Saline Valley, CA

After the Hopi Reservation, we went on to Saline Valley (part of Death Valley National Park) with an overnight in the parking lot of the Alien Cathouse Brothel / Area 51 Alien Cafe and Truck-stop, which was a surprisingly quiet place to spend the night.

I’ve heard about Saline Valley for years, but this was my first time there. Wow, what a wacky and awesome place! Image a free, clothing optional hot springs resort in the middle of a national park, complete with herd of wild burrows that eat everything in site, including someone’s guitar case while we were there. There are two sets of developed hot springs within a 1/2 mile of each other, each with two really nice soaking areas (around 102 degrees) big enough for 8-10 people comfortably, and some of the cleanest pit toilets I’ve ever seen. Both areas have a bunch of palm trees for shade, and one area had a big lush green lawn. There were probably around 50 people there between both sites the nights we were there, including several families with kids. We were told the Thanksgiving potluck attracts around 500 folks. The entire valley was surround by beautiful snow capped mountains, and we were lucky enough to get a big thunderstorm one of the days we were there.

Sounds like heaven, right? The problem is that its long brutal drive down a rocky road driving 5-10 mph. The gravel road part of the drive took us 6 hours on the south road on the way in, and 3.5 hrs on the north road on the way out. I’m not likely to do this drive again any time soon, and definitely not in a Sprinter. It would probably be much better in a Forerunner or similar vehicle. But 4WD is not required, a I saw few regular passenger cars there. But it’s a good thing its hard to get to, as otherwise the place would be too popular, and the NPS would likely close it down or restrict access.

My photos are here, and more information and history of the springs is here.

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Phoenix Area and Sedona

Christine spent a few nights in a great AirBNB in Tempe while I flew north to see Mott the Hopple! Before I flew out we got to see the incredible “Electric Desert” exhibit at the Phoenix Botanical Garden. This video summarizes it well, and the photo link below has some of our videos. I’m looking forward to see what Klip Collective, the company that does these sorts of shows, does next. The Heard Museum in Phoenix is also recommended if you want to learn more about the area’s Native Americans and their art. We also checked out Don Parks collection statues and stuff and got to meet Don.

When I got back to Phoenix I did an amazing AirBNB experience in a biplane, a Stearman, used for training in WWII. Wow!

Then on to Sedona area for a week. We found an incredible free camping area along Forest Rd 525 in the Coconino National Forest, about 25 minutes from town. There were at least 100 RVs, vans and a few tents scattered along this road camping.

Sedona is incredibly beautiful with all the red rocks everywhere. There must be more hiking trails per square mile around Sedona than anywhere on earth. Highlights for us included Baldwin Trail, the Plataki Heritage Site, and the West Fork Trail. We also went to the historic copper town of Jerome (we did a great history tour of the town), and treated ourselves to fantastic massages at Page Spring Cellars winery.

Then on to the Hopi Reservation for a full day tour with “Hopi Tours“. This was very interesting and informative, and highly recommended if you want to learn more about the slowly dying Hopi culture. Most parts of the reservation require you to be with a registered tour guide, and Micah our guide was fantastic. Photos not allowed in the villages, but we could take some of the petroglyphs site. Many homes on the Hopi reservation do not have water, sewer, or electricity.

We were there the day of the bi-annual women’s “basket dance”, where some of the village women wear traditional ceremonial clothes, dance, sing, and throw out a variety of items. Traditionally they would throw handmade items like woven baskets and pottery to the crowd, but now it looks like they just did a huge Walmart shopping trip and bought as much cheap crap as possible. There were lots of plastic laundry baskets, plastic kitchen items, junk food, toilet paper, children’s toys, and more. Around 8 women busily danced around tossing baskets mostly crap to the 500 or so onlookers. Our guide said there was still a good amount of traditional handicrafts in the mix, but we didn’t see any. It was fascinating to observe, and I think we were the only tourists there. They do their ‘dance’ every couple hours from dawn till dusk, tho we only watched about 30 minutes of the late afternoon dance. It reminded me a lot of Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, where everyone is trying to grab the throws from the floats, most of which are even more useless crap, with 1% good stuff mixed in.

Photos:

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Slab City and Anza-Borrego State Park

Our next stop was 2 nights in Slab City, CA, near the Salton Sea. On the way we stopped off at the “official center of the world“, a particularly wacky roadside attraction.

There is a lot to love about Slab City, and a lot to hate. This article sums it up pretty well. The folk art in “East Jesus”, an art community on the edge of Slab City, is very impressive and worth stopping by if you are anywhere nearby. Every Saturday night the local outdoor nightclub called “The Range” hosts an open mic night, which was about 50% locals and 50% tourists the night I was there. Some were quite good, and some quite awful. I got to sit in a play drums for 4-5 songs with a group of locals. While we were there someone set their neighbors RV on fire, which was clearly full of live ammo.

Then on to Anza-Borrego State Park to meet up with our very good friend Elizabeth. Anza-Borrego is the largest state park in California, and you can pretty much camp anywhere in the park, so long as you are near one of the 500 miles of gravel roads. The amount of plant, animal, bird, and insect life in the park in March is staggering. I got the van stuck in some deep sand, but Mike the tow truck diver had no problem getting us out.

Photos:

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Southern Arizona, March 2019

After Casas Grandes, MX, we drove to Bisbee, AZ, a 7 hr drive over terrible roads, tons of construction, and a mountain pass in a blizzard. Bisbee is a picturesque former copper mine town, and the Queen mine tour is highly recommended. After Bisbee we drove to Tombstone, which is basically a Hollywood Western theme park, and quite fun for a 1/2 day. The re-enactment of the shootout at the OK Corral is silly, but fun. We though the most interesting museum in town was the the Tombstone Epitaph newspaper museum.

Chiricahua National Monument was stunning! One of the best hikes I’ve ever done! See photo link below.

We then drove to Tucson to spend a few days at a friends house, do hiking around lots of cool Suguaro’s, and biked a good part of the Tucson loop bike path. The Titan Missile Museum was fascinating (Christine got to turn the launch key!), and the Degrazia art gallery was worth checking out.

After Tucson we planned to head to New Mexico, but decided that it was still too cold there, so headed west to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument instead. I went to an interesting talk by a Border Patrol agent on what its like to protect the border in this part of Arizona. He said about 1/3 of the arrests were drug runners, and 2/3 illegal immigrants, but that these days many of the illegal immigrants are ‘give ups’ (people who walk across in large groups and immediately surrender, and ask to apply for asylum. Clearly the US needs to figure out a better long term strategy for dealing with the 10s of 1000s of asylum seekers.

Photos:

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Casas Grandes, Chihuahua, and the Copper Canyon, March 2019

We spent a bit over a week hanging out in the state of Chihuahua Mexico, mostly at our friend’s house in Casas Grandes.

Casas Grandes is the home of a UNESCO World Heritage Site called Paquime, which was a short walk from my friend’s house. While there, we went down to the town of Chihuahua, and got aboard the “El Chepe” train to visit the Copper Canyon.

Most households in town seem to have 1 or more big dogs (usually German Shepards) and 1 or more small dogs (usually Chihuahuas). It’s a very relaxing place to hang out and stare at the desert.

If you want to take the train to the Copper Canyon, the best time of year is supposed to be September, when the canyon valleys are much greener and the waterfalls are flowing. We took a first class car one direction, and a regular class car the other direction, and actually liked the regular class better. Half the price, same size seats, and many more snack options from vendors wandering through the train.

Photos of the Copper Canyon train trip are here.

Photos of the Casas Grandes area are here.

Photos of the city of Chihuahua are here.

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Big Bend National Park, February 2019

The first real stop on our 2 month road trip from New Orleans to Grass Valley was Big Bend National Park, right on the Texas/Mexico border along the Rio Grande. February is a great time to visit this amazing park, when the wildflowers are all in bloom, and it’s not too hot. Most days were a high of around 70, and a low of around 40.

Big Bend is a rather complicated park to camp in, as only about 50% of the regular camping spots are reservable, the rest being first-come-first serve. At peak season (Feb-April), the park is 100% full 7 nights a week, so its tricky to get a spot, as spots are gone by 10am. So a lot of people stay in an RV park just outside the park the first night, so they can drive around the unreserved sites at 9am, looking for people packing up, and grab their spot.

The park also has about 50 amazing ‘backcountry’ camping spots scattered around the park on gravel roads, many of which require 4WD, and all of which require a reservation made “up to 24 hrs” in advance. The rangers will tell you what day a given spot is suppose to free up, so you can come back and try to claim it the day before. The first ranger tried to tell us most of the roads were too rough for a Sprinter, but we drove down a couple of them, and decided they were fine. The second ranger was willing to reserve us an amazing backcountry spot (see photo link below).

We ended up doing 2 nights in first campground, 4 nights of back country, and 2 more nights at the last campground. While it is pretty hard to find a campsite this time of the year, the park still feels very empty. At our backcountry spot, we could see no sign of civilization for as far as the eye can see. The week we were there the wild flowers were in full bloom, apparently one of the best wildflower years in a long time.

It’s very easy to cross from Mexico into the National Park (you just wade across the Rio Grande), and we heard that 30+ illegal immigrants were caught in the park while we were there. It seems like it would be very hard for them to get anywhere though, as there were lots of Border Patrol vehicles and checkpoints outside the park.

We also spent one night in Terlingua, a small town of artists and misfits, which is definitely worth a visit. They let us stay in the parking lot behind the bar/restaurant for free.

Photos are here.

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Cartagena, Colombia, Jan 27-Feb 2

Our final stop in Colombia was Cartagena, a UNESCO world heritage town on the coast built by the Spanish in the 1600’s. Cartagena has a strong Caribbean vibe, and reminds me more of Jamaica and Belize than the rest of Colombia.

Many people we met said they did not like Cartagena, but we loved it. It probably depends on where you stay. Here are the areas that tourists typically stay:

  • Bocagrande: Reminds me of Miami Beach or Waikiki beach. If you like that sort of thing, there are some really cheap AirBNB apartments there.
  • Old City / UNESCO zone: basically only tourists, shops, restaurants, hotels, and vacation homes. Very few people live in this part of town full time.
  • Getsemani: former poor part of town, now the “hip” up and coming neighborhood.
  • La Matuna: just north of Getsemani, and less touristy.

We stayed in Getsemani and loved it. I suspect most folks who didn’t like Cartagena stayed in the Old City or in Bocagrande, and got tired of the constant stream of people trying to sell you something.

Our AirBNB was on the famous ‘umbrella alley’ (Callejón Angosto), which is still full of local families that have lived here forever. Everyone hangs out on the street listening to music ’til late at night, and it was fun watching the tourists pose for pictures with the umbrellas. Instead of cars, we had donkeys, horses, and fruit carts going up and down the street. Christine made some chocolate coffee and shared it with the oldest grandma on the street.

As in most of the Caribbean, there was music everywhere. I discovered some good new (for me) bands ( thanks to the Shazam app), including Joe Arroyo (Colombia), Wilfrido Vargas (Dominican Republic), Ismael Rivera (Puerto Rico), Oscar D’Leon (Venezuela), Orquestra Broadway (NYC), Richie Ray and Bobby Cruz (NYC), and Tommy Olivencia (Puerto Rico). Yes, I realize most of the music I liked best is 30-50 years old, but what else is new. I even got to see a Wilfrido Vargas concert, which reminded me of a Tom Jones concert (a mostly old crowd who knew all the words). (Video here).

We did a mix of activities and tours, some great, and some pretty awful. Our AirBNB experience to a nearby island was really nice, except the snorkeling was bad. Brian did a great 40km bike tour with a super interesting guide whose father started the Cartegena Film Festival, the oldest film festival in South America for many years. Christine, as always, loved her cooking class. We did the WORST old city walking tour of our lives, which we snuck out of 1/2 way through because the guide was just reciting facts from Wikipedia. Maybe some of their other guides are better, but I would avoid that company for sure. We were also very disappointed with our tour to San Basilio de Palenque, which sounded really interesting, and we were told there would be demonstrations of music and dancing, but there was not.

A final comment on Colombia: Venezuelan refugees. They were everywhere! 1 in 10 Venezuelans have fled their country in the last few years, mostly to Colombia. You see them at most major intersections trying to sell snacks, wash your windows, juggle knives, anything to make a few cents. In general they never just asked for money, but offered something in return. Several even spoke English. Hopefully they will get to return soon.

Photos from this week are here.

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Armenia, Colombia, Jan 23-26

We spent a few days in a medium sized, non-touristy town in the hart of the ‘coffee triangle’ called Armenia. This was a friendly town with a huge number of cafes and ice cream shops. We hired a guide and driver to take us to what turned out to be a very cheesy coffee plantation tour, and to a the nearby town of ‘Finlandia’ (see photos). We learned that Colombia is struggling to compete with Brazil and Vietnam for coffee production, and they barely make a profit. Don’t be surprised if Juan Valdez goes away.

Armenia was having an event commemorating the 20th anniversary of a large earthquake that killed over 1000 people. And we went to a fun Karaoke bar, where thankful no one butchered any songs we actually knew, and some of the singers were quite good.

Link to photos here.

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Bogotá, Columbia, Jan 17-23, 2019

After Medellín it was onto Bogotá to visit my good friend Karen, who is working here as a middle school counselor in a large bilingual/international school here. Karen lives in a great neighborhood on the north side of town called “Chapinero Alto”, which is near a great restaurant zone called “Zona G” (G for Gourmet). If you visit Bogota I recommend staying in this part of town, which is only a $2 taxi ride to the center of town. Its a very safe part of town, despite (or because of?) the fact that all apartment building have a 24/7 doorman to let you both in and out of the building.

Bogotá is at an elevation of 8500 ft, which took me about 1 day to adjust to after being in Medellín, which is at 5000 ft. The climate is basically a high of 65 and a low of 45F year round, so no one has or needs heat or air conditioning. For folks who don’t like the heat, you’d love it here. It was a bit chilly in the morning, but the climate is pretty ideal.

Bogotá and Medellín, the 1st and 2nd largest cities in Colombia, are definitely rivals. The best way I can think of to describe the difference between Bogotá and Medellín, is to think of San Francisco compared to Oakland back in 1990, before Oakland became hipster central and SF became dominated by tech bros.

Bogotá/San Francisco:

  • More art, music, high-end restaurants
  • More wealthy people
  • More cosmopolitan
  • More expensive

Medellín/Oakland:

  • More down to earth
  • A bit more friendly / accepting
  • A bit more dangerous
  • Warmer weather
  • Have a bit of an inferiority complex about their rival city

I joined a group of American teachers from Karen’s school to go to Theatron, the largest night club in South America. Wow! A total of 13 bars/dance floors that hold up to 5000 people. It costs $17 to get in, which includes free bottom-shelf rum/whiskey/vodka mixed drinks till 2am. Certainly not my scene, but a really fun/interesting night! Check out the videos in the photo link below.

I did 2 private tours, which provided a great opportunity to talk politics and philosophy with locals who where fluent in English. One of the tours was to the Salt Cathedral about 1 hr north of Bogotá, which was pretty cool, though not in the same league as the one in Krakow.

On Sunday mornings, Bogotá has a huge Ciclovía, where around 10% of the 10 million folks that live here get on a bike and ride around the 120km of roads that are closed to cars on Sunday 7am-2pm. Bogotá is located in a huge valley, and so the roads are mostly flat. Karen and I did a great 30km ride that included a mini adventure. The rear derailleur on my rental bike imploded when we were about 8km from our starting point. Luckily one of the 100 or so bike repair booths they set up along the route was 1/2 block away, had a spare derailleur that fit, and 1 hour and $9 (parts and labor!!) later we were on our way again.

Karen borrowed a car so we could do a great hike to the La Chorrera waterfall, which is about 1.5 from town, and which you’ll see in the photos.

Selection of photos from Bogotá and surrounding area are here.

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Medellín, Colombia: Jan 10-17, 2019

Our first stop in Colombia was Medellín, a town of 4 million at an elevation of 5000 ft, and near perfect weather (high 80, low 60 F) year round.

Many people still think Medellín is a dangerous place, because in the 1990s it had the highest murder rate in the world. But that has all changed, and in fact the crime stats for Colombia and the USA are pretty similar these days. (The US has 4 cities in the top 50, and Colombia has 2 cities, neither of which we are going to.) That being said, there are definitely neighborhoods to avoid here, just like in any large city.

We stayed in a fantastic AirBNB apartment with an amazing view, with a couple in their 30s. They own a small walking tour company, and I did 2 of their 3 walking tours, both of which were very interesting and highly recommended. One was of the city center, which is quite dense and chaotic, and other was of a poor neighborhood originally built on a trash dump. I really enjoyed discussing politics and philosophy with Pablo, our AirBNB host.

We also did an AirBNB experience to Comuna 13, and Christine of course did a Cooking Class, both of which we recommend. And we did a great day trip tour to Guatape through AirBNB experiences, one of the cutest towns anywhere, and El Peñón de Guatapé.

Our apartment was in the area called “Laureles”, which we definitely recommend over the more common tourist zone called “El Poblado”. El Poblado was far too touristy for our taste.

The metro, opened in 1994, is spotlessly clean and really nice. Rather than being covered with advertising the trains are full of signs pointing out all the great city sponsored social programs, encouraging folks to donate to charities, and generally be good people. Unfortunately I heard the most overplayed song on the planet, Hotel California, while waiting for a train on the platform.

The folks we met in Medellín are very proud of their city, and like to point out the ways they are better than Bogota (such as having a Metro, while Bogota does not). They seem quite optimistic about their future, and feel the past few mayors have taken the city in a good direction, and are hopeful that will continue.

Food in Medellín has been rather disappointing. Most everything is fried, its hard to get a typical meal that includes vegetables other than avocado and corn, and most everything has minimal spices. But food is pretty cheap, and portions are huge, so 2 people can easily share one item, making it easy to get a meal for 2 for under $10. We did find a good pizza restaurant near our place. As always we avoided tourist restaurants, so maybe they are better?

Music overall was also a bit disappointing, especially after Grenada, where music is everywhere. We did see a fantastic Cuban band at Son Havana, but beware that bands don’t start till midnight, and that ordering a rum and coke means a bottle of rum and a couple of cokes. But in general background music in restaurants and shops was pretty awful (smooth jazz versions of 70s pop), or Colombian reggaeton, most of which I found uninspiring.

But despite the disappointments, we really liked Medellín overall, and recommend checking it out. Next on to Bogota.

Full set of Medellín/Guatape photos are here.

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