In my previous post, I outlined my child-like desire to visit America’s first National Park and introduced the 3-week trip that finally made my dream a reality. After years of sitting on the bucket list, we finally witnessed Yellowstone’s geological wonderland in September of 2015. It didn’t disappoint. The place has it all: Mountains, geysers, canyons, waterfalls, animals, hikes… tick, tick, tick. With merely a week and an SUV, we attempted to cover as many park highlights as possible before travelling south to the Grand Tetons en route to Salt Lake City. Here’s a flavour of our days and some tips I’ve taken away. Continue reading A week in Yellowstone & the Grand Tetons
I first became captivated by Yellowstone watching a BBC documentary. It charted the dramatic seasonal changes to the park’s ecosystem, including majestic elk migrations, hibernating bears, and the ever-changing foliage. Animals fought the harsh perils of winter. Not all survived. The geothermal landscape struck me as hostile and wild. With a land mass larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, and sitting on top of a super-volcano thought powerful enough to cover the continental US in ash, Yellowstone sky-rocketed to the top of my bucket list. But America’s first National Park is not the most convenient place to reach from the UK, so we put it on hold until we had the time to take a big trip.
Our chance finally arrived in September 2015. In-between jobs we took 21 days to explore a chunk of the wild west, flying into the mountain town of Bozeman Montana via Denver.
Our plan was long but simple. Hiring a car and beginning with Yellowstone, our route to Vegas would transport us south through 5 National Parks, 3 State Parks, and a National Monument. It would span 4 states – technically 5 but I’m not counting Idaho’s 44 miles – with most of the driving distance concentrated in Utah. We would stick to the scenic, off-beat roads wherever possible, aiming to avoid the dreaded interstates at all costs. Thanks to the ever-changing scenery and epic natural wonders dotted along almost the entirety of the drive, I can truly say this trip was the most memorable, completely awesome of all time. I only wish we had longer. I thought I’d share our itinerary along with some highlights for anyone hoping to visit this part of the US.
The High-level Itinerary
|Day(s)||Key Locations||Rough Driving Route|
|1||Bozeman to Gardiner – Yellowstone North Entrance||I-90 & US–89|
|2-4||Yellowstone N. Park||Mainly Grand Loop Rd|
|5-6||Grand Teton N. Park||US-20, US–191/ US–287, Teton Park Rd|
|7||Jackson, WY [via Mormon Row]||Teton Park Rd, Moose Wilson Rd, US-26, Antelope Flats Rd, Mormon Row, Gros Ventre Rd|
|8||Logan, UT||US-26 & US-89|
|9-10||Salt Lake City [+ side-trip to Cottonwood Canyon]||US-89|
|11||Richfield, UT [Via Park City]||UT-224 [Guardsmen Pass Scenic Byway], US-189 and US-89, UT-24 & UT-118|
|12-13||Bryce Canyon N. Park [Via Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument & Capital Reef N. Park]||UT-119, UT-24 [short detour], UT-12 [Scenic Byway 12]|
|14-17||Springdale, UT – Zion N. Park||UT-12, US-89 S & UT-9|
|18-21||Vegas [Via Valley of Fire S. Park]||UT-9, I-15, NV–169 & I-15S|
A parting word of advice: A week before our trip commenced I was glancing over the Yellowstone N.P website and discovered – to my horror – that a section of the grand loop road (the only road through the park) would be closed for construction works during our visit. This changed some of our plans and might be the reason why our route looks a little disjointed. I would recommend checking out this kind of information on the park’s website long in advance – ops!
I hope to write some separate posts containing more details once I get around to sorting out the hundreds of photos!
As we flew into Venice in September 2013, crowds of protestors gathered. Thankfully they were not there for us. The angry rally was directed towards the record-breaking 12 cruise ships expected to pass through the lagoon that day. Italian passions extended to some individuals donning wetsuits and jumping into the Giudecca canal in an attempt to block the passage of the enormous liners. It was a shocking spectacle, but during our time in the city I could see the logic behind their concerns. Not only are the giant ships causing environmental and cultural damage, but more generally Venice is chock-a-block with tourists which has pushed prices up for those who live there. To put a number on it – according to the press – 35,000 tourists arrived by ship that day. That’s the equivalent to half the city’s regular population.
I had longed to visit Venice. I’d seen it in films and on TV, oozing glamour and romance. I wanted to see how an entire city can just float. But not overly comfortable in crowds I found myself a little disheartened. Was this one big – and INCREDIBLY expensive – mistake? For a place that relies on tourism, the numbers seemed excessive and I could barely move without inadvertently photobombing randoms. I can’t imagine how crazy numbers swell during the summer months. So with this in mind here are some of the things we got up to whilst trying our best to avoid the crowds.
Private speed boat lagoon tour
Through Trip Advisor I found Il Bragozzo, a small local company who offer an alternative way to visit the lagoon – aboard a classic wooden speedboat. Our 3-hour tour covered a handful of the more than 100 small islands that make up Venice’s lagoon, including our first stop, the old convent of San Francesco del Deserto still inhabited by the Friars Minori, and not accessible by public transport.
The further north we pass, the more the landscape changes into narrow channels, salt marsh and swamp, providing an area of what Venice would have looked like hundreds of years ago. Our next stop is a delight for the eyes – the picturesque fisherman’s island of Burano. Lined with colourful fishermen’s houses, the place is recommended for casual seafood eateries (shame we can’t stick around for lunch), and is celebrated for lace making.
Next up is the island of Murano, world-renowned for it’s historic glass factories. Every other shop displays ornate (some may say OTT) glasswork and locally-crafted souvenirs. Some workshops provide live glass-blowing demonstrations so you can watch artisans at work. It is mesmerising. This is the place to come if you want to buy a chandelier to rival Tiffany… and to break the bank!
Vaporetto to San Michele
The cemetery island of San Michele is a short ride north-east of Venice by public water taxi (Vaporetto). It is a tranquil place, both somber and celebratory, honouring those passed through colourful, well-manicured displays and moving effigies. We take a quiet stroll and find the graves of 7 British casualties from WW1 in the Protestant section of the east corner.
On my birthday we take a private tour with photo journalist Marco Secchi. At this point neither one of us had ever used anything but a point-and-shoot camera (probably obvious from our photos here), so I looked forward to learning some technical stuff whilst seeing some quieter areas. Marco was very patient, and the resulting pictures made an improvement on our usual snaps. He took us along the west-side of the Grand Canal, ending at the world-famous Rialto Bridge just before sunset. He also took us to possibly the best gelato shop: Gelateria il Doge on Calle Traghetto Vecchio.
Saint Marks Square
OK, so i’ll concede that no trip to Venice is complete without seeing the central piazza San Marco. Home to the iconic basilica, Doge’s Palace, mechanical clocktower, and a host of over-priced eateries, it is a central-hub that draws HUGE crowds. The below picture was taken at around 8am, before many of the restaurants had opened in an attempt to see it before the place became mobbed. I recommend visiting early or late – basically whenever the cruisers are back on their ships..
Alternatively, you can get a great view into the square from the bell tower of San Giorgio Maggiore across the bay.
I would have loved to have seen inside the clocktower. There are some limited tours that need to be booked well in advance that allow a glimpse of the intricate workings of this historic technology.
Doge’s Palace secret itineraries tour
Part of the reason we made it to Saint Mark’s square so early – I’m really not a morning person – was a reservation we held for the first tour of the day of the Doge’s Palace. Hailed as a gothic masterpiece, the structure is regarded as a symbol of the city. It was formerly home not only to the Doge (the ruler of Venice) but also to the entire state administration. The ‘secret’ tour promised a glimpse of areas usually inaccessable to the public, which included the prison cell where Casanova was held, as well as a few extra passageways and the Inquisitor’s room. In total it lasted around 75 minutes. I found it interesting, but honestly, I think it would have been much better if our guide had been more engaging and if the group was smaller.
As the tour didn’t cover any of the main rooms of the palace – which is enormous – we sprung for an audio guide and spent perhaps another 2 hours wandering through rich interiors. Ornate architecture and elaborate decoration adorn every corner, with works by artists such as Titian, Veronese and Tintoretto. We also got to walk across the Bridge of Sighs, which I [shamefully] first heard about from Dan Brown’s novel Inferno!
Via Garibaldi neighbourhood
To the east of Saint Marco is the relatively quiet neighbourhood of Via Garibaldi. Less than a mile from Saint Mark’s square, it is a great place to stroll away a few hours and feel as though you have seen a more residential/ ‘real’ side of the city. We enjoyed simple but tasty cichetti (Italian tapas) and drunk Campari outside one of the many small street bars filled with locals.
Despite Venice being car-free, it was relatively straight-forward to pick up a rental car from Marco Polo airport (across the lagoon), and embark on a road-trip. We drove north via the pretty city of Verona, into the mountainous lake region. In less than 3 hours we arrived at Lake Garda, where for 5 days we enjoyed some off-season R&R. Oh and more than a few gelatos!
With a hint of early spring in the air it seemed like a good idea to escape London. In an hour-and-a-half we arrived in Hastings, one of England’s oldest seaside towns. It’s a place that will sound familiar to anyone ever taught in the British school system. Home to the infamous 1066 Battle of Hastings – the one where William, Duke of Normandy became the Conquerer and King Harold met his end with an arrow through the eye, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite the grisly past, today’s seaside ports of Hastings, Rye, (and nearby Battle where the war was actually fought), are all charming destinations in East Sussex worth a visit.
Setting out beneath a clear-blue sky the plan was simple: to walk 13.2 miles from Hastings to Rye, then catch the train back again. But as we all know, not everything always goes to plan. Still, our walk began as expected, joining the Saxon Shore way above Rock-a-Nore beach. In sunnier seasons, a Victorian funicular railway operates, carrying people up the 300-foot vertical cliff face to Hasting Country Park. But it was February, so we contend with the stairs.
From the map, our intended path roughly traces the coastline. But from the outset, signs warn of an up-coming area of coastal erosion. Less than a quarter of a mile into the walk we traipse inland, across boggy fields making very slow progress. Eager to re-join the Saxon Way, we end up bush-whacking through Ecclesbourne Glen, something I wouldn’t recommend. Once back on the trail, the undulating path provides views out across the English Channel towards France. The odd ship appears on the horizon.
The Saxon Shore Way has another unfortunate break further along the trail. Not shown on our GPS, we come to a dead-end in Fairlight Cove where the road has literally fallen into the sea far below. A local, out tending his lawn informs us the road has been like it for years. So we follow a series of quiet residential roads without sea views, until the trail returns in Cliff End. From our vantage point we see Pett Level Beach stretching out in the sun below. We opt to get closer to the beach, so we descend down and depart the trail to walk along the raised sea wall. Only once we join the long, straight beach, do I realise its made of shingle, not sand. I spot the odd tree root poking up from the surf, remnants of the ancient forest that once grew here before rising sea-levels buried it. On the opposite side of Pett Level Road, expansive wetlands attract bird-watchers, who sit in their cars with binoculars and probably flasks of tea milling away the hours.
It’s taken us longer than it should have to reach the end of the beach, so we sit outside the beach cafe with a drink to decide what to do. We want to return to Hastings before it gets dark so we can explore it today. I’m also really hungry! So at that point, based on the train and bus timetables, we elect to shorten our route by around 1.5 miles to end at Winchelsea instead of Rye. This involves cutting across the nature reserve – completely soaking my feet – to enter the small town through the imposing 13th century New Gate. Winchelsea is an attractive little place. It centres around the very grand, gothic St Thomas’ Church. Unfortunately we don’t have time to visit the local pub, due to the expected bus, so instead we take a quick stroll through the churches graveyard. Within it lies the final resting place of the much-loved British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan.
Whilst today wasn’t the prettiest coastal walk I’ve ever done in England, this may partly be due to the time of year and various diversions. But it’s accessibility from London, and the attractive towns on route make it a great choice for an easy day-trip. It’s possible to travel to Hastings by train from various London stations. I believe the quickest route is from Cannon Street in 1 hour 29 minutes. The return from Rye station (into St Pancras) can be done in little over an hour.
On a side-note I really should invest in some hi-top waterproof shoes. The number of water-logged fields we crossed during this hike definitely slowed us down. I just need to find a comfortable pair so I don’t end the day in one big squelching, wrinkled-footed mess!
Mauled by bears. Eaten by mountain lions. Shot by poachers. Murdered by a rogue driver whilst hitch-hiking. These were some of the many fears that accompanied me onto the PCT in 2016. But you know what? During my travels through Oregon and Washington I never met a single person who departed the trail for any of the above reasons.
A wealth of information already exists regarding why thru-hikers quit. I shall not attempt to cover the same ground. If you want to read more about the PCT specifically, I recommend Halfway Anywhere’s annual thru-hiker survey. The latest survey for 2017 showed a 52% drop-out rate* – based on 556 thru-hiking hopefuls who responded to the survey. Of these, the top 3 reasons for an early trail exit were: Injury (29%); Snow (14%), Fires (14%).
*It’s worth noting that the number of people who actually quit is far greater. Based on the number of thru-hiker permits the PCTA issued in 2017 (3934) versus the number of people reported to have completed the trail (461), the drop-out rate is closer to 88%! But as a lot of people never report back after receiving their permits and there is no turnstile at the end of the trail, we can’t say for sure what the true success rate really is. Most guess-timates average between 50-60%.
Year-after-year the stats identify obvious trends, but from my own trail experience the personal stories of those who didn’t make it to Canada were sometimes surprising. A lot of this boils down to the diverse range of people hiking the PCT to begin with. The vast majority of trail stories and images seen on social media are posted by young, fit, thru-hiking hopefuls which makes for a misleading representation. Not everyone on the trail are thru-hikers. And many are older, with different backgrounds and motivations for being out walking. Let’s face it, your average 30-50 year-old with kids can rarely quit their job to go hiking for months on end! There is also a wide variety in skill levels. From your TOTAL amateur – such as yours truly – all the way to 80-year olds who have been backpacking and camping in the woods their entire lives.
I only set out to complete a 900-mile section of the northern route, so I mostly met long-distance section hikers on my travels, but there were some encounters with thru hikers who had endured everything that California had to throw at them only to call it a day once conditioned. Some stories highlight human error or poor preparation, but others prove that not every obstacle can be mitigated against. I’m a big advocate for believing that while completing a full thru-hike is a highly impressive feat, it’s more about the journey than the destination. Meaning perhaps the rationale behind a persons decision to join the trail doesn’t actually require the completion of 2650 miles for the experience to be deemed ‘successful’. Here are a few tales from the people I met who decided to head home short of their original goal. I have changed or omitted people’s names to protect their dignity…
Larry – was a veteran hiker and PCT advocate who spends a large amount of his retirement in the mountains. Over the years Larry has been gradually completing the PCT in sections – a great idea I thought – and was very close to completing the entire trail when we met one afternoon in central Oregon. Larry reminded me of a full-grown Boy Scout. He had all the gear and knew how to use everything, which I found both entertaining and highly informative. I learnt a lot from Larry from just a single shared camp, and I was sure he was about to smash the few hundred miles he had remaining. But not everything is a dead-cert. Within three days of saying our goodbyes I received an email from him confirming he had given up. He described the ‘negative fun’ of his experience brought on entirely due to those pesky little fuckers: mosquitos. Yes, their blood-crazed persistent attacks had transformed his solitude into a constant battle, one which he simply wasn’t happy to endure.
GI Joe was an 18-year old adrenaline junkie hoping to join the marines after completing the PCT. We met him in Fish Lake Oregon, as he stumbled into the resort with a bleeding head and cut up legs. Within minutes of his arrival the resort’s owner was on the deck with Joe’s mother on the phone in a frantic state wanting to report her son had an accident nearby and couldn’t be reached on his cell. After being patched up from the blow to the head he sustained whilst climbing over a fallen tree in a lava field, Joe decided to quit. Strangely he didn’t attribute his decision to the accident. Instead he declared he was simply ‘bored’. I was shocked at the time – his adventure had included ice-climbing summits on the side just for the fun of it, and he was still far ahead of most thru-hikers so he obviously possessed exceptional fitness, but conversely he had underestimated the mental grind. Maybe Joe’s hike didn’t came with high stakes. Maybe giving up made no material difference to his life. Maybe he got a better offer for spending his summer.
‘Ultra-lite’ Lucy was a lady from Alaska with years of hiking under her belt – in fact she had previously hiked the entire trail when I met her travelling south-bound through Washington. She presumably therefore knew what she was doing. But after meeting her in 2016 another hiker told me about what happened the year before. In 2015 Lucy set off her emergency beacon after getting lost in a snow field and had to be airlifted off the mountain. You see in going ‘ultra-lite’ she had made the mistake of not being adequately prepared for cold temperatures: remember what the Boy Scouts say about being prepared? She also elected to not carry a GPS which could have been used to navigate her way out of such pickle. Maybe she was over-confident in her abilities, but hyperthermia actually happens in the wild so it’s best to do whatever you can to protect yourself and carry the necessary provisions.
The Drifters. Trail life seems to attract some transient-types. Not every person who sets foot on the trail does so for the physical challenge. Some individuals who are perhaps a bit lost in life turn to the trail for solitude or companionship, uniting with strangers through the common hiking path. We met one such guy on our second day in Oregon who certainly didn’t resemble your typical hiker. He stood perhaps 3 stone over-weight – not that I’m judging – and never seemed to be in a rush. The verbal trail grapevine later reported how the big guy had made it as far as Fish Lake before getting talking to an elderly couple in an RV. They offered him some casual yard work at their home so he left with them just like that. Another drifter made it to Crater Lake (where he started from I was always unclear), before getting so smashed on $1 cans of beer that no reports showed he ever re-joined the trail. We left him in a drunken stupor in the middle of the free PCT campground ranting away incoherently, totally oblivious to the mosquitos.
Nature boy was out section-hiking through Oregon when he stood on a piece of glass in camp and had to hitch-hike out to hospital. Shame he hadn’t thought to put some shoes on.
Stevo was off to college in the fall. Beforehand, he and a group of buddies decided to hike through Oregon and Washington, inspired so it seemed by the legalisation of recreational pot in these two states. But his buddies were not committed. For them it was one big party which had lost its appeal by the time they reached Timberline Lodge. They waited until Cascade Locks though to inform Stevo they were not going any further. Stevo found himself in a dilemma because he, unlike them, was relying on the hiking experience for material inspiration for the college submission essay he still needed to write. When the others departed for Portland Stevo persevered, crossing the Bridge of Gods into Washington alone. This was it, he would show them. But in less than 100 miles he realised camping alone was not for him. It wasn’t what he had signed up for, in fact it made him very anxious, so he shared camp with us for a few nights before getting a ride back to Seattle. I hope he managed to write that essay.
Snow. Those set to hike the full PCT will expect to inevitably encounter snow somewhere along the way, but those on shorter hikes may not. Surely by late June one can enjoy a hike on the PCT without snow – right? Well this wasn’t the case in Oregon when we started on 20th June. An ‘exceptional’ snow year, meant that areas typically snow-free by then were still buried. This caught a few people out, and not prepared for the white stuff they decided enough was enough. These included an older otherwise care-free couple, who drew the line when it came to the possibility of loosing their tracking on Devil’s Peak, but also a young and highly experienced hiker. He lived in Oregon and was familiar with the mountains, but his ‘downfall’ if I can call it that, was over-ambition. You see, not anticipating how much the snow and tree blow-downs would slow him down, he overestimated his daily mileage and therefore hadn’t packed enough supplies. This motivated him to walk a 14-hour day to reach the next resupply stop at Crater Lake, which by the time he made it his legs had seized up and he was walking like a robotic Bruce Wayne. He admitted defeat and called his parents to pick him up.
Finally – and especially for any thru-hiking hopefuls out there – completing a long-distance hike often requires a large degree of luck. Take this last hiking year for example. In August, wild fires began blazing near Mount Rainer National Park closing a 70-mile section of the Washington PCT. These closures lasted long into winter. By March 2018 the PCTA still couldn’t comment on the resulting damage or say whether detours would be required in the months to come. So following miles of pain, sweat, and blisters, one may have to accept the heartbreaking reality: it can all suddenly end thanks to Mother Nature.
Havana is not the place your Instagram feed would suggest. When I returned from Cuba last year, I kept getting asked what the place was like. People seemed genuinely curious. Looking at the pictures that I had snapped, I realised they didn’t follow the narrative I was sharing or convey a true picture of what Havana was actually like. I had shamefully fallen victim to the ‘filtered perception’ trap that plagues social media. My images focused on the glamor. They paid way too much attention to classic cars in every shade of pastel, the best examples of palatial buildings, and the odd mojito. But the stories I told, and the images that stick in my mind tell a very different story.
What I witnessed was an obviously once-illustrious capital crumbling in decay. Physically I mean. Ornate edifices that symbolise the era of Spanish colonialism still dominate the cityscape. If you don’t look too hard, you could almost be in Valencia, with large shaded plazas, grand churches, and the odd churro vendor. But the condition of the buildings signifies a telling change in circumstance. Constructions that would be condemned in most cities, are instead full of families who have fashioned units through crude sub-divisions. The structural integrity of many of these buildings look highly questionable, with some leveraging wooden planks for support. A British Health and Safety Inspector would have a field day!
Some of the most dilapidated structures that I assume are empty, have washing hanging off iron-ballastrads. I want to be able to close my eyes and time-hop back to the metropolis in it’s heyday. Surely, life for the people of Havana must have been very different back then. Of course there are some buildings that have been saved, mostly government ones, or those of touristic significance. The Museo de la Revolución, Gran Teatro, El Capitolio, and Hotel Nacional de Cuba, to name just a few are all impressive examples of more affluent times.
Architecture aside, the next thing that strikes me as I wandered around the Central and Old Town was the unique world of commerce. Shops, and the physical effort of shopping are both stuck in a time-warp. Locals buy their groceries mostly from government-owned establishments that are little more than small, dark shells with a counter-top and scales. Each one often contains specific produce – locals go to the egg place for an open tray of eggs, and the butcher for meat, using food rations for certain staples. Inside a larger exchange, individual counters sell dry produce, but there are no aisles for selecting different brands of goods from the shelf. Products are generic. I watch with fascination as an employee scoops rice from a large sack into scales whilst the shopper looks on patiently. The air inside has a warm aroma of grease wafting over from a small snack counter. I can’t decide if it’s an enticing smell or not. In this stark, fluorescent space, the ambience certainly isn’t urging me to eat.
In the absence of big, luminous shop signs or windows full of advertisements, it’s sometimes hard to know exactly what you’re looking at. In four days of walking around the city I only noticed one shoe shop. It wasn’t like any I had ever seen before either. Inside, functional-looking footwear sat encased within walls of antique wooden cabinets. I wonder if this is what shopping was like for my grandparents in post-war Britain, with limited supplies and continued food rationing? On the plus-side, living in a country virtually devoid of consumerism, must make life somewhat simpler.
Almost all shopping is cash-based in Cuba. Although, confusingly there are two versions of Cuban currency. Local people spend the Cuban Peso (CUP), which is much cheaper than the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) reserved for visitors. Unsurprisingly, as not all shops accept both currencies, this can result in diverging prices for a bottle of the same local rum.
Outside another non-descript building a long queue has formed. I ask our local guide Isbel about it when we take a tour with him the next day. He explains that the people were waiting for the Cubacel branch – the national mobile phone network – to re-open after siesta, so they could purchase SIM cards, or top up mobile phone credit. Although many people now own mobile phones, popular culture hasn’t fully embraced the internet in the same way it has elsewhere. Internet has been spreading fast over recent years, with some wi-fi zones now dotted around city parks, but the web remains heavily censored and is not free. The internet system seems to work much like the dual currency system. On one-side sits a global internet, which we dial into using a [limited] access card for our hotel’s wi-fi. This service is largely cost-prohibitive for most Cubans. Then there is the local Cuban internet, which sounds more like an intranet. It’s cheaper, but people pay the price through restrictions imposed by the government-owned communications companies.
Something else beyond the reach for most people: those pristine American classic cars that you see in all the photos. These Maquinas are almost entirely reserved for the tourism industry. Acting as a regular taxi, they carry foreigners who – like us – revel in being pictured in them. For such novelty a premium rate is charged. Most locals cannot afford to even own a car, and for the few who do, they have generally been inherited for grandparents, who have passed them down through the generations. This is because, since the dawn of Soviet Cuba, Cubans were prohibited from buying new cars. Only a select few who did work for the government were given car permits. This promotes a real make-do-and-mend culture. But look under the bonnet of most of these vintage cars, joked Isbel, and you will be lucky to find anything original. Even in todays market, buying a car from a state-run dealership will be financially out of reach for the majority of Cubans. Instead, some city workers use a Colectivo. It works as a kind of semi-private bus/car-pooling service, where typically old rusty rides ferry people between pre-determined collection points. We witnessed this in a popular plaza – a black Lada pulled up to the curb, strangers piled in with virtually no interaction, and within seconds everyone had left looking very snug. For workers who don’t own their own transportation, and are unable or unwilling to get on buses, this is the next best option.
My basic understanding of how the Cuban economy came to be like this all comes from the background provided by Isbel. By the early twentieth century, hundreds of years of Spanish rule had given way to a Cuban Republic. This was great for the middle classes, who feasted off increasing trade with North America, and the growth of tourism. But not everyone was fairing so well. Widespread unrest led to the 1959 Communist Revolution, which landed Fidel Castro in power. Trade embargoes from the west and nationalisation of privately-owned property and industries followed, hitting the economy hard. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost billions of dollars in subsidies, bringing the economy virtually to it’s knees. I appreciate this is an abridged and overly simplified version of events, but you hopefully get the general idea. Cuba is a product of it’s politics. Isbel himself is a fine illustration of the socialist economy at work. He is a qualified air traffic controller, yet conducts tours on the side to make enough money to feed his family. With wages regulated by the government, highly-qualified vocations that command high renumeration in the free market, are not rewarded as such in Cuba. If I take Isbel at his word, the food stamps provided from his day-job at the airport, provides enough food for 3 days. Apparently one of the most in-demand jobs in Havana is that of a hotel bartender, because their cash tips can pass through the regime unreported.
I came away with conflicted views of what life in Cuba must be like. On the surface it looks tough, choices are limited, and freedoms that I personally take for granted are restricted. Yet, I also witnessed many examples of a warm and vibrant Cuban culture. In the dusty streets kids happily kick footballs, whilst couples of all ages dance salsa, and people gather on steps outside their buildings to share cheap street food and catch up on gossip. The cityscape is buzzing. After dark live Cuban music echos through the streets, and many locals take advantage of the cooler temperatures to go for a wander in one of the many squares. The Parque Centralis a popular spot for men of an older generation, who banter animatedly over games of chess played on folded tables or perched on walls. Many further social pursuits – like the cinema – are subsidised by the government to promote wide-spread access. I see great joy in these sociable interactions. Such simple pleasures are being squeezed by the growth of the online social media age in many countries. I know that I don’t see my friends as often as I used to.
Havana – and Cuba on the whole – is set to change dramatically over the next few years. I visited when I did because I felt an urgent need to see the city before too much changes. I only wish I could have travelled more extensively throughout the country. It’s an intriguing place, a fusion of cultures and beauty, suspended somewhere between a time-capsule and the modern age. Hopefully predictions of increased openness and growth will led to improvements in local living conditions, and an easing of cultural restrictions. But I also hope change doesn’t erase the very fabric that makes Havana so unique. If anyone is interested in experiencing the effects of such isolated development, I would urge you to visit someday soon.
A final side note
The pictures shared here are a small edit of my full, overly-touristy shots. My choice was certainly limited when it came to trying to illustrate the above words. I am clearly not a photographer. One thing that I lack in particular – apart from in-depth technical knowledge of a camera – is the ability to be completely unabashed about taking strangers pictures. I find it intrusive. There were lots of times during this trip when I would have liked to click away – such as watching the men playing board games in the park, or workers climbing over each other in the car-pool, but I just couldn’t bring myself to invade their privacy. The irony is that these are the very type of image that I find myself captivated by – those capturing a moment of real life.
Where: Kauai, Hawaii
When: Sep 2016
The first time we tried hiking the famous Kalalau Trail it didn’t happen. It was 2012, and having woken before sunrise to get a parking spot at the trailhead, a string of yellow police ‘warning’ tape – the kind you see in CSI – completely sealed off the trail. How can a trail in sunny Hawaii be closed? While loitering around trying to figure this out a ranger arrived. His explanation seemed even more bizarre. Apparently a ‘fugitive’ was on the run, having pushed a tourist from the cliffs the day before. I shuddered at the horror of it, but still couldn’t help feeling utterly disappointed. The trail would remain closed for the foreseeable future. Hike aborted, we left to cheer ourselves up with a cooked breakfast.
We had travelled a long way to hike the trail. Stretching 11-miles along the breath-taking Na Pail coastline of Northern Kauai, the Kalalau Trail regularly features in lists of the worlds ‘greatest’ hikes. The reason for it’s fame is simple – the scenery is sublime. A certain degree of ‘exclusivity’ also adds to its allure, with land access to the fluted coastline only possible by foot. The trail promises to transport hikers into landscape preserving the very essence of Aloha. Carving a path along towering Pali – sea cliffs – high above the turquoise ocean, it traverses 5 lush valleys, crossing streams and passing waterfalls, to reach a secluded beach.
Using the excuse of needing R&R after our PCT hike, we returned to Kauai 4 years later. With our camping gear in tow, and considering ourselves now super fit, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attempt the hike once more. On setting out we even half-wondered whether we might complete the entire out-and-back hike in a single day…
It’s 6:30am and we’re ready. Parking space secured at the now familiar Ke’e Beach trailhead, I’m feeling eager to clock off some miles before the sun heats up. We join the trail passing multiple signs warning of potential dangers, such as flash flooding. The initial climb along a cobbled path is significantly slowed due to thick, slippery mud following overnight rain.
The first couple of miles form a popular day hike. As such we are regularly overtaken by people not heaving huge backpacks, and some remarkably wearing flip-flops. I try not to let that bother me, instead stealing glimpses of distant coastal views whenever the thick foliage allows. At Hanakapai’ai, most people either turn around after visiting the small cove beach, or take a 2-mile trail inland to view the falls. We continue, crossing the stream by hopping over rocks, fortunate that the water is low. Apparently some people haven’t been so lucky, with danger signs warning of deaths caused by flash flooding and strong currents. There is a key message: don’t go near the water if levels are high.
Once past Hanakapai’ai the trail instantly feels remote. Our miles slow down even further, travelling along narrow switchbacks that climb 800 feet through dense tropical vegetation. We find ourselves sweating buckets in the humid conditions. The views are not as expansive, but bright colours of vivid green flora and fauna, contrast against the red clay soil. I also notice the strong smell of sweet fruit. We see wild guavas and passionfruit, many of which lay rotting on the ground. The trail doesn’t level out. We climb up and down into deep, narrow valleys, until 4 miles later we reach the forth valley: Hanakoa.
Hanokoa is the first of just 2 permitted campsites. It’s rustic. Spread over old agricultural terraces, the site contains two sheltered picnic tables, a compositing toilet cubical, and an emergency helicopter landing pad. Seeing the grassy helipad I can’t help but hope we keep it together. Sadly the camp has no beach access as it’s located on top of a hanging valley on the edge of a stream. We long for a break at this point, but a small group of hunters – complete with scary-looking crossbows – seem to have taken over the camp. Most likely out hunting wild boar (at least I hope that’s what they’re doing), we smile but they don’t reciprocate. In fact I get pretty negative vibes from them, so feeling a bit vulnerable in such isolation we swiftly move on.
The next 5 miles are more exposed, offering little shade from the midday sun. On exiting the valley onto drier terrain, panoramic views of cliffs rippling along the sparkling ocean appear. The views are everything. I keep stopping to take it all in, fearing I’ll slip on the vertigo-inducing trail if I lose my focus. This is not a hike for the faint-hearted. Erosion between miles 7 and 8 are perhaps the sketchiest, with crumbling drop-offs such as those at Crawler’s Ledge definitely requiring concentration, nerve and single-file traffic.
The trail begins to ease up on us for the final 2 miles as we lose elevation heading towards sea-level. Reaching the Kalalau Valley, we ford the fast-running stream, and spot ruins of early Hawaiian settlements hidden amongst the trees.
The sight of tents dotted underneath a shaded grove, provides sign that we’ve made it. Just a few minutes further and a long, deep beach of fine white sand appears. We watch as the cool sea invitingly laps against the shore. But first things first – we need to establish camp. Somehow – and I have no idea how – the last 11 miles have taken us 9 hours, with minimal breaks. We feel exhilarated to have finally made our destination, but ridiculously tired. It’s been hard work! On closer inspection, the premium camping spots – those located just behind the beach with a degree of shelter from the wind – are already taken. We haven’t seen many fellow hikers during the day, so it’s surprising to see around 30 people. Perhaps they’re on a multi-night break, or it’s possible they arrived by [prohibited] boats. We check out the waterfall nestled in the steep valley walls, but are too lazy to walk all the way to the end of the beach to investigate a series of caves. We finish the day with a dip in the sea, where we’re rewarded by a beautiful rainbow right before a dramatic Hawaiian sunset.
We pack up camp and make the return hike early the next morning. We make slightly better time because it keeps raining on us. The warm, tropical showers mean the camera comes out far less frequently, and the air is thick with humidity. By the time we reach Hanakapai’ai, many people are enjoying the beach and in the sea, despite warning signs of hazardous rip currents. Once again, we share the trail from that point. Just after lunchtime we emerge at the trailhead, exhausted and covered in mud. We hose off the worst of it at Ke’e beach showers, attracting strange looks from the beachgoers. I am so happy to finally fall into the car seat. I’m not going to lie – the hike was TOUGH! Much tougher than we had anticipated, but WOW.
I’d love to return to the trial. But if I were to do it again, I would plan on spending at least an extra night to enjoy a rest day on Kalalau beach. That would offer the opportunity to explore further the Kalalau Valley, and maybe even hike the spur trail to Hanakapai’ai falls. I would not recommend attempting to do the 22-mile round trip in a single day – who would even dream of such a crazy thing 🙂 As always, the pictures don’t go anywhere near capturing the stunning views. Hawaii, and Kauai in particular continues to capture my heart.
Some Trail Information
Permits are required to hike past Hanakapai’ai. They are limited in numbers, and cost us 20 USD per person. Apparently they sellout months in advance, so book here.
Water: There is no tapped water along the trail, but plenty of opportunities to fill up from fresh streams. It’s recommended that you treat it though, so pack a filter or purification tablets. We used the Sawyer Squeeze.
When to go: The trail is most advisable during summer (May-October), due to less predictable winter weather. It doesn’t rule out a winter hike, but check weather forecasts before you set out – spontaneous, heavy rainfall can be dangerous, with its ability to turn streams into raging rivers within minutes.
What to bring: I recommend using hiking poles for stability on the uneven terrain. Also pack: bug spray; waterproofs (at least to keep your gear dry); shelter (tent or hammock); hat (for sun protection); water filter; head torch (if you want to see at night).