A Visual Tour of Iceland’s Westfjords

Is a four day solo road trip through Iceland enough to properly explore the country?

Absolutely not.

Is it, however, enough time to run up into the largely deserted Westernfjords, roam brilliant empty fjords, see puffins, and then hop a ferry down to Snaefellsnes for a taste of more waterfalls, extinct volcanos and gorgeous Icelandic horses?

Absolutely.

I’ll talk a bit in a future post about just how powerful, liberating, and wonderful a solo road trip like this is. But, for now, I want to take you through a visual tour (in color) of my road trip through Iceland’s Westfjords. According to one statistic I read before the trip, fewer than 11% of visitors to Iceland visit the region in the far Northwest and in this instance, that lack of tourism is great news for people eager to explore a vibrant but more natural and less touristic Iceland.

Backyard Lilies in Bloom

During my US road trip I had a quick stopover in Prescott to see my folks and old friends. One of the highlights of the house in Prescott is the incredible yardwork my folks have done which has transformed the back yard from a rock strewn chunk of hillside, into a wonderful oasis full of life, vegetables, and gorgeous blooms.  Of the many flowers in the garden, my favorite are always the lilies which, as luck had it, were in the midst of blooming.  The mixture of whites, pinks, and yellows combined with the sound of the water and the sight of the fish lazily making their way from lily pad to lily pad always soothes and centers me in a way few other things can.  Here are a few photos of the back yard garden and lilies with a brief non-lily cameo.  You can see the rest of the photos in the flickr album, including black and white versions not included here.

The Backyard Garden - Water Lilies

When Sky, Fire and Water Meet

Faces of Zambia

The sweat from my palms soaked the steering wheel as the tense muscles in my hip throbbed.  My body was on edge and had been for the entirety of the drive south.  Upon arriving in Zambia, I’d been informed by my family that I would be the one responsible for driving our rental car.  Ordinarily not a big deal, but it was my first time driving on the opposite side of the road and in a non-North American country.  The roads in the Luapula Province of northern Zambia did little to allay my fears.  Many are paved, but in such a poor state of repair that there are no such things as lanes.  In truth, you spend at least one third of most drives with one (or both) tires off the road, the car at a 25 degree angle while zig-zaging between potholes large enough to swallow a small tank. The scrape of the car’s undercarriage is a constant reminder that you zig-ed when you should have zag-ed.  By itself that might not be so bad, but then add in large freight haulers and buses that race along the roads at high speed. And if that is not enough, add in head-height grass which lines many of the roads and conceals everything and everyone.  My eyes constantly scanned the road for potholes with quick glance at my rear view mirror in search of large trucks bearing down on me. Then back to the sides of the road where I diligently watched for erratic movement from the veritable army of goats, small children, old grandmothers, and bicyclists who use the roads as walking paths and have a tendency to dart into traffic.  Despite constant and nearly un-blinking vigilance I  found myself forced to slam on the brakes  to avoid people and things at the last moment.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As I turned the key off and the car stilled I let out an audible sigh of relief. Somehow I’d gotten us to a small guest house along the shores of Lake Bangweulu just outside of Samfya.  As I sat in the driver’s seat collecting myself, I wiped my hands on my jeans leaving dark streaks of sweat.  Finally, I allowed myself to take in my surroundings. The parallel-parking spot I had pulled into faced out onto what looked like a small sea. In reality, it was a sprawling lake.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we settled into great little rooms that opened out onto a small sand beach and a wonderful view of the lake, we all struggled with the day’s contrasts.  We had started out in my brother’s small mud brick and thatch hut. A building that is a lovely and cozy place but which lacks electricity or running water and has a small outhouse located behind it. Now, a few hours drive away, we were back on the grid with semi-reliable power, running water, and perhaps most importantly western flush toilets.  It made for a powerful contrast which set the stage for the rest of the evening.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

My brother David is a Peace Corps volunteer and he had brought us to Lake Bangweulu to see the sunset.  I’ll confess that as a big fan of sunsets, I wasn’t entirely sure why the multi-hour drive south had been worth the pleasure of a simple sunset.  Still, he was our guide, the local expert, and it was hard not to be won over by the prospect of a real bed and a cold beer.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As the sun began to set and the early twilight of late afternoon settled over the lake, it quickly became apparent why the sunset was worth the drive.  Lake Bangweulu is known as the place where the water meets the sky.  It is an aptly chosen nickname for this unusual body of water.  More than 70km by 40km in size, the lake’s depth averages about four meters and fluctuates more than a meter between Zambia’s dry and rainy seasons.   During our visit in the midst of the dry season the lake still stretched beyond the horizon.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Just beyond a small fence at the end of the beach, we watched as a group of children washed dishes, did laundry, and then set to fishing.  The children, some barely old enough to walk, participated in chores.  The older children kept close eyes on their younger brothers and sisters though I doubt the oldest was more than 10.  There’s a certain responsibility among the young Zambian children that I found incredible to watch … a certain level of maturity that most western children twice their age lack.  Perhaps the most powerful of which were the (slightly) older sisters who diligently took care of, disciplined, and watched over their 2 and 4 year-old siblings with great care and competency.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Shortly after the children finished their bath and their chores, they wandered back up the bank. A young woman and her son waded down and out into the reeds with bamboo fishing poles.  With the poise, elegance, and stillness of a heron they carefully raised and lowered their poles, gently jigging and probing the reeds for fish.  Their patience and control reminded me in many ways of the street performers who pose as human statues, perfectly still and seemingly lifeless before moving smoothly to the shock and surprise of those passing by.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

In one last rush before the sunset stole the remaining light, a near constant flow of chitenge-clad women atop reed and dugout wooden canoes made their way past us.  Some used push poles to take advantage of the lake’s shallow depths while others had rough-hewn wooden paddles attached to long poles which they used from a standing position.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

The weather was perfect. The wind was still which left the lake with a glass-like surface and the air was thick with the haze of pale gray smoke from local controlled burns.   By day the late afternoon sky was devoid of clouds but boasted the moon and later the bright glow of a nearby planet.  The horizon itself quickly faded away, lost and indistinguishable from the lake’s smooth waters.   I’ve never seen a sunset that was able to so perfectly blend water and sky. The combination of gentle smokey haze, mirror-perfect water, and clear skies accomplished the unbelievable.  What was left were strange little boats that seemed to have taken flight to float among the clouds.  The sort of strange and mystical spectacle that one might see in movies of far-off places and imaginary lands – but never in the real world. Then the color changed. The soft blue-gray transitioned into a multi-spectrum rainbow centered along the horizon.  The sky’s dark blues re-emerged while the waves reflected the violets and purples of the next stage of the sunset.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

Then as the sun approached the horizon the violets deepened and transitioned into oranges and golden hues as the smoke served as a filter that split off the sun’s otherwise harsh rays and left it visible to the naked eye as a glowing red orb.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

I’m not sure how long the sunset lasted, I suspect close to 30 minutes.  It’s hard to tell though, as every 5 minutes it seamed to drastically change. The colors would shift, the haze would lift, the sun would slip into a smoke bank, or one of the local fishing boats would slowly cut their way across the horizon and in so doing add a new perspective and human element.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

As we sat on the beach enjoying a local Zambian beer I couldn’t help but feel an emotional connection to the area. One brought about and highlighted so beautifully by the sunset.  It was a thing of contrasts, just as Zambia and Sub-Saharan Africa is a place of similarly extreme contrasts. It can be a profoundly harsh place, but it is also a warm and welcoming place with its own element of profound hospitality.  A trip to the heart of Africa, one that takes you into authentic Africa, beyond the walled compounds and neatly pitched tents of safaris and large cities is a must.  It will change you by infusing you with a new perspective and understanding.  It will give you a renewed respect for all nature has to provide, a deep  sense of awe, and an opportunity to connect at a deep level with people who live vastly different lives.

Sunset over Samfya Lake

When we set out for Samfya to watch the sunset, I expected a few minutes of transient natural beauty.  A wonderful thing, but something that hardly seemed likely to offset the hours of anxious and uncomfortable driving required to get there.  As often happens in these types of situations, I was not only wrong but met with an incredibly rich experience that was one of the gems of my visit to Africa.  I’d place the sunset in my top 5 and will forever have its beauty and the wonderful musings that accompanied it burned into who I am and how I see the world.

Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) – The Sacrificial Caves

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Entrance

**This is the 2nd part of a two-part series covering the Actun Tunichil Munkal Cave tour.  Don’t miss part one [here]***

Actun Tunichil Muknal

I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.

We received a brief safety lecture, a quick warning not to get our headlamps wet, and a reminder that we’d be getting wet before moving towards the entrance to the cave. At the lead, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been told I’d need to swim across the cave mouth, but was skeptical. I’m 6’4″ – over a foot taller than most of the Mayans. It couldn’t be that deep, could it?

The 78 degree water prickled up my legs. Cold enough for a quick intake of breath, but not quite cold enough to be truly unpleasant. The water was mineral rich, and as a result a murky green. I slowly made my way forward as the bottom gave out beneath me.  I quickly found myself swimming, camera in hand, across a portal into another world.

Once across, I crawled my way up onto a flat area, before stepping aside to watch as the rest of the group followed in my footsteps. Once we’d all gathered, it was once again time to pause for a brief history of the 5+km deep cave. It is believed that the Mayans used the cave in some form or another for over 1,000 years before eventually abandoning it around 1000AD.  After which it sat dormant and unexplored until the 1980s when early explorers re-discovered the ancient Mayan site.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

Chomping at the bit, we quickly began to make our way into the cave, carefully – albeit usually quite clumsily – stumbling over rocks, tripping on submerged ledges, and relying heavily on hand holds. Every so often our guide would issue a word of warning. Step here, don’t touch that. Be careful, it gets deep, etc. – messages which we then transferred dutifully down the line to ensure everyone was kept in the loop.

The cave hasn’t been stabilized in any way, shape or form which makes for an, at times, delightfully perilous trip. The only light we had available came in one of two forms: The seldom used, hand-held spotlight our guide had and our smaller hard-hat based LED headlamps.

Actun Tunichil Muknal in Belize

The going was slow, but stunning. We were almost always in water, though the depth of that water ranged widely. Most of the time it ran waist deep, though it regularly plunged far deeper, leaving me walking in chest/neck-deep water or carefully clinging to the side of the cave wall as I scooted along seeking slightly shallower ledges. Unfortunately, my digital camera was locked away in a waterproof bag, however I did shoot video (attached above) on my waterproof flip.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Stalactites

As we wound more than half a kilometer into the cave system we paused regularly to examine stunning rock formations. At times they consisted of odd circular holes carved into the ceiling, other times it was large crystalline sheets which caught, and reflected the glow of our headlamps sparkling like a thousand tiny stars. All the while the roof ranged from mere inches above my head to large cavernous expanses decorated by stalactites and beautiful, folded, begemmed – almost sheet like – rock pillars.

Eventually we reached a long, narrow cavern with a large, jagged, water worn rock. The rock rested next to a sheer, overhanging ledge which stood some 10-15 feet above water level. The distance between the rock and the ledge was some 2.5 feet up, and 1.5 feet out. Just manageable if you were careful, used your height and managed to swallow the sizable lump in your throat that inevitably formed.

One-by-one we made the climb, bridged the small gap, and then scaled another 15-20 feet up along a steep, but manageable rock wall, before settling into a small alcove at the top. There we were instructed to remove our shoes, and don our socks in preparation for the dry leg of the cave.

Actun Tunichil Muknal - a Tight Squeeze

We set off once again, this time through a tiny, narrow crevice that left me bent nearly in two, as I hop-walked my way through, periodically bouncing my head or shoulder off the rock ceiling.  Once up and out things opened up in a large open area.  The ground was a mixture between slightly water warn rock, and much smoother/softer sandstone.

In the larger open areas the ground was a unique mixture of small depressions where water would normally pool and natural retainer walls which were often semi-circle in nature.  The ground looked in many ways like it was dried and hardened mud sediment, left during mild flooding over hundreds of years.  We quickly learned that the sandstone’s delicate nature was the reason we’d been asked to remove our shoes.  Our guide also pointed to several small pieces of red tape laid out on the ground.  He cautioned that those marked artifacts and pleaded with us to be careful.

Mayan Skull in Actun Tunichil Muknal the ATM cave

As we carefully made our way from chamber to chamber – often through narrow/tight/difficult pathways that left me feeling very grateful I wasn’t 6’6″ or 50 pounds heavier – we passed a plethora of old Mayan artifacts before eventually arriving at the first skeletal remains.  Each step we took required total attention.  Constantly on the look out for the red tape that market artifacts, we quickly realized that the tape only marked major artifacts. This forced us to vigilantly navigate between smaller pieces of pottery.  All the while, we carefully avoided stepping in depressions, walking instead along the ridges left between small areas where water had pooled in years past.  These were raised and tended to be more durable than the depressions which also potentially contained submerged/undiscovered pottery or skeletal remains encased in the soft sediment.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Cave Tour

As we paused our guide told us a bit about the skull that rested, badly battered but largely intact at our feet. He shared the individual’s approximate age, sex, and what little had been discovered about the person’s life and social status.  The chamber stretched out to either side, with a largely smooth floor, before slipping up into beautiful stalactites that decorated the cavern’s walls.  The stalactites themselves looked like melted wax, leaving me to ponder the incredible beauty of the place.  I can only image the mystical ambiance the cavern would have held in the dim, wavering light of a hand held torch or small fire.  It’s easy to see how the ancient Mayans – who had somehow navigated nearly a kilometer into the cave, relying only on torches and gusto – would have envisioned the place as a magical portal into the underworld and afterlife.

Alex Berger in Actun Tunichil Muknal

With stories of Mayan nobles and religious leaders, heavily reliant on hallucinogenic drugs, celebrating bloody rituals racing through our minds we continued to wind further into the cave system.  Past small depressions which held skeletal remains.  Small platforms which supported old pottery.  Turtle shells, various other artifacts and incredible stalactites. Eventually we paused in the main gallery to snap a few photos and enjoy the sheer scope of the cavern we were in.  There our guide explained that every single piece of pottery found in the cave had been damaged by the Mayans.  Apparently, after each use they Mayans would leave the pottery as a gift for the dead, punching a hole, or damaging it in some way to free the item’s spirit.

Actun Tunichil Muknal Tour in Belize

From there it was up, through another series of tight, jagged passages that left us muttering soft curses as we carefully picked our way over, through, between and under sharp rocks and small broken stalactites. Eventually we came to a near dead-end: A 10-15 foot set of large boulders.    The boulders had an old aluminum roof latter set up against them, and stabilized with a small rope at the top.  Its wobbly, frail looking nature, especially set in the dimly lit light of the cave definitely added to the sense of adventure.

The Crystal Maiden in Actun Tunichil Muknal

We paused briefly, listening all the while to our guide as he told us what to expect: The Crystal Maiden. A fully intact female skeleton, left as she’d died over a thousand years previous.  Near her feet in a small depression, easily overlooked was a second, small/collapsed skeleton.  Unlike the maiden who appeared laid out, the 2nd skeleton was in a position that left us all wondering if it hadn’t died with its hands and legs bound.  Sacrifice?  Honored burial for respected elders?  Ritual self-sacrifice?  It’s hard to know.

The Ladder in Actun Tunichil Muknal

Eyes glinting in the harsh light cast by our head lamps we paused and reflected before slowly making our way back to the metal latter.   It looked every bit as intimidating as I expected it to…with a resigned sigh, I swung my body weight out over empty nothingness, slowly stabilizing myself against the rocks, before slowly making my way towards the ground, foot by foot, wobbly rung by wobbly rung.

Our Guide during the ATM cave tour in Belize

From there it was back through the winding warren of small tunnels and large chambers to the ledge where we’d left our shoes.  Smiles on our faces and small goose bumps on our arms we donned our shoes and made the difficult descent back over the small gap, down the large rock formation and into the water.  Hours had passed since we’d entered the cave and though we didn’t know it yet, the sun had already slid below the horizon.

Bats began to migrate over our heads, typically staying well clear of us.  From time to time, however, we’d find ourselves started by a gray blur, as it spend past our heads often narrowly missing us and leaving us to start at the quick wash of moving air that tugged at our hair.

The water itself held its own mysteries. As the last three tours in the cave, things were stone quiet.  The air was still, and the animal life was slowly returning to reclaim its territory.  Before long we spotted small catfish, crayfish and even several fist sized freshwater crabs.   An entertaining addition to our group as we waded, swam, and walked back down through the flooded hallways, past ancient stalactites and stalagmites towards the entrance.

Eventually, wet, and slightly cold we reached the mouth of the cave…pausing briefly to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, our guide pointed to two glowing points along the sheer walls of the cave near the entrance.  The first thing to catch our attention was the stunningly beautiful reflection of eyes – star-like in nature.   Then, as our eyes adjusted, the outlines of massive spiders suddenly sprang into focus.

Eager and slightly anxious, I made my way once more into the deep pool at the mouth of the cave.  This time, careful to stay near the center of the chamber – hoping to stay as far away from the spiders as humanly possible.

Drenched, but thrilled I made my way back over the submerged rocks, dinging my shins every now and then, before scrambling out onto the moss slicked stones that marked the mouth of the cave.  There we spotted another large, freshwater crab, before carefully picking our way up the muddy embankment and back onto the main path.

It was dark.  Long past sunset, with a nearly full moon slowly climbing towards apex. It was stunning.  The sky and moon brilliantly outlined the jungle canopy as it stretched over our heads, allowing slight moonlight to filter down to the jungle floor.   After a quick pause we set off, back to the parking lot and our cars.  We had a 40 minute walk ahead of us, through the dark, in the middle of nowhere, down a small dirt path and across three large rivers.  THIS was the adventure i’d signed up for.

A glowing smile on my face, I began back towards the parking lot, pausing from time to time to let out a sign of amazement.  I mentioned previously that the spider’s eyes at the cave mouth had been impressive.  As it turns out, the jungle to either side of the path itself was home to thousands of spiders.  All of varying sizes, but sharing the same brilliantly reflective eyes.  As the light struck the path, I could not help but feel as though I was on a path through space, with stars to either side stretching out into space.

Careful not to stray off the path we wandered along for some 20 minutes before suddenly stopping dead in our tracks.  Sitting smack dab in the middle of the path was a giant toad.  No doubt feasting on the veritable spider smorgasbord. It stared at us briefly before lazily launching itself to the side of the path, and then off into the thick underbrush beyond.

About half way back to the parking lot my headlamp began to blink.  My battery was dieing.  Luckily, the moon was bright, I still had some battery left, and the other two members of the group still had battery power.

Nervously chuckling and wondering what other animal life was roaming the path, we set back to our trek, before eventually finding our way back to the parking lot where we donned warm clothes, piled into one of the guides’ trucks and set off for San Ignacio.

The trip, which had started out in what looked to be miserable disappointment ended up being one of my favorite experiences in Belize.

If you ever find yourself in Belize, make sure you track down a guide and explore Actun Tunichil Muknal – but hurry! People were not kidding when they said this site can’t last.  There’s simply too much exposure to the artifacts and remains.  The site needs something more than red electrical tape marking artifacts if there’s to be any hope of persevering it.  Add to that the rugged and dangerous nature of the tour and there’s no doubt in my mind that the government will end up shutting it down in the next couple of years.

Exploring Guejar and the Sierra Nevadas

After a day spent exploring the Alhambra’s countless secrets I made my way back to the hostel where I washed up briefly before heading to the hostel kitchen for the night’s special event – a group dinner.  For 5 Euro the hostel provided all we could eat paella, a big bowl of soup, and a drink from the bar.

What is paella you ask?  Paella is a cornerstone of Spanish cuisine and a must try for anyone visiting the region – cooked in large pans, not all that unlike the pans used for stir fry, the dish is predominantly seasoned saffron rice with large pieces of pork, horseshoe muscles, calamari, small clams, shrimp and peas. Depending on your region in Spain, and the cook, various other meats and delightful tidbits may be added. The pan used by the hostel was about 3 feet across and circular.  It was quite the sight.

Stuffed and in good company we repeated the previous evening’s rituals.  Starting in the hostel bar drinks and stories flowed before we set out to explore the city’s night life and enjoy Spanish music, culture and sights.

Despite morning coming far too early I awoke to a beautiful, crisp winter day.  Blue skies, gentle  and warm – far from what one might imagine a December day in Spain would look like.   Eager to explore the surrounding area and the Sierra Nevadas I made my way through the city to a large square where I’d been told I could catch a bus into one of the small cities in the mountains.   The walk took me into parts of Granada I’d previously left unexplored and added to my love of the city.  After about 20 minutes of walking I found the square and began asking around…trying to discover which of the regional buses would take me to Guejar.  Before long I’d narrowed down the approximate area where it paused along it’s route to collect people…and had a good idea of when to expect it. I’ll confess that my pronunciation of Guejar was abysmal and my heart was racing as I tried to figure out the bus system and isolate which of the 10 bus stops along the square was mine.

Finally feeling fairly confident that I wasn’t going to miss my bus, I grabbed a quick bite to eat and relaxed by the shallow river that stretched along one side of the square.  There I watched a father and his two children at play.  It reminded me of my time in Europe as a child, exploring grand cities and embracing experiences which fostered the curious passion for travel which drives me to this day.

Before long the bus arrived. One Euro Eighty cents later, I had my ticket in hand and was cozily sandwiched into one of the small bus seats.  I’d picked Guejar at random and didn’t know what to expect, beyond that it was in the Sierra Nevadas.  As the bus snaked through the narrow Spanish streets we quickly left the city behind and began winding our way up through several small canyons toward the mountaintops.  Each time the bus slowed down and paused at a bus stop I felt my pace quicken and my stomach leap into my throat.  I had no idea what to expect.  What would Guejar look like?  How long was the drive? Would there be a bus stop or would it be a proper station?

Resisting the urge to hop off each time the bus slowed to a stop I sat, taking in the scenery as we climbed deeper into the mountains. The snow capped Sierra’s drew gradually closer as the road hung on to the side of a rather steep valley.  Soon, I found myself looking out my window and down the steep slopes below – the narrow roads, tiny guard rails and steep drop offs along a lot of European roads is something I’m not sure I’ll ever get completely comfortable with.

Before long we came upon a large dam.  The dam was significant in size and filled in some two-thirds of the valley.  The water it held back was an emerald green with rich, gorgeous waters lazily soaking up the winter sun. I knew immediately it was something that I needed to explore in greater detail.  The quick views as the bus wound along the valley wall hundreds of feet above wasn’t enough.  As I watched it wind away behind me I decided to get off at the next stop – even if it wasn’t Guejar.

Luckily, just a few minutes up the road from the dam we pulled into a beautiful small city which lazily clung to the side of the valley wall.  Somehow, the bus pressed its way through the narrow streets and down tiny alleyways before coming to a stop on a steep incline next to a small square.  The doors opened and the passengers began to disembark.  I soon realized I’d reached Guejar!

Eager to explore the city I quickly set off from the square and into the small town.  The streets were a delightful warren of small open spaces and narrow corridors – many of which suddenly split or dove off down the hillside.  There were beautiful plants everywhere and interestingly most of the doorways had hanging rugs of them.  I’m not sure if it was to keep out the cold, or a regional tradition – either way it added a fun element to the streets and brought them to life with their own special character.

Legs burning from the steep ascent and descent as I explored the small town, I spent a good 30 minutes wandering up side streets and down back alleyways before setting off back the way I’d come in the hopes of reaching the azure waters I’d seen from the bus.

As I left the town I quickly ran into a problem.  The narrow winding road we’d used to reach the town was just that – a narrow two lane road with a steep drop off and small guardrail. This left very little room for me to safely backtrack along the road – leaving me sandwiched between a steep drop on my left and oncoming traffic on the right. Undeterred, I pressed on, carefully utilizing the narrow space between the guardrail and the steep drop down to the river below. It took me another 5 minutes of careful walking before I reached a bend in the road and paused to snap the photo you see above.

I lingered and took in the view – one that reminded me in a way of the Grand Canyon and Colorado river.  Don’t get me wrong, the view was vastly different – but there was something about it that captured my heart and mind in the same way. It left me slightly awed.  As I paused and shot a few photos/took some quick video I considered my options.  I could continue along the road which continued from my perch for a short ways before winding back behind a small hill and away from the dam for about a quarter of the mile – or I could climb down the hillside a ways and get a better view of the lake, valley and several interesting structures on the opposite side.  Careful not to fall and die, I slowly made my way down the steep hillside – heading towards a slightly flatter area which had been leveled off during the construction of several large power lines – why not right?  What better than large power lines to ensure my safety as I climbed down a steep hillside.

Eventually, I found my way down to the flattened area – where I paused for a drink, some photos and to take in the sights.  The descent had taken me down some 1/3 of the hillside and left me across and slightly above a group of goats and a shepherd I’d been observing from the roadside earlier.   Having descended below the power lines, I finally had an unobstructed view of the lake.  What better place to stop and read for a while?  Enjoying my perch and the moment I pulled out my book and read for about 20 minutes before plotting the next stage of my exploration.  I considered my location, looking back up the steep hillside I quickly decided that down was a far more interesting (and less difficult) alternative – and why not?  I hadn’t hurt myself yet!

In a hail of small stones, mumbled curses and periodic gasps I eventually made my way down two thirds of the way to the river.  The whole affair would have no doubt made the most clumsy of mountain goats proud.  Eventually, I found a small path and decided to follow it instead.

Wondering if I was trespassing and about to get chased off by a local farmer with a pitchfork, I followed the path as it wound back towards Guejar in the general direction of the shepherd and his goats.  The path quickly cut up and took me immediately them…leaving me under the watchful stare of two of his goats.  One of which had an amazing, billowing goat beard and large set of horns.

I wound up, around, between properties and soon found myself back in the city.  With ample time to spare I set to satiating my burning hunger.  No easy task given the quiet nature of the city. Differentiating between tapas bar, bookstore and hardware store was far more difficult than one would think.  None of the residents needed signs.

After exploring the city for another 20 minutes or so I finally found a little hole in the wall joint.  The food was good, the price was incredible, the floor was dirty and the place was populated by old Spanish men – perfect.  I headed inside, ordered and carefully tried to take the following incognito video…my apologies on its…authenticity:

 

After a quick meal, I headed back to the square – checked my watch and relaxed in the winter sun as I read my dad’s book – The Spirit in the Ruins by C. Descry.  Eventually the bus driver emerged from one of the local tapas bars and we began our winding trip back to Granada.

That evening I joined a number of friends from the hostel for a wonderful night out on the town which came to a close at 4 am as we sat perched in the Albayzin looking across at the beautifully lit Alhambra.

It was December 30th.  The following day I caught a train early in the morning to Madrid, where I began preparing for New Years and my return to the U.S.  – what an incredible adventure!

Monsoons & Tempe Town Lake

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

The winds grow high; Impending tempests charge the sky; The lightning flies, the thunder roars; And big waves lash the frightened shores. – Matthew Prior

Last night the valley got its first real monsoon of the season. With howling winds, thunderous bolts of lightning, and rain that left a number of roads shut down overnight, it burst upon the valley and left us all splashing about in the warm rain and clean air.

After a small get together at my brother’s place where I weathered the worst of the storm, I headed down to Tempe Town Lake in the hopes of snapping a few fun shots, avoiding getting drenched, and playing with one or two newly discovered features on my camera.

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

Tempe Town Lake - Alex Berger

If you’d like to see full-sized versions of these images and others from the evening, they are available in the photography section of my website.  Click here for a direct link. All photos were shot on a Canon G7. The shots in this post were taken with a small portable tripod and 2-15 second exposure times.