Monthly Archives: October 2012

Leaving the United States, and entering a slightly different state (of mind, money, Mexico and manana…)

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To travel from Las Vegas, USA to Cancun, Mexico, took us two flights, most of a day, crossed two time zones and took us to a slightly different world. Mexico is somewhere between the USA and Central America, between modern commercialism and traditional values, and even though there’s McDonalds, Walmart and American TV (dubbed into Spanish), there’s no mistaking the fact that you’ve crossed a cultural and historical boundary.
Cancun, however, is not typical Mexico. I’m not sure what it is typical of, maybe all-inclusive holiday-land, but it’s a bit of a strange place, separated into a downtown area and a Hotel Zone, the latter strung out along a dual-carriageway with each hotel claiming their own bit of beach. We had a nice hotel, met some nice people on the beach and found a nice restaurant but somehow the place just didn’t do it for us…and that’s not even taking into account the tricks and trips that greeted our arrival.
On landing at Cancun airport and walking through customs you are greeted by a cabal of seemingly official, uniformed, tourist information people (for want of a better word). They then try to sell you taxis, tours and time-shares, or failing that, offer ‘free’ jaunts that need a five dollar deposit and entail a visit to a ‘presentation’. The sad thing is that we nearly went for it – or perhaps it was all genuine and the sad thing is that we didn’t – but something didn’t ring true, we were tired and wanted our hotel, and so we said “No, gracias” and headed for the bus.
Maybe it was the tiredness, but on getting off the bus and leaving the bus station Rachel and Kiah then went flying for the third time that day, tripping off a kerb and into the gutter, fully laden with backpacks. We had planned to get another local bus but the taxi drivers couldn’t believe their luck, and scooped us up for a slightly-overpriced trip to our hotel. Fare enough or taken for a ride, but we were at least glad to be in our room with nothing worse than a bruised and twisted ankle for Rach, and a slightly mucky Kiah.
We then had a couple of days in Cancun, which was more than enough, before moving on to Isla Mujeres, which is a small island half an hour away by ferry. There we had a lovely hotel, almost to ourselves, complete with resident iguanas, and their own kayaks (just to be clear, the hotel had kayaks, not the iguanas!)

Iggy Half-tail, the hotel iguana, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

We went kayaking, did a bit of snorkelling, and saw some fairly funky fish.

Kayaking off Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Now we all have an image of snorkelling in the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Caribbean, and the sea did approximate to that vision – however when you pictured it, did you do so with a stormy, overcast sky above? Thought not, but that’s what we got, with regular downpours and stifling humidity, and that was the pattern for our three days on the island.
We went to the picture-postcard beach of Playa Norte, with it’s white sand and azure sea, and Tilly commented that she didn’t think beaches like this really existed, and it was how you might draw a typical, tropical beach. But again, one minute we were sat there, sweltering, next we were running to a restaurant, already drenched from the sudden deluge.
When we then found that some money had gone missing (almost certainly) from the hotel room, we were starting to get a little downcast ourselves. We couldn’t prove anything, or be absolutely sure, so had to let it go but it tainted our first few days in a new country. Sad that you tend to remember the odd bad incident, rather than the overwhelming majority of helpful, friendly people, so we’ll try to think instead of the taxi driver who took us out to the port – as he dropped us off he ran inside the terminal to make sure we caught the ferry about to leave.

After the island we then got a little hire car for the drive down the coast to Tulum. On first glance it looked fine, and it got us from A to B, but reminded us of how cars used to be – no central locking, a metallic clang when you shut the door and more scratches than our mosquito-bitten legs – when the man went round the car marking off the dents and scrapes he might just have well have given the card to a toddler and asked them to scrawl all over it. Driving was also an experience – first through downtown Cancun (busy and confusing), then down the highway – this is like a motorway, but every so often they like to put a speed hump the size of a low wall to catch the unwary. However, apart from nearly entering the stratosphere a couple of times, we made it to Tulum and the very lovely Posada Yum Kin, a boutique hotel that we could somehow afford. We had a kitchen, hammocks and there was a pool that you could only reach by going up a spiral staircase, across a bridge and down some more steps. However it says something about the level of luxury that the only people we got talking to were two American couples, both on their honeymoons.

We also found the delights of the Chedraui supermarket. As you pull into the car park it’s almost like driving into another world, and if you want to know where to find all the tourists and gringos just head over to the extensive wall of imported and luxury foods. There amongst the Californian wines, jars of pesto and Thai curry paste you can find bewildered westerners looking for something familiar that definitely doesn’t involve refried beans. We were delighted to find instead Heinz baked beans, which says something about our girls’ (and my) adventurous palates!

We then finally got to see our first ruins in Mexico, though there would be many more to come. If the USA doesn’t have too much in the way of ancient monuments, Central America has them by the bucket-load, dotted throughout the jungle, and maybe some of them would make it on to most people’s bucket-list.
First up for us was Coba, and it was great fun, particularly since you could hire bikes to travel between the various bits and cool down a little on the way. Climbing the huge pyramid was certainly very hot work.

Climbing down the rather steep pyramid at Coba, Mexico

But then we were in the middle of the jungle, and the jungle had certainly tried to reclaim it’s territory.

Funky tree at Coba ruins, Mexico

To cool down on the way back we visited a cenote – these are sink holes that lead into an underground world of rivers, pools and caverns and we’d seen documentaries about them years ago. It was suggested that it was partly these that allowed the Mayans to create their advanced civilisations, as they had a reliable water source under their feet. Whatever, they make enticing places to swim, with cool, clear water and dappled sunlight, and the girls loved spotting the turtles.

Thursday then arrived to bring our weekly battle with anti-malaria tablets. I think we got it down to a mere couple of hours this time and as a treat we decided to go to the Hidden Worlds Adventure Park. This was, without doubt, a highlight that I’m sure the girls will look back on for years to come. First you get a truck to bump you several miles into the jungle, then you climb on a bike suspended from a cable in the treetops for a ‘skycycle’, that starts up high amongst the leaves and drops down into a cave. You then turn round and go on a different cable through three more caves before having to climb back up to the start again. Given the heat and humidity we were very impressed that we all made it!

On the skycycle, Hidden Worlds, near Tulum – cycling through the jungle!!

We then did a zip-wire and a rappel down into a cenote – fairly exciting but only a mere preamble to the main event, a weird cross between a rollercoaster and a zip-wire that they called the Avatar. It had been designed and built there and was the first, and probably, only one of it’s kind – I’m not sure many places would have a sufficiently relaxed enough approach to Health and Safety. But it was brilliant: exciting, exhilarating, invigorating and powered entirely by yourself walking up the steps to the start. You twist and turn, dip and rise through the trees then career along a slide into a cave before plunging into the cenote below. I whooped, Tilly yelled and Kiah made not a peep of a sound, but we all went for a second go. Rach started off screaming, increased the intensity, built to a crescendo and hit the water with blood-curdling screetches echoing around the cavern. She declined the offer of a second go.
The day finished with a swim through the stalactites of the cenote, which the girls found more scary than the avatar.

Snokelling at the Cenote, Hidden Worlds

Next was the Tulum ruins, which are famous for their setting overlooking the sea. They weren’t as exciting as Coba, with manicured lawns and a no climbing rule making it feel somewhat less adventurous, but you can’t deny the ancient Mayans picked a lovely spot. The information boards waffled on about it being a strategically important, defensible position but maybe they just liked the view.

Tulum ruins – you can see why they built it so near the beach!

And so that was our first week or so in Mexico, and before we headed inland we had a last walk along the beach and found a bar with a live band playing cool music as the sun set and the sea breeze whipped the sand past our feet. Even though this part of the Yucatan peninsular is particularly flat, we’d had our ups and downs (in more ways than one!) but the last few days had been a lot of fun. Also, we’d seen a heck of a lot of lizards and iguanas, which is always a bonus…

Groovy lizard, Tulum

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From the sublime to the ridiculous…

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Never has a phrase been so apt. After spending the last week or so in some of the most glorious scenery known to man, we then drove through the infernal heat of the desert to the most vainglorious temple to mammon – Las Vegas.
We’d already seen mirages floating up through the heat of the road on this trip but nothing prepared us for this. How did we get the point where someone thought that ‘what this desert really needs is a copy of Venice and a bazillion fruit machines?’
Venice – the city of canals, which by their very nature are quite watery, recreated in one of the driest places on earth!
There’s a copy of the Rialto Bridge, complete with moving walkway, to propel you towards the air-conditioned aircraft-hanger-sized casinos. We’d not seen such a cheesy pastiche of Italy since the Cornetto adverts of the 80s.
A certain six year old declared Vegas to be “bonkers” and she’s quite right. That said, she and her sister loved it, and you can’t help but be somehow impressed by the staggering folly of the place.

Vegas-Venice! Note the scaffolding, as if they’re restoring some ancient monument!

It’s also an interesting city to be a skinflint. Given that it’s whole purpose is to separate you from your cash it’s surprisingly cheap to visit. We stayed at Circus Circus and paid about £25 a night for the four of us, in a hotel with two pools and free circus acts. There’s also free shows on at other hotels and the performance and pyrotechnics at Treasure Island were quite something, with pirates and fireworks, sinking ships and singing sirens.
However once you’re in the hotels they make it as difficult as possible to leave, with no visible exit signs inside the labyrinthine malls, arcades and casinos – they were even playing “Band on the Run” by Wings at one point – “Stuck inside these four walls… If I ever get out again…” which at the very least showed some appreciation of irony.

However if you asked the girls what they liked most about Vegas it would probably be going to the Build-a-Bear Workshop, and I’d rather that was their abiding memory than the people playing the slot machines at 8 in the morning when we left for the airport.

Las Vegas is an experience but a disquieting one. If something does have to happen in Vegas perhaps it’s better that it stays in Vegas because I prefer the real world to this edifice of artifice.
And with that we were off to Mexico…

Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and all the way to Zion…

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While we weren’t quite doing the full alphabet of American National Parks, we were certainly seeing some of the best and were quite excited about this bit of the trip. First up was Arches National Park, with over two thousand natural rock arches and miles of lovely, inviting slickrock to scramble and scurry over. Slickrock consists of great expanses of red rock, like slanted slabs of upended pavement and makes for terrific trekking territory.
When you see photos of Arches, it’s almost invariably of red rock set against stunning blue sky, a rose-tinted spectacle. Imagine our faces as we opened the curtains to see… rain. Great British amounts of drizzly rain, with a grizzly grey sky giving little promise of respite. This didn’t bode well, not only for the photos, but also for our chances of getting the girls to do a decent walk, particularly if the slickrock was tending more towards sliprock.
But undeterred we drove in and the weather cleared enough to explore Double Arch and the girls did some great clambouring and scrambling, and we then went to the Delicate Arch viewpoint to see the iconic symbol of the park. However it was now hot and overcast so we returned to town so that Rach and the girls could go swimming, leaving Pete free to go back for some more exploring.
After seeing Landscape Arch (a vast swoop of rock that quite frankly looks more delicate than Delicate Arch) I headed up to Delicate Arch for sunset. This is a stunning walk up a long slickrock slope, culminating in a final ascent round a ledge before the Arch itself is revealed before you. However I’d not allowed enough time for the drive there and the trek uphill and missed sunset by a good few minutes – typical! It was still a wonderful sight, apart from the occasional selfish person who insisted on standing right in front of the arch for a picture or ten. I had to wait quite a while to get the photo below and got quite carried away trying out the new camera’s features, as you can see…

Delicate Arch at sunset, Arches NP

Follow up that view with a yummy Thai takeaway and it turned into a fine day after all. Moab is also a groovy little town, and possibly even more obsessed with lizards than we are!

However next day was malaria tablet day, in preparation for Mexico and beyond, and I think it’s fair to say that this is not an experience the girls will look back on with much fondness. In fact, it’s still a little surprising that nobody came to investigate the blood-curdling screams emanating from our room and it took a mixture of persuasion, perseverance, bribery and bravery before the pill palaver was past and we could move on to Capitol Reef National Park.

We went to see Hickman Bridge, which is another fabulous stone arch at the end of a fine walk, but nerves were still a little stretched by the tablet torment and it was nice to get to Torrey and our motel to cool down with a dip in the pool. Torrey is very much a one horse town, and Austin’s Chuck Wagon Hotel and General Store is very much that one horse, but it’s friendly and atmospheric and a great place to stay and improved our moods considerably.

Hickman Bridge, Capitol Reef NP

The drive from Torrey to Bryce Canyon is renowned as one of the best in the States and the autumnal colours of the aspen trees as you drive over Boulder Mountain are spectacular. It’s often quoted how so few Americans have passports but you can almost understand why when they’ve got such a vast and diverse country, though we were nearly getting to the point of ‘Oh, another stunning rock formation’. Nearly, but not quite because if ever there’s a cure for a world-weary traveller who’s begun to take beauty for granted then Bryce Canyon is it. Bryce takes spectacular up several notches and carves it into sublime sculpture. Pretty much everyone you meet who’s been says it’s amazing and they’re right. It really is one of the most awe-inspiring places you could wish to visit and as you walk in and around it’s countless fins, spires, hoodoos, chimneys and canyons there’s a sight to take your breath away at every turn.
From strange rock formations that look like they’ve been carved out of Mars bars and Milky-ways, to trees growing perfectly vertically up between narrow slot canyons, to blackened, twisted trees that have been struck by lightning it’s a place that defies description. I suppose that’s why people give names to all these features and formations, to try and pin them down a little and contain them on a map – it’s defies description, but you can’t help but try.

The girls did a horse trek into the canyon and their mounts were a far cry from the plodding ponies back home – the cowboy guides also kept them entertained with their comedy routine – banter at a canter.

The cowgirls on huge horses, Bryce Canyon

As if all this wasn’t enough there was also a full moon that night and it was a fitting end to a near perfect day…

Full moon over Bryce Canyon

We were a little concerned that Zion would be a bit of an anti-climax after that but we needn’t have worried. It’s yet another spectacular place but quite different, with huge cliff walls either side of you as you head up through the canyon. This starts off high, wide and handsome, and then twists and turns and narrows over several miles as you follow the river. You can catch a shuttle bus to the end of the road and then wade upstream for a refreshing walk through chilly water and we had great fun.

3 brave adventurers, Zion

To cap off another fine day we then found we were booked into one of the best hotels we’ve ever stayed in. We hit the pool just as the setting sun painted the surrounding rocks in warm hues and thought – let’s capture this moment with a cheesy photo!

A pool with a view

The next morning Pete got up early and walked up to Angel’s Landing at sunrise, which is, yes, you’ve guessed it, another amazing walk. You climb up steeply to a hidden canyon, then up a series of zigzags amusingly called Walter’s Wiggles, and then climb a sheer ridge up to a plateau, surrounded by mountains and the high walls of the main canyon. It’s so steep and exposed that they’ve put chains up the rock in places and then at the top, just as you’re trying to take in the majesty of it all you get assaulted by cute-looking-but-too-cheeky-for-their-own-good chipmunks. If angels did land here I think their patience would be severely tested.

And so another phase of our journey was complete, with only the questionable delights of Vegas to come before we left the USA, but what happens in Vegas will have to stay in Vegas until our next post…

Monument Valley, Mesa Verde and moving on to Moab…

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Some places are iconic and for anyone who’s watched the odd Western or two, Monument Valley is one of those places. Great slabs of rock rise sheer out of the desert looking a bit like tombstones or yes, monuments, but also like chimneys or hands. One rock looks a little like nature is sticking two fingers up at us all, if you squint just enough.

A broody, moody Monument Valley

However that unsettled sky quickly changed to overcast and for some reason this matched the ambience in the car. Some of us were perhaps a bit unsettled and the prevailing mood was somewhere between cloudy and stormy. You can’t have fun all the time I suppose and this was one of those tetchy days, and in the end Monument Valley was not so much ‘Yee-har’ but ‘No, ta’ as far as the girls were concerned. Still, they’ve never even seen a western so we shouldn’t have been surprised!

At the end of that long drive though we arrived at a nice, friendly, mom-and-pop type motel and our moods quickly improved, particularly when we saw the crazy golf. There’s nothing like hitting a ball through a tower to raise spirits, though it would have been even better if they’d themed it – imagine hitting through the Grand Canyon or Monument Valley.

Next up was Mesa Verde which we hadn’t really planned to visit but were so glad we did. It really is a fantastic place, with old puebloan settlements cut out of the cliffs, and towers, tunnels, ladders and steps cut into the rocks to add some Indiana Jones adventure. It’s easy to think that the USA doesn’t have much in the way of ancient history but here it is, carved in stone. We visited Balcony House and had a witty ranger explaining something about the place and it’s history, and how if you looked out of one window along a chiselled out rock you could see where the full moon reached it’s furthest west point – or something like that! Like any of these old places I suppose if you look hard enough you can attach some astronomical meaning to it all but it certainly sounded convincing.

The girls exploring the tunnel in Balcony House

Tower House, Mesa Verde

One of these telescopes wasn’t made for children

We then had another long drive but the spectacular scenery and improved moods made for a pleasant journey and we even got to combine sunset and moonrise with Wilson Arch…

Moon peeping over Wilson Arch

Consequently it was quite a happy band that rolled into Moab and a fine pasta meal set us up nicely to explore Arches National Park the next day – but we’ll cross that bridge when we get to it…