Millenia of immigration of Melanesians, Polynesians, Asians, Micronesians, and Westerners has made the Solomon Islands one of the most culturally rich island nations in the world. With thousands of small villages still espousing age-old beliefs and practicing ancient customs, locals are generally more than happy to allow you access to their land and entrance into their unique world, as well as help you find your way around the many small islands and vast lagoons that make the Solomons famous.
Caution: Due to a rise in ethnic and economic tensions in the Solomon Islands, the U.S. and Australian governments have issued travel advisories against going to certain parts. Most visitors will attest that these tensions do not typically affect travelers; however, it may be worth investigating the region’s social and political situation before departing.
Traveling in the Solomon Islands
Because of their remote proximity to major regional air routes, the Solomon Islands remain quiet and unspoiled by tourism. Most of the hotels are located in the capital. Outside Honiara, facilities tend toward small hotels and basic village resorts. The Western Province offers spectacular lagoons and shallow coral reefs that are ideal for snorkeling and scuba diving.
Inter-island transport is provided by Solomon Airline (the national airline) and Western Pacific (a privately owned local airline). During peak travel times–typically around the end of the year–it can be difficult to secure a seat without a booking several weeks in advance. Boat travel is available between all the islands, but because of the time it takes to traverse the waters between them, few visitors choose to use this method.
Because the Solomons do not have a well-developed tourism infrastructure, it has remained comparitively pristine, both culturally and ecologically. For those willing to embrace the relative discomforts of travel in the islands, the experience is sure to be a rewarding one.
The currency is the Solomon Islands dollar (US$1 = SI$3.5, approx.). Travelers checks can be exchanged in provincial capitals only, though it’s best to exchange traveler’s checks at a bank in Honiara before departing for other areas. Major credit cards are widely accepted in hotels and restaurants in Honiara, and at the larger hotels and resorts in the provinces. Tipping is not advised.
Malaria risk is highest during the wet season. Mosquitoes avoid sprayed areas and come out mainly at dusk–so keep yourself sprayed, sleep under a sprayed mosquito net or in a screened room, wear long sleeves and trousers if you go out at dusk, and see your doctor before leaving for the Solomons for antimalaria medication.
Weather in the Solomon Islands
The climate in the Solomon Islands is tropical. Average daytime temperatures are around 85°F. Water temperatures are roughly 80-85°F. November through March tends to be hot and humid, with monsoon rains and the possibility of cyclones. April through October is drier and windy.
Solomon Islands Information
Government: Parliamentary democracy
Square Miles: 62,000 sq mi (1.35 million sq km); 10,750 sq mi (27,556 sq km) of dry land
Official Language: Solomon Islands Pijin, English and 67 official indigenous languages
People: Melanesian (95%), Polynesian (4%), Asian and Micronesian (1%)
Religion: Christian denominations (96%)
Major products/industries: Timber, fish, palm oil
photographs by Jeff Walpole
On every river you can find one place that’s so full of mystery, life, and beauty, that it’s like finding the very heart of the river itself. It may be a shadowy, swirling pool that reflects light in such a way, you could swear you were seeing into another world. Or it could be an easy bend where the rush has undercut the bank, and trees’ roots dip into the stream. They are images of every river, but something about that particular spot makes it seem different, unique, and inspired. On the Alsek, you can find that place after each turn.
The Alsek River is not easy to find (it’s short, often not labeled on maps or in atlases) and a challenge to get to: we traveled to Juneau, Alaska, a capitol city accessible only by air and sea, and took a ferry on the Alaska Marine Highway system up the spectacularly immense Lynn Canal fjord to the panhandle fishing town of Haines. From there, we drove five hours in a school Area of interestbus into the Yukon Territory, Canada, to the Kluane National Park and Reserve town of Haines Junction; then we hiked in several hours to the banks of the Dezadeash River–near the confluence of the Kaskawulsh River–just upstream from where the Alsek begins in earnest. Here, we joined our guides, acquainted ourselves with the two-ton (loaded) inflatable oars rafts that would be our primary mode of transportation for most of the next two weeks, and set off downstream.
This was the start of a wilderness so remote that once we were on the water, we wouldn’t see another group of humans for more than ten days. It’s a part of the world where there are mountains as far as the eye can see, many soaring to 10,000 feet or more, and most of them still unnamed. The same goes for the glaciers, flowing from a lake of ice in the center of the adjacent mountains that’s so vast, an entire range has been named for it (the Icefield Range), its frozen rivers coursing through the valleys and filling the Alsek with frigid water, icebergs, dirt and silt, boulders, and more, as they grind the earth beneath their creeping weight.
On our hike into the launching point, we saw the first of eight bears (black and grizzly; a low number, compared to some trips, but we weren’t disappointed), as well as any number of regionally specific birds, including trumpeter swan, golden eagle, and Arctic tern. We were a group of fourteen, including three highly experienced professional guides. Ours was a private trip organized by an old friend, Mike Pratt, who had run the Alsek more than any man before him; he would be our lead guide on the river, and this would be his last commercial trip down it, before settling into married life in his home back in the contiguous United States. The gear, itinerary, and all three guides had signed on through the international adventure travel company Mountain Travel Sobek.
Running the Alsek is not for the faint of heart. We were twelve days on the river, hiking and paddling and very often fighting off the dampness of 34º water; sometimes enduring a bone-chilling rain that turned to snow just up the side of the nearby mountains; sleeping in tents filled with mosquitoes “big enough to carry off grizzly bear,” I heard someone joke; not showering or bathing properly; sharing ourselves and our most intimate moments with a group of people. But it’s not bad either. There are special things on the Alsek: a herd of mountain goats that graze on the grassy slopes of a hillside named specifically for them (Goatherd Mountain); the soft fluorescence of blue ice at the core of a massive, recently calved iceberg; and of course, the ancient whispering rush of currents at the confluence of two great rivers: the Alsek and its more frequented neighbor, the Tatshenshini.
In the first few days we got our bearings. We tried our hands at the oars (though our main jobs would be to paddle when the oarsman/guides needed our help, or when we needed the circulation to keep warm). We acclimated to the temperature, altitude, and environment. We got to know our tents and, in some cases, our tent mates. And we asked questions–lots of questions… Will we see many bears? What do we do if we see one up close? [Counter to many people’s understanding, our guides refer to the popular “bear bell” as a “dinner bell,” because it is more likely to attract a bear, than deter it.] How well will we eat? How often will we eat? Where will we do our “business”? What are the rapids like? What happens if we fall in the cold, cold water? How far can we roam without a companion, bear spray, knife, guide, or otherwise? Questions. Questions. Questions. Listening to us, you might think we’d never set foot outside our urban enclaves before, protected by the convenience of a McDonald’s on every corner and a Starbucks in between. In fact, for the most part, all of us had reasonable experience in the outdoors: camping, trekking, rafting–roughing it, as they say. But none except our guides had ever been to a wilderness so removed and dramatic as this. It had an immediate effect: it turned us into excited little kids, with a new question for every answer we were given.
What? How? When? Where? Why? It sounds rather pesky, but on the Alsek, where danger can arise at every turn, these questions must be asked. What do you do when you’re standing face to face with a grizzly? You gently raise your arms to the sky to show that you’re not threatening, then you speak quietly to the bear, while slowly backing away in an oblique direction: “Hey bear,” you might say, “Ho bear. I don’t mean any harm. Just passing through…” And if the grizzly decides to charge, and you’re lucky enough to have bear spray at hand, then you make sure–in the split second you have to think–that you’re not downwind, when you spray that animal right between the eyes. One small can of bear spray (essentially, mace for a 1,200 pound beast–guns are strictly forbidden in the Canadian parks system) will almost always disable the animal, sending it into the woods to tend to its stinging senses. If you’re downwind and the spray blows back on you, you’ll feel the very unfortunate effects yourself. Of course, if you’re unlucky enough to be without the spray, you should drop to the ground, face down, cover the back of your neck, and let the bear maul you. Very often he or she will simply play with you before losing interest, but “playing” with an animal six times your size, with gnashing teeth and razor sharp claws means being thrashed and slashed open, severely injured, or even killed. And that’s the point: there are many opportunities to lose your life on the Alsek, if you’re not careful. That’s part of what makes it such a wilderness adventure.
But danger is only one side of the equation. Depending on your method of travel–using a professional company, with guides who are also great cooks, storytellers, naturalists, and jokesters; or a self-guided trip down the river, which can be not only more dangerous (for not having at least an idea of what to expect), but also less inspiring, if you’re not totally familiar with the Alsek–for every threatening moment, there can be ten more that are comforting and even luxurious. On our third day, camping at a site we called “Sandblaster” because of its uncomfortably strong winds and barren sandy landscape that pelted us horizontally in the gusts, we were treated to an exhilarating hike up Goatherd Mountain, from the top of which we had the best vantage possible of the enormous Lowell Glacier–a frozen river of mud and ice so wide it resembles a 50-lane superhighway; then we feasted at the river’s edge on a delicious dinner of fresh grilled sockeye salmon and vegetables, with tea and hot chocolate; followed by a site I thought I’d never see in such wilderness: a makeshift–but ingeniously engineered–sauna, made from a spare tent covered with heat-trapping tarps, the steam created by dripping glacier water over three heavy steel bricks that had been buried in the fire pit for hours. Later, our night was defined by the blowing wind and the rhythmic rumble of icebergs calving into the river, and well before the rest of camp rallied, a few of us woke for a glorious view of the 3:30 A.M. sunrise over the ever-present Mounts Kennedy, Alverstone, and Hubbard, which themselves seemed to rise out of the much closer Lowell Glacier. It is the kind of picture, I think, mere words cannot describe adequately. Even a photograph seems only to partially capture the environment of the Alsek. In the end, I knew, I was witnessing among the best the earth had to offer; after this trip, I thought, I would not sense the world around me in the same ordinary terms I once had.
This was indicative of our experience there: work hard in the day–paddling and hiking through a spectacular environment, while finding harmony with cold rain and winds, icy river water, and sometimes frozen air–and unwind at night with a hot meal, good drinks, stories, games, and a warm sleeping bag. When we were lucky enough to find a camp with a long, flat beach, we’d set up a horseshoes pit, or play a sort of tug-of-war game called “hunker down,” which involves two opponents balancing opposite each other on ammo cans (used on river trips for easily accessible airtight containers) and trying to force each other to fall to the ground by strategically pulling and releasing the end of a rope that the players hold between them.
There are several places on the Alsek where I thought the world had invented itself in the most striking and beautiful possible form. The purple sunrise on Mt. Hubbard, behind the meandering Lowell Glacier; the fresh fallen snow on a jagged nameless peak that reminded me of something from a Tolkien novel; the churning holes in the great rapid Lava North, for which we donned dry suits and an extra measure of courage to run (falling in the river there can mean certain death, if you get caught in an eddy); or the eerie silence on a foggy morning as we gathered firewood on a sandbar at the head of Alsek Lake. But despite all of these amazing natural wonders, the time my adrenaline hit its peak was not while immersed in the unadulterated landscape of the Alsek, but rather, while hurtling through the air, hundreds of feet above the seven-mile-long face of the Tweedsmuir Glacier, staring down at the boiling cauldron of rapids in the impassable Turnback Canyon, from the relative safety of a speeding helicopter. This was our portage day.
Turnback Canyon is a place on the Alsek–a river known more for its pristine beauty, than its dangerous rapids–where the valley walls contract from roughly 1.5 miles wide to about 30 feet over a very short span. The boils, holes, eddies, and falls created by that dramatic change in the river’s dimensions, makes it virtually impossible to pass through and survive. In 1971, the legendary kayaker Walt Blackadar became the first to run Turnback. It was by shear luck–he said later on–that he lived to talk about it. Only having successfully paddled through the treacherous canyon did he claim it was unrunnable and he would never think of doing it again. Afterward he said, if he could have turned and gone back after the very first rapid, he absolutely would have–a humbling admission from a man who had seen, perhaps, more whitewater adventure than any other by the time he died kayaking seven years later. Since then only a handful of boats–inflatables like ours, as well as kayaks–have tried to make it through Turnback Canyon, and just a few of them have emerged safely on the other end. Thus, we arranged for a helicopter to meet us at the last camp before the canyon, to haul us and our gear over it. The cowboy pilot at the helm was like someone out of the movies, telling us one moment that he wasn’t allowed to dive into the canyon, and the next, doing just that at a speed so jarring and exciting that I simultaneously wanted to lose my lunch and get my pilot’s license. Once on the other side, we reassembled our gear and began the leg of our journey that traversed the lower end of the Alsek, heading toward Alsek Lake, and beyond that, the ocean.
Alsek Lake was the site of our final night. But more than that, it was a culmination for me: so full of grace and beauty, awesome size and geology, wildlife, quietude, color, and light that I thought, if the entire two weeks were spent there alone, the trip would still have been amazing. The entrance into the lake began at the tail end of one of the most arduous rains we experienced. After paddling through the morning, we stopped at a beach at the head of Alsek Lake. A short walk through fields of wildflowers–blazing Indian paintbrush, fireweed, goldenrod, and more–opened up to the iceberg-laden water, still hidden in afternoon fog. Through that mist, we’d find our last camp.
As we paddled across the lake, we slowly entered what might have been a completely different universe from the rain and cold of just minutes before. The clouds broke and the blue sky opened over us, light beaming onto the house-sized blocks of ice floating before us. I looked around and saw, between narrow spits of land in the distance, the vast plains of three tremendous glaciers. They were the Alsek Glacier–spilling into the lake, its towering face calving huge chunks of ice; the Grand Plateau Glacier; and the sprawling Novatak Glacier. And even farther away, almost painted on the background, Mt. Fairweather rose high into the sky. At roughly 15,300 feet, Fairweather is the region’s highest peak, and it is situated practically right next to the ocean. The name comes with a touch of irony as it can generally only be seen when the weather is clear, which is not often in those parts, but we were the lucky ones.
As we tied our boats together–creating a single, wide float–and paddled among the ice, with blue evening sky overhead and a rainbow of colors reflecting off the surrounding water, I spotted the flash of a great bald eagle sweeping down the valley wall. Graceful, fast, and furious with its talons flared, the eagle slammed into the placid lake and almost immediately began to struggle under the weight of the salmon in its claws as it took flight again. It was an image I had only dreamed of up to that point. And as that dream slipped into reality, I thought, that–for me–was the true heart of the Alsek.
Panama has a checkered past, but as a modern country it runs one of the world’s most important waterways, the Panama Canal, and has built for itself a large offshore investing business. From its capitol at Panama City to its rainforests and rich coastlines, Panama is a beautiful land, but it suffers from increasing crime and an uncertain government.
Panama is a proud and striking nation with a population of seven indigenous groups and a strong Spanish legacy. And it’s is a wonderful place to travel, as long as you’re careful and conscious of your surroundings.
If you want to see Panama at its cultural best, Carnaval is celebrated the weekend before Ash Wednesday in Panama City. It’s one of the largest and most vibrant Carnaval celebrations in the world.
Traveling in Panama
If you are an American, Japanese, New Zealander, or Venezuelan citizen, it is required that you have a tourist visa or tourist card to enter Panama. You should contact your embassy or consulate for details.
While traveling in Panama is considerably cheaper than traveling in the United States, for instance, it will also tend to be pricier than most other Central American countries. Expect to pay about US$20-30 per day, on a moderate budget, for food, accommodations, and other expenses. A budget traveler can find room and board for as low as US$10-15 per day. The Panamanian currency is called the balboa, but it’s exactly the same as the U.S. dollar, from the rate of exchange (which is unnecessary if using U.S. currency) all the way to the bills they use. Even the coins are the same shape, weight, and substance as U.S. coins. Exchanging other types of currency can be easily done at a casa de cambio, of which there are many throughout the small nation.
Tipping 10% of your bill can be done at finer restaurants; however, it’s not necessary at more casual establishments, such as cafes. Haggling over goods is not customary in Panama.
Health Risks in Panama
Health risks include dengue, hantavirus, malaria, rabies, and yellow fever. It is advised that you consult a doctor about what shots you may need before traveling to Panama.
Weather in Panama
The best time to go to Panama is during the dry season, between December and April. During the rainy season the weather can be humid, damp, and very uncomfortable, especially if you take part in strenuous activities like hiking, etc. The rain in Panama typically comes in short downpours that have a cooling and cleansing effect on the air.
Government: Constitutional Republic
Square Miles: 30,420 sq mi (78,000 sq km)
Capitol: Panama City (pop: 700,000)
Official Languages: Spanish, English, and Native languages
People: 65% mestizo, 14% African descent, 10% Spanish descent, 10% Indian
Religion: 85% Roman Catholic, 10% Protestant, 5% Islamic
Major products/industries: Banking, construction, petroleum refining, brewing, cement and other construction materials, sugar milling, shipping, and agriculture
As you pass through the Chihuahuan Desert and Guadalupe Mountains of southeastern New Mexico and west Texas—filled with prickly pear, chollas, sotols and agaves—you might never guess there are more than 300 known caves beneath the surface. The park contains 113 of these caves, formed when sulfuric acid dissolved the surrounding limestone, creating some of the largest caves in North America.
Backpacking has gotten more and more popular as a form of traveling, and for obvious reasons: for people going to multiple destinations, carrying gear on your back helps keep you mobile while having everything you need at arm’s length. But as more “nomadic” travelers are heading out in the world, the packs they carry seem to get bigger and bigger. It’s not uncommon, these days, to see people carrying backpacks that look more like skyscrapers towering over their heads, or backpackers looking as though they might collapse under the weight of their bag. Traveling light is one of the greatest advantages of backpacking, and packing wisely can help make your trip much more enjoyable.Over the last 10 years I have traveled throughout Europe, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, never taking more than a 2500-cubic-inch backpack with me. This small size can be tough if you’re going out for an extended period (more than a few weeks) or are traveling to both hot and cold climates. But even if that’s the case, you shouldn’t need a bulky 5000-cubic-inch pack or more, which–fully loaded–makes falling over easier than standing up.
Below is a list of items that can fit easily into a small pack, with room to spare. Of course, the things on this list will vary depending on your destination, bur the idea remains true. Use this as a starting point.
7 pairs of underwear (or 1 pair for each day, if the trip is under 2 weeks; max 14 pairs)
7 pairs of socks (or 1 pair for each day, if the trip is under 2 weeks; max 14 pairs)
5 to 6 T-shirts
2 to 3 collared or over shirts, to wear on top of your T-shirts
1 pair of shorts (2 if you are going to a warmer destination)
1 to 2 pairs of long pants–one being jeans; the other, khakis or similar (or wool if your are going to a colder destination)
Footwear and Jackets:
1 pair of comfortable shoes (leather hiking boots are best as they can often be used as dress shoes, if going to a nice restaurant, etc., instead of wearing your tattered tennis shoes)
1 pair of water-proof (river) sandals (if going to a warmer destination; also good to wear if you plan on staying in hostels and/or using public showers)
1 warm jacket (if going to colder destination)
1 umbrella (collapsible, make it as small as possible)
1 quick-dry camping towel (medium size)
1 headlamp or flashlight (headlamps might make you look dorky, but their advantages outweigh all else)
1 camera (digital, if you have it, with an extra memory card)
1 paper-back book (not including guidebooks; to keep you busy during those long train rides)
1 paper-back journal
1 money belt (or a money/passport case that you can wear under your clothes)
1 water bottle
1 shower kit (that can be easily hung up)
1 set of playing cards
1 travel game (“Pass the Pigs” is a favorite of mine)
1 small luggage lock (to secure your backpack zipper)
2 medium bungy cords
2 key-chain carabiners
1 day pack/book bag (something you can bundle into a small size when not in use)
All of this and more will fit nicely in a 2500-cubic-inch backpack. And if your pack is a little bigger you’ll have plenty of extra space for whatever else you might want to take. But anything over 3500 cubic inches is most likely overkill–you probably won’t end up needing that much room. Bringing a lot of extra clothes is an easy trap to fall into, but most places will give you the option of cleaning a shirt or two (in the sink, shower, or wherever) and hanging them to dry in a pinch. That said, it’s a good idea to bring a small plastic container of biodegradable liquid laundry detergent.
Don’t leave home with your backpack stuffed to capacity, as that will probably be your best packing job throughout the whole trip. Somehow, repacking properly gets harder and harder as you go, so if you have a small backpack that is stuffed to the gills, then you should certainly upgrade to one a just little bigger.
Using bungy cords to strap extra footwear or wet clothes to the outside makes drying and packing a lot easier. (Carabiners can be used for the same purpose.) Chances are, most people will not want to steal your smelly shoes, and bungy cords are important for keeping loose items from flopping around and becoming a nuisance.
It’s understandable that many people would want to bring more gear than what I’ve suggested–after all, you can never be sure of everything you might need along the way–so if you plan on going for an extended period (several months), taking that big pack seems sensible. Who wants to wear the same clothes for 6 months, after all? But as with everything, you should be prepared to make certain sacrifices. Getting rid of some of the more extraneous gear will make touring a lot easier on your shoulders and back, which in turn, will make it easier on your state of mind.
Remember most big packs (4000 cubic inches or more) were designed for long-term expeditions in remote areas, where you need this added space for a sleeping bag, camp stove, food, and other basic survival gear. For most backpackers, these days, surviving means little more than finding the nearest hostel and hoping it has a bar. It’s amazing how much simpler, and more enjoyable, traveling can be when you pack light and leave the kitchen sink at home.