with them, making my way back through the new part of Jaffa. I spy a beautiful old building adjacent to the clock tower and climb the steps up to the large patio and the entryway to the restaurant, on the second floor.

I walk over and peek inside. The interior is quite remarkable, very old and in excellent shape. I say to the young man sitting at the entrance “this is beautiful, how old is this?” He ignores me. I repeat my question. He states without looking at me “this is Muslim.”

Now, I am thinking to myself…I don’t care if it is Muslim, I asked you how old this is. I ask him if I can take pictures inside. He shrugs, still without looking at me. I enter and take a couple of pictures. I politely thank him on the way out. He ignores me and looks away.

Arrogance and insolence. In this wondrous land of two very different types of two very distinct peoples, both looking very similar to the other, it can be very hard to tell them apart. With the exception of course, of the Jewish men who wear their yarmulkes and the Muslim women with their heads covered. But in a lot of ways, the deciding factors are something as simple as their character. And the way they treat women.

I make my way back into Tel Aviv, through the lower end, past the same neighborhood I had been in last night, then I somehow make a wrong turn and next thing I know, I am in a very rough, very black part of Tel Aviv. The neighborhood of the Northern African immigrants. I keep my head down and move as fast as possible through the slums and very crowded marketplace. Not only am I the only white person here, I am hardly seeing a women around. I am not enjoying this.

I cross over some major highways, or I should say, I cross under, then through a fence and I am on the other side. The side where the towering skyscrapers stand, draped with the vast spans of Israeli flags hanging down their immense windowed walls. Back past the towers of power, past bank institutes and synagogues, back to Rockefeller Boulevard and the pretty tree-lined pedestrian pathways in the middle of the passing highways, past the quaint, quiet Jewish communities observing Shabbat, past a little yeshiva where the men are all singing, and eventually back to my hotel.

Michael, the happy chap who checked me in, is on duty. He gets me a glass of wine, along with a glass of water. I sit and wait till 10 PM, for my arranged taxi to come and pick me up. The change of guard takes place, Michael is relieved of his duty, and leaves for the night, the young man who is now in charge carries my stuff to the taxi, and it is off to Tel Aviv airport.

I had heard of the atrocities of the Israeli security at the airport and mentally brace myself, preparing for it. Once again, the rumors are highly over-rated. Many of us end of napping anywhere we can till we are allowed to check in.

Saturday, April 6:

2:30 AM. We are finally allowed to check in, then it is through their very tight and meticulous screening, then I am finally at my gate. We board at 5 AM. We wait to leave the gate till sunrise (being it is still Shabbat) then we are released and off we go, down the runway and up into the air. Good bye Israel. May God bless you and protect you, always.

Chiapas; Mexico 2012

Saturday, November 24: Flew out of BWI at 2 PM on United Airlines to Houston. Looking down somewhere over Tennessee I saw a mountain ridge dusted with snow. Then it was the lakes in the Ozarks and finally arrived in Houston to see some fall foliage still on some trees. My short layover turned into an hour longer one as my flight to Villahermosa, Mexico was delayed.

The flight from Houston to Villahermosa was on a United Express ERJ145 Regional Jet, which seats fifty, only had about thirty people aboard. Sweet! We spread out and made ourselves at home. The flight was a smooth, quick one with an entertaining flight attendant by the name of Fernando.

Arrived in Villahermosa airport at 10 pm. The promised free shuttle ride to the Hilton was not there, so I paid 100 pesos for a taxi for a 2 km ride to the Hilton. Got checked in and almost asleep when the party next door started up. Always remember to bring ear plugs! I popped those little suckers in and was soon comatose to the rest of the world.

Sunday, November 25: Up by 7, made myself a cup of coffee and was soon waiting for my free shuttle ride back to the airport where I had read in Lonely Planet that ADO has a ticket office for shuttles to Palenque. The young man at the Hilton didn’t seem to be aware of this, and you would think he would have, but he wanted to send me into town for the bus station. When I pointed it out to him in my Lonely Planet guidebook, all I got was a shrug. Well, the ride was a free one so I thought I would try it out. The cost into town would have been 200 pesos.

I get to the airport and sure enough, right next to the taxi stand is the ADO ticket counter, which I could have sworn I recalled seeing last night upon my arrival. There is nobody there. I am contemplating my next move when I see an ADO shuttle pull up outside and drop off an employee who comes in and sees me standing there, waiting. She smiles and happily sells me a ticket to Palenque for 125 pesos. It leaves in 45 minutes. I sit down at the little café inside the airport and get a cappuccino and some grilled bisquitas which were quite tasty.

I go outside to wait for the shuttle which arrives right on time. Nice big shuttle with comfortable seats. I have the one just inside the door which I got to pick when I purchased my ticket. I sit back, finally relax and enjoy the ride through the lush green pastures of the cattle country of Tabasco.

By 11 we are in the town of Palenque and at ADO’s tiny bus terminal. I saw on Google Earth that my hotel is only about two blocks away in La Canada. Just a hop, skip and a jump and I am being pleasantly greeted at Hotel Xibalba’s reception desk. 1,100 pesos for two nights. I am shown to my lovely, sparkling clean, sunny room with private bath and a safe in the bathroom. Nice. I get to lock up all my goodies.

Dump all my stuff and walk across the street for a quick lunch since those tiny, but tasty bisquitas I had at the airport didn’t last long. Order some cheese empanadas and a coke, then it is off to find a combi to take me to the ruins. It is impossible not to see them; white vans clearly marked ruinas on the window shield, beeping at you as they pass by. 10 pesos for the combi to the ruins, dropped off at the entrance where I pay 27 pesos to get into the park, then I am told I need to pay another 57 pesos for the ruins, which I find a bit confusing since the ruins are IN the park, but I cough up my extra pesos, get my wrist banded and happily set off. I can hear the howler monkeys from the entrance, pass under the dense trees and wow I finally here! Been wanting to do this for ten years, don’t know why it took me this long to get here.

I spend the rest of the afternoon climbing and exploring every nook and cranny and reclimbing a couple of the temples the second time around. The setting is just so magnificent, with the very vocal howler monkeys hidden in the nearby forests adding to the ambience of the jungle surroundings.

Back to the parking lot as the local merchants are packing up for the day. I catch a ride back to town with a family of vendors who lovingly pick at and tease each other. I sit in the back seat and smile.

Showered, cleaned up and head to the main street where I saw a couple of tour groups with some pretty good prices. A young chatty fellow offers me the Yaxchilan y Bonampek tour for 550 pesos, leaving bright and early tomorrow morning. My hotel wanted 800 for the same tour. I pay him, and head back to the little restaurant next door to Hotel Xibalba named El Huachinango Feliz. It was completely full with locals when I walked by earlier, now there is an empty table and I sit down. If I remember correctly, this is the place someone had mentioned on their review of my hotel on Tripadvisor, a few months back. They wrote “try the shrimp prawns in garlic!”

I pull out my Lonely Planet Spanish phrasebook and look up the word for garlic. Ajillo. Sure enough, there they are on the menu. Ajillo Camarón. I order them and a Negra Modelo. My waiter brings me tortilla chips w/ a black bean dip, a little salad with petite shrimp on it, and a huge serving of some mighty fine Ajillo Camarón! Aiy, they were delicious!! All for 98 pesos!

I stop by the desk to tell them I will need a 5:30 wake up call.

Monday, November 26: Silly me. Why would I think I need a wake up call when for some ungodly reason someone in the neighborhood needs to broadcast a radio program from their loudspeakers at 4:30 in the morning? Yep, now the dogs are all awake too. A few roosters chime in. Why not? At 5, I give up and get myself dressed.

Shortly after 6 my tour van pulls up in front of my hotel and I climb in. Everybody aboard says Buenos Dias. We stop just outside town and pick up the last person, a young lady from Argentina. Somewhere along the way we stop for a breakfast buffet. Then load up and eventually make our way to Frontier Corozal where we get in the boat and along with the current, shoot up the Usumacinta river which separates Mexico and Guatemala.

The steps leading from the river bank to the grounds of the ruins are slightly steep and sloped downward towards the river, which makes for a lot of laughing as we pull ourselves up using the railing. Our guide introduces us to the tunnels of the entrance and we are given flashlights. Victoria, the girl from Argentina, and I pair off since everybody else is traveling as couples and we trail behind, bringing up the rear. Lots of squealing and shrieks in the tunnels ahead as a couple of the women dodge the bats overhead.

We emerge from the “underworld” and climb the embankment to see the magnificent architecture which dominates the hilltop. One word for you. Wow. We spend about two hours exploring the ruins and watching the spider monkeys swinging from the tall leafy treetops high above us. The day has become more humid and icky. One last look around and we head down to board the boat and set off down river, now running against the current.

Just like a dog I have always enjoyed the wind in my face. Whether it be on a galloping horse, a racing motorcycle or a fast boat, the cool air in my face and the wind in my ears has always made me happy.

We are taken to a restaurant in the Lacandon jungle where we have a great lunch and then its back in the van to Bonampek. We arrive where the road leads to the ruins, and our tour guide pays for our entrances. We then have to climb out of our van and into the Lacandon’s van and we drive the road into the ruins with a Lacandon dressed in his white tunic riding in the back seat. He walks us to the ruins and we all separate, with Victoria and I heading up the massive staircase to the top of the temple.

The murals of Bonampek are simply amazing. I had seen pictures but still wasn’t expecting anything as grand as these. After everything is oohed and aahed, we make our way back to the van and eventually back to the town of Palenque.

I am dropped of at my hotel, walk out to the main street and purchase an afternoon tour for tomorrow to Misol Ha and Aguas Azul from the same happy chap who sold me today’s trip for $120 pesos, then stop by the fabulous little restaurant El Huachinango Feliz for some ice cream and a hot chocolate.

Tuesday, November 27: Stop by the front desk to inform the owner that I want una mas noche aqui at Hotel Xibalba. I eat breakfast at my hotel which consist of a rather small ham and cheese omelet and coffee and pay the exact amount I paid for that huge, scrumptious plate of garlic shrimp next door. 98 pesos. The hotel is super nice, rooms are clean and neat , the staff is on the ball, but my advice would be to eat elsewhere.

I spend the morning walking ‘round town, passing many little bakeries with the enticing, inviting aroma of fresh baked goods emitting from their doorways. Hindsight tells me now that I should have purchased my breakfast here and grabbed a cup of coffee from any one of the numerous cafes where the locals are jammed into. I buy some baked goods and stuff them in my backpack for later use.

Noon has arrived and I am back in another van where I am cheerfully greeted by Edmundo and Myna, the couple from Playa del Carmen who were on the tour with me yesterday. The day is a cloudy one and it looks like rain. I am hoping it holds off. We are dropped off along the road and follow the sound of the waterfalls down to the beautiful Misol Ha. Just want to mention here, lest I forget, there are some really cute cabanas by the waterfalls. If I could do over, I would have stayed here one night… beautiful gardens, blue morpho butterflies and the relaxing sound of the cascades makes for pretty much of a paradise in my book.

Pictures and video are taken, then I follow the path leading behind the waterfalls. Edmundo and Myna disappear into the grutas in the cliff. I take my time and enjoy the waterfalls.

Back to the van and onward to Aguas Azul. We pass many roadside stands with their colorful array of merchandise proudly displayed, school children heading home and then finally get to the cascades. Luckily the rain has held off. The cascades roar in my ears and I am thrilled to be here. I am making my way to the top of the long and winding cascades, climbing the stairs and avoiding the roots of the trees which will trip you if you are not paying close attention when I hear my name being called. It is Victoria, the Argentinean girl from yesterday’s tour. We are thrilled to see each other again, exchange emails and then she is off to find a ride back to El Panchan.

After thoroughly checking out the cascades, I buy a few items from the local vendors and then it is back to Palenque town. Loren, the French woman who has been along for the tour and is staying at my hotel joins me for dinner at my favorite spot, next door. We both have the Garlic Shrimp. She tells me of all her journeys. I had thought I was a well-seasoned wanderer. She puts me to shame with her 75 countries she has traveled through alone. Happy trails, Loren, wherever you may be by now.

Wednesday, November 28;

Up early, checked out, located the combis to Ocosingo and I am on my way. 50 pesos for a two and a half hour trip in a crowded combi to Ocosingo. Up and up we climb, on the twisting and winding road to Ocosingo. The young family seated in front of me has a little boy about the age of 4 or 5 and he is getting car sick. He takes it like a true little man and discreetly uses a plastic bag, never crying or complaining. They shuffle their four children between them as they try and comfort him as much as possible.

People are dropped off, we spread out and get more comfortable as we get nearer to our destination. The young family is dropped off and the little lad looks relived to be out of the van. We come down out of the mountains into the fertile fields where Ocosingo lies spread in the valley. A taxi driver finds me in the combis parking lot and takes me to Hospedaje Esmeralda.

I am checked into Hospedaje Esmeralda for one night. Cost 160 pesos. Small, but very clean room, shared bathroom next door. The family who run it are quite helpful and friendly, assisting me with all my questions. I eat a quick breakfast there and then set off for the Tonina ruins. The lady who runs Esmeralda drew me a little map to where I can find the combis for the 11 km ride to the ruins. Everybody stares, then smiles as I smile back and promptly greet me with many “Buenos dias!” Super friendly town.

I arrive where the combis are parked, but a young man who speaks perfect English intercepts me and offers me a ride to the ruins in the back of his pick up truck for 10 pesos. I take him up on his offer and climb in back with an older local couple who have been shopping at the market and are now on their way home. We all hang on tight amidst the crates and buckets of produce. Apparently the man riding in the back is the local dentist, at least that is what his sign says outside his house. They get dropped off and then I am dropped of at the entrance to the ruins. I stop to buy my ticket to the entrance and am told that I don’t have to pay anything. I happily set off on foot. It is a nice ten minute hike to the ruins, passing blissful pastures of contented cattle and horses in the tranquil, quiet countryside.

I pass the tiny little ranchero, cross the creek and climb the steps to Tonina. I am not prepared for the massiveness of these ruins. I read somewhere that Tonina conquered Palenque. Palenque was more spread out and very impressive, these are more consolidated and intimidating in size and presence. I follow the little blue footprint signs and explore the tunnels, which are scary being that I am the only one here. I set my camera to auto flash and take pictures in the tunnels, just so that I can see my way through them, hopefully not tripping over any unsuspected obstacles, tarantulas or vipers.

I make it out alive and climb to the top of the plateau on the ruins. Can’t do the pinnacle, although the blue footprint points the way, which I find highly laughable. The location is sublime, there are a mere handful of people traipsing about now and I take my time and enjoy Tonina.

I get back to the entrance just as the last combi arrives and the rivers checks the log in book, rounds up the locals in the area and waits for the last stragglers to appear, then we are on the way back to Ocosingo.

Back in Ocosingo, dropped off at the combis lot and I cross the street to a Farmacia to buy some cold medicine. I can feel a bad head cold coming on. The tour I had signed up with to Yaxchialn had a few people coughing and blowing their noses, should have known I would catch it. Buy the pills and head back to Esmeralda, a nice HOT shower, clean clothes and I enjoy my delightful dinner of grilled strips of ribeye steak in a bleu cheese sauce. Then walk to the plaza to take one last look around. I really, really like this town.

Thursday, November 29: Wake up feeling miserable. Head feels like a pressurized balloon about to burst. Runny nose. Bad cough. My ears are shut, everything is muffled. I take my pills and eat a light breakfast, pound the coffee then I am off to find the combis for San Cristobal.

I walked from Hospedaje Esmeralda to the lot where the collectivos were. The tout saw me coming and asked me if I was going to Palenque? I shook my head and told him San Cristobal. He pointed to the vans. I eagerly climb in the one which is loading and wait patiently for us to leave. We are soon on our way and it seemed to me that we are heading north instead of south, but I am in the backseat and figure the driver knows where he is going, the road probably turns at one point. The guy sitting next to me is yapping on his cell phone in a Mayan dialect. I wait till he hangs up and ask him if this is the road to San Cris. He shakes his head and says Palenque. I start to panic. Palenque is 2 and a half hours from Ocosingo. Ocosingo is 2 and a half hours from San Cris. That means I just made a 7 and a half hour mistake. I explain to him that I want to go to San Cris, he shakes his head and says again, Palenque. I am distraught. Just then the driver pulls over to check on the cargo on the roof, being there is a vehicle inspection up ahead, by the police. As he is walking around the back, my buddy next to me opens the window and informs the driver that the gringa is in the wrong van. Everybody in the van hangs their heads and softly chuckle. So does the driver.

The driver tells me that I can get out and wait by the side of the road for a ride back to Ocosingo. He gets my backpack own off the roof and points to the other side of the road. I no sooner cross the road when here comes a pickup truck. He stops. I ask him “Ocosingo?” The driver nods and motions for me to hop in back. I climb in the back where there are two very surprised-looking guys, we all hang on for dear life, me clutching both backpacks and the side bar of the truck, as we come back down off the mountain and back into Ocosingo. The diver of the pickup makes sure I got on the right combi. No mistake this time.

By the time we get into San Cris, I am feeling much worse. Dropped of at the very busy combi lot, taxi drives wanting to take you any and everywhere. I tell a young taxi driver I need to go to Posada del Abuelito. He has no idea where that it, and stupid of me, I do not have the address on me and I know it isn’t in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Luckily another man overhears and rattles off the directions to the young guy. We soon discover that it isn’t where the other guy told us it would be, I kind of have an idea we are close, since I had marked it on Google Earth, but I can’t tell which way is north or south or which direction the plaza would be. And I am finding out just how limited my Spanish speaking skills really are.

I soon give up and bail out. I go into the nearest public establishment and ask the young lady behind the desk “Donde es Posada del Abuelito, por favor?” She walks me to the street and points the way. Turns out we are just one street down and around the corner from the Posada.

The Posada is as cute as shown on Tripadvisor. I pay for my seven nights there, then drop my stuff and get directions to a Banamex bank, which I have found out the hard way back in Palenque, is the only bank which accepts my debit card. I am in dire need of pesos. The lady in charge at the Posada marks the bank on the map, I set off on foot. Well, turns out I can’t find it anywhere. I am seeing Bancomer, Banorte, Azteca, everything but what I want to see. Just when I have sat down at the edge of the plaza do I see a OXXO convenience store and see their ATM sign. I recalled a few days before I left on this trip, I had read on Lonely Planet’s forum about someone who seemed to be having the same problem I am having and how they could use OXXO’s ATM. It worked like a charm! J

Now that I have money, I set off for a Farmacia. I need more cold medicine. The pills I have are for a chest cold, I need a decongestant. I describe my symptoms to the pharmacist and she hands me a nasal spray. I hate those things. For some reason they never work well for me. I pull out my Lonely Planet phrasebook and show her “tener resfrio” and motion to my head, eyes, ears forehead again. Ah…she exclaims and comes back with a pack of pills which show a head all red and inflamed around the ears, eyes, nose and throat. Si!

Got my pills, got my money, now it is time to take it easy. I noticed a list of budget places to eat at hanging on the wall at the Posada, one of them was El Caldero, a tiny hole in the wall which only serves soup. Right now I am thinking a big bowl of Chicken soup would do my body good. And, it IS in my Lonely Planet guidebook. I find it without any problem. There is only one table available, I take it. I watch as the waiters deliver huge steaming bowls of soup. I order the Chicken soup with rice, my waiter places it in front of me…it is so big I could go swimming in it…almost! I think it is good, my taste buds have stopped working, but at least it makes me feel better.

Take my cold medication and in bed under five thick, toasty, warm heavy blankets by 7 PM. Popped in my ear plugs and out like a light.

Friday, November 30; Feeling much better. Today I am taking a day off, from my vacation. No plans, no hurries, no worries. I take a picture of the map of San Cris which is posted on our Posada’s wall, since it is much more elaborate and detailed then the measly one in Lonely Planet Mexico. After breakfast, I decide to locate and photograph all fourteen churches in San Cris. That’ll give me something to do today, at my own pace. If it takes all day, so be it.

I start out with the one closest to the Posada and work my way down into town. I have problems locating La Merced and almost give up, when I accidentally walk by it. Turns out it is my most favorite church of all. Strangely, the cross outside the church in inscribed with Mayan Hieroglyphs. I find that to be interesting. J

The search pretty much uses up my entire day. I take it slow, drink fresh-squeezed orange juice from the street vendors and stop by El Caldero for some more chicken soup. After I have satisfactorily finished photographing all fourteen churches, I make my way back to my room for a long, HOT shower. Tomorrow I will take a combi to Chamula.

Saturday, December 1; Just want to interject here…if you are planning a Mexican vacation, always make sure you bring ear plugs! I learned the hard way many years ago, now I always have them with me, anytime or anywhere I travel. And I get lots of peaceful sleep. After I pop them in, which I did when the locals started setting off the M80’s, cherry bombs, firecrackers…you name it…at 3:30 in the morning.

I am eating my lovely breakfast of toasted French bread with an extremely delicious homemade marmalade of bananas, apples, pears, sugar and cinnamon with smooth locally grown coffee when the other guests start to arise and wander out looking like they got no sleep, whatsoever. They are all bleary-eyed and immediately reach for the coffee pot.

With the directions memorized in my head, I set out down the street , make a right on Utilla and follow it out to where the combis to Chamula are supposed to be located. I walk and walk. And walk. I finally stop and ask for directions to the combis. I am told I went too far, from what I am gathering anyway. I go back and turn down the street I was pointed to. I walk and walk. Stop and ask again for directions. I am sent back the way I came. Go around another block and ask for directions. Walk and walk. I stop and ask a man who is pushing a cartful of pineapples. He starts to tell me, then motions for me to come with him. I am embarrassed because his other vendor friends are now laughing, as he leads the way, pushing his load of pineapples. We get to a street, he motions for me to go down one block and make a left. I was just on this street, but I follow his directions and there in a narrow alley are combis, plainly marked Chamula. In case any of you have noticed…I am not the sharpest tool in the shed! ;)

I get on board, and we are soon climbing up and out of San Cris. There are two guys from San Francisco, California seated behind me. I take advantage of this time, being that the people I have been running into who speak English are few and far between, so the 28 km ride flies by.

We get to the little plaza, get out, pay our 12 pesos. I am amazed at how chilly it is here. It is downright blustery and cold. And I only packed a light windbreaker. We pay our dues at the church, 20 pesos to get in and are given stern warnings about how no cameras are allowed. Cameras go into backpacks and we enter.

Now, I had heard about this church, been wanting to see it for many years now, but never anticipated anything like this. There are no benches or pews. There are about four inches of pine needles on the floor which makes for some pretty slippery walking. We shuffle our way through the small crowd of tourists, to the front and see the most unusual sight; local Mayan people on their knees dripping melted candle wax on the floor to which they adhere the candles in an upright position. Hundreds and hundreds of candles. Around the interior walls of the church are all the saints lined up in their glass cases. Around these cases are sprays of flowers. Hundreds and hundreds of flowers. In front of the glass cases are tables with more candles lit in glass votives. Hundreds and hundreds of votives.

There are small groups of locals on their knees, praying, chanting or singing before certain saints. Most of them have soda bottles from which they drink and belch, supposedly dispersing any evil spirits. I see a shaman waving a pine branch over an old lady, he then picks up a bag of chicken eggs which he waves over her and all around her, then places the bag on the floor, pours a clear liquid from a bottle (I am suspecting it to be pox) into the bag and again waves it around the lady. The impulse to pull out my camera was almost overwhelming. The two guys from San Francisco said the same thing. The one guy said I wonder who I could bribe here, so I could take pictures! :-)

With the warmth of all the candles, the scent of pine needles and all the flowers in the air, I find the place quite comforting, especially compared to the blustery cold outside. We take our leave and exit the church just as the church bells start ringing.

I wander around outside, walk through the market and buy a warm jacket and a tablecloth. Then it is back in the van and back to San Cris.

Walking back into town I see a political protest. Can’t quite figure it out, then notice a gringo behind me who is videoing it also and ask him what the demonstration was about. He says that they are protesting their president who was just re-elected. Hmmm…sounds familiar. I stop by a café for a fresh strawberry cream cheese torte and a cappuccino! Enjoyed an interesting, but very political conversation with a chap from Ireland, named Peter. The debate leaves me with a bad headache and I move on.

Time for dinner. I hunt down the Comida Thai which is way out on Real de Guadalupe towards the church. It is a tiny place, with only five tables and everyone is taken. I am about to leave when the waiter comes out and tells me that one table is leaving in a few minutes. He takes my order on the street corner and tells me my food will be ready by the time my table is available. He is right. I had ordered the Pad Thai and a Thai Iced coffee. Two thumbs up! If you like Thai food, do NOT pass this by!

Sunday, December 2; Today I signed up for the Lagunas de Montebello and El Chiflon tour for 250 pesos. We leave at 9 AM and stop by the Grutas de San Cristobal outside of town, then stop for shopping outside Comitan, then it is to the beautiful emerald green lakes and the mighty El Chiflon. It was an amazing day, albeit a very long one. Like the gringo who was filming the demonstration yesterday said, they try to cover too much ground in one day, on this tour. He did it and said by the time they got to the lakes, it was getting dark and you really couldn’t enjoy them. We did it backwards, by the time we got to El Chiflon, the mirador was closed and it was getting dark. My impression of that day trip is…they should omit the Grutas from the tour, it is only 8 km outside of San Cris anyway, you could see it on your own if you want to. That ate up about an hour of our time. Maybe start at 7 Am instead of 9. The scenery along the way was amazing. It was an incredible day, just way too much for one day. IF I could do it over again, I would have stayed overnight at the cabanas by El Chiflon. They were beautiful and inviting, saw another blue morpho butterfly and the sounds along the rivers are just so relaxing. Lots of picnic areas by the river with tables and grills, lots of locals packing up and leaving the area just as we were arriving. It would have been really nice to have more time to spend there.

Monday, December 3; Hung around town all day. I think I ate more today than the last five days combined. Bought my bus ticket for my 5 hour ride back to Villahermosa, for Friday. :( Fly out at 7 AM on Saturday morning. My, how time flies!

I stopped for lunch at Pollo a la Lena. I passed it the other day and the chicken looked so yummy, even though I wasn’t hungry at that time. I am seated at a table and enjoying my half of a chicken with rice and vegetables and fresh, homemade tortillas when in walks a gringo who is seated next to me. “How is the chicken?” he asks. “Awesome,” I say. He asks if he can join me. Sure, why not. It has been awhile since I had a great conversation with anyone. I soon learn that he lives in New Jersey, has worked all his life at Three Mile Island, which is about seven miles from my house and comes to Mexico every winter. We talk and talk. He asks me to join him at La Vina de Bacco later that evening. At 7 PM I am enjoying my lovely Argentinean Malbec when my new friend joins me. We have a couple glasses of wine and tapas of different varieties, we talk of books and writers, he tells me to be sure to go to the Nature Reserve just outside town, before I leave San Cris, if I would like to do some independent hiking. We say our goodbyes, he is flying back home for the holidays, tomorrow out of Cancun.

Tuesday, December 4; Enlisted another gal from Switzerland, Karen, who is staying at our Posada to go horseback riding with me. We left at 9 AM and rode over to Chamula. The day was bright and sunny, I had dressed warm remembering how cold it was up in Chamula. My horse is probably as old as I am, and missing a shoe. We take it slow and let the horses et their own pace. Our guide watched the horses as we walk to the plaza and I watch Karen’s face as we enter the church. She is amazed as I was the other day. This time, there are locals with live, but seemingly very intoxicated roosters which soon become sacrifices. We leave after the second rooster is disposed of. Thankfully, they were too drunk to feel anything.

We get back to San Cris by noon, Karen and I go to El Caldero for some more of that fantastic soup. Walk around town, say our goodbyes, she is heading to Tulum tomorrow, I got a Chocolate Workshop at 5 PM.

The Chocolate Workshop cost 250 pesos and is at the Chocolate Museum, of course. I arrive early and find out that I am the only student. A sweet, very animated, happy young girl by the name of Alexandra is the teacher. She can’t understand me and I can’t understand her. So…she teaches me, much like charades. It is amazing how much can be relayed that way!

We handpick the cocoa beans from their own private collection, roast them, shell them by hand, run them through a hand grinder, not once, but three times till we get a thick paste and believe you me, it is very hard to turn that grinder. Then we add sugar and run it through again. Then it is heated till smooth, spread into a mold into which we add anything we want, I add ground coffee and shaved almonds. The mold is put into the freezer. Alex ask me if I would like to have some hot chocolate from the small amount of sauce we have left over. She then ask me if I like tequila, which of course, I do. She abruptly leaves and returns with some tequila and adds it to the hot chocolate. Oh my! Very tasty! Who would have thought?

She then tells me to relax and tour the museum while my chocolate bar chills. I am completely absorbed in a conversation with a couple from Mexico City who speak English when Alex arrives with my beautiful and very tempting-looking chocolate bar! I give her a nice tip and happily leave with my chocolate bar in hand, back to my Posada. This little excursion was probably my favorite one! So much fun and you really learn to appreciate what all goes into making chocolate!

Wednesday, December 5; Today I go to the Sumidero Canyon. Back in February 2009, I flew out of Guatemala City and coming up over Chiapas, Mexico, I looked out my airplane window and saw this amazing canyon far down below. That was when I knew that I had to see it in person! Cost is 250 pesos. We leave from San Cris at 9 AM, the ride over the mountain is beautiful, the day is sunny, we get to the river and all put on our life jackets.

The boat ride is amazing! The canyon is breathtaking and stunning! We see egrets, herons, a kingfisher, cormorants, crocodiles and even a couple of spider monkeys! What a great day! Another one on the “must-see lists!” The captain of the boat is very patient and allows everyone the time they need for those perfect shots. Just want to mention that I noticed they really allow you to take your time on these tours I have been doing. There is no rushing, nobody telling anybody what to do, everything is so laid back.

After the canyon we stop at Chiapa de Corzo and are given an hour to walk around and get something to eat. I buy some empanadas from a street vendor, find a huge shade tree, sit down and enjoy my empanadas and the scenery.

Get back to San Cris and decide that tonight I am going to splurge. I stop by La Vina de Bacco
for a Buenos Noche beer made specially by Modelo only for the holidays, then eat an awesome, delicious, juicy steak at El Argentino restaurant. I take my scraps and the remaining bread back to “my dog,” a little Akita-mixed mutt who lives next door to the Posada. He is old and hobbles around, kind of like me in the mornings.;)

The guy in charge at the Posada ask me what time I am checking out in the morning? I tell him I am here till Friday. He says not. We go look at the book. I made a mistake. I ask if I can stay for one more night. He says he thinks it is booked full. I go to bed slightly worried, not wanting to have to move for only one day, since I am taking the bus back to Villahermosa on Friday and already bought the non-refundable ticket for 245 pesos. And I am so comfortable here!

It is around 2:30 AM that I awake from a belly ache. What happens next makes me spend about an hour on the cold, hard bathroom floor. Yep. I got sick. Probably something I ate. I reluctantly crawl back into bed after about an hour, not because I didn’t want to, but because I just felt much safer lying on the bathroom floor…but it was just too cold on the floor and I now had the chills. I put on my warm fleece pants, two t- shirts and wrap up in the five toasty warm blankets.

Thursday, November 6; This morning a friendly fellow whom I never saw before was brewing coffee and then went into the Posada's office. I asked him if he speaks English. He does. I then explained how I made a mistake when I booked and I need one more night, since I bought a bus ticket to Villahermosa for Friday. He then said that my room should still be available, but he has to check the internet to see if it got reserved online.

About 10 minutes later, the Mexican lady who I have been seeing here everyday arrives and I try to explain in my poor Spanish that I will need one more night here. That is when the happy chap, Guillaume,
laughed and said "actually, I am the owner of the Posada." I had never met him, because he was in Guatemala the whole time I have been here. He just happened to come back today.

He said my room is free, you can have it for tonight. I gave a big sigh of relief and told him I need to pay him for it. That was when he told me, "no, it is free. You stayed here a week, you get one night free. "

I am still thinking he was just being nice, because I never saw anything about that online. J

After my wonderful, leisurely, light breakfast and some delicious coffee I decide to walk to the Orquideas Moxviquil which is about a thirty minute walk and costs 30 pesos to get in. It is easy to find. I pay the entrance fee and the young guy opens up the orchid hothouse for me to explore. So may teeny tiny little flowers, they are all so easy to miss.

After photographing all the tiny, fragile orchids I set off on the path which takes me high up into the hills surrounding San Cristobal when I realize that this is the Nature Reserve that Marty, my gringo friend from New Jersey, was talking about. I found it after all! What a gorgeous area, what a beautiful hike! It was only a 2 km hike, but it was all uphill or downhill and I was struggling with it, only because I got so sick last night. That took a lot out of me.( Pardon the pun.) I take it slow.

Then it is one last walk into town and I climb the steps, all 285 of them once again, to the church high on the hill. I am resting on my way back down when I spot the Aussies I met on the Sumidero Canyon tour. They are on their way up. We say our goodbyes. I then visit La Merced for one last time. I get back to the Posada, pack everything in my 65 liter backpack and am amazed everything actually fits.

Friday, December 7; After an eight hour bus ride with numerous check points by the Mexican military, then three taxis rides, I am finally safe and sound in my comfy room at the Best Western hotel, in Villahermosa, Mexico.

I knew the bus ride was going to be a tremendous one, but I was not expecting the Hilton Hotel by the airport, to be booked full. I had about 400 pesos left, since I knew the taxi from the bus station to the Hilton was 200, so I left a few more, just in case. Well, I used my 200 pesos to the Hilton, found out there is no room at the hotel available (due to the Virgin de Guadalupe Festival), figured I would sleep at the airport, paid a taxi driver 100 pesos to take me to the airport where I just happened to run into another taxi driver who spoke English and told me you can't sleep at the airport anymore.

So, I am down to my last 100 pesos and no hotel. The taxi driver told me there is an ATM inside the airport and he will watch my backpack for me and wait and take me to a hotel, for no charge. I left my backpack with him and went in and got 500 more pesos. (Enough for the taxi ride into town and for the ride to the airport tomorrow morning.)

When I came out I told him to take me to a good hotel, I can and I will pay you now! He took me to the Best Western and asked the valet if they have rooms available, before he drove away. I paid him, but he refused a tip, my angel. :-)

Want to mention here that I liked the Best Western much better than the Hilton. It is only about a ten minute ride to the airport from the Best Western, in case anyone is interested in those logistics.

Saturday, December 8; Up at 4:30 AM, at the airport by 5:15 for my 7 AM flight back to Houston, Texas and then to BWI.

Mexico was awesome! This was my twelfth trip to Mexico, but my first one to Chiapas. I really enjoyed it! The Mexican people were so kind and helpful even going the extra mile to help me out in my own little jams I go myself into. I got everything I wanted to do done, plus some other excursions. Really enjoyed Palenque, Ocosingo, Tonina, Sumidero Canyon and the Chocolate workshop. San Cris was beautiful. The highlight was most definitely Yaxchilan and Bonampek!

Thank you Mexico!!

Peru 2012

Huaraz, Peru (part one)

This was my third trip to Peru, the first two being in the Cusco/Sacred Valley areas. I had heard about the “second highest mountain range in the world,” the beautiful mountains in Huaraz and me being a mountain-lover decided it was time I went and checked it out for myself.

Saturday, May 26 ~ I flew out of BWI at 11:30 in the morning and arrived in Miami around 2 PM. My 4:30 Lima flight was delayed an hour and a half. We finally got airborne little after 6 PM and I settled in for the long five hour flight.

Got into Lima at 11 PM. My driver from Casa Ana was waiting for me at the airport. He delivered me to their door and I was shown to my room. It was the same room I had last September and I was happy to be back in Lima. After the long draining day of traveling, I slept sound, resting assured that they would wake me for my 6 AM taxi ride back to the airport.

Sunday, May 27~ Up early and at the airport for the 6:30 check in on LC Peru to Huaraz. Get to the gate and find out the flight is delayed until further notice. At 10:30 we are told the flight will be leaving soon, by 11 AM we are finally on board the spiffy little Dash 8 and climbing up and out of the thick grey clouds which enshroud Lima.

The flight is listed as an hour flight, it only seems like twenty minutes as time quickly passes while I sit in amazement and stare out of the windows at the Cordillera Blanca. The anticipation builds!

We land light as a feather and coast to a stop. Everyone is up, out of their seats and step out into the brilliant and blinding white light of the bright sunshine. As our eyes adjust, we are stopped dead in our tracks. Straight ahead, hovering just behind the small airport terminal is the mighty, massive Nevada Huascarán! Welcome to Huaraz!

I gather up my gear and we are ushered into the tiny terminal. A couple of persistent taxi drivers latch on to me, I turn and spy two guys who seem to be traveling together and ask them if they want to split a taxi. They quickly take me up on it and into the taxi we climb and head down the road towards Huaraz. Cost for me, 20 sol.

The two guys are from England and tomorrow they will be setting out to do the Huayhuash. I wish them well and I am dropped off at Churup Guesthouse. Churup is a cute little guesthouse, looks kind of like a Swiss Chalet, lots of floors with inviting parlors and cozy rooms. The stairs are carpeted and have another layer of stair pads on top along with signs posted stating “No stumping in hiking boots after 10 PM. We need our sleep.” I like that!

My room isn’t ready yet, so my luggage is put into a storage closet and I go up on the terrace. There is no way I can explain how overwhelming the views of the mountains are. They dominate the horizon and everywhere else you look, it is virtually impossible to peel your eyes away from them. The sun is intense and I have to go back to the storage closet and get a change of clothes. It is much warmer than I had expected.

I head over to the church next door and it’s pretty little plaza, then just aimlessly set off on foot, thinking I can find the path to El Mirador. I find myself wandering through the part of town, which I soon realize is, the only part which wasn’t destroyed by the 1970 earthquake. It is a lovely, sunny Sunday afternoon and the local families are serving up Pachamanca on tables set up in the narrow streets. The entire neighborhood is involved with either cooking, serving or eating at the crowded tables. Little piglets roasted whole are displayed, chicharron is advertised by handwritten signs dangling from the tented stalls and pitchers of chicha morada grace the tables. The mood is a very festive one. I feel lucky to have stumbled upon this.

I get to a crossroad and run into another gringa, who is from Seattle, Washington. Her husband is off doing the Huayhuash for ten days and she is stuck in Huaraz with a slight leg injury. Together we decide to walk up to El Mirador, after checking out a map she has on her. We set off and I start to get a bit of a headache. We stop at a little café on the way up towards the cemetery and have some coca tea.

My guidebook says it is a 7 km hike up to the cross, but the smooth dirt road with all it’s switchbacks makes it a pretty easy climb for my first day. The views are astounding and I stop often to take pictures. Andrea, though limping, leaves me behind as I move at a turtle’s pace, stopping often to gaze in wonder and for many more photos. In the distance Huascaran reigns supreme on the northern horizon, gleaming so bright in the late afternoon light. That is one big, big mountain!

At the top we can see Llaca Quebrada and it’s snowy glacier peeking between it, more mountains to the south of us and Huascaran the north’s anchorman. A number of local people are here also enjoying this beautiful late afternoon.

We make it back to Huaraz just as the light is fading from the sky. Huascaran is now an iridescent white in the purple twilight, making it appear even larger than what is probably is. My belly reminds me that I have completely forgotten about it, in all the excitement of the day.

As I come back pass the church, I notice that they are setting up firewood for a bonfire in front of the church. On top of the roof of the church, next to the steeple, stands a young lad strumming his guitar and singing. They are getting ready for some festivities here tonight.

I go back to Churup, get my stuff out of the storage closet and into my appointed room, change into warmer clothes and inquire about the festivities planned by the church. The guy at the front desk doesn’t seem to know anything about them, so I leave and go in search of dinner.

Dinner finds me at Café Andino. Pretty place, located on the third floor, brightly colored rooms, welcoming lounge area with huge fireplace, the upstairs has a book exchange. I am seated at an table on the upstairs outside balcony. The intoxicating aroma of pesto greeted me upon entering and now I am craving it badly. I order the Pesto Chicken Pasta, which turns out to be quite delicious!

With a bellyful of pasta, I head back to my room. Then I recall the preparations up at the church and head on up. There are large crowds of teenagers, singing, dancing, music playing, the bonfire is ablaze, what a celebration! I still have no idea what it was, but they were having fun!

Back to my room and a hot shower. The day’s events have taken their toll on me. Time to sleep.

Monday, May 28~ Up early for the continental breakfast offered at Churup. Then down to the front desk to pay for my room and get a taxi to take me to the Lazy Dog Inn, where I will spend the next two days.

The Lazy Dog Inn is located 12 km outside Huaraz, up in the mountains. The ride takes about a half hour. The road is a dirt one with lots of hairpin turns and as we wind our way higher up into the mountains, I keep catching glimpses of immense snowy ranges round each bend.

The Lazy Dog Inn is a gorgeous place, situated on a slight hill, the main house on the higher ground with the cabins located downhill and the horse stables on the edge of the property. I am greeted by the family dogs and Nick, the assisting manager. Diana, the owner, is in the kitchen, Nick helps me with my backpack and together they show me to my room. It is a lovely bedroom with a big picture window facing the Llaca Quebrada, skylights in the ceiling and woven tapestries on the wall. I am shown the shared bathroom and Nick explains how the composting toilet works. Then the day is mine!

I ask about a good hike and Nick sends me on my way to the Wilkawain ruins, which are 6 km downhill, halfway back to Huaraz. I remembered seeing them when we passed by in the taxi, seems like a decent hike for acclimating, so off I go.

It is another brilliantly blue sky overhead, the sun is surprisingly very warm and I take to my hike like a bear takes to honey. The stunning scenery dazzles me with much interest and appreciation; sharp, ridged snow-capped mountain peaks, tall, swaying Eucalyptus trees, the constant teasing sound of bubbling, gurgling waters somewhere underground only to emerge cascading down a deep crevasse into a grassy valley far below.

For a short time I had a sheep accompany me. He appeared from out of nowhere. I think he thought I was his owner. He spotted me and came running down the road behind me, baa-ing all he could. At first it was a bit unsettling, I was thinking he might be a mean one, but he came running to me, then seemed to look at me as if to say “hey, you are not who I thought you were,” then he ran on ahead of me and turned round as if to look at me from another angle, decides that he really doesn’t know me after all and ran baa-ing back up the road from where he first appeared.

I finally arrive at the Wilkawain ruins only to have the guard tell me the ruins are closed, come back tomorrow. What? I came the whole way down here to be told the ruins are closed? Now it is another 6 km back, which is now all uphill. Well, at least I am getting my exercise…a great acclimating hike, I keep reminding myself.

Just before the road which turns off to the Lazy Dog, I sit down to change the batteries in my camera and spot a caravan of cattle, sheep and donkeys driven by two local ladies coming up the road. I hold my camera low and away from my body hoping I can video them without the ladies knowing. I let the video roll and pretend that I am just resting, but alas, the women are too smart for me. The one lady shakes me down for money. I reach into my pocket and hope I pull out 1 sol, but it is a 5. She takes it and demands payment for the other lady. I reach back into my pocket and out comes another 5 sol. She gives that to the other lady and they gleefully cackle with laughter the rest of the way up the road. I sit on my rock feeling a bit miffed.

I get back to the Lazy Dog and Nick asks me how I liked the ruins? I tell him they were closed. Diana overhears, laughs and asks Nick how he could forget…it is Monday. Apparently all ruins in Peru are closed Monday, except Machu Picchu. Anybody know, is that true? I ask Diana how much 10 sol rounds out to? She laughs and asks me “why, who got you?” I tell her about the women. She tells me her cook is their niece and she tells her young cook about the incident. She laughs, they laugh, we all laugh.

I help myself to an ice cold local IPA brew and sit outside in the late day sun, enjoying the coolness of the approaching evening and the whisper of the winds in the Eucalyptus trees.

Once the sun disappears, the temperature drops drastically. The fireplace is lit and stoked with ample firewood, wine is offered, the other guests are assembling and dinner is served. We are served family-style; the meal is a delightfully delicious array of cream of cauliflower soup, salad, zucchini stuffed with chicken, cheese and rice and banana nut cake for dessert.

The stuffed zucchini was simply amazing! I had to have seconds!

The other guests are a young couple from Washington DC, a young couple from England and Ireland, and a young couple involved with the Andean Alliance NGO. Our conversations over dinner were almost as good as the meal!

I am whooped after my long, high-altitude day hike, the young people all head outside to the fire pit, I adjourn to my room.

Sometime during the night I wake up and roll over only to see an immense, incredible display of stars twinkling above me through the skylights.

Tuesday, May 29 ~ First one up for breakfast; scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, toast, juice and coffee. Diana has a six hour horseback riding tour to Llaca Lake lined up with some people who are arriving, but no more Peruvian Pasos for me to ride, so I opt for a ride on one tomorrow. Decide to hike up to Llaca glacier on foot today. Nick packs me a lunch and I set out just as the group is arriving for their horseback ride.

The trail is an easy one to follow, although it is a rocky one. I make it to the geography boundary of the Huascaran National Park when the group on horseback overtake me and disappear on ahead. When I get to the entrance of the Huascaran National Park, I crawl under the railing and pay the guard 5 sol. I find the short cut Nick had told me about on the right, shortly past the entrance. It is a steep zigzagging path which cuts up over the high canyon wall.
The shortcut brings me out on an upper road, I follow it and can now see the huge Llaca glacier straight ahead. It looks so close, but looks can be deceiving in the distances judged by the eye. I get to the bridge and cross the river. I take the path to the left and head up the road. The road goes on forever, just out of curiosity I take out my map Nick had drew me and realize I am on the road to the refuge, no to the lake.

Exhausted I stop for lunch. My toes are hurting. I had read in Turn Right At Machu Picchu that you should always wear a double pair of socks when trekking and I broke that rule on my very first hike, up to El Mirador. It is the downhill that kills the toes and now my toes are screaming. I eat my packed lunch and have now drawn the attention of the cattle which were grazing in the valley. A couple of them approach me. They are friendly bovines; just curious and they snoop around me. They know I am eating. When I get up and head down into the valley to the river, one comes over and smells where I was eating, looking for food scraps.

The valley is simply beautiful. Giant lupines stand by the rushing, tumbling alpine blue waters. Huge boulders meant for crawling on, which I do, are strewn across the green meadows. Waterfalls tumble past the rocky formations by the river, butterflies are flitting around the lupines and the friendly cattle have now followed me down onto their turf.

I never make it to the lake. I was enjoying that valley too much! Plus, my toes were reminding me it was soon time to head back.

On my way back, the group from Lazy Dog Inn ride past me. I enviously watch the Peruvian Pasos and their elegant gaited glide. Tomorrow, I will finally get to ride one.

I can’t find the shortcut and have to take the long winding road with all it’s switchbacks back down. I run into two German guys who hike along with me, I show them the shortcut to the road which comes out at the Lazy Dog, they then continue in the fashion “they way the crow flies” and go straight down the mountain to Huaraz. I am impressed by their stamina and hiking skills.

Back at the Inn the other guests have returned. Dinner is served family-style, another fabulous meal, our daily experiences are shared and then everyone retires to their rooms. No fire pit tonight. We are all tired.

Wednesday, May 30~ Up early for another great breakfast, then I pack and move my stuff into their laundry room. I am going horseback riding this morning and then leaving for El Patio de Monterrey Hotel.
The young lady from England, her Irish boyfriend, Diana and I spend the morning on those beautiful Pasos I have been eyeing up, yesterday. We ride around the highlands and pass through the small farming community which own the land surrounding the Lazy Dog Inn.

I see my taxi is waiting at the road to the Lazy Dog upon returning. I grab my gear and am on the way back to Huaraz and up to Monterrey. My plan is to stay there tonight, then head up to Yungay tomorrow for the 42nd anniversary of the 1970 earthquake.

My taxi driver drops me off at the pretty El Patio de Monterrey Hotel. It sits along the main road and at the end of the sloping hill which takes you up to the Aguas Termales, or the hot springs. Once inside the gate, the quiet and tranquility of the shaded property calms your senses and relieves you from the hot afternoon sun. I am shown to my room; nice, large, clean, with a lovely garden view, bathroom has a bath tub w/shower and I have a heater! (which I did use and it kept me toasty warm)

I change into lighter clothing since the climate is much warmer down here off the mountains and walk around town. Nothing to do here in this town. I then walk down to El Colibri to have a late lunch and to talk to the owner. I have heard that she owns the Hostal Pilar over in Chacas, where I am hoping to get to, eventually.

I have grilled chicken, French fries and a salad while I wait for the owner. She seems surprised that I want to talk to her and when I explain that I want to stay at her place over in Chacas, her whole face lights up! She tells me I don’t need to make any reservations, just tell them I talked to her. What a sweet lady!

After lunch I head back to the hotel and explore the grounds and the gardens. I am their only guest. They have no wifi, there is no internet in this town and I am already bored. The hotel is beautiful, but…probably the only thing I would do differently, if I could, would have to been to return to Huaraz. But I had made reservations here for one night.

My dinner at the hotel was a steak in Bleu cheese sauce, rice and carrots served by a sweet young lady who tried her best to understand my limited Spanish. A wonderful hot shower, and early bedtime for me in my toasty warm room, since there is nothing else to do here.

Thursday, May 31~ Up early, pack and go for breakfast. My breakfast is included with my room. I must say that the coffee I am running across here is extremely good! I pay for my room and inquire about which combi I should take to Yungay. The young woman at the front desk tells me which one. It will have the #1 on it. I grab my gear and go down to the corner where she told me and wait. And wait, and wait. Combis come by, stop and they yell something at me and leave. I am confused. I figure maybe I need to head down a coupd of blocks to the busier intersection which I do. The same thing happens. I ask the lady selling tamales by the road. She explains in a lengthy conversation, but I am not catching any of it. She then tells me to catch the combi back to Huaraz. No combis to Yungay ahora. That I understand.

So, I hail the next combi headed to Huaraz and I am dropped off at Yungay Express. At least, maybe, relatively close to it. When they dropped me off, they pointed in which direction I needed to go. Which I did. I never did find it. Now, I know it exists, because I recalled seeing it my first day when I arrived in Huaraz, while riding in the taxi which I took from the airport. I am pretty sure I am in the general vicinity and everyone tries to help me, but the funny thing is, they are all contradicting each other.

So I give up and it is while I am walking down the street towards the plaza that I run into a Mormon missionary. I see him a mile away ‘cause he sticks out like a sore thumb. White guy, squeaky clean, spotless button-down shirt, pressed pants. When he spots me he immediately stops in his tracks and wants to talk. Which is okay with me because I have not talked to anyone who speaks English in almost two days, so to me, it is a real treat!

I tell him about my situation earlier. “Oh!” he exclaims. “The miners have closed the road to Yungay due to roadblocks, they are protesting…the protests are supposed to last at least two days, who knows, maybe even a week?”

Wow. I finally now understand what everyone was trying to tell me. It suddenly all made sense. I thank him and decide to find a room in Huaraz for at least two nights. I remember my nice taxi driver from Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast who took me up to the Lazy Dog Inn. I also remember the great reviews Olaza’s got on trip advisor and recall it is located pretty close to Churup guesthouse and the church.

I head back up the hill towards Churup guesthouse and go one block over and there I find Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast. I ring the bell and am let in. The young lady who runs the place was quite nice and gladly gave me a room for two nights. It is a cute little room, quite clean, very bright and sunny, nice twin beds, down duvets, clean cozy bathroom. I dump my stuff and go up on the terrace. Whoa! What a view! The Cordillera Blanca stands just to the east and runs as far north and south as the eye can follow. I am thrilled to have found a room in such a sweet hotel! And, they have free wifi!

The rest of the day is spent in Huaraz. I wander the streets, do some shopping at the local artisan market by the plaza and the silver shops along the main drag and rest in the plaza del armas. I have a cold coming on and I am feeling drained. Stop in at Mi Chef Kristof for an early dinner, he hears me coughing and suggests to let him make something special to help me feel better. He whips up a delicious Spicy Thai Chicken Pasta which is simply incredible! The herbal infused tea I order is served by the teapot, I drank all of it which I think was about six cups. Then Kristof sets a shot of his own ginger-infused pisco down in front of me. He says it will help my cold. It burns the whole way down. He sets up a round of shots for the regulars sitting at the bar, brings over another for me and sits down to chat. Quite a likeable, affable fellow. I make a mental note to come back tomorrow night.

Friday, June 1~ Up for breakfast on the sunny terrace of Olaza’s. My cold is still with me. Coughing, sneezing, running nose and fatigue. I decide to pass up on the mountain-biking excursion I had planned on, with the people I met last night from Chicago. I am just too tired.

After breakfast I head for a pharmacy in town. I describe my symptoms the best I can, the pharmacist sells me some cough syrup and some decongestant tablets. I come to the conclusion that the main ingredient in the cough syrup would be illegal here in the States. My mouth, tongue and entire throat goes numb after ingesting. I immediately feel much better. Take it three times a day, she said. Morning, noon and night. I can’t wait till noon time!

I take a taxi from Iglesia de Solidad up to the Wilkawain ruins for 30 sol, since they were closed when I tried to get in on Monday. The admission is 5 sol. The ruins are situated in two parts, the lower ruins are very small, the upper ones located further up the road are rather impressive. After exploring the ruins I decide to walk back to Huaraz. I meet a young couple, Angel and Gabandae, from Lima who decide to walk back with me.

We haven’t gone more than a kilometer or so when a combi comes by and we jump in. The combi takes us back to Huaraz. Cost .50 sol or about 18 cents a person. We are dropped off close to the main market, I bid goodbye to the young couple and I walk pass the The Chicken Grill, which is packed with locals. I stop and go back, and run into Angel and Gabandae. We get a table and Angel orders for us. It is the set “menu” which consist of chicken soup, and choice of chicken or fish with rice and potatoes. Cost 5 sol. It is very good and extremely filling. Angel picks up the bill. I am a happy girl! For 13.18 USD, I had a beautiful day at the ruins with both taxi and combi rides included AND a terrific lunch with a lovely, charming young couple from Lima! Just another one of the many reasons why I love Peru!

Back at Olaza’s, take my medicine and relax in the shade under the umbrellas on the breezy terrace. Then it is back to Mi Chef Kristof for another superb dinner of pollo ensalada and a couple glasses of red wine. Also, I had to come back to try the chocolate mousse! Wow! Compliments to the chef! ;)

One of the regulars is sitting at the bar. I like his fleece jacket. I mention this to him and he explains how he designs his own line of clothing and this jacket is just one of his creations. I end up buying it from him, right off his back. Kristof sends us some of his ginger-pisco shots and sits down to join us. I am starting to see there is danger in Huaraz, a person could get used to living here! The comradely feeling one gets here can be very intoxicating, in itself.

Saturday, June 2~ Last night over dinner at Mi Chef Kristof, I learned that the miner’s protests ended. Remember, that is what brought me back to Huaraz in the first place? The road to Yungay is once again open. I pay my tab after breakfast at Olaza’s and take a taxi to the street where the combis leave for Yungay. I am directed to one and we are on the way to Yungay.

A little over an hour later we arrive in Yungay. I am dropped off at the little station where I am bombarded with touts yelling “Llanganuco, Llanganuco?”
I shrug them off telling them “mañana!” They are very persistent and keep insisting. I tell them “No hablo español.” They finally leave me alone, looking dejected.

I ask a lady where a hotel is. She points me up the hill to the plaza de armas. I see the biggest and most promising one, Rima Rima Hotel rising above the other buildings. As I come around the corner to the street where the entrance is, I see a van with about a dozen gringos spilling out of it. I ask them where they are staying, since it looks like they are traveling with a rather respectable tour guide. They point to the Rima Rima. Looks like it is a winner.

I go along in with the group. Turns out they are a church group, all from Georgia, here on a mission trip. They all get checked in, I get a room also. The room is clean but very basic. A bed, a table and a chair with a bathroom. The price is 100 sols which I think is very expensive, more than what I was paying for nicer places in Huaraz. But it is the nicest place in Yungay, so I resign to that fact and ditch my stuff. Time to go to Campo Santo.

Remembering passing it on the way here, I set out on foot. It is located some two km south of the new Yungay. I follow the road and once I get past the high hills which now shield new Yungay from mighty Huascaran, it abruptly appears like some hideously huge, but beautiful big giant gleaming bright in the midday sun. Now I recall why I came here. I had planned on being here for the forty-second anniversary of the devastating 1970 earthquake, which was two days ago. I didn’t make it because of the road blocks.

I pay the admission and somberly step onto the hallowed grounds. Straight ahead stands Huascaran. Straight ahead lies the path of destruction, the 3,000 foot wide swath of the avalanche. Rose gardens now grow here amongst the pretty manicured lawns. It is said that there is a rose for every single person who perished. Grave markers, head stones and crosses dot the grounds, mapping where the families’ houses once stood. It is difficult to understand, but looking up at Huascaran, not hard to imagine. They never stood a chance.

On May 31, 1970 a 7.7 earthquake hit the Ancash region of Peru, lasting for only 45 seconds. The earthquake destabilized the glacier on the north face of Huascaran causing 10 million cubic meters of rock, ice and snow to break off and barrel down the massive mountain at speeds of 120 mph. By the time it hit Yungay the 3,000 ft wide wave is estimated to consist of 80 million cubic meters of ice, rock and mud. In less than 3 minutes, the entire town of Yungay was completely covered. 25,000 people were buried. Gone. Forever.

I make my way over to the remains of the church’s steeple which still sticks out of the ground. They say that most of the people ran for the church when the quake hit. That church now lies somewhere down there below my feet. Four remaining palm trees still protrude by the buried church, amazingly one is still alive.

I see the remains of the beaten, crumbled bus emerging from the ground. I pass people who are crying. They are probably the now grown children who were some of the only survivors. The day this happened, 300 children were spending the day away, at a circus. Because of that, they were spared. Could you imagine being a child and coming back from the circus to find your families, your homes, your entire town gone?

I move on. I walk up through the corridor of whispering pines to the replica of the church’s façade which stands in memory of all those who lost their lives. Behind it looms Huascaran. It is so beautiful. But yet, so omnificent to be able to destroy so much. This sacred place has touched me like none other and will forever remain planted in my mind.

From there I walk down to the cemetery which rises like a multi-layered pre-Incan tomb, built on an artificial hill. Besides the 300 children who were spared, there were 92 people who made it to the cemetery. They climbed the many, many stairs to the top. One man who reached the top said when he turned he could see “a giant wave of gray mud about 60 meters high.” He states “the landslide hit the cemetery about five meters below our feet. The sky went dark because of all the dust, mostly from all the destroyed homes. We turned to look and Yungay, as well as it’s thousands of inhabitants, had completely disappeared.” ~from Peruvian

From the top of the cemetery I can see a path which the locals are taking back to town. I cross back over the consecrated grounds and follow the path back to Yungay.

Dinner was at a very nice place along the main road, can’t recall the name of it. Once again, it was the set “menu.” Very good food, the young boy who waited on me was eager and quick to assist me in any way.

After dinner I wandered over to the plaza de armas. I was sitting on a park bench by the water fountain when I heard a blaring horn in the distance which was getting louder. Here comes the Yungay Express, a big modern bus which announced it’s approach the whole way coming up the road. I had to laugh, recalling how I never did find it’s location in Huaraz. It stopped by the plaza, before honking it’s way out of town, headed north to Caraz.

I spent the evening on a park bench by the plaza watching the full moon rise.

Sunday, June 3~ Can’t believe I have already been here a week, only have one more week to go. Up early and looking for a place to eat. Nothing is open. It is now past 8 and I still haven’t had any coffee. I walk down to the market and buy some biscuits, sweet breads, a coke and a couple of bottles of water, stick them in my backpack and head off to look for a combi to take me up to Llanganuco. Of course, I go to where I was dropped off at yesterday when everyone was screaming “Llanganuco, Llanganuco!” at me. Now nobody wants to take me there. No combis to be found. Taxis want 100 sols to take me up and drop me off. I finally find one man who tells me I have to go up next to the plaza del armas for the combis to Llanganuco. I do. Not seeing anyone. It occurs to me to walk down to the police station and asks them, they would know. I do. They point me up the same street we are standing on and point me to a red beat-up van which is loading people in it.

I go up and ask them “Llanganuco?” Si, says the driver! He motions me in back, I am sit next to three young guys on the back seat. The rest of the van fills up. A woman walks up with a big sheep. They tie the sheep to the door and she climbs in. More people get in. Their cargo is loaded on top of the roof. Then lastly, the sheep, much to his dismay, his lifted up and you can hear a lot of tussling and his little hooves stomping, then all is quiet. The men climb down off the roof and we are on our way. Seventeen people, one sheep and a load of cargo and this battered old van chugs and coughs it’s way up the mountain. Up, up, up we go. The road is a rough one and the shock absorbers on the van and springs in the seat have seen better days. We feel every bump on this winding, dusty dirt road.

We stop at the entrance to Huascaran National Park for a banos break. From an overheard conversation I learned that you can get dropped off at the trailhead to Lago 69 and hike up to the lake and from there, back down past the Llanganuco lakes, eventually (hopefully) getting a ride back to Yungay.

The driver stops at Llanganuco lakes and looks at me in the rear view mirror. His tout yells back to me. I tell him Lago 69. They drive on. At the trailhead the van stops, two guys and I hop out. I pay the driver The two guys pay him and disappear. I look down at the trailhead and the vast valley which lies before me. What was I thinking? I am a bit intimidated at first. A park ranger comes out of the bushes from lower down the trail and motions for me to go ahead. I set off, gingerly climbing down the steep descent, then to the river, cross the bridge and I am in the very pretty alpine valley.

The trail is easily marked. I take to it the trail, passing a cow who has her head stuck in an outhouse door. Why she would do that is beyond me. She backs out and warily watches me pass by. The trail continues, zigzagging through scrubby bushes and around large boulders. It is a tough one, poorly maintained and heavily trodden by cattle. Lots of loose rocks and gravel.

I was told when I was dropped off by one of the only guys who could speak any English that I had to be back at the trailhead by 5 PM. That was when the last bus passed through. It was 11:30 when I was dropped off. They say it is 3 hours up to the lake and 3 hours back. I am not making good time. Looks like I am not making it to the lake. I stop up by the waterfalls and turn around and come back.

The way back down is tricky, with all the loose gravel. Kind of glad I didn’t go the whole way up. You could really use hiking poles and a better pair of hiking shoes then what I have on for this one.

(Right here I want to clarify something. After I got back home from Peru and looked on Google Earth, only then did I realize that I was on the wrong trail. I was on the trail up to Pisco Refuge camp, not the lake! Silly me!)

I am back once again on the road and figure that I will walk back to Llanganuco Lakes and hopefully find a ride there. But, no need for that, here comes a van now! They pull over, pick me up and drop me off in Yungay. I head immediately to the café by the plaza and order dinner. I am famished!

Here come’s the Yungay Express again, noisily announcing it’s arrival and departure. After dinner I spend the night people watching on a park bench in the plaza. Nothing else to do here in Yungay. The one café which sits along the plaza does have a large flat screen tv which I noticed draws the attention of a lot of the locals who park themselves just outside the café and watch whatever is on. Tomorrow, I head back to Huaraz and it’s countless options and activities, cafes and shops!

Peru 2012 (part two)

Huaraz, Peru (part two)

Monday, June 4~ Up early, pack my bags and head out looking for some breakfast in Yungay. For some reason I took a right out the door instead of a left, which brings me ‘round the corner of the block and up past El Portal. El Portal is a tiny hole in the wall, I passed it by a few times before without giving it a second glance, but this morning the place is packed completely full with gringos. Not a single chair is available inside. I take the one and only chair which is sitting outside the door and watch the scurrying server. Looks like everyone is paying by separate checks and she hurries around presenting the checks to each individual. I sit patiently and wait for a table to pay and leave.

There are two shuttle vans with distinctive names of tour groups blazed across their panels. The one guide asks me which group I am with. I tell him I am traveling solo. He leaves me alone.

A table is now empty and I go inside and sit down at it. Another girl comes over and clears the dirty dishes. An older lady comes over and takes my order. The place clears out. Suddenly the server becomes distraught. Two people walked out without paying their tab. She is close to tears. I remember which two they were, since I had the pleasure of watching the chaos unfold. I tell her I will go and get them. She is frantic, thinking I am now leaving without paying my bill.

I sit back down and when she comes over with my check, I ask her how much the other couple’s tab was? She tells me 18 sol. I offer to pay for their food, but she refuses the money. I pay my bill, then lay 20 sol on my table before slipping out the door. In all the confusion they forgot to bring me my scrambled eggs, but I don’t want to add more stress to her situation.

I pay for my two nights at Rima Rima Hotel, gather my gear and head down to the combis to catch a ride back to Huaraz.

Back in Huaraz I am dropped off by the river, grab a taxi and tell him to take me to Olaza’s Bed and Breakfast. He seems confused. I then tell him Churup Guesthouse which he immediately recognizes. As we climb up the hill to Churup I tell him to turn right and then left. He does. There sits Olaza’s. He seems surprised to see it, which I find interesting. It is a very nice place , I actually prefer it over Churup, why don’t taxi drivers know about it?

I buzz my way in and the young lady who runs the place is happy to have a returning guest. Seeing that I only had coffee and bread in Yungay and missed out on breakfast at Olaza’s, I walk down to Café Andino for their famous Belgian waffles. Seated upstairs on the balcony enjoying the warm morning sunshine and the wonderful, rich coffee , my waffle arrives and it is as good as Lonely Planet describes them to be!

Spent the day in Huaraz, shopping, buying gifts for my family and co-workers, had another great lunch at El Horno, afternoon relaxing on Olaza’s terrace and another superb dinner; Pollo Ensalada at Mi Chef Kristof. Kristof is surprised to see me. I had told him and his regulars that I was going up to Yungay and eventually to Yanama and Chacas. After fixing my dinner of Polla Ensalada and their sinfully delightful caliente chocolate with Baileys , he sits down with me to chat. “What brings you back to Huaraz?” he asks me. I tell him how bored I was up in Yungay and that I changed my mind about Yanama and Chacas, simply because I found out how limited my conversational Spanish is and how few my options were up in Yungay, I was afraid I would have been in the same predicament over in Yanama and Chacas. Probably even more so.

He produces the Huaraz newspaper and tells me to read the article which he lays opened in front of me. It is an interview he had done and describes of his decision to leave Huaraz. He is leaving Peru. Mi Chef Kristof is closing. Although I had the pleasure of only knowing him for a few days, it saddens me, knowing that if and when I return to Huaraz, he and his enchanting little restaurant won’t be here.

I somberly walk back to Olaza’s. I feel like I just made a friend and now have already lost him.

Tuesday, June 5~ After breakfast on the terrace, I walk down to the tiny tienda where I had bought some cough drops a couple of days ago, knowing that the owner speaks English and I want to ask him where I can buy a combi ticket to Chavin?

He is quite helpful, writes down the address so that I can give it to my taxi driver. It works. My taxi driver takes me to the place where I am dropped off. It is an itty bitty tiny shop with three chairs against one wall. The girl sitting behind the small desk seems surprised to see a gringa. I tell her I want to go to Chavin. Her face lights up and she tells me 30 sol and quickly writes out a receipt which she hands to me. She then tells me they are leaving in one hour.

I remember that I forgot to bring toilet paper along in my backpack (anybody who is familiar with traveling knows what your chances are, of finding toilet paper in public banos) and go next door to buy some toilet paper and some water.

The van shows up and I climb in. Locals climb in along with their cargo which is loaded in the back and on the roof. I keep waiting for another sheep to show up, but no livestock is traveling with us today.

We are soon on our way out of Huaraz. The scenery is stunning and keeps me occupied. Up over the mountain and through the tunnel and then down the mountain to Chavin, which by the way, is a very, very pretty little town. I am dropped off at the entrance to the ruins. Wow! It was that easy!

Another tour group (working under Galaxia) has arrived just as I pay the 10 sol to get in. Their operator spots me and tells me that I am welcome to join their English-speaking guide who is taking two other gringos through the ruins. I take him up on his offer.

Antonio is our English-speaking guide . From my first glimpse of the ruins , I was not that impressed, but Antonio divulges into his repertoire of Chavin’s history and it is simply incredible! He is very thorough and points out the finely detailed petroglyphs and describes how the high priests used the sounds and effects of the underground water tunnels and cisterns to manipulate the minds of the people, increasing their power over them. He takes us into the tunnels and describes how they had air-condition vents and light portals in the deep underground tunnels. It is all very impressive indeed! I am so glad I came here!

We are all rounded up and taken to the awesome museum , then to a restaurant in town. I walk in to find a table and George, the llama farmer from California comes in and gets me and tells me he knows of another place which he likes better. (He’s been here before.) He gets Linda, the History professor and we go down a couple of doors to the other restaurant. Antonio joins us. Our tour operator isn’t too happy with us, but George tells us the food is better here. Our meals are really good, we all had either grilled chicken or beef with rice and vegetables. The service is great.

After eating we walk across the street to a little shop where Linda goes bonkers when she sees these cloth dolls. She runs out and gets George. Curiosity gets the best of me and I ask her what they are? She tells me they are dolls made out of actual material they found in burials. They are known as Funeral Dolls. Replicas of dolls which were found buried next to mummys. But made from the cloth of the dead. She tells me she had known about them but the only time she saw these before was from a bus while passing by a local road stand, while traveling through Ollantaytambo. The bus didn’t stop. She was very disappointed. She now ecstatically buys a bunch of them, I get some for myself..

Our tour operator comes over and collects us, we soon find ourselves back on the road to Huaraz. Up over the mountain , back through the tunnel and we stop by the lake where the map of Peru is shaped by a crevasse on the mountainside. The sun is rapidly setting and as we arrive back down in the valley just outside Huaraz, the sun slides behind the mountains to the west and we all climb out of the van for some gorgeous sunset pictures. It has gotten quite chilly but we are all in such high spirits we don’t even notice the dropping temperatures. What an amazing day! Again.

I am dropped off at the plaza and hurry back to Olaza’s, partly because I am so cold, mostly because I am so hungry. I put on some warmer clothes and go back into town for another enjoyable evening at Mi Chef Kristof. I have the same thing I had the night before, the Chicken Ensalada, it was just so tasty! Had to do it again.

Wednesday, June 6~ Up early for an exceptional breakfast on Olaza’s cheerful, sunny terrace and then I pack my daypack and set off up the street towards the church. It was here I had picked up my fairly reasonable taxi to Wilkawain a few days ago, I am hoping I can find a cheap one to take me to Pitec. I want to go hike to Lago Churup.

I am wandering the narrow streets and a taxi turns the corner and comes down my street. I flag him down. It is a young guy with a pretty beaten up car. I ask him how much to Pitec. He doesn’t understand. I write the word Pitec on my hand and ask him “Cuánto?” He calls someone on his cell phone and I hear him mention Pitec. I tell him Lago Churup. He continues with his conversation and then hangs up and tells me 70 sol. I tell him 60 sol and we agree on that.

The road up to Pitec is a very rough, bumpy dirt road. I worry whether his car will make it or not. We bottom out at a lot of places, but he continues on. At times he seems unsure as which way to turn, even though the road signs clearly point the way. He always looks to me for the directions which I find kind of humorous. Up and up we go, past the Way Inn, which I make a mental note that if I don’t make it back to Huaraz, I can hopefully snag a room there for the night.

Onward we climb, eventually arriving at a place where there is only one sign by the side of the road and one park ranger. He lets me out and I pay the guard 5 sol. The guard points the trail out to me. I set off. The ascent in the beginning is a pretty difficult one. As I am making my way I up it I spot a Caracara . It just sits there as if it is a trail marker or a sign . Maybe it is. I get closer to it and it lifts off and soars off across the horizon. The trail eventually levels off and I pick up the pace. I get to the spot where the trail continues up over a huge wall of boulders. I don’t think I can do it . I turn around and start back. I run into an Israeli couple who ask me how the lake was? I tell them I can’t get up over the rock wall. They tell me “sure you can, we will help you!”

Wanting to believe them, but still having my doubts I tag along with them. Tamara quickly scales the wall. Ahaad takes my backpack and helps me up over the huge boulders. We soon get to the place where the steel cables are. Tamara goes first and gingerly makes her way up over the mammoth boulder grasping the cable and Ahaad follows. He then comes back down for my back pack and takes it up, comes back down and assists me with the cables. I make it up. We then get to the second place with the cables which is easier and then the third part with the cables which is easier still, and then…we are at the lake!

WOW! It is absolutely drop-dead gorgeous! Probably the prettiest place I have ever seen . The Israelis sit down and enjoy their packed lunch, I go off exploring , giving them their space. We are soon joined by a single young guy from England who continues on up over the mountain path. Then a young couple from Brazil arrive. We sit together and savor the time we have here, soaking in the sun and the stunning views of the shimmering turquoise lake with massive snow-encrusted Nevada Churup behind it. What a magnificent place! So hard to get to, but well worth the effort!

We all decide to leave together and help each other down through the challenging parts. Much to my relief I discover that getting down was easier than getting up. We are back on the trail heading down towards Pitec with Churup glistening behind us, in the late afternoon sun.

We get to the road and decide to take the donkey path back to Huaraz. The young guy from England has followed us down and tells us the donkey path is the quickest way. He walked the entire way up here from the Way Inn. He goes on ahead, we follow him.

The donkey path is a lovely, idyllic little path which takes you down through the green valley and lush pasture with cattle grazing, , following the bubbling Incan aqueduct and into a tiny little rural village . The sun has set behind the mountains, there is a chill in the air along with the impending darkness which is settling over us.

We need to find a ride back to Huaraz. Nicholas, the guy from Brazil, stops and talks to some children who have been watching us. He then tells us “good news, seems that there is a guy who owns a van in this village, hopefully he will take us back to town.” We continue on our way, passing the most charming scenes of rural life; campansinos driving their animals home for the night, the weather-wrinkled elderly ladies laden with shocks of corn on their backs, children, puppies, piglets and lambs playing together in the dusty paths. We are all amazed and delighted, yet we raise no cameras, respecting their privacy and peaceful lifestyles.

The van is soon spotted and Nicholas approaches the owner. Their conversation is a friendly one. He turns and gives us the thumbs up and we quickly all climb in. Cost for the ride back to Huaraz is 5 sol a piece. As we travel down the bouncy, bumpy road, I turn and look at the scene out the back window. Colorful campansinos trail behind us with their herds, donkeys loaded with their burdens walk along beside us, the little old ladies carrying the corn shocks follow them and the children are now running after us waving all they can. And, behind ALL OF THIS are the blazing Cordillera Blancas, glowing like beacons in the darkening night.
The driver stops and gets out. He and another man unload a donkey. It takes the two men and Nicholas to heave the bag of potatoes into the van. I imagine that I hear the donkey sigh a sigh of immense relief. A young local girl climbs in and sits next to me. An older lady removes something from her back and the carefully wrapped bundle is tenderly passed back to the young girl. In the brightly wrapped bundle is her baby boy. She looks at me and smiles. We continue on down the road into town, bumping along. The young mother and I bounce so hard on the back seat, laughing the whole way. I might not be able to speak her language, but her expressions are priceless and smiles and laughter are universal. What an another amazing day!

We get into Huaraz, the driver stops, gets out and hauls the sack of potatoes out and leaves them by the doorway. The young girl with her little one gets out and knocks on a door. She is let in. We leave.

We are all dropped off on some street in town. I am trying to gather my wits about me and figure out what direction to take. The group I was with head downhill, presuming to the plaza. I stop on the very crowded street corner. A couple of young school girls still dressed in their parochial uniforms are trying to tell me something. I assume they want me to take a picture of them with their camera. I reach for their camera. They say “no senorita, (how kind of them) amigos, amigos!” pointing ahead, thinking I was losing my friends. By this time my friends have stopped and are waving for me to come along. Then I spot the Monkey Bar and now I know precisely where I am. It is here that I was dropped off at when I came back from Monterrey last week and I was looking for Yungay Express. I know because at that time, I was up and down and back and forth on this street. So I wave goodbye to my friends from Lago Churup and thank the school girls and head off in the direction I need to go. Back to Olaza’s.

I shower, change and walk down to Mi Chef Kristof for one last delectable dinner and to bid him farewell. The restaurant is full tonight, Kristof is very busy sautéing, tossing and grilling. I sit at my usual table. My server brings me a glass of red wine. Steaks are being served to the large table behind me and they sure do look appetizing! To celebrate such a fabulous day, I order the Steak in Negra Pimento Cream Sauce. . It is incredible! Very spicy! I thank Kristof, wish him the best and bid goodbye to him and a few of the regulars who have since came in. Tomorrow I leave for Carhuaz and La Casa de Pocha.

Thursday, June 7~ Breakfast upstairs and then pay for my room. I catch a taxi which takes me to the combis for Carhuaz. The trip to Carhuaz is a little over half an hour. There is a parade of some sorts in Carhuaz. There are traffic jams and crowded streets, marching bands and police blowing whistles. I just want to get out of town and to La Casa de Pocha. A young taxi driver is more than willing to run me up there.

La Casa de Pocha is a very interesting place . Located higher up the mountain, with spectacular views of the Cordillera Blanca. Ran by two ladies who will go out of their way to make you comfortable and trust me, you will never go hungry here!

I am shown to my lovely room . Very rustic, yet charming and chic.. Simple, white-washed walls, basic but adequate furniture. Bathroom is cute, very eco-friendly. Cool, tile floors. It is all very inviting, but I don’t linger long.

I want to do some hiking and Pocha sends me up to the little chapel. It is a nice hike, but the pretty path which is only traveled by locals is heavily guarded by some very vicious dogs. I am leery when I pass then, bending down often to pretend I am picking up a rock. Which works very well. Still, I don’t trust them and I am very happy to come back to the safety and security and the very playful, goofy, loveable Chunga , Pocha’s six month old pup.

I get back just in time for lunch. The ladies cook with solar power, using their solar getups which to me look like satellite dishes.The old-fashioned kind. We have Swiss chard, rice and potatoes with some of their homemade cheese and fresh lemonade. It is so good and so filling! The cheese was simply amazing!

Spend the rest of the afternoon, taking it easy in the hammock , on the second floor, enjoying the views of Nevada Hualcan and the sound of the wind in the wilderness around me. So peaceful here

Dinnertime I join the ladies for some cauliflower soup, stuffed eggplant and caramelized peaches for dessert. Even though the meals are all vegetarian, I am not missing not having any meat. They are very sustaining and satisfying.

Friday, June 8~ Happy Birthday to me! I purchased this trip back in December, it was both my Christmas and my birthday present to myself! Nothing like treating yourself good!

After watching Pocha milk the cow, I sit on the farmhouse’s warm, sunny porch and watch the antics of the geese, ducks, a sheep and Chunga interacting only a few feet away from me. Their hired man drives the cattle out through the gate to graze them. Pocha and Patricia are busy in the kitchen, preparing a breakfast of home-grown fruit, homemade yogurt, granola, French press coffee and fresh raw milk, still warm from the cow. I can’t begin to describe how good it all is!

After I stuff myself, I set out for the hike up to Juan Saavedra and the hot springs. Pocha has drawn me a map and I manage to find my way up to the road to Juan Saavedra, using the short cut she highlighted. The views are again, amazing . I never, ever grow tired of gazing up at the mountains. . There is road construction going on and big dump trucks pass by me often, back and forth. One friendly chap offers me a ride up to Juan Saavedra. I choose to continue on foot.

I cross the bridge and there the path kind of disappears. I have to ask a man for directions. He points uphill, through the woods and I follow where he pointed. I cross over a dry creek bed and eventually come upon the cutest little town with a tiny little plaza . The chapel is a pleasing blue and looks quite enchanting with enormous snowy Nevada Hualcan lurking behind.

I follow the way the locals have directed me, go down the wooden steps to the river and the very small, but clean hot springs . I slowly insert a foot Ooy, that is mucha caliente!!! I can get in up to my ankles but never in a million years would I be able to sit in it. Over by the big boulder, the water is bubbling…or should I say boiling. I lift my beet red feet out and carefully make my way over the boulders, rocks and stones to the rushing river which is ice cold . After my feet go numb I go back to the hot spring. Ay-yi-yi, I can’t do it!

I take my time going back. The day is a beautiful one, the folks I meet along the way are very friendly and the views are delightful! What more can you ask for? Plus, I know there is incredibly good food waiting back at La Casa de Pocha. .

I get back and Pocha asks me how the hot springs were? I tell her they were too hot. She gasps and says “I forgot to tell you, you have to run back and forth between the river and the hot springs.” I tell her I did that. But the water was way too hot. Besides, you can’t really run barefooted with all those rocks and stones, it is more like a very cautious, slow scramble.

She serves me up some lunch; boiled potatoes smothered in some very thick, delicious sauce, fresh salad and some more of that scrumptious homemade cheese! She kept offering more food, but I was completely stuffed!

The ladies are busy readying the place for the group of students who are arriving tonight. They are coming for three weeks; their hired hands are scrubbing the solar dishes, Pocha is cooking and Patricia gets ready to drive to Huaraz to pick them up. I ask to ride along with her and she can drop me off in Carhuaz, since I am badly craving an internet fix.

She drops me off at the quaint little plaza, I hit an internet café and then the ice cream shop. Sit by the plaza awhile, but it is just too buggy. Lots of little gnats constantly at your eyes, nose, mouth or ears. They are just so incredibly annoying. I take a moto-taxi back to La Casa de Pocha.

Pack my bags and get ready for bed. The group of students have been delayed and won’t be arriving till 10 PM.

Saturday, June 9~ Tonight I fly back home. My taxi arrives to take me back to the Anta airport for my flight back to Lima. Then I will have about eight hours to kill before I have to be back at the Lima airport. I have decide to spend that time in Miraflores.

Our flight is on time , and unfortunately I realize that I am on the wrong side of the plane (the left side) as our flight path takes us north along the Cordillera Blanca. I lean out of my seat as hard as I can to see the beautiful Llanganuco lakes on my right, several thousands of feet below us. If I would have been sitting on the right of the plane, I bet I could’ve seen Lago 69...after all!

I have to go back and do it right. That is all there is too it.

We follow the coast line down to Lima. No long lines or immigration or customs, since we arrived on an internal flight! Sweet! I walk through the exit and get a green taxi to Miraflores for 45 sol.

He drops me off at Parque Central in Miraflores. For once it is a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Lima . I grab a good lunch at El Parquito. . Then I walk to Parque de Armor, up to Parque El Faro where the hang-gliders ride the wind, back down to Parque Salzar and then finally find my way down off the cliffs to the long wharf extending into the Pacific, over the pounding surf. .

I had originally wondered what I would do with all my time, in Lima . Well, now I am wondering where the time went? Must head back to the airport. No problem, I will just flag down a taxi. I flag one down, he shakes his head when I mention airport, I flag down another, same reaction, another pulls up, same thing…then another and another. I am starting to feel a slight panic, never would have thought it would be so difficult to hail a taxi to take me back to the airport.

Another pulls up, young guy smiles when I say “cuanto airport?” He holds up three fingers and a zero. I repeat it back to him. He smiles and nods! Awesome! At this point I would have willingly paid twice that much! He is a super nice kid. He talks to me the whole way to the airport and I deduce that… his mother lives in Cusco and he has moved here to Lima where he has been driving taxi for three years now, trying to earn money, so he can move back to Cusco. He said his heart is in Cusco. He doesn’t like Lima. He also has two younger brothers who live in Cusco with his mother. Poor kid.

He delivers me to the airport and I hand him two 20 sols. He is digging in his pocket for change, I tell him to keep it. His face literally lights up, he turns around and grabs my hand and shakes it all he can. Such a sweetheart! What a great impression and beautiful memory to take with me, on that long flight back home.

Once again, Peru has lived up to my expectations and has even given me more back that I had ever hoped for, or would have ever dreamed of. What makes it so special? I would have to say it is the people. Sure, it is extremely beautiful, has an incredible diversity of different cultures, deep-rooted pride and a sense of it’s history, awesome food, wonderful climates, but so do a lot of other countries. So, it has to be the warm and inviting, friendly people. I have never been treated so well, anywhere!

You can bet your bottom dollar I will be back.

Nicaragua 2012 (part one)

Just wanted to share a bit of our journey in Nicaragua.

We flew into Managua at noon on Saturday, Feb 4th. I had set up an airport pickup through our hotel La Posada Azul in San Juan Del Sur. The price was $80 for two people, which was the same price Paxeos was asking, and this was a private car, which I was happy for.

It was a long drive to San Juan Del Sur. Our driver, Francisco, was a very considerate driver and took his time getting there. We passed a pretty bad accident along the way; a van had ran into another car and the van had rolled. Someone was crawling out of one of the broken side windows, there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency, so I am assuming no one was seriously hurt. It did make me grateful for our careful, cautious driver.

We arrived at our pretty little hotel and were checked in, then hit the streets to check out SJDS. The town reminded me a bit of San Pedro on Ambergris Caye, some years back, but without the amazing blue water and the island breeze.

Had some beers at Arriba’s Beach Bar while watching a volleyball game on the beach. When I asked for the check, two waiters promptly appeared and quoted a price without producing the check and stupidly of me, I gave our waiter a twenty dollar bill. It took him forever to return and when he did he brought me fifty cordobas back. My friend and I looked at each other and said “wow.” We didn’t realize the beers were that expensive.

Changed for dinner and headed up to El Colibri, which didn’t open till six pm. The owner of Aladdin Café was sitting outside drinking coffee and asked us to join him. We did. He chatted with us for awhile, telling us of how he ended up in Nicaragua and about a guy who had ran a pyramid scheme selling properties up close to Pelican Eyes a few years back, which coincidentally, according to Wikipedia isn’t illegal in Nicaragua. ?? Seems the guy had made a fortune and fled to another country with his millions.

It was while we were talking to him that we asked him about the price of beer, explaining our little scenario on the beach. He laughed and told us that we had got the "blue light special, welcome to Nicaragua." Meaning we got ripped off. I, who tend to think I am a bit savvy in these kinds of things, was humiliated. Not only had they taken me for a sucker, but I also tipped him too. We all got a laugh out of it.

We lingered awhile with the owner, who showed us the rooms in his little hostel, then walked across the street to El Colibri which had filled up quickly. We got a table on the porch and ordered Sangria and the filet mignons. The place is artsy and cute, but a bit over-priced and the food was not all that memorable.

Retired early, since we had been up almost 48 hours without any sleep.

Day two:

Sunday was spent walking around town. We had wanted to sign up for the turtle tour where you go to a beach and see the turtles laying eggs, but they weren't doing it that night. Stopped by El Gato Negro, just as they were roasting a new batch of coffee beans. Great little coffee shop/book store which is owned by a very nice couple from Vermont, who have been living in Nicaragua for the past six years.

The day has gotten quite hot, so we returned to our hotel pool and took it easy for a few hours. We met quite a few friendly Canadians who are staying at our hotel and spending a couple of weeks in the area. They suggested a great place for dinner which we will try later.

It is Super Bowl Sunday and everyone is watching the pre-game. We grab some frozen cappuccinos at Barrio Café and then decide to find a taxi to take us up to the Christ statue. Well, we couldn't find a taxi anywhere and was just about ready to give up when here comes Francisco, our taxi driver from yesterday, driving toward us. We flag him down and ask him to take us up to the statute. The sun was quickly setting.

We just missed the sunset. But the view is incredible and worth it never the less. On the way back we set up our ride to San Jorge for the next day with Francisco.

Dinner finds us at the little Mauricio’s San Juan Pizzeria up by the church. The others from our hotel show up and we enjoy the extremely good pizza.

After dinner we sit in the small park by the church and enjoy the slight breeze. It is while we are sitting in the park that the town has a blackout. It doesn’t last long, just long enough for your eyes to get used to the dark. I am amazed at how much of the streets, buildings and the horizon you can make out, even without any electricity.

Back to our hotel for a good night’s sleep.

Day three:

Today Francisco is taking us to San Jorge where we will board the ferry to San Jose, on Ometepe. He arrives just as we are finishing up our breakfast. It is a half hour ride to San Jorge. We have about forty minutes till the ferry leaves. We board and get seats up on the top deck and kill the time watching them back in the trucks.

We are soon on our way and the ticket collector comes around. Fifty cordobas to cross the lake, or $2.16 per person. The ferry takes roughly little over an hour to cross. As we step off the boat we are greeted by a smiling local man who proudly proclaims that he is Eddy and he is here to take us to our hotel Finca del Sol. The truth is, I had forgotten that I had mentioned in my emails to Finca del Sol that I would be needing a taxi. I had just figured we would track one down when we arrived. Good thing, because other than Eddy, there was no one to meet us at the dock. There is nothing there. No town, just a couple of buildings and then nothing. Thank goodness for Eddy.

Eddy was a lot of fun, always cheerful and full of grins. He merrily made his way down the winding road with his radio blasting out ‘80’s hits. I could not help but smile.

About forty-five minutes later we arrived at Finca del Sol and were shown to our cute little thatched-roof cottage. We had the orange cabana which sits highest on the hill, overlooking the isthmus and Volcano Concepcion. The farm’s small flock of sheep were scattered all around on the grounds, all with twin or triplet newborn lambs in tow. All of them baa-ing.

If you are not an animal lover, they probably would have gotten on your nerves. I found them to be very endearing. Even their insistent baa-ing. The ewes were quite tame, not budging from their paths. The little lambs would quickly scamper out of arm’s reach.
But I did eventually manage to grab one and hold it. It folded it’s little legs up and relaxed in my arms, just like a puppy.

But, enough about the sheep. Our cottage consisted of a queen bed and a set of bunk beds, both with mosquito netting. We had a compost toilet in the bathroom and a wonderful shower which if turned just right, you could have the proper hot shower. This is an eco hotel, which runs on solar power. Very smart, rustic and yet somehow elegant and charming.

In the afternoon we walked down to Little Morgan’s to use their internet. Kind of a backpacker’s paradise, overflowing with dreadlocked twenty-something’s lounging in hammocks and watching the movie 300 on the overhead flat screen TV. Not my kind of place.

We moved on to Santa Cruz Hotel for lunch. I had their chicken curry. Incredible! I was immediately impressed. Mental note to self, we shall be dining here a lot. After lunch and a couple of beers later, we decided to rent bikes to ride to El Oja de Agua. It was around 3 pm and the sun was still intense. We blazed our way down the hills and walked up most of them, pushing our bikes. The bikes aren’t, how should I say it, in the best of shape. You have only a few gears which work.

By Santa Domingo beach we blew by a bunch of local teenagers kicking a soccer ball around when my chain came off while shifting up. A young handsome lad came to my rescue. He fixed my bike chain in a jiffy. I thanked him and went on my way. Later on down the rode he caught up with me on his bike and wanted to chat. Quite charming; about the age of seventeen with a dimpled smile and a head full of black curls, I had to wave him off with a smile and wish him Adios.

The lane where you turn on to El Oja de Agua is very beautiful. Bordered by banana plantations on both sides, the dirt road passes under tall, impressive, shady old-growth trees following the fence line into the natural springs. Perfect area for bike riding.

We pay our two dollars to get in and I swim for awhile, then it is back to Santa Cruz to return our bikes and we get back to our hotel just before dark. Our hosts, Sherry and Christiano had asked me a week before we arrived what we wanted for dinner, since it had to be delivered from Santa Cruz restaurant to our cottage. We both asked for the chicken in garlic sauce. It was delivered around seven pm. Once again, the meal was excellent!

Day four:

Wake up to a cloudy morning. Looks like rain. We make our way up the hill to where our hosts live and where the breakfast area is. Two other couples show up. The one couple is heading back to Costa Rica today, the other has made arrangements to hike Maderas Volcano this morning. Since the weather isn’t looking too promising, we have not yet decided what we want to do.

Breakfast is served. Homemade brown bread, sunny side up eggs and fresh fruit. Good coffee. The bread is delicious!

My friend hangs out in our hammock, I walk down to Little Morgan’s to try to get online. Their one and only laptop is encased in the lap of a red-eyed young gringo encircled by five or six of his friends. I leave.

I am restless and bored. The couple return from their hike. It was too wet and cloudy, their clothes are soaked and their boots are muddy.

The clouds break by noon and I set off alone to rent a bike and ride back to El Oja de Agua. I had enjoyed it immensely yesterday, but we had ran out of time. At Santa Cruz Hotel I meet four of the young girls who are staying at Little Morgans, whom we met yesterday. They are here for bikes also. As we are leaving on our bikes another couple show up, but sadly all the bikes are now taken. I bid them farewell and catch up to the young girls.

The sun has come out and is bearing down on us with a vengeance. The strong winds off the lake are a mixed blessing, constantly aiding us with their cool gusts, but hindering us on the hills and our persistent pedaling.

A huge crowd of locals have entered El Oja de Agua just ahead of us. We pay our entrance fees. The girls set off on their separate way. I find an isolated chair to park my stuff. I have my camera, my watch and money along. I cover it all up with my t shirt. Still I am a bit leery while I swim, always keeping an eye out on my stuff. Then I spot a red maple leaf on a backpack parked a few chairs down from mine. It belongs to the older couple who are relaxing in their chairs. I swim over and ask them if they are Canadian (which of course they are) and we get to talking. I explain that I am here alone and would they watch my stuff for me? They pull my chair over beside theirs and now I have a couple of hours of pure bliss to swim, soak and float in these heavenly crystal clear, cool natural spring waters.

I climb out and we share some stories over a few beers. They are from Nova Scotia, own a house in Las Vegas and are now looking for another home to buy in Costa Rica. We talk of travel and of our hopes and dreams. Then it is back to my bike and them to their bus stop and I am back on the rode.

I take it slow riding back, stopping often for pictures, since I am in no rush. Large trucks heavily laden with bananas blow by me. I pass by a very young cowboy who is driving a herd of cattle on the road. I keep an eye out for the cappuchin monkey I saw yesterday. I also can’t help but notice the ever-blackening threatening sky ahead.

It is just one more hill till I make it to Santa Cruz when the sky opens up. At first the raindrops sting like driving sand, then it becomes like pebbles striking me. Luckily for me, out of nowhere I see a thatched-roof palapa just standing there beside the road. I pull in under it, just in time, seeking refuge from the wind-driven storm. The clouds let loose. It pours.

Once the rain abates, I climb back on my bike and am almost up the hill when I get dumped on again. I am soaked by the time I make it to Santa Cruz Hotel which coincidentally is also the time the rain stops, for good. I pay for my returned bike and walk back to our hotel, which is just up the road and around the bend. About a five minute walk to the entrance, then it is five minutes uphill to the cottages.

Christiano is surrounded by his sheep. They are all baa-ing. Then he disappears. They spot me. I am walking on the volcanic gravel pathway to our cottage when I hear something and stop and turn around. Immediately behind me, in single file, are all the sheep. When I stopped and turned around, they all stopped and with raised heads are looking at me, waiting for me to lead them to wherever?

Christiano reappears and the sheep see him and take off after him. My friend hears the commotion and rises from her hammock. She got a bad cold a day before our trip, so she isn’t feeling very well. She is now hungry and we decide to walk back to Santa Cruz Hotel for dinner.
Dinner consists of spaghetti with chicken for my friend, chicken in garlic sauce (again) for me. And a couple of Tonas. A skinny Rottweiler shows up beside our table and looks at us, pleadingly. We put our plates with our leftovers on the floor and he licks them clean.

With a full moon watching over us, we walk back to our hotel in the dark.

Day five:

Up bright and early. We make our way up to the breakfast area. A couple show up also. It is the couple who wanted to rent bikes yesterday, but missed out. They are from Ottawa. We get to chatting and they are doing the same circuit we are. We are leaving for Granada tomorrow afternoon, they are leaving for Granada today. They ask where we are staying, we tell them. They said they don’t have a hotel yet, they will have to check it out.

Breakfast is awesome French Toast made out of that incredible home-made brown bread. Fresh fruit and coffee. We say our goodbyes over our last cups of coffee. Who knows? Maybe we will see them in Granada.

Our lovely hostess, Sherry, stops by and asks where we are headed next, since we are checking out today. We tell her just up the road to Totoco Eco Lodge. She asks if we need a ride? She says that her husband, Christiano will drive us there. It is only a fifteen minute drive from here. We are thrilled! She said she could have called Eddy, but he would have charged twenty dollars, while her husband will only need twelve dollars to take us there. That’s okay by us.

We are soon packed into Christiano’s truck and bumping along, on our way. They are paving the road on Ometepe, but have only got as far as the hill going up to Santa Cruz. The road we are on going to Balgue is dirt and a bit rough, even with four wheel drive.

When we arrive at Totoco, we find it to be quite beautiful and harmonious with nature. Thatched-roof bamboo lodge surrounded by beautiful gardens, happy hummingbirds buzzing around, inviting clean blue infinity pool overlooking the lake. And the view is just phenomenal!

We can’t wait to see our cottage! We are staying in the Tonatiu. A delightful little casita with thatched roof, queen bed and one twin, cool tile floors, compost toilet and shower, but the best part of all was our fantastic terrace overlooking Volcano Concepcion. Hammocks and comfy lounge chairs grace the patio.

We settle in and then walk back to the main lodge and grab a couple of beers and check our emails. We decide to hike to Finca Magdalena for lunch. We get the directions from the girl at the front desk and set off, down the very, very long hill which is Totoco’s driveway.

We get to the road and eventually pass through Balgue. Balgue is a tiny village with a couple of churches, little houses, free roaming pigs, chickens and lots of curious, friendly kids. And it seems that the main means of transportation on this island is bicycle. Everybody has one.

We soon find the sign for Finca Magdalena. Turn right and just follow the road. It is another long, long hill we have to walk up. Banana trucks are constantly passing by us. A full one comes down, and an empty one goes back up. The guys riding in the back smile and wave.

We get to the Finca. It is a large outpost with a huge porch full of tables and chairs. Small bungalows sit off to the back of the main buildings. Beautiful gardens are in the front, the porch is nice and shaded. There is only one other table which is taken, we pick a table by the railing. Order two Tonas. No long after, a group of twenty-something’s with guitar cases claim another table and produce their guitars, and strum softly. Their girlfriends show up and sit by their sides. Some locals claim a table behind us. It is lunch time and the place is packed, Ometepe-style.

Dinner for me is grilled chicken with rice and beans and tortillas. A small side of fries. Our after dinner drink is some home-brewed coffee, which is very smooth. I bought three pounds of their coffee beans, my friend bought four. Six dollars a pound, not too bad.
And, you are supporting a good cause.

After our long and exhausting hike back up to Totoco Eco Lodge, we spend the rest of the afternoon swimming in their lovely pool.

As the day winds down, and with the sun slowly sinking across the isthmus, Volcano Concepcion set the stage for one of the most stunningly beautiful sunsets of my life!

Dinner time finds a few more guests showing up; a bunch of guys who are on their way to Costa Rica to do some wheeling and dealing in property. They just happened to stop by Ometepe on their way. The one guy is a real estate lawyer, another is a professional photographer, they all are very vague about what they really are doing here, so we ignore them.

On the menu for tonight is beet root soup, grilled snapper with rice and vegetables and caramelized flan for dessert. The snapper was excellent!

The winds kick up as darkness takes over. You think you know what black is, you haven’t seen black till you spend a night at Totoco. You can hardly see your hand in front of you. I am thankful I had remembered to run back to our cottage for a flashlight before it got too dark. It would have made for a stumbling walk back to our cottage without one.

I love the sound of the wind wildly caressing the palm trees. While I was tossing in my bed, fighting with the mosquito net which the wind kept whipping open over my head, I imagine myself looking like a prickly pear the next morning. Just connect the dots. Between trying to keep the mosquito net tucked down tight between the wall and the mattress and keeping the fan running on the solar power (yes, we could hear the wind…we just weren’t feeling it) I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep that night.

By morning I was tired.

Up for a good breakfast and then it is time for our nature hike which we had set up the day before. Our guide is right on time. I just want to mention that I noticed, albeit it, in a lot of countries in Central and South America, being on time isn’t of an utmost priority. But, so far, in Nicaragua, of all the things I requested, rides/tours etc…the person responsible is always right on time, and in many cases….even early.

Our guide is sitting by the reception area waiting while we eat our breakfast. We quickly finish and I grab my back pack and we are off to see the howler monkeys! We only have an hour and a half till check out time, so we make it a quick hike. He takes us up a portion of the way on Maderas Volcano. We see howler monkeys, bats and butterflies. Our guide is the perfect host. Pointing out the shimmer of a butterfly’s wing, the cave where the bats are sleeping, the clutch of the mother howler monkey holding her little one, we are amazed at his trained eye.

Time to check out. Yesterday, Martin our host, overheard us talking about a taxi and volunteered to have a driver, Pedro, who they use, to meet us at San Gorge who would then take us to Granada. The price was thirty dollars. I agreed immediately, since I had overheard others saying they had to pay forty dollars for a taxi from Granada to San Gorge. He also got one of his local helpers to drive us to the San Jose dock to catch the ferry at 3:20 pm.

We had lunch and a few beers while we waited for our taxi. Lunch was shredded chicken sandwiches with cole slaw. Quite good!

Adios to Totoco. Our driver arrived and we were whisked away to San Jose dock. We got there a half hour before departure, so we stopped at a local bar, which consisted of a few tables on a concrete slab overlooking the lake. A round of Tonas and then in was onto the ferry for our ride across the lake.

We got into San Gorge around 4:30 pm. Sure enough, there was our young driver, Pedro, holding a sign reading Totoco. He was grinning ear to ear and happily took our bags and off we went, to Granada.
Pedro had a lead foot. Along with Pedro’s lead foot was his bright and happy smile and his gush for words, which I could barely understand, my Spanish not being that awfully good. But still Pedro laughed and smiled, all the while looking over his shoulder at us while his pedal was to the metal.

I am not complaining, afterall, we are still alive. He was a very loveable guy. In no time at all we arrived in Granada. We tipped him fat and he took off, probably to his lovely young senorita waiting for him, somewhere along the shores of beautiful Lake Nicaragua.

Nicaragua 2012 (part two)

We check into Hotel Patio del Malinche, where we have reservations for the next three nights. The hotel is beautiful; two stories with corridors of rooms which have air-conditioning all centered around the lovely garden and pool. We are tickled to have a/c again. No more worrying about becoming a mosquito feast. Our room is quite small, but clean and cool.

I read in the Moon guidebook about a great steak place, El Zaquan, which is just around the corner from our hotel. We are seated at a table next to the Ottawa couple who stayed at Finca del Sol. We are thrilled to see each other. They tell us they got a room at our hotel after all. While we are talking to them, the Canadian couple who we met at our hotel in San Juan del Sur, who we ate dinner with at the pizza place up by the church in SJDS, walk by us, while leaving the restaurant.
We all laugh at how everybody is doing basically the same thing, on all our separate vacations.

Kyla and Sean from Ottawa are finishing up their dinner. We order a pitcher of Sangria, tortilla chips with guacamole and the filet mignons. The food is fabulous! Definitely unforgettable! Kyla and Sean take their leave and while we are waiting for our check, the local people start coming in, droves of them, all dressed to the nines. The restaurant is now buzzing, tables are being moved to accommodate large groups, the maitre de now becomes another server, the manager is enlisted into taking drink orders. Our server finally frees herself and brings us our check. From the looks of this place, this must be “the” place to eat in Granada.

After our delicious dinner we stroll down gringo alley, checking out the town. Young street entrepreneurs have hastily set up tables and laid out their wares, all touting and beckoning to people passing by. My friend has a t shirt on which says Italia. A few of the young men call out “Italia” and then add a rude comment or two, to her. We are slightly intimidated and leave the crowds and head back to our hotel. After the laid back, easy going pace of Ometepe, we aren’t quite ready for such “in your face” attitude yet. Maybe tomorrow.

Day six:

After getting a great night’s sleep, I am up early. I walk around town taking pictures in the early morning light. Few people are stirring. The ones which are boldly stare at me. I, trying to be polite, smile back at them and say “buenas dias.”
They mutter something. One man leers at me and makes kissing noises. ??? I am disgusted and head back to wake up my friend.

Time for breakfast. I order the fruit plate which when it arrives has every kind of fruit known to man and some I have never seen before on it. One kind of fruit looked similar to a small fuzzy plum and when you bit into it, it was incredibly sweet and had a sugary cinnamon taste. Anybody know what I am talking about? We don’t have it here in the States.

I comment to my friend on the rude behavior I experienced with the men I had passed on the streets, just before breakfast. She recalls the comments from last night. I tell her don’t wear anything they can read today. We don’t need to deal with that all day. She laughs.

After breakfast we wander aimlessly around town. Still trying to get a feel of the place and trying to get a grip on the “back to civilization.” We are also avoiding any and all eye contact.

We stop by the Chocolate Cafeteria for a couple of espressos, then walk down to the market which is packed with people. Strangely, even as busy and packed as it is, this is one of the place where I feel the least bit intimidated. Overhead tents hold back the sun, the sights, smells and sounds are intoxicating. Or maybe it is the espressos we just had.

We emerge from the market and continue to drift aimlessly about, only to stumble upon Mombacho Cigars, a place where you can roll your own cigar. We didn’t, though we did enjoy watching them efficiently roll out one cigar after another.

We continue on down by Iglesia Guadalupe and get to the lake. It is in this general vicinity that we pass a guy riding his bicycle who…exposes himself to us.

Yes, at first I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. I am still not. It was one of those moments where you think…did that just happen? At first I was shocked, then annoyed, then I got extremely mad. I told my friend who missed it. She laughed. But I was still angered. I kept thinking I didn’t come the whole way to Nicaragua to have some guy expose himself at me. Then I was wishing I would have known some surly insult in Spanish to hurl at him.

I know it was just a small thing, pardon the pun, but it still made me mad.

We continue our walk by the lake, ignoring all the touts pushing their guided boat rides and eventually get to the boat dock. We are approached by another tout who offers us an hour boat ride for $5 a person. I like the idea, although my friend isn’t that thrilled, but we pay and get on board.

The insolent young lad begrudgingly starts up the motor and we are off. He is sulking in his backseat by the outboard motor. I tell my friend “Our capitan doesn’t seem to be too happy with us.” Little do I know that he speaks perfect English. Which he does, shortly after, pointing out the houses, birds and the distant view of Granada in English. He seems to have lightened up and is now more interactive with us. We go by monkey island. He spots a tree, pulls the boat by the shore and climbs up on the edge of the boat, grabs two pods and then pulls out of the pods, two beautiful flowers which he hands to us.

The boat tour is lovely and relaxing. Time goes by fast. We are soon back at the boat dock. We tip the young man and set off on foot, back the way we came, passing bored, lazy cows lying by the side of the road.

We get to town without any further “southern exposures” from anyone and come upon the Cubana Café, which is offering Mojitos 2 x 1. Happily we claim our table on the sidewalk and while away the time and the mojitos, which are exceptional, by the way!

Six mojitos later we get back to our hotel and find Kyla and Sean, Ottawa’s finest couple, enjoying cocktails by the pool. They buy a round for all of us, the we buy another. Dinner is mentioned and we all get dressed and head to the Garden Café.

We order appetizers which we all split, and steak dinners and a couple of glasses of wine. By the time we leave, I notice the entire staff is waiting by the front door. I have no idea what time they close, but apparently we were keeping them late. I felt bad.

We head over to O’sheas Irish bar with the Canucks. More drinks and then Kyla and Sean leave, my friend and I who are now adopted by a poor mangy street dog, buy the dog some food and I feed it till it can’t eat anymore.

Day seven:

My friend is up bright and early and has breakfast with the Canucks, who are flying back home today. I manage to get up and eat some breakfast. Then we head into town and stop by the Chocolate Cafeteria, my friend wants a piece of that scrumptious-looking chocolate cake she saw the other day. We stop by a couple of shops, looking for t shirts to buy. Not seeing anything we like, we head back to our hotel. It is getting hot. My friend goes back to bed, where she will spend the majority of the day, I swim in our pool and hangout in the hammock all morning.

Two o’clock, I am hungry and go in to wake up my friend. She looks at me and tells me she is hungry for pizza. Which is what I had in mind, after reading about the great pizza place, Don Luca’s in the Moon guidebook. We find the place with no problem. It is packed full with locals. Always a good sign. We order pizza and a ham and cheese calzone. Two cokes.

The food comes out and it is incredible! Best calzone I have ever had in my life! After stuffing ourselves, we walk around the central square which is in mid-swing, starting off the Poet’s of the World festival week. The vendors have taken over the plaza, there is a disc jockey in the center of the buzz and kids are bouncing around on a trampoline. The place is too busy for me today, I am still recuperating from last night.

My friend goes back to our hotel room, I wander around town and then head over to La Merced and climb the church to the bell tower. It is late in the afternoon, the shadows fall long across the corridors and rooftops of Granada. Absolutely stunning views with a magnificent breeze blowing in from the lake, one you don’t notice down on the hot streets below. I could stay up here for hours, except I am now dying of thirst and need to lie down. Pictures are taken, I then head back and stop by the main cathedral by the plaza which is holding mass.

Back to our hotel and spend the rest of the evening lazing in the comfortable hammock.

Day eight:

Today we leave. I get up before my friend, eat breakfast and then stop by the reception area to pay my bill. I ask about getting a taxi to the Managua airport. It is $50 for two people. I ask how much for a taxi to take us to the market in Masaya, then to the Masaya Volcanic National Park and then to the airport. She tells me it is $50. Great, we can still see the market and the Santiago Volcano!

I wake up my friend and tell her to be ready in an hour, then I head into town for some last pictures of Granada. I am walking up the street and a young guy is riding his bicycle towards me. As he passes me, he leans over and gets in my face and says “senora” very seductively. What is it with Nicas? ??My last hour in Granada which I wanted to remember happily and I get intentional intimidation…once again.

I take my pictures of all the churches in the bright morning light and then return to our hotel to find my friend waiting along with our taxi driver. We are leaving Granada! Yay!

We check out the Masaya market, get the t shirts we wanted which are a lot cheaper here by the way, I buy a little handmade dress for my granddaughter, then off to explore Masaya Volcanic National Park and climb up to the top of both volcanoes. Last time I was here was in April of 2004. So much has changed. The staircase to the cross wasn’t here back then. I am impressed!

Got to the airport around 1 pm. Just in time, our flight leaves at 3:30.

I am glad that Nicaragua has come so far in the tourism industry! Not so sure about that airport out on Ometepe, though. I am afraid that it is going to make a big difference on the local way of life out there, just not too sure if it will be a positive one.

We loved Ometepe! You all should go before it changes…forever.

Peru 2011 (part one)

Since a few of you have helped me on here a couple of months ago, I just wanted to share my incredible journey and amazing experiences! This trip went better than what I had hoped for, except for my one severe bout of high altitude sickness...but I digress.

Thursday, Sept 1~ I caught the first flight out of Dulles, DC at 5 am. Got into San Salvador, El Salvador around 7:30, them being two hours behind (counting the daylight savings time), had an hour to kill so I knocked back a couple of drinks hoping they would put me out for the next leg. Boarded my next flight shortly before 9 and managed to catch a few z's before we arrived in Lima around 2 pm. Lima is one hour behind us so technically, it was still early in the day for me...

I was met at the airport by Angie, the lovely young lady from Casa Ana. Casa Ana is located in the Brena` district in Lima, a nice quiet residential neighborhood. I was shown to my cute cozy room upstairs, then I dumped my gear and with the house’s courtesy map of Lima in hand, I make my way to the Plaza de Armas.

Just because the light turns red does not necessarily mean that the traffic stops. I quickly learned that you cross the streets when the masses cross and you cross as fast as you can. My highlighted map took me past the dignified Palacio de Justicia, past the pleasant little Plaza San Martin, down the bustling Lima Centro and into the beautiful, impressive Plaza de Armas.

I was also impressed by the abundant presence of policia. There was even a small tank parked outside the lovely Monasterio de San Francisco. I wandered around enjoying the sights and sounds of the busy city.

Dinner time found me at Norky's, close to the San Martin Plaza. They seemed to be drawing quite a crowd, so in I went and ordered the Anticuchos (beef heart skewers) and french fries. First let me tell you, if you are a french fry fiend, then Peru is the place for you! And the beef heart skewers were mighty tasty too!

It was getting late and time to find my way back to my room. I have an early flight to Cuzco tomorrow.

Friday, Sept 2~ Up early and at the airport by 6:30. Standing at the end of a very long line of people at the Star Peru check-in. This is the flight I was slightly worried about. All I had in my hand was an email with the reservation code. It was finally my turn and I showed the girl my piece of paper. She checked my carry-on, then told me I had to walk down to the end of the terminal to the tiny little Star Peru counter next to the money exchanges and pay for my flight, since it was just an “on hold" reservation. Then come back. I looked at the hordes of people now behind me. Well the good thing is, at least I know I do have a reservation.

I walk down to the stand, pay for my flight, then come back and get in line again. They then ask everyone on the Iquitos flight to come forward. Apparently the Iquitos flight leaves before the Cuzco flight, so they are all bumped ahead of everyone, which is nice for them. I eventually get processed through, all is well, and then we are shuttled out to the plane. Seats are claimed and we are winging our way up and out of Lima’s dense dismal grayness into the brilliant blue skies ahead.

The flight over the stunning Andes is always a spectacular one. I am not disappointed.

We arrive in Cuzco at 9:30. My driver from Hostal de Anita (a part of the Amaru group) is waiting. I am zipped up the steep streets to San Blas and my charming little hostal. My room is really nice, bright and sunny with amazing views of the distant hills surrounding Cuzco. Nice big bathroom. I am a happy camper.

Out and about in Cuzco. The skies are that clear, intense, unreal blue which is common in high altitudes. Even though it is quite crisp and chilly, the sun has a satisfying warmth to it. It has been five years since I have been here, I spend the morning feeling my way around and remembering places from the past. Not much has changed. I like that.

I purchase my tourist ticket and then head down to Qorikancha, the temple of the sun. Looks exactly the same as before, but I am enjoying it again and take my time exploring.

Afterwards, I head to the upstairs Cappuccino Café which overlooks the plaza for a cup of mate de coca and some more of those fabulous French fries. The other time I was here, I minded the altitude immediately. This time I am not feeling anything. Still, I drink my tea.

I spend the rest of the afternoon roaming the streets we missed the last time. Then I buy a few warm scarves and a pair of gloves as the day is cooling down.

I take Xinloi’s advice and eat dinner at the little “hole in the wall” on Cuesta de San Blas. The name of this little hole in the wall is Tupana Wasi. I order a Chilean Cabernet and the chicken soup, followed by the filet mignon smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce. To die for. Thanks Al!

Then it is time for bed. All these early mornings and flying has worn me out. I am thankful for the extra heavy blankets on my bed. The temperature really dropped when the sun went down.

Saturday, Sept 3~ Up early for my breakfast which is included with my hostal. Breakfast consists of a flat type of bread/bun, strawberry marmalade, fresh fruit w/ yogurt w/Andean granola and scrambled eggs. And coffee. I am going to say it right here…I never did learn to like their coffee. I believe… and correct me if I am wrong, it is a very strong brewed instant Nescafe.

Time to use my tourist ticket. I take a taxi into the innards of Cuzco to the Pisac bus stop, climb aboard and ride the very crowded public bus to Tambomachay where I am dropped off. Cost of taxi to bus stop 4 sols. Cost of bus ride 3 sols. Taxis ask 40 sols to take you up to Tambomachay.

Tambomachay is an easy walk from the road, my ticket was punched and I climbed to the highest point looking down on the Incan baths, where I was soon enveloped by a group of school children who all were anxious to practice their English on the gringa. I was bombarded with questions. “Where are you from?” I reply “USA.” Which is immediately followed by “do you like Michael Jackson?” My answer is a quick no. They seemed shocked and are silent for a moment, then the questions continue. Then it is picture time. Everybody has to have their picture taken with the gringa. For a few minutes I am reminded how thrilled I am that I am not a celebrity, at least not back home. Being surrounded by a paparazzi is no fun.

The kids soon grow bored of me and move on. So do I.

I cross the road and walk over to Pukapukara. There are very few people here. I enjoy the silence and the wonderful views from the ruins.

Then it is all mostly downhill to Q’enqo and Sacsaywaman, except for the numerous high mounds of rock formations and precipitous stairs which beg to be climbed which I do. Grottos are explored, pictures are taken and I ascend to the overlook high above Cusco. The magnificent snowcapped Asungate reigns supreme on the southern horizon.

It is here that I start feeling unwell. I am nauseous, have a pounding headache and feel ill. My intentions were to climb to the Christ statue before I descend to Cuzco. Maybe I can still do it. I leave Sacsaywaman and start the short, but steep climb to the mount. Get about half way up and something tells me to turn around. Can’t do it. I need the bathroom and my bed. In that order.

I gingerly make my way down the dirt trail, then down the long and stepped path to Cuzco. I get to the Plazoleta Nazarenas and sit on a curb. Feeling worse. How do you ask for a doctor in Spanish? My clothes are sticking to me from my sweat. People look at me funny. I pull myself off the curb and slowly make my way to the ally my hostal is on. Unfortunately, it is a very vertical staircase made up of three sets of twelve steps each separated with three landings. I make my way up the first set. Sit and rest on the conveniently placed nearby bench. Only two more to go. I make my way up the next. Feel like I am going to pass out. I make my way up the last on and lay flat on my back on the cobbled-stone ally. My head is spinning. I feel intoxicated and nauseas. A man passes me by, warily. If I can only make it to the doorway, which by the way is locked. I have the key in my purse but can’t foresee the possibility of me having the strength to dig it out.

I pry myself off the uncomfortable cobble stones, put one foot in front of the other and pray someone will be leaving from my hotel, so I can get in without using my key. Miraculously two women are on their way out and I can hardly get the phrase “hold the door” pass my lips, but somehow manage and they do.

At the second locked doorway, I buzz myself in. One more set of steps to my room and I am in. I barely make it to the bathroom. I have severe vomiting, which amounts to severe dry heaves since my stomach absorbed every piece of food I had ingested from earlier this morning. I am sweating profusely, my head feels like it will explode and my heart has a very rapid, irregular beat. It then dawns on me….I have a severe case of soroche, or high altitude sickness.

I had thought I was doing okay and simply overexerted myself to the point where I brought this on myself. What a fool. It is 3 PM and I am in bed sick. Three hours later I get out of bed, take a hot shower and some Ibuprofren and back to bed I go.

Sunday, Sept 4~ Well, I survived. Up early and packing. Today I move on to Pisac. Eat very little, seems the sickness left me with no appetite. Drink lots of coca tea.

Then I get a taxi to the Pisac bus stop with the intention of taking the bus. The taxi driver offers to drive me there for 20 sols. I picture myself on the jam-packed and bouncing bus vs. the heavenly front seat of the smooth, quiet car. I opt for the taxi. His name is Andres and he is very considerate and kind. Driving slowly through the visually spectacular valley, stopping at the miradors and talking about his family makes for a short ride. I tip him 20 sols for his generous hospitality.

The charming little Pisac Inn where I am staying is on the fringe of the plaza which you can’t see because it is market day. Vendors are side by side taking up every iota of space. The place is too busy for someone like me, recuperating from soroche. I enter the welcoming doorway to a peaceful and calming environment. Tea is offered and I find a dark sitting room and lie on the couch till my room is ready.

My room is the furthest from the busy plaza, a delightful piece of paradise. I lie on my bed and am happy to be here.

After a quick nap, I am feeling better. I decide on lunch downstairs. The inn is a hopping hub of activity offering all the comforts of home and enticing in not only their own guests but day trippers stopping in for a bite to eat. I order a coke, chicken soup and some fried cheese rolls w/ spicy guacamole. The food is beyond excellence! Might as well say gourmet.

After refueling, I investigate the market, then set off for the path to the ruins. I will take it slow, see how much I am comfortable with. I have no desire to relive last night. I cautiously make my way up to the guard station, offer my ticket and am told they only punch it at the top, implying …if you actually make it to the top. From the looks and the laugh the guard gives me, he has his doubts about me.

I probably make it a quarter of the way up, stopping frequently. An Aussie couple coming down chat with me awhile and help me to decide to take a taxi to the top, tomorrow. Passing by the guard on my way back down, he laughs again and waves. I too get a chuckle out of this.

I browse the market place as the vendors are dismantling their stands. My mother asked for a green blanket from Peru. It is way too early into my trip to do any major shopping, so I am just looking. Green is a hard color to come by. I am seeing mostly browns, reds, orange; earth tones. I come across a vendor who has gorgeous, heavy hand-loomed blankets. One vivid green one at the very bottom of the pile. I ask to see it. It is lovely! She asks 180 sols for it. As I stand there and try to figure out how in the world I am going to lug it around with me for the next thirteen days, she keeps lowering her price. I guess I can squeeze it in the very bottom of my carry-on. She comes down to 110 sols. I offer her 90. She accepts. I now have a very lovely, but very heavy blanket to haul around with me for the duration of the trip. I console myself with the fact that if I get too cold at night, I can use it to keep me warm.

In hindsight, I am very glad I bought the beautiful blanket, because I never came across anything like it again. I would have regretted it immensely had I not.

Monday, Sept 5~ First one up for breakfast. Scrambled eggs, elderberry jam and bread, fresh orange juice, coffee and I am on my way to look for a taxi to take me to the ruins. I find a guy, Freddy, who drives a very hard bargain. He wants 50 sols to take me to the top and back down. Lonely Planets says 30 sols for a round trip. I finally get him down to 40, but he is one tough cookie.

He takes me up to the entrance and tells me he will wait for me. The vistas are indescribable. The ruins are immense. From the looks of them, I imagine the military sector was originally built by the Wari, then the rest added by the Inca. Very impressive indeed! I walk over to the one staircase which takes you up to the Intihuatana. After watching another couple climb them ahead of me, I decide to forego the steps. Alas, I can’t do it. The top couple of steps basically don’t exist. I watched the man scrambled over them on his hands and knees. No thanks, I’ll pass. Another couple behind me opt to pass also. Sadly, I have to miss the best part of the ruins.

Freddy has convinced me that it would be better riding along with him to Yucay then taking the bus, considering my past experience with soroche. Like I said earlier, he is one tough cookie. I half-heartedly agree with him. He takes me to Yucay for another 40 sols. I tell myself, this is the end of it. These taxis will bleed you dry.

Yucay is a lovely, tranquil little town. As busy as Pisac was, Yucay is not. I am dropped off at the Sonesta Posadas del Inca. What a beautiful hotel in a breathtaking location! I am shown to my suite on the second floor. This was one of the two indulges I have allowed myself on this trip.

Lunch is being served buffet style. I get myself a healthy, hearty plateful and a glass of papaya juice. For desert I have my all-time favorites, tres leche cake and rice pudding.

I bump into two ladies from Alabama who tell me about some ruins just north of the hotel. A quick peek at their map and I set off on foot. The path follows a bubbling aqueduct and takes me along a shaded walkway lined with bougainvillea adorned walls and fertile fields where farmers are plowing furrows with their begrudgingly Brown Swiss bulls.

I can see the ruins. I can also see a storm brewing in the valley south of me. Thunder rumbles in the distance. A substantial breeze has sprung up. I lick my finger and hold it up, trying to decide which way the wind is blowing, which way the storm is moving. It is hard to tell. The thunder is getting louder. A thunderstorm at this altitude, probably not a good idea…I turn around and go back to my hotel.

The storm moves on, I walk around town, stopping by the gorgeous church which inspired me to stay in Yucay to begin with. As I am sitting on the nearby bench noting the differences between the tiny towns in the Sacred Valley and Cuzco, where everybody wants to sell you something; paintings, jewelry, massages, shoe shines, personal tour guides, everyone touting something, posing for pictures from which an extended palm proceeds afterwards demanding a donation….Cuzco will deplete you of all your money in no time, if you let it. Here….it is heaven. Here you can stop and sit, contemplate, write, but best of all, be ignored.

It is while I am doing just that, sitting and enjoying the scenery when from out of nowhere two little donkeys come walking down the dusty, hot street. They pass by the shops and church, pass by me, stop for a moment and then make a right at the corner. Nobody says or does anything. I am assuming they know their way home.

I head back to my hotel, slide into a hot bubble bath and let the day slip away.

Tuesday, Sept 6~ Breakfast is served once again, buffet style. After a satisfying meal, I collect my bags and check out. Time to move to Ollantaytambo. Time for a change of scenery.

I haul my carry-on and myself down the dirt road and out to the street. There are a group of smartly dressed, uniformed school boys huddled on the corner. I make eye contact with one of the braver ones and ask him if this is where I board the collectivio to Urubamba. He answers “si” and points to the spot where I am standing. Then he points to an approaching van, points to me, then the van again and the spot where I am standing. I ask “Urubamba?” A shy quick nod from him. As I wave down the van, I notice the other boys are now poking and teasing him. Boys will be boys wherever you are.

The van pulls over, the door is slid open and I am staring at about twenty-some people looking back at me. They squeeze and move into a tighter knot, I heave my carry-on in first, which is quickly snagged by a older Runa lady, then me and my backpack. Another Runa lady steadies my backpack, I squeeze unto the floor and the top step, bracing myself on the side door, which by the way is not closed correctly and slips open with every turn. This becomes a main concern of the three older Runa ladies and the one holding onto my suitcase grabs a hold of my arm with her other hand. Her grip is a strong and unrelenting one. I have read in books about the Andean highlands and how Runa mothers are very ferocious and protecting moms. Also how they never take any backtalk or a backhand for that matter, from any of their men. Knowing this, I feel very safe, regardless of the shuffling sliding door.

At the next stop, the one lady exits and on her way out she slams the door shut properly. The other lady relaxes her grip on me, slightly.

We arrive at the bus station in Urubamba, Everybody bails out. I thank the lady who hung on to me so tightly. She smiles. Her eyes are an amazing light green-grey color in a sea of weathered, wrinkled dark skin. If eyes are a window to the soul, you can see she has an almighty one.

I am immediately directed to another van leaving for Ollantaytambo. The driver motions for me to sit up front. Another lady climbs in beside me. Off we go to Ollantaytambo. I am sandwiched between the driver and the other lady who take it upon themselves to test my Spanish. With a certain satisfaction they soon learn my limitations, to which they then switch to Quechua, to confuse me even more. I remember I have a book with me. “Cut Stones and Crossroads” which contains a lot of sonnets written in Quechua. I dig it out of my backpack and show one of the sonnets to them, first the lady, then the driver. They both eye me, then become quiet. Either I have gained a certain respect or have shown them up…I am hoping it is respect, not the other way around.

We arrive in Ollantaytambo, my favorite Andean village. Luggage is collected from the roof, the driver offers to help me find my hostal. I take this as a good sign, that I didn’t offend them after all. I tell him I know where my hostal is, I don’t really, just rather a general idea. I am wandering around hauling my carry-on over the very bumpy cobbled alleys until I finally admit to a mototaxi driver that I don’t know where I am going. I tell him the name of my hostal, he throws in my carry-on and off we go. Turns out it wasn’t very far from where I was roaming, but it is up a very long flight of stairs which the driver quickly scales along with my luggage. For this I am very thankful and give him his 2 sols.

From the moment I entered the doorway of Hostal Iskay, I knew it was going to be a great place! Cristina greeted me like a burst of fresh air! She stated my name before I could even get it out, took my luggage and showed me to my room all the time saying how happy she was to finally meet me. My room was as neat as a pin and cute and comforting. Fresh flowers and candles adorn the table top and window sills. The views of the ruins from the window are beckoning me. The bed is inviting. There is a happy, bubbly water fountain just outside my room.

Eager to explore the ruins, I ditch my gear and head out. The hostal is only a couple of blocks from the ruins. I get my ticket punched and enter the hallowed grounds. This is one of my favorite ruins. This is the one place the Inca defeated the Spanish, but got to enjoy their victory only for a short time. It is here, with a little bit of an imagination and a lot of wonder, you can feel their short-lived glory.
Up and up I climb, ascending the awe-inspiring staircases. Up to the magnificent walled structure they were building when the conquistadors showed up. They were working on something so big, so impressive…it is a terrible crime they never got to finish it. One can now only imagine…

I seek the path which I couldn’t do before. There was a large outcrop of rocks which you have to stoop around and beneath, all the time hovering a couple hundred of feet in thin air. To my utter surprise and sheer delight, they cut a lot of the rock face away and made the pathway broader. Now I can take the path which always taunted me. Around the mountain the path leads, overlooking the Incan waterways and aqueducts, overlooking the vast valley and the terracing below. I descend the stairs at the end of the ruins and wander through the waterworks. I never cease to be amazed at the ingenuity of the Inca. I wish I could have met such masterminds, in person. It would have been an incredible experience.

After exploring the ruins, I stop for a bite to eat at Puka Rumi. Comes highly recommended in Lonely Planet. True to the book, it does not disappoint. I order the chicken burritos and a Cusquena. The burritos are a culinary delight, the cold, crisp beer goes down fast.

Back to my hostal, a cup of tea, a hot shower, my soothing sheets and comfy bed.

Wednesday, Sept 7~A buffet breakfast is served downstairs. After breakfast I nosy around town and then ask Cristina where there are some good trails to hike. I had heard about Pumarca ruins and I was told you could hike to them. Cristina enthusiastically drew me a map to the ruins, says it is a very nice hike.

I stick it in my pocket and head down the street. The street brings me to the edge of town, I cross the bridge and make a right unto a dirt road which follows the loud lively, tumbling river as it meanders through the scenic valley. It is a gorgeous day. The views of snow-capped summits peeking over the high meadows and mountain ridges are astounding! I have never been happier.

On and on I walk, stopping often to take pictures. Another couple appear from behind me and ask me about the ruins. I show them my map. They quickly set off leaving me behind, since I am dawdling in my own the contentment.

I come across a young girl who is driving two cows with her stick. I ask her if I can take a picture. She smiles and says “si.” The one cow stretches her neck out to sniff me and bawls her complaint. At least that is what is sounded like. The girl laughs.

Further on, I see two donkeys charging towards me, all the while tussling with each other. The one keeps viciously biting the other. The bitten donkey gets rolled on the ground. The man walking behind them smiles and then shakes his head at the donkeys. The donkey gets on it’s feet and the two of them take off down the road, still fighting amongst themselves. The man waves goodbye to me with his stick and follows his troubled pair of asses.

Two hours later, the trail is getting steeper and I am getting hot and winded. Seems to be taking forever. I come across a shepherd and ask him if I am going the right way. He points further up the mountain. A van comes barreling over the crest of the hill and blows by me as I stand aside and hope for a ride. No such luck. The guy in the front waves and so do the two ladies in the back. In the nice cool, air-conditioned van.

I keep walking. Around the bend I can finally see them.

The ruins sit at the top of a very high hill which is surrounded by a steep meadow being grazed by cattle and a couple of horses. I scope out the cattle. No bulls. I slowly start to climb, seeking out the cow paths which sneak through the brambles and shrubbery. The animals ignore me. I am fine with that. As I climb, another couple is coming down. We stop and chat and try to perceive where the short cut is located as we scan the opposite mountain side. Turns out they are from Boston and staying at my hostal and have the same hand drawn map. They set off to follow the tree line down.

By the time I get to the top, the ladies who passed me earlier in the van are just leaving. They are happy to see me and want to know where I am from, and what I am doing traveling alone? They are from Tennessee.
Their guide shows me where the short cut is across the valley. Just follow the tree line he says. Then off they go to leave me to wander the ruins alone.

The ruins are incredible. The views from the ruins are staggering. The sun is intense. The wind blows wild way up here. I seek out a shaded spot and find the couple who I met earlier on the trail way below. I leave them be and find another secluded spot for me.

A Snickers bar and a Powerade are my lunch. There are a couple of local men who are up here doing a few repairs. I find it fascinating that they are so concerned with the upkeep of these little-known ruins. I wave at them and they smile and wave back. They seem pleased to see us here.

After exhausting my interest, I search for the quickest and shortest way across to catch the trail by the tree line. I pass the contented cows and am soon on the path. Two guys on mountain bikes blow by from behind me without much warning, spooking me. Where did they come from?

I soon find out that the path follows an old Incan aqueduct the whole way down the mountain. The well-thought-out structure amazes me. The water constantly gushes by me as I follow the path. The vistas across the valley I came up through are even more mind-blowing from up here.

I come to a bend on the cliff and find the aqueduct makes an almost forty-five degree angle and continues on down the mountain. Where does all this water come from? This is the dry season. Still is rapidly rushes by me, never ceasing.

I pass some school kids coming around the next bend. They are surprised to see me, as I am them. They all say “hola” and continue on their way. I smile thinking about their wondrous walk to and from school each day. Now that is determination.

As I make it down off the trail and am back on the dirt road just outside Ollantaytambo, I find myself tired but extremely happy. The day was a very satisfying one. The scenery was spectacular, the ruins were remarkable and the few local people I met along the way were quite friendly.

Another great dinner at Puka Rumi consisting of Hawaiian Pizza and a cold Cusquena, then it is a hot shower and my wonderful bed which has been calling my name.

Thursday, Sept 8 ~ Another beautiful morning vista, downstairs for my buffet breakfast and then I seek out Cristina for one of her special maps of the trail to the Inka quarry. A quick stop at the local neighborhood tienda for a Powerade and a Snickers bar, then I happily set off on foot following the road out of town. It is all down hill to the river, I cross the bridge and find the trail leading to the right.

The trail follows the river at a constant gradual climb, the higher it takes you the drier the landscapes. Nothing surviving up here, except cacti and yucca plants with some very coarse yellowed grass and lichen coated boulders. Up and up I ascend, following the trail which leads me to a bend where you get a wondrous view of snow-topped Willawayna.

I see no signs of the quarry. There is no breeze. The sun is burning me up. I cover myself up with my hooded windbreaker, but my hands are exposed and are looking pretty red. Reluctantly I realize it is time for me to turn around. I take one last long look around, then head back the way I came. I stop in the shade at the big rocks and pull out my Snickers bar, which has became quite mushy. Devouring the melted mess, I lick the wrapper clean, stuff it back into my backpack, drink my Powerade then set off for town.

I opt to follow the train tracks to the station for my entry into town, since it would have been all uphill the other way. Coming in this way brings me closer to my favorite eating place and I splurge for the Bleu Cheese Steak. It is a whopping 300 grams of tenderloin swimming in a creamy bleu cheese sauce, served with mashed sweet potatoes and some warm dinner rolls. I had my doubts when she sat it down in front of me, but I managed to make it all disappear. Completely stuffed, I head back to my hotel to shower and pack my bags, tomorrow morning I catch the train for Machu Picchu.

Peru 2011 (part two)

Friday, Sept 9~ Up at 5 am. My taxi arrives at 5:30 to take me to the train station. Along with the crowd, I board at 6. I have the very last window seat in carriage car A, my companion is a very delightful fellow from Brazil. His name is Fabio. Fabio is the icebreaker, he gets the introductions started, not with just me but everyone around us and then entertains us with his lively personality. We are served drinks and cookies and then before you know it we are arriving in Aguas Calientes.

I say adios to Fabio and then I have to find my own way to my hotel, since the staff person never showed up as promised. I make my way to the plaza and then ask a lady where my hotel is. She points me to the corner of the plaza where there is a narrow alley. Turns out, it isn’t far from the place we stayed at in 2006.

Gringo Bill’s is a artistic/bohemian kind of a joint. It has many different floors being that it sits on a tiny piece of property and the only way you can build on is up. It is laid out very cute and has it’s own certain flair. I am shown to my room on the second floor. Large room with two beds and a big flat screen TV which I am finding in a lot of hotels down here. Not something I look for, since I got rid of my own TV over a year ago.

I dump my luggage and head down to buy a bus ticket to Machu Picchu. With my ticket purchased, I get in the long line waiting for the bus.

We get to the top and make our way to the entrance. There are crowds and crowds of people. It wasn’t like this five years ago. I finally get to the gate and offer my piece of paper which I got when I purchased my Machu Picchu ticket online. I am waved to the side and my paper is taken from me. The girl disappears into the guard station. I stand helplessly by, wondering what is going on. Hordes of people continue to happily pass by, all getting in without any problems. I am getting annoyed.

Finally, another gate keeper goes in and brings out the corrected reprinted ticket and hands it to me. I get back in line.

I am finally through the gate and squeeze pass all the people and start up the long trail. Up and up I climb till it brings me out way at the top, above the House of the Guardians. The llamas are all sweetly grazing a couple of terraces below me on the large flat meadow.

It still takes you breath away.

I take it slow, soaking in the satisfaction of simply being able to be here again. This is an Incan paragon of perfection.

I read and have heard and have been seeing a lot of examples of the Inca’s obsession with perfection, from their architectural designs to their alignments of the rising sun and the mountain peaks. There was nothing left to chance. Every angle had a purpose. The purpose of these magnificent ruins still remain unknown, but it does not in any way diminish the affect it has on you.

The only drawback is the massive amount of people who are here. Hard to believe the difference. Last time I was here you pretty much had the place to yourself. And you could climb anywhere. Now you have to literally stand in line in the roped-off areas and wait your turn to look at the more popular structures and then wait for each person to have their picture taken and then take a picture of each other . That got a bit tedious.

As I made my way to the Intihuatana I noticed a beautiful Caracara sitting on the top of the rock wall. It lingered awhile, allowing lots of photo opportunities for us avid birders. I took that as a good omen.

The sun was getting hotter and there were no breezes to cool you off. I sought out the less-crowded rooms and corridors, seeking solace and shaded corners. Although it has been five years, some of this seems like new terrain to me. It isn’t till after I got home and compared my pictures to those from the previous trip that I realized they have been building at Machu Picchu, adding on segments. I am not too happy to learn that. Some things just can’t be copied or perfected or improvised…

I can now remember seeing construction being done at Sacsaywaman . The ancient impeccable, flawless Incan walls are being heightened at some spots with whatever rocks are on hand and to me it appeared sloppy, disrespectful, insolent and profane.

Between dodging the crowds and the relentless sun, I acquired my desired photos and satisfied my craving for exploring every nook and cranny, I make my way to the exit and the rotating, waiting busses. Pumped with adrenaline and filled with elation from this excursion, I am also sadden at all the changes which have transpired.

Some things are meant to be left untouched.

The chugging busses wind their way down the mountain and we are dispatched back in town. I wander along the railroad tracks where countless hotels and restaurants have sprung up, brick sidewalks have been laid, it is all very picturesque and tourist-friendly, but I am remembering the way it used to be. I remember my friend and I sitting in a tiny café next to the train tracks sipping cappuccinos and watching the locals go about their way of life.

I remember less tourists and less everything. Aguas Calientes has turned into a boomtown and it is only going to get worse. I foresee more deforestation to make room for more hotels, more people. But it is good for the local economy, I guess.

I eat dinner at a Mexican restaurant which has live musicians playing an appealing blend of panpipes and mariachis. They are very good and it isn’t long till my pizza and beer are gone. My waiter has disappeared also. I ask another waiter to find him so that I can pay my bill.

I walk around town and eventually find myself muddling in the maze of the local market. I buy a silver pendant and necklace, a leather journal and a small soft teddy bear made from baby alpaca . Heading back to my room I stop at a little café for an incredible piece of chocolate cake with mocha icing and a cappuccino. I recall Peru having some of the best chocolate I have ever eaten. The cake does not disappoint me.

Time for a hot shower and my big soft bed. Tomorrow I catch the train back to Ollantaytambo.

Saturday Sept 10~ Slept in till 7. Then breakfast in the dining room which was included with the room. The typical peach yogurt, fresh fruit, pan bread with marmalade and scrambled eggs. By the way, I am loving that peach yogurt! Not so much their coffee.

With two hours to kill before I catch the train, I spend the morning reflecting on the sunny benches in the plaza. My entertainment is watching the local fish commission catch the trout which are swimming beneath the feet of the Inca statute in the center of the plaza. They are using nets and placing the flopping fish in five gallon buckets filled half-full of water. Then someone runs off with a slopping bucket full of fish. I am hoping he is heading for the river but alas, my curiosity got the best of me and I follow and see him going into one of the larger restaurants by the river. Guess their feature will be trout tonight.

Time to head for the train. I arrive a bit early and perch on a near bench. A train pull ins and all the new arrivals disembark and head my way. I watch as the local vendors line up, hawking their wares. They are good at it. Fresh-faced and unaware, the newbie’s are being picked off left and right. It is quite amusing to watch.

I find a spot by the window and wait for my train to arrive. It is while I am in the bathroom (of course) that I hear the whistle and my train is here. By the time I get to the train car, almost everyone have boarded. I am the last one on my train car. I look at my ticket and see that I have seat 1A. I make my way to the front of the train, excusing myself through the rowdy crowd . It appears I am in the midst of a rather large group of people touring together. I find my way to my seat.

It is astounding. My seat is the best on one the train! I have this huge picture window in front of me! Ahead of me are the tracks we shall travel on! Wow! What more could you ask for? The crowd I have parted to get to my seat look at me and wonder how I could get so lucky. One lady comes up to me and I find out they are about thirty Argentineans traveling together. She seems amazed that me, an American, is traveling alone. She tells me “that is so unlike Americans.” I smile and catch her jest. I have to agree with her. I have an Argentinean lady next to me and then it is the engineer. Behind me the party commences. They sure are a fun, boisterous bunch!

The ride is a spectacular one! We soon find ourselves in Ollantaytambo. My Argentinean friends stay on the train, they are riding the rails to Poroy, Cuzco and then back home to Argentina tomorrow. Only a few of us get off. I haul my suitcase back to Hostal Iskay where I am shown to a different room then the one I had. This one is next to a patio from where I snag a lounge chair and prop it between my room’s front door so that I can rest my feet on the railing of the balcony. It isn’t long before I fall asleep in the afternoon sun.

A friendly little black and white cat wakes me with his rubbing against my chair and meowing. I pluck him up and hold him in my lap. He settles his purring little self down and together we nap in the golden rays of the late afternoon sunshine.

We are awakened by the stomping feet of people returning to their room. I get out of their way, since I am blocking their way and they have the room on the other side of me. The cat scampers off.

I head down to my favorite restaurant, Puka Rumi, for one last dinner in Ollantaytambo. It is Hawaiian pizza again for me. After dinner I buy a set of placemats at the market. Once again the wind has kicked up and I am thankful for my sunglasses, which keep the ever blowing dirt and dust out of my eyes. One last look around and then I head back to my room for a shower and sleep.

Sunday, Set 11~ Up early and eat my buffet breakfast downstairs. Then it is time for me to check out of here and mosey on down the road. I finally get to meet Lluc, husband of Cristina, the owners of Hostal Iskay. Super nice people. He tells me that one of the young guys who works for them is going to the plaza anyway, so he can carry my suitcase for me. I tip him and we part ways at the plaza.

I head over to the parking area where the shuttles wait and am immediately offered a seat in one going to Urubamba. We wait for others and a local lady comes by selling tamales. A family in the seat in front of me buy some. They look appetizing, but I am still stuffed from my big breakfast. More people climb in. Everybody greets me with a “Buenos dias” and a smile. The driver climbs in and we are off. Heading out of town a lady standing along the road flags us down. She climbs in with a wiggling burlap bag which a pair of lively chicken feet protrude from a hole in the bottom of and another bag in her other hand which contains, celery, onions and carrots. It doesn’t look good for the chicken. I can tell he is a rooster from the little noises he is making. I feel sorry for him and hope he is on this trip for a different purpose than what it appears to be, judging from the contents in the other bag.

We arrive at the bus station in Urubamba. It is really only a small parking lot with a couple of vans and a bus or two. I passed this way before coming from Yucay, so I am feeling pretty confident and flag down a motopaxi to take me to the San Agustin Monasterio de la Recoleta Hotel.

The old monastery is absolutely gorgeous. I walk into the reception area with my mouth hanging open. I can tell the attendant who greets me is amused. Still I walk around and gape in wonder. It is just so beautiful and I am thrilled that I picked this place to stay. When I had made my travel plans a couple of months ago, I had really anticipated staying at the Sonesta Posadas del Inka, but I like this place much better. This is the real, authentic thing.

After dumping my stuff and marveling at my charming room, I stop by the reception to ask the lovely young lady at the desk about directions to Maras, Moray and Salinas. She is very sweet and kind and draws me a map where I want to go and how much to expect to pay for the rides whether I go by bus or taxi.

I jubilantly head out on foot, past the cheerful chap who guards the gate, and he happily shows me the button to buzz myself in when I return. I wave at the first motopaxi coming towards me and tell him I need to go the bus station. When we get there, a van bound for Cuzco via Chinchero is just preparing to leave which is exactly what I want! I am helped on board and squeeze in.

The road to Chinchero is a winding one, climbing way up and out of the Sacred Valley high onto a stepped plateau. Passing farmers in their furrowed fields we ascend, still winding upward. I am feeling light-headed from the altitude. Chinchero sits at 12,343 feet above sea level. And you can really, really feel it.

At the crossroad to Chinchero and the main highway, I am dropped off. I head in the direction of the church. Which is of course, all uphill. I take it slow and stop often. Slow deep breaths. Inhale, exhale. In, out. Remembering my bout of high-altitude sickness in Cuzco, I don’t want to repeat it. Slow and easy.

The last time I was here, I fell in love with Chinchero. That feeling still remains. It is cloudy, cold and brisk today, I am all layered up and thankful for that. I make my way to the church. They are having Sunday mass inside the church. The place is packed full with the faithful locals, standing room only. A sign outside the door announces no cameras of any kind allowed inside, which is a shame, because the hand-painted ancient murals and interior is astounding! They are singing in Quechua, in perfect harmony with no
musical instruments of any kind, all acapella. It is undoubtedly the most beautiful music these hears have ever heard. And all unrecorded…

Perfection is not to be messed with.

As the priest enters, I leave to wander around the surviving Incan ruins located behind the church. The long rows of crumbling walls and many terraces dictate the distances to the valley below. On the far horizon you can see snow-capped mountain peaks peeping behind the rolling ridges. Just another awe-struck moment in this passage of time.

Starting to feel the altitude again, I stop by a little coffee shop for some mate de coca. I need my tea. The owner of this little café is quite nice and when he hears I am heading to Maras, he sits down with me and I get another hand-drawn map along with distances and prices expected to pay. It is very much like the one I already have in my pocket. I pay for my tea, thank him and satisfied, I head towards the main road, which is now all downhill.

I arrive at the corner of the crossroad where I was dropped off at. I see a local man talking to two gringos and walk by them, crossing to the other side, looking for a taxi. The man sees me and waves me back across the road to them. He starts talking to me and I have to tell him I speak very little Spanish. The older couple he is talking to are from France and speak very little English. Somehow we all end up hiring this man, who is a taxi driver , to take us to Maras, Moray and Salinas for 24 sols a person, which would be roughly $8 a person. Which ends up being cheaper than anything else I could have found. I am thrilled, as are they and we all climb into his cab and off we go to Maras.

The scenery is just phenomenal along the route we take. Before we get to Maras we come upon some people thrashing the old fashioned way, using a team of donkeys to grind out the grain. In this case it is a type of bean. We stop and watch them. I feel like I was just transported somewhere back in time. I sit and muse about my good fortunes and fantastic opportunities I keep stumbling upon in this ever-exquisite country I am traveling in.

We pass through the tiny town of Maras and find ourselves parked at the edge of a bluff. Nothing but the landscapes and wind. I turn and look at the French couple, they look at me? We look at the taxi driver. He motions this is where we get out. We do. I walk over to the edge and oh wow, another jaw-dropper! The French couple see my reaction and hurry over to where I am standing. I can’t understand French but I do understand expressions and can tell that they are as astonished and amazed as I am. Wow! Way down below us are these huge circles which are terraced over and over, each one rising above the other. Tiny people are walking around in these circles. We need to get down there. Without any further hesitation we descend.

It is a long way down and the excitement builds inside me. I went down the one path, the other couple went down around the other way. We arrive at the uppermost top of the first terraced flat. We still have to descend down into the innermost bottom circle. The steps the Inca have attached to each terrace are the same ones you see on the upper terraces overlooking Machu Picchu. They can be a bit difficult and we help each other maneuver our way down.

Inside the bottom circle I sit down and gaze around me. The Inca never stop ceasing to amaze me. They built “three large natural depressions in which terraced co-centric circles were constructed. Seeds cultivated at this site were likely sent throughout the Incan empire to improve yield in the harsh conditions of the Andes and were probably one of the benefits offered by the Incas for peaceful incorporation of neighboring tribes into the Incan empire. Today the site is a series of co-centric circles on plateau’s 400m above the valley floor (3,200-3,500m above sea level). The site was designed by the Incas to take advantage of natural depressions below the level plain and model Andean, jungle and semi-tropical environments for the growth of different plant varieties. Pollen studies indicate that soils from each of these regions was imported by the Incas to each of the large circular basins. In the largest of the depressions (150m) a serious of water channels can be seen finding their way to the bottom. Studies have found temperature variations up to 5 degrees Celsius. “ ~ Wikitravel

After thoroughly soaking in the wonders of Moray, we climb back out, returning the opposite way we came in. Our driver is waiting patiently in his car. On the road to Salinas, we have more stunning landscapes backed by the lofty snow-encrusted Andes. Our taxi driver stops for some local men using the road to drive home their mixed herds of cattle, donkeys and sheep. They part and pass by us on both sides of the car.

We arrive above the Salinas salt flats and the driver pulls over for us to take pictures. It is mind-boggling. For the life of me, I can’t begin to understand WHY I passed this all up on my previous trip. At that time I didn’t think we would find it interesting and I planned are itinerary so that we spent three nights in Aguas Calientes. Huge mistake. We could have seen all this instead.

We pay our fee to enter the salt flats. It is windy and cold and I am getting a very bad headache. We are still around 11,000 feet and all this climbing is affecting me. I am a bit worried, not wanting to push my luck, since tomorrow I return to Chinchero (altitude 12,343 ft) and stay there overnight. I have been feeling it all day. Got to slow down some.

The view looking across the immense expanse of salt flats in numbing. I have never seen anything like it. This is a lifestyle I know absolutely nothing about.

Wiki says it best. “Since pre-Inca times, salt has been obtained in Salinas by evaporating salty water from a local subterranean stream. The highly salty water emerges at a spring, a natural outlet of the underground stream. The flow is directed into an intricate system of tiny channels constructed so that the water runs gradually down onto the several hundred ancient terraced ponds. Almost all the ponds are less than four meters square in area, and none exceeds thirty centimeters in depth. All are necessarily shaped into polygons with the flow of water carefully controlled and monitored by the "farmers". The altitude of the ponds slowly decreases, so that the water may flow through the myriad branches of the water-supply channels and be introduced slowly through a notch in one sidewall of each pond. The proper maintenance of the adjacent feeder channel, the side walls and the water-entry notch, the pond's bottom surface, the quantity of water, and the removal of accumulated salt deposits requires close cooperation among the community of users. It is agreed among local residents and pond "farmers" that the cooperative system was established during the time of the Incas, if not earlier. As water evaporates from the sun-warmed ponds, the water becomes supersaturated and salt precipitates as various size crystals onto the inner surfaces of a pond's earthen walls and on the pond's earthen floor. The pond's keeper then closes the water-feeder notch and allows the pond to go dry. Within a few days the keeper carefully scrapes the dry salt from the sides and bottom, puts it into a suitable vessel, reopens the water-supply notch, and carries away the salt. Color of the salt varies from white to a light reddish or brownish tan, depending on the skill of an individual "farmer". Some salt is sold at a gift store nearby.
The salt mines traditionally have been available to any person wishing to harvest salt. Usually there are many unused salt pools available to be farmed. Any prospective salt farmer need only locate an empty currently un-maintained pond, consult with the local informal cooperative, learn how to keep a pond properly within the accepted communal system, and start working.”

The effect of sunlight reflecting from the maze of ponds is really truly quite stunning!

My adrenaline has been exhausted and I am feeling very drained. We pile back into the car and head back to the highway. Since the French couple are going back to Cuzco and I am headed back to Urubamba I asked to be dropped off at the bus stop along the main highway. Just as we arrive, a bus heading my direction stops to drop somebody off. I pay the taxi driver my share of our ride and run across the road and climb aboard the bus. Just like that. The timing has been impeccable for all my connections, my good fortunate continues.

All the way back on the bus I consider emailing Casa de Barro in Chinchero to cancel my reservation for tomorrow night, due to my pounding headache. I might not be up for the tremendous altitude. Hopefully I will be alright by tonight.

I am dropped off at the bus station in Urubamba and choose to walk back to my beautiful hotel, since I now know the way. The pounding in my head keeps time with my heart beat. I arrive at the little gate to the monasterio and push the buzzer. The happy chap who instructed me earlier waves and motions to the huge gate to my right which now stands open allowing cars to enter. Duh! I feel like a total fool. I slap my head.
He laughs. The staff is so friendly and personal here, I feel like I have known them all my life while I just met them this morning.

There is now a very attractive man behind the reception desk. His charming smile lights up his face and he hands me my key. Once again I find myself wishing I was fluent in Spanish, his generous grin and the twinkle in his eyes draws me to him, but I take my key and head to my room for a hot shower and some much needed rest.

The hot shower and some rest do the trick, my headache has subsided. I dress for dinner and head to the dining room. The full moon has crested the distant mountains which only adds to the ambience of this magnificent age-old place.

I am allowed to pick my table and I choose an isolated one over by the fireplace. One of the staff come over and starts a fire. The young waiter appears and is shy and a bit awkward, trying hard to please me. I attempt to make him laugh and succeed with my poor Spanish skills and hand motions, making him more comfortable. He relaxes a bit. The roaring fire warms the room, my Chilean Cabernet warms my body and the Quinoa Ravioli is very good. To the delight of my waiter I order the dessert he has recommended. It is crepes filled with elderberry jam and topped with chocolate ice cream. Mmmm, very, very good! I leave my wonderful waiter a nice fat tip and bid everyone goodnight.

Once again, I can’t express how hospitable the people are here!

I head back to my room to my big bed with the very large over-stuffed pillows. This would be the only thing I can find negative about this hotel. I keep punching them trying to make them more bearable, but it is no use. They are just too big.

Monday Sept 12~ Next morning I enjoy their very satisfying buffet breakfast and then it is check out time. The handsome affable man I met yesterday afternoon is behind the reception desk again and seems genuinely sorry to see me go. He hands me a survey to fill out and then eagerly reads it when I am done. He gives me s huge bear hug before I leave and tells me to come back soon. The door man asks me if I need a taxi. I shake my head and start walking out to the road. It is only about seven or eight blocks to the bus station, I opt to walk there.

I walk past a parked pickup truck with two little children in the back. The little girl calls out to me “hola gringa!” I wave, smile and call back to her “Hola, amiga!” At this response she and her little brother have a fallen down giggling fit, poking each other and waving at me. Another amazing moment!

My intentions were to walk the entire way, but a bus comes by and stops just ahead of me. I walk around to the door and asked the driver if he is going to Chinchero? He smiles and says “si, Chinchero-Cuzco.” Great! I jump on the bus. We sit for a bit, then he backs the bus and turns it around. I tell him, “no, no, Chinchero!” thinking he is going to Cuzco via Pisac. He says “si, Chinchero, un momento!” He pulls into a little auto repair shop and they look at his radiator. Some hoses are switched and then he turns the bus back around and we are on our way.

There is only two other people on the bus. The driver turns left at the bridge, never even stopping at the bus station. I have been trying to figure out the discussion he had with the other couple. I think he is either off duty or returning the bus to Cuzco for some repairs, because he doesn’t stop for anyone else.

I am dropped off at Chinchero’s crossroad the same place I was dropped off yesterday. It dawns on me I don’t know where the hotel is. I should have looked for it yesterday, but that was the last thing on my mind at that time. I ask a lady and she points me in the direction along the main highway. I start walking and after a few blocks stop and ask a man in his corner shop. He holds up two fingers and tells me where to go. I deduce he means two more blocks and turn left. My assumption is correct.

Casa de Barro is an amazing little hotel! Hidden behind a tall mud block wall, it is a haven of brightly colored flowers and ferns, a dazzling display of floor to roof windows and color contrasts of deep dark browns and vivid yellows.

They are still prepping my room so I take a seat outside under a thatched roof palapa and pet the playful pup. I am soon summoned to my room. It is a cheerful sunlit room on the second floor with a door which opens to a balcony. My view from the balcony is stunning one. The snow-capped Andes are seen as a backdrop to the village on the hillside below me. What a view!

I ditch my stuff and head downstairs, out the door and up the street to the church and the plaza. Not long before I am huffing and puffing. Doesn’t take much to wind you in this thin atmosphere. I walk past the doorway of a textile workshop where the women are giving a presentation to a small group of tourists. I stop and go back and peek in. I am invited in and join the group. The ladies are showing how they dye the wool by using herbs, insect larvae, leaves, maize and roots. It is incredibly interesting and then they move to the backstrap looms and show how they weaved the fibers into various products, like scarves, shawls and blankets using the mountains, rivers and sky for inspirational designs. I remind myself to come back later and buy some of their beautiful items. I promise the one lady I will return.

Onward and upward I climbed the steep stepped ,winding streets slowly making my way back up to the church. Chinchero and Ollantaytambo are my two favorites. Both are so inviting and chockfull of culture with very few tourists wandering the back streets and alleyways. Both are so picturesque and authentic, left undisturbed for centuries.

The plaza surrounding the church is relatively empty. More pictures are taken, than I check out the shops. I buy a few items, then stop by the coffee shop I had my tea in yesterday, since I promised him I would be back. He is glad to seem me and makes me a great cappuccino. Then he sits down once again to chat with me. We talk for awhile, then I head back to my hotel for a late lunch., stopping first at the ladies’ workshop to buy a scarf, and a blanket.

Lunch consists of a three course deal; an appetizer, entrée and desert. for 45 sols. Or about $15. I have some delicious crepes covered with a thick mushroom cream sauce for my appetizer, chicken cordon bleu smothered in a rich cheese sauce and tres leche cake for dessert along with more mate de coca tea. Let me say this, the meal was extremely delicious! I should say gourmet at it’s best.

After my lunch I shower and then head back up to the church for some sunset shots. It is quite cold and with the cloud formations stacking up it is promising to be a grand show.

It is. I get my shots and then head back to my hotel in the quickening dark. I turn around and look back to see Sahuasiray’s brilliant peak covered in snow towering over the village and softly glowing in the dark. It is so many moments like this that take your breath away, which are making this trip so special.

I go back to my room, lug a chair out on the balcony and watch the full moon rise over the horizon.

Tuesday, Sept 13~Up at 7 and downstairs for my breakfast . Bread and strawberry jam, orange juice, coffee and scrambled eggs. After breakfast I pack my suitcase and all my goodies I bought, then walk back up into town for one last look around. I also need to stop at a tienda to buy something for headaches, because my Tylenol got all. I copied the word headache out of my Spanish phrasebook and show the piece of paper to the lady behind the counter. She sells me a couple of packets of pain relievers for 2 sol. Then it is to the little tiny chapel for some pictures and then back to my hotel to collect my things. I paid my tab yesterday, and it is a good thing because there is no one around. I leave without saying goodbye.

I drag my suitcase down to the corner of the main highway and spot a little old lady sitting at the bus stop. I sit down next to her. It is only a matter of moments when a collectivio pulls up and the driver rolls the passenger side window down and ask me if I want to go to Cuzco. It is where I need to go, but not where I want to go…. I nod and climb in the side door.

The drive is a pleasant one. There are not many people and therefore we are not packed in like sardines. When we get into Cuzco, the driver lets the others out at the Iglesia San Francisco. I should have just got out there too, but he insisted to take me to my hotel. In the end he didn’t know where it was and in his frustration pulled over by the side of the street and just motioned for me to get out. Which put me now out past Iglesia San Pedro. Great…now I have even further to walk.

I have a long walk back to my hotel and it is for some reason, exceptionally busy in Cuzco today. Traffic is horrendous.. .no wonder my driver was so upset. I realize I have been out in the country for awhile, it is not my imagination. Cuzco is humming with tour busses, taxis, beeping horns, bumper to bumper traffic…you would think you were in Lima.

I get to Amaru I hotel and I am checked in. The place is cute, but I had much nicer rooms in my travels. Makes me wish I would have stayed at the Hosteria de Anita again, which is by the way, part of the Amaru group.

I dump my stuff and stop by the Granja Heidi, which comes recommended in Lonely Planet and it is only two doors down. I have the Mennonite chocolate cake (I have to…I am from Lancaster County Pa) and a cappuccino. I have to say, I am not at all impressed with this place. The girl who waits on me is in a dour mood. The lady stocking the cakes and pies seems to be having a very bad day also. Another girl shows up for work and her beautiful smile is the only one in this place.

I pay my bill and leave, shaking off the gloominess of Cuzco so far. It has clouded up and looks like rain. I head up to San Blas and pick a street I had never taken before. I am passing cute little shops and see one called the Coca Shop. A couple of dreadlocked gringos tumble out, all of them laughing. One guy is chowing down on something out of a bag. I go in. Everything in this shop is made out of coca, from bath soaps to chocolates to various teas. The lady behind the counter sets up a couple of plates with samples of chocolates. I pick one. It is very good. As I look around I go back for a second, a different one which looks like a piece of fudge. It is very chewy and taste more like grass than fudge. I don’t like it but eat it anyway. Then I thank her and leave. A little bit further down the street I realize my lips are numb. So is my tongue. The entire inside of my mouth is numb. My cheeks are numb. I feel like I had a big mouthful of Novocain. Hmmm…that was some pure coca in that chewy fudge.

I now have lots of energy and I am not feeling the dreary weather. I climb up to the Iglesia de San Cristobal and it’s plaza overlooking the city. I explore more streets and then go to Cappuccino Café overlooking Plaza de Armas for lunch. Chicken soup, French fries and coca tea. It is cold and has started to rain. The hot soup and revitalizing tea warms me up. More exploring and then it is my favorite little joint for dinner on Cuesta de San Blas.

To bed I go.

Wednesday Sept 14~ Breakfast is included and it is the typical menu I have been having. The sun is brighty shining and it looks like a good day to climb up to the statute of Christ. If you can remember back that far…that was where I was headed eleven days ago when I got sick and had to turn around. Now it is time to make the climb.

The street is a very long and stepped one leading up and out of Cuzco. It is very tiring. I take it slow and eventually am climbing up the dirt pathway to the statue. I remember the spot where I had to turn around. I was almost at the top when I had to quit. Now I blow by amazed at how easy the short climb is today.

The view up here is intense. I can see Asungate rising like a phoenix above Cuzco in the far distance. The sounds of the busy city rise up to meet me also. Somewhere out there I can hear of all things…the song “Wonderwall” by Oasis. Which brings to mind another thing. Five years ago you heard the beautiful haunting sounds of panpipes and waynas everywhere you went. Now the top hits of the 80’s and 90’s is all you hear. Anywhere.

A I prepare to leave, I walk around the other side of the summit and see a bunch of young girls racing each other and screaming those ear-piercing high octaves that only young girls can reach. They suddenly spot me and for some reason make me their target and race towards me, the first one embraces me and claims that she is the winner. The others plow into me a few seconds later, almost knocking me over. Then they smile, wave goodbye and off they go.

I head back down, stopping by Sacsaywayman to trail my fingers along the wall as I walk by it. My tourist ticket has long expired, so I can’t revisit the ruins, just touching the stones as I pass by.

I go to the Cappuccino Café again for lunch. More hot chicken soup and coca tea. Outside it has gotten a lot cooler and has started to rain. Hard. I spend the afternoon seeking shelter from the rain under the balconies around the plaza. Me and everybody else. It is raining harder and the water is getting deep with a fast current in the streets. Street corners the water can come up past your ankle, I know this because everyone has taken to watching people trying to cross the streets. Two gringo girls decide to make a run for it. The first girl leaps and make it over the flooded curb, the second girl misses by a mile and her pants are soaked to the knees. We all sympathize with her.

I wait out the rain spending money in the silver shops. I buy two rings and a pair of earrings. The rain continues. I decide it is time for me to make my way back across the plaza. I skip my way across one street, walk further uphill where the streets are not as flooded, then quickly cross to the other side, leaping the curb.

I dodge the rain under every balcony and awning that protrude above the sidewalks and eventually find myself in my favorite restaurant for one last dinner in Cuzco. I order the chicken soup and filet mignon smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce. A crisp cold Cusquena to drink. I am the only one in the place. A gringo girl enters and takes her place at the next table. We are chatting and enjoying our dinners when a whole bunch of people come in. They need the table the girl is sitting at, so she joins me and I learn that she is from British Columbia. She has already been here for three weeks on the Pacific coast and at Lake Titicaca. She said it snowed while she was in Puno. Her friends will be joining her in a couple of days.

I recommend Ollantaytambo and Hostal Iskay to here, since she is headed that way. We say goodbye and go our separate ways. Her off to find her hotel, me back to my room to pack. Tomorrow I fly back to Lima.

I get back to my room and decide I need a heater for the night. It is cold! The heater cost me $3. But it is worth it.

Thursday, Sept 15~ Up for breakfast, pay my tab and then out the door I go. As soon as I walk out the door a taxi is coming down the hill. He sees my luggage and stops. 4 sols to the airport. It’s a deal! He drops me off at the airport. The place is crowded. I find a seat by my gate and catch up in my journal. Our plane is a half hour late coming in from Lima. We eventually leave Cuzco and get airborne.

Lima is hidden under a thick dense grey carpet of clouds. We land around 2 pm and Angie is once again waiting outside the airport for me. She tells me that yesterday they had a beautiful sunny Spring-like day. Today it is grey and thick and hard to breathe in.

We get back to Casa Ana and I have a different room then before. I also have a fan, which I will probably need. Although it is cloudy, it is warm and humid. Compared to where I was these past two weeks, I find it rather stifling. My first day here I would have loved a heater.

I have heard it said, Peru is a country of two extremes. A country of two opposites.

I dump my stuff in my room, lock the door and head downtown for the Plaza de Armas. Angie has printed off a large version of the map of the city. I find myself remembering the way.

I am soon sitting on a park bench in the middle of the plaza enjoying the view. There are police stationed on every corner and some are standing behind riot shields. Some people this would make them feel nervous. It has the opposite affect on me. I explore Centro Lima, and then it is Norky’s again for dinner. Chicken on their wood-fired grill, French fries and a banana spit for dessert.

It is dark as I make my way back to Casa Ana. I join the masses as we cross the busy streets. At one intersection we try to cross, then are cut off my a ruthless driver, then someone rear ends somebody else which gives us the break we are looking for and we all run across the now jammed-up highway. Nobody stops to be a witness. Nobody cares. Neither do I. We pedestrians just want to get where we are going. And I am going back to Casa Ana and then I am going home tomorrow.

Friday, Sept 16~ Up at 6 am, all packed and eat breakfast downstairs. At the airport by 7. I stop at Café Britt in the airport and buy the biggest whitest teddy bear made out of baby alpaca that I can find. It is for my granddaughter who will be arriving in November. My first grandchild.

It will go good with the white alpaca rug I got for her . And her white alpaca booties.

In the sky by 9:20 am.

Arrive in Guayaquil, Ecuador by 11:30. This was the tight connection I had been worried about for the last couple of months and my late flight out of Lima just made it even tighter. I literally walk off the Lima flight and walk to the end of the terminal and board my San Salvador flight.

11:53 in the air winging our way to El Salvador. Arrive in San Salvador shortly before 2 pm. Greeted by sniffer dogs. At each gate, we are all processed, our luggage and parcels are searched and everyone is spread-eagle and patted down. A woman for the women. A man for the men. Everybody gets patted down.

2:57 Board my flight to Dulles, Washington D.C. Got into Dulles at 9:20 pm.

Catch the bus to the long term parking green lot and say “muchas gracias!” to the bus driver without even thinking.

Flew through four countries, drove through three states; Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania just to get home. All in 14 hours time.

Trip highlights: Pisac, Ollantaytambo and the hiking trails, San Agustin Monasterio de Recoleta Hotel, Moray, Salinas and Chinchero!

Honduras 2011

Friday, February 18 ~ We flew out of BWI at 6:10 AM, arrived in MIA around 8:30 AM. The pilot informed us that we were flying 530 mph with the help of a 80 mph tail wind. We arrived twenty minutes ahead of schedule. We had three hours to kill, so I had a couple of those yummy Bloody Mary’s and hem-hawed around till it was boarding time for our SAP flight.

The flight went smoothly and before you knew it we were arriving in San Pedro Sula at 1:30. I was a bit concerned because we had to be on Hedman Alas’ airport shuttle bus by 2:15. We made it in the nick of time. Got into Hedman’s bus terminal around 3, traffic was bad, and then it was on the bus to Copan. We had the first class seats and boy were they sweet! They were much like Lazy Boy recliners and even after all our flying, it was so nice to slide into the big, comfy seats. I would gladly take Hedman again anywhere, even preferred it over flying.

The road to Copan is a long one. Traffic was very heavy and we got stuck behind an eighteen-wheeler. As darkness settled over Honduras and with no street lights out in the hills, it was a pitch black night and there was no passing the eighteen-wheeler on that road. We finally got into Copan around 7 PM.

We were tired, bleary-eyed and hungry, after being on the road since 3 AM that morning. Stumbling around on the dusty street at the bus station all stiff-legged from our long day of travels, we were too tired to absorb all the hustle and bustle as moto taxis and their touts converged on us, all trying to sell us their services. We took the first guy up on his offer, $4 a person to our hotel. $8 for the two of us. I didn’t care, I just wanted to dump my things and get a decent dinner somewhere.

We were staying at Yat B’alam Boutique Hotel which got great reviews on Trip Advisor. Rina immediately greeted us when we stepped out of the mototaxi and her infectious happy attitude and bubbling laughter was like a healing balm for our weary souls.

The hotel only has four rooms. We had one facing the back which is a lot quieter than the ones facing the street. After ditching our gear, we headed down to the corner of the street and made a left to Carnitas N’ia Lola. It was brightly lit up, similar to a Christmas tree, all the tables downstairs were taken so we were shown upstairs. Ordered two Salva Vidas, nachos and a bean dip for appetizers, another round of beers and chicken fajitas for me, beef fajitas for my friend. With full bellies we headed back to our beautiful little hotel and fell into a blissful sleep.

Saturday, February 19 ~ I woke up early, shortly after 7 and walked downstairs to enjoy a coffee and take pictures while I waited for Kim. It is slightly cloudy out with pleasant temps. I am on my second cup when Kim joins me. I order a scrumptious piece of carrot cake which was on display in the little dining area of our hotel. Awesome cake and smooth, delicious reviving coffee!

We decide we are going to walk to the ruins and I take the lead. Unfortunately, I was looking at the map upside-down and after walking forever in the hot, now-shining sun, we both realize my error and we walk back into town, passing the cemetery and into the central plaza.

We stop by the bank and get our money exchanged, which is a good thing, since it is Saturday and the banks close at 10:30 AM. So, I guess getting lost sometimes does have it’s advantages.

Then it is off to the ruins.

The day is getting hot as we walk along the footpath which leads to the ruins. There is a small crowd of people ahead of us, as we pay for our tickets, and Kim lingers near them listening to their guide. I tell her guides cost money, she argues that no, he is included, I say not….this goes on for a bit, then I walk away. Kim trails behind the group of people until the guide walks back to her and explains that it costs extra money, no money no guide. I try to hide my grin when she laments to me…at least this time I was right…I might have gotten us lost, but at least I was right about one thing.

So we set off on our own. The ruins are beautiful, I would rate them right up there with Tikal, the setting is stunning. Along with the ruins we see lots of Macaws, Montezuma Oropendolas, Blue-Crown Mot Mots. The wind has kicked up, cooling us off and it makes for a perfect day for exploring the ruins.

After enjoying the ruins, we walk back into town and stop at Picame for a cold Salva Vida and a papaya milkshake for me. Supposedly, they are known for their roasted chicken, but it was just a snack of chicken nachos for us and then we head up the steep street.

Kim gets an idea; hey, how about stopping for one beer in each bar we pass by? I take her up on it. Before you know it, we are feeling pretty good and have somehow made our rounds and now are standing in front of Twisted Tanya’s. We get a seat at one of the corner tables overlooking all the telephone wires and a very beautiful sunset. Meet lots of interesting gringos. Never knew there were so many in Copan Ruinas, who would have thought? We are told that there are six US military bases in Honduras and soon to be a US Coast Guard base located on one of the Bay Islands, if all goes as planned. Seems Honduras is the halfway point for all the drug running between South America and the US. Seems it goes without saying, where there is money to be made, the military will be there.

Sunday, February 20 ~ Next day we are up around 8. After an exquisite, very long high-pressurized shower at Yat B’alam, I feel much better. We dine on a delectable breakfast downstairs and then walk across the street to use our favorite shop for internet. Then it is into a mototaxi and up to Macaw Mountain.

Macaw Mountain is very nice. I am a bird person, so for me it was like being a kid in a candy store. I held a lot of beautiful birds, photographed all of them and walked the grounds, down by the creek and over the bridge, looping back to the little restaurant to find my friend sitting in the shady garden area sucking down bottled water and a Sprite. Hmm? Hung-over, are we?

We take our leave. Our mototaxi driver has returned as promised and it is back to our hotel to scoop up our luggage and then back into the mototaxi and up the hill to Hacienda San Lucas, where we are spending the next two nights.

Hacienda San Lucas is a beautiful mountain-top property overlooking the Copan valley with Rio Copan winding through it. We are shown to our room, which is in the original farmhouse, right next to the kitchen. The day has become a rather hot one again and we spend the afternoon hanging out in the hammocks on the large shaded porches.

They offer us a lunch of chicken tamales, pickled vegetables, coffee and tres leche torta, or three milk cake which I have heard of forever, but never had it. It is incredible! No wonder it is so popular in CA and SA!

The afternoon starts cooling down around 4 PM. We once again have our energy back and set off on one of the many hiking trails. This one is heading in the direction of Los Sapos and as we wander along it, we spot a couple of Montezuma Oropendolas and Blue Jays. The hike is a lovely one and we arrive at Los Sapos which is a Mayan fertility/birthing site. Pictures are taken, imaginations run wild and then it is up to the village where they make the corn husk dolls.

There is a soccer game in progress, only men to be seen everywhere, so we don’t linger long and head back down the trail or I should say we attempt to …from out of nowhere a young lady spots us and makes a rapid beeline across the field with her little girl in tow and shows us her corn husks dolls. We politely say no, besides we came up this path with no money, but she is a persistent one. Her and her little girl follow us back down the trail.

From the looks of her, she is apparently halfway through her pregnancy and I hate the idea of her making that long walk down the trail when it will be dark soon, and neither of us are interested in her wares, to be completely honest. We tried to explain, but to no avail.

She soon gives up and in one last ditch effort she sent her little girl ahead of us to try to get us to buy, but we again explained we had no money…which we didn’t, not on us, while I am thinking all along…lo siento, mi no gusta.

We get back to the hacienda just as they are lighting the candles. There are candles everywhere. In our room, on the porches, the verandas, the kitchen, social area, reading room, bar, you name it. People are coming out of the woodwork. There is a group of thirty birdwatchers who have came back from their birding expedition and I am seated at the table next to them and listen with a smile on my face as the leader goes down the list, questioning whom saw what bird where? Kim joins me and laughs when she hears. You should introduce yourself and tell them the birds we saw, she says. She doesn’t understand…these folks are serious birders, rising long before daybreak….something I can only begin to imagine doing. I am a night owl.

The rest of the crowd shuffle in. It is a full house tonight at the hacienda. Dinner is served. All food is made from homegrown, organic, original Mayan ingredients. There is pureed carrot and ginger soup for starters, salad with beets and balsamic nut dressing, chicken, nutmeg and a Mayan Mole sauce with steamed cucumbers and cauliflower, for dessert we were hoping for the tres leche torta again, but we got a caramelized flan instead, which was very good also.

After dinner, the birders disappeared, true to their nature, while Kim and I sat under the magnificently spread blanket of stars and marveled at all the ones we never get to see back here, at home, due to our light pollution. Stars upon stars upon stars! I never knew there were so many stars inside Orion. Looked like you could just reach up and touch them.

Went to bed early, put my ear plugs in and fell into a deep sleep.
Monday, February 21~ Woke up around 7:30. Went down to the veranda for my morning coffee and am now sitting on one of the captain’s chairs enjoying the beautiful morning light across the Copan valley. Kim soon joins me, looking thoroughly ruffled. I asked her what’s wrong? She looks at me, amazed, and states didn’t you hear all that racket last night?

Well, apparently…the bird people got up around 3:30 for a 4 AM breakfast. Kim said she heard every rattle of every pot and pan, dishes clattering, an entire rack of glasses breaking on the floor, people talking…everything…meanwhile I slept through all of it. She said she got no sleep whatsoever. Folks…this is why you always travel with ear plugs.

Argie made the mistake to ask my friend how her night was while we were drinking our coffee. Kim told her about her sleepless night. Argie was terribly upset and apologized profusely. She explained how they had a full house and didn’t have another room to offer us. She expressed her concern and offered to find us another hotel in town. She called Yat B’alam, but they were booked full, then she called La Casa de Café. They were also booked, but one of their apartments across the street was available for the night. We agreed to take it.

Upon checking out, Argie billed us only for our meals. We insisted on paying for our one night, since we had had reservations for both nights. She said absolutely not. She said it is all about the representation. I felt bad. She had their driver take us to La Casa de Café, where we were promptly shown to the spectacular little apartment, Casa de Don Santiago.

The apartment was a two bedroom with two and a half baths, living room, dining room, kitchenette and little patio out back. Spotlessly clean, modern, came with all the amenities. We both loved it. We each have our own bedroom and bath. Kim could finally watch TV late at night, downstairs away from me, thank goodness!

After ditching our gear, we walked back to the ruins and paid for re-entrance and the tunnels this time. Once again we were back exploring the wonderful ruins and got our tickets punched to visit the tunnels. The tunnels though welcoming and a cool relief from the day’s heat are a bit overrated, not worth the $15 in my opinion. Maybe $3, not much more than that.

We once again stopped at Picame on our walk back into town. This time we had their fabulous cheeseburgers, French fries and two more papaya milkshakes. Great food; saw quite a few gringos stop by for their refreshing smoothies and milkshake takeouts.

We walked off our late lunch touring the town and shopping, then it was back for showers and change of clothes to jeans and t-shirts. I have noticed it does cool off nicely early evenings when the westerly winds rise up. We end up our day having dinner at Momo’s, which isn’t much of a place to look at, but we were told their food is awesome and it is! Filet Mignon dinner for $8. Can’t beat that! Back to our lovely apartment and a good night’s sleep.

Tuesday, February 22 ~ I awoke to find Kim already downstairs, which surprises me, usually she is the grumpy, can’t get her awake type person. She is in good spirits, got lots of sleep, so it is across the street we go to La Casa de Café for our breakfast which is included with the apartment. Another great meal, revitalizing coffee and then it is check-out time. We bid goodbye to our lovely hosts and jump in a mototaxi for our quick ride back to Yat B’alam for our last night’s stay in Copan. Our driver asks us if we are interested in horseback riding? Of course we are. He explains how we can do a horseback ride and zip-line excursion, he will set it up, he will pick us up tomorrow morning at 9 AM sharp, here at our hotel. We agree.

Rina once again greets us like family and our bags are dispatched to our room. I recalled reading in the Moon guidebook that if you stay at Yat B’alam, you get to use Posada Real’s pool for free. It is promising to be another hot one, so I ask Rina and she quickly produces her calling card. Just give it to the receptionist at the desk whenever you choose to go. We choose now, ‘cause it is hot!!

Another mototaxi is flagged down and we are on our way up the hill outside of town to what is now the Clarion Hotel. Beautiful large conference center-like hotel, nice lush green gardens, but most important…a sweet, inviting and curiously cold pool! We spend the day finally getting some down time, sunning ourselves, sipping cocktails and splashing in the cool refreshing water. Then it is back to our hotel, cleaned up and one last dinner at our favorite joint, Momo’s again, for another Filet Mignon dinner and a couple of beers.

Wednesday, February 23 ~ Up before 8, downstairs for coffee and breakfast, then sure enough, our driver is here to take us horseback riding and zip-lining. Our horses await us at the outskirts of town, and just the two of us ride while our guide walks behind us, for whatever reason that is, I don’t know. It is a nice, slow ride, although way too slow for my kind of riding, but never the less a peaceful one and we arrive at the top of the mountain overlooking Copan Ruinas. Our guide who has walked the entire way up tells us Guatemala is just over there, pointing to the mountain range on the other side. Then we make our way back down to the Rio Copan and follow the dirt road which takes us eventually back up to Hacienda San Lucas, but we stop at the Canopy Tour, just short of the hacienda’s entrance.

We dismount from our stable, little steeds and meet the two guys who harness us up for our zip-line adventure. Once equipped and suited up, we hop in the back of a pick up truck and are taken to the top of the zip line. From here it is all downhill! Lots of fun! The two guys took both our cameras and like pros shoot us coming and going, with one guy always ahead of us and the other one always behind us. Everything was done so well, very organized, very nice pictures and videos, very professional! Very pleased! We tip them generously and it is back to town on our trusty little ponies, then a quick shower, check-out and to the bus station to catch our Hedman Alas ride to San Pedro Sula.

Once again, Hedman doesn’t disappoint us, everything goes so well, we have great first class seats and it is a nice, smooth ride back to San Pedro Sula. Our driver from Metrotel Express is waiting for us and we are whisked away in his car to the Metrotel. It is very nice and clean with friendly, helpful staff. Has a guarded gated entrance and an armed guard for a doorman…makes you wonder about this city, but hey, we are just here for the night, then it is to Roatan tomorrow. One thing I do notice, it is more humid here. You can tell we have a change in altitude, definitely getting closer to the sea!

Thursday, February 24 ~

Slept like a rock last night, although a bit cold from the air-conditioner which was cranked, rose to find myself stiff and sore, especially the abs and upper arms from all the zip-lining. Downstairs enjoying my coffee and free continental breakfast when Kim shows up walking all hunched over and hurting. Her whole body hurts, she says, which makes me bowl over in fits of laughter which in turn only hurts me more, especially around the abdomen. Oh, but it we had fun, I remind her…

Our taxi driver returns on time, as promised and it is to the airport to catch our 10:15 flight to Roatan. You have to pay domestic departure fees of 37 lemps, not to be confused with the international fees of $37 USD at the airport, which needless to say, we were a bit confused at first. If traveling here, remember to save that cash for your international departures, because they don’t accept credit cards.

Flew on TACA Regional to Roatan. Arrived on the island in less than hour, amazed at how windy it is when you step off the plane. Our ride from Bananarama Dive Resort was waiting at the door and we were on our way in no time at all.

Bananarama is quite nice. But, also take note, this resort offers special deals to the cruise ships and when we arrived I was a bit dismayed to find the place over run with Carnival cruise ship people. Every beach chair was taken. Just about every table, every bar stool. They do rope off certain areas for hotel guests only, which I noticed the next day, but to be totally honest with you, I found it a bit intimidating at first. I wasn’t expecting this. I was seeking peace and quiet.

We managed to find two seats at the bar and enjoyed a few cocktails, a few beers and a couple of shots of courage, then things started to look up. By 4 PM the hordes of people started disappearing, back to the ship they went and we were left with the beach to ourselves and finally some quiet time.

Kim was drinking with Trish, an ex-pat, while I had wandered off, and she told her about the special on Thursday nights at Foster’s. Twin lobster tails for $12. So, naturally we had to go. We walked down the beach to Foster’s and found the place was hopping. We were quickly shown to a table and had an amazing lobster dinner that night.

Friday, February 25 ~ Had a good night’s sleep. I got up early, before 7 and grabbed my camera and snuck out for an early morning walk. I walked the empty tranquil beach, lavishing in the calmness, down to Las Rocas Resort where I enjoyed their breakfast buffet. By the time I got back to Bananarama, our beach was once again taken over by the cruisers. What a difference that creates! Found Kim relaxing on the hammock on our porch. We decided to skip the crowd and walk down the beach to West End for the day.

Once we got out of the cruiser’s radar, the beach was a delight to walk. We stopped whenever we got too hot and dived in, enjoying many unmarked, untouched near perfect swimming spots with undisturbed pristine beaches to photograph.

Took our time for once, had no where we had to be, and truly enjoyed this day. West End was busier than I had expected it to be, we did some shopping and then enjoyed Sprites and a banana split at some waterfront café.
We caught the 3 PM water taxi back to our hotel and happily found all the cruise ship people gone. I had made reservations the night before for dinner at the Vintage Pearl, so we showered, dressed and made it just in time for some awesome sunset pictures on the beach. Then we were shown to our wonderful little table at the Vintage Pearl. Trip Advisor rates it #3 on the island. I can’t imagine who the other two are, but the food was to die for! We shared a bottle of Argentinean Malbec along with a Baked Brie, I had Delmonico Steak, Kim had Red Snapper. I had Black Forest cheesecake, she had a Berry Torte. What an incredible dinner! The restaurant would be an awesome place for any of you romantics out there who might be up for a proposal, by the way. Any girl would love it!

Saturday, February 26 ~ Finally have the entire place to ourselves. All ships are out at sea. Now this is what you would call an island paradise! Enjoyed our breakfast at Bananarama, then we rented snorkels and masks and spent the morning snorkeling off the beach at the very western tip of West Bay. It was simply amazing! You could walk right in and see the most stunning reef formations, coral and fish in every hue. Sadly though, I did see one guy stomping all over the beautiful, fragile coral in his amphibian shoes. I can’t understand why it is not a protected area. In water that shallow, fins or any kind of footwear should be prohibited to protect the coral. We swam for hours, enjoying the perfect conditions and the few people.

When we stopped for lunch, we both realized we were too sunburned to go back out, but the bar came in handy and that is where we finished out the day. Then it was a nice starlit night’s walk down to Las Rocas for their King Crab and Spaghetti dinner for our last night in Honduras.

Sunday, February 27 ~ I can’t believe how fast the time went! It is all too soon over. Our driver took us to the airport for our 8 AM flight back to San Pedro Sula. Goodbye beautiful island, goodbye beautiful people!

We had a five hour layover in San Pedro Sula. Sit around and wait. The airport has a couple little shops, couple of cafes and fast food joints, and a bar/cigar lounge. Still it is better than Miami…

Honduras was amazing. I loved the highlands, guess I am more of a mountain girl than an island girl. Weather was perfect, could not have asked for anything better. The people of Honduras are exceedingly friendly, honest and kind, the food was better than we had expected it to be. Salva Vida is a great beer, coffee is of course awesome!

Yat B’alam in Copan Ruinas; would definitely stay there again. Copan Ruinas is very nice for walking anywhere and everywhere, always felt safe, never any hassle from anybody at any time. Only thing you have to fear is maybe a sprained ankle from the cobbled streets and the dangerous sidewalks on the steep streets which you think have steps connected to them, but they have sheer drops instead. That was the only danger I could see.

Momo’s; best food in Copan Ruinas, my opinion anyway. Carnitas draws more of a crowd, but the food wasn’t near as good there and prices were just about double. I guess you pay for the presentation…servers carrying food and drinks stacked high on there heads…

Hedman Alsa; can’t stop talking about how great they were! Very professionally ran, very organized, helpful staff. Awesome, comfortable Mercedes Benz busses. Need I say more?

The guys who run the Canopy Tour outside Copan Ruinas. Very sweet, patient, mild-mannered young men who have a certain expertise in photography.

Bananarama; although I wouldn’t stay there again, simply because of the cruise ship attractions, is a very pretty resort with cute little cabañas and just happens to be on the nicest beach on the island. Very friendly, considerate staff.

Guatemala 2010

Tuesday, May 25~ Flew out of BWI at 6 AM and arrived in Miami at 8:30. Miami flight to GUA boarded on a timely fashion and things were going well up until I noticed we seemed to be circling too many runways and basically touring the tarmac. It was then that the pilot came over the intercom stating that there was a mechanical problem and we would be returning to our gate. After sitting at the gate for close to an hour they made a decision that we would all have to get off the plane, since nobody knew how long the repairs would take or if we were leaving at all.

We all got off and amazingly there was a bar right next to our gate so I made a beeline to the bar for a Bloody Mary. One went down too fast, so I had to have another. That was when Peter, a New York textile salesman on my flight joined me for another drink and then mercifully, our flight boarded and we were on our way. I fell asleep shortly after take-off and woke to the announcement “flight attendants, prepare for landing” in GUA.

Since we were delayed two hours getting into GUA, I missed my shuttle to Antigua, but luckily for once everything else was going right and another shuttle was immediately available and charged $10, the same price as the one I missed.

I got in with three other women and we were on our way to Antigua in the pouring rain. I was dropped off at the lovely Hotel Casa Cristina, ditched my gear and walked around the corner to Fernando’s Café for an invigorating cup of joe.

Walked around Antigua taking pictures and ended up at the Café Sky bar where I had an awesome dinner of French Onion soup and Chicken Quesadillas. I was slightly confused when I got the check as you could see there was an additional 10 percent added to it, which I assumed was the tip, as most places in Antigua do, but when I questioned the server he said, “no, no tip” which I still don’t know whether he meant it was already included or no tip needed…so I gave him a tip anyway. Maybe it was a misunderstanding, maybe intentional, I don’t know but I didn’t go back, even though I have always like the place in the past.

I walked back to my hotel and went to bed early since I had got no sleep the previous night and slept like a rock in my comfortable bed and quiet hotel room.

Wednesday, May 26~ Woke up at 6 AM, bright and early. I was one of the first customers at Fernando’s Café, met Missya the cat and enjoyed my excellent French Toast and fresh fruit, another bold cup of latte and I was on my way to Antigua Tours by the plaza to pay for my Elizabeth Bell walking tour ticket. I ran into another single woman traveler from North Carolina, sitting in El Portal Café, it was her first time in Guatemala and she was nervous and full of lots of questions, so we sat and had more coffee and talked while I waited for the Antigua Tours guy to show up. After paying for my ticket, I headed back to my room for my gear and met up with Elizabeth Bell’s group which had already started.

The tour cost $20, lasted three hours and was very informative and interesting. I had hoped to go through some of the other ruins, but she took us to the Cathedral, some little hotel, the Santa Domingo Hotel and through a Jade store. She was very knowledgeable about their government and Antigua’s history, but I was more interested in learning the actual history behind the San Francisco el Grande church, the Convent of Cappuchinas, the actual Santa Domingo ruins and some of the other ancient crumbling ruins which are prominent in Antigua. Just a tad bit disappointed with it. I mean…anyone can walk into one of the many Jade shops or through the Santa Domingo hotel. After the tour I grabbed a quick lunch at Café Condesa which ended up being one of my two favorite restaurants in Antigua.

I had also purchased an afternoon tour to the five surrounding villages outside Antigua through Antigua Tours, which turned out to be much better and well worth the money. It was just me and my wonderful guide, Robert Spillari. We visited the Bishop's Palace in San Juan del Obispo, the villages of San Pedro las Huertas, San Antonio Aguas Calientes ( I was dressed up in a hupile and corte), San Lorenzo del Cubo and Ciudad Vieja. Also stopped by the Valhalla Macadamia Nut Farm where I got to try some delicious chocolate-covered macadamias and even could have had a macadamia facial, which I passed up. I highly recommend this tour, gets you off of the beaten gringo path and gives you a tiny glimpse into the local villages and their way of life.

That put me back into Antigua by 5:30 PM, with a growling tummy and food on my mind, I went in search of dinner. I ended up at Frida's for a delectable meal of pollo mole, then it was shopping at Nim Pot. I spent way too much money in Nim Pot, and visited La Merced for prayer and meditation before I headed back to my hotel to pack for my early morning shuttle to the lake tomorrow.

Thursday, May 27~ Up bright and early and raring to go. My shuttle showed up and I was on my way to the lake. Expecting a crowded shuttle, I got a good window seat (so I could rest my head and sleep) but it turned out we only had nine people in our van. I learned yesterday from Robert, my tour guide, that this is the slow season and boy is it ever. I am amazed at the lack of gringos I have been coming across! They are few and far between.

Apparently since our van is so empty, the shuttle makes a detour through another town and we pick up five Guatemalan students and then we are once again detoured where we climb into another van and finally we are on our way to the lake. We stop halfway there for a quick cup of coffee/snacks and eventually get to the lake, three hours after leaving Antigua, which is a bit longer than usual, but we are finally here…

It has been raining off and on since this morning and by the time I am dropped off at Hotel Utz Jay, it is pouring. Rain, rain, rain! I am forced to sit on my porch and wait for the rain to abate just a bit, since I have no umbrella. I did bring along a light windbreaker/rain coat, but this is a brutal, hard rain. The rain lets up a bit and I walk down to Calle Santander.

When I came down here, I had just assumed it would be like always, lots of tourists everywhere. Well…there is hardly any tourists here at all. I am just nosing around, with no intentions of buying anything (I have a whole houseful of Guatemalan textiles) and the vendors must think I am just trying to drive a hard bargain, because they keep lowering their prices to ridiculously cheap amounts. I try to tell them I really don’t NEED anything. In turn they offer me an even better deal. Sorry, I am just looking…it humbles me to see them this way. Anybody reading this…you need to come to Guatemala and help support the local people!! Tourism is their bread and butter here, their meal ticket. I do end up buying some things which I really don’t need, anyway.

The hard rain has started up again and I seek refuge in Llama de Fuego Café for a cup of coffee and a steaming hot bowl of soup. What an adorable little café!

Another break in the weather and I head down to the Sunset Café and check out both boat docks before the rain returns. It is later on in the day when I am having my dinner that I run into Julio Cochoy; an economist with the Guatemalan Government Department of Human Rights who lectures on the recent civil war, Maya cultural resurgence, and Maya immigration to work in USA. Julio is fascinating to listen to and we soon find ourselves back at the Sunset Café to watch the daylight drain from the darkened skies and tiny glimmers of light appear from the distance villages around the lake. There is a band playing and a small crowd of people have surfaced to dine. It is late when Julio walks me back to my hotel and we promise to meet early the next day to go to Solola’s Friday market.

Friday, May 28~ I meet Julio at 8 AM at the Jasmin Deli for a wonderful breakfast and couple cups of coffee. I am so thankful that you do get good coffee here in Guatemala, the land which produces it, unlike Ecuador who exports all their coffee and serves you Nescafe instant coffee instead. That is unpardonable, in my opinion!

Julio has the Prensa Libre newspaper and I see the pictures of Pacaya Volcano and all the ash dumped on Guatemala City. It is here I learn of Tropical Storm Agatha bearing down on us. And I thought this was just the start of the rainy season;) We finish breakfast and it is raining hard as ever again. We hail a tuk tuk to Pana’s church and then from there we catch a taxi up to Solola. I am so glad to be with Julio, this is an authentic Mayan market , as real as it gets! Most of the locals here only speak their own Mayan tongue. Julio is Mayan also and says they speak three different Mayan languages at this market. He tells me there are 25 different Mayan languages altogether. It would be extremely intimidating and difficult to maneuver in this market without Julio acting as my guide. I did only bring my camera…no purse. I have cash stuffed in my bra and cash stuffed in my socks, since this place is supposed to be a pickpocketer’s dream! We manage to make it out alive and unscathed. But, what an experience!!

We get back to Panajachel, Julio has to leave for Huehuetanango and I head back to my hotel to check my emails. By the time I head back to Calle Santander, it is pelting buckets of rain. I break down and buy an umbrella. Eat dinner at Llama de Fuego and head back to my room to pack. I am leaving for Santiago tomorrow.

Saturday May 29~ woke up all bleary-eyed after a fitful night sleep. It rained so hard overnight, the drumming on the roof made it all most impossible to sleep. I eat breakfast at my hotel, grab my bags and start walking down the sidewalk to Calle Santander. A tuk tuk rounds the corner and I flag him down. My stuff is pretty well soaked in the minute or two of walking in the driving rain. He drops me off at Pana’s Santiago boat dock and by the time I am on the boat I am drenched completely through.

There is a tuk tuk waiting at the boat dock in Santiago. The driver wants way too much for the ride to Posada de Santiago, but it is dumping deluges of rain on me and all I want is in, so I don’t even attempt to negotiate. He drops me off at the Posada and I am more than happy to be in this dry, accommodating haven of rest and where awesome food awaits! I am shown two cottages, I get my pick, and decide upon Casa Angel. It does have the best view of the lake, that is if you would be able to see the lake through all this rain. As I set about unpacking I discover that both beds are wet, there is a leak inconveniently above both beds. So…I grab my umbrella and walk back down to the lobby to tell them I need to change cottages. No problem, I am now in Casa Quetzal , which doesn’t have a view of the lake, but not a problem there since you can’t see much further than the next cottage anyway, through all this driving rain.

I start a fire and unpack, hanging all my damp clothes from the mantle or as close to the fire as I can get them. Nothing now to do but watch the fire and listen to the rain. My clothes dry quickly with a nice wood smoke smell on them and I grab my umbrella and head down to check my email and settle in for dinner. It is while I am on the Lonely Planet web site that we lose electricity. No problem; candles are brought out, the acoustic guitars are tuned up, dinner is served, bottles of wine are consumed and the lights come back on. I meet two other women from New Jersey, mother and daughter and we have a great evening enjoying the music, food and ambience at the Posada. Dave is as charming as ever!

Sunday, May 30~ The rain has stopped ! The sun is trying to shine! I enjoy an awesome breakfast of Blue Corn Pancakes and Posada coffee, then I walk up to Panajab to see the village where the huge mudslide swept 1400 people away, back in 2005. There is another mudslide , further away from what remains of the town and everybody, locals and visitors like me are out and about surveying the damages.

I get back to the Posada just as Beth and her daughter Lori are checking out and leaving to cross the lake. I leave the Posada and start making my way down to the boat dock but somehow I take a wrong turn and end up in Santiago’s plaza. Since I am not in a hurry and don’t really have any plans I wander around Santiago and eventually do find myself on the street to the boat dock. I get accosted by a very persistent boy selling beaded bracelets and end up buying two off of him. This causes me to miss a boat leaving for San Pedro, now I have to wait another hour for another boat to leave, since there are so few tourists and so few travelers. So, I wander over to a local vendor’s food stand and buy a soda off of her and sit down to unwind and watch the local activity.

It is soon time to go and I spot the captain who tells me we are going in the big boat. 20 Qs for the big boat…not bad I think. Little do I know but soon find out, that taking the big boat is like “taking the slow boat to China…”

I could swim faster than this, I’m thinking… as we putter across the lake to San Pedro. An hour later, we finally arrive. As we are coming in closer to the shoreline we see all these people down by the water’s edge, looking in the reeds, checking out the boggy areas. A guy sitting next to me tells me they are looking for a little girl who got swept away in a mudslide last night. You can see the fresh raw gash high up on the hillside where the ground left loose and came slashing down through the lush greenery covering the cliffs. A wave of emotion seeps through your veins as you watch them searching. I can’t imagine their pain.

Pulling into the dock, I can see a family who has dragged all their earthly possessions (kitchen stove, bedspring and mattresses, cupboard, end tables, chairs, all covered with mud) into the lake and they are washing them off by hand. I feel ashamed and try not to stare. Here I was, coming off the boat slightly annoyed because of my misfortune in taking the “slow boat” when they are in the lake scrubbing mud from their household items and some other family just lost their daughter…

I walked the streets of San Pedro with a lot on my mind. I rounded a corner and heard one single solitary mournful church bell clanging. Without thinking, I had my camera raised and ready when out of the church came a priest carrying a cross high above his head, followed by a coffin being carried just as high, followed by the family and the rest of the mourners. It was such a shock, after losing my Dad last summer, I wasn’t ready for this and surprised by the sob which rose out of my chest. I was thankful for my dark sunglasses.

I eventually come back to the boat dock (Panajachel side) and wait for a boat to go to San Juan. I learn that there are no boats running because there are not enough tourists. I spot a tuk tuk and ask the driver to take me to San Juan. He does for a couple of Qs.

He asks me where I want dropped off at and since I have never been to San Juan before, all I can think of is the church. So that’s where he drops me off at. San Juan is remarkably clean, very pretty and everybody is friendly. Totally different vibe than what I got in San Pedro, Santiago or Panajachel. Nobody harassed me, no children begging for money (Santiago was brutal) nobody trying to sell me anything. I wandered freely around town taking pictures of the many beautiful murals and brightly-painted buildings. What a charming little village! I stopped by the cemetery and bought a beautiful scarf in a local co-op. Then it was another tuk-tuk ride back to San Pedro’s Santiago boat dock.

It was here the boat captains and there sidekicks messed with me. A couple of the drugged-up sidekicks demanded an outrageous price for a private boat to Santiago. I laughed at them. They told me a public boat would be here soon. I waited. They told me 5 PM. I waited. At 5:30 they told me “too late now, no more boats, come back tomorrow.” I was so frustrated I wanted to choke them…or cry, whichever happened first. I walked into the local sports bar next door and complained to the owner who along with his drunken clientele was no help at all. He told me ‘you are going to have to pay them whatever they are asking, or stay here overnight.”

I went back out and spied the captain who was walking down to the boat dock with his little girl. I begged him to take me back to Santiago, asked him “what do I have to pay you?” He said “150 Qs.” I begged him “100, por favor” He said okay. He and his sidekick and another guy climbed in a boat with me. The other guy climbed up next to me and spoke a little English. I found out that he lives in Santiago. So…I figured that they knew they had me, they knew I needed to get back to Santiago, it was just a “cat and mouse game” to them, and I was their mouse.

Once again, a tuk-tuk was waiting by the boat dock and the Santiago man I crossed the lake with told the tuk-tuk driver I was going to Posada de Santiago and he told me it would be 5 Qs. The tuk-tuk driver said “No, 10 Qs.” The tuk-tuk driver argued with the local man, I ended up paying the 10 Qs. The point of this story is… the Santiago man I rode the boat over with…well, it seemed like he was trying to help me out after all.

Boy was I happy to be back at the Posada! But, when I walked in well past 6:30 PM, their dinner hour, there was no one around. It was just me for dinner, although it was once again an incredible meal!

Grilled Beef Tenderloin
One-half pound portion of field-raised, marinated tenderloin, grilled with olive oil, butter, garlic, fresh ground black peppercorns and Chilean red wine

Absolutely incredible! Dave, wherever did you find your Chef?

Once I was back in my bed with the fire well-stoked, I thought back on my day’s advents. I understand that times are even tougher now down here, with hardly any tourists. I know that the couple of dollars I bickered over could be the difference between a full belly or going to bed hungry for most. It was just that I know how much the going rates are and how much they jack them up for me, a gringo, versus a local. That’s the part that tweaks me so.

Monday, May 31~ I am leaving Santiago today. I have one last wonderful breakfast at the Posada; a cheese, avocado and bacon omelet, more Posada coffee…then I pay my final tab and catch a tuk-tuk to the boat dock. Funny how the tuk-tuks from the Posada to the boat dock are only 5 Qs when they are double that to come back….

I get on board the boat leaving for Panajachel and the captain charges me 30 Qs plus 5 Qs for my carryon! I can’t believe that! What? I argue with him, but it gets me nowhere. The boat isn’t even full, but I still have to pay 5 Qs. Unbelievable. I can’t get out of Santiago fast enough.

After a few engine stalls and some worried looks in the middle of the lake, we arrive at the Santiago boat dock in Panajachel and everybody’s speechless including me! Speechless! See for yourself . We stumble off the boat like we are all shell-shocked, just gaping at the mess Tropical Storm Agatha created and left behind.

Local Mayan people, men, women and children are all gathering up firewood out of the lake. This firewood which the lake brought them is the blessing which the curse left behind. Life is a series of give and take. You can see it now more then ever. I make my way over to Sunset Café where I spot a tuk-tuk which takes me over to the main Panajachel boat dock.

There they get me on a boat so fast I can barely get my change back, and we are off once again crossing the lake, this time it takes me to La Casa Del Mundo. The first gringo I see in a long time asks me if La Casa Del Mundo is open? “What? It better be!” I exclaim. She tells me most places are closed, most have evacuated. I am stunned. We pull up to La Casa Del Mundo’s dock and much to my relief their staff come down to the dock to carry my stuff for me. I get up to the lobby only to have Oscar apologizing and worriedly explaining that they have no electricity, but they do have solar power, so they do have hot water and they use gas for cooking. I smiled and reassured him, that is no problem at all! He seems greatly relieved! He states that all their guests have cancelled and there is only one other couple there besides me. I tell him once again, “no problemo!”

He has another staff member take me up to my beautiful room and I am quite happy! After dispatching my stuff, I wander around the grounds amazed at all the new constructionand new additions being added on to this already gorgeous hotel.

Dinner time rolls around and the other couple appear seeming genuinely surprised to have another guest joining them. They tell me Jaibalito and Tzununa have been hit hard, lots of people lost their homes, lots of mudslides. Jaibalito had no electricity for a total of four days, two of them being while I was there.

After dinner, Oscar has one of the staff lead the way back to my room with a lighted candle. He also gives me a couple of candles for in my room. I read by candlelight until I’m sleepy than after I blow the candles out, I see an amazing sight. The cloudless night sky is just full of stars, so many it looks like you could reach out and gather them all into your arms. Truly an amazing sight! I have never seen so many stars in my life, except for that one moonless winter night in the Colorado Rockies.

Later on I awoke to the sound of hard rain once again upon the roof. I laid in my bed, in the middle of the night, on that sheer, steep cliff and thought about mudslides.

Tuesday June 1 ~ I awoke to the palest pink sunrise I have ever seen. Pastel pink and lavender clouds were lazily hovering around the volcanoes as I walked down to La Casa Del Mundo’s dining room. Oscar was manually hand brewing coffee, so I sat at my favorite table and patiently waited for my morning fix. The other guest showed up without his girlfriend, apparently a coffee addict also, and we chatted while we waited. Turns out they were from California and came down on a whim for a weekend getaway. He seemed shy when I met them yesterday, but I soon find out you get him talking about traveling and now it is quite a different story. He tells me about his travels from Mexico to Panama during the traumatic ‘80’s, the civil wars, the guerillas, he talks about his travels to Turkey and Mongolia. This man is a walking wikipedia. Before we realize it our coffee is ready and his sleepy-eyed girlfriend joins us.

Breakfast is served, more coffee consumed and then I climb up to my room for my swimsuit and both cameras.

The sun has burned through the clouds and it is a brilliant, crystal clear day. Quite warm also. I get up the nerve to jump in the lake, ahhh it feels so good…I didn’t think I would be doing this after all the debris and trash I have been seeing in the lake before I arrived at La Casa Del Mundo but surprisingly, over on this side the water is an amazing, untainted, crystalline green color!

I am having a great time enjoying my swim, the sun is hot and I lie down to soak in some rays. I doze off for about a half an hour and when I lift my head I am dismayed to see that a whole lot of debris has found it’s way to this little cove in the lake. The shoreline cropping around the hotel’s grounds is now just littered with floating trash.
So much for that. Thank goodness, I got to enjoy my swim before this settled in. I pick up my things and climb back up to my room to shower, change and head up the path for Santa Cruz.

Yesterday, I had hiked the path over to Jaibalito. The path was very nice and relatively easy, winding it’s way down a slight ravine through trees, bushes, tall grasses and wild flowers. I was doing fine until I heard someone coming up the trail towards me, I couldn’t see him because of the lush thicket…but I could hear him singing and he was obviously extremely inebriated. My heart started pounding. Here I am, all alone, basically in the middle of a dense jungle-like setting and I got a drunk man heading my way. What if there is more than one? My heart is now a drum beating in my ears. I had always heard of the flight or fight instinct…now I get to experience it…and my first thought was flight. I could dive in these bushes and hide, hopefully he won’t see me. (By this time I assumed he was alone because of the way he was singing.) Then I thought, what if there are snakes, spiders, or poison ivy in there? I then thought; I have the element of surprise on him, he thinks he’s alone, maybe the shock of seeing me will throw him. I gathered up all the courage I could find in myself, postured myself up as tall as I could be and went barreling down that path just as self-assured as I could possibly make myself look. It worked. I met him on a jut of the hill, coming around the corner of a big boulder, and he was quite taken back by the sight of me. He wheeled and wobbled and ‘bout fell over as I plowed by him, but after I passed him, I heard him say, “kiss, kiss…”

I kept moving down that hill with as much confidence as I could muster but inside I could feel my heart banging hard against my chest, my legs felt weak and my knees were shaking. I came upon a fork where the path split into two parts, I had intended on heading back further into the thickest part towards Jaibalito, but there was a handmade sign poking out of the ground with the name of some hotel pointing towards the lake, and with a drunk possibly on my tail, I headed for the hotel and hopefully some inhabitants.

That was one of the few times I was truly scared. The other time was coming across the lake on the boat, after we had left Santiago. The boat prop had hit some debris, it was a hard hit, and the engine shut off. The captain pulled up the prop to check it, apparently there wasn’t too much damage, cause it started back up. That happened twice. It was not a good feeling; with the water as rough as it was, to be sitting on that boat wondering whether we were going to make it or not.

(just another reason why I gave up on the boats and took to hiking the high paths ‘round the lake)

Once I found the hotel and saw the lake, I made my way down to the water’s edge and followed the shoreline till I came upon a mudslide. Huge parts of the hillside were washed away and there was now a deep gorge where the cement walkway was. I gingerly made my way down into the deep hole and contemplated on where I would cross over at. A gushing creek was carved in the crevasse carrying the remaining runoff of all the rain into the lake. While I was standing there lost in thought, a local Mayan man and his young daughter climbed down and crossed the creek. I followed in their footsteps. I found the street which leads up from Jaibalito’s boat dock and walked up the hill till I came to Vulcano Lodge. All the times I have stayed at La Casa Del Mundo, I had always wanted to check out the Vulcano Lodge, only because it gets the best reviews on Tripadvisor, but I never did. This time I made up my mind I would. Well…I get there and the place is deserted. I am told by a passing local, they had to evacuate. The beautiful gardens which were once abundant are gone. The buildings look like they have survived but there is a wash of river stones and boulders left behind where the mudslide went through, taking with it everything in it’s path.

As I make my way back to my hotel, sidestepping all the rubble and climbing over all the ruin left behind from Tropical Storm Agatha, my brain is boggled as it absorbs all the damage. I can’t explain it. And I am just a visitor here, merely passing through. What is must be like for those who live here? I can’t comprehend it.

That was yesterday. Today I am going to hike to Santa Cruz. I wrestle up all my courage and start up the steep path from La Casa Del Mundo. This path is a bit tricky at times and I have to fend off my fear of heights in a couple spots, but once I get by them, things are a lot easier. The path takes me down pass Isla Verde Hotel and all it’s cabins perched high on the hillside. I can see they have dragged out all their bed linens, household items and kitchen wares; washed them and now they are spread out in the sun to dry. I continue on and see more gaping gorges, mud-marked tree trunks, and mud-caked tile walls of houses. I arrive at La Iguana Perdida and Santa Cruz’s boat dock. In the past this place has always been a hub of activity, now it is barren and empty. Not much going on at the Iguana, so I walk over to Arca de Noe where I am invited in for lunch. I accept. Lunch consists of an amazing grilled ham and cheese sandwich, cole slaw and a cappuccino.

I retrace my tracks back the way I came, skirting the deep gaping wounds in the ground, crossing the shallow waters where the lake has bled in. Turn right pass the big uprooted tree, squeeze up through the crawlway where the sidewalk used to be and follow the path back through the grassy knoll which takes you cross the bridge and puts you back on track, up the hill and eventually back to La Casa Del Mundo.

I am exhausted both mentally and physically by the time I get back to my room. I rest for a bit and then wander down to the lobby to learn that the electricity is back on! Yea! We have Wifi! I immediately ask Oscar if I can use their laptop. He brings it over, plugs it in and I am happily checking emails. I get an email from my mother stating that American Airlines called her and told her my flight was cancelled. I ask to use their cell phone and try to call American Airlines in Guatemala City, but I get put forever on hold and finally hang up with no success. I’m not so happy anymore.

By this time, another couple has arrived at La Casa Del Mundo. I imagine it is like being on furlough, when you finally get to see other people and you hungrily grasp at any news they might have to pass on to you from the other part of the world. They tell me their GUA flight was rerouted through San Salvador, then they were bussed to Guatemala City, finally making it to La Casa Del Mundo. Wow! That’s determination. They are staying here a couple of days and then they are heading for Tikal.

The girlfriend of the other guy, the talkative one, shows up and tells us her boyfriend is sick in bed, apparently he ate something bad in San Marcos. I was a bit worried about that also, since most of these villages didn’t have proper refrigeration for a number of days, but all was well for me.

Dinner was served and the five of us sat together and talked about devastation, mudslides, loss of lives, and flight cancellations.

Back to my room to pack. I leave to go back to Antigua tomorrow, back to Casa Cristina and who knows what else. The word we are getting out here on the lake is that GUA is still closed. I was supposed to fly home on Thursday, but that was before my flight got cancelled. I have to wait and see what happens…

Wednesday, June 2 ~ Up early. Since the electricity came back on yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to recharge all my batteries for both cameras and now I am out and about taking pictures of La Casa del Mundo, the gardens, the lake, the volcanoes and anything that moves.

By 7:30, I am in the dining room with my coffee, breakfast is ordered and I got the laptop. Once again I try American Airlines web site to no avail and after more frustration, I finally give it up and pass the laptop on to the other couple who came down for breakfast. Breakfast arrives; it is whole wheat pancakes with warm apple topping, yogurt and fresh fruit…same thing I had yesterday, but it is just so dag-gone good, had to have it again.

Finished up my scrumptious meal, paid up my total tab for the two nights, food, drinks…tipped generously and then up to my room for my bags and down to the boat dock I headed. My shuttle pickup in Panajachel to Antigua is at 12 noon, but experience has taught me the boats (and the captains) aren’t as reliable now, after this natural disaster occurred and the lack of tourists.

One of the hotel’s staff helps me with my stuff down the steps to the dock. A boat is coming our way and the captain asks if I’m going to Panajachel. There is no one else on board so I ask firstly if this is a private boat, “no” he says, “publica,” then I ask “how much?” cause I want to get that out of the way before I set foot in it. Both he and La Casa Del Mundo’s employee say “15 Quetzales.” I repeat it back to make sure. “Si, 15” they both reply.

Good, I think to myself. I am helped in and off we go, leaving the beautiful hotel heading for Panajachel. We go a little distance, about halfway to Santa Cruz and he stalls the motor and says he now needs 100 Quetzales. He motions with his hands that there are no other people, he needs 100 Quetzales. NO, not again, I am thinking! This is a bunch of bull! When did they become like this? “No!” I say, and then I spout off how both he and the hotel employee told me 15 Q’s,… you can’t do this now! I heard you, we all agreed, absolutely not! He pulls out of his pocket a calculator and taps up a number and leans towards me showing now he wants 50. “No, no, I don’t have it” I angrily state. “You know what, just take me to Santa Cruz!” I say. All the while I am trying to recall what bill I do have in my pocket, I think it is a 20, but now I am so mad I can’t remember. It might be a 50. If it is a 20 I can just shove it at him and say that is all I have, but now I am thinking it is a 50 after all, so there goes that argument.

He is still stalling the engine, so I pull the bill out of my pocket and he and I can now both see that it is a 50. Rats! I give it to him. He smiles and fires up the engine and instead of heading for Panajachel, we stop at Santa Cruz. This is just stupid…I am thinking. Now I have already paid him, there is nothing else I can do.

I figured we would stop here anyway, a straight run to Pana would have been to much to hope for. He pulls in and starts yelling “Panajachel” like they do, then he looks at me and ask me if I am getting out. I just shake my head and don’t budge. He keeps touting his ride and very slowly a few local people make their way down and then we start backing out when another public boat (this one with lots of people and I am sure a lot cheaper…) heading for Pana stops by. I can see a handful of gringos heading our way and our boat captain goes a little crazy and lunges his boat back to the dock, screaming “Pana! Pana!” The other captain gives up, backs out and leaves. The four gringos climb on board and we are now officially bound for Panajachel. There was a certain note of desperation in the poor man’s cry and display, I start to feel sorry for him. I guess desperate times lead to desperate measures. I am ashamed of myself.
By the time we get back to Panajachel, it is a relief to see that most of the firewood and trash have been retrieved from the lake along Pana’s shoreline. What does remain is still being collected.

It is stinking hot as I get off the boat and make my way up to the new little bar which sits on the incline, before you reach the street. For the life of me, I can’t remember the name of it. I have an ice cold Gallo and reminisce. For the first time since I have been coming here, I am actually anticipating leaving the lake. Just that it was all so raw; the mudslides, all the people that died, lost of homes, all the damage, all the desperation, difficulty in modes of transportation on the lake or lack thereof, and the constant shakedown of the stranded gringo. As I sat and reflected back, I realize how immensely draining this leg of the trip has been, both mentally and physically.

A couple of other gringos are waiting with me at the appointed stop and our shuttle arrives on time. I climb in and get the back seat, with a big wide open window, the others get in and we are off for Antigua. We make our way up and out of Panajachel, past lots of fallen trees, more mudslides, we are detoured through Solola and then back onto the main road again. It is simply astounding; all the devastation we see on our way back to Antigua. Huge landslides, more mudslides, partial roads missing or still covered with earth and downed trees. At one place the road had turned into a stream which our shuttle forded and continued on.

We arrive into Antigua around 3 PM. I am once again dropped off at Casa Cristina. Rosario is in the office and I explain to her about my flight cancellation. I use their phone to call American Airlines and amazingly I immediately get through and am quickly rebooked on an afternoon flight out of GUA for Sunday, June 6. That is one load off my mine. Next, she books me for three more nights in the same room I have been using. One more thing needs attended to. I have been emailing my brother, asking him to contact my neighbors and let them know I will be staying in Guatemala longer than expected, since they are my critters’ caretakers while I am gone. This has been worrying me more than anything else. An email confirms that all is taken care of, they will continue taking care of my animals…now I feel much, much better. Time to finally relax, kick back and start enjoying this vacation!

While I was in Panajachel last week, I had met some Antiguans who were spending a weekend getaway at Hotel Utz Jay and they told me about a place called “Hectors” in Antigua, supposedly known for their food. I decided to try it out. This ended up being the “other” of my two favorite places in Antigua. This place is incredible! Wow! I had a late lunch there; roasted sun-dried tomatoes with mozzarella in an olive oil, balsamic and garlic vinaigrette served with fresh bread, and a crispy cold Gallo. Yummy!

Spent the rest of the evening wanderin ‘round town and then dinner at Frida’s before heading back to my hotel .

Thursday, June 3 ~ Woke up to a spectacular morning. Funny how the day I was supposed to be leaving…well, it turns out to be the nicest weather we had yet! I had another lovely breakfast at Fernando’s and then I set off looking for the old ruins of Ermita de la Santa Cruz . I recalled seeing it on Google Earth. It sat at the very edge of town, but I can’t remember where exactly. I was told Antigua has 32 churches. I figured since I have all this time on my hands, I am going to take pictures of each one. I just have to find them first.

The location of the church I am seeking inadvertently finds me at the bottom of the hill, at the walkway up to the cross which overlooks Antigua. Now, I could not have found this if I had wanted to…and this was something I had wanted to do, but forgot about. There are three other gringos not too far ahead of me, so I manage to catch up to them and walk along up to the cross. Just like in the photos I’ve seen, it is truly an amazing view of Antigua.

The day has become quite warm. I stop by El Portal Café for an iced frappuccino and tiramisu. Refreshed and revived, I am off to Jocotenango to find the orange and white church , which I have seen on Google Earth and our shuttle brought us by it on our way into Antigua. Kind of have an idea where it is. I walk and walk. Three times I stop and ask directions to the church. I know that blanca means white but I can’t remember the word for orange. I do happen to be wearing an orange tank top, so I point at the orange when asking for directions to the iglesia.

Elizabeth Bell had told us on the walking tour I took that Antiguans are famous for pointing the way. Nobody ever tells you the name of the street…they will just walk you to the curb and point. I found that to be true. Three times I asked and three different people pointed me down this way and then back that way. It was the just motions with their arms, no verbal instructions like three blocks down, then turn right and go two more blocks on such and such a street. They just point. This way and then that way. So I walked and walked. The afternoon sun is beating on me, my shoulders are getting quite red and I am hot, thirsty and tired. My feet hurt. I find a church but it isn’t the orange and white one, so I think maybe they might have misunderstood me and sent me to this one. I take the pictures, turn around and make my way back to Casa Cristina.

I shower, change and haul my sunburned self back out in search of dinner. Hector’s it is and the dinner is just truly amazing! Tenderloin steak sandwich with French fries and a glass of their house red. The tenderloin is perfectly seasoned and melts in your mouth. I do want to add that I like their idea of greeting you with a bowl of assorted olives when you are seated. Heck, I would go back just for the olives!

Friday June 4 ~ Another gorgeous day! Breakfast at Fernando’s and then I wander into town to explore the church and convent of Capuchinas. I find the nunnery fascinating , especially each tiny little room where you could see they had some type of heating duct (at least that is what it looked like to me) and I try to imagine the Sisters hovering in their habits in those small cubicles.

Then it is the on to Calle de los Pasosand the stations of the Cross. I walk the length of the street till I get to Iglesia El Calvario . From there I wander back to Saint Joseph Cathedral, and then
over to the cemetery and Iglesia San Lazaro. Then it is past the bus station to the ruins del Convento de la Recolección. I crawl around on the crumbling ruins and listen to thunder in the distance.

With rolling thunder and the threat of rain I head back to my hotel to shower and change. The storm by passes us, so I head back out to find dinner. My cash flows is dwindling down and I set about looking for a relatively cheap place which accepts credit cards. My aging Lonely Planet guidebook suggests Café La Escudilla so I try it out. It is cheap. I have a glass of Argentinean red and a bowl of Azteca soup, which is their version of tortilla soup. The wine is good, but I am not to pleased with the soup, so no need to order anything else. I pay my bill and leave.

I stop by Nim Pot on my way back to my hotel and get to meet Marcus, the friendly, handsome man who has been working at Nim Pot for 14 years. He talks of all his travels to the tiny villages where he purchases their textiles. He tells me about when he lived in Massachusetts for a year and bought cars which he would drive to Guatemala and sell. We talk for a long time and I tell him I will return tomorrow night to say goodbye.

Saturday, June 5 ~ It is shortly after midnight when I wake up freezing cold. I can’t figure out why I am so cold. I get out of bed and pull a heavy wool blanket off of the shelf in my room and cover myself with it. I am starting to shiver and now my belly hurts, along with a pounding headache. I have to get up quick and run to the bathroom. Yep, you guessed it…I have food poisoning. It is a very long night; you name it, I got it, and back and forth to the bathroom I go. All night long. Finally ‘round 7 AM after spewing everything out of me which my body could possibly contain, I manage to fall asleep. I wake up four hours later when the man who cleans the room opened my door. When he saw me, he apologized and slipped back out. About an hour later, I force myself to get out of bed. I take two pillows, a bottle of water and my sunglasses and it is all I can do to climb the two stories to the terrace on the roof. That is where I spend the entire afternoon. I sleep on the bench till 4:30 when thunder starts rumbling again, then I cautiously make my way back downstairs to my room. I crawl back in my bed and pass out.

Sunday, June 6 ~ I am up at 5:30, feeling a hundred percent better! I take a shower and pack my bags. The sun is brightly shining as I set off for a coffee at Fernando’s. Well, Fernando’s is closed today, so I go back to my hotel and drink a cup of instant coffee and eat a couple of dry muffins which are complimentary.

It is off to Jocotenango once again, this time I am pretty sure I know where that church is. I am heading back the street I walked before, I just think I didn’t go far enough. The roosters are crowing, the birds are singing, people are smiling, traffic is scarce and I am really enjoying my walk. I eventually come upon a church. Little did I realize, but I took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up in La Pajonada instead. The church I am looking at is San Felipe de Jesus , not Iglesis de Jocotenango. I thought I had it all figured out. Why can’t I find that church? I give up and head back into Antigua for a tall, cold Papaya milkshake at El Portal, ’cause my stomach is still not feeling up to par.

A quick stop in Santa Domingo Hotel to explore the ruins, only to find that they don't open till later on in the afternoon. While I am there, Fuego Volcano does erupt . It is a small one, but it is an eruption neverless, and I get to see it again from a beautiful place surrounded by beautiful gardens.

Then it is back to Nim Pot to apologize to Marcus, who isn‘t there, it‘s his day off. I ask one of the young ladies working at the counter to please let Marcus know I stopped in to say goodbye.

Back to my hotel and my 12:30 shuttle to GUA.

Guatemala, February 2009

When I had originally bought this plane ticket last August, I was flying to Panama City. After my recent Guatemalan experience in October...I came home and changed this entire trip itinerary to Guatemala City instead. There was just too much that I wanted to see and do and it didn't get done. Still is much, much more I want to see. Looks like I will be going back...

I flew into GUA at 12:30 PM and this time I had arranged an airport pickup thru Antigua Tours. I know there are a lot of cheaper ways of getting around, but after traveling for eleven hours straight, I only wanted to see a smiling face and my name on a placard. They were there as promised. I had a private shuttle ride to Antigua allowing me to sit back in style and unwind. Sweet!

In Antigua I had two hours to kill till I boarded the shuttle to Pana. Grabbed a quick snack and cold Gallo at Chimino's Cafe and then walked all around town enjoying the brilliant blue skies and warm sunshine. Where I came from back in PA, it was 7 brutal degrees this morning. Burrrr..

El Fuego briefly erupted and I got some good shots. The day was just so gorgeous with the jacaranda trees and bouganvillia in full bloom, for once I hated to leave Antigua.

It was into a cramped van and onward to Pana I went. We arrived atop the lookout over the lake just as the last light was draining from the sky and everyone snapped away. It was so windy and too dark and sadly the pictures didn't come out too good, but it was a lot of fun trying not to get blown away.

I was dropped off at Hotel Utz Jay in Pana and very surprised as to how cold it was. The owner informed me that a cold front had blown in two days prior and they have been experiencing some unusually cold weather. She said it was expected to be gone by tomorrow. I never knew it got so cold down here. I had packed only a fleece jacket and I was freezing...

The wind blew wildly through Pana that first night. Every tin roof in town which wasn't properly nailed down shook and rattled and rolled through the night. For some strange reason, as I lay safe and snug in bed that night, I enjoyed all the racket that was going on outside. I soon fell into a dead sleep.

Next morning I awoke to an amazing day. The winds were gone and the sun was out in full force. I ate breakfast at Utz Jay and then strolled down to the lake. It was only four months since I was here last and I was simply amazed at all the improvements in town. The dirt street riddled with mud puddles and potholes which we had dragged our luggage through last October is now a beautiful brick road lined with bouganvillia-embraced walls.

My friends; Bob (who lives at Posada de Santiago) and Doloresb (another thorntree-er who now resides by the lake) joined me at 1 PM for our journey to Chichicastenango. Bob was driving. We got into Chichi shortly after 2 and ditched our bags at the Hotel Giron before exploring the empty streets of Chichi, visited the church and climbed the hill to see Pascual Abaj, the Mayan idol. Looking back, I am glad we decided to stay overnight in Chichi. We got so much done that afternoon. We had drinks at the very beautiful, but expensive Hotel Santos and then dinner at Los Cofrades. The next day was a whole different story. We awoke to a totally transformed town. It was absolute madness. We left Chichi by 11 AM. I had bought only one item, a nice heavy wool rug for $11.

Got back into Pana, had lunch at the Sunset Grill, and then Doloresb and I got on the boat for La Casa del Mundo. The lake was so choppy the boat dropped us off at El Jabalito's boat dock instead La Casa del Mundo's, making us take the path over to our hotel. (which was a good thing, because I needed the knowledge of the path as you will see later)

I had room #12 the first night which is the highest room on the property and is an absolute beauty. I had always mentioned that room #13 is the nicest one, but I would say they are a close tie. Room 12 is a sweet little suite, very isolated and private. Room 13 is above the dining room and can be, as quoted on here often, a bit noisy...I had reserved room 13 for the next night.

La Casa del Mundo is as always, a wonderful experience and the food was actually much better than I had remembered! I got to swim in the lake this time around and had some time to relax and truly enjoy this exquisite piece of property.

The second day I took the boat over to Pana in the afternoon to do some shopping before leaving the lake and managed to catch the last boat back to La Casa del Mundo. The boat was packed full. I counted 37 people on board and not a single life jacket. (gotta love it...) The captain forgot that I was staying at La Casa del Mundo and overshot my stop, dropping people off at Jabalito. I had to walk back to La Casa del Mundo in the dark...with no flashlight. I was so glad I had gotten to travel the path the day before in the daylight. It could have been rather tricky....

I was back in Antigua for my last night and stayed at Casa Florencia. A really nice little hotel on 7th ave., one block over from La Merced and two blocks over from the Arch. I would stay there again, in a heartbeat! Ate at Sky Cafe (excellent!!) and did some major shopping at Nim Pot.

Left Guatemala heavily burdened down with all my purchases, but quite satisfied!!

Guatemala, October 2008

October 12 - 19;

We just got back from Lake Atitlan and had an awesome trip!! We flew into Guatemala City, headed for Antigua and further on to Lake Atitlan. Just a few things I want to mention here. Please note, they are no longer running shuttles from Guate airport to Antigua. You have to reserve one before you get there, or hope somebody else's reserved shuttle can squeeze you in, or take a taxi. We settled for the latter since it became apparent that I had screwed up and overlooked this very important factor. (Update...they still do run the shuttles ...)

Taxi cab driver told us (at least I thought he told us) it was $15 to Antigua, but once we arrived in Antigua...he said it was $50. We agreed on $38. After that and realizing that we now had to find a shuttle running to Lake Atitlan, which being it was Sunday, wasn't all that easy...I started to feel a little glum. We finally found a shuttle running to Atitlan and it was only $8 a person, my hopes came back up and onward we went.

We got into Panajachel around 6:30 and paid for a private boat to take us to La Casa del Mundo. La Casa del Mundo is truly a gem! Very, very nice hotel with views to die for! We had room #13 which happens to be the nicest room in the beautiful hotel. The next day we went back to Pana and did some shopping, eating and drinking.

The third day we went to Santiago where we had a reservation at Posada de Santiago. Stayed in one of the delightfully charming little stone cottages with a cozy fireplace surrounded by beautiful gardens. The owner is a very interesting, great entertainer/host and he, his friends and his son sat up with us till 1 AM, drinking and telling stories. The next day, his friend took us to Los Terrales, a working coffee finca/nature reserve. We hiked around the mountainside along the coffee fields with a sweet young woman who was our birdwatcher guide. We saw lots of birds and visited with Mary, a wonderful little lady who is the owner of the finca.

The fifth day we headed to Lomas de Tzununa. We got off the boat and no one was around. I, along with my carry-on, backpack and purse climbed the 426 steps up to the lobby to tell them that my friend was on her way up with a huge suitcase. They ran down to help her and later I was told by the owner that there is a call button by the boat dock. Boy, did I feel stupid! was a great workout!! And, after all the food I was consuming...I really needed it! Lomas de Tzununa is a gorgeous hotel with million dollar views!!

The next morning we hiked from Lomas over to San Marcos and scoped out the town. It is about an hours' hike and quite a pretty one at that. San Marcos was nice, although not a whole lot going on. We did check out some hotels while we were there. We were not at all impressed with the Aaculaxx, although we really did like Hotel Jinava. Really pretty little place with some awesome views! Another one was the Posada Schumann which is down by the boat dock. Adoreable little stone cottages set up like an old-world village style. We ate lunch here. Had really good pasta dishes! We also had drinks at the II Forno, a really cute place with a jungle feel.

From San Marcos we caught the boat over to San Pedro. Didn't get to spend too much time there since we only got there around 3:30 and the last boat left at 5. We managed to get lost wandering the back streets of San Pedro, so the time was even less. We grabbed some coffee at Nick's Place, while waiting and watching the boat dock.

The seventh day we went back to Antigua to spend our last night at Hotel Quinta de las Flores. Really nice place with lots of little bubbling waterfalls and lovely gardens loaded with flowers and butterflies. We ate dinner at the Cafe Sky which has incredible food!! If you go there...beware...the portions are huge!

Flew out of Guatemala City the next day. Make sure you use up your Quetzals, because other than booze and very expensive jewelry & watches, the airport doesn't offer a lot to buy. Plus nowdays, you have to check all your liquor bottles.

Two Updates!! The shuttles still run back and forth from GUA to Antigua...and GUA airport has changed immensely since the new addition!! So many shops, vendors, cafes and even a little food court now!

Enjoy Guatemala!

Belize, April 2008

April 18 -23, 2008

the times they are a-changin'"
To quote Bob Dylan:

"Come gather 'round people, wherever you roam and admit that the waters around you have grown and accept it that soon you'll be drenched to the bone. If your time to you is worth savin' then you better start swimmin' or you'll sink like a stone. For the times they are a-changin'..."

I just got back from Ambergris Caye and my how things have changed in three years. I hardly recognized the streets as I wandered 'round town. From the cobbled paved streets to some newly sprung-up places along the beach, I found it just a little unsettling. I found myself saying 'wow' over and over again.

I rented a bike and rode north, over the "new bridge", and up past the numerous condos rising like phoenixes out of the sandy soil. When did all this happen? I realize that it is good for the economy of San Pedro, as I watched them all head north on bicycles, every morning at 6:45, going to work on the construction sites, but at the same time I can foresee locals being sandwiched tighter and tighter back into the lagoon side...

A couple of the locals I talked to seem to think Ambergris Caye is destined to become a "little Cancun." It already is starting to remind me of Playa del Carmen. Hopefully that new guy in office will put an end to too much more development. Kind of made me sad.

But to quote Lansluder..."Belize is Belize." They will find a way to survive.

Other than that, the weather was fantastic, the food was great and the beer was cold. I had an awesome chicken burrito at Waruguma's and some simply delicious BBQ chicken dinners complete with rice/beans and slaw, from street vendors, which were to die for. The grilled shrimp dinner at The Reef was divine!

Signed up with Searious and sailed over to Caye Caulker, snorkeled Hol Chan and Shark Ray Alley again, and drank more ice-cold Belikin while we cruised the vibrant blue waters along the way.

All in all, it was wonderful to be back in Belize! And hopefully I will return again, some day soon.

Ecuador, Sep/Oct 2007

September 23 - October 2, 2007

Sunday, Sept. 23rd- I flew out of BWI at 6:30 AM into Miami at 8:30 AM. In Miami, I had a 7 hour layover. I had tried my hardest to avoid this, but nevertheless, at some point in my travels I had to face it. So I bit the bullet in Miami. Miami airport has absolutely nothing to offer a stranded flyer. It was a very long day. At 3:30 PM I boarded American Airlines for Quito. I had picked a window seat on the left, since I had read somewhere that would be your best view of Cotopaxi. I sat next to a sweet young couple from France. Unfortunately, I can't speak French, they couldn't speak English and none of us could understand much Spanish. Amazingly, we did however, have our Lonely Planet guidebooks with us and it was through them that we could point out to each other the places we were visiting. And, Cotopaxi presented us with an outstanding view as we flew into beautiful Quito.

I waved goodbye to my new French friends as we seperated at customs and once through immigration, I was immediatedly picked up as promised, by my driver from La Cienega. I had earlier worried about the 2 hour drive from Quito, since I was traveling solo. My Spanish is very limited and I was naturally nervous. Patrick, my driver, spoke English and for the next 2 hours we were deep in conversation as the Quito night flew by. I will say that Quito still blows my is so huge!

Arriving at LaCienega at 9 PM, I was shown to my room and offered a glass of wine. I declined dinner since eating was about the only thing I did during my 7 hours at Miami airport. I took a nice hot shower and turned in early, being I had arranged an all-day trip to Quilotoa tomorrow.

Monday, Sept 24- Up early and served a wonderful breakfast of homemade wheat bread and hot rolls, scrambled eggs with bacon and some very good naranjilla juice. I inquired about the fruit which they squeeze this delicious juice from and they brought me something that looked like a yellow tomato/orange. Hence the naranjilla fruit.

Patrick had arranged for a young man by the name of Samuel, to be my driver for the day. We left around 9 AM, just Samuel and I. Samuel was a delight from the get-go. He was talkative and easy-going. He pointed out at everything that we passed, the towns, the fields, the crops. He talked about the paramo and of the constant winds which sweep across the high grasses. Time passed quickly as we made our way through the tiny villages and the Quilotoa loop countryside.

We arrived at Quilotoa around noon. It was very windy and cold at the top. Samuel asked me if I wanted to descend and I quickly agreed. Samuel went first down through the canyon walls and down the gravelly path. I carefully followed. The tiny stones made the trail trecherous and slippery. The gusty winds were whipping sand into our faces. I wear contacts and it wasn't long before sand blew into my eyes, halting me in my tracks. Samuel came back to ask me what was wrong. With burning and tearing eyes, I pulled out my Lonely Planet Spanish phrasebook and showed him the word for "contact lenses." Thank goodness for my book! Try to explain that one! I told him I needed my sunglasses. He rushed back up to the car and returned in no time, with a big smile and my sunglasses. Thanking him, I turned and said "Vamos!

Down, down, down we went into the crater. The trail was tough and tricky. I slipped at one point and down I went on my butt, sliding even further. Samuel was quick to help me and seemed relieved that I was okay, except for my pride. At the lower portion of the trail, the entire hillside seemed to be made of sand. It was like climbing down a sand dune. Regardless how hard I tried to ignore it, in the back of my mind I couldn't stop thinking how incredibly tough the climb back up is going to be.

We made it to the water's edge. I washed my hands in the alkaline water and turned around to look at our ascent, which we will have to do, sooner or later. Wow! What was I thinking? We looked at each other and nodded. I got up and followed Samuel as we slowly manuvered our way through the flock of sheep, which were being driven by two young boys. We stood aside and left the sheep pass us. I heard a noise behind me and turned to see a ewe, who had just given birth. The new-born lamb was lying on it's belly with it's legs splayed out and it was bleating. The new mother seemed a bit confused. I called to Samuel and we both watched as the lamb tried again and again to stand up. By this time, the young boy had swooped up the wet little lamb and moved it to higher ground and closer to us. The new mom followed close on his heels. This was another perfect opportunity for more pictures!

Samuel and I continued onward and constantly upward. We took it slow and easy. The sand dune part was probably the hardest. For every 2 steps you took, you slid back one. I wish I would have actually counted how many steps I took before I had to stop and rest. It didn't seem like many. I kept looking up at the top of the rim of the crater. Samuel kept telling me "relax, no problem. We go nice and slow." And so we did. Samuel did have to literally pull me up at some places, I was so tired. And he carried my backpack for me. Samuel, wherever you are...THANK YOU!

After our exhausting ordeal out of the crater, we were back in the car and on our way back to Latacunga for chugchucaras. We got there around 5 and I treated. The chugchucaras were divine! Latacunga was bursting at it's seams with traffic and crawling with people. Samuel announced with a huge smile "It is La Mama Negra Festival!" We stayed for the parade and all the festivities! By 7 PM, Samuel returned me dusty and weary, but safe and sound to La Cienega.

Tuesday Sept 25- Up early for another delicious breakfast, took lots of pictures of this beautiful place and then I am packed and ready for my ride to Hacienda Manteles. The owners, Caesar & Gradalupe, are coming to take me to their hacienda, which is just outside of Patate. Our ride is a pleasant one. It is raining lightly as we wind our way through the lush and fertile green valleys and farmland. We pull into a little piece of paradise tucked back in the hillside and on the very edge of the LLanganates. The hacienda is an organic "working-farm" and there are three dogs, some horses, a donkey, guinea pigs and some cattle. I am the only guest and am treated like family. Caesar, Gradalupe, along with Ernesto (their hired-man) and I share a scrumptious lunch and then I am off to follow Ernesto into the cloud forest, located behind the hacienda. We have boots on and wade through creeks, cling to wines and sidestep seeping bogs, while making our way back to a stunning waterfalls. Blue; a big black lab, and Sisi; a sweet small golden retriever, are our companions as we climb the meadow to meet the friendly bulls and then we head back home.

After a delectable dinner of fresh-caught trout, potatoes and broccoli, I excuse myself to the comfort of my bed and some much-needed sleep.

Wednesday Sept 26- Today I am going to Chimborazo! After another exquisite breakfast, Caesar and I head for Chimborazo. Caesar takes me to Salasaca first and lets me do some shopping. Then we are off to see the highest volcano in Ecuador. We stop at the little train station below and drink some mate de coca tea. Caesar asks them to bring me some "puntas" and I add it to my tea. I soon find out is the same as moonshine! Nasty!! As we climb higher and higher in the car, my ears keep popping and I start to feel light-headed and nauseated. I don't say anything to Caesar, for fear he will turn around. We spot a herd of wild vicunas in the vast moon-like landscape and then we are pulling into the first refuge hut. I think it sits at 14-15,000 feet. Does anyone know how high it is? All I know is that I drank three more cups of mate de coca...and then I felt much better.

Coming back down, we do the Chimborazo loop. Whole way around the volcano. That is one BIG volcano. Later in the afternoon I finally get to see the top of Chimborazo. I had no luck seeing Cotopaxi, except for the view of it coming in on the plane. And, Tungurahua has not been much better. It just teases me with mere glimpses.

Thursday Sept 27- Caesar and Ernesto have arranged to take me to Banos this morning. We get into town and Ernesto shows me the church and then to the waterfalls at the edge of town. Ernesto says goodbye since he will be staying here a couple of days with his girlfriend and I am picked up by Caesar and he takes me to the Pailon del Diablo, where I have an hour to myself to hike down to view the falls. What a beautiful and diverse country this is!! The landscapes change along with the temperatures and the climates all in a matter of a few hours!

We return to the hacienda for one last lunch together and then I am off to Quito to pick up my friend. The driver they have assigned me seems to be a bit of a suicidal madman. How do you say Kami kaze in Spanish? I silently sit in the back seat and say my prayers....

I am by far not a prude when it comes to driving. I have been known to get a few speeding tickets in my day. So when I say the ride was atrocious, trust me…it was. I think he said his name was Paulo. I also managed to figure out that he was a mechanic by trade. Other than that, everything he tried to tell me I could not begin to understand. The last thing he did ask me just before he dropped me off at the airport (I looked it up in my Spanish dictionary) was whether I was married or not. I told him no. In return I got a big smile and his phone number. Oh those hot Latin American men…they never cease to amaze me.

I managed to find my friend Kim, who looked worst for the wear, and I listened to her tales of woe about the horrible flight arrangements I had set up. It was the exact same regimen I went through in Miami, and listening to her humored me, especially after my death-defying 4 hour ride to Quito, in the back of seat of an extended cab pick-up truck whose driver used his horn instead of his brakes…for everything! I was just surprised we didn’t kill anyone or anything on our journey.

We were picked up by our chauffer from La Casa Sol in Quito and taken to our hotel. Dispatching our luggage and in bad need of food and something strong to drink, we found ourselves at Le Arcate for some excellent soup and a blissful warm brownie dessert. We also had a very good bottle of Negra Gato which led to another bottle and from then on the night got kind of blurry, like the pictures which showed up on my camera, the next morning. According to the pictures, it was at The Dragonfly, where we ran into a very nice Colombian couple, Alex & Gabe, who joined us on our downward slide into oblivion.

Friday Sept 28- Quito was a lot of fun, from what I could recall, and after a satisfying breakfast a couple of doors down from La Casa Sol, we were in a taxi and on our way to La Casa Sol’s sister hotel in Otavalo. Sitting in the back seat of a taxi cab enduring hangovers and a 2 hour ride was the price we paid for last night’s fun. Thank goodness, this cab driver was merciful and seemed to sense our self-induced miseries.

We arrived in Otavalo around 2 PM and our driver missed the road up to La Casa Sol. He pulled over at the edge of Peguche and dropped us off at the foot of a long and steep staircase. We stood there and gazed up longingly at our hotel perched high on the hilltop. “You have got to be kidding” I think I mumbled to Kim. Our taxi driver smiled and waved goodbye to us as we proceeded to drag our luggage and ourselves up every step. Up and up and up we went, my head reeling and the suitcase and backpack getting heavier with each minute. Once we made it to the top, we came upon the road our driver had missed. “Incredible!” I stated. "He could have pulled right up to the front gate of our hotel." We still had another 500 yards to go and it was now a cobblestone driveway and all up hill. “This is something we will later look back on and laugh about” Kim said.

La Casa Sol at Otavalo was absolutely gorgeous! What an enchanting and serene setting! The interior aimed for tranquility, with the soft Andean background music, vivid colors and textures, wind chimes and waterfalls amid flowering plants and flumes of grasses. I am so glad I stumbled upon this place in all my researching!

We were shown to our room with it’s own little patio and waterfalls. Yula, a sweet little Chow-mix adopted us immediately. She slept outside our door every night and waited on the patio every day for our return. As soon as we unpacked, we headed down to the front desk to seek out something to do. They gave us a map and told us of many different places we could see, many within walking distance.

The first place we went was back down the staircase and into Peguche to see the waterfalls. It was a nice easy walk back through an eucalyptus grove. The mist from the waterfalls felt good upon my face and I was slowly recuperating from last night’s adventures. After the waterfalls, we walked into town. It was about a 40 minute walk and by this time we were quite ravenous. We found a quaint and charming little restaurant called Mi Otavalito. We ordered Filet Mignon steak dinners with a wine mushroom sauce, potatoes and a salad. $5 for a steak dinner! Excellent place! From there we wandered around town and watched the local vendors dismantling their stands. Apparently they do this every day. Day in and day out. That is a lot of work for the little money they make.

Saturday Sept 29- It is market day! I awoke at 5:30 and got dressed, ready to go see the animal market. Then, I rethought it and crawled back into my bed. My body needed more sleep than it did the animal market. At 7 AM, we were up and after a delicious breakfast of the best kashi and yogurt I have ever eaten, we were officially on our way to the animal market.

For $2 we got a taxi into town. Plaza de Ponchos was crazy busy with everything and anything under the sun being sold. Breads, croissants, rolls, cookies, grains, rice, corn, potatoes, berries, fruits, vegetables, chicken soup, grilled meats, ice cream, you name it. Then there was the rugs, tapestries, shawls, sweaters, t shirts, hats, purses, etc.

We were overwhelmed! Where do we begin? Then I remembered that the animal market ends at 10 AM. We need to go to the animal market, first. I had remembered reading that it sits at the edge of town; I just didn’t know which edge. A very friendly police officer saw our bewilderment and ask us in English if he could help us. We mentioned animal market and he immediately brightened and sent us on our way.
We walked in the direction his finger pointed and found ourselves in back alleys and narrow streets filled wall-to-wall with masses of people. We shuffled and bumped our way through the crowd. I knew we were getting closer as we started passing people with sheep and pigs attached to them. Nothing makes you smile more than when you get behind a little old lady walking down a narrow sidewalk leading a big pig. It was surreal!

The animal market was dwindling by the time we had arrived. I could only imagine what it had looked like at 6 AM. There were piglets and lambs, sheep and cattle, along with the ear-piercing squeals of adult pigs being loaded by hand into the back of pick-up trucks.

But the biggest attention-getter was a box of puppies which a throng of people had gathered around. They were selling like hotcakes at $5 a piece.

We spent most of the day wandering around town. Last year we were in Peru and barely bought anything, since we were traveling so light. After we got home we deeply regretted it. This time we both came prepared. We had cash and we had made extra room in our suitcases! I bought a beautiful large hand-woven wool duffle bag which all my goodies went into. Two women on the loose, in Otavalo, with no men to hold them back…LOOK OUT!! After shopping to our heart’s content, we took our purchases back to our room.

We had heard about a special tree; a famous magical tree which was said to contain healing powers. El Lechero. We asked about it at the front desk. Another taxi ride found us at the top of a mountain overlooking Otavalo and Laguna de San Pablo. There it stood. One lonely, wizened, gnarly old tree. After embracing the tree and enjoying the wind-driven vistas and views, we headed on foot; downhill and across the countryside to Parque Condor, a bird sanctuary and rehabilitation center. They held many beautiful birds of prey in big fenced-in areas. We walked through the park, checking out the birds. For me it was painful. Looking into their vacant eyes, they returned your stares with such deep sorrow. One voiced it’s opinion to me as I snapped a picture of it. I secretly harbored a fantasy as I walked through the park and pictured myself coming back after dark with a huge wire cutters. These birds should be proudly soaring high in the skies, over the Andes. One in particular, a big grey-barred hawk kept flying against the wire fencing which separated it from it’s freedom. Again, an image of wire cutters floated into my consciousness…

We left the bird prison and ventured our way straight down over the mountain. We wanted to save time and opted for the closest way, point A to point B, straight down. Cautiously, we were making our way down when I stepped on a bunch of acorns which sent me sailing in the air and I landed flat on my back. Kim started laughing hysterically, until she also hit the same patch of acorns and down she went. My turn to laugh now.
We followed a trail down off the mountain, crossed the creek and found our way back to our hotel.

7 PM found us sharing our dinner with Herb, an older gentleman from Atlanta, who travels here to export their textiles. According to him, we could have gotten our things for a lot less. But, we are happy and that is all that matters.

Sunday Sept 30- Another excellent breakfast of (the best) yogurt and fruit, and we are on our way, back into town by 8:30 AM. We have arranged a 6-hour horseback riding excursion to Cuicocha Crater Lake. The cost is $35 per person which includes lunch. We are picked up by Edgar, who takes us to a farm 10 minutes outside of town. Kim starts to fret and worry aloud as the horses are brought in. I assure her it will be alright. The horses are saddled and mounted and we are off. It is Edgar in the lead, me next, then Kim and lastly, Bryan. The horses are very well-mannered and respond to every click and nudge. Our path takes us down dirt roads, through tiny remote villages and we cross creeks and gallop past grain fields.

Edgar is amusing and fun to ride beside. Bryan, with patience of a saint, is assigned to ride next to Kim. Kim begrudgingly holds her horse back as Edgar and I take off at a full gallop! From there on out, our horses have full rein for the most of the day. What a day it is! We get to Cuicocha an hour earlier than expected. We turn the horses loose and head into the lodge for lunch and some cold Pilsners. Edgar continues to amuse us with his antics and not-to-subtle come-ons. Here we go again….

After an excellent lunch of roasted chicken, rice and broccoli, we head back to reclaim our horses and retrace our tracks back to the hacienda. The ride back is a fast and furious one! Dismounting my horse at the hacienda, I can tell tomorrow is going to be a painful one.

We are dropped off back in Otavalo by 3 PM. We check our email and then head back to La Casa Sol. While we wait for our dinner which is served nightly at 7, we drink tea and play a couple games of chess by the fireplace. Herb joins us and we share our day’s stories.

Monday Oct 1- We are moving slow this morning. Our bodies are stiff and sore. Every little motion and movement hurts. It hurts to laugh, which makes you laugh even more. Walking down stairs hurts. Herb joins us for breakfast and finds us highly entertaining, with all our aches and pains. We decide to spend our morning together, since this is our last day. We head into town and check our emails and then with Herb assisting us like a pro, we barter and banter our way through some last-minute shopping. I got a beautiful thick, heavy alpaca hooded-sweater for only $13. Kim gets 2 more t-shirts for $6 and I bought 4 super-soft alpaca shawls for $10. Now this is shopping! Herb, where were you earlier? We treat Herb to brunch and then we are back to the hotel, packing, and back in a taxi heading south for the equator and Quito.

Our taxi cab driver is a sweetheart. He doesn’t speak any English and we are very limited with our Spanish, so sadly we cannot converse with him. We wish that we could, because he seems like such a happy and friendly fellow. We are sitting in the back seat and I am catty-cornered to the driver. Kim and I are reminiscing and every time we laugh, I can see that he is laughing along with us. He actually grins the whole way to the equator. We had the hotel staff explain to him that we would be stopping at the equator. He delivers us to our stop and we tell him “Hasta luego!” His face lights up and his grin is priceless. Such a happy man! It is times like these that I really, really regret not being fluent in Spanish! He would be a very interesting person to get to know.

We take the predictable “straddling the equator” pictures and then we ask how to get to see the real equator. Deciphering what they told us, we then try to explain how to get to the “real” equator to our sweet taxi driver, who only becomes more confused. So we get into the car and slowly make our way up the road, with me telling him “mas, mas, mas” until we arrived where you enter the Museo Solar Inti Nan. He seems perplexed and drops us off. We invite him along, but he declines.

This is where it gets really cool! I highly recommend to everyone who visits Quito…you got to see this! The original equator was measured and located in 1736. It wasn’t till a couple of years ago when the whole GPS system came out that they discovered the equator is off 240 meters. So the Solar Inti Museum sprang up and the “real and true” equator is here, along with other odds and ends which prove that this is the one true thing. You can do water experiments, you can balance eggs on nails, you can do all kinds of cool tricks and exercises testing the centrifugal forces which force everything straight down, here on the real equator. It is worth the time and the $3 it cost to get in. While we were there enjoying all the little tidbits of information and trying the hands-on exercises, our smiling taxi driver appeared. We were delighted to see that he decided to check it out. Our guide quickly caught him up to speed in Spanish and he was truly as intrigued with everything as we were. Turns out he never knew it existed. We all had a great time and many laughs, and then we were dropped off back at La Casa Sol, in Quito. We tipped him 50% of the cost of the cab fare, since he was such a great guy!

Our last night in Quito. We headed up to the Shorton Grill for an excellent filet mignon dinner and then it is off to bed. Tomorrow morning, we fly out of Ecuador.

Ecuador is a fun and fascinating country. Beautiful and diverse, and that is only in the highlands which I have seen! That is excluding the Amazon and the Galapagos! I can honestly say that out of all the countries I have visited, Ecuador has the friendliest people I have ever met. Thank you all! Thank you, Ecuador!

Peru, Oct 2006

Cusco flight>

October 1 - 8, 2006

Oct 1-We flew out of BWI at 11:35 AM to Houston. Arriving in Houston we set about looking for the closest bar. Kim needed a quick smoke so I told her I would walk down to the C wing and see if they had a nice bar. They did. I got us two seats at the bar, Kim showed up and we had a couple of Bloody Marys. Kim got up to go find a restroom and I am sitting there enjoying the moment, the delicious cocktail and anticipating Peru, when in walks this guy and even though the entire bar is empty he wanders down and sits next to me. My back pack is on the chair between us. This urks me for some reason...the whole bar is empty for crying out loud! I remove my back pack and this loosens his tongue and he starts talking to me. I am annoyed, but polite, and we make the usual chit chat, where are you heading...and I tell him Peru, thinking it should surely impress him or at least shut him up, when his face lights up and he says "no kidding, so am I!" Well, I am not too sure whether he is being honest or coming on to me, when Kim comes back and gives me this look, like what's up with this guy? I tell her he is going to Peru also, when he corrects me and says "no, I live in Peru." "But, you are an American" we both chime in together. "Yep, I am, and I am married to a Peruvian girl" he says.Turns out he is telling the truth and he is really cool. We have a couple more Bloody Marys and then head for our plane. Funny thing is...John, our new friend, has a seat next to us, of all things! The flight is a fun one, even though it is rather long. We met a lot of American men who were on that flight, who are married to Peruvian women. "This is where all the good ones got to" I tell Kim, implying what happened to all our decent men. We arrived in Lima at 10:40 PM and were through immigrations by 11:30 and looked everywhere for our hotel pick-up, but alas, nobody was there. After 17 hours of traveling I was tired and frustrated and felt like I was fighting off the pack of wolves that surrounded us offering their taxi services. Finally after giving up completely on our free hotel pick-up offered to us by Melodia Hotel, we opted for a taxi to take us there. The fumes and smog burned my nose and hurt my throat as we hurtled our way through the streets to our hotel. We complained to the receptionist about not being picked up, who rather roughly dismissed themselves for their own shortcomings and expected us to do the same. I was too tired to argue and all I wanted was to get some sleep before we caught our early morning flight to Cusco.

Oct 2-With barely 4 hours of sleep and bleary-eyed, we were up at 4 AM and on our way back to the airport. The grey early morning air was dense with diesel exhaust and vapors and I was anxiously looking forward to fleeing Lima to the cool clear skies of Cusco. We grabbed a deliciously-strong cup of coffee and a quick breakfast at the little cafe' while I happily got to watch Mana' on the TV behind the counter, in the airport, before we boarded the plane. Once in the air, we rose above the thick fog and were wrapped in the brilliantly blue skies above the magnificent Andes. Wow! Our TACA flight was pretty empty and everyone was out of their seats and roaming around, looking for the best angles to view the mighty snow-capped mountain peaks. What a fantastic preview of what’s to come!

We landed in Cusco and were serenaded by the haunting lilts of panpipes as we claimed our bags and sought the fresh air and warm sunshine. We were promptly picked up by our hotel Rumi Punku as promised. Rumi Punku was a piece of heaven for us road-weary warriors. After entering the original Incan stonework entrance you are immediately in a quiet, peaceful tiny plaza which then leads to a little garden. We were shown to our rooms and offered cocoa leaf tea. I greedily accepted since I was already feeling the effects of high-altitude sickness. I felt like I had just blown up a whole roomful of balloons. I was dizzy, lightheaded, had ringing in my ears and a bit woozy. The tea helped a bit and we dispatched our burdens and headed down the street in search of a more substantial breakfast. Jack’s Grill was in our sights and we had a wonderful huge breakfast and I had another pot of tea. The tea is helping. We spent the rest of the day slowly making our way through the streets of Cusco, stopping for more tea when needed and goggling the Incan walls, the cobbled streets and cathedrals, and the many, many eye-catching Alpaca sweaters laid out before us. Cusco is a shopper’s paradise. We ate dinner at the Witches’ Garden, a sinfully-divine little place in San Blas. Called it a day and turned in early.

Oct 3-Up bright and early and ready for our breakfast which is included with our room. Scrambled eggs with ham, fresh fruit and coffee and we are once again on our way, through the streets of Cusco. We are off to purchase our “tourist ticket” and then to the Museo de Arte Religioso del Arzobispado and Koricancha, “the temple of the sun.” The day is beautiful, sunny and very warm. We trek around town touring the ancient artifacts and then for $40 sols we hail a taxi to spend the rest of the day visiting Sacsayhuaman, Q’enko, Puca Pucara and Tambomachay. High in the hills above Cusco, I find myself sadly thinking about Manco Inca and his desperate attempts to regain his hostaged empire, as I climb the steps of Sacsayhuaman. Everywhere you turn there are tragic reminders of a long lost magnificent kingdom. I am humbled by all this terrible beauty. Returning to Cusco, we dine at the Inka Grill. It is comes highly recommended in the Lonely Planet guidebook and does not disappoint us. We return to our hotel's rooftop patio and sit under the stars. It is a crystal clear night and to my delight I "see the Southern Cross for the first time! You understand now why you came this way. 'Cause the truth you might be running from is so small, but it's as big as the promise...the promise of the comin' day." Thanks to Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young that song was in my head for the rest of the night. After tiring our eyes of stargazing, we climb up the steep streets to San Blas and the Muse Bar. From there we head next door to listen to the local musicians perform. They were great and gladly played my Santana request "Oye Como Va." I grew tired and wanted my bed, so I left Kim with the band and headed back down the cobbled steets and to the comfort of my bed. Two o'clock in the morning I rolled over, looked over at her bed and no Kim, three o'clock still no Kim, four, five...six o'clock I hear her scratching at the door, wanting in. I wasn't too happy with her, after laying in my bed for hours on end worrying about what might have happened to her, and not knowing where to even start looking for her. She promptly passed out which only made me madder. I got my revenge the next morning when I went for breakfast and she missed hers. :)

Oct 4-It’s Wednesday already and we are off to Ollantaytambo. Kim is hungry and hungover, I am satisfied and smiling contentedly in the back seat enjoying her laments. The hotel we are staying at in Ollantaytambo has sent a driver and we are chauffeured through the Sacred Valley and stop in Chinchero, where I huff and puff my way up to the church for some fantastic photo shoots. Ailing Kim stays behind with Victor, our driver, and when I return I find her with puppets on each finger which she bought from a delightful little girl named Cindy, who spoke very good English and entertained her while I was gone. Kim took a picture of Cindy for her two daughters and we wished her our best and were on our way. Once in Ollantaytambo, we arrive at El Albergue Bed & Breakfast and are thrilled with both it and the town, itself. The ruins lie high over hill at the edge of the town and the late afternoon sun is adding a golden glow to everything. We grab a pizza and some Inca Kola in town and then it’s off to explore the ruins. It is 4 PM when I start to climb. The glimmering rays of sunlight blindingly glance off the sharp edges of the terracing and cast a dreamlike haze over the lush green valley far below. The wind has kicked up immensely, as if offering one last bit of resistance to all who ascend here. Along with her fear of heights, Kim stays below and leaves me to wander alone through the maze with the ghosts of the Incas. It is here that I feel an incredible sense of lost and desperation as I scan the valley and try to imagine what it would have been like. To be driven from your rightful empire and seek shelter in this fortress, only to be forced once again to flee, this time into the jungles of the Amazon. It was here that Manco’s favorite wife was captured by the Conquistadors, stripped naked, tortured and killed and her body was then sent down river to be received by Manco’s own people. There is so much anguish and sadness in this place. Maybe I read too much. I descend to my friend and tell her nothing and remain silent as we trod our way back to our hotel. Kim showers and goes to bed. I sit alone on the porch with my thoughts and conjure up the feelings I had today, in Ollantaytambo.

Oct 5-We are up by 6 to catch the train to Aguas Calientes and Machu Picchu. We bought the tickets last night at the train station, without a hitch, and we are soon winding our way along the Urubamba River via PeruRail. I never had a train ride, so I sit back and enjoy the clickety-clack, slight rolling pitch and the gorgeous views. We arrive in Aguas Calientes and are greeted by our hotel. We are staying at Rupa Wasi Eco Lodge and it is a cute little cabin perched on the side of a steep cliff. Climbing the stairs to the cabin is literally breathtaking and we huff and puff our way to the top and deposit our belongings, make a quick run to buy tickets to Machu Picchu and we are on the bus! I had read everything I could and done so much researching and now I am living my dream! We are winding our way up the dusty road with all its hairpin turns and switchbacks and finally arrive at Machu Picchu! Our tourist tickets are punched and we pass through the gate and follow the steps to the long trail. Up and up we go! Kim is getting leery, but is determined this time. We arrive at the top by the caretaker’s hut and the view is unbelievable! I am here! We are here! And, so are the llamas! As you make your way down into the actual ruins, you have to descend each dizzying, narrow terrace and I suddenly realized my fear of heights, also. Wow! This can’t be. I came all this way. I got to do this! It’s not there…it’s not there…I tell myself over and over again, referring to the gaping abyss far, far below. I make my way pass the llamas and down into the ruins. I left Kim somewhere back with the llamas and continue my way up to the hitching post of the sun. The place is packed with people. The ruins are explored and photographed, the hours pass and the crowds thin and I once again find Kim. She takes me to this other part of the ruin where she had seen a small animal, but can’t identify it. It is gone now, but she shows me the picture she had taken of it. It is a chinchilla. We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the ruins and left around 5 PM. The late afternoon sun makes for incredible lighting for the magnificent ruins. If you can’t make it there in the early morning, at least stay till the end of the day for the soft golden glow of the late day sun. We caught the bus and ate at a very good restaurant in Aguas Calientes. I can’t remember the name of it and the entire menu was in Spanish, like most places are. Luckily for us, we took the Lonely Planet’s Latin American Spanish phrasebook which one must have, if you speak little or no Spanish. You will be lost without one!

Oct 6-Woke up at 5:30 to the smell of fresh baked bread and the sound of raindrops on our tin roof. Turns out; we are next door to a bakery and it is now starting to pour. The comforting aroma of fresh bread and the sound of the rain put me right back to sleep. When I awoke around 8, the rain had stopped and the misty morning was breaking loose of it’s overhead clouds. The sun was burning through. Looks like another fabulous day! We ate our breakfast downstairs and learned of some waterfalls about an hour’s hike away. Kim and I both opted for a flat-land hike today, after the exhausting day we had yesterday. We set off west along the train tracks, following the river through the lush and shallow valley. We saw many Amazon parrots along the way and three blue-crowned motmots. When we found the path to the waterfalls, which is marked with a small-handwritten wooden sign, we threaded our way through thick ferns, moss-covered rocks and vines, hydrangeas, pineapple plants and banana trees. It is a beautiful area! It is very peaceful and quiet. We traversed the path, talking quietly, when this vicious little dog came from out of nowhere and made us scream! Somebody lives back there and we could now make out the hut. We passed by undisturbed. The waterfalls were very nice and the walk was refreshing and free. We were each going through our cash supply faster than expected. That evening we walked up to the hot springs and soaked our aching bodies and then ate another excellent dinner. Once again, the name of the restaurant escapes me. Later, we sat in the plaza under a full moon and watched the antics of the local children as they ran and played, around the fountain.

Oct 7-Today is Saturday. We leave for Cusco this afternoon. Kim suggests to me to try and climb the path up to Machu Picchu. Just to say that we did it. I fall for it. Off we go down the road to catch the stone path which goes straight up the mountain. I don’t know how many people actually do it. I would think that the smart ones don’t, since most people take the bus. But we weren’t actually going into Machu Picchu again; we just wanted to do the path up to it. we went. I had read about the “oompa boys”, the boys who race the buses down the mountain and it wasn’t long till we met several of them. It is true! They do race the buses! And, they do beat them. They ran like maniacs down that steep path, never stopping or wavering at anything! We huffed and puffed our way pass them, hearing their loud and shrill “oompas!” at every twist of the road. Their “oompas” echoed off the sharp canyon walls and trailed through the valley below, long after the buses had made their turns. We finally made it to the top after an hour and 45 minutes and then we had to come back down. That was the hardest part! I had ACL surgery 4 months ago and with every step of the way back down, my knees were hurting! I regretted it the whole way down. What was I thinking? We made it down and just in time to gather up our belongings and catch the train back to Cusco. The train followed the Urubama River once more, back through the Sacred Valley, just as the darkness fell across the land. After countless switchbacks, we descended into Cusco with the full moon rising over the city. We spent our last night in Cusco with an expensive but scrumptious dinner at the Inka Grill.

Oct 8-Flew out of Cusco at 8 AM and into Lima. We have a 12 hour-layover in Lima, so we put our luggage in storage at Lima airport and headed for Miraflores. It is another fabulous day! Sunny and warm! We ate lunch at Mangoes and then went to the Lima zoo to kill some time. I am not fond of zoos, but it was relatively cheap and something to do. After the zoo, we had coffee in the park and toured Miraflores till it was time to head back to the airport. We flew out of Lima at midnight.

Peru is an incredible country! Big, bold and beautiful! Anyone who is thinking of going there will not be disappointed! I loved Cusco! Yes, it is touristy, but it still remains quaint, somehow. We never once felt any kind of danger during our time there, and yes, we had gone separate ways a couple of times. So, for any women traveling alone, it is perfectly safe. Ollantaytambo was my personal favorite! More so than Machu Picchu. I guess because of it’s history. Maybe it is because historically, Machu Picchu is all based on speculation. Nobody really knows… Don’t get me wrong, Machu Picchu is awesome! Aguas Calientes is a cool little town for shopping and eating.

Belize/Guatemala Feb 2005

February 23 – March 2, 2005

Day 1- I flew from Baltimore to Houston to Belize City, and then Tropic Air to San Pedro. Once I got into Belize, everything went as smooth as silk. Arrived on the island around 4 PM and was picked up by Orlando, my fast-found friend, who delivered me to Hotel del Rio. I absolutely loved my Cabana Chica! It was clean, comfortable and quiet and I had the best air-conditioning ever invented. The all-natural kind! I could literally lie in bed and watch the sun rise. (Not that I did) As soon as the sun breeched the surface of the sea, I was out of there, stumbling around looking for my camera, and fumbling with the door handle! Got excellent sunrise shots!
It is shortly after 8 PM and I am sitting in paradise, collecting my thoughts of the day. What was a rough beginning has ended with a perfect evening. I am now on my cabana’s porch with a full moon rising overhead and the constant Caribbean breezes caressing my tired body. Out across the sea I can see a cruise ship which is all lit up. There is no noise here but the sound of the wind blowing through the palms. The moonlight is bouncing brilliantly off the sea. This is truly a perfect evening.
Today was a long drawn-out ordeal. We were delayed on the runway in Houston for an agonizing hour, because of a thunderstorm. I got into Belize later than expected.
San Pedro is a charming, lovely and quaint little seaside town. I walked down to the grocery store immediately after I got here to buy some Caye coffee and creamer for the morning. Walked the beach to Mangos and ate mango-lime chicken while Dennis Wolfe played his guitar. After two Belikins and my dinner, I strolled through town checking out shops and trying to memorize where the good little restaurants are. Little children are everywhere, laughing and playing in the sandy streets. I am going to love this town. No one bothers you, no one hawking their wares like they do in Mexico. Exquisite wonderful little boutiques line the streets. I liked the sign “please don’t let the cat out” on the Emerald Mines jewelry store door. Too cute! By the way…I couldn’t see the cat anywhere in the store.
I got back to my cabana just in time for a bakery run. I will sleep well tonight with the breezes blowing through my louvered windows. Sweet dreams.

Day 2-The wind had kicked up during the night, and for awhile I worried that my cabana and I would be blown right off of the island! Woke up at sunrise, made my Caye Coffee and enjoyed my sugar cookies from the bakery, which is only one block behind the hotel. Mercy me! Walked the beach down to town and booked an afternoon snorkeling trip to Hol-Chan and Shark Ray Alley through Searious Adventures. Stopped by the Blue Water Grill for breakfast and worked my way back to my hotel. I rested awhile catching some rays on the dock, before I headed down to hook up with Searious, for my afternoon snorkeling trip. We arrived at Hol-Chan Marine Park, and like an idiot, I was so excited I jumped in forgetting my underwater camera. It was the most beautiful place I have ever snorkeled! Later at Shark Ray Alley, I did remember my camera, and petted the sting rays and nurse sharks, and enjoyed the many schools of blue tangs, black jacks, groupers, angelfish, grunts, parrotfish, yellowtail snappers and various other fish. Back by 4:30, showered and treated myself to French onion soup, filet mignon, Chilean wine and key lime pie at the Stained Glass Pub, all for $42 w/ tip included. That was my big night out! It is a beautiful full moon, tonight. The barefoot children and their dogs are playing in the sandy streets. It reminded me of better years; a long, long time ago, back home. I walked the beach back to my cabana, with the velvet, moist tropical breezes caressing my body with light butterfly kisses and loving every moment of this enchanted moonlit evening on the island.

Day 3-Woke up with the gorgeous sunrise, and had my morning coffee on my porch. Walked back to Papi's Diner for the best breakfast yet! Walked downtown to email everybody back home and to tell them I am staying here (just kidding). Wish it was true. Hiked the beach back to my hotel, where I booked a trip to Lamanai for tomorrow. It is very hot with only a slight breeze today. Went swimming by the dock and up at the beach by the playground. It is very hot and I am getting very red, so I spent most of the afternoon reclining on my palm-shaded porch. I watched the crabs and tiny chameleons scurry around in the yard and the mother with her baby sleeping in its hammock next-door on the beach, while her oldest child played on the docks with their protective dog. I went for another swim out by the dock and their dog swam out to me. Cool dog! This is a dog-lover’s country! The very first day here, at the airport while everybody waited for their luggage, a very enthusiastic, happy, yellow lab sporting a red bandana for a collar came through the curtain on the luggage belt, making everyone laugh! He was obviously a “sniffer dog” but you could tell he loved his job! I knew at that moment that this was going to be a great trip! He was so excited and such a happy dog! Whenever the animals are happy, you know the people are truly good people…
Seeking supper, I headed into town and ended up at the Spindrift Hotel. Once again, like an idiot, I had left my camera behind. My theory was that I had already over-killed San Pedro with photo many more did I need to take? Duh! It was Friday night at the Spindrift! I should've known better. The chicken drop was ready to start, and I didn't have time to get back and pick up my camera. After silently insulting myself, I got a front-row seat upstairs and ate my excellent chicken tostados while I watched the people come in. Tickets were sold and the lady with her basket of chickens brought them over to the bingo board. A ‘birthday-girl” was picked out of the crowd to grab a chicken, and she turned the chicken upside down and delicately blew on it’s rear-end and tossed the chicken onto the board. We all waited with much anticipation for the chicken to poop. The red hen finally squatted and pooped on #40 and the crowd cheered. I had to laugh. What a simple, but uniquely-inspired idea to bring in a crowd of people. Afterwards, with a smile on my face, I headed back up the beach, where I met a doggy friend, whom accompanied me for awhile, before taking off after a more fetching fellow. I love it here! Got a big day tomorrow, so I retired early.

Day 4- Slept very little last night due to a bad belly ache. Met my tour guide at Seven Seas dock at 7 AM and we went by boat up the river through the mangroves. It smelled so good! Better than any perfume you could ever buy. The boat ride and the wind in my face makes me feel a little better. We saw little blue herons, green herons, great blue herons, tri-colored herons, white ibis, snowy egrets, northern jacanas, kingfishes, a jabiru, a roseate spoonbill, limpkins, snail kites, vultures, osprey and even a laughing falcon! Wonderful trip! We saw little bats hanging on trees, an iguana and a crocodile.
Then we went by bus to the New River. Bus ride was terribly bumpy and dusty as we drove by places that used to grow marijuana. Belly started up again. I was glad to get off the bus and back on a boat at New River. From there, we sped past little “man-drowners” filled with Mennonites. I found it amusing that they eyed us “tourists” suspiciously, but gladly greeted the tour guides with smiles and spoke in Spanish to them. From New River, we parked at Lamanai and walked the grounds with our wonderful guide. Our guide is a handsome young father who has an autistic 4 year-old son. One girl on our tour is from New York and is studying her doctrine in autism. They talk a lot together as the others go off exploring and climbing the temples. He told her she has given him “hope.” I find it strangely funny how life comes together as tiny pieces of a rather large puzzle, as I travel through it, and watch others figure out their pieces of the puzzle. It all comes together. Everything has it’s purpose! I truly believe that!
Along with the ruins, we saw a blue-crowned motmot, bat hawks, pileated woodpeckers, a troop of coatimundi crossed the path ahead of us, and while we were spotting the howler monkeys overhead, a grey fox slinked across the path, behind us! For an instant I felt like I was in a National Geographic special! What a wonderful opportunity! I have seen more wildlife here in Belize, than I did in Costa Rica! By the time we made it back to the boat landing to have lunch, I was feeling rather ill, again. I could not eat anything. They gave me papaya juice on the boat. It is supposed to help the stomach. I felt much better as we made it back down the river. Heading down the river, we saw a crocodile, lazing on a sand bar. This is awesome! After arriving back on the island by, I made another quick bakery run, and called it a day.

Day 5- Slept 13 hours and feel 100% better today. Where is the time going? I was having coffee on my wonderful porch, when Marca came over and asked me if I was interested in doing another snorkeling trip? I said sure! She said they are leaving at 9 AM from Reef Adventures dock. I looked at my watch. It was 8:30! I thanked her and grabbed my gear! Made it to the dock and we headed out to Coral Gardens and Tuffy. Tuffy was my favorite of the two. We saw an old wooden shipwreck, three sea turtles, and a spotted eagle ray! Got back around 11:30 and swam out by the dock till 1:30 PM. Cleaned up and headed into town. Being Sunday, most of the shops were closed, so I ate an excellent lunch of hot wings, salad and key lime pie at the Jambel Jerk. After refueling my hunger tank, I walked over to Tropic Air, and booked a trip to Tikal, for tomorrow. Walked my favorite path (the beach) back to my hotel and turned in early, for my big day ahead.

Day 6- Tikal! Taxi picked me up promptly at 6:15 AM and was at the airport by 6:25. I shared my sugar cookies and coffee, with the great guy who booked my trip the day before. I boarded at 7 AM, along with a family of four, and we took off for Belize City, and then to Guatemala. Once again, everything went as smooth as butter, as we slipped through the borders. In Flores, I was greeted by David, my tour guide. David found our driver and we were whisked away down the road on our way to Tikal. I was so caught up in the excitement that it didn’t dawn on me till we were almost to Tikal, that I was a lone American woman in a car with two Guatemalan men, total strangers, and we were heading down some road in the middle of the jungles of Guatemala. My head started to reel and my mind was racing. What if? There were so many things went through my mind. I don’t know if David sensed my apprehension all of a sudden, because he smiled at me and said “today we will see a lot, since it is just the two of us. Today will be a good day. You will see.” It turned out to be one of the best days of my life.
We stopped at different places along the way for pictures and stopped at a roadside market to watch locals hand carving their woodwork. I smiled as I caught a whiff of gunja. David pretended he didn’t notice.
Upon entering Tikal, you enter a protected area where you see trees which are estimated to be 300 years old or maybe even older. I was in awe of the magnificent tall timbers. I went a little crazy with my camera and we are not even at the ruins yet. The first sighting of the ruins literally stops me in my tracks. I am speechless. Tikal is worth the money I was so hesitant to spend!! Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful!!!
Nicest ruins I have ever seen! And, the ruins along with the ancient trees and the birds make it remarkably extra-ordinarily special! I heard and saw the ‘weaver bird”, the Montezuma oropendula, which is the largest bird in the oriole family. The Montezuma oropendula makes the strangest and eeriest sci-fi sounds. All which somehow seemed quite fitting for these ‘other-wordly” and mystical surroundings.
David showed me gum trees, ancient cedars, ceiba trees and I hugged a mahogany tree; one of the few survivors left. He showed me a tree which grows spikes on its bark to protect itself from predators and he showed me the “give and take” tree. It looks like porcupine quills and the leaf has an antiseptic for the quill “wounds.” David crushed up clove tree leaves and had me smell them.
David was only a young man, I’d say in his late 20’s, but very interested and educated in the Mayan history. He explained all the different temples and the main acropolis to me, as we wondered around and he pointed out the many trees, plants, birds and insects, knowing each species’ names and he directed my attention to the trails made by the leaf-cutter ants. Bending down for a closer look you could spot the little guys scurrying along with their tiny parcels.
We climbed to the top of temple IV and it is there that he surprised me and pulled out of his backpack two carefully packed lunches for us to eat. We dined on top of the temple, high above the canopy, enjoying a hovering hummingbird and the vastness of our jungle view which was spread before us. Amid our lunch and as if on cue, the silent air was abruptly pierced by the screeching of howler monkeys! David’s face lit up and he said “the howler monkeys are waking up from their naps!” What a racket they were making! We quickly packed away our unfinished lunches and scramble down the stairs to the jungle floor to go in search of the awakening monkeys.
By this time, the monkeys high in the trees overhead had drawn in quite a crowd of spectators, below them. David immediately found his element in which he lives and loves and started imitating the male howler monkey. This caused quite a stir amongst the troop and the male screamed back at his “rival.” The howl of the male monkey is something one cannot begin to describe. It was something so primal, so bone-chilling, that I had goose bumps all over me, as we all watched the angry raging male thrash around in the treetops, loudly voicing his resentment at us, far below. The crowd slowly broke apart and we were all silently smiling as we sought out our guides.
We had all experienced Tikal today, and it was everything we had hoped it would be. No disappointments here. David had promised a good day and Tikal had delivered it into our hands and our hearts. As we walked the rest of our way through the ruins, making our way back to the entrance, I told David about how we as Americans have a huge misconception of Central America. He told me I would have to go home and tell everyone how wrong we are. I promised him I would. David led me back to the pick-up point and found another man who got me into a shuttle van and we were once again whisked back out of the jungle and on our way to the airport. Tikal is a must-do, for all those interested! At the airport, I was quickly processed and walked out to the little Cessna. The pilot was the same one I had on my flight over from Belize and when he saw me he smiled and motioned for me to climb up into the co-pilot’s seat, next to him. I was amazed and quickly took advantage of such an honorable offer! It was incredible! I was flying shot-gun next to the pilot, with a thousand and one gauges in front of my fingers. I sat back and enjoyed the awesome ride!
Central America! What a beautiful blend of small countries and immense cultures! This has got to be the most perfect day of my life! We arrived back to the island by 6:30. I walked over to the internet café and sent a quick email to everyone, and grabbed another duplicate of wings and salad at the Jambel Jerk! Tired, dusty and extremely content, I made my way back just in time for another bakery run, and then to my cabana and a very much needed hot shower. What a perfect day!

Day 7- This is my last full day on the beautiful island. Woke up early and went outside to get some more great sunrise pictures! I had left my door ajar and when I came back in…I had a cat. I made some coffee and sat outside (with my cat) and ate sugar cookies. (The cat is kind of annoying...guess I'm a dog-person...) Walked downtown to email (whine about having to come back home) everyone, and bought some fresh pineapple, papaya, cantaloupe and watermelon along the way. Stopped at grocery store for more bottled water, and hit the bakery for fresh cinnamon bread. I don't know why I didn't do this right away. The fruit is scrumptious and the baked goods are divine, plus it saves a lot of money for other things. After a brunch of fruit and bread, I swam out by the dock till 1 PM. Showered, ate more fruit and bread and walked back behind the bakery and rented a bicycle for the rest of the day. Crossed the cut and rode my bike up to Journey's End. A “Northern” has blown in today and it is overcast and extremely windy. Stopped by the Jalapa Bar for a quick coke, and then back across the cut, stopping at Riverside Bar & Grill for supper. There I was served my chicken quesadillas and salad by wonderful and charming Somas! Great guy and good food! Returned my bike and had to stop and ask for an extra blanket at my hotel's lobby. It is down-right chilly tonight!

Day 8- The time has come to bid goodbye. I will miss this beautiful place. I will miss the smiling people and the happy, laughing children playing in the streets. A “Northern” blew in yesterday and it is almost chilly. Mostly overcast and windy. I polished off my fresh fruit and some chocolate cake with the rest of my Caye Coffee. Packed my bags and Orlando came by to take me back to the airport.

Things I will miss the most:
#1. The laughing, happy children playing in the streets, till late in the evening
#2. The wonderful ever-constant breeze
#3. Streets of sand, bicycles and golf carts
#4. Going barefoot, everywhere
#5. My cabana
#6. My porch
#7. My porch's view
#8. The sound of the wind through the louvers at night…ahhhh
#9. Wondering what day it is?
#10. And…The bakery!

Leaving Ambergris Caye...

Costa Rica 2004

April 14 – 21, 2004 Day 1- I arrived in Philadelphia airport shortly after 4 in the morning, to catch my 6 o’clock flight to Liberia, Costa Rica. This will be my fourth trip flying solo, and after years of anticipation of visiting Costa Rica, I find myself standing in line at the ticket counter, with butterflies in my belly, and a thousand images in my head. What will it be like? I sum up all the things I want to see while I am there, Arenal Volcano, Monteverde Cloud Forest, the beaches and rainforests. Oh, and I want to see the Resplendent Quetzal, too!

When I had turned 30, I mentally made up a list of things I wanted to do and see, before I died. I wanted to walk through a rainforest, visit an active volcano, go on a whale watch, and dive the Blue Hole. These things had all seemed so distance and unattainable at the time, but I had always enjoyed a good challenge.

When I was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at the age of 40, that mental list suddenly became very clear in my mind’s eye, and I realized the only thing I got accomplished on that list was the whale watch, and other than that, I hadn’t considered it in a long time, and I needed to speed things up a bit, so to speak.

So here I am, standing in line, thinking about all the bugs and spiders and snakes, which you always see on the television shows about rainforests. Well, I will just wear heavy socks, along with a good pair of hiking shoes, and definitely watch where I walk, I think to myself. And, if I happen to get bitten by something ominous and poisonous, I will just die there. I am sure there are a lot of worse places to die! I somehow reassure myself with this philosophy, and smile at the lady taking my ticket.

Upon boarding, I locate my despicable aisle seat, and try to make myself as comfortable as possible. Much to my dismay, I had woke up this morning with a horrible cough, which luckily for me is the only symptom, but to the dismay of all those around me, a very annoying one. It is going to be a very long flight, for everybody involved.

Some 5 hours later, after constantly getting bumped by aisle carts and guzzling as much coffee and orange juice that the flight attendant can hand out, I am buzzed and antsy, ready to get out of this horrid seat and cramped quarters. The pilot makes the prepare-for-landing announcement, and the plane dips and tilts hard to the left, and I catch my first glimpse of Costa Rica. What? My heart leaps from my chest, into my throat, causing me to almost choke! Did I miss something? Am I on the wrong flight? Were we diverted to another airport, in another country, and I wasn’t paying attention and missed the announcement?

The glimpse I caught of the land below us looked more like the way one would expect the Serengeti or the outback of Australia to look. Not Costa Rica! Everything was parched and dry. The trees are bare and there is hazy smoke rising somewhere off in the distance. My heart sinks low, along with the plane, as we prepare to land.

Due to the time changes, it is only going on 10:30, when we arrive in Liberia, and we are quickly processed through the airport, which is really nothing more than a Quonset hut. Once through, I am greeted by the hotel representatives, and taken to the shuttle vanwhich I immediately climb into, to escape the blazing hot sun and scorching wind.

Sitting under the cooling vents of the air-conditioner, I wait for the rounding up of the others, who will be going to my hotel. The driver climbs in and waits with me. “Why is everything so dry and brown?” I ask, trying hard to hide my disappointment. He smiled and said “it is the end of the dry season here; next month the rains will come.” He then explained about the two seasons they have here in Costa Rica, the rainy season which is from mid-May till the end of November, and the dry season, December till May. I am trying really hard now, to be optimistic, and I sit back and relax a little bit, when he explains how it is always lush and green, up in the mountains. Looks like I got a lot of roads to travel ahead of me, here in Costa Rica.

The other people are tracked down and climb into the van. “Hi!” I say and smile at them, already knowing the questions in their heads, by reading the expressions on their faces. They too, ask almost simultaneously, about how dry everything is. I smile, nod and keep silent, as the driver once again, has to explain his country’s weather conditions. We all settle in and listen to a brief summary of facts and history of Costa Rica, as we are chauffeured to our hotel. Questions are asked and answered by our accommodating hosts, and we learn how even though the trees all look like dead wood, they will bloom again in all their greens, once the rains come, up here in the dry region of Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Much like our deciduous trees comes back to life every spring, here in the northern part of the United States.

We are dropped at our hotel around noon, and being that our rooms won’t be ready till 3 PM, I walk down to the beach with my backpack, and find a small amount of shade under one of the many trees, on the beach. It is HOT!

There is a steady strong wind blowing, and I lie down on a chaise lounge, and allow my brain to absorb the total mind-numbing misconception, of my idea of Costa Rica.

I have just dozed off, when I hear a lot of voices around me, and being that the beach was nearly deserted when I arrived, I look up, a little annoyed at being aroused from my nap. There are roughly a dozen people standing not 20 feet away, talking quietly, pointing and looking up into the trees. Hmmm. I grab my camera, and go over to them, and look where they are all pointing. What is it?

Monkeys! I am here, not even an hour, and monkeys have come down to the beach, to me. Wow! This is going to be good. I shoot a couple of pictures before the white-faced monkeys head for higher ground, and with a song in my heart and even higher spirits, I head up to the hotel’s restaurant to get something to eat.

After stuffing myself on fresh, succulent watermelon and pineapple, I check into my room, access it, find no bugs, spiders or snakes, wash my face and change into fresh clothes.

I remembered the driver telling us to take a walk along a path, out by the road. He said that later in the day, you might get to see some of the wildlife, such as monkeys, iguanas and different kinds of birds. I grabbed my camera and went. I was once again immediately assaulted by the hot arid wind, and the searing heat.

Mental note; I must remember to wear lots of sunscreen, down here. I found the path.

It was more like a dusty dirt road, and I walked roughly a half-mile, before I started to worry about how big the wildlife might actually be, which I might encounter. I remembered reading other people’s trip reports of how the male howler monkey can become very aggressive, if he feels his troop is being threatened. I have never seen a howler monkey. I do know that they are hairy, black and make a lot of noise, but that is all I know about them.

The dirt road dipped low, farther down into the dry forest, and the sun was sinking below the surface of the tree line, and I started to see a lot of black shadows, everywhere.

It’s time to turn around, I think to myself. I headed back up the road, straining hard to see something, anything alive, but seeing only a couple little, tiny birds twittering around in the brown brushes. They moved too fast to focus on, so I gave up on my wildlife sightings for today, when something unseen stung me, on the back of my calf, with such ferocity I have never felt before! Son of a gun! MAN, did that hurt!! Scorpion, I thought! I looked everywhere and saw nothing. I had a red welt rapidly rising on my flesh, and a burning sensation that felt like I was getting stung over and over again. It was too high up on my leg to be a scorpion, it must have been a wasp or some kind of a bee, I thought to myself, as I limped back to my room.

I showered and applied ice to my sting, and went to dinner. My appetite is low, my cough has gotten much worse, everybody is looking at the sick woman in the room, and my leg hurts badly. I ate very little, went back to my room, took my Zyrtec and some Tylenol, and went to bed at 8:30, thinking this is great, I got stung by some vicious insect first day here, in Costa Rica, and now I am getting sick, on top of everything else.

Day 2- Woke up at 5:30, feeling refreshed and 100% better! Made a pot of the best Costa Rican coffee in the world, and took a cup along with me, as I ventured out and sat on the patio.

I listened to the plain-breasted ground doves cooing, and the pale-vented pigeons humming along, as the sun crested the horizon, over the patch of palm trees, down along the bay. Ahhh…The sights and sounds of Costa Rica rising.

By 7:30, I am ready for the infamous all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet, and believe you me, I am going to get my bellies worth, this morning! I am famished from my lack of appetite, the night before.

After a scrumptious breakfast, I hike the strenuous walk back up the hill, to the lobby to meet my Apple Vacations representative at 9:00.

I book three day-trips for the remaining of the week, plus the half-day shopping trip into Liberia at 1:00 this afternoon. Got just enough time to don my bathing suit, jump into the pool and become enlisted in the pool volleyball game until 11:30, whereas I must excuse myself from the game, and head back to my room to shower and change.

There are nine of us who climb into the van and head back to Liberia. We visited the local tourist’s shops along the way; I bought some Guatemalan purses, a pair of handmade Costa Rican rope sandals, and watched a local firing their signature black pottery next door, while drinking a cold Imperial beer, under a heavily-laden mango tree. This is going to be GOOD after all, I thought, as I tried hard not to smile. People will think I’m loony, if I walk around with this big smile on my face, all the time.

We were then driven into town, where we visited the local grocery store. I wandered through the store, with my mouth hanging wide open, trying hard not to look like a tourist, but in amazement at the biggest fruits and vegetables I had ever seen in my life! They looked hugely obscene! Being that the grocery store was so crowded, I didn’t take any pictures, but now I wished I would have.

By this time, I had made friends with a lady traveling alone, from Chicago. We were in search of the “1860” coffee we heard so much about on the ride here, and after locating it, I went in search of some good Cuban cigars. With our purchases in hand, we all met up, at our appointed place and got back into the van.

On the way back to our hotel, we past a field consumed in flames, and black smoke was ascending high into the evening air. The driver explained that they are burning sugar cane. They must burn it, before they harvest it. It is to tough to cut, plus there are a lot of poisonous snakes hiding in the fields. This way, it is easier and much safer for the harvesters to do their jobs, and it doesn’t hurt the sugar cane. I remembered the hazy smoke-filled skies, I saw from the airplane. Very interesting. Once again, I smile as I rest my head on the window.

Back at the hotel by 5:30, I change into fresh clothes and head down for dinner. The bountiful buffet is excellent, and tends to be more of European-influenced recipes, than the spicy-Mexican related food I had expected. After eating my fill, and relaxing with a nice glass of red wine, I tipped the waiter, said “Buenos noches” to the wonderful host, and slipped like silk into the tropical night.

I wandered over to the watchtower, overlooking the resort and climbed the spiral wrought-iron stairs up to the top. There is a strong, constant wind blowing across the bay, and from the top of the tower, the night sky looked like black velvet sprinkled with diamonds. I sat down on the bench next to me, and listened to the wind, and the light laughter coming from the restaurant far below. It is amazing how extraordinarily quiet this place is.

I reflected back to the buzzing traffic noise in Acapulco, two short months ago. The blaring of horns and screeching of brakes, the fumes of gas, oil, soot and the smell of diesel smoke.

Down here, you are in another whole different world. I smiled to myself, and made my way back down the spiral staircase, with the tropical winds, whipping at my skirt.

I hiked back up the hill, to my room, with a buzzing of another kind, in my ears. The sounds of night; insects, crickets, cicadas, and the other things that go buzz in the night.

Day 3- Got up at 6:00. I did my morning deal of coffee on my patio, while listening to the pigeons and morning doves. I am going to miss this.

Down for a quick breakfast and then hiked back up to the hotel’s lobby, to join the rest of the people at 8:00, for our day trip up to Monteverde Cloud Forest.

Just in case you noticed, there is a lot of hiking here at this wonderful resort. It is literally built on a very steep hill, and the hotel units are on different levels, which are situated almost like landings on a staircase. They also run a 24 hour shuttle van around the resort, but I always opt for the healthy way, and hiked it.

I climbed on board with my backpack filled with my digital camera, a waterproof disposable camera, CD player headset, water bottle, binoculars, and insect spray. I am ready to see a real live rainforest!!! Got my hiking shoes and thick socks on, too! Didn’t know it yet, I would by the end of my day, that I was the only American on the tour. The rest were all Canadians.

I had brought along my CD player, thinking I would put it on, and take a nap, while listening to my favorite tunes. I would arrive well-rested, and in a peaceful state of mind.

Well, I am finding out in my life, that sometimes the things we don’t plan for are the things which bring us the greatest joy. Our guide was insistent on giving us our money’s worth, and we had frequent stops along the way, with him picking the fruits from cashew trees, and passing them around to us. They are similar looking to a red bell pepper, they have a waxy feeling to them, and they stink. At the very bottom of this fruit-like thing is one cashew. It’s no wonder they are so expensive! He also picked different seed pods along the way from different trees (a couple of these pods I still have in my kitchen) and we also stopped when he spotted a troop of spider monkeys! What was I thinking? I wasn’t going to get any rest!

I put away my CD player, put my sunglasses on and got ready to enjoy the ride!

By this time, my Canadian co-riders were all in full force with stories and laughter, but I was still silent and in my shell.

As we got higher up in the mountains, the scenery started to take on another whole different color. Everything was getting green! It was almost like you were slowly flipping through the pages of a calendar, with every 20 miles or so, another flip of a page, and another month closer to summer.

We arrived in Santa Elena, right after a rain shower. We drove through this tiny town which was surrounded in rainbows! There were rainbows in the sky; there were rainbows dancing off water puddles, and rainbows reflecting in the windows of the houses. Once again, my jaw fell south. I wanted to take pictures of everything, but the van kept moving.

They apparently now had a rigid schedule to keep, and there was no stopping now. As we continued on towards Monteverde Cloud Forest, the driver suddenly pointed at something up in the tree, and everybody went to one side of the van, and I had to think of being in a boat, and how it would have tipped over.

Our guide said “okay, we all get out now”, and we did, and we finally saw what it was that the driver had seen. I said finally, because it took forever to pick it out. It was a sloth, who was hanging motionless upside down in the tree. When you have never seen a sloth before, it is hard to know what to look for, especially since it doesn’t move an inch. He or she blended in with the lush foliage so well, that only a trained-eye could spot one.

Our guide explained to us that they live their whole life up in the tree, and only come down to the ground, once a week, to defecate.

Now that is what I would call, a much-deserved bathroom break! After the many jokes of the constipated, sluggish sloth from the raucous Canadians, we climbed back in the van and within ten minutes, we were finally at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve.

A Cloud Forest is exactly what it sounds like it is. This area of land produces and makes its own weather systems, and is entirely engulfed in clouds, 98% of the time. It sits 4,500 feet above sea level and straddles the Continental Divide.

It was cool and misty, and I was glad I had the forethought to pack a light waterproof jacket. We all donned our gear, and one by one, dissipated into the foggy, fragile, wet, mystical netherworld of the rainforest.

It was everything I hoped it would be. Except for the constant dripping from the wet cloud-kissed canopy high overhead which only added to the ambience, the only thing you heard were the cheeps, tweets, whistles, chirps, and peeps of the many, many birds, of whom are guide was judiciously looking for.

We all followed, in single file, in silence and awe, staring up and around and under at wherever he pointed, with our mouths all hanging wide open. The path was wet, slick and tricky, and occasionally, someone would stumble, because of course, we forgot to watch where we were walking! That would set the Canadians off with fits of giggles and laughter, and then we were on our way again.

Forty-five minutes into our journey, we made it to the suspension bridge, floating high above the canopy, and we were all on the bridge looking down on the canopy, when the greatest thing happened!

All along the trail, our guide kept telling us he heard the Resplendent Quetzal. Now, I had seen pictures of this strikingly-beautiful green bird with the scarlet chest and long transparent tail feathers. But, I didn’t know what to listen for, and I take it the others didn’t either, and we had all kind of resigned to the fact that maybe, just maybe, our guide was making it all up.

Well, anyway, here we are all on the bridge looking down on the canopy, when who flies right overhead of us, and lands on the thick, moss-covered bough above? A male Resplendent Quetzal in all his glory!

Binoculars were quickly traded back and forth, cameras were clicking, oohs and aahs were whispered, and he seemed totally aware, that he was the star of the show. It was magical. As if in cue, when cameras and binoculars were all spent, he took flight, off into his damp, dense, lush, tropical paradise, which I hope and pray, will always be here, for generations to come.

We were all silent as we made our way back off the bridge. I do believe we all realized, just how special of a moment, we had all been blessed with.

Once we exited the Cloud Forest Reserve, we walked over to the Hummingbird Gallery, which was located next-door, and were once again treated to an extraordinary tranquil scene of lots and lots of humming birds, of all sizes and colors, buzzing around the many different feeders. I saw a bright violet humming bird, a brilliant blue one, and one that was very large, about the size of a sparrow. They buzzed us like miniature fighter jets, darting and dive-bombing each other, their wings moving faster than the eye could follow.

We all climbed back into the van, which we are really getting good at by now, and made our way to the lodge where we were scheduled to have lunch.

We sat at a long table and dined on chicken in a mushroom cream sauce, which was excellent!

I was invited to join the crazy Canadian girl, who had happened to step on a tiny trail of little red ants, in the rain forest, and being she only had sandals on, had been bitten many times, on her toes. This too, had set the Canadians off in fits of squeals and laughter, which at the time had annoyed me, and I thought why in the world would someone wear sandals in a rain forest? But, she survived, as we all did, and now I was thoroughly enjoying the antics of these delightfully funny people.

After lunch, we attired to the front porch and rested on rocking chairs, overlooking and enjoying the view of the forested mountains and valleys.

It was now well after 3PM, and it was time for us to leave this deliciously lush, wet, green world, and make our way back down to the hot, arid region of Guanacaste.

By now, we felt like we had all known each other for years (maybe it was because of the sacred moments we shared) and talked of our homes and shared stories, joking with each other as friends do.

This was where I found out I was the only American on board and the other 13 people were Canadians. They poked lovingly at me, and teased me with questions about Canada, and told me of the Canadian TV show called “Just ask Americans.” It is a reality show where they (a Canadian) ask (an American) they meet on the street a simple question, about Canada. And, of course, we (Americans) never know the answer. Because, we as arrogant Americans, were never taught Canadian history in school. I guess our society never saw a need for it?

Well, anyway, we had a wonderful trip back home. We saw another rainbow in a valley, as we wound our way back down, out of the mountains, and other than almost hitting a horse which was standing in the middle of the road, when we came around the bend (which set off the Canadians again) the trip back to the hotel was a time of remembering and reflecting, on our sights of the day.

It was going on 8PM by the time we reached the hotel, and everyone climbed out and we said our goodbyes, for the day. We were all tired and needed showers, and as for me, I get to do another day trip again, tomorrow. Exhausted and happy, I hiked back down to my room.

Day 4- I had my morning wake up call for 6, and was showered and having coffee once again, on my patio by 6:30, along with the mourning doves and cooing pigeons.

This is something I will always want to remember, I tell myself. This peaceful moment in time. Another perfect day. Watching the pinks and peaches in the dawning sky, break away to the bright baby blues.

I check my watch and head down for another quick breakfast, before making my climb back up to the hotel lobby. I should be in pretty good shape, by the time I have to go back home, with all the exercise I am getting on this trip.

I make my way to the top of the hill, to the lobby, and see a large crowd of people meandering around, everybody waiting for something. I see a couple of my crazy Canuck friends from yesterday, and make my way over to them.

Unfortunately, they are doing a different trip than I am, and soon get in a van with a half dozen other people, wave good bye to me, and off they go. I see the lady from Chicago, whom I went grocery shopping in Liberia with, and she waves at me. She is doing the Arenal Volcano trip too, and we wait together for our ride to appear.

Soon, a noisy gaseous, smoke-blowing Greyhound bus arrives, and we are all surprised to learn that we are traveling in that humongous thing. About twenty of us climb on board, with everyone spreading out. Toni, the lady from Chicago claims the front seat on the passenger side, and since the driver’s side is already taken with the tour guide’s gear, I sit in the second seat directly behind Toni.

We are than briefed on the day’s activities and off we go towards Liberia. It is funny how quickly you learn directions and start to recognize places, and I remember the road from the shopping trip two days ago. I remembered there is a John Deere implement company not too far up the road and I have my camera ready, hoping to get some shots of John Deere in Costa Rica, for my brother. (My brother has been employed by John Deere for over 30 years and is a huge fan) We are moving way too fast, and I miss any photo opportunities, so I sit back and relax, letting the day take me where it will.

Which is not too far up the road, and then we pullover, at this little rest stop area? Everybody sits up and looks around. Why are we here? The tour guide explains to us that #1. We have some people on this bus that are on the wrong bus. #2. We are picking up more people here. And # 3. Bathroom privileges should be used up here. Restrooms are visited; the exchange of our hostages to their rightful tour guides are made, and we are soon joined by another large Greyhound bus.

Our tour guide announces that we should all move forward and condense our things to make room for the fifty people who will be joining us. I am now in the front seat with Toni, and I have the best seat in the house. What a view of the road, and everything around us! I smile and think to myself, it is funny how things always work out.

The rest of the people board, and we are all situated comfortably, ready for the long trip ahead. Our tour guide picks up his microphone and I settle it to listen and learn, and watch the scenery unravel in front of us.

We are now on the Pan-American Highway; the first and oldest highway ever built which runs from Alaska to Chile, spanning two continents.

Pretty amazing stuff! Life is so interesting, even the smallest things that most people find so trivial.

I keep watch as we roll on passing small towns, and mango tree-lined villages, further out into the country, pass rancheros with sleek, shiny horses, and farms fat with cattle grazing on lush, grassy knolls. Someone mentions how healthy the animals all look. I nod in agreement, remembering how starved the horses in Mexico always looked.

Our tour guide says that Costa Ricans have a lot of pride in the breeding and care of their animals, and it surely does show! Yes, this is good, I think to myself.

We are now getting into the highlands, and our bus in chugging along, getting slower on the uptake, and we are now the leaders of a small parade of vehicles. The bus driver waves them by at an appropriate place, and then the tour guide called out and said something to the bus driver in Spanish, and now they are both rapidly talking and pointing at something up in a tree.

Our guide tells us in English, that here, we can see a Toucan. I grab my camera and get a shot of the black long-billed Toucan. “This is wonderful” I say to Toni. She readily agrees with me, and we both smile.

As we get closer to the volcano, we learn about the huge 1000 acre manmade lake, which the government created in the ‘80’s, when they dammed up the valley below the volcano, and then flooded the valley. It is quite gorgeous and green, thick and lush with deep grasses and dense hills surrounding the beautiful lake. It is raining and the skies are heavy and grey, but it is still beautiful!

I overhear someone behind me mention that it reminds her of when she was in Austria.

We spend our next hour winding our way around the exquisite lake, and I now have the window seat and am shooting pictures, through the window, on the sporting mode, which is used for high speed shots. They are actually getting quite good, which makes me even happier.

We are making our way around the lake, when the bus diver is craning his neck, looking up at the trees and abruptly, pulls over. Another troop of spider monkeys, high up in the trees. I wonder to myself, how can he see these things, plus keep his eyes on the twisting, winding road?

Then, this little raccoon-like creature, a coatimundi, came wandering out of the tall grass beside the road, and stopped. He couldn’t decide whether to cross the road or not, and as he hesitated, I along with some other people, bounded off the bus and got some great shots of the little furry fellow.

With grins on our faces, we boarded our bus and continued on our way. At the northern most part of the lake, immediately below Arenal Volcano, we pull off the road, and our guide allows us the time for more photo opportunities.

And, once again, as if by cue, and a stroke of good luck, the sun briefly breaks through the clouds. It was only for about two minutes. But, that was two minutes more than I had imagined we would get, and I am extremely thankful for it. I got some good shots by the volcano, and even though you couldn’t see the top of it, because it was swallowed up by clouds, I was still quite pleased and happy.

We were told it was time to go, and everyone climbed back on the bus, and off we went, again. We chugged and chuffed our way through a tiny mountain village, and started our climb up a narrow deeply-rutted and poorly maintained gravel road. Then we stopped, and the bus driver started backing into a driveway which led to the Eco Lodge, where we would be having lunch later.

Next thing you know, there was a loud, grating, screeching noise, and then it felt like we got stuck in a big hole. We were all ordered off the bus and as we walked around behind it, I could see that the bus’s rear left tire had missed part of the driveway and now the whole left side of the bus had sank down into the culvert and it was in up to it’s rear axles. “It looks like we might be here awhile” I said to Toni. And she laughed and replied “It looks like somebody has their work cut out for them today”.

We were all herded up and led over to the Eco Lodge, where we received rain parkas, and then we were introduced to our new tour guide, whom we then followed around back, and down into the Coter Rain Forest.

Our tour guide was a young girl, who seemed to wish that she was still back in her bed. It was much chillier here, than it was down in Monteverde, and I was wishing that I had brought along my rain coat.

We were led through the rain forest, and I heard the distinct shrill pitches of some type of wren, and recognized a call of the clay-colored robin, which sounds very similar to our robin.

There were all kinds of flowers, and I think I saw the tiniest little orchid, only about the size of your pinky’s fingernail.

On our way back to the lodge, we heard this horrific yell off in the mists, and our guide quickly straightened up and for the first time, she looked excited! She said, “You hear that? That is a howler monkey!” I had my binoculars, and aimed them in the direction of the sound of someone being murdered, and spotted the huge, hairy, black mammal high up in the trees. He was looking our way and seemed to be yelling at us. Someone else called over to me, “there are more, behind him!” Sure enough, his whole family was there, swinging in the branches, and cradling a little one. This is awesome, I thought to myself!

As we found our way out of the rain forest, we were led down another little trail to some type of a thatched hut, where we were ushered in and sat down, forming a circle around the silent native Indians, which would be performing some of their ancient rituals for us. There was a fire in the middle of our circle and the smoke was thickening inside the hut. The Indians then blew their horns, and beat out a rhythm on their drums, and told us in broken English of their history and their means of living and survival, here in the rainforest.

For some unknown reason, I got a whiff of smoke down my wrong throat, and it sent me into a coughing fit. Much to my embarrassment, I had to get up and move farther back, closer to the outside of the circle and the fresh air of the forest.

After the last dance was performed, and we had the opportunity to purchase their handmade masks, which I didn’t buy, but later wished I would have, we moved back to the Lodge to have lunch prepared and served to us.

We ate our delicious lunch of chicken, rice and vegetables, while we were seated in front of a huge window which ran the length and width of the room, facing a large bird feeder, surrounded by amaryllis, irises and dahlias.

We watched in awe, almost forgetting to eat, as birds of every color came to eat the bananas which were laid on the feeders. I recognized blue-gray tanagers, passerini’s tanagers, blue dacuis, and an acorn woodpecker.

While we were eating, our bus backed up, (freed from its culvert clutches) into our view, signifying that we would be leaving shortly.

We finished our meal, and made our way back out to our bus. Winding our way back down and around the wet, green grassy hills and through the valleys, with my face pressed against the window pane, I stare out with wonder at the beautiful immense Arenal Lake. We are on our way to Arenal Volcano.

We don’t know exactly what Carlos; our tour guide has planned for us, being that the rain has started up again.

You can’t see the volcano and I had overheard them discussing what to do next, since the sky has darkened and the rain is not supposed to let up. Carlos picks up the microphone and announces to all of us, we will be stopping at Tobacon Hot Springs for a couple of hours, to relax in the hot pools and waterfalls, and then we will have dinner there, before we get back on our bus and head back to our resorts.

We were shown to the dressing rooms, where we changed into our bathing suits, and made our way down to the hot springs.

There were five thermal mineral pools, and we were instructed on how to dip into the first and the least warm one, get accustomed to it, before entering the next one, repeating until you are in the hottest pool. The pools were layered-like, with an overflow of waterfalls, tumbling down from each one. The hottest pool was at the very top of the waterfalls.

After climbing out of the hottest pool, you are to get under the shower spigots, adjacent to the hot springs, and take a quick cold shower, thereby closing up your gaping pores, sealing your body from any unwanted bacteria or air-borne viruses.

I followed the procedure in all the correct steps, slipping into the first tepid pool and aahh it felt so good, as I slowly sank down and sat by the jets, soaking my body and freeing my mind. Rain drops kept finding their targets, as they fell from the dark clouds overhead. But I didn’t mind. I just slipped further down into the swells of the heated jets, allowing them to pulse on my back and shoulders. This too, is good, I say to myself.

After thoroughly soaking my body and soul, and taking a quick ice cold shower, I gather up my flip flops and towel, from under a palapa, and head back to change. Bright pink-skinned and in warm dry clothes, I wandered around the grounds.

Dipping under trees along the paths to escape the rain; I came upon what I like to call the dreaming tree. It is a huge tree standing alone, in an open area. Its branches are large and heavy. So heavy, it seems that after spreading out high and wide, their very weight brought them back down to touch the ground. I stood in awe with my camera. The rain had let up for just a moment. An opportunity of a lifetime. I grabbed my shot.

Then with another smile on my face, I walked back to the restaurant and found a large porch with numerous hammocks, and made myself at home in one, until I heard the call for dinner.

We were seated at tables and served family style. The dinner was divine. We had grilled pork chops and mashed potatoes, tossed salad and fresh tropical fruit cup, and real lemonade. It was so good I had seconds of everything. Maybe it was the hike in the rainforest earlier, or the soak in the thermal springs, but I was ravenous. During the course of our dinner, we took our turns around the table, introducing ourselves and telling of where we were from.

With the rain drumming a primal tune on the tin roof over our heads, we polished off our dessert of rice pudding laced with raisins and cinnamon and good Costa Rican coffee.

Satisfied and sedated, we got back on our bus. It is pitch black outside, with no signs of red-hot lava anywhere in the distance, and with only the sounds of the rain in the night; we set off down the road, leaving Arenal Volcano behind us.

I am in the front seat watching the road ahead, and Carlos and our bus driver talk about the soccer game playing on the radio. They are speaking in Spanish and I watch their animated conversation, and smile at their reactions to the lively broadcast of the announcer, on the radio. Apparently, their team is winning. They are grinning widely and totally immersed in the game.

Everyone around me settles in and they are all soon sleeping. I, along with Carlos and our bus driver, keep vigil of the night.

About an hour and a half later, we arrive upon a small sleeping village situated on a hill, with rows of short ranch houses and little bungalows. The town is dark and no one is stirring, as we drive up a steep street, lined with concrete sidewalks.

From out of the darkness, and in dreamlike eeriness, I see a beautiful pure-white horse galloping down the hill, toward us. Staying on the concrete sidewalks, it silently continued pass us, disappearing into the night.

I look at Carlos and our bus driver. There is no reaction from them. I turn and look back at all the sleeping occupants on the bus. Am I the only one who saw the horse? That was strange and bizarre. It reminded me of a rock video which aired on MTV, back in the ‘80’s. It was by Annie Lennox and went like this….”sweet dreams are made of these, and who am I to disagree, I traveled the world and the seven seas, everybody’s looking for something”… In the video in showed a pure-white horse wandering in a foggy dreamlike world. It was a surreal moment. I will never forget it.

We made it back to our bus stop and rest area. People are dispatched back to their original tour guides, with some of them having another hour’s drive ahead of them. I am one of the lucky ones. My hotel is only another 10 minutes away. We arrive at our hotel around 10 PM. I hike my way down to my room, and climb into bed. Today was an incredibly good day. Tomorrow will be a day of rest.

Day 5- I awoke at 7:30. It’s another beautiful morning; another beautiful day. The doves and pigeons are humming, in perfect harmony. I sit and sip my morning coffee. After another wonderful breakfast, I don my bathing suit, and head down to the beach.

This is my fifth day here in Costa Rica, and it’s the first time I will be swimming in the bay waters, of the Pacific Ocean. Where have I been all week?

This beach is made entirely of black volcanic sand, which I have heard from others, gets extremely hot, in fact, too hot to walk on with bare feet. With flip flops on my feet, and snorkel gear in my tote bag, I drag a chaise lounge the whole way out to the waters edge.

I have noticed here, that when the tide goes out, it goes WAY out, leaving an immense beach, and when it returns, it diminishes the beach by a quarter of a mile.

So here I am dragging this chair. By the time I reach the water, I really need the seat. After a nice, long dip in the surprisingly cold water, I lie in the chaise lounge with the water lapping underneath me. Tiny little fishes and snails soon join me, in the water below. This is cool! I lie on my belly in my chair, and watch the fish. The tide goes out further, my fish are gone, and I drag my chair back, further up on the beach. While I was lying on my belly, I noticed all the beautiful little shells, and decide to spend the rest of the morning, combing the beach.

I walked the length of the beach, as far as it went, until it ended where the jungle crept to the waters edge. Upon my return, I was joined by a young Tico, who walked with me along the beach.

Unfortunately, he knew only Spanish and my knowledge of Spanish is very limited, so it was a very short conversation. We arrived back to my resort’s beach area and he smiled and said “adios”, and continued on his way.

It is now lunch time and I chowed down on chips and salsa, a salad and some fresh fruit.

Afterwards I made my way to the pool. This is my 5th day, and only the second time I actually get in the pool. The big beautiful pool!

Reclining by the pool is a couple from Texas, whom I had met yesterday on the Arenal trip. We had dinner together up at the volcano. They are divers, and her husband is here on a dive. Sadly for her, she had some type of brain aneurysm a couple of months ago and isn’t allowed to dive with her husband and the others. So we hang out together and talk for awhile. She is funny and interesting.

Later, her husband appears and he tells us they couldn’t dive because the water was too rough. They will try again, tomorrow. I excuse myself from them as they float in the pool in a loving embrace and make my way back to my hotel room. I need a nap in an air-conditioned room. After a 40 minute nap I arise feeling refreshed and much better. Time to get cleaned up for dinner. I then hike back up to the top of the hill to the hotel’s lobby and purchase a few souvenirs for me from their little gift shop. Dinner time rolls around and I feast mightily on another scrumptious meal and ponder about tomorrow’s featured event. Tomorrow I am going up into Nicaragua. Ever since I can remember, Nicaragua conjures up images of violence and war, rebels and chaos. My heart skips a beat as I sit and think. What will it really be like, I wonder? Day 6- Nicaragua! I am going to Nicaragua! I arise at 5:30 Am and make my coffee. No time to linger this morning. I grab all my gear and head for the lobby. There is a crowd of people all hanging out, waiting for our bus. The greyhound bus eventually appears and we all board. Once again, it is Toni and I in the front seat. Toni claims to get car sickness and always has to be in the front, which suits me just fine, since that means I get a front seat, also. Everyone is situated and we are on the way to Nicaragua. We cross the border of Costa Rica into Nicaragua and our bus is sprayed and fumigated with some type of a chemical, as we all sit inside the bus with windows closed and wonder just exactly what it is we are being sprayed with? Our tour guide makes a joke of how we are being sprayed for bugs, that bugs only cross the border on vehicles…they never cross by themselves. That makes us laugh. I am not sure why. Once we are sprayed, we get off and are processed through immigrations, a long and drawn out affair, with long lines of frustrated people. Back on the bus we climb and off we go, in to the Land of Volcanoes. Our tour guide starts with his commentary and I am quickly immersed into the bloody violent history of Nicaragua. We learn about William Walker and the Contra affair. We learn of the people’s trials, hardships and struggles and hear of a sure-heartedness which never gives up, in this yearning nation. It is so incredibly interesting and I listen with strained ears as I watch the countryside unravel, in front of us. Nicaragua! I am finally here. We are winding our way through lush green fields of rice and sugar cane when up ahead I can see swarms of swallows of some kind, winging back and forth across the road. There are high banks on both side of the road and the swallows are bridging these banks with their missile-like dives and turns. The bus barrels through them and to my horror I hear many, many tiny thumps as their frail bodies plummet off the side of the bus, time and time again. It is a horrific sound. One that I will never forget. I look around and see the faces of the others, wincing at the sounds the tiny broken bodies make against the steel walls of the huge bus. I look at the tour guide. He never misses a beat in his narration. After we pass through the swallow massacre, I try hard not to picture in my mind the mess we left behind. After all, this is Nicaragua. A hardened land which has seen far too much in its pass to shudder at what just transpired in this present time. We are first taken to Masaya Volcanic Park and we are allowed an hour or two to wander to our hearts content. I make a bee-line up to the highest part of the park, a dormant volcano sitting at the top and look back down over the very active “Santiago.” The entire park area is parched and dry and the sun is hot on this arid place. I snap off a lot of shots and head back down to board the cool shade of the bus. Everyone else gets on board and we soon arrive in Granada. It is a beautiful old colonial town, with brightly painted yellow buildings and a brilliant blue monastery, lying in the shadow of Masaya Volcanic Park. We climb off the bus and are immediately surrounded by a score of hungry, pleading children. Our guide gives them some change from his pockets and they scamper across the plaza to buy ice cream, and quickly return to us, attaching themselves to us for the duration of the day. I have to wonder where their parents are. Do they know where their children are? After touring Granada and the monastery, we are taken for lunch at a local restaurant which is decorated in vivid colors and lots of tropical plants and ferns. The cuisine is excellent and the Nicaraguan Tona lager I have is even better. We are serenaded by five handsome Nicas with their guitarras, as we sup and dine in delight. After are wonderful dining experiences we are taken to Masaya for a quick shopping trip. The sights and sounds of the buzzing marketplace are overwhelming and a bit intimidating, and I make a few purchases; Nicaraguan cigars, exquisite pottery pieces and a hand-woven chair, and board the bus. The chair is in the belly of the bus and my pottery prizes are on my lap. Everyone else is soon rounded up and we are on our way back to Costa Rica. The sun has disappeared and the day has darkened as we travel through the rolling hills and empty valleys. The night sky is black. It is hard to describe how black the night sky is to someone who has never been in far and remote places, before. There are millions upon millions of stars in the sky, available to the naked eye, down here. I sit back and enjoy the planetarium.

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