Wanting to take a break from the unceasing rain and cold of Northern California, I travel to Mexico for a week to enjoy some warmth and its history, culture, food, and art.
I join a small group in the historic district of Mexico City. What a huge and bustling city! The streets are crowded with people at all hours of the day and night. The Zocalo is the third largest central square in the world (after Tiananmen and Red Squares), and is surrounded by the cathedral and government offices with Aztec ruins just around the corner.
I hope to visit Casa Azul, museum of Frida Kahlo’s work, and am sorely disappointed not to be able to get a ticket. I do see the enormous mural that made Diego Rivera famous, called Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park, that reflects the history of Mexico from the Spanish invasion in 1519 to the 1911 Mexican revolution. Below is one third of the mural. Note Frida Kahlo next to the skeleton, and Diego Rivera beneath her.
Next, we travel to Teotihuacan, the largest urban center of pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica between 200 bc and 650 ad. At 26 km square, the settlement was believed to have had a population of 250,000 at its zenith, but its origin is uncertain and preceded the Aztecs who arrived in the year 1300. It was then abandoned in 1650, but inhabited by others thereafter. Built by slaves, there are two giant pyramids, temples of the sun and moon, as well as many smaller pyramids in between.
Teotihuacan was known to exist in 1730, yet excavation did not begin until 1890. To date, only 5% has been excavated. Much is unknown as no written history has been discovered. The people who built this city were pioneers who developed aqueducts for storing water and a canal system for irrigation of their crops. It continues as a spiritual center for the Mexican people today.
Near the city of Puebla, we visit Cholula, another partially excavated settlement, the oldest continuously occupied place on the continent beginning in 800 bc. Located at the foot of the still-active Popocatepetl volcano, a pyramid with the largest known base was constructed. Archeologists have determined that the layers of the pyramid are 60 meters below the current surface. A beautiful church built in the 1600’s by the Spanish sits atop what remains of the pyramid.
Our group has a private tour of one of the nine certified Talavera tile makers in Mexico, where we are shown the entire process that begins with a pile of clay and ends with the exquisite finished products for sale. We watch in awe as one of the artists paints several plates using brushes made from the beards of goats and the tails of horses.
We visit a candle-maker, Viviana, who tells her remarkable story, all the while dipping molds into hot pots of wax at her feet, creating flowers for wedding bouquets. Learning from her ancestors, she started doing this work at the age of 10. Now 76, in the last year she has taught classes highlighting her skills in Ohio, Canada, and Iraq.
The Tule tree of Santa Maria, 70 meters wide at its base, is the largest tree width-wise in the world. It is believed to be over 2,000 years old. As you can see, it is colossal and quite a sight to behold (and I thought the Giant Sequoias had the greatest girth!).
And there’s more. In addition to all of these memorable experiences, we visit a weaver and and then a Mezcal distillery, where we are introduced to the 28 different varieties of Agave plants from which the drink is derived.
On the final day, I take a guided tour of the botanical gardens and learn about the thousands of cactus species and other unique flora native to Oaxaca, as well as the garden’s model environmental stewardship.
I would be remiss not to mention the joy I observed in the Zocalo and on the streets of Oaxaca: bands playing Latin salsa and jazz, couples dancing, parades with giant balloons and brass bands. That just might be what sticks with me most from my week of Mexican travel!
After two days of bird-watching and visiting Mayan ruins in the flat, dry savannah of Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary, and two days of bird-watching and hiking in the mountainous jungle of Bocawina National Park, I have arrived in paradise on Tobacco Caye, a small island located fifteen miles east of mainland Belize in the Caribbean Sea. There are twelve hundred such cayes along this coast, the second longest barrier reef in the world. For three days I am staying in an adorable bungalow whose front porch is in the sand and whose back porch is in the sea.
While sitting in an Adirondack chair out back, I am transfixed by the turquoise water and the wildlife passing by. There is a parade of large flat sting rays in various shades of gray, gracefully gliding along; dozens of frigate birds, identifiable by their forked tails, flying effortlessly on the warm air currents; and a brown pelican having spied an afternoon snack, diving into the water and coming up with its catch, hungrily gulping it down its wide gullet.
I go snorkeling and see trumpet fish, clown fish and other beauties, one school of parrot fish camouflaged like the sea bottom by their grey and pink coloring. There is a four-foot nurse shark lazing under a huge brain coral, its unblinking beady eyes staring straight ahead. Fan corals, lavender and taupe, lacy and delicate, wave in the current as do the lanky branches of sea plants enveloping an abundance of silver fish edged in gold. Indeed, I have never before seen such sea life. The reef is an underwater forest: dense, alive, abundant, gorgeous, filled with variety, texture and color.
After sunset, I try night snorkeling. Armed with a high-power under-water flashlight, I see menacing-looking barracuda hanging motionless in the water; a giant crab covered in barnacles, creeping along unevenly, one leg at a time; a spotted eel open-mouthed, displaying sharp, pointy teeth; a yellow ray slinking along the sea floor; a green spiny lobster; fat sea cucumbers; black sea urchins, and anemones whose many tentacles dance under the bright light. How vivid the sea looks!
On another day, I go sea kayaking. I paddle three miles to Man ‘O War Caye, a nesting place for hundreds of frigate birds, drawn to this small uninhabited island, safe from snakes who, elsewhere, would devour the birds’ eggs and their young. The males court the females by expanding their throats into what look like bright red balloons. Apparently females are attracted to the biggest, reddest balloons!
Belize is a land of many cultures. Most recently, it was a British colony from which it became independent in 1981. However, it was settled thousands of years ago by Mayans, and beginning in 1797, by an African-Caribbean people called Garifuna. During my visit here, I have been introduced to some of their history and customs by knowledgeable and companionable guides.
The adventure begins very early in the day on two six-seater Piper-Cherokee airplanes that take nine travelers from an airfield in San Diego to Las Animas Preserve located about half way down the Baja Peninsula on the Sea of Cortez. The weather is clear and warm. We fly over a desert landscape, stark mountains rising more than ten thousand feet, to an airstrip in a tiny town a five hour drive from the next nearest town. We then board a small boat that bumps and speeds past guano-covered islands populated by gulls, cormorants, blue-footed boobies, red-billed oyster-catchers and pelicans, to a pristine white sand beach where our lodging for the next three nights is situated. There are eight rustic yurts and a main yurt, the gathering place for meals.
I begin to unwind, easily leaving city life behind in this remote and beautiful place.
I awaken to a riot of sounds outside my door: the cawing and screeching of birds, the barking of sea animals, the gentle rolling of waves. When I open my eyes and sit up in bed, I see the sun rising over the water between the mountains.
The days are leisurely but active. Hiking, snorkeling, kayaking, paddle boarding.
One morning, I put on two wetsuits, hood and gloves to swim with the sea lions in the bracing sixty five degree water. The sea lions dart and bolt all around me, graceful, acrobatic. We make eye contact. Their gentle gaze and kind faces make me feel that they are enjoying my company as much as I am theirs. Another morning, we go by boat to a mangrove stand, unique in a desert environment. Nearby, we search for oysters and dig for clams that we bring back with us for the cook to fix for tonights dinner. Some of the group go fishing and catch barracuda, grouper, and ling cod, also deliciously prepared for us.
On the fourth morning, we fly west across the Baja Peninsula to a town called Guerrero Negro on the Pacific Coast. Here, we spend three days at Ojo de Liebre, one of the three lagoons to which grey whales come from Alaska at this time of year to mate or give birth.
What an experience this is! Each panga carries five of us and the boat operator. The water teems with dozens and dozens of whales mostly mothers and their calves.
They are everywhere heaving their huge bodies to the surface to breathe, gliding side-by-side, moms and babies, coming oh-so-close to the boat, spraying us with their breath. Where to look? There’s one spy-hopping.
Another one appears to be waving at us with her flipper. A baby comes up and shows her sweet face. A huge one shows her fluke as she passes beneath the front of the boat.
And finally, the piece de resistance. That for which I was most hoping. We go out again this morning, all nine of us, our guide and the panga operator, to a different part of the lagoon. Again, we see many, many whales. Most swim parallel to the boat or swim away. Then unexpectedly, a mother and her calf swim directly to the boat.
They let us pet and kiss them!
We are beyond thrilled. They stay a very long time. Unbelievably, they are joined by another mother and her baby. We are surrounded by these huge mammals. And I feel a tremendous exchange of affection and trust between the species. Unforgettable.
Wind: Wild. Fierce. Edifice-rattling. Extreme. Gale-force. Bone-chilling. Relentless. These are the adjectives that come to mind in describing the wind conditions in Chilean Patagonia. Imagine hiking and being buffeted back and forth, nearly knocked off your feet, slapped in the face by the howling gales. What an experience!
Ah, but the mountains and the lakes, the dramatic cloud formations, the glaciers, all are simply spectacular.
I’ve just hiked the “W” in Torres Del Paine National Park, a four day Refugio-to-Refugio adventure featuring 30 hours of challenging hikes and some of the most beautiful scenery I’ve ever seen. Our first day involved a 9 hour hike over rugged terrain to the famous Torres del Paine, the three signature towers sitting above a teal-green glacial lake.
Although it is summer here, the day featured all four seasons including the above-mentioned wind at what seemed like hurricane intensity, rain, snow, and sun.
The second day was a more leisurely 6 hour hike along the shore of Lago Nordenskjold, on a crystal clear, almost windless day.
Our third day was a 14 mile, 10 hour, affair into the French Valley with amazing views of Paine Grande, at more than 3,000 meters, the highest peak in the Paine Range. Snow-covered with hanging glaciers and rhime ice at the cloud-covered summit, it was mesmerizing to eat lunch and gaze at the mountain while sitting in a spot temporarily sheltered from the onslaught of the almost ever-present wind.
And the fourth day began with a 5 hour hike to Lago Grey. The wind was so fierce that our guide instructed us to duck down when instructed so as not to be swept off our feet or, if the situation became too extreme, the group members would have to hike holding hands. Fortunately, neither of those measures became necessary.
When we arrived at the lake, we boarded a boat that took us up close to the Grey Glacier whose three tongues come right to the water.
The captain took us way up close to the glacier and let us touch an iceberg, the bluest of blues in color and magnificently carved by nature.
It was touch and go right up to the last minute whether this boat trip could occur due to, you probably guessed, the severity of the wind.
And now I am looking forward to giving my hiking boots and feet a badly needed day off before we continue the adventure in Argentinian Patagonia!
The week in Argentina began with a hike on the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glacieres National Park. The scale of the glacier was only put into perspective when, as we approached it by boat, the people hiking on it looked to be the size of insects.
The guide told us that the visible part of the glacier is more than 300 feet high and the ice near the face of it is more than 400 years old. Our boots were fitted with crampons and we were instructed to walk uphill on the ice Charlie Chaplin style. We hiked up and down the hilly ice along deeply etched crevasses and pools of cerulean ice-melt sculpted like beautiful vases.
The water is so pure, we could replenish our bottles straight from the running ice melt. At the end of the hour and a half hike which was thrilling, a bar was set up on the glacier and we were offered glasses of whiskey with glacial ice! Although it was a rainy day, it was a most memorable experience.
And then the weather changed! The wind disappeared. The rain went away. No more clouds even. The sun shined brilliantly. Instead of windburn, we had to contend with sunburn. Our guide told us these last three days have been the first good days of summer for hiking and mountaineering. If someone had told me in Chile that I’d be hiking a few days later in shorts, I wouldn’t have believed it. So we’ve had three glorious (and very strenuous) days of hiking: 41 miles in 27 hours. We had 9 and 10 hour hikes (15 and 14 miles, respectively) to see different views of Chalten (also known as Fitzroy), the signature peak pictured here. There are numerous glaciers below the peak and also, as you can see, the bluest of lakes.
Today, we had a 12 mile hike to get a closer look at Cerro Torre, another most dramatic and imposing range of mountain peaks. We ate our lunch facing the massif with it’s sea-green lake full of icebergs calved from the glaciers above it. These are some of the most compelling vistas I’ve ever seen.
Now it’s off to Buenos Aires where I hope to rest my very weary feet and see the sights before heading home.
Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
It is a quiet Sunday morning. Your guide collects you at the hacienda where you have spent the night and drives you to Isinlivi, the starting point of the Quilotoa Loop trek. You will hike 35 kilometers over the next three days through the Andean highlands.
You begin walking downhill through the Rio Toachi Canyon, admiring beautiful farmlands, a green patchwork of shapes and sizes growing corn, potatoes, fava beans and purple lupine.
You walk along the rushing water of the Toachi River
and then up steeply through sleepy villages where the only people are your guide, your friend and you. The villagers are away at church or at the weekly market.
After 6 hours of many such ups and downs, you reach Chugchuilan, your destination for the night, at 10,499′. It is the end of the day and the Sunday market is still going strong. You see the indigenous Kichwa residents, the women so handsome with their long black braids, their fedora-like hats and colorful clothing.
Some of them are selling locally-grown fruits and vegetables,
others are stirring great cauldrons of sheep stew.
Teenagers are kicking a ball and listening to music. You sleep at Mama Hilda’s Hostel.
The next day, you set off early to hike up to Quilotoa at 12,796′, the location of the magnificent crater lake you have heard so much about and long to see. As you trek higher and higher into the clouds, the mist becomes thicker and turns into rain. The climb is very steep. The rain gets heavier. You put on what rain gear you have with you but you are soaked through and through. Finally you reach the rim of the crater and the fog precludes any view. After two more hours, you arrive at this evening’s hostel, chilled to the bone.
Tuesday arrives clearer. You go to a lookout point and see what you have missed the day before, the magnificent Quilotoa Lake, a deep green and, according to local myth, bottomless.
After breakfast, you descend 1,000′, again reaching the Toachi River. You climb steeply out of the canyon and reach a plateau and a hacienda where you shed your muddy boots and reflect on your memorable journey.
The Galapagos Islands
The early morning is warm, breezy, overcast. You carry your kayak across the beach to the clear cool Pacific. You step around the sleeping sea lions and put your boat in the water. You paddle four miles past the local fishermen, the silent cruise ships, the lava rocks, the barren landscape, heading north along the coast of San Cristobal Island.
A motor boat collects you and speeds toward a small island populated by sea lions and marine iguanas, the latter endemic to the Galapagos.
You squeeze into your wetsuit, don your snorkeling gear and jump into the bracing ocean. There, you swim with the sea lions. They chase one another playfully, dodging around you. The tropical fish are colorful, beautiful.
Next, you motor to a secluded beach, empty, pristine. You see mangroves, some a tumble of dead wood caused by the tsunami that arrived 14 hours after the recent earthquake in Japan. You walk the white sand and marvel at the dramatic sky filled with great rolling white and grey clouds.
Afterwards, the boat takes you six miles out to Kicker Rock, an imposing vertical wall rising 300 feet above you, made of lava ash. It is cleaved in two.
You prepare to snorkel once again but this will be unlike any other snorkeling experience you’ve had.
The water is 100 feet deep, a dark emerald in color. You swim between the two parts of the wall only 30 feet separating them. And them you see them, the long sleek bodies of the Galapagos Sharks, the huge expanses of the Spotted Eagle Rays, the enormous shells of the green sea turtles, swimming slowly below you.
You see thousands of fish being tossed by the current, you feel the stinging of tiny jelly fish on your bare legs. You see the walls of Kicker Rock going endlessly down covered in coral, starfish and other living creatures.
When you get back in the boat, chilly and contemplating this wondrous day, you think there is not another thing that could make this day more special. But then the crew call out “dolphins”, and you rush to the front of the boat in time to see a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins, 50 to 60 strong swimming alongside. They stay with you for half an hour, gracefully moving under and over the water as if they are traveling together with you on the same journey.
Machu Picchu, Peru
Physically challenging, remarkably beautiful, awe-inspiring, with an amazing payoff. I have just spent the last four days hiking the Inka Trail to Machu Picchu.
The trek was approximately 26 miles long. The first day was deceptively easy, the night at the campsite very cold.
The second day was the most difficult and exhausting hike I have ever done. It involved an elevation gain of four thousand feet before reaching Dead Woman’s Pass at 14,000 feet.
The trek down to the second camp was steep and tough on my feet. I arrived at the campsite and literally collapsed in the tent. The night there at 12,000 feet was even colder than the first night had been.
The third day was unforgettable, the scenery diverse and magnificent. The hike was longer than the one the day before, and difficult as well, but I saw snow-capped mountains, lovely flora, and walked on original Inka steps and stones.
Along the way, I also saw several Inkan ruins including beautifully constructed look-outs, ceremonial sites, and terraces that were used for agricultural purposes.
The third campsite at 8,000 feet was warmer and a two-hour trek to Machu Picchu. I awoke on the fourth day at 3:30 AM and set out an hour later, wearing a miner’s headlamp, in order to reach the Sun Gate at Machu Picchu in time for sunrise. It was disappointing to arrive there and find the entire city enshrouded in fog!
As I descended the trail into this most famous Inkan site, the fog lifted and revealed a place like no other I have ever seen.
Immense buildings and towers, temples and plazas, constructed in the 15th century and inhabited for only 100 years before being abandoned by the Inkas shortly after 1532 when the Spanish conquered Peru. But the site is remarkable not only for its buildings but also for its situation, set as it is on a mountain top encircled by tall and imposing mountains.
Machu Picchu was never found by the Spanish invaders and thus the original architecture and stonework remained and could be restored to splendor after Hiram Bingham “discovered” the city in 1911.
I am weary and sore but thrilled to have had this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
My two favorite places in Costa Rica were Arenal Volcano and Corcovado. Both involved horseback riding.
The day we rode horses around the periphery of the volcano was sunny and bright. One drawback, though, was the sulphuric smell emanating from the always-slightly-erupting mountain. Another challenge was having to direct the horses away from the untethered bovines that stubbornly stood unmoving in our way. Having little experience as horse folk, our tepid pleas and kicks did little to affect the behavior of the horses and nothing to affect the behavior of the cows. Like much in Costa Rica, they moved in “tico time.”
The second of the horseback experiences was quite surprising for its contrasts. My daughter and I were staying at a tent camp on the beach in Corcovado, the warm, clear water of the Pacific just a few feet from our tent. Our riding guide was a small, grizzled old man who spoke no English.
We set out on the beach late in the afternoon, just the three of us on our horses, at what can only be described as a glacial pace. The guide kept asking us in Spanish if we wanted to go faster. Our consistent response was “si.” Nothing changed. We left the beach and traveled along a river where we saw people panning for gold. The horses seemed as bored as we were. After a while, at a sleepy command from the old man, the horses turned around and headed back to the beach. It was nearing sunset, the sky softly lit with shades of red, purple and peach.
Suddenly and without warning or command, the horses began galloping as though fleeing some disaster. Juliet’s hat flew off her head. She screamed “how do I make it stop?” Holding on for dear life myself, I could give her no advice. My only thought was if I were to fall off, it wouldn’t be that far and maybe the sand would provide a soft landing.
And then just as suddenly as they had begun, the horses came to a dead stop. They seemed to know they were close to the barn and could rid themselves of their noisy riders and go eat some hay. This was exhilarating, scary and hilarious all at once.
The old man never said a word.
Quilotoa Loop, Ecuador
The Galapagos Islands
Machu Picchu, Peru