10 Years Ago in Reykjavík

I had just landed in Iceland. Because I was eight hours ahead of Pacific Time (Los Angeles), I decided to hang out at Reykjavík Harbor for several hours and go to bed around midnight Iceland time. I was met by two cute Japanese girls who were collecting funds for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), specifically to save the whales. At that time (2013), Iceland was one of two countries which hunted whales for food. The other was Japan.

In the U.S., only Native Americans are allowed to hunt whales, and the average number of kills is 300-500 Belugas and 40-70 Bowhead a year.

I was happy to contribute to the protection of the whales. And while I was in Iceland, I did not eat any whale meat, though I saw it in several markets.

Fortunately, I was able to keep my eyes open until 8 AM Los Angeles time and did not suffer from jet lag in the subsequent days. Flying back to California was, alas, a different story.

On Iceland’s Ring Road

In 2001 when I traveled to Iceland, I purchased a bus ticket for one-way travel along the famous ring road that manages to hit most of the top sights on the volcanic island. I started by taking a bus to Akureyri through the center of Iceland through what is known as the Kjölur Route. From there, I traveled by bus along to Ring Road to Lake Mývatn, Egilsstaðir, Höfn, Kirjubærclaustur, Hvollsvöllur, Selfoss, and on into Reykjavík.

The majority of the population of Iceland lives along the Ring Road. There are no cities in the whole country that are not either on or close to the coast. As for the unpopulated interior, there are only two roads, the Kjölur Route and the Sprengisandur Route, and no towns of any size. In fact, no towns at all.

The Bus to Akureyri Along the Kjölur Route

When I returned to Iceland in 2013, I spent some time in the Northwest in Isafjordur, as I had skipped the entire Westfjords area on my previous visit.

When you get out of the city, Iceland is a country of waterfalls, rainbows, volcanoes, and geysirs. From one point of view, much of it is a wasteland; but, if so, it is a beautiful one.

You Can’t Beat a Deadhorse

Winter Aerial of Prudhoe Bay, Also Known as Deadhorse, on the North Coast of Alaska, Beaufort Sea. ©Patrick J. Endres

It’s not exactly the northernmost point in the United States: That honor belongs to Barrow (aka Utqiagvik), which is probably a more interesting town because of its links to Iñupiat culture. Deadhorse, Alaska, is probably better known as Prudhoe Bay, the starting point of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, which sends crude oil flowing 800 miles to Valdez, Alaska, from where it is transshipped via tanker to refineries around the world.

To me, the interesting thing about Deadhorse is not that it’s a company town (owned by Alyeska Pipeline Service Company), but that there is daily bus from Fairbanks to Deadhorse via the Dalton Highway, which was formerly called the North Slope Haul Road. Once one leaves the “suburbs” of Fairbanks, there are only three populated areas along the route:

  • Coldfoot at Mile 175 (Population: 34)
  • Wiseman at Mile 188 (Population: 12)
  • Deadhorse at Mile 414 (Population: 25 Permanent and 3,500-5,000 Seasonal)

There are a number of sights along the way. Below, for example, is Oh Shit Corner at Mile 126:

More seriously, the highway passes by the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Brooks Range, with occasional polar bear sightings as one approaches the end of the road.

If you are interested in seeing this wild part of the country, you can take the Dalton Highway Express to Deadhorse. It’s an all-day trip, though you won’t lack for company, Upwards of 150-250 trucks per day take the same road. Food and accommodations are available in Coldfoot, Wiseman, and Deadhorse. It’s more scruffy than luxurious, and you will be mostly in the company of Alyeska pipeline workers. Oh, and you’ll see a lot of the pipeline, because it pretty much follows the highway for its entire length.

The Darien Gap

Is It Possible to Drive All the Way the South America? Not Quite!

Let’s see: Just hop in your car and start heading south until you get to Tierra del Fuego. It would be the trip of a lifetime except for one thing: There is a 66-mile gap between Yaviza, Panama and Turbo, Colombia where there are no roads. According to Wikipedia:

Roadbuilding through this area is expensive and detrimental to the environment. Political consensus in favor of road construction collapsed after an initial attempt failed in the early 1970s, resuming in 1992 only to be halted by serious environmental concerns. As of 2022, there is no active plan to build the missing road.

Below is a rough map of the area:

This is the only place on the Pan-American Highway where there are no roads. If you wanted to take that long drive south, you would have to either fly over the Darien Gap or take a boat. Or you can take a dangerous hike of some four days through the nastiest jungle in the Western Hemisphere and risk coming down with Mogo on the Gogogo or some other tropical disease.

Ruta Cuarenta

The Other Great North/South Road in South America

Like the Chile’s Carretera Austral, Argentina’s Ruta Cuarenta (Route 40) is another of the great South American highways. It runs for 3,246 miles (5,224 km) from the northern tip of Argentina where it meets the altiplano of Bolivia all the way to Cabo Virgenes, the most southerly point on the South American mainland. It doesn’t include Tierra del Fuego which is on an island.

Although I have never been on the Carretera Austral, I have ridden Ruta 40 between Neuquén and San Carlos Bariloche in 1995. Both highways are practically up against the Andes. Where Coyhaique is the only large town on the Chilean highway, Ruta 40 goes through Cafayate, Mendoza, San Carlos Bariloche, Esquel, Rio Turbio, and Rio Gallegos on its way to the large Magellanic Penguin sanctuary by Cabo Virgenes. To go further south in Argentina, one has to take a Chilean ferry across the Straits of Magellan before crossing over to Ruta 3 to Rio Grande and Ushuaia.

There are stretches of the highway south of Rio Negro Province that are not yet paved, being the windy deserts of Patagonia. Even so, a good part of the southern highway is the only land route from Chile’s Villa O’Higgins to Puerto Natales. In addition, there are Argentinian buses plying the route

I would love to take Ruta 40 along its entire length, but I would require an SUV, at least two spare tires, and an auto mechanic. Oh, and for certain areas, a guide. Alas, I am too old and poor to be able to indulge in this travel dream of mine.

The Carretera Austral

One of the World’s Most Scenic Highways

It bears several names: Route 7, the Augusto Pinochet Highway (because it was completed during that dictator’s presidency), and the Carretera Austral , the Great Southern Highway. It runs for 770 miles (1,240 km) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. At that point, no roads go farther south. According to Wikipedia:

Carretera Austral has a strategic meaning due to the difficult access by land to a significant portion of Chile’s southern territory. This area is characterized by thick forests, fjords, glaciers, canals and steep mountains. Access by sea and air is also a complex task due to extreme winter weather conditions. For decades, most of the land transportation had to cross the border to Argentina in order to reach again Chile’s Patagonia. These difficulties were deepened during the 1970s due to the Beagle Conflict crisis. In order to strengthen the Chilean presence in these isolated territories and ensure the land connection to the rest of the country, the government planned the construction of this road, which was executed by the Chilean Army’s Engineering Command. More than 10,000 soldiers worked on its construction.

South of Villa O’Higgins is Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine, the FitzRoy Massif, and Chilean Tierra del Fuego—but only after a gap of 225 miles (363 km) of dense forests, raging rivers, and high mountains. Eventually, Chile plans to extend the Carretera Austral south to Puerto Natales, but it will take years. Until then, vehicles have to cross over into Argentina and take Route 40 (“Ruta Cuarenta”) through the windy wastes of Patagonia.

I would love to take the Carretera Austral, but even though the road is paved, many of the rivers (such as the Rio Baker) are unbridged and require time-wasting ferry crossings. Add to that the fact that there are no large cities (except Coyhaique with 45,000 population) along the route if something were to happen to your car.

There’s nothing to stop me from dreaming.

Glacier Tourism

Spegazzini Glacier in Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park (2011)

As the Earth continues to heat up, I can foresee that more and more tourists will try to see fewer and fewer glaciers. Martine and I have been atop Canada’s Athabasca Glacier in Alberta and in Southern Argentina we have visited the Perito Moreno, Spegazzini, and Upsala Glaciers. By myself, I have ridden a Ski-Doo on Iceland’s giant Vatnajökull Glacier. I hope I can rustle up enough cash to go with Martine to visit the most spectacular glaciers in the U.S., all of which are in Alaska.

It is amazing to think that, at one time, glaciers covered much of the lower forty-eight states and most of Canada, as shown in the following map:

It is possible that in the lives of your children, or of your children’s children, the glaciers will no longer be around. Not only that, but parts of the U.S. coast will be under water, particularly Florida. And as the ocean levels continue to rise, I would not be surprised that some of the most beautiful beaches in the world will disappear under water.

I remember my visit to Iceland in 2001. I stayed at a hotel on the edges of Skaftafell National Park. I walked on a trail as close as I could get to Skaftafell Glacier. As I neared the front edge of the glacier, I saw numerous pools of water and heard a groaning sound as the glacier pushed forward millimeter by millimeter. It was an awe-inspiring experience.

See it while you can.

Really Big Bears

The Brown Grizzly Bears at Katmai National Park Dining on Salmon

If you want to see really big bears, probably the best place to see them is at Katmai National Park in Alaska. You’d have to fly in from such bush plane fields as King Salmon and view them at such locations as Brooks Camp, Hallo Bay, Geographic Harbor, Swikshak Lagoon, or Moraine Creek/Funnel Creek.

At a recent “beauty contest” at Katmai, the winner of Fat Bear Week was a 1,400 pound (635 kg) brown bear named (appropriately) 747, after the jumbo jet.

What makes the bears of Katmai particularly large is the ready availability of lots of salmon, which the bears use to bulk up just before going into hibernation.In other parts of Alaska, an adult male typically weighs between 300 to 900 pounds (136-405 kg) , and females weigh between 205 and 455 pounds (93-206 kg).

It’s not cheap to see the big bears of Katmai: There are no regularly scheduled flights. You’d have to fly charter and either camp or stay at an expensive lodge.

I would dearly love to see them. It’s just a question of money—and lots of it!

Ocosingo

The year was 1979. My brother and I were taking an Autransportes Lacandonia bus from Palenque to San Cristóbal de las Casas. Today, the trip can be done in five hours. Back then, we boarded the reconverted North American school bus at 5:00 AM and got into San Cristóbal eleven hours later.

Enroute, we saw another Lacandonia bus that was run off the road into a ditch. It was surrounded by the passengers who were milling around. Luckily none of them seemed to be hurt. Then, about an hour or so later, as we neared Ocosingo, we were pulled over by the Mexican Army, who searched our luggage for weapons. We were not far from the Guatemalan border, and many Mexicans and even some foreigners were involved in gun-running to the rural Maya combatants across the border.

When we pulled into Ocosingo, a young boy boarded the bus selling something that was wrapped in straw. The boy didn’t understand my Spanish, and I didn’t understand his Tzotzil or Tzeltal Maya, but it didn’t cost much. Apparently, Ocosingo is famous for its queso amarillo (yellow cheese), which actually was pretty good—especially on a bus ride that seemed to take forever.

I wouldn’t mind returning to Ocosingo some day, having some more queso amarillo and visiting the Maya ruins at nearby Toniná. This relatively small Maya site bested the much larger Palenque in battle and got to sacrifice the royal family to their gods.

Every place I have ever visited in Mexico has left an indelible mark on my memory. Faced with a map of the country, I can follow my itinerary from city to city. These included places like Los Mochis, the Barranca del Cobre (Copper Canyon), Mazatlan, Durango, Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende, Querétaro, Mexico City, Patzcuaro, Uruapan, Guadalajara, Puerto Vallarta, Puebla, Cholula, Xalapa, Veracruz, Papantla, Oaxaca, and points south too numerous to mention.

Forbidden

Sign on the Grounds of Iolani Palace

In the southeast corner of the grounds at Iolani Palace is a low mound that bears the Hawaiian language warning “Kapu.” Because the Hawaiian language doesn’t have the sounds of the consonants “t” and “b,” it would not make any sense if the sign red “Tabu.” Yet that is what it means.

Similarly, foods made from the pounded taro root are everywhere. Yet in Hawaiian, the word is written “kalo.” (There is no “r” in the language.)

The forbidden mound contains the remains of many old Hawaiian chieftains, or ali’i. Before the Iolani Palace was built in the late 19th century, there was an earlier, less European-looking palace that housed the great of O’ahu and the outlying islands. The earlier kings of the Kamehameha dynasty were buried there before a mausoleum was built to house their remains a mile or so to the west.

After the bones of the kings were removed, the Hawaiians had trouble identifying the other remains; so they fenced in the mound and made access to it Tabu.