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Archive for February, 2009

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica (Photo by RaeJean Stokes)

Who: RaeJean Stokes

Where: Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

When: January 2009

What: Looking at this picture, I can close my eyes and hear it. Waves crashing in the distance. The buzz of insects and lizards. The goodnight calls of the howler monkey and countless other unseen animals stirring at our porch step.

When my husband and I travel, we usually combine low-end and top-end; hostels in the places where we’ve got a lot to see and do and nicer places where relaxation is the M.O. Last month’s long overdue vacation to Costa Rica was no exception. After ten days of hiking, lava-watching, kayaking, and other active pursuits, we treated ourselves with three nights in heaven: the Osa Peninsula.

While Costa Rica itself is definitely discovered (Chick-fil-A in the San Jose airport is a sure sign of that), the Osa Peninsula remains decidedly off the Gringo trail. Part of the reason for that is its inaccessibility. The roads in and out are terrible, and it can take the better part of a day to get there. That leaves one option: flying. Even though the flights are regular, and affordable, the planes are small and can only ferry so many people to and fro. Let’s hope it stays that way.

We arrived at the tiny airstrip in Puerto Jimenez (which borders a cemetery) and were immediately whisked into a weathered LandRover for the bumpy ride to the Bosque del Cabo. It’s not the most exclusive (or expensive) of Osa’s wilderness lodges, but the Bosque del Cabo was exactly what we were looking for. Each of the three nights we were there, we sat on our bungalow’s private porch soaking in the view. While the sun set over the Pacific Ocean—its fantastic reds, yellows, and oranges lighting up the sky—spider monkeys flew through the trees above before retiring for the night.

And then as the sun dipped below the horizon, the jungle’s noises perceptibly changed. Every night was a free show a la Animal Planet, and the perfect antidote to our worker bee existence in the other jungle back home—the one made of concrete.

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Valetta, Malta (Photo by Josh Roberts)

Who: Josh Roberts 

Where: Valletta, Malta

When: November 2006

What: Here in the foreground is a traditional Maltese boat (either a “dghajsa,” “luzzu,” or “kajjik”—unfortunately the differences among the three are subtle and I have difficulty telling them apart). Maltese boats in general are characterized by their vibrant turquoise color and unique, streamlined shape. In the background is the walled city of Valletta, fortified centuries ago by the order of the Knights of Saint John.

Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea just 56 miles from Sicily and 180 miles north of Africa, the Maltese Islands (Malta, Gozo, and Comino) have been inhabited for more than 7,000 years—occupied at different times by the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Arabs, the Brits, the French, and the order of the Knights of Saint John.

In the past I’ve described Malta as “a lively little melting pot of European, African, and Arabic cultures unique in all the world,” and I think that really hits the nail on the head. Because of its strategic location between Europe and the Middle East, Malta has always enjoyed (or suffered, actually) a disproportionately large level of importance in the battle between the East and West.

If you enjoy history, adventure, and romance on a grand scale, I recommend David Ball’s epic historical novel Ironfire,  which tells the story of two siblings—one who’s kidnapped by Ottaman raiders and the other who’s left behind to grow up on Malta—in the years leading up to the 16th century Battle of Malta. A must-read for anyone who loves historical fiction.

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Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (Photo by Christine Sarkis)

Who: Christine Sarkis

Where: Malécon, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico

When: December 2008

What: Puerto Vallarta‘s malécon is a wide beachside path lined on one side by sand and water and on the other by a busy street with bars and clubs. The path is known partly for what surrounds it, but the real draw is what happens on and around it. Sand sculptors, buskers, performers of Aztec flying ceremonies, and others draw crowds day and night.

The walkway is punctuated by a series of sculptures that I found boldly unusual for public art. Fantastical—or maybe alien—creatures are often the subjects. This is one of the sculptures that garners a lot of attention. Few can (or do) resist the urge to climb at least a few rungs of the ladder—in fact so many people have a go that the ladder’s bottommost slats are rubbed shiny like a Buddha’s belly.

The strange sea-facing hooded creatures higher up the ladder reminded me of the vision I’ve always had of 19th century women pacing the widow’s walk of houses in the fishing towns of New England. Though you can’t see their faces, the simple posture of looking out on the ocean from a higher elevation conveys anticipation, worry, and even love. And the wave: Is it hello or goodbye?

I was happy to capture the late afternoon light and the red of the man’s t-shirt. And he’s looking towards the same speck on the horizon that the hooded creatures are waving to.

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Iceland's volcanic highlands

Who: Josh Roberts

Where: In the shadow of Mount Hekla, Iceland

When: July 2006

What: When I wrote about this weeklong hiking trip in an August 2006 feature for USA Today and SmarterTravel.com, I likened the Icelandic interior to Tolkien’s Middle-earth: “With its obsidian lava fields and steaming hot springs, its moss-covered foothills and treeless valleys, Iceland is Mordor one minute and the Shire the next. It has a magical quality to it, this Land of Fire and Ice—as if it has been plucked from the imagination and placed here, somewhere between Europe and North America, to be a playground for the adventurous traveler.”

To me, nothing demonstrates that spirit better than this photo. I love the way it captures the wild and wide-open essence of the highlands: the snow-capped peaks, the spidering streams, the mossy greens and reds and browns of a land virtually untouched by human hands. It’s hard to imagine anywhere more epic. I also like seeing the seven hikers there in the foreground, a tiny fellowship of adventurers in true Tolkien-esque fashion.

The backcountry is dominated by Mount Hekla, a volcano that was once thought to be the literal mouth of Hell. A thousand years ago, Iceland’s Viking settlers sent criminals to this same inhospitable interior, where they were forced to survive for 20 years in order to earn a pardon. Most never made it. My wife and I lasted a week, but we needed the help of a guide from the Fjallabak Trekking Company to do it.

The trek meets up with the way-marked Laugavegur Trail on the fifth day of hiking, but before that most of the areas we explored felt as if they’d never been visited by other hikers. These highlands are different than, say, the European Alps, which are so well-traveled that it’s easy for experienced hikers to go it alone. Here, a good guide is essential.

I booked my trip through Adventure Center, the U.S. retailer for Fjallabak and other local operators. If you’re considering a backcountry trip, theirs definitely come with my recommendation. Icelandair, incidentally, offers inexpensive flights to Reykjavik from several East Coast cities, making it a cheaper destination to get to than mainland Europe.

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