Fun From the Heights: Montaña Redonda

Aura swinging on the Montaña RedondaThe Dominican Republic is a country shimmering with a beauty that makes people fall in love. It is home to beaches that turn the heads of its visitors, with several considered amongst the best in the world. While it is true that this paradise has crystal-clear waters and white sand, the Dominican Republic is more than beaches. This Caribbean island has a series of places that frame stunning views, sending your jaw crashing to the floor. Places such as these show the unique side of this tropical paradise. One place that shows what the island is made of is the Montaña Redonda.

Location

You will find Montaña Redonda (Round Mountain) in Miches. This is a municipality in the province of El Seibo which is located in the eastern region of the Dominican Republic.

The best way to reach Montaña Redonda is by vehicle. Many people arrive by bus since Montaña Redonda is a popular destination offered by many of the island’s tour packages.

If you choose to drive to Miches yourself, be mindful on the way. The road has as many curves, twists, and turns as it does signs. Visit Montaña Redonda early in the day in order to leave Miches before dark to reduce the possibility of an accident.

Gorgeous farmland.

Once in Miches, arriving at Montaña Redonda is easy. With a GPS, people can enjoy access to the best views. You need to go up the mountain in a four-wheel drive as it’s too big a job for a smaller car. When getting to the base, there is a sort of taxi service to ferry you up the mountain, starting at $5.

What to do on Montaña Redonda

Once on top of the mountain, one of the first things to admire is the beautiful landscape that the height of the place offers. People can see all the green valleys famous in that part of the country. The natural environment is one of the greatest attractions of the place.

Apart from appreciating the flora, the Montaña has swings as part of the entertainment for visitors. When swinging above all the trees in the valley, a person can feel like they are falling. Fortunately, there is nothing to worry about; they are safe. Also at the top are hammocks where visitors can lie down and rest while taking in the views.

It is important to bring water and use good sun protection. At the top of the mountain, the sun is very strong and there’s a good chance of getting a sunburn. If you forget to pack a snack, no worries. On top of the mountain, there is a restaurant that specializes in a dish called Moro de Guandules con Coco. This is rice prepared with coconut milk and pigeon peas, something very typical here. Fried fish is another popular item on the menu. Besides juices and soda like Coca-Cola, people can drink the Dominican beer called Presidente. The prices are affordable — $8 and above will fill you up in style.

Something that all visitors usually do when they arrive at Montaña Redonda is to take pictures, but from a different perspective. The photographs look like you are flying over the mountain as you play on the swing. There are people in the mountains who will take your photo for you so you can get the best shot.

What other activities can be done while on Montaña Redonda?

After having enjoyed the natural beauty from the vantage point of Montaña Redonda’s peak, there are plenty of other activities Miches offers. These include Playa Esmeralda. This virgin beach is one of the most secluded in the entire country. To get to the beach, it is advisable to use a four-wheel drive vehicle since the road is not in very good condition. Nonetheless, it is still worth the journey. After a very hot day on Montaña Redonda, swimming in crystal clear water and sunning yourself on the white sand is an excellent way to end a stay in Miches.

A Dominican Republic beach with white sand and blue waters

by Aura De Los Santos

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

Ed GagnonEdmond Gagnon grew up in Canada. A retired detective, Ed now travels the world between writing books. One of the most unique places he’s visited on his journey was Vietnam. In this quick preview, Ed shares seven reasons to visit Sa Pa, Vietnam, which he’s written about in his book, A Casual Traveler

Top Seven Reasons to Visit Sa Pa, Vietnam

When it comes to traveling, I usually venture out on my own to explore new places. In the case of Sa Pa, in Vietnam, I booked a no-brainer packaged excursion from my hotel in Hanoi. Not able to read or understand the language, I felt it was the sensible thing to do. The trip included all travel arrangements, lodging, and two days of trekking in the Hoang Lien Son Mountains, just south of the Chinese border. 

After a snafu on the overnight train and a shuttle bus kerfuffle, I found myself standing on the balcony of my Sa Pa hotel. The hotel balcony overlooked the mind-blowing Muong Hoa Valley, nestled in the highest mountains in Vietnam. I found it hard to imagine what I was about to experience hiking this remote alpine paradise. 

A Unique & Exotic Place

People say that Vietnam is a unique and exotic destination to explore and they are right. But if you really want to see a truly special place, travel 350 kilometers northwest of the capital city, Hanoi. From there, Sa Pa can be easily reached by bus or train. It’s the last Vietnamese outpost, before Lao Cai, a city on the China border. 

Sa Pa is a popular trekking base. Its 10,000 inhabitants consist mostly of people from the Hmong, Tay, and Dao hill tribes. Their villages are scattered throughout the remote valley. Some are only accessible on foot or by serious all-terrain vehicles. No paved roads exist between the hamlets. Much of what is needed is carried in wicker baskets by the local women. 

A photo of some of the village deliveries

Strolling the main streets in Sa Pa is like walking backwards into time. Uniquely clad women line the sidewalks selling their hand-crafted goods — some with woven baskets and others with colorful blankets, tablecloths, and placemats. Some, wearing the classic straw lampshade hats, sell fresh produce grown locally.  

Mountain Trekking

I’m not what you’d call an avid hiker, but when I saw the pictures and read about trekking through the mountains around Sa Pa, I knew it was an adventure I couldn’t pass up. The agents told me in advance that the hike was fairly rigorous and certainly not for the faint of heart. My guide gave me a taste of what I was in for on the afternoon of my arrival. She called it a warm-up, a short jaunt through town along paved roads and easy paths.

The half-day trek seemed easy at first, mostly because it meandered downhill. We walked along a ridge on the edge of town, taking in awesome views of the valley below. Lam allowed me a beer break at a cute little village café where I gawked at the huge mountains that marked the border with China. At this point, my guide sent a woman in our foursome back to the hotel. She’d gotten drunk from a hidden canteen she carried, and my guide was afraid she might fall down the mountain. 

The hike back to the hotel was a bit harder because it was all uphill. The incline made my calf muscles tingle, and the thinner air at that elevation had me breathing heavy. I felt proud upon the completion of my half-day hike. Nonetheless, my guide, Lam, burst my bubble saying it was easy and the full-day trek the next day would be much harder.  

The Real Deal

I awoke to fog so thick I could barely find Lam outside the front doors of my hotel. It was 9 AM, and upon seeing me she said, ‘we go now’. Walking through the low-lying clouds reminded me of entering a steam bath. I heard roosters crowing but couldn’t see anything on either side of the wet and slippery path. Some local kids tried to sell me a walking stick, but I was clueless as to what lay ahead and didn’t buy one. 

It didn’t take long to get off the beaten path, a place where only mountain goats and experienced locals trekked. I found myself balancing on the edge of soggy rice paddies and figured it was only a matter of time before I fell into one. Often, I lost sight of Lam because of my slow pace, only to find her further along the path waiting for me. I tripped and stumbled over loose boulders and rocks. Lam told me my feet were too big. 

Hungry and soaked from sweat, I eventually made it to our lunch stop. It was a picnic area with a covered patio and outdoor kitchen, perched on the edge of a gorge. I heard what sounded like rushing water but the fog obscured anything below me. An eerie-looking cable bridge shrouded in fog led to the other side of the river. We ate a fresh salad and a tasty chicken stir fry for lunch.  

Amazing Scenery

After lunch, we headed across the bridge and into another valley. Like a bedsheet being drawn back, the fog slowly retreated, revealing bright green rice paddies built on terraces that climbed the side of the mountains. Puffy cotton ball clouds sat atop the rocky peaks, crested by powder- blue sky. It was rural and rugged and wickedly wonderful all at the same time.   

Oxen and Water Buffalo grazed in fields and fat pigs played in muddy pens. Village men used hand tools to chisel and carve new terraces into the mountainside for their rice paddies. Dirty-faced and bare-bottomed children chewed on sugar cane and played, oblivious to the large and sweaty white man grunting and puffing on his way by. 

Two village children

Colorful Hill Tribes

The indigenous people were more colorful than the scenic valley they called home. Lam explained to me how at the age of 12, their culture expects women to weave, sew, and dye the materials to make their own clothes. The deep red and indigo colors may seem haphazard to a stranger but each village has their own particular outfits, some including headdresses or knee socks. I saw one woman stirring a vat of indigo dye, another weaving a basket, and plenty of others carrying them to their villages.

The men work the fields while the women tend their children and homes. The average household comprised itself of nothing more than a grass and mud hut, some built with wood and corrugated metal that villagers hauled up the mountain manually. Lam showed me her village and checked in on her kids while I snooped around town and took some pictures. 

She’d been guiding for seven years, picking up as many languages just by conversing with trekking tourists. She only earned a few dollars a day and she worked seven days a week. Nonetheless, Lam said it was better than trying to pedal cheap souvenirs. It was no wonder to me that she was in such great shape, hiking five to ten miles every day. Her sister minded the kids while she was away at work. 

A view of the valley, one of the many reasons to visit Sa Pa

Remote Mountain Villages

Each village we came across was different, although each was mostly distinguishable by the women’s attire. Some places were so remote access could only be made on foot or by animal. Lam commented after one of my trips and near falls that if I became disabled, she would simply strap me to the back of the closest oxen to get me down the hill. The vision worried me but I liked her sense of humor. 

I saw a man fishing from a boulder about the size of a large bulldozer. It practically blocked the stream. We had to walk across fields of bowling-ball-sized rocks in one dry river bed and a rickety bamboo bridge that crossed the water. Lam went first to watch me cross. She waited until I was about half-way to say she wasn’t sure the structure would hold my weight. A picture of me on the back of a smelly beast flashed through my mind and I scurried to safety. 

Lam grinned, turned, and carried on, expecting me to play the part of a good soldier and follow the leader. Our 10k trek ended at a mountain village that eventually met up with Sa Pa via road. I had time for a well-deserved beer and reflection of my all-day awesome adventure before getting on the shuttle bus back to the hotel. I wanted to hug Lam for getting me back alive but gave her a huge tip instead.

Land of Lam

My trip to Sa Pa and trekking in the mountains was easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. It is a truly beautiful and unique place that I will never forget. If you’re interested in reading more about my adventures, Land of Lam can be found in my travel book, A Casual Traveler

More of my travel stories can be found on my website at www.edmondgagnon.com.

A Tour of Taxco, Mexico: Part Six

Tyler blackMy time in Mexico City was slowly coming to an end. It was nothing short of fantastic. To read more about my trip, make sure you check out part one, part two, part three, part four, and part five.

I had just one last excursion left before heading home. This time, I was visiting Cuernavaca and Taxco, Mexico. I felt pretty excited about this tour because I couldn’t wait to see small-town life within Mexico. Operated by Olympus Tours, I highly recommend the excursion. The tour not only operated smoothly but was full of fantastic knowledge and interesting facts that kept me intrigued throughout the day.

The tour guide picked me up in a small van right at my hostel, Casa Pepe. Interestingly enough, I was the only English speaker in the van, as the other four tourists were from Colombia. Since I speak Spanish, I told our guide that he could stick to Spanish the whole trip so he wouldn’t have to translate back and forth between languages. He seemed relieved, but not before telling me in English that the sunburn on my face looked pretty bad and how much of a typical “gringo” I was. Okay, he didn’t say that exactly but that’s what it felt like! Luckily, the other travelers couldn’t understand him so I wasn’t as embarrassed.

Cuernavaca, Mexico

We set off south of Mexico City passing over mountains before arriving in Cuernavaca an hour later. I won’t lie, I was kind of disappointed right off the bat. We stopped in a small courtyard surrounded by three churches, each built during a different part of Mexico’s history. I do love old churches and cathedrals. That was one of my favorite parts of living in Europe. But I found myself rather bored here. We ended up not seeing anything else in Cuernavaca. After an hour of walking around the courtyard, we hopped on the bus and left. Thankfully, the tour got a whole lot better.

The square in Taxco, Mexico

Taxco, Mexico

After another hour-long car ride, we came up on Taxco, Mexico. Built on the side of a mountain, the town looked absolutely stunning from a distance. I felt really excited to try and make my way to the top to enjoy the views. The van let us off in the center of town and our guide walked us around a bit explaining the history of Taxco. Unfortunately, I was too busy taking pictures and didn’t listen to a single word he had to say. I can really be the worst tourist sometimes.

After showing us some points of interest that we could explore later, our guide took us to a jewelry store specializing in silver. Apparently, the areas surrounding Taxco, Mexico are filled with deposits of silver. The Aztecs used this area to make jewelry and decorations for their gods. To this day, Taxco silver is one of the most sought after metals. I bought a few souvenirs for my family because, well, when would I get this chance again?

A statue of text reading "mexico"

A Few Hours Left

Shortly after, I went to grab lunch with two of the people in our group at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the city. I found it incredibly challenging to converse and eat without constantly taking pictures of the view. The pair — a woman and her father — wanted to do a little bit of exploring in Mexico. I told them how much I’d love to visit Colombia and they gave a lot of great recommendations. It was also great to be able to converse in Spanish again and get some practice in. 

With only a few hours left in Taxco, I decided to walk throughout as much of the town as possible. This was quite the feat considering the town was built on the side of a mountain. My legs were on fire (probably still feeling the effects of hiking a volcano a few days earlier). Nonetheless, it was an amazing experience strolling through small streets and alleys, seeing everyone go about their normal routines. I stopped in some more shops to buy some souvenirs. My aimless wandering even led me to a great view of the Taxco, Mexico cathedral with the valley behind it in the distance. Visiting this town definitely made up for the rather slow beginning of the tour. I highly recommend taking a tour of Taxco. Words cannot accurately describe its beauty.

Time to Go Home

I filled the next morning trying to stuff everything back into my suitcase. I definitely bought way too many souvenirs on this trip, but it was worth it. Although my flight was at 1:00pm, I called an Uber around 10:00am. I figured there would be a lot of traffic on the way to the airport. And boy, was I right. What should have been a 35-minute car ride took a little more than an hour. Luckily my Uber driver was a very friendly man with a lot to talk about, so it helped ease my nerves a little bit.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m talking about departing and not just ending this series on a good note. I’m here to tell you my little goof. If you remember from part one, I was given a slip of paper upon arriving in Mexico with all my passport information. It was almost like a tourist visa. I mistakenly threw it away. The lady behind the check-in desk refused to take my bags without that slip of paper. She told me I had to go to the immigration office to file a new one. Panic was setting in.

A beautiful field in Taxco, Mexico

Customs Snafu

I raced downstairs to the office. Of course, there was a line to talk with the agent. He explained that I needed to print out my arrival and departure flight information. So, I had to run across the hallway to pay a guy to print the documents out for me. After finally filling out all the proper paperwork, I then had to pay a hefty amount of pesos for them to authorize me a new tourist visa. And of course, they only took cash. I made sure to spend all my cash before leaving. So, I had to race to the ATM just outside the office. And that’s when my bank decided to decline my withdrawals. I was starting to imagine what my new life in Mexico would look like. At least I spoke the language.

A town square

Lesson Learned

Luckily, my bank sent me a text asking if it was actually me trying to take out money. Once I got that authorized, I was finally able to pay for my replacement tourist visa. My heart rate was through the roof. But, problem solved! I wasn’t going to be stuck in a foreign country. Moral of the story: DON’T THROW AWAY ANY DOCUMENTS YOU GET FROM CUSTOMS.

Thank you for taking the time to read this series on Mexico City. I hope you enjoyed reading about my trip and hopefully, it has inspired you to visit. Mexico City blew all my expectations out of the water. It’s a beautiful city filled with wonderful people and an amazing culture. It’s quite a shame that Mexico City, and the country in general, is viewed so poorly in our media. I’m so glad I decided to see it firsthand and witness just how wrong everything is portrayed. I encourage you to do the same.