Friday, December 17, 2010

Take the Kids with You

     Shhh! Don’t tell anyone else about this. I am not sure Guatemala wants foreigners to know this place exists. We did not encounter a single other American when we were there. It took a third trip to Guatemala and the accompaniment of five young kids for us to discover an unadvertised, virtually perfect family retreat in this otherwise alluring country. Although some Americans avoid Guatemala because of crime and occasional hysterical travel warnings from our our State Department, we have found the country to be a land of immense fascination, variety, beauty and friendliness on each of our trips. At any rate, going there does have to be within a visitor’s tolerance for the advertised risks. Mind you, we don’t hang out on back streets in Guatemala City at night, nor do we travel on lonely highways after dark. But we are not alone in the hotels either; many European and Mexican visitors and quite a few other Americans brave the journey to delight in the many colorful sites.
     This time we ventured forth with our family and had to plan accordingly. We had only eight days to ensure our kids and grandkids sampled the many pleasures we enjoyed on our own previous trips and to build in kid fun as well. We found what turned out to be a spectacular site, namely, a complex of lovely hotels alongside both an amusement park and a water park located in the town of Retalhuleu, a three hour drive west of Guatemala City. The complex belongs to an organization called IRTRA.
     The legislature in Guatemala passed an ordinance in 1962 to help businesses offfer recreation to employees. These parks were a product of that initiative. Now, there is a place where Guatemalan workers can enjoy a Disneyworld-like vacation with their family for an affordable rate in this generally poor country. I hope Americans don’t ever crowd out the pleasant, vacationing workers we met there by taking too much advantage of this nearby bargain holiday site. For members of IRTRA, a double room in a brand new building (we had five people in one of our lovely, spacious and spotless rooms) costs about $30.00 a night. Outsiders pay about three times that amount. Less expensive but very adequate hotel rooms in other parts of the complex can be had for less than $50.00 a night even for foreigners. The official name of this resort is Los Hostales del IRTRA. We stayed in a section of the complex called Hostal Panajunoj which consists of five separate, attractive hotels built in styles that range from African to Polynesian to Mayan, each distinctive and sparkling new. On the site of Los Hostales are also three restaurants (the food is only fair), four hotel complexes, beautiful flowers and trees, three pools, a jacuzzi, a mini-golf couse and more.
     As if this alone were not enough for a family getaway, a little train takes you from the complex to to the equally inexpensive amusement park and the excitng waterpark just outside the hotel area. It was Disney-like indeed, except for the absence of long lines, the managable dimensions of the area and the affordable prices. With their entrance ticket for either of the recreational parks, the kids could go on whatever rides they wanted just about as often as they liked. Lots of local visitors come to Xetulul, the amusement park, or to Xocomil, the waterpark, on day trips so the best time to visit is on a weekday when there are fewer Guatemalans and no lines at all.
     While Xocomil features river-like rides and splashing , giant slides with screaming kids spilling down pretty man-made scenery, the amusement park is also easily worth an entire day with its roller coasters, wild rides and mild rides, ambitious reproductions of European cities, lots to do and plenty to eat. An all inclusive entrance ticket (enough rides for anyone) cost $6.00 for IRTRA members, about twice as much as for visiting kids and $22.00 for other adults for the day. A full day at each of the two parks and two or three nights at the hotels makes for a relaxing and very enjoyable time for all family members.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Great Markets of Our Hemisphere

Markets are a traveler's delight, especially in the Third World since almost all the activity occurs outside right under the nose of the curious visitor and in focus of the avid photographer. In such places one can truly experience the essence of the culture- the dress, the interactions, customs, foods and cooking, and often many activities we are more accustomed to hiding behind walls in our cities. For me, there is no better destination when I am traveling.

I cannot recount all of those places which have fascinated me but I want to suggest a few should the reader be venturing into the neighborhood. At least two of them, and arguably more, are available in South America. My favorite is the colorful Andean market of Tarabuco in Bolivia. It is populated by traditionally dressed women with bowler hats and wonderfully woven and decorated traditional dress, but the market features the greatest assortment of hats one can imagine, some of them imitating miners' head ware, others replicating the headgear of the conquistadors. As with all markets, there are very special local items for sale. In this case, the detailed weaving of the area are the real gems. But you can also buy one of the piles of coca leaves if you wish, or the many ceramic items in the stalls.

The rival market in South America is in Otovalo, Ecuador, a few hours drive north of Quito. Again the distinctive dress of the Otovaleno Indians captivate the viewer immediately. The women wear brightly embroidered blouses and skirts as well as gold colored beaded necklaces which are quite distinct. Men often have long hair arranged in braids and equally unique dress. There is a grand animal market here and every which kind of local crafts including very varied wooden carvings. On market days there are thousands of people selling and buying at stalls spread over an enormous area.

A third favorite of mine in the Western Hemisphere is the town of Chichicastenango in Guatemala. It is by far the most accessible to Americans and could not be more bustling or colorful. The local residents are descendants of the Mayans and one would think the ancients still ruled the area judging from the worship customs, the parades, the dress and even village dialects. Here wooden masks abound as well as wonderful, colorful embroidered blouses and all sorts of woven goods.  As with all great markets of the Third World, there are special days when everything is open and available so the visitor must be aware which days feature which markets.

While Asia features countless great markets, I will save a description of those for another entry. Wherever the tourist travels to visit these special places, it is important to arrive early before tourist buses descend and it is recommended to spend at least the preceding night in the town to avoid the crowd and to see the vendors preparing for the market day. Before touring an area, find out about the most interesting market and the day it is held. You will enrich your trip measurably by such research.

                                                                 Market, Kashgar, China

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Travel Highlight You Will Never Forget

     There are countless wonderful sites around the world that beckon the traveler. One place I would recommend from my many years of globe trotting is Varanasi, India, the ancient city of Benares. I often call India "a wonder a day" travel location and that notion surely applies to this city along the Ganges River which is considered the holiest site of all by the many millions of Hindus who populate the country.

     One gets up at dawn for an uncanny and unforgettable experience along the river. We arose as the mosquitoes outside dive bombed our glass door to the garden, got dressed and met our guide outside. In the dim light of early dawn, we all descended the hill from our hotel to the riverside. We were not alone, even at that early hour. Alongside us were Indians heading toward the heart of their pilgrimage. They were silent and serious as they made their way down the path. It was still relatively dark when we reached the riverside.

     We boarded the small row boat that was arranged for us and headed toward the middle of the Ganges. The only sound we seemed able to hear was the splashing of the oars. As we looked back we saw the large steps or Ghats slowly filling up with Hindu devotees many of whom were fulfilling a lifetime dream by immersing themselves in the holy water. Our boatman put a small candle on a tin plate to float it down the river as an act of devotion as had many others.  The sparkle of the candles stretched down the river as far as we could see.

     As the sun rose slowly in the distance, the spirituality of our experience became overwhelming. The Ghats were filled with thousands of worshippers, the old run down hotels on the riverside loomed above the scene and fires were set for the many cremations that were to be done that day. It is a Hindu dream to be present there and to perform absolutions in the river or be cremated along its shore in Varanasi. Hindus who are able to do so will bring a dying relative to the riverside, stay with them until death, and then place their body in the fire. That is their ultimate act of devotion. For us, the whole experience was like a dream. Although we have been present at many religious ceremonies and activities, we were never quite so enveloped by any other scene. It would have been worth the long journey to India for that experience alone. It was truly a traveler's highlight.

Bedouin Girls, Beach, Sinai, Egypt

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Another Gem in Mexico

Mexico City is another very convenient destination for Americans who are seeking knowledge and adventure and don't want to be tripping over too many of their compatriots along the way. I know that many folks fear violence in Mexico but most of that is in the border towns and Mexico City is not especially dangerous for a city of over 20,000,000 people so long as one takes sensible precautions. I love the place. My wife and I have been to Mexico about 20 times over the past several decades and each area offers its own special qualities and interests. Mexico City has more sites of interest than anywhere else in the country.

The giant central square of the city, called the Zocalo, is a day or two undertaking in itself. It is usually filled with vendors especially around holidays, the large Cathedral sits at one end as is customary in Colonial design, the beautiful National Palace beckons covered with Diego Rivera's murals of the history of the country, and the architecture of the buildings is interesting all around the square. Not far off the square is an Aztec dig and museum that are beautifully done and well worth an afternoon's visit. The Art Museum and many restaurants are nearby as well. If you come at holiday time, you will see the square filled with people, vendors, dancing Indians and every which thing.

What does one do after that visit? Head out to Chapultepec Park where the spectacular Anthropology Museum sits. It happens to be my favorite museum in the world. The displays are dramatic and tasteful and the artifacts cover much of the pre-Colonial times in Mexico. It is a wonderful treat. There are other nearby museums but this one is not to be missed. Mexico has a flair for developing attractive and informative museums generally.

Another compulsory visit in the city is the Church of Guadalupe where Indians come in from the hills and perform dance ceremonies to worship and ask favors. It is the holiest site in the country. Some years back a new church was built to acccomodate the traffic and it is a very interesting building.

Then I would go to the amazing site of Teotihuacan not far outside the city where pyramids rivaling Egypt stand at the two ends of an ancient and mysterious city. There are buildings where the paint from two millenia can still be discerned. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest at the site, can be climbed and the view is dramatic. This is a most interesting pre-Colombian site. These are among the many offerings this city offers the traveler in search of adventure.

Chichen Itza, El Castillo, Mexico

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Third World Surprises in Panama

Who would think about Panama as the site of Third World experiences but that is what this close by neighbor offers the intrepid traveler. Of course Panama City is modern and up to date as is much of the country in the former Canal Zone where Americans thrived not many years ago and where quite a few of them have decided to retire. But that is only one thin strip of this fascinating country.

Panama offers the opportunity for the visitor to spend time with indigenous Indian tribal groups on the mainland, on islands and deep in the jungle. The Embara, for example, still live in modest thatch-roofed buildings deep in the Darien jungle and, until very recently, lived a hunter-gatherer existence. Like so many indigenous cultural groups, however, civilization is impinging on their way of life. They can still be visited and one can still get a sense of what tribal life in the jungle is like from them. Their dancing, their cooking and their jungle knowledge are still available to the tourist. They dress more self-consciously now and they make their money from visitors rather than wild animals these days, but they remain interesting to be among. Their relative isolation requires getting to their villages in a motorized, dugout canoe like vessel along a jungle river.

Not too far away, on a group of islands called the San Blas Islands, another quite unusual community of fishermen and farmers live. They are the Kuna and they have been given a relatively independent status by the central government. The dramatic characteristic of this group is the extremely colorful dress they wear and the extent to which they decorate their skins. They weave imaginative cloths called molas which are then sold to visiting tourists. Their villages are also very traditional. Unfortunately, their islands have been inundated by visitors and they now exist to a large extent on what they charge for housing and molas and photos. Nonetheless, they speak a distinct language and live a simple island life. As an aside, the tourist can rent housing on tiny islands in the area serviced by Kuna, paradise like dwellings where one feels separated from the real world, where tropical fish lap the shore and the water and sunsets are exquisite.

There is still more in this tiny country worth investigating. The Indian inhabitants of Bocas de Toro province near Costa Rica still offer villages with thatched huts and no electricity or plumbing. These are primarily farmers who often speak Spanish and who farm the coastal areas where they live. They tend to be rather unaffected by the world around them and offer the visitor a warm welcome. With the fascinating Canal, the lovely highland areas and the warm surrounding waters, Panama is surely a treat to be sampled.

Kuna Woman w/Pipe, Panama

Thursday, October 14, 2010

You Don't Have to Go Far

I am writing this blog at the suggestion of a few folks who read  my book, What's an American Doing Here? Reflections on Travel in the Third World and wanted some details to help them get startedI will attempt to pose suggestions from time to time about travel off the beaten path, a type of travel that is slightly riskier, requires a little more effort and is a bit less comfortable but that can be far more rewarding and growthful than the way most Americans choose to see (or actually miss seeing) the world. I hope you enjoy the suggestions. 

In a search for adventure or just travel without tripping over fellow Americans and bus tours along the way, one need not travel far from home. Although Papua New Guinea or the Bolivian highlands seem to assure success in this regard, there are some wonderful places nearby which offer great opportunities to meet indigenous people and experience a variety of cultures quite distinct from our own.

One of my recent trips with my my intrepid cotraveler, my wife Bev, was to the city of Merida in the Yucatan, the southern area of our next door neighbor, Mexico. If you speak Spanish you can follow our trail with no guide. If not, you can find someone at each site to take you around and help you find what you want. Merida is quite another world from the section of Yucutan that hosts most Americans, Cancun and the string of resorts strung below it. Actually it is a good ride from Cancun so you don't have to worry about tripping over your compatriots along the way. No spring breakers here.

The Merida hotels are quite reasonable. Just choose your level of comfort and make a direct reservation on the net or ask your travel agent to do that for you. We stayed near the center where the colonial buidlings still face busy streets and where we could visit the cathedral and other desired sites. Then we rented a car and took day trips to wonderful places throughout the area.

Among the locations we visited were the popular and very impressive sites of Uxmal and Chichen Itza. Each was more than worth a full day; each an opportunity for insight into the workings of the powerful Mayan Empire cities and enjoying their admirable building prowess. We usually got to the sites early and left when the sun toasted the areas in the afternoon. Traveling alone enabled us to do it our way and at our own pace. But there are many sites in the neighborhood that tourists rarely visit which are fascinating and instructive, each worth at least an hour or so stop along the way. Dzibilchaltun, a small but unique and interesting Mayan town, can be reached along the path to Progreso, a beach far north of Cancun. Progreso itself is not an exciting vacation area although and the sand is a bit rough, yet many Mexicans escape there and the prices are considerably cheaper than the more southern seaside sites. Not far away is Celestun, a waterway where tropical birds breed, especially brightly colored flamingos and flocks of white pelicans. All of these places can be reached in a single day making for a varied and interesting trip.

Near Uxmal is the site of Kabah with its impressive palace of masks and lots of other ancient Mayan statuary. One can visit Kabah on the same day as a trip to Cuzama with its deep wells called cenotes that the local people used for water to support their civilization and which remain essential today. There are no ground level rivers in the Yucutan so these cenotes are both necessary and beautiful, nestled in caves with stalactites and stalagmites and crystal clear water, the lifeblood of their communities. They are also swimmable for the more adventurous visitors. In Cuzama one can rent a horse and cart with driver to traverse the jungle paths that lead from one cenote to another. It is a delightful, rewarding journey.

Another highlight one encounters traveling through the Yucutan are uncrowded and barely visited cave complexes, the most interesting being the Balanchine caves. These are as lovely as most of the more famous caves that tourists are accustomed to visiting but they are easy to get to and almost never overrun with visitors.

In the small towns along the way one can encounter the friendly people who live in the area, most of them descendants of the Mayans though a milennium removed. They live in traditional houses that are quite different from the standard ones in the towns where folks sleep on hammocks rather than beds and where the kitchens and foods are probably more like their ancestors' than those of the town dwellers around them. While Mexico is quite well developed generally, there are many many thousands of people who live Third World lives. There is something for all tastes in the Yucatan.

Cathedral, Merida on New Year's Eve