Barcelona 2/2

Unable to bear the thought of leaving without doing everything I wanted, I take the scenic train out past the suburbs to the great hills beyond.

The mountains have all sorts of rock formations sticking out. Following the river, I manage to get off at the wrong train stop as I push the wrong button to open the door. But I get to look out at the town of Montserrat and it’s little hovels dotting the hillside, including a gothic bridge and some chapels. I catch another scenic train ride up the mountain to the monastery at the top.

The top of the hill

The old building is iconic, visited by Joan of Arc and many notable figures throughout history. Statues and artwork line the old walls, which have been recently restored. The best part is the breathtaking landscape surrounding the building. Cut into the cliff side, rocks jut out the top like daggers.

I hike up past the funny shaped boulders, entering the surprisingly shaded forest. I see lizards scuttle about and smell the dung of recently re-introduced mountain goats.
Around each pass, the view shifts a bit and I see more and more of the rocks. I find all sorts of shapes and what look to be cartoon-ish faces. What do you see in the mountains?

I finally get close to the top and catch a view of the rocks that I could see coming in on the train. I gasp in awe as I make it to the summit, clouds rolling in and creating a mystical feel with the mist. Then, the sun comes out, and I get a great view into the valley and surrounding rocks, while haze sits on the horizon.

Rushing back down the steps, I follow the path out a different way—much more paved and sunny. I enjoy this view of the serrated rocks as well, some sticking out in all sorts of…shapes. I see where all the artists draw their inspiration from! The other side of the hill has lots of boulders, like scales lining a dragon’s back.

I eventually make my way down to where I started from, passing a reporter who is taking up the best viewpoint. I run down to the cable car, which offers a great view of the hilly valley and river.

I miss the train unfortunately and have to wait an hour for the next one. This delay would cause me to miss my flight (or at least the check in, since I couldn’t do it online for some reason).
But fortunately it isn’t so expensive, and I get to explore Barcelona more!
I spend the next day eating all the churros, croquettes, and other fried goodies I can get while seeking a replacement charger and walking around the Rival district.

I devote the afternoon to the casa Batllo. Now THIS is a great tour. The architect Gaudi had complete freedom with this apartment, drawing inspiration from the ocean and nature. The color pallets derive from the Mediterranean, windows are shaped like gills, and crustacean spirals are featured throughout. There’s even some cathedral glass on the balconies that mimics the hazy clearness of the Mediterranean. And, of course, his mosaic tiles are ever present, on the roof in the shape of a dragon’s back with creative chimneys.

I even go back the next day to take my picture with the facade —are the balconies masks or animals?

I explore the rest of Eixample—admiring the architectural feats and inspiring designs. Everything feels so creative. Walking back in time to the Børn neighborhood, I walk down every medieval street. Though still narrow, these streets seem somehow more welcoming than the neighboring gothic district. I spot all sorts of great art nouveau houses here too. I even find some chocolate covered raspberries —my favorite!

I spend the evening at the beach—exploring the cute neighborhood of Barceloneta and watching the sunset.

A wise man on the subway said to me, “ If you don’t want to spend time, you have to pay money; if you don’t want to pay money, you have to spend time”

So I use the rest of my metro tickets to zip across the city, checking out the last UNESCO heritage sight in Barcelona—the hospital. I enter through the wrong entrance, taking pictures discreetly of the hospital, going around as patients and nurses roam the streets. Then, following other misguided tourists, I leave the campus and find the REAL entrance, and I can’t describe my feelings of excitement. I love seeing all the pavilions up close, and each is dedicated to a different patron Saint. Some even have insignias—an R for Richard for example, named after the sponsor. There are exhibits inside some and the original tiling is still present.

The most impressive building is the administrative headquarters, complete with a large clock tower and a lookout over the gumdrop village. I also got some Indian, wander around the University area a bit passing by the original gothic hospital, and then eat the Indian food at the park Ciutadella as the sun goes down. What a great ending to my time in Barcelona !

Barcelona (1/2)

A city of claustrophobia-inducing streets, rising sewer fumes, and a culturally distinct, architectural marvel.

I absolutely cannot stand walking around the city as nauseating smells seep from all around. But then it passes and I see an intricately detailed building, and another. It seems the modernismo trend has seeped into every pore of this city as I walk past the historic area into the connecting Gracia.

I just so happen to be here for a festival, MejordeGracia, a weeklong celebration after The Assumption (which happens to be a holiday celebrated on my birthday!). Streets compete with hanging decor and everyone wins with delicious kebabs, horchata and drinks at every corner. I even make it to an orchestra concert playing Catalan music; I am loving the piccolo and oboe sounds! All the festival information is in Catalan, which is usually the first language people speak to me in until I come out with (slower than usual) Spanish. Then I usually get responses in English over Spanish!

This northern suburb also features casa Vicens, Guadi’s first house. I take the time to appreciate his fine attention to detail, nature symbolism, and remarkable architectural craft. I personally love his mosque-inspired tiling and use of animal motifs.

The next day I take off for the heart of the ancient city, following a circuit that leads around Roman 1-4th century towers. Now incorporated into modern buildings, they hardly stand out among the already historic medieval district. I take a tour to get some background information on the cathedrals and Kings of Aragon as I see their established courts in Barcelona.

I really enjoy passing through the Call community, which historically is a medieval Jewish settlement from the 11-14th centuries, when the King welcomed them. The old butcher shop, synagogue, and incredibly narrow streets still stand. While I don’t love walking through these tight passageways, I do adore the low hanging archways and small doors (just my size!)

I explore the surrounding Gothic neighborhood a bit more and head up the popular “Ramblas” street to a Mercada, with dozens of stalls offering delicious tropical juice and Spanish classics like croquettes. I try a bit of everything, falling for the usual fried delicasies filled with spinach and cheese or meat.

Mercada La Boqueria

I enter Eixample, the modernismo neighborhood where any building from an apartment to a Macdonald’s can be in a thematically decorated building, with tiles or a geometric design.
The most famous of which are Casa Batllo, with its curvy balconies, and rock-themed casa Pedrera (Mila), but I only observe from the outside with the steep entrance fees. I also pass by a similar architect’s house, but it seems more religiously themed.

I opt instead to walk up past Gracia again to Güell park, Gaudi’s outdoor masterpiece. Everything from the trails to the park guard house is very much in his style, with dozens of stairways connecting the different parts. “Villeducts” or archways like ribs, stretch across the zones and allowing interesting passage with strong columns to cool in the shade and a decorated walkway to take in the view of the city.

The center is “nature placa” which is a swirly array of benches complete with Gaudi’s signature mosaic tiles, usually inspiring waves. I noticed on the way out small “animals” too on the other end.

I hike up to the top of the park for an even better view and make my way around another house (where he lived near the end of his life) and explore the villa ducts.
The grand finale on the way out is his unique cave, with large Greek-like columns and ceiling mosaics that take the breath away. The “entrance” is lined with statues of a dragon and Catalan’s emblem, also beautifully mosaic.

I hesitate to leave, but I make it back to my hostel just in time for a trip to old war bunkers at the top of a nearby hill. I enjoy drinks and a kebab as the sun goes down over the hills and the lights come on across the city.
I check out another artist—Picasso, and his early work. Before he started in his unique style, he did a lot of traditional “academic” work while he completed his studies, before starting his own take on things. A lot of his typical style didn’t come about till the 60s, and he has some inspiring nature landscapes I adore. He also dabbles in jewelry craft.

I complete my tour of Børn, the medieval town with its equally claustrophobic streets, and make my way to the park, properly taking in the Arc de Triumph and the gorgeous lamp-posts (which I believe Gaudi designed). The fence of the park was his first commission, and I enjoy seeing some nice sculpture-work.
The gardens are very nice, but I notice it’s about to rain. Just in time, I make it to the Sagrada Familia to properly observe the building I am caught up and overwhelmed by all the details at first, overlooking most of them that I didn’t notice the building is unfinished. Lots of towers of fruits for the different seasons and lower statues are complete, most recently of which are the “passion” towers. These have symbols of the hat and sceptre.

It takes the breath away how many different parts there are. I really see something new every time I look, spotting another cartoonish statue or another fruit tower. It really is more like a work of art than a cathedral, but I suppose it’s both.

I’m shocked by how simple it is on the inside, relatively speaking. Beautiful mosaics fill the floors with light displays of many colors, and the organ concert is awe-inspiring. The supporting columns curve upwards to the ceiling like a tree canopy, connecting on a hyperbolic geometric ceiling. In fact, the outside supporting columns are modeled after buttressing roots.

Symbolism is everywhere, with crests of Christianity and Catalonia around the ceiling. As are the lion, eagle, angel, and bull, symbolic for Christ’s disciples and the virtues represented by each. There is meant to be towers of each one, projecting lights to the statue of Jesus at the top. I can’t wait to come back and see it!
Taking advantage of the sunshine, I hike up the hill near the hostel to the fortress at the top. While expecting more of a castle, the watchtower and drawbridge have seen more rulers than I could count. It also has a tragic history as a prison during the Spanish civil war, with hundreds put to death in the walls.

I end the day at the beach, loving the mild temperatures and clear water—which is so beautiful as the sun goes down. Finally I get some tapas, trying some off everyone’s plates. There is lots of fried seafood, which I don’t love the texture of, but I try it anyway. At the end I just stick to my “bombas,” like croquettes of fried cheese. I do try some nice paella too, rice with good spices and vegetables.

I realize there is much more to see in Barcelona…

Castle Dreams

Well if I ever dreamed of being a princess, surely this castle would have done the trick. The large cylindrical columns make it like a fantasy. I adore wandering the large grounds and learning about the history of Chaumont, owned by Catherine di Medici and swapped with Diane Pointier for Chenonceau (more on that later). Most of the interior is newly decorated, but the exterior is beautiful; I spend an hour photographing and even longer admiring all the nature-themed artwork on the massive castle grounds.

I take a pit stop in Amboise by accident, I have to leave the train after a mixup with the ticket and the conductor. But I’m glad I did! The fun exterior overlooking the city has cool castle vibes, with a bit older, more medieval style. I enjoy the old city as well and the market for wine tastings from local vineyards.

The best is Chenonceau—the women’s castle. Owned almost exclusively by influential women over the centuries, they shaped and saved the original building, expanding upon it in their own way. I love the way the castle straddles over the river and the original castle tower—as if Rapunzel were stuck up at the top. The castle interior has decor in such a way as to imagine how they lived their lives. Crossing the moat to the beautiful woods across the way, I had trouble getting back in without the exit stamp. I have to finagle my way back into the castle, describing the attendant who failed to give me a stamp, and I am allowed to continue the rest of the tour. This castle has beautiful gardens too!

The fortress of Chinon is more medieval in style and build. For Henry II, a British King who used it as a stronghold a millennium ago. He perpetuated the legend of Arthur to propaganda his agenda as a war against France and a United British kingdom. He was betrayed by his son Richard Lionheart who teamed up with the French to get the castle back. The nice old towers still stand; I go up and down spiral staircases and use a tablet to project images of what life used to be. The castle was an important place of Joan of Ark, and the knights of Templar were held captive here. I enjoy how the exhibits tie the history of what happened to legends and popular culture.

Chinon has a cute medieval town too, with the iconic wooden-planked buildings characteristic of medieval times. Tours has beautiful remains of an ancient citadel and medieval town, with the same wood planks mixed with brick, quite common at the time and giving the place a quant feel. It seems as if people should be eating mutton as opposed to crepes, but I enjoy the modern advantages of some falafel and ice cream.

My last day I absolutely adore the castles! I drool over the external medieval decor, and inside the castle of Saumur has a little museum of some artwork. There is another medieval style town surrounding the castle. I absolutely adore Langais, the town and castle. It still has the old 1000 year old keep; the oldest remaining chateau in France. The rest of the castle is renaissance style, beautifully restored and decorated as if it were still in use by an owner. Even actors help bring the scenes to life! Though exhibits and presentations are mainly in French, it is good practice and fun to learn about the eloping of Charles VII and Anne of Brittany here, which brought the province of Brittany into the French kingdom. 

I enjoy a complimentary tasting of Boulgelois wine afterwards. I learn that the flavor depends on the soil, with deeper roots absorbing more tannins and adding a stronger flavor, while shallow roots contributing to a sweeter flavor. Older wines allow the tannins to subside with time, so after 15 years is a bit more smooth. Delicious! 

Return to Paris

I’m excited to finally be back in the city I only got to know briefly this January. This time around, I’m going inside all the major attractions around the city. Changing up the walking route across the Seine river, I’m seeing new plazas, like Bastille and Varnes, and passing by cute cafes at corners with large stuffed bears.

I’m thrilled to visit the Natural History Museum, which is an affiliate of my master’s program. They have so many skeletons of animals from around the world (due to France’s long history of colonization), and fossils of so many prehistoric beasts. I even see Lucy!

The fossil skeleton dubbed “Lucy”-the hominid from 2 million years ago, who is one of our close relatives.

I take a day trip to Versailles to see the Palace. Decadent and fancy in every way, each ceiling is painted with symbols and crafted according to the roman gods. The garden is even more gorgeous, perfectly manicured with large water displays, music playing in the edges, and hedges cut like sentinels, almost like the Queen of Hearts palace in Alice in Wonderland.

The Louvre, besides being an iconic palace itself, has an amazing Egyptian collection, stretching from the ancient empire to more “modern” items. Art from Persia, Babylon, and Greece also do not disappoint. I particularly like the Etruscan and Roman artwork, which is getting me excited for the coming semester in Italy. And the Renaissance Italian artwork, with the famous Mona Lisa, who is actually larger than expected from the photos; you just have to stand far away from the painting. Also iconic Lady Liberty is just down the hall.

Taking a short rest, I visit the Orsay museum with my friend who lives in Paris. There is one of the early iterations of the Statue of Liberty, a nice Van Gogh collection, and famous impressionists like Monet (but I think Monet is the best, even though Neo-impressionism like Van Gogh is more my taste).

I visit Montmartre the next day, and I absolutely love the small town on a hill, with so many cute cafes and even the burlesque club Moulin Rouge featured in paintings I saw the day before. I walk up and down the hills and stairs lining the streets, ducking in for a galette, a buckwheat crepe, to shelter from the rain. The Sacre Coeur basilica on top of the hill is impressive, and I find it makes a statement like the church of Saint Michel and Notre Dame.

I visit the catacombs, which leaves me feeling a bit sick from the vertigo of the spiral stairs down or the fact that I was walking through a massive gravesite. Over 2 million remains are in the crypt, and I walked past thousands of schools, stacked and arranged as the cemeteries of France became overcrowded before the Revolution. It really feels strange, almost voyeuristic even. However, I also see it is as a way of honoring those individuals, many of whom had been victims of the Black Plague, arranging the remains in an orderly fashion as best as possible. Though sometimes the artistic way of the skulls I found a bit odd. Lots of excavations are done of the site, and contribute to an understanding of Parisians past. 

Mafate (Part 2/2)

In a manic fervor, overconfident and fluffed up by how impressed the others are with my speedy hiking pace, I take off in the opposite direction for the heart of Mafate. I traverse the river, questioning my choice, until I see the beautiful pyramid of my strange vivid dreams. I managed to circumvent it and get to some beautiful ilets, small villages surrounded by landscapes straight out of a fairytale. I love seeing the flat ridge tops, a line cutting across like a cookie cutter, connecting to the bigger picture view I saw from Cap Noir to fit together like a puzzle.

I really only go all the way to Aurere, the last village of the area, in desperation for food. I have eaten through my supplies and can’t find any shops open in the villages I pass through. I eat guava, sour and green, or dark red and ripe, and a new citrus fruit that I’ve never seen before but seems tasty to eat.

Here at the last town before the descent to the river, I find a bakery! But while waiting for my sandwich, the clouds roll in, obscuring the view.

Village of Malheur (bad luck), view from Aurere

I knew it was going to rain, but I didn’t realize how much it would suck missing out on the best views of Mafate. To motivate myself for the steep hike up, I imagine what I would be seeing. Sometimes it’s better than what is actually there. Ridge after ridge after ridge can be seen through the clouds, and I get some idea of which part of the cirque I’m looking down on; I’m quite familiar with the big triangular formation by now (see above photos).

But as I keep going on the clouds gave me hints of shadows of giant obscure rock formations. Coming to a pass made me so grateful to be there in that moment, dramatic features shrouded in mystery. I feel the mysticism as I pass along the path in the violent rain and wind.

The path on the Scout trail.

Spirits are lost as I reach the top after 50,000 steps that day. To be fair, they were lost before I started the ascent. But I push on through the rain until a nice lady offers to pick me up and drops me off at the start of the trail.
A horribly muddy descent follows; it takes me three hours to get to Marla, the last village in Mafate. But from here I could leave through Cilaos by way of Col du Taïbit, the funny shaped rock in the background of all my photos.

Destination: Col du Taibit, the border with Cilaos and the easiest way out. I have to go up and over these rocks.

I can’t find a place to sleep, but there is a party hostel. I recognize my friends from the previous night, who took the short easy path directly here. They introduce me to some people and give me some drinks; a party in the mountains under the stars sets me up for the night to crash on a mattress in the hallway. Whoever says the French are not friendly definitely does not apply in Reunion!

I get up to see what I can of the sunrise before entering the clouds. I am amazed I can still hike up and reach the summit after an hour. I am surprised by all the little bits sticking up along the ridge top, which exceed my imagination. Desperate to make the first bus out of Cilaos and have enough time to collect my luggage before getting to the airport, I realize I am running down the mountain. The body is so much more capable than realized. I am amazed by people running the paths, and now I am one of them! I make the bus in time even to do some shopping at the Cilaos morning market.

I had a moment as I leave the cloud forest. “I love you, be well,” I say to the hanging lichens and twisted branches. I realize the cloud forest is a strong part of my identity, with my experiences in Madagascar, Ecuador, and Peru shaping the person I am.
As I say goodbye with one last scenic journey down into Cilaos, all the way from the rim of the cirque, I think how this island has become a part of me too.

One last hike through Cilaos and the cloud forest—Au Revoir, Reunion!

Mafate (Part 1/2)

Beautiful ridges stretch across the cirque, unlike the smooth bowl that is Salazie. Clouds appear in the distance, but the Mafate amphitheater is all dry. I get chills as I look out at the impressive hills, a rocky slope surrounded by two massive arms, one going up to border Salazie.

I can see the highest point on the island, Piton de neiges and the border wall with Cilaos in the background. It’s all coming together, the understanding of myself in relation to the island. I follow the gorgeous steep walls and the impressive trail cutting around the edge of the mountain. I have to take in the view for 30 minutes to absorb it all. Scaling up the ladders and taking in the views, I appreciate this island even more. I decide to go down into the hills, but is it worth it?

…1 week later…

Mafate is the only place on the island where there are no roads; you have to hike all the way in and out.

I start off with the sun beating down overhead, with not much of a view and lots of dizzying heights as I make my way around the trail cut alongside the mountain. I look up where I was the week prior at the strange rock with the beautiful views.

After a couple hours questioning my life choices, I turn the corner. And wow! I am constantly swearing to myself, finding myself saying “this is the most amazing place” over and over. Pictures never do it justice, so I almost skipped the hike, but it is jaw-dropping. The hills, the peaks, the surrounding edges: they get even better as I go further along, seeing green pyramids, the three-pointed cap of trois roches in the distance.

I pass into the small village of Orangiers, and I notice it is getting dark. I think it’s better to seek refuge for the night in one of these villages alongside the mountain. But I still have 2 hours, so I proceed, though it is not so great behind the large wall and canyon I hike up, blocking the view. But then, just as the sun is setting, I appeared at the top at a spot called “the breach.” I watch the sun illuminate the valley red at the foot of Maido, the path to which is closed for the moment from a landslide. I don’t take time to dawdle with threat of landslides, and I descend into the dark towards the village of Roche Plate.

Bats and toads are my sole companions, until I get to the Lavitra gîte. I join other guests for dinner as a group, friendly chats and learning about the way people in Mafate, so closed off from the rest of the island, live their lives. They send their kids tp high school on the coast, while thy have an elementary school here at the church. The dad’s job is a trail officer, monitoring the closed off maido trail, and flying around a helicopter doing patrol work. I enjoy mingling with the French and réunionnaise travelers as we share some geranium-infused rum and beans over rice. I drift off to sleep, dreaming of beautiful jade mountains and floods that wash me away just as I reach the trailhead.


Journey through the cloud forest

I finally get to the chance to go back and explore the gorgeous ridges, or “bras de calumet,” that I saw on the drive from the airport. The view just get even better, driving up and down through the rolling green hills to the edge of the cirque of Salazie.

Looking down on the Salazie cirque is so different than that of Cilaos! It is much more green, with one large “piton” in the center.

The journey through the cloud forest features huge and towering tree ferns. Being the wettest of the three cirques, the trails are muddy and slippery, and a bit difficult to manage with my 2nd vaccine making me lightheaded. I try not to slip off the crooked stairs and platforms, but it’s pretty manageable overall.

The best part is the Tamarin forest; lots of endemic Acacia trees with dangling lichens, called “Jupiter’s beard”. Lots of birds fly around the hanging epiphytes.

At the end of the path is the “trou de fer”, hole of iron. The jaw dropping view is well worth it, but hard to capture in a photo. Swirling clouds create a real “Jurassic park” effect; it’s magical watching the water flow down all 300 meters, turning to vapor before it even hits the cliffside. I count several streams, creating 3 separate waterfalls, rolling down the cliff. There are a lot of nice hill bumps too, the characteristic remnants of a collapsed volcano!

…into Salazie the next day…

We are swallowed by the big mouth of the cirque, wet with waterfalls drooling down the sides of her slopes.

Green teeth point sharply out of the earth; it’s easy to observe the large amphitheater and how it collapsed, the remains of the volcano jutting out of the ground and forming such distinct looking hilltops.

The beauty of the huge waterfalls pouring down from the steep cliffs is unreal. I had to get a closer look—I hike through the dense vegetation, up and down along the edge of the hill to see the tallest waterfall in France in all its splendor.

La Cascade Blanche is magnificent in every way; the absolutely breathtaking view necessitates crossing the river to get closer. Though a bit scary climbing up the steep basin, it is well worth it to be in the pool at the end of this giant waterfall, looking up in admiration.

There are so many waterfalls I lose count; another cluster is particularly impressive and requires a short hike. The best part is the view of Anchaing, the largest formation in the cirque of Salazie. The waterfall is nice too, and the easy hike offers a great view of the valley.

Anchaing visible in the distance from the waterfall Voile de la Mairie

Afterwards, we drive to hell-burg, a cute creole town with lots of bright houses and a gorgeous lookout of Anchaing, what I’ve decided is my favorite cirque formation. The steep slopes, the large wavy curves; it’s really magnificent to behold.

Piton Anchaing

Salazie the town has a nice town hall, and what a view of the mountains! I imagine what it is like to live here surrounded by the wet jungle. I think it’s better to be able to visit on a sunny day!


Up we go hiking to the top of Cilaos, through the wet lowland tropical forest up to the cloud forest with views of the cirque opposite the viewpoint from the field school. Continue going up to the alpine zone with its low shrubby trees, I start to miss the shade, but its nice to have a sample of all the ecosystems in one hike! Lots of native bulbuls, found only in healthy forests, are cawing about so a good sign despite all the foot traffic. 

Bulbuls have calls that sound like cats and can imitate other birds

What a view! It’s tough hiking up and down, and up again to get to the top. There are a couple of wrong turns, but eventually we make it to the ridge line. This is the highest point with large slopes on either side. I embrace the vertigo as I scramble up and down lots of ladders with breathtaking views of the hills and ridges below. It’s very steep, so I’m careful to stay on the path not to fall off! 

The clouds role in, blocking the view but creating a nice contrast with the green peaks. Stopping for a picnic, I keep going a bit until it starts to get really rocky, like up on the volcano

The hike back feels really long without the nice views to entertain, but I appreciate some friendly company and plenty of birds. There are lots of nice smelling flowers too! 

In a field of flowers

…. 2 weeks later…

Have you ever seen a waterslide off a cliff?

While not so challenging, the trail is a bit steep and slippery at points, but for the most part it is flat. There is plenty of tree cover and beautiful views of the mountain, peaks, and lots of other fun formations. 

The “easy” part of the trail

Down near the waterfall, a bit of confusion sets in as I notice a “do not enter” sign on the trail, so I return to the river for lunch to think. 

Sure enough, I confirm that is the right trail! The parks sign, covered in graffiti, probably doesn’t want to be responsible for people sliding off the cliff. 

So I carefully walk down the much steeper path, often holding on to ropes to descend. 

I make it out to the viewpoint and see that it really is a long way down the cliff! I make a mental note not to play in the water too close to the edge. 

I wander across the smooth rocks to the river—and wow are they smooth. I rest lying down on one enjoying the view and I almost fall asleep in comfort—like a natural bed. 

But it’s super slippery too! It’s so fun going down the water slide. The fresh water is a shock to the system—and the view from the bassin is one of the best I’ve seen!

I just take it in, admiring the sheer cliffs, the triangular peaks, the oddly phallic erosion remnants, and the towering peaks of the cirque in the distance. 

Swallows and Reunion harriers circle above me, riding the currents. I even see a bird I have never seen before. 

Yellow leothrix, native to the Himalayas and introduced to Reunion and Europe.

The afternoon clouds role in creating some drama along the landscape for the return. I have some spare time to admire the “artsy” town of Cilaos. It’s mostly “tourist-y”, but there are some nice sculptures and arts & crafts. I treat myself to a bon bon miel, a traditional honey donut, which is a bit too sweet for me.

Stay tuned for my hike up to those peaks in the distance.

Cilaos, the most accessible of the three cirques, has always been reliable for a good hike and a stunning view!

Underwater Wonderland

Scuba diving for the first time on a coral reef is a great chance to get up and close with the fish in my face, unbothered as they munch on the reef. The boat ride from the port offers a scenic tour of the island; mountains are visible as we pull out of the marina.

View from the port.

I see my first fish as I slowly descend onto the reef. There is not a lot of coral cover at first, but some areas look a bit better, as much as 30% of the seafloor. Underneath the large coral mounds, I see red cardinal fish hiding, a large pipette fish, and a large emperor angelfish. I manage to control my breathing, floating up with an inhale and down with an exhale, until I am neutrally buoyant, gliding through the water.

Emperor Angelfish in an aquarium for rehabilitated sea turtles at Kelonia.

I continue on into a cave where a lot of fish swarm above, then we swim back out past large mounds of corals. Lots of butterflyfish dance about and bicker right in front of us, like in an aquarium.

Moving on to an area that is mostly rubble, I’m starting to wonder why we would leave the coral when all of a sudden I see a turtle feeding a few meters away. She has a large barnacle on her back and I stare in awe as I’m eye level with the turtle. I haven’t seen a sea turtle since the Galapagos, so I am very excited to see one of my favorite creatures right in front of me. The group moves on, so I am forced to follow, but then we see ANOTHER sea turtle, this one much younger (with a clean shell). The lighting is perfect as it swims up to the surface, but I no longer have an underwater camera to capture it.

Photo of a green sea turtle in Kelonia, a rehabilitation center for injured sea turtles on the island.

I also see a lion fish. Unlike the ones in the carribean which are invasive, this one is quite shy and huddles against the rock. The coloration is a bit different, and it seems not so scary. I can see the dive master looking for something and I’m not quite sure what it is, maybe seahorses, and so I spend a lot of time staring closely at algae. All of a sudden he pulls me back; I swam right over a stonefish!

Now these fish look exactly like rocks, and people mistakenly step on them and end up in severe pain that sends them to the hospital. I am very glad I didn’t choose that moment to drift closer to the rubble, because I would have missed it. But now I am very certain it is a fish, and clearly looks like a fish. It looks back at us, unmoving with its large lips and eyes on the top of its head, ready to gulp down unwitting prey swimming above. Looking at it is a bit unnerving; it has a bit of a resting bitch face.

Stock image of stonefish found in nearby Mauritius. The one I saw looked more brown.

And now I see the perks of the rubble. But I love returning to the reef and admiring the different kinds of corals. I see a lot more healthy ones, and some even have their polyps out to feed. Corals are filter feeders, and I can see the tentacles going about and searching for food, which is usually done at night. I see a turkey moray eel, and it bears its teeth and white mouth, sticking its head out of the hole. These are quite rare according to wikipedia, so I’m very grateful to watch this novel creature before surfacing.

Fun in the Rain

For whatever reason, the rain patterns have switched and usually-rainy Tampon is now sunny while the rest of the island is covered in rain.

This rain creates a beautiful rainbow vista along the black sand beaches of Etangs-Sales. The soft silty sand sinks down, so fun to walk through. Walking past the beach to the next one, I spot strange urchin-like creatures attached to a rock. I climb around volcanic sculptures and beautiful blue turquoise waters, which turn to grey reflecting the storm clouds.

The luck runs out and a downpour leaves us to seek shelter in a Malabar temple. Though soaked, I can’t help but think how happy I am to just be done with classes and be able to enjoy the island in all its beauty, rain or shine.

The beach at etang sale The hot sands burn the bottoms of my feet, but the silky smooth sand is worth it!

After some respite, we continue hiking along the side of the road, chasing grasshoppers and admiring the beautiful native coastal vegetation. Of course, it soon pours again, but after another hour or so on the road in the rain we arrive at the beach of St. Leu.

I am rewarded with the best samosas, which taste like cheese sticks, and soursop & mango ice cream. St Leu has lots of restaurants and art shops, giving it a beach town feel.

The following week a new friend gives us a ride to Grand Anse beach. Too rainy to go in the water with all the muddy runoff, we play on the beach in the sand, playing tag and volleyball until the rain becomes too strong. Even so, we venture off to some rocks, watching the leaping blennies and crabs running from the bright turquoise waves, presenting an even stronger hue contrasted the muddy brown waters.

A well camouflaged crab

We take the car to the highlands and just have a walk, stumbling upon some nice rocks covered in lichens.