Journeys No. 12: Breckenridge, Colorado

There is so much to learn while traveling—new skills included.

School’s in Session 

The first time I rode a chairlift with one foot strapped into a snowboard and attempted to dismount, I ate it. The lift ground to a stop so I could crawl away—mortifying. That was a decade ago. Older and wiser, I took another stab at it a few days ago. On my new first attempt, I instinctively squatted down and tried to grab the rail like I was riding a wave backside on my surfboard. Iffy, but not a total disaster. On the next I stayed upright, my instructor holding the back of my jacket like I was a kid on roller skates. The third time I nailed it, standing and skating down the gentle mound until I slid to a stop grinning, like I’d just done a super impressive trick. Impressive, not so much. But I had earned a high five. 

My Breckenridge Ski & Snowboard School guide, Greg Lock, seemed determined to do two things during our two days together on the Colorado mountain coated with 40 magical inches of just-fallen powder. One, he wanted to teach me to snowboard. Two, he wanted me to love it. See, 10 years ago my friend Alexis and I had embarked on a short “learn to snowboard” session with an Oakley-sponsored pro at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah that amounted to us falling down—like, wind knocked out of us falls—every 10 seconds as the pro laughed. That early experience clearly hadn’t motivated any follow-up, but still, Greg succeeded on both counts. 

He took me straight to El Dorado, a beginner practice area where I got the hang of toe side and heel side, practiced a falling leaf exercise, and started linking C turns into S’s. I had blue skies above me, and the plushest white padding below, thanks to the generous snowstorm. My quads began burning quickly, then the tingly sensations moved to my outer calves and ankles. My heart raced, at some 10,000 feet. Still, I wanted to run up the slow-moving “magic carpet” after each descent, my eagerness to try it again and get it right fueled by the exciting sensation of my body learning new, fun movements. I was hyped to graduate to green slopes, even more stoked when I snaked my way down without falling on day two. My love of learning not only the history or culture of a place, but a native sport or practice, was affirmed in Breckenridge (where I highly recommend the new boutique hotel Gravity Haus, with its inviting hot tubs, après scene and warming cocktails named for Dumb & Dumber).

Greg pointed out to me the rarity of this, and I was amazed to realize the truth in it. When was the last time you learned a new skill as an adult? And I don’t mean taking a boxing class once, or painting a piece of pottery on vacation. I mean immersing yourself in a practice or craft. Honing a new ability. Many adults don’t have or take opportunities to tackle something foreign or different, like snowboarding. There are many factors: It might not occur to us, maybe we don’t have time, or we’re afraid of failure. As children, new things were thrown at us daily—we didn’t hesitate to learn how to ride a bike, kick a ball, or read. Practice led to improvement. But aging can damper that enthusiasm; so often it’s easier to stick to what we already know. 

In thinking about this, however, I’ve realized some of the very best—and most exciting—parts of my life and travels are when I dive headfirst into learning something new, from a true expert. Expert being the operative word. It’s occasionally part of my job, but I don’t chase these opportunities because they further my career. (I’ve always been envious of actors who get the most amazing training in order to master a skill for a role, like Natalie Portman did for Black Swan.) I embrace these moments because I love becoming a more dynamic person. I feel stimulated when broadening my horizons.

Admittedly, I didn’t have this attitude in my twenties. It wasn’t until I entered a new decade, 30, that I decided the time was finally right to take the drum lessons I’d secretly wanted since I was a teen jamming to Foo Fighters on my steering wheel. My nerves were so major at first that my instructor sweetly offered a beer to take the edge off. But throwing myself into a nightly practice, banging out bottled-up emotions, and adding Led Zeppelin songs to my repertoire built my self-confidence and enhanced my self-worth tremendously. When I began spending time in Indonesia and Australia, surfing became my next obsession—and courage booster. The journey to become a surfer has involved a Moroccan surf camp and coaching from Portugal to Punta Mita. I first caught the bug after catching my first wave all by myself and feeling ecstasy wash over me. I felt a bit of that same euphoria in Breckenridge on day two of my lessons. Since strapping on a harness and scaling a giant ceiba tree at Kasiiya Papagayo in Costa Rica last summer, I’ve been learning to rock climb, thanks to my Spiderman–like boyfriend Keith, who offers the ideal blend of encouragement and instruction. 

It’s true once you feel a bit of competence or a “win” with a new pursuit you’re hooked. (On that note, we’re heading to Mammoth Mountain in a couple weeks to build on my newfound snowboarding skills!) Next, I’m going to Oahu for intensive training in the ancient art of hula, something I’m beyond excited about as a former ballet dancer.  

I’m sharing this in hopes of inspiring internal conversation. What have you wished to try but were too scared to go after? A young woman once told me that she wanted to practice yoga, but worried she’d be bad at it. For me, leaving town is the perfect way to get out of my element and into a new one. It introduces me to masters from whom I can learn, and opens the door to things I might not feel comfortable to experiment with at home. In so many ways, travel is an antidote to fear. More and more, immersive, fascinating experiences around the world are giving us opportunities to delve into pasta making or even boat building. So ask yourself, what will you endeavor to learn next? 

—Kathryn Romeyn

Further reading: 

Nature informed Kengo Kuma's new pavilion at Amanpuri

The handcrafted-in-Cali brands to know from Mercado Sagrado fair

Journeys No. 11: Namibia

A visual journey through Africa’s spectacularly diverse nation, where far more animals than humans roam.

Namibian Magic

Some folks say Namibia is a great second or third African safari destination. They claim it doesn’t have the volume of wildlife of, say, Kenya or Tanzania, to hold the attention of first-timers. That it’s more about the scenery. Yet for those very same reasons I feel it’s an incredible maiden voyage. For one, the landscapes are epic, reason enough to go if you’re someone who enjoys nature even a little. Safari spots often have one-note terrain, but Namibia bursts with variety. As for the animals, it’s actually home to the world’s largest free-roaming black rhino population, and a quarter of all wild cheetahs. One misses out on caravans of tourists bumping around on 4x4s with herds of wildebeest as iPhone fodder. Instead, the experience of rolling in a safari vehicle across the plush sand of a riverbed in hopes of glimpsing one of four known elephants in the vicinity creates an intimacy I truly savored. Not that I hated being surrounded by 16 of the majestic creatures elsewhere in the country. But that riverbed was so implausibly quiet I actually heard the breath and footsteps of an adult male as he ambled slowly to a trickle of water for a sip and splash through his expressive trunk. Fixated, I studied only him, with no other life form to distract me from his monumental presence in the grandest of settings. 

I was allowed time and space in that same environment to compose striking images, juxtaposing a pair of lunching oryx against a garnet wall and cascading dune. The relative starkness of Namibia’s environments hypnotized me into a meditative state as I moved through mirages glinting on long desert drives, soared over massive plateaus in what felt like an IMAX movie, and bumped over landscapes of pink-dusted sand and whale skeletons carved and weathered by wind and salt. I’ll be returning to explore more of the massive country, so safe and easy to navigate (if not via small charter flights like Scott Dunn arranged for me, then self-driving in a rental car on long, empty stretches of hot tarmac). It’s more affordable than its neighbors, too. A constant stream of new and renovated lodges and camps—dynamic and environmentally aware in their design—keep teasing me with their magic. And I’m intrigued to meet and learn more about the cultures of Namibia’s indigenous tribes over long, slow drives. I could go on, but instead I’ll let the photographs (and, yes, some words!) do the talking. 

Just about a half-hour drive from the airport is Omaanda, a Zannier resort, on a 9,000-hectare private reserve that feels like the middle of nowhere. Though I wouldn’t truly know the definition of ‘middle of nowhere’ until I stepped onto a small plane a few days later—Namibia is about the size of two Californias, with 6% of the population of one. Aesthetically, it epitomized bush luxury, with individual round, thatched-roof huts inspired by traditional Owambo architecture, indigenous artifacts; a soft, earthy palette; and the dreamiest beds and armchairs, too. I’d happily move in, if only to have as neighbors meerkats who stand like soldiers at attention.

You might ask, how does one find themselves standing (shakily!) on packed earth looking up at a cheetah holding court in the safari vehicle? Talk about role reversal. While at Omaanda I spent time at N/a’an ku sê—an innovative wildlife sanctuary and conservation charity next door—and was fortunate to take a walk with cheetah brothers (rescued as cubs) who seemed totally tame one second and the next took off like lightning in pursuit of breakfast. Did you know they can run almost 80 mph?  

N/a’an ku sê is the work of one of the most passionate and badass women I’ve ever met: Marlies van Vuuren, a French-manicured seventh generation Namibian who’s friends with Angelina Jolie and sleeps with orphaned baby baboons in her bed. Here she’s feeding one, which I unwittingly did, too. The instant someone handed me a bottle an infant scampered up my leg into the cradle of my arms, clutching the milk with her tiny, hairy hand. (N/a’an ku sê offers very cool volunteer opportunities for animal lovers and ecotourism packages.) Marlies took me to Shiloh Jolie-Pitt’s sanctuary to visit its newest resident, an orphaned two-week-old white rhino. Like a baby dinosaur out of The Land Before Time, Hope, clambered around the boma with goats and, upon hearing Marlies, tried to squeeze her lumpy head through the fence. When I reached to pet her snout, her gummy, toothless mouth engulfed my fingers, and Hope slobbered and sucked them as a happy tear rolled down my cheek.   

After flying over a lattice of sand dunes to the socked-in coast, and driving along the churning Atlantic Ocean, bones of shipwrecks and whales revealing its danger, I arrived at Shipwreck Lodge, a Natural Selection camp inside Skeleton Coast National Park. Jaunty nautical “wrecked” cabins of recycled materials perched over the sea, which could change from sun-drenched to shrouded in the blink of an eye. There, I caught my dinner surf-fishing in icy waves, tracked elephant footprints down to the water’s edge, and read up on the mysterious and punishing region’s history.   

What struck me most in this environment was its pervasive silence—even the vehicle hardly made a sound. In slow motion we crawled up and down dunes, me on top in a fleece-lined poncho noticing the smallest details—think minuscule patches of orange lichen—and subtlest changes in scenery. A shift occurred at the geological wonder Clay Castles, where I crunched over mica, ruby garnet sand and crystalline fairy dust as we hiked to stunning panoramas that gave context to the empty environs.

After multiple safaris, what piques my interest is observing odd animal behavior, and these male desert-adapted elephants delivered. Against apricot sand, they seemed to be whispering secrets and playing as one continuously flopped his trunk all over the other’s head and tusks. It was as if they were doing contact improv, contorting body parts and striking silly poses as they moved in unison across the riverbed.    

There’s nothing quite like waking at 5:30 a.m. in anticipation of tracking wild black rhino in remote northwest Namibia with the help of a dozen rangers and Save the Rhino Trust guards across terra-cotta hills that appear endless—and empty. Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge, had done the same at Hoanib Valley Camp mere weeks before me, apparently spotting one after five hours. On our journey, dust billowed behind the truck bed as the spotters carefully attempted to stay upwind of the rhino we were after. These animals hear and smell very well and run if they get a whiff of something—or somebody—strange. Jackals and giraffes, rabbits, elephants and springbok, we saw plenty of species along the way. Hopes were dashed and restored many times over hours as we lost tracks and rediscovered them, climbed, descended and lurched over increasingly rugged land. This dust-coated Hartmann’s mountain zebra, part of a small dazzle, appeared to me the freest of all the creatures. 

Our high-intensity scavenger hunt paid off at 1:25 p.m., when we found the elusive female rhinoceros we’d been chasing. She was resting next to a euphorbia damarana, the milky sap of which poisonous. We had walked the last 15 minutes, keeping our distance and watching quietly for a spell. Regal and somehow graceful, she held her perfect horns—which are actually keratin—like a crown. 

En route to the airport, my guide, Frank, took me to visit a small Himba village and get a glimpse at some of the fantastically ornamented women’s rituals, which include applying a blend of foraged ochre and a sort of cooked cow’s butter to their velvety skin daily. All their accessories are imbued with meaning. The Himba have the most unique beliefs and customs of all Namibia’s ethnic groups, rejecting most elements of modern life.   

Safarihoek lodge, my last safari stop, introduced a new kind of atmosphere, one of abundance. The immense Etosha Heights Private Reserve is stocked with plenty of water holes enticing large numbers of wildlife. My guide, Mike, with an Idris Elba vibe and impressive brass bracelet collection, was a wealth of knowledge—and the human embodiment of perseverance through trauma. Incredible story made short, he was born in an Angolan refugee camp during the long war for independence in which his parents fought, shipped to a convent in Cuba for his schooling as part of a Communist aid program that saw his siblings sent to places like Czechoslovakia and East Germany, and adopted before he’d ever stepped foot in his homeland of Namibia. After its independence in 1990, he earned a master’s, guided overland safaris, married an American physician, and become Natural Selection’s head guide. But about this giraffe: They spread their front legs wide to drink water, but only in short stints. Beyond a minute they’ll black out, and without a buddy standing guard, they could get attacked by a predator. After each long sip, the statuesque animal snaps their legs together effortlessly like a gymnast sticking their landing.   

Mike arranged this flawless photo op on my last night—I’m pretty convinced he’s understood and respected by all creatures, human and otherwise. We sipped G&Ts as the fireball dropped and glowed, and I commented on his biopic-worthy life. “It is the only one I have known,” he replied with a shrug. I’d been asking all my guides their favorite animal, and it turned out Mike’s favorite is the leopard, beautiful and adaptable. “It can live anywhere in the world, it’s suited for every place, and it survives wherever it goes,” he explained perfectly.  

Further reading 

Namibian model Behati Prinsloo is on a mission to save rhinos

A globally inspired wellness journey in Southern California

Journeys No. 10: Oaxaca, Mexico

Everything you need to know about Mexico’s dynamic gem of a city

The Definitive Guide to Oaxaca

How’s this for making lemons into lemonade—or limes into margaritas: In 1931, a magnitude 8.0 earthquake rocked—and destroyed—much of Oaxaca, the capital city of the Mexican state with the same name. In the aftermath, surrounding communities came bearing gifts representing their village’s specialties, from weaving to pottery to pineapples. They also brought local dances and songs. The governor wished to share the diverse wealth of indigenous Zapotec culture, and a festival called Guelaguetza was born. The word translates to “contribution” or “reciprocal exchanges of gifts,” and it’s a lively, not to mention vibrant, tradition still held every July. 

This story, versions of which I heard from several locals, sums up what’s so special about the colorful home of just about 260,000 people. It speaks to their generous spirit and deep dedication to craft and custom. And it explains why several times over the course of a week I heard boasts about Oaxaca being the place where the world’s first kernel of corn was discovered, and listened happily as many waxed poetic about Oaxaca’s seven types of mole, the ubiquitous and celebrated sauce made with a couple dozen ingredients, chocolate to chili. (Most swear the best mole is the one their abuela makes, but with some encouragement they might reveal the local spot serving their favorite version—if you promise not to tell grandma.)  

For these reasons and many more, Oaxaca is an undeniably charming city I highly recommend visiting sooner rather than later. And that’s not my mezcal buzz talking. To me, it was incredibly appealing that while strolling—and at 5,100 feet you definitely want to keep the pace leisurely—along stone sidewalks and ducking inside flamboyantly bright restaurants and shops I heard virtually only Spanish spoken. Most Oaxaqueños do speak some English but, unlike in voguish San Miguel de Allende (like Oaxaca, a UNESCO World Heritage Centre), it’s not their default language, since far more Mexican tourists than American come to appreciate this mecca of mole, culture, craft and, yep, mezcal.Oaxaca is quite walkable, and wonderfully safe, too (aka fantastic for families). Perhaps even better, it’s affordable—I felt we got such value for our money across the board. The people are exceedingly friendly and proud of their culture; nowhere have I encountered people as passionate about educating visitors on their distinct heritage. And they have good reason to want to keep it alive. The woven rugs made for generations in Teotitlan del Valle fit as beautifully in today’s contemporary design conversation as they have for centuries, and the architecture of Mitla—probably my favorite archaeological site I’ve visited anywhere—is not only awe inspiring in its angles and carvings but is still standing, despite the Spaniards’ attempts at demolishing it (ironically, their own later buildings didn’t fare as well as the ruins during earthquakes). 

There are many fascinating things to see, smell (handmade corn tortillas seem to scent the air), eat and learn. Like discovering how cochineal parasites on nopal Castillo cacti become gorgeous carmine red dye that was once more valuable than gold. (When mixed with lime juice it magically becomes brilliant orange, with limestone, lilac!). Or finding out about Oaxaca’s third gender, muxe (prounced moo-she), a still-occurring pre-Hispanic practice in which the last son in a family is raised, educated and dressed as a woman. “They say they have the duality, the best part of a woman and man in one body together,” my guide, Antonio, explained of what’s considered an honor. “From the man it’s strength to be able to carry and take care of the parents. Everything else is from the woman—they’re more patient, more kind, they do everything better.” Of course, there’s plenty to debate about this, but I appreciate how much they value women’s contributions. 

Oaxaca is enticingly festive over the holidays, iridescent fringed piñatas suspended in every intersection and an excess of artisans from the state bringing their wares to long tented markets for two-week Muestra Artesanal pop-ups. But July is the most exciting time to go, for the annual Guelaguetza dance festival. The weather is fairly warm all year round. (You can fly nonstop from LA, Houston and Dallas, or through Mexico City easily.) A long weekend will leave you wanting more, as there’s enough going on to easily fill a week—especially for enthusiastic eaters and imbibers of the smoky spirit so trending in the U.S. 

On that note, I’d advise fully embracing all the flavors of Oaxaca like the locals, heartily. “Here in Oaxaca,” we were told at an artisanal distillery at the start of a tasting, “we drink mezcal in kisses, not in cups.” I found that that somewhat romantic instruction is actually a great way to approach the city, not in quick gulps or rapid-fire shots but slowly, appreciatively, sweetly. Below are my personal highlights to help guide your own Oaxacan adventure—salud

Sleep!  

Oaxaca is delightfully free of chains and large hotels, so embrace boutique-style boltholes or even Airbnb. 

La Casa Carlota

We opted for this hidden gem of a five-room B&B along the centuries-old aqueduct and loved it. The cozy rooms featuring colorful Oaxacan crafts were a perfect place to crash after all-day explorations, and the rooftop lovely for morning yoga or sunset beers. Each morning we ate a tasty breakfast—think chilaquiles and mushroom quesadillas—around a live-edge table under the blue sky.  

Hotel Casa Oaxaca

If we’d wanted to spend a bit more money we’d have gone for this renovated 18th-century boutique hotel with seven chic rooms highlighting contemporary Oaxacan art and design, set around a patio and swimming pool.  

Hotel Los Amantes

Colonial meets contemporary in this restored boutique property set in the middle of all the action, with 10 warm, elegant timber-clad accommodations named for mezcal agave varietals. Whether you’re a guest or not, head upstairs to the rooftop to kiss their house label before the sun goes down.

Quinta Real Oaxaca

Large and luxurious at 91 rooms, this relatively sprawling hotel in a 16th-century convent blocks from the church of Santo Domingo de Guzmán offers a taste of Guelaguetza every Friday night with ticketed dinner and dance shows under the dramatic vaulted ceilings of the former chapel. There’s a pretty pool, too, and supposedly great breakfast. 

Eat! 

Mexico City may be the foodie capital of the country, but I think Oaxaca is right up there—plus far safer and more approachable. And you won’t find this much mole anywhere else in the world. On my next trip I’ll learn to make it at Casa de los Sabores cooking school, and try Sirilio’s ceviche, Sabina Sabe’s apparently primo cocktails, and La Mezcaloteca’s library-like collection of mezcal. Don’t forget to make reservations! 

Origen

I’m still daydreaming about the tenderest sous vide free-range chicken with bold, savory and perfectly spicy deep red tesmole costeño sauce and rugged grits I ate in this beautiful restaurant with high timber-beamed ceilings and pink upholstered chairs—that’s how memorable it was. The most epic mole—scratch that, sauce—I’ve ever had makes it a must in my book.  

Criollo

Walking through the kitchen to reach this restaurant sets the tone and amps up anticipation of what’s to come, since there are no menus for the prix fixe surprises to come. The atmosphere created by star chef Enrique Olvera (of Mexico City’s Pujol and San Miguel de Allende’s Moxi, where I once ate dinner two nights in a row) and Mexican architect Javier Sánchez in the al fresco restaurant and Spanish moss-dipped garden (there’s also a very cool minimal accommodation on Airbnb) is enchanting, as is the locally sourced cuisine, beautifully plated and paired with Mexican tipples of all types. (Tip: Take a taxi as it’s a bit removed from the city center.) 

Alfonsina 

Chef Jorge León’s c.v. is bursting with notable cooking credits but he decided to open a breakfast- and lunch-only eatery in his family’s home in San Juan Bautista la Raya, by the airport. It feels like the best-kept secret (you have to WhatsApp him to get a booking, at +52 55 2659 3941) until you get there and realize you’re not the only one in on it. Grab a beer or mezcal and wait for the delights to emerge from the brick kitchen—like a comforting tostada with octopus, spinach and special mayo, or robalo (snook) with huitlacoche mole. 

Don Agave Tradición Oaxaqueña

This artisanal mezcal distillery outside of Oaxaca didn’t make my list because of its superior spirits—and after sampling some 16 of them and buying several bottles of Madrecuishe and Tepeztate I can attest, they are excellent—but its mind-blowing quesillo fundido. I can hardly explain how in love I was with humble pot of stretchy, salty cheese, chorizo and mushrooms. Their tlayuda (a very traditional meal comprising a massive tortilla slathered with pork fat and topped with black beans, meat, quesillo and avocado) and light yet spicy black mole were also excellent.   

Boulenc

Look for the most peeling of blue facades and you’ll have found this temple of baked goods. Where do I start? There are great doughy pizzas, pastries, massive English muffins, crusty breads, and cookies sandwiched around gingery spiced frosting. I insisted on eating here several times, and still can’t get over the broccoli and goat cheese sandwich.

Itanoní

If you want to see how the tortillas are made, head to this casual eatery celebrating all things corn. The menu is in Spanish, and the staff don’t speak much English, so just tick off one from each category—quesadillas, tetelas, memelitas, tostadas and more—and savor the journey. Wash it all down with a craft beer or goblet of jamaica (hibiscus) agua fresca.  

Casa Oaxaca El Restaurante

Request a rooftop table and mentally prepare to dip outside your comfort zone at this restaurant showcasing authentic flavors of Oaxaca—bugs and all. There are flying ants, grasshoppers and more making cameos in interesting, original dishes best suited to adventurous eaters.  

El Milinario

“Only locals know about Milinario, they don’t make promotion on the Internet,” said our guide Antonio of the El Tulé breakfast spot where he orders enchiladas with coloradito mole and hot chocolate. The chocolate in Oaxaca is so rich it’s traditionally made with water, not milk, and is served in a big bowl with a piece of bread for dipping. 

Gozobi 

Simple, traditional Oaxacan dishes done very well are what we found at this cute spot with a rooftop, along with my favorite cocktail in the city, a smoky, fruity maracuya mezcalito

See! 

There’s no doubt you can enjoy and savor Oaxaca on your own, but I found the experience incredibly enriched by the encyclopedic knowledge and insider recommendations of the guide we hired for private tours, J. Antonio Moctezuma Garcia of Wanderlust

Mitla 

If you appreciate archaeology or architecture you’ll love Mitla, considered the “city of the dead” in Zapotec times—Antonio encouraged us to think of Coco for comparison. The ruins of palaces built in 950 and formerly used by shaman are etched with 17 unique repeating geometric designs that each symbolize an important element like rain, mountains, corn and water. Aesthetically it’s incredible to wander through, especially while listening to stories of its singular history.  

Jardín Etnobotánico de Oaxaca

Due to poor planning we didn’t make the two-hour guided tour of this supposedly stunning public botanical garden designed by Zapotec artist Francisco Toledo and abutting the Santo Domingo church. Tours are mandatory to see the diverse indigenous flora, and they only happen in English on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.   

Monte Albán 

Oaxaca is encircled by mountains, and around 800 BC the Zapotec chose the tallest peak to flatten (over the course of 300 years) and build the first city in Mesoamerica. I found the UNESCO-protected archaeological site as if not more impressive than Machu Picchu, considering it was constructed over the course of 1,300 years and remains in shockingly great shape. Intriguing remnants of structures and spaces include an astronomical observatory, an amphitheater where shaman used copal smoke and secret tunnels to appear magical as a tool of social control, and the ball court where people "played” for the glory of being sacrificed.

Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca 

My favorite parts of this museum were the 17th-century convent’s lofty architecture and the treasures from Monte Alban’s tomb 7, including a turquoise-encrusted human skull and jewelry I’d eagerly wear today if given the chance.  

El Tule 

If you ever need a landscaper, find one from El Tule, a little town outside Oaxaca famous for El Árbol del Tule, the world’s girthiest tree. The almost 2,000-year-old cypress is spectacular, with a circumference of 210 feet. A 10-year-old guide hilariously showed us with his laser pointer animals, objects and people found in the trunk’s undulations, from a sleeping elephant to the Phantom of the Opera and Jennifer Lopez’s butt. Also in the town is the appointment-only artisan boutique Mexichic, and a woman named Venus conducting readings to discover your protector animal and ascribed destiny. 

Voces de Copal

Speaking of, this gallery in the center of Oaxaca pays homage to the concept with exquisitely carved and painted alebrijes, prolific around local markets. The staff will consult a book to find your protector and spirit animals, along with the personality traits they imply. You might be shocked by the accuracy.   

Tlacochahuaya church 

“Normally I don’t recommend people to visit churches in Oaxaca, because we have too many of them and they’re very, very similar,” said Antonio. But this one is his favorite, and I quickly understood why upon stepping inside. Built over 100 years starting in 1585, it’s coated in intricate, lyrical crimson curlicues and flowers painted in cochineal, at the time more valuable than gold. Interestingly, the abundant flowers depict the Zapotec people’s most important offering to their gods. Antonio explained, “the Spaniards converted the Zapotec to the Catholic religion in their mind, but not in their hearts, so they let them use this decoration.” When you go, ask Antonio for the Virgin of Guadalupe story.  

Teotitlán del Valle 

Warning: It’s nearly impossible to walk away from a 5th- or 8th-generation family’s loom in the famous village of weavers (whose name means “land of the gods”) without a tapete, rug. But still go, seriously. It’s one of the oldest towns in Oaxaca. Seeing the start-to-finish process at Casa Don Juan Zapotec, where Antonio took us and a quiet, slight young man named Juan Carlos patiently demonstrated every step, was captivating. Using only natural elements and materials they make the most awe-inspiring rugs imbued with meaning and messages via ancient symbols carved into stone at Mitla.   

Hierve el Agua 

Full disclosure, I didn’t make it to these petrified rock formations, but if I’d had time I would have gone with the local responsible tourism company Zapotrek, whose off-the-beaten-path adventure involves hours of beautiful hiking, to a secret waterfall-fed swimming hole in an ancient canyon and the main natural attraction. (Their cycling tours piqued my interest, too!)   

Shop! 

Leave extra room in your luggage—or better yet bring an empty duffel!—for all Oaxaca’s eye-popping array of artisanal goods. And hit the markets, too!    

Lanii

I walked out of this airy boutique with not only an indigo-dipped cotton tunic and woven straw hat but a pair of beautiful blue pillow shams that are a happy addition to our bed at home. 

Burro Press

Tradition is honored in this small, bright shop printing and selling intricate woodcuts and linocuts of all sizes and subject matters from a collection of local artists.  

Tienda Q

Across several rooms, Tienda Q is a gallery-like concept store featuring Mexican designers—many local to Oaxaca—with a delectable selection of jewelry, clothing and accessories ranging from avant garde to diaphanous to joyously bold. 

Aripo

The Instituto de Artesanias Oaxaqueños was closed when I was in town, but from what I could spy from the windows of its large restored colonial home—everything from ceramics and carvings to textiles and tapetes—I would have done a lot more damage. 

Taller 4 Elementos

Near Monte Alban is the village of Santa Maria Atzompa, famed for its green-glazed pottery. But Antonio took us to see ceramist Laló Martinez who, working on a hand wheel in his family’s home, is evolving the centuries-old tradition by throwing dishes, mezcal cups, bowls and more with appealing texture, silvery burnt finishes and little skulls, his signature. (Boulenc uses his dinnerware.) If you don’t make it out there, Collective 1050 Grados in town sells elegant ceramic pieces made locally with a similar aesthetic.  

Journeys No. 9: Up in the Air

A case for tiny aircraft and meaningful, breathtaking flights

Flying High (and Low) 

Last week, over chilaquiles around a live-edge timber table in my Oaxaca bed and breakfast, I heard something that stuck with me. A middle-aged English couple who call Devon, UK, home explained that they loved to travel, but now do it secretly to avoid being shamed in their community. This clandestine jet-setting is apparently necessary in an area overwhelmingly judgmental of air travel that’s becoming, as this couple described, increasingly insular and less tolerant of outsiders. (In Scandinavia, too, this is a thing; the Swedes even have a word for it: flygskam, flying shame.)

It’s not lost on me that as a travel writer I contribute far more than my fair share of CO2 emissions to a planet already deep in the throes of global warming and climate change–related wounds. But what I want to do here, with full disclosure that I am aware of the drawbacks, is actually celebrate air travel.

Some might lambast me for saying it, but flying is one of my biggest joys. Not only does it grant me access to the planet’s greatest wonders and spectacles, it also shows me exhilarating landscapes the likes of which I’d never see with feet planted on terra firma. I adore a good road trip, I’ve always loved sailing, and find train journeys enticingly retro. If surfing could be a mode of transportation I’d use it! But there’s something to be said for efficiency, especially when the number of stories I can sell is directly linked to how many destinations I can reach. 

Because of my work I’ve been beyond fortunate to soar through—and savor—the skies quite a bit. To some extent, each of those flights has left an impression. (And no, it’s not always a positive one, whether it’s a mid-flight announcement of engine problems, a sobbing seatmate, or being stuck in a middle seat with a broken TV monitor for a 17-hour flight.) I’ve discovered that oftentimes the smaller the plane the more exciting the destination, since tiny aircraft often indicate a remote or less discovered place.

Instead of fearing what often feel like VW microbuses with wings, I’ve found myself anticipating them. This enthusiasm emerged only after my first experience on one, a scenic flight from Queenstown, New Zealand, to Milford Sound. If I remember correctly, there were tears flowing from my sister’s eyes, but I was awed at the serpentine curves of the braided rivers, the blue glow of the glaciers and mountains that seemed so close they were almost within arm’s reach. The silken blue Lake Wakatipu and its plush green banks gave me my first taste of aerial photography in the form of vibrant, abstracted landscapes paying homage to Richard Diebenkorn’s painted canvases.  

I’ve learned to recognize a small plane by the ticket you’re handed at the counter—usually handwritten, sometimes just a piece of plastic you hand in upon boarding—or lack thereof. I was stoked just this last weekend when I walked onto the tarmac in Oaxaca, lit in soft pink from the impending sunrise silhouetting the surrounding mountains, and saw Aerotucán’s Cessna Caravan that would be taking us to Puerto Escondido. The 14-seater is the same style I’ve flown on safari in Kenya and Botswana, landing on dirt runways as wildlife watch, taking on the role of air traffic controller. Everything looks different from above, and this Mexican puddle-jumper provided magic in the form of sun emerging behind endless layers of ridges and valleys. 

I’m always surprised by just how blue the oceans can appear from that great height, but never so much as in the Maldives, where it seemed fake until the Emirates behemoth actually landed and I could touch it for myself. Approaching Bora Bora through wispy clouds also felt surreal, as if Earth and its seas had been supplanted by an alien illusion. At the same time a different perspective can make land feel just as otherworldly. Like when I sat in the copilot seat of a teeny craft just barely clearing vast, dry plateaus in Namibia that seemed born of Westworld.

I was aboard Qantas’ inaugural Dreamliner flight, from Melbourne to Los Angeles, which was festive and fun. From time to time I’ve been fortunate to ride up front—no, not in the cockpit, but in business or first class. Turkish Airlines was my very first taste of the good life, and I was most recently indulged by Cathay Pacific on their Boeing 777 between Hong Kong and Johannesburg, en route to Madagascar. (Their exquisite lounges in HK, by the way, are a compelling reason to fly—and have yoga and guided meditation stations.) The lie-flat seat was so roomy I was able to kick off my soft slippers and sleep on my stomach, knee up to the side (as in my bed at home), until I grew hungry for a juicy, delectable cheeseburger snack. 

Then there are the helicopters, true treats. The sensation is almost like when I paraglided in Colombia, or hot air ballooned in Myanmar. Heli flights are my most favorite—exhilarating and producing the most incredible photographs. In Siem Reap, Cambodia, I shot ancient temples shrunken to architectural models; above Australia’s Great Barrier Reef I captured an oceanic river and the famed Heart Reef. Cheesy, sure, but no less breathtaking. Flying to Kokomo Private Island Fiji presented me with postcard-worthy views of deserted white-sand islands encircled by surreal turquoise, and water moving over reef in organic patterned perfection.

Tucked inside the aquamarine and white striped helicopter belonging to Time + Tide Miavana, noise-canceling headphones emitting floaty indie melodies, I got the most epic picture of Madagascar. Like Tommy James & The Shondells sang, it was “crystal blue persuasion”—the clearest, cleanest liquid showcasing turtles, coral and even bull sharks; zebu (local cows) leaving tracks in camel-colored sand, cliffs dropping into the sea. One can appreciate the curvature of Earth from up there, see the reflection of clouds on the water, and move through weather and rain which, elevated closer to the source, is far more enjoyable than on land.

I don’t fly in vain. I’m thoughtful about where I decide to travel, and I strive to get there in the fewest flights possible—according to a NASA report, 25% of flight emissions come from takeoff and landing. I’ve consciously begun taking fewer short trips, trying to balance out my work travel with long stints not going anywhere at all, like the 60 days straight I spend planted on the island of Bali twice a year. 

I like to think that what I’m spending in CO2, I’m making up for in words and pictures by sharing glimpses of other places and cultures that, hopefully, serve to diminish fear while increasing understanding, compassion and equality. It’s a beautiful world we call home, and I strongly feel that actually seeing it makes the case for protecting it all the more riveting. As we kick off 2020, I’d encourage everyone to walk onto a plane headed somewhere outside their comfort zone or personal border, and feel the delight and challenge of stepping off somewhere brand new. It’s thrilling, certainly, but for me it’s critical. 

Further reading:

Downtown LA’s most gorgeous new restaurant, Red Herring

50 honeymoon destinations for 2020

No. 8: Uganda and Rwanda

Intimate, exhilarating encounters with endangered mountain gorillas in East Africa

A Tale of Three Gorilla Treks 

Fact: There are just 1,063 mountain gorillas living on this great big planet. That’s according to an intensive undertaking, the just-released 2018 census counting our remarkable primate cousins living across Rwanda, Uganda and Democratic Republic of Congo in Virunga Massif and Bwindi Impenetrable Forest. (Not one single mountain gorilla lives in captivity, or outside these three African nations.) That number is considerably higher than the 880 counted in 2011, an improvement that’s taken the species from critically endangered to regular endangered. But can you imagine any other population of 1,000 that would be considered robust? It certainly doesn’t seem secure when you compare it to humans. We’re not imminently imperiled: There are 7.8 billion of us on Earth. 

This year I’ve “met" some 28 of these mountain gorillas—roughly 2.5% of their entire population. That certainly doesn’t make me Dian Fossey, but it does mean I’ve spent 180 minutes more than most people with some of the most fascinating—and human—creatures alive. In three separate treks, two in Uganda and one in Rwanda, I’ve watched in awe as a mother calmly breastfed her three-month-old infant while picking ticks from the back of her gargantuan silverback mate, Maraya, leader of the Mubare group. I’ve stared in disbelief at an adult who gently placed her fur-topped hand—creased in all the same places as our own, with nails that could pass for manicured in black lacquer—on the thigh of a fellow trekker as if welcoming him into her home.

I’ve gazed back intently at the furrowed brow and pair of deep-set eyes peering out from a gap in thick emerald foliage, and been startled at how penetrating they are even through a camera lens. I’ve nearly jumped out of my skin as a silverback roared, flashing a mouthful of jagged yellowed teeth, to scare off a wild gorilla approaching his family. And I’ve giggled with delight as an attention-seeking adolescent—aren’t they all?—scrambled to the top of a branch, taking the wide-legged stance of an outlaw who’s just walked through swinging saloon doors, and beat his chest playfully. 

Mountain gorillas are really quite like us—we share 98.4% of our DNA. They converse, yawn and stare, chew with their mouths open, make the “bed,” pass gas, wake their moms from naps, and engage in silly antics to get attention. They slide down trees like firemen, and climb up vines like Tarzan. They even sneak around to, as they say in Rwanda, jiggy jig behind the silverback’s back. He’s supposed to be the only one in a group (ranging from a few to 18 or 20 individuals) to mate with the mature females—they’re like his harem. But that doesn’t keep gorillas from having clandestine affairs. I witnessed the aftermath of one silverback learning of such a dalliance: The blackback, as non-dominant males are called, had a deep gash across his face and wounds he was literally licking.  

Agustine, who promised a “fantastical day” when seeking the three-silverback-strong Oruzogo family on my first-ever trek, taught me about staying calm in the face of fear. Softly walking, almost tiptoeing, up to a group of gorillas for the first time is a memory that will stay with me forever. Anticipation dominated me. They, however, seemed unbothered by our presence. But still, these are wild, 400-pound beings and they don’t know me! I personally don’t love the idea of a stranger barging into my house. The gorillas weren’t hostile in the least, though. If anything they were a bit shy, and eventually those of us with large cameras sat. The dense flora and low light made photography difficult, and our cousins seemed quite relaxed—legs stretched out, hands hammocking their heads. 

Our time was up, Agustine announced as I clicked the shutter one last time. With that, the beat-up adulterer Bwengye, whose name means “wise guy,” rose abruptly, took a few long strides in my direction and suddenly slammed his open palm into my lap. Forceful energy reverberated through my bones. Remembering instructions not to make eye contact, I lowered mine quickly and saw that hairy hand still hovering as Agustine softly asked me to stand up and quickly back away. Dizzy with adrenaline, I was shaken, thrilled and grateful to have not melted down. He was only asserting his dominance, as it turned out. No big deal.

From Medhi, my second ranger in Uganda—who could have been Don Cheadle’s dad, with kind eyes and a wide smile—I learned about appreciating peaceful moments. “Some people say we Africans do not have watches, but we have time,” he said, reminding us we would have exactly one hour to view the family. “So take your time.” Those words helped put me in a more present state of observation and avoid the stressed rush to take as many photos and videos as possible of the serene individuals and infant adorably enjoying sun-dappled naps, snacks and grooming. I marveled at the humanity of their expressions. Their quiet beauty was bewitching. 

My animated Rwandan guide Francois, nicknamed Nine and built like a silverback but energetic like a juvenile, was a personal porter for Fossey herself in the early ‘80s. He’s spent 37 years with these primates and at 63 is the oldest guide in Rwanda, the human-gorilla conduit for president Paul Kagame and countless international VIPs (like Bill Gates). As soon as he began modeling behavior and teaching us vocalizations I understood why he is so requested: charisma and dedication. He didn’t tell but showed us—with green-tinged liquid streaming down his chin—how gorillas stay hydrated, not by drinking water but by sucking it from juicy thistle stalks. As he bounded up a hill at 8,500 feet I commented this work is clearly keeping him young. In response, Francois jumped up and down, slapped the moss-covered earth, beat his chest (the powerful drum-like sound adult gorillas create comes from air sacs that develop as they age, which they inflate with gasps of breath) and then dug into a stalk of bamboo with his teeth. 

He and Edward, a taller and less hyper but no less knowledgeable guide, took us between dombeya tree–draped volcanoes and stinging nettle patches (which actually do sting!) to find the Sabyinyo group, named for the oldest peak. Appropriately, its patriarch, Guhonda, is the oldest-known silverback at 48. (The usual lifespan is 45 years at most.) “Today it’s not so easy because the gorillas are in the mist,” Francois laughed as we paused for a water break, a reference to Fossey’s book and our protracted hike. We didn’t see his longtime friend but spent the hour with much of Guhonda’s offspring, from his silverback son trying to stage a coup to an eight-week-old, curly-headed infant with hands so tiny her mom also seemed awed while inspecting them. 

“Oh my god,” cooed Francois when we spotted the baby, a frequent refrain he used when genuinely thrilled about what we were seeing. I was equally tickled, breathless throughout, and supremely entertained by the group dynamics and ongoing conversation between the club bouncer–like silverback and Francois, whose contagious excitement helped make the wild ride one of my most rewarding. My camera infuriatingly malfunctioned as we trailed, climbed and crawled after the active bunch, but I remembered past lessons and slipped into a space of quiet awareness. After all, I had a rare front-row seat to watch intimate, remarkable moments of daily life unfold, and I wanted them saved not only on a memory card but imprinted in me.

I wasn’t the only one, I observed in the faces of Francois and Edward, who have seen this thousands of times but clearly find great pleasure in each moment. Before saying goodbye I asked them about this. “I’ve been with gorillas 20 years,” Edward replied, through births and deaths, scandal, punishment and play. “And every day we still see something new.”   

If you’re considering a trip… 

The experiences in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Uganda, and Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda, are quite different—so too are their prices at $600 and $1,500 per trekking permit, respectively. In the former, from the lush Sanctuary Gorilla Forest Camp it was just minutes to the start point where I was entertained by the multitalented ladies of local nonprofit Ride 4 A Woman (visit their Buhoma B&B and workshop to learn to cook or weave with them) who danced, sang and jumped to kick off the group briefing. From the stunning Singita Kwitonda Lodge, kitted out in waterproof everything from their comprehensive gear room, I was driven a short distance to the bar serving locally grown-by-women Question Coffee where we dispersed in manicured gardens for group introductions. In both places, a maximum of eight trekkers are assigned a guide and gorilla group for the day (being followed since early morning by expert trackers), and they must keep a distance of seven meters (23 feet).   

Bwindi Impenetrable Forest is called impenetrable for a reason—there was lots of hacking of overgrowth and hardly any flat surface. We gained almost 2,000 feet in elevation in 45 minutes. There is no such thing, it seems, as a moderate incline—ups and downs felt like climbing a ladder made of loose dirt or descending a playground slide made of soil, all under giant ferns that arched over treetops like umbrellas. On each trek my porter was indispensably helpful in successfully getting me into and out of the jungle. These local community members should be compensated $10-15, a very significant amount of money to them and their families. By contrast, the hike in Volcanoes felt closer to a walk in the park, albeit an extraordinarily muddy park. Squishing, slurping, gurgling and sucking sounds became the soundtrack of the journey through bamboo forests, until serious machete action began and we alighted on a kind of sprung forest floor that seemed woven haphazardly from nature and provided a bouncy if tangly surface on which to ascend. Ultimately all the treks provided equal opportunity for accumulating sweat, dirt, mud, and stinging nettle pricks.  

It’s exciting and encouraging that numbers of mountain gorillas have steadily risen thanks to extreme protection measures taken by governments, researchers, doctors and NGOs operating in mountain gorillas’ two small homelands, spurred on and inspired in so many ways by Dian Fossey, who fought for their protection with her life (in 1985 she was murdered by poachers). Her unwavering passion and advocacy turned things around for the species. In the ‘80s in Virunga Massif (which includes Volcanoes National Park) there were just 240 individuals; in Bwindi, the first census in 1997 found 294. The latest headcount, released in December 2019 (but completed in 2018) includes 459 in Bwindi and 604 in Virunga Massif—or maybe 605 if you count the newborn baby girl I saw earlier this month! 

Further reading:

Interior designer Timothy Corrigan’s “series of wows” in Beverly Hills

Reese Witherspoon’s yoga guru Kirschen Katz on achieving nirvana

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