Friday morning we were off on a little boat to Isla Coronado, the closest of the Loreto islands formed by volcanic rock. We first stopped beside a high cliff on the southeast side of the island. The water was freezing, but I managed to see another stingray sunning itself on the higher rocks before our guide rounded us up.
At the northeast tip of the island, we observed a colony of sea lions basking in the sun while red crabs scurried to the water’s edge.
In the water the outcropping turns into a steep cliff going down where light cannot return, but curious sea lions do. There weren’t as many in the water as in La Jolla, but because of the clearer water (no sand, seaweed, or children in floaties here) it was much easier to watch the lions swim up and check you out.
The crashing waves of the Sea of Cortez against the craggy rocks at the tip of the island only a few feet away reminded snorkelers of the inherent danger. After less than ten minutes we were pulled out so we could go to Playa Coronado, a series of beautiful white sand coves on the southwest side of Isla Coronado.
From the air (from the plane on the way home):
Lunch was waiting for us on the beach, and tropical fish waited for us in the coral. I took so many pictures my battery died.
But the gopro battery held up. For a compilation of the snorkeling highlights see below:
Back in town, we had dinner at Orlando’s, which has great strawberry margaritas and even better fish tacos. After we’d ordered I saw the waitress bring another table a plate of Orlando’s Shrimp and made a note to try it the next day.
On our last day, we lazied around town looking for souvenirs until time for our horseback tour. The two-hour tour meandered around the desert east of Loreto.
Halfway through the tour (and after shots of tequila) a wild donkey decided to join us.
You can see a bit of that in the latter half of this video:
Back in town we had dinner at Orlando’s again and tried his namesake shrimp dish. If you can tell me somewhere in LA where I can get shrimp split and filled with ham then wrapped in bacon, fried and served up with spicy cheese sauce (and margaritas), let me know. Now!
After dinner it was dark so I dropped Sam off at the hotel and went back to the pier. I walked out on the sandbar connected to Loreto’s beach and took shots of the ocean and stars.
Back at the hotel, I noticed a little access door to the roof had been left open so I crept out to take a few shots of the town until a maid noticed me.
The next morning we did our final souvenir sweep and ate breakfast at Pepeginas, which, I swear has one of the best omelets in existence. Ask for the mushroom queso omelet and combine it with chorizo. It’s the best thing in Loreto.
The morning after leaving the lagoon we walked to Rene’s for breakfast before checking out and hitting the road.
By 1pm we turned off the 1 at Playa Santispak, a beach we’d seen days earlier on the drive up. As soon as we arrived a man in a pickup truck asked if we wanted a boat tour. His English wasn’t good, but we figured out It was only 500 pesos per hour so we asked him to take us snorkeling in the Bahia de Concepcion. We had no idea where he was going, so we were off on an adventure.
First, we stopped at an old shipwreck to the east of the islands which had turned to an artificial reef.
Next we went to nearby Isla Pitahaya.
Under the water, the thin kelp strands formed long ghostly forests that reminded me of white Christmas trees. Later research seems to suggest this plant is technically brown algae. Out a little further I saw a stingray in the sand. I went back to the boat and convinced Sam to jump in.
Sam got cold quick and got out. I was sad to come topside after the hour was up. I asked for “uno mas” and the captain took us south and farther into the bay to a tiny island called Isla La Cueva that connected by a submerged sandbar to another even tinier island with no name. After checking out the tiny island I swam across the 250-foot shallow channel to the main island and discovered lots of fish below the water and birds above.
At Isla La Cueva I observed a great deal of sea life in the shallow underwater caves beneath the volcanic outcroppings holding various birds (but mostly the Brown Pelicans ubiquitous in BCS). Starfish, tropical fish, electric shrimp, pufferfish, balloonfish, pilotfish, rockfish, parrot fish, crabs, sea slugs, sea worms, and tons of vibrant sea anemones.
Below is a video cut together from the snorkeling in the bay:
By 5:30 we were back in Loreto and hungry for dinner. An aggressive waiter convinced us to be his first customers of the night at Playa Blanca. And the steamed seafood plate was great. I was disappointed that he only had the regular (i.e. I can get them at Ralphs supermarket in LA) cervezas of Pacifico, Corona, and Modelo Negra. He rebounded by insisting that the Modelo was delicious and I’d like it. I asked him if it was a stout, which he didn’t seem to understand the meaning of, so I waved my hand and told him to go ahead and bring it anyway (I mean, beers are only a dollar down there). And I liked it. It’s actually pretty good. I’d had Tecate before going to Mexico, which is a “meh,” standard light beer. I tried Indio beer for the first time on our first night in Loreto and discovered it’s terrible. But Modelo Negra is actually surprisingly good. And even better with fresh seafood and a plate of limes.
After dinner, we shopped around for more tours to fill our last two days in Loreto. All the snorkeling tours were basically the same price and went the same place, so we settled on a vendor, had some ice cream down the street at the wonderful Mexican chain called La Michoacana and then tried to sleep for our morning snorkel tour the next day.
Our first night at the Lagoon was broken by the camp’s dogs howling at the mountains until 3am. We ate homemade potato cakes with salsa for breakfast while Jorge told us the dogs were barking at coyotes, which come down from the mountains to try and steal food from the camp (and eat birds, I suppose?). Captain Daniel from “Antoniosecotours” got us quickly out to the whales and we had more than a few curious ones in the morning checking out the boat from a few meters away, but none close enough to touch. We ate lunch on a deserted beach then went back in. Before long I had run my hand along the dorsal line of a baby gray whale (and earned the envy of fellow boaters).
Daniel also brought us alongside several dolphins which looked at me, whistled to each other, then swerved away in formation.
Here is a video which combines all three days on the water and sources three different cameras (gopro, cell phone, and camera).
Back at Pacheco’s Camp we were joined by Frank and Toni, a retired couple from Vancouver that had driven their van all the way down the coast. Happy hour featured a fresh tomato bisque-like dip (this was my favorite dip). Dinner that night was steak (much better than the tough turf from two days prior) and grilled veggies. Still no margaritas, though, and back at our cabana, the hot water pipe burst in the wall while Sam was taking her shower. Jorge inspected and informed us that a new pipe could be installed tomorrow. Having not taken a shower in days at this point I headed to the common shower in the middle of the camp, which was plenty hot since so few were using it (I believe the camp serves twelve guests at capacity).
Our second breakfast was Mexican scrambled eggs served with great fresh flour tortillas and salsa. Outside we met Captain Ranulfo, son of Pacheco (the first man to touch a gray whale on the lagoon without intention to kill). Ranulfo’s 23-foot boat was a bit smaller both in dimensions and engine power than Daniel’s. However, we hoped his deep knowledge of the subject matter and closer proximity to the water surface would give us a more intimate encounter than the first day.
We soon learned that our new captain had a more relaxed approach than Daniel, we would spot a whale or two, saunter up within 50 feet and wait for them to come to us. Most of the time this resulted in a disappearing act. Some of the time it resulted in curious whales swimming under the boat. Once, a group of curious males swam up, lifted the boat, then flopped to the side and stuck their nose up, letting Sam touch it. It was the last touch anyone would get for the remainder of the trip, and the closest the whales would come.
My inner dialogue vacillated between frustration that our new captain wasn’t as proactive as the other and the reminder that it was a privilege to even get to be here, sidling up alongside 45-foot long whales in a 23-foot panga on a clear day in Mexico. Still, the rush of the first day hung over the next two, though the enthusiasm of the Canadians made it easier to bear since they weren’t around for all the previous excitement. In fact, they seemed content not getting to touch the whales at all, which is likely the attitude one should maintain to have a good time at the lagoon. Just seeing these majestic animals turn over and look at you from a few feet away is an experience only a few thousand people in the entire world have had, and with the climate heating up the lagoon may eventually no longer be suitable for these whales that normally prefer cooler waters. Of course, this is partially our own fault for coming (unbeknownst to us at booking) before the “true” start to the whale watching season. Perhaps we should feel lucky we got to see them up close at all.
Who else gets to take a selfie like this?
But then they do advertise it as a once in a lifetime opportunity to touch (and even kiss) whales, after all. Before we decided to go we saw countless videos like this:
That’s the draw and the legend of this place. And Pacheco’s was the original company to offer it, so the cognitive dissonance made me feel a bit like a non-racist Republican must be in the new Bannon era.
But we were on vacation, after all, isn’t that good enough? One thing marvelous about the camp was the absence of any news. It wasn’t just a vacation from work, but from our terrifying new president. At least if Don Jong-un started WWIII we’d only see it as a bright glow to the north, not the panicked few minutes of sirens and then instant death we’d experience in Los Angeles. We learned about the Muslim ban days later, mostly by friends directly affected by it (Yes, Virginia, there are non-terrorist Muslims). Not hearing for a few days about how the orange clown was embarrassing our home country was glorious. Ironically because of the reflection of the sun on the water out on the lagoon, sunglasses, and inaccurate coverage of sunblock we ended up looking a bit like the son-of-orangutan by the end of it, white around the eyes and darker everywhere else.
Back at camp, the tide was lower than the previous day so we hopped overboard and walked the last quarter mile. Through a few inches of retreating tide, we spied hermit crabs on the move.
The happy hour finally had margaritas, so I had two (Sam had one) while eating chips and tuna salsa. We drunkenly swapped travel stories (and later horrific predictions for the next 4 years of a trump presidency) with the other two guests until time for dinner.
Later, finally, a hot shower. All two minutes of it, anyway. The pipe and the heater were fixed but only allowed for a few minutes of heat. Never ascertained whether something else still needed fixing or that was the intention all along.
In the morning we reconvened for a breakfast of egg tortas and salsa before joining Ranulfo on the boat again. On this day, our last, a heavy morning fog fell over the lake making for romantic views across the water of sea and sky merging in a pinkish-gray middle.
Eventually, the sun burned off the fog, but whales must hate fog as we didn’t see as many as before and only two or three came close to the boat all day. I was more disappointed as I put my camera in its waterproof bag to take underwater photos. Unlike the last two days, the water was no longer glassy, but gray and thick. The few times the whales did come close the water was so dark and muddy the camera couldn’t focus properly. The photos up on Flickr are the few remaining in focus out of thousands of attempts. However, sometimes this moody atmosphere leads to something aesthetically interesting. This photo is the bottom of the big mamma and baby:
We ate lunch on a sandy beach where the breakers from the Pacific hit the entrance to the lagoon.
En route to the bathroom (a tall dune) we found that the dunes hid bleached whale bones and other treasures. I found one of the ocean giants’ massive vertebra turned nearly to ash after years in the sun.
Little footprints on the dune leading away from it were hard to describe to our captain but he eventually told us they’re from kangaroo rats. Sadly we didn’t see any of those hopping around in the flesh. Walking back to the beach I found a bird sternum and a horseshoe skeleton in the sand. Sam found a few perfect sand dollars.
In the afternoon the whales liked us even less, diving away long before we could get close. Back at camp, it was time to chug a cerveza, say goodbye to our hosts and new friends, and head to the town of San Ignacio before nightfall.
On the sand road, we passed a hitchhiker with a red American flag t-shirt and decided to pick him up. I thought I recognized him from our camp (and there really isn’t anyone else out there) and, through zero English, we thought he verified this “Si, Pacheco’s, si!”
The hitchhiker and Sam both went to sleep and I drove the hour plus back east to town. When we were almost to San Ignacio I saw a police car at the side of the road with lights flashing. Three officers came out into the road and made us stop. They told the hitchhiker to get out and promptly arrested him. I asked “No hitchhikers? Illegal?” and the officer just said “No problem. Go,” and waved us on. Uh okay… not going to argue with that, but did we just give an axe murderer a ride? We never found out.
In San Ignacio, we checked into Hotel La Huerta, which was surprisingly nice. Actually the nicest place we stayed the whole trip, and coincidentally the cheapest. It had hot water (our stays in Loreto featured lukewarm water), tile floors, ample pillows, its own convenience store, and a night staff that understood English enough to meet our request to tell the noisy neighbors to shut up after ten.
For dinner, we walked up past the mission to the town square. At the northern corner of the mission, a man standing by a shack sold us on his Mexica Sampler plate. It was dirt cheap. And delicious! We got ice cream for dessert and wandered up the street to Rene’s for a margarita. By the time we were done night fell and the whole town was playing volleyball (or watching the match) in the town square.
This was the authentic little Mexican town experience we expected in Loreto and couldn’t find.
Loreto, the town that Universal Vacation Group built.
On Saturday, January 28th, Sam and I flew to Loreto, Mexico, on the once a day flight from LAX.
The pleasant Alaska flight flew between the coast and Catalina Island before crossing the border and flying east over the peninsula. Our seat was over the wing, so getting decent pictures was impossible. (In the photo below you can see Avalon to the left)
We would find out later the only other daily flight to Loreto is ironically a Skywest from Calgary, where we visited less than a month prior.
After getting through customs we were herded through a small door with booths on either side displaying pictures of the resort. Both booths had men behind them with badges and white polo shirts. One of them approached us and said his name was Alejandro and he worked at our hotel. He said he’d be our concierge and asked us what we planned to do in Loreto before quickly getting into his offer of $100 discount on our rental car if we sat through 90 min presentation with free buffet breakfast.
I’ve been to a timeshare presentation before, so I knew the deal. However, we had large blocks of time in Loreto where we didn’t have anything to do and $100 off was $100 off. We said we’d do it the next morning and Alejandro told us to meet him in the lobby of the hotel at 8am. He said he normally asked for a $20 deposit, to make sure we’d show, but he took a single dollar as that was all I had in my wallet.
We drove to Loreto in our rented azul Jetta for a late lunch of surf and turf at the restaurant next to our hotel. The surf was tiny and the turf was tough. The chocolate clams we ate before that, served both on the shell and in a chowder, were better. Hard to complain about any of it when we ate a mountain of food for about $12 US.
After checking in we explored the little seaside town of Loreto, which is to say we drove to the dock and turned around. We parked a few blocks away and walked to the mission underneath the tree canopy walkways. At the central square, we ordered a margarita and a very good chile relleno from El Zipotle. They also had a good home brewed stout, which I tried, but felt like something sweeter that night. At some point, a woman asked if she could photograph my margarita, which we thought was strange, but we later assumed she was the owner (or manager) as she spent some time behind the bar with the bartender.
Sunday morning we met our concierge, Alejandro at 7:45am for the presentation and promised breakfast. We were hungry and confused when nobody else seemed to be in the lobby, nor any food. Alejandro said the breakfast and presentation was at another, better, facility that was under construction. He asked if we wanted him to drive or if we would drive. In the back of our minds, we wondered if this was a kidnapping scam and said we’d drive. After ten minutes on the road, we asked how far it was and he said “32 kilometers.” I looked it up online later and the total route was 41.
Keep in mind we’d explained to Alejandro that we wanted to be underway to the San Ignacio Lagoon before 10am. With each passing kilometer, we started to fear this would be impossible. Leaving late would leave us to navigate unsafe (and unknown to us) parts of the 1 (Baja’s main highway) at night. Eventually, we turned off the 1 and onto a dirt road. Around a few hills, we came to a guard with a big gate who let us in. A little further down we entered a large new resort complex called Danzante Bay. Alejandro handed us off to a woman (Lisa, maybe? I don’t remember) who would be our “guide,” on a tour of the facility after breakfast. When we stressed again that we needed to be on the road by 10 he said, “Well, you can leave after the 90-minute presentation, but we usually say to allow four hours.”
Uh. Okay. My math experience tells me 90 isn’t the same as 240, but we were about to find out that attendees to this presentation are not expected to have or use math skills in their decision making. Alejandro could sense our unease and crossed out the $100 discount, replacing it with $150 for further incentive to keep us from bolting right then and there (I’m sure he got a cut for getting us there).
But, we were already there. And hungry. And the place does look incredible, it reminded me of the Green Valley Resort in Henderson, but with beaches and a blue-water bay in front.
^^Not my photo, but accurate.
So we had our cheery guide (who said she was new at this) take us to the buffet which, despite being on an admittedly beautiful golf course with the Sea of Cortez as a backdrop, was actually the worst food we had on the entire trip. That isn’t to say it was unedible. It was just passable, which didn’t jive with the beautiful setting. Motel 6 cooks up better breakfast sausages in their microwave, but hey, it was free, and we’d get $100 for eating it, right? To be fair, they were out of eggs, so maybe the eggs were amazing, we’ll never know. The breakfast was at the clubhouse next to their driving range, which probably would have amazed some of our golfing friends. I recorded a video on my phone (I hadn’t brought my camera as we thought this was all going down in the hotel lobby) for one of them, but Mexico being Mexico it never got uploaded (no or spotty wifi/cellular).
By 9:45 we were getting a tour of a sample unit. The condos at the resort (and the resort itself) are as nice as anything at any other vacation destination in the world. Lots of smooth tile. Big rooms. Walk in showers. Views of the golf course and the water out the windows. All that good stuff.
Then our guide took us to the sales room, where we met Hector, who was also nice but a little too overconfident. Between telling us what a great deal the timeshare was Hector peppered in anecdotes about how he used to work at an office and now lives down here making six figures. All without actually telling us what the actual numbers of the deal were.
After explaining Sam and I met each other in business school and we wanted to see the actual dollar figures (and it was already past 10am and we needed to get going) I think Hector realized he was out of his league and pulled in the big guns: the sales manager/director/something.
Typical for timeshare salesmen Hector’s boss was a little overly pushy and confident, not realizing he gave away the flaws of his program several times while promoting them as bonuses. When you rehearse a script and recite it day in and day out it’s got to be hard to improvise. Anyone that works in marketing knows that salespeople are basically actors who weren’t convincing enough. That isn’t necessarily an insult. I couldn’t do either of those jobs, if only for my inability to remember a new person’s name for more than five seconds.
The bottom line at Danzante was a $32,000 payment for 1,200 “points” (which equates to 7 days at any of their properties per year) which would be financed at 12% interest for a ten-year payment plan. Oh! Plus a small maintenance fee of $512 per year (that I later read online will also increase over time – hooray!).
Pop! A champaign bottle opened at a nearby table and clapping commenced. We assumed this meant someone decided to buy. We’d later read that this group often ploys you with alcohol before putting the contract in front of you so you don’t even remember what you read (or didn’t read, as the case usually is). Although, if they were serious about this strategy they would have given us mimosas for breakfast. Maybe they did and I’m forgetting as I would have waved away any alcohol knowing I had a 5+ hour drive (in Baja) ahead of me that day.
To their surprise, we broke out the calculators and asked why we’d agree up front to pay $287 a night. This place is nice, but it ain’t in London. The sales manager said, “Okay, how about double the points?”
Why would we want to pay $143 a night up front unless we were only planning to go to London for vacation for two weeks every year? (We aren’t) Also, if you have that much leverage with price, then there can’t me much value in what you’re selling. Or it means you didn’t respect me as a negotiator with your first offer. Either way, it’s not a great place to start from to make a deal. So we asked what we do if we have buyers remorse in a week. “Well, you can sell it if you don’t like it!”
“To us, of course!”
“And who is financing these transactions? What bank?”
“There’s no bank! We’re so rich we are the bank!”
Sam and I basically looked at each other and tried to stop from laughing. This was going from bad to worse. The irony is that a legitimate timeshare program might actually work for us, as we travel a lot and getting a decent hotel without blowing the budget is our biggest travel headache. But we aren’t the type of people who sign up for a five figure purchase without sleeping on it. (If your deal is that great it’ll wait a day, or a week, or a month, and still be desirable) After another ten minutes of polite, but curt, turndowns and walking them through why we knew it was a bad financial deal, the two men stuck out their hands rapidly, thanked us for coming, and issued us off to another office to collect our $150 discount.
There was nobody in the office. It was past 11am. Then a nice young woman came to help us but said she couldn’t find our dollar deposit. We tried to explain it didn’t matter, but she left anyway. After another ten minutes, we considered just walking out and were glad we’d driven our own car (we’d be trapped here, otherwise). When we started to walk out another employee, much more laid back than the others, asked us what happened and said he’d send someone to retrieve the young lady. After another bit of waiting where we almost left again, she came, apologized and handed us the voucher.
We left the complex at 11:30, having still not even checked out of our hotel back in Loreto. We now knew why Alejandro had given us an odd look when he asked at the beginning of all this back at the hotel if we’d checked out and we said no. He couldn’t urge us to check out, obviously, as he’d have to admit why, and then we’d just skip the whole thing entirely.
A stop to grab some sandwiches at the deli attached to our hotel (which were actually pretty good) and we were on the 1 by 12:30. By 1pm we were at a standstill again as the Mexican military rummaged through our belongings (and Sam’s underwear) at a checkpoint.
The drive was a pleasant mix of cactus-filled valleys and views of the Sea of Cortez with the occasional goat, cow, or horse.
If I developed amnesia I might have guessed I was driving through Arizona on the inland leg. After about an hour we reached the Bahia de Concepcion, a thirty-mile bay that loops inside the eastern edge of the peninsula. The calm waters of the bay produced many white sand playas (beaches). We stopped at El Requeson to walk on the sandbar making a bridge across the bay to a very close island. We made a point to come back and try to snorkel there until we drove up a bit further and saw something better: Play Santispak. However, since the timeshare debacle gobbled up so much daylight we couldn’t stop in Santispak, but made a note to stop on the way back a few days later.
We made a point to come back and try to snorkel there until we drove up a bit further and saw something better: Play Santispak. However, since the timeshare debacle gobbled up so much daylight we couldn’t stop in Santispak, but made a note to stop on the way back a few days later.
We followed highway 1 to Santa Rosalia (roughly 3 hours from Loreto). The highway in Santa rosalia gets dicey for a minute, turning into a potholed mud road next to abandoned warehouses along the edge of the sea.
Then the road turns away from the sea and curls around a burning trash dump. Immediately after the dump, the pavement begins anew and the road curls southwest for the leg of the desert drive westward across the peninsula, past the oasis of Mulegé to the tiny town of San Ignacio.
At San Ignacio there are signs taking you through town to the turn onto the only road leading to the lagoon. Don’t be fooled, though, the lagoon is still more than an hour away and the signs disappear once you leave town. We pulled over after 45 minutes to double check our directions. Eventually, the pavement has a cold stop and turns into a roadway made of raked and smoothed (well, bulldozed, but not smooth by any means) sand from the receded lagoon bed.
Here is another vistor’s video to show you what I’m talking about:
This part was the most treacherous, with big holes in the road. And I don’t mean potholes, I mean unmarked holes twenty feet deep dug out by backhoe to insert irrigation tunnels under the road. We found the real reason we were warned not to drive this leg at night; you could fall in the hole and not be found for a week. However, since we were driving due west and the sun was a half hour from setting it may have been safer to drive in the dark than in full stark direct yellow sunlight on a yellow road.
Finally, we came to the lagoon, with water in front of us and a fork in the road that would lead to two different camps. We randomly chose to turn right and immediately arrived at Pacheco’s camp where we were welcomed by our guide, Josie, and our jack-of-all-trades host, Jorge. Neither of them spoke much English, but our needs for the next three days would be basic and already understood: dinner, sleep, breakfast, whales, repeat.
That first night there were no margaritas, but there were plenty of Tecates and Jorge’s wife made two excellent (red and green) salsas to dip chips. Dinner, which we ate only with Jorge as we were the only guests that night, was even better: garlic shrimp with baked potato. We watched a beautiful sunset from the dining room (with walls constructed of old tires covered in concrete and seashells for carpet) before going outside to see perhaps the clearest view of the night sky in our lives. Jorge pointed out a passing satellite in the eastern sky. The only downer (other than no margaritas) was that Jorge explained we would not have hot water until tomorrow. A part had to be fixed, and it required a trip to town. We also discovered we were the very first guests for the season, so the camp was still in a constant state of repair. Sam elected to take a cold shower and I just decided to wait it out.
Waking up early on our last morning in Banff and peeking outside the window drapes I noticed the sky was nearly as clear as on our first night. However, unlike that night, the temperature was the lowest ever. -27 is probably the coldest temperature I’ve ever experienced, and boy did I experience it.
I decided to try and photograph the sunrise not from Vermillion Lake, but up on the hill at the Norquay lookout. On the way up the hill, a delivery truck had already slid into the berm. An ominous sign, but I kept on.
Up at the lookout, I set up my camera on the tripod and waited as frost started to cover my nose. As the light kept changing over the back of the mountains in front of me I’d take another shot. Every five minutes or so, each one feeling like an eternity in the unbelievable cold. When I would wipe my nose on my glove I didn’t notice the usual liquid (like every other day) but ice crystals breaking off instead. I wanted to google signs of frostbite, but that would mean taking off my gloves, an even worse idea.
But dammit I had to get this shot, it was the best chance I’d had all week. So, I waited in agony as the sun slowly peppered the neighboring slopes with orange but still hid from mine. Watching a sunrise is normally a peaceful thing, sipping a momosa in your PJs from a hotel balcony in some tropical spot. An endothermic thing, energizing your body to start the day as the rest of your little section of the world does.
This wasn’t that. I mean, it was beautiful as most things in the Rockies are, but it was a completely exothermic experience, each minute numbing my body more. I would do jumping jacks in the snow (probably to the jeers of folks watching from the parking berm above me) to keep blood flowing, but then realize keeping my gloved hands out of my pockets only made them freeze faster. My decisions became slower and more irrational. While I considered tactics to keep warm few other brave souls would occasionally stumble down from the parking berm, take a few pictures, and say “Fuck, it’s cold!” and retreat to the safety of their trucks.
Either fearless or stupid, I stayed out there. For a full hour I stood in the snow on the mountain. The sun finally turned the snow gold around 9:45am. However, what minute variations in temperature the sun provided were of little use. As I picked up the camera off the tripod and started to take shots I noticed danger creeping up fast. The first sign was that my breath started to cover the surfaces of the camera and instantly turn to frost. The focus ring became almost immovable. Not that I could see through the blurry frost on the viewfinder anyway. Or maybe the focus ring worked, but I couldn’t feel my fingers to turn it. “Holy crap, I can’t feel my fingers!” The siren finally broke through the clutter of excuses in my brain to stay out to get the right shots.
I stumbled, feet numb long ago, up the little hill and back to the car, abandoning my quest for the perfect sunrise shot just as it came into reach. Being able to hold onto other things for the rest of my life (not to mention walk) became paramount to getting a couple random favorites from strangers on flickr and likes from a few friends on facebook.
No. It wasn’t worth one minute more in -27 degrees. Inside the Chevy I waited for my hands and feet to warm up enough for me to drive back down the hill, breath still visible inside the car.
At the bottom, Sam was already packing up and getting ready to check out.
On the way to Calgary, we stopped to explore Elbow Falls only long enough to notice our fingers go numb and then run back to the car.
On our last full day we were growing weary of the constant chill outside (and Sam was starting to get a cold) so we made a point to walk through the inside of the Fairmont, then visit the Bow River parking lot and called it a day. Between those things, we visited the only Mexican restaurant in town, which actually wasn’t too bad. They fried the chile rellenos so the outsides were still crisp, which is how preferable to the mush that you get in some places. However, they lost a point because they stuffed the rice inside the pepper with the cheese (rice is much cheaper than cheese). It wasn’t a bad idea from a taste perspective (infusing the rice with hot pepper juice), but it resulted in much less cheese than a regular order of chile relleno anywhere else. Why am I going on so long about a chile relleno? I like cheese. Cheese Matters! Makes as much sense for a slogan as #MAGA.
Moving on with our story… We had planned to do a sleigh ride at Warner Stables, but an hour sitting on metal getting wind blasted at sub-zero (and horse farts!) started to sound less fun when the day finally arrived. We hadn’t paid or reserved anything so we just skipped it. Instead, we soaked in the hotel hot tub until we got hungry. Or drunk. We made a point to finish the cream liqueur by mixing it with vodka in Sam’s water bottle and sipping it during our soak. It was still so cold in the air above the hot tub that the condensation on the metal bottle froze into icy bumps.
Getting hungry and overly hot we decided to have dinner on our last day in the hotel in the hotel restaurant for the first time. Our breakfast on Thursday had actually been pretty good so we were hoping for a good meal to finish our time in Banff.
We were warned our preferred entree would take 25 minutes, but it would be worth it. 50 minutes later the “wild game” platter finally came. Worth it? Hard to tell; food always tastes great when you’re starving. However, for all the blandness of the cuisine in town, I have to credit the hotel for trying to be a little upscale. Our breakfast, dinnner, desert, and drinks there did not disappoint.
Another townie day. We went on the brief (and very windy) tunnel mountain hike then revisited surprise corner after dark. Taking photos of the Fairmont proved difficult with wind gusts blowing up from the Bow River. The only way to stabilize the shots was to hold the tripod. You don’t hold a piece of metal outside for more than a few seconds in negative twenty degrees. Looking for a calmer place to take night shots of the town we drove up the hill behind our hotel to visit the Norquay lookout.
We warmed back up in the hotel’s outdoor spa until 5pm, when it was time for me to torture myself by watching the Fiesta Bowl. I was glad we had alcohol in the room. As the game dragged on endlessly with nothing to cheer about waiting for midnight became an endless drag that ended with a whimper of a local fireworks show (five minutes long, the daily Disney fireworks are more impressive) viewed in the shivering cold from the hotel lawn. I was alone for the last part as Sam had started to feel sick and elected to sleep her way into 2017.
Our drive to the first destination, Wapta Falls, took us on increasingly more snowbound roads until we arrived at the trailhead only to find it blanketed with snow too high to walk through. We reluctantly started to turn around. And got stuck.
In a replay of our Iceland adventure, we scooped out the snow with our hands and feet and worked ourselves back onto the abandoned snow road.
We stopped on the road to take pictures of a decommissioned snowblower resting at the edge of the forest and again at the one lane bridge over the Kicking Horse River.
Before we got moving again we learned from other drivers that there were at least six avalanche sites to get through on the parkway. We gave up and searched for something more local on the way back to Banff. We were glad we did. Or rather I’m glad Sam did.
Sam navigated us to Yoho National Park to visit Natural Bridge. Most of the year the site is a picturesque waterfall flowing between two natural rock pillars that lean together (i.e. the “natural bridge”). However, when we got there, conditions were so cold we received a special treat. We were able to go down to the creek and walk under the bridge, literally inside the cave where water normally flows.
That water had mostly turned to flows of cascading blue ice, but a hole in the floor where the water still hadn’t froze provided a window into the rapid gush that went on under our feet and in front of our faces. If anyone fell into that hole they’d be pulled under miles of ice, dead before anyone could help them. Our steps inside the cave were very slow and deliberate to avoid this catastrophe. Even the bare rock walls were slippery smooth, carved into a polished houndstooth pattern by several millenia (or more?) of rushing water in the summers. Patches of tough green moss clung to the outer rims of the hollowed out rock walls. Above that the walls slowly turned from rock-gray to crystal white as frost formed and gave way to ice at the ceiling.
We stayed there till nearly nightfall, knowing the uniqueness of our happenstance discovery. Other visitors noted that they had never been able to walk under the waterfall before and would only do so after our convincing.
Our day didn’t end there, though. When the last visitors before dark declared they were off to Emerald Lake next we decided to follow them. This wasn’t completely irrational as I’d noticed on a park sign earlier that the lake was nine kilometers away.
However, we soon discovered our new friends only intended to go back to the Emerald Lake Lodge (the main hotel, not on the lake). We drove on and discovered the real Emerald Lake Lodge situated on an island in Emerald Lake surrounded by pine trees and mountains. Sam said it looked like something out of a Christmas fairytale.
Our drinking habits caught up with us on the sixth day. We decided to nurse our headaches by staying in town (and indoors). An ancillary driver of this decision was a snowstorm descending on Banff that would have made any hiking or sight seeing difficult.
After a short visit to Cave and Basin we walked along the main avenue and did our souvenir shopping.
We later visited surprise corner for (supposedly) the best view of the Fairmont. We warmed up again with spicy Thai soup and retreated to the hotel hot tub.
On day 5 we drove east toward Calgary for the first time, seeing the mountains we’d missed in the dark on our way in. Past Canmore the mountains start to slope down into hills, but just on this last spate of the Rockies the Canadians long ago decided to start carving away at the rock. The result is an unpicturesque processing plant with a man-made lake on one side and the machinery terraced side of Grotto Mountain on the other. Our first stop of the day was behind the processing plant.
Our first stop was deceiving, but I kept my faith in the photos I’d seen online. We parked at Grotto Mountain Pond and walked behind the gravel plant on a particularly unimpressive trail (a quarter of the way in the trial crosses an employee parking lot … woohoo, adventure!).
However, after about half an hour the trail twists north into a tiny canyon with such severely sloping sides that often the only way to proceed is to walk on the creek itself. A feat easier in the winter since the creek freezes into a crystal blue flow but still plenty slippery without the most vicious looking crampons (which we did not bring). Now we’re at woohoo adventure!
Slowly hiking up the frozen creek eventually put us at a frozen pool were two high cliff waterfalls join and form the creek.
Both had ice climbers showing off.
Both had kids sliding down the ice flows. One eventually had my camera tumbling down its flow as well. Sony builds resilient camera bodies, I can vouch for that now. Watching (and oh, god, hearing) my four figure camera bouncing downhill end over end on the ice was a nightmare, but after carefully retrieving it (I had no interest in bouncing myself) it sprang back to life (even in sub-zero temps where anything plastic would have split apart and shattered like glass on that ice) and kept on trucking with only a few abrasions.
After returning to the car we still had about three hours of daylight left so I tasked Sam with finding something else for us to see around Canmore. Like my camera, she did not disappoint when things got tough.
She directed us to Grassi Lakes, a long and unassuming hike ascending through the woods. Keep in mind we did not know the information you do now if you clicked on the link, we only knew it was a hiking trail listed near Canmore on Google maps. At the end of the trail, hikers are rewarded with two lakes, one feeding the other, sitting in a high mountain crevasse looking out on the valley.
In the summer the area is clearly a climbers paradise, with the holiest rock slabs I’ve ever seen, all of them with a backdrop of the Canadian Rockies, but none of them as technically challenging as an ascent in Yosemite.
We warmed up with a trip to the local Thai restaurant in Banff.