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By this Author: tdeits

Caye Caulker

Seriously laid back

sunny 84 °F

We took a day trip to Caye Caulker on the water taxi. Several are available and the run pretty frequently until around sunset - takes less than an hour.

If the cosmopolitan environment of San Pedro is just too much hustle and bustle for you (hah!), then Caye Caulker is a great place to decompress (by decompress I mean going from maybe a tenth of an atmosphere of pressure down to near vacuum). It's smaller, with maybe two unpaved streets with very little traffic running along each side of the Caye, one facing the Caribbean and the other facing the water to the west. I've been to a few Caribbean destinations, including BVI, St John's, Nevis and others and for a completely relaxing vibe, Caye Caulker has them beat. Remember that we are visiting over the New Year's holiday, the high season. There were a fair number of tourists roaming around so I imagine it must be amazingly peaceful as well as beautiful at quieter times.

To give you an idea of the urban life of Caye Caulker, here is the main street and the business district around early afternoon rush hour.

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The colors on the island are typically beautiful Caribbean:

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And the shoreline is serene and scenic

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(both of those pictures were taken from the same spot while sitting on the sand)

Here's a picture of the west coast of the island

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There is no shortage of tasty restaurants and snack places. The largest hotels look like 'botique' hotels - we saw nothing that resembled a resort. There are plenty of tour operators if you are so inclined. It's clearly a place where doing as close to nothing as possible is the ultimate goal. And that is not a bad thing.

Posted by tdeits 11:56 Archived in Belize Tagged caye caulker Comments (0)

Inland to Chicibul

iquanas, cattle, roads, tranquility and good deeds

overcast 76 °F

My son and his girlfriend had to go back to work (heh) but I stayed on to look around the mainland of Belize. I rented a car at the airport (cars in Belize are quite expensive to rent and equally expensive to buy). I had rented through Avis but when I arrived they didn't have a vehicle for me so they sent me down the line of storefronts to another agency who provided me with a AWD SUV. I knew that I was going to be traversing some rough roads so I wanted to have an adequate vehicle.

Loaded up my luggage and headed to town (Belize City). There is a good supermarket right around where the airport road meets the Western Highway (my destination) so I got lots of stuff to make breakfast.

I think the best way to describe Belize roads is 'intermittent.' The main roads, like the Western Highway, are paved 2 lane roads with occasional midline striping. Traffic moves pretty fast, 60 mph +. Once in a while, though, the road can turn pretty rough so you have to be ready to slow down appropriately. Another interruption that was new to me were the frequent speed humps. These typically interrupt the main highway at the entrance to and exit from small villages along the road. Sometimes it is not clear that you are entering a village, so you need to stay alert. The humps range from full-on raised pedestrian crossings to IRCM's (improvised road calming measures) often consisting of a large nylon hawser (gynormous rope to you landlubbers) laid across the road. In some cases you will find a sign that alerts you to a hump 100 yards ahead (hey- it's former British Guiana so they still use Imperial units). In some cases there is only a sign place adjacent to the hump itself, and in some cases there is no notification at all. So stay alert, particularly at night (roads are very dark).

As it was getting late, I stopped at a widely recommended place, the The Orange Gallery for dinner. I had a really good giant grass fed Porterhouse steak for around $10 US. As the menu cautions, grass fed beef is a very chewy experience but it has excellent flavor. Took about half of the meat along when I left. Here's a pair of pictures of my dinner - before (across the highway) and after...
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They also have a large art/gift gallery which I briefly browsed. Probably worth more time than I gave it as I was anxious to get to my place. The reason for my haste was that the road to my accommodation was going to be a pretty rough one and I preferred to tackle it in the fading daylight. My goal was a property I had selected on AirBnB called 'Chicibul Ranch.' It was about 2 hours by road from the airport and the last 7 miles after turning off the Western Highway were the rough part. The road was indeed a rough limestone road of very variable quality. There were lots of rocks sticking up (the ones big enough to punch in your oil pan appear to have been beaten down by generations of vehicles), some pretty good potholes and some moderately steep grades. Here's a snapshot of the road - a level bit.

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The good news is that the trip was well worth the destination. I stayed in this large thatched home - chicibul_ranch_exterior.jpgchicibul_r..or_edited-1.jpg

which was nicely furnished and extremely comfortable. It is also off the grid and in a very quiet area. It was so quiet that when I arrived I simply plopped down on a hammock on the porch and gazed at nothing until evening then simply went to bed. It was a moonless and cloudy night and it was 'can't see hand in front of face' dark and absolutely silent. I found that very pleasant, but your mileage may vary....

The property includes an orange orchard and teak plantation and it makes a very nice walk of a mile or so around the property.

The nearest large town is San Ignacio, a hilly town with a fairly significant tourist presence.san_ignacio.jpg

I wandered around a bit on a couple of days. One of my excursions was to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel where I had heard about their iguana restoration project. Before the tour began, I took the opportunity to have a ceviche lunch at the hotel. Yummy as usual. san_ignacio_hotel_lunch.jpg

The iguana project is fairly modest in scope but it offers visitors a guided tour where you can see, learn about and play with the iguanas, some of significant size. The guide was pretty entertaining especially describing the personalities of the various denizens and the challenges of iguana breeding and restoration. Iguanas are widespread in Belize but they are hunted for food (tastes like chicken?) and so their population is in decline. The reserve takes in 'stray' iguanas and breeds them, returning the offspring to different locations in the country to keep the gene pool stirred up. It's a labor of love of a prior owner of the hotel, and one that now appears to have a life of its own. I think it's worth a visit to learn a bit and support the effort. Here are a couple of iguana encounter pics.

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I haven't talked a lot about the people of Belize as yet, partly because I had relatively fewer interactions with folks on this trip than when I went around the world and had significant interactions with several of my hosts. Overall, folks are quite friendly and polite. When you interact with people routinely it is appropriate to say 'good afternoon' and maybe add a polite 'how are you.' They will respond in kind and then you can get down to business. Our normal approach (HI ! Gimme a triple soy latte no foam extra rainbow sprinkles) is too abrupt by Belezian standards. I think that you can reasonably expect that anyone you interact with in a tourist encounter will have a reasonable command of English.

I did have one interaction that is worth a mention. When I pulled out of Chicibul Ranch on my first morning's excursion, I made a error of timidity. It had rained the night before and there is a very slight uphill where the driveway meets the main road. I took it slowly which was my fatal mistake - in true Top Gear fashion I should have gunned it, but I was worried because the driveway opens directly on the main road which does carry the occasional large vehicle. I got near the top of the rise and then, despite having an AWD vehicle, lost all traction in the slippery mud and slid back down the hill out of control into the adjacent embankment. Ta da.

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Well, now I was stuck. The only person who ever came by the property was Hugo the friendly caretaker who had opened the place for me the night before but I didn't expect to see him for a day or so. I also had no cell service so I was in a bit of a pickle. I decided to solve the problem in true lazy vacation fashion: I went back to the house, climbed in the hammock and read a book.

Oddly enough, it worked! After a few hours an older gentleman came down the road and in basic English told me that he was Hugo's father. Evidently passers by on the road had seen the car in the ditch, knew that Hugo was the caretaker, couldn't get hold of Hugo, but could contact Hugo's dad. Hugo's dad then contacted the pastor of his church who had a AWD pickup and the two of them just came over to fix my problem. 15 minutes of machete work and 5 minutes of pulling got me out of the ditch with, amazingly no damage at all to the vehicle!

Now wasn't that right neighborly? I thanked them as effusively as I could and offered to pay for their efforts. The pastor said he would only accept gas money but I was able to offer him a bit more in the form of a donation to his church.

To be honest, I think experiences like this are the main reason I enjoy traveling.

Posted by tdeits 10:01 Archived in Belize Tagged rental roads car chicibul Comments (0)

Tikal and more

temples and caves - and a mysterious resort

semi-overcast 86 °F

For this last entry, I thought I would talk about some sites I visited in and around Chicibul.

Not far from my place was Barton Creek Cave, so I booked a guide and took the tour. The cave is about one mile down the road from my place and then 7 miles east down another pretty rough road. The first surprise on the road was that we passed through Mennonite farmland. There is a substantial Mennonite presence in Belize and these folks appeared to be a more conservative community. I saw a charming horse-drawn wagon driven by a maybe 11 year old boy and filled with school boys and girls in denim overalls and broad hats or gingham dresses. A number of farmers were out in their fields with their horses but the most interesting sight was their horse-powered sawmill in operation. I chose not to take any pictures out of respect - sorry, you'll just have to make the trip.

The cave is accessible by canoe and goes back into the mountain maybe 1/3 of a mile. It is a very tall and narrow cave that my guide said was used by the Mayans for spiritual and religious purposes. Caves are pretty tough places to take photos while drifting along, but here are pictures of the entrance and the interior.

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The more famous cave adventure in Belize is called Actun Tunichil Muknal or ATM for short. This is a clambering/wading tour highlighted by access to a Mayan burial. Folks I talked to raved about it but I didn't have time to fit it in. The Barton Creek cave was an enjoyable hour or two and, combined with the opportunity to see the local Mennonite farms, worth a visit.

Back in San Ignacio I also visited the local Mayan ruin, Cahal Pech. It is right in town at the top of the hill. It's a compact site with a main courtyard, a ball court and additional buildings. Excavation and study is still under way; I was fortunate that one of the archaeologists was giving a tour to a group of college students (in English!) so I discreetly listened in. The aim of the excavation was to document the peoples who lived on the site in the years after it had fallen to ruins, abandoned abruptly (around 1000 CE) like so many of these sites. I really enjoyed this site. It is a quiet location, has a lot of interesting structures and is not too crowded. For me, another key asset was that I was on my own; I could spend time looking closely at things, taking photos and just sitting and taking in the experience. This was one of the high points of my trip. There is also a small museum with historical information and some interesting artifacts. Here are a few photos.

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I also took a full-day guided tour to Guatemala's Tikal ruins. It is about a 3 hour drive from San Ignacio. When we crossed the border into Guatemala, we walked across the border and boarded a different vehicle, probably to avoid waiting for a vehicle search. We passed through some attractive countryside in Guatemala, often along lakeshores. Here's a picture from a brief rest stop on the way.

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Arriving at Tikal, I found the contrast to Cahal Pech dramatic. Tikal is huge, magnificent and crowded. While at Cahal Pech there was relative peace and I set my own pace, Tikal is busy and with a guide, there was a lot of 'you now have 20 minutes to climb to the top of this temple and get back down here.' It's understandable given the length of the trip. Our guide was courteous and informative, but was clearly motivated to keep us moving. Despite the pace, I was able to get a few pictures.

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Doesn't look too crowded, does it? I was able to work around folks pretty well, considering. Most of the impressive stone stairways at Tikal are off limits to tourists - it is pretty dangerous to climb them as if you slip there is no way to arrest your fall. There have been deaths as a result. Climbing is allowed at the smaller temple above. So I did it (tut, tut)....

We headed back, stopping for lunch and the traditional gift shop visit. I bought some organic Guatemalan coffee beans, which are pretty tasty.

I guess if I were going to Tikal now, I would make an effort to spend more than one day there, staying nearby and getting there early to enjoy the peace and quiet. I would also buy a guidebook and use it rather than engage a guide. Some car rental agencies in Belize can arrange for you to take your car into Guatemala but be sure to check in advance because some of them forbid this.

When I got back to my place, I decided to head out to a place I had heard of - Blancaneaux Lodge. A resort built by Francis Ford Coppola. I knew that it was near my place, but without a map or cell service, I just kind of headed farther up the road. I made one wrong turn and ended up in a village where the nice folks turned me around. When I found the road (it was pitch dark by the way) you are greeted by a guard at a gate who shines a flashlight in your eyes (zombie check?) then opens the gate with no further ceremony. The lodge is located in the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve which is a destination in itself, with caves and ruins of its own. It was another 7 miles down the road to the lodge. This road made the road to my place look like a freeway. It was very rough, lots of big ruts and potholes and, as I really had no idea where I was going, seemed to take a verrrry long time. Finally I spotted the resort (there are a very few small directional signs along the way).

It's gorgeous. It was night so I didn't see a lot, but I was very impressed with the grounds. I went in for dinner in a lovely screened outdoor dining area and enjoyed a delicious meal with excellent service. One extra treat was that there was a young couple staying there who had been on my Tikal tour and they invited me to join them for dinner. We had some really good conversation and wine (Coppola wine, of course) which really made the evening a treat. Prices were really pretty reasonable, so I would encourage you to check the place out.

The next day I took a road trip to the south of Belize just because. this took me into some of the more mountainous parts of the country which gave more open vistas than the lowlands

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I turned around in Placencia, a small town with almost no tourist presence. It's right on the water but lacks beaches or docks and so is not particularly attractive to visitors, I guess. I headed home and packed for departure the next day.

My overall impression was, honestly, that I missed some stuff. I need to go back to see some manatees and mangroves up close, to spend time to contemplate Tikal, to explore some more caves and ruins, to snorkel at leisure, and to eat some more really good food. I suppose that is a reasonably good definition of a great vacation!

To close, here's the traditional sunset picture taken on my way back from Southern Belize.

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Hope you enjoyed the trip!

-Tom

Posted by tdeits 10:59 Archived in Belize Tagged guatemala creek tikal barton cahal pech Comments (0)

Death Valley and Desert Southwest wildflowers

March, 2016

sunny 78 °F

I was in Southern California visiting friends when I found I had a few days to spare, so I took advantage of the opportunity and roamed around the desert Southwest, primarily motivated by the fact that Death Valley was experiencing what is called a 'superbloom' - a combination of rainfall and temperature that promotes exceptional wildflower germination and blooming. Superblooms happen roughly every decade, so it sounded like the right time to go.

I went with a friend to Anza Borrego State Park for my first stop. It's a pleasant drive from San Diego that takes you down quiet highways and offers an opportunity for a damn fine cup of coffee and a slice of pie in Julian. We visited the visitor's center and were encouraged to take a trail nearby where both flowers and bighorn sheep (possibly including some babies) might be seen. Well, we didn't see any babies but we did encounter a quite placid group of male bighorn dining by the side of the trail, happy to be photographic subjects.

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Here are a few flowers found in Anza Borrego - I will try and give common names when I have a decent guess from flower guides.

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This is (probably) Indigo bush and desert sunflower

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Desert paintbrush

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Brittlebush

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Beavertail cactus

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Bighorn sheep stalking a tourist (and ocotillo)

I headed on solo to Death Valley. Whether I was actually there during the official superbloom or perhaps a bit afterwards (as the Park Service website stated), there were still a whole lot of flowers. My best luck in finding interesting blooms was to park by the side of the road and hike maybe a quarter mile up a side canyon, looking for interesting items. The weather was perfect - maybe 70's at the top of the valley and about 90 at the bottom. For starters, here's a picture of the valley floor from Dante's View.

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I was amused by this meandering rivulet on the valley floor

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When I got to the bottom, near Furnace Creek, it's hard to call what I say anything less than a superbloom. The valley floor was covered in blossoms of the Desert Gold plant. Here are pictures from a couple of locations northwest of Furnace Creek, along highway 190.

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And here are pictures from my wanderings in the hills above Death Valley

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Foothill deervetch

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Desert sunflower and wooly daisy

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Orange lichen

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Gold poppy and desert filaree

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Bigelow's monkeyflower

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and something purple....

I wandered on south and dropped into Phoenix to watch the Giants whip the Padres....

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then headed south to Tucson where I visited Kitt Peak Observatory and found some very nice wildflowers growing along the highway

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Desertbells

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Chia and California golden poppies

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Poppies and something pink

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Fairyduster

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Something orange (Jewelweed - thanks, Mary!)

I spent an afternoon in Saguaro National Park as well - very cool place.

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On my way out of the park I took this sunset picture which seems to be a good choice to end this brief entry.

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Posted by tdeits 20:27 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes death_valley wildflowers phoenix tuscon anza_borrego spring_training Comments (0)

Festival Season in Japan

Getting started

sunny 89 °F

I'm off to Japan again, this time in the summer to try and overdose on festival season. I'm fortunate that my son Robin is able to come with me for the first two weeks of my three week excursion.

My planning started off with typical airfare complexity. I priced a ticket from Detroit to Tokyo on Delta and others and it was running around $1800 plus - really too much! As Robin was considering joining me, he did the same and found that a Boston to Tokyo ticket on Delta was pricing at $1000! To add insult to injury, the itinerary went through Detroit. So it ended up being cheapest to buy the Boston to Tokyo ticket and then buy a Detroit to Boston ticket to join Robin there to start the trip. I guess the take home lesson for long international flights is to check every major airport in the US and if you can find a fare with substantial savings, just fly there to take advantage. Arrgh.

Our major goal was to experience a variety of Japanese festivals across the country, taking full advantage of our Japan Rail pass. It provides unlimited travel for 7, 14 or 21 consecutive days and we expect to really exploit this flexibility! The best bargain is the 21 day pass if you can manage to find the time.

My trip started out in Detroit and my first new experience occurred at the Detroit airport (DTW). Workers were installing green walls in the newly remodeled Gate A-1 area.

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The pioneer in this concept is Patrick Blanc - you can learn more at his site http://www.verticalgardenpatrickblanc.com/

Another bit of a surprise was the plane I flew from DTW to Boston which was a newly remodeled A 319. It looked nice inside with kind of spacey consoles in the ceiling, made more spacey by the clouds of condensation coming in through the ventilation system. The other new feature was a video screen at each seat. This is usually not seen on shorter flights such as this and coupled with Delta's new 'free movies all the time' policy it makes a nice distraction from the rather harder seats that newer Delta jets sport.

I stayed with Robin that night and we hit an early flight from Boston to JFK then on to Narita. This is always a challenge - it's a 13+ hour flight, but going west is the easier direction. We stayed awake on the flight watching movies and otherwise distracting outselves. It was a cool discovery to find the documentary 'All Things Must Pass' which is about Tower Records, a chain that started in Sacramento, went global and then died back to only Japanese branches. Tower Records was where I learned to buy and enjoy music; they even had listening rooms back in the day - and by 'back in the day' I mean like 1963! I'm sure lots of my HS buds remember Tower and would enjoy the flashback.

We landed in the late afternoon and went to the Narita Hilton where I had a cheap room with a few Hilton points. It's a really nice hotel and so much easier than trying to drag into Tokyo the first night. We crashed without even having dinner and woke up famished. Fortunately, the hotel has an epic breakfast buffet with American, European, Japanese and Chinese sections so I made up for lost time by having a Japanese breakfast followed by a more eclectic plate of just about everything. The Japanese breakfast includes (on the right) sticky rice steamed in banana leaf and (on the left) a dish of natto which is definitely an acquired taste that I enjoy.

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Rested and fed, we struck out on our quest for festivals!

Posted by tdeits 00:55 Archived in Japan Comments (0)

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