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Bit of silliness from our hike around the Rincon de la Vieja volcano in Costa Rica yesterday.

Around the park, sulphur pits, steam vents, boiling hot pools and bubbling mud baths give the landscape a sci-fi edge.

Different kinds of forest – from dry to virgin cloud to rain – lay all around supporting a startling diversity of flora and fauna.

It was crowd-free, which I gather is a rarity in Costa Rica, so we had the place to ourselves more or less – ‘mas o menos’.

Monkeys threw sticks at us, kingsnakes hissed at us, and toucans croaked in our general direction. Good times!

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Yikes, looks like I’ve been doing too much travelig and not enough blogging. Ok, I didn’t undertake the trip to blog, but I do want to keep you folks updated. So here goes, week 2, Yosemite Valley and San Francisco.

Yosemite

Ansel Adams wrote that Yosemite Valley is “always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space.” Between quotes like that and so many iconic images of the place, I wasn’t, however, expecting to be surprised when I arrived. Indeed, having visited so many beatific superlatives in the USA, I was worried that ennui would set in with a tell-tale shrug of ‘who cares?’

However, as I seem to discover time and time again in this country, I needn’t have worried. At the ‘Tunnel View’ viewpoint, where you stop to first set eyes on Yosemite Valley – and, trust me, you will stop – you look out at a picture you will have seen thousands of times, but still feel like you’re the first to stumble on this natural paradise. Even surrounded by crowds of equally stunned visitors, you’ll feel like the only one there.

Awesome peaks like El Capitan and Half Dome – which provide rock climbers with a vertical slice of heaven – wowed us, albeit from a comfortable distance (there’s no way I’m scaling those sheer faces). The spring snowmelt ensured the waterfalls showed their gushing best – Bridal Falls, for instance, shimmered sublimely in the sunshine, so I clicked away on the camera till my finger hurt.

We donned our crampons – cunningly kept from our Grand Canyon excursion, and beat a path up into the snowline of the hills and far, far away from the hustle and bustle of our pre-holiday lives. The only thing disturbing the calm were the thunder of distant avalanches and ominous signs that black bears were on the loose after hibernation. With a backpack full of ursine goodies like berries, fruit and chocolate, I had turned myself into bear bait.

Needn’t have worried too much though – the nearest we see to a black bear is, by the roadside, an overfed Alsatian which we nickname (unimaginatively) “Bear Dog”. However, we do see a bobcat stalking prey at dusk. Now, its name seems cute enough – a cat named ‘bob’. Don’t be fooled – these things are bigger than Dobermans and much more feral. They look like proper ‘big cats’ – and as I creep closer with my camera, it stares me out without flinching an inch. Spooked, I backed off and made my way back to the car. Aye, Yosemite is wild alright, but thankfully not dangerous. Just wild and beautiful.

San Francisco

What a city! I want to live here, now! Entering San Francisco for about four days, we’re blown away by how much untamed countryside surrounds it. In London, you can drive an hour and a half without seeing a single field, but not here. With giant redwood forests to the north, huge Pacific waves to the west, mountain ranges to the east, and rolling, green hills to the south, rugged nature is never too far. Like sexy-looking Sydney in Oz, San Fran’s vast harbour area leading out to the Pacific makes this town look good. But it’s not the wildlife we’re here for – it’s an uncut shot in the arm of pure urban fix.

That said, we can’t resist a trip to Half Moon Bay to kind of transition from wilderness to city. About 20 drive from the financial district, this is the home to the infamous Mavericks wave, the biggest surfable break in the US. Adrenalin junkies risk life and limb paddling through frigid, shark-infested waters, to reach 20 foot monster waves, while we sip hot chocolates from the cosy confines of our car.

Next is must-see feat of engineering that is the groovy Golden Gate bridge, whose 2.5 miles or so round-trip we make on foot. We later discover that it’s a far better to rent bikes from the harbour and ride the whole way to Sausalito (in Marin county) for cocktails at sunset. We had sound advice from a local girl I know about the cocktails part, but not about the bikes. We blew it there – we enjoy the walk out, but it’s a blister-fest on the return leg.

Every city has its clichés – but you can’t be a snob, you have to see them. Preferably with child-like eyes, but without their lack of sensitivity to locals. So of course we check out the other tourist trails hot spots like Haight Ashbury, the far out epicentre of the hippy movement. Sure, the place is crawling with teens trying to ‘be authntic’ by being street urchins, and we overhear one such alt kid kid boast that his, like, dog had, like, taken LSD, man. Yet there are many human remains from the era, and we chat to mellow hobos who haven’t left the place since its hippy heyday – still living the dream, bearded and weirded but older. Most have hilariously honest begging signs such as “Let’s face it, I need a beer” and witty ones like “Father killed by ninjas, need money for karate lessons.” The place has a humour and civility about it. Colour bursts from every surface – I loved checking out the old and new street art from the 60s to present day on house, shop and street walls. We ate in lower Haight, at Burger Grill, which offers a burger “you must eat before you die,” according to Oprah Winfrey, of all people.

Locals loathe Pier 39, apparently, but we can’t resist this tacky tourist trap. The main reason was the shellfish bounty on offer here – Dungeness crab and clam chowder are must-eats in this seaside city sprawl. So we eat our fill, getting hands-on with crab and garlic fries – and pretty much reek of garlic for days afterwards.

San Fran also offers us a good ‘civilisation’ stop where we can sort a few things out. Same day opticians replace a lost pair of prescription sunglasses fast, a mobile phone store give me a new charger for free (San Franciscans are so nice, helpful and friendly), and we’re able to burn memory cards to disc to send back home for protection. We end up sorting so many things that we almost forget we’re on holiday. So we take advantage of the city’s excellent public transport system and visit other wonderful neighbourhoods such as Mission and Castro, sampling the excellent nightlife on offer. This would be a great city to live in, and it’s a fantastic one to visit. Next stop, the South Pacific!

Peace and love, 2010.

Strange rumblings in San Clemente yesterday.

Stalked by hunger, we stopped in the marina area of this town for lunch. Little did we know how, having sauntered casually in, we would be rattled frantically out.

1.30-3.25
The big yellow disc hangs high and goes about its business of sending hot rays to the California coast. We crank up the AC as we roll through the OC – Orange County – so are cool in our car, a cherry red bombshell nicknamed Cherry d’Amour.

Strong hunger pangs pierce the calm of our Easter Sunday transfer from Santa Barbara to San Diego. We steer off the freeway onto the coastal route, scouring the streets for scran. Yet the wealth-on-their-sleeves beach towns of Huntington, Laguna et al are hopping with Easter fever, there’s nowhere to easily stop, no simple parking spaces, so we roll on and on and out of options.

Two bellies groan and whinge and rumble. 6 miles under the freeway, south-so-east in Baja, rumbles of a very different kind, at least their rumours, start.

3.25pm.
We pull into the marina at San Clemente, and hungrily duck into a tacky eaterie that serves food and isn’t a MacDonalds, Wendy’s or Denny’s. A buxom, tattooed waitress tells us they start serving dinner at 3.30pm. Dinner? Hey ho. So we order dinner for lunch.

3.35pm.
The rumbles have grown intense. We try to appease them with offers of the just-arrived bread basket and unlimited soda refills. As they calm, a major fault in the Earth rumbles and registers an earthquake at 7.2 on the Richter scale, a huge one, a shallower, more dangerours one than Chile.

3.40pm.
The restaurant starts swaying. Immediately I’m on alert. We’re on the marina but are we on stilts? I thought we were on terra firma. We are on terra firma. But it’s swaying. Our waitress stops before she reaches our table, her eyes wide and frozen in a shocked, fearful impression. And it doesn’t stop. It’s an earthquake.

The table of dinner-at-3.30pm-eating Californians next to us excitedly confirms it to each other. Disdfainfuly, they exclaim how exciting it is. But it’s not exciting for us. We’ve never been in an earthquake before and don’t know what to do when one hits. And, being British, we certainly don’t want to show any emotion about it, or communicate with strangers about for fear of not being able to leave the conversation so we sit there numbly, waiting and watching patiently for things to happen.

Light fittings start swinging violently back and forth – rythmically at first, then with increasing violence. The whole place and everything in it is swinging back and forth. I’m thinking, if I was in the band I wouldn’t be playing on – I’m ready to dive into the drink.

Nothing else happens. After and extremely long 45 seconds, it stops. And measures about 6.4 in the Richter Scale in the San Diego area. One of the biggest in for years.

3.45pm
Our dinner lunch arrives. There is more of my soup outside of the bowl than in it. But that’s ok. My stomach isn’t rumbling any more, and neither is the Earth (until now one of the most stable things I’ve ever known). Unlike hunger, earthquakes are unpredictable. Even when the impact is limited to a weird shaking and swaying – albeit of ‘everything’ – they can be pretty scary.

Hard to imagine how much more terrifying what it was like near the epicentre in Baja (eerily, our next destination), or the horror of the recent quakes in Chile and of course, Haiti. We are powerless to control these trememdous forces of nature.

Yet it’s life-affirming and exciting to come out of it unscathed. And it’s far more interesting than a run around Dulwich park on a gloomy spring morning in London. I just hope it’s the last one we experience this trip.