Travel

The symphony of the classical elements at Hawaii

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The symphony of the four classical elements – Fire, Air, Earth and Water at Hawaii felt surreal. I had always pictured Hawaii as something very calm, peaceful with beautiful green hills and beaches but my experiences were something more than that. It was like any other adventure trip for me. I chose to visit Big Island mainly because it gave the opportunity to see the lava and 3 others joined me. It was a crazy trip – we went from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in a single day, got close to hot lava, snorkeled above the beautiful reefs and sea life and a sensational encounter with whale shark which swam right below our boat. The rest of it was the usual Hawaii stuff which I had always imagined and heard of – beautiful green hills, beaches and sea side high mountains. So I didn’t feel that bad about not visiting Hawaii with a partner and kinda smiled away whenever asked why I chose to visit with friends.

After browsing through our calendars and based on the availability, we chose to make the trip on the Memorial day long weekend and bore the high expenses for flights and stay. We came up with a rough 4 day itinerary and it wasn’t until the last 5 days, things were finalized. I started making the bookings and at the same time was introduced to a common Hawaiian word, Aloha which is frequently used to greet people. I gave one final touch to the itinerary a day before leaving Seattle and was excited for the trip.I wanted to book a convertible car, but others felt it was too small for 4. So I ended up booking a standard SUV from Costco Rentals – apparently, Costco gave me the best rental prices. Ramanan and I flew from Seattle and Sai and Smitha from San Francisco. I would have loved if we had a day time ariel view, but it was dark by the time we reached Hawaii. The airport’s open roof architecture was quite interesting and I had already started loving the tropical weather. Also, I saw a guy wearing a cap reading ‘Make America Native Again’  which was quite funny but deep. Since we didn’t have car rental for the night, we took a taxi to the hotel and slept for the night. We stayed at Uncle Billy’s at Kona which was a decent place.

Day 1: Sea level to 13.5k+ feet

Due to jet lag, our body woke us up quite early in the morning and we got out for the day pretty early after having a basic breakfast at the hotel. Only rental cars from Harper were allowed to be taken on Mauna Kea summit, so we had booked a 4WD for first day from them. It was Toyota 4 Runner and an employee made a complete video of the car for proof before handing it over. The coverage had a deductible of $2500. So I ended up declining coverage for the very first time that too when I was supposed to take it on a gravel road at 10k+ feet altitude. The car itself was huge and it felt like sitting in a cockpit with many knobs. After shopping for essentials from Walmart, we started with our drive and saw volcanic rocks beside the road. Our first stop was at Hapuna beach – which lived upto its name of being one of the best beaches in Big Island. Clear waters, clean sand, green hills in the backdrop and subtle waves made the beach perfect for playing. Since it was morning and the beach was facing west we didn’t have Sun hitting our eyes. There was less crowd too. I wasn’t exactly prepared for getting into the water. So I came out after some time and started exploring the beach from the cliffs on the side. The whole beach looked stunning from the cliff and waves looked like curling jewels. We also flaunted our Hawaiian shirts for the entire day which we had bough from Walmart.

IMG_20170526_103700

We then drove along the serene coast with green tall hills on one side and turquoise waters on the other to reach Polulu Valley Lookout. En route we had our lunch at a small town and got a taste of local food. I didn’t enjoy much mine since it was just sticky rice, Tofu and Coconut sauce. From the lookout, we took a short hike to the beach. I was extremely happy at the sight of high cliffs rising from the shore since that was what a typical Hawaii was for me. More cliffs were visible as we descended and the view kept getting better. The beach was filled with stones and it was dangerous to get in but the surrounding was a tranquil site. There were ropes tied on trees for swings and we had some fun playing.

It was time for the adventure part of the day and we first drove to Mauna Kea visitor center which was located at an altitude of 9k. We also encountered rains for a very short time. It was quite misty and there was a ranger guarding the route to the summit and he kinda looked serious about letting people through. On asking he mentioned that he would allow only AWDs and he gave a glance at the mountain and asked us to be safe. I had initially planned to stay for an hour acclimatizing, but wanted to get pass the ranger before he changed his mind. So we added layers quickly and left for the summit. I had forgotten the steps to engage 4WD and did it once Sai pulled the information from the net. The drive was much safer than expected with wide roads and also it was a very short drive. We reached the summit very quickly. It was a barren terrain without snow and there were huge telescopes all over the place. We had literally gone from sea level to 13.5k+ feet in few hours. The summit is considered to be one of the best place for space observatory. I had prepared for the cold and was quite comfortable. We roamed around the place and decided to wait for the sunset. As the Sun started painting the sky orange more vehicles poured in and the sky got clearer too. We chose a good spot for the car and waited to see the Sun getting drowned in the clouds. It looked like a red bowl was kept in the sea of clouds, somehow Sun didn’t appear to be in the edge of the horizon but amidst the clouds. It was the most surreal sunset I had ever seen. It was well worth the wait.

IMG_20170526_185757

We then drove to visitor center for Stargazing. There were smaller telescopes setup which were pointed at Jupiter and its moons. I recognized it from the red rings around it – had seen it earlier from the observatory at Cornell University. Then there was Laser guided star tour which was ok wherein I got to know few interesting facts. After drinking hot chocolate at the visitor centre we left for Kona and had dinner at Denny’s.

Day 2: Black Sand Beach and Lava tour

We returned the heavy duty 4WD car and got an AWD car from Alamo. It got quite late by the time we got ready and had breakfast at Ihop. We reached Black Sand Beach and got ready for getting into the water. The beach had black shiny sand and big rocks in the water was making it difficult to move around. There was a turtle close to the shore and unknowingly I got in contact with it once which was scary. We spent some time playing in the water by crawling over the rocks and reaching the deep beach. We saw some turtles on the land while heading back. We then left for Hawaii National Park. We had to get to the lava tour by 3:30 PM so we had time to visit only 1 attraction. I chose crater and glad I did. It was a huge crater and there was a smaller crater inside with fumes coming out of it. It looked like Crater lake without the water. We then left for lava tour.

I had contacted Cheryl, the co-organizer of pokeastick lava tour few days back and initially she said she is not doing the evening tour. Only after asking for the second time, she arranged her friend as a guide for the tour. I am so glad I asked her second time as this tour was the highlight of the trip for me. We got ready with the gear for the tour and the first part was a ride on the back of a pickup truck. The whole area is near a town named Kalapana. Lava has been flowing since 30 years around the area and enters the sea in the form of small falls from a short cliff. There is a access road to the beach and the public can either walk or bike the 4 mile stretch. We didn’t go to the beach but we headed for the hills in the west. We got down from the truck and starting walking. It was funny to see while one of the guy in the tour was all ready with bag with locks, torch holder, knife etc but Ramanan just had a plastic cover. We were making fun of this the entire trip. Our guide, Christine told Ramanan that gear didn’t look realistic and asked to hand over the belongings to others. We were surrounded with solid lava which had flattened the area since 1987. It was basically a combination of sand and glass and we were very careful to avoid rough contact. The previous week I was in the snowfield at Silver peak and here I was at lavafield. The vast expanse and fumes blowing looked otherwordly. Steadily we reached closer to the hills where lava was flowing. It was first time for me and I was psyched at the view of looking at red lava. Christine took us away from the crowd to a different flow location. Not sure if this was good idea since we saw more of surface flow here opposed to vertical flow on the hills. Nonetheless I got high looking at the lava and was jumping all around. We walked over the cracks, got close to the oozing lava and walked on hot surface. Even with the hiking shoes, I could feel the hear in my feet. The lava was close to 700 deg C and we got close to it in bursts to avoid getting roasted. As it got darker, we saw more red lava below and around us which was fantastic. This was one of the best experiences I have ever had in my life.

IMG_20170527_185325

We started the return hike before it got too dark but we kept seeing people reaching the hills even in the dark. As it got more dark, we saw the Crescent moon in the sky and more red lava on the mountains. It was a great sight. The hike was around 9+ miles and it took quite some time to reach the truck. We took our car and then drove back to Kona. En route we were hit with heavy rains at Hilo – the wettest place in US (not Seattle you see) and drove in the mist on the saddle road. We had dinner at Denny’s and had a short sleep.

Day 3: Snorkeling, rugged coast ride and whale shark sighting

After a light breakfast, we left early for the snorkeling tour. We got in a small raft boat around 9 AM and started with the ride for snorkel locations. We were around 13 of us and I was surprised to see Jessmine on the boat. I had hiked with her the previous week in PNW and we were on a big hike the coming week. There were few others from Washington too. I didn’t expect this trip to include anything be more than snorkeling but I was so so wrong. The ride to snorkel locations was a rough bumpy ride along the coast. We snorkeled at 3 different spots. At the first one, we were given the basic training and the gear was pretty solid and good. I chose to get into the water with just mask and fins. I was quite comfortable navigating and found some amazing spots where sea-life thrived. I could spot more animals on the reefs at lower depths and yellow fish was abundant. After 45 mins we got back to the boat and I started feeling nauseous. I am unsure if it was due to the bumpy ride or due to elongated mouth breathing. We were taken to sea caves and lava tubes before reaching the remote second spot. I couldn’t enjoy much due to the sickness. I forced burped myself and almost puked once. We rode close to rugged coast and saw amazing arches and beautiful rock formations. I slowly got better but the whale shark incident changed me a lot I guess. While going to the third location, someone radioed saying that there was a whale shark sighting at the bay close to us. Our organizer got very excited with the news and chose to chase it. We couldn’t see it even after minutes of scouting and waiting. Later the organizer decided to take us 3rd spot before the time ran out since it was considered the most beautiful snorkel location in the whole state. This was near Captain Cook monument and I should agree, it was the best spot. I saw more variety of sealife here and it was sensational. I was feeling much better by then and explored the area. On all the three spots, turtles surfaced right after people were done with the snorkel. We were treated with food and Hawaiian stories by the guides once on the boat. The climax awaited us. We were returning to the base while we saw a small boat with people who pointed to us that a whale shark was right near us. We fervently searched for it and something unexpected happened. The 20 foot shark swam right below our boat and I got goosegumps even while writing this. It slowly moved from one side to the other and people started jumping into the water to get a better sight. Its a vegetarian and known not to hurt people. But no one could see from the water as the shark swam away quickly. I couldn’t get into the water since I was not ready with my gear but I saw the shark with its white spotted dots from the boat and was taken aback. The whole thing looked so scripted and we were so fortunate as the guide mentioned that in her 11 years of the job, this was the first time she saw a whale shark. We had to get back as there was another tour scheduled.

We returned to the room and slept the entire evening. It was a much needed sleep after 2 and half days of adventure. We had dinner at an Indian restaurant and walked the downtown area and retired for the day.

Day 4: Waterfalls and high valley

Day 4 was typical Hawaii stuff with visits to waterfalls, valley lookout and beach. Akoka waterfalls looked stunning in the green forest and Waipio valley was breathtaking too. Waipio valley also has the highest waterfalls in the Unites Stated which can be reached after a days hike or through helicopter ride.

IMG_20170529_121929

We drank coconut water nearby and saw peacock from very close and it shook its feathers frequently in an effort to impress the hens. We drove to Hapuna beach again and I couldn’t comfortably enjoy the beach since Sun was directly hitting the eye. I played with sand for sometime and then left for airport. The evening Sun transformed into Red Circle and it was a soothing end for the trip.

 

It was a fantastic experience which included adventures and beauty. We experienced hot lava, green hills, turquoise waters and an amazong sunset I would recommend visiting Big Island if you want to avoid crowd and have a diverse trip.

More Photos and videos here

smiley-write-nikhil-navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Journey through West Colorado

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We summited the mountains,
We saw through deep lakes,

We basked in the sunlight,
And stars did we gaze,

We rode on the Cog Rail,
We drove through the states,

We awed at the river,
And desert did we embrace,

We hiked amidst canyons,
We probed into caves,

We blossomed our friendship,
And fears did we face,

We wish we could stay longer,
Colorado, you never cease to amaze!

Two of my friends wrote this poem at the end of the trip. I was amazed not at the poem itself but at the trip which inspired them to come up with this. We drove in a mini-bus, rode the Gondola, hiked to a beautiful lake, climbed on cliffs, rolled down on sand dunes, chugged to 14k summit in a train, cycled down the same, dived at 3Gs into the canyon, ducked into the caves all in 4 days at Colorado. This was a fantastic trip where we experienced many things, where each one of us became a child again, had so much fun and got closer to each other.

We were planning to visit Florida but somehow I wasn’t feeling that plan wouldn’t work out especially since the visit included many theme parks during holidays. It was a good decision to pass Florida as later we learned about Zika breakout and inclement weather. We decided Colorado and I charted out a plan covering most of the west Colorado. We did the bookings not too early and excited for the trip, we waited for Labor day weekend. We were 9 of us including my team-mate and a friend’s mother, so we booked a 15 seater van.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-11-17-31-am

Day 0:

We all flew to Denver on Friday night and at first I was quite intimidated at the size of the van or as others called super shuttle/mini bus. I was like, it would be great if we pulled off the trip without any issues while driving. Owing to the empty roads in the night, it didn’t take much time to get used to it. We drove to Estes park near Rocky Mountain National Park(RMNP) late in the night and stayed at a hotel to get few hours of sleep.

Day 1 – Rocky Mountain National Park :

We were pretty much roaming the RMNP till late afternoon. After parking the van at a RV/bus designated spot, we took the shuttle to Bear Lake Trailhead. There was a group of kids in the shuttle and they were having a gala time singing loudly. Along the way we saw beautiful high mountains all around. The trail around the Bear lake was very easy but the lake was very clear and the surroundings looked stunning. Especially the green patches and the majestic mountains made the lake all the more picturesque. I was surprised at how detailed the trail was mentioned with details like %age grade, etc. We then picked our van and started driving on the trail ridge stopping at various view points.

img_20160903_111347

The high mountains and the valleys reminded me of my visit to Himachal Pradesh in India. I hadn’t seen many 8k feet+ tall mountains in large number in US before and I think barring Alaska, Colorado is unique in this aspect which has number of 14ers. One of them, Long Peak was in sight for most of the morning. We didn’t do any other hikes for the day and drove to Glenwood springs in the evening. The last 20 miles of the drive was through Glenwood canyon and it was one of the best scenic drives I have had. Colorado river cut through the canyon along with an interstate and railway track beside it. The red canyons in the evening time looked amazing and gave a feel of Zion National park. On reaching Glenwood springs, we noticed a Gondola and took a ride to Glenwood Caverns adventure park. Since it was late in the evening most of it was closed. I wanted to try at-least the alpine coaster. I didn’t know about this park while planning and it was quite a miss. We went to sleep early since we had to leave very early next morning to find a parking spot at the Hanging lake trailhead which was 20 miles away.

Day 2 – Hanging Lake:

Even though we left at around 7:30 AM after the breakfast, we saw the sign on the interstate that the parking was full at the trailhead. Given that it was Sunday and a long weekend this wasn’t surprising. Nonetheless, we drove to the parking lot and the rangers accommodated some 15 cars to be in the waiting line and fortunately we were one among them. We had just made in time. We waited for 1.5 hours before we got a spot and started our hike to Hanging lake. The trail ascends 1000 ft in 1.2 miles. It wasn’t terribly steep but still a moderate hike for a beginner. Most of my friends except one found it quite comfortable and went ahead maintaining decent pace. I stayed back with the last person and kept motivating her for almost the entire hike. The trail crossed a creek multiple times and ascended to hanging lake surrounded by some nice views. The lake itself is not so big and kind of cute. We could see fishes in the clear water with greenish hue. Water dripped into the lake via multiple small falls and these drops looked like jewels in the bright Sun. Though, it was quite crowded, the place radiated peace and it was one of a kind.

img_6597

We hiked up to see a slightly bigger water falls which came out of the mountain. We could go behind the waterfalls and it was a nice experience as well. We hiked back after some time and had lunch at an Indian restaurant at Glenwood springs. The next stop was at Mesa Verde National Park and it was a long ride in the evening. As we got closer to Utah border, the terrain changed into that of desert and we could see barren mountain-canyons. The van had 5 rows of seats including the driver’s. We had put our luggage on the last one and food on part of the 4th row. So whoever sat in 4th row was called as food manager and that person was responsible for distributing the food to all. Sai, usually being the ultimate food lover, was called Bhattre and Smitha was called Su-Bhattre. Since Aiswarya had a spotify account, was the DJ for the trip. She would take requests from others and play the songs. Akhil, Lisha and I managed the driving part. Almost everyone had a role to play and it’s always fun to travel with this group which is why we have been going out almost every long weekend. Since it was Ganesh Chaturthi, even after being careful about not seeing the moon, some of us saw it including me. We had dinner at an amazing Mexican restaurant which had good food and people. We reached Cortez quite late in the night so couldn’t go to the visitor center to get the tickets for the tour.

Day 3 – Mesa Verde and Great Sand Dunes National Park :

I got ready early and went to visitor to get the tickets for the ranger tour. The amount of positive energy these rangers radiate is impressive. I was few minutes early before the doors opened, but still there was a ranger outside the door handing out some booklets and answering our questions. We got the tickets for 1 PM tour. Mesa Verde National park consists the sites of numerous cliff dwellings of ancestral Pueblo people who stayed there from 6th to 12th century AD.  The dwellings were high in the mountain so we drove gaining good amount of elevation. We roamed around visiting museums and viewpoints till afternoon. It was interesting to see that the average age of people visiting was over 40. One of our friends had misplaced the phone in a washroom and we got it back from the museum reception. Even though it was an iPhone, someone was nice hand it to lost and found. At the gift store, I bought a new cap which said “National Park Service” celebrating its centennial year.

img_20160905_121037

We had FryBread at a stall which was named “Indian food” and co-incidentally it was like Batura from the “Real India”. It was time for the tour and went near a cliff dwelling called Balcony house. Here there was a trash bin which needed some maintenance and wearing the NPS cap, Lohith and I fixed it. We met the ranger soon with other 40+ people who were all ready for the next adventure. The ranger named Jackey was funny and gave us some information about the place. We walked beside the cliff and reached a place where we had to climb a tall ladder to get into Balcony house. The house was made of bricks and contained multiple rooms, balcony overlooking he valley and a well like structure called Kiva. It was interesting to see the blackened ceiling which was caused due to the fires used for cooking/household. To get from one house to another, we had to go through small tunnels and we had to crawl through the final tunnel to get out of the houses. Once outside we had to climb the not so vertical cliff face using the railings. It was a fun experience knowing the place and moving around like Pueblos. I was glad to see everyone being a sport and actively participating in the tour. We were behind the schedule and I was doubtful if we could make to next place for the day, which was Great Sand Dunes national park. Some of us really wanted to visit that so without much delay we left for the park. It was a long drive again and we played questionnaire about interests/hobbies and listened some interesting answers. Just when the trip was turning into just another one, the next 1.5 days changed the course and face of the trip.

We reached the Great San Dunes National Park by late evening and the Sun just set behind the sand dunes before even we parked the van but still there was plenty of daylight. We parked the van and kind of dashed to the dunes. There was a flat open space between the dunes and the lot and the dunes rose as high as 750 feet across a mile. It was stunning to see those dunes beside the tall green mountains. The fun had just begun, everyone started climbing a small dune and went back to childhood. They were getting crazy and explored the place like a kid. I rolled down the dune, did a somersault, someone crawled up, gave poses, it was nice to see everyone enjoying the beautiful evening. We could see people climbing all the way till the top. The sky turned into orange, then dark and stars slowly started appearing. We were sort of lit by the Crescent moon.

img_20160905_192634

We realized we could star gaze and waited for more stars to appear. In no time, we could see Milky way and everyone was mesmerized by the shining stars above us. It started getting cold and we decided to head back. While walking back amidst the surreal sand dunes lit by the crescent moon, I felt like I was exploring some planet in the universe. We dusted the sand from our clothes but kept the cherish-able memories and drove to Manitou Springs for the night.

Day 4 – Pike’s Peak and Cave of the Winds:

More elevation and adventures were lined up for the last day. We took the Pike’s Peak Cog railway – the highest train in the US – to reach the summit of at 14,110 feet. The rail consisted of red bogies high windows on either side. TC was on the mike giving information about the flora and fauna. The most impressive part for me was the way the rail handled the incline. The bogies were slant and did an incredible job in chugging taking the passengers up. The higher we went, we were treated with panoramic views. The wind started blowing heavily from 12000 feet and we had to close the windows. I thoroughly enjoyed the ride to the summit but it was only half the journey. There was snow at the summit and we spent some time looking at the surroundings.

screen-shot-2016-09-17-at-1-15-19-pm

My cap flew off to an edge and just for the sake of thrill, I risked my safety to get it. A person was cheering for me all the time while I got the cap safely. Lohith and I had decided to cycle down the peak while others chose to go down the same way. Our rental cycles and guides were waiting for us with mountain bikes. I wore double gloves, layered up myself and was all excited to cycle. We started down the winding roads amidst the breathtaking scenery. The wind was so strong that it was literally pushing the cycle during the hair-pin curves. It was a fantastic sight to see the fellow cyclists making the curves on the smooth highway which gave a feel of Tour De France to me.

img_20160906_120532

I was enjoying every moment of the ride and by the time we reached lower elevation roads got less windier and we picked up super fast speeds topping at 45 mph. Some of us were vocal and were making weird sounds which kept the atmosphere lively. We took around 1.5 hours covering 20 miles and lost 6700 feet in elevation. This was one of the best adventures I have done yet. I would like to recall some of the scenes during the ride: sight of a cyclist on the high mountain road in the middle of panoramic view, sight of cyclists making the hair pin curves on the dark tar road with brown terrain on the side, sight of cyclists with the tall peaks and forest in the background – simply spectacular. I forgot the same cap at the cycle rental shuttle which I had dared to get from the edge on the summit .

Our next set of attraction was at the Cave of the winds. First, Lohith and I went for adventure ride called Terror Dactly. This ride is perched 200 feet above Williams Canyon, and the riders would be launched off of the cliff’s edge, at almost 100 miles an hour like a pendulum. I had seen the videos and expressions of the people looked horrifying. I was scared but excited to try it. During the preparation for the launch, I double checked my safety belt, and got ready for the adrenaline looking at the depth below me. As soon as we were launched, the rush was unbelievable and I started screaming involuntarily. The first 2-3 seconds was somewhat like in a free fall accelerating with 3Gs. We swung to the other end and we were between the valley. As the description on the website says, “Prepare to scream, laugh and love every second of this adventure!” I did exactly the same – the scream turned into laughter and I loved it. The camera attached to the ride had captured all our expressions and I couldn’t wait to see them.

Our friends had joined by then and since there was no line, the ride master asked us if we wanted to try the ride again so that our friends could see. We happily agreed and faced the terror again. Soon 4 of my other friends tried too and all waited for the videos. The video guy finished editing everyone’s video and called us for the screening. We were ROFLing looking at each other’s expressions.

We then headed for lantern tour in the caves. In this tour each one of us carried a lantern while we made our way through dark narrow pathways in the caves located in the hills. A guide was touring us with a ghost story as backdrop. He would make sudden loud voices and tried to scare people with some tricks. The cave was so low sometimes that we had to duck and go for some distance. The floor was damp and we could see stalagmites at some places. It was quite an experience. We finished the tour and then drove to the last place of the tour – Garden of the Gods. It was a nice park with unusual red rock structures protruding from Earth. We spent some time there and left for the Denver airport.

Colorado being a beautiful state, hosted us with tons of opportunities for adventures, sight seeing and other experiences. Yet another fantastic tour came to an end but we amassed crazy memories. As always, looking forward for the next long weekend trip.

img_7184

Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camp Muir Hike- Best day on the mountain

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I wanted to try the hike up to Camp Muir(10000 ft) before the Mt Rainier expedition on July 2-5. I checked the forecast and June 19th looked good. I invited 2 other whom I had met on other hikes. We reached Paradise, WA (5600 ft) at 8:30 AM and it was the best weather we could ask for. Clear sky with hardly any clouds and Mt Rainier looked spectacular. It was a different sight altogether being so close to the mountain. We started hiking at 9:15 AM and I had around 20-25 pounds backpack.  I carried extra water just for the weight practice.  There were too many people and though we had prepared ourselves with maps and GPS, we didn’t have to use any of them.

IMG_20160619_151434

The first stretch was gentle and gained little elevation. The steep and continuous slope started from Mile 3 after Pebble Creek (7200 ft). It was very tiring and near the end even though Camp Muir was in sight I felt so energy-less. The view was spectacular throughout the route. The snow was fresh and was pure white. There was the majestic Mt Rainier in the North and Tatoosh range, Mt Adams, Mt Hood and Mt St Helens in the south. We took 4 and half hours to reach Camp Muir. I felt better after having Poha and apples. It was sunny and glacier glasses truly saved my eyes.

IMG_20160619_165932

I glissaded down most of the parts till Pebble Creek and the last two I did wearing garbage bags. Some slides were awesome and I had a blast coming down. It was so opposite to the tiring ascent. There were people Snowboarding, Skiing and having all sorts of fun. I felt i was on a picnic rather than a hike. It was Father’s day and I saw a father-son duo on the hike. It was the best mountain day I had ever had.

Activity Overview (Could record only half the climb)

Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Outdoors, Seattle, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

A glimpse of the national parks in southwest USA

This slideshow requires JavaScript.


Love is a feeling which can be manifested in so many unimaginable ways. It is a feeling which can be shared between both living and non living things, a feeling which has the power to give warmth to the soul even in the harshest times. If you think I am doing a bad job explaining love, well, love is something which can’t be explained. In the 26 years of my life, I have been fortunate to experience love from many people in different forms – parental, brotherly, family, friendly, etc. Since last three years I have been taking refuge in mother nature and the love we have shared has transcended me into a different positive person altogether and I only crave for more love. This trip was something like never before – I experienced mother nature in such contrasts that I was left open-mouthed at almost every place I visited. Even though the trip involved visits to a series of deserts, it watered the love for nature in me.

I had the liberty to take leaves from work for multiple days and was desperately looking for options to make good use of them. Singles cruise trip in Caribbean and skiing classes at Stevens pass were top contenders. But after discussing with Sai(my Cornell friend), we finalized on a road trip in the southwest for 4-5 days(Feb 4 – 9) with Las Vegas as pivot. Itinerary here.

Screen Shot 2016-02-13 at 10.03.26 PM

Since it was winter, I was apprehensive about the experience in the national parks but little did I know what lay ahead. I had an early morning flight and even though I reached SEA-TAC airport around midnight, I couldn’t get much sleep. I had never seen an emptier airport before. In the flight, I took the morning Sun’s rays as blessings and was ready to commence the trip. After landing at Vegas airport, I took a shuttle and went to rental center to secure a 4 wheel drive. Lisha, Sai, his friends Smitha and Harneet flew from SF and met me at SixT rental agency where I was waiting for the delivery of Volvo XC60. After much wait, we were handed a new looking car with sunroof and ample luggage space. It was around 11 AM by the time we started and we were quite late. We stopped by at Walmart to pick up some snacks and started the 1676 mile long road trip.

Day 1: Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon National Park

We took Highway 93 and our first attraction of the trip was Hoover dam. For me, the most interesting fact about Hoover dam was this – The dam contains enough concrete to stretch across the USA – which I learned from my previous trip while I was flying over Hoover dam. I wanted to get a bird’s eye view of the dam and wasn’t too keen on driving over it. But we ended up driving over while looking for a place to get a good view. We stopped at a spot behind the dam and saw the color difference(chocolate-cream) on the mountains above the river. There on enquiring, a fellow tourist directed us to a parking spot from which we could go walk on the Highway 93 bridge itself to get a panoramic view of the dam. It was a short trip on the stairs after which we started walking on a tall bridge called Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge which stands at 840 feet above the Colorado River. There was just a railing to separate us, and the peek down almost gave me goosebumps. I walked till the center of the bridge and caught a good view of the massive Hoover dam ahead and green Colorado river under.

IMG_20160204_124555

We walked back and continued our journey crossing the Nevada-Arizona border. The drive to Grand Canyon NP was about 4 hours long, and we had stopped just once in between to refuel. We had to be extra careful about refueling as we would driving in deserts the entire trip.

It was a race against the time to reach the Mather point for sunset at Grand Canyon NP. We made to the point just in time to see the layers of Grand Canyon lit by the Sun’s last rays of the day. I hadn’t quite enjoyed the Grand Canyon from earlier visit but this time I loved the scenery in front of me. I realized that at-least to me, the canyons looked better during the sunrise or sunsets than on middays. The snow patches on the mountains on our side made the view all the more dramatic and we soaked in the magnanimity of Grand Canyon.

IMG_20160204_165231

Harneet wanted to see the actual sunset and not the sunset over canyons. So kept asking us to move to other side. We walked along the rim for some time, enjoyed different shades on the horizon and made it to the car. We left for Page and on the way we stopped for star gazing. I got out of the through sun-roof to view the numerous stars on the night sky. After having Pizza for the dinner, we stayed at Comfort-Inn suites at Page, AZ. Throughout the stay we booked only one room at the hotels with 2 queen beds and 5 of us somehow managed to sleep. Most of them had free breakfasts, so I considered these pretty good deals.

Day 2: Horseshoe Bend, Lower Antelope Canyon and Navajo Monument Valley Tribal park

I wanted to see sunrise and sunsets from the best locations possible in the entire trip and had planned accordingly. The hotel at Page was located at short distance from both the attractions for the day. We got up early in the morning, had breakfast and left for Horseshoe bend to catch the sunrise. We were bit late by the time we reached the parking spot and it was a short(20 mins) hike to the bend. I didn’t want to miss the morning rays falling over the canyon in the bend, so I dashed and reached the spot soon. On reaching the cliff near the bend I was presented with an amazing view of the Canyon and Colorado river. This is the point from which we can see the horse-shoe shaped meander of the Colorado river. The whole rim on the cliff is an open place with absence of railings and it was quite dangerous.  There was a hill behind us and the Sun slowly started making its way up which lighted the canyon in-front of us in bright yellow. We saw this layered lighting for around an hour which started from the mountains far behind the bend till it made it over the bend. When the sun shone on the cliff, I could see a golden reflection on an almost calm river in the right side. There wasn’t much crowd and we had ample time and space to immerse in the beauty.        IMG_20160205_080341

 

My friends started to go back to the car but I choose to wait for some more time at the place and surprisingly, I was the only one at the bend. In few mins, I could see a small boat traversing the bend slowly creating peaceful ripples. It was a beautiful sight, especially when the boat cut through the golden reflection. It looked as though it was cutting a ribbon. It was three on three. Last three places were a hit and we were only a day old in the trip. We then went back to hotel, had more breakfast and left for lower Antelope Canyon.

One has to go through a tour to visit the Lower Antelope Canyon. There are two tour companies near the canyon and we chose Kent tours. We got a slot for 11 AM and there were around 15 people in our group who were managed by a guide named Ashley. We reached the start of the canyon in sometime and little did we know what awaited us. Antelope canyon is formed by the sandstone erosion by water and wind. The erosion results in a narrow canyon with smooth carved sandstone on either sides. When the Sun’s rays falls over the canyon, dramatic colors and sight awaits the visitors. We had to take set of steep stairs to get into the canyon and visual treat fest started even before we reached the bottom of the canyon. The orange wavy sandstone looked mesmerizing in the late morning and it was one of a kind we all had seen. We started clicking pictures and never stopped till the end. It was around half a mile walk which would last around an hour. Our guide Ashley was super sweet as she waited very patiently for us to cover ground and sometimes we would meet the next group touring the canyon. She also showed us the best formations and good photo locations. Photos didn’t do justice to some locations but surprisingly some photos looked more beautiful due to color corrections. Ashley knew the settings for good photos and it looked like she knew more about iPhones than Android phones. I am not a fan of any filters, and so I stuck to original settings. This place awakened the photographer in each one of us and I was personally very happy with my amateur clicks. We could notice a laughing shark, a dragon, the face of a girl and various other resemblances. Overhead, I could see pointed waves frozen in time. I rubbed the sandstone with my hand and was surprised to absolute absence of color. Bewitched by the amazing formations, I got emotional during the tour. Usually, I had enjoyed geographical beauty from far, but this being so close encapsulated me in almost 360 degrees, it was magical.

IMG_20160205_112355 (1)

After coming out of the canyon, I felt like I was in a different world altogether. It was one of the most surreal places I had ever visited. This place was one of the favorites for most of us in the trip. We left for monument valley and for most of the journey through the trip we had amazing scenery to delight the drivers and those who were awake.

I had seen the buttes on tv before and always wanted to visit Monument valley for it had many of them. I was also very excited about the View Hotel which provides a crazily beautiful view right from the balcony. We reached there well before sunset and took the best available room. We checked in the room and then the balcony to see three big dark orangish buttes. The view was spectacular and easily the best view I ever had from a hotel stay.IMG_20160205_160506

To our right was a large red mesa with snow patches, vast expanse of the park for most of the openness and restaurant in the far left. We then left for off-road scenic drive which had multiple view points. The drive took us closer to buttes, mesas and to a beautiful overlook of the park.  Some of the buttes resembled elephants, camels, people, etc. Our imaginations came into play and we had fun spotting them. We stopped nearby a butte and climbed to go touch the butte. Even here, the butte refused to color my hand on rubbing. Three sisters, Rain God mesa, totem poles and artist point overlook were some of the major points we covered. Since we were there in the late afternoon and the entrance closed at 5 PM, there were very few cars for the drive. I thoroughly enjoyed the peaceful and monumental park. We had a sumptuous dinner (mine was like Chhole Bhature) and retired for sleep.

Day 3: The best Sunrise, Arches National park 

The next morning I was up early and got ready soon to catch the sunrise from the balcony. Right from the dawn to sunrise, I hesitated to look away from the mesmerizing view ahead. This was the most thorough sunrise I had ever witnessed. First, Sun popped as a tiny golden piece and then swiftly ascended into the horizon to present one more beautiful day. Harneet and I went to explore other parts of the hotel and had breakfast. Restaurant was filled with large window panes and provided a serene view of the park. They had rightly named the hotel as “The View”. Here at the gift shop, I started collecting magnets of national parks.  I couldn’t find my glasses and after searching everywhere possible considered it lost and continued the trip. As soon as we joined the main road, we had a very pretty scene ahead of us. Actually sometimes I used find these pretty scenes from the side mirror. The narrow straight road cut through the park and the buttes towered on the other side. We frequently made stops to capture the sight and drove to Arches national park, Utah.

IMG_20160206_102111

It was around noon we reached Arches National Park and it was overcast. But as the afternoon sailed by, Sun came out soon and the sky got pretty clear eventually. All these national parks have fees to be entered and we got an annual pass. The ranger was quite nice and even reimbursed the fees for Grand Canyon national park. We got a map and started deciding the places to cover before the sunset.  I badly wanted to do the Delicate arch hike, so kept some time aside for it and tried to cover as many other places. First we stopped at La-Sal panoramic point which was quite beautiful with snow on most of the landscape. We then saw a daredevil performing rock climbing on a butte. Even here we saw some elephant buttes and also we were getting to see natural sandstone arches. Our first hike of the day was to double arches which is a close set pair of natural arches. It was a short hike and we could hear echoes on the trail where we made funny noises. The place looked spectacular where the huge sandstone had an opening in the between with arches along the side. I tried to climb to the arch on the other side but ice made the climb slippery and I gave up after multiple attempts. After spending some time jumping/climbing here and there we left the place to reach Delicate Arch trailhead.

IMG_20160206_151134

The ranger we met at Double arches had suggested us against the delicate arch due to the presence of snow and absence of microspikes. Nonetheless we still wanted to give a shot and planned to cover as much as possible. It was 3 miles roundtrip with pretty steep climb at some places. The first part of the hike was short ups and downs on small hills then we found ourselves on a huge unmarked mountain. We hardly had breaks and kept climbing continuously. We were at the top of the mountain and looked like we were lost. Then our little friends in the form of totem helped us move forward. After some distance it was purely totems which showed us the way and we kept tracing it. The hike had some dangerous crossings and it was adventurous. At a point there was a person frantically looking for the path ahead and I somehow managed to find the path and showed him the route. The final stretch of the hike was dramatic as we had to walk on a narrow path with snow on the face of a cliff. Soon after the stretch the trail ended and we were facing the famous Delicate arch. The arch is a delicate inverted U placed at the edge of the mountain and it was quite a scene.

Best viewed in 480p and above.

It was time for sunset and I was so glad to be there after an adventurous hike. I tried to be more adventurous and we walked along the slopey rim of a big hole to get very close to the delicate arch. We were facing a big hole on one side and nothingness on the other side, Then I tried to be even more adventurous and looked to get into the arch itself. It was a steep slope to the arch and I skid slightly which gave me the fear of my life. Taking baby steps, I was completely in the arch and it was one of the best moments of my life. I felt like I was placed in a ring of high energy and the energy radiated towards me. It was as though a very special crown was placed over my head and I am not even exaggerating. Lisha too had joined me for all these adventures and she was like we are photobombing pictures there. We soon got away to the rim and sat there to enjoy the sunset beside the arch. There was another Asian guy whom we had seen Monument Valley park too. He was so active and running around all places to click pictures. Harneet went into a pensive mode during the sunset. We left to descend after some time and realized that we had taken a slight detour while climbing up. The totems were more frequent here and this didn’t involve dangerous crossings. As we were descending, we could see the sky painted with various shades of orange which was enchanting. 

IMG_20160206_175618

But the adventures for the day didn’t quite end. We had a long drive ahead to Bryce National park. We crossed a town named Green River and saw the information board saying that there was no service(food and gas) ahead for 104 miles. It was ridiculous since we were on an Interstate highway. I checked the fuel tank where it showed half filled and after making some miscalculations I decided that we were good for the journey. I was on cruise control with heater and full car. The car was showing the number of miles I could cover and I noticed that the miles were dropping at an alarming rate. I alerted others and everyone was kinda tensed except Smitha who was happily sleeping. I didn’t want to take an exit and turn back as we would lose time and I wanted some thrill for the ride. After googling, we learned that cruise control takes more fuel in hilly regions and I turned it off. We lowered the fan speed and made the journey with a sense fear in our hearts. Soon the miles started dropping as expected and we made to the next gas station with ample of fuel left. It was foolish since we had filled fuel even when it was unnecessary earlier and here I had pushed to save some time and have some thrill. I wondered what this stretch would look like in the daytime which literally had no habitation for straight 100 miles. We had a tasty dinner at a Mexcian restaurant at Salina and stayed at Best Western hotel near Bryce Canyon National park.

Day 4: Bryce Canyon National park, Zion National Park, Las Vegas

Everybody thought that someone had set an alarm but none did. Harneet got up and woke us all but we were quite late for sunrise. I checked the temperature and it was -13 deg C. It had been quite a while since I had experienced such cold weather. Lisha, Sai and I soon got layered up and drove to inspiration point for Sunrise. Sunrise was almost over but again a different sight was in-front of us. A series of hoodoos filled the park and the texture felt like those of anthills. At some places these hoodoos were aligned in a straight line which was quite amazing to see. We walked along the snowy rim where we found other Kannadigas. We then went to Bryce Point and I liked this viewpoint better as it gave a more elevated view along with a view of window arches and the park’s vast expanse. Those naturally formed arches on the cliff resembled windows of a big house. It was very windy and quite cold. We went back to hotel and had breakfast and came back to Bryce point again for Smitha and Harneet. I found my glasses, it was deep inside my backpack and I had looked everywhere else other than my bag.

IMG_20160207_072900

We left for Zion National Park and it was around noon when we reached the east entrance. From the entrance, we saw that the roads were colored red here which resembled the color of the mountains around us. “Zion”, I had first heard this word in the movie Matrix and this name somehow attached mystery to it for me. The mountains in Zion were like Big Daddy, single reddish mountains towering one over the other and were ginormous. The roads wound between them and we had to cross a very long tunnel. Tunnel was one way and we had to play relay with the rangers. The last car entering from either side had to collect a baton and hand it over in the other side. I had my headlights off and was completely in dark once in the tunnel. The tunnel lasts for 1.1 mile and at some places there are openings to overlook huge mountains. We later took the scenic loop where the road went through the valley with various view points and trailheads from the points. Our first stop was at weeping rock. It was a short hike to a place where the water seeped in through the mountain and fell as droplets. We could see tiny holes on the mountain from where the water came and actually water flowed from inside the rocks. It was quite a discovery.

Best viewed in 480p and above.

We saw peahens on the road near the Grottos point. Grottos point is the trailhead for the famous Angel’s landing hike. We parked at Temple of Sinawava and started walking along the river named Virgin. The river cut through the canyon and it became narrower as we walked. After some distance we saw that the trail was marked closed with chains as there was danger of ice structures falling over head. I said lets go and chunk of ice fell in front of me. After some discussion, I said lets go again and again small chunks of ice fell. Then I just crossed the chains and went on the trail for some distance with hands over my head and fortunately nothing fell. Smitha saw it as bad sign that ice fell both the times and hence we decided not to go to the narrows. We went back and parked the car at visitor center to take Parus trail for sunset. The trail went through a valley alongside the Virgin river with tall mountains towering on either side. We had a jolly walk along the trail and turned back when the sun was about to set. We spent some time peaceful time near the river side. The Sun painted the mountains in deep orange as it set and it was captivating.

IMG_20160207_180058We left for Las Vegas and had spicy dinner at Mt Everest. We toured the hotels, visited casinos, saw the fountains at Bellagio and retired for sleep at Americas Best value Inn(bad choice).

Day 5: Death Valley Nation park, scariest off-road crossing

It was quite late(around noon) by the time we left for Death Valley National Park. The name “Death valley” itself was enough to give us the chills. We crossed the California border and the mountains here were brownish in color with various shades. Our first stop was at Zabriskie point. Here we could see something called badlands formations which looked like sand dunes with contrasting cream and dark brown shades. It looked as though the water flowed over these once upon a time since there were formations of water flowing down the hill.

IMG_20160208_153132The view was quite amazing from this place and there were trails at many places between these dunes. We spent some time here and went to visitor center. I was surprised to know that we were at sea level and forget sea-level, at visitor center we were 190 feet below sea-level. The temperature was 91F (32 C) in the winter. In February last year at Ithaca, I had experienced -22 C. I was really surprised at this. It was not humid but just hot and Death valley has the record of highest temperature(57.78 C) measured on Earth. At the visitor center I learned about beautiful night sky at Death valley and the off-road drive at Titus Canyon which would take around 3 hours. It was around 4 PM and I was hesitant to take the off-road drive. Sai was asking about the Sailing stones and the ranger absolutely discouraged us to go there since it required lots of planning and had its own dangers. I asked about Titus canyon. To this the ranger didn’t quite discourage me – he also encouraged the night drive. He just made sure that we had a wheel drive. I got some confidence and since the AWD of the car wasn’t put to much use yet, I asked others about it and they kinda agreed for it. I was still afraid since we were in Death valley and the off-road in Death valley that too in dark alarmed me. Nonetheless I thought of giving it a shot.

We drove north to the entrance of Titus Canyon and we saw wildflowers on the way. It was around 5 PM by the time we started off roading. The first stretch was completely straight on an uneven road with lose gravel. I drove very slowly(10 mph) and carefully as to not have a flat tire or major wear and tear. The scenery behind us was breathtaking. The setting sun ahead had some beautiful effect on the sky and it was like most of the colors of rainbow were layered in the sky. IMG_20160208_172516The Sun set and slowly darkness started engulfing the place. The drive was not that tough initially except that I had to be very slowly. We hadn’t set the GPS and didn’t even know how long was the off-roading. We were guessing the distance from the physical maps based on the turns the road took. Then we made to the mountains and this is where I think even my friends were kinda scared. The evening light had some crazy effects on the mountains including some silver patches. The road here started to wind and we were going up and down the hills. There were sharp turns on the hills with loose mud and car skid sometimes. There were no railings, no tar, one way road, no light and deep cliffs on one side. I was extra careful but still joking through the drive all the way. My friends either trusted my driving skills enough or were praying silently, as they didn’t lecture me much.  It was completely dark after some time and we reached a place called Ghost town. Apparently this was an abandoned mining place. As soon as I stopped the car here, the dust started amassing in-front of the headlight which added to the scariness of the name of the town. It had taken us over an hour to reach here and we had covered 60% maybe. We set the GPS and now we were aware of the distance to be covered. At some places road was wider and there was place to park and move around. We saw a parked jeep and most likely they were camping to our astonishment. We stopped at a place and from our little efforts, helped green the Death Valley. The stretch after this was my favorite. The road passed through a narrow canyon with huge rocks on either side. The road was even and I could go around 30 mph. The headlights shone the rock and sometimes we were just inches away. We couldn’t even see where the road went after some distance into the canyons. For me this was like magnified version of Antelope canyon. It was both terrifying and stunning at the same time.

Best viewed in 480p and above.

Finally we covered the 26 miles off-roading and gladly we were safe and sound by the time we hit the tar road. After the drive I somehow felt that I had developed a special bond with my friends. This was the scariest drive I had ever had. We stopped for star gazing where I could see bright band of stars. Not sure if that was the milky way but stars glittered brilliantly in the night sky.

We started the drive and then we had a video where we all shared about the off-road experience. Sai who is usually terse, for the first time in the trip gave a very detailed description about the drive. I realized what effect the drive had on all of us. We went to Vegas for the night, slept and returned the car in the morning. My friends took flight to SF and I to Seattle. This trip will surely be etched in my memory for a long long time. Usually near the end of the trip, I would be like let’s go home now. But this time I felt that I wasn’t done yet and wanted to continue with the trip.  I saw mother Earth like never before, witnessed sunrises/sunsets like never before, experienced beautiful feelings/emotions and drove in crazy places. This only deepens my relationship with mother nature and I am barely scratching the surface. I will certainly go back to these parks and spend more quality time dwelling in the wilderness.

thumb_IMG_1381_1024

Curse of planning: 

For most of the places in the trip, I had seen pictures during planning. I am not sure if this affected the excitement when I visited the places, but certainly I would have loved if it was a complete surprise. But one has to plan unless we go to organized tours. Even then I would explore the places I want to really cover and visit. Most of these places were romantic too and if you really want to surprise the other half with such beauty, it would be good if you could avoid discussing the travel plans as much as possible.

Tips:

  • If you want to get a complete experience, dedicate at-least 2 days per national park.
  • At-least for me, canyons looked best during sunrise/sunset
  • Buy annual pass if visiting multiple national parks. Costs $80

Hoover dam:

  • Tours available
  • Best viewed from the Mike O’Callaghan–Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge

Things to do in Page:

  • Horseshoe Bend (Dawn, Sunrise and sunset)
  • Upper Antelope Canyon. Sun beams in the canyon.
  • Lower Antelope canyon, more adventurous (Late morning)
  • Lake Powell. Boat rentals available

Monument valley Navajo tribal park:

Arches national park:

  • Double arches hike
  • Delicate arch hike

Zion National park:

  • Angles Landing hike (Tough and perilous)
  • Narrows walk (Dry suits)
  • Scenic loop
  • Very good shuttle service available during summer
  • Drive through the tunnel near east entrance
  • Parus trail for sunset

Death Valley National park:

  • Look for Rangers programs
  • Zabriskie point
  • Titus Canyon off road drive (AWD required)
  • Sailing stones (Good planning required)

 

Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel, USA | 1 Comment

Cancun, Mexico – An assorted travel

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What – Mayan ruins, Cenote swim, Night club, jungle ATV ride,  Zip Lining(heels over head), Eco theme park.

Where – Cancun and around, Mexico

This time, it was an international trip for the long weekend. Chaitanya(Chai) – my Deloitte friend, who is on a mission to visit as many countries as possible in the lifetime, suggested Mexico during Christmas. With a valid US visa, Mexico doesn’t need any other visa to visit.  Main places of interest to us were Xcaret, an eco-theme park from my bucket list and Chichen Itza, one of the modern 7 wonders. We decided on Cancun since both of these are near to this city which sits between Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico with white sand beaches. After doing some initial research, we learned that we could cover the places of interest in 4 days and booked the flight tickets in early October. I was very particular about flying during night time with less flight time and Seattle didn’t have direct flights to Cancun. So I had to spend a bit more for my travel, which turned out to be the costliest part of the trip.  We planned the activities for the last 2 days only. I am glad we didn’t plan all 4 days, for we learned some important travel tricks this time. I had booked the stay at an hostel which turned out to be futile. Fortunately for me, my bank and cell phone carrier both had affiliations in Mexico which really helped me a lot.

Day 0 (24th Dec):
Chai flew from Minneapolis and reached Cancun in the morning. His experience and encounters with fellow tourists this day set the tone for the entire trip. We both were unaware of the bargaining that could be done before booking for the tours or stay or whatever activity. A Brazilian couple educated Chai about this. To start with, he booked the Chichen Itza tour at half the quoted price on Day 1. Chai had also visited the hostel I had booked and absolutely hated its atmosphere. So we decided not to stay there and ended up sleeping in different places on all nights. I boarded the flight from Seattle in the evening. The full moon lit the mountains which was quite a view from the flight. My co-passenger was a sweet lady from from Guatemala and I was surprised she knew about Mahabharata and Arjuna. She even spoke to me about Draupadi’s swayamvara.

Day 1 : Chichen Itza and swim in the Cenote
I reached Cancun early in the morning around 6 AM. Chai had booked a tour which would start at 8 AM and I did not have the luxury of time. Though the flight reached early by 20-30 mins, we waited for quite a long time just sitting and waiting for immigration forms which irked many. I only had a carry-on bag which sped my process and was at the counter to book a taxi in no time. The lady at the counter quoted 68$ for a 20 min ride to Plaza Caracol, Cancun. Fortunately another traveler wanted to go to Cancun(ADO bus station) too, and still not completely aware of the bargaining we would be doing in the next 3 days I made my first move in saving dollars by asking the fellow traveler to share the taxi for which she readily agreed. She was a cute girl from Italy, pursuing a PhD in San Diego. We spoke a lot during the 20 minute ride and reached ADO bus station where we both alighted. I called Chai, and coincidentally, he was right at ADO bus station waiting to pick me up. Thus I didn’t have to travel to Plaza Caracol by myself. I freshened up in the restroom at the bus station, got into comfortable clothing in the bus and was ready for the exciting tour ahead. I didn’t bring more shorts since I read the temp to be 25 C which I thought was a weather for pants. But I was completely wrong, shorts rules throughout the year in Cancun.

IMG_20151228_172519

The hotel zone at Cancun which falls on the narrow 20 km long strip on the sea looked posh and I was already in the happy vacation mood. I also loved being in the warm tropical weather. The tour bus picked up other tourists and by the time we left Cancun to head west to Yucatan state it was around 8:45 AM. The tour guide was quite cheerful and kept talking about Mexico and Mayan culture. He joked that the first person to fall asleep would be thrown for human sacrifice. Having slept for hardly 2 hours the entire night, I tried my best to stay awake. An Argentinean guy sat next to me for part of the trip. We reached a market and lunch place where we got an opportunity to see various Mayan artifacts and stones. I was particularly interested in Obsidian, called as fake gold by the guide. It would shine golden when poured water and kept at an angle in the sunlight. We roamed the place and had an ok buffet with the Argentinean couple. The guide had given some tips to recognize a Mayan – short and narrow eyes(since they came from Asia). Given the short height, the urinals for men were quite high in the restrooms than the ones I had used elsewhere which amused me. We got into the bus and reached Chichen Itza, which was the first wonder of the world I would be visiting.

The first thing which falls to the eye is the huge grayish pyramid in the center of the ruins which is known as Temple of Kukulcan. It stands 98 feet tall and has 365 steps on each side which are closed for climbing. There are various stats and theories about each structure on the pyramid. Most interesting being the serpent formation from the shadow of the edge of pyramids during the equinoxes. We were assigned an old English guide and he outright ruined the experience. He hardly did justice to the magnanimity and wonder of the Mayan’s knowledge. He just showed some pics, carvings and always spoke about how Mayan’s partied(yes he pronounced party) in the structures around. But it’s worth reading or watching documentaries on Mayans online, I still do sometimes. Other attractions included a ball court, where a Mayan sport was played and leader of the losing team would be sacrificed. We walked around the various other complexes and came to the other side of the pyramid where the restoration wasn’t complete yet. I appreciated this view a lot since it looked sort of untouched and authentic. Anyways, I will move on to the next part of the trip leaving you to explore by yourself more details about the place and Mayans.

After a brief stop at the church at Valladolid, we went to a cenote called Suytun. Cenote is a sinkhole resulting from the collapse of limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. While some are covered partially, others are covered completely or not at all. The one which we went to was covered completely except for a hole in the middle. All around we could see crazy limestone formations. The swim at Crater lake had given me enough confidence to venture in unknown waters and I got into the water excited. I swam across the cenote and wherever I could enjoying the amazing environment.

10454267_10207641327740249_6880644150126826144_o

This was one of the best experiences of the trip. I highly recommend anyone visiting Yucatan peninsula to experience this. After an awesome ending for the tour, we went back to Cancun and stayed at Hostel Kabeh for the night. We traveled around in the local buses which were convenient enough. Each ride cost 11 pesos. Since Chai is vegeterian and I part-vegeterian, we didn’t experiment much with the food.

Wait, did I mention that Cancun is very famous for night life? We went to a night club called Coco Bongo, whose punch-line is “Puts Vegas night life to shame”.  We just paid the cover charge without drinks and entered a not so quite huge room with people, lights, decorations, music, etc. People were dressed for hotness and were giving off dance vibes. The atmosphere was so energizing and electrifying that I wasn’t bored even for a single minute though we were there for hours without a girl as a partner. It wasn’t just a dance club, but there were performances – acrobats, music and the environment was concert-like. The display played on two screens, one semi transparent and a solid screen in the back. The coordination of colorful displays, lighting, music, confetti, steam, etc was super awesome. Although I am not a night life person or a frequent party goer, I feel that this was the best club I have ever been to and I would let the readers decide for themselves should they ever visit this amazing place. We finally called it a dayand went back to hostel to get some sleep.

Day 2 : Jungle Zip-line, ATV riding and zip-line cenote
We hadn’t planned anything for the day and after brainstorming some activities, we went to Plaza Caracol to find some activity tours. We were able to negotiate a good deal for zip-line and ATV and settled for that. In the free time before the tour pick up, we roamed the white sand beach around the hotel Riu. We were picked up around noon and it was a 70 minute ride to the jungle. Co-incidentally, there was another Amazon Seattle employee in the tour and an Estonian couple whom we hanged out with. First activity was ATV ride.

Being very familiar with the ATV from the experience at Oregon dunes,  I was confident about the ride but little did I know that I would equally enjoy the ride. Chai was my pillion and we rode on a broad uneven mud roads initially. I tried to drive as crazy as possible – splashing into the muddy water, speeding irregularly, etc. Then we went off the main road and into a narrow path. It was here where I had the maximum fun riding. Sometimes trees stem would make the path so narrow that we were literally inches away from hitting them. The road was uneven to increase the adventure. We were supposed to follow the guide in front hence we were in single file. I sometimes slowed down deliberately to increase the distance from the bike ahead and then sped up to have more fun negotiating curves in the narrow path. Chai just wondered how I was pulling it off – handling the bike without colliding into the trees. We then reached the main road again. I saw the Estonian guy speeding in a snaky way which would give a drift effect. I tried to emulate it and it was fun feeling the drift in rear tires. I realized that I love ATV very much – not that I love other sports less but ATV is continuous action packed and fun. Mud water kept splashing onto us and by the time we ended the 45 minute ride we were quite dirty.

The next activity was a series of obstacle course from a tree to tree at above 25 feet from the ground and zipline.  Some were on narrow wooden planks and quite exciting. Zipline through the jungle amidst the trees was fun too. We were given a hard glove to hold the metal rope for braking during the end of each traverse.  The best one was when they made us zip-line heels over head.

IMG_0165

It was quite an experience. There were 12 traverses in total. The next activity for the day was zip-lining into a cenote. This cenote was completely uncovered and looked more like a lake. There was a metal rope tied from one to end other where we could hold the triangle slide down with the help of gravity and then jump into cenote. I attempted the somersault while jumping but wasn’t successful. I fell on my back, hurt most of the times. There were other parallel ropes (one over the other) tied where we could walk from one end to other. While walking a guide shook it deliberately and after managing to stay on the wobbly ropes for sometime I fell in the water. I also jumped from a heightened platform which was at 20-25 feet height. Though I had jumped in Crater lake from a similar height, I was still scared before the jump. All in all it was fun – an adrenaline pumping day. We went back to Cancun and managed to stay at Hotel Costa Blanca at a very good deal obviously after bargaining.

Day 3: Xcaret – An eco theme park
Adventure, actio and fun hadn’t ended yet. Xcaret was simply excellent and spectacular. I could go on with numerous adjectives, you will know why. I hadn’t booked the transportation for Xcaret thinking that the tour buses would reach the park late. Ultimately we couldn’t manage to take ADO buses and ended up taking a taxi to the park. We reached around 9 AM and I was eagerly waiting to check this off my bucket list. By the way, Xcaret is a nature based theme park with plethora of water activities and attractions. The main attraction being the artificial river which goes through amazing formations, caves, Mayan village, mangrove trees, etc where people can swim with a life vest. Its also a aquarium and zoo with number of sea animals and wildlife. Well, there was also a two hour cultural show in the end. Maybe I should just start explaining what we did.

I had booked Xcaret plus tickets which included lockers, buffet and snorkel gear. We went to the lockers first, deposited our stuff there and started with the first activity for the day – swim in the river. We were given fins and life vest which would help us in a 45 min swim though the river. We entered the caves and got into the cold water to start the swim. This part of the river went through some amazing concrete, rock formations, caves (fully covered and partially covered).

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 10.24.21 AM

It was quite tiring to just do the front stroke, so I resorted to various other ways to swim. The easiest being laying flat on back and pedaling like on a cycle. The river passed through various sections of the park and some of the stretches were quite exciting. We reached the end of the section and took off our vest and fins to explore the beach side section of the park. We first went to the hammocks area and then to Dolphins section. Most of the special activities like swimming with Dolphins/sharks, etc were paid and had absurd rates so we just stuck to the free activities. We went to snorkeling which had a section of sea water with various fishes. This section was connected to main sea but we were supposed to stay in the limits to be safe. This was the first time I snorkeled and it took some time to get comfortable with the gear. Often times water went into my mask or from the other end of the tube for which I had to come out of water to fix. Gradually I got a hold of it and viewed some colorful fishes under water. There were two specific ridges where some of the most colorful fishes were swimming and it was quite an experience swimming between the ridges behind the fishes.

Best viewed in 480p and above:

I wonder how awesome Scuba diving would be. After we were content enjoying the swim with fishes we went to have lunch. On the way we saw sharks, huge and mini turtles, stingrays and various other sea animals. Macaw birds, Iguanas and flamingos were the most common. The lunch was an international buffet with ginormous spread and I had delicious sea food, jelly, etc.

Then we went to the raft section. A raft seating 20 took us on the river in between the high banks. The ride was peaceful and over a clear water with occasional water sprinkled over us.. Next we went to witness Papantla flying men show. It was quite a simple and creative technique where 5 people would go to the top of a wooden tower with ropes tied on their waist and swing down as the rope unwound them on rotations. I also liked this show where 4 of them took a section of rotating X and managed to stay on it.

We went to the river to swim again but took a different route this time and this section of the river was one of the best experiences in the trip. It passed through high banks, Mayan Village, almost pitch dark caves, under a huge colorful dome, mangrove forest, etc. I thoroughly enjoyed swimming this stretch. Though most of the stuff were man made and artificial, the experience was real. After enjoying a windy section near the hammocks, we went to the inland beach. There was parallel ropes here too and this time and I made others fall by shaking the rope. The beach was not wavy and provided a pool like feel with tubes. It started raining and we then went to the birds and butterfly section. The birds section was a treat to the eye with various birds nestled in an area with artificial waterfalls and walkway along the rim of a huge well like formation. We went back to lockers, took our cameras and then came back to this area to take some pics.

IMG_20151227_180749 (1)

It was around 6 PM and the cultural show would start at 6:30 PM. I had gotten familiar with the torturous paths in park and dashed to the theater to get the best seats. On the way, people were dressed in Mayan traditional outfit and decorated the walk to the theater. The theater itself was huge. Everyone were given small candles. When we lit them and the lights were turned off, the theater looked stunning with numerous tiny fires on everyone’s hand. The show started soon and it described Mayans, the Spanish invasion and Mexican present culture. The Mayan sports which included ball game played only by hips and the fire hockey were interesting to watch. Occasionally, the theater was filled with light and the energy was amazing. It was a beautiful and colorful show indeed. The show ended with Macaw birds circling the theater and I wondered how did they train them to do so. It was an xpectacular and xcellent experience at Xcaret. Might be one of the best places to get introduced to various activities and experience different things all in a day. I would recommend this too for anyone visiting Cancun. We took the taxi back to Cancun and stayed at hostel Mayapan for the night.

Day 4 – Tulum and beach
I had begun learning Spanish using the duolingo app quite a while ago but was never regular. This trip taught me few new words and it was nice learning a little more of a new language. For the last day, we had booked a tour to Tulum online and it was an okay-ish tour. It included 3 hours of round trip travel and around 2 hours of visit to Mayan Ruins along the beach.  Fortunately the guide was good this time and enlightened us with few things. In comparison to the Vijayangara ruins at Hampi, this looked quite small, and I didn’t enjoy that much. However, I was very interested to know stuff about Mayans. We went back to Cancun and as we hadn’t really enjoyed the swim at the beach, we decided to play there for some time. It had been a couple of years since I had been to a beach, so I guess I felt the water too salty. I enjoyed getting hit by waves and  floating in the Caribbean waters.  A thought comes to my mind, ” I love water as much as the fire, I love mountains as much as the beaches, I love wind as much as the tranquility. I just enjoy being in the nature’s purest form”.

On the return journey, my layover was at Pheonix airport. I had only one hour to catch the next flight and I was called into security room for extra computer verification. To make the matters worse, the line for security check was very long. I would simply not make it to the flight without skipping it. I jumped the line requesting fellow passengers. One guy was quite helpful in letting me jump the lines. After the security check, I literally dashed to the gate with belt and other stuff in my hand. I made it to the flight just in time. I was glad to be back home in peaceful Seattle by late night.

It was an action filled, adventurous, historic and entertaining trip. I thank Chai and my new made friends for a great experience and as always, I look forward for my next trip.

Tips: 

  • If you are in a liberty of not planning everything before hand, try to bargain for the tours and activities with the agents. Online prices are ridiculous.
  • Try hostels if you are traveling in budget. Visit them before booking or make sure to read reviews before hand.
  • Contact your bank for affiliations and withdraw money from the affiliation to reduce transaction fees. I got pretty good exchange rate.

Nikhil Navali

Categories: Adventure, Travel | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.