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