A Travellerspoint blog

October 2021

Waterfalls and Glaciers: The Diamond Circle


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From Mývatn we retraced our route about forty minutes to Dettifoss and then continued another twenty minutes to the turnoff for Rauðhólar. This isolated geological marvel should not be confused with the site by the same name located just outside Reykjavik. We could see the red hills that the site was named for in the distance but their visibility was deceptive. We had to trudge along the dirt path for almost an hour through what seemed like an endless lush carpet of green and purple scrub before we finally arrived at the base.
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A trail led us close to the crest of the tallest hill but a rope prevented hikers from treading on the red surface of oxidized scoria. Up close the maroon slope of the hill was even more impressive, especially when contrasted with the greenery that was attempting to overtake one side. On the side of the hill that faced the river the red scoria mixed with black in a streaky pattern. In the other direction a steep and narrow trail led downward towards the irregular lava pillars of Hljóðaklettar.
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We saw some more intrepid hikers braving the steep path but we opted for a more prudent route at the base of the hill. In the end we decided not to make the journey all the way down to the river to see the formations of Hljóðaklettar up close. I've since wondered if we might have missed a very unique experience, but the extra hour would have meant skipping something else later in the day. I was still thankful that I had figured out a way to fit Rauðhólar into our itinerary since both the walk through the green and purple field and the views from the top of the hill had been amazing.
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We continued north on 862 and eventually intersected with 85, a long loop that provides access to the northeastern coast of Iceland while the Ring Road courses inland. Just a few miles east we found the turn-off to Ásbyrgi Canyon and had a quick lunch at a service station. Ásbyrgi isn't one of Iceland's best known sites, probably because no one makes it there unless they have more than a week to complete the entire Ring Road with time to spare to venture into the northeast. That was fortunate for us because if Ásbyrgi was on the Golden Circle it would be so packed with tourists that the atmosphere would be completely destroyed. Ásbyrgi was completely different from the narrow gorges we had seen previously in Iceland. The canyon was an enormous horseshoe-shaped sloping depression with walls of sheer basalt. As one proceeds further into the canyon the walls become higher until they reach a breathtaking one hundred meters. A separate tongue of basalt called Eyjan extends from the beginning of the canyon into the center where it suddenly terminates in a sheer cliff. From the road, Eyjan looks like a giant monolith in the middle of the canyon but it is an illusion. Behind the cliff is a strip of land that gradually converges with the rising ground level.
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A short, easy trail led from the parking area through a wood to an algae filled pond at the base of the basalt cliffs. Here the cliffs were at their tallest and most impressive. It was hard to believe that something so immaculate could have occurred through the chaotic forces of volcanism and flooding. The ancient Icelanders must have felt the same way as they concluded the canyon was a hoofprint of Sleipnir, the eight-legged horse of Odin. In more modern terms it was like a scene from a video game where the cliffs defined the boundary of a virtual world. The basalt had developed a chunky, faceted appearance from years of erosion and displayed patches of red from oxidation and green from plant life. There was one viewing platform at the water level and another on a slope overlooking the pond.
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The path on the slope ended adjacent to the cliff, where a sign warned that rocks fell from the walls at frequent intervals. Dusty chunks of basalt at the foot of the cliff testified to the truth of the warning. That didn't seem to deter many visitors but was enough for me to keep that part of our exploration brief. The texture and coloration of the stone walls was even more impressive up close.
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I was so taken aback by the awesomeness of Ásbyrgi that I completely forgot about my plan to walk the two kilometer trail to the top of Eyjan, which would have afforded a bird's eye view of the entire parabolic extent of the cliff face. I only felt a sudden pang of regret once we were already well on our way to Húsavík. Regardless, the cliffs of Ásbyrgi had been even more breathtaking than Rauðhólar. It had definitely been a wise decision to complete the Diamond Circle rather than driving straight to Akureyri from Mývatn.

The main draw of the coastal city of Húsavík is the profusion of whale watching boats that depart from the port. That wasn't an option for us as Mei Ling gets seasick easily and the boys are somewhat susceptible to it as well. I've heard a lot of horror stories about seasickness on those trips. We stopped in the town just to get a quick look at the port and see the Whale Museum, which I would describe as modestly interesting. The green and white town church was an attractive landmark in the upper part of town overlooking the port.
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We continued west on 85 from Húsavík which eventually terminated once more at the Ring Road. Here we reversed direction eastward a short distance and found the turn-off for Goðafoss. Like Dettifoss, there are two roads leading to opposite sides of the waterfall although in this case it's a much shorter drive to go from one to the other. Goðafoss translates to "waterfall of the gods", a name it received when the Icelandic chieftain Thorgeir Thorkelsson tossed his pagan idols into the cataract in the 11th century after deciding the country would bow to pressure from Norway and convert to Christianity. It has the reputation of being one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland but after seeing so many over the previous week we couldn't find much to set it apart from the rest. The wind was exceptionally strong and cold so we decided against taking the path down to the lower level or visiting the opposite side.
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We finally rolled into Akureyri without much time to spare before dinner. We had a beautiful drive down the shore of Eyjafjörður which gave us a nice preview of the city on the other side. Eyri Restaurant was in a tiny suburb called Hjalteyri, about fifteen minutes north of the city. Aside from the restaurant there were nine or ten houses and the obligatory abandoned fish processing plant. Beyond the plant we could see the snowcapped mountains on the other side of the fjord. There was a playground with one of those colorful bubble trampolines that the kids seem to never get tired of. The restaurant was a farm-to-table type of place with a great reputation but I suspect they were short-staffed or otherwise having an off night. Fortunately we had already learned to temper our expectations regarding dining out in Iceland. We had a short drive to our guest house which was also north of the city and crashed almost immediately thanks to another exhausting day.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 03:40 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog husavik tony_friedman family_travel_blog asbyrgi rautholar Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Albuquerque's Outer Limits


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There was a lot to keep us occupied in Old Town, Central Avenue, and other parts of central Albuquerque but we also found some interesting places to explore in the outskirts of the city. One of the most unique activities in Albuquerque is the cable car to the top of Sandia Peak at the northeastern corner of the city. I had come across numerous horror stories about long lines and closures due to high winds so I was careful to check the weather forecast and reserve an early time slot online. The weather was very calm and we only had to wait about twenty minutes before we were on the tram. The ride to the top provided awesome views of the cracked and weathered limestone cliffs that jutted from the face of the mountain. In some places the ebb and flow of glaciers had stacked enormous boulders into natural cairns.
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One element that had eluded me in my research was the altitude we would be dealing with when we exited from the cable car at the top. Albuquerque already sits at a lofty five thousand foot elevation, and the tram ascends for another five thousand to the peak. Ten thousand feet is a little much for folks like us who normally exist at sea level. The only other time we'd experienced altitude was driving between Denver and Steamboat in Colorado and all three of the kids had felt some symptoms at one point or another. I decided our best bet was to get a look around and then try and get back on the tramway within an hour rather than mess around on any of the trails. We had too much on our list to get done to be dealing with any sick kids. There were some good viewing platforms close to the station from which we could look back down at the mountainside and the flat expanse that Albuquerque occupied. On the other side of the ridge were the chairlifts for the ski area and beyond them the Cibola National Forest. Mei Ling was the only one who experienced any effect from the altitude for the hour we were up there. She was dizzy from the moment we got off the tram until we were safely back on ground level.
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The morning of our last day in Albuquerque we returned to Central Avenue, this time to a separate stretch of funky businesses across from the University of New Mexico campus. The Frontier Restaurant has been an Albuquerque institution for fifty years, especially renowned for their sweet rolls and green chile. It was a huge restaurant spread over several rooms filled with art and atmospheric Southwestern decor. The food was spicy and delicious and the portions were huge, the perfect way to fuel up for another busy day of travel.
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We had seen plenty of beautiful adobe houses since arriving in Albuquerque but they were mostly on the smaller end, like our Airbnb. We were curious to see if there were any breathtaking adobe mansions to marvel at so we broke out Zillow and entered an exorbitant sum as a minimum. There weren't many hits and most of them were in a neighborhood in the far northeast of the city, not far from the Sandia Tramway. It was a long detour from our planned route but once we'd had the idea we wanted to follow through on it. The neighborhood was very different from the central parts of the city we'd spent most of our time in. The ranch houses were widely separated from each other on large plots, there was little vegetation, and hardly any businesses. There were a fair number of large, beautifully-designed adobe houses but the barrenness was a sharp contrast to the lush landscaping we're used to in the prosperous areas of Miami. I wasn't sure if the desert atmosphere was considered a desirable aspect of the Southwestern aesthetic or if it was just an unavoidable consequence of outward expansion to accommodate neighborhoods with larger homes.
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We aren't that big on museums but I thought The National Museum of Nuclear Science & History would be unique enough to be a worthwhile stop on our way out of Albuquerque. They had some interesting displays about the development of the first atomic bomb and the Cold War which provided a good opportunity to give the kids a couple of interactive lessons about science and history.
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Instead of the straight shot up I25 to Santa Fe, we took State Road 14 which is also known as the Turquoise Trail. There are several old mining towns on this road but the one with most to offer visitors is called Madrid, about halfway to Santa Fe. As we left Albuquerque we were greeted with the sight of the juniper-covered foothills of the Sandias.
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Madrid is the kind of town most people would either love or have no interest in whatsoever. Aside from the businesses catering to tourists along the state road, there's just a couple of dirt roads lined with ramshackle houses. It's a ghost town that's been taken over by art galleries but the town itself never grew back which gives the place an aura of artificiality. The bright paint jobs on everything from storefronts to mailboxes seem designed to draw daytrippers from Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
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I haven't painted a very positive picture of Madrid but the truth is that the galleries are quite enjoyable, filled with innovative art and creative oddities. One boutique was largely devoted to steampunk, which Mei Ling had never heard of before and instantly fell in love with. My favorite were the sculptures welded from discarded hardware and pieces of machinery.
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The Madrid restaurant we'd hoped to eat at was Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen, renowned for eclectic Southwestern cuisine, but after searching for it fruitlessly we learned it had been closed for years. The most viable alternative seemed to be The Hollar, a barbecue restaurant with a spacious patio. After a reasonably satisfying lunch we got back on the road to the second vertex of our triangular itinerary, Santa Fe.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:20 Archived in USA Tagged family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog sandia_tramway madrid_new_mexico Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Central Albuquerque


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When I researched New Mexico, it quickly became apparent that Santa Fe was getting a lot of love in travel guides. That was fine with me as we were planning on staying there for a good chunk of time. What raised my eyebrows was how much negativity there was about Santa Fe's much larger neighbor Albuquerque. The knock on Albuquerque seemed to be that it was missing the culture and beauty of Santa Fe while suffering from various urban blights. I took this with a grain of salt since we've been tremendously impressed by American cities such as Milwaukee and Houston that suffered from similar reputations. Quite often a lack of tourism seems to preserve the authentic culture of a city rather than detract from it. I found quite a number of interesting things to put on my list in Albuquerque so eventually it was an easy decision to spend two nights there.
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Naturally we'd chosen an Airbnb in the traditional adobe architectural style. These houses are emblematic of Santa Fe but we found a strong adherence to this aesthetic in Albuquerque as well. Many of the houses are made of concrete or traditional brick instead of actual adobe and are given the classic appearance with masonry and stucco, so the term Pueblo Revival is more accurate than adobe. Either way I love the texture, color, and rounded edges of adobe houses and I would love to live in one if they didn't stick out like a sore thumb anywhere except the Southwest. The Airbnb was one of the best we'd stayed in on this trip: roomy, stylish, and comfortable. We were within walking distance of the Old Town and the neighbors had their own outdoor book exchange that we quickly took advantage of.
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We had a little time to kill before dinner so we took a drive west to the Monte Vista neighborhood to see the distinctive Bart Prince residence. Prince adapted the classic style of Frank Lloyd Wright to the landscape and traditions of New Mexico. His residence in Albuquerque is famous for the futuristic elevated living quarters that locals call the Spaceship as well as the oblong gallery supported by steel girders above the adjacent adobe house. At the front of the property were impressively large metallic modern sculptures. I was a little self-conscious about gawking at the architecture since it is a private residence, but I imagine the occupants are probably accustomed to the attention by now.
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One area where Europe and Asia and even Latin America are clearly superior to the United States is in the preservation of antiquity. Of course in the USA there isn't that much antiquity to preserve, but even the three to four hundred year history that we have has largely been plowed under in the service of endless modernization and adaptation to advancing technology. Finding an American city with an authentic preserved core is a rare pleasure, and I was surprised not to have heard of Albuquerque's Old Town before I began researching the city. The small neighborhood dates to the founding of the city three hundred years ago and still contains several original buildings from the 19th century. The oldest is the iconic San Felipe de Neri Church which was built in 1793. Most of the buildings have been renovated and remodeled in recent decades as the area has commercialized, but the city has done a good job of maintaining the Spanish colonial atmosphere of the neighborhood.
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We had arrived in the early evening when almost all the businesses had already closed. There were few pedestrians and we largely had the charming neighborhood to ourselves under the overcast evening sky. The only exception was in the central plaza where a band of elderly musicians was putting on a folk dancing performance at the gazebo.
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Sawmill Market was within walking distance of Old Town. We love eating at food halls because they have a great vibe, the food is usually high quality, and it's fun to mix and match diverse cuisines in one meal. Sawmill Market had just been opened a year earlier in a former lumber warehouse and it was one of the best food halls we've visited in the United States. It was beautifully constructed with high wooden ceilings that paid homage to its provenance and the spacious layout accommodated the sizable clientele perfectly. There was a large, vibrant courtyard with live music. The food was good but not exceptional, but the atmosphere was so awesome that we stayed for a couple of hours to enjoy the music and people-watch. Our first evening in Albuquerque was a strong indication that this city was punching high above its size of a half million people.
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We began our one full day in Albuquerque with breakfast on Central Avenue, which is the name for Route 66 as it passes from one end of the city to the other. There are hip restaurants, intriguing boutiques, and street art along much of the ten miles of Central Avenue as it bisects the city, especially in the central downtown area. We were on a tight schedule but we resolved to return and explore the colorful street on foot.
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After visiting Sandia Peak we drove back towards the center of town to visit the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a complex that is collectively owned and operated by New Mexico's nineteen Indian pueblo tribes. Inside there are conference centers, exhibition halls, and a permanent museum. We were mainly interested in the Native American artists who display and sell their work from booths in the mural-filled courtyard. Many of the artists were from Acoma Pueblo, which we had been prevented from visiting by COVID. There were some similarities to Zuni pottery, but the Acoma creations have a distinctive look due to the particular techniques they use. We were particularly amazed by the intricate patterns one artist created by placing horsehair on his pottery while it is being fired, and we bought a vase and a wedding vessel. The museum was a little dry so we cut that visit short and had a lunch of traditional Pueblo dishes at the Indian Pueblo Kitchen in the main building.
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We returned to Old Town in the hope of finding open galleries and a more energetic scene. The streets were a little more active now and all the businesses were open but it was still a lot quieter than I would have expected. Perhaps the tourism industry was still showing the effects of COVID here more than in other places.
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The galleries in Old Town had some of the most impressive and inexpensive Native American art that we had seen so far. One place had colorful and intricately designed large pieces at prices I couldn't believe, and that was before I realized they were offering an additional 50% off. Since we had just bought the Acoma pottery at the cultural center we weren't in the mood to make purchases but I've since regretted that decision. Several galleries occupied a two-story adobe building that was once a home for unwed mothers. Numerous artists displayed their work here and our favorite was the carved wooden bowls with magnificent grain and turquoise inlay.
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Next we paid a visit to a great second hand bookstore called Downtown Books to stock up on reading material for the rest of the trip. So far we had been doing a pretty good job of keeping the kids off their iPads during the long drives and all the used books were a big help. The vintage store next door was having a sale that spilled out onto the sidewalk, creating a colorful and quirky display.
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The bookstore was just a block from the beginning of Central Avenue. We drove over to 505 Central, Albuquerque's other food hall, but we didn't have much appetite yet so we took a walk down the avenue admiring the quirky architecture and street art. Some of the buildings like the Kimo Theatre date back almost a hundred years while others like The Library Bar and Grill are modern but adopted the whimsical aesthetic of the neighborhood. The overall effect reminded me a lot of the Art Deco neighborhood in my home turf of Miami Beach.
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Enormous, colorful murals adorned many of the concrete walls and building facades on the avenue. They commemorated the history of Route 66, expounded political messages, or displayed abstract themes. Walking down Central Avenue was like touring an open air museum of art and architecture.
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505 Central Food Hall was relatively slow and empty compared to Sawmill Market from the previous night, but the food was actually a little better. The Moonwalk Bar is probably an extremely cool place to hang out on busy nights, and there was interesting abstract art strategically placed throughout the space. We returned home exhausted after a long day of exploration, but we would still have time for another interesting morning in Albuquerque before the short drive to Santa Fe.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 19:11 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Waterfalls and Glaciers: Mývatn


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We made it to Mývatn just in time for our dinner reservation at Vogafjós Farm Resort, a farm that also operated as a hotel and restaurant. We had to walk right by the cow shed to enter the restaurant and the smell confirmed that the farm was in full working order. The food lived up to the restaurant's rating as one of the best in the lake area, especially the sampler plate of Icelandic specialties.
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Despite the excellent food I felt irritated that we hadn't been able to see anything on our itinerary north of Dettifoss. I had marked Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi as optional stops, but was I sure we weren't missing something exceptional? As we ate I studied the map and realized that there was a way we could return to the area and visit those places without compromising our itinerary for the next day. Since we were having an early dinner, we could knock out a couple of the sights around the lake before it got dark and then get out of Mývatn earlier the next day. We could retrace to Rauðhólar and Ásbyrgi and then take the coastal road west through Húsavík. If we didn't dawdle too long at any one place we'd be able to make it to Akureyri for our dinner reservation at 8:30.
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After dinner we wasted no time driving back along the Ring Road to the turn-off for Krafla. This volcanic caldera is famous for the blue pool called Viti at the base of the crater. The eruption that formed the crater is also responsible for the nearby steaming lava field called Leirhnjúkur. On the road to Krafla we passed by an enormous geothermal plant and then parked in a lot right next to the caldera. We could see Viti from the lowest part of the crater rim but decided to walk up the narrow edge of the crater anyway. It was a little scary because of the wind and the steep slopes on either side of the rim, but probably not steep enough for us to fall all the way down into the water. Viti appeared more dark blue than the legendary turquoise, possibly due to the clouds and the lateness of the hour. The area around the crater was another volcanic wasteland dotted with other calderas and small patches of grassland between them.
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On the way back to Mývatn we stopped at the Hverir geothermal area right off the Ring Road. This was more impressive than Seltun from the first day but the lack of a boardwalk made me nervous to take the kids for a stroll among the boiling mudpots. The kids were more than happy to stay with me on the viewing platform because of the powerful sulfur smell and the clouds of annoying midges that were harassing us. Mývatn is actually named for the midges which periodically swarm the entire area around the lake. Some people claim they bite but this is hotly disputed and we didn't feel any bites, but nevertheless they are quite annoying and get into every part of the face including the mouth and eyes. After a while I realized it was preferable to breathe through my mouth and swallow the occasional midge than to suck them into my nose. One way to avoid the issue is with hats that come with nets attached, but out stay in Mývatn was so short that we didn't bother.
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The quickest route to our hotel was along the western shore of the lake. Mývatn was completely different from Lagarfjlót, the lake we had driven alongside in the morning, but no less beautiful. Instead of a mirror-like surface, Mývatn had an irregular shoreline full of little projections and inlets as well as numerous little ponds not far from the main lake. The vegetation around the lake was lush and there were numerous uninhabited islets that were equally verdant. Guesthouse Stöng was another ten minute drive down a dirt road from the main highway. By the time we arrived the sun was below the horizon and the isolated cottages were half buried in the mist, illuminated by the last few rays of sunlight that filtered through the clouds. It was a ghostly sight but we were glad to finally have a place to rest our heads. When we unpacked we found Ian's lost hoodie in the dirty clothes bag and no one would admit to having stuffed it in there. Regardless, we accepted this find as a good omen for the second half of our journey.
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In the morning we had better light in which to take stock of our surroundings. It seemed as though we had stumbled upon another beautiful accommodation in the middle of nowhere. The cottages looked as though they had fallen from the sky into an enormous field of dandelions. The lake was too far away to be visible and the cinder cones that surrounded it were just distant shadows on the horizon. This bucolic environment was a world apart from the volcanic wasteland we had explored the previous night. The only hotel we had stayed at with a more impressive setting was The Garage in southern Iceland.
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After a typical buffet breakfast we got started on our itinerary. We wanted to find the best way to experience the lakeside atmosphere so we drove to the nature preserve Höfði. From the small parking lot a trail led into the wooded area which was surprisingly dense for Iceland. Eventually we reached the shoreline where we could get right up to the clear, aquamarine water and enjoy the curiously shaped little islets that dotted the surface of the lake. I was expecting to be tortured by the midges here but we had no problem with them at all, perhaps because it was so early.
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The turn-off for Dimmuborgir was just a short distance away. This protected area of lava pillars was formed by steam pressure from ground water trapped beneath a pool of lava. The entrance had some elevation which made it a good vantage point to look outward over the lake. There's a lot of local mythology about Dimmuborgir due to the resemblance of the structures to a miniature city. It was quite a long walk from the parking area to the most well-known formations. Kirkjan is a short tunnel whose entrance has an ogee arch shape suggestive of a Gothic church.
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It's strictly prohibited to climb on most of the lava formations due to their brittleness. One exception is the short clamber up to an elevated circular window in a wall of lava that's a favorite for photographs. On the other side of the window is a trail leading to Hverfjall, the largest cinder cone in the lake area. There's a path to the top of Hverfjall but since we had already climbed to the top of the caldera at Krafla we gave that one a miss.
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If I had to do Dimmuborgir over again I probably would have skipped Kirkjan. The walk took a lot of time and the formation was crowded with tourists and not really that impressive. We could easily have spent another day at Mývatn checking out all the different ravines and hot springs or even fishing, but we still had a lot on our plate before our arrival in Akureyri that evening. We bid our farewell to the lake and got back on the road to complete what is known as the Diamond Circle.

Posted by zzlangerhans 03:24 Archived in Iceland Tagged family_travel travel_blog krafla husavik viti tony_friedman family_travel_blog goðafoss dimmuborgir hverir Comments (0)

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Zuni and El Morro


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There's no question that Route 66 is the iconic highway of the American Southwest, but it's more of a nostalgia trip than a true driving adventure. In my opinion, most people bypass the current king of the roads in the region when they stick to I40 between Albuquerque and Arizona. Route 53 in New Mexico, also known as the Ancient Way, proved to be one of the most interesting eighty mile stretches of road we've driven anywhere in the country.
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I was excited about staying at Zuni because it would be the kids' first experience with a Native American reservation and I really wanted them to learn about the culture. Zuni belongs to a group of tribes called the Pueblo, so named by the Spanish due to their distinctive style of multi-family dwellings. In modern parlance the word pueblo now refers to ancient native buildings constructed from earth and stone as well as the modern towns in which the members live. There are nineteen different pueblos in New Mexico with various degrees of openness to visitors. The true name of the Zuni tribe is A’shiwi but they were misnamed by Spanish colonizers who had a poor understanding of their language. As is common with native American tribes, the Zuni adopted the name that they were given. Zuni Pueblo is small but reputed to be one of the most accommodating with a well-regarded hotel, a restaurant with local specialties, and a strong artistic tradition. It was still fairly early in the day when we landed at The Inn at Halona, the only choice for accommodation within the pueblo. The lack of options was not a problem as the hotel is well known for its atmospheric rooms filled with local artwork. The inn was everything we hoped it would be although food options were lacking. We got lunch at the cafeteria in the convenience store attached to the hotel which was very basic. I bought Cleo a T-shirt representing the local school which she loved.
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Most of the commercial buildings in the pueblo were on Route 53 as it passed through the middle of town. Most of the stores were related to Native American crafts in some way. We stopped in one called Turquoise Village that supplied local artists with raw materials and also sold their creations. There was plenty of Zuni pottery, silver and turquoise jewelry, and Hopi kachina dolls on display. The kids were playing with some chunks of coal while I was browsing and before I knew it their hands and faces were covered with black dust. I hadn't had any luck getting a response to my e-mails about visiting local artists so I asked the shop owner if he knew of any who were allowing studio tours. He didn't but a local customer in the store overheard and told me he would ask around for me. I didn't expect anything to come of it but I gave him my number.
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The one decent restaurant in town was shut down, likely due to COVID, which left a Subway franchise and the supermarket. The kids are fine with sandwiches but Mei Ling and I can't stand fast food so we drove out to the big supermarket at the edge of town. On the way we passed the majestic mesa called Dowa Yalanne, or Corn Mountain. The mesa served as a refuge for the Zuni from Spanish colonizers during several conflicts. The supermarket was well-supplied with fruits, loaves of the famous Zuni bread, and some prepared foods. We ate our self-catered dinner on a large outdoor deck on the upper floor of the inn.
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In the evening we took a drive around town. We could see that even though the whole pueblo seemed economically depressed, there was substantial variation in the quality of the homes. Modern homes with a traditional clay brick design were mingled with others largely constructed from plywood and even some trailers. One ubiquitous sight was the hornos, traditional bread ovens that were sometimes arranged in rows of three or four outside even the most basic dwellings.
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In the morning I got a surprising phone call. My acquaintance from the previous day had arranged for us to visit a well-known Zuni potter named Noreen Simplicio, whose apartment was just across the main road from the hotel. We drove over and were welcomed inside by Noreen and her husband. The home was filled with Noreen's pottery as well as the work of other artists. Zuni pottery typically displays dark red and dark brown designs on a white background. Deer and birds are frequent motifs, but we noticed that Noreen also incorporated some non-traditional, playful elements like little frogs that were climbing in and out of the bowls.
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Noreen explained to the kids with the help of videos how she harvested her own clay from a special area close to the river. As more accessible areas became depleted she had to push deeper into caverns under the rock which could be dangerous for inexperienced diggers. She gave the kids some clay to experiment with and demonstrated how she painted her designs on the surface of the pot with a fine brush. She told us that every year there were fewer kids on the pueblo who were interested in continuing the tradition of Zuni pottery, much in the same way that fewer were learning the Zuni language. COVID had also done terrible damage to the population of tribal elders on the reservation. It's possible that in two or three more generations the language, the dances, and the art of the Zuni may have died out completely. We bought a couple of small bowls before leaving, partly to support Noreen and thank her for teaching us about her work and partly to keep us close to the memory of the experience.
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We continued onward on Route 53 until we reached the tiny town of Ramah, where we had lunch at Stagecoach Cafe. This was the only restaurant in town and the locals seemed somewhat confused by our presence. I don't think Route 53 had started seeing much tourist traffic since the end of the most recent COVID wave. It was a cute place with average food.
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There was no answer when we called our B&B so we stopped off on the way to our next destination. The door of the front building at Cimarron Rose was open but no one was in the office. We peeked around the grounds for a bit and didn't see any sign of life. It was still early in the day so we drove onward a little further to the Bandera Volcano, a large cinder cone that was the origin of most of the lava flows in the area. The volcano is on private land and the owners run the site as a tourist enterprise. A wide, spiraling gravel path took us for a half mile up the side of the cone until we reached the crater at the top. Despite the relatively gentle grade it was an exhausting climb.
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Back on ground level another trail led to the ice cave, an underground cavern contain a pool of water that remains frozen year-round due to the critical mass of ice and the lack of air circulation within the chamber. These permanently frozen pools are an occasional feature of lava tunnels even in warm climates. The temperature in the cavern is freezing, of course, but on the platform it felt about the same as standing in front of the refrigerator.
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There was still no answer when we called Cimarron Rose, and once again there was no sign of human activity when we drove back onto the property. At this point there was no cell phone service. This time around I knocked on one of the doors inside the office. A sleepy person who seemed to be a guest opened the door and told me that he didn't know where the owner was, but she was probably around somewhere. I figured we would just have to wait in the car but after another fifteen minutes Mei Ling decided to explore the grounds a little more deeply and eventually turned up the owner doing maintenance in one of the cottages. Our mild annoyance soon turned to delight when we realized what a serenely beautiful place we had found to spend the night. The cottages were colorful and beautifully decorated inside and out with local crafts and Native American designs. There were bird feeders everywhere which were being put to constant use by hummingbirds and woodpeckers. The only restaurant nearby was being renovated so Mei Ling cooked the pasta that the owner had generously provided. We ate on the shady patio surrounded by the gentle buzz of hummingbird wings.
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In the morning the owner brought over a breakfast of blue corn pancakes, scrambled eggs, and fresh fruit that was a welcome fortification for what promised to be a very strenuous morning. Despite the minor inconveniences I decided that if we ever chose to get off the grid entirely for a week, Cimarron Rose would be a top candidate for the location.
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The plan was to retrace our route slightly and hike the Headlands Trail of El Morro. El Morro is an enormous, weathered sandstone bluff that appears to spring out of the desert just south of Route 3 and dominates the landscape. El Morro is a Spanish word that is typically translated into "headland" although this term is generally reserved geographically for projections of land into water. El Morro is probably more accurately described as a bluff. It was named by the conquistadors who discovered there was a permanent pool of fresh water at the base of the cliff. This made it a critical source of water in an arid environment that could be spotted from miles away. Of course, they were hardly the first humans to know El Morro's secret. Native Americans built an enormous pueblo at the top of the bluff seven hundred years ago, although this was abandoned long before the first Europeans arrived in the area. Those ancient Puebloans followed by the Spanish and then Anglo Americans left their marks at the base of the cliff near the water hole in the form of petroglyphs and inscriptions carved into the sandstone.
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I knew from my research that there were two trails at El Morro, an easy paved trial to see the inscriptions at the base of the cliff and a more strenuous trail that ascended to the top of the bluff. My understanding was that the more difficult Headland Trail began where the easy Inscription Trail ended so my idea was to do the easy trail first and then tackle the other depending on the weather and our endurance. That plan fell apart when the ranger at the entrance assumed from our early arrival that we were intent on completing the entire circuit and directed us to what is normally the end of the Headlands Trail. She advised me it was easier to climb the stairs when we were fresh and descend on the switchbacks rather than vice versa. After about fifteen minutes of steady climbing we reached the top of the wide bluff with amazing views of the surrounding countryside.
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The ranger had cautioned us to remain between the parallel lines that marked the trail. We were more than happy to follow that advice since we knew that the bluff was surrounded by tall cliffs that we wanted to keep a healthy distance from. In one or two places the markings were ambiguous and we had to push forward without being completely sure we were on the right track until once again the trail became obvious.
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As we progressed along the trail we realized there was a hidden canyon within the bluff. At the base of the canyon was a remarkable sandstone monolith surrounded by trees. We also encountered the ruins of the ancient pueblo, just a small remnant of what was once an enormous complex that housed more than five hundred. Eventually we rounded the northernmost aspect of the promontory and followed the trail along the part of the bluff that was on the far side of the canyon. Here the only thing that separated us from the precipice was a metal railing with uncomfortably large gaps that a kid could easily slip through. I was quite relieved when we reached the switchbacks and began a steady descent towards the safety of the ground level.
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At the base of the bluff we merged into the Inscription Trail. An easy paved path on a gentle grade took us along the side of the magnificently stained sandstone cliff, first to the rather unimpressive water hole and then to the renowned inscriptions. Seeing a four hundred year old message from an important Spanish explorer brought home the incredible history of the colonization of the area. Somewhere in the eighteenth century the Spanish inscriptions were supplanted by the chiselings of American soldiers and pioneers.
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We continued on Route 53 until it ended at the intersection with I40 in Grants. Although Grants was the largest town we had encountered in New Mexico thus far, it had a quite grim and depressed atmosphere. It's a former Route 66 town without the kitsch and the souvenirs, just tattered old signs and shuttered stores. The industry that keeps Grants running these days is prisons, with three major ones close to the center of town. We ate lunch in Grants out of necessity in a featureless little restaurant that matched the town. The only surprise was a restroom that proudly billed itself as being for all genders.
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El Malpais National Monument is a large area of volcanic landscape between Route 53 and Route 117 that attracts experienced hikers to its caves and lava fields. It's well known for being a dangerous area for those who aren't as experienced or prepared as they think they are. We detoured down 117 to visit the area's most famous feature, a natural sandstone arch known as La Ventana. It was just a short walk on a flat dirt trail to the arch, a relaxing complement to the much more difficult hike we had completed earlier in the day.
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I had another exciting destination on our original itinerary but we weren't able to complete it. Acoma Sky City is a thousand-year-old pueblo located atop a high mesa that remains the ancestral home of the Acoma tribe. I was excited to see the ancient pueblo, the acclaimed views from the mesa, and the distinctive Acoma pottery but the pueblo had been closed due to COVID for many months. I checked online every day leading up to our passage through the area but the pueblo remains closed even four months later as I write. It's something to look forward to if we ever find a reason to return to the Albuquerque area.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:14 Archived in USA Tagged new_mexico family_travel travel_blog family_travel_blog zuni Comments (0)

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