Category Archives: Foreign Culture

Walking a little of San Antonio’s Mission Road

Some folks out there in TV land might not know it, but the Alamo began its famed history as a mission for industrious Franciscans from New Spain.  Those guys were everywhere as they spread out across the North American west to establish civilization and convert people  to Christianity.

Mission Concepcion

Lovely Mission Concepcion chapel

South of San Antonio proper, there are four other missions in various states of degradation, but all are interesting and worth a visit.  There is a lot of walking to be had, and there is a bike path along the river that can connect a lot of it.

Concepcion, the closest mission to the city, had a well -preserved church but little else to recommend it besides pleasant grounds.

San Jose had a vast compound, the walls of which were intact.   I loved the housing for Native Americans built into the thick walls.

Convent quarters at San Jose

Convent quarters at San Jose

Some structures had been refurbished, including the convent area which housed the holy men.  This mission had a full blown visitor’s center with exhibits, bookstore, and educational theatre.  By the time we were done, we’d poked around the old mill, the granary, the chapel, the convent, and other spots where foundations showed in the ground.  It felt we had walked half a mile.

The broad grounds of San Jose, foundation in the foreground

The broad grounds of San Jose, foundation in the foreground

Quarters for Native Americans built in the community walls.

Quarters for Native Americans built in the community walls.

San Juan Capistrano was further off the beaten path on the other side of the river.   Few tourists were at the site, although there was a shiny black stretch limo, its driver standing outside, relaxed, working a smart phone.   The spot felt a little anti-climactic after San Jose. It was small but cute, near an aqueduct across a creek to help funnel water.


Aqueduct to cross the creek valley.


The low key San Juan Capistrano

Finally we came to Mission Espada, where lots of low old walls enticed people to sit on them, despite the small signs indicating that was a no no.


Chapel at Mission Espada–looks like a face to me….

A harried ranger implored people not to sit on 300 year old walls for fear of their crumbling.  A few young ladies tried to get glamour photo in front of the cute chapel.  We were a little burned out on missions by that point, but we were certainly happy we came and wandered the historic grounds at each spot.  It wasn’t a hike, but it was a series of historic walks, and I would love to return to make a hiking connection between the sites along the Rio San Antonio.

The Dominican, part two: Los Haitises

In my last post, I started writing about a fabulous spring break trip Denise and I took to the Dominican Republic.  After a few days in Santiago, we spent time lolling about the beach at Las Terrenas and enjoyed a great trip to a waterfall with our son’s college group.  At that point, the end of the trip was near.

On our last full day in the D.R., we get up early and have breakfast on the beach.  We are a bit sad knowing our trip is coming to a close, but we also know that adventure still awaits.

After breakfast, we pile into buses and head south on windy roads to the port town of Samaná.  Once there, the group mills about the waterfront and its sunglass and t-shirt hawkers while the advisors sort out trip logistics.  Eventually we board a large boat with two decks.  Soon, a guide is talking to us, mostly in Spanish, as the boat moves away from the docks.

Samana Boat

Setting out across Bahia de Samaná, all smiles.

Land recedes slowly as we cross a massive bay toward a national park known as Los Haitises.   The hour long trip is uneventful until we near  the south side of the bay.  Sailboats are tied up before an undulating, lush green shoreline.   It could have been a set for Pirates of the Caribbean V.  Our guide points out limestone cliffs and rare birds and discusses the history of the native Taino people. We tie up at a rickety dock installed against an overgrown hillside, ready to move about.

The boat’s crew lowers kayaks into the water.   Denise, Casey, Maya, and I clamber down a ladder and, in a couple minutes, we gain a semblance of paddling coordination.  Being at water level and observing the natural world is fascinating.  The interplay of water, rock, vegetation, and sunlight from the height of the kayaks is almost magical.  Did I mention the weather is perfect?

In short order, we nose the kayaks into the channels of a mangrove swamp whose entrance lies in a nearby cove.


Casey and Maya paddling

Some of the students do not get the gist of kayaking.  They laugh and bump into logs, rocks, and other kayaks.  A guides teases one pair, holding their stern line when it trails in the water.  When the paddlers notice the dead weight, there is  mock indignation on their part and laughter from the rest of us.


The peaceful and mysterious mangrove swamp

We paddle into the swamp for almost half an hour, finding low hanging branches and crabs lurking on spiderlike root systems. Limestone cliffs jut from the water, and we navigate myriad complex channels.   It feels like a puzzle.   I could happily explore for  hours, but we must head back to the boat.

Lunch is great, and everyone seems relaxed.  Some of the students jump into the water from the upper deck.  I follow suit, somewhat tentatively. Then we switch groups and pick up flashlights.  A cave tour is next.

Cave mouth

The somewhat ominous maw of the cave

The cave is not mammoth, but experiencing it is fascinating, including seeing how people react to the darkness.  A number of the students have never been in a cave before.  Curses, laughter, whispers, and phrases like “wow” and “ohmigod” appear.  Highlights of the venture include stalactites, flowstone draperies, a squeeze passage, and bats.  In one area, the cave’s ceiling opens to the sky, and a densely vined and twined ficus tree grows out of it.  Nearby, in a dark slot, green light emanates from the sun-lit waters creeping beneath the limestone.  We are that close to the outside.  On the way out, we see humanoid petroglyphs.  Denise and I agree that the cave is amazing, and we are very pleased with the day’s adventure.


Ancient cave petroglyph

The boat ride back is rough, and spray kicks up over the bow and sides of the boat.  Multiple people get queasy, although it doesn’t bother me.  People are tired and chilly, but most seem very content with the excursion.

On the return leg of the bus trip, we stop at a house and buy a giant wheel shaped loaf of bread.  The carbs contribute to some heavy napping. That night, our last, we have a grand meal on the beach.  Later, we drink a wee bit of Dominican rum and play silly games in people’s rooms late into the night.

Beachside Dinner

Maya, Casey, and friends at beachside dinner. Ahhhh.

A taxi comes for us at five a.m. Half an hour into the drive, bleary eyed, we spy a body on the side of the road.  The taxi driver does not want to stop, but we find la policia and alert them.  Hopefully, the man is just blackout drunk.  The mood becomes a tad somber, and once we are at the airport, I consider the darker aspects of our trip.  There is obvious poverty, pollution is bad in places, and racism is apparent.  Yet that cannot override the great experience we have had, and I consider a return.  Pico Duarte, the highest mountain in the Caribbean at over 9000 feet, calls out to be climbed.  Until then, however, I am happy to fly back to the States, dreaming in Spanish.

Spanish, Sun, Sand, and Waterfalls

I am traveling this week to the East Coast to visit family.  I hope to do some nice hikes in the Adirondacks, but I’ll have nothing to report for a few days.  As I cram myself into a plane seat for the long flight, I recall my last flight and the wonderful adventures it entailed.   It’s not about the Northwest.  It’s not even about the Pacific.  Caribbean, anyone?

Denise and I flew to the Dominican Republic in March.  Our son Casey and his girlfriend Maya did a semester abroad there.  That was all the excuse we needed for a trip.  That and winter in western Oregon.  We had serious sun deficiency!

A very good day in a Welches winter

We spent nine days in the Dominican and had an amazing trip.  We went sightseeing, ate at great restaurants, learned about the culture and history of the country, but the trip’s highlight was spending time outdoors.  That included swimming in the ocean, kayaking, caving, and of course, hiking to a beautiful tropical waterfall. The trip started in Santiago de los Caballeros, the nation’s second largest city.  We saw cool parks, visited Casey’s and Maya’s host families, and even took a walking tour of the old town area.  We became hot and sweaty wandering the city, so we needed no excuse to have a cold Presidente in a bar Hillary Clinton had visited.   By night we ate at a couple great restaurants (try one on Calle del Sol) and hung out at Jazz de Lunes, a cool jazz club.  Casey had his 21stbirthday party at a Chili’s franchise with many classmates.

Famous Santiago bar.

After a few days in Santiago, we were ready to leave the honking and the haze.  Two buses brought us close to the beach, where we caught a taxi to our hotel.  We did not accept the offer from a man on a motorcycle to carry us and our luggage. Phew.

Las Terrenas is a beach village on the north shore, far from big cities.  We picked it because Casey’s group would arrive there in two days.  It had palm trees, a casual beach atmosphere, thatched roofs, the whisper of the waves, cute shops, good food, and hip bars.  In fact, it felt near perfect.

I had not swum in the ocean since I lived in Hawaii in the eighties, but it was a pleasure to do it in the D.R.  Denise was thoughtful enough to bring our snorkels, fins, and masks.  There is little to see as we dart about in the salt water, but it’s still fun.   Besides, we can order food and drinks on the beach—and we do.   Suddenly we feel like we are in a Corona ad.

Denise making her own Corona ad.

After the school convoy arrives, we join them for two trips planned by C.I.E.E., the company in charge of Casey’s exchange program.  For the first venture, the group splits.  Half visit a neighborhood that had historic roots in slavery, and the other half hike to a waterfall known as Salto Limon.  I love history, but if I hear of spectacular natural beauty, facts will have to wait.  A guide gives us a lot of great information about the area and the history—all in Spanish, of course, so I comprehend only part.  The trail climbs steeply but briefly, then flattens out in a scrubby pasture area.   Climbing again, we pass a house.   The group stretches out, some perhaps realizing they are really hiking, not just taking a stroll around the corner, although it is not especially tough.  We traverse an open ridge, descending from it slowly, getting great views of the palm forest, an unusual sight for an Oregon hiker.  Many leaves are tinged with orange hues; it feels like sunset.

The view halfway through the hike to Salto Limon

We lurch down a slick rocky section of trail to a muddy creek bank with roots poking up all over.  A makeshift bridge gets us across the water to a little green shack in the middle of nowhere.  The final descent involves a long set of primitive stairs.  Finally, after forty five minutes or so, the wispy waterfall appears around a corner like a movie scene involving Indiana Jones.  It is a tall, wide cascade with a broad pool beneath it, and a channel to more small falls downstream.   The water is silty from heavy rains the night before, but nobody cares.  It is still lovely.  We take photos and look around.

Salto Limon

Many of the students go for a swim. Some venture behind the veil of the falls where the rock is undercut. Both Casey and Denise take up that challenge.

On the return trip, people straggle apart even more, as we now know our way.  Our guide finds a coconut and tries to crack it open.  It doesn’t seem to work.  I tire of waiting and walk ahead, pleased to be hiking in a foreign land.  The views along the ridge are still impressive.

By the time we pile on the bus, people are ready to nap on the curvy ride back to Las Terrenas.  It has been a great day. And oh darn, we’re having dinner served on the beach.   (To be continued…)