An Article Written for FathomAway.com
GALAPAGOS ISLANDS – In crystal blue waters, I frolick with sea lions. It’s a dance with twisting and turning currents, and the sea lions out-wit me every time. Their eyes open so wide the whites are almost comical through the lens of my goggles. Holding my breath, I try my best to dazzle with aquatic abilities but inevitably fall short.
Brightly colored fish stick close together until a mammalian friend ventures too close, resulting in the instantaneous scattering of one hundred little bodies.
This is the Galápagos. An archipelago so unique, so diverse in its flora and fauna, it is the living cornerstone of Darwin’s theory of evolution. A place so uniquely diversified that no single island, animal, or plant goes without its own special set of characteristics.
It’s accessible to visitors in a number of ways, but cruising in small ships maximizes one’s exposure to each island. Forward-thinking when it comes to environmental impact, outfits like Ecoventura remain far ahead of the pack. I’m on a yacht with only 20 passengers and excursions are intimate.
Every day, the islands hold a new set of experiences. There’s snorkeling with turtles off the beaches of Española, their massive shells harboring centuries of stories. Wise eyes connect with mine below the waves as bodies float on top of the water.
Sharks take shelter on the sea floor as water fills their gills. Silently disappearing, their absence fills me with an instant shot of adrenaline. Like ghosts, large rays glide along the bottom, shadows out of the darkness.
A birding paradise, species are abundant, each more mysterious and mesmerizing than the next. Unafraid, I can get close and enjoy the delicate lines, like fingerprints, on feathered plumage. Stoic mocking birds, boobies, and albatross with beautiful faces are highlighted by deep black eyes. Frigate birds, black as night, wear red breast “hearts” on their sleeves. Brightly colored finches bop along the trail like little soldiers.
In the rainforest of Santa Cruz, I spy giant tortoises. They have fascinating faces, wise and eerily attentive, with rough cracks and calluses on their feet like roadmaps depicting their slow journey through life. Almost pushed to extinction by the islands’ early explorers, the Darwin Research Center has been crucial to the breeding and repopulation of these gentle creatures.
Very few of the islands are inhabited by humans. Floreana Island remains the most mysterious. Riddled with unexplained deaths, disappearances, and even murder, its turbulent past originated from its reputation as a new Eden. As the word spread, other outsiders sought residence — including the Baroness Eloise Wehrborn de Wagner-Bosquet, who anointed herself Queen of Floreana. Disappearing with her lover in 1934, their mystery surrounded the shores of the island for decades. Stone ruins dotting the beach serve as a reminder of the past.
Few places hold onto magic as strongly as the Galápagos does. The islands leave a mark on the heart; past, present, and future are ingrained all at once in my mind.
Checking in at the visitor’s center, backcountry campers are required to sign a waiver, advised on supplies, are informed of the dangers and instructed to hike far enough in the Dunes to not be visible from the established campsites along the tree line. Roughly a distance 4 miles, getting into the thick of the landscape is no easy endeavor. Traversing each sandy hillside is a matter of one step forward, and three steps back. Hard work, hours pass before you make it deep into the wilderness.
With no water sources, backpacks are heavy going in, lighter coming out, and emergencies, meals and water rations, need to be prepared for.
Setting off later in the afternoon than I had hoped, wanting to skirt the heat of the day, inevitably thunderheads started rolling in. Hiking for over 2 hours, our party was tiring, but finally getting deep enough into the Dunes to start looking for a place to make our camp.
Made up of myself, a gal pal and two male friends, she and I were both runners and in good shape. Consistently pulling ahead of the two men; we were in a constant game of ‘hurry up & wait.’ Making our way to the summit of a large dune, she & I sat down to catch our breath while we waited for the other two to make their way.
Suddenly, the sky erupted. A crooked rod of lightening struck the summit of a dune, no more than 75 yards away. Just as she and I looked at each other, mouths gaping, a deafening roll of thunder shook us to our skeletons.
Still climbing & out of breath, the men were ready for relief. With one glance, I told them they couldn’t stop. We had to get lower.
A nationally registered EMT, certified in Wilderness First Aid, I knew we were in a dangerous place.
Pulling ahead of the others she and I walked into the saddles of a large Dune. Far enough from the guys, we took pause and waited for them to join us.
Giving a little chuckle she asked quizzically, “ha, ha, why is your hair standing up on end?”
Turning to face her, like a spiny sea urchin, her hair was straight on its ends, framing her face in a ‘Mad Professor’ halo of brunette fly-aways.
“Drop your pack”, I exclaimed. Doing the same, we started making our way down the wall of the saddle. Not wanting to venture too far knowing the work it would cause on our way back. Catching up, I told the boys to do the same.
That was when the cloud-to-cloud lightening started.
Jumping back and forth above our heads, we had no choice but to go deep, down into the belly of the dune.
At the bottom, took the lightening crouch position; Butts in the air, one hand on the ground, tripods quivering with fear.
Our hair stood up on end.
Our hair stood up on end.
Megan cried. I sang Christmas Carols, trying to lighten the mood. Every scenario played through my head, what we would do if one of us was struck. If it was anyone other than myself or Megan, I’d send her for help and stay with the victim. If it was her, I’d send one of the men. If it was me… I started making my peace with the world.
We waited in the belly of that Dune for close to an hour and even though the rain continued, we decided that with dusk quickly approaching, we needed to find a place to set-up camp and try to create some sense of shelter for the night.
Climbing out, we were greeted by a magnificent sight. The most incredible, double rainbow I have ever seen. Dipping below the horizon, both were crystal clear, extending past 180 degrees. Stunning.
Terrified, none of us bothered to take a picture. Instead we hurried along, keeping our eyes on the sky, looking for our next electric threat.
Cold, wet & exhausted, we made camp. Huddled in our tent, dinner was prepared, ‘Cup o’ Noodles,’ cheese, granola bars, all washed down with whiskey we had packed in.
The next day, we woke to crystal blue skies. Packed hard from driving rain, beautiful ripples crusted the sand. A hard surface to easily traverse through our exodus.
Changing each of us in our own way, lightening inevitably leaves an invisible mark our memories. Harsh lines that course through our veins, year in & year out.
Just outside of Jackson Hole, waits one of the country’s oldest working guest ranches. Relishing the tradition of the American West, CM Ranch offers its guests an unforgettable Cowboy experience, steeped in modern luxury and all-inclusive ease.
Originally constructed in 1927, the 12 cabin ranch packages an experience rich in history, offering five to seven night adventures filled with covered wagon dinners, square dancing, cocktail parties and plenty of daily horseback riding.
Near the south entrance to Yellowstone National Park, CM’s landscape is undeniably beautiful, thriving with wildlife and providing a backdrop for perfect memories.
Family friendly, the attentive staff cater to each guest individually, creating a comfortable experience, no matter your skill level or expertise.
Breakfasts are hearty & made to order, while lunch and dinner are served family style, embodying cowboy cuisine with a touch of modern elegance.
Comfortably updated cabin quarters provide guests with as little or as much space as they need, ensuring that despite the property’s daily activities, you wake up well rested rather than saddle sore.
Packages start at $900 per person and are available from June to September.
An Article Written for http://www.CSTN.org
Having traveled solo throughout Mexico for well over a decade, I have a pure love for the country that has yet to be matched by any other. In recent years however, I have found it more and more difficult to track down destinations, especially along the coast, that still harbor the feeling of “old Mexico” through the cultural offerings, affordable pricing and good old fashioned (rather than cookie cutter) hospitality. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is just such a place. Seaside sister cities that embody the true heart of Mexico, cradling their visitors in an embrace of tradition, and tranquility spiced with a touch of modernity.
Only an hour north of Acapulco, on Mexico’s Costa Grande the still sleepy fishing village of Zihuatanejo (called Zihua by the locals) has a way of instilling you with a sense of serenity. The pace of life here is slower, relaxed, causing even the most hustle and bustle of visitors to slow down to the peaceful rate of the rhythmic ocean waves in the bay.
Getting there is a breeze as the small international airport located just outside the center of town has a number of direct flights from cities like Chicago, Minneapolis, Los Angeles and Denver through carriers such as United, Alaska, Frontier and Delta.
The hill-lined bay of Zihuatanejo is dotted with boutique hotels that range from classic and quaint to stunningly splurge worthy. The beautiful Villas Miramar, with traditional Mexican architecture and hand carved furniture, is located right along La Playa Madera making it walking distance to downtown. Family owned and operated, its 18 well-appointed suites with rates from $75/night make this beachfront piece of paradise easy on not only your eyes but also your bank account. Proprietress Irma Casas is an incredible hostess. Taking me under her wing, she shared tips for secret beach spots, stories about her family and even joined me for a beachfront dinner, where under a full moon we witnessed a female sea turtle coming ashore to lay her eggs.
Below the hills, along the azure blue water, Zihua Bay boasts four alluring beaches, each with their own distinctive personalities. La Playa Principal is located right in the heart of Zihuatanejo, laying the backdrop for local fishermen in early morning and consequently, the best location to gain the latest gossip. Fishermen gather each morning, coffee cups in hand, their boats lined up along the sandy shore before departing in darkness, passing the submerged statue of Jesus Cristo, blessing them in their endeavors.
Secluded Playa Las Gatas with placid waters, sensational snorkeling and nurse shark inhabitants, is accessible only by private boat or water taxi from the village’s main pier. A fabulous place to spend a day, restaurants dot the beach with Palapa Roofs (hand thatched with palm leaves) and offer great snacks along with cold drinks.
Eateries in Zihuatanejo range from touristy to traditional. Wherever I’m traveling, I try to eat like a local and was pleasantly surprised by a downtown favorite La Casa Vieja. With a menu full of traditional Mexican dishes, you’ll find this open air restaurant packed with groups of locals on Thursdays for traditional Pozole, or Sundays for brunch with the entire family. Warm and welcoming, it won’t be long before you are invited to share in conversation and community. Fish is fresh and local, cooked to perfection and beautifully presented. Finish your meal with something sweet along with a spectacular cup of coffee, steeped with cinnamon for a surprising kick. Traditional fried plantains, frozen key lime pie and flourless Mexican chocolate cake are all exceptional options.
If your idea of a great beach vacation is a little more “All-Inclusive”, head up the beach, north to the hotel zones of Ixtapa. Here you’ll find a range of hotels that cater to families and singles alike. Given the All-Inclusive pricing, singles need not pay more for a room, as rates are based on a per person basis. Whether you feel like being in the heart of it all, in a hotel along La Playa del Palmer or off the beaten path, there is an area of Ixtapa that is just for you.
Checking into the new 323 suite Azul Ixtapa Grand, (All-Inclusive from $195/night) the only thing that impressed me more than the resort’s incredible new amenities, modern styling, unbelievable view to the west and delicious dining options, was their incredibly attentive staff. Calling me by name, joining me for coffee in the mornings, and sharing in genuine conversations, all made me feel so welcome, as if the hotel really was a home away from home, all while creating a truly unforgettable experience.
In downtown Ixtapa, you’ll find a number of dining options, nightclubs and shops. The marina is a great place to begin your evening out on the town. Unique restaurants line the boardwalk and fill with people as the sun begins to set. Stroll down the boat lined promenade and find a spot that tickles your fancy. The harbor is a fabulous place to enjoy a cocktail and do some people watching, the warm demeanor of the locals and tourists alike will let you enjoy an evening on your own without ever feeling lonely.
If you’re ready to get your heart pumping, take the Ciclopista bicycle path from one end of Ixtapa to the other on a complimentary bike from your hotel. If running is more your speed, tie up your sneakers and pound some tree lined pavement. Beautifully maintained by the governmental agency Fonatur, the path is beautiful, weaving you in and out of jungle areas while keeping a comfortable distance from the main road.
Public transportation in both of the sister cities is safe, reliable and inexpensive (only about $1 per trip). With routes clearly marked on the front of the small buses, you ride comfortably, assured as to which direction you are heading. The only two buses you’ll really need head to La Playa Linda, at the north end of the Ixtapa Hotel Zone, and Downtown Zihuatanejo. Although some of the vehicles are newer and cleaner than others, passengers are friendly and always willing to lend advice on stops or other destinations around the area.
On the north end of Ixtapa is La Playa Linda, a long stretch of public beach that plays host to El Muelle to Ixtapa Island, or La Isla Ixtapa. Stepping off the bus you’ll pass through a conservation park where you can marvel at crocodiles from a safe distance. Snowy Egrets watch from high trees and vendors welcome you into their humble shops. Along the pier, fishermen cast their nets into the water below and children fill bait buckets with minnows.
The pier is where your afternoon excursion begins. Paying $40 pesos (about $4) for a roundtrip ticket to and from the island, into a simple water taxi that quickly ferries you and a hand full of other passengers to one of the islands beautiful beaches.
About 2 miles from the mainland, the island is home to four of the most beautiful and fun beaches in the area. Palapa roofed restaurants line the shore of three beaches offering ice-cold beer and cocktails along with Mexican food favorites including made fresh ceviche served beachside. Each Playa has its own distinctive personality, catering to the type of experience you are looking for. I headed straight to La Playa Coral, which locals had told me provided some of the best snorkeling around as no boats or fishing are allowed in the crescent moon bay, creating a haven for its coral reef inhabitants.
On the east corner of the Playa, you’ll find a humble restaurant called Princess Rebeca with red umbrellas and a clearly displayed menu of their offerings. In addition to the frosty Coronas that will run you only a buck apiece, owner/operator Karina Farías Salazar is known for making some of the best Ceviche around.
Choose a shady spot under an umbrella of your choice and enjoy friendly service, an unforgettable view, and the sensation that you may indeed be sitting in your own private Corona commercial. In the clear water at the beaches edge, you’ll see fish jumping and enjoy the tranquil rhythm of the soft waves as the roll upon the shore.
Once you’ve had a little time to relax from the short journey and are ready for your next adventure, simply let your waiter know that you would like to snorkel and they’ll quickly return with appropriately sized equipment and a guide who’s ready to take you into the waters and share the plethora of life with you. Immediately off the shore, in the midst of the crashing waves, the water is teeming with fish.
Within the small bay, coral houses a number of fish, darting in and out of their seafloor homes in brilliant colors of blue and purple. Venturing further out towards the horizon, your guide stops and dives deep bringing up Sea Stars, Urchins, Sea Cucumbers and Spider Stars. Crawling around on the boogie board he brought along for just such displays, he lets you hold them, explains their biology and then carefully returns them to their exact locations along the sandy bottom.
Back on the mainland visitors to the area have a plethora of adventures to choose from including a new archeological zone, Xihuacan, opening early this year, nature preserves, world class surfing, golf courses, deep sea fishing, diving locations and award winning spas. Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo is a piece of paradise found for the solo traveler and is sure to be a favorite of any who visit.
Mexico’s Playa de Palmar is the countries longest certified clean beach. The once tropical plantation of Coconuts and Cacao, now plays host to some of the areas most prestigious All-Inclusive resorts. Each doing their own part to maintain the esteemed certification, Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, has been pioneering the arena of biodiversity and sustainable tourism for the last decade.
A process that must be continually looked after, the accreditation involves not only limiting access of gasoline powered vehicles such as Boats & ATV’s, submitting water samples to the Federal Agency of Health, sifting sand for solid debris, but also maintaining the riverbeds and wetlands surrounding the surf.
Passionate about wildlife conservation as well, Sea Turtles are viewed as a “National Treasure” stated Francisco Camacho, the Director of DSPT’s Productos Turísticos in the Mexican State of Guerrero. “With four species of the turtles returning to Playa de Palmar every year to lay their eggs, we cannot stress enough, the importance of this beach to the survival of their species’.”
As a result, the governmental agency has been dedicated to the conservation of these magnificent animals for more than 50 years, including a rescue and rehabilitation facility for turtles injured by boats or other environmental elements. Education is provided to each resort along the Playa in order to train staff in how to handle the incubation of eggs and safe release of hatchlings 45-50 days after they are tenderly deposited into safely located cradle of sand.
Onlookers are allowed but kept at a safe distance by these individuals, employed to ensure the safety of the mother while she is ashore, digging her nest in the soft sand. Guests and their children are encouraged to participate in the liberation of hatchlings back to the sea, waiting for dusk when the beach and crashing surf provides the safest environment for these tiny treasures.
Hotels such as the Sunscape Dorado Pacifico, and Presidente Intercontinental truly pride themselves on the effort they put forward for sustainability and Sea Turtle conservation. Pride that is tangibly evident through the excitement of staff when a turtle ventures onto their shores or as guests gather to help farewell hatchlings into the azure blue waters of the Pacific.