Olympic National Park – Wilderness Coast – PCT Warm up/Shake down

Once I got to Seattle I was glad to hang out with a good friend there I know from Mexico City for a few hours. He hooked me up with a place to crash as I got in so late. We visited REI the next morning and got some great biscuits and gravy at Five Points Cafe. After a stroll down 3rd that made the Denver addicts look like amateurs, I said cheerio to Grant and headed off to Amtrak to meet Jen and her mum on their way back from Portland.

Once we got to Samish Island, we spent the evening eating, catching up chatting planning and packing before our short night’s sleep. The next morning we took a ferry to Port Townsend. It was a short trip across the water but we could see the mountains of the Olympic National Park across the way and suddenly everything felt quite real. This adventure was actually going to happen!

We spent the next several hours traveling bus to bus along the northern Olympic coast, stopping via the Wilderness Information Center and got our passes and information from ranger Brenden.

As soon as we arrived in Neah Bay, a guy from the Makah Reservation stopped in his pickup and offered us a lift without us even sticking out our thumbs. We jumped in the back and he drove down the dusty road that diverted us around a small forest fire, stopping at key spots so we could take shots of the beaches an stacks from his pickup. He dropped us off at the Shi Shi beach trailhead (pronounced Shy Shy) seemingly pretty excited about the fact that I was English shouting to some other hikers “He’s English!” and in return the Russians shouted less enthusiastically that they were Russian.

Our first hitch this summer from the pickup

We set up our tent on Shi Shi beach and we contemplated our coastal adventure of about 50 miles ahead, struggling to cook efficiently, being disorganized with our gear and feeling a bit untested in the outdoors. That’s what this trip was for though – let’s fudge this up and learn from it for the PCT.

Walking along Shi Shi

We settled down as a misty haze rolled in and the sun turned it a dark yellow during sunset. The next day we woke up to an overcast sky that burnt off in a couple of hours and glorious sunshine and beautiful views across the beaches came through. The forecast was basically the same for the next five days: glorious and hot. We looked at our maps and studied the tidetables for the 14th time and decided we had a nice relaxing 8 miles to our next campsite North of Ozette.

We headed off down Shi Shi and hit our first headland with ropes up the side of slopes way too dangerous to climb without this helping hand. We ascended and descended about three of these immense challenges on the first day. The last being the steepest and craziest, jumping off into a new environment. We settled down, feet and body sore and realized this wasn’t going to be a cake walk in the sun we had naively figured.

Jen dragging herself up a headland

The pattern of challenging but really enjoyable and fun days continued with gorgeous sunshine, making this normally wet and grey coast into something that could easily rival Mexico for beach beauty. Each part of the coast is distinct from the last: hard climbs over headlands using ropes, ups and downs to rival any part of the Appalachian Trail, hopping from seaweed covered rock to seaweed covered rock, soft gravel beaches where each step felt like three and easy hard yellow sand where you had to find the sweet spot of give and sink – just above the peak reach of the last wave.

The northern coast Wilderness Trail was hard, really hard at times. We successfully spent 24 days on vacation of beer and food and sightseeing and now my arse was getting kicked by the trail. My swollen Achilles kept badgering me but I was getting it under control with stretches and clearly I didn’t bring enough snacks.

Rocks and more rocks

We took it slow, getting used to the daily routine and doing each step slowly. Walking to get water and filtering it at a painfully slow rate. Washing up and not quite hitting the mark, doing it again. Trying to light a fire and having to start again. Each time things got a little easier and we laughed at our amateurish selves just hours before. Each day got more comfortable and our mileage increased a little. We started at around 8 miles a day and that increased steadily.

The Wilderness Coast is wild and has zero development. I hiked alongside a deer for a while, thousands of crabs dart away as we progressed, an otter came to see us at a water source before diving in two yards away, seals played in the waves next to the shore and we saw at least 50 eagles perching atop of trees and fishing in the ocean. There was even, unfortunately, a washed up and very bloated stinky whale on one beach that looked like it might explode. We had planned on camping right there, so carried on down wind not quite enjoying the aroma.

Further down the coast, we picked up a hitch from the very lovely Maureen and Kate who took us to a store and waited patiently for us before taking us to our trail head. Eventually reaching the end of our line at the Hoh Indian Reservation, after a grey and rainy day before, we were very ready for our motel room and cheeseburgers in Forks.

The next day, resupplied and laundered, we headed back to the trail, this time to the valleys and rainforests of the centre of the park.

Leaving Mexico

I set off from Mexico, having said goodbye to most folks over the previous week and boarded an early morning plane to Seattle via Denver. Jen was already in Washington/Oregon.

I was relieved to take off, having got through the last weeks in Mexico without a major hitch. I was leaving behind a country I know and love having lived there for 11 years and will really miss my peoples but also happy not to have to deal with a lot of things in the city I no longer have the patience for.

I had high hopes for Denver, knowing Colorado was full of nature and hikers. I had 12 hours there before my connecting flight and figured it would be a good opportunity to visit a city few have that I know. I had built it up to be some kind of strange capital of these nature lovers with quirky bars and stores and a bit of an adventurous spirit and an edginess.

I was only in the city itself for about 7 hours so obviously I can only speak for first impressions of LoDo, RiNo and along the river. The people were overwhelmingly friendly and welcoming. I had some really nice interactions with them, though any taste of what Denver is/was in downtown has been razed and replaced with big open streets with literal blocks between shops punctuated by the worrying intrigue that surrounds clearly troubled drug addicts. They were everywhere and that was the edginess of the city I found.

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Confluence Park

The river, a couple of little parks and REI saved the day, people were hanging out, jogging and strolling. I went for a nice long walk down the river trails and watched the world go by. That was cool but I was very eager to move on. I suppose I should’ve ventured further afield and no doubt there is cool in Denver, somewhere, I just didn’t find it.

Oaxaca coast

We finished our trip by heading to probably my favourite place in the world – the coast of Oaxaca. We spent a week in Mazunte, Roca Blanca and Puerto Escondido visiting a good friend whose been living there for the past eight years.

This trip was hot and lazy but we managed to get a decent hike in walking from Mermejita beach, over Punta Cometa, along the beaches and over headlands between Mazunte and Zipolite for lunch at the always phenomenal Piedra de Fuego fish palapa. Hiking in 90* at the beach is pretty tough so we had to start early and stop for beer breaks obviously!

Then we headed over to Roca Blanca and stayed at New Ruins, a great little spot of pure relaxation on the beach just around the corner from the main beach. A heavenly place filled with Great Danes, peacocks and turkeys. Everything’s built with adobe and wood and is the perfect place to escape the heat.

Our cabin in New Ruins

Every morning we would be woken by the resident peacock Marco Antonio climbing to the top of our staircase and piercingly call out over the land. It was fun to make a similar sound and listen to the peacocks and turkeys all respond in unison.

Marco Antonio the peacock

After this relaxing week long trip, we were beat and ready for our coming hike! Back to Mexico City for me for a week of relaxing and goodbyes while Jen is off to WA and OR for a week of family time before I fly up to join her to start our hike in the Olympic National Park on June 8th.

Inland Oaxaca /wa-HAH-ka/

We headed from Villahermosa towards Coatzacoalcos, Tabasco. Another veritable crater of a town; it flickered in the light of huge flames sprouting above the refinery towers. I swore it looked like a desert, at least that’s the memory I chose for it. Iraq circa 2005 is what saw followed by concrete bridges.

The pharmacy acquired helping hand kicked in and took us over the clouds to Oaxaca city via every other city on route first. What a beautifully uneventful journey with the promise of a tlayuda at the end. Mexican buses are like Greyhound with a much smaller chance of being murdered on and bigger seats and more respectable stations.

We got into to Oaxaca and headed for coffee in La Brujula Cafe then on to the market for meat and mezcal. We went to the hottest spot for Mezcal in Oaxaca City in the market and talked to the lady about different mezcales, sampling lots and ultimately going for some sweet hand written label madrecuish mezcal for our coming days in the mountains and at the beach. I think that will be one of the things I’ll most miss about Mexico – this stage of the trip to the Oaxacan coast.

We ate meat and made friends at the end of the long meat alley. You choose your meat combo from an array of sellers. They grilled up our chosen meat as we grabbed salsas and tortillas. (God bless the Oaxacan tortila).

When we meet people, we always tell people where we’re from: Jen from Washington, USA (“oh”) and me from England (“ooh”). We were talking the previous day about the Mexico experience being a little easier when you’re from England so I decided to tell these guys “yeah we’re from England” as a little joke for Jen to see the more positive reactions one receives.

Turned out one of them was a journalist,  Jaime López Cosme (in the red shirt next to me) and he wrote a short interest article about us on a local news website Esta Mañana. He took a shot of us but we had also taken some group photos so didn’t think much about it. Now that little half truth about us both being English has created some semi-fake news. sad! Check out our article!

We then headed over to the bus station to grab our backpacks and skipped on down to get a mini bus up into the mountains to the next stage of our adventure, San Jose del Pacifico. It was a long hot ride for about 3 hours which ended in the clouds and checking into our cabin overlooking the long deep valleys of the Sierra Madre.

San Jose del Pacifico is a funny little town that is known as being a kind of rural Amsterdam in the mountains. We figured we would do a decent hike to the next town over but in the end we left a little earlier so we could get to the beach. We took part in a temezcal sweatlodge and watched the last episode of Game of Thrones. Ate some tlayudas.

Tabasco

Villahermosa is weird and hot. It doesn’t sell beer near the town hall because it’s full of alchoholics and that might put off the occasional tourist. Clearly well past its best, it’s like a hot Cuatro Caminos with a sweaty death river reflecting its way across the map on our wrong side of town. There’s a “video bar” under our hotel whatever that is, what it does mean, however, is that clearly the only guests in the place are positioned on the 4th floor instead of the first to avoid the beat. It was also about 110*. I hated the first couple of hours in Villahermosa. Mixed clothing only sauna.

Villahermosa, however also has the best seafood ever, is cool in the morning with pozol de cacao and has a couple of charming alleys with cinco de mayo trees. There’s a deeply buried charm to it that only an eternal semi-optimist would be able to find. I hated it the day we arrived and felt a light guilt the next day. La Cervicheria de Tabasco is supreme. We stumbled in to the air conditioned dining local and were seated and served in seconds. This place is next level and we’ll forget the shit about VIllahermosa and remember this plate of food instead:

the ceviche

Either way, it wasn’t worth staying. But it was worth eating. We wanted to go back the next day, though it turned out we didn’t have the time. We were heading to the Pueblo Magico in Tabasco, Tapijulapa /tap-ee-who-LA-pah/. It was worth it even though it seems the government of Tabasco doesn’t want you to visit it. We managed to spend about four hours there and saw the confluence of two rivers, bathed in its sulfurous waters, hiked in 110* heat,visited a beautiful mansion and didn’t quite have enough time for lunch. We hiked, I felt strong in 100* but there was no pack.

Off we go to Oaxaca, via Cuatzacualcos… lol

Palenque and Bonampak, Chiapas

After our experience switching off from work in San Cristobal, we moved on to a more active section of our trip with promises of jungle hikes to get us a little practice (!) for our coming PCT thru hike. Hiking has taken somewhat of a back seat the past couple of weeks though we can still feel our recent efforts below our vacation butts.

We took off to Palenque the really really long way round but via smooth sailing roads on a comfortable bus for 8 hours through two scruffy cities, Tuxla Gutierrez and Villahermosa to hit the jungle town of Palenque by mid afternoon. There was another couple who also had clearly not researched the length of the journey like us. They turned out to be a newly married couple Becca and Jam from Oz. We ate pizza and drank mezcal with them later and got some ideas for our coming days in Oaxaca.

Our cabin was in the jungle, on the edge of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city Palenque. I stayed here a decade ago and was glad to see very little had changed since then. Still the rustic, sweaty hippie hang out in the trees with 2×1 cocktails all afternoon, pizzas and the smell of the Californian’s smoke next door. It was 101* and everything was dripping in permasweat.

As we settled down for a good sleep the first night, we heard howler monkeys screaming in the canopy. Imagine an dinosaur who’s irritated with a neighbour and you’d have some idea of what they sound like. A pretty haunting sound and a loud one too.

What was once a building on our improvised jungle tour

The first morning we set off walking up the jungle road to a supposed jungle trail we were told didn’t need a guide to show us the way. This turned out to be the case and we dipped off the trail to explore bat filled tunnels in 1000 year old ruined buildings, now taken over by the jungle, the walls crumbled and covered in earth.

Everywhere you look there are mounds of earth and rock where temples and houses once stood. Spiders, iguanas and other lizards scuttled out of the way while we explored.

After this we arrived in the renovated ruins of Palenque. These have been painstakingly excavated and restored in parts. Only 10% of the city has been fully explored and studied. Most of the site looks like the above photo but the restored parts of the city show its glory in the 7th century.

We had the run of the place and walked around exploring and climbing most of the larger pyramids with our Aussie friends Becca and Jam. By the time we had reached the streams we were hot and bothered and ready for the pool and an ice cold beer.

The next day we jumped on board a local bus and headed towards the Guatemalan border to another Mayan site, one that Jen has always wanted to visit called Bonampak. A smaller site that is famous for some murals that are in pristine condition.

After dealing with a painfully long tour to visit the Canyon of Sumidero, we took our own route via public transport to hopefully avoid other tourists and their scheduled though would mean it costing just as much if not more to get there under our own steam. The combi bus flew alongside the jungle on one side, hurtling over speed bumps and through towns and eventually pulled up at the junction to Bonampak.

The site is 14km deep inside the jungle. In order to arrive we had to hire a local in his car for a couple of hours to take us there and wait for us while we explored the ruins. Antonio took us to a surprisingly small site whose almost run down facilities were quite surprising considering the fame the ruins and its murals have.

The souvenir sellers only budged slightly in their hammocks as we walked past, much more used to groups of 15 plus people arriving in mini buses. Staff weren’t at the entrance to the murals and they had to come out especially for us! We were literally the only two visitors in the entire site.

We shared it with a tree full of Oropendola birds. They have my favourite call of all birds, Something that really has to be heard! Their nests are crazy and amazing too. It reminded me of Belize and hearing several of these birds at once is quite the experience.

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Montezuma Oropendola
The call of the Montezuma Oropendola

After marveling at the birds, we checked out the murals and were suitably impressed by their clarity considering they were painted around the 6th century. They show lots of day to day life for Mayan people and also sacrifices.

After some suitable chin touching and pyramid climbing, we stuffed ourselves with La Vache Qui Rit and headed back to Palenque the way we came, only stopping briefly for the Guatemalan men to be pulled off the bus and frisked before our onward journey. We were heading to Tabasco the next day.

Chiapas, Mexico

After quitting our jobs we have a little more than three weeks to say goodbye to Mexico by visiting some of our favourite places as well as some new spots along the way. We flew south from Mexico City to the state of Chiapas.

I came to Chiapas before, just shy of ten years ago by myself at the end of a chilly December. My main memory is getting more rain in that week than I got on the entire Appalachian Trail. So everything was more or less mine alone for the taking as long as I put on my road worker yellow mac and sucked the weather up. I have a hazy memory of fog and slipping n tripping over cobblestones in this town, San Cristobal. While I appreciated the beauty of the place, I didn’t imagine returning especially as Oaxaca sits so much closer to where I lived the last eleven years, Mexico City.

View from our kitchen

Jen had never visited before and so it was the perfect time to come back with fewer worries of time and money, plus the weather is a whole lot nicer in May. We got a little house on the outskirts of San Cristobal, a big town of 200 thousand nestled in the mountains. Two bedrooms, a living room with pallet and crate sofas, tables, chairs and bookshelves, a simple but perfect kitchen and a dark but wonderful shower house painted in Shrewsbury Town blue and amber. All of these are built around a large terrace with one of the best views in town. We overlook a small valley of farmland tended to by locals. Seems they’re farming cabbages from the pickups that skirt past us when we’re walking into town.

the kitchen

We spent most of our time cooking and resting, drinking wine and not doing too much in the way of preparation for the trail – at least me (Jake) anyway, Jen runs a lot. Just a few short hikes and some vague preparation of gear lists and brainstorming of ideas. We used the pressure cooker to rustle up some really delicious healthy meals, picking up all the ingredients at the end of the street, a three corner crossing with a beer store, a grocery corner and a fruit n veg stand. Perfect to pick up our ingredients.

Our patio

We cooked a whole load of beans and lentils and had some meat free days which got me thinking of at least becoming a flexitarian at times. Too many mouths to feed on this planet to be eating other things with mouths. The terrace where we often ate has humming birds buzzing around the herb and flower garden as the neighbours play banda a little too loud.

Just outside the house is a pretty scabby alleyway, inhabited by the occasional Pox addict (a local booze made on the cheap), the alley’s 200ft high all the way up to the church at the top of the hill at the end of Real de Guadalupe Avenue. A good workout for the mountain climbing muscles that will be all important soon.

Real de Guadalupe

The main avenue has plenty of restaurants, wine bars and the like. Once a day we’d pop out and burn away a couple of hours people watching while sipping cheap wine. We were slightly worried that we had set aside too much time to be in San Cristobal: 8 nights in total. This was far from our worries though as we really enjoyed just chilling out and slow eating basically all day.

El Canyon de Sumidero

We took a couple of day trips. One to the local canyon de sumidero on a speed boat, shooting past crocs and spider monkeys followed by cooling pozol de cacao. Another day we went to the spectacular El Chiflon and hiked high into the hills to see a series of several increasingly large and more isolated waterfalls in ever increasing heat as we climbed out of the jungle. A spectacular day. We felt ready to move on to the jungle after that.