CategoriesUncategorized

Cave Adventures are the Highlight of Belize

One of the gruesome relics of the ATM cave's past.

Skeletons, Underground River, Make Belize Caving Trip a Wild Time
The Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave in Belize is just about the greatest underground experience an average Joe caver can enjoy. The sights are awesome – and so are the insights in the Mayan culture.
Read More

CategoriesUncategorized

Hiking Destination: Iceland’s Landmannalaugar

Windy, steep, bleak. Things are starting to get rough.

Landmannalaugar isn’t so much a place. It’s more of a rip in the space-time continuum.

Consider its summer: It’s hard to tell 3 a.m. from 3 p.m. It can wrap you in the warmth of geothermal vents, chill you with wind, hose you down with rain – all in the span of 30 minutes. You can hike for hours without seeing a solitary living creature. It can even dispatch a lethal blizzard – yes, even in June.

Night doesn’t fall. The often-overcast skies will keep you in a permanent state of twilight. The terrain and scenery changes drastically from mile to mile. The colors of the rhyolite mountains will make you want to get your eyes checked.

In June of 2010, I arrived at Landmannalaugar with my wife. We read about it in guidebooks and blogs. Nothing even remotely prepared us for this place. Oh, we had the equipment we needed. But the scenery! You can look at these photos all you want, and you will still not believe your eyes when you get off the bus from Reykjavik.

There just is no other place like this.

Here’s what to expect on this amazing, one-of-a-kind, 12-kilometer trip from Landmannalauger to the Hrafntinnusker camp site.
Continue reading

CategoriesTastesUncategorized

Battle of the Gross Fish: Gefilte Fish Versus Hákarl

Some Greenland shark putrefying Icelandic style.

In an earlier post complete with video, you got to see me eat the rancid Icelandic shark meat known as hákarl. The whole experience made me think of gefilte fish, which I consider the other major abomination of seafood.

One is a motley conglomeration of ingredients ground up together and pressed into patties. The other is just a shark that is left to rot, hung out to dry and sliced into cubes. You’ll find neither on the menu at any fine dining establishments. Since neither is appetizing, I decided to rate which one is more fun to eat. Here are the results (I suppose the winner of this bracket will one day go on the face off against lutefisk)!

Who Eats It?

Gefilte Fish – Just about every Jewish family at Passover – and possibly housecats.

Hákarl – Vikings, Icelanders

Winner: Hákarl, because helmets with horns on them look way cooler than yarmulkes. (Yes, I know Vikings didn’t really wear those, but still … )

Preparation

Gefilte Fish – Grind up carp, matzoh and anything else you can find. Form into patties. Pack it in jar with gelatinous fish broth.

Hákarl- Gut and behead a shark. Bury it for 12 weeks – exhume, and hang out to dry for several months. Slice into cubes and enjoy with brenevin, a strong Icelandic spirit. The intent of the preperation is to press out toxin’s in the shark’s flesh.

Winner: Hákarl. Because sharks are awesome. Carp, not so much.

Continue reading

CategoriesUncategorized

New Zealand for the Photographer

tongariro mount doom
A few hearty shrubs are the first appearance of non-human life near Blue Lake.

New Zealand for the Photographer
Travelers who love taking photos will come home from New Zealand with some of their best-ever images. Here are three places you shouldn’t miss if you want to take photos worthy of framing and hanging – and maybe even selling. Also included – a few basic gear tips.
Read More

From nz2
CategoriesUncategorized

Visit Darwin in Australia’s Northern Territory

The ultimate eating machine - waiting for you to visit.

A Guide to Darwin, the Gateway to Adventure in Australia’s Top End
If you’re off to Australia, you need to see the rugged Northern Territory. It’s rugged and untamed, and the port town of Darwin is a major gateway to all the fun. There are tons of trips departing Darwin – all ready to take travelers from Litchfield Park to the mighty Kakadu!
Read More

CategoriesUncategorized

Nordic Chihuahuas and Glacier Dogs – Pets in Iceland

"Spot" takes a break while exploring the pseudocraters.

NOTE: To see more of Iceland, see my Flickr Photostream.

People in Iceland really seem to love domestic animals – from the smallest yappy dog to the stoutest horse. Being an animal lover myself (domestic and wild), I take a lot of notice about pets’ role in a society I’m visiting. Here are a few things I noticed about pets in Iceland.

A Nordic Chihuahua?

I noticed an astounding number of chihuahuas in Iceland. Most of them were around Reykjavik, but I spotted a few in smaller towns, too. This really shocked me, since I associate them with the Southwest – wear it’s an advantage to have barely any fur.

These little dogs must spend the entire winter shivering or kept indoors. Unless Zo-On makes some cool winter clothes tailored for small dogs! To give them credit for adaptation, none of the chihuahuas I saw were nervous, shivering or yappy. They were certainly more calm and friendly than the ones who lived next door to me (I don’t miss being barked at every day!).

“Spot” Roams the Lava Flow

In the small town of Kirkjubaeklaustar (Icelanders got a lot of laughs out of hearing me try to pronounce this), we stayed at the Hotel Laki Efri-Vik. A dog lived at the hotel, and seemed to be in a permanent state of bliss. She met all sorts of people, and she was pretty successful at following them for short walks around the nearby lake and enticing them to throw sticks for her (though there are not many sticks on the old lava flow that constitutes the entire area). The dog, whose name is the Icelandic word for “Spot,” even followed us on a 5-mile walk through the pseudocraters dotting the landscape.

She seemed the most carefree dog ever, given full range to roam the land. There was barely any traffic to worry her, and all the guests were happy to be her friend during their stay.

Continue reading

CategoriesGearUncategorized

Packing – One of the Hardest Parts of Travel

That's a big pack, dude!

As I was filling up my backpack for traveling to Iceland, all I could think about was a line from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian: “Is it too big? Is it too small?”

I never want to bring too much, but I also never want to get totally soaked in a random storm like I did in New Zealand.  And I actually needed a tent and sleeping bag this time – and a pair of running shoes since my wife signed us up for the Miðnæturhlaup, which is “Midnight Run” in Icelandic. I also had to bring stuff for hanging out in Reykjavik in addition to exploring the volcanic badlands.

Anyway, I ruthlessly put together a packing list of everything I took and evaluated whether or not I would bring it on my next trip (well, to a place with a similar climate, anyway). Some mainstays that always make it into the pack are ExOfficio underwear, my freakin’ awesome La Sportiva boots and my practically immortal REI convertible cargo pants, which continue ticking after nearly 5 years of use.

Anyway, here’s how all this stuff fared during two weeks at the 66th parallel. Keep this in mind if you’re planning to hit the cooler climates this summer.

Continue reading

CategoriesUncategorized

Stjarnan FC Soccer Fans the Highlight of First Day in Iceland

stjarnan FC fans
Stjarnan FC fans bring the noise and show the Fram fans how it's done.

Want to make friends in a foreign country? All you need to do is embrace its sports, and you’re well on your way. I first learned this in Costa Rica when I became a Saprisista. And I continued the tradition during my latest trip. Hours after touching down at Keflavik International Airport in Iceland, I wound up next to a wild bunch of fans supporting Stjarnan F.C. (pronounce it as “startna,” pretty much), a team in the Úrvalsdeild (Icelandic premier league).

My wife and I had just introduced ourselves to another Icelandic tradition – lounging around in hot tubs. Afterward, we were walking along when I noticed a group of people outside a stadium.

Since there was a red-bearded guy wearing blue and white facepaint, I figured he would be the one to ask “Hey, what’s going on here?” So I did, and soon had the info that there was a Monday night match about to start. And he offered a free ticket, on one condition: “You must support Stjarnan!”

Who am I to argue with a bearded, face-painted dude wielding a 6-foot-tall staff topped with a skull? So support Stjarnan we did! I bought a second ticket for Sarah, and into the stadium we went.

As it turns out, Stjarnan only got promoted to the top division a few years ago. At gametime, they were ranked in the middle of the league table. Meanwhile, their opponents (and the hometeam … aiiiy!), Fram, were ranked first. But the Stjarnan fans provided most of the spirit on display in the mostly empty stadium, which is called Laugardalsvöllur. Organized cheers and songs from the Stjarnan faithful largely drowned out the Fram supporters, even in their own 10,000-seat grounds!

Even going down two goals did little to silence them. And they added more noise when a Fram player was sent off late in the game, allowing Stjarna to score a goal. They pressed for the equalizer as the clock ticked, but weren’t able to level the scoreline.

Still, I adopted Stjarnan as my Icelandic team. I searched all over the city on a wild goose chase for a Stjarnan shirt. Each store seemed to refer me to a different place, but I was completely out of luck. I wound up with an Icelandic national team shirt instead, but I still will try to find some way to get a Stjarnan shirt.

One thing that surprised me is that Icelanders are really into soccer, but they disdain their own premier league clubs, unfortunately. Instead, most seem to follow English teams – especially Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester United.

I’ll admit there’s a gulf in quality – but I think everyone should show some pride for their hometown sports clubs. It doesn’t matter if they’re in the best league in the world, or the worst: Your home is your home, and you have to support the local teams! One thing I did really like is that the rivalry between fans was really friendly. They just wanted to cheer on their teams, not battle each other (unlike Saprissa and Alajuela down in Costa Rica, for instance).

Here’s a video – if you know any of these characters, pass it along to them and tell me who they are. I’d like to hear from any Stjarna fans. Your team has a fan here in the U.S.!

CategoriesUncategorized

Life Without the Sunset – Iceland in Summer

I have not seen the sun set since I left Arizona on Saturday. Seriously, 2 a.m. and 2 p.m. look exactly the same. You definitely keep your energy level up that way, but it is discombobulating.

There will be lots of photos when I return, and some great tips and tales. But for now, just imagine sleeping when it is always late afternoon.

CategoriesGearTastesTravelUncategorized

Flying With MREs – Banned or Not?

When it comes to flying, you can’t be too careful these days when it comes to packing. Since my upcoming trip is going to involve backpacking in Iceland, I decided to take some military Meals, Ready To Eat packages.

Then I paused. The MREs all come with this little self-heating thing. I decided to check with the authorities to check on whether flying with MREs is allowed. I wrote to Delta Airlines, which we’re flying from Phoenix to JFK, and Icelandair, which will take us the rest of the way. I explained my plan, and specific that I’d have the MREs in checked baggage. Here are their answers.

flying with MREs
MRE 2003 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continue reading

CategoriesGearTastesUncategorized

Primal Strips Vegan Jerky is Eco-Friendly, Healthy – and Tasty

Primal Strips - worthy of a place in my pack.

Soon, I’m going to get on a 6-hour flight. A day later, I’ll put on a backpack and head into Iceland’s remote Landmannalaugar region. Right now, the road to Landmannalaugar isn’t even open yet. There will be no Starbucks, no fast food, no convenience stores. It’s all gotta go in with me.

That means I’ll need some snacks. They have to be compact, of course. But they also have to be tasty, relatively healthy and a bit on the salty side. Tasty and healthy are obvious. But why the salt? I’m planning to sweat out some eletrolytes.

Before I really got far into planning the contents of my pack, the folks from Primal Strips contacted me to ask for a review of their vegan “jerky” snacks. They sent two of each of their flavors.

I’d planned to take the whole lot to Iceland for testing. But I got a little impatient and opened my first a few weeks out. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let’s talk about jerky first – the kind made from meat. I have a love/hate relationship with it. Cheap jerky is leathery and briny. Good jerky is expensive, and a bit less salty. Exotic jerkies like shark, ostrich and bison are fun, but they’re often a bit on the chewy side.

This all means the idea of a vegan jerky intrigued me. I’m an ominover. I think meat is delicious, but I have absolutely no knee-jerk ideological hangups about eating something that didn’t “have a face,” as so many people do.

Primal Spirit Foods makes the Primal Strips from soy, seitan (a type of wheat gluten) and shiitake mushrooms. Different flavors use one of the three as their main base. The first one I tried was the Thai Peanut flavor, which is made from seitan.

It had a meaty appearance, right down to some bacon-like marbling. I poked at it to gauge the texture and took a bite. What I found was a surprisingly meaty texture – a tad more spongy than jerky, but far easier to chew. And I liked the spicy peanut flavor. I was pretty impressed – so much so that I knew it would be hard to stay disciplined and not eat them all before boarding my Icelandair flight.

Continue reading

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

Check Out McDowell Mountain Night Ride

mcdowell mountain night ride
Night mountain biking – bring the fun!

The McDowell Mountain night ride is one of the great things about summer for the local Phoenix mountain biker. It’s tough to be a mountain biker during the hot months here – especially if you’re also a stay-up-late sort of character. Just try scraping yourself out of bed at 4:30 a.m. to avoid the brutal sun. From the second it makes its way fully over the mountains, its intensity seems to suck your soul dry.

Really, there’s only one refuge for the desert mountain biker: the night-time.

Yes, you have to become a velo vampire. Myself? Night riding isn’t my favorite, and I always made excuses like “Aww, I don’t have a light.” But since I ponied up for some lights to get me through the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo, I’ve lost that excuse. And I want to keep my fitness, so I’m extra-motivated to stay on the bike this summer.

I’m a bit of a chicken, I’ll admit. I am kind of a lone wolf when I ride, but the nighttime will force me to be more of a pack animal. That’s what makes this weekend’s moonlight ride at McDowell Mountain Regional Park such an attractive idea: riding at night in the safety of a full moon and a large group of people – on a trail with barely any technical nastiness.

On May 22, you can head out there, pay $6 per car and hook up with other riders for a 16-mile loop around the uber-fun Trail B/Pemberton Loop (I’m pretty sure everyone knows how much I love the Pemberton Loop). It starts at 7:30. Bring enough light power for three hours, and don’t even think of showing up without a helmet. Volunteers sweepers will scoop up all of you stragglers.

Keep an eye on the park’s Web site. These rides usually happen whenever we get a nice, bright moon.

 

CategoriesUncategorized

Scenes from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Here are a few fun scenes from a trip I took to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. This was back in November, but I’m just getting around to it now. Except more about this very cool place soon.

A museum volunteer holds an owl.
The rocks and minerals on display are also pretty cool.
Rattlesnake!
A falcon poses during the Raptor Free Flight show.
A closer look at the falcon.
Looking west of the museum at the open desert.
CategoriesAccommodationsUncategorized

Why I Like Hotels Better than B & Bs

Sedona red agave
A view from the Red Agave Resort in Sedona.

Someone needs to explain what’s so great about “bed and breakfasts” to me.

I listen to so many people go on and on breathlessly about some quaint little bed & breakfast inn they found in their travels. Their descriptions invariably involve the word “cute.”

I don’t much cotton to cute.

And I’ll tell ya what – I’m not much for enforced intimacy with other people, whether they be travelers or innkeepers. Given the choice, I will always take a hotel over a B & B. Hell, I’ll take a backpacker’s hostel over a B  & B.

See, I prefer anonymity. I’ve only been in one B & B ever that was as laid back as a hotel. Every other one I’ve experienced has felt way too much like I was visiting an aunt’s house – and she definitely wants me to skip finding the local microbrewery and play Scrabble with her and her 13 cats.

I once stayed in a B & B where my wife and I were the only guests. It felt more than a touch awkward, despite being one of the coolest houses I’ve ever seen. Had it been full of guests, I might have felt a little less nerped out about the whole thing.

If you’re super-gregarious and don’t mind the fishbowl feel of a B & B, that’s up to you. Me? I’ll be at a place where I check in, and they forget about me unless I drop down to the front desk. I like service that’s there for me, but in an unobtrusive way. That’s a happy medium that very few B & Bs really have.

If I had to give you some perfect examples of that happy medium, I’d say Ann’s Volcanic Rotorua Motel (Rotorua, NZ) and the Red Agave Resort (Sedona, Ariz., USA). Ann’s was terrific; I haven’t got to stay at the Red Agave yet, but I took a tour and loved the place. Most of the cottages are separate, but there’s a communal gathering space for hanging out under the stars. Nice!

By and large, I’ve also found B & Bs to hit the wallet harder.

I’m not completely against the B & B, but they start the game with strikes against them.

CategoriesGearUncategorized

First Ascent Outerwear Shootout – Downlight Versus Serrano

Keeping warm in the Downlight.
Keeping warm in the Downlight.

Eddie Bauer is doing some work to make its original mountain explorer image part of its company vibe again. At the heart of the effort is its First Ascent brand.

You won’t find First Ascent casual wear of any sort. It’s meant to be technical wear, and you will see it on some of the world’s highest peaks. First Ascent designed the line with input from experienced mountaineers like Ed Visteurs and Melissa Arnott. And these experts are outfitted with First Ascent gear as they span the world climbing all sorts of crazy stuff.

Obviously, First Ascent wants this stuff to hold up against some stern tests. That’s good news for everyday people like me, who are more likely to just go skiing, snowshoeing or even just sledding in the cold weather.

I recently tested the First Ascent Downlight sweater and Serrano jacket, and came away with some impressions. This should help you figure out which is better for you.

Up with Downlight

The first to endure my abuse was the Downlight sweater ($169-$189). I grabbed a blue XL from my local Eddie Bauer store. Its first assignment was keeping me warm at the Kona 24 Hours of Old Pueblo – mostly at night when I wasn’t on my bike. Temperatures got into the low 30s F. Mission accomplished! Next up was four days in Breckenridge, Colo., with temperatures from 12 to 22 degrees. Even in windy conditions on the slopes, the Downlight kept me warm. I teamed it with an UnderArmour Heatgear shirt, a long-sleeved cycling jersey and a light fleece Alpine Designs sweater. At night, every part covered by the Downlight was warm, even though I had one less layer.

Testing out the Serrano in Flagstaff.
Testing out the Serrano in Flagstaff.

There’s just one problem with the Downlight – the down feathers don’t seem to stay put. My fleece was always covered in white feathers. I described the problem via e-mail to Eddie Bauer customer service; the representative said it was likely defective, and gave me some instructions for returning it. I took it back to my local store, and I learned that a few other Downlight sweaters had also been returned. With that in mind, I decided to go with --

The Serrano Jacket

Rather than down, the Serrano ($169) is made from PrimaLoft. Both products look similar, though I missed the awesome electric blue of the DownLight – black is cool and all, but the blue just rocked. And unlike the Downlight, the Serrano doesn’t have the very cool ability to fold into its own zippered pocket for travel – it does come with a carrying bag, though.

Here’s something that I loved about the Serrano, though – it has these cool wrist gaiters that keep snow and wind at bay. I was able to use my old pair of short-cuff Hotfinger gloves rather than the rather ragged and ineffective long-cuff gloves I used in Breckenridge. Through two days in Flagstaff, Ariz., and temperatures in the high 20s, my hands stayed really warm thanks to the gaiters.

The Polartec Power Stretch side panels, though, exposed a weakness in the Serrano. When the winds picked up, the cold air knifed straight through and gave me a nasty chill. I’d axe these side panels in a second. Considering the gaiters, which seem to scream "use me in cold weather," the side panels seem to muddle the Serrano’s mission.

So Which is Better?

I love the solid, non-feather-losing construction of the Serrano – and it’s super-fly wrist gaiters. It also has more pockets than the Downlight. But I think it’s awesome that the Downlight folds in on itself and better protects from the wind. And have I mentioned that sweet blue color?

First Ascent can perfect both of these by offering wrist gaiters in both, fixing the feather problems with the Downlight and ditching the side panels on the Serrano.

I really like both products, despite some quibbles. Both are very compact and do their jobs well. They’re a decent value compared to competitor’s products, and the Eddie Bauer customer service and store staff members were first-rate.

You can also see my more in-depth review of the Downlight Sweater on AssociatedContent.com.

CategoriesUncategorized

See an Igloo Without Going to Alaska

Checking out the Breckenridge Nordic Center's igloo. Awesome! Now build your own and sleep in it!
Scoping out the Breckenridge Nordic Center's igloo. Awesome! Now build your own and sleep in it!

Okay, I told you about 9 things you should know when visiting Breckenridge, Colo., in my super-spectacular previous post. Here’s something I forgot to mention: There, you can check out an igloo. It’s a small one, fit for two people at the most. But it’s a real, live igloo nonetheless.

You can drop in to the igloo at the Breckenridge Nordic Center. Get there while it lasts! You probably have a few months left.

Now, if you live in a snowy place, I’d think you need to get out there and build your own igloo. This cool story in the San Francisco Chronicle will get you started.

And if you’re wondering about the super-fly-looking jacket I’m wearing, you can check out my review of the First Ascent DownLight Sweater at Associated Content.

CategoriesUncategorized

9 Things to Know about Visiting Breckenridge, Colo.

Checking out the mountains from the center of Breckenridge.
Checking out the mountains from Breckenridge.

My wife and I got our usual winter skiing itch. Over the past few years, we’ve left Arizona to check out Park City, Utah, and the Tahoe area. This time, we headed to Colorado; we hung our helmets for a few nights in Breckenridge, skiing there and at the nearby Copper Mountain resort. Here’s a bit of what we learned:

1. What’s better … Breckenridge or Copper Mountain? Well, Breckenridge is more groomed by far, and its runs are easier. If you can believe it, its blue runs are actually far easier than Copper’s green runs. Breck has way better/faster lifts, though. You should ski both – they each have runs that are great fun for all levels. If you’re a blue square sort like me, ski Copper first while your legs are still at their strongest.

2. Where can you grab a brew? Breckenridge Brewery is the easy answer. But go 10 miles down the road back to Frisco, where you’ll find Backcountry Brewery. The beer, the food, the service and the ambience at Backcountry absolutely pummel the better-known Breckenridge in a one-sided, viscious fashion. I hope for you that the Breakfast Stout is still available when you visit.

3. What about hotels? We stayed at the Village at Breckenridge. And jeez, we really liked it. We were walking-distance from lifts, food and all sorts of other fun. The hotel has hot tubs, a steam room and a sauna! The staff is very friendly. What could be better? Well, the hotel’s pub smelled like a cross between rotting lobster carcasses and stale popcorn. And the rooms really need microwaves.

Wandering Justin displays the remains of his snow disc.
Wandering Justin displays the remains of his snow disc.

4. Done Downhilling? Try some Nordic skiing, ja! Or even some snow-shoeing. The laid-back Nordic Centers are the perfect place to start. Everywhere I’ve been, Nordic and snowshoeing have offered a more relaxed vibe that can’t be beat. I felt like I was in Europe at the Breck center, with an accordian-playing dude and a bunch of people hanging out in the stove-heated main room. And it’s a great workout once you’re outside. I’d say Breck’s Nordic trails are the most scenic I’ve even seen. If you’re lucky (which we were not), you’ll see some moose!

5. Done wearing skis? Pick up a sled or a snow disc and hit Carter Park. We had just as many adults out there as kids. And we were all having a blast. Such shenanigans! If it’s been awhile since you’ve been on a sled, this will make you remember why you loved it as a kid. Caution, though: You may kick yourself for the wasted time. I had some extra fun on my $7 disc – following my wife’s advice, I crammed myself into a cross-legged position on my sled rather than my usual luge or skeleton style: About a quarter of the way down, my sled split into several pieces. I sat on the largest piece holding on with my right hand, while I waved the smaller piece in my left and the smallest and last piece chased me down the hill. Great fun success!

Continue reading

CategoriesFitnessUncategorized

24-Hour Race Advice – Mountain Bike Tips

24-hour race advice. Photo by Tyrone Minton.
Wandering Justin takes a lap at 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo. Photo by Tyrone Minton.

I have some 24-hour race advice for you: A few weeks ago, I raced in the Kona 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo as part of the duo team Lost Nuts. We finished in the middle of the pack, with having few mechanical problems being our only distinguishing feature. It was my first 24-hour event, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My partner, Harry, had a great question for me after the event. “So, what did you learn?” Here are the answers.

1. Pack meticulously, and don’t overlook food. I failed to bring some essentials that I used throughout my training: V-8 and coconut water, both of which are great for re-hydrating. I also, if you can believe this, forgot my freakin’ helmet. Fortunately, several local bike shops had set up camp there and I was able to score one on the cheap. A second helmet is going to be useful for riding at night more often. Which leads us to #2.

2. Ride at night lots before the race. That way, you won’t be a chicken like me. Night riding freaks me out, and I need to get used to it if I’m going to do this more often. Which I intend to.

Continue reading