Scott and I left the heat, humidity, and water shortage of the Nicoya Peninsula in Costa Rica and headed for the American Southwest. We have always wanted to visit the Southwest and this seemed like a great opportunity to do just that. Glitzy Las Vegas was a bit of a culture shock but we escaped the casino scene to hike in Red Rock Canyon National Park which is just a half hour outside of LV.
Zion National Park was such a wonderful surprise. I did not expect towering cliffs, beautiful red mountains, and amazing hiking trails but it has all that and more. I am sure I have seen photos, but I was awe struck by the beauty of the park. On our first full day, we hiked to Observation Point and were rewarded by great views over the main valley.
The hike up was carved into cliffs at times, at others it went through great rock overhangs. It was vertigo inducing for me!
The next day, we drove to the northwest corner of Zion to the Kolob Canyon and hiked the Taylor Creek Trail. After a gentle uphill trail that crisscrossed over a stream many times, we reached the end of the Canyon to find a double arch alcove that formed a shallow cave. Minerals leach through the rocks above the cave and color the cave walls.
From Zion we headed to the Grand Canyon. Our first view was breathtaking.
There are many, many hikes in the Grand Canyon. Since we only had two full days, we chose to do the 9 mile round trip down and up (“Down is optional. Up is mandatory “) Bright Angel Trail. Lucky for me, I could rent hiking poles because it was a challenging hike.
The second day in the Grand Canyon, we hiked 12 miles along the rim. Great views that changed with the light.
Next, we headed for Sedona and took another great hike up behind the town.
We drive back to Los Angeles tomorrow. It has been a great introduction to the American Southwest! We will definitely return. So many hikes left to do!
Monteverde is a little slice of heaven in the cloud forest in Costa Rica. That said, it was hell to get there. Every guide book and web site we looked at warns travelers of the bad roads leading to Monteverde. Upon hearing our plans to travel to Monteverde, the car rental agent insisted that we rent a four wheel drive vehicle (also recommended by the guide book and websites). 25 miles from Monteverde, the pavement ends and a dirt and gravel road winds along the foothills of the Continental Divide. In the good stretches, the road was gravel and fist sized boulders. Elsewhere there were ruts, pot holes, and big piles of loose rocks. It took us two hours to travel 25 miles, two hours of shake, rattle, and rolling. After we arrived, I couldn’t tell if I had just had the equivalent of an aggressive chiropractic treatment or if I needed one.
So what is a cloud forest? Essentially it is a type of rain forest that occurs between 6500 and 11,500 feet above sea level. Clouds accumulate around the mountains at this level and provide regular precipitation that keeps the forests lush and green. In the case of Monteverde, the weather systems of the Caribbean meet those of the Pacific along the mountains of the Continental Divide and create a micro climate of daily rain, mist, and fog. Temperatures average about 65 degrees which makes this area quite cool in comparison to the hot and humid temperatures elsewhere in Costa Rica at this time of year. I even saw some people wearing down coats in the evenings!
We stayed at the Monteverde Inn, an unpretentious eco lodge within the Valle Escondido Nature Preserve. Our host was a former Waldorf Kindergarten teacher who moved his family to Monteverde. His dream is to make the Monteverde Inn ecologically friendly and sustainable, and he has constructed ponds to filter gray water, installed solar water heaters, and is constructing a classroom to teach ecologically friendly methods of construction. With guests from the USA, France, and Germany, the whole place had a wonderful international wholistic feel. The Preserve was huge with many trails and looked out over a beautiful valley to the Gulf of Nicoya. It is just far enough away from the actual cloud forest to receive sun and mist rather than heavy rain.
The nearby Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve has eight miles of trails, lush vegetation, and a damp climate. We arranged for a guide because despite the 3,000 plant species, 500 species of birds, 500 types of butterflies, and 130 different kinds of mammals in the reserve, we knew that without a guide we wouldn’t see much more than plants and trees. We learned about epiphytes (air plants), saw tiny orchids, and, through the guide’s scope, saw hummingbirds, an orange-bellied trogan, and the beautiful, elusive quetzal.
Back at our hotel, we joined a night tour of the Preserve and saw a large rodent called an aguti, a coatimundi, a porcupine, another orange kneed tarantula (jeesh, that makes six so far), a click beetle, a walking stick insect, and a sleeping migratory thrush. How the guide found the sleeping 4 inch bird in the dark is beyond my understanding.
We were sorry to leave the Monteverde Inn. The serenity of the area, beautiful views from the lawn, and wildlife made it a very special place. Even the food at the tiny, casual open air restaurant was good. Chef Henry cooked breakfast for guests starting at 6 am, provided snacks and lunch items, and offered dinner options until 9 pm. On the menu were simple dishes including vegetarian and vegan options. The Costa Rican special was “casados”. “Casado ” means married in Spanish and the name of the dish refers to the food Costa Rican men would take to work for lunch. If unmarried, men would bring only rice and beans. Once married, their lunch would include some kind of meat and vegetables. An incentive to get married — or learn to cook like you are married.
The road from Monteverde to Nosara on the Pacific Coast was just as bad as the one leading to Monteverde. For a country whose major income comes from tourism, it seems inconceivable that the roads are as bad as they are. Nosara is a hot and humid 98 degrees. I may have to learn to swim if I am going to make it two weeks here.
As we drove to Sea Tac Airport from Wenatchee, fresh snow on Blewitt Pass reminded us that it is still early spring in the Pacific Northwest. After a week or so of unseasonably cool and wet weather in Wenatchee, it seemed like a good time to fly to a warmer part of the world. But when the 98 degree heat slapped us in the face upon stepping outside the Liberia airport, we started to doubt our decision! The desert landscape around Liberia reminded us of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. Where were the lush green rain forests filled with colorful plants and animals that we had heard so much about? It turns out that all that and more was just a few hours east in the area around the Arenal volcano.
Arenal is a “resting” volcano that erupted without warning in 1968, destroying communities in its blast zone but quickly creating a huge attraction for tourists who arrived to see the series of smaller eruptions that continued until 2010. Since 2010, Arenal emits occasional puffs of steam but scientists believe that although it is still considered an active volcano, it has entered a resting period that could last 200 years or more. Like Mt. Ngaurohoe in New Zealand, Arenal has a perfect conical shape due to the fact that it is only 7000 years old and is still growing.
Scott and I were eager to see the famous biodiversity of Costa Rica, but we knew that if left to our own devices we would probably see only a few butterflies and nameless birds. We decided to sign up for a tour each of the two days we were in the Arenal area. The first tour was to Místico Hanging Bridges and the second was a volcano hike with a side trip to La Fortuna waterfall.
Místico Hanging Bridges is a series of trails and bridges through a 250 acre rain forest reserve. There are 16 fixed and hanging bridges (suspension bridges) of varying heights. A couple of them are several hundred feet above the forest floor so that it seems like we were walking in the tops of the trees.
The thrill of walking across these long, swaying bridges was matched by the enthusiasm and knowledge of our guide who stopped us frequently to point out birds, insects, spiders, and mammals, and educated us about the forest plants. We saw leaf-cutter ants, hummingbirds, vultures, several species of smaller birds whose names I can’t remember (sorry, Maria), four kinds of spiders (including the hairy gray legs of a shy tarantula who was trying to hide in its lair). We saw Howler monkeys, a Spider monkey, three coatimundi, and two sloths — one two-toed and one three-toed, or so we were told; they didn’t exactly move to display their toes.
We had our tour guide to ourselves on the Volcano hike, and our private tour with Gustavo was wonderful. Like the previous day’s tour guide, Gustavo was a young Costa Rican who spoke excellent English and who was passionate about ecology, proud of his country, and eager to show us the biodiversity of the area. On our way to the lava fields on the flank of Arenal, Gustavo found and trained his scope on a variety of birds, including a pair of black cheeked woodpeckers, a group of turkey vultures, a golden headed tanager, and a green heron. He tried to find an Eyelash Pit Viper that had been seen in the area, but the snake stayed hidden.
On the way to La Fortuna waterfall, we saw more Howler monkeys. The waterfall was beautiful and visitors descend the 500 steps to clamber over slippery rocks and dip themselves into the pool at the bottom of the falls. Scott waded right in but I was chicken and used a multitude of excuses from too many people to too many slippery rocks.
After the waterfall, the tour was essentially over, but Gustavo suddenly grew animated and told us that he had heard the call of a toucan. He grabbed his scope from the van and ran up a hill above the falls parking lot with us huffing along behind him. After several minutes, Gustavo uttered a quiet yelp of satisfaction. He had spotted his prey: not one, but two yellow throated toucans, the largest of the six different kinds of toucans in the area. The birds stayed on a branch long enough for us to get a great look at their colorful markings and giant beaks that Gustavo told us are actually quite lightweight and used as a way for the birds to cool their body temperature. Seeing the toucans was “la cereza sobre la postre,” the cherry on the cake for us. Thanks to our great guides, we have had a wonderful introduction to Costa Rica. Except that while writing this I just got bitten by a large black ant. Stay tuned.
It was touch and go with the weather the four days we were in National Park hoping to do the Tongariro Crossing. Since the hike is famous for volcanic landscapes, we waited for the fog and rain to clear a little before heading out. Unsure as to whether or not the weather would cooperate, we chose to not arrange for transportation and simply hike as far as we wanted and then turn around. Normally hikers get transportation to the start at one end of the 20 km trail, hike to the other end, and then arrange for transportation back to their hotel. We started out later than most of the other hikers and, as we headed up the Devil’s Staurcase, the weather began to clear and we got our first views of Mt. Ngaurohoe, aka Mt. Doom. It is a young volcano with lots of recent lava flows.
The landscape is impressive in a vast, barren way. Occasionally we would get a whiff of sulphur as we walked that reminded us just how volcanically active the area is. The trail climbs steadily to a cirque and then climbs again to the saddle between Mt. Ngaurohoe and Mt. Tongariro. We almost turned back at that point because of the dense fog and wind, but then we glimpsed the Emerald Lakes below. As we descended the steep loose black sand path to the lakes, the squall passed and we could see the three emerald green lakes, steam vents, and the barren volcanic valleys below us. It was spectacular.
We decided we had seen “the best of” and so started back. Areas that had been shrouded in fog were clearer: the red crater and Mt. Ngaurohoe. It was one of the best hikes of the trip and I was very grateful that the weather had cleared enough for us to enjoy the stunning scenery.
On the way back to Auckland, we stopped at the Waitomo Glow Worm Caves and Raglan. The caves were massive and beautiful and the boat ride on the river through the caves to see the glow worms was very cool. Raglan is a surf beach on the Tasman Sea and a favorite for many surfers.
On our last night in New Zealand we went to Hobbiton Movie Set. Located in the middle of the Alexander family sheep farm, Hobbiton is eleven acres of Hobbit houses, gardens, and orchards. We signed up for the evening tour and our tour guide told us many stories about Peter Jackson, the making of the set, and filming the movies.
We ended up at the Green Dragon Inn for a sumptuous (and delicious) buffet just as the sun was setting. After dinner, we took lanterns and traipsed back through the Hobbit village enjoying the warm lights from the tiny houses and hanging lanterns.
My favorite part of the tour came at the very end when our guide asked us to turn off our lanterns and look up. It was a clear night and overhead was the splendor of the southern night sky: the Milky Way curved above us, Orion hung upside down, and the Southern Cross looked like a kite caught in the Milky Way. It was Sir Peter Jackson who had sparked my interest in New Zealand with the spectacular scenery in his movies so it was fitting that we ended our trip in the meticulously created Hobbiton. From the peaks of Mt. Cook and Mt. Ngaurohoe to the Milford Sound, Abel Tasman Track, and Cape Reinga, New Zealand is a diverse, intriguing, and beautiful country for humans and Hobbits alike.
We flew from Christchurch to Auckland, rented a car, and headed north. I wanted to go all the way to the northern tip of New Zealand, a slender finger of land at whose tip the Tasman Sea and South Pacific Ocean meet off of Cape Reinga. Scott was kind enough to agree to driving more narrow, curvy New Zealand roads despite having driven over 4,000 km on the South Island. On the way, we stopped at Warkworth so that we could go to Sheep World. Scott had mentioned that he wanted to see sheep dogs in action and Sheep World seemed to be a great place to do just that. We attended the 11 am demonstration where a shearer introduced us to his two working dogs, a traditional Border Collie mix and a larger New Zealand herding dog. Interestingly, the Border Collie had grayhound in her mix so that her coat was short and her legs were longer than a more common Border Collie; a short haired dog manages better in New Zealand bush country and its longer legs make it a better runner over the hills and mountains. The herding dog was bred for its loud bark and was a cross between Labrador and an English fox hound. Both dogs are critical to the work of New Zealand sheep herders and work together.
The shearer spoke passionately about the sustainability of raising sheep both for food and wool. He had the dogs herd a flock of sheep into a corral and then demonstrated sheep shearing. It surprised both Scott and me to see how docile and calm the sheep was during the shearing. Afterwards, I got to give a bottle to a hungry lamb and give treats to a variety of farm animals from greedy ducks and geese to llamas, ponies, donkies, goats, a calf, emus, and deer. My hands were thoroughly coated with saliva when we were done but I loved it!
On the way to the cape, we also stopped at the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where we had a lesson in New Zealand history. Our guide told us about the Maori legend of Kupe who sailed from Polynesia to New Zealand in AD 925. He returned home but passed on the sailing coordinates to his people. In AD 1350, Maori warriors landed and stayed, the beginning of Maori life and culture on the islands. In 1642, the Dutch captain Abel Tasman sailed near the South Island but was attacked by the Maori and did not set foot on land. He did, however, name the islands “Nieuw Zeeland “. In 1767, Captain James Cook visited and charted the coastline. In the 1790s, whalers and sealers arrived and Maori numbers began to decline due to the introduction of European diseases and weapons. The Maori signed the Treaty of Waitangi on February 6, 1840 which guaranteed the Maori rights to their lands but gave the British sovereignty. Of course the story is much more complex. The museum and buildings on the Treaty Grounds give visitors a good introduction to the history of the islands. We saw a famous Maori war canoe, the Treaty House where the Treaty was signed, and attended a “kapa haka “, a live Maori cultural performance in a traditional meeting house.
Cape Reinga was a bit farther than I had realized and Scott was getting a little tired of driving. We were rewarded by a beautiful coastline and a great hike just before reaching the Cape Reinga Lighthouse. The Cape itself was surprisingly moving. The waters of the Tasman Sea and the South Pacific Ocean meet and form waves and whirlpools beneath the cliffs and the lighthouse. This is sacred ground for the Maori for they consider the Cape a jumping off point for souls as they leave this world and journey to the spirit world.
From Cape Reinga the only way to go on land is south, so south we went searching for sunny, sandy beaches on the Coromandel Peninsula. A series of unfortunate events dulled our enthusiasm. First came a spider who bit my finger and left me with an inflamed and painful pinky for several days. I feel about spiders like I feel about bears, so I was not very happy. Next was a case of either food poisoning or the flu for both of us. We spent a day in bed and the other days on the Coromandel Peninsula under enthused. The weather didn’t help as, yes, it was unusually rainy and cool. We did get in a couple of beach walks and a visit to Cathedral Cove.
We left Whangamata and drive farther south to Rotorua and our next destination, the Tongariro National Park where we hope to complete the one day Tongariro Crossing. The area is known as the Volcanic Zone and near Rotorua we had our first encounter with the geothermal wonders of the area. We stopped at Hell’s Gate (so named by George Bernard Shaw because of its hellish landscape–and smell, I am sure), 50 acres of steaming fumeroles, hissing vents, poisonous lakes, and boiling mud pools. The smell was nauseating but the landscape was fascinating–and hellish. We also stopped at Waiotapu for more thermal sights. Waiotapu is a large area with geysers, sulphuric-crusted pits, acid green ponds, siluca terraces, gurgling mud pools, and a beautiful (and stinky) Champagne pool with rust colored edges.
As we drove to Tongariro National Park, Mount Ngaurohoe, aka Mount Doom in the Lord of the Rings movies, loomed before us. We could see steam rising from vents on the flanks. Snow on nearby Mount Ruapehu reminded us that we had traded a beach location for an alpine one. A fiery sunset over Mount Ruapehu greeted us on our first night, eerily eruption-like; local information remind us to be aware that we are in an active volcanic area. Unfortunately, bad weather continues to dog us and we have to delay our Tongariro Crossing a couple of days. With sights like the Devil’s Staircase, Red Crater Ridge, and Emerald Lakes, the Crossing promises to be an interesting final hike on our New Zealand journey.
We spent a couple of days in the lake area near Mt. Cook, hiking around Lakes Ohau and Tekapo. The Hobbit fans recognize the views of the turquoise blue Lake Pukaki with Mt. Cook soaring behind it as the setting for Lake Town. On the top of a small mountain beside Lake Tekapo is the Mt. John Observatory, the largest observatory in New Zealand. The area has been designated the Aoraki Mackenzie International Dark Sky Reserve and is the world’s largest international park in the sky. It is almost light pollution free and is the center of star gazing in New Zealand. We hiked to the observatory and enjoyed great views of the area.
Next up was Kaikoura. Located above Christchurch on the east coast, it was an all day drive from where we were staying near Lake Tekapo. We had made plans to go to Kaikoura on the way to Abel Tasman National Park on the northern tip of the South Island but had neglected to check road conditions. The 7.8 magnitude earthquake last November did significant damage to all three roads leading in and out of Kaikoura. The road from Christchurch had only recently been opened to daily traffic and is still restricted to travel between 8 am and 8 pm. The many detours and single lane travel made for long drive times. Road crews are clearing rock slides, “slips” (landslides), and cracks in the asphalt as fast as they can, but the task is huge. The road north that we had planned to take is closed indefinitely. The road west is open but also suffered damage and has detours and delays. Needless to say, many tourists now avoid Kaikoura so we felt somewhat compensated for the long trip by the gratitude of the business owners in that town. The sea bed in front of Kaikoura rose three feet and some businesses are still closed because of earthquake damage. Kaikoura is pretty but its main attraction is the sea life tours in the area; visitors can take tours to view albatross nesting areas, see whales, and swim with seals and dolphins. Because we needed to be in Blenheim the next day, we did not have enough time to do any of those activities. We learned to be aware of road closures and will be more careful to check in the future.
After an eight hour drive the next day, we arrived in sunny and warm Marlborough wine country. The “unusual ” 2017 summer weather caught up with us the next morning, though, and our plan to rent bikes and pedal from vineyard to vineyard was dashed by pouring rain. Thankfully, Peter Jackson came to the rescue! The LOTR director is an avid collector of WWI aircraft and his collection is on display at the Osaka Aviation Heritage Centre. With lifelike dioramas and wax figures created by the director’s studio, the museum was a visual delight. There is even a life sized diorama of the Red Baron’s fatal crash. We listened to the rain beating on the hanger roof and took our time enjoying the old movie footage, thorough explanations, and memorabilia. The museum recently added another area with aircraft from WWII, and there was a chilling film experience about the Battle of Stalingrad. Lunch afterward at the Wither Hills winery was as close to a vineyard tour as we got that day.
We continued our visits to museums on the way to Abel Tasman with a quick stop in Nelson to see the World of Wearable art show (we had seen it at EMP in Seattle and wanted to see it again) and to visit the classic car museum.
And then it was back to nature as we drove the Queen Charlotte Drive to Motueka where we would stay. The Queen Charlotte Islands reminded us of the San Juan Islands: beautiful forested islands surrounded by blue bays and inlets.
On our first full day near the Abel Tasman Park, we drove to Takaka and Golden Bay. On the way we noticed a turn off to Ngarua Caves and decided to stop. The caves are a series of limestone caves that extend for 980 feet underground. The ceilings are between ten and fifty feet high and the sculpture of the stalactites and stalagmites is beautiful.
The beaches in Golden Bay were nice but the day was cool and windy. We returned to Motueka stopping twice, once for a short hike and second to see the Te Waikoripup, or Pupu, Springs. This is the largest freshwater spring in the Southern Hemisphere and the clearest in the world except for that under the Waddell Sea in Antarctica. Visibility is over 60 meters.
Our last day in Abel Tasman was incredible and made us long for more time. We took a water taxi to one of the bays along the Abel Tasman Track and then hiked 12 km to where we were picked up 5 hours later. The trail wound through ferns and trees and in and around beautiful bays with gold sand beaches. Kayakers explored the coastline. It was spectacular and deserved more than our one day to explore. We ended our time on the South Island with a stopover in Hanmer Springs where we spent the afternoon soaking in the thermal pools. We are looking forward to exploring the North Island next, but I am sad to leave the South Island. From soaring mountains to rain forests to secluded golden beaches, it is as close to Paradise as I have ever been.
Queenstown is a lovely city on the South Island nestled between Lake Wakatipu and the rugged mountains that rise behind it. It offers every conceivable activity for adrenaline junkies including skydiving, paragliding, parasailing, bungy jumping, jet boats, rafting, zip lining, a luge track, and canyoning. The town is filled with fit, good looking people looking for high octane fun. Lucky for us, there is also great hiking and restaurants.
After a couple of days in QT, we headed south to Te Anau, the jumping off point for activities in Fiordland. Te Anau is where people begin their trips to Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound, and trampers begin the Milford, Routeburn, and Kepler Tracks. We wanted to hike the first leg of the Kepler and so headed there from QT even though we had already been there on the way to begin the Milford Track.
Unfortunately, the weather was dark, rainy, and cold when we arrived. Hoping for better weather in the afternoon of our only full day in Te Anau, we signed up for the Te Anau Glowworm Cave Experience. Somehow I missed the “cave” part of the description and the part in the flyer that describes the “the caves of rushing water where you will see glow worms deep underground “. I am not fond of underground places, dislike caves intensely, and really don’t like rushing, swirling water. After a boat ride to the caves, we were informed that due to unexpected, dangerously high water levels in the caves we would only be allowed to walk several hundred feet into the chain of caves. We would all get a full refund for the disappointment. The entrance to the caves is three feet high. Visitors walk above a roaring steam along metal grated walkways. The roar of the water echoing off the cave walks was deafening. The glow worms were pretty, tiny pinpricks of white lights on the cave ceilings and walls. The waterfall where we had to stop was a roaring, gushing funnel of water in a cave with rounded, smooth walls of layered black sandstone and yellow limestone. I managed not to embarrass myself by bolting for the entry while we were in the caves. For me, this was my adrenaline high: a dark cave filled with rushing water. I was glad to return to daylight!
The first leg of the Kepler was lovely as it wound through forests and wetlands. The forest floor was carpeted with moss and there were green ferns everywhere.
Next we headed to Aoraki/Mt. Cook. The sun was shining and the view of Mts. Sefton and Cook were amazing. In addition, the waters of Lake Pukaki (and others in this area) are a bright, sky blue due to the refraction of sunlight off of the glacier “flour” in the lakes.
We hiked up Hooker Valley to view the terminus of the glacier between Mt. Cook and Mt. Sefton. Twice we heard the boom of glacial cornices falling down the mountain faces. We also saw hunters searching for Chamois and Himalayan Bull Tahr, both introduced to NZ many years ago and now considered nonnative pests; hunters are encouraged to cull the herds.
Today Mt. Cook was cold and very windy. We tried to hike to the Sealy Tarns from Mt. Cook village but only made it halfway up the 2200 steep wooden steps built by the DOC for hikers. At the halfway point, the wind was so strong and the steps were so steep that I was afraid I would be caught by a gust and fall. I sat down and refused to go any farther. Scott reluctantly agreed to turn around and we headed back to Mt. Cook Village.
We said good bye to the beautiful mountains of New Zealand’s South Island. We are off to the plains of Canterbury, Kaikoura on the coast, the Marlborough wine country, and then Abel Tasman before heading to the North Island February 7.