All posts by Raymond Esparza

I think we all like the “idea” of an adventure. Going out and meeting the world head on, simply taking that chance that bit of risk our common sense tells us not to act upon. Or doing something which normally would not be considered among your personality traits; at least how others perceive you. Your inner “closet” desires need to be full-filled. Sometimes, you have to take that flying leap into the unknown. It doesn’t matter if you fall flat on your face and make a fool of yourself, or end up looking like a clown. Feeling that rush of adrenaline through your body, that electrifying sensation of your brain synapses firing off because you just had an experience like no other. Sure your adventure could be a jump out of a plane at 13,000ft., or a deep sea dive, it could even be as adventurous as a once in a lifetime night with a sexy woman you finally achieved the courage to ask out. What ever your adventure may be, don’t just dream about, do it!

Yosemite Valley in October

I have been to Yosemite National Park many times, but never during the fall. The park is much cooler in the evening but the days can be sunny and warm, but you can never predict Mother Nature around this time of the year. However, the fall brings some welcome beauty and colors to Yosemite Valley. Also, there tends to be a lot fewer visitors in the park so the trails were less crowed which for us all, is always a welcome feature.

View of Half-Dome along the Panorama TrailArriving into Yosemite Valley through HWY 41 can be a whole lot of fun if you have a good handling vehicle and are feeling bit like Mario Andretti. The highway has some of the best curves along the way encouraging an ever faster pace; I’m known to have a lead foot. Vehicle traffic during October is much lighter going into the Valley, so I’m sure I would not have been able to zip along the same way during the summer months.

 

Upper Pines Campground

Upper Pines campground was the only site available to reserve for the weekend we wanted to camp. Camping in Yosemite Valley can be much like tail-gate camping. Many campers use camping trailers giving the campgrounds that parking lot look and feel to the site. The individual sites are quite close together so you simply have to hope that your neighbors are quiet and friendly, and aren’t serial killers. But in October there are mostly retirees that just quietly hang-out and go to sleep early. Well, it’s not Animal House but it’s good from a naturalist point-of-view. Peace and quiet in the forest is always welcome. Enjoying the evening sounds of nature is always a great thing until your campsite neighbors decide to turn on their generators; now that’s camping! Lucky for us our neighbors were very conscientious about their generator so every night was peaceful.

 

Yosemite Falls and the Valley

If you are not an aggressive hiker or climber type, Yosemite Valley has many beautiful areas to visit and enjoy. Yosemite Falls is a short walk from the main valley shuttle stop, so most visitors will stop at this site. The shuttle system is handy way to get around the valley, but I found they don’t run exactly on schedule so sometimes you are waiting longer than the 15-20 minutes that the park states.

View of the Merced River in Yosemite ValleyThere are some beautiful meadows in the valley to relax in, have lunch, take a nap, and enjoy views of Yosemite Falls, Half-Dome, and the Merced River that meanders through Yosemite Valley. Since it’s very easy to get around the valley, there will be a lot more people around, but in fall the human traffic is not a problem.

When you come to Yosemite during the summer, you have full rivers and streams with hot dry days, but during the fall you have less water, cooler days, and amazing fall colors to see, so it just depends how you like it.

Yosemite Valley has some beautiful and great features to visit and see, but we always prefer the longer hikes and follow the trails to more distant attractions.

 

Glacier Point

Glacier Point is a great place to get views of Yosemite Valley, Half-Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls. This is where you can start a hike on the Panorama Trail which eventually hooks up with the John Muir Trail. There is a small parking lot at Glacier Point, and there is a shuttle service out of Yosemite Lodge that can take you on a one-way or round trip ride to the point. We paid $25 for a one-way shuttle ride because we were starting our hike along the Panorama Trail and working our way back to the Upper Pines campground. Unfortunately, the first shuttle of the day does not get to Glacier Point until about 10 am, so the early risers will need to have someone drop them off at the parking lot in order to get an earlier start. Even so, the later start still gives you plenty of time complete the hike before it gets dark.

From Glacier Point you get views of the Valley, Half-Dome, Nevada Falls, and Vernal Falls. And from this point you can begin a longer hike along the Panorama Trail and hook up with the John Muir trail and make your way up into Little Yosemite Valley, and further.

 

Panorama Trail

As you walk the Panorama Trail you will see excellent views of the east side of the valley. Half-Dome dominates the background as you descend 1300 feet down to Illilouette Falls which continues past a small tributary and starts to ascend the 800 feet up the next ridge line that will eventually lead you to Nevada Falls and the John Muir Trail.Half-Dome along the Panorama Trail

We did the 8.3 mile hike starting at Glacier Point and looping back to the valley and the Upper Pines campground. The hike had a couple of strenuous sections, but it wasn’t too difficult, and there were plenty of retirees making the same trek, so I think most people would not have too much trouble with the hike. As usual, take plenty of water and some kind of snack or a lunch because the hike could take 5 to 6 hours. If you are staying in Yosemite Valley and are in reasonable shape, I would highly recommend doing the Panorama Trail.

 

Food and Showers

When camping I like cooking over the fire-pit and enjoying the campsite atmosphere. The large bear boxes allow plenty of room for food and coolers, so food storage is not a problem. However, I know some prefer not to deal with cooking and the clean-up afterwards, so there are a couple places to get prepared meals. Yosemite Lodge has a cafeteria like eating area that has decent food at a reasonable price (considering we are in a National Park). It was nice to see the park was not gouging visitors with highly inflated prices. Curry Village will have a more limited menu, and the Yosemite General Store will have groceries and some packaged sandwiches. For me, I think part of the camping experience is the enjoyment that comes from cooking around the campfire with your friends, and just being in the outdoors. Also, there is nothing like the taste of a burger or steak grilled over an open wood fire.

If you feel a bit dirty after your day in Yosemite Valley, there are some showers available in Curry Village. We found that the showers are free unless you need to rent a towel then they will charge you $8 for the towel. We could not find any specific information regarding these showers and after asking around we learned that many people were not aware of the showers, so they were not busy at all.

 

In the end

This was the first time I have visited Yosemite Valley in the fall. I’m glad I did visit during this time of year because the fall colors are simply beautiful, and of course, the smaller crowds make it all much more pleasant. I’m not big on campgrounds that have that “parking lot” feel, but the hikes and views around the valley are well worth it. At this time of year the weather can get a bit unpredictable, but I think we were lucky. The temperatures were in the mid 70’s during the day, and got down to the low 40’s in the evening. So I recommend if you get cold easily, than make sure you have warm clothing and sleeping bag for the night chill, and build a good fire.

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A few days in Barcelona

If you are visiting Spain, Barcelona is definitely a city you need to visit. The large city is filled with plenty of artistic, cultural, and historical sites to experience. I was only able to visit Barcelona for about four days, but I was able to get a good sampling of what the city has to offer visitors. From the airport it is easy to catch a bus into Barcelona. There is a subway system in the city and plenty of buses, so getting around was easy. I found a hostal near Placa de Catalunya, which was convenient to buses and the subway. Near the Barre Gotic area, the Gothic quarter, we found the Hostal Lausanne, which was part of a clean old building surrounded by some much more modern buildings. The staff was friendly and rooms were clean and spacious enough, but just a tad worn. The rates were okay, not great, but considering the good location, and having called nearly a dozen other places without vacancies we were happy enough with the hostal. We were given a triple room for the price of a double, and the place was secure, so we could not complain.

La Rambla - Barcelona
La Rambla – Barcelona

From our hostal we were walking distance to Spain’s famous street La Rambla. Down the middle of this street is a pedestrian walkway and flanked by narrow roads. Spotted up and down this street are restaurants, cafes, street vendors, street performers, newsstands, and kiosks, which became livelier in the evening. It was interesting to walk along this street but it felt more oriented toward the everyday tourist.

Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi
Casa Batllo by Antoni Gaudi

The Passeig de Gracia was only a half block away from our hostal. This large busy street had many businesses, restaurants, retailers, and cafes. It was a nice walk along this street observing the Spaniards carrying on with their daily lives. Along this street can be found a couple of Antoni Gaudi’s famous architectural works: Casa Batllo and La Pedrera (Casa Mila). You really must see these structures. We were unable to enter the Casa Batllo at the time of our visit because there were some special preparations going on inside for an event that evening. However, La Pedrera was readily open for visits allowing us to see one of Gaudi’s custom apartments and go up to the roof of the building to see some creatively designed chimneys, windows, and walkway structures. From the roof of the building you are also able to get a wonderful view of the city and see the La Sagrada Familia Temple in the distance.

La Sagrada Familia Temple is one place you cannot miss. The awe-inspiring spires of the temple reaching high to the sky are an amazing sight. The temple is still under construction and will continue to be so for many years more, but you are allowed freely to walk around the completed sections. The whimsical and futuristic look of this temple demonstrates how Antoni Gaudi, considered part of the Modernist style (Art Nouveau), was so far ahead of his time. North of Gracia is Parc Guell where Gaudi designed a park with many structures incorporating his signature artistic designs, such as the Hansel and Gretel-style gatehouses. To get to Parc Guell take the metro to Lesseps and from there it is about a 15-minute walk to the park. Another Gaudi site worth a visit is Palau Guell, which is just a couple of buildings east of La Rambla. This building is the only Gaudi house that is completely open to the public. If you enjoy the art of Picasso then you must visit the Picasso museum. It is well laid out and has many of his most famous works on display. The museum is inside a group of medieval stone buildings, surrounded by small art shops selling Picasso reproductions. The museum is closed on Mondays and free on the first Sunday of the month. When you are finished with the museum, walk over to El Xampanyet on Carrer de Montcada south of the museum, for some delicious tapas and cava (champagne). It is a small place with tiled walls, a friendly staff, and reasonable prices.

La Sagrada Familia
La Sagrada Familia – Barcelona

Many of our lunches and dinners were at tapa bars. This turned out to be one of the better ways to save money on food. The tapas varied from place to place, but no matter where you were the tapas disappeared fast, so if you were hungry you had to be quick. Some of the tapa bars were on the honor system to determine how much to charge you. One place I visited counted the number of toothpicks you had left over on your plate in order to calculate your bill.

The nightlife in Barcelona is varied so there is something for all tastes. I am not the night clubbing type so I cannot advise you on that, however if you enjoy having a drink and listening to live music, I can recommend a visit to the Jamboree in Placa Reial. This club has Jazz and Funk groups, and I was fortunate to see Marc Miralta and his Flamenco jazz group perform. The Marc Miralta group combines traditional Jazz pieces, and on this night mainly Thelonious Monk compositions arranged to the rhythms of Flamenco and Latin Jazz.  The club is small and cave-like with a good sound system, but was not too loud. Beware smoking is legal inside so be prepared to breathe it all in, remember this is Europe.

One day I went up to Montjuic, the hill overlooking Barcelona from the southwest giving you a great view of the Barcelona bay. In this area is the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya and Fundacio Joan Miro. Some of the surrealist works of Joan Miro are on display in the museum and are worth a look by anyone who considers themselves an art connoisseur. I found these museums enjoyable and informative, especially the art of Joan Miro. I took the bus to get to Montjuic, but there is a funicular that goes up and down the hill, or the teleferic (cable car), which I rode down from Montjuic and saw the city from a different angle.

Since I was only in Barcelona for a few days, there was many other places I wanted to see, but you know how that goes…so much to see and so little time, well maybe on the next visit.

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Visiting Koh Samui, Thailand

Koh Samui is located south of Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand about 31km east of the Ang Thong National Marine Park. Koh Samui is Thailand’s third largest island and is surrounded by 80 smaller islands. About a dozen flights a day arrive from Bangkok and feed this island with a steady flow of tourist. I wanted to save money so I took the evening train to Surat Thani so I could sleep during the 11 hour trip from Bangkok. Once at the train station you will need to catch a bus for the short ride to the boat pier where you will be able to catch a boat to the Na Thon dock on Koh Samui. There are usually plenty of other travelers following the same route to the island so it is easy to figure out which way to go.

View of Chaweng beach from the southern tip.
View of Chaweng beach from the southern tip.

Upon arrival at the Na Thon dock in Koh Samui, I went straight to a motorcycle rental shop. The island is not very large, 247 sq. km., and one paved road encircles the whole island with a few side roads that lead into the interior, so I figured a motorcycle would be an excellent way to get around. I was using an internal frame backpack, so my luggage was not a burden while riding, just strap it on, drop the bike first gear, and I was off.

The motorcycle was a small 100cc bike, which is sufficient for the small island, and I was able to get a good rate for three days. With a motorcycle I was able drive around the island at my leisure stopping wherever I wanted to explore. It was handy to make multiple stops when I was first trying to find a room. Renting in Na Thon is cheaper and convenient since I would be catching another boat from the same pier in few days.

Interesting rock formations on Koh Samui.
Interesting rock formations on Koh Samui.

Koh Samui is a popular destination especially along the Chaweng beach area (northeast side of the island), which is were I planned to stay. After many inquiries I finally found a good place on the southern tip of Chaweng. This place had palm-thatched bungalows, roomy, with views of the Chaweng beach coastline. I had a mere 40-foot walk from my room and I was swimming. The room was simple with my own shower and a porch to lounge about. The beach area was picture postcard perfect, with an inviting blue-green ocean to enjoy. Being away from the main commercial strip in Chaweng was a good idea because it is noisy until all hours of the night in the restaurant and bars. Unless of course that is your taste, then that is the place to be. I however like to enjoy all the tranquility the beach and ocean have to offer, and be able to sleep when I want without blaring music and loud voices of inebriated tourists.

Popular rock formations on Koh Samui.
Popular rock formations on Koh Samui.

One day I rode out to see the Grand Mother Rock and Grand Father Rock (Hin Yai and Hin Ta). These are about 5 miles south of Chaweng along the coast. Some maps will label them as Wonderful Rock. These are natural rock formations that simulate the male and female genitalia. Believe it or not, these rocks are real and are very close to each other, coincidence…hmm. Well, they do appear natural and they do attract many curious visitors (See the photos and guess which is the father and mother…I think you will figure it out). I thought it is worth the visit and the surrounding beach is beautiful. There are the usual souvenir shops and a few restaurants nearby. After about an hour here it was time to jump on the motorcycle explore more of the island.

Since I was using a motorcycle I was able to follow some of the dirt trails to the top of the mountain of Koh Samui. From the top you get a panoramic view of the island. When walking up in this area keep your eyes open because there are scorpions around. This viewpoint was inaccessible by car or bus; only a motorcycle or walking would get you there.

View from above Koh Samui.
View from above Koh Samui.

Koh Samui is the place for swimming, diving or beach lounging. If you enjoy the beach communities this island is recommended. There are numerous beaches in all price ranges. If you just want to party or find a quiet beach bungalow, you will find it here.

Back to the dock to catch a boat to Koh Pha Ngan.

View more photos of my Thailand trip.

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