Tag Archives: travel with kids

Colonial city, Mayan ruin, Mayan ruin, colonial city, then another Mayan ruin and another colonial city…

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The next part of our journey had something of a theme running through it, or rather two themes – cute colonial cities of old and restored buildings, and Mayan ruins of, yes, old and restored buildings. A lot of the ruins round here have had parts of them reconstructed and while they’re undoubtedly impressive there’s something more atmospheric about proper ruins covered in jungle. If the ancient Mayan rulers who built them time-travelled through the ages and cycles of the Mayan calendar you wonder if they’d be more upset by the ruin of their temples or their reconstruction.

First up though was the colonial city of Valladolid, a pleasant city built on a grid system with pretty coloured one- and two-storey buildings. The old cobbled streets may have been replaced by a concrete approximation but otherwise it was fairly unspoilt, and was a nice place to wander around. We found a playground and the girls got playing with a local girl, and tried a bit of Spanish with the help of the phrasebook. This led to them making their own little phrasebooks that they could carry around to help them in their efforts to communicate. The girls were really missing some contact with kids their own age and travel makes this a difficult issue to solve, moving from place to place and having a language barrier to contend with, but they had fun trying out some new phrases.
Our hotel in Valladolid was a lovely looking place, with the rooms set around a courtyard with a pool – as you can see we weren’t really roughing it so far…

Not your typical backpacker place!

We’d also found that travelling around Mexico need not be too uncomfortable, if you stick to the first class buses. These are modern air-conditioned coaches that transport you around in relative luxury, though even they struggle with the number and severity of Mexico’s speed humps; in England speed humps used to be known as ‘sleeping policemen’ – in Mexico they’re more like ‘wide awake, crouching policemen just waiting to surprise you and make you jump in the air’.

The only problem with our hotel though was the night porter’s love of high-octane, high-volume action movies – we complained to the formidable looking woman who ran the hotel the next day and on our second night got peace and quiet, and the odd sullen look.

We visited the ruins at Ek-Balam, which means ‘black jaguar’ – when a ruin has such an evocative name it’s got to be worth a bumpy taxi journey, and we really enjoyed it. These fell more into the proper ruins covered in jungle category, and as well as another hot climb up a pyramid had some great carvings.

Huge pyramids, middle of nowhere, Ek-Balam, Mexico

I’d like my pyramid just a liiittle bit higher…

Back in Valladolid there was some kind of festival on (actually, there pretty much always seems to be some kind of festival on in Mexico!) and there was some traditional dancing involving beer bottles balanced on heads – not for the last time were we reminded of Morris Men dancing back home. The girls also did some painting at a stall run in aid of the Red Cross and drew a picture of Tinkerbell, which in turn drew a small crowd!

Leaving Valladolid’s understated charm we took the bus to Chichen Itza, where understatement is not on the agenda. Touted as one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, it’s probably Mexico’s most famous and popular sight/site. If you’re there at lunchtime one glance at the car park leaves you under no illusions – this is not the place to go to for serenity and spirituality. In addition to the hoards of tourists there are almost as many hawkers and peddlers selling all manner of tat, trinkets and trash, and some decent clothes and crafts. Every bit of shade has a stall set up and there are also people walking around selling stuff – just in case you hadn’t found the exact item of tosh you were after there’s also an artisan’s market at the exit. Walking round you get assailed by shouts of ‘Very cheap, almost free’ and ‘One Dollar, One Dollar’ – throw in the ever-present jaguar calls from the people selling jaguar-call-whistle-things and it’s an assault on the senses. You can’t even climb the pyramids to get away from it. If this puts you off though, we should point out that Tilly loved the stalls and took some great photos…

Stall number 437 out of 4,037!

It is also pretty impressive, particularly if you go first thing in the morning as we did – as you walk round you can see all the stall-holders emerging from the woods with their wares, and you can see most of the sights before the tour groups swamp the place. The ball court is certainly worth a look, a vast pitch between huge walls with stone hoops set high up as goals, like an ancient version of Quidditch, but where the losing captain got decapitated (as graphically illustrated on stone friezes round the court). It’s also got amazing echo acoustics (echo acoustics, echo acoustics…)
You’ve also got to get at least one shot of the main pyramid…

However we’ll probably remember this part of the trip more for our stay at the Hotel Chichen Itza in the nearby town of Piste. On arrival we knew we’d made the right choice when Luis, the manager, upgraded us to a three-bed room and suggested the kids would probably like to jump from bed to bed. He then looked after us throughout our stay, introducing us to his family, lending us books in English, feeding us, driving us to the ruins so we could be there early, and even thrashing Pete at table tennis! The girls loved playing with Santi, his son, and still talk about being pulled round the car park in a Luis-drawn carriage (there being no horse to pull it!)

He and Santi then dropped us off for our bus and it was quite sad waving them off as we headed to Merida, but this city would prove to be another highlight. There’s not a great deal to see or do but it’s one of those places where people go for a couple of days and end up staying a week. We loved it, and partly this was down to our stay at Nomadas Hostel – this was more or less everything a hostel should be: friendly, helpful info on arrival, reasonable kitchen, decent rooms, beautiful pool in the garden and a great place to meet people. We met an eclectic bunch including a lovely 71 year old lady from Hawaii, an Australian couple (Kylie and Jez) doing a similar trip to us and an English couple (Isabel and Byron) who were motorbiking from North America all the way down through South America – whatever you do there’s always someone going further, faster or more far-flung than you! (Have a look at their blog on http://www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Adventures-on-the-flying-Aga/ if you get bored of ours!)

We did a touristy horse-drawn carriage ride (the girls had obviously developed a taste for carriages at Piste!), went to the park and played on the fantastic playground (including a small plane converted into slides!) and visited the free zoo. We also went to the new/under construction Mayan Museum which was good, or will be when it’s finished. We spent a lot of time chatting in the hostel and lazing by the pool and several days passed very enjoyably. I’ll put some photos of Merida (and a few more that go with this section) in a separate post after this one.

We then thought it was about time we saw another ruin – or rather the grown-ups did, the kids were already perfecting their refrain of “Oh, no, not another ruin”. This one wasn’t as easy to get to and involved a stay at a posh place in the nearest town, some 10km away. I say posh, but perhaps mean posh/boutique/rustic – we stayed in a hut with a palapa-leaf thatched roof which looked lovely but was perhaps a bit too much like being in the jungle for the girls. Pete also got stung by a wasp and we were serenaded by the noise of various crickets and cicadas as we went to sleep under our mossie nets.

It was all worth it though for our visit to Uxmal the next day. Uxmal is as impressive as Chichen Itza but without the crowds, and I always like a place with more iguanas than people. If you stopped to look there was one on virtually every temple, pyramid or pile of stones…

Iguanas now rule over the ruins of Uxmal.

These were close to being my favourite ruins so far on this trip, but from the highs of the pyramids here we sank to a bit of a low with our stay in Campeche. It’s another picture-postcard colonial city, with some impressive walls still standing, sculpture on the streets and a nice main square. In short it sounds like a fine place to stop for a couple of days but somehow we just didn’t warm to the place, which was strange since it was absolutely sweltering. Perhaps that was part of the problem – it was too hot to do much and there was a pervasive odour to the city. We had two days there; two days, too hot, too tetchy and two tantrums too many. A storm was obviously brewing and on our second night the heavens opened and the streets were flooded, and strangely our moods lifted a little. We’d wondered why the kerbs were nearly a foot high and now we knew. We had to shelter in Burger King and they had to shut the door and batten down the hatches to stop it being inundated. Shops everywhere produced sheets of cardboard to act as makeshift doormats as people ran for cover. If we’d been feeling homesick this was a timely reminder of weather back home, albeit on a bigger, wetter scale.

We were glad to leave Campeche, and the most memorable thing was the downpour…

Road junction or river crossing? Campeche, Mexico

Next installment soon!

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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

Hitting the wide open spaces and some interesting places…

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Well, apart from some photos we’ve been pretty rubbish at blogging recently but maybe all that will change now we’ve got to Mexico – we’re planning a change of pace to go with the change of place so hopefully will find some time for quiet contemplation…
It seems like a different world now but we were in Disneyland at the end of our last post, and from there headed out on a monumental road trip through the vast open spaces of south west USA. There really is a whole lot of nothing out there with hazy ribbons of highways tying together dusty one street towns, and our little hire car trundled heroically from one motel to the next.
Our first stop on leaving LA was to an outdoor shop – now we’ve got outdoor shops in England and you might have thought some of them were pretty fancy with their ‘Now is the season of our discount tent’ signs and the occasional mannequin climbing up the wall – however this shop was on a different scale altogether, like some vast temple dedicated to hunting, fishing or shooting anything that moved. Not only was there a three storey waterfall plunging into a huge fishtank but there were stuffed specimens of all America’s wild creatures artfully arranged – like many of the meals we’ve had over here it was impressive in scale but left a bad taste in the mouth, and it was all too much for us and we fled the place with a new-found fondness for Milletts.
Our next destination was the Grand Canyon but this was too far to drive in one day so we stopped in Laughlin for the night. Laughlin is like a mini Vegas, with perhaps only the 20 million slot machines available to take your dollars and your dreams. However it did have a cheap hotel with a rooftop pool so the girls were happy.
Next day we drove to Flagstaff with a quick lunch stop in Seligmann en route, on Route 66. As this place is just off the Interstate but still on the historic highway it caters for coach groups eager to get their kicks along with their fries and burgers. It’s a nice enough slice of nostalgic Americana though, with comedy signs aplenty and waiters doing little practical jokes – get your quips on Route 66 anyone?
Just outside Flagstaff is Walnut Creek Canyon and this was our first proper taste of what we’d come to the USA for – the National Parks and their stunning scenery. It’s like a baby-grand canyon and has ancient dwellings carved into the cliff faces and was a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend an hour or so. We then went to Flagstaff and found a veggie cafe and a decent motel. Pete and Rach stayed in Flagstaff years ago and remember it as our favourite American town – a proper place of proper streets and shops and thankfully it hasn’t changed too much. Instead of an army surplus store there’s a peace surplus store and it was so much nicer than our previous outdoor shop experience! You can also actually walk around town rather than drive and get good food so we decided to stay for an extra day and visited Sunset Volcano for a walk through black sand around a huge lava-strewn landscape.
Next up was the Grand Canyon and Pete’s birthday and we decided to push the budget and stay up near the canyon in a supposedly posh hotel. The hotel was ok but the breakfast was a depressing sight. When I was a kid I remember asking why we couldn’t use disposable plates when I didn’t want to wash up – Mum explained how wasteful and lazy this was but America’s mom doesn’t seem to have given her hotels the same lesson. Everything is throw-away polysterene or plastic and at the end all the spare food goes into the bin as well.
However we hadn’t come all this way just to moan and the Grand Canyon didn’t disappoint. It’s giant scale is breath-taking, literally given the altitude and heat. If ever there’s a place which justifies the use of the word awesome then perhaps this is it, and we had a couple of great days taking in the views and managing a short hike down into the canyon itself.
Then it was time for another long drive as we headed to Lake Powell. We’d seen great pictures of the lake and heard good things but all the exciting tours seemed very expensive and the girls were happy enough just swimming in the lake with a new friend, Michaela. We also did a fab little walk to some toadstool rocks through an adventurous little canyon, and saw Horseshoe Bend which is a classic U bend sliced deep through the rock. The scenery is stunning and I’m running out of adjectives and superlatives so will try to post some photos before the journey continues…

Setting off and setting foot in San Francisco…

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Well, we’ve now been on the road for a week and already we’re 7 days behind with this blog! How did this happen?! We must have been pretty busy so here comes the catch up…

In a way our journey started with a warm walk to Greenfield station to catch the train to Manchester on the first leg of a centipede’s legs’ worth of a journey. Waving Viv off with a song, then saying fond farewells to Mum & Dad L at Manchester took us by train to London via Birmingham, by tube to Heathrow via Hamstead Lido and A&A and AA’s hospitality. Then we chased the sunlight around the globe to arrive in San Francisco only 3 hours later on the clock than we set off. They closed the blinds on the plane but weren’t fooling anyone, especially the girls – it was daylight all the way and our body clocks were alarmed. And so we found ourselves at the start of an adventure…

In another way though it all started long ago, with months of planning, sorting, storing, saving, slaving, packing, slacking, hurrying, scurrying and worrying – but that’s all hopefully behind us now, and wouldn’t make interesting reading in any case. But cases packed and able to be carried by the four of us (with the girls fully laden with toys and snorkels) we were off…

And so we landed in California, having desparately tried to sort out our social media before we got to the land of Google and Facebook. We’ve always tended towards the Luddite with new technology (Luddlites?) but here we are with our first proper post – more to come, but if you prefer a shorter, pithier version follow our Facebook or Twitter pages.

Have a nice day now…