Category Archives: Nature

So, There I Was…

So, there I was…eating breakfast and typing a message on the Unmapped Travels Facebook page when my new friend Jessica from British Columbia, Canada sat down to beside me.  Staying in the same room at a Barcelona hostel, we had met the day before and along with our other new friends Troy, from Arkansas, and Kamil, also from B.C. went out for a few drinks the night before.  Jessica looked as if she was planning her sightseeing day so I asked what was on the agenda.  She mentioned Montserrat and since I wanted to visit there while in Barcelona I jumped at the chance to go with someone.

Online that morning I read it was difficult to find where the R5  train, which goes from Barcelona to Montserrat, departed from….and they were right.  Come on Barcelona metro….how about some more signage!?!  We had to ask a security guard at a nearby shopping mall who kindly pointed us in the right direction.  After finding the R5 we bought combo tickets to take us the 45 minutes each way along with the cable car ride up to the top of Montserrat and back (19 euro, not bad).  Montserrat tip #1 if you go there, the extra 1.25 euro for the cable car ride is worth it, very cool!!

So, there I was…unloading from the cable car and seeing what looked like a village perched on the slope of this mountain.  There were a lot more buildings than I anticipated.  It’s amazing what people can build in places other people wouldn’t even want to visit.

I didn’t learn this until after visiting Montserrat but its been a religious site since at least the late 9th century AD when there were a few chapels on the mountain.  The original monastery, built-in 1026, got destroyed by Napoleon’s army in the 1800’s.  It was quickly rebuilt since it is such an important religious site in Spain.  Historically it’s been, and continues to be, a pilgrimage destination for people from all over Spain and beyond and it’s been a must see stop for travelers since before 1930 when the cable car was built.  My guess is all monasteries built on mountain slopes come chalk full of breathtaking views but since this is my first mountainside monastery I will declare it the most picturesque in the world!

At this point I realized I knew nothing about Montserrat (Iike I said, I didn’t learn all that stuff in the last paragraph until after visiting).  Before leaving I’d read it was a nice day trip from Barcelona and that is a monastery on a mountain.  And anyone who personally knows me, knows I like hiking in the mountains.  That’s all I knew.  So when I got there I really didn’t know what there was to do, which isn’t the worst thing in the world.  Some places you travel to need a little preexisting knowledge to understand.  This does not:

View from Monserrat near Barcelona
View from Montserrat near Barcelona

My travel partner and I found a local map and saw there was a museum at the monastery, a lot of little touristy shops and cafeterias/restaurants, and several hiking trails.  We started off walking toward the monastery/museum and a few minutes later, after realizing we had passed it, we were on a trail passing, on one side dozens of little monuments to the Black Madonna (the patron saint of Catalonia and the reason Montserrat became a religious site some 1200 years ago) and on the other, great landscape views.  We made it back to the main tourist area and stopped at one of the cafeterias for lunch.  Nineteen euro for transportation there and back wasn’t bad but they really stick it to you with the cost of lunch.  Montserrat tip #2, take snacks and avoid the big lunch bill!  Doing this allows for less guilt if you buy some of the artisan cheeses sold at one of many tents along the main street.

Jessica and I decided to hike to the top after lunch to see the other main attractions at Montserrat (the chapels and of course more views from the peaks above) we found another map to get our bearings, then set off.  The wide trails, made of ancient pavers, looked like an old Barcelona alleyway…but in the woods!  Jessica and I wondered aloud several times how old these trails must be.  Some portions looked as old as the chapels.  We hiked to all but one of the major stops I think, getting higher on the peaks than the funicular takes the less energetic visitors.  Along the trail we came across two chapels, one Latin cross perched far out on a cliff and a centuries old hermitage built into a cliff face.  It was really a nice hike and we were there on a perfect day.  The wind was blowing clouds quickly so we moved from sun to shade, never getting to cool at the high elevation or to hot when struggling up hill.

So there I was…

Unmapped Travels at Montserrat
Unmapped Travels at Montserrat

5 Things I Learned in Portugal

  1. It’s not illegal to have drugs.   I had about 8 different people try to sell me ‘Weed, hashish, cocaine?’ during the first 9 hours I was in Lisbon.  It’s still illegal to buy and sell drugs, or to use drugs I think, just not illegal to have them on your person.  There is a progressive drug policy in Portugal, they treat it as a health problem instead of a criminal problem.  The results have been good as fewer people are dependent now than before the law changed.  One bad side effect: drug dealers walk up to anyone they think might want some pot.  Since it’s not illegal to have drugs on you, they only have to worry about being caught selling them. FYI…this only happened to me in the main tourist section of downtown Lisbon.  There were no more drug dealer encounters the other 12 days I was in Portugal.
  2. The Portuguese people are really friendly (see Adega Winery for one example), especially if you attempt to speak in Portuguese.  Nobody knows Portuguese….Spanish speakers don’t.  The Italians?…No.  French?…Huh-uh.  So they loved me when I tried to use the 10 or so words I learned before arriving.
  3. Coimbra is an amazing city to walk through.  And the university on top of the hill is the icing on top of the cake.  And the local music is a treat to see in person!
  4. Real Port Wine (and Portuguese fortified wine in general) is really good!
  5. Two days in Sintra is not enough!  There are so many interesting and beautiful things to see in and around this hill town, to do it properly (without rushing) you need to set aside three days.
  6. Bonus thing I learned…Obidos is a destination gem many tourist’s go to but few spend more than several hours in. My advice…..go there.  Spend the night.  Enjoy!
    Flower in Path, Pena Park, Sintra
    Flower in Path, Pena Park, Sintra

5 Things I Learned in Puerto Rico

  1. No Pictures! in La Perla.  Click the link…and read why!
  2. El Yunque National Park is worth spending the day hiking in.  It’s absolutely beautiful!!
  3. I can spend days walking in Viejo San Juan and not do a thing.  I love it!  The vibe it gives off is kind of electric, at least to me.  Maybe that’s because it’s the first city I spent time in after leaving the states, or maybe it’s really that special.  I’ll go back sometime and see if I get the same feeling.
  4. The people who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico are professional drivers!  The roads are crazy.  Twisting, curving, tight cornered.  They all drive fast and without fear but in 5 days I didn’t see any wrecks.
  5. The little sweet bananas grown by my gracious hosts in the mountains are my favorite bananas of all time!
    Hammock in Front of Banana Trees, Puerto Rico
    Hammock in Front of Banana Trees, Puerto Rico

El Yunque Peak – A Perfect Day Hike

My friend Taré (who had recently moved back to his native Puerto Rico) and I drove to El Yunque National Forest in eastern Puerto Rico.  From Levittown, a suburb just west of San Juan where Taré had moved to a few days earlier, it took about 40 minutes to drive to El Yunque and another 15 minutes or so to drive up the mountain via PR 191 to the Palo Colorado information center.  

Along the way we stopped at the replica Yokahu Observation Tower.  This is a replica of the Yokahu tower that is much farther up the mountain and a couple of hours hike away.  At this point, only half way up the mountain, the replica tower affords breathtaking views for those not willing or able to hike the nearly 1500 vertical feet to the original Yokahu Observation tower.  We continued to Palo Colorado and received a free map of nearby hikes from the park workers.  They were extremely helpful and the map had a Spanish side as well as an English one.

Taré and I wanted to hike to the tallest peak in El Yunque which, based on the information we received at Palo Colorado, should take about 2 hours.  So off we went – within three minutes we were in a different world.  The tourist crowd near Palo Colorado quickly dissipated and the sounds of car engines and tires on the sloped curves of the mountain road turned to the sounds of our shoes on the trail, the occasional coqui call and very soon some heavy breathing from my hiking partner and I.  The trail was rocky but well-defined and safe.  I say safe, but after a rain shower which occur often (it is a rain forest!), some of the sections get quite slippery.  We had more difficulty with slipping on the way down (partly because of the damp conditions, partly because it’s easier to slip on a steep trail on the way down and partly because we’re old and out of shape so were a little beat after the hike up!) but overall we didn’t have any major issues.  The trail weaves back and forth through the forest crossing the various streams several times affording many opportunities for postcard style pictures.

Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak
Spanish Tower at the Top of El Yunque Peak

As we approached the top I realized all our hard work had paid off in spades with a vantage point at the peak unmatched in Puerto Rico (and most other places I’ve traveled).  There is a small, very old Spanish observation tower at the peak with a lot of graffiti on the interior walls but it’s quite interesting and seems a perfect fit atop this mountain….and it’s just plain cool to find at the top of a mountain.  The interior has two small benches, some red tile work around the edges and forming a cross in the middle, all surrounded by a white stone floor.  There’s a staircase that goes to the roof around the northern exterior wall where you get the best views and a much deserved Caribbean breeze in your face.  This small hexagon shaped observation deck sports a large stone altar-type structure that has the same Spanish cross carved in it.  From the observation deck you can see the north coast well past San Juan, the northeast coast and Fajardo area, the entire east coast, and in between other mountain peaks Tare and I thought we could see some parts of the south coast (hence the best vantage point in Puerto Rico). This little Spanish building was a welcome surprise and perfect way to rest a while before starting the hike down.

Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak
Unmapped Travels on top of El Yunque Peak

On the way down we, somewhat mistakenly, took a different trail and came across two other interesting areas that had old ruins.  I won’t give up the surprise of what they were and let you find them for yourself when you visit El Yunque National Forest, a perfect day trip when you need a break from the beaches on the coast and busyness of Viejo San Juan.

Big thanks to Taré for acting as my tour guide on this day!

Click HERE for Spanish version on!