A Quick Peek at Perth

Sand, Sun, Sizzling Temps and Exceptionally Beautiful People

My first visit to Australia was as a tag-along on my spouse’s business trip. To be honest, I didn’t expect much. Of course, I figured kangaroos would be running amuck like cottontail rabbits (in the vein of first-time Texas visitors who expect to see cowboys herding cattle through downtown Dallas). I assumed the natives would be similar to Americans. I was in for a surprise.

These guys are hard to see in the wilds. Really....
These guys are hard to see in the wilds. Really….

We stopped first in Perth (three legs and 28-hours from DFW).  The land mass of Australia equals that of the United States but Australia has only six states. Perth, the capital of the state of Western Australia, sits on the Indian Ocean at the country’s southwestern edge and is the world’s most isolated continental capital city.

We checked into in a beach hotel because it was convenient to my husband’s appointments. If you think early fall in Australia might be cool and pleasant, think again. The beach was beautiful, but the heat was searing (and I’m from Texas where we lived fried most of time).

Scarborough Beach outside of Perth, Australia
Scarborough Beach outside of Perth, Australia

Since we spent two days dining and strolling the beach area, I got a good look at the locals (all depressingly youthful and fit). I’m not exaggerating when I say the young women were all 15s. A 10 in Dallas would be a 5 there. Remember Australian actress Margot Robbie, who portrayed Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in “Wolf of Wall Street?” Well, she has about a zillion look-alike sisters, and they’re all hanging out at Scarborough Beach. (The men on the other hand were just your typical big, goofy guys with Maori tattoos all over their visible body parts. A lot of the women are tattooed too, which is a shame since most are goddesses and require no inky embellishments.)

Your average beach girl.
Your average Perth beach girl.

Traversing Perth

From the beach, it’s a $30 cab ride to the center of Perth, where I found unimpressive shopping (I didn’t know to go to the upscale shops on King Street). After that, I figured out how to ride the city bus between my hotel and downtown for $4 one way. We also used Uber several times in the downtown area. The courteous drivers gave us cold bottled water and mints and got us safely to our destinations. Download the appropriate app to your iPhone before you board your plane.

Perth’s public transportation is nice and clean and absent of intimidating weirdos. I loved a sign on a bus interior that said: “Students riding for a discounted rate are expected to give their seat to an adult when crowded.” Post that inside a Dallas bus and it will have graffiti all over it in about 10 minutes.

That’s one thing about Australians — they follow the rules, unlike Americans who do what feels good at the moment. Whenever we got in a car with an Australian driver, the engine wasn’t turned on until everyone had their seatbelts securely in place. Apparently, drivers transporting non-belted passengers can get a huge fine, and police actually enforce the law.

Places to Visit

Downtown Perth’s Northbridge neighborhood is home to pubs, clubs, shops, galleries and scores of restaurants. It’s also where visitors will find the Perth Cultural Centre, and several noteworthy museums.

DSC_0380
A place of interest for the curious.

The State Library of Western Australia is located in the Centre and offers occasional film screenings,  exhibitions and the chance to do research if you have a project in mind. The gift shop sells fascinating history books and educational children’s toys.  I picked up a book about Aboriginal people and how they were severely mistreated by early Australian immigrants right up until the ’70s.

Much to learn at the art museum.

A few steps away is the Western Australian Museum, housed in the city’s colonial prison, to showcase the state’s social and natural history. During my visit, “The History of the World in 100 Objects” was the special exhibit on display. Put together by Neil MacGregor, British Museum director, it individually examines artworks and tools from two million years ago until today. It was interesting to look at the assorted objects and think, “So why did MacGregor choose that? I wouldn’t have chosen that thing. What does he know that I don’t know?” Answer: Probably a lot.

MUSEUM
Learn about Western Australian history.

There is a simple little café behind the Western Australian Museum that has sandwiches, salads and pastries. A shabby chic, outdoor courtyard is a lovely place to sit and enjoy your meal. Beware of pigeons who might descend on you and try to steal scraps from your plate.

Things I missed that you might want to see:

For Campers/Hikers:

Perth’s Bibbulmun Track is one of the world’s best long distance walking trails. Healthy go-getters can walk 620 miles from the Perth Hills to the historic town of Albany on the south coast, passing through forests and circumventing boulders across scenic Western Australia. You can take a day trip or make the entire trek while staying at the 49 campsites along the way. Warning: the campsites are rustic but have sleeping shelters, tent sites and even pit toilets. Learn more.

For Nature Lovers:

The Perth Zoo houses 1,200 animals about five minutes from the city center. Australian wildlife is so unique that a visit minus local critters would be a major waste, in my opinion. Of course, the zoo has African and Asian animals too, and visitors can book an “Eye to Eye” encounter that puts them up close and personal with some of the inhabitants. The zoo is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day of the year.

For History and Culture Buffs with patience:

The Katta Djinoong, the “First Peoples of Western Australia” gallery, is housed with the Western Australian Museum. It recognizes the country’s indigenous community and features exhibits highlighting their unique culture and heritage. Unfortunately, it’s closed for a facelift until 2020.

Contemporary art by an Aboriginal artist
Contemporary work by an Aboriginal artist

Spending Money

You can’t discuss any travel destination without talking money. Australia’s basic unit of currency is the Australian dollar, which is made up of 100 cents. Paper notes include $100, $50, $20, $10 and $5 bills. Coins come in amounts of $2, $1, 50c, 20c, 10c and 5cs, which are a variety of sizes that have no rhyme or reason. No one bothers with one and two cent coins, and all cash transactions are rounded to the nearest five cents. As for tipping, no one expects it. Apparently, service employees in Australia are paid an adequate wage, or so the natives say. If you go to some super chichi place and want to leave the waitperson a little extra (10%), good for you. But no one will chase you to your car if you don’t. As in many parts of the world, tipping was imported to Australia by American tourists, so if you’re in a big tourist area, you may be expected to give gratuities to waiters, taxi drivers, bellmen and anyone providing room service. Of course, the Australians actually wish Americans would quit doing that.

 

A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 3

The Coral Castle south of Miami is a unique home built by a single man over almost three decades.
The Coral Castle south of Miami is a unique home built by a single man over almost three decades.

If you are in South Dade County (visiting the magnificent Monkey Jungle, for example), you must stop by Coral Castle, a 10-acre estate of sorts made entirely of carved coral rock.

The Coral Castle was built single-handedly by Edward Leedskalnin between 1923 and his death in 1951. The “mystery” of the castle is that it consists of more than 1,100 tons of coral rock, each piece carved in totally secrecy using handmade tools. And the creator was no Terminator. Ed was about 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds. His stone carvings include a 9-ton gate that moves with just a touch of the finger (but is now locked down because kids kept playing on it), a 5,000-pound, heart-shaped rock table and a Polaris telescope perfectly aligned to the North Star. There is also a functioning rock rocking chair and a giant obelisk weighing 57,000 pounds. Some of the carvings are calibrated to celestial alignments including a functioning sundial that reportedly tells accurate time within two minutes.

So why did Ed spend his life living in what was then a desolate part of Florida, digging rock out of the earth and carving it into unique shapes?

Ed Leeskalnin was the eccentric creator of Rock Castle near Miami.
Ed Leeskalnin was the eccentric creator of Coral Castle near Miami.

Ed was born in Riga, Latvia in 1887 and became engaged to 16-year-old Agnes Scuffs when he was 26. He referred to her as his “Sweet Sixteen.” Details of the love affair are sketchy. Maybe Agnes loved someone else or perhaps she wanted to be a nun. Or maybe she sensed that Ed had a better-than-average chance of becoming a whack job in later years. Whatever the reason, she backed out of the marriage the day before the wedding, and Ed was inconsolable. Coral Castle is believed to be a monument to the love that might have been.

Born into a family of stone masons, Ed had acquired skills to cut rock, and he obviously figured out how to move it. Talk to the guides who work at the park, and they’ll speculate on how he transported the boulders. A least one guide is a bit skeptical about the “monument to love” story that is part of the attraction’s publicity. What is truly a mystery is how Ed managed to create his unique rock home/compound without injuring or killing himself in the process.

Today’s Coral Castle does not sit on its original site. Ed’s first stone house was in Florida City, but in 1936, Ed learned that a planned subdivision would be built nearby. So he moved his existing rock structures 10 miles to a plot near the current Miami suburb of Homestead. That task took three years and help from friends with a truck (Ed never owned a car and went everywhere on his bicycle).

Ed liked his privacy, but he also liked people to support his project, so he welcomed visitors.
Ed liked his privacy, but he also liked people to support his project, so he welcomed visitors – for a price.

In 1940, when the carvings were at their new home, Ed constructed a coral wall around them. It is 8 feet tall, 4 feet wide, 3 feet thick and weighs more than 58 tons. In one corner of the compound, a two-story column dubbed The Tower housed his workshop and his down-scale living quarters (Ed had no running water or electricity). Despite his reported desire for privacy, Ed encouraged visitors to tour the Coral Castle for fees of 10 or 25 cents. It is said he always wore a suit, white shirt and tie when greeting guests – no matter what the Florida temperature happened to be. Ed also kept extensive notes about magnetism, gravity and other scientific subjects and wrote pamphlets on these topics. Although nothing he wrote has changed modern science text books, his pamphlets can be purchased in the Coral Castle gift shop.

In December 1951, Ed fell ill. He posted a sign on the door of Coral Castle saying “going to the hospital” and took a bus to a Miami hospital where he died three days later. He was 64 years old. Ed is gone but Bill Idol lives on. The Grammy-nominated rocker wrote and recorded a song, “Sweet Sixteen,” as a tribute to Ed and his lost love. Idol’s music video was shot on location at the mysterious Coral Castle.

Ed's inspiration came from the solar system.
Ed’s inspiration came from the solar system.

Coral Castle Museum is at 28655 South Dixie Highway in Miami. It is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and stays open till 8 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The cost of admission ranges from $7 to $15, but kids under age 7 are free. If you want to stage an event at this unique venue, give them a call at (305) 248-6345. I don’t suggest a wedding. By Pat Pape

A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 2

Monkey Jungle in South Dade welcomes hundreds of animal lovers each year.
Monkey Jungle in South Dade welcomes hundreds of animal lovers each year.

No matter how many birthdays you’ve had, a weekend visit to the Miami area is not complete without a visit to Monkey Jungle, a lush primate paradise located off U.S. 1 in South Dade County. Advertising promotes the 30-acre reserve as a place “where humans are caged and monkeys run wild” and compared to most zoos, the layout definitely brings you closer to the critters.

Monkey Jungle has been around for decades. It started by chance in 1933 when an animal behaviorist named Joseph DuMond released six monkeys into the wilds of South Florida. The area has since morphed into a rare protected habitat for endangered primates and is the only one in the United States that the public can visit.

The star of the show at Monkey Jungle is a clean freak gorilla who only eats food tossed to him in a clean paper bag.
The star of the show at Monkey Jungle is a clean freak gorilla who only eats food tossed to him in a fresh paper bag.

A total of 30 species live at Monkey Jungle, including gibbons, orangutans, black-capped capuchins and spider monkeys, plus a gorilla that is so picky about his treats that he won’t eat anything that isn’t thrown to him in a clean paper bag. Java monkeys are skilled divers and underwater swimmers in the wild, and special scheduled feedings allow them to show off those skills. The golden lion tamarin is native to the Brazilian jungle and threatened with extinction. But they are active and abundant at Monkey Jungle, which is participating in an international effort to save the tiny creatures.

Monkey Jungle is located at 14805 Southwest 216th St. in Miami, a location that is still slightly off the beaten path. The park is open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. with the ticket office closing at 4 p.m. Admission is $29.95 for adults, $23.95 for children between ages 3 and 9 and $27.95 for seniors over 65. Children under 3 get in free. There is no charge for parking.

Food treats allow Java monkeys to show off their diving and swimming skills - or not.
Food treats allow Java monkeys to show off their diving and swimming skills – or not.

A Weekend in Miami Without Night Clubs – Part 1

Beautiful Vizcaya beckons the Florida tourist.
Beautiful Vizcaya beckons the Florida tourist.

There are plenty of things to do in Miami that don’t involve dancing, dining and shopping. One example is a visit to the beautiful Vizcaya Museum and Gardens on Biscayne Bay, an unexpected gift to tourism from a man who simply wanted to live well and be warm in the winter.

It started in 1912 when James Deering of Chicago, like most wealthy people of his era, craved a Florida vacation home. But not just any old condo would do. He wanted to showboat, and between 1912 and 1922, the executive at International Harvest built a European-inspired mansion, complete with formal gardens and a private lagoon, on 180 acres bordering Biscayne Bay. Deering dubbed the home Vizcaya, the same name as a northern Spanish province.

New York artist and interior designer Paul Chalfin supervised the momentous project, using more than 1,000 workers to create Deering’s dream of an antique Italian estate. Deering first saw the completed mansion – decorated with priceless treasures – on Christmas Day 1916 when Chalfin staged an elaborate theatrical ceremony as Deering sailed up to the new abode in a Venetian gondola.

Water features, water falls and water fountains are abundant.
Water features, water falls and water fountains are abundant.

The mansion has more than 30 public rooms decorated with 15th through 19th century furnishings and art. There are a dozen rooms for servants, although some lived at other locations on the property. The estate also features a manual pipe organ, tea house, garden theater, plentiful statuary, courtyards, loggias, bridges, canals, fountains and water features, an indoor/outdoor swimming pool, terraces, grottos and one room dedicated to arranging flowers.

Deering stayed at his Florida get-away about four months each year, but between 16 and 18 staff members, including a French chef, lived at the estate year-round. The lavish gardens were created by Chaflin and landscape architect Diego Suarez over a seven-year period. More than two dozen gardeners and security personnel maintained the lush exterior during the owner’s absence.

From 1916 until his death in 1925, Deering used the mansion as his winter residence, hosting parties for film stars, family members and even President Warren G. Harding. Deering reportedly swam in the estate’s luxurious pool only once – while smoking, it was said. Never married, Deering willed the property to two nieces. The heirs attempted to maintain the property, even after damaging hurricanes in 1926 and 1935, but eventually most of the land was sold or donated for development.

Venetian gondolas were a common site at Vizcaya in Deering's Day.
Venetian gondolas were a common sight outside Vizcaya in the day of John Deering.

In 1952, the heirs donated the mansion and gardens to Dade County, for a price below market value, and Vizcaya opened to the public the following year as the county’s art museum. In1955, the county purchased more of the estate’s surrounding property and the heirs donated Vizcaya’s art and furnishings on the condition that the estate be maintained as a public museum.

Today, Vizcaya greets thousands of visitors from around the world. It has been featured in several movies, including Tony Rome, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Any Given Sunday, Bad Boys II and The Money Pit. It is a popular location for romantic weddings, fund-raising galas and special events.

Vizcaya welcomes visitors daily from 9:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. except Tuesdays, Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. Admission to the main house and grounds is $15 for adults and $6 for children age 6 and older. Seniors, students with IDs and visitors in wheelchairs are $10 each. Vizcaya accepts cash, MasterCard, Visa and American Express. By Pat Pape

Vizcaya's gardens are beautifully maintained, and a visit to the estate makes a wonderful way to spend half a day in Miami.
Vizcaya’s gardens are beautifully maintained, and a visit to the estate is a great way to spend a day in Miami.

500 Miles in Five Weeks: Walking the Camino from France to Spain

The Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, SpainFor many people, a summer get-away involves sunning, strolling, lounging and loafing. But Margot Marshall and Laura Evans of Austin, Texas, recently experienced an eye-opening, body-challenging and mind-bending get-away that took them over 500 miles – by foot. The pair recently spent five weeks walking El Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route that leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The word camino means “the way” or “the path.” There are dozens of caminos that lead to Santiago, including more than 16 in Spain alone. The walk may begin anywhere and follow numerous routes, but it always concludes at the cathedral, where the remains of the apostle St. James reportedly rest in a crypt.

For more than a thousand years, Catholic pilgrims have traveled by foot or on donkey to reach the cathedral and touch the pillar just inside the church doorway. While most pilgrims made the trip as true believers, others walked as a penance or as a requirement for an inheritance. For some, it was an alternative to prison. And some simply wanted to do business with the large numbers of travelers they along the road.

A Protestant, Margot first learned of the walk nine years ago from her church rector. “A spark went off in my brain,” she said. “I like walking. I’m not sure I’d call myself a hiker or trekker, but I like long walks. I liked the idea of the community along the way. You’re not just off in the wilderness by yourself.”

“The caminos begin all over the world,” said Margot. “There are caminos that start in Switzerland, Belgium or different places in France. Some people say the camino begins wherever the pilgrim starts. I count the start of my camino from when we decided to do it.”

Later, she heard about a friend who traversed it with his daughter, starting 62 miles from the cathedral. “There is magic in that number,” she said. “The camino has traditionally been a Roman Catholic pilgrimage, but in the modern day, it’s a free for all. People of all faiths do it.”

For those who walk the last 62 miles from Sarria to Santiago, the Catholic Church will issue a compostella, which signifies that the individual completed the walk for religious or spiritual reasons and all sins are forgiven. “But you also have to actually walk the last 100 kms – no buses or taxis,” she said. “I am not sure what they do for cyclists and people on horseback. We saw several of those.”

A pilgrim descends into the Meseta a flat, open section of the Camino that takes days to cross.
A pilgrim descends into the Meseta a flat, open section of the Camino that takes days to cross.

Travelers in Training

Margot and Laura planned for an early fall pilgrimage to avoid the tourist-thick summer months and hot weather. They began training in January. “We set up a spreadsheet with mileage goals for each month,” Margot said. “In February, we started walking wearing backpacks with cans of soup inside.”

Veteran trekkers recommend that walkers carry no more than 10 percent of their body weight in a backpack since extra pounds are hard on feet and knees. The trainees started with 8 pounds and worked up to 15. Most of their walking took place in Austin, including one 100-degree hike, and several long walks in New Mexico and West Virginia. Hiking in the heat was a challenge, but it prepared them for the quest. Temperatures on the Camino got up to 80 degrees and some walkers passed out. The Texans were undaunted. “That’s fall in Texas,” said Margot.

In addition, temperatures dropped to the low 30s at one point, forcing to Margot purchase a hat, a scarf, gloves and a fleece vest. Otherwise, they traveled light. She and Laura spent the entire trip with only two changes of clothes, a light-weight jacket, one pair of hiking boots with socks and a pair of Crocs each. Their backpacks also contained duct tape, first-aid items, electrolyte tabs, sleeping bags, a tiny flashlight, toiletries, journal, pajamas, a rain poncho, ear plugs, passports, Epi-pen, towel and clothes line.

“We had the clothes we had on and what was in our backpack,” she said. “We wore our hiking boots on the plane.”

Setting Out

In early September, Margot and Laura flew to Barcelona, took a train to Pamplona and then a taxi for the 45 minute drive to St Jean Pied du Port (which translates to “Saint John at the foot of the mountain pass”), a picturesque town at the base of the Pyrenees and a popular place to begin.

“We were awake almost 48 hours from the time we got up in Austin until we slept in St. Jean,” Margot recalled. “I would not do it non-stop again. We knew we would be pretty trashed after traveling from the U.S., so the first day, we walked only five miles and stopped at an albergue on the French side of the Pyrenees.”

In St. Jean is a pilgrim’s office where every pilgrim may register and receive advice and a cockle shell for their backpacks. The shell identifies them as pilgrims along the route. They also receive a “pilgrims passport” that is required for staying at the albergues along the way. “Here, we would call them hostels,” she said. “They have rooms with bunk beds.”

The first night they slept in a room with three bunk beds and some American and Canadian women. The U.S. pilgrim became one of their best friends along the way, and they have since visited her in South Carolina.

Alberque Accommodations

Each albergue is different. Most have showers and kitchens, and some have Internet connections. A few feature washing machines, but most clothes washing must be done by hand. Some offer a communal meal at the end of the day, but many towns have a bar that serves the “pilgrim menu” for €7 to €10. While some do, many accommodations don’t segregate the sleeping travelers by sex.

Albergues may be private or run by the local municipality. “The private ones tended to be nicer, but not always,” Margot said. “The albergues have a star system but we really couldn’t figure out what the stars meant.”

No lounging is permitted at the albergues during the day. “They kick you out early in the morning and don’t open again until mid-afternoon,” she explained. “Normally, you cannot spend more than one night. They will make exceptions for injuries, but the idea is you are not a tourist. You are on a mission.”

Pilgrims approach the town of Cirauqui.
Pilgrims approach the town of Cirauqui.

Moving On

By the second day, the pair was in Roncesvalles, a small Basque village in northern Spain. “It was a crystal clear day and the weather was beautiful,” Margot recalled. “We saw herds of horses, sheep and beautiful mountain vistas. Laura said it was one of the most beautiful days of her life.”

That portion of the route featured no services, and walkers had to carry their water for the day. They learned this in the book A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago: St. Jean * Roncesvalles * Santiago by John Brierley, a tome they highly recommend.

“This is the bible for anyone who speaks English,” said Margot. “Brierley lays out the walk in stages that make the most sense. Some go by his stages and others mix it up. We mixed it up depending on how we felt.”

Half way through the adventure, they found themselves on flat terrain in high winds, which made walking miserable. “It was the famous meseta,” Margot said. “Think West Texas with a little more variety and some trees. It goes on for days.”

For relief, they took a train 35 miles to the old Roman town of Leon. “Many people do that,” said Margot. “A lot leave the Camino and come back. One couple left their walk, went home to a movie premiere and had some dental work done and then flew back to Spain and got back on the camino. People do different sections of it in different years.”

Why Walk?

Reasons for walking are as a numerous as the people on the path. The pilgrimage is considered a religious act, but for many, it is a spiritual trip and for others, it’s simply a challenging way to experience part of the world.

“Most people go with some intention, I think,” said Margot. “My intention was to empty my mind as much as possible, and I thought the repetition of walking, walking, walking every day would do that. In fact, it didn’t. You’re meeting so many people and exposed to so many things it is not the way to empty your mind. There is so much stimulation.”

“You’re in the present moment,” said Laura. “You think you’d be walking along daydreaming, but you’re thinking ‘should I put my foot over here?’ or ‘am I going to trip over that rock?’ You’re very focused in a mundane kind of way.”

The walk can be slow or fast, social or silent. “Most people are in and out of groups, and you’re not always walking with the same people,” Margot said. “It’s very fluid. Some people create a group and do the walk together. The wonderful thing about it is that everyone is having the same experience at a base level.

“What you do every day is walk. No one carries much. You can’t. Everybody gets up about the same time, stops at the same place to eat and at night finds a place to sleep. You find a shower, wash your clothes and go to bed. That’s the life every single person has. And you don’t know if that person back in England or South Africa has a Mercedes or a bicycle. It’s an amazing equalizer.”

Fellow walkers come from around the world, and “You reach a level of intimacy with people much more quickly,” she said. “There’s a level of trust that develops around these pilgrims that you don’t even know. Even if you like some people more than others, you’re all in it together.”

For Laura, the best part of the experience was meeting citizens of other countries. “It made me feel more at home in the world,” she said. “You meet people from Korea, Australia, all over Europe, Brazil and Africa. You know people are the same, but in a crowd like that, you really know it.

Trail’s End

Five weeks after launching their walk, the travelers arrived at the Cathedral of Santiago, an elaborate Romanesque structure. “I thought it would be a non-event,” Margot said. “But when Laura and I walked into the square, we both started crying. It took me by surprise. It was an extremely emotional experience. And we did what every other pilgrim does. We threw our backpacks on the ground, lay back on them and looked up at the cathedral.”

After reaching this goal, many pilgrims want to keep walking. Some hike on to Finnisterre (“end of the earth” in Latin), which is a Spanish coastal town a three-days away. But after five weeks, Margot and Laura had no time to walk on.

“I made the mistake of buying a new pair of boots the month before we left,” said Laura. “I wanted a larger size because they say your feet swell, but I should have stuck with my old boots. The first day went down a steep hill and got bad blisters, and later they got infected.”

Larger villages along the trail have clinics. Laura visited one that gave her antibiotics and told her to stay off her feet for at least three days. “This is very common,” she said. “I can’t tell you how many I people I met who were on drugs for blister infection.”

During their journey, Margot dropped no weight, but Laura lost 9 pounds and five toenails. She also suffered from shin splints. The pair often passed cemeteries full of pilgrims who had died on the route, some as recently as the prior year. “If I’d been a medieval pilgrim, I would have been in the cemetery,” Laura said.

Despite the physical challenges, she would take another hiking trip. “There are some pilgrimage routes in southern Japan that are supposed to be very beautiful but very mountainous,” Laura said. “Now that I’ve done it, I know how to do it and I would do it better. The guidebooks don’t really tell you how hard it is. But you don’t have to do 500 miles. You can do different parts. Do your own camino.”
Article by Pat Pape – Photos by Laura Evans

Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 3

costa rica 247

If there is a heaven on earth, it’s probably the Tizate Wellness Gardens Hot Springs and Spa in Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province. Located at the edge of the Tizate River and near Rincon de la Vieja National Park, the facility features natural thermal-water pools and open-air massage rooms where therapists will work you over using natural fruit oils. But even better, you can ride horses, hike through the forest and zip-line over the tree tops.

Margaret, my co-traveler, and I arranged our one-day visit to the Wellness Gardens through Swiss Travel. We were the only two people on the tour and had the entire facility to ourselves. We arrived at the spa, crossed over a swinging bridge (shooting photos all the way) and left our bags of necessities in the women’s locker room near a huge, hot spring pool. Our first activity involved riding horses up a steep hill in slippery mud. Both were tough, ranch horses, except Margaret’s steed breathed hard going uphill. “I’m not that heavy,” she insisted. But the poor guy didn’t sound good. costa rica 285costa rica 279

When we arrived at the first of 10 zip line platforms, my immediate thought was “How can I get out of this?” But our two zip-line instructors (Walter and Enrique) boosted my confidence. They rigged me up, gave me a pair of large work gloves and presented me with a safety helmet that appeared to be made from an old plastic milk bottle. Off I went, braking with my right hand all the way down. That was a killer.

The second run was more fun, and I started to loosen up. But I don’t see how this adventure can be called was a “canopy tour.” You go so fast that you can’t “tour” much of anything. At some points, we had to be at least 10 stories high.

When safe and sound and on the ground again, we enjoyed the solitude of the hot springs pool and revived ourselves with daiquiris. After an hour, we had a lovely multi-course lunch prepared in an outdoor kitchen. Soup, salad, an entrée, a dish of spaghetti (?) and bright purple dragon fruit ice. It was a lovely day. No stress. No rush. Never looked at a clock. Just like every day should be.

If you want adventure, relaxation and pampering, Tizate Wellness Gardens Hot Springs and Spa will fit the bill. Bring your bathing suit, sunscreen lotion, hat, a fresh change of clothes, camera, insect repellent, rain gear, sandals, sun glasses and cash for gratuities and incidentals. Most recently the per-person price to visit the spa was $180 with a four person minimum, $195 with a three person minimum or $200 each for two people. by Pat Pape

Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 2

At 5,437 feet, Costa Rica’s Arenal Volcano is one of the 10 most active volcanoes in the world. It formed about 7,000 years ago and has remained busy during its long life. In 1968, Arenal exploded and killed 87 people, and until the summer of 2010, minor eruptions with smoke and lava were fairly consistent.

Since that time, however, the volcano’s activity has decreased significantly, although scientists insist Arenal is merely taking a snooze. Today visitors won’t see flowing lava, but they can enjoy its grandeur and spend time hiking nearby rainforests or swimming in hot springs pools.

The drive from my hotel on the Gulf of Papagayo to Arenal took more than three hours (about the same amount of time it took me to fly to Costa Rica from Texas). Thankfully, the tour through Swiss Travel was broken up by several side excursions. After the first hour, our group of four travelers, plus our guide, Meyer, stopped at a commercial coffee operation to sip delicious cappuccinos and see coffee beans growing on genuine coffee bushes. I bought bags of ground coffee (the best bargain of the trip).

After the second hour, we arrived at a giant wind farm, which is a source of pride for Costa Ricans, according to Meyer. Currently, 80 per cent of the country’s energy demand is met with hydro and geothermal power. During the dry season from December to May, when hydropower units operate at a partial load, the wind turbines provide electricity almost continuously, helping to reduce the need for diesel-fueled generators. Costa Rica plans to source 100 percent of its power supply from renewable energies by the year 2021.

A howler monkey demonstrates his  howlilng skills.
A howler monkey demonstrates his howlilng skills.

Continuing the drive, we came upon a Costa Rican family on the side of the road feeding a pack of white-nose coatis, also known as hog-nosed coons, pizotes or “snookum bears.” The family generously shared slices of white bread with me so I could feed them, too, an act that may be illegal though no one dissuaded me. The initial cuddly appearance of these raccoon cousins belies their aggressive behavior and sharp teeth. Some South Americans reportedly keep them as pets and train them to use a litter box. But after they teetered on their hind legs to catch pieces of bread and snapped at me a few times, that idea didn’t seem appealing.

Arrival at Arenal  

Four miles from the volcano is the town of La Fortuna where travelers can find good food and upscale hotel accommodations or schedule a variety of adventures: zip lining, white-water rafting, kayaking, rappelling, horseback rides or visits to a breathtakingly beautiful waterfall. Our La Fortuna activity was limited to a pre-arranged lunch of tilapia and flan in tidy café. We then drove to a lookout point at a privately owned rain forest to snap souvenir photos of the volcano. As it often is on overcast days, Arenal’s peak was obscured by clouds.

Toting his personal telescope so we could better view the wildlife, Meyer led us on a walking tour down a crudely carved path into the rain forest of 200-year-old trees with roots larger than logs, rope-thick vines, tropical flowers and exotic birds. My favorite memory is that of a spider monkey with a baby on her back. Whenever she moved from one tree to the next, she’d grab a branch with her feet and another with her hands, transforming her body into a bridge for the baby, who scampered across her to the other side. We also saw the Costa Rican version of a turkey, plus a white hawk and a Toucan. Meyer warned us to watch for snakes, but we didn’t spot any.

When we returned to our van, it was raining, and everyone was drenched. No worries. From there, it was off to a natural hot spring spa, the result of Arenal warming the local groundwater. One of several similar spas open to the public, ours featured six separate pools, each one higher up a hill than the next, and all of them surrounded by lush greenery and blooming orchids. Having planned ahead, we slipped into our swimsuits. We then ordered adult beverages and spent the next two hours in wind-down mode.

Hot Springs

After cleaning up as best we could (the hot springs spa had no hair dryer in the locker room), we were transported to a charming hotel restaurant with huge glass windows looking out on Arenal and serving delicious food. Afterwards, our group motored three hours back to the hotel in the dark. Besides the driver, I was the only one who stayed awake the entire time. I was busy planning my next day trip in Guanacaste.  by Pat Pape

Day tripping in Guanacaste, Costa Rica: Part 1

Juan had barely pushed the pontoon boat away from the shoreline when large crocodiles began moving along the banks and sliding stealthily into the Tempisque River. The same color as the cloudy water, they appeared more docile than dangerous to my camera-toting fellow travelers. Moments later, a Jesus Christ lizard appeared, as if on cue, and walked quickly across the top of the water, causing everyone in the boat to either gasp or laugh out loud.

I was in Palo Verde National Park on the Pacific slope of Guanacaste, Costa Rica, not far from the Nicaraguan border. The objective of my visit was communing with Costa Rican nature, but without giving up the luxuries that the region’s tourism industry offers. The trip was arranged at my hotel through Swiss Travel, one of several area agencies that offer interesting day-long excursions. (With no military, Costa Rica is the Switzerland of South America, hence the tour company’s unusual name.)

Though it is possible to rent a bike and cycle through portions of the 72-square mile park, I preferred the boat tour. Like most Swiss Travel tour guides, Juan holds a degree in ecotravel and speaks excellent English. His jungle-trained eyes were quick to spot impish white-faced monkeys and lazy Howler monkeys, which eat all morning and relax in the trees all afternoon. He pointed out a group of almost camouflaged bats attached to a tree limb, which hung over the river. The bats formed a single line with their bodies, and Juan explained that they were trying to make themselves look like a snake so nothing would harass them as they rested.

Small bats form a line on the side of a tree in an attempt to look like a snake.

Benefits for Birders

Birds are a big attraction at Palo Verde. In the “green season” (i.e. rainy season from May through November), the Tempisque floods and creates extensive marshes that attract migrant birds from North and South America. Two of my fellow travelers, birders from Canada, were eager to see the kingfishers, tiger herons, black hawks, ospreys and roseate spoonbills that our boat motored past.

We didn’t glimpse a scarlet macaw or the rare giant jabirus, one of the world’s largest storks, which still live and breed in the park. We also saw no snakes, though pythons are common among the palm trees, we were told. We did spy several green iguanas, which actually change colors. During our visit, the males were morphing to bright orange, indicating their desire to attract a mate.

A Costa Rican croc
A Costa Rican croc

Back at the boat launch, the group enjoyed a lunch that was prepared in an open kitchen and served at picnic tables on a large covered patio. It was a simple but tasty meal: chicken wings, cabbage slaw, corn relish, black beans and rice. We washed it down with a fruity drink that, along with native-grown coffee, seems to be a Costa Rican meal staple. Then we boarded our van for the return drive down a two-lane highway without shoulders. By Pat Pape