Erik began the day with Black Death. Can you guess what Black Death is? A dark beer, of course. In an effort to save money in this very expensive country, we went cheapo-skate-o and brought with us from home a bunch of instant oatmeal packets and some bowls and spoons, and are using the tea pot in the room to boil water and eat oatmeal for breakfast. Black Death, Erik tells me, makes an excellent breakfast beer for a supplement. I’d been told by several people to buy all our alcohol at the duty-free shop in the airport before exiting. Typically the duty free isn’t available on your way out of the airport, but sure enough it was here, and not just tourists, but the airline pilots and stewardesses, etc., were all loading up grocery carts. So basically we bought a week’s worth of beer, knowing we had a mini fridge in the room, and glad we did so. I pass the advice on to anyone else visiting Iceland – the price of beer in the duty free is at least 50% cheaper than anything outside the airport.
So anyway … Black Death, and then we began our glacier tour. This was our “activity” that was part of the package deal we signed on to for this trip. It was about a 12-hour day. We learned quite a bit about the geology of Iceland from our guide. Driving out to the glacier, you see a lot of volcanoes and also huge stretches of lava fields. The only thing that grows on lava is moss. So these areas are also known as moss fields. It takes 6,000 to 8,000 years for moss to break down lava rock into a layer of top soil, at which time other plants can start to grow. There is not a lot of large flora in Iceland. One of the national jokes is: Q: What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest? A: Stand up.
You may already know that Iceland uses geothermal energy for nearly all their heating needs. Our guide told us that the average heating bill for a household in Iceland is USD$200 to USD$300 per YEAR. Living in the Colorado mountains with a roughly similar climate, I can appreciate how astoundingly low this is. Cold water is full-on free!
So on to the glacier. … First we got set up with our crampons and ice axe. See my stylish crampons on my feet ...
This glacier is currently retreating; apparently a few years ago it came all the way down to the parking lot, now you have to walk over a stretch of rock and ash to ascend it. We’ve walked on one other glacier in the past, in Torres Del Paine national park in Chile. On that trip, we were roped together. When we told our Iceland guide this, he was horrified, saying that was the surest way to death and that they never tied people together. Each to their own method, I guess.
The weather was touch and go … sometimes snowing and sometimes clear. But that made it all the more atmospheric when walking on the glacier amid snowflakes. Unlike the glacier in Patagonia (Chile), which was mostly white with patches of intense blue, here the ice was mostly a continuous subtle shade of blue. And the unique thing was all the black ash infused in various layers and cones (reputed to be trolls). Very striking landscape, and very close to the coast … so you can stand on the glacier and look straight ahead to see the ocean, to the side to see sheer cliffs of green moss, and behind to see the field of snow and ice stretch out of sight.
Our guide found us a little ice tunnel to crawl through. The inside was pretty neat, it's ultra smooth glassy ice, blue and rippled. I'm inside looking out at Erik here.
My little moment of excitement came when I had lagged behind everyone else as we neared the bottom in order to take some photos. See Exhibit A:
Everyone else disappeared behind the folds of glacier, so when I was done snapping photos, I continued on, but I didn’t take the precise path the others had. I stepped onto some snow and instantaneously, before I could even blink, I was suddenly encased in snow up to my waist. Both legs broke through the snow into a hole in the ice. It was so shocking, I let out a little yelp, and soon one of the guides and Erik came running back to find me in my compromised position. But I was easily extricated.
Next we stopped at the beautiful, thunderous Skogafoss waterfall. And were blessed with a rainbow in the mist in the setting sun. Lots of birds nesting in the surrounding cliffs. Notice the people in the second photo for some perspective on how tall the waterfall is. Nearby is a little volcano museum showing a film about a family farm there by the waterfall that was affected by the latest eruption in 2010. A film you can see nowhere else in the world, just at the little museum run by the family who owns the farm … they now make more money on the museum than on farming.
Dinner at a hotel that celebrated the life of Anna the Traveler. Seemed appropriate. And last stop was another spectacular waterfall, but we viewed at the unlikely time of well after dark. The waterfall is lit up at night. There is a path that goes behind the waterfall, we followed with a flashlight. We stood behind the high falls, glazed with an icy cold mist, marveling at how alive the waterfall seemed ... the curtains of water that came down looked just like an aurora borealis the way it shimmered and snaked languidly through the air. Really quite magical.
Sometimes it’s tough to start at the beginning when the second part is more exciting. But I’ll try to be conventional and stick to the time line. So … as I type late at night, Erik is busy learning the Icelandic language by translating the ingredients on the beer can one word at a time … as the label is printed in both English and Icelandic. He is anticipating some riveting conversations now with the locals.
We arrived in Reykjavik on a cloudy day early in the morning. Having not slept as we had desired to do on the plane, the first order of business … somewhat against our mental will, being at the mercy of our physical will … was to take a little nap. Our hotel has themed rooms, and we are in the “Volcano” room. This means … drum roll … we have two photographs of volcanoes in our tiny room. Pretty exciting. We haven’t stayed in a hotel room of this ummm … quaint … size since the Communist cell-dubbed-“room” in Slovakia (wherein I suffered the worst stomach sickness ever in my life for those who are familiar with that story). So our little chamber is a bit cramped, but no worries. The hotel itself is quite nice by my standards and has a beautiful spa in the basement with geothermal baths of 2 different temperatures available for guest use. Naturally, I have already checked it out and it meets my rigorous standard of ahhhhh-ness.
Anyway, after the nap, we made our way into the old city center via bus and foot. The old center is very Medieval in character, and everything seems just a wee bit too small. I kept thinking I was in a theme park. Funny though, as we are accustomed to the sound of studded tires, having them on our own vehicles in winter, we picked up quickly that many of the cars here have studded tires … it’s a very recognizable sound when the wheels roll slowly by you.
We ran across this funky little skate park on a side street with fun street art and nice little ramps, etc. We ran into the skate-boarders down the road in a public square where you’re not supposed to skateboard, hopping up on planters and such.
A little more street art ... who is imitating who?
We stepped into a little museum to see the archaeological remains of a long house from the 900s. Conventional knowledge is that Iceland was first inhabited in the late 800s. We stepped inside the imposing cathedral at the far end of the old town, but decided to wait for a clearer day to take the elevator to the top of the tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. Hopefully that day does come to us.
Check out these organ pipes! 5,275 of them.
Naturally, this wouldn't be the SKJ travel blog without the obligatory sprinkling of photos depicting the various kitties I meet around the world. This adorable one was stalking a bird in the yard of a Reykjavikian.
I always think it's interesting at the end of a trip to go back and see what was the very first photo I took. Well, for your amusement, I publish it here now rather than at the end. My first photo in Iceland, walking toward the old city center in Reykjavik.
And I leave you on our first day in a large book store in the old city center. Wherein I learned about a number of things, the most interesting being piratology. Don't know if there were actually a lot of pirates around Iceland, but somehow pirates seem appropriate to any island. It's after 1 a.m. now, going to plop into my pillows. But coming up next, our little excursion onto a glacier in the land of volcanoes.
Once again the little lagoon pulled me to it like a magnet. I meandered down there for another look at the critters. This day, rather arbitrarily, I was determined to get some shots of the spoonbill birds. They are so difficult to nab a picture of because they typically sequester themselves deep inside the leafy branches of the trees. So not only are they covered up by the leaves, but I have a terrible time making the camera understand I want to focus on the bits of bird, not on the leaves.
First thing I saw was Crazy Little Black Kitty hanging with the crocodiles again.
Last year I saw so many iguanas (see pics); this year not so many, but I did run across a few who were finishing up the cabbage that had recently been thrown to them. I love these shots of their little red tongues. Don’t know why. I seem to find animal tongues amusing when they are visible.
I finally spotted two spoonbills, nestled up in the branches as usual. I tried calling to them, naturally to no avail, but sometimes you just can’t help trying. I had to be back to the hotel for dinner and time was flying by as I stood with my eye to the camera, finger on the button, for minutes on end waiting for them to reposition themselves so I could see them more clearly. I particularly wanted a shot of them flying, with their wings open, as they are gorgeous when spread out. Tick tock tick tock. Stupid birds aren’t moving, except occasionally to obscure themselves even more. Tick tock. Just about to throw in the towel, but am loathe to give up with nothing to show for my time. Tick … finally my stubbornness paid off. First one flew into view and sang a little solo. It then flew to another branch, but amazingly I could still see it, and then its mate flew to its side.
I was pleased with this development. Then the one bird, I presumed a male, abruptly up and freaked out, flapping wildly. He landed on what I presumed is a female, and put his beak around hers. It took me a minute to process what was going on. Then I was thinking, “Dude, you have it a little wrong … that's not quite how you spoon. Your breaks don't go perpendicular."
But the silly bird persisted and started biting her whole head. The poor lass just stood there and took it, most of the time keeping her nictitating membranes closed over her eyes to prevent damage. I have to say, I’m surprised the spoonbill isn’t a little more adept at “spooning.” Ha ha. I guess that's the way it goes in a lot of nature.
Well, at last I was satisfied and walked back home along the beach. Itty bitty tiny crabs had come out by the dozens to skitter across the sand. I kept a brisk pace with them to make it back in time for strawberry margaritas with the family. Oh, that reminds me, I made the taxi driver who took us to Petatlan laugh when I took a photo of the menu at the place where we ate lunch (where I tried the star fruit). But it was so interesting to me ... you just would be hard-pressed to find a menu like this at a typical Mexican restaurant in America. Especially the last item ...
And so ends another relaxing week in Ixtapa. (all indications are that I will be back next year) Some early morning clouds behind Ixtapa Island (where I got bit by the school of fish) and a couple sunsets to close.
Decided to go off base for a little while. Our liaison here at the resort does bend over quite far in the backward direction for us in numerous ways. This day he arranged for Erik and I a taxi driver, Israel, for the afternoon. He spoke fluent English (he had even driven his car from Ixtapa to Colorado Springs a few years ago), and was a friendly and knowledgeable guy whose family had been in the region for years. So he also walked around Petatlan with us and took us to lunch at one of his personal favorites where he goes with his family.
Petatlan is famous for this church which, despite its modern architectural lines, was built in the 1800s. It’s a popular pilgrimage site for Mexicans in the region. The town is also known for its gold and silver vendors, but being peso-less, we glanced only very quickly at these stalls. We met a notorious town beggar, limping with her walker and demanding a hand out from us gringos. Israel says she is in fact quite wealthy and operates as a loan shark to locals.
While we were walking through the local food vendor market, I pointed out a produce I’d never seen before. Israel bought it and said we’d have the restaurant cut it wherever we ate. We also bought a bunch of teeny tiny bananas … a particular favorite of Erik’s. We didn’t have tons of time to explore, but it was a quaint downtown area, and nice to see a slice of the more “real” Mexico.
This van was driving down the street blasting something through speakers mounted on the roof of the van. The tone of voice made it obvious it was advertising something, but we didn’t know what until it turned the corner and we could see the side of the van advertising that the circus was coming to town that weekend.
Typically Erik is the one of whom I take photos trying some local delicacy unfamiliar to us … many times resulting in rather hilarious photos when it’s not as yummy as he imagined. This time I played guinea pig to try the fruit we had bought in the market. After the waiter sliced it for us, I recognized it as a star fruit, but I still had never tasted one. So … in fact, the flavor was nothing horrendous nor fantastic either way, and was palatable enough in texture. But it was so tart it made my jaw cramp up. In this award-winning photojournalistic piece, Erik chronicles my introduction to the star fruit.
Today I strolled over to the reserve in the afternoon by myself. I don’t even have to put shoes on to check it out. I walk down the sand beach, and I can walk along the reserve fence in my bare feet. There’s a strange satisfaction in having such a good time in bare feet … it doesn’t happen all that often, you know, except at family barbecues and days at the beach, but there I was watching crocodiles and spoonbill birds with my camera glued to my eyeball in bare feet. I don’t know how to explain why this makes me feel so content.
There were several interesting events today. When I arrived at the reserve, I counted 27 crocodiles jammed against the perimeter fence, together in one big pack. Made me wonder what’s the most that have been crammed into one spot like that.
I witnessed an iguana chase through the tree tops. An adult orange one chasing a young green one … up one tree trunk to the highest branches, down the branches, jump across to another tree, dislodge a rainshower of leaves onto the ground and human observers, run through the leaves on the uppermost branches and jump to the next tree … eventually the large iguana fell off a tree limb and made a terrific kerplunk in the water, from which he immediately high-tailed it out of there. A local standing nearby answered a questioning tourist, “Yes, the crocodiles will eat iguanas. They eat anything except the turtles.”
The reserve is a very small stretch of viewing area, yet I managed to let over 2 hours fly by while I watched the daily drama of this primeval lagoon. I was impressed by this last year, the Jurassic feel of the place, void of mammals, only reptiles and birds.
Well, except for a couple of kitty cats. This little black kitty cat was carelessly investigating the weeds where the crocodiles lay. And this is true: he was limping on 3 legs as one them was missing a foot … it had obviously gotten munched off, and yet there he was still meandering among the murderers.
Not more than 10 minutes later, I heard a great splash and kerfuffle; I swiveled my head around to see one of the large white egrets inside a croc’s mouth, its white feathers streaked with blood, being tossed up in the air over and over as the croc crunched it up a little more with each landing. He hadn’t even finished with the bird before another croc surfaced in the middle of the lagoon tossing a positively giant, flopping fish around in its mouth. And there that silly little kitty came into view again just behind the crocs who were obviously starting to feel a bit peckish.
I had been standing at the perimeter fence where I’d counted the 27 crocodiles to watch the bird and the fish get eaten, and when I saw the kitty coming through the jungle again, I decided to go back around the corner to where I could get a shot of her through the chain link fence. After putsing around back there for a little while and meeting another, more sensible kitty, I came back around to the beach-side perimeter and saw a police car pull up.
Two officers got out, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. I wondered what dramatic situation had popped up during the few minutes of my absence. But they didn’t confront any people, they seemed to be just standing around. OK, maybe they were on break, I thought. Then I saw it. A crocodile had just escaped and was walking down the beach toward the ocean.
We had heard they sometimes escape and swim out in the water freaking the living daylights out of swimmers and kayakers. Sure enough, they’re not making it up. There was one right there. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned. One of the policemen even motioned me to come closer to the croc to get a photo. The locals seemed unconcerned as well. So he walked down aways and then just laid down on his tummy and chilled. I have no idea how they get the escapees back inside the fence.
Took a little kayak trip out to an island across the bay and did some snorkeling. Some lovely fish and small stretches of decent coral. A school of small, narrow, brightly-colored magenta and yellow fish started swarming around me about an inch away from my mask and my body. I though it was pretty neat and suddenly I started feeling little nips on my arms and legs. They were biting me! Well, tomorrow I'm taking a little day trip to a nearby town, to get off base for a little while. Meanwhile the daiquiris and negra modelos are going down smoothly by the quart. ha ha (staying at an all-inclusive).