Tag Archives: hiking

Where’d All the Good People Go?

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…to Cinque Terre, apparently.

5T: Good days made even better!

Almost a year ago, when this trip was just a twinkle in our eye, my good friend Jamie Pierce told me about this magical heavenly place he had hiked called Cinque Terre. Jamie is not one to go off on long soliloquies too often, so the way he raved about this particular Italian destination made us seriously consider it.

The train spat us out in a sleepy, palm tree lined town called La Spezia. Rome, in all its eternal glory, is also an eternal throng of people and vehicles all trying to squeeze through impossibly narrow alleyways and navigate chaotic roundabouts. Quiet, tiny La Spezia, with the smell of the sea so close once again, was a welcome change.

‘Cinque Terre’ refers to five towns on the Mediterranean coast, each separated by a small mountain and connected by winding trails. The entire place is a national park, and has become something of a pilgrimage for those who appreciate natural beauty.

We set out early the next morning to find the trail. Classically, the goal is to reach all five towns in one day, but we had decided not to rush it and just see how far we could get.** This was a particularly good approach when, an hour in, we had still not found the beginning of the trail. Our instructions told us to climb some stairs by a church, then turn left at the castle (oh, Europe). Church, check. Stairs, check. Castle…none in sight. How do you hide a castle? (We rapidly learned not to trust the Italian sense of direction.)

Instead, we found some new friends who became an inseparable part of our Cinque Terre experience. Sarah and Alicia had recently finished a two-year term with the Peace Corps in Senegal, and were now looking for the same imaginary castle. We decided to stick together, and ended up doing so for the whole day, and the next one as well. Along the way we picked up Stacy, who was traveling Europe between teaching English in France and studying the history of women’s rights in Morocco. Definitely some of the most interesting and inspiring people to spend a couple of days with!

And this is what we saw:

Town #1 – Riomaggiore.
Riomaggiore

We quickly realised that “trail” was a loose term that could involve ridiculously steep dirt paths up a mountain, vineyards, or crumbling stone steps:
Steep steps!!

Vineyard paths

They're a lot steeper than they look!!

Town #2 – Manarola.
Manarola

Necessary swimming break in Manarola!
Freezing cold beautiful Med!

Directions to the trail continued to arrive in the most surprising forms:
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Stretching break between Towns #2 & 3:
Stretch those quads, ladies!!

Town #3 – Corniglia.
Mountainbound Corniglia

Sometimes, it’s just as important to know where you’re not:
Dorothy, I think we're not in Vernazza anymore...

Town #4 – Vernazza.
The fortress of Vernazza

Supper & swimming break in Vernazza:
Vernazza supper & swimming

Necessary refreshment break* between Towns #4 & 5:
Limonata fresca!!
*We were making our way down the trail through a vineyard, when a burst of radio music and cries of “Limonata fresca!” stopped us. The owner of the vineyard had set up a little hut on the side of the mountain, from which he hawked his wine and freshly squeezed lemonade from the surrounding lemon trees. A gregariously rakish old man, he had not only heard of Manitoba, he knew about Morden’s Corn & Apple and used MB flour in his pizza. “Normal Italian flour, it makes dough like old woman’s skin. Tough! Special Manitoba flour, it makes like young woman’s skin!” I will not try to describe his accompanying hands gestures here, but ask me next time you see me 😛

A truly Italian experience to hike down a mountain drinking from a bottle of wine!
Towards Monterosso (credit to Stacy for the photo)

Town #5** – Monterosso al Mare.
A beautiful end to a beautiful day
**We hadn’t planned to do all five towns in one day, but we had just enough time to make it to Town #5 and be rewarded with a sunset that felt like a worthy prize for our accomplishment.

…………………………………………………….
We had only 20 minutes to catch the last shuttle of the night, but we were starving and stopped at a pizzeria to see if it was possible for a pizza to be ready. “20 minutes?” mused the owner. “Si, e possible!” (As the bemused chef behind him shook his head and mouthed, No, it isn’t!) With enough encouragement (read: getting slapped on the head by the owner), the pizza prevailed and we made our shuttle!
Pizza never tastes as good as after 10 hours of hiking!

The joy of small towns: running into our new friends at the beach the next day. More supper, swimming, and sunsets!
Rock art and calamari cones

To Sarah, Alicia, and Stacy: Thank you for making a beautiful place an even more beautiful experience! This world is so small, we know we will run into you again one day. And remember: Festival du Voyageur is in February, and then you’ll definitely still have time to make it to Mendoza for Vendimia! 😛 Arrivederci, amici…

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On top of the world

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Having accepted that Canadians are the only people wise enough to declare Boxing Day a statutory holiday, Sara and I awoke the day after Christmas fully prepared to put in our six hours’ work in the strawberry field. Thoughts of lazily sitting by a fire with good books were far from our mind.

This was probably a good thing.

Halfway through our morning, our French friends wandered over to us and said that there was not a lot of work to be done that week, and our hosts had given us permission to take off for a few days and explore the area. They asked if we’d like to join them on a hike up to one of the many mountain refugios nearby. They seemed to already have it very well-organized (keep in mind that Jean was a Boy Scout, and that Judi works as a shepherd in the French Alps), so we enthusiastically agreed.

We packed our bags full of food which they had already bought (two boxes of white wine seemed to me an odd thing to carry up a mountain, but hey, I guess some cultural stereotypes have to be respected!) and set out to El Refugio Motoco.

What followed was by far the most physically grueling experience of our lives. These two Manitoba kids were very unaccustomed to walking straight uphill at the best of times, let alone in +35°C weather, let alone for six hours straight. When we explained this to our dear French Alpine guides, who would bound up cliffs like mountain goats and look back at us with curious concern, they replied (very apologetically!) that they thought all Canadians lived in the mountains and did hikes like this everyday. Desolé, mes amis!

Sweet nectar of life: Our grueling trek was made immensely more refreshing by many stops to drink from the crystal-clear mountain streams
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One of many precarious log bridge crossings:
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8000-year old Alerce forests:
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It wasn’t until the final kilometer of the trek, however, that we encountered the greatest obstacle of the journey: a herd of over a dozen wild cattle, forming a impenetrable wall across our path. This was Judi’s (the alpine shepherd) moment to shine, as he plucked himself a long branch of bamboo and plowed through the bovine barrier. Argentina is a camper’s paradise, with neither mosquitoes nor bears nor wolves to worry about… but they do have wild cows. :S

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Dark was closing in on us as we finally arrived at el Refugio, a log cabin situated next to a burbling mountain stream. We were greeted by the log cabin’s sole inhabitant, a kind man named Luis who was surprisingly normal for someone who has spent the last four years living as a literal mountain hermit, as well as his massive dog, Loba (meaning ‘she-wolf’), and his two ridiculously fluffy kittens (the latter seems to be a theme of this trip, much to Sara’s endless joy). We talked with him for quite a bit, and as soon as he heard that Sara and I were married he disappeared back into his shack and emerged a moment later with a bottle of wine, “para tu luna de miel” he said. Apparently Argentine hospitality continues even at 1500m above sea level!

Jean and Judi got to work right away building a fire and a tent, both out of the bamboo that grew thick around us. We enjoyed a delicious supper of pasta, sardines, and, yes, white wine which was now even more in abundance, and fell asleep under the stars.

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We awoke the next morning to Jean asking us if we wanted to go for a six-hour hike up the mountain. Déjà vu, I thought to myself, but he was serious. Apparently another six hours would take us to the summit. Sara and I looked at each other with a bemused “well, we’ve come this far” kind of look, and prepared for another trek.

Upwards we went, encountering sparkling beaches of red stone, precarious wooden footbridges spanning death-defying canyons and rapids (hum the Indy song to yourself here, because we did a lot of that!), thundering waterfalls, majestic lookouts, and huge patches of knee-deep snow, until finally we saw the pole which marked the summit.

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With renewed vigor, we scrambled up the scree slope until we reached it…only to find that it was only a ledge, with the mountain continuing mightily higher. We repeated this process two or three more times, until finally we crossed the mountain’s rocky spine and saw the opposite side drop down into a churning panorama of peaks and valleys. We had gotten so used to looking at the beautiful view behind us that seeing the world stretch on in all directions was dizzying. From our new vantage point, Jean told us, we were seeing over the border into Chile, and more mountains than we could possibly count. We ate some cookies and began the journey home.

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100km of hiking and 2km of altitude in 3 days. Not our usual Boxing Day routine, but one we will never forget.

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En route to the end of the world…

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When we last left you, dear reader, we were making our way gradually southward to the town of Ushuaia, which marks the southernmost point of human civilization. After 31 hours in three different buses (a trip which included spectacular views of the sheep-speckled Patagonia countryside, eight hours straight of medieval fantasy movies, and six hours standing in line at Chilean customs*), we arrived in Ushuaia and made our way in the dark to our campsite, which was also the winter season ski hill.

Grazing sheep dashing out of the way of our bus:
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Tierra del Fuego: “Land of Fire”
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We were in the process of setting up our tent when the campsite manager rushed outside and insisted we spend the night in the Refugio (“refuge” aka very rustic ski lodge), because it was too cold and too rainy outside. It was neither, but he was so sincere he was hard to resist. So, we spent the night on the floor of the refugio along with Pablo, the Catholic-Hindu Uruguayan who ate cereal out of a cut-in-half milk carton with a spoon he had borrowed from us, and was planning to camp just as soon as he bought a tent.

We spent the next few days exploring the town at the end of the world, and found that Ushuaia is a town where one doesn’t walk – one climbs. Built on the mountainside, Ushuaia is made up of vertical streets and cars parked at impossible angles, street signs bearing not only street names but geographical coordinates, an ocean harbor opening expectantly to the Beagle Canal, and, of course, the earmark of human civilization: many many MANY kitschy gift shops!

Looking towards the harbour:
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We planned to hike to the local natural wonder, the Glacier Martial. Armed with many maps and instructions from the campsite manager on how to complete the “three hour hike” to the glacier, we set off to find the trail that was supposedly clearly marked as soon as we reached the top of the ski hill. At the top, we found a marked trail, but after several hours of walking through ankle-deep mud (bear in mind that all the snow has just melted here, and it rained every day we were there!), it soon became clear that the trail was in fact heading in the opposite direction that we wanted to go. We were faced with a choice: turn back and repeat our chilly, muddy trek with nothing to show for it; or press on with the promise of a taxi ride home from the glacier (if we could manage to find it before dark).

The rainbow at the top of the ski hill (our campsite was right at the bottom!)
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Happy springtime! The trail of mud and freshly-melted snow:
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We pressed on. With only an hour of daylight left, we suddenly saw our first sign of civilization all afternoon: the tea house at the foot of the glacier mountain! A friendly taxi driver at the base of the mountain assured us that yes, this was the way to the glacier, but it was still a three-hour round trip from where we were! Crushed, we stood on the darkening mountainside, trying to decide what to do. Did we make the mature, responsible decision to take the taxi back to our campsite and attempt the hike again the next day, when we would be assured enough daylight to make it there and back? Or, did we press on like lunatics into the unknown, up a mountain and back again, possibly in the dark?

Up we went! Up the incline, across a rickety bridge, through a gnarled forest completely frozen over with snow, down an ice bridge and over a stream, arriving finally at… a lot more mountains.

Josh trekking the ice bridge:
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We stood looking around in utter bewilderment. We had followed all the directions perfectly, we had passed all the landmarks, and according to the map, the glacier should have been in front of us. But unless we were really missing something, there was no glacier to be found.

Freezing cold and at a total loss, we decided to take a breather at the benches by a little information placard. And there I read the following:

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In other words, we had made it to the glacier. We just missed it by 10 000 years.

The Glacier Martial:
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All was not a total loss! The trip up had given us beautiful views of the mountains, and had only taken half the time we thought it would (we were realizing at this point that Ushuaians have absolutely no sense of time), so the teahouse was still open for another thirty minutes. Fueled by our desire for hot chocolate, we sped down the mountain, arriving with one minute to spare – just enough time to call a cab and order two hot chocolates to go!

All in all, a successful day.

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*A note on Chilean customs: Any travel to Ushuaia requires, for some inexplicable reason, a two-hour drive on a stretch of Chilean highway. In other words, one needs to exit Argentina (passports checked, all bags scanned, many customs forms filled out, all passengers interrogated). Next, a half-hour drive through no-man’s land. Then, enter Chile (repeat all steps as above). Two hour drive through Chile. Exit Chile (repeat steps as above). Re-enter Argentina (repeat steps once again).
Total time in Chile: 2 hours.
Total time in customs lines: 6 hours.
Word of advice? Do not bring apples, no matter what the Chilean Minister of Agriculture may tell you.

Spring break! (Part 2)

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Stop #3: Puerto Madryn/Punta Loma, Chubut (4h south of Las Grutas)
As previously mentioned, we began to hypothesize that the further south one travels, the landscape becomes more beautiful and the people more bizarre. This theory was infallibly proved in Madryn, where our campsite was a forty minute walk from any semblance of civilization (lugging groceries uphill through sand dunes is a character-building experience!) and by the time we got to town, everything was closed for a five-hour siesta in the middle of the day. In addition, the ocean smelt weird here!
However, Madryn will forever hold a irreplaceable place in my heart since it was in Madryn that we were picked up in a beat-up 4WD, with our backpacks wedged into some kayaks on its trailer, and drove to Punta Loma with José (a Madryn native) and five other Argentines. There, we paddled our kayaks into the vast blue ocean, only pausing when, after about an hour, we heard the incredible noise of a colony of lobos de marino – sea lions!

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Kissing lobos! 🙂
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No zoom was used in the making of this picture!
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The huge macho (male lobo) surrounded by his harem (Apparently women’s lib has yet to come to loberías)
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When you’re in the middle of the ocean with a bunch of Argentines, what else do you do but stop and drink mate?
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Stop #4: Puerto Pirámides, Chubut (1.5hrs east of Madryn)
Just when we thought nature could astound us no more, we found ourselves in this hamlet of maybe 30 buildings, setting up our tent in the middle of a sand dune. We set out on a 5km hike with nothing but a single sign and the hesitant words of the campground guy to guide us. We spent at least half the hike wondering if we were going in the right direction (turns out we were!), but not even caring. From the top of a completely deserted plateau, with the ocean surrounding us on three sides, and the wind making it difficult to walk straight, we felt the sheer power of nature as I’ve never felt it before. And that was before arriving at our destination, where about a half dozen right whales frolicked in the ocean, so close we could actually make out the detail on their faces. It was a truly magnificent experience!

The view from the door of our tent:
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Hiking towards… somewhere
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Awe-inspiring: Right whales playing
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