Lauterbrunnen Valley & Murren, Switzerland

 

Snuggled up against the Alps, Switzerland is bordered by Germany, France, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. Not only is it one of the richest countries in the world according to GDP, but it also has the highest wealth per adult of any country in the world.

It’s two largest cities, Zürich and Geneva, have been ranked as having the second and eighth highest quality of life in the world.

But Lana and I weren’t there to visit the cities.

We had a specific mountain village in mind, Mürren.

From Zürich, we traveled by way of Berne and Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen. At Lauterbrunnen, we connected to an aerial tramway that quickly climbed its way up the side of  a cliff, presenting a spectacular, storybook view of the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Mürren is a traditional Walser mountain village, unreachable by public road. The village sits atop a jaw-gapingly steep crest of the Lauterbrunnen Valley, offering unparalleled views of the Bernese Oberland. The towering peaks of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau proudly jut out from the Swiss glaciers, briefly revealing their peaks when the weather is clear.

It’s one of my favorite places on Earth.

And for the few hundred active BASE jumpers in the world, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is a paradise of easy access and multiple exit points. There are sixteen distinct jump spots for BASE jumping, conveniently rated for their tracking and wingsuit difficulties here. Don’t think I’ll need to consult that list anytime soon.

We watched BASE jumpers exit the aerial tramway and jog down a nearby hill. Last year, 13 people died BASE jumping just in the Lauterbrunnen Valley.

Later that morning, we took the Jungfraubahn up and around the valley to Kleine Scheidegg, hopping off the train and donning our backpacks.

From Kleine Schiedegg, we hiked 4-5 hours up to the base of the Eiger’s north face, one of mountaineering’s most iconic climbs and a challenging and sometimes fatal feat even for the world’s best mountaineers. The Eiger’s concave face occasionally punched through the clouds, presenting a stark and imposing landscape.

That night we celebrated with one of Switzerland’s heartiest dishes, Raclette.

Raclette cheese is melted in front of an open fire. Someone regularly scrapes off the melting side of the cheese, serving it with small, firm potatoes, gherkins, pickled onions and sometimes dried meat.

The next day, we hiked what’s known as a via ferrata, Italian for “iron road” and a popular type of protected climbing route found in the Alps and a few other spots around the world.

The essence of a via ferrata involves a steel cable which runs along the route, periodically fixed to the rock every 10 to 30 feet. Using a special via ferrata kit, climbers can secure themselves to the cable, scrambling up and down iron rungs, pegs, carved steps and even ladders and bridges.

This particular via ferrata was rated a K3. It was steep and dropped off 1800 ft. straight down at points.

The suspension bridge was one of my favorite parts.

If you like fresh mountain air, one of the most topographically stunning landscapes on Earth, infinite hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter, BASE jumping and other extreme sports and hearty farmer feasts, then Switzerland is the country for you.

This last photo is of Gimmelwald, on a final hike back up to Mürren.

Until next time, Switzerland.

Iceland

Lana and I left on a Thursday night, on Icelandair’s red-eye out of Boston.

We landed in Iceland around 6:00a. It was too early for the bus, so we lounged around Keflavik International Airport for a couple of hours. I fell asleep in a contorted position across two chairs, while Lana made a discovery.

She found Skyr!

Skyr is a cultured dairy product, similar to strained yogurt, that has been part of Iceland’s culinary history for over 1000 years. It’s yummy, and healthy. Lots of protein, very little fat and sugar. Tastes like Greek yogurt but has a smoother consistency.

At 8:30am, we took a bus to the Blue Lagoon.

Due to its proximity to the airport, the Blue Lagoon is one of the most visited sites in Iceland. It’s marketed as a geothermal spa. Here’s how it works:

The lagoon is a man-made lagoon which is fed by the water output of the nearby geothermal power plant Svartsengi and is renewed every 2 days. Superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon for recreational and medicinal users to bathe in. – Wikipedia

So basically, a large outdoor pool that’s infused with silica and sulphur, heated to around 100 degrees. Good for the skin!

Later that morning, we took a bus into Reykjavik. Lana had rented us an apartment just off the small capital’s most popular street, Laugavegur. Believe it or not, this small and cozy one-bedroom apartment was cheaper to lease than Reykjavik’s backpacker hostel.

Later that night, we hopped on a snorkeling tour of Silfra, a tectonic rift caused by the divergence of the North American and Eurasian plates. Silfra runs through a lake, some of whom’s rift fingers offer phenomenal underwater visibility. Silfra is fed by cold, clear glacial water. By the time that water melts off from the glacier and snakes its way down into the lake, it’s between 50 and 100 years old.

Ian, our snorkeling guide, is an Englishman who spent nine years in the military and has since forged a globe-trotting career in scuba diving. He’s been diving all over the world and recently came from a stint in Thailand.

Ian helped us put on our dry suits. He said that the tightness around the neck should feel about as strong as a ficticious dwarf strangling you. Made sense to me. He also encouraged us to periodically take our snorkels off to swig a few gulps. I obliged his request.

Underwater, the Earth cracks open into a rocky abyss, and the algae looks like green Silly String.

The next day, Lana and I explored Reykjavik. It was crowded. Many folks had come in from around the country for Reykjavik Culture Night, an annual celebration with music and beer and hot dogs and all kinds of Icelandic fun.

We walked around the city. We ate hot dogs. We watched part of the Reykjavik Marathon. We walked around a lake and witnessed German bachelor party shenanigans. I photographed a stilted juggler.

Lana and I ate curried lobster soup and walked around the old harbor. We walked into Hallgrímskirkja church.

Later that night, we met up with a friend of mine who was in Reykjavik for the race. After a series of White Russians at a Big Lebowski-themed bar, the night blurred into a series of hot dogs and beer, fireworks and electronic music. Dare I saw we danced the night away.

The following morning, Lana and I followed a popular tourist route to the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss , and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, where we saw the Strokkur geyser intermittently erupt.

It was an educational trip. We learned, for example, that:

  • The Icelandic horse has a fifth gait, the tölt. Also, once an Icelandic horse leaves the island, it is not allowed to come back. Non-Icelandic horses are not allowed into the country.
  • More than half of Iceland’s population does not deny the existence of elves. In fact, as new roads are lain, en elf expert is summoned to the scene. If the right evidence presents itself, the asphalt road will be rerouted to careen around the elf habitat.
  • At one point it was illegal in Iceland to own a dog.

On our last full day, Lana and I took a glacier and waterfall tour. The waterfalls are wild to approach. Completely isolated from other remarkable geology, they dominate the surrounding landscape, a seemingly endless and brooding blend of grays and greens.

On the glacier, I chatted with our guide, Otti, about mountaineering and ice climbing opportunities in Iceland. “Winter is a good time for us mountain lovers,” he said.

It wasn’t winter, but I having a pretty good time.

Giddy up.

Buenos Aires, Argentina: Boca Juniors, Steak and a Cemetery

Buenos Aires is a stunning city, rich in colonial and political history, chock-full of trendy art and fashion and baked empanadas. Its cheap wine and funky atmosphere are two of many reasons why its one of the most relaxed and hip metropolitan areas in the world. I was fortunate enough to spend my time romping around the city with a handful of friends. Some were from home and traveling along. Some were living temporarily as expatriates. Some were new friends, ones I met along the way. Below are a few images from my trip.

In the Retiro district, the British Clock Tower stands tall. Retiro is known for its high-end residences, transportation terminals and five-star hotels. This tower was a gift from the local British community and was inaugurated in 1916.

One morning, I had a meeting in Recoleta. With a healthy dose of green space, stylish statues and plazas and luxurious apartments, Recoleta is another popular district for the affluent. It’s famous for its cemetery, which caught the corner of my eye during the meeting. Before I headed back to the hotel to write up my report, I walked over to explore.

The Recoleta Cemetery houses some of Argentina’s most iconic figures—Eva Perón, Raúl Alfonsín, and several former presidents. I really enjoyed the layout. It was eerie and symmetrical and architecturally stunning.

I wasn’t looking for anything specific. Caffeine was seeping through my veins, and I needed to let the mind wander. I walked around a lot. I took pictures and turned corners. I found a textual summary of the cemetery’s history and read about neo-classical gates, the monks of the Order of the Recoletos and a nineteenth-century yellow fever epidemic. The cemetery contains space for 4800 ground-level vaults.

The Facultad de Derecho, or School of Law, at the University of Buenos Aires. It was under construction, but that didn’t stop some friends from sprinting up its steps. The University of Buenos Aires is Argentina’s largest educational institution, and one of Latin America’s most prestigious.

In La Boca district, the Boca Juniors are one of the Argentina’s most successful sports clubs. The day before I left for Uruguay, I was fortunate enough to catch a soccer game. At the end of the game, stadium officials (and local police) facilitated traffic by staggering our exits. Across the stadium are a compact section of Boca Juniors fans, disparaged from the 4-1 loss. The rest of the stadium is empty, but the Boca Juniors fans have not yet been authorized to leave.

At Cabañas en las islas, I indulged in the most toothsome rib-eye of my life. It literally, I mean literally, fell apart in my mouth. Argentina, where steaks are an art form, has the highest per capita meat consumption in the world. With its fertile grasses and ideal climate, no hormone shots or special feeds are necessary. The meat is naturally divine.

El Ataneo Grand Splendid is one of the most well-known bookstores in Buenos Aires. As you might be able to tell from the photograph, it originally opened as a theater in 1919. Eventually, the seating capacity of 1,050 gave way to bookshelves. Where the stage once was, an elegant café serves up gourmet coffee and pastries. While I only had a few days in Buenos Aires, I enjoyed my initial impressions, enough to warrant future trips. Anyone care to join me? On Friday, stay tuned for an update from Uruguay. Hope you enjoyed!

Tour do Brasil: São Paulo, Manaus y Rio de Janeiro

What a trip, folks.

I recently returned from a cost-of-living assignment in Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay. I was gone for a little under a month and visited five different cities, São Paulo, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. It was my first time traveling in this part of the world, and I had a whopping fun time.

In this first of three travel updates this week, I’ll highlight some of my favorite experiences in Brazil. I’ve been trying to take more images while traveling, so I’ll be focusing these three updates around photography.

São Paulo

São Paulo, the world’s seventh largest metropolitan area, is fast-paced, noisy, graffiti-splotched, chock-full of Japanese restaurants and teeming with the vibrancy of a modern, urban Brazil. This is a view from my hotel room, just off of Avenida Faria Lima.

In the early twentieth century, Italian immigrants established a presence in the south and southeast of Brazil. One of their many influences is mortadela, a heat-cured cold cut made from finely hashed pork sausage, deftly spiced and often eaten for lunch.

I spent most of my time working and didn’t capture the kind of ethos I normally seek out in a new city, but I was fortunate and connected with some great people. Kaji, a friend of a friend, took me out to try açaí, a fruit native to Brazil, chock-full of protein and antioxidants. It was served cold, with granola and peanut bits. I loved every bite.

Kaji took me back to his house, where we tried cachaça, a liquor made from fermented sugarcane. It’s the most popular distilled alcoholic beverage in Brazil and this particular brand tasted like a soft whisky, neutral at first but warm and slightly spicy on the way down. We watched a local football game, and I met his parents and sister.

That night, we went out for pizza and beer, and the next day, Kaji’s sister, Juliana, drove me around São Paulo’s various neighborhoods. We ate traditional foods for lunch, darted around various shopping areas and swung by the Football Museum which, much to our dismay, was closed for the day.

A big thank you to both Kaji and Juliana for being excellent hosts! Hope to see you both again.

Manaus

In Manaus, the weather was equatorial and Amazonian, hot and humid, with the occasional afternoon bout of precipitation. I hired a translator/driver, Luciano, to help with some phone calls and real estate meetings. A few years ago, Luciano was employed by CBS as a production assistant when they were using the Amazon as a set for Survivor. I pressed Luciano for show secrets, but he was too loyal to give anything up.

For lunch one day, we ate the freshwater tambaqui fish with manioc flour, and I sampled four or five different kinds of bananas. To drink, we shared Guaraná, a popular soft drink.

Some of the more popular soft drinks in Brazil are guaraná-flavoured. Guaraná is a climbing plant, native to the Amazonian Basin. Its fruit contains twice the amount of caffeine found in coffee beans. This particular brand of fizz, Baré is only available in Manaus.

Compared to São Paulo, Manaus is quiet. Because it was raining, I missed out on the confluence of the Negro and Amazon Rivers. I did get a chance, however, to walk along the Amazon.

Just down the hill from the Hotel Tropical, Manaus’ Negro River feeds into the Amazon River. Many people use Manaus as a launch pad for Amazonian tourism—fishing trips, tree climbing, jungle lodging and the like.

The Teatro Amazonas is a replica of the Palais Garnier (or Grand Opera House) in Paris. It was built in the late nineteenth century during the rubber boom, constructed with European resources—steel walls from England, furniture from Paris and roofing from Alsace.

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro is a breathtaking city. I could wax poetic for pages and pages on its landscape, its people, its beaches and bars and nightlife.

I spent most of my time with Gabriel, another friend of a friend that was kind enough to lend me his expertise and language ability around town. Great company, wouldn’t have had nearly as fun of a trip without his help.

Ipanema Beach, the sexiest in the world, home to bossa nova, clean surf and teeny bikinis. Because I got to Rio de Janeiro so early in the day, I was able to catch the last few minutes of a Friday sunrise.

I saw a second sunrise this trip, after staying out all night at Rio Scenarium, one of the coolest event spaces I’ve ever seen. Three floors, live samba music, enough room to hold two thousand people, a cool and funky, antique-rich atmosphere.

Paulinho, my driver and tour guide for the day. If anybody is looking for an apartment to rent in Rio de Janeiro—for the 2014 World Cup, for the 2016 Olmpics, for a few nights in one of the world’s most beautiful cities—Paulinho promises to offer a great rate.

Sugar Loaf mountain presents panoramic views of what locals call the marvelous city. It can be accessed by cable car and is about 5 miles from Copacabana Beach.

Helicopter tours of Rio de Janeiro are a popular way to see the city, its beaches and favellas, or slums. This image was also snapped from Sugar Loaf. In the distance, Christ the Redeemer.

Tourists atop Sugar Loaf take in a scenic view of Copacabana Beach, one of the world’s most famous stretches of sand.

Christ the Redeemer, made of reinforced concrete and soapstone, stands 130 feet tall and is considered the second largest Art Deco statue in the world. It was constructed in the earlier twentieth century and stands as an iconic watchdog over Rio de Janeiro.

A closer view of Christ the Redeemer. Due to its position over the city, the statue endures strong winds and rain and must frequently be restored.

Alright folks, hope you enjoyed. On Wednesday, a similar update from Buenos Aires.

Malaysia: 17 Images from Penang and Kuala Lumpur

Hi folks.

It has been six weeks since my last update. I would apologize, but with all the blogs and emails and distractions on the Internet superhighway these days, I’m sure you appreciated the lull. I know I did!

With that said, I have all kinds of fun plans for 2011. Before I get ahead of myself, though, I’ll be taking this week to post images and stories from my most recent survey trip to Southeast Asia.

First stop, Malaysia!

Penang, Malaysia

Penang’s finest coffee, sold at The Coffee Tree. Walk in and try 10+ flavors like charcoal grill, hazelnut and tiramisu, as well as a durian chocolate, dried fruit and a number of other treats. Free samples. Yes.

Norman worked in the shipping industry for 20+ years as a branch manager for UPS, living in Mexico for a while. For the last three years, he has been working as a tour guide. A great companion, very knowledgeable and passionate about Penang.

View of Penang from the Kek Lok Si Temple, where a 120ft tall buddha, made entirely of bronze, overlooks the island’s coast.

The aroma of incense permeates the halls of the temple.

The Temple of 10,000 Buddhas. The conical statue in the middle of the image is a series of smaller Buddhas.

At Penang’s Snake Temple, pit vipers–docile from the incense–lounge freely in the plants and shrubs.

Nasi Lemak, the “national heritage” of Malaysia. Roasted peanuts, dried anchovies, coconut rice, a hard-boiled egg, sambal (a spicy sauce) and chicken.

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Jalan Alor, an entire street of cheap and tasty hawker food. Open-air chairs and tables make it a great place to people watch, drink and socialize with both locals and foreigners.

At the Morino Kaze fish spa, where “Dr. Fish” from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran nibble off the dead skin and bacteria from your feet. A thirty minute session of the tickles. Supposed to accelerate blood circulation and promote metabolism.

Little India, full of music and fountains and lights, was gearing up for the Deepavali (Diwali) holiday.

In Little India, roses, curry houses, silk and textile stores, frame and bridal shops and jewelry shops come together in a wild, cramped and colorful atmosphere.

Outside the Batu Caves, a limestone hill with a series of caves and cave temples. 272 steps–I counted them all.

Inside the Batu Caves, monkeys scatter about.

A view of the KLCC park from the Petronas Towers Sky Bridge.

From the other side of the Sky Bridge, one the Petronas Towers hugs the right side of the image.