Freediving with Sea Turtles in the Gilis

From the moment I watched an Olive Ridley nest in Nicaragua – I was hooked. Sea turtles have become my favourite underwater obsession.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle in Nicaragua

Olive Ridley returning to the ocean after nesting in El Ostional, Nicaragua

Sea turtles can live for over a hundred years. They swim with the current, some of their nesting patterns are still mysterious to us, and they can dive deeper; holding their breath for an extended period of time beyond any human freediver’s capacity.

I spent 10 days in Gili Air, an island off the shores of Lombok, Indonesia – only an hour and a half on the fast boat from Bali. Part of the three Gili islands, each one offers a different atmosphere for tourists. If you want to party head to Gili Trawangan. For peace and quiet – Gili Meno is your place. Craving a mix of party and relaxation? Book a ticket to Gili Air.

Sunset off the shores of Gili Air

Sunset off the shores of Gili Air

I was told by a few people that sea turtles could be spotted off the shores of Air. But after a week of searching beneath the waves, I had no such luck. The coral around Gili Air appeared to be mostly damaged and bleached; a devastating result of climate change, irresponsible tourism, and overfishing.

Coral Bleaching

Damaged coral in the Gili Islands

On my last day in the Gilis, I woke up early and hopped on the public boat to Meno. I only had a few hours to spare; that afternoon I’d be taking a ferry back to Bali. The odds of swimming with sea turtles off Meno were much higher. At the very least I could check out Bolong’s Turtle Sanctuary, a small conservation centre on the beach that protects baby sea turtles.

Bolongs Turtle Sanctuary

The small ponds at Bolong’s Turtle Sanctuary.

After a sea turtle nests, the sanctuary collects the 50 – 150 eggs to protect them from nest robbers like humans or natural predators such as ghost crabs, cats, dogs, monitor lizards and more. The incubation period lasts about 2 months, depending on the sea turtle species. Once the turtles hatch at night, the sanctuary keeps them protected in small ponds for up to 8 months. When the young sea turtles are ready they release them into the deep ocean waters around Gili Meno. Baby sea turtles have many predators during the early stages of their lives – birds, large fish, and sharks. With a growing number of sea turtles endanger due to human activity like global warming, overfishing, and the development of beaches – the work of this sanctuary is more important than ever to the survival of sea turtles.

Well worth the stop – I could’ve spent hours photographing these little guys!

Baby Sea Turtle at Bolong's Turtle Sanctuary

Baby Sea Turtle at Bolong’s Turtle Sanctuary

I wandered down the sandy road towards the Northern shore to find a good snorkelling spot. An Indonesian man, sitting on a chair on the side of the road stopped me. “Are you interested in a snorkelling trip?”

As a selfish lover of the ocean; I’m skeptical of snorkel tours. When I jump into those glorious waters, I want to feel like I have the entire underwater world all to myself. Snorkel tours are generally overcrowded. If it’s a snorkel hotspot, there’s usually a few tour boats flocked around the same location, at the same time.

Boats on Gili Air

Dive shops, snorkel tours, fishermen and ferries. There’s plenty of boat traffic around the Gilis.

Then I question the ethics of these tours. Are they eco-friendly? Do they remind people to not touch the reef or sea creatures? Despite this, every tour has that one clever person who doesn’t listen. They plant their two fins on the reef like it’s a launching pad – pretending they’re the rocket ship.

Snorkelers Close to Coral

Snorkelers hovering close to the reef in the Gili Islands

I get it. Some people haven’t learned that coral is a living organism not a rock (#grade6science). I wish these tours would give a better briefing and explain the implications to people. One brush with the coral can kill it. So as George Bluth Senior in Arrested Development would shout, “NO TOUCHING!”

No touching

I was on a mission that day…

“Will I see a sea turtle?”

“It’s guaranteed,” I decided to jump on board.

After a short boat ride, we arrived at Turtle City (not quite a city but more like an impressive underwater town). We geared up; fins – check, snorkel mask – check, underwater camera locked and loaded – check.

Our Indonesian guide jumped into the open water. He took one look at the bottom and shot his head up to announce, “Sea turtle! Big one!” I hustled to get in. Below the clear water, hanging out on the reef was a beautiful hawksbill sea turtle.

Sea Turtle on Reef

The Hawksbill Sea Turtle at Turtle City

The hawksbill was about 20m deep. With no other freedivers around to look after my safety, I decided to hold off on plunging in to get a better look. Two scuba divers closely observed the sea turtle from the edges of the reef below. I could’ve filled a tank with envy.

Freediving consists of naturally filling your lungs with oxygen and diving into the depths on just one breath. There’s no tank of air or regulator to breath through. Just an eye mask, optional fins, and some goodwill. It’s considered to be an extreme sport. The current world record holder, Willian Trubridge, can dive to 122m in 4 minutes and 24 seconds. Pushing your limits underwater is addictive and may seem extreme at first. But once you get the hang of freedving, it can be the most relaxing and natural way to explore the underwater world.

Freediving the Gilis

Freediving in shallow water in the the Gilis.

On Koh Tao, an island off the eastern coast of Thailand, I trained with Apnea Total to learn the techniques of freediving and managed to reach a depth of 17m. But I was limited by a struggle to equalize my ears past 5m. The trick to equalizing is all about relaxing the entire body. One tense muscle can cause you trouble and use up your oxygen underwater; a necessity to hold your breath for longer and eliminate the pressure building up in your ears.

Freediver in Gili

A fellow freediver on the snorkel tour.

On Gili Air, I signed up for a coaching session with Freedive Flow (AIDA certified), where they preach relaxation underwater. For this irregular Yogi, that’s easier said than done. During the static lesson in the pool, I learned to hold my breath for over two minutes simply by chilling out. I knew I was capable of mastering equalization and hitting those deeper depths. Perhaps all I needed was the excitement of sea turtle.

As the sea turtle swam towards the surface, I lost my shit swimming past other snorkelers. Nearly getting punched, kicked, and knocked out by fins trying to get closer to the turtle for a photo.

Sea Turtle in Gilis

Floating towards the surface.

Unfortunately, with the flock of tourists around, one guide was placing people’s hands on the turtle’s shell for a feel. I sounded like George Bluth Senior underwater, “NO TOUCHING!” I considered this to be an eco-crime. Despite how laid back we think sea turtles are (looking at you Disney and Dory), getting too close or touching a sea turtle can stress it the bleep out. How’s that for showing people its natural state?

Swimmer too close to Sea Turtle

A snorkeler getting too close to the sea turtle.

The hawksbill drifted towards another turtle and for a few moments, they seemed to embrace. Whether it was friendly hello, an exchange of food, or something more; time seemed to slow down as they connected and circled around each other underwater.

Sea Turtle Embrace

Sea turtles embracing.

The sea turtle continued further into the open water, away from the reef, and the snorkel boats.

Other snorkelers vanished but I continued to swim above the sea turtle. I was astonished by how it flowed through the water – carefree and chill-axed. I didn’t care if my snorkel boat left me stranded and I’d have to swim shore. I could’ve spent all day in this zen, swimming along with the sea turtle.

Sea Turtle Back

Swimming along with the sea turtle. I made good use of my zoom so I didn’t have to get too close.

The sea turtle emerged towards the surface a few times, filling its lungs with air. As the turtle swam upwards, I dove downwards, meeting it halfway.  I forgot all about equalizing or how deep I was diving – 5, 10, 15 meters? I pushed beyond my limits to capture these shots. Shrugging off the pressure in my ears that would’ve sent me back up the line during a training session. I found myself instinctively swallowing to equalize and holding my breath as long as possible.

Sea Turtle at a Deeper Depth

The sea turtle at deeper depths.

The sea turtle emerged one last time for air before plunging deeper into the ocean. I watched as its figure vanished into the dark blue, reaching those deep depths more graceful than any human freediver. Why am I obsessed with sea turtles? They are ultimate freedivers; the cool, ancient explorers of the ocean. I wish I could be just like them. Able to live in the ocean for over a hundred years. To spent hours beneath the waves on just one breath and swim far distances beyond our own capabilities.

Sea Turtle in Deep Waters

One last look before the sea turtle vanished to deeper depths.

I swam back to the boat in a daze. There were a few tour boats around me and they all looked the same. I climbed the ladder, questioning if I had even boarded the right boat. As I sat down, I could’ve drowned my tour group with excitement, “Did you see the sea turtles? Everyone saw the sea turtles right?!”

We snorkelled different sites around the Gilis but nothing beat Turtle City. Sadly, as I’ve experienced in most places off the shores of mainstream Southeast Asia, the reefs were damaged and affected by coral bleaching. Maybe this is why I dislike snorkel trips – most people don’t seem to care. Even if the reef is their bread and butter and their livelihood depends on its health. Even if they’ve travelled halfway around the world and paid good money to experience this incredible underwater world in the first place.

I’ve made it my goal to document ecotourism or lack of it as best as possible. As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. It’s words and images that I hope say it all.

Staghorn Coral Bleached

Staghorn coral in the Gilis affected by coral bleaching.

Looking for more turtle action? Stay tuned for my experience hatching and releasing baby sea turtles into the ocean in Kuta, Bali.

Baby sea turtles in Kuta

Can’t wait till then? Check out that time I ditched surfers for sea turtles in Nicaragua.

If you enjoyed this post or share an equal love for life under the sea – REPRESENT! Comment below or check out my Twitter and Instagram for more action.

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Hiking Vancouver’s Trails – Lighthouse Park

Ten days in British Colombia is hardly enough time to explore the many trails, parks and wild places around Vancouver City and the Island.  It did provide a sweet taste of Canada’s West Coast and beautiful sights of mountains, forests and coastlines – the ultimate formula for a happy wanderer.

Hiking Vancouver's Trails - Lighthouse Park

I booked an Airbnb in the North Shore and it turned out to be a good base to access the best of Vancouver’s trails. Most trails are accessible by public bus and depart regularly from Lonsdale bus station.  While there’s many amazing well-known trails – factors like park admission fees and avoiding crowds led me to explore the lesser known options. In this series, I take a look at my experience hiking these alternative trails.  No matter which trail you choose to hike, Vancouver’s natural beauty will leave you wanting to see it all.

The Well-Known – Stanley Park

If you ask anyone what you should do while visiting Vancouver they will suggest you check out Stanley Park. As you should – it has 8.8 km of paved trail overlooking Vancouver Harbour and English Bay. The path is protected by the seawall built in 1917, designed prevent erosion. Besides the coastal trail – Stanley Park has 64 km of trails to explore the interior of the forest. I walked along the coastal trail after a rainy, overcast day turned into a crisp dusk, allowing me to catch the sunset over the Pacific ocean. Bring a flashlight.  I was surprised to find out how dark Stanley Park becomes at night with only a few streetlights and moonlight to guide the way. Views of the bay, mountains and Vancouver’s skyline are worth taking in. Once you’ve received your dose of Stanley you’ll likely be craving more of BC’s coastline.

Stanley Park Sunset

The Lesser Known – Lighthouse Park

Lighthouse Park is a rugged trail, popular to folk in West Vancouver. Trails weave through the dense forest until they reach lookout points over the bay – perfect for sunset views. Bring a map or give yourself enough daylight hours to get lost on the maze of short but narrow trails. While I never made it to the Lighthouse – my friend Sergio did, so I bugged him to share his photos.

Lighthouse Park

Photo Credit: Sergio Galarza

The bus pulled over on Marine Drive, I got off and rushed down Beacon Lane with two elderly parents and their preteen son who were visiting from China. We had one hour of daylight to explore the park before nightfall. I quickly studied the map at the park entrance to figure out which trail to take to a lookout point. As I ran down the dirt path, I passed a group of elderly ladies who suggested I follow Shore Pine Trail. One lady handed me a paper map outlining the park, “The sun’s almost gone. Take this and make sure you have a flashlight,” she wished me good luck.

I reached Shore Pine Point and climbed up the cliffs perched over the bay. I set-up my camera and tripod on the flat surface of the rocks. Releasing the shutter to photograph the fading pink horizon and silhouetted pine trees and mountains. Ferries and speed boats zipped past the bay.  A young local couple sat higher up on the rocks above my ledge, chatting about life at university and reminiscing about their old flame. Slowly the few people watching the sunset filtered out, heading back down the trails before the last of the daylight diminished.

Lighthouse Park Sunset

I stood alone on the cliffs, adjusting my shutter for a long exposure of the dark bay and being eaten alive by mosquitoes. The quiet sounds of branches cracking in the forest and wind rustling through leaves amplified in the night. A loud chirp of an unknown bird, triggered an eerie sense of isolation and I realized I’d be navigating through the darkness alone. I shut down my phone, the battery flashing at 4%. I strapped on my headlamp, following the few feet of terrain lit by a bright, white LED. Shadows cast by the trees and high bushes toyed with my imagination. If a bear or cougar wanted to pounce on me, I’d be an easy target. I began to hum and sing out loud to scare away anything with sharp teeth and claws.  I reached an unfamiliar junction and nervously pulled out the paper map. I quickly studied each trail, to figure out the most direct route back to the park entrance. The trail had a slight incline and then twisted back downwards. I had given myself so little time to get a sense of bearings on the way in, each step felt like I was heading in the wrong direction.  Using the last of my cell phone battery I opened Google Maps and used the little blue dot to confirm if I was heading in the right direction.

Lighthouse Park

Photo Credit: Sergio Galarza

My heart stopped racing once I reached the park entrance. As I walked down the residential street of Beacon Lane, a car pulled over. The driver rolled down her window and in the front passenger seat was the mother from China and her son sitting in the back, “Excuse me, have you seen my husband in the park?” the mother asked clearly panicked, “No, is he lost?”   The driver, a middle-aged Caucasian woman with a Canadian accent responded, “Yes, we think so.” Before I could offer any help, they drove off into the park.  I continued up the road to the bus stop and realized how lucky I was to safely find my way out of the park at nightfall. I hoped the man was okay. Later it dawned on me – perhaps this man wasn’t lost at all, but rather hiding in the bushes afraid of the weird sounding banshee, humming loudly and singing off-key as she wandered the trails to keep both humans and unseen creatures far, far away.

How to Get There

From downtown Vancouver take bus #250 across Lions Gate Bridge. Get off at Marine Drive after you pass Horseshoe Bay and walk straight down Beacon Lane to the park entrance. If you are staying in North Vancouver there’s a number of options to take the bus. Be prepared to transfer to bus #250 heading towards Horseshoe Bay.

Admission: Free

Don’t Forget:  A flashlight and tripod if you are planning to photograph the sunset. A map will come in handy or full charged phone with Google Maps.

Pay Attention to: The signs at each trail head to recall the names of trails if you get lost and a map for easy navigation.

 

 

 

 

Want to know more about Vancouver’s trails? Check these hikes out!

Hiking Vancouver's Trails - Lynn Canyon

Hiking Van Trails BCMC Trail

 

Are you inspired to go hiking in Vancouver?  Have a favourite trail? Don’t be a stranger and leave a comment. I love to hear from fellow adventurers!

Hiking Vancouver’s Trails – BCMC to Grouse Mountain

Ten days in British Colombia is hardly enough time to explore the many trails, parks and wild places around Vancouver City and the Island.  It did provide a sweet taste of Canada’s West Coast and beautiful sights of mountains, forests and coastlines – the ultimate formula for a happy wanderer.

Hiking Vancouver Trails - BCMC

I booked an Airbnb in the North Shore and it turned out to be a good base to access the best of Vancouver’s trails. Most trails are accessible by public bus and depart regularly from Lonsdale bus station.  While there’s many amazing well-known trails – factors like park admission fees and avoiding crowds led me to explore the lesser known options. In this series, I take a look at my experience hiking these alternative trails.  No matter which trail you choose to hike, Vancouver’s natural beauty will leave you wanting to see it all.

The Well-Known – Grouse Grind

The Grouse Grind is a popular 2.9 km trail up the mountain with  853 m elevation gain. On a busy day you’ll be climbing up “Mother Nature’s Stairmaster” alongside a steady stream of tourists and local hikers alike.

Grouse Grind

Photo Credit: janheuninck (flickr)

The Lesser Known – BCMC trail

The lesser known option is the BCMC trail through a forest located east of the Grouse Grind. The 3 km trail is much less congested and has the same elevation gain of 853 m. You can easily take your time, stopping for water breaks and photo opps without feeling like you’re in the way of faster trailblazers passing by.

Sofie and I took the bus to the entrance of the Grouse Mountain, arriving late in the morning. There was a long line waiting to approach the ticket counter for the gondola up the mountain. Our plan was to hop on the Skyride to the 1,213 m summit of Grouse Mountain and start hiking the trail leading to the 1,401 m summit of Goat Mountain. A round-trip ticket for the Skyride costs between $43.95 – $57.95 CAD. We choked at these prices and opted to find the head of the BCMC trail to hike up instead.

BCMC Trail Head

Sofie and I at the head of the BCMC trail

The bottom of the trail splits into two, one leading upward to Grouse Mountain and the other trail runs 10 km to Baden Powell Deep Cover, passing through Lynn Canyon. We approached a middle-aged woman wearing a tank top, showing off her toned arms and asked if we were following the right trail. She looked down at Sofie’s platform boots, barely hugging her ankles and scuffed, “There’s no way you’ll be able to hike up wearing those.” Sofie simply smiled back at her, as if to say, “Challenge accepted.”

Sophie Hiking on BCMC Trail

Sofie conquering the BCMC Trail in platform boots

Sunlight peered through the trees, trickling down on the moss covered rocks, twisted roots and leaves on the forest floor. The forest contained the unexpected humidity. Our cheeks flushed red and sweat dripped down our backs. Each step tested the strength of our calves, as we followed the steep incline and bends on the narrow path.

Spider Web on BCMC Trail

A spider hanging out in the tall trees

We sat under a line of alpine trees on a part of the summit called the Cut, overlooking a view of distant lakes, mountains and Vancouver’s skyline. Empty chairs hung from cables motionless in the sky, awaiting the start of ski season a couple of months away.

Grouse Mountain Ski Lift

View from the summit on Grouse Mountain

Under the warm sun, a group in their mid-twenties tossed about a disc in the open field, completing the 18-hole disc golf course.  You can bring your own discs or purchase some from the chalet on the other side of Grouse.

Sophie and I hiked to uphill to the Plateau, where crowds of people meandered eating ice cream and beaver tails – a sugar coated Canadian staple or sat on the patio drinking beer.  Grouse Mountain is where tourists from around the world go to find stereotypical Canadian icons.  People flocked around the  Lumberjack show  – picture bearded men in plaid  goofing around and throwing axes at a wood board.  Two grizzly bears were quietly lounging around in a fenced in woodlot with a small pond.  The refuge was designed to save the endangered bears and educate the public on BC’s wildlife.

We wandered up the start of the trail to Goat Mountain, tempted to master another summit but limited by the number of daylight hours left. A few meters into the hike we were rewarded with a clear, blue view of Kennedy Lake.

Grouse Mountain Kennedy Lake

View of Kennedy Lake from the trail to Goat Mountain

There are two options for descending Grouse Mountain – if you’ve hiked either the Grouse Grind or BCMC – you can take the Skyride down for free. If you’ve hiked up, you might also want to hike back down. We passed a number of people heading down the BCMC trail. When we reached the Skyride, it seemed this was likely to avoid crazy, long line-up. Luckily, with two gondolas cramming people in at regular intervals we didn’t have to wait for more than 40 minutes. Although, we did unknowingly fail to get our free tickets issued before entering the line. The staff kindly held our spot at the boarding area, as I ran into the Chalet to get them. Sofie and I strategically picked a spot to look out the glass window.  The gondola swept over miles of trees and downwards towards a view of Vancouver city.

Grouse Mountain Skyride

View of Grouse Mountain while descending on the Skyride

How to Get There

From Lonsdale Ferry Terminal take #236 bus to Grouse Mountain.

Admission: Willing to hike? It’s free!     Feeling lazy? $43.95 – $57.95 CAD

Don’t Forget: To accept the challenge and pack a picnic for when you reach the summit as a delicious reward and excuse to admire the view!

Pay Attention to: The time the Skyride opens and closes. If you want challenge yourself to hike both trails – start really early.

 

Are you inspired to go hiking in Vancouver?  Have a favourite trail? Don’t be a stranger and leave a comment. I love to hear from fellow adventurers!

 

Want to find out more about hiking Vancouver? Check out these trails! 

Hiking Vancouver's Trails Lighthouse Park

Hiking Vancouver's Trails - Lynn Canyon

 

 

 

Hiking Vancouver’s Trails – Lynn Canyon

Ten days in British Colombia is hardly enough time to explore the many trails, parks and wild places around Vancouver City and the Island.  It did provide a sweet taste of Canada’s West Coast and beautiful sights of mountains, forests and coastlines – the ultimate formula for a happy wanderer.

Vancouver's Lesser Known Trails

I booked an Airbnb in the North Shore and it turned out to be a good base to access the best of Vancouver’s trails. Most trails are accessible by public bus and depart regularly from Lonsdale bus station.  While there’s many amazing well-known trails – factors like park admission fees and avoiding crowds led me to explore the lesser known options. In this series, I take a look at my experience hiking these alternative trails.  No matter which trail you choose to hike, Vancouver’s natural beauty will leave you wanting to see it all.

The Well-Known – Capilano Suspension Bridge

The Capilano Suspension Bridge is a popular day trip in Vancouver. The bridge is 140 metres long and hangs 70 metres above a river and forest canopy – a sight that will surely look epic on your Instagram feed. Be willing to pay between $30. 95 to $37.50 depending on your demographic to enter.

Capilano Suspension Bridge

Photo Credit: Michelle Lee (flickr)

The Lesser Known – Lynn Canyon

Lynn Canyon is not as extensive as Capilano but still impressive.  The suspension bridge hangs 50 metres above the canyon and overlooks a waterfall spilling into the gushing river below. Admission is free!

Lynn Canyon Waterfall

Waterfall view from the suspension bridge

The bridge connects to a trail that runs through 617 acres of second growth forest. The trees are approximately 80 to 100 years old. Lynn Canyon was my first hike on day one in Vancouver. I met up with Sofie, a backpacker from Denmark and we walked along the trail. We stopped periodically to take in every detail – the moss hanging off branches, the thick roots and boulders plunging out of the soil. It was spitting rain and meters away from where the river falls into the canyon – we embraced the wet mist to cross over a shallow part of the river. On the other side, three children were building stone cairns on a stretch of bedrock.

Lynn Canyon Kids Playing With Stone Cairns

Children playing on the bedrock in the river

Further up before the river, we discovered a deep pool reflecting shades of green from the trees outlining the surrounding cliff above. A few teenage boys took turns plunging into the 30 foot swimming hole. A steep wooden stairwell continued upwards to Pipe Bridge, crossing over the canyon to Lynn Valley Road.

Lynn Canyon Swim Hole

Sofie stepping into the rain to admire the swimming hole

I returned on a Saturday afternoon a few days later. It was late September but the warm temperatures felt like summer.  The river was full of families and friends, hopping from rock to rock, and jumping into the pool. I changed into my swimsuit and stood on the lowest edge of the cliffs. I counted to three, plugged my nose and held onto my bikini top like a classy lady as I leaped off the rocks. Spectators and other cliff jumpers cheered as my body plunged into the cold pool of freshwater. I swam to the shore, shivering and exhilarated. I watched other jumpers bravely launch from higher points and contemplated if I could follow in their footsteps.

Lynn Canyon Cliff Jump

Leaping into the swimming hole like a classy lady

I crossed back over the suspension bridge, surprised to overhear hollering from a group of young swimmers below. They were completing what’s known as the Circuit – a series of cliff jumps along the river, including the waterfall seen from the  bridge. The area is clearly fenced off and has signs posted everywhere advising visitors of the deaths and severe injuries that have occurred. Nature is Vancouver’s best playground, but the shifting currents and water levels of Lynn Canyon take experience to gauge.

Lynn Canyon Cliff Jumpers

Cliff jumpers taking turns leaping into the 30 foot swimming hole

The Baden Powell Deep Cover trail to Lynn Canyon is 12 km (one-way) and could easily be turned into an unforgettable day hike if you’re feeling adventurous.

How to Get There

From Lonsdale Ferry Terminal take bus #228 or #229

Both buses will take you to Lynn Valley Centre – where you can walk 15 minutes to the park entrance or take a small community bus #227 directly to the entrance.

Admission: Free

Don’t Forget: Your swimsuit and sense of adventure

Pay Attention to: The signs pointing out where cliff jumping and swimming is not recommended.

 

Are you inspired to go hiking in Vancouver?  Have a favourite trail? Don’t be a stranger and leave a comment. I love to hear from fellow adventurers!

 

Want to find out more about hiking Vancouver? Check out this trail! 

Hiking Van Trails BCMC Trail

Hiking Vancouver's Trails Lighthouse Park

Top 7 Green Spaces to Chill Out in Edinburgh

Edinburgh is a wee city jam packed with fascinating history and culture. August is a brilliant time to visit Scotland’s capital. The Fringe Festival transforms the city into a lively beast and the streets are flooded with visitors from around the world. Artists, musicians, comedians, and street performers pull out all the stops to entertain the crowds.

To top it all off, the Royal Military Tattoo erupts in the Edinburgh Castle every weeknight and twice on Saturdays. The roar of pipers, drummers, cannons, fighter jets and fireworks can’t be missed.

It’s well-worth facing the crowds to visit Edinburgh during this time of year. Immerse yourself in the excitement. If the masses piss you off or your hangover renders you useless – turn to these urban green spaces to discover a sense of calm among the storm.

Arthur's Seat

Arthur’s Seat – Climb 251m above sea level for 360 degree view of Edinburgh. The uphill streets in town will beef up your calf muscles but this geological landmark is the icing on the cake. Described by Robert Louis Stevenson as “a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design”. The group of hills were formed from an extinct volcano that covers most of Holyrood Park. The park is a short walk from the Royal Mile and is adjacent to the Scottish Parliament, where the trail head to climb Arthur’s seat is located. On the way to the summit you can view Salisbury Crags – a series of 150 foot cliff faces. A more challenging descend takes you to St. Anthony’s Chapel built in the 15th century and St. Margaret’s Loch – to spot cute ducks and swans.

Cramond Beach

Cramond Beach – Located 4 miles northwest of Edinburgh, this sandy shore overlooks the Firth of Forth. The whitewashed suburban houses and moored yachts along River Almond, inspired Lonely Planet to call Cramond, “the most picturesque corner of Edinburgh.”

Arrive during low tide to walk a mile along the causeway to Cramond Island. Make note of when high tide is due. Unless you’d rather make like Tom Hanks in Cast Away on the wee island. If you’re not brave enough to bask in the frigid temperatures of the North sea – leave your swimsuit at home.

Lothian bus number 41 departs from The Mound, off Princes St., located in Edinburgh’s city centre. Travel time is around half an hour. The beach is a short walk from the village bus stop.

Royal Botanic Garden

Royal Botanic Garden – The beauty of this place is truly fit for any Queen Bee. It’s a green thumb’s paradise, made up of 28 hectares (70 acres) of landscaped treasures. You can explore the world-famous rock garden, and meander through the Victorian palm houses. The oldest and most photogenic Glasshouse was built in 1834 for £1500. The hot, humid atmosphere is the perfect to sustain the garden’s oldest palm tree in the center – Sabel bermudana – which was moved from Leith walk in 1822. Summer is when the ponds are at their best in the Glasshouses, with exotic sacred lotus, and giant Victoria water lilies. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported out of Scotland and to the wildest corners of the Earth.

Carlton Hill

Carlton Hill – Robert Louis Stevenson agrees, at 106m (348 ft) Carlton Hill is best vantage point of the entire city. It’s as close as you can get to the summit of Arthur’s Seat without scaling the hill itself.

Walk down Princes St. to Regent Road on the South side or along Leith Walk to Royal Terrace on the North side. A steep path will lead you uphill. On the summit historical monuments await. The National monument is an unfinished replica of the Parthenon – designed to honour soldiers who fought in the war that earned Edinburgh the title, “the Athens of the North”. A path winding along the hill will navigate you through a rugged field. Feel the wind blow through your hair as you overlook Old town to New town, and the blue horizon of the Firth of Forth.

Greyfrairs Kirkyard

Greyfriars Kirkyard – Greyfrairs is safely tucked away from drunken conversation and music coming from busy pubs below on Grassmarket. You’ll find an eerie seclusion among the high walls built from parts of the Flodden Wall, after Scotland’s defeat in early 16th century.  Hanging out in the cemetery isn’t as taboo as one might think in Scotland. It’s perfectly polite to plan a picnic with your mates here and step foot over the buried tombs. Edinburgh lost half its population to the Great Plague in 1645. Burial pits were dug across the city and some of the infected were barracked into their homes. Greyfrairs has many haunting tales to mess with any believer or non-believer’s head.

The most popular grave belongs to Bobby, a policeman’s loyal dog, who watched over his plot for 14 years after he passed away in the 19th century. A statue dedicated to Bobby is located at the top of Candlemaker Row, in front of Greyfrairs Bobby’s pub. 

The Meadows

The Meadows – Behind the University of Edinburgh, the open fields in this park are perfect for a game of soccer, aka football in the UK. Young Scottish folk and international students can show you how to kick back and procrastinate from studying. The criss-cross of tree-lined paths are enjoyed by cyclists and joggers. Bring a picnic or play a free round of golf in Bruntsfield Links.

Prince St. Gardens

Princes St. Gardens – You won’t find much quiet here. You certainly won’t escape the crowds. If people watching is your zen, this is the place to be. Admire the busy streets of central Edinburgh from a low-angle. Princes St. Gardens is a valley formed when Old Nor Loch was drained in the 19th century. Waverley Station is a stone’s throw from the south end of the garden, and you can watch trains arrive along the rail tracks. Look up to panoramic views of Old town rising to Ramsay Gardens and the Edinburgh Castle. The east end is dominated by the Scott monument – a Gothic spire built after Sir Walter Scott’s death in 1832. Count all 282 steps to the top of the monument for an epic view of Edinburgh.

10 Tips for a Road Trip With Your Friends – Ontario Style

Last summer my friends and I set off to explore more of our own backyard. Each of us grew up in Ontario and had been friends for over five years. Krista had just landed a full-time job in a hospital after studying her butt off for what felt like forever, Maryann was on summer vacation from her job running a busy public school program and I just returned from Iceland with a large thirst for outdoor adventure to quench.

The Road to Adventure!

The Road to Adventure!

There’s approximately 329 provincial parks and 292 conservation reserves in Ontario. 250,000 lakes, and over 100,000 kilometres (62,000 mi) of rivers. 66% of Ontario is forested (71 million ha) – that’s approximately 17% of Canada’s forests – and 9% of the province is wetland, marsh and open bog (9.5 million ha). Source. 

Imagine all that natural beauty right at your doorstep…

Lake Superior near the Bruce Peninsula National Park

Lake Superior near the Bruce Peninsula National Park

How do you choose where to go?

We created a massive collection of places by gathering brochures from outdoor trade show visits, magazines, internet listicles, Pinterest boards and hiking trail apps.

This was information overload. We dreamed of all the adventures we could go on but had no idea where to start. The limited time and money we had – restricted us to weekend escapes and budget friendly options.

Only one direction to go in and that's up

Only one direction to go in and that’s up!

A random idea was born.

Krista googled street signs that contained each of our first and last names – Ashley Rd, Krista Street, Maryann Drive. The signs were located across Ontario and each route took us to parts of our province we had never explored before.

We searched for interesting campsites and parks nearby these street signs. Our choices were narrowed down based on campsite availability and the fun outdoor activities each site offered such as canoeing, swimming and hikes.

Canoe

 

Geological highlights were factored in – we drove an additional 250 km, off-route to explore the most southern tip in Ontario – Point Peele National Park and camped at Bon Echo to canoe the second deepest lake in Ontario, Mazinaw Lake. Spanning the cliffs of Mazinaw are 65 rock faces of abstract Aboriginal paintings (pictographs).

Pictographs on the cliff face

Pictographs found on the cliff face

The random location of each street sign, provided us an excuse to stop in the middle of nowhere on some dirt country road and strike pose next to our own personal landmarks.

Jump up high on some dirt country road

Jump up high on some dirt country road

As locals drove by, many people were curious as to what the heck we were doing. Yeah, we received some strange looks. Sure, our street signs took us to some odd places…

Bowes Rd is pretty sketchy

Bowes Rd is pretty sketchy

 

But, the stories and adventures that unfolded will be remembered for years. A tale our grandchildren will eventually be told. In the case of polishing off an entire bottle of wine in one night – untold.

How to have a random adventure with your besties:

1) Start Early

I am not a morning person. When Krista and Maryann suggested we get up at 3am to start the road trip, I secretly wanted to punch things. But hitting the road before the break of dawn and beating weekend morning traffic had it’s advantages. We googled nearby 24/7 Tim Horton locations. Maryann and I are hardcore coffee addicts. Timmie’s provided the much needed caffeine boost and filling breakfast bagels before we hit the road.

 

2) Find Cool Photo Opps

Stopping at each of our street sign names provided us with some fun photo opps. The advantage of starting our trip before dawn was tracking the changes in light. Our first stop before sunrise was lit by buildings and street lights. We brought a tripod to play around with long exposure shots. The empty streets allowed us fool around with our poses without too much judgement from people passing by. Only a few weary truckers rolled by.

Hanging Around Ashley Road

Hanging Around Ashley Road

As we reached the suburbs, the sun began to rise and we caught that first morning light.

The Sun rising in Suburbia

The Sun rising in Suburbia

By the time we reached remote country roads, our views were fully lit and the skies were clear, blue. We spent the most time taking creative photos in these locations. This road trip was about enjoying the sweet city escape.

The middle of nowhere

The middle of nowhere

As amateur photographers, we could have planned ahead to time our stops with the changing light. Tracking the direction of the sun, to capture that perfect golden morning glow. Good lighting can win you National Geographic contests. But the focus of these photo stops was to create awesome memories. The poses we struck before each street sign were completely spontaneous and that was definitely part of the fun.

Group Shot!

Group Shot!

3) Pack Light and Shift Your Mind into Low Maintenance

Packing light is subjective. We all came prepared.

The advantage of having a bestie who grew up camping – is a trunk fully stocked with an axe, lighters, a grill for the camp fire, flashlights, air mattresses, tarps, a table cloth, sleeping bags, tent, dishes and knives.

Our personal items consisted of the necessities – a tooth brush, face cloth, swim suit, 1 pair of shorts, pants, t-shirt, sweater, waterproofs, sunscreen and bug spray.

Our basic needs were met. The bottle of wine was a luxury. Make-up was left at home.
To enjoy your getaway only pack what you need. Leave any high standards at home. You are camping not glamping with friends.

We're cooking in the rain

We’re cooking in the rain

4) The T in Road Trip is for Teamwork 

Sure, your driver is behind the wheel and controls your direction and speed. A fun road trip is a collaboration of everyone involved. Together we decided which ONRoutes to stop at and how much time to spend at each street sign. The driver steers the way. The co-pilot navigates to ensure the GPS isn’t being misleading. They also play DJ and control the tunes. The backseat passenger passes the snacks and drinks to the front and occasionally take naps for the team.

Party in the backseat

Party in the backseat

5) The C in Camping is for Cooperation

We consulted one another to determine when to set-up camp at each site, cook dinner, go for a hike, crack open the wine.

Each of us participated equally in every activity – setting up and tearing down the tent, starting the camp fire, preparing dinner, sharing stories, finishing the bottle of wine.

Chopping Wood

We have an axe and we know how to use it

6) Keep Food Simple but Exciting

Our menu was simple, healthy and budget friendly –

Lunch: Buns, cold cuts and cheese for sandwiches
Breakfast: Muffins
Snacks: Pre-washed veggies, fruit, pepperettes and granola bars
Dinner: Salmon, roasted veggies and potatoes

Dinner is served

The salmon, roasted veggies & potatoes could’ve fallen flat but the beauty of these simple and nutritious foods is they cook well over a campfire – wrapped in tin foil. We brought a seasonal spice to give our salmon and potatoes a punch and a little butter on those potatoes never killed anyone. Our feast was so delicious you better believe it left us full – more calories to burn off hiking and without leftovers – nothing to hide from those chipmunks.

Chipmunk

7) Try a Fun Activity to Discover Your Surroundings

The beauty of camping by the lake is you can swim, dive, canoe, kayak, SUP to your heart’s content! Rent a mountain bike and explore the rugged terrain. Register for a fishing license and row out to the middle of the lake to catch your dinner. Hike uphill have your breath taken away looking over the viewpoints. Rock climb the cliffs over Ontario’s second largest lake in Bon Echo. Paddle boat to spot frogs, dragonflies and birds in a marsh or wetland. Outdoor adventure can be done in rain or shine. Just don’t forget your waterproofs and sunscreen.

Canadians can canoe

Canadians can canoe

8) Bring Your Own Entertainment

On any road trip with friends there’s bound to be some less adventurous moments. It’s normal to have lulls in conversation or find yourself in need of some downtime. If it rains you’ll be happy you brought along a deck of cards and board games to play together. Before bed, you might want to unwind with a good book or listen to your I-pod. Leave your laptop and tablet at home. Turn off the data on your smartphone. You’re on this trip to enjoy nature with friends, not to stay connected with your twitter followers.

Beach and Boots

Beach and Boots

9) Take the Scenic Route

Ontario has so many back country roads that pass through rolling hills of farmland, forest, and my favourite – the lakes and wetlands heading East towards Ottawa. Avoid getting stuck in Sunday afternoon traffic on the 401 and instead take your time to enjoy the view. Plan a stop at roadside diner, or a smalltown cafe. Going home can be tiring but not if you embrace the freedom of slow travel. Crank up the tunes, get lost on some dirt road, there’s no need to rush the end to a great adventure.

Back Country Road

Back Country Road

10) Start Planning the Next Adventure

Once you return from an awesome trip – you’ll be thinking about the fun memories for months, swapping photos and texting your friends about how you should go on another adventure soon. But life is what happens when you’re busy making plans. So start planning the next adventure ASAP. Set a future date, pick a destination, research fun activities and get ready, set, go!

Beach time at Long Point

Beach time at Long Point

Defeat the Fungus, Climb the Highest Volcano

Warning: Do not read this post if you have arrived seeking glory. Or if you get grossed out easily and want to keep your lunch where it belongs.

Volcan Tajumulco

Evi and I celebrated our decision to hike Volcan Tajumulco, the highest peak in Central America, with a vanilla milkshake at Café Bavaria in Xela. It was a delicious, frothy drink that went down smooth and then gave us stomach fungus.

The symptoms that destroyed us for days, hit Evi first. She suffered from an unbearable high fever and diarrhea. I fell victim to nausea, stinky burps and managed to spew up every content of  the BBQ dinner my host family cooked the night before.  Fungus –  plus 10 points,  Ashley –  minus everything.

BBQ prepared by my Guatemalan host family

We went to the clinic to get tested and were forced to go number two in a cup on an empty stomach (yup, overshare). Turns out we had a stomach and intestinal infection caused by the Fungus Candida.  The owner of our Spanish school had connections with a local doctor. He recommended we take “a little red pill” immediately and antibiotics. I decided to take the little red pill (Nystatin oral) and hold off on the antibiotics.

I consumed nothing but crackers, soup, coca-cola, water and tea until I felt better. Many thanks to my Guatemalan host mother, Julia, for sweetly ensuring I didn’t die.

Julia in Xela

Julia, my Guatemalan host family mother, taking care of her dogs

A minor relief kicked in, but Evi and I suffered from the symptoms on and off for a couple of days. The hike was approaching and we worried that we might not recover on-time. Evi’s symptoms got worse and she decided to take the antibiotics. It was two days before the hike, and Volcan Tajumulco did not seem promising.

The night before the hike, I lay in bed unable to sleep, fighting a queasy stomach. Hiking to 13,845 ft., (4,200 m) above sea level seemed like the worst possible idea. I was determined to still take part in the two-day hike.

I awoke at 4:15 am, grabbed my heavy backpack and headed out the door to Quetzaltrekkers alone, feeling 100% better.

Loaded 45L Backpack Strapped on and ready to go

Are those raccoon eyes from no sleep or bad lighting…

Quetzaltrekkers held a meeting the evening before, to introduce the 4 guides to the 11 backpackers going on the trek. They delegated each person  items to pack. Somehow I stuffed a 45L backpack with the following gear:

  • 1 sleeping bag in a stuff sack
  • 1 puffy down jacket
  • 1 thick fleece sweater
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 back-up pair of pants
  • 1 extra set of hiking socks
  • 3x – 1 litre bottles of water
  • 1 plastic plate, cup and spoon
  • 1 small first aid kit (Quetzaltrekkers provides a larger kit – this was packed just in case)
  • 1 bag of nachos and bread (food for the group)
  • 1 headlamp
  • 1 pair of warm mitts with holes in the fingers (the gear is free and well worn)
  • 1 toque
  • 1 tarp for the kitchen
  • 1 mat to sleep on, strapped to the outside of my backpack

The morning of, our group made the final preparations at the tour office. I fought the urge to crawl back into bed. Before I could give in, we were standing on the back of a pick-up truck as it zipped through Xela. The wind that hit our faces was just a taste of the freezing temperatures on Tajumulco. Our bags were thrown on top of the chicken bus, and all 15 of us filled the empty seats. We departed the quiet market and picked up locals at each stop, heading to work on a weekend. In a blink the aisles were cramped full of people.

Turkey on the Chicken Bus

Yes, that’s a turkey riding the chicken bus

Breakfast was served at a dim comedor in San Marcos. We sat at picnic tables and devoured our choice of pancakes or eggs, served with beans and a warm cup of “hot brown” – essentially just sugar and water.  This was a decent start to the challenge ahead, but as a major coffee addict I was dying for a solid cup.

Route to Tajumulco

Back on the chicken bus, we whirled around a narrow up hill road. During one sharp turn, the bus let out a high pitch honk – directly in front of us was another chicken bus heading downwards. A severe misfortune if one of the drivers hadn’t been quick to hit the breaks.

From our bus stop located  9843 ft., (3000 m) above seal level, we walked to the trail head of Tajumulco. The group stopped to adjust layers and remind each other of names – names I would repeatedly forget.

Backpackers at Tajumulco Trail Head

The height of the stratovolcano was hidden behind a grey fog that loomed towards us – killing any hint of sun.  Within the first 2 km, a few of us already found ourselves out of breath.  While lugging a heavy backpack up a mountain side with no end in sight,  I wondered if I had received the short-end of the stick. Evi’s plan B to relax in a natural hot spring was an easier recovery option.

Backpackers Ascending Taljumulco

It was the consistent enthusiasm of our guides that fueled my motivation. The hike lead us through alpine-forests, remote farmland and trails of volcanic rock. We greeted locals as they passed. The sun finally graced the sky, revealing a view of Volcan Santa Maria. Each break was well-timed and we refueled on trail mix, homemade hummus, peanut butter, and salsa – a heavenly treat compared to my last few days surviving off crackers and water. Fungus – minus 10, Ashley – plus ultimate win!

Hikers Greet Locals on Tajumulco

We set up camp at Hartweg Pines, 13,123 ft., (4000 m) above sea level and watched the sunset from Cerro Concepción, the smaller summit of Tajumulco’s twin peaks.

Sunset on Tajumulco

That night, we divided our group of 11 into two large tents, and our guides into their own. Each of us slept in close quarters, bundled in our puffy winter jackets and sleeping bags. My ear plugs failed to block out snoring tent mates and the faint sound of latin music playing in the distance. At 2 in the morning firecrackers echoed throughout the mountain from another campsite. This was a terrible reminder of our wake up call in a hour. Firecrackers were set off every night before Christmas and New Years in Guatemala. Even at the top of a volcano, locals considered this a necessity in December.

Fire crackers in Xela

Firecrackers in Xela on Christmas Eve

Before bed our guides warned us to watch out for symptoms of altitude sickness – headaches or dizziness. If we showed any of the signs, our guides could offer us a pill to prevent it from getting worse. The fungus had provided me with enough fun bodily malfunctions – I couldn’t imagine hiking all that way to get destroyed by the altitude. One backpacker did get sick and missed out on the last leg to the summit.

Dark Sunrise on Tajulmulco

We awoke before dawn to make the final ascend 722 ft., (220 m), along the side of the crater. Our steep hike over rough, volcanic rocks, was lit by our headlamps and the stars in the night sky.

Hikers enjoying the view Tajumulco

I was hungry and uncaffeinated, as I reached the summit. The wind was below freezing. The sun rose over the highlands and revealed a clear view as far west as Mexico and the Pacific slope. Clear view from the summit on Tajumulco

Any inconvenience my mind and body complained about, I told to shut it. I wanted coffee and my bed. Would I really trade gazing over Guatemala from the highest peak for these temporary comforts? No way, José! If fungus can be defeated – anything is possible.

My Steve Holt on Volcan Tajumulco

Steve Holt!

After a shaky descend, we returned to base camp and I was rewarded with a fine cup of java. Energy and optimism kicked in. With a lighter load on our backs, we hiked a different route down Tajumulco. We stopped for longer breaks to see who could jump the farthest distance and hold the longest headstand. Ascending 13,845 ft., above sea level is how champions are born.

Guides doing handstands on Handstand Tajumulco

Have you ever been sick while travelling? Or challenged yourself during an adventure? I’d love to hear your about your own experiences. Leave a comment!

Ditching Surfers for Sea Turtles in Nicaragua

Two months into backpacking Central America solo, I hit a wall. It’s a wall you never expect to run into and it dawns on you that the honeymoon stage of travel might be over. The impossible has happened – travel feels mundane. I was no longer excited about arriving in a new place to make small talk with twenty other backpackers on a similar adventure.  I didn’t want to have to explain to anyone where I was from, where I had been and where I was heading next.

San Juan del Sur is a popular beach town on the Pacific coast. If surfing, tans and partying is your main jam – it’s the place to be.  It was ironic that I had chosen San Juan as a place to be the anti-social backpacker, but I was determined to use it my full advantage.  I cracked open my laptop, eager to blog like a maniac about climbing volcanoes in Guatemala and learning to dive in Honduras. There was one problem – the wall had also  squashed creative inspiration.

San Juan Sunset

Sunset in San Juan del Sur

Instead I found myself googling “Remote Beach Towns in Nicaragua” and discovered El Ostional –

Population:    700

Number of tourists at visiting the time:    3

Number of Sea Turtles Nesting/Hatching:    TBD. Are you feeling lucky?

Best Known for:    Fishing, kayaking, baseball games, cows, children playing in tires and a quiet beach.

It didn’t take much convincing to jump on the chicken bus and travel a few hours south, 10.5 km from the border of Costa Rica.

El Ostional

In El Ostional, the only internet connection to be found was through an ultra slow Ethernet cable. Circa 2013, Lonely Planet had only written about the town as a brief mention in Central America on a Shoestring. Speaking to locals was the only real source of information. My Spanish hadn’t yet progressed passed Kindergarten small talk. In these isolated towns, where Google translator can’t save you and language barriers are broken by smiling and pointing – you truly become observant. It’s in these small places where authenticity can’t be missed.  A night of sleeping on the beach can lead to moments that will change your life. The most unexpected encounters with wildlife often do…

Olive Ridley

Featured above, the Olive Ridley sea turtle (Lepidochelys Olivacea), returns to the Pacific ocean after nesting 108 eggs on the beach of El Ostional in Nicaragua.

The night I arrived in El Ostional, I slept outside beneath a starry sky on the cool, stiff sand by the sea. Sheltered by the outline of a forest and golden cliffs, the crescent shaped beach is a remote safe haven. Despite the single bed awaiting me at Manta Raya Hospedaje – an affordable family-run guesthouse ($15/night for a basic, private room) – I opted for the luxury of the ground, the itchy feeling of invisible insects invading, the sound of waves crashing against the shore and the small chance I’d witness a sea turtle nesting.

Sunset in El Ostional

Sunset in El Ostional


Paso Pacífico, is a conservation group who a launched a Coastal Marine Research Project in 2001. The project aims to increase a scientific understanding of sea turtle populations and marine ecology. The organization provides training to locals on how to care for the natural environment and monitor areas where sea turtle nesting occurs.

Splash Pad for Crabs in El Ostional

Splash Pad for Crabs in El Ostional

At 5 a.m. Karen, a local conservationist and Pacifico guide for the night, woke me from restless beach sleep, “Ashley, tortuga.” Throughout the night, team members would briefly turn on their flashlights and scan the shores for signs of a sea turtle. Since sea turtles can become distressed by lights – flashlights were used sparingly. This leads me to imagine these conservationists have developed Predator’s vision to detect both sea turtles and scare off poachers in the dark.

Olive Ridley in Dark

The Olive Ridley turtle digs a body pit in the sand

The Olive Ridley population in Nicaragua is fairly abundant but they are threatened by poachers who harvest the eggs to sell to the market or consume themselves. Turtle eggs are traditionally believed to act as an aphrodisiac and provide rich nutritional benefits. The Olive Ridley can also be found nesting in Asia and Africa, but despite their vast dispersal – the population is declining and in some areas they are endanger of becoming extinct.

A Black Vulture. Birds are predators to baby sea turtles

A Black Vulture. Birds are predators to baby sea turtles

As the only tourist, I had to patiently wait a few meters away in the dark, squinting to make out the silhouette of the sea turtle’s shell rocking in the sand.  Olive Ridley turtles first create a body pit by using all four flippers to remove the dry sand beneath them. The sea turtle digs a chamber using its rear flippers to scoop out damp sand until it can no longer reach into the depth. After lifting its hind flippers away from the sand, the contractions begin.

Once Karen signaled, I moved closer to the sea turtle, sitting quietly behind her and as she motioned her head slightly upwards – almost like an inhale – before releasing one to four eggs into the chamber, followed by a brief rest. She repeated this motion until the chamber was almost full.

backturtle_edit

This beautiful Olive Ridley laid 108 eggs that night. As the sun rose over the shore, she buried her nest and slowly pulled herself toward the ocean, periodically stopping to recuperate before reaching the water and allowing the current to carry her away.

My wall came tumbling down in that moment – it sparked a surge of inspiration that I poured into my notebook later that day.

Watching an Olive Ridley sea turtle nest on the unexploited shores of El Ostional has changed my life. The most unexpected encounters with wildlife often do.

Olive Ridley in El Ostional

Fun fact: Did you know Olive Ridleys are the only sea turtles to nest in mass groups of hundreds to thousands? This behavior is called arribada (the Spanish meaning for “arrival by sea”) and occurs when Olive Ridleys converge together and arrive simultaneously ashore to nest.

Where to watch arribada in Nicaragua: La Flor Beach Natural Reserve is one of the best places to observe the several mass nesting events that take place between July and January. Not all Olive Ridley turtles are known to nest in groups. During my experience in early February, the featured Olive Ridley was the only sea turtle nesting that morning in El Ostional.

Inspired by this story? Want more turtle talk? I’d love to hear your thoughts. Leave a comment! 

Keep Moving Forward – A New Years Hike to Lago Atitlán

My most adventurous year – so far, is coming to an end and I’m nostalgic for the very place I found myself this time last year in Guatemala. It was an epic way to end 2012, a three day hike from Xela to Lago Atitlán with the non-for-profit group Quetzaltrekkers. If you’re seeking a memorable adventure in Guatemala or Nicaragua I highly recommend checking them out.

Group B in Xela

Photo taken of Group B departing Xela by fellow traveller, Elise Leijstra

After a long first day of trading the high density of Xela for the freedom of rural Guatemalan landscape, our tour group arrived by nightfall to the village of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan. Our resting point was a town-hall made of concrete walls and a roof with a wood frame shielded by corrugated metal. The edges of the town were engulfed in the darkness, surrounded by the silhouettes of box shaped homes and a small tienda, closed for the night. As if I was lost in time and space, I stared up at the calm night sky to admire every star visible to my naked eye and realized the moon was nowhere in sight. At 11:00pm in the Northern Hemisphere, the sky seemed incomplete without its bright, white luminescence.  After cramping the muscles in my neck, I retired to my sleeping bag laid out on a tiled floor, accompanied by forty-one other travellers and the dread of 6:00 am wake-up call.

By the time 5:55am had rolled around I had given up on falling asleep hours ago. Instead, the consequences of sleep deprivation kicked in and I wrote this weary passage:

The howling wind rumbles through the fragile tin-like ceiling. There’s a smell of mildew rising from the vibrating floor. The metal door barely holds still – its resistance is strong, despite the cry of the each creak from the wind eager to knock it down. There’s no sleepers in this holding tonight. Well, perhaps just one, his heavy breathing gives him away. The shadows and florescent light illuminate the ground but darkness still hides in the corners. A gust of wind blows through a heavy cloud of dust, intoxicating us all. A warm chill. We are safe beneath these blankets, pressed hard against the ground. Dare we walk today in the sun after this restlessness? The dogs howl to warn us of something. Is it an impending doom or the dawn of another day? Perhaps it’s animal instincts we’ll never understand. Are we that out of tune? Too busy building concrete walls, playing with machines, carrying heavy wood stacks on our backs, climbing mountains, breaking into a sweat, starving, gorging, sipping, smoking – to speed up our heart rates when we could be slowing down.  Somewhere in the village, an alarming horn blasts from an unknown vehicle.  Noise always consumes us. Even in the middle of nowhere, even when it’s time to rest…

I was interrupted by one of the guides who announced it was time to get moving. With about 15 km of walking ahead of us and the challenge of tackling what our guides called, Record Hill – a steep incline that takes an average of 15-25 minutes to ascend and one that would leave me feeling like an asthmatic kid who decided to run up the playground slide without an inhaler – rolling over onto the hard floor and playing dead seemed rather appealing. Yet looking back, I’m glad I was forced to rise early and carry on.

On the road, it’s rare to withdraw from a great opportunity despite an extreme discomfort. Moving forward is a constant, an unwritten necessity in a traveler’s pledge to see the world. Here within the comforts of home it’s too easy to fall asleep, stay raveled in our bed sheets and miss out because we’d rather stay still or avoid the risk all-together. This leads me to reminiscence about these defining moments in travel. The moments I very reluctantly but somehow willingly made the choice to rise and take the steps forward that propelled me into the great unknown.

Whether you’re at home or out on the road Happy New Year! Keep on taking one step forward and don’t forget to stop every once awhile to look to the sky above or the land below.

Elise looking over Lake Atitlán

Elise admiring Lago Atitlán from the mirador. Photo taken by me

Inspired by a Local: Portrait of a Belizean Snorkel Guide

The Keeper of the Reef first presents a grin. An undesirable greeting that lets his visitors know the task of winning him over won’t be easy. He sits on the blue porch soaking in the fading sun after a long hard day of sailing the sea. He could be people watching or trying to sell his business to the many tourists who pass by. Instead he sits there silently. It’s possible the Keeper is still lost in the underwater world he emerged from. His reputation on this strip of land is unwanted by locals. Famous to the few tourists who find him on Caye Caulker, as the 73-year-old guide who can show them the sea. “Take it or leave it,” he says, “Be here at 9:45 am to collect your fins and snorkel. Don’t be late.”

He doesn’t ask for your foot size or sometimes even your name. He tells you to bring a lunch. If you ask what you’ll see below he refuses to tell, “It’s a surprise.” There are tourists who would be put off by this but he doesn’t give a damn. There are those who decide to go willingly with him, these people are the lucky ones.

He dives in. The bubbles clear and the fish surround him. They swim close to him, like passengers along for the ride. A string ray sweeps its way forward as if understanding how humans admire its powerful array. Its wings spread out like a blanket, breathing in with an opening and closing valve. The Keeper takes his wondering friend and places the string ray on his head. The creature warmly invites him in, smiling beneath pounds of white flab. The Keeper’s bronze skin is richly lit by the Caribbean sea.  His body moves through the water, the weight of his pot belly and sagging nipples do not direr from this seamless motion. He is a man who can break through any wave and has passed the many tests of a sometimes unforgiving sea.

The current drives him on. Through passages of coral, beyond forests of mangroves and over sea turtles gazing the flourishing world. He dives deeper, luring in eccentric green eels with a conch shell. They swim in a swirl together, battling the fish for the taste of what drives their senses mad. In the distance, he spots the dark shadow of a shark escaping from any foreigner’s view. He has known these creatures for many years and it took time for these creatures to know him just as well. When he was nine he swam so far away from the shore. The cruel words of his father fading as he made his trail. He found himself in the reach of the reef and since then he has continued to return. It was the fishermen who told him to pay attention and the students’ scientific observations who brought these creatures’ names to life. Once upon time he could find himself alone in these waters until tourism came flooding in. Fat cruise ships dropping off herds of North Americans, Europeans and East-Asians led by monsters who smoke cigarettes and dump ’em in the sea, “The fish will put it out.”  He tried to warn the capitalists to take care of the ocean but the dollar sign outweighed the value of the Earth. The islanders think he’s a strange creature himself, the crazy man who has a theory, “Don’t go into the ocean thinking about which fish will taste good to eat,” he warns, “It’s bad karma.” The Keeper’s best known friend is a Turtle named Irene. She’s missing a leg and swims rather odd, a fighter he’s known for twenty years.

He has witnessed the changes in the ocean, watching it slowly die before his very eyes. He does not know the cause or the outside factors but he believes humans have not done a thing. He thinks we cannot stop it and that we can only start taking better care. But first people need to listen.

“We are all connected to the ocean,” he claims, “The 13 spots on a turtles shell is the same number of full moons a year.”

For those who are willing, he can help them discover the way. Those who are willing must first suppress all negative thoughts, forget about the movement of their bodies, and then let the sea take control.

The Keeper of the Reef, he would never call himself that. The Keeper of the Reef, a those who dare to swim with him will come to know.

This narrative was inspired by Juni Zaldivar, a hidden gem on Caye Caulker and with good reason – he’s fond of his privacy and runs his business in the same manner. A couple of days after joining five other backpackers on his sail and snorkel day tour of the reef, I revisited Juni on his day off to talk about his connection to the nature and experience growing up on the Caye. Juni is incredibly warmhearted and respects those guests who want to experience the authenticity of the reef’s natural beauty. 

Juni's Snorkel Tour

On Juni’s sailboat after the snorkel tour