Category: Best of…

19 Jan

Vancouver, BC: where I first discovered fire on TV

Best of..., Canada 1 Comment by Christina Cooke

Among Canadians, the fireplace channel seems to rank right up there with ice hockey and poutine in popularity. During our three-day stay in Vancouver BC, my sister, friend and I saw no less than half a dozen crackling fires on television. *

Though you might not guess it, televised fires have an extremely detrimental effect on conversation. Before we noticed the fire on the TV high in the back corner of The Ascot Lounge, a “handsome” new bar on West Pender by our hostel, we’d had a lot to talk about as we sipped red wine. But as soon as we caught sight of the pixelated burning, our conversation ceased, and we all stared slack-jawed at the screen, mesmerized by the crackling and flicking flames and the flannel-clad arm that periodically appeared to shift the logs with a poker, sending red-hot embers spiraling up the chimney.

* Disclaimer: None of us have cable, so this may be a “thing” we’re just not aware of. I’d rather attribute it to Canadian genius, and the fact that it just makes sense in this part of the world, where it gets pretty chilly and starts getting dark at 3:30 p.m. during winter.

When we weren’t enthralled by fires on TV, we did manage to get out and see the western coastal city, the third largest in Canada (behind Toronto and Montreal).

Gastown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, in the rain. It rained a lot during our visit.

The steam-powered clock at the corner of Cambie and Hastings streets

Some highlights:

  • The waiter at a cafe on a busy street in the west end spilled the pitcher of soy creamer all over our table and my sister (who fortunately, was still wearing her raincoat). After he wiped up the creamer with a rag, he knocked over the half and half.
  • We entered Vancouver, BC with the hypothesis that all Canadians are just plain nice, based on our interactions with our Canadian friend Luke and the Canadian vinyl siding salesman we sat next to on an airplane recently. As we rolled into the city and began to seek out our hostel, we watched an 18-year-old in a crosswalk notice a blind person crossing the street from the opposite direction AND TURN AROUND TO LEAD HER BY THE ARM TO SAFETY before running off to wherever he was going. Sold! Our hypothesis was true.
  • We ran across a crew of bagpipers making music in the parking garage beneath the Pacific Centre shopping mall where we parked our car at night and found the droning, kilt-clad vision lovely for its incongruity. Then we realized there was a logical explanation: a parade was about to take place outside on the street. It was still cool.
  • On the only blue-sky day of the trip, we drove an hour north to Squamish, or “Sḵwx̱wú7mesh snichim” as the aboriginals say (a word that, for obvious reasons, is a lot of fun to try pronouncing). Located at the base of the 2,300-foot granite monolith called Stawamus Chief, the town is paradise according to many climbers I know. Rather than roping up, however, we hiked to the top of The Chief along a 6.8-mile trail, which followed the cascading Shannon River for a mile or so before cutting through the hardwood forest, over wooden staircases and past granite slabs, to the snowy and icy terrain on top.

    At the summit (the third of three, we think—although there’s really no way of really knowing), we enjoyed PB&J sandwiches and an expansive view of the Howe Sound, Whistler and the peaks in Garibaldi Provincial Park.
             We are eternally grateful for the chains that kept us from plummeting to our deaths.
                                                    Laura, getting a little crazy by the edge.
  • Perhaps it was all the physical activity, but we were all blown away by our 4 p.m., post-hike dinner of clam chowder and fish and chips at the Parkside Restaurant, located in downtown Squamish. Best meal of the trip. We liked our waitress too.
  • Vancouver’s Chinatown, centered on Pender Street downtown, is one of the largest in North America. After bypassing the open sacks of dried fish bladders and dehydrated geckos (good for asthma when boiled as tea) in one market, I found and purchased two large tins of tea leaves, one jasmine, the other black rose, for only $6. I celebrated my find with a delicious plate of fried rice and sweet and sour chicken at the nearby Jade Dynasty restaurant.
  • Our hostel, the St. Clair, offered inexpensive, private rooms furnished by metal-framed bunk beds and not much else. Stark, yes, but clean, inexpensive, centrally located and a good option for travelers on a budget. (I would not, however, recommend The Cambie Hostel a few blocks away. We walked in to the attached and affiliated pubone night and left after 20 minutes of being ignored by the too-cool-for-school waiters who repeatedly walked by our table and chatted with patrons at the bar. Though the atmosphere is funky and comfortable, the poor service just made me mad.)

    The ceiling across from the check-in desk at the St. Claire

  • As soon as we crossed the Canadian border, our phones sent us text messages telling us they were entering expensive, roaming modes (i.e. going on vacation too), so we shut them off. Being without signal for three days was actually a wonderful break from what’s become normal.
  • We sung this a lot, to the tune of “America the Beautiful”: “Oh Caaaanada, oh Caaaanada, from sea to shining seeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaa.”
04 Dec

Yurt life: Thanksgiving holiday near Jackson, Wyoming

Best of..., Wyoming 1 Comment by Christina Cooke

Living in a yurt is much different from not living in a yurt. It’s colder, for one. Only a thin layer of canvas separates you from the 20 below outside, and you consistently find yourself wearing multiple pairs of pants. Secondly, it’s a lot more work. You begin tossing around pioneer words like “fetch,” “haul,” and “stoke” without a second thought.

I spent the Thanksgiving holiday yurt-sitting with my sister and two friends near Kelly, Wyoming, about 20 miles down a straight, flat road from Jackson. Though we were technically care-taking three structures — a living room yurt, a bedroom yurt and a school bus converted into a guest room, all located a few feet from each other in a log-fenced yard — we confined ourselves mostly to the living room area, near the only source of heat, a wood-burning stove.

Kitchen area

The skylight

During the day, moose wandered through the yurt park (drawing the ire of Stacy, a dog who apparently didn’t realize that she would not be the victor in a moose-dog battle). At night, standing in the bitter cold under the wide-open sky, we could hear coyotes howling in the distance.

Despite our middle-of-nowhereness, we prepared a full-on Thanksgiving dinner, complete with a turkey breast, sage-sausage stuffing, cranberry relish, green bean casserole, pecan-crusted sweet potato casserole and pumpkin pie topped with hand-whipped cream (took two hours and multiple shifts on each of our parts, but was so worth it).

The grains

Cranberry relish prepared by the lovely Anna Brones (Anna reflects on Thanksgiving food preparation here)

Before digging in

The Jackson area has received a ton of snow so far this year, and when we weren’t cozied up in the yurt, we took advantage. We hiked toward Bradley and Taggart lakes one morning, post-holing frequently, but managing to avoid the bull moose spotted by other hikers and take in an incredibly crisp view of the Tetons. On another day, we shredded the pow (I have no idea what this means) on the slopes of Grand Targhee.

And now, one last shot, the yurt at dusk:

05 Jun

Hiking Machu Picchu, with no ducks in sight

Best of..., Peru 2 Comments by Christina Cooke

Every morning around 5:30 a.m., voices outside our tent would offer us coca tea, saying, in not so many words, it was time to get our lazy asses out bed and head for the holy site.

To avoid the crowds and expense of the super-popular Inca Trail, Laura and I chose an alternate route to the lost city of Machu Picchu, one that took us by the base of the 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain.

mp-salkantay-mtnThe 20,500-foot Salkantay Mountain

The trek started on a Wednesday in a clearing near the village of Mollepata. We were accompanied by two guides, a cook, three horsemen and six horses and eight Dutch people who would sometimes make observations in their native language that sounded, to our untrained ears, a lot like the phrase “There are no ducks here.” (In fact, there weren’t.)

mp-preparing-the-burroOne of our excursion’s horsemen preparing to strap sleeping bags, fleece jackets and potatoes to that horse’s back

mp-horses-2The horse parade

During the five-day, four-night trek, we hiked across foggy alpine meadows littered with lichen-covered rocks, crossed the 15,000-foot pass at the base of Salkantay Mountain and descended into a lush jungle where bromeliads, begonias and banana trees flourished. We passed through a number of farming communities along the way, where we’d often see people hoeing for potatoes or loading donkeys up with the harvest.

At periodic intervals, our group would stop, our guides would snap out the camp table and stools, and we’d feast on typical Peruvian food: soups, stuffed peppers, lomo saltado (that’s steak with veggies and fried potatoes).

mp-moody-lunch-spotOne day’s lunch spot

The food escaped its hutch in the kitchen one day as we were eating, but no one seemed to care. No, we weren’t offered guinea pig.

The trek ended in the super-touristy town of Aguas Calientes, the jump-off point to Machu Picchu, about a half-hour bus ride away. Not-so-tasty pizza parlors line the streets of this town built for travelers, and everyone wants you to try their restaurant’s cappuccino or spaghetti. We often did, I’ll admit, because there’s not much to do in the surreal little town besides eat.

When we arrived at Machu Picchu around 5 a.m. the following morning, a thick fog shrouded the ruins, giving them a very mystical air.



Llamas gently grazing in the lost Inca city

The fog lifted around 10:30 in the morning, revealing the Inca city in all its glory. Let me just say, I think Machu Picchu fully deserves its place among the New Seven Wonders of the World. The 15th-century Inca city is almost completely — well, 80 percent — original, just as the Incas left it around the time the Spaniards came to conquer them. The civilization built its city’s terraces, houses, plazas, temples, fountains and irrigation systems with smooth stones that fit perfectly together. We walked through the architecture marveling for most of the day.


The classic Machu Picchu shot

See, Laura and I really were there




Click here to see more pictures from our trek to Machu Picchu.

21 May

Pass the pepper: Crossing Bolivia’s Uyuni salt flat

Best of..., Bolivia, Chile No Comments by Christina Cooke

Our jeep barreled for an entire day across the infinite nothingness of the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. For six hours straight, we saw salt, we saw sky, and that’s about it.

The salar is 4,633 square miles of packed salt that measures an average of 23 feet thick. It’s what remains of the prehistoric Lago Minchin, which once covered the majority of southwest Bolivia. It’s an illusion-inducing landscape that plays tricks on the mind, and it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

We discovered people become really small on the Salar de Uyuni

And that doing ordinary things becomes much more fun

Our three-day jeep trip took us from the Chilean desert town of San Pedro de Atacama to the Bolivian valley village of Tupiza. We crossed from the border during the first ten minutes of the trip, then proceeded through the baked red Bolivian desert, where geysers boil and steam, and lakes take on colors other than blue.

The Bolivian desert

Lago Blanco, with waves frozen in place

Flamingos wade knee-deep in many of the lakes, filtering for microorganisms

The deserts’ elevation ranges between 12,000 and 15,000 feet above sea level. It’s extremity caused us to become short of breath every time we walked uphill and scramble for hats, gloves and extra layers every time got out of the jeep door to walk around outside.

The rock tree, one of many rock formations we saw along the way

Simione, our Spanish-speaking driver, was born in a village just a couple hours from the salar and normally spoke the Quechua language native to the region. He stared straight ahead and chewed coca leaves during most of the drive, but at each stop, jumped out to pop the hood, scoot underneath the vehicle or change a tire. At one point, he had to repair the front passenger door, which had been ripped off by the wind.

Simione and another driver operating on our jeep

Laura and me in a tiny town on the edge of the salar, waiting for our drivers to fill the vehicle with gas

We stayed the first night at a modest refuge in the desert and the second at the Salt Hotel, located two minutes from the edge of the salt flat. The hotel is constructed completely from blocks of salt; licking the walls, tables and stools would make you thirsty. Even the floor of the bedrooms and dining room was covered in grains of NaCl.

Two days before our trip, two jeeps traveling toward each other collided on the roadless, wide-open salt flat. The canisters of gas strapped to the roofs of both vehicles exploded, killing all passengers and one driver.

As we passed the accident remains from a distance, we could see the burnt hulls of two 4 x 4s standing out like dark skeletons against their snow-white surroundings. We all realized it could have been us, and the sight was truly sobering.

For more pictures of the trip, click here.

30 Apr

Pisco sweet: Three days in Chile’s Valle del Elqui

Best of..., Chile No Comments by Christina Cooke


The skies over Chile’s Valle del Elqui are clear more than 300 days a year, making it an ideal place to study the stars. During our two days in the valley, Laura and I did just that… sort of.

The guide of the astronomy talk we signed up for led us to a dusty field, set up his telescope and then declared that science, constellations, the cardinal directions and naming things are — and I quote — “stupid.” Needless to say, we didn’t learn much about astronomy. We did, however, manage to see Saturn and its rings and a couple bright stars, I’m not sure which ones.

Valle del Elqui stretches the width of Chile, from the northern beach town of La Serena to the Argentenian border. It’s punctuated by little villages that sustain themselves mostly by growing the super-sweet grapes used to make the alcohol pisco, Chile’s national drink.


Labels for the pisco bottles, still on the spool

More than 85 percent of the pisco produced in Chile comes from the valley. On the way in, we toured the family-run Fuegos distillery, where we tasted the grapes and sampled the pre-pisco alcohol, which has an alcohol content of 68.7 percent.

me-on-trailMe, descending

horse-in-desertA horse along the road

Laura and I fell in love with Valle del Elqui during our time there. On our second day, we rode mountain bikes down the dry dirt road from the far interior town of Alcohuaz to our home base in Pisco Elquis. Along the way, we passed lots of grape vines, a few men on horseback and many dogs too sleepy to bother chasing us. We stopped at the artists’ community outside the village of Horcón, where we wandered among artisans in hammocks and browsed booths filled with medicinal herbs, handmade jewelry and batiked clothing.

Laura and me during our bike ride, wearing protective head gear to prevent injury.