Kluane, Yukon / Tatshenshini-Alsek, British Columbia
About two hours west of Whitehorse is Haines Junction, the gateway to the St. Elias mountains, the world’s highest coastal mountain range. The whole chain is divided into four parks: Kluane (Yukon), Tatshenshini-Alsek (BC), and Wrangell-St. Elias and Glacier Bay (both in Alaska), all of which combined form a UNESCO world heritage site. The Himalayas of North America, so to speak, minus the fame — I admit I hadn’t even heard of this place until this trip.
The tallest mountain in Canada is Mount Logan (a whopping 5250m), deep inside Kluane National Park and Reserve. Without a helicopter or any serious mountaineering chops though, it’s neither accessible nor visible. But does it matter? Just look at this landscape! Continue reading
Dawson City, Yukon
The city of Townsville! The Town of the City of Dawson! Dawson City may no longer be an actual city, with well under 2000 people remaining, but in 1898, it may as well have been the centre of the world. In just a few walkable city blocks, 40,000 prospectors from around the world crowded into what was once a First Nations settlement, transforming it with newfound riches into a place to see and be seen.
It’s not hard to imagine. Strip out the cars from the dirt roads. Un-collapse a few buildings falling apart from being built directly on the permafrost. Slightly straighten the walls of some hundred-year-old buildings. Picture everyone dressed like a costumed Parks Canada employee, and multiply the population by a few hundred to account for the covid visitor numbers. To make those sepia photos all over town come to life, I don’t even need to close my eyes to do it.
The endless stories associated with this place are the stuff of legends. The crazy thing is that Dawson continues to thrive and continues to be stranger than fiction.
Dempster Highway / Tombstone, Yukon
The Dempster Highway has a formidable reputation. With the 2017 road extension from Inuvik to Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, it’s Canada’s only road to the Arctic Ocean. Chewer of tires and chipper of windshields, the road is mud and gravel the whole way, generally the domain of speeding long-haul trucks launching dust and rocks at your tiny inferior metal box. You’re in the middle of nowhere most of the time, just you and the tundra as far as the eye can see, and assistance isn’t readily available should you run into some trouble.
To Yukoners, that’s basically another road. To the ignorant city-dwelling southerner that I am, I picture vast, barren expanses of snow and ice, bears chasing you from any direction you’re out in the open, and endless calls with car insurance for the 15 dings on my rental vehicle despite driving nervously at 30 km/h for hundreds of kilometres. An adventure — one which won’t lead to the Arctic Ocean this year due to covid closing the NWT border to non-resident travel, but a beautiful adventure nonetheless.
So imagine my surprise when it turns out everything is the exact opposite of what I picture. Except for the beautiful part. That part wasn’t a surprise.
Whitehorse / Klondike Highway, Yukon
I don’t need to tell you that the world’s a mess right now. It feels exceedingly lucky to have a break from it all.
Yukon is the smallest of Canada’s three sparsely-populated northern territories, all of which have emerged virtually unscathed by the pandemic with no remaining active cases and a grand total of 20, having closed their borders to the rest of Canada, which itself has mostly closed its borders to the world. With smaller healthcare systems responsible for residents scattered across vast and remote areas, it’s understandable — Whitehorse is the north’s largest (and Yukon’s only) city, with 25,000 people.
But the prolonged closures have taken a heavy toll in other regards, as the north does depend economically on the south. Enter the pandemic bubble: Yukon has opened itself to other territory residents and British Columbians without imposing a quarantine requirement. No other provinces or countries. And that means… No other tourists. Height of the tourist season, and basically no people. Talk to any business, and they’re dealing with a brutal year. Talk to the visitor centres around the territory, and visitor numbers are down roughly 95%. Well, all the more physical distance for us, I guess… though it seems like every other tourist we see is also from Vancouver!
Îles de la Madeleine, Quebec
“You’re from Vancouver?! How did you end up here?”
It’s almost as if people are disappointed that someone’s let out their best-kept secret. Quebec’s popular summer vacation spot, a tiny archipelago barely visible on a map, accessible only by ferry from PEI or by prop plane, is already pretty full in the summer. (I’m here at the very tail end of their season, the crowds having thinned out before everything closes.) Already well-known everywhere east of Quebec, the islands remain practically unheard of to most of us folks west of Ontario. Being strongly and primarily francophone gives it even less visibility out west, I’d assume.
So what’s the big deal?
A twelve-hour plane-hopping journey from one coast to the other, my arrival was unceremonious and in the dark of night, arriving at 1am with no taxis at the airport. Barely minutes in and I already receive the famed hospitality of the islands — a stranger, picking up another passenger from my final flight, sees me looking confused and offers to go out of their way to give me a ride to my hostel. I’m extremely grateful — I certainly wouldn’t have been able to walk the distance, let alone find the place down a gravel side-road in the dark. Disoriented, jet-lagged, and forcing myself to speak a ragged out-of-practice French, I’ve lost all sense of place in my own country.
And then I wake up the next morning.
Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
It’s pretty hard to classify what makes the largest waterfall in the world. Widest? Most volume of water falling? Tallest? Largest sheet? The native Guarani people named this place Iguazu — big water. Good enough. Iguazu Falls is considered the largest waterfall system in the world. It’s big enough to render anyone momentarily speechless.
Straddling the border between Brazil and Argentina, I decided to visit the falls from both sides on two consecutive days, staying in the city of Foz do Iguaçu on the Brazilian side, then taking a day trip to Puerto Iguazú on the Argentinian side. More of the falls are on the Argentinian side than the Brazilian one: that means that Brazil has the better panoramic view, but Argentina has far more trails alongside the falls.
Curitiba seems to be the envy of Brazilians from other cities. Every person who I told that I would be flying to Curitiba would nod in approval and offer some sort of compliment about the place. It’s not hard to understand why: the city’s full of green spaces, it’s not sweltering hot in the summer like the north (every day of this trip has been above 30°C, with a couple days above 40°C), it’s relatively safer with a lower crime rate, and it’s got world-famous urban planning and public transportation.
It’s definitely a great place to live. For a tourist, it’s a pleasant short stop, usually on the way to somewhere else. But for me… this is an intentional stop. Sure, I’m going somewhere else to end my trip, but I’m in no rush: I’m here to visit my dear friend Mabi, a Curitiba native who now also lives in Vancouver, but is in town to visit her family after a two-year gap, while also searching for a wedding venue.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
In the pantheon of cities like Paris, New York, and London, Rio needs no introduction. I’ll give one anyway — it’s not the capital of Brazil. (That’s Brasília. Rio used to be, and even briefly served as the capital of Portugal for a time, the only time in history a colony held the seat of power of an empire.) It sure feels like the cultural capital though.
Songs, books, movies… So much popular culture has been inspired by the city. What can I say that hasn’t already been said?
The name exudes glamour. There’s the world’s most famous beaches, Copacabana and Ipanema, photogenic and full of photogenic people, lined with barracas selling caipirinhas. Football-crazy folks invented futevôlei (volleyball, but played with a soccer ball and no hands) just so they could play something resembling football on the beach. Then there’s the iconic mountains: Corcovado, with the giant Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer, built in 1931) perched atop, visible from virtually every point of the city, a simultaneous symbol of triumph and of a seemingly watchful eye over a still-heavily Catholic country. Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf Mountain), perched right over the water, provides a dramatic view both from the ground and from the top. The Dois Irmãos (Two Brothers) overlook Ipanema. These aren’t just symbols of Rio, they’ve become symbols of Brazil.
Can you imagine a Brazil without capoeira or samba, or even its famed Carnaval celebrations? So tied are these things to Brazilian culture and identity, but they come from one community in particular: Afro-Brazilians, those of the former slave trade and now their descendants. The epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture is Bahia, in particular its capital, Salvador.
Situated on a hill separating it from the rest of the city, the Pelourinho charms immediately with its cobblestone streets, photogenic colonial buildings, beautiful views over the Bay of All Saints, and multitudes of grand churches. It’s the touristic centre of Salvador, but regular life continues for its residents sandwiched between the restaurants, shops, and hotels.
Boipeba and Lençóis, Brazil
The site of the first landing of the Portuguese in what is now Brazil, the state of Bahia is historically and culturally significant.
But I’m not ready for that yet: time for a break from all the educational travel! Bahia’s also blessed with stunning nature, from the palm-fringed coast (which includes the namesake Baía de Todos os Santos, Bay of All Saints) to the lush, mountainous interior.