The Everglades Hostel is a ramshackle garden compound in Homestead, the nearest town to the eastern entrance to the National Park. It was founded thirteen years ago by an amazing woman who turned the property into a unique tropical hideaway, filling it with gorgeous native plants, building all sorts of tree houses, hammocks, canopied lounges, waterfalls, and giant chessboards, and decorating every clean and comfortable room uniquely. It is staffed mostly by a crew of friendly live-in volunteers who put on communal meals daily and welcome you to join their campfire each night. They also offer various tours to the park itself, which I was lucky enough to experience with their ten-year veteran "wilderness guide," Graham.
My first day in the sprawling settlement of Homestead was spent wandering the streets in solitude, visiting a central European pastry shop called Café Gold Prague, being horrified by the enormity of something called "Walmart Supercenter," and trespassing at the Homestead Pioneer Museum.* During the evening, however, I finally met a French person willing to teach me how to employ my French language Tarot cards, and I am now fully qualified to give you an accurate reading, albeit poorly translated into English. He appreciated my psychic skills so much that he essentially begged to accompany me for the next few days as I made my sojourn to the Florida Keys. Never one to refuse driving in a car with a foreigner, I accepted.
The Everglades are many things, but they are not, I repeat NOT, a swamp. They encompass nine different ecosystems, none of which are in any way related to a swamp, as Graham reiterated to our international trekking group** time after time. The whole thing is actually a giant river, which used to cover the entire southern tip of the state, but has been confined because of agriculture and development and other horrible things related to humans. During our day deep in its wilderness we squelched through icy, knee deep water in a cypress dome, walked along paths through a mangrove mangle, and kayaked through a maze-like lake where we spotted the biggest crocodile*** that currently exists in the whole park. But that was not enough to satisfy my appetite for viewing wildlife. No, I needed more.
I have mentioned on various occasions my love of ponies, and while sadly they are not one of the species native to the Everglades, a comparably weird and endearing creature does call their brackish waters home. That elusive creature is... the manatee. I told Graham that I would tip him twenty dollars if he could find me one, and forty if he could convince it to look at me and wink. While the latter proved impossible, he did use his amazing Everglades animal attraction powers to draw not one, but two of the lumpy adorable creatures to us in the harbor at Flamingo, the southernmost inhabited point of the contiguous United States. I was satisfied.****
To celebrate surviving the day we were taken to a famous tropical fruit stand called Robert Is Here, where we ran around and sampled starfruit, Florida avocados, papaya, and pomelos, and had key lime milkshakes. The next day we would set out to see more wildlife- this time the natives of a strange and fantastic place in the Caribbean, called Key West.
*It was closed, unfortunately, but they had an ancient wooden railroad car in the back that I climbed all over and took these pictures of. I think a local soda-crazed gang had made it their clubhouse, because the windows were broken and Pepsi cans were everywhere. Coolest. Clubhouse. Ever.
**We were French, British, German, Estonian, and Hungarian-cum-Japanese on the tour, and I took on the role of "token loudmouthed American" with gusto, as I am sure you can imagine.
***There are both alligators and crocodiles to be found in the Everglades, but crocodiles are much less common and are found in the saltier water towards the ocean while alligators prefer a fresher water environment. Gosh, I learned a lot on that tour.
****I am fairly certain that if I never see another wild animal again I will still have seen more than the average urban-dwelling human at this point. Though I am still holding out to find a unicorn someday.