Mexico II – The Mainland

Out of the boat, on to the road. Mazatlan is a mess, a hot and humid mess. To make it worse, it seems Mexico lets you choose between nice, double lane toll roads or truck choked, single lane free ones. Aaaarrgh!!

The plan is to cross the country diagonally, passing the central megacities and leaving the pacific coast for what it is. First stop: Guadalajara. Not bad, Mexico! Artsy bars and a nice, colonial city center. And God, the small towns are cheap here. A nice hotel room set along green pine trees: less than eight euro. Delicious tacos: one euro. Tour of the Villa Hermosa town hall: free, rooftop view and (very) talkative rifle-armed MP-ers included.

No such deals in Ciudad de Mexico, although the city itself is amazing. There is everything your heart can possibly desire. Fantastic architecture? A  great street music scene? Awesome bars? Messy markets? Probably the neatest museums in the Americas? All there, and much more. There was even an international food fair…Belgian waffles, yummy!

They do love their traditions - Mexico D.F. (look at that lens bokeh!)
They do love their traditions – Mexico D.F. (look at that ssmooottthh lens bokeh!)

Before leaving the capital region, there are two to-do-list-items waiting to be crossed off. The first is Popocatépetl, a 5426m high, very active stratovolcano. A (really early) morning hike, after a rather nauseous night at 4200m asl, revealed the ice-capped, steaming monster. The surrounding landscape wasn’t that bad, either.

Eerly morning hike - volcán Popocatépetl
Eerly morning hike – volcán Popocatépetl

If anyone is still looking for us: WE ARE OK! Sorry for not returning those national park passes…

Number two is Teotihuacan, once the largest city on the American continent. Nowadays you will find two impressive pyramids, linked by a corridor that is riddled with jaguar-impersonating vendors. And skull-vendors. And everything-else-vendors.

Did I mention it is hot here? And to top it all off, the backlight of our laptop screen just decided to call it quits. Great! On to Veracruz it is, then. Home of the “Los Zetas”, probably Mexico’s most violent drug cartel. And that is not even the worst thing along the country’s northern coast. 39°C and 100 percent humidity. No wonder everyone wants to kill each other there. The good thing is that it was relatively easy to find a cheap computer monitor. Back in business!

It is not all bad, though. The coastal road passes through some fantastic little towns that, once again, prove that painting a town or city into a bright rainbow of colours automatically results in UNESCO recognition.

UNESCO heritage in Tlacotalpan - Mexico
UNESCO heritage in Tlacotalpan – Mexico

The Carribean coast has some other surprises, too. Rio Lagartos is one of those with an incredible array of bird life, above all the vermilion coloured flamingos wading through mangrove lined rivers.

American Flamingo - Rio Lagartos
American flamingos – Rio Lagartos

The same region is used as a salt extraction area, resulting in flamingo-coloured mineral pools.

Salt extraction - Rio Lagartos
Salt extraction – Rio Lagartos

Rio Lagartos marks the end of the non-touristy part of Mexico. Upon entering the Yucatan peninsula it becomes very clear that the region is aiming at mass tourism. Think huge resorts, privatised natural regions and overcrowded beaches. Not too exciting.

Well, I was pleasantly surpised. Yes, it is all there, including drunk Brits and noisy Dutchmen, but at the same time a little bit of effort buys you private tranquility. Ek Balam is one of those spots. Imagine pre-Colombian pyramids in the middle of a dense jungle. No tourists, no souvenir stands. Even Chichen Itza can be quiet if you pick the right moment. Tip: a hangover needs time…

Chichen Itza - Mexico
Chichen Itza – Mexico

No such peace on Isla Mujeres. South Yucatan is literally riddled with resorts (and their inhabitants), so you will have to share its beauty. However, the resorts are a heaven of luxury and a “free” invitation to spend the day at one of them, all-inclusive, is just too good to decline (thank you, Mía Cancún!). The catch was (there is always a catch) that we had to endure a 90 minute sales talk. Come on guys, did you really think we were going to buy a 20-year time-share plan?

Private natural pool at the Mía - Isla Mujeres
Private natural pool at the Mía – Isla Mujeres

Skip Cancún and Playa del Carmen, but don’t forget the amazing cenotes in the area. The smaller ones (head into any small town) are just as impressive, way less crowded and a lot cheaper.

Cenote Cristalino - Playa del Carmen
Cenote Cristalino – Playa del Carmen

Tulum is definitely worth a stop. The ruins are ok-ish, but the setting of the pre-Colombian city is just incredible. Picture perfect white sand beaches, lush greenery and the most amazingly coloured coastal waters you have ever seen.

Overlooking the Carribean - Tulum ruins
Didem overlooking the Carribean – Tulum ruins

That’s all for Mexico, folks. Next up: Belize!

Mexico I – Baja California

Welcome to Mexico! A surprisingly organised US – MEX border crossing led us to the slightly less organised town of Tijuana. Dirt and chaos, woop! Entering Mexico goes as follows:

  1. Drive towards the clearly Mexican looking hills. You’ll know what I mean when you see them.
  2. Follow the border signs near Tijuana.
  3. Red light? Your vehicle will be “inspected”. In reality this means a little chat, preferable in Spanish, with the officer. You share a couple of laughs, they tell you Mexico is an awesome country and you’re good to go.
  4. Fill out your tourist card and pay the fee in the Banjercito. All offices are in the same area.
  5. Get your temporary car import form (car ownership docs needed), pay the vehicle import fee and deposit.
  6. Buy liability insurance.
  7. Apply your new, shiny registration sticker to your car’s windshield.
  8. Drive!

And I really mean drive. Tijuana is a loud and dusty place where there is little to see, no more reasons needed to drive straight southwards. Ensenada is an OK-ish town, good for a lazy stroll along the seaside while enjoying the fantastic foodstuffs and music (see above video) during its street festivals. Very good, very good, very goooooodddd!

Most gringos enter Ensenada, enjoy it and return. At first sight, they are right. South of the city there is little to see. More dusty towns and empty desert roads. A stop-over in Bahia de los Ángeles was a disappointment as well. Where are all those beautiful beaches and turquoise coloured waters? Not here, that’s for sure. Enter central Baja California. The same dusty towns (although less of them) and empty roads, but this time lined with a magnificent landscape of smooth boulders and every cactus species you can imagine. Didem’s dreamworld, I guess.

Valle de los Cirios - Baja California
Valle de los Cirios – Baja California

Days of cactus-camping, interspersed with more boring roads, lead us towards the border with Baja California Sur. Here, my dear readers, things get interesting. One advice: follow “The Number One” towards the Sea of Cortez and be amazed.

Mulegé - Baja California
Mulegé – Baja California

Those sandy beaches and magically coloured waters we have been looking for? Right here, and to top it all off: no tourists. Actually, no people at all. Your starting point for all this is the town of Mulegé.

Playa Santispac - Baja California Sur
Playa Santispac – Baja California Sur

Yes, the beach really is pink. And it only gets better between Loreto and La Paz.

And one more - Baja California Sur
And one more – Baja California Sur

Fancy warm, shallow waters with a stingray here and there? Balandra is the place to be. The view from the surrounding mountains isn’t half bad either.

Playa Balandra - Baja California Sur
Playa Balandra – Baja California Sur

To summarize: skip the north, enjoy the south. Oh, and do a day trip to Isla Espiritu Santo for, perhaps, the most beautiful scenery of the whole peninsula. Skip Cabo San Lucas, though. That’s just an overhyped tourist trap.

All aboard - Sea of Cortez
All aboard – Sea of Cortez

An ex-Stena Line (no, they did not remove any of the Flemish/English information signs – I am looking at you, Oostende) ferried us and Suzy safely across the Sea of Cortez. Comfortable beds and complimentary meals included.

See you on the mainland!

The Great Loop Part II – Nevada, Utah & Arizona

Driving Southwards through California reveals just how dry the state really is. No wonder they need so many reservoirs to keep life going. On the border with Nevada, the Sierra Nevada range sucks the remaining moisture out of the air, forming the word famous Death Valley.

Badwater Basin - Death Valley
Badwater Basin – Death Valley

Drought and dead, interspersed with ultra colourful mountains, salt pans and sand flats. What a fantastic, peaceful place!

A little more towards the East lies a little less peaceful place: Las Vegas. A place to gander at the weirdness in our world. Look through the thousands of stag and hen party-goers and you will find local grannies spending precious time falling asleep at their favourite slot machine. What a life! Sin City was explored, but not consumed … except maybe for that one night in the Bellagio. Happy birthday, Didemcim!

Sin City - Nevada
Sin City – Nevada

More national parks up ahead! The state of Utah takes us towards the most eastern point of our loop. After disarming a dead car battery, ignoring an immoveable neck (and thus, head) and dodging an enormous rattlesnake we make it, alive and well, to Zion National Park. The start of the Canyon Route is nothing but spectacular: blossoming cacti among river-fed greeneries set in a red-tinted mountain landscape.

Zion National Park - Utah
Zion National Park – Utah

A new “Made in the USA” car battery brings us, this time without problems, via Zion and Bryce Canyon, to Page, Arizona. I know, it starts to sound like an eventless numbered list of natural sights, but with a National Park or Monument every 150km it is hard to describe things differently.

Bryce Canyon - Utah
Bryce Canyon – Utah

Next on the list? Page. A city built for the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam. For us, a base to explore Horseshoe Bend and the fabulous Antelope Canyon.

Horseshoe Bend - Arizona
Horseshoe Bend – Arizona

Be warned: Upper Antelope Canyon, the famous slot canyon with its surreal curves and laser-like sunbeams is an extremely busy tourist attraction. Special photo-tours that allow a tripod, the only way to actually take a picture inside the Canyon, are a complete and utter rip-off. The alternative? A visit to Lower Antelope Canyon. The major drawback is the lack of light shafts, but this is easily compensated by the more relaxed atmosphere and much lower entrance price. There you have it. Practical information :)

Lower Antelope Canyon - Arizona
Lower Antelope Canyon – Arizona

The Grand Canyon State deserves a visit to its namesake attraction: the Grand Canyon. A tourist trail navigating the South rim, you say? Don’t make me laugh. The North rim is where all the action is packed. Everyone knows this. And besides, the grass is always greener on the other side … except today. Today the grass, or better, the rocks, are white. Covered in snow by the extremely unexpected late-April snow storm and sub-zero temperatures that led to the closure of the North side of the National Park. Bummer. The South rim it is then.

Grand Canyon South Rim - Arizona
Grand Canyon South Rim – Arizona

Geek note: you can watch the documentary “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets” in the IMAX theatre of the Grand Canyon Village. Not that spectacular if it wasn’t for the technicalities of the whole ordeal. The feature was shot and is projected using analog 70mm film. Oh, my … the amount of detail captured is just incomparable to, unfortunately, all too common 2K digital screenings.

Moving on: a quick stop-over in Seligman shows a glimpse of glory long-gone. The bad-ass route 66 changed from a symbol of freedom to a rather dull tourist trap. Ah, well … let’s hope they at least conserve or restore the diners and gas stations of the Golden Fifties.

Route 66 - Seligman, Arizona
Route 66 – Seligman,  Arizona

Back in California, Joshua Tree National Park is worth a visit, even if it is only to enjoy its excellent camping spots. Giant boulders and weird cactus-tree hybrids. All a person can wish for before entering the madness that is Los Angeles.

Joshua Tree National Park - California
Joshua Tree National Park – California

And the madness starts even before entering LA. Wishing for a city in the middle of the desert, promoted as the perfect getaway? Look no further: Palm Springs will fulfill all your dreams. In reality it looks more like an unorganised mess of upscale retirement homes located in the middle of an extremely windy valley. On a positive note, we had a lovely dinner with one of Didem’s Erasmus friends.

The City of Angels is full of contrasts: from its criminality ridden outskirts to celebrity neighbourhoods of Beverly Hills, from buskers in Venice Beach to the tourist-ridden streets of Hollywood. A lot of stuff, but nothing that exciting.

The Hoff - Hollywood
The Hoff – Hollywood

US of A, it is almost time to say goodbye. A friend’s visit in quiet Huntington Beach followed by a drive through San Diego marks the end of a wonderfully busy time in The States.

Sunset over Death Valley - California
Sunset over Death Valley – California

Next up: Baja California!

The Great Loop Part I – Kalifohnia

Here we are. The adventure mecca of the European traveller boasting a concentration of national parks where every lazy National Geographic photographer dreams of.

Upon entering the California Republic near Redding (pronounced as written, unlike the UK equivalent which is pronounced the same, but is written differently) the state’s Fruit Nazi did their duties and with a clean bill of health (i.o.w. no fruits or veggies present) we continue Southwards.

California’s North is basically an extension of Oregon and the rainstorms we carefully avoided over there smilingly greet us above lake Shasta.

A storm is coming - Northern California
A storm is coming – Northern California

A indoor dam(n) visit it is, then. Willie Wonka, our free tour guide for the afternoon, is not too happy to show us his factory and I guess my constant lagging behind to photograph the creepy corridors did not help, either.

Creepy corridors in the heart of Shasta Dam - Northern California
Creepy corridors in the heart of Shasta Dam – Northern California

A disastrous attempt to visit Lassen National Park (unplowed mountain passes, even mid-April) made us take a detour towards lake Tahoe. Not a bad choice, not a bad choice at all. Alpine scenery, wild geese and Steller’s Jays. Jay!

Lake Tahoe - Northern California
Lake Tahoe – Northern California

Great was the contrast with our next destination: San Francisco, where the girls wear flowers in their hair. And carry a gun in their purse! A police drive-by shooting? Drugged out crack-addicts suffocating in their own vomit, right in the middle of the city’s main business district? Yeah, peace and love, baby!

Luckily they have cute little tramsies to carry you swiftly passed all this :)

Cable Car - San Francisco
Cable Car – San Francisco

So, where are all those national parks, you ask? Right here. Photo opportunities to spare for every wannabe Ansel Adams.

Vernal Fall - Yosemite N.P.
Vernal Fall – Yosemite N.P.

A full moon and crisp night skies resulted in a slightly different take on a classic image.

Moonlit Yosemite Valley - Yosemite N.P.
Moonlit Yosemite Valley – Yosemite N.P.

More into trees? Sequoia National Park has larger-then-you-can-hug Cypresses.

Sequoia National Park - California
Sequoia National Park – California

Perhaps the most striking fact is how easily accessible all these natural wonders are. While Yosemite benefits from a little bit of leg muscle to walk up and down the waterfall trails (and mind you, there are dozens of signs preparing you for the “extreme physical effort” required to complete said hikes), Sequoia N.P. is literally a wheelchair accessible stroll through the park.

Next up: The Great Loop Part II

Golden Gate Bridge - San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge – San Francisco

Oregon – Hipsters and The Great Outdoors

Welcome to Portland, Oregon. I have never seen hipsters being so proud of something that has no relation with Apple. If you have to believe Oregon’s inhabitants, their state is the place to be and PDX is the awesomest city on earth. Well, it is pretty nice. While the state’s capital is not going to win any beauty contests (but then again, which American city will?), the atmosphere is great and the artsy-fartsy couples and family oriented vibe is really comparable to, yes, Barcelona. Millions of pop-up eat stalls (surprisingly, none of them owned by local PDXers) and dozens of microbreweries colour the streets. Good stuff.

Hipster Portland
Hipster Portland – Oregon

Upon leaving the city you’ll notice why everyone here is so stoked about the great outdoors. A short drive out of town puts you right in the middle of the Cascade volcanoes or waterfall-cladded river gorges, a hikers paradise. Really.

Mount Hood - Oregon
Mount Hood – Oregon

Not a mountain person? Drive the opposite way and find yourself on Highway 101 to admire the rough pacific coast and cute seaside towns.

The Pacific Coastline - Oregon
The Pacific Coastline – Oregon

Each and every curve reveals yet another spot to sit down, relax and count the number of gray whales that you’ve seen passing by. Do not be tempted by taking a cheap whale-watching tour in Depoe Bay, though. Your not so funny captain will race towards a random patch of open water, will apologise for 30 minutes that “those animals can be unpredictable” before returning harbour. Number of whales spotted: nil. Maybe we were unlucky, but then again, not even 20 minutes later a whale passed right by at the spot below.

The Pre-Hipster Generation - Oregon
The Pre-Hipster Generation – Oregon

Speaking about sea-dwelling mammals: we had a few close encounters with some out-of-state sea lions as well. Cute? Territorial bastards, that’s what they are.

California Sea Lions -Oregon
California Sea Lions – Oregon

After nearly a week of sand, sea and trying to avoid the cops while sleeping at night (finally found out one can legally camp anywhere, as long as it is not within city limits), we once again geared up for mountains and snow. A huge detour later provided us with the view below. Worth it!

Crater Lake - Oregon
Crater Lake – Oregon

Next up: Kalifohnia!

Pacific Sunset - Oregon
Cannon Beach Sunset – Oregon

The USA – Washington Take Two

A long, stormy drive took us from Alberta to the coast of British Columbia. Upon leaving the foothills of the North Shore Mountains and descending towards Vancouver, the skies cleared and temperatures soared into the 20s. What a sudden and dramatic difference with the North. Spring has arrived. Finally!

Tip: discover Vancouver by bike. If you’re smart, you don’t hire them right next to Stanley park. For some spare change, you and your complimentary helmet will have a full afternoon of two-wheeled, action packed fun :)

Stanley Park - Vancouver
Stanley Park – Vancouver

Even in the streets, Canadas crown jewel surprises. Take the “Vancouver Duck Lady” as an example: want to know your future, need a party-planner or just craving to pet a small farm animal? The duck lady is there for you!

The Vancouver Duck Lady
The Vancouver Duck Lady

Two days and a dinner in a luxury high-riser (it’s always good to know people all over the globe) was all it took to fall in love with this place. See you soon again, Vancouver!

A room with a view - Vancouver
A room with a view – Vancouver

A quick stop in, once again, Seattle (mainly for Amazon-delivered goodies) set us on course towards the Cascade volcanoes of Washington and Oregon. First stop: mighty Mount Rainier. Result: road and park closed. A minor panic-attack later we decided to drive around Rainier National Park to slip in via the Paradise entrance. And Paradise it was. Meters of snow, deep blue skies and an enormous volcanic peak right in front of you. The rest of the day was spent happily snow-shoeing across the slopes of the active volcano. A winter wonderland.

Mt. Rainier - Washington
Mt. Rainier – Washington

Next on the to do-list was Mount Saint Helens, world famous because of its 1980 record-breaking eruption. Upon our hike to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, Didem spotted the little fella pictured below. A standard frog, you say? No! Besides the fact that thousands of them had been keeping us awake every night since we left Seattle, the sound of the Pacific Tree Frog is the typical “rib-it” call used each and every time a frog sound is needed. There, you didn’t know that, did you?

Pacific Tree Frog - The frog!
Pacific Tree Frog – The frog!

Mount Saint Helens is pretty impressive. It’s hard to imagine by just looking at a picture, but in person you realise how massive the eruption and resulting debris blast must have been. Everything, as far as the eye can see, is destroyed. Trees flattened and the land filled with meters of ashes and rocks. Truly one of the wildest sites I have ever been to (especially now, with the roads closed and not a soul on the trails)!

Didem - Mt. Saint Helens
Didem – Mt. Saint Helens

Following: Hipsters, trees, little seaside towns and more volcanoes!

Canada – The Rockies

It seems our strike of fair weather is over. Each kilometre southwards added a couple of boring grey patches to the sky. Upon reaching Stewart, once again near the Alaska border, rain (no snow here!) started pouring down. The road leading towards the seaside was rough, but from what we could see, very beautiful.

Bear glacier - Stewart
Bear glacier – Stewart

The little town, with a population of less than 500 people, is surrounded by high cliffs (unfortunately covered in clouds and totally invisible), layered with glaciers (more about that later) and boasts the northernmost ice-free port in Canada (indeed, there was a vessel). It is also supposed to be prime bear-viewing territory, but it seemed all of them were still sound asleep. Stewart, however, is also the gateway to one of Alaska’s smallest ghost-towns: Hyder. Official population: 87, but I counted one hotel owner, one enthousiastic shopkeeper, three random Alaskan weirdos and your everyday angry old man. Why go there? Glaciers. Hyder owns the Salmon glacier, one of the largest road-accessible ice-tongues in the country. The road up was in very, very bad condition. Potholes, snow, ice…you name it. Thank God we had AWD. After 25km of shaking, just 10km away from the Glacier the road was closed with a heavy chain…!! And for what? No idea. It’s not that they maintained the rest it.

On the way to Salmon glacier - Hyder
On the way to see Salmon glacier – Hyder

Anyway, it was getting late. We turned back, ready to vent our frustration at the border control police. Oh, yes! There is a border control unit, occupied by two Canadians, to check that you are not illegally sneaking into the country. The conversation went like this:

  • Hi there!
  • Good afternoon.
  • How long where you in the US for?
  • You mean…like..right now? A couple of hours?
  • Did you bring any animals or rocks back with you?
  • Uhm…no.
  • Yeah, there isn’t much out there, eh! *laughs uncontrollably*
  • Ok. Why is the road closed just before the glacier?
  • No idea! I am not from around here!
  • Thanks…

We “set up camp” in Stewart in spent the night, hoping for a better morning. Unfortunately, we were greeted with the same wet weather the next morning. A quick stroll through the backstreets of Hyder (Didem wanted some shots of their shacks) and another border control later, we took off.

In the meantime, I realised that there are a couple of ex-Bornemenaars living in Canada. A few emails later we ended up in the charming town of Smithers. Charming, yes. There were shops, restaurants, bars, you name it! Quite a positive change after tens of boring 5-person villages. Meester Ivan, thanks once again for the warm welcome! 19 years….time flies!

Reunion - Smithers
Reunion – Smithers

Prince George, an uninspiring but large city further south marks the turning point towards Alberta. We head East to Jasper National Park. The road was, well, quite boring. Forests and mountains, snow, rain and clouds. The weather turned really bad and we decided to relax a couple of days in Valemount, just outside the borders of the park.

Elk spotting - Jasper
Elk spotting – Jasper

The town of Jasper is much like your average European ski-resort. Nice, but fake. The national park and the Rockies, however, are definitely worth seeing. Even in winter, when the lakes are still frozen.

Behind a frozen waterfall - Maligne Canyon
Behind a frozen waterfall – Maligne Canyon

The Glacier Highway took us from Jasper through the center of the Rocky Mountains towards Banff. An amazing trip, which I am sure, is even better in summer when the lakes show their colours.

The Glacier Highway - Jasper
The Glacier Highway – Jasper

From a frozen, snow-covered Lake Louise we drove west. See you soon, Canada. This time during the summer season. Next up: sunny Vancouver and Washington – take II!

Sunset over Lake Louise
Sunset over Lake Louise

Canada – The Yukon

It’s time to head South. Ready to drive the (in)famous Alaska Highway, connecting Alaska with Canada’s Yukon Territories from Fairbanks to Tok, we prepared ourselves to face extreme road conditions, broken-down vehicles with half-dead drivers calling for help and isolated towns who never saw a foreigner before. Aside from the last one, none of those rumours are true. The ALCAN is an excellent drive with wide lanes, a smooth surface and caring, helpful people in little villages. One of those villages, Tok, gave us the mental energy to spend another icy night in the car.

Tok - A moonlit goodbye show
Tok – A moonlit goodbye show

Enter Canada! How much money you have, that’s all they care about. Purpose of the trip? What do you plan to do with the car? Do you even have any insurance for that thing? Nope, not important. Off you go, enjoy Canada, hey!

After hundreds and hundreds of kilometres in the tundra, awesome is it is, though, the landscape starts to bore a bit. There is really nothing out there. Just an endless road lined with snow-covered evergreen trees. Didem starts to feel the long hours in the car. We are covering 350km a day now, which is more than double the planned average for the trip.

Just when we realize that the most exciting activity of the day is watching the fuel gauge go down, we pass Destruction Bay and the borders of Kluane National Park. No more boring snow covered plains, but once again exciting lakes and mountains. Yay!

Mountains - Kluane National Park
Mountains return – Kluane National Park

We cannot hide our excitement when entering Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon. Yes, it is a small city in the middle of nowhere, just like Fairbanks. Yet, somehow they managed to be the exact opposite: an attractive, vibrant place full of interesting things to explore. Japanese Sushi in the evening and fresh cupcakes for breakfast? Yep!! It might seem like nothing, but after days of noodles and warmed-up tin cans this is paradise.

The mighty Yukon river carved out Miles Canyon right at the edge of Whitehorse. A surprisingly different landscape than the mountain – tundra – frozen lake – tundra scenery we have been seeing for some time now. Oh, we just crossed our first “road closed sign”. Many more to follow, for sure.

Whitehorse - Miles Canyon
Whitehorse – Miles Canyon

Gotta go now, or they will kick us out of the hotel :) Next stop: Alberta and SW Canada!

Fairbanks – Up North

Despite the fact that Alaska seems to be a haven for social outcasts, people are extremely helpful and friendly. Jenny (From The Motel) had a hand in everything: from choosing the car on Craiglist to providing a cheap roof-mounted storage box for our Suzuki. Before we left Anchorage, she made sure we were 100% ready. The rest of the motel and a local trooper came over to say goodbye and off we went.

Goodbye from Jenny - Anchorage
Goodbye from Jenny – Anchorage

Talkeetna, a small-ish tourist town a few hours south of Fairbanks was our first stop. Each corner of the winding road into town offered a different view of the Alaska Range, Mt. Denali included. All that natural beauty came, unfortunately, with a steep price. Places to sleep are abundant in Anchorage, but once you leave the city beds are scarce and prices high, especially in wintertime. Bummer! However, a nice hostel popped up and two affordable bunk beds sounded better than a cold car.

The upside of staying in a remote village is its isolated location. After a few nights of disappointing aurora-hunting (every place near Anchorage seems either perpetually hazy or is bathing in an orange sodium lamp glow), the clear skies above Talkeetna lit up during an unexpected G2-class geomagnetic storm. Three hours in -15°C? Worth it! Did we leave our dark-sky-out-of-town-spot minutes before an enormous auroral corona? Yep :(

Northern lights above Talkeetna - Mt. Denali in the background
Northern lights above Talkeetna – Mt. Denali in the background

The next day started with bad news: my inquiry about a suitable place to spend the night in Fairbanks returned zero hits. The whole city (we still thought of Fairbanks as a reasonably sized, buzzing northern city) was full. Full of 1500 scientists who couldn’t wait to attend the Arctic Science Fair. With hundreds of kilometres to go and daylight fading we scanned every little town for a cheap B&B. Cheap near Alaska’s most popular tourist destination means 110 euro per night, be warned! Those 110 euro did provide us with clean clothes and waffles for breakfast. Yay!

Between Talkeetna and “The Golden Heart City” lies legendary Denali National Park. The Park Road was open (and much longer than we expected). Spectacular views of snowy mountains and the highest peak of northern America made us forget time. Although the bears are up and running (according to the locals), none where spotted. Helaas. One can only imagine the buzz on the park roads during summer time while admiring this icy winter landscape. Quietly.

Mt. Denali - 6190 asl
Mt. Denali – 6190m asl

Just outside Denali national park lies the little town of Healy. Not worth mentioning if it wasn’t for one must see attraction: the start of the Stampede Trail, made world famous through the stories of Christopher McCandless. Hiking to see the “Magic Bus” would take over two days and two river crossing on each leg. Not willing to end up like Mr. Supertramp, we decided to look up the movie replica located at the 49th State Brewing Company (now famous in Belgium thanks to Tom Waes). A dangerously high fence was conquered (everything is closed here in winter, remember?) and the obligatory photos were made.

Into the Wild!
Into the Wild!

After a surprisingly snow-free drive of 180km we arrived in Fairbanks, The Golden Heart City. Let me stop right here. It’s not a city, and I certainly did not find its golden heart. Fairbanks seems to be a mess of houses and utility buildings. The three bars and two restaurants were closed on Saturday evening (and now that I think of it, they were closed on Sunday as well). Ah well, cheap Indian pizza it is then. What Fairbanks did offer was a Walmart and Home Depot. Time to “engineer” our sleeping platform. A 5-minute napkin drawing (and one very annoyed Home Depot employee) later, a carefully cut MDF platform was hauled into Suzi. A perfect fit. Walmart provided a comfy spring-loaded mattress, two warm duvets and some bed sheets. Time for a test run! Result? -15°C is cold, but bearable. Besides a few strange looks from the locals and 20 minutes of scraping off a thick layer of ice formed on the inside of the windows the next morning, all went well. I have to find something against this condensation issue, though.

Next stop: Canada!

Preparation

Let me start of with a tip: do not travel to Turkey before flying to the US. Being “randomly” checked once is fine, but when it happens multiple times on each leg of a long flight is not funny. The reason? A flight to Istanbul two weeks earlier.

A one-day layover in Seattle gave us just enough time to stroll through the city. At first it looked like a rather grey, dreary place full of weirdos, but a visit to downtown proved me wrong. Seattle is *very* hipstery and full, literally full, of Startbuckses and their clones. Expensive as hell though. I might have mis-budgeted the US.

Pike Place Market
Pike Place Market

Complete change of atmospheric conditions upon our arrival in Anchorage: steel blue skies and a warm bright sun. The descent over the Kenai peninsula towards Ted Stevens (Who? A former US senator who fought for Alaskan statehood) airport was one of the most spectacular I’ve ever witnessed. Incredibly sharp, snowy mountain peaks, frozen rivers and one single road. This is Alaska and this is a place we have to visit.

Turnagain arm from the Seward Highway
Turnagain arm from the Seward Highway

And so we did. Before even thinking about locating and buying a car or arranging insurance documents, we took a miniature rental vehicle (people were literally laughing at us, I kid you not!) and raced towards the Seward Highway. Lather, rinse, repeat (x3).

In the meantime we scouted the Almighty Craigslist, weeded out the scammers, freaks and other bad guys (yes, always guys) and contacted two potential car sellers. The first one, I will call him “The Dude”, offered us a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A nice car, but the rather questionable DIY repairs and non-existing license plates were a no-no. He was also more interested in promoting his music career then selling anything. C’mon baby, step on it! Didem did not like the car :) A second Craigslister, the “UPS Guy”, wanted to sell his Suzuki XL7. No strange repairs and a ginormous US flag sticking out of his house. A trustful person. One hour later (yes, Belgium, one hour) and the car was offically ours. Woooot! A quick trip to the Progressive insurance agent (tip: Geicko and State Farm do not insure foreigners).

Mushing the Iditarod
Mushing the Iditarod

In the meantime we witnessed 1000+ dogs, mushers and spectators go wild during the start of the 2016 edition of the Iditarod race. Look at those huge tongues!

Didem overlooking Whittier
Didem overlooking Whittier

A test-drive, this time to whittier finally offered an opportunity for a short hike. Travelling by car is comfy, but that’s about it. A narrow squeeze through the Whittier tunnel (seriously, look it up) gave access to the like-named village and, more importantly, to Portage glacier. Last tip for today: shouting DOES cause avalanches. Witnessed in person when I told Didem to pose for a picture.

Anywayz, the car is good to start its great journey. Next stop: Fairbanks, The Golden Heart City.

Icy sunset over the Turnagain arm
Icy sunset over the Turnagain arm