A Travellerspoint blog

Barcelona, Spain, and its amazing History

Antonia Gaudi makes a trip to this Catalan city fascinating

sunny 81 °F

La Sagrada Familia, the unfinished masterpiece of Catalan architect Antonia Gaudi

So, what is it about a place that first sparked our interest? Was it a photograph, a book or article, or even a friend's account? Well, for me, it was an album. Ever since I first heard "Gaudi," by the Alan Parson Project, I wanted to go to Barcelona. I was intrigued by the voiceover: "In recent times, there is no one at all who can approach Antonio Gaudi. He started a new cathedral, in Barcelona, it is called La Sagrada Familia...The sad thing is they could try to finish it, but I don't think they will do it."

So, when my plans to see Malta this Spring fell through, I leapt at the chance to finally visit Barcelona. I arrived on a bus from Andorra, and quickly found that Barcelona's metro is quite easy to navigate. I bought a 3-day Pass and would use it often -- the first time to find my hostel on the Rambla de Catalunya. I hadn't stayed in a hostel in years, but accommodations are so expensive in Barcelona, I felt it was the only option, as I was trying to save money. Once checked in, I grabbed my camera bag and headed out to see the sights.

One neat feature of Barcelona's streets are its "Ramblas." These are wide, tree-lined boulevards with the biggest part, in the center, reserved for pedestrians. Two narrow lanes on either side of the Rambla are for vehicles and run one way in opposite directions. The most famous Rambla runs from the central transport hub at Placa de Catalunya -- not far from my hostel -- to the harbor. I strolled down it, stopping for lunch at a local pizzeria.

My sightseeing began with the Museo d'Historia de la Ciutat, which takes you down into the city's subterranean Carthaginian (the famous general, Hannibal Barca = Barcelonia), Roman and Visigothic roots. There are also numerous stretches of its Roman walls still extant, and it was an interesting cruise through underground passages. From there, I walked down to the harbor, then along the bustling harborfront to the Christoper Columbus monument. This tower, with a statue of the mariner pointing out to sea, has an elevator that whisks you up for a grand view of the city.

Barcelona's famous Rambla walk

As dusk was falling, I headed back to my hostel for a break before venturing out for dinner. That evening, I thought it would be fun to check out the Travel Bar, which bills itself as a place to meet other travelers. It was enjoyable, but I'd say the bar pushes its Pub Crawl and getting smashed a little too hard for my tastes.

The next day was my Antonio Gaudi day, when I would visit his numerous buildings, including the signature cathedral, La Sagrada Familia. Although I am normally not a fan of Modern Art, I loved Gaudi's architecture. His outlandish use of curves and weird shapes and textures somehow worked for me in a buiding, where it doesn't on canvas. Plus, despite his odd designs, his work is immensely practical, I feel. He would do ingenius things, like freeing a building's facade from holding the weight so that he could make immense windows to bring in more light. The mixture of oddities and practicalities kept me fascinated all day long. I started with Casa Battlo, then moved onto La Pedrera -- which I highly recommend. If you visit one museum or building of his BESIDES the must-see La Sagrada Familia, make it La Pedrera. Nowhere in Barcelona did I find exhibits that did a better job of bringing the early 20th century ascetic architect and his work to life.

The bizarre rooftop of La Pedrera

From there, I headed to the madhouse of crowds that is La Sagrada Familia. As advertised, it IS still a construction site, and it is still many, many years from being finished. However, what is done is very interesting. I was particularly enthralled by the pillars which are formed vaguely like trees with a main trunk and branching out progressively with more limbs to support the weight of the ceiling. I waited nearly an hour for the elevator ride up one of the towers, but it was worth it. You get a close up view of the colorful ceramic decorations on the towers. The museum in the crypt didn't hold a candle to La Pedrera, so I breezed through that.

Afterwards, it was time for lunch, and I jumped at the chance to "bag" a Pizza Hut in another country. I know, but hey, the pope kisses the ground when he gets off a plane, I can have my own traditions, right? After lunch, I took the subway up to Gaudi's foray into garden design at Parc Guell. If you're into gardens, I imagine it would be worthwhile. I thought it was kind of overrated, and wouldn't say it was a highlight. Then again, I'm not really into gardens (and I like Pizza Huts!), so who am I to say?

I finished up the afternoon with Barcelona's Arc de Triomf, its main cathedral and another modern art building or two. For dinner, I stopped in a local bar and had real live Catalan cuisine to make up for my Pizza Hut faux pas (white sausage sandwich, which sounds like a euphemism for...well, never mind). I finished the evening using my hostel's free internet to catch up on e-mail and read some posts on my favorite travel site, Travelpunk.com.

My final day of sightseeing saw me taking a cable car up the Montjuic Hill, that overlooks the center of the city, to Barcelona's castle. The views from up top were gorgeous because -- of course -- it was another warm, sunny day. Counting my trip to Spain with my brother years ago, this made something on the order of a dozen days in Spain with nothing but warmth and sunshine. This country has the best weather I've ever seen in all my travels! Anyway, after pacing around the Late Renaissance era fort, I headed below to its Museo Militar. As a military history buff, I couldn't resist. After an hour-plus of looking at swords, armor, etc., I was ready for a little outdoor hiking. It was a good thing, because my sense of direction failed me utterly at this point. I took the L-O-N-G way down the hill. I still did see what I wanted to -- the sporting facilities from Barcelona's hosting of the 1992 Olympics, and the Vatican lookalike outside of the Museum of Art -- I just took quite a looping path to do it all.

Barcelona's caste and its view

After a late lunch at a cafe, I decided to try one more museum -- Barcelona's Maritime Museum. It was the best in the city, I felt. The funky little headset they give you to walk around the museum with was great, with incredibly atmospheric music and good narration. The highlight was the full size reconstruction of the flagship galley from the famous Medieval sea Battle of Lepanto. The Catalan people (NE Spain, basically) have a rich seafaring tradition, and the museum did a wonderful job of personalizing its subject and bringing history to life.

As darkness was falling, I knew my time in Barcelona was drawing to an end. After dinner, I wandered over to take one last look at La Sagrada Familia, lit up at night. I lingered for a few minutes, the tune and words to a decades old Alan Parsons Project song in my head. "Especially the dosing lyrics, "Until the next time, until the next time..."

Antonio Gaudi's La Sagrada Familia

Posted by world_wide_mike 06:59 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

El Salvador - Friendly People Helping Me Find My Way

Navigating the gamut of public transportation to see El Salvador's sights

sunny 75 °F

Volcan Izalco not far from Santa Ana, El Salvador

Never before, had I been so un-alone on a solo trip. I knew I'd be spending a few days with Wayne -- a friend working with America West in San Salvador. The rest of the week, though, I figured I'd be pretty much by myself.

My first indication that this would not be the case was on the "collectivo" bus ride from the airport. The Salvadoran man next to me asked where I was from and why I'd come to his country. He seemed surprised to see a traveler wedged in amongst the locals on the minibus plying the 44 kilometer route from the airport to downtown. Nelson spoke good English and told me he was a security guard at the airport. As it turned out, he was from the town I was heading to that day -- Santa Ana, El Salvador's "second city."

Church in Santa Ana, El Salvador

He took me under his wing and guided me from our minibus onto a city bus to the terminal on the western side of town, where we'd catch the 2-hour bus ride to Santa Ana. He also recommended a hotel from my guidebook's list, then offered to show me the town's sights that evening. We ended up having a blast, meeting up that night with his friends for beers at their favorite bar (24 beers, 4 guys, $12 tab, total), then to a party till 3 am. We talked about music, politics and life all night.

The late evening meant a late start the next morning, as I eventually found the bus to Cerro Verde -- a jungle-clad, extinct volcano next to two more active ones. It was my plan to climb them: Volcan Santa Ana -- the tallest in the country, with a still steaming sulfurous lake inside; And Volcan Izalco, a classic, stark volcanic cone, and the newest volcano in the country. I arrived too late that day to do either, but instead took the nature trail on Cerro Verde and snapped pictures from scenic lookouts of the volcanoes, as well as gorgeous, nearby Lake Coatepeque.

"Chicken Bus" plying the streets of Santa Ana, El Salvador

El Salvador's countryside is simply gorgeous -- rippling with green hills, mountains and volcanoes, interspersed with circular mountain lakes of clear blue water shaped in rough circles from ancient craters of a volcanic past. Every day was warm and virtually cloudless, with brilliant blue skies. I'd expected sticky, tropical heat, but was pleasantly surprised by temperatures in the 70-80s, with little humidity.

On the two-hour ride back to Santa Ana (85 cents), I met Henning, a young German traveler. We hit it off well, exchanging travel stories. He was taking a year off before entering college to travel in Central America and perhaps do some volunteer work. That day, he'd climbed Izalco, doing Volcan Santa Ana the day before. Since now I'd have to skip one, I prodded him for details, which led me to decide upon Santa Ana for tomorrow. That evening, Henning and I went to dinner at a local restaurant he'd discovered and talked more about travel, Central America, the United States (he'd been an exchange student) and more.

Lake Coatepeque, western El Salvador

Henning's restaurant was not in the nicest area of town, so I did my best Richard Pryor imitation ("We bad...yeah, uh hunh...we bad!") on the walk back to the much nicer area of my hotel, near the town square. El Salvador has a reputation for crime and the guidebooks go out of their way to warn travelers to be careful. It HAD made me consider coming here, carefully, when Wayne invited me to visit. Everyone has their own level of what they consider safe. I am not foolhardy, nor am I timid. I realize there are likely parts of my own hometown of Columbus, Ohio, that would not be safe for me to walk at night. I would hardly discourage anyone from coming to Columbus, though. The same applies to my decision on countries: If there is not an active, shooting insurgency, nor a criminal or terrorist group targeting tourists, then I feel a reasonably cautious person can go there.

The next morning I took an earlier bus to Cerro Verde, in time to reach the guided and security escorted hike up the volcano. While waiting at the terminal, I met Vaughn, who was taking a year off college in Wisconsin to see Central America. Like with Nelson and Henning, I hit it off well with Vaughn, who is an avid photographer and works full time while in school to fund his traveling. We talked while admiring El Salvador's stunning scenery through the windows of our "chicken bus" to Cerro Verde.

Vaughn decided to accompany me on the Santa Ana hike. With the 30-odd folks on the hike, it proved to be the largest gathering of tourists I'd see in El Salvador. Even so, more than two-thirds of the folks were Salvadorans. One group of Americans were pilots on their two-week reserve duty, squeezing in a little sightseeing on their day off from flying.

The hike up the volcano was "uphill both ways" (doubtless, like your parents' walk to school). First, we threaded our way down the tree-covered slopes of Cerro Verde, then uphill through gradually thinning vegetation. About midway up the slope, clouds of sulfurous steam began to drift down towards us. Coughing broke out up and down the line of hikers. I tried breathing through my nose to protect my throat, and that seemed to help. As we neared the top, we passed through an exotic "forest" of agave plants. The views of the surrounding mountains, Volcan Izalco and the farmer's fields cut into neat rectangular shapes was breathtaking. I stopped to take photos frequently, losing track of Vaughn and the airmen.

Up on the rim of Volcan Santa Ana, western El Salvador In San Salvador

At the summit, we scrambled across bare rock onto the volcano's rim. A surreal, top-of-the-world scene greeted us. Bank after bank of clouds rolled up out of the volcano's cone, then whipped across the narrow rim we stood upon, the winds tugging at us with what felt like hurricane force. The clouds then sped down the mountainside, alternately obscuring or parting to reveal the view, far below. We crouched down upon the rocks, trying to shelter from the damp, chilling wind or dealing with momentary vertigo. My fingers numbed quickly at the 2,300 meter altitude. Unfortunately, the clouds parted only a few times to give us views of either the brownish-green sulfur lake inside the cone, or the gorgeous blue waters of Coatepeque. Eventually, the cold and wind forced us to begin our trek back down the volcano's sides. Once down, we had to hike back up Cerro Verde, the rim's cold forgotten as we sweated uphill.

That evening, Vaughn and I joined Henning for dinner at his favorite restaurant. We ate pupusas -- the national dish of El Salvador. It is a thick, corn tortilla filled with either cheese, beans or sausage (or all three) in "stuffed crust pizza" fashion. They were excellent, and would prove to be my favorite food during my stay. Over beers and pupusas, we traded travel stories. We met again the next morning for breakfast before Vaughn headed off to Sonsonate, and Henning and I to San Salvador. Henning had been raving about a place he'd been eating breakfast, inside the noisy, crowded Central Market. As I looked around at the dirty aisleways and tried to ignore the unsavory smells, I hoped for the best. As I sawed away vainly at the tough meat, though, I began to get an idea WHY Henning had been having stomach problems his entire time in Central America! This was definitely a meal to forget.

Henning and I bounced from city bus to city bus (like my breakfast was doing in my stomach), trying to find one that would take us near the Guest House he'd picked out. After three tries, we were successful, and stowed our backpacks in his room (I would be staying with Wayne at his hotel, that night). We headed back to the center of town to catch the bus to the scenic overlook of Puerta del Diablo. This trip went more smoothly, although today had reminded me of why I detest city buses. The view from atop the giant rock outcroppings, though, more than made up for the hassles. Looking West, we could see all the way back to Santa Ana and our volcanoes of the days before. To the north and east, San Salvador sprawled out before us, and beyond, the massive outline of gorgeous Lake Ilopango. When we turned south, we make out El Salvador's fertile coastal plain stretching to the sea. The waves of the distant Pacific were murky and indistinct in the coastal haze. Eventually, we had to tear ourselves away from the view, as afternoon was waning and I had to find my way to Wayne's hotel, near the airport.

That evening, Wayne and I caught up news about each other over a beer or two, and he said he'd likely be able to take a half day off on Wednesday to sightsee with me. Tomorrow, though, I was on my own (which was fine, as I'd planned on visiting the Mayan ruins of Joya de Ceren and San Andres). As it turned out, I met up with Henning, again, on the bus to the ruins. The first, Joya de Ceren, is often called the Mayan Pompeii, as it is an ordinary village that was buried by lava. Visually unspectacular, it is neat to know that you are looking at the only preserved dwellings of the day-to-day life of the Maya, though. Next, we took the short jaunt up the road to San Andres, a more traditional Mayan ruin of temples, pyramids and plazas. Though not as tall and lacking the grandeur of Tikal in neighboring Guatemala, it was nevertheless atmospheric to wander amongst the low buildings, climb the green mounds beneath which unexcavated pyramids lurk, and look out over the lookout over the grassy expanse that was once an impressive ceremonial center. On another flawless day beneath clear blue skies, it was hard not to be thrilled by the physical touch of history at San Andres.

Mayan ruins of San Andres, El Salvador

For dinner, Wayne and I took the hotel's shuttle into town and ate at a local restaurant, relaxing on their breezy rear balcony. The lights of San Salvador spread out beneath us, along with the modest fireworks of a local fiesta. We finalized our plans for the next day. Wayne would work till 11 am, then grab the car he had access to and meet me at the hotel. We would drive around scenic Lake Ilopango to the village of Ilobasco, which was famous for its ceramic craft industry. Earlier in the morning, I would take public transport for a quick visit to the village Panchimalco, which I thought was closer than it turned out.

As the saying goes in the movie, "BIG mistake, Indy!" Public transport in El Salvador comes in all shapes and sizes. The smallest are simple pickup trucks with railings that people ride in standing up. A typical fare on these runs 12-25 cents. Then there are the minivans squashed full of people, followed by shuttle bus type vehicles, usually equally full. This was the type of collectivo I'd ridden when I arrived at the airport, almost a week ago. Then, there are the infamous (among schoolchildren in the U.S.) "short buses." Following those, are full sized ones, usually brightly painted with their routes and nicknamed "chicken buses." In my time in El Salvador, so far, I had ridden all except the short buses. It took two that morning to quickly get me to the turnoff for the road that led up in the hills to Panchimalco. I waited for almost an hour before the bus to the village arrived, and as it crawled its way along, I realized that -- for me to be back to the hotel by 11 am -- I should probably NOT have hopped on the bus, and instead turned back. Once in Panchimalco, I hurried along the main street, vainly hoping to find a taxi to expedite my return. Nope. I was "in the sticks," and even pickups and buses seemed to have disappeared.

My savior and way back to the hotel - four men in a truck hauling chickens

I raced back through town to where I'd been dropped off, and waited for something going downhill. I hopped in the first minivan, wedged myself into a seat, and hoped its route went all the way back to the highway. No such luck. As I stood alongside the road, waiting for another bus, the silence of El Salvador's pastoral countryside descended. Short Round was right: "BIG mistake, Indy!" I set off downhill, walking quickly, resolving to flag down any passing vehicles -- whether public transport or not. A private pickup truck stopped, and gave me a ride of a couple kilometers or so. As he parked, I began walking, again. Next, I flagged down a delivery truck, telling them where I was headed. There were already four guys in the cab, but two hopped out and climbed atop the white crates the truck was stacked with, leaving me inside with the cheerful driver and shotgun-toting guard. We stopped three times before reaching the main highway, and I laughed when I saw what was in the crates: Chickens! I had gone from a chicken bus to a chicken truck! Thanks to these four, friendly Salvadorans, though, I was only about a half hour late getting back to the hotel to meet Wayne and his coworker, Rory, for our drive to Ilopango.

After my morning's misadventures, I was a little leery of three gringos heading off in a car to parts unknown with only a tourist map -- no road map. We did an excellent job of navigating and asking questions on the way to Ilobasco, though, with only two wrong turns that cost us no more than 20 minutes drive time. The "panoramic route" alongside Lake Ilobango was aptly named, and we stopped to photograph the brilliant blue waters, village churches and rural buildings. Once in Ilobasco, we found a street full of ceramic artisans and their shops and parked. I have always enjoyed ceramics as souvenirs, but Wayne and Rory's purchasing spree put me to shame. Wayne got the hang of bartering in El Salvador quickly, and Rory proved a natural at it. Myself, I failed miserably to get them to come down one cent on anything except a nice T-shirt, which I got for $9 when she started at $14. I ended up buying no ceramics, as nothing really caught my eye as a "must-have."

Lake Ilopango, near San Salvador, El Salvador

As the sun began to lean westwards, we knew we'd better head back if we wanted to be at the hotel before dark. None of us looked forward to being lost, looking for street signs in the dark. Wayne wanted to try a different way home, and as navigator, I picked out a route. For the third time in one day, I should have heard Short Round's admonishment: "BIG mistake, Indy!" Suffice to say, we got hopelessly lost in San Salvador, winding our way through a never-ending procession of streets. Wayne was having a heck of a time, though. Back home, he enjoys going on drives just to get lost. Rory was calm and patient, sure we were headed in the right direction, while I -- Navigator Presumptuous -- threw up my hands in surrender. Eventually, we lucked into a sign directing us to the airport, and we found our way back to the hotel.

All in all, I found nothing but friendly people everywhere I went in El Salvador. Their reputed reserve "until you get to know them" was non-existent. Constantly, at every turn, Salvadorans were eager to help out, to make my travel experience smoother and more enjoyable. In fact, their kindness -- along with that of the other travelers I met during my week -- made me feel like I was on a group tour, not solo one. El Salvador's gorgeous, green countryside and blue skies were certainly memorable, but the smiles and the people I met there were equally so.

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:25 Archived in El Salvador Comments (0)

Montego Bay, Jamaica -- will it turn to monsoon?

Finding things to do beside the beach

rain 82 °F

Montego Bay coastline in Jamaica

Since our plans to go to Iceland in February had fallen through, I'd promised my girlfriend Jenny that we'd go somewhere during my vacation in April. Since she is not an airline employee, this meant I was scouring the net for airfare or vacation packages that wouldn't set us back a lot of money. Jamaica had been one of my early ideas for a destination, and in the end we bought a package from Apple Vacations. It included airfare from Columbus and five nights in Montego Bay at the Doctors Cave Beach Hotel.

Both of us checked out guidebooks and read up on interesting things to do while in Jamaica. I had no desire to be a "never leave the resort" type of traveler here (nor anywhere, for that matter). Both of us were intrigued by the idea of hiking in the nearby Cockpit Country -- a wild, hilly area with unique topography. The limestone has sunk down in pockets throughout the area, leaving a land dimpled with rounded little hillocks. The soil from the hills has eroded down into the valleys, leaving the tops with less vegetation than the thickly forested depressions. I heard a number of reasons why it was called "cockpit," but none of them adequately explained it. My guess is it is a descriptive term that would have made more sense a few centuries ago.

The Cockpit Country is sparsely settled. The only inhabitants are the Maroons, who are the descendants of slaves freed by the Spanish when the English seized Jamaica. The slaves were told to take to the hills, and that the English would want to re-enslave them. Understandably, the Maroons fought fiercely against the English, and even today, are semi-autonomous and pay no taxes to the Jamaican central government.

Cockpit Country, Jamaica

At the last second, we found out that Jenny's sore knee of the last couple weeks turned out to be a stress fracture, so plans of the wild and wooly parts of Jamaica had to be scrapped. When we landed in Montego Bay on a sunny April Monday, we were still scrambling to figure out what to do. We spent the first afternoon getting our bearings, walking around the "Hip Strip," as main drag Gloucester Avenue is called. Our hotel was across the street from Doctors Cave Beach, a small but gorgeous fan of soft sand with incredibly clear water. It is privately maintained, which meant that most people pay admission to enter (it was free with our hotel), and that hucksters and peddlers were kept out.

We'd read a lot of the "MoBay Hustle," as the sales pitch of the aggressive vendors, taxi drivers, hair braiders and panhandlers was called. As a matter of fact, I think harping on it is what keeps many guests of all inclusive resorts sheltering behind the fences of their five star idylls. Personally, I found the Jamaican hustlers to be tame compared to those in Bali, and a good bit less crafty with their scams. As a matter of fact, there seemed to be no scam with the hustlers at all. If you didn't want to take a taxi or get your hair braided or buy their crafts, it was "No problem, mon." They left you alone (as opposed to the Balinese, who think of more and more clever ways to TRICK you into owing them money). And the "danger" of walking around the streets of Montego Bay was -- once again, my opinion -- exaggerated. Jenny and I walked all around the Hip Strip and Downtown and never encountered anything remotely threatening. Trust me, I've seen a lot seedier and more dangerous places in my travels!

Square honoring Slave Rebellion hero Sam Sharpe, Montego Bay, Jamaica

We spent early Tuesday scouting out the sightseeing trips we wanted to take, and arranging for the packages. That is one unfortunate thing about Jamaica. It is very difficult to see on the shoestring or "backpacker" level. Bus service is -- according to the guidebooks -- infrequent and unreliable, and the shared taxis (which would be the other way of getting around cheaply from town to town) are notoriously slow and hard to depend upon since they often will not depart till their car is full. So, seeing how we only had till Friday evening to do all our sightseeing, we were forced to rely on packages and excursions. Those arrangements completed, we hit the beach, only to see the sky cloud up a short time later. Within a hour of our arrival at the beach, the rain began to fall, and we packed up and headed back to the hotel.

This proved to be a theme for our trip: Sunny mornings followed by rainy afternoons and evenings. On the shuttle ride in from the airport, the driver had bewailed the drought Jamaica had been suffering. Monday night, we'd watched from our balcony as the skies unloaded a torrent of rain onto the streets. We'd smiled and said, well, as long as it waited till 8-9 pm every night to begin raining, that was fine with us. Starting Tuesday, the rains began to come earlier. Every day, it would cloud up shortly after noon and begin to rain by 2-3 pm. And this was no "gone in 20 minutes" tropical thunderstorm, either. These settled in for the duration, and were still spitting at us in the evening when we'd go out for dinner. Confused, we re-consulted our guidebooks, which insisted that Jamaica averages only 1.4" of rain in April. In our five days, we easily saw triple that. Some drought!

On Wednesday morning, we hoofed it downtown and saw the historic sights of Montego Bay, including the cathedral, town square honor slave rebellion leader Sam Sharpe, and Georgian style buildings. The rain caught us again, forcing us to wait under a sidewalk overhang for it to slow down a bit. When it slacked, we dashed back up Gloucester to our lunchtime haunt, The Pork Pit. Excellent (and cheap) Jamaican jerk pork and a Red Stripe beer lifted our spirits a bit. If you go to Montego Bay, you MUST eat lunch here. For a couple bucks you get more than a pound of jerk pork, and can add in baked yams, sweet potatoes or "rice and peas (kidney beans)", the national side dishes.

We'd heard the nightlife in Montego Bay was nothing special (at least post-Spring Break -- not sure what it is like with hordes of crazy college students here!). We tried a number of the bars and hangouts, and really the only fun we had with fellow patrons was at our own hotel bar on "Rum Punch Night." The bartender kept the free rum punch flowing and the 10 or so of us had a lively time. Before I'd arrived, I'd envisioned beach parties with reggae music, but no dice. Speaking of dice, avoid the Coral Cliff Casino and its jungle-themed bar. Imagine a cross between Hooters and a bachelor party style "dance bar," with a bit of Vegas sleaziness (but none of its fun) thrown in. Yeee-uck!

Guide Kenneth and Maroon assistant provide samples of Jamaican food

Thursday proved to be a special day. We'd booked a "Maroon Tour" which went up into the Cockpit Country where we'd wanted to go hiking. Since no one else had signed up, we were to have a private tour...that is, WHEN our tour showed up. After about an hour of waiting in the lobby, I made some phone calls, discovering a "miscommunication." Our tour guide, Kenneth, showed up a short time later, apologizing on behalf of Maroon Country Tours. We told him that we definitely still wanted to go and were soon off, driving south out of Montego Bay. Honestly, Kenneth was the sole difference between a disappointing day and a great day. He was full of information on the local customs, people, schools, agriculture, history -- you name it. There wasn't a subject he didn't possess fascination tidbits of information on. He had us visit a local school, taste Jamaican food and stopped the car wherever we wanted to get out and take pictures.

Although we only skirted the edge of the Cockpit Country itself, we did get a taste of its scenery. Unfortunately, the skies opened up on us again as Kenneth's scheduled itinerary wound to a close in Maroon Town. So, though he'd said he was willing to add anything we wished onto the end of the tour, there seemed little point in driving through the mountains looking for scenic views in a rainstorm. Once again, we'd been cheated by Jamaica's "drought." I'd highly recommend anyone coming to Jamaica to contact Kenneth and set up your own tour with him, though. Bypass the travel agencies and tour companies and set it up with him yourself. He is in the process of setting up a website, and I will post his contact information shortly.

Rain and mist descend onto the hills of Cockpit Country

As enjoyable as Thursday was, our last full day in Jamaica proved to be the highlight. We'd scheduled a snorkeling excursion on Calico Day Cruises -- fortunately, in the morning. We were feeling a bit "snakebit" when we woke up to the first overcast morning of our entire trip. Every other one had been startlingly blue and clear. Our tour picked us up anyway, and it proved to be just us and a Californian man and his son. The haze was beginning to break up as our boat cast off from the pier. Originally, we were scheduled to have just a half hour of snorkeling. With such a small group, though, the crew said we could stay out longer if we wished.

Me -- Mr. Scared of Sharks -- was the first to jump overboard into the clear blue waters of the Montego Bay Marine Sanctuary. Immediately, my mask began to leak and I fought back a rising panic. I remembered a U.S. Army technique for clearing a gas mask and tried it. It worked, blowing the water out of the mask and sealing it tight to my face. Everyone was in the water, by now, and I followed the string of snorkelers away from the boat into the coral reef. It was like floating through blue canyons filled with aquariums full of tropical fish. I saw every type of coral I'd heard of, and more colors and types of fish than I could ever hope to the know the names. The longer I was out, the more my confidence grew. I was soon gliding across the top of coral in less than two feet of water, at times, startling the fish nibbling at the reef. If I saw a particularly colorful one, I'd follow him around for a few minutes, which doubtless made him wonder what the big hairy fish behind him was up to.

Doctors Cave Beach, Montego Bay, Jamaica

The boat's crew let us stay out for at least an hour, probably more. When we returned to the boat, all of us were pumped up. I took advantage of the free bar and downed a couple quick Red Stripes before we anchored off of Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville. I guess, for the sheltered vacationers in their all-inclusive resorts, this stop on the itinerary is popular. Since the restaurant/bar (with the water play area of trampolines and such) is only a couple hundred yards from our hotel, it was no big deal. Even the 100 foot water slide was closed temporarily (probably due to the drought), but we had a good time bouncing around on the water trampolines for a half hour, and making our decision to NOT put on sunscreen before snorkeling that much worse of one.

Our final excursion for our trip was to be a night time boat ride through a phosperescent lagoon. The microorganisms in the water glow when it is agitated, so that boats, fish and even swimmers leaving a glowing path. This sounded really cool, since we'd be given a chance to jump in the water and try it out for ourselves. I was really looking forward to it, and was debating whether to risk taking my new digital camera along or not. Of course, I should have remembered that Jamaica was suffering a severe drought this week. Later that afternoon at the beach, the skies had opened up and the rain had driven us back to the hotel. A couple hours later, the phone in our hotel was rang to tell us the trip was canceled. I guess I have more in common with microorganisms than I thought, as they do not like the rain either.

As we left for the airport the next morning, I was almost daring our driver to bemoan the drought. Jenny and I reflected that somewhere in Jamaica, there are some really happy farmers. And the next time they have a drought, they should pay good money to bring her and I back to Jamaica...a LOT of money...

Posted by world_wide_mike 08:37 Archived in Jamaica Comments (0)

Easter Island - to the Ends of the Earth

Walking Amidst the Silent Statues of a Vanished Civilization

sunny 69 °F

The magnificent Ahu Tongariki on Easter Island

It's quiet here on Easter Island in the off season. The whisper of wind across the hills and hiss of surf against the rocks are often the only sounds. Even the rain, when it appears, is a gentle mist that comes and goes almost without a sound. So, when you come upon the statues -- the Moai for which Easter Island is famous -- there is no fanfare, no chatter of crowds, no hawkers pushing T-shirts. Only a sudden awareness of their presence looming solid and unmistakable: A visual shout that startles in this quiet, barren landscape.

Easter Island wasn't always quiet like this. Centuries ago, it was an overpopulated island whose inhabitant's needs denuded the once-forested island, impoverished its soils and sparked raging civil war. The statues themselves are thought to have played a heavy hand in Easter Island's ecological catastrophe. Quarried from stone in one volcanic crater in the southeast, they were likely moved on log rollers to their sacred locations throughout the 64 square mile island. The moai's thirst for wood to ease their passage is thought to have turned the island into a nearly treeless landscape.

Ahu Tahai - the closest site to the main village of Hanga Roa, Easter Island

The hardships suffered by the Polynesian inhabitants -- the Rapa Nui, as they call themselves -- is our gain, now. More than 300 moai are scattered across Easter Island in every state from perfectly restored and re-erected on their Ahus (sacred platforms), to lying toppled and broken into pieces, barely discernible on the rocky ground. To see them, choose the method that strikes your comfort or adventure level best -- on a guided tour in a vehicle, by renting your own jeep, motorbike, ATV, bicycle, or even on horseback. To see the island's gorgeous landscape best, though, you can simply hike from site to site, enjoying the conical green hills, deep blue seascapes and pleasant South Pacific weather along the way.

I arrived on Easter Island at the end of August, on a flight from Santiago, Chile (which owns the island). The five hours by air makes you appreciate the amazing ability of the Ancient Polynesians as mariners. The world's most remote inhabited island, it is more than 2000 miles from South America, and 1,400 miles from its closest inhabited neighbor -- tiny Pitcairn Island (which was uninhabited when the Rapa Nui arrived). When you get here, you are truly out in the middle of nowhere!

The face of a fallen moai

Myself, and two other travelers I met at my hotel -- Bo, an airline worker from San Diego, and Taka, a Honda employee from Tokyo -- pooled our resources to rent a jeep for two days. We bargained them down to $35 a day, though most were asking $40-50. And as a gentle rain greeted us on our first day of sightseeing, I was glad we did. Hiking that day would have been a wet slog. Elected driver, I also quickly learned why a four wheel drive vehicle is recommended. The rutted dirt or mud roads make driving a challenge, at times.

Taka, Bo and I began our exploration at Ahu Tahai, the closest major site to the island's main village of Hanga Roa. Tahai is actually three separate ahus. Two have one moai each standing, and a third has five statues. As we parked, Taka and Bo let out whoops of joy. There they were -- our first moai -- looming through a fine mist of rain, with their backs to the sea. I breathed a silent "Wow." We had the bonus of of having the site to ourselves, which would happen over and over during the next four days. The tallest moai at the Tahai complex, Kote Riku, is quite striking as it is the only one on the island with its coral eyes still intact. We lingered for quite awhile at Tahai despite the light rain, not wanting our first contact with Easter Island's wonders to end.

Finally, we drove north along the coast, stopping at several other sites. At Ahu Te Peu, the moai are tumbled down from their platform, and only one of the heads is easily visible. It lies among the rocks, its red stone top piece broken into shards beside it. Amidst the rubble, I found a weathered, round piece of white coral, likely the moai's long-lost eye. Feeling a bit like Indiana Jones, I plucked it from the grass and placed it back in the empty eye socket. The moai seemed to wink its thanks.

Seven moai stare skyward at Ahu Akivi, Easter Island

Next, we visited Ahu Akivi, where seven moai stand in a valley. Most sites on Easter Island are along the coast, but this is one of the few inland ones. The statues' thin angular faces give them an alien quality -- doubtless what has fueled UFO fanatics to seize upon them as evidence of visitors from space. Historians are fairly certain, though, that they were constructed as a spiritual offering/commemoration of religious or clan leaders.

From Akivi, we bucked along the stony mud road to the small volcanic cone of Puna Pau, whose red stone was used to carve the top pieces of the moai. Some assert the two-level, cylindrical forms represent ceremonial headdresses, while others say they are stylized representations of hair "top knots." The view from atop the hill was fine, though most come to see the two dozen finished but unused pukao, as the top pieces were called, strewn along the slopes or in the ancient volcano's crater.

Marshy lake in the middle of the crater of the volcano of Ranu Kau

After lunch, we drove just south of Hanga Roa to the massive volcanic crater of Ranu Kau. The wind screamed at us as we parked and walked to the edge of the rim. Inside, was another world. A small lake filled the crater, its blue water speckled with patches of green grass, reeds and peat bog. Descending the path towards it, the wind died slowly, and crickets could be heard chirping in the marsh. It was like a little bit of Louisiana plopped down inside a South Pacific volcano.

The main draw of Ranu Kau, though, is not the spectacular scenery, but the fairly intact ruins of the ceremonial village of Orongo on its slopes. This was the center of the Birdman ritual of the Rapa Nui. Each year, the island's clans sent a champion to compete in the Birdman race. The contestants would clamber down the treacherous slopes of the volcano's rim to the sea, then swim to the tiny islets of Motu Iti and Moto Nui, just under a mile offshore. Once ashore, they would search for the egg of the migratory seabird, the Sooty Tern. The first to find an egg and race back to Orongo (handing it to their clan chief) would be Birdman for the year. As the center of the ritual, many of the stones of Orongo are carved with petroglyphs. Most are pictures of a humanoid shape with a bird head. It took us awhile, but Bo finally spotted one and pointed it out. Once we knew what we were looking for, we suddenly could see them everywhere in Orongo. Some stones were bedecked with multiple petroglyphs.

The tiny islets of Moto Iti, Motu Nui and the spike of Moto Kau Kau

We closed the day with a return to Tahai to watch the sunset. One of the few intact moai on the west coast, and close to Hanga Roa, it is a popular place for travelers to congregate and shoot for that special Easter Island sunset photo.

I was hoping for sunshine our second day, as we'd be driving along the island's southern coast, which has the highest concentration of sites. At Ahu Vinapu, we saw the tightly fitting stones of the platform whose uncanny similarity to Incan architecture has spurred academic debate. The moai themselves lie face down behind the platform. It is thought this (seen at most ahu across the island) is a result of clan warfare -- the ultimate humiliation of a rival clan's venerated leaders. Sometimes rocks were strategically placed so that the tumbling moai would be decapitated as it fell.

As we drove along the much nicer southern road (in sunshine!), we also stopped to photograph the excellent coastal scenery. Booming waves plowed into the jagged black rocks of the undulating shoreline, eliciting "oohs" and "ahhs." Nearly all the moai we passed were face down. Historians think most of the destruction occurred during a forty year span in the late 1600s or early 1700s, when the island's resources were dwindling. We saw more travelers that day, of course, as the south coast contains the top two sights on the island.

Ranu Raraku, the quarry of the moai, is one of the Easter Island's highlights

One of those is Ranu Raraku -- "the quarry of the Moai." Nothing on Easter Island caused me to pause longer, trying to drink in as much of the sight as possible, nor tugged at my soul harder, than this massive volcanic cone. It was here that Rapa Nui craftsmen carved the moai out of the rock rim of the crater. Two sections stand exposed by the carvers. As you stare at what looks at first like jumbled rock face, the outlines of moai under construction take shape before your eyes. Here you may discern a nose and eye sockets, there the smooth rectangular length of a body. As interesting as this is, though, it pales before the collection of the completed but undelivered moai that cluster on Ranu Raraku's slopes. Historians think that as the carvings were completed, they were placed in shallow pits. These have since filled up, leaving only the heads poking through the grass, tilted this way and that by the pressure of soil and settling. What the visitor sees is a field of dozens of moai heads, looking up, down and virtually every direction. The effect is truly otherworldly. It is as if a community of semi-human giants were frozen in stone while stopping to ponder some wonder in the skies above. Over time, all except the heads were slowly buried by earth and dust. Some of the faces still gaze inscrutably skywards, while others bow in mute acceptance of their fate.

The fate of the 15 moai that stand with their backs to the sea at Ahu Tongariki was much kinder. Restored in the 1990s (after a tidal wave 30 years earlier scattered them), they are the greatest collection of moai re-erected on a platform. Where Ranu Raraku mystifies visitors, Ahu Tongariki impresses them. The effect of the 15 statues in a row is majestic, evoking images of Ancient Egyptian temples. The gorgeous deep blue bay at Tongariki -- with its nearby cliffs and towering stone stack not far offshore -- would be much-photographed anywhere else on the island. Here, it is hard to tear your eyes off of the line of moai. Awed, the three of us vowed to get up early the next morning and drive here to watch the sunrise in Tongariki's splendor.

Anakena Beach, lovely, but with chilly waters!

From there, the excellent southern road quickly gave out and as we looped northwards. We were back to bucking along rutted, rocky dirt roads. We stopped at one or two sights before finishing at Anakena Beach, where the Rapa Nui first came ashore around 800 A.D. The palm-fringed beach is pretty, but the water is quite chilly due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold waters up from the south pole. At the edge of the beach is Ahu Nau Nau, excellently preserved due to be buried in sand till restored in 1978. You can see the finely carved lines detailing clothing, jewelry, lips, etc. Overlooking it from a slight hillock is the first ever moai to be erected, Ahu Ature Huki, which was done by Norwegian anthropologist of "Kon-Tiki" fame, Thor Heyerdahl. The drive back to Hanga Roa on the wonderful, paved interior road zipped by, and we returned in plenty of time to close the day with another shot at sunset pictures at Ahu Tahai.

We did make it to Tongariki for sunrise, but to tell you the truth, that about sated me for sunsets and sunrises for the trip. Afterwards, we turned in our rental jeep and bade goodbye to Bo, who was returning to San Diego that day. After a short nap, I decided since it was a lovely, sunny day, hiking was in order. I found a coastal path north of the village that begins at the museum and runs south to the volcano's rim at Orongo. I wasn't sure how much I'd do that day, but set off with my map and a compliment of water and "energy bars."

Looking to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, from across the rocky bay

Along the way, I visited several moai, the colorful, local cemetery and the picturesque, rocky harbor from where the local fishing boats and scuba diving boats launch. Trekking south, I found Ana Kai Tangata, a cave whose ceiling is still covered with Rapa Nui paintings. Next to it was gorgeous Baquedano Point, whose long, black, rocky arm churned the sea. At that moment, the sun blazed out from behind a cloud, turning the sea into a stunning turquoise blue. I sat down on the rocks and watched for awhile, duly remembering not to forget to seek out nature's beauty while pursuing man-made wonders.

When I reached the foot of Ranu Kau, I checked my watch. Since it was still early in the afternoon, decided to climb the volcano to Orongo, again. The footpath to the top took less than an hour, and was much easier hiking than walking along the road would have been. I photographed the crater, the lake, Orongo, and the Bird Man islets again, happy to have sunshine this time. At the rim, I'd encountered another hiker -- Bif, from Dallas -- and showed him the petroglyphs and explained the Birdman story. We had a pleasant hike back down, although I was fairly footsore by the time I reached the hotel. I skipped out on the Tahai sunset trip that evening to rest up for the big hike I was to take the next day.

After breakfast that morning, Taka and I took a taxi to Anakena Beach. From there, we set out for a daylong hike across the roadless northern coast of the island. The footpath along its length ends at Ahu Te Peu (where I'd replaced the coral eye of the fallen moai). From there, I told Taka the day before, we'd see how we felt, and maybe squeeze in a hike to see inland Ahu Akivi, again. That day, the weather was simply the best during out entire stay. We passed scattered fallen moai, the Easter Island's gorgeous seascapes, foundations of the early "boat-shaped houses" of the Rapa Nui, and even petroglyphs carved on the rocks. Out to sea, nature seemed to compete against the man-made sights, crying "Look at me!" with numerous panoramas of coves, bays and points. The clear blue sea dashed itself against the rocky coastline in an endless stream of encore performances. The animal kingdom, too, seemed to put on a show for us, with hawks, horses with baby foals, the free-ranging cows (and calves) of an isolated farm, and countless tiny lizards scurrying for cover at our approach.

As the coastline eventually began to turn south, we crested a hill and caught sight of Hanga Roa in the distance. Both of us felt game for an extension of the hike to Ahu Akivi, and after a bit of trouble finding the road, we made it. It was a perfect end to a gorgeous day of hiking, contemplating the seven huge moai on their platform. Once again, I was happy for a chance to photograph Akivi in the sunshine this time, instead of the rain of our first day. As we turned to go, I bid silent goodbye to the moai, knowing not whether my travels would take me here, again. Taka was beginning to tire as we trudged south towards the main road. Once on it, I flagged down a passing pickup truck. It proved to be a Rapa Nui family who invited us to clamber into the back and we breezed the last four miles into Hanga Roa, enjoying the wind in our face and the relief to our feet.

To celebrate an amazing four days of sightseeing on Easter Island, we joined Andes, a Chilean electrical engineer and his two friends, flight attendants on Lan Chile Airlines, for drinks at a local pub. We laughed and took turns ribbing each other. I gave Taka grief for his love of American pop music (Brittany Spears...?!), and then Andes for his choice of screwdrivers for a "manly" drink (as opposed to the Chilean specialty, Pisco Sours, which he derided as a "woman's" drink). After more beers and staying out later than I should have had, I reluctantly left the others to their revels, and headed to the hotel. I'd yet to pack, and it was a long way home, the next day.

Sunset at Ahu Tahai

I knew that as time went by, and I thought back to my time here, I would fondly remember all the friendly faces I'd encountered there: Taka, Bo, Andes, and the silent, mysterious faces of Easter Island's moai...

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:16 Archived in Chile Comments (0)

Syria - Ancient Wonders and Welcoming People

One of my most amazing trips ever, with sights I will always remember

sunny 82 °F

The Valley of Tombs, near Palmyra, Syria

There are moments when traveling, I feel, that what you are experiencing is so dramatic, so inspiring, that you know their memory is being seared onto your brain.

One of those moments came on my second day in Syria, at the Ancient ruins of Palmyra. I was exploring an area called the Valley of the Tombs. Dozens of "Tower Tombs" are scattered throughout the dusty orange valley and up its rocky slopes. The towers are blocky, three to four story mausoleums built by families to house generations of Palmyrene burials. They range in state from perfectly restored to crumbling piles of rough, stone blocks. In my brown leather jacket, I was playing Indiana Jones, clambering up the towers, sometimes even lowering myself down inside to explore their deteriorating stairwells and creepy shelves, where bodies were long ago stacked up by the hundreds. I was resting atop a tower for a moment, admiring the gorgeous, otherworldly view. Not another soul could be seen for miles. That's when the haunting sound of the Muslim call to prayer drifted into the valley. The music fit the mood perfectly, and I felt my soul rise. I thanked God that I'd once again been led to one of the world's wonderful places.

Earlier this year, when I'd confided to one or two that I was planning on visiting Syria, they thought I was tempting my fate. Too dangerous, they claimed, believing our 21st century media's labeling and packaging of other countries and cultures, and the subsequent distortions of reality. Even a cursory reading of first hand accounts of travelers would reveal that Syria was anything but crawling with terrorists and fanatics waiting to pounce upon Westerners. All who'd really been there agreed how friendly and welcoming the people of that country truly are. Sure, our governments may disagree, but what does that really have to do with the people in the street, and how they welcome a visitor?

The inner cella of the Temple of Bel, Palmyra, Syria

Palmyra was the number one reason I'd been yearning to go to Syria for years. A once powerful oasis trading city that challenged the might of the Roman Empire in the 3rd Century A.D., its ruins sprout romantically from the desert and are wonderfully preserved. So intent upon visiting Palmyra was I that, upon landing in Damascus, the first thing I did was find a bus to there. Three hours across the sun-drenched, rocky desert, and I was amongst the ruins.

I was first struck by how massive they are. Their centerpiece, the Temple of Bel, covers the area of a football field, its buildings, walls and columns soaring skyward. Although most of today's ruins at Palmyra are Roman, the temple shows its Semitic origins. Three storey walls surround the complex, just inside of which were giant rows of columns on all four sides. The central temple building stands slightly off center within the rows, its shrine devoted actually to a trio of Gods: Bel, a supreme god who controls the movement of the heavens; Yarhibol, a solar god; and Aglibol, a lunar one. The Romans, who were always quick to equate the local pantheon to their own Jupiter, Artemis and so on, expanded and enlarged this temple. The Bel complex is the only place in the ruins which you have to pay a (small) entrance fee, and is definitely worth it.

The 'Decumanus,' or main colonaded street in Palmyra, Syria

As I ventured outside the temple, down the main street, I was also struck by how immense an area Palmyra's ruins cover -- more than six square miles. The decumanus -- as the Romans called the main street -- is lined on either side for about a mile and a half by elegant, decorative columns -- with a local adaptation. About halfway up each column, a short shelf juts towards the street. Statues were placed upon these shelves (sadly, none remain), to honor local nobility, wealthy merchants and the like who'd funded civic improvements. This feature is repeated on columns throughout the city, and in its day, must have made an amazing sight -- rows of columns stretching into the distance, each adorned with painted statuary. Even without the statues, the sight is impressive.

Palmyra also has standard Roman city features, including an atmospheric theater, sprawling agora, temples, and the like. I spent half a day exploring them, sharing the site with an occasional tour group or locals selling souvenirs or camel rides. However, Palmyra is vast enough to swallow its sparse crowds, and much of the time I paced beneath the columns by myself. I read my guidebook's description of the various sections of the city and pictured Palmyra's past glories. Later in the afternoon, my hotel had arranged a driver to take me to the Arab castle, Qalat ibn Maan, to watch the sunset perched on a hill overlooking the ruins. It was a bit of a disappointment, though, as the castle itself was closed and the view is too far from the ruins to really experience much of it. Returning to town, I wandered around a bit before turning in for the night. I was exhausted from my full day of sightseeing and the two plus days of travel to get there.

The next morning, though, I was up early, walking through the brisk cold to the ruins to watch the sunrise. The wind whistled across the sands, driving ice into the veins of my exposed fingers. I found a viewing point and hunkered down behind the stones. Soon, the rising sun brought forth a palette of pale pinks, oranges and purples, and the view was worth the shivers. As the sun climbed higher, I turned around and photographed the effects of its rich orange light on the ruins. I dashed back to the hotel for a quick breakfast, then devoted the rest of the day to the Valley of the Tombs.

The Tower Tomb of Iambliku in the Valley of the Tombs, Palmyra, Syria

Travel is a curious thing. Years ago, when I'd first read about Palmyra, I immediately wanted to visit it. While researching the trip, though, nothing about the Valley of the Tombs caught my fancy. However, when I SAW them the day before, looming somewhat sinisterly in the distance, I was instantly afire to walk amongst them. Only two of the tombs are "officially" open to the public (and that only three times a day at prescribed times). So, when you visit them, you are shoved in amongst virtually all of that day's tourists. I find tour groups the single most irritating thing when traveling. I know its selfish (and unrealistic) of me to expect to enjoy historical monuments alone. However, the feeling of walking in History's footsteps is so powerful when it is just you and the site, that I seek to time my visits in off times to minimize crowds whenever possible. So, after a cursory visit to the two officially opened tombs, rubbing shoulders with German and Spanish tour groups, I had the driver drop me off at the far end of the valley.

As the vehicle receded, and the visiting hour ended, the crowds disappeared. I sighed in relief as quiet returned to the valley, and then began a slow and thorough exploration of the tombs. I poked inside open doorways, clambered up to the top of more accessible towers, and even found a way to lower myself down inside officially "closed" tombs. My flashlight illuminated the dark passageways and I had to fight down the urge to mutter the Indiana Jones line, "Fortune and Glory, kid, fortune and glory..." After several hours of exploration, I felt I had truly absorbed the Valley of the Tombs. The experience was complete atop the Tower Tomb, listening the muezzin's holy call. I basked in the warmth of afternoon sun, wanting to soak up as much of the moment as I could. After the music faded in the distance, I walked slowly eastward. As I drifted near the Roman ruins, I saw the sun's rays struck a peach-colored glow from the columns and stones. Entering the site at the Roman Agora, I gasped in pleasure as the area gleamed with reflected golden light. I had come full circle, I realized. I'd begun the day 11 hours earlier, shivering, but admiring the play of light on the ruined city, and I was ending it the same way, enjoying the ruddy glow. I'd come a long way and waited a long time to see Palmyra, but it had repaid every minute, with interest.

The view of the Tower Tombs stretches away across the valley, Palmyra, Syria

The next morning, the time came to leave Palmyra, and take a bus west to my next stop. Not being able to read Arabic, and able to say and understand only half a dozen phrases, made bus stations in Syria VERY interesting. My first leg, from Palmyra to Homs, was easy: Mine was the only bus at the stop. I paid my fare (75 Syrian pounds for the 2 hour ride, or about $1.50). However, it was a tad overwhelming when I got to the bus station in Homs, Syria's second largest city. I asked a couple folks in the teeming, sprawling, chaotic station, "Wayn al-bus lil Qalat al-Hosn?" I followed their pointing until one older Arab gentleman tucked my arm under his and walked me directly to the minibus that was going to Kerak des Chevaliers, my destination.

Minibuses ply the smaller routes and supplement the larger buses, which go between major towns. The minibuses usually have 14 seats and leave, not on a time schedule, but when full. This one had two decidedly Western-looking guys in it, and one Arab man. I said hello. The Australian and a New Zealander informed me that they'd been waiting for a half hour, and I was the first new passenger to show up in that time. I suggested we bargain a rate for us to leave right away -- "buying" the other seats, so to speak. After about 15 minutes of back and forth, and a heated dispute between our driver and another that wanted to steal away our business, we finally departed. Final price: 75 Syrian pounds -- three times what the individual 25 pound (fifty cent) fare was. In my opinion, it was well worth it, although the Kiwi was balking at paying what amounted to a buck more!

Once in Krak des Chevaliers (Arabic: Qalat al-Hosn), I asked directions to Hotel Beibars, where I'd planned to spend the night. Since most people visit Krak -- the largest crusader castle in the Middle East -- as a day trip or as part of a tour, there aren't a lot of places to stay, and I'd heard they were a tad more expensive than the $8 a night I paid in Palmyra. I followed the road that looped around the castle and spotted a building that I hoped would be my hotel. It was gorgeously sited across a deep valley with what would be a stunning view of the castle. Sure enough, it was the right building, and I bargained the rate down to $20 a night. Hotel Beibars is probably a four star hotel in Syria, although in the U.S., it would be equivalent to a Holiday Inn. I'd paid for the room with a balcony and the view was every bit as spectacular as I'd guessed. I quickly unpacked and headed back out the door to go explore the castle.

Magnificent Krak des Chevaliers, Syria

Krak was the number two reason I came to Syria. Lawrence of Arabia visited the castle in the last century and called it the "perfect castle." For more than three hours, I explored every room, tower, battlement and cavern in the castle. Liability lawyers in the States would swoon at the lack of guardrails, but I eagerly admired the view over the edges of the battlements and towers. A couple times, I sat down and shimmied myself out onto a ledge of stone -- my feet dangling over the abyss -- to get a better angle on a photograph. I'm not scared of heights, but my heart was definitely in my throat as I scooted slowly and methodically into position to snap the picture.

The Arab enemies of the Crusaders called Krak "the mountain," because of its distinctive inner fortifications. The Knights of St. John, the religious order of knighthood that built and controlled the castle, used a feature called a glacis on the inner walls. A steep, triangular slope, smoothed and paved with stone, led up to the inner towers and battlements, making Krak loom indeed like a mountain over its lower outer walls. The castle is in near-perfect condition, although some restoration work was going on while I was there.

The sun was slipping into the West as I finished my exploration. I hurried back around the loop and towards my hotel, eagerly anticipating the photogenic effects of the late afternoon sun on the castle's stone walls. The view, as I edged around the valley towards my hotel, could be summed up as "poetic." Once at the hotel, I hurried to the balcony and propped my feet up on the rail. As the colors deepened, and the orange shimmer on the walls was replaced by a pink blush, I wrote out my postcards. I paused to "ooh" and "aah" when the moon rose from behind the castle. Afterwards, I enjoyed the luxury of the hot shower, centrally heated room and Western-style amenities. Since the sun sets early in Syria in November (4:30 pm or so), I had some time to relax before heading out for dinner. I ate that night at The Round Table, being the only diner in the place. Krak's tour bus and day tripper crowds mean lunch is the big meal for restaurants. The chef/waiter Mohammed sat down after I ate and we talked for nearly two hours. Like everyone else I met in Syria, he emphasized that though they may dislike George Bush, they love Americans. I told him that I agreed: Just because our governments and politicians don't get along is no reason for he and I not to become friends. Mohammed was typical of the Syrians I met -- friendly, and more than happy to welcome an American to his country.

From my hotel balcony, the crusader castle at sunset

When I returned to the hotel, I met two Londoners who had just arrived. Boldly (I thought), they were renting a car and driving about the country -- despite neither of them being able to read or speak Arabic. I told Steve and James about the car tour that I'd arranged earlier with the hotel owner for the next day (I gave him my list of historic sights I wanted to visit and he'd picked out four he said were possible to see in one day). I offered to Steve and James to join me -- if we split the $70 price I'd negotiated, it'd be a bargain. Plus, with driver and vehicle provided, they wouldn't have to worry about using their gas or getting lost. Steve jumped at it, and convinced a more reluctant (and less of a castle enthusiast) James to go along.

The next morning, we cut a deal to add in the town of Hama, which was famous for its agricultural water wheels which James wanted to see, for $20 more. We set off shortly after 8 am, headed towards our first sight: Qalat Marqab, a crusader castle built of black volcanic basalt. We detoured through the town of Tartus for reasons we never really were sure (the driver -- who spoke almost no English -- insisted he needed to talk to the police). After 20 minutes of threading through the town, we headed back out on the highway. We arrived a short time later at Castle Marqab, climbing the hills and finding it...closed. Now, my guidebook said that most historical sights in Syria are closed on Tuesday. I'd pointed that out to the hotel owner the day before, but he said that there would be no problem: The sights he'd picked out were all open.

As we pounded on the castle door, I surveyed the walls. I noticed once section where they had crumbled down a bit, and the grass and dirt rose to meet that section. "Hmmm..." I thought, purposefully securing my camera bag, and climbing towards the spot. Steve and James watched as I scrambled up and over the walls. Once inside, I retraced my steps towards the entrance, slid the bolt aside, and boomed out, "Enter the castle!" My friends cheered my exploits, and we embarked on our own private, self-guided tour of Castle Marqab. To deflect any unlikely problems with the police, we left the posted entrance fee at the ticket booth window. The castle's black stone did give it a brooding, somber appearance, as my guidebook said. The white mortar between the stones also lent it a dramatic, clearly accentuated look. We clambered up stairways, through rooms, atop towers and walls, and enjoyed our private visit for just under an hour. James suggested we "lock back up" when we left, so I ushered them out the front door and repeated my scaling of the walls. As we were leaving, an Arab couple was just arriving, and we giggled at their ensuing baffled expression at the closed castle, and how we could possibly have visited it.

Qalat Marqab and its somber black basalt stones

The drive to our next stop, Qalat Saladin (supposed to be the number two most romantic castle in Syria after Krak), dragged on and on, as we wound our way along tiny, mountain roads. It quickly became obvious our driver had no clue where he was going, and had never been to the castle before. It took nearly two hours to get there...only to find it...closed. Again. Once again, I surveyed the walls, joined this time by Steve and James. However, the crusader builders and Arab renovators had done too good of a job with this one. I could see no way of getting inside without taking foolish risks. We tried to get our driver to scout around for the caretaker and see if it could be opened up, but he was useless. The men working at the adjacent snack bar (which, strangely WAS open) merely echoed that it was closed. We had to be content to walk around it a bit, and back in the van, drive around for a scenic overlook. Checking the time, we began to feel we'd been sold ocean-front property in the desert. There was simply no way we were going to be able to get in all the sights we'd been promised. So, we decided to snip the Bronze Age town of Ugarit (1.5 hours back the way we'd came) off our schedule, and head south and east towards the castle of Masyaf and Hama with James' water wheels.

This led us to driving up and over Syria's coastal mountain range, the Jebel Ansariye. It was a gorgeous drive, with immense panoramas of mountain and valley. It was spoiled only by our growing realization our driver's incompetence. First, he had to detour 20 minutes or so to hunt fuel (since he'd neglected to begin the day with more than a half tank). Then, he stopped nearly every 10 minutes to reconfirm directions (WE could have done as poorly in Steve and James' car, we groused). Eventually, at a crossroads, we looked at the time and failing light of day and realized we also had to cut from our itinerary Qalat Masyaf -- the stronghold of the cult of the Ismailis, or the Assassins, as the Crusaders called them. All that remained was Hama, and our driver, realizing perhaps what his inability had caused, had us humming along at high speeds towards it. We arrived at dark, and only just persuaded an attendant to let us past closed gates for a quick photograph of two of its famous water wheels.

Hama's famous agricultural water wheels

By the time we made it back to the hotel, it'd been dark for hours. We dropped our things in our rooms and headed out for dinner at the Round Table again, which was enjoyable. We talked about travel, music, politics and so on. We agreed upon a maximum price we should pay the hotel owner for our truncated and misguided trip, although we agreed it was best to save the argument for the morning after check out. It was a gorgeous, clear night as we walked back to the hotel, and the lights of the surrounding villages down below shone brightly, as if mirroring the stars and moon overhead. It is a shame that more people do not stay overnight in the Krak des Chevaliers area because it is a beautiful hilltop setting, with a pleasant view around for miles.

After breakfast, the three of us confronted the hotel owner, who was adamant that he'd done nothing wrong, and that our trip was a success. He blamed any missed sights on US changing the schedule he'd given the driver. We brushed his irritating position aside, and stuck to our point. I realized that the whole charade was simply how his culture does business -- argument, negotiation, and compromise are part of the Arab way. Was I angry? No (but James was!). Sure, I was disappointed that I didn't see those really cool sights I'd picked out, but I HAD enjoyed seeing a side of Syria I might not have otherwise. I'd seen tiny villages, Bedouin tents in the fields, dusty provincial towns and crowded, modern cities. I'd seen flocks of sheep spreading across a tiny mountain lane, caught the eye of shepherds whose rhythm of life beat at such a different pace from mine that I probably couldn't begin to understand their lifestyle, and they mine. The tour wasn't what I signed on for, admittedly, but it had been an education and a glimpse at Syria's sights, nonetheless.

My final day in Syria would prove to be somewhat of an anticlimax. After saying goodbye to Steve and James, I negotiated a minibus to Homs, then caught a bus to Damascus. I'd planned a full day of sightseeing in Syria's capital, but transportation proved much slower than I'd figured. It was after 3 pm by the time I was walking towards the Old City, hunting my way through its labyrinth for the Ummayad Mosque. I'd been assured by other travelers that it was the premier sight in the city, but I found myself vaguely disappointed. It is crammed claustrophobically inside the walled Old City, making it next to impossible to step back and take it all in. Nevertheless, it was a pleasant, sprawling building to explore, and I took my time, following along with my guidebook's description. It is interesting how informal a gathering place the mosque is, with people napping, children chasing each other around, kids playing with radio controlled cars -- a far cry from a Catholic mass!

Me at the ruins of Palmyra, Syria

Afterwards, I found the tomb of the Kurdish general and Crusader nemesis Saladin and paid my respects. I tried to get in the building housing the remains of the Mameluke general Baibars (who my hotel had been named after, and a rather more wicked thorn in the Crusader's side), but the building was closed. I wandered through the souk, or bazaar, and enjoyed its color for awhile. I paced along the city walls in the deepening dusk, knowing I had hours and hours before my flight departed (2 am!). When I grew tired of the weight of my backpack, I found a restaurant, enjoyed a leisurely dinner, and finally took a cab to the airport. The long road back home was beginning. However much my body dreaded the two days of travel that lay ahead, inside I could reflect back if I wanted, and summon up a more pleasant memory...of sitting in the desert atop a stone tower, the afternoon light beginning to redden the hills...and that eerie sound beginning to wash over me...

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:55 Archived in Syria Comments (0)

Mexico 2006

Exploring Ancient Ruins (not beaches) in Mexico

sunny 82 °F

The Pyramid of the Sun, seen from the Pyramid of the Moon, Teotihuacan, Mexico

I've explained before my concept of a Back Pocket Trip. This is a place you've done some research on and picked out to go to when plans for your original destination fall through. As idea after idea was dashed this past March, Jenny and I reached into our pockets and pulled out a gem: The pyramids of Mexico.

As I did even more research in the weeks leading up to the trip, I began to wonder why I hadn't undertaken this one before. The Mexico City area has a wealth of Ancient ruins, pyramids and temples -- way more than I'd thought. Paring the list of ones we'd like to see down to a half dozen or so was difficult. We wanted to minimize the amount of time we'd spend in transit, though, so we decided to base ourselves out of Mexico City. From there, we further narrowed it down to sites within two hours of the city, on its excellent bus network. Everything we'd read steered us away from attempting to rent a car and drive ourselves. Two excellent resources were "Archeological Mexico" by Andrew Coe, and the website of George and Audrey Delange, who in a half dozen trips to Mexico, have managed to see more than 70 different Aztec, Toltec, Mayan, etc., archeological sites, and feature tons of photos and interesting accounts of their visits to each.

Myself, Audrey, George and Jenny

So compelling is their site that Jenny and I actually began our trip by visiting George and Audrey! They live in Phoenix (where our flight to Mexico City departed from), and we arrived the evening before so we could meet them. George and Audrey were excellent hosts. They drove to our hotel, picked us up, and took us to dinner in their favorite Mexican restaurant. We spent hours talking with them about Mexico, other trips, and our lives in general. The time we spent with them erased the bad start we'd had to the trip (flights were so full out of Columbus, we didn't get out till two days later than we'd planned), and got us off on the right foot for our journey to Mexico.

The omens seemed to improve even more when we were upgraded to first class on our flight from Phoenix to Mexico City (nowadays, a rarely obtained perk for airline employees). To save money, Jenny and I had planned on extensive use of the city's subway system. The price of less than 20 cents a ride is hard to argue with, and Jenny and I pretty much used it -- and walking -- as our exclusive means of transportation within the city. We took the subway from the airport to Hotel Roble, in the historic center (which required three connections, but taxis are about $25 there: "Hmmm...$25 or 20 cents...which one...?).

After checking in, we decided to visit one of the many Aztec sites within the city, itself. We headed north to the Tlatelolco, or the Plaza of Three Cultures. It is named that for the Aztec ruins, Spanish church and modern apartment buildings which are all essentially in the same plaza. George and Audrey recommended it, and we figured it was close enough to get to before closing time. A gentle drizzle fell while we slowly paced around the ruins, which prompted me to tease "Jamaica Jenny" -- who claims an amazing ability to draw rain to her wherever she goes for vacation. I'd seen it firsthand last year in Jamaica, thus the nickname. Tlatelolco was an interesting primer for our upcoming overload of ancient Mexican sites, and the attendants were gracious and let us stay nearly a half hour past closing time to take it all in.

That night, we discussed how to rearrange our sightseeing schedule, since we'd lost the two days getting out of Columbus. Monday (the next day -- our first full one in Mexico), was a bit of a problem. Many archeological sites in Mexico are closed on Monday. Our guidebooks (in addition the Coe book, we also took Joyce Kelly's "An Archeological Guide to Central and Southern Mexico") listed the times for each site, and it seemed only two were open tomorrow: Tula, an hour and a half north of Mexico City, and Teotihuacan -- a world class site only about 45 minutes from town. We thought it'd be a good idea to save Teotihuacan for last -- build to a climax -- and do Tula on Monday. That plan was dashed when we arrived at Mexico City's "North" bus station, and were told Tula is also closed on Monday. So, Teotihuacan it was! Start at the top!

Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon, seen from the Pyramid of the Sun Teotihuacan's Pyramid of the Moon

Teotihuacan is dominated by the Pyramids of the Moon and the Sun (which is the third largest in the world). It is a huge site, the main street along which most of the temples, plazas and pyramids are located is more than a mile long. The street is atmospherically called the Avenue of the Dead. That name, though, along with the Sun and the Moon are not necessarily what the builders called them, though, because Teotihuacan is a bit of mystery. With many ancient Mexican sites, archeologists know who built them, i.e., Tula is Toltec, Cacaxtla was likely Olmec, and so on. They have little clue as to the identity of the original builders of Teotihuacan. Later cultures like the Toltecs and Aztecs knew about the place, and some even used the buildings for sacred ceremonies. However, who the Teotihuacanos were is still a mystery.

Carved column at the Palace of the Quetzal Butterfly

What is certain, though, is that Teotihuacan is one of the most amazing places in Mexico. Jenny and I spent an entire day tramping around the ruins, climbing temples and pyramids, and marveling over murals that have survived more than a thousand years to today. And somehow, Jenny's jinx made for only about 10 minutes of rain sprinkles -- the rest of the day was gorgeous, sunny and warm! Our guidebooks were great, and we were able to follow our progress on the maps, read about the various buildings, and experience it fully as if we had an English-speaking guide. More importantly, we could take our time visiting the site, and not be hurried through it like tour guides often do. The view from atop the pyramids of the Moon and Sun was panoramic. Teotihuacan was the only site we visited that was thronged with tour groups -- mostly Mexican school children (dressed in identical athletic apparel). There was a constant line ascending the towering Pyramid of the Sun, despite its breathtaking steepness. Nevertheless, Teotihuacan is such an overpowering place that its appeal wore through the crowds, and we had a magnificent day.

Under the covered roof at Cacaxtla

In our original trip plans, Jenny and I had planned on staying two days in Puebla -- a city two hours east of the capital. There were three distinctly different sites in the Puebla area that we wanted to see, and we figured it would take about that long, including travel time. I proposed that we still try to do all three, but as a day trip from Mexico City. I suggested that, upon arrival at the bus station in Puebla, we hire a taxi to shuttle us to all three sites (and leave us at the third, Cholula, where we would take a bus back to the capital). Jenny agreed, and we got started early Tuesday morning to give us the maximum amount of time that day. In Puebla, we quickly found a couple of the independent taxi drivers and began our bargaining. We must have negotiated a good price (300 pesos -- little less than $30), because one of them absolutely refused to do it for that amount, while the other accepted.

Two Mayan-looking Jaguar knights kill an Eagle knight (Battle Mural)

The first site on our list was Cacaxtla, which is a palace complex located atop a hill covered by a 459 foot by 230 foot metal roof. The roof is to protect the amazing murals that Cacaxtla is known for. The most famous is called the Battle Mural. This six foot high mural is 72 feet long, and its bright blue and red colors are still vibrant today. Archeologists have had long discussions over the POINT of this mural, why it was painted, and what are the politics behind it. It depicts Jaguar Knight warriors slaughtering Eagle Knights. The ancient peoples of Mexico had military "orders," or associations, named after certain animals -- jaguars and eagles being most popular. Their colorful uniforms were even made to resemble that animal. The mural is done in a very southern, Mayan style, and the faces of the victorious Jaguar knights look very Mayan, while the defeated Eagle Knights look more Aztec (and this in the heart of Aztec country, so to speak). Whatever the truth behind the mystery of the mural, it is an exciting and interesting place to visit.

At Xochitecatl, view from the Serpent House to the Pyramid of the Flowers

Next on our itinerary was Xochitecatl, which is also built atop a hill, and is visible from Cacaxtla. Xochitecatl is one of those small to medium sized archeological sites that I simply love. They are off the beaten track enough that you often have them to yourself (we did, other than two couples that had left by the time we finished). They are reconstructed enough so that you can climb around on them, admire the view, and imagine what it was like in its heyday. Plus, there are no distractions to jolt you back to the present -- no chattering tour groups, no vendors hawking wares and no waiting for half a dozen folks to get their pictures taken standing in front of something. As Jenny and I explored Xochitecatl, we enjoyed the magnificent weather -- the sky was so blue and the weather so comfortable that Jamaica Jenny was in danger of losing her nickname. Xochitecatl has several interesting features, including a spiral pyramid. There is no grand staircase ascending the face, instead, archeologists think that celebrants (or victims) wound their way around and around the circular base till they reached the top of the conical building. Across from the spiral pyramid, the Pyramid of the Flowers actually had a row of stone columns at its top, surmounted by "Stonehenge-like" lintels (one of which survives today). The view from its summit is incredible, the countryside stretching out green and inviting beneath you. Jenny and I thoroughly enjoyed our visit.

Round n' Round, Xochitecatl's Spiral Pyramid

Our final stop on our taxi-aided schedule was Cholula, perhaps the most unusual one we would visit in Mexico. The archeological site of Cholula is dead center in the town, and when you pull up to it, looks like nothing more than a natural hill. Beneath that hill, though, is the unexcavated base and sides of what would be the largest pyramid in the American continent. Archeologists have dug tunnels through the "hillside" (which is the accumulation of earth over the top of the pyramid in the intervening centuries).

Cholula's tunnels

You can access these tunnels burrowing into the side of Cholula, and you come to various points where archeologists have widened it so you can see the sides of the pyramids, its staircases and sloped sides. This was one place where I wish we HAD hired a guide, as I found out later that they will open some of the locked gates we encountered and explore even more underground.

Model of Cholula's Pyramid beneath a hill with church on top

After about ten minutes of creeping through the tunnels, you come out on the western face of the hillside where most of the excavations have been done. There you get your first look at one of the most interesting aspects of Cholula -- the Spanish church built atop the hill! This gorgeous, tile-domed yellow church soars overhead and has dramatic views of the ruins, town and countryside. Since the church is atop the hill (essentially the pyramid itself), the only actual excavations and reconstructions archeologists can do is on the hillsides. They can't very well knock down the beautiful church, so Cholula is an interesting place to visit for that duality alone.

After our explorations, Jenny and I plopped down in a colorful local restaurant for a late lunch of Mexican tortas, or sandwiches. We then climbed the hillside to the church and admired the view for miles, watching the approach of a storm and wondering if it had heard "Jamaica Jenny" was in town and was rushing to its appointment with her. The storm missed us, though, and we then toured the site's museum, found the bus station, and waited for our ride back to Mexico City. That night, while we were heading to an internet cafe to check in with folks back home, the rains came down in earnest, perhaps angry that it has missed us in Cholula.

Tula's magnificent Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli

Our final site to visit was the Toltec site of Tula, which is known for its "Atlantean" statues atop its main pyramid temple. My guess is a clever archeologist came up with that name because the statues were once the carved stone columns supporting the wooden temple that was built atop the pyramid. The wooden building is gone and all that remains are the free standing columns, shaped like Toltec warriors. Like mythical Atlas, they once supported the roof on their backs (or heads in this case). Anyway, the pyramid with the statues atop is the main draw of Tula and is an amazing sight. It has a suitably amazing name, too, the tongue twisting Pyramid of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli. I always make it a point to learn how to correctly pronounce the various Mayan/Aztec/etc. sites I visit, but I didn't even TRY that one!

The 'Atlantean' statues of Toltec warriors at Tula Anyway, Tula is a one of those medium sized sites, like Xochitecatl, that I adored. After about an hour's exploring, Jenny and I looked around and noticed that we had the place to ourselves. I dashed back up the steep steps of Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli, to take some pictures without a crowd of folks jostling for position or milling amongst the statues. Jenny was visiting the restroom, so I had my moments alone atop the pyramid, communing with the 1000 year old Toltec warriors. The blue sky and sweeping views, made for a special moment, and I once again wondered why I had not taken this trip sooner.

1,000 year old statues of Toltec warriors at Tula

Since our flight did not leave till about 4 pm Thursday, we took the morning of the next day to visit Mexico City's awesome National Museum of Anthropology. It is truly a world class museum, with amazing displays of Olmec, Aztec, Toltec and other cultures that have blended to create the people of modern Mexico. I was able to see a couple of the giant Olmec heads that I wanted to see, as well as massive Aztec calendars, statues, reconstructions of temples alive with colorful paint as they would have been in their heyday, and so on. In 3 1/2 hours, we barely scratched the surface of the museum. Too soon, it was time to hurry back to the hotel, grab our bags, and head to the airport.

All in all, it was a gem of a trip that contained many sparkling memories -- the view of the soaring Pyramid of the Sun from atop the nearby Pyramid of the Moon, the whisper of the wind while admiring the panorama of the countryside atop the Pyramid of the Flowers, and quiet moments under blue sky in the presence of 1000 year old statues of Toltec warriors. Mexico's wealth of ancients sites offers up many memories like these for those who will come and take them.

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:27 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Passing Time in Ponta Delgada

Half day of city sightseeing on my final day in the Azores

sunny 59 °F

The narrow, hilly streets of Sao Miguel’s largest town, Ponta Delgada

Prior to arriving in the Azores, I had done some quick research on things to see in Ponta Delgada, the main town of the archipelago and where I would be staying. I typed a half dozen of them into my IPhone’s Notes app. It would be good if I ended up with a rainy day, which thankfully never really happened. My fifth day in the Azores dawned bright and sunny. Four out of five days of sunshine in early Soring is great luck for this Atlantic Ocean island chain. I packed my suitcase so I could return and go quickly, looked up the sights I had researched and plotted them on the city map the tourist board had given me. With that, I was out the door for a few final hours of sightseeing.

The black and white tiled main square, with frame of the original town gates

My first stop was just down the street - Igreja Sao Sebastiao - the original parish church for the town. Built in 1533, it gleams with whitewash and dark wood accents, evoking the coloring of English Tudor type dwellings. Outside the main doors, a crowd was gathered. A group of 30 or so romeros, pilgrims, clutched their wooden staffs and sang a slow hymn. I whipped out my iPhone and recorded their song, which faded away as the pilgrims laid down their staffs on the church steps and entered the church. I followed and their deep drone echoed off the walls of the more than 400 year old church. It was a pleasant bonus to my visit, and I stayed and watched as they went up to the altar in single file, bowed, sank to one knee, crossed themselves, then returned to their pew. When all were done, they struck up another hymn and filed out. I smiled at them as they went by - young, middle aged, and old, carrying on a tradition their ancestors had passed down to them.

A large group of Romeros - Azorean pilgrims - pray outside Igreja Sao Sebastian

The next stop was the one I was looking forward to the most. Those who know me, and have read my previous entries may have been scratching their heads: “What? Are there no forts or castles in the Azores?” Why yes, I had saved Forte De S. Brás for the final day. A star shaped fort from the days of gunpowder, it also housed the Azores Military Museum. It is maintained by the Portuguese military, and some sections are off limits to visitors because of its current use. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it had an extensive exhibit on Portugal’s 20th century insurgency warfare in Africa. In the 1960s and 1970s, Portugal’s military dictators decided to ignore the trend of granting self-rule to its African colonies. It fought bitter wars in Angola, Mozambique, and Guinea-Bissau.

Fort de S. Bras guards the harbor in Ponta Delgada

The exhibit began by reminding visitors that the Azores - a Portuguese possession - answered the call when the wars began. Around 15,000 Azorean men were among those who lost their lives in the failed attempt to hold onto its status as a colonial power. The exhibit glorified neither side in the conflicts, but presented artifacts of those 20th century battles. One of my favorite time periods to study is 20th century Africa, and I have read quite a bit about those wars. For many Portuguese, it was their Vietnam War. Although professionally fought by many of its soldiers, the wars were also unpopular at home, too. The difference between America and Portugal is we were a democracy, and our leaders eventually sensed our nation’s opposition to the casualties our people were incurring half a world away. Our leadership made the decision to withdraw, even though some felt the war could be won. Portugal was a dictatorship, and the military refused to give in. Finally, officers of the Portuguese military launched a successful coup and overthrew their government. The new junta then granted almost immediate independence to its former foes. It was fascinating for me to see and (almost) be able to touch uniforms, weapons, and equipment that was there in those sad days.

Uniform of a Portuguese soldier who participated in the counter-Insurgency wars in Africa

After touring the exhibit, I walked the stone and earth walls for awhile. I recognized the Portuguese style, tiny, domed guard houses on each star’s point. I always enjoy getting a chance to clamber around on the walls of a fort or castle. Although there were not a lot of artifacts from when this fort was built and manned to guard against invasion, it was still a thrill. There were nice views of Ponta Delgada from the walls.

The whitewashed houses and sloping, cobblestoned streets are a feature of the Azores

Next, it was back down into the town’s squares to check out several more churches. Like any Catholic colonial possession, there seemed to be a wealth of them in town. Although many were from the 1500s and 1600s, they all looked more modern. Perhaps fires had caused many to be rebuilt. There seemed to be a common style - whitewashed, with a square, almost castle-like tower. They were often trimmed in dark wood, and bells hung in the windows of the towers. The altars and chapels were bedecked in guilded, golden glory, with details, statues, and rich decoration overwhelming the eyes. Some had wall panels of the beautiful, blue-painted tiles that Portugal is famous for - azulejos.

Many of the churches in Ponta Delgada have the same features - square bell towers and almost Tudor like architecture

My final hour or so was spent simply wandering the narrow, hilly streets of Ponta Delgada. I had been walking or driving along them since arriving, but had not really had a chance to photograph them. This was definitely a slice of Old Town Europe planted down among the volcanic islands in the Atlantic. Cafes tables crept out onto most of the side roads, and it was an interesting sight to see cars and trucks slowly winding their way among them - sometimes just inches away from jostling a diner’s elbow. I noticed smoke free dining has not arrived in the Azores. Some traditions die hard, apparently! In fact, I saw a higher percentage of smokers to nonsmokers here In these islands than I have anywhere else in my recent travels. Most men are seen with a cigarette dangling from their lips, and many women smoke, as well. This is not a criticism, but instead just another way that Portugal’s past seems to live on here on these islands thousands of miles away from the shores of Europe and North America.

Blue-painted azulejo tiles are seen on the interiors and walls of many older buildings in the Azores

I enjoyed my four and a half days seeing the Azores’ incredible sights. My research was proven true. It is an amazing place to hike and enjoy nature - only four hours by plane from the East coast of the U.S.

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:06 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

On a Zodiac Searching for Whales

Fun on the sea in the Azores

sunny 65 °F

A dolphin leaps put of the water alongside our zodiac boat

I had never been on a whale watching tour before, but the Azores were supposed to be a great place to go on one. The best months for viewing were April through June, supposedly, but I figured it was worth an attempt. There was no money back guarantee at Terra Azul, the tour company I chose. A plus on their side, though, was they went out in a zodiac - an inflatable rubber boat - as opposed to a larger vessel. This would let them get closer to the animals. The reviews I read on TripAdvisor praised them, but warned that people often get seasick. The zodiacs go very fast, and the company recommended a light breakfast (at most) before getting on board. To be safe, I chose no breakfast - not even a glass of orange juice.

The dolphins often approached within an arm’s length of the boat

There was a sighting board with some disheartening statistics posted outside the office where the passengers checked in. No whales had been spotted the last four days, and only three in the entire month of February. Every day had spotted either Bottlenose, Striped, or Common Dolphins, though. After our briefing, we geared up with life jackets and waterproof jackets (they warned their would be “spray”). I wore five layers - t-shirt, long sleeve shirt, hooded sweatshirt, suede travel jacket, and rain jacket. I was never cold on the entire cruise, no matter how fast our captain gunned it! Interestingly, you straddle a padded cushion in your aluminum seat, which is also well-padded. This helps you stay upright and inside the boat when it hits a big wave and bounces high.

The pods of Common and Striped Dolphins we encountered often surfaced in groups

On our initial high speed cruise to the best viewing spots in the ocean, I felt a slight uneasiness in my stomach. I focused on scanning the waves looking for fins or spray or other signs of marine life. The initial ride was the worst part. After that, I never really felt queasy. I was too into the experience and trying to spot whales or dolphins. At some point, the guide (a marine biologist) spotted a pod of dolphins and we were soon alongside them, where he cut the engine. Then dolphins swam closer and closer until they were directly alongside our zodiac.

Although we were disappointed to not spot any whales, the playful dolphins made up for it

Then began the frantic game of trying to capture them with my camera as they surfaced to breathe, or even jump, before they disappeared back into the water with a splash. I had my camera set on automatic, and slowly felt I was getting better and better at getting shots of the group of Common Dolphins. When we started up the engines and began to cruise away, the pod invariably followed us. They could keep up really well. This was my favorite part. You could see them just beneath the surface, their broad white stripe clearly visible in the clear blue water. I trained my camera on them, finger poised over the shutter button. Sometimes, I knew my pictures were snapped too late. Other times, I felt I timed it well. I just hoped the photos would not be blurry.

Just a tad blurry, or this would be my favorite shot

Later, I experimented and put it on “Sports” mode. I discovered that was where I should have had it on my digital SLR camera all along! That setting enabled my to keep taking a series of shots as I held my finger down on the button. It was fun trying to anticipate where the dolphins would surface. We came alongside several pads over the course of the three hour cruise. We spotted both Striped Dolphins, too - though, honestly, they looked the same to me. It was incredible when the guide deployed the underwater microphone and we could hear them communicating with each other. Dolphins are such amazing creatures, and the marine biologist had all kinds of information about them. Apparently, They can be super-aggressive towards other species, and have been know to try to mate with other sea mammals, as well.

Approaching Ilheu da Villa, just outside the harbor of Vila Franca do Campo, Sao Miguel

After encountering and taking pictures of several dolphin pods, our guide informed us that our two spotters on the coast had yet to locate any whales. Instead, we would range out further looking and hoping to encounter some. He explained how to spot a whale blowing spray and to differentiate it from a wave splash. I pulled my hood tight as the captain gunned the zodiac’s engines and we took off. The zodiac bounced along, obviously airborne at times. The other passengers reacted with shrieks and giggles. The jolting was never uncomfortable, I felt. Instead, I mentally channeled my inner child and thought, “Wheeeeeee!” while enjoying the ride.

I had fun zooming way in on things with my telephoto lens, like these seagulls

We came up empty, though. Sadly, there would be no whales spotted, today. We did get to check out a really cool rocky island just off the coast that I had spotted on the drive to Furnas, yesterday. It is a giant volcanic plug with vegetation growing on it. During the 1800s, it was inhabited by a wealthy family. At other times, it was a whale blubber burning station. Now, it is vacant, but you can see the relics of its former days as you cruise slowly around it. I switched between my Digital SLR (which had my telephoto lens on it) and my iPhone camera. I did the same as we cruised along the coast, taking pictures of the villages perched on their cliffs and shining in the brilliant sun. Although I had not been lucky with the whales, I hit jackpot with the weather. It was an amazing, warm, beautiful sunny day out on the water. I had fun taking pictures of the dolphins, so I didn’t consider the 55 Euros wasted.

Zooming in on a town on the coastline of Sao Miguel, Azores

Hungry once back on land, I checked out a TripAdvisor recommended restaurant - the snack bar for the local volunteer firefighters (or bombeiros, a much cooler sounding name in Portuguese). I tried a local favorite sandwich. Picture a ham and steak sandwich, with an egg on top, placed in a wide, shallow bowl of tomato soup. It was interesting. Not sure I would order it again, but it was a filling first meal of the day at noon.

The dramatically sited lighthouse of Farol Ponta do Arnel on the northeast coast

Next, it was off to a scenic lighthouse at Farol Ponta do Arnel, on the northeast coast of the island of Sao Miguel. The reviews I’d read said it was gorgeously sited along a rugged coast. It was reached by an astonishing 35% grade asphalt road that was NOT recommended for tourists to attempt. Non-locals were encouraged to park at the lot along the main road up top and walk down and back up. I took the advice, and found the walk much shorter than it implied. It took me less than 20 minutes to walk back up the 35% grade - which WAS the steepest road that I have ever encountered!

The rugged coastline near the lighthouse

The scenery was nice - not as good as Sete Cidades or Sera Devassa, though. Still, the rugged green cliffs and waterfall tumbling down the escarpment were pleasant follow up to the whale watching tour. There were a number of tiny cottages perched along the road between the top and the tiny concrete pier for fishing boats on the waterside. The cottages all had balconies facing the magnificent view. I could imagine it would be a wonderful place for a writer to spend his days, staring out at the panorama of cliff and sea during the day, and listening to the crash of waves upon rock in the evenings. The lighthouse was white with red trim and looked pristinely kept up. Apparently, they do tours on Wednesdays, which I think would be very interesting.

More beautiful coastline on Sao Miguel’s north shore

I had been using Apple maps for my GPS to navigate around the island. Other than an early hiccup, it worked very well. Today was its swan song. It routed me along the northern coast, which I had yet to visit. This coast is very scenic and has a number of miradors, or scenic viewpoints, that are well signposted and have ample parking to pull off. I stopped and took pictures at here or four of them, enjoying the sunshine and excellent views. Driving in the Azores was relatively easy, except for the incredibly narrow streets in town. The roads themselves are well paved for the most part, but also narrow. I would highly recommend anyone reasonably confident driving (and navigating) choose that as a way to get around.

I was glad the GPS routed me along the coastal drive

This was my last full day in the Azores. There were a number of firsts on this day, and it was a fitting way to close out the trip. I would have a little time tomorrow to walk to some sights around town. Hopefully, that would provide new experiences, as well.

Cows and scenic views — two staples of scenery on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores

Posted by world_wide_mike 16:53 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

An Easy Hike Around a Volcanic Lake

Furnas provides a day of rest for my battered feet

rain 57 °F

Pleasant lakeside views and an easy path soothe the feet and soles of a weary hiker

Day three started off promising with my first sighting of a group of pilgrims. The pilgrims are called Romeros, and they walk from town to village across Sao Miguel for seven days. They eat only food given to them and either sleep on a church floor or are welcomed into homes by the inhabitants. The tradition started in the 1800s when the inhabitants were seeking God’s mercy for a series of earthquakes that had devastated the island. The group of men I saw were leaving the village of Furnas and headed to the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias. At the airport, there were signs warning those renting cars to be on the lookout for groups of pilgrims on the island’s winding, narrow roads. The twenty of so pilgrims were all men, from young to old, clad in the traditional apparel of hat, cloak, and walking staff.

A group of pilgrims - called Romeros - trek towards a ruined chapel on the shores of Furnas

I was in Furnas to hike around the volcanic lake, with active steam vents bubbling muddily along one shore. The hike would be the easiest one I did on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. In truth, it was supposed to be my whale watching day. However, the tour operator postponed the trip to Thursday on account of the low clouds and spitting rain that morning promised. My feet and shins were still sore from my first two days of hiking, so Furnas was chosen because it was mostly level, and would be a nice rest. The only steep climbs or descents were at the beginning and end and along paved roads.

More than a dozen steam vents, bubbling with boiling mud, cluster along one shore of the volcanic lake

Unlike the lakes at Serra Devassa and some at Sete Cidades, Furnas lake looks like any other lake. No odd colorings hint at minerals bubbling beneath the surface. This is a blue lake and with the wide easy path surrounding it, the Furnas hike reminded me of a walk in any urban park with a large pond or small lake. Of course, the lake quickly reveals its volcanic nature early in the hike as trekkers encounter the hot springs. These are visited by wooden boardwalks, and view a dozen or more percolating holes or pools. The rotten egg smell of sulfur is rank in the air, and clouds of vapor are blown away by the breeze.

I was surprised to see bamboo growing thickly along the trail surrounding the lake

One unique tradition is the islanders create special dishes cooked in these hot springs. The pot is buried in a vent and covered with earth. Although I never found any of these dishes on the menu, there were about a dozen buried pots, each labeled with a sign advertising the restaurant where you could purchase Furnas’ culinary talents. It reminded me of Iceland’s amazing black bread, which is baked in steam vents on that geothermal island.

Hikers Ford a stream by a line of stepping stones placed in the water

The walk around the lake was pleasant and easy, and only the misting rain and persistent clouds kept it from being even more enjoyable. Furnas is no Sete Cidades (or even a Serra Devassa) when it comes to scenery. There are no dramatic towering calderas, and no vistas that go on forever. Probably the most interesting sights are the plant life. The variety in this area is mind boggling. A wall of bamboo runs along the pathway on one side of the lake. Beautiful orangish-red Japanese cedars hem in the trail on another. There is a side trail that leads to a towering Sequioa tree. It was later explained to me that many Azorean immigrants returning home to the islands brought back plants from all corners of the globe to replenish the island’s plant life.

A local woodcarver dots the path with his creations, including “Furnie” - the Azores answer to the Loch Ness monster

Another humorous addition to the pathway around Furnas are the carved animal sculptures. A local artist created these and placed them every quarter mile or so. My favorite was “Furnie” - the island’s equivalent to the Loch Ness monster. Unfortunately, no spotting of Furnie were to be had that day, though the misty, gray day was appropriate for the Caledonian cousin.

This red stone chapel built in the 1800s stands vigil over the far end of the lake

The most interesting historic sight on the trek is the Chapel of Nossa Senhora das Vitorias, finished in 1886. It was commissioned by a gentleman-farmer of the region, distraught over the terminal illness of his wife. It’s rich red color comes from the local stone used for its brickwork. Both Jose do Canto and his wife lie alongside each other inside the chapel. This Taj Mahal aspect to the chapel’s origin, along with its Gothic lines and spire, make it a striking addition to the island’s religious sites. To visit it, you need to pay 3 Euros to enter the more than 200-year-old gardens. A bonus to the entry fee is the 30-minute hike to a charming waterfall, and the garden’s inclusion of a towering Sequoia tree.

A waterfall is an add-on to the Furnas hike, tucked away in a more than two century old garden with plants from all over the world

The walk ends with a steep climb and steep descent to the lookout point of Pico da Areia. The modern antennas and humming machinery distract only a little from the sweeping views of Furnas and the surrounding villages. The white houses and buildings clustered in rows down the town’s main streets. Occasional brightly-colored buildings stood out in the panorama. Farmsteads and cow pastures, along with patches of dark forest, completed the picture. The very steep descent was a cruel end to the hike, but the footing was secure on the asphalt road. Walking through town, I enjoyed the brightly-painted tiles that families set outside their doorways. Invariably religious themes, they gave a splash of color to the whitewashed street. Since it was a day of rest, in essence, I sought out a local snack bar and enjoyed a late lunch/early dinner, washed down with a local beer. The sun was finally coming out, and my feet had been given a rest from their workout on the Azorean hills the last couple days.

The town of Furnas sprawls throughout this wooded, rural valley

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:39 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

Along the Rim of an Extinct Volcano

Blue skies and beautiful views reward hikers to Sete Cidades

sunny 61 °F

The view from atop the rim of the extinct volcano, looking down at the lakes of Sete Cidades

Today’s hike to Sete Cidades would be the highlight of the tour, I was guessing. This massive volcanic caldera features two lakes , one green and one blue, separated by a tiny sliver of land. There are actually other smaller lakes inside the cone, too, but these two are the image you see on tourism photographs promoting the Azores. You begin the hike in a parking lot and gradually start to the climb. Once atop the caldera, you hike along the rim about halfway around its circle.

Looking back down at the steep ascent near the beginning of the hike

The path is wide for most of its nearly seven miles. Like all the hikes in the Azores, it seems, it is very well maintained and signposted. On this one, though, you can hardly lose your way. You are literally following the rim of the crater. Looking down inside the bowl, you see one beautiful view after another. The town of Sete Cidades is spread along the largest lake, its white houses gleaming in the sun. Farms and forests are also laid out beneath you, curving slowly down to the water’s edge. A beautiful blue sky arched above, with only occasional whisps of white clouds momentarily dimming the sun.

The path winds along the rim of the extinct volcano’s cone

The caldera’s rim looks jagged and steep from a distance, but as you approach each bend, you see its edges have been worn down over the millennia. There are no vertiginous drops to set your heart pounding. The path is so wide that cars can and do drive along its dirt and pebble surface. However, on my trek, perhaps only three to four drove past - so it is not a common thing. I saw far more hikers, but Sete Cidades’ vast length swallows them up, and you mostly have the walk to yourself.

In the caldera’s bowl, farms and pastureland are bordered by dark forests sloping down to the lakeshores

This is one of those hikes where every view seems to be better than the last. I took dozens and dozens of photographs, all the while wondering how I would ever sort through them all. I had saved this hike for the day the weather forecast promised would be the sunniest. The beautiful skies held true, and the gorgeous views followed, one after another. High atop the rim, the wind often whipped at my jacket and hat mightily. All day long, I would pull up the hood of my jacket to secure my hat, and for once stretch, I clipped it to my belt to keep it from flying off. Some parts of the hike were sheltered from the wind, though. Stands of trees would shield the path, or the way itself had worn down into the soft soil deep enough to be recessed and out of the wind.

As the steeps sides of the rim tumble down towards the water, they are densely clad in thick, almost jungle-like greenery

The views into the crater were stunning, but the ones looking away from it and down onto the coastal countryside were nice, too. The sea came into view, and the rural landscape of farm, village, and pastureland spread out beneath me. Judging by the number of cows I would see, dairies must be common in the Azores. Surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean for thousands of miles, the islands must get lots of rain. The greenery is persistent throughout Sao Miguel, providing acres of pastureland. In fact, I saw a lot more pastures than fields of crops, so perhaps the soil is too spongy and moist for farmland.

Looking away from the volcano, views of rural Sao Miguel life stretched towards the sea

Towards the end of the hike, the path descends towards the town of Sete Cidades. Strangely, it leaves the wide road it had been following, and instead shrinks into narrow, rocky and very steep path. This was the only part of the hike were the footing was treacherous, at times. Looking at the map, though, the dirt road it had been following arcs around to virtually the same destination. It was if the path suddenly was in a hurry to get into town. I saw other hikers not take the turn off that I did, and follow the gradual road instead. It was a strange end, but there were some nice views as I descended sharply.

Gorgeous sunshine illuminated the hike throughout my trek, shimmering off the water far below

Once in town, it seemed mostly deserted. Perhaps many of the homes are weekend or vacation homes. This being low season, maybe that is why they seemed empty? I used my cell phone’s map feature to locate a restaurant, and it seemed one of the few places with people around. I enjoyed a late lunch and rewarded myself with an Azorean beer. The hike had taken nearly five hours, with lots of ups and downs along the ancient volcano’s rim. Spring is definitely not the busy season here, but I saw more other travelers on this hike than anywhere else in the Azores. I could tell my legs would be sore the next day. However, I was glad I did this hike. Sete Cidades didn’t disappoint. It was a day of rewarding hiking and incredible views.

A tiring but rewarding day’s hike

Zooming in on the gorgeous scenery below with my telephoto lens

Farm on the outskirts of the town of Sete Cidades

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:25 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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