El Viejo Wetlands Day Trip

After a week of taking in all the outdoor activities, beauty, beach and ocean that Las Catalinas has to offer, it was time for a field trip. Rich took off his birding hat long enough to put on his travel planner persona, and came up with a destination that appealed to both of us – El Viejo Wetlands.

The preserve is owned by a successful sugar cane family that has set aside 5,000 acres of land as a wetlands refuge. Their boat trips offer views of not only birds but wildlife as well. Arriving plenty early for our 9:00am boat trip, we met Kevin our guide. As luck would have it, we had a boat and Kevin all to ourselves! The river was a fair distance from the main entrance and other facilities, and we had ample opportunity to learn how Kevin became a licensed guide and honed his English reading birding books available only in English. His expertise soon became very apparent to us.

Molly and Rich river boat

We boarded one of the smaller boats and Caesar piloted us up and down the river. With thunderstorms the last two evenings as well as more rain in the mountains, the river was swollen and the current swift. Kevin pointed out the high water point much higher on the bank. That's where the river will be when the rainy season kicks in soon.

It didn't take long to begin sighting birds and animals. Both Kevin and Caesar were good at spotting them, and Caesar would maneuver the boat over for a close look. They had an eager customer in Rich, and indulged his enthusiasm for photography and finding new species. I left the little birds and far away specimens to Rich, but tried my hand at capturing the larger birds and animals.

Bird
Black necked stick
Tricolor Heron

I sensed a bit of friendly competition between Rich and Kevin, vying to be the first to name each bird! Rich was a formidable opponent, but ultimately Kevin had the advantage, being more familiar with the local birds. As we drifted close to shore, Kevin challenged us to find the next specimen. He pointed out the tree, and it took a while before we could see them. I am proud to say I got it right – bats! Long nosed bats like the underside of trees he said, because they are so well camouflaged there. That's for sure!

Long nose bats

Crocodiles were abundant along the shores. Most of the time all we could see were the tops of their floating bodies and an eye peering out over the water. But one in particular gave us a great show. He'd found a cache of fish and opened his mouth to strain them in, showing us his gruesome teeth. Suddenly, he was thrashing and splashing, having caught a good size fish. It was clear that the river was not a safe place to swim!

Crocodile on shore
Crocodile teeth

The day was cloudy and humid, which kept the sun at bay. With a good breeze on the river and the movement of the canopied boat, it was very pleasant out there plying the water. We were sorry to see the boat tour come to and end, but still had a treat in store.

Molly and Rich in boat

Lunch awaited us in the beautifully restored Casona Hacienda El Viejo, a large wooden open air building. We enjoyed a typical Costa Rican meal, then spent time walking through the grounds. There were ample iguana present, including one that looked like a dinosaur and two fighting iguanas. They also liked to perch on the roof and supports for the building. We had to be careful where we walked!

Casona Hacienda
Iguana

My travel guide did well. It was well worth the journey, and we both enjoyed our day trip to the El Viejo Wetlands.

 

The Cowardly Cyclist

If fear burns calories, then I've just had a great workout. My heart was certainly racing. It was my first time mountain biking. I've logged plenty of road miles, but never turned a pedal on a dirt trail before. But here we are in Costa Rica, with trails right outside our door and amazing views out over the Pacifist Ocean. Despite a sliver of trepidation, I was up for the challenge.

Molly starting the mountain bike trail

At first the rocks and uneven terrain were unnerving. And the rapid shift between sudden ups and downs took getting used to. But I finally got the hang of grinding uphill in my granny gear and rounding sharp turns – carefully. I even managed to hold my fear of heights at bay while traversing narrow trails carved into the hillside. As long as it was gently rolling or uphill, I was able to hang in there. I took a couple of spills and drew blood, but it wasn't even doing anything difficult. I just slipped in soft dirt. I really thought I was conquering this thing.

Then we reached the ridge line and headed downhill. Even when I'm road biking, I dislike gathering speed and tend to ride my brakes on the way down. I should have foreseen the consequences. All the challenges of the dirt trail suddenly intensified as the pitch grew steeper. Braking wasn't such a great idea, and I knew I should just let the bike roll. But I was terrified. Not knowing what was around the next corner only intensified my fear. That bit didn't go so well.

Rich mountain biking
Molly mountain biking

Don't let the smile fool you. I was just glad to stand still for a spell. I also took the opportunity to enjoy the view, as I certainly couldn't take my eyes off the trail for long enough to take in the vista.

Actually, the final piece of the trail leveled out and I could honestly say I enjoyed that bit. I'm just not cut out for risky, speed induced drama. All the elements that attract thrill seeking mountain bikers are the same things that put me off. I like the milder terrain that is more like, well, road biking.

I admit it. I'm a conservative kind of gal. Even a bit cowardly.

 

Santa Fe al fresco

Every tourist has his or her own motives for visiting places. While Santa Fe is rich in art, history and Native American culture, that's not what drew Rich and me to the area. It was the setting. The outdoors. The climate. And we were not disappointed.

Just before reaching Santa Fe, we stopped to see the Upper Rio Grande. We started off driving down the canyon on a small lane next to the river, when it suddenly occurred to us that we had bikes on the back of the car. A quick change in the campground and we were soon cycling instead of driving. Much better!

Rich cycling the Rio Grande
Rio Grande

From the start, we opted to stay on the outskirts of the city. We were attracted to a VRBO home which offered a peaceful and attractive rural setting. The unique aspect was sharing it with owner, Kevin. After years of staying in host homes while cycling, we welcomed the opportunity to meet new people and take advantage of their local expertise.

We immediately felt at home in Kevin's comfortable adobe house. Just being there was vacation enough for me. My favorite morning spot was on the sunny front porch with my coffee and breakfast. For writing, I retreated to the back patio. One of our best evenings was spent watching the ever changing colors of the sunset from the patio over a glass of wine with Kevin and Jen.

Our VRBO home

Saturday morning was Farmers' Market Day, and Santa Fe has one of the best. It prides itself on the requirement that all produce be locally grown and that those who do the growing are the same people selling it there. I indulged in one of my favorite ways to spend a morning, wandering among the tables with fresh coffee and scone in hand. Admiring the colorful produce and listening to local music was great home grown entertainment.

Santa Fe farmers market
Santa Fe farmers market produce
Santa Fe farmers market musicians

Rich's pick was the Randall Dave Audubon Center. We arrived before dawn for prime birding opportunities. I will admit to going for a run while Rich sought out new bird species, but I did join him to hike in the beautiful environs preserved by the Natures Conservancy.

Rich at Audubon Center
Audubon Center

In between cycling the local trails and countryside, we did make sure to get to the historic areas of Santa Fe near the Plaza. We especially enjoyed visiting San Miguel Chapel, the oldest church in the country. We also ate well, sampling New Mexican cuisine and local organic foods thanks to recommendations from Kevin.

San Miguel Chapel

We went for the outdoors, and Santa Fe treated us to a record warm spell. With unrelenting sunshine and temps in the 70s, it was the perfect escape from the cold Northland. Every moment spent al fresco was a delight.

 

A Snowy Farewell to the Grand Canyon

I was sure this Grand Canyon story was finished. We had covered the Rim Trail from end to end, had stunning sunrise and sunset views, and witnessed an awesome rainbow display. Surely we'd seen it all. Our plan was to exit early in the morning and move on to our next destination.

Mother Nature had other plans for us. Depositing an inch or two of wet snow overnight, she provided an entirely new view of the canyon. Could this really be the same place we were cycling in 70 degree temperatures just a couple days earlier?

Bikes on snowy car
Snowy bikes at Grand Canyon

We made slow progress out of the park, as we stopped at every pullout to check out the view. Although the snow lay in thick layers on the trees surrounding the canyon, there was none down below.

Rich photographing in snow
Grand Canyon with snow 1
Grand Canyon with snow 2

Eventually the sun came out and shadows played across the canyon.

Grand Canyon after snow 1
Grand Canyon after snow 2

We were in no hurry. As long as the canyon morphed and changed in front of us, we were happy to linger. It was a long, snowy farewell to the Grand Canyon.

 

Grand Canyon on Our Terms

We did two things right on this visit to Grand Canyon National Park. The combination of the two allowed us to avoid crowds and have easy access to all the best vantage points.

The first is coming in March. This is shoulder season in the park, with many of the amenities just opening up for the season and service just gearing up for the upcoming crowds. There are plenty of people here, and at times the parking lots have been full. Lines for the shuttle buses exist, but it appears most riders get on the first bus that arrives. Restaurants are busy, but it hasn't been hard to get in. All we can think is “What must it be like in the height of the summer?” We are die hard off-season travelers. It has certainly paid off this time.

Molly and Rich at Grand Canyon

The second is bringing our bicycles. There are greenways throughout the park, enabling us to walk or cycle just about anywhere we want. We haven't set foot on a shuttle bus, and don't have to worry about car traffic.

Our bikes and Grand Canyon

A few portions of the Rim Trail are open to bicycles. We made sure to ride those. In addition, the road from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit's Rest at the western end of the Rim Trail just closed to cars on March 1. Shuttle buses own the road, but bikes are allowed. We covered that over the course of a sunny, warm afternoon, with frequent stops for the views.

Cycling at Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon view

This is definitely our type of tourism. We get to see the Grand Canyon on our own terms.

 

Grand Canyon under Siege

“Let's go rainbow hunting!” That was Rich. We were holed up in our modest motel room, waiting out the first rain of our trip. He had visions of photographing a beautiful rainbow arching over the Grand Canyon. I was skeptical. Rich has overly-optimistic tendencies. But it beat sitting in the room, so I took the bait.

Arriving at our favorite spot at Yavapai Point during a lull from the rain, the sun was glowing on the canyon formations while ominous clouds gathered overhead. Rich was quick to point out that while blue sky days are pretty, the more interesting shots come with unusual weather conditions.

Grand Canyon before storm 1
Grand Canyon before storm 2

Weather indeed was headed our way. The dark clouds behind us advanced with rumbles of thunder. Rain began crossing the canyon. While we were still dry, it was consuming the scene in front of us.

Grand Canyon rain starting

Raindrops and lightning ultimately sent us fleeing for cover and safety. Retreating into the nearby Geology Museum, we watched from dry environs. Then suddenly, there it was. Just like Rich thought it would be. A rainbow!

Grand Canyon rainbow

Returning outside, we watched as the rainbow extended in length. Where it would normally reach the ground, the rainbow continued to arc into the depths of the canyon. Spreading faintly across the entire sky, it completed well more than a half circle. Not only that, but a faint twin developed to its left.

Grand Canyon double rainbow

The other spectators echoed our excitement over this amazing phenomenon. We all knew we were witnessing something rare and special. We stayed on watching as the rainbow began to shrink. As the sun disappeared. As the storm grew closer again.

Grand Canyon storm

Soon it was obvious. It was time to run for the car. The Grand Canyon was under siege, and so were we. But for once I was glad I was swayed by Rich's instincts. Rainbow hunting indeed.

 

Grand Canyon Sun Painting

It's taken me 62 years to get to the Grand Canyon, and now I'm wondering why it took so long. Seeing it for the first time as we cycled along the South Rim, I was naturally awed by its vast expanse, the colors of the strata, its depth and the unearthly rock formations. Each turn gave us a different perspective, new views to behold. But it paled in comparison to what happened when the sun worked its magic on the canyon.

Near sunset, we toted our cameras and tripods to the overlook at Yavapai Point. It was already crowded with people, both photographers and those there just to bask in the view. Although most had already staked out their spots, we had no trouble finding a good vantage point as we planned to shoot in the opposite direction. While the sun performed its light tricks in the sky producing brilliant orange and red hues, to us the real display was on the canyon rocks. The further the sun sank the greater the glow on the peaks before us. That was the real show.

Grand Canyon sunset 1
Grand Canyon sunset 2

Morning brought a repeat performance. We returned to the same spot, first selecting an East facing view to watch the sun come up. It was more beautiful to watch than what I could capture with my camera. As soon as it crested the horizon, we skedaddled to another position to look West. As the sun advanced in the sky, increasing sections of the canyon were illuminated.

Grand Canyon sunrise 1
Grand Canyon sunrise 2

When the light began to wane, I set out on another tour of the canyon. What better place for my morning run than along the paved Rim Trail? Covering five miles out and then back again, I had beautiful views to spur me on. Both the 7,000 foot elevation and some steep sections of trail took their toll, but I had the perfect excuse to stop and catch my breath while snapping photos along the way. I can't think of many more picturesque runs I have done in my life.

Grand Canyon Rim Trail 1
Grand Canyon Rim Tail 2
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 3
Grand Canyon Rim Trail 4

We haven't even been here a full day yet, and already I think we have seen the best the Grand Canyon has to offer. The rest will be pure gravy.