Tikal, Guatemala

With only one day left on my vacation, I had to choose between a second day in San Ignacio, Belize with a daytrip to the ATM cave or a quick trip over the border to see Tikal.

It was an easy decision.  I’ve always wanted to see Tikal, and I was not sure when I would have another chance.  If I fly to Guatemala someday, I’d base myself in Antigua, which is far from the ruins.

The nice thing about guided tours from San Ignacio is they are small.  My tour only had one other couple.  We were dropped at the border to go through customs where a driver met us on the other side.  It was a two and a half hour ride past beautiful lake scenery and the town of Flores, some fruit and vegetable stands, and some rather bumpy roads.

The tour guide at the ruins was incredible.  He knew every detail, and could answer any question we threw at him.  He had boundless energy, and we gladly climbed every temple we could with him, despite temperatures hovering near 100F.  The ruins are everything I hoped they would be…not too crowded, beautifully preserved, fascinating, awe-inspiring, and surrounded by toucans (and the vocals of howler monkeys, although I did not see any).  A tourist note: it’s nice to report numerous and clean bathrooms too.

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I asked the guide about his background, and he paid to go to a tourism program that offers government certification as a tour guide.  He said he was very lucky to have the extended family help him with funds to go to school.  He now runs tours of Guatemala, but is also sent to Honduras regularly to introduce tourists to the ruins of Coba.  Every now and then, he gets to participate in larger Latin American tours and gets to tag along to South America as a benefit, acting as a translator as he speaks French, English, and some German.

He emphasized how hard work is to come by in Guatemala, and that he goes to night school every day to learn better English and pursue a TESOL certification.  His salary goes to his schooling and to repay his family for their generosity.

The driver also works multiple jobs in order to provide for his family.

I was already aware of how hard immigrants to the US work to better their lives, but meeting the Guatemalans made me even more disgusted by the rhetoric that often plays on the airwaves about “these people” who are unfairly depicted as violent drug lords.

I have often wished travel abroad was a part of an American student’s education.  Study abroad, unfortunately, often is considered a specialty…the student usually already has a great desire to explore, and has a background in languages, international relations, or international business.  It would be great if those who were fearful of travel abroad had an experience in their youth where they could face their fear and hopefully conquer that fear, and make some international friends along the way!

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The only negative about the tour was the mandatory stop at a restaurant on the way back where each small tour stopped.  The gift shop was Disney-like, with every Guatemalan craft and trinket under the sun for sale at higher prices than you know you’d find elsewhere.  The food was safe and sadly boring with little flavor.  But, in Guatemala, you knew your purchases were helping people make a very small living wage, so I really shouldn’t complain at all.  Interesting note was the waiter informed us ahead of time that the coffee wasn’t great, because the good stuff goes abroad.

The trip made me a better consumer.  I mentioned how exploring the coral reef in Belize made me really aware of my plastic use.  Guatemala has made me read coffee and chocolate labels – free trade, sustainable, certified by programs like the Rainforest Alliance – it’s worth the extra few dollars.  I also recommend buying online gifts from places like novica.com which support local artisans.

 

(photos by me)

 

 

 

 

 

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San Ignacio, Belize

After a few relaxing days in Caye Caulker, I took a taxi from the port to the bus station.  I recommend a taxi as it is a half hour walk in heat and humidity and the likelihood of getting lost at least once in the busy city district is quite high.  Belize City is quite run down, so you aren’t missing much by speeding thru in a taxi.

The bus station was easy to navigate.  I found the old school bus clearly labeled Benque Express, which meant it only had one major stop (Belmopan) before San Ignacio.  The final stop, Benque, is near the Guatemala border.  Busses are cheap, run often (every half hour) and take about 2.5 hours.  I highly recommend them over the private shuttles if you don’t have much luggage.

San Ignacio is a great stop for your adventures in the jungle.  Plenty of tours run from this town like river rafting, cave exploration, canopy tours, bird watching, and Mayan ruins.  Most tourists do the ATM cave, a full day guided tour that I heard was amazing.

As for me, I only had one day so I decided to find what I could manage on my own.  I started off at the Saturday market, which sells everything but I focused on finding a great lunch.  My favorite was the freshly made papaya coconut banana smoothie which helped beat the heat.

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Then I walked about ten minutes uphill from town to San Ignacio Resort, which has the iguana conservation center.  Tours run every hour and I learned a great deal about iguanas and Belize’s approach to conservation.  It was great to be able to interact with the iguanas, who are very tame as they are used to people holding them and patting them (they pose nicely for pictures).

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I grabbed the bus for Benque and got off at Xunantunich (you’ll see the sign, but ask the driver if you’re nervous about missing it).  You have to take a hand cranked ferry across the river and walk a mile to reach the ruins.  Careful: arrive by 3pm if you want enough time to explore.

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The Mayan ruins are busy during the day with guided tours but I had the place to myself in the late afternoon.  You can climb the ruins, and the top offers views to Guatemala.

I had to run downhill to catch the last ferry boat, but halfway there a pickup truck of Belizean guides asked if I needed a ride the rest of the way.  Belizeans are very friendly, and when I offered a dollar or two for the ride they politely refused.  If I had brought my swimsuit that day I likely would have joined the local townspeople in the river as many were swimming or rafting in the cool water.

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After observing an amazing sunset, I had dinner back in town of the traditional and ubiquitous rice and beans, plantains, and chicken.  Belizean food is fine, but nothing you’ll remember compared to the amazing ruins, friendly locals, and sounds of tropical birds waking you up at 5am (which I actually appreciated, as I got to see a lovely sunrise).

 

 

 

Caye Caulker

 

IMG_2337I love to travel so I knew I’d enjoy my trip to Belize, but I had no idea just how much I would love it.  Caye Caulker is easy to get to from the city – just take one of the ferrys for a forty minute ride to this paradise.  All sand roads, a sea breeze to beat the heat, friendly people and pets, and crystal clear water make for a relaxing few days.

IMG_2339Like a postcard.

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I knew I wanted to snorkel, as Belize has the largest reef aside from Australia’s famous Great Barrier Reef.  I saw a turtle, sharks, hundreds of fish and eel, five manatees (a real treat to see!), and stingrays.

IMG_2340I had never snorkeled before so was very thankful for my instructor.  It was a group of six thru Caveman Tours.

IMG_2342Learning more about coral reefs and their important ecosystems was a goal for me.  I have already become far more aware of avoiding plastic packaging, and have invested in reusable fruit/vegetable bags since my trip.

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If there is one criticism I have it is Belize is not a culinary powerhouse like Mexico.  But, breakfast was delicious!

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My favorite part of Caye Caulker was watching sunrises and sunsets.

I highly recommend the island, but don’t expect fancy hotels.  One of the most charming things is it is all guest houses on the island (and they are rather affordable.)

I stayed at De Real Macaw for $70 a night with a sea view and a hammock on the porch.

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Korean food

I enjoyed watching the Olympics, and travelled in spirit to Korea by looking up recipes and videos on how to make Korean food.

I went to the international aisle of my supermarket and found a great variety of Korean supplies like red pepper paste, noodles, and kimchi.  The great thing is I found brands that use natural ingredients (no MSG!).

I’ve had a variety of Asian cuisine (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Laotian, and Thai) but have never tried Korean.  I must say I think it has become my favorite!  I think it’s because I like spice but I’m not a huge fan of salt, which dominates fish sauce and soy sauce.

These Korean dishes do not use either.

IMG_6741Some supplies I found at the supermarket, full of flavor but low in sodium.

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Korean fried rice – kimchi is stir fried and then add cooked rice and red pepper paste, sesame oil, sesame seeds, and toasted nori.  Delicious.

IMG_6743Cold spicy somen noodles, with similar ingredients and topped with cucumbers, spring onions, and hard boiled egg.  I really liked this one.

IMG_6742Korean rice bowl, my favorite one…steamed veggies and bean sprouts, fresh cut cucumbers and spring onions, kimchi, egg, nori, and red pepper paste all on top of steamed rice.  Top with roasted sesame seeds and drizzle with sesame oil.  So healthy, and yet so good.  Traditionally, you’d fry the egg, but I just used the other half of the hard boiled one I used earlier.

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Korean pancakes – I used kimchi and sprouts to make these, but other ones to try include zucchini or potato.

check out maangchi videos online www.maangchi.com for your own inspiration.

Riding an elephant

With the new year coming, I’m dreaming of travel.  Maybe you are too?  But, if riding an elephant was on your bucket list, you might want to think twice:

Daniel Turner, Associate Director for Tourism at Born Free told the BBC:

While some may consider riding on top of the largest land mammal to be a cultural experience that holds an air of romance, few recognise that this practice actually significantly compromises the welfare of these magnificent animals and potentially places people at risk.
Riding or interacting with captive elephants, swimming with dolphins, walking with lions, or cuddling a tiger cub for a photo – these are just some of the many worrying tourism excursions and activities involving animals. All can impact on the welfare of the animals involved, and risk people’s safety.

What can you do instead?  Visit a sanctuary, where often you can interact with the elephants (feeding them, helping with bath time) yet know that they have plenty of time with their peers and in natural surroundings.

Here are some reputable ones I’ve heard about:

The Wildlife Friends Foundation Thailand, Thailand

Elephant Nature Park, Thailand and Cambodia

Boon Lott’s Elephant Sanctuary, Thailand

David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Kenya

The Elephant Sanctuary, South Africa (3 locations)

Elephant Rehabilitation Center in Agastyarvanam Biological Park, India

Millennium Elephant Foundation, Sri Lanka

YouTube: David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya

 

 

 

 

Autumn in NY

The mid-Atlantic and Northeast are rightfully famous for their autumn colors.  Tour busses regularly go along our highways in October bringing “leaf peepers” with their cameras.  They visit the state parks, but miss out on the quiet local parks.

At the start of the month, before you go leaf peeping, get a pumpkin!

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IMG_6385Even the tiny park by my house begins to lay out a welcome carpet of royal gold and red in mid-October.

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The Erie Canal becomes a quiet place after the busy summer, but if you bring a warm hat and gloves, you can still enjoy taking to the water.

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Hiking paths can be empty in the local parks, as people rush to the more famous sites to see the colors.

IMG_6386By the end of October, the bright reds hint the brief season is quickly coming to an end.

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Until next year!

 

(photos are my own)

 

 

Mexico City and environs

I’m back from Mexico City, somehow managing to bypass hurricanes on my flights and be away from the epicenter of a major earthquake (but we felt it in the city and were evacuated until safety checks were complete).  It certainly made me feel very lucky, and my heart goes out to all who were not so lucky.

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This was my second time in Mexico City, and I adore this place.  I revisited the city center but also went to new places.  There are countless cultural and historical gems in the massive city, yet you can see them easily by use of the metro.

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This time around I took the metro to Alameda Santa Maria park and the Biblioteca Vasconsuelos.  It ended up being a very fun dinner experience, as I went to a family run cafe where I sat with the family for their meal, practicing my Spanish.

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I then took a daytrip to Taxco and Cuernavaca.   The bus to Taxco is very inexpensive (at about $12) and very nice.  The scenery is breathtaking.  The city reminds me very much of Ostuni, Italy – narrow cobblestone hilly streets, whitewashed buildings, and art-filled churches.

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If you’re up to it, I recommend climbing to Guadeloupe church for city views.

IMG_6206In the later afternoon I made a quick stop to the Borda gardens in Cuernavaca, which have gorgeous flowers with butterflies, plenty of fountains, colorful ducks, and graceful columns.

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The next day it was Puebla and Cholula.  The bus leaves from Mexico City TAPO every fifteen minutes.  It is really necessary to take either the city bus or a taxi to the center of Puebla from the CAPU bus station.  The outskirts are blah, but the center is charming – so colorful and endless sweets stores, cafes, and artisan crafts await you.

IMG_6232The highlight for me were the churches – beautiful architecture and incredible interiors.

IMG_6221 I ate in the artist district and had the best mole I’ve ever tasted.

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I had not planned my trip around a festival, but Cholula was in pure celebration mode.  The Aztec drumming and dancing was incredible and it was fascinating to see the blessing ceremonies.

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What a wonderful surprise to end my short trip to Mexico. I certainly hope to return many times in my lifetime to this friendly, incredible country.

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Photos are my own.