Best of---

Vancouver, BC: where I first discovered fire on TV

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.”

Yurt life: Thanksgiving holiday near Jackson, Wyoming

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:

Hiking Machu Picchu, with no ducks in sight

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.

mp-tree-and-fog mp-city-in-fog


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.

Pass the pepper: Crossing Bolivia's Uyuni salt flat

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.

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


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.

valley-pretty 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.


fuegos 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.

Buenos Aires: tango, mullets and cheap steak

It was not your typical tango show; it was not a formally-attired couple twirling dotted duple amongst the tables of lunching tourists.

It was the 12-piece Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro performing in a moody bar before a sea of 30 packed cocktail tables. It was passionate and edgy, it was Converse and dreadlocks, and it turned tradition on its head.

While the crowd sipped fernet, wine or gin and tonic, in the case of my hostel-mates and me, the musicians delivered the type of show that leaves you breathless after each song. The stage lights, which alternatively illuminated different sections of the orquestra in red, blue, white and green, lent a sense of urgency and drama to the music.

The energy, more than the actual look, of the Orquesta Típica Fernandez Fierro (Lighting was a challenge)

The highlight of the performance, I’d say, was the four accordian players seated in a row along the front of the stage. They played music with their entire beings, throwing their heads back and folding forward as they squeezed and stretched the instruments on their laps.


Apartment buildings along the street 9 de Julio

Me encanta Buenos Aires. The city of 14 million has it all: 18th century European-style architecture and modern skyscrapers, cobbled streets and six-lane roads, privately-owned fruit stands and trendy, high-fashion clothing stores, business people and bohemians, public squares and green parks. It’s huge, but it moves at a relaxed pace. You don’t get crushed you if you pause before crossing the street or stepping onto a subway car.

park-fog-medm A foggy park we discovered at one end of the pedestrian-only Florida Street

Some observations about the Argentine capital, and some photos:

  • The mullet (negocios in the front, fiesta in the back) is quite in style, as is the color purple. With long hair and mostly blue capilene and quick-dry clothing in my backpack, I had no chance.
  • Porteños (BA locals) are incredibly sweet. People we asked for directions on the street or in the subway often escorted us to our destinations, or at least to a corner from which we could see them.
  • Creativity is in the air. Art galleries, design shops, handmade clothing stores and street markets abound, and the creations are cool.

tim-glasses-medm Our hostel-mate Tim among the colorful houses and art for sale in the La Boca neighborhood.

necklaces-medm Necklaces for sale in a San Telmo neighborhood market

  • People eat late. Lunch takes place mid-afternoon and dinner around 10 p.m. Discos get rockin’ around 3 a.m.
  • Speaking of which, Argentenian steak is abundant, inexpensive and deeeelicious.

la-cabrera-med We dined at the renowned La Cabrera one night. Alexis and I shared a tenderloin stuffed with ham, cheese and sundried tomatoes. Soooo tasty.

  • Argentenian boobs are perkier than most. (Alexis and I were tempted to inquire in undergarmet stores for bras that would lend an Argentenian look to our chests. Probably would have been told the bras aren’t magic.)
  • Though electronic music is wildly popular, the Buenos Aires music scene is quite international. On any given night, you can find musicians performing tango, flamenco, jazz, rock and hip hop music in clubs around the city.
  • Many golden retrievers live in BA, and they are beautiful.

Alexis and her boyfriend, who later romped in a pond and, wet and dirty, lost her interest.

  • Porteños are fútbol fanatics. On the bus ride from the airport to the city center, I passed about a dozen games being played in the fields and buildings along the highway.
  • Argentina does coffee better than Chile. Chile does avocados better than Argentina.

And now, for some photos of the Recoleta Cemetery. I know, I’ve posted cemetery photos on this blog twice before. I can’t help it.

stained-glass flower-med



Evita is buried in this ornate burial ground, but I didn’t manage to find her grave.

Madre, padre — meet Chile

My parents’ Spanish came a long way during their visit to Chile this month. My mom can now say “Mucho gusto” with a perfect Chilean accent (context isn’t THAT important, is it?), and my dad can get around pretty well with the word “postre” (“dessert”). During their two weeks here, I introduced them to all the people and places I’ve come to know over the last few months. They met my bosses, friends and self-declared fiances. They hiked to the granite spires that tower over the landscape where I work. They learned to embrace instant coffee and powdered milk with breakfast every morning and become as engrossed in the dramas of the street dogs in town as I am.

Below is a basic description of how we spent our time together. But before I go any further, let me introduce my parents with some visual aids acquired on the trip.

My dad, Barden:


And my mom, Terri:


W Circuit Ok, so with the schedule modification, it was more of a transposed U, but same thing. On my parents’ SECOND full day in Chile, we started a super-relaxed, two-hour hike (note the key words) from Lago Pehoe to Campamento Italiano. During this walk, we crossed paths with a Russian language professor from New York who delivered the most interesting 45-minute monologue I’ve ever heard. It seamlessly transitioned from the airplane passing overhead to alcohol abuse in Norway to icebergs, and it was peppered with an informative mix of facts and statistics. We listened, mostly, slackjawed and enraptured.

Also during the hike, my mom caught me up on the wolves new to the Natural Science Center where she works, and my dad filled me in on details from the Hillary/Obama race.

We camped by Río Ascencio and ate pasta and red sauce for dinner. My mom shoveled her food with a titanium spork, which she really likes because its Titanium. I don’t really get it. It burns when it gets hot, and that just doesn’t seem practical for an eating utensil.

We ascended to the mirador at the top of the Valle Frances in the morning. We ran into my friend Chapa, who was guiding a Dutch group over rock and root around the 10-day circuit IN HIS CROCS.


El Tiburon, or Shark's Fin, one of many granite monoliths that surrounds you at the top of Valle Frances.

We stayed in one of the seven cabañas near Refugio Los Cuernos. Down comforters, a skylight, a waterfall right outside. What luxury.

My very-macho guardaparque friends at Campamento Italiano near the base of the towers invited my parents and me into their triangular house for dinner. They even used a teacup to mold the rice into cylinders on our plates. We ascended to the towers in the morning.


My mother conquering the moraine you have to climb to get to the view. This is when I decided a five-hour hike up Valle Silencio that afternoon was not a good idea.


The Cookes (minus one) at the top. (Laura, want to photoshop yourself in?)



I forgot to mention: My sister Laura made it to the towers with us! It was really great to all be together, even if for a short time.

Río Serrano


The morning after finishing the hike, we crammed ourselves and our stuff into neoprene and dry bags, respectively, for a three-day kayaking trip on Río Serrano. The river runs 28-miles along the southern border of Torres del Paine National Park and carries water from six ice fields and many more mountain glaciers to the Pacific Ocean. We paddled from its beginning at Pueblito Serrano to Glaciar Serrano, located right where the river empties into the fjords. (“Fjord,” incidentally, is my new favorite word.)


Our Turkish guides Cem and Serkan both knew pretty much everything there is to know about everything— and were kick-ass cooks to boot.

During our first 45 minutes in the kayak, we faced winds so forceful they blew the river upstream. This is not normal, given that rivers normally flow downstream. I did my best to dig my paddle into the whitecaps and ferry from one shore to the other, all the while getting sprayed in the face with airborne water. Our guides said the wind around here often blows around 50 mph and sometimes reaches around 100. In the United States, that’s considered hurricane force, and it blows houses down. In Chile, you keep paddling.


We decided it best not to run the pounding waterfall in our sea kayaks. Instead, we carried our stuff around.

My father flipped while ferrying across the river at the base of the waterfall. The guides rescued him from the glacial water.

Though we faced strong winds continuously throughout the journey, nothing was on par with our initiation. The river was swift but calm as it wound through lenga forests and beneath dark, imposing mountains. We saw a number of tremendous, age-old glaciers creeping imperceptibly down mountainsides, still at work shaping the landscape.

We ran into virtually nobody else during the whole journey, probably because no roads or trails cut through the Serrano sector of Torres del Paine. We had the whole area — the water, the wind, the glaciers, the forests of lenga trees covered in lichen — to ourselves. I felt privileged.

At one point, we passed several log structures built by a hermit who has not left the river’s bank in the 12 years since he lost a woman to his cousin. I was dying to stop and talk to him, but we continued downstream. Our last night, we camped by Glaciar Serrano, which measures about 75 feet high at the point it touches the river (that’s the visible part). We kayaked as close as we could to the glacier’s base in the morning.



Otherworldly lichen we ran across in the glacial moraine

We took the 21 de Mayo ferry through the fjords from the end of Río Serrano to Puerto Natales.


A man on the boat wore a plastic bag on his head. I have no idea why. But it fluttered in the wind as he gazed out over the bow, and it was hilarious.

Cueva del Milodon


I almost got eaten by a lifesize replica of the giant ground sloth in the Cueva del Milodon.

In 1895, scientist Otto Nordenskjold discovered the skin of the giant Milodon sloth in a massive cave 25 km north of Puerto Natales. The Milodon, which stood about 20 feet tall, went extinct 8,000 to 10,000 years ago when the roots it gummed for sustenance stopped providing the nutrients it needed for survival. At the national monument, you can into and around the cave, which measures 656 feet deep, 98 feet high and 262 feet wide and looks a lot like the moon inside. There are a couple other caves you can visit at the monument as well, but we didn’t get to those because the taxi driver who carried us would only wait an hour.

Río Verde


Río Verde basking in the sunlight, Otway Sound in the background

My mom, dad and I ran through the pasture at Río Verde, waving our arms, yelling, and otherwise trying to convince a herd of 100 sheep to take the most direct route between the corral and the green seaside pasture. We were helping my second cousin Christian Santelices (also an international climbing guide) manage the animals on his family’s ranch outside Punta Arenas. The majority of the sheep followed our breathless commands, though eight accidentally separated from their compatriots, got extremely confused and took off for the other side of the pasture. Seeing fleecy butts run off toward the horizon is frustrating, but it’s extremely cute at the same time, so you can’t be too upset.


Most of what we ate during our visit to Río Verde grew up within a mile of our table. The lamb, the lettuce, the eggs: all completely fresh and extremely tasty. Wish I could eat such high quality food all the time. Check out Christian's wife Sue's website on ecogastronomy.

hands-beans.jpg We picked and shelled peas from the family’s garden, then ate them for dinner.

Punta Arenas


The penguins on Isla Magdalena, off the coast of Punta Arenas.

We understood our tour guide to say that the chief predator of the penguin is — get this: the squirrel. As might be expected, this drove my mother and me into uncontrollable hysterics. We misheard, I'm sure, though it would be much more fun if we didn't.



We stopped by the cemetery one afternoon in Punta Arenas to explore the ornately decorated tombs. Macabre, sí, but worth the visit.

To see more photos of our trip, click here.