In March of 2016, we spent the most amazing weekend in Fairbanks, Alaska. We witnessed the unbelievable phenomenon of auroras borealis, enjoyed like kids at the World Ice Sculpture Championship , and even had time to get trapped in a snow storm in Denali. It was one of our favorite adventures of the year, a unique experience that we didn’t think we would repeat any time soon…
The Denali National Park is a massive preserve in interior Alaska, containing the highest peak in North America, 20,310 feet tall Denali (previously known as Mount McKinley). It might be better known in popular culture as the place where Chris McCandless ventured and eventually died, as chronicled by the book and later film ‘Into the Wild’. Most people believe Denali is a summer park, but in reality it’s open all year around, and is definitely worth a visit in the winter, if you find yourself in Alaska. For us, it was an obvious choice when deciding where to spend the last day of our Alaska weekend, after a day enjoying the amazing World Ice Art Championship in Fairbanks and a night marveling at northern lights. Denali is 120 miles from Fairbanks, mostly on highway, so it can be reached in 2 and a half hours, which makes it a long but totally viable day trip. It would be a pretty eventful one.
The main goal of our weekend trip to Fairbanks, Alaska, was to see the northern lights, and we definitely succeeded 🙂 Luckily for us, this remote town has much more to offer in March: The peak month for auroras coincides with the spectacular World Ice Art Championship… perfect timing!
The northern lights, or aurora borealis, are a natural phenomenon at the top of most traveler’s bucket list; they definitely have been on mine since I can remember. These colorful light displays are caused by charged particles released from the Sun, known as solar wind, as they hit the Earth’s atmosphere. They typically occur on the band 10-20 degrees of latitude from the North Pole, making certain locations around the planet true hot spots for aurora viewing; most notably, Iceland, Norway, Canada and Alaska. In Alaska, the small town of Fairbanks prides itself in offering the best chances, as well as the easiest logistics for those who live on the West Coast of the US like me.
I’m lucky to have a group of friends that loves travelling and hiking. Every year, we do at least one epic trip to explore America’s beautiful outdoors. Mount Whitney, Zion, Bryce and Havasu Falls have been some of our previous destinations… and this year, it was Banff’s turn. About 2 hours west of Calgary, Alberta, Banff was Canada’s first national park. Its landscape includes forests, alpine mountains, glaciers and the most famous, intense blue lakes.
A few more hours of driving, this time on a nice road, and a quick stop at a crocodile-infested river, and we made it to our final stop: Manuel Antonio. The first nights we decided to stay close to the National Park entrance, in Manuel Antonio proper. That way we would be there before most tourists (it gets crowded in peak season), and we could enjoy the local beach. This area was much more touristy than all the other places, more expensive and “Americanized”, though we still found really good food and juices 🙂
After our detour to Playa Grande to observe leatherback turtles, we had driven a few hours and crashed in a crappy hotel in Juntas, close to Monteverde. We woke up a bit later than usual, and started the drive up to the mountain. The road was truly horrible and it took us good 2 hours and a lot of pain.
Monteverde is known for its Cloud Forests (Reserva de Monteverde and Reserva de Santa Elena), and for ziplining. It’s unclear if it really started here, but there is no doubt that this town has exploited the activity the most. We signed up for a group that was starting right away at Selvatura Park, one of the most famous operators. It was lots of fun! Not only the adrenaline of flying but also being surrounded by the thick forest with howler monkeys, the dense fog that wouldn’t let you see where the line was ending… we enjoyed like kids.
Costa Rica is a destination for observation of turtles, both laying eggs and hatching. Most people experience it in Tortuguero, but since we were outside of the season, we had given up on the idea. However, when we were in Corcovado, a Spanish couple told us that they had just seen a leatherback turtle laying eggs in Playa Grande. So we did some research and decided to take a detour on the way from Rio Celeste to Monteverde… a long detour on an already long day.
We started the day very early, as it was going to be a long one. Most people go from Arenal to Monteverde, or vice versa, but we had decided to take a detour to hike in Rio Celeste. The drive from La Fortuna (Arenal volcano) to Rio Celeste is ~3 hours (don’t believe Google), on a very bad road, through San Rafael de Guatuso. It gets even worse if you continue further, towards Monteverde, so it should definitely only be attempted with a 4WD.
We woke up in the outskirts of San Jose, where we had crushed the night before after picking up our rental car. We drove a couple more hours to La Fortuna, on a very good road (the best we would see in Costa Rica, by far), taking in the tranquil surroundings. After finding a hostel in the center of the town, we went in the car again and drove up to the Arenal Volcano National Park. It was very cloudy, and we already knew that we would most likely not get to see the famous, perfect cone of the volcano (usually it’s visible from town). Still decided to do a short hike to the lava flows, some really old and gigantic trees and enjoy the rainforest overall. Also piggy-bagged on some tourist groups whose guides spotted animals, but after Corcovado, we were very hard to impress :S