When Planned Holidays Turn into Unplanned Adventures
Updated: Dec 1, 2022
How natural disasters and natural wonders become show-stopping travel tales.
A Volcano Erupts and an Adventurer Is Born
The moment I knew I was destined to be a traveler was when a volcano erupted for me. For real. It erupted so that I could fulfill my dream of seeing the Northern Lights. And that’s when a life of adventure began.
Let me backtrack a little.
Celebrating 21 years on Earth in Alaska
It was March 2009 and I was pacing up and down the carpeted floor of the coziest hostel I’ve ever been to, Billie’s Backpackers Hostel in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was my third and last night in Alaska, a solo trip I took to celebrate my 21st birthday. When I started planning the trip I set two goals: to cross the Arctic Circle and to see the Northern Lights.
The first one was easily achieved by booking a guided day tour to drive up the Dalton Highway and explore the Arctic. Crossing the Arctic Circle is overwhelming; you’re on the top of the world, quite literally. Plus, the climate is alpine tundra – we certainly don’t have that in Mexico! The area is incredibly vast and there’s nothing there, nothing. It took some time to believe what I was seeing. Then, it got so cold – with gusts of 30-40 miles per hour at -20F – that I just had to get back inside the van. Not without first signing with my name and date on the back of the sign as hundreds had done before me!
Seeing the Northern Lights in Fairbanks, Alaska
The second goal was completely out of my hands. It was up to Mother Nature. And by my last night, she hadn’t cooperated. The few people staying at the hostel (mostly Alaskans passing through), knew of my goals and shared my disappointment. They went out with me at night to look at the sky and search for any trace of the Aurora to no avail.
Then, fate stepped in and Mount Redoubt erupted between March 22 and March 23, 2009. All flights, including mine, were cancelled and I had to stay in Fairbanks an extra night. That was the night I saw the Northern Lights.
It all started as one feeble white line in the sky. After 40 minutes it was bright green and 30 minutes later it had become a green ribbon dancing in the sky, changing shapes every second, going from horizon to horizon so I had to crane my neck to look at it fully. The temperature was well below freezing and neither my snow boots nor ski jacket were enough to keep me warm. I soldiered on, nonetheless. The entire show lasted little over an hour but it was the most magical and teeth-chattering hour of my life.
Am I so arrogant as to think some mysterious force altered the universe so that I could have my wish? I guess I am [chuckles, self-consciously]... For better or for worse. Some people live their entire lives without gazing at such wonders. I was more than lucky – I was destined for it.
When a Sporting Event Becomes a Survival Situation. Sort of...
Fast forward to 2016.
I was freezing once again, gasping for air and trying to stay afloat.
Everywhere I looked, it was pitch black. I could hear rustling and unsettling movements along the river banks. However, I was more concerned about the unknown things touching my toes, unseen and underwater. Could I get tangled in weeds? The lake scene in Harry Potter’s Goblet of Fire movie jumped to the front of my mind. I tried to remind myself that I was in a safe place, surrounded by people and that this was supposed to be fun. Fun. Why on earth did I think that a full-moon, swim-as-far-as-you-can event in a river would be fun?!
Although I felt as if I was stranded in the middle of the Amazon, I was in Las Estacas. If you’re from the Mexico City metropolitan area, you’ve heard of it. It’s a resort-like water park built around a beautiful 1K-ish river. Water is crystal clear, cold to Mexican standards (around 21°C) and free of any human-eating creatures. My partner, Dexter and I, had signed up to our first moonlight swim which included a night’s camping. Since it was my first camping trip –ever- we thought a posh, manicured campsite would be a great introduction to the concept.
Participants were supposed to swim laps with and against the current for as long as they could within the time limit. The maximum distance was 6K and I was aiming to do 4K. Ten minutes into my first, against the current lap, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I managed 1.5 laps each way, a respectable 3K.
When Dexter finished his 4K, he was shaking so badly that I had to half carry him to our tent. When we got there, he was cramping up and could barely stand. Even as a seasoned ultra-runner, he had never been that cold before. It was quite unnerving. Once he got warm, we looked at each other, exhausted and starving. We realized our “fun” and relaxing weekend away had been anything but that.
The following morning, we indulged in the all-you-can-eat buffet breakfast and decided that the experience had been an opportunity to hone our survival skills, or something cool like that.
When I looked around the park, in broad daylight, I realized that it was quite a pampered environment and not at all what my mind had cooked up the previous night. And yet... what an adventure it had been!
The Morale of the Story
Why am I sharing these very different experiences?
I believe that traveling helps open the mind to new perspectives, sometimes willingly, other times unwillingly; it triggers a sort of curious and daredevil bug – if you let it. Your adventure could be as Instagrammable as my Northern Lights tale or as unexpected as my fantastical night-time swim during my first ever camping trip.