The surreal coastline of Peru

This week really got away from me! Hubby and I were watching a two-episode show on Prime video called El Dorado, an ‘archeological’ adventure made in 2010 to capitalize on the impending ‘end of the world’ in 2012 (according to the Mayan calendar). The show played pretty fast and loose with archeology – even the supernatural parts – but the scenery of Peru is spectacular. Then hubby pointed out to me that it’s Thursday!

So, this blog post is a bit seat-of-my-pants, but it will give you an idea of the strange and often other-worldly coastline of Peru, where the Andes mountains dip their feet in the Pacific Ocean, creating some hair-raising roads that hug the mountainsides alternating with lunar-looking desert and verdant farms that demonstrate that modern Peruvians haven’t lost their skill at agriculture.

Leaving Lima very quickly shows you Peruvian life outside of the one-percenters. Ramshackle towns perch between the highway and the beach.

You are travelling along the famous Pan-American Highway, an ambitious concept designed to stretch between both tips of North and South America. The United States had a vision of cooperation among all the countries in the Western Hemisphere, and held the First International Conference of American States in 1890. Delegates from 13 countries attended, and among numerous political discussions one of the ideas proposed was a railroad that would stretch along the entire western coastline. Several decades into the new century, when road transportation began to dominate, the highway was born, and it was quite a thrill to be riding on a portion of the South American network.

Life is very basic outside Lima, almost a throwback to another time, with plaster or mud brick homes mixed with shop stalls selling modern goods like open-air convenience stores.

The road weaves in and out along the coast, sometimes moving inward through hills on which the Peruvians, echoing the ancient desert carvings on the Nazca Plateau toward which the highway is leading, have inscribed gigantic advertisements into the dirt.

The roadside is also dotted with odd little shrines and memorials in isolated places.

Within a handful of hours we’ve arrived at our overnight destination, the little city of Pisco. The word “pisco” means bird in the old Peruvian language of Quechua, which has been in use for hundreds of years, long before the Inca Empire. Pisco sits amid the remnants of the ancient Paracas culture, which flourished over 1000 years before the Incas. In modern times this section of coastline is part of the Paracas National Reserve, a protected area that straddles both arid coast and the deep blue aquatic biosphere off shore, where thousands of birds and other sea creatures live on islands strewn across the waters.

The moisture in the sandy soil allows vines to flourish, despite the heat and dryness, and one of the products to come out of those grapes has made the town famous: Pisco brandy, used to make the delicious Pisco Sour.

After checking into our quaint hotel scrunched in at the edge of one of the streets in the middle of the city, where the rooms were basic and clean, we went down to the main square to explore a little of the area before dinner.

Pisco is in an earthquake zone, and in 2010, just two years before our visit, an 8.0-magnitude quake destroyed about 80% of the city, which was still being rebuilt. From the pretty central park, filled with funky topiaries and pretty gardens, we could see signs of the damage in the severely cracked bell tower of the Cathedral, which was so bad that they had to construct a new church next door.

Nevertheless, the people of Pisco are resilient, and many relax in the park as the day winds down or stroll the delightful open-air market.

With such a long coastline, Peru specializes in fresh seafood, and we returned to our hotel for a fabulous meal that began with the beverage we’d been holding off on trying until we could sample it in its home base — the amazing Pisco Sour. It reminded me of a sweeter Margarita, but smoother and more refreshing.

We followed that with a huge bowl of chicken and vegetable soup topped with a fried egg — pure Peruvian comfort food!

Some of our group opted for the fresh seafood paella, which looked fantastic, although I’m not a big seafood eater myself.

It’s a short drive from Pisco to the town of Paracas, the jumping-off point for cruises out to the Ballestas Islands, an animal sanctuary out in the ocean formed of a series of rocky outcrops amid the Humboldt Current, which brings many creatures to these little outposts in the water.

Paracas has a nice little waterfront that you can stroll as you wait for your boat, with cute little cafes strung along the promenade.

The ride out to the islands is smooth and pleasurable. On the way you get an excellent view of a strange and massive figure cut into the desert sands approximately 2,200 years ago by the Paracas peoples! It’s been named El Candelabro because of its shape, but no one knows what it really represents. Although it’s hard to tell from the water as you pass by, the figure is 595 feet tall, and was cut two feet into the soil, allowing it to last for over two millennia and be seen 12 miles away.

You can spot the Ballestas Islands from some distance, pretty grey mounds sprinkled through the deep blue water.

Your boat will take you quite close, and if you’re at all prone to seasickness, let me warn you that the remainder of the cruise is going to be quite unpleasant while you get spectacular views of the wildlife. The waters are very choppy as they swirl around the rocks, and the bobbing up and down of the boat mixed with the strong smell of boat fuel as your pilot stops at each outcrop is intense.

I’d taken an anti-nauseant before we boarded, and had to hurriedly swallow a second one while we were out there, neither of which helped very much. I’m not sorry we took the cruise, but I paid for it for several hours afterward. Fair warning should you choose to go 🙂

The closeup views of the wildlife are worth the effort, though. These islands are often referred to as the mini-Galapagos for a reason, but unlike those more famous islands, here visitors are not allowed on shore, which is non-existent anyway.

Numerous sea lions basking on the rocks
The pretty Humboldt penguin
Beautiful Inca terns

Happy to be back on land a few hours later, we had the opportunity for either more adventure or some R&R at the Huacachina Oasis farther inland. The oasis looks straight out of a 1930s Hollywood movie, laden with palm trees and a circling promenade made for languorous strolling — balm to my unsettled stomach.

However, Huacachina is most well-known for its dune buggy rides across the towering sand hills that surround the oasis. I wasn’t up to it, but my hubby went and really enjoyed it (although he did tell me that it wouldn’t have been a good idea for me at the time).

From the oasis the road enters an increasingly surreal landscape that makes you feel as if you’re on another planet — strange white rocks emerging from the sands, long empty stretches of sand edged by mirage-like golden hills in the distance, with the highway snaking back and forth surreptitiously through all of it.

This road takes you to one of the strangest places in South America: the mysterious Nazca Lines. Some of us would be taking a flight over the Lines to see them from where they were seemingly designed to be viewed, high above the plateau on which they were inscribed, but no advance reading could prepare us for what we were soon to experience. More to come in the next Peru-themed blog post in two weeks!

N.B. all photos are by me and all rights are reserved.

Intro to Peru, starting with fascinating Lima

Suddenly I found myself confronted with the walls of ruined houses built of the finest quality of Inca stonework.’ Hiram Bingham, Lost City of the Incas

In 1911 a young lecturer from Yale University was exploring Peru in search of the ancient Incan capital of Vitcos. Travelling along the winding Urubamba river, he asked local people about any Inca ruins in the area. On one particularly drizzly day a farmer named Melchor Arteaga led him across the river and up to the top of Old Mountain, called Machu Picchu in the local language. The rest is enshrined in history.

Hiram Bingham wasn’t the first non-Peruvian to see the jungle-cloaked ruins of the citadel named after the mountain it sits on, but he received support from Yale University and the Peruvian president to return in a year later and excavate the sprawling piles of rocks, revealing an amazing ancient city that was so well hidden in the Andes that the Spanish invaders never found it. It remained intact and was eventually reclaimed by the surrounding cloud forest.

Bingham’s photos and accounts of his expeditions were a sensation and the discovery of Machu Picchu would become one of the greatest ‘finds’ in history – so famous, in fact, that most visitors to Peru see little else.

That is a great mistake, because Peru is one of the most fascinating countries in the world. Straddling the jagged Andes mountains, on the eastern side the country is the dense green Amazon jungle. Crossing the crest of the mountains, roads wind among the grey and ochre-coloured peaks under an unearthly blue sky. The western side drops steeply toward the Pacific Ocean, in landscapes that look like they’re from another planet.

I hope that by the end of this blog series you’ll feel the same way, and look for a tour that spends at least two weeks or more exploring some of the many, many different aspects of Peru.

I grew up most enthralled by ancient Egypt. A fascination with all ancient cultures, and growing up watching adventure movies with my dad (like the 1954 movie Secret of the Incas, which served as the inspiration for Indiana Jones’ signature outfit), meant that Machu Picchu was on my bucket list but not at the top. A higher list spot belonged to a remote and mysterious archeological ruin high up in the mountains of Bolivia called Tiwanaku, which would be capping the trip and was actually the part of the journey I was most excited about.

By the end of the trip, though, I’d completely fallen in love with Peru – it’s that remarkable! But to see past its most famous feature, you have to take the time to explore its many layers.

Start your adventure with at least a couple of days in Lima. Most tours fly you in and ship you out to Cuzco the next day, but Lima is a great city, and a wonderful introduction to the country. I recommend arriving least one day early to give you time to explore the architecture, culture and fabulous food of Peru’s capital.

Most tours will locate you at a hotel in the upscale Miraflores district. We were so fortunate that our tour, with Tucan Travel, put us right in the middle of the city, just a block away from the central plaza. We stayed at the Hotel Maury, a 3-star hotel that looked it was straight out of a 1950s adventure movie! The wood-lined bar with gorgeous murals, a lobby with classic wall clocks for several international cities, elevators with old brass number plates, and an old-fashioned breakfast room that may have been a bit worn around the edges but exuded atmosphere, more than made up for the basic rooms.

On top of that, on our very first morning a parade proceeded to the Plaza de Armas right past the entrance to our hotel – all we had to do was step outside and have front-row seats to the colourful spectacle. We had no idea what the strange costumes meant, but it was a fascinating slice of real Peruvian life.

There seemed to be a lot of festivals going on when we arrived in late October, so almost every time we turned a corner there was something artsy taking place. Peruvians do celebrate Halloween, and the Spanish part of their history means that they also celebrate the Christian holidays that come afterward. It was a very lively time to be there and I highly recommend it.

The Plaza de Armas, aka Plaza Mayor, is the core of the city, and to us it felt like the heartbeat as well. It’s a very picturesque square fringed by several important historical buildings displaying stunning Spanish architecture.

In the height of irony, conquistador Francisco Pizarro laid the first stone for the imposing Cathedral of Lima, in a location on top of ancient Inca tombs, after he and his company systematically overran the country and destroyed both the Inca civilization and a large part of the artifacts that told its history. Inside the cathedral you can see the entrances to several tombs safely preserved under glass, as well as the tomb of Pizarro himself.

Walking around the perimeter of the Plaza shows fascinating streets radiating away from it, with colourful buildings and artwork, lots of arcaded shops to explore, pretty tree-lined seating areas, cafes with delicious food and snack shops filled with treats for the local sweet tooth, and ladies with carts purveying all sorts of religious articles.

Expand your walk a little further and you’ll come across the beautiful Convent of Santo Domingo, where we found another band setting up to play.

The interior of the building is rich in colour, with vibrant chapels, a delightful trompe-l’oeil floor, beautiful tiled cloisters and lusciously-scented rose gardens. The library is a magnificent wood-paneled room with about 25,000 richly-decorated books.  

Bus tours leave from the Plaza regularly to take you on a wider tour of the city, where you can see everything from the imposing Judicial Palace to flower vendors tucked into tiny open shop-fronts.

These are just a few things you can discover as you explore Lima – don’t neglect the opportunity to spend at least a little time there.

It won’t be until you finally leave Lima to see the rest of the country that you’ll see your first evidence of the wide disparity between rich and poor in Peru. The interior of the city may be filled with ornate buildings and pretty parks, but the poor are all clustered in stacked slums on the outskirts, living a bare-bones existence and working at whatever they can to make ends meet.

A few things to be aware of before you go:

  • The plumbing standards in all of South America are not even close to ours, so even in major cities like Lima your used bathroom tissue can’t go in the toilet (little covered pails are handily placed and regularly cleaned out by staff).
  • Tap water is not safe to use even for brushing teeth.
  • If you eat in central restaurants, you shouldn’t have any issues, but you’ll want to be wary of out-of-the-way places for trying things like guinea pig, a Peruvian delicacy – as curious as you may (or may not) be, things like that are best avoided. My hubby and I had no trouble with the food during our three weeks, but some of the other tour passengers who decided to be adventurous did pick up a serious illness.
  • You may see warnings about a high crime rate in Lima. My hubby and I walked freely around the streets surrounding our hotel without any problems – we stumbled across a great barbecued chicken restaurant one evening on one of the side streets. Just be as prudent as you would in any large city in your own country.
  • Learn some basic Spanish before you go – it’s a lovely, easy language to learn and will smooth your connections with local residents if you can at least say hello, please and thank you. In more remote areas, a phrasebook will really come in handy.
  • Future posts will include information about travelling to the higher altitudes of Peru. You may see some tours that begin in Puno/Lake Titicaca and go downward from there, ending in Lima (more-or-less sea level), but that’s a hard way to do it and I’ll be explaining why later. The itinerary we followed, starting in Lima and slowly climbing higher to allow for acclimatization, is (based on both extensive research and the experiences of our group of travellers) the preferable method.

In our next installment we’ll look at travelling along Peru’s Paracas coastline to two special places – Pisco, where the fabulous Pisco Sour was invented, and a clump of offshore islands often referred to as the Mini-Galapagos, not to mention a gigantic ancient figurine predating the Inca culture that’s carved into a hillside along the way!

The Monkey’s Tail

How many types of birds do you typically see in your back yard? I’ve counted maybe a dozen at different times – blue jays, cardinals, wrens, robins, pigeons… – the usual urban North American coterie.

In the Amazon rainforest there are 1,300 species and counting.

According to the World Wildlife Fund, of all the known species of creatures on the earth, 1 in 10 are found in the Amazon basin – “40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species, and more than 370 types of reptiles. Over 2,000 new species of plants and vertebrates, including a monkey that purrs like a cat, have been described since 1999.” It’s mind-boggling.

The first thing you notice walking through the Amazon Jungle is a battle for life – layers and layers of plant life climbing on top of each other, growing on each other, feeding on each other. Jostling for every nutrient they can wring out of their complex environment.

Parasitic vines will eventually choke the life out of a tree

You look up through layers of green to catch a glimpse of the sky, or downward to a dense layer of new, old and decaying growth littering the ground. Nothing goes to waste in a rainforest.

Layers upon layers cover the forest floor

The jungle is home to myriad creatures as well – carpenter ants carting massive pieces of leaves like banners, spiders clinging to tree trunks, huge butterflies flitting in and out, secretive capuchin monkeys clustered on branches.

A black tarantula ventures a couple of legs out from its burrow near the top right

To celebrate World Rainforest Day this week on June 22, this blog is kicking off a Peru travel series with a peek at exploring that very jungle.

In Peru, typically visitors access the jungle along one of the Amazon’s tributaries, flying from Cusco to one of the jungle’s great frontier towns, Puerto Maldonado. From the Andes mountains your plane swoops down over masses of dense green-ness, sadly patched with barren brown pieces of denuded land, to a murky river snaking through the thick jungle growth.

How fantastic it must have been for the first intrepid explorers to be faced with the undisturbed masses of vegetation, and how daunting to explore for months slowly moving through unknown and difficult terrain.

We arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, easily, landing in muddy, ramshackle, colourful Puerto Maldonado, where any useful supplies for a trip into the jungle can be bought and loaded onto your transportation to the river dock.

Once at the bare-bones wooden dock, we boarded a long motorized canoe that zipped along the Madre de Dios river for just an hour and a half, past steep banks dotted with wrecked wooden canoes and the odd small cabin, residents cruising by in their own motorboats bringing supplies back home from the town, and people using illegal gold-dredging methods that destroy the river ecosystem.

Transferring to our motorized canoe in Puerto Maldonado

The river banks look the same, I imagine, as they must have for the early adventurers, but the river traffic is a modern concoction. The river is wide and flanked by tall green walls of trees – palm, wild papaya and mango, and many other kinds that we didn’t recognize.

Illegal river mining

Eventually we were brought gently up to a jetty peeking out of a clearing in the green wall – the access point to our comfortably rustic lodge, the Eco Amazonia. No hacking our way through the jungle – porters collected our baggage and led the way on raised walkways to the main lodge to check in. Had we arrived a few weeks later, the river would have risen right up to those walkways – the lodge even thoughtfully provides racks of loaner rubber boots for its guests.

Arriving at the lodge

The lodge wasn’t one of the luxury versions, but I loved its green-meshed and wood-sided buildings strewn amongst the brilliant red- and pink-flowered ginger plants with vivid green leaves.

Colourful meals were served in the large dining room – our first lunch led off with a fresh avocado salad, followed by a mysterious banana leaf-wrapped packet that, once we untied the string, revealed a delicious chicken and vegetable rice pilaf.

Our raised cabins were ranged in rows along the grounds, past brilliant green lizards, little brown agouti and parrots lurking in the palm trees. Here we finally heard all the sounds you expect to find, from insects and birds and monkeys in the jungle that surrounded the lodge property, just a short bridge-walk away.

A small agouti roams across the grounds

The accommodations were basic but quite comfortable, straddling the line between civilized and adventurous. Steps lead up to a screened porch, then a large sleeping area with several twin beds, and a dimly-lit bathroom that intermittently had warm water in the shower. At night we could hear the preliminary light rains spattering down on the corrugated tin roofs, and the insects humming safely outside the walls.

There are a lot of things to do in the jungle after a meal and a cup of the thick, dark, concentrated Peruvian coffee that has to be thinned with water to be drinkable.

On our first afternoon we were taken across the river to the lodge’s Monkey Island, a sanctuary for primates rescued from the pet trade. There are golden and brown capuchins, and a particularly cheeky female spider monkey who loves to pluck plastic water bottles from visitors and bite off the caps. I was standing next to a small feeding platform, taking a few photos, when she decided to run across, climb my shoulder and sit on my head, wrapping her long prehensile tail around my neck for balance so tightly that I had to wiggle my finger in between to keep from choking. I could hear cameras going off furiously while I tried to see past a screen of black fur. After a minute or so she’d had enough of her perch on my head and uncoiled herself to see who else looked interesting.

Our spider monkey visitor

As evening fell and we made our way back to the canoe, we could see the deep tracks of a caiman in the cracked dry earth of the river’s edge. Some of us took the opportunity to do a night canoe ride by paddle on the river in the hopes of spotting a black caiman or two along the banks, their eyes gleaming in the darkness. It was eerie and silent, gliding softly through the water under hundreds of stars – that was when I felt closest to the early explorers.

Our long hike through the jungle itself was led by a genuine Amazonian native, Marco, who’d grown up in one of the traditional villages and knew the forest like the back of his hand. He showed us some of the many plants that the villagers have used for a long time to promote fertility, heal maladies, even to send messages – one of the trees makes such a loud, carrying sound when it’s hit with a piece of wood that people would use it as a locator signal.

This tree holds the source of extracts for both male virility (the purplish protrusions) and female fertility (the green vine winding up the trunk)

We ducked under fallen trees, crossed weed-choked streams, took photos of each other dwarfed by just the roots of towering jungle trees. And yes, you can actually swing on the vines.

Our guide demonstrating the proper vine swing technique

Our main destination was an oxbow lake well-hidden by wild papaya trees. There’s a tall viewing platform that some people climbed, but we chose to be paddled around the small lake in a canoe, watching ducks swim along the fringes and a black-collared hawk look for prey from its perch on an old branch. Back on shore, butterflies of all kinds flitted around us and landed on our gear. We felt miles away from anywhere.

In the evenings after dinner everyone congregated in the bar and explored the many intriguing cocktails created by the staff. I believe I sampled an Anaconda and perhaps even a Jaguar, perfect after a day in the jungle.

Our three-week adventure to Peru and Bolivia included just two days in the rainforest, so we weren’t able to catch sight of the area’s most famous residents, like the elusive jaguar or the giant river otters, but it was a window into a mysterious green world that forms one of the greatest natural wonders of our planet. Even today we know so little about it, a place with over 16,000 species of trees alone, and a staggering estimated 2.5 million species of insects!

The sight of a big, bright blue Morpho butterfly landing delicately on a leaf in front of you is a magical thing.

There are numerous rainforests around the world, all rapidly dwindling because of our greed. To learn more about these biodiversity hotspots and how you can help save as much as possible, check out the Rainforest Rescue website.

All photos by Erica Jurus and rights reserved.

How to have a road trip that doesn’t drive you crazy

I’m sure that, at some point on my childhood travels with my family, I must have annoyed my parents. I remember passing the time by playing road games with my brother in the back seat – things like spotting Volkswagen Beetles (very popular at the time), or all the red cars, or red barns, or any other countable item we could think of.

Midway picnics were a welcome break. I also remember having reluctant naps that interfered with my trying to see everything new and interesting. Nevertheless, no doubt at some point we got impatient to reach the end of the journey. Highway scenery can only amuse so much – and that’ just as true for adults as for children.

A good road trip requires:

  • A road-worthy vehicle
  • Some planning around pit-stops, rest breaks and food, and places to stay overnight on multi-day transitions from your point of origin to your ultimate destination
  • Ways for your travellers to keep occupied on lengthy drives, and to stay comfortable
  • A sense of humour
  • A good navigator who’ll stay calm when something inevitably goes wrong

Road trips are special adventures. They feel so much more relaxed, even if you’re flying to another destination to hit the road. There’s freedom in wandering about a countryside that reminds me of the early explorers – getting your bearings with a map or a GPS instead of a sea chart and astrolabe, eating food at interesting ‘ports of call’. We have a cousin in Tennessee, and every time we drive down for a visit we always stop overnight in Polaris, Ohio so that we can have a cozy, delicious meal at our favourite on-the-road restaurant, the Polaris Grill.

Seeing a place from your road-ship is a much more intimate experience – you get to see everyday life, not just the highlights.

At special sites, like museums and historic places, you can build in time to explore at your leisure. Last year we visited Gettysburg, and spent a day-and-a-half following the battle trail with the aid of a DVD guide that we bought locally. The site is huge and so well-preserved that it was easy to envision the different parts of the battle. We also had time to play a round of golf, have Easter Brunch, see some wildlife and take part in a night-time ghost hunt.

Road prep

  • If driving your own vehicle, unless it’s brand new, check it out thoroughly before you leave. While a breakdown on the road isn’t necessarily the worst thing in the world, it will take up valuable time that’s better spent doing fun things, and will cost you.

    Sometimes accidents just happen, though, and you just have to make the best of them. On a high, narrow mountain road in Ireland another tourist car passing us in the opposite direction cut into our lane, forcing my hubby over onto the rocky shoulder on our side. We bounced off a rock and damaged both the undercarriage and a tire. We tried to limp back down the mountain, but the tire completely flattened out before we got more than a mile or so. We found a safe spot to pull over, and put on the spare. The next morning we were able to get everything repaired, at a reasonable price, and we continued on our way without too much disruption.
  • Depending on the bladder-capacity of your travellers, it’s a good idea to look at your route and plan for stops. In North America there are generally plenty of roadside stops, well-marked in advance. Things can become problematic if any of your party have special requirements like gluten-free meals, but there are ways to accommodate different needs.

    Picnic lunches are really fun to do, but here are some pointers:
    • Buy a nice blanket to sit on. That way, you can find cool places to enjoy your meal, like a big rock under maples and pines in the autumn sun.
    • Make food that will keep well, and is easy to transport and eat without making a mess. I like sandwiches, and they don’t have to be fancy. For one of our fall trips, I made fried egg and bacon on baguettes. Just about anything is delicious in the open air. My indulgence was some rather decadent pumpkin whoopie pies with marshmallow buttercream filling. Together with a thermos of hot tea, it was a perfect fall picnic.
    • Have a secure container to transport everything in, some paper towel for small cleanups, cups and plates, even some nice paper napkins if you want the atmosphere. Personally I prefer to pack food that doesn’t require utensils – remember that everything you use will need to be washed at some point on your journey, so keep the mess to a minimum.
  • Comfort is important on long drives. I like to take a lap blanket and small pillow – my hubby prefers to keep the temperature inside the vehicle on the cooler side, so the blanket is perfect to keep myself warm, and I can take short naps if I get sleepy riding along. (He likes to do the driving – finds it boring to be the passenger, although I can easily take over if he gets tired – and I’m a great navigator.)

    Have a pouch handy with bottled water (the air gets dry inside a vehicle), a couple of rolls of toilet paper (for roadside bathrooms that may have run out), some snacks in case it takes a while to find somewhere to eat, and napkins/paper towels/wet-naps to quickly clean fingers coated in potato chip salt or Cheezies dust.

    Traffic jams or spots of bad weather – I can’t tell you how many times we’ve run into unexpected fogs/rainstorms/short blizzards, and if you’re heading south to Williamsburg VA avoid the vicinity of Washington DC unless you want to be stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for hours  – can be wearing on the nerves. We’ve found it really helps to distract your mind a little from worrying by listening either to an audio book or a radio play.
  • Common sense prevails – don’t do anything you wouldn’t do at home. Keep your baggage out of sight while you’re stopped, doors locked, don’t flash large amounts of cash, keep an eye on the people around you. One of the last things you want to be is victim of a crime. We’ve always had good encounters on our trips, but that’s at least partly due to not being an easy target.
  • Be a good guest. Don’t litter, be polite and friendly, obey the rules. When we were driving around New Zealand we’d often not see any other vehicle for the better part of an hour, so the radar warnings on the GPS seemed a bit pointless, until we saw someone pulled over for speeding quite literally in the middle of nowhere.
  • Don’t overpack, but do have gear for different types of weather. I know it may be tempting to just throw stuff in the back of your vehicle, but remember that what goes in must be sorted through while on the trip and then taken back out at the end of it. Also, you’ll want to leave some room for whatever you buy on the trip. Do have clothing handy that you can layer in case of a storm or change in temperature. And footwear that will be comfortable during hours seated inside a moving vehicle.
  • If you’re travelling during peak season, book accommodations ahead of time. We’ve seen people show up unannounced at hotels that we already had a room at and watched them panic when there wasn’t any space to be had. After hours of driving, it’s great to know that you have a place to lay your weary head.

A great sense of humour and ability to not panic will be your secret weapons on any road trip, because things rarely go completely according to plan.

Keep an eye on news and weather reports. No matter how much you prepare in advance, Nature can still surprise you.

When we drove down to Virginia a couple of years ago to see explore the area around Williamsburg, we got a real bombshell. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, on our second day there, after we finished our first round of golf we were chatting with one fellow where we turned in our cart and he asked how we liked the course and if we were going to play again. We said we thought we’d do another round in a couple of days, which he advised might not exactly be possible because of the impending hurricane.

The what, now? Usually you start hearing about a hurricane days ahead of time while it’s still a tropical depression, but this one popped up out of nowhere. By the time we returned to our hotel after dinner it was all over the news, already bearing down heavily on Florida and due to head our way in less than two days while still Category Three.

We’ve been in worse, but with more shelter than we had at our hotel in Williamsburg. Luckily we were staying inland as opposed to out along the coast. That evening we did some rejigging to our touring plans for the week and kept an eye on the storm’s progress. Since tornadoes were also in the projected path, I also downloaded the Red Cross app to my phone so we could receive alerts. We made it through safe and sound, and still had an enjoyable trip.

Make a general itinerary but leave room for flexibility

Howl-O-Scream at Busch Gardens

Often the unplanned things you encounter become highlights of your trip. It’s essential to know opening and closing times of the important things you want to see, and then enjoy time in between for impromptu exploring.

We love to go to upstate New York along the Hudson River Valley in the fall, and we’ve had so much fun meandering around small towns and farm markets, where we’ve had amazing chocolate milk, pumpkin butter, baked goods and great ambience on a beautiful fall day. On a golfing road trip through Alabama, we had fabulous barbecue and southern food based on recommendations from golf course staff.

Based on years of our own road trips, those are my tips to make your own version really enjoyable. Beyond that, safety and comfort are the solid underpinnings, and a little research and planning, plus some common sense on the journey, will go a long way. If you have your own tips or insights, please share as well.

The Return of the Road Trip Vacation?

Views from the road on the western side of Ireland

I retired from full-time work last week, and at an online celebration for me a lot of my co-workers all asked me the same question: Where do you plan to travel to next, now that you’re retiring?

I didn’t have an answer for them. I know that after years of hearing about my escapades in foreign countries with my hubby, they were hoping for something wild and wonderful, but no one knows what the future is going to hold in terms of possibilities.

There are still quite a few places on my bucket list – Antarctica (our 7th and final continent), seeing Petra in Jordan, more of Africa – and I’m sure they’ll become available again at some point in time. What the conditions will be is a whole other story. My hubby and I love to get out from our hotel or resort and explore the local landscape, poke around local shops and bargain for treasures to bring home, chat with people. In Tahiti we went to one of the Food Truck nights along the waterfront in Papeete. It was pouring rain so not very busy, but the trucks all had awnings up to shelter diners, and we sampled all kinds of fabulous food. At one pirate-themed venture all the staff came out – in their pirate hats and striped t-shirts – and chatted with us for about half an hour – thank goodness my rusty French was up to the challenge!

Will those types of intimate interactions be possible in the future? It’s hard to say, but in the meantime, I think the type of trips that my parents used to take my brother and me on when we were kids are going to make a reappearance: the Road Trip.

My parents met in Canada after the Second World War, and, typical for the time, they didn’t have much money. Nor did many people, and road trips comprised the standard vacation for many families. Driving along Ontario’s highways and byways, shady pull-off spots with picnic tables were a common sight, along with some better-or-worse roadside diners and a variety of basic motels to rest weary heads for a few hours.

Our family friends moved up to northern Ontario when I was around four years old, and for the next dozen years we made an annual summer trip to visit them on their farm. There weren’t any high-speed roads north of Toronto for many years, so the journey was an all-day adventure.

The northern Ontario roads that were once gravel are now paved

Even in those days the traffic around Toronto was awful, so my parents would rouse us from our dubious sleep around three in the morning, bundle us and all the baggage into the car, and in the still of the night we would clandestinely slip off to parts far away.

I was always so excited to begin these trips – a feeling that has stayed with me throughout my life. That building sense of anticipation for days in advance, packing up clothes for the trip, my mother making sandwiches and a thermos of coffee for our mid-trip break, and then the hushed setting out on the actual journey with who knew what might lie ahead!

Setting off before daybreak, 2013

(My first exotic trip, to Egypt with my hubby for our 10th anniversary, was so amazing to me that I was bouncing off the walls from the moment we paid the deposit on the tour. I suspect I drove my co-workers crazy for the next seven months, and possibly my hubby as well.)

My dad was usually rather uptight until we safely made it out of the Golden Horseshoe. The first hurdle was a god-awful highway cloverleaf around Hamilton with very poor visibility – drivers took their lives in their hands trying to traverse it, and thankfully it was removed several decades ago. Next I remember my father trying to find his way past all the crazed interchanges on the outskirts of Toronto, with only some unimpressive road signs and a map bought at the gas station to help him navigate.

Pumpkin whoopie pies on a fall picnic at French River a few years ago

The sun would be up by the time we got to a place called French River, where we always stopped for a break and something to eat. Hot coffee and Spam sandwiches sitting in the fresh morning air on a picnic table overlooking the river were the best things in the world in those moments. My parents would always give us a little time to walk around and explore, and I still remember one wet day when I discovered a fairy pond – a tiny gap no larger than a lunch plate in some moss on top of the granite undersurface where rain water had collected. I was enchanted.

After a quick ‘constitutional’ in the woods – no handy toilets – with full tummies and empty bladders we were on our way again.

Northern Ontario was pretty wild and untamed back then, except for Sudbury, with its factories and mines belching smoke into the air. From Sudbury we turned due west along the TransCanada highway, along deep blue rivers and towns selling things like smoked whitefish, until we got to Iron Bridge and left paved roads behind. The farm communities north of Iron Bridge were strung out along dirt and gravel roads that undulated and curved with the rolling landscape, edged by wildflowers and grey split-rail fences.

Split rail fences still in use

The first time we drove up there I remember arriving after darkness had fallen and a thick fog filled all the dips in the road. There were no roadside lights and we had only the car’s headlights to pierce the complete and utter blackness. Thinking back, I marvel at my dad’s fortitude in cresting each hill and driving down into a well of fog which could have been bottomless for all we could tell from the top. Finally, in the distance we could see the welcome glow of the lights in our friends’ farmhouse, and they would usher us into the warmth of their kitchen, safe and sound, amongst the gleaming fireflies that flitted through the fir trees around their yard and the lonely calling of loons somewhere in the distance.

My hubby and I have taken many road trips together, and it’s still one of our favourite things to do. There’s a timeless feel of adventure in hitting the open road. Sometimes I’ve packed a picnic, sometimes we just stop at places that look interesting.

On the road, South Island, New Zealand

We visited New Zealand by road trip, and it was a grand and intimate way to see the country. We rented a car in Auckland, and I’d bought a guest pass to the Top 10 group of holiday parks, where visitors can stay in anything from their own campervan to some pretty nice rooms with all the facilities. It was off-season, so we didn’t prebook anything – just followed the itinerary I’d mapped out and pulled up at the nearest Top 10 for the night (or two). We saw jade-green rivers, gold-dusted mountains, smoking volcanoes, iron-gray ocean waves and vivid turquoise lakes. We hiked to see Mt Aoraki, where Edmund Hillary practised his mountain climbing before attempting Mt Everest, and had tea in the Mountaineer Café he created.

You can road-trip almost anywhere – one of our favourite places is upstate New York in the autumn – and since it’s only you and your companions in a vehicle, staying in hotels or motels that can be disinfected and perhaps having tailgate-style meals in a restaurant parking lot, I think this style of laidback, carefree travel may make a comeback. Next week we’ll look at some tips on how to have a great road trip!

The Skies of Africa – Part 5, Victoria Falls

Our final morning in Serondela was bittersweet. Ahead lay the spectacle of Victoria Falls, one of the greatest natural wonders in the world, but it meant that we had to leave behind the safari staff who had come to feel like family. The night before, one of our fellow travellers remarked that he’d been nervous about visiting Africa before the trip began, and now he had a completely different opinion of the continent. Africans are well aware of how much bad press their home receives, and they are incredibly grateful to be able to show the genuine side of their countries to visitors. I hope that our fellow guests don’t mind my posting this photo, which expresses so clearly the depth of our bond with our Botswanan friends.

Victoria Falls is the result of the Zambezi River tumbling over about a 330-foot-plus drop as it straddles the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. Our Botswana safari guides drove us on the main road, edged by farms and women carrying goods on their heads, as far as the Kazungula border post and steered us through Customs.

We sadly said our goodbyes and crossed into Zimbabwe, where we were picked up by staff from Matetsi River Lodge for the approximately 45-minute drive to our home on the banks of the Zambezi River for the next couple of nights.

Matetsi for me was the epitome of a romantic African lodge in the wild. I loved it so much that on a return trip we made a point of staying there again, renewing our acquaintance with Obert, the lodge manager at the time. I say ‘was’ because several years ago & Beyond renovated it into something more sleek and upscale, so sadly you won’t be able to stay at the beautiful place in our photos.

Upon arrival at the Matetsi Reserve, we were dropped off at the entrance, given some refreshing cold drinks and cold wet washcloths to freshen up with, and loaded into safari vehicles for the drive through dense bush to the lodge.

The main building houses an open-air lounge, bar and round table, on a hillside overlooking a terrace very close to the water with a larger dining table and a round barbecue.

Our blue-tinted cabins were tucked away along the river’s edge, each nestled into its own private shrubbery, with a big bedroom and separate bathroom area, joined to each other by a small covered area that led out to a stone deck and a private plunge pool.


The bedroom and bathroom each had their own lockable door to keep out marauding monkeys, and there was even a slingshot handily draped on a hook should we need to scare some off. We never saw any near our cabins, but there was a big monitor lizard that visited several of our lawns, lumbering peaceably through the grass in the late afternoon.

There was also a small pavilion with a gift shop, where you could buy jewellery, mud cloth and clothing. Everything was tucked quietly into the bush, connected by sunny stone pathways which we were allowed to wander during the day, but when dusk fell we were escorted by lodge staff – we were in the midst of Matetsi’s large private game reserve, after all.

After lunch, we were taken into the town of Victoria Falls for the main event. Vic Falls town bustles with travellers out for adventure. There are a wide variety of accommodations for most price points sprinkled throughout the town and sprawled discreetly along the Zambezi. The Falls sit within two protected parks, one in Zimbabwe and one in Zambia, so you can see the Falls in all their glory in pristine wilderness, unlike Niagara Falls which slinks its way past hotels, casinos and tour buses.

Inside the visitor centre, we were given rain ponchos and an orientation to the river and falls. Then we were led along a path that brings you to the statue of David Livingstone, the official discoverer of the Falls, even though the native peoples had been living in the area for years, and even other Europeans had been there previously. It was the romantic figure of the Scottish missionary and explorer – who named the Falls after his queen and became really famous after being lost in Africa for several years and then found by Henry Morton Stanley, an intrepid American reporter – who captured the public imagination and got the credit.

Even at the statue, we couldn’t hear much, and I was truly wondering how impressed I was actually going to be – until we caught our first sight of Devil’s Cataract and heard the deafening roar of 3 million gallons of water churning over the precipice every second! I stopped dead and stood there with my mouth open. I’d never seen anything like this!

It was April, the tail end of the rainy season, and the Zambezi was in full flow.

The Lozi tribe had given the Falls the name Mosi-oa-Tunya, the Smoke that Thunders, and so it did!

As it flung itself over the Falls and crashed into the bottom of the gorge, it created multiple rainbows, and a mist that billowed over 1,000 feet into the air, making nearby tall palm trees look like little ants. The mist falls as dense rain and creates a strip of tropical jungle in the midst of a dry African savannah. It can be seen from over ten miles away. Even with ponchos we all got soaked to the skin, which wasn’t unwelcome in the hot sun.  

Hubby and me, in our intrepid Tilley hats at the Falls

Exploration on the Zimbabwean side takes a while, as there’s a long trail to see the different gorges and very close to the bridge between the two countries that carries the rail line built by Cecil Rhodes, who made his fortune in the diamond fields of South Africa before stripping Rhodesia (the former name of Zimbabwe) of much of its resources and endowing Oxford University with its most famous scholarship.

One of Rhodes’ dreams was to build a railway from the Cape of South Africa to Cairo in Egypt – commemorated on this flag post on the ground of the elegant colonial-era Victoria Falls Hotel.

The busy bridge has lanes for foot traffic, motor vehicles and rail. if you don’t mind heights, the walk across has great views of the Zambezi and all the human life around it.

Back at the lodge we all took full advantage of the full bathrooms – while hot bucket showers in the bush are fun, there’s nothing like being able to take your time in a proper shower or a hot bath.

Evenings at the lodge start near the bar, where an assortment of liquors wait to be mixed into whatever drink you like. Visitors usually welcome the opportunity to use blow-dryers and put some nicer clothes on – nothing overly fancy, but a little up from bush garb. We all chuckled at our transformation.

Delicious meals were cooked on the big round grill and served with linens and delicious wines. It was so dark that we couldn’t see much beyond the terrace, but the torches kept any animals away. Then it was off to our wonderful netting-draped beds for a well-earned deep sleep.

Breakfast overlooking the Zambezi was a special experience, with cereals, juices and fresh fruit in the cooler morning air while we watched the water lazily flow by before it gathered speed 25 miles away.

Victoria Falls is one of the adventure capitals of Africa and of the world. If you’re a bungee-jumper, it has to be on your bucket list. We elected to take a helicopter flight over the Falls and surrounding area, which allows you to see the deep gorge that the river has carved through the landscape over millions of years, and to see the Falls in their mist-filled entirety – although if you go in low-water season around October or November they will look much different.

The bungee-jump station straddles the bridge at the exact point where Zimbabwe and Zambia meet – apparently so that if any jumper is injured, neither country will have to take responsibility. Two of our fellow travellers decided to do the jump, and as the rest of us stood on the bridge looking over the dizzying long drop to the raging waters below while they got rigged for the jump, most of us thought they were insane!

At that time of year the rapids were so strong, up to Category 6, that white water rafting was cancelled. The zip lines were open, but some people chose to go shopping while a few of us decided that golf in Africa was not to be missed.

At the time, the economy in Zimbabwe was still quite depressed – we were able to buy souvenir money in completely devalued trillion-dollar denominations for a couple of US dollars – so the golf course at the elegant Elephant Hills lodge wasn’t getting used much.

We were given the services of two caddies, but we had to walk nine holes in 90oF heat, with no beverages anywhere out on the course. We saw a few animals – herds of impala, and I had the unique experience of waiting to tee off while a family of warthogs had a leisurely meal – and the water hazards were not to be messed with.

By the time we finished I was suffering from a pretty good case of heat exhaustion. I don’t remember much of the bus ride back to Matetsi, but we arrived back at the lodge to find that the staff had prepared candle-lit and flower-strewn bubble baths for us! I made it through dinner and then crashed in bed for 14 hours.

Victoria Falls has the main airport in the area to catch flights home via Johannesburg, but there’s also an airport in the town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of the Falls. Viewing the Falls on that side is a more intimate experience, as you can sit on a boulder right alongside the edge, and a little further along there’s a side area that’s shallow enough to wade in – a favourite activity of the local residents on a hot day. There’s a decent museum in Livingstone, and plenty of shops to replenish camera supplies and buy crafts.

On our first safari there, we only had one night at Matetsi, and elected to stay on the Zambian side for a couple of nights to be able to do more activities.

The Zambezi Sun lodge is a pretty adobe-pink mid-range hotel set inside the national park, so zebras frequently wander through the grounds and visitors are advised to keep their doors and patio windows shut and locked at all times or the monkeys will invade and destroy everything you own as well as the room you’re staying in. From the hotel it’s a short walk over to the Falls, so near that you can always see the spray shooting over the rooftops.

We did our helicopter ride on the Zambian side. The flight centre was 11 miles from the Falls and the mist was clearly visible from there.

We also took a sunset cruise on a boat named the African Queen – for anyone who’s a fan of classic movies, that was an irresistible choice. Everyone goes on a cruise to watch the sunset over the Zambezi, but it’s a lovely peaceful ride with a glorious sunset at the climax.

And so, at some point it becomes heart-breakingly necessary to leave Africa, to me the most magical continent on our planet. We had amazing photos and souvenirs to bring home – an Angolan harvest mask we bought at a gallery at an upscale hotel in Zambia, a hunting set from Botswana, baskets and mud cloths and handmade copper bangles – but we’d found a second home 8200 miles away that we didn’t want to leave.

The hunting set in the cowhide bag, all baskets, the carved wood box and the long red and white necklace are all from Botswana. The beaded collar necklace is from the Samburu tribe in Kenya. All of these were bargained for and purchased on our travels in those countries.

In this blog I’ve only managed to skim the surface of our amazing journeys. A trip to Africa, if done authentically and immersively, changes your life.

Before we’d left the first time, at a party a family friend named Leo, who was a class-A pot-stirrer, decided to needle me about why we would want to undertake hours of flying, and then all the dust and heat and discomfort of being there live, when we could just watch all about Africa on television from the easy comfort of home. I just smiled and said that places were meant to be experienced live, that nothing on television could ever capture the feeling of being there in person.

A few weeks after we returned, we put together a photo presentation with dinner for much of the same group of people. Leo was surprisingly silent through the entire two hours of photos and videos – no snarky repartee, not even a smile. As our guests were stretching their legs and getting ready to leave, I was standing by the front staircase chatting when he came towards me. Uh oh, I thought, what is he up to – has he saved all his gibes for last?

He stood solemnly in front of me, put his hands on my shoulders, and said, “Thank you. That was amazing! Now I understand why you wanted to go there in person.” Even through just the lens of my camera and our stories, we’d managed to share our transcendent experience with other people.

When this pandemic is over and the opportunity to travel is available again, if you love our planet at all you must go to Africa – cradle of civilization and so beautiful you’ll never forget it. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “All I wanted to do was get back to Africa. We had not left it, yet, but when I would wake in the night I would lie, listening, homesick for it already.” I know exactly what he meant.

I hope that you’ve enjoyed this lengthier look at going on safari and that it’s transported you for a little while through the magic of the mind’s eye. If you would like to ask me any questions about these places and about how to put together a good safari, please post in the comments or email me directly at liontailmagic@gmail.com.

Tsamayang sentle.