Bruce Stainsby's Blog: Muttering from the mo

Prehistoric America in Mesa Verde National Park.

August 23rd, 2015

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About 16km from Cortez is the Mesa Verde National Park. This is one of the areas in Colorado that has well preserved buildings and artifacts from the Pueblo Indians. This prehistoric civilisation preceded the Navaho and were in this area 3,000 to 5,000 years ago. However it was first inhabited by Paleo-Indians around 9,500 BC.

The Mesa Verde or Green Table in Spanish, describes the plateau where these ancient civilisations live their semi nomadic lifestyle.

The National Park was created by president Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s 21,240 ha in area, with 4,000 sites and 600 cliff dwellings.

Montezuma Valley was home to 35,000 Ancestral Puebloan people during the 1200s. The development of the Pueblos or houses took place over many centuries. Starting with pit houses and culminating in the brick built cave dwellings – these brick houses are the main attraction of Mesa Verde.

The Puebloans used an atlati, a form of throwing stick, similar to the woomera of the Australian Aboriginals. They subsequently went on to develop the bow and arrow and learnt how to crop, domesticate animals and make pottery.

It’s amazing the difference a ready supply of wild fruit, vegetables and animals had in their development. That, combined with the contact the Puebloans had with more advanced civilisations from the south, led to them developing a rich diverse culture.

The modern day Hopi and Jumi Indians are the ancestors of the Puebloans.

We travelled along Chapin Mesa, which with the Wetherill Mesa are the two main inhabited areas.

The Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum has a number of excellent dioramas detailing the history of the Ancestral Pueblo people. It also contains fine examples of their basket weaving and geometric pottery in black and grey. There were also many stylised animal motifs that are widely used by the locals today – especially in marketing their adventure tours and accommodation.

Our park ticket allowed us to visit Spruce Tree House. This is one of the best preserved cliff dwellings on the Mesa Verde. It shows how the Ancestral Indians built brick ‘apartment blocks’ within the caves below the the Mesa.

These housed many families and were part of a community building program that included the Square House, which has a tall tower of five floors.

We also visited Sun Point View, Cliff Palace View and Cliff Canyon Overlook.

On our second night in Cortez we had dinner at the Main Street Brewery. We had a drink there the night before and I found their craft brews exceptional.

Their food wasn’t shabby either.

It had been suggested to us that because the serves are so large in the US, the best strategy is to share the main course, or entrées, as they are known.

We shared the Smoked Ribs and there was more than enough for two.

Monument Valley, the wild west as we know it.

August 5th, 2015

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We stayed overnight in Kayenta, which is on the 30,000 acre Navajo Tribal Park and part of the Navajo Reservation. This reservation is the largest in the USA, and covers 16 million acres.

This was the starting point of our Monument Valley drive.

Monument Valley is the archetypical American west, as depicted in many Cowboy and Indian  movies since the 1930s. John Ford movies such as ‘Stagecoach’, 1939 and ‘The Searchers’, 1956. Then there’s the 1969 road-trip cult classic ‘Easy Rider’.

The next morning we drove to Goulding’s Lodge where we picked up an off-road tour to visit the valley.

There are 17 miles of unpaved roads that aren’t accessible with an ordinary car. However I did see a number of sedans, including a convertible Mustang driving along the track.

The tour did take us to some areas that are within Indian private land. This exclusivity was somewhat diminished when our driver/guide had to reprimand some French tourists for trespassing.

Within one such area we were shown some 1,500 year old Petroglyphs.

In the afternoon we drove to Cortez in Colorado, with a slight detour to Four Corners. There are plaques in each state

This is a completely man made attraction, originally established in 1899, that celebrates the border convergence of four states – Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.

In many ways this is a totally underwhelming experience, but one you have to do if you are in the area.

There is even controversy as to whether the location of Four Corners is geographically accurate.

It’s also a money spinner for the local Navajo as they charge $5 per person for tourists to stand astride four states and have their photo taken doing it.

The Grand Canyon – what the Colorado River carved out of Arizona.

August 4th, 2015

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On the road from Phoenix to the Grand Canyon we detoured to Flagstaff and the Red Rock Ranger District, of the Coconino National Forest.

These high escarpments truly are red, especially in contrast to the bright blue sky.

On arrival at the Grand Canyon entrance we were greeted by uniformed staff, complete with ‘Smokey the Bear’ hats.

The Grand Canyon certainly is grand, measuring 446 km long, 29 km wide and 1,857 meters deep. Two billion years of geological history have been revealed as the mighty Colorado carved its way through this part of Arizona.

President Theodore Roosevelt championed the conservation of the canyon but it wasn’t until 1919 that President Woodrow Wilson had it made a National Park.

At 6:30am on our first morning, there was a large brown, very bare looking tree moving outside our cabin window.

It turned out to be an Elk that was grazing on a fir tree.

When you enter the Grand Canyon National Park each vehicle pays $30. This allows you to come and go for one week.

We were staying in the park and only going to be there for one full day but it was still great value.

There is a shuttle bus service, on three routes, that runs around the south rim.

The red route goes as far west as Hermits Rest, while the orange goes east to Yaki Point. The blue route links the Visitors Centre with the Village and the train depot.

We travelled east and west on the south rim, using a combination of shuttle buses and walking.

The Grand View Lookout is where most of the tour groups go. It’s close to the road and easily accessible to most tourists. It has some good views but is also one of the most crowded places on the southern rim.

We moved on quickly.

The Californian Condor, extinct in the wild in 1987, was reintroduced into the Grand Canyon, Zion National Park, parts of California and Baja California in Mexico.

This is one of the world’s rarest birds and at last count, in 2014, there were only 425 living wild or in captivity.

Adults have a wingspan of 3m and they can live up to 60 years.

We were lucky enough to see two sitting on a ledge.

On our first night we ate at the El Tovar Hotel and got chatting to our waiter.

I was interested as to how waiters earn a crust in the US.

We had been told that ‘wait staff’ or ‘servers’, as they are known barely earn enough to survive on, so tips make a huge difference.

What we didn’t know was that the lead waiter shares his/her tips with other wait staff and people in the kitchen.

No wonder they are so pleasant and little wonder that the minimum tip starts at 18%.

On our last morning we dropped into some viewing spots to the east of where we were staying. The Desert View Watch Tower was one of the most interesting.

Built in 1939, it was designed by Mary Coulter (1869-1958). Ms Coulter was a rare breed, being one of the few female architects of her time.

She did much of her work in the Grand Canyon National Park for the Fred Harvey Company, with its origins dating back to 1875, Fred Harvey built hotels and restaurants along the the rail routes in the western United States.

Route 66, Peebles and Taliesin West.

July 15th, 2015

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After the glitz of Vegas we headed south to Arizona.

Just out of Las Vegas we stopped at the Lake Mead Lookout and got our first glimpse of the mighty Colorado River.

This is one of the principal rivers in the South Western United States, running for 2,330 km and taking water from seven US and two Mexican states.

It’s also the principal architect of the Grand canyon.

We detoured via Kingman to travel on the ‘Mother Road’ or Route 66. Unfortunately this wasn’t in a Chevy Corvette, Ford Mustang or even on Harley Davidson but a rather slothful Nissan Versa.

It’s not the road that it used to be, as the Interstate Highway System replaced it or it has been buried under development.

It was originally created in 1926 and was a major route from Chicago to California and has been imortalised in songs and on TV.

That night we spent a very pleasant time in Peeples Valley with Thea’s friend Ruby – she even cooked us a turkey roast.

The next day the three of us visited Taliesin West. This was Frank Lloyd Wright’s Architectural school and winter house in Scottsdale, Arizona.

It was built in 1936 and is the current home of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and sister school to Taliesin in Wisconsin.

Built, using local materials in the Organic Style, this property almost hugs the earth with its low profile design of timber and rock.

I felt that the layout was disparate and lacked the visual cohesion of his other houses. Well the ones I have seen so far.

Wright not only designed the building but all the furniture and light fittings.

Navaho Red was his favourite colour and there were splashes of it everywhere.

The only way to visit Taliesin West is by guided tour. This was conducted by a very knowledgable but rather effusive retired teacher.

His views were very blinkered as to the genius of Frank Lloyd Wright, especially in comparison to European architecture.

To his credit he tried to imbue a sense of the aesthetic for architecture into the group, but I found his approach rather condescending.

Las Vegas – Sin City.

July 5th, 2015

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Another long flight and we were back in LA.

We picked up a hire car and drove to Long Beach. Ian had maps all marked with sticky notes of places we just had to visit. I think it would take us six months rather than two to cover all his suggestions.

We then had to work out just what we could see in the time.

So after a four hour drive from LA, Las Vegas was our first stop.

This is glitz on steroids.

Everything was big and we weren’t even in Texas.

Our hotel, the Stratosphere, had checked in over 500 guests by the time we arrived.

And even more were waiting at the reception desk. Then there’s a staff of around 1,200 to service the patrons and 2,472 rooms to house them.

The Stratosphere is at the northern end of the Strip and we decided to walk down to the main casino area.

This was a mistake as the temperature was hovering around 43°C.

After walking in the heat for an hour or so we escaped into one of the many, air conditioned, shopping malls.

This one was called Fashion Show Mall and they have a catwalk fashion show every half hour.

After a cool drink and a rest we ventured out again and it wasn’t long before we found Caesars Palace.

Originally built in 1966 this massive hotel, resort and casino has 3,960 rooms. It’s Roman theme runs throughout every aspect of the design, with the shopping complex replicating a Roman forum. The temperature is set to a mild 23°C and the domed ceiling is a painting with white fluffy clouds on a blue sky and lit to have a late afternoon glow.

The punters are always comfortable at Caesars Palace, no matter if they are gambling, shopping, eating or just browsing.

Apart from Caesars, Las Vegas is full of themed venues.

There’s the Venetian, Luxor, Caribbean, Paris, Planet Hollywood, MGM Grand, New York, New York and Circus Circus.

And the list goes on.

The latest resort-hotel-casino extravaganza is going to have an Asian theme.

The justification for the Eastern influence is that 75% of the high rollers come from that part of the world.

Our hotel, the Stratosphere, was all about height.

The tower is the highest building in Vegas, standing at 350.2m. In fact it’s the tallest freestanding observation tower in the Unites States and is topped with vertigo inducing rides and activities.

The ultimate adventure for the thrill-seeker is a controlled free fall of 252m from the top of the tower.

On our second morning we had a quick drive down to Fremont, the original gambling centre of Las Vegas.

This areas has a lot of the old fifties charm and a vibrant night life. It’s just a single street that has now been covered with a large, LED lit canopy.

This offers a shaded area in the heat and shelter if it rains – which I doubt it ever does in Nevada.

Bail bonds, attorneys and pawn shops are everywhere, especially in Fremont. This is the lucky city but there are still many people who are down on their luck.

We again availed ourselves of the Hop-On Hop-Off Bus.

This one had two routes – The Strip and Down Town. The temperature was again in the forties but the top level of the bus offered some shade and a cool breeze – so long as the bus kept moving.

We had wondered why there were no Seniors discounts in Las vegas. Brian, our guide on the ‘Strip Route’ had the answer. Seniors represent the largest market in Vegas and it would be stupid to offer   them discounts, as they will spend anyway. What Brian did say is that that industry see families with young children as their growth area and for that reason kids, under 12, get everything gratis.

The ‘Welcome to Las Vegas’ sign is another icon of the US, much like the ‘Hollywood’ one in LA. The big difference is that the Vegas sign is copyright free. It was designed by Betty Willis, in the Googie style and built in 1959.

This means everyone can copy it, and they do – rip offs are everywhere.

Las Vegas is Sin City, in many ways beyond gambling. Our hotel offered a happy hour between 2am and 4am, where there were two for one drinks. Smoking is permitted, as are children, in any of the casino areas.

There is even a restaurant in Fremont Street that celebrates their 350 Pound (158.75kg) plus patrons, encouraging them to eat more and not to worry about their life threatening conditions.

Once they weigh-in on the industrial strength scales outside, they get to eat free.

There is an accompanying ‘Hate’ mailbox where you can send your letters of objection.

That’s if you are a ‘self opinionated, sticky nosed, do-gooder’ from San Francisco or LA.

Back to Melbourne for ‘The Event’

July 2nd, 2015

The Sunday wedding cake with Sylvania koalas

While we were in Belize our son Evan informed us that he and Stephanie were going to get married.

While this was a surprise it wasn’t altogether a shock.

They wondered if we could come home for ‘The Event’, as it became known.

We immediately booked a flight from LA to Melbourne.

This was a whirlwind visit, in more ways than one.

It turned out to be not just one event but two. The actual wedding ceremony on Tuesday night, followed by a party the following Saturday night.

There were only twelve of us for the ceremony, plus the civil celebrant, Jenny Bahramis, a long time family friend.

The party on Saturday was at the Hares and Hyenas in Brunswick.

This gay and lesbian bookstore also doubles as a venue and was an ideal location for the second event.

Both of these events were fun, creative and unique, a lot like Ev and Steph.

The main events were dispersed with a number of smaller events.

All in all it was a very hectic time and we fell back onto the plane, ten days later, completely exhausted but very happy – especially for Evan and Stephanie.

Los Angeles, America’s pop culture capital.

June 25th, 2015

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It was a long day from Belize to Los Angeles, California.

A 4:30am start, three taxis, a boat and two flights later we were in LA.

We were staying right on the boardwalk in Venice Beach, a good choice considering it was only 20 minutes from LAX.

We hadn’t had much exercise over the last week in San Pedro, so we made up for it with a 23km walk around Venice Beach and Santa Monica.

LA is a city built for the automobile and everything is miles apart.

People talk about just a few minutes to get from place to place – this is by car of course.

Our long walk down to Santa Monica culminated with a short stroll along the famous pier.

Built in 1909 it is one of the main attractions of this seaside town.

There is even a parking lot on the pier – another acknowledgement to the dominance of the auto.

The pier is home to a solar powered Ferris wheel, aquarium and a 1920s’ carousel.

It’s similar to the pier at Brighton, England, but no where near as long and without the charm of the British seaside resort.

Santa Monica had a couple of very big differences. The first is the long sandy beach, which stretches north and south for kilometers.

Then there’s the surf, which again runs the entire length of the beach, and is very consistent.

Pale blue life saving huts are situated every 200 meters or so along the beach, conjuring up images of Bay Watch and the well augmented Pamela Anderson.

‘June Gloom’ is how the weather is described at this time of the year.

The days start out chilly, with heavy cloud cover, but clear to a bright blue sky by the afternoon.

Los Angeles is a big city, so their Hop-On-Hop-Off bus is a great way to see a lot, and learn a lot about its history.

There are five major routes in the StarLine Tour agenda.

We managed to fit in three of them over a twenty four hour period.

The first was the Yellow Route, through Santa Monica and Beverly Hills. We then transferred to the Red Route which took us into the heart of Hollywood, along Melrose Avenue and then down Sunset Street.

The next day we took the Blue Route from Santa Monica to Venice Beach and down to Marina Del Ray.

I sat up on the top deck of the bus, with a permanent grin on my face.

This was the stuff of dreams.

These places are part of our pop culture and many of the locations were immortalised in TV shows from the 50s and 60s.

Seventy Seven Sunset Strip and The Beverley Hillbillies spring to mind.

Apart from movies and TV, Los Angeles has been home to other Twentieth Century phenomena’s. The surf culture and surf music of the 60s, as well as the rise of skateboarding and extreme sports in the 70s, all started in the LA area.

All this nostalgia was heightened by the excellent on-board commentary, done by a voice over with a very English accent.

He seemed to add humor and whimsy to the trip.

Then there’s the actually history of LA.

Venice and Venice Beach was founded, as a seaside resort, in 1906 by the tobacco millionaire Abbot Kinney and originally called Venice America. The canals were designed to drain the area, which was marshland. Unfortunately they weren’t deep enough and soon started to silt up.

There is now only a small number of the canals remaining, but these are where the prime properties  are to be found in Venice.

Venice and in particular the Venice boardwalk, which isn’t actually a boardwalk but a long strip of asphalt, is home to to a variety of street people, performers, hawkers and a constant stream of tourists.

It’s like a 4.2km long circus stage.

Large murals are a part of the Venice landscape. There was one on the side wall of our hotel and many others along the Venice boardwalk. In South Venice, just near the canals, there’s even a three story high portrait of Mr Kinney.

On Sunday afternoon we visited the Getty Centre. This is high up on a hill with tremendous views of LA. It was opened in 1997 at a cost of $1.3 billion and you can certainly see where the money has gone. The buildings are all marble with the landscaping complementing the cliff top location. There is even a hovertrain to transport the visitor to the museum complex.

We decided to try the LA public transport system. Probably not one of our smartest moves as this is a city designed for driving.

An hour and a half later we reached our the Getty Centre, with really only enough time to explore the gardens. There was excellent sculptures, one by Henry Moore and another by René Magritte.

Just down the boardwalk from our hotel was the Venice Ale House, with 30 draught beers on offer.

Here we met a tree. This guy was on stilts, dressed as a tree and came into the Venice Ale House for a coconut juice.

As he told us he “…works the Santa Monica beaches.”

What else does a tree do.

As we have seen from Paris to Panama the craft beer scene is everywhere. There were at least four other such pubs in the Venice and Santa Monica area.

IPA or India Pale Ale seems to be one of the styles most prevalent. Everywhere we have been I have found at least three or four on offer.

Having got a real taste for LA and the surrounding areas, on the Hop-On Hop-off bus, we felt it needed a more in-depth investigation.

So we hired a car. This time a VW Jetta, which was a class above what we had been driving in Central America.

Our first stop was Malibu and Zuma Beach, which is north of LA.

Ever since we arrived there has always been the June Gloom, with dark foreboding clouds hanging over us every morning.

Now there was a fog.

The summer holidays have started so there were families, university students and large groups of teenagers on camp holidays.

They looked a little out of place on this Malibu beach surrounded by fog.

From there we went in search of houses, not just any houses but those that were designed by the American icon and architect, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-19590).  The two we did find, that were unfortunately closed, were Ennis House and Hollyhock House. These are built in, what has been termed, a ‘Mayan Revival’ style.

Frank Lloyd Wright was not only an architect but an interior designer and a leader of the Prairie School. He designed everything from skyscrapers to schools but he is best known for his private houses. Many of these were built for the wealthy new rich who were the patrons of the Arts and Crafts movement that had been developed in the United Kingdom.

Wright was a complete designer in that he considered all elements of the building. He designed the tiles, windows, wallpaper and even the furniture.

His driving philosophy was nature and many of his works express this. Hollyhock house was built using prefabricated concrete blocks with styalised hollyhock motifs decorating the structure.

Many similarities can be drawn between Wright’s approach and that of the famous Catalan architect Antonio Gaudi.

With both architects, nature was their inspiration.

We then drove up to Mount Hollywood to visit the Griffith Observatory again it was closed. Opened in 1935, it has been the set for dozens of Hollywood’s movies. ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ is one of the most famous.

Los Angeles is more like a large Hollywood set than a city.

At the base of Mount Hollywood is the Greek Theatre. Again this location conjured up memories of Neil Diamond’s Hot August Night, that was recorded there in 1972.

From the observatory we had a great view of the Hollywood sign, which has become an cultural icon of the city. It was originally erected in 1923 to advertise real estate and read ‘Hollywoodland’.

Late in the afternoon we drove around the streets of Beverly Hills or ‘90210’ This was developed in 1914 by a group of investors who were looking for oil but only found water.

The next day, after dropping off the car, we again attempted to tame the LA public transport system.

I can see why most people drive.

It takes forever to get anywhere and the buses we travelled on seem to be frequented by LA’s more colourful characters.

No wonder we got strange looks from anyone we told we were using ‘The Metro’.

Our primary destination was the Los Angeles County Museum of Art or LACMA on Wilshire Boulevard. Established at its current location in 1965 it holds more than 120,000 works covering the history of art.

We concentrated on two of the temporary exhibitions.

The first was by Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) titled ‘Junk Data’ Noah was a black American Assemblage Sculptor of found objects. He was very active in using his art to draw attention to the problems of homelessness amongst black communities.

In complete contrast we then visited an exhibition by Larry Sultan (1946-2009) a white middle class urban photographer. His photography was all about ambiguity and featured many locations in the LA suburbs.

Later in his career he collaborated with Mike Mandel, to develop work that poked fun at LA advertising, especially billboards, of the 70s and 80s.

These posters look like real ads but said nothing.

A lot like much of today’s advertising.

It was then back on the bus for the long ride back to Santa Monica and Venice Beach.

Belize – English, in a very North American way.

June 13th, 2015

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We have mainly been in Spanish speaking countries since last December, so it was strange to suddenly find ourselves speaking English again.

Belize is the youngest Caribbean nation, getting independence in 1981.

Formally British Honduras, Belize has been the home to the English since a shipwreck in 1638.

It was formally made a Crown Colony in 1862.

In Pre-Columbian times it was part of the Mayan Empire.

We took a flight from Flores, Guatemala to Belize City in a Cessna Caravan. This is the smallest international aircraft that I have ever flown in. We have since discovered that the Caravan is also one of the safest.

Our taxi driver from the airport was curious as to why were were staying, even one night, in Belize City and not going straight to San Pedro.

Once we reached the city we understood why.

Then we met Prince Charles Perez, a raconteur, orator and mango salesman.

He kept us, and a couple from Jamaica, amused for half an hour with the origin of the name Belize.

In short it means ‘Beautiful Country’.

Prince Charles was amusing.

We spent a few hours wandering around the streets of Belize. This is about as much time as you need to see the main sights.

It was a Sunday and the place was deserted. It reminded me very much of a Nuku’alofa, the capital of Tonga – Belize City is slightly larger.

The only real activity was centered around St. John the Baptist Cathedral, where a group of teenagers, dressed in immaculate uniforms, were attending a service.

The cathedral, first constructed in 1812, is one of the oldest buildings in the city.

Our hotel was originally an old colonial timber mansion, right on the waterfront and like most of Belize City, it had seen better days. However the staff were very friendly and the room was comfortable.

As we have discovered in other coastal areas of the Caribbean, the breeze is constantly blowing. This keeps the humidity down, the bugs away and makes the evenings very pleasant.

The hub of activity in Belize City is the water taxi terminal, which indicates that most people are just passing through.

Maybe the taxi driver was right.

Prince Charles Perez turned out to be the highlight of Belize City.

The water taxi ride from Belize City to San Pedro, on Ambergris Caye, was an hour and a half of bumps and bounces.

We selected San Pedro as a spot to plan our assault on the US. It was also to have a break. It had been 97 days on the road since we left Barcelona and our clothes needed a good wash and our packs needed airing.

Isla Bonita Yacht Club was our home for the next ten days. The only yachts we saw were those that sailed past.

We did find out later that it had actually been a marina but that had long since vanished.

The hotel was named after the 1987 hit by Madonna ‘La Isla Bonita’ or Beautiful Island, which was originally written as a lament of San Pedro.

Like most things in the tropics, if they aren’t maintained, they very quickly return to ‘nature’.

The Isla Bonita Yacht Club was perfect for our needs, it had a pool, self catering and a BBQ, right outside our bungalow.

There was also a fruit shop, supermarket and bottle shop, just out side.

Always in search of a good coffee, we discovered the Island Buzz Cafe. They served Guatemalan, free trade coffee, that was roasted locally.

As with a lot of tourist related businesses in Belize, the Island Buzz Cafe is run by expat Americans.

It’s easy to see why escaping the cold of a North American winter is a very attractive option.

The next day we had yet another coffee at the Island Buzz Cafe and this time we got chatting to a Canadian, another escapee from the north.

He was an interesting guy who had a liking for photography. He had recently bought a GoPro and was espousing it’s features.

This small, high resolution, waterproof and extremely tough action camera can be placed on a ‘selfie stick’ and thrust into all sorts of weird situations.

Seeing the world with another perspective, or point of view, is the art of good photography.

Golf carts are the preferred mode of transport in San Pedro.

There’s barely a car in sight.

Whenever you see a cart parked, they always have a steering lock.

I questioned the Canadian about the obvious crime rate on Ambergris Caye.

He explained that, because most carts look similar and one cart key fits all, locking them prevents drunk tourists and residents driving away from a bar in the wrong cart.

We hired a cart for a day – it was too long.

From where we were, on Coconut Drive, we could only travel 8km north and 4.4km south.

The guy I rented the cart from had a different story about the tight security on the carts.

He said there is a black market in cart parts and the carts are regularly stolen, wrecked and their parts sold.

Apart from the gated communities, designed for the tourists and North American expats, the local housing is a real mixture.

There are some timber homes that look like a stiff sea breeze would knock them over. While right next door you might find a brightly painted concrete bungalow, with an impeccably manicured garden.

Having driven around Ambergris Caye, admittedly for only a few hours, we couldn’t help but wonder what effect climate change will have.

These Islands have a very low elevation, being developed over coral reefs. (The highest obstacle our golf cart had to negotiate were the speed humps) They are predominantly sand and at high tide the water laps to within metres of the houses – even those on stilts.

Our drive was cut short, due to a storm front that was threatening. We had spent as much time as was needed touring Ambergris Caye but didn’t take many snaps.

It just wasn’t that photogenic.

There is apparently a Mayan ruin south of where were staying but we couldn’t find it.

We were up very early on our last morning for our flight to Los Angeles.

It had been raining, on and off, for a couple of days and light in the early morning sky was very dramatic.

Guatemala, rich in pre and post-Columbian culture.

June 12th, 2015

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Again we flew with Copa Airlines, this time from Managua to Guatemala City.

As a bonus we were upgraded to Business Class. It’s a pity it was only a 55 minute flight.

Even for that small time it’s good to feel more important than you are.

We then rented another car, this time a Toyota Yaris, and drove straight to Antigua. We had been told that Guatemala City is only worth passing through, so we did just that.

It took time to get out of the city but even longer to get over the mountains. It seemed to be a main truck route and we got caught behind countless slow moving, underpowered and overloaded lorries.

Antigua.

We checked into the Hotel Convento Santa Catalina which was built in 1613. As the name suggests it was formally a convent and school. Our room had a rather large wooden cross on the wall to prove it.

The hotel is beside the Santa Catalina Arch, which was used by the cloistered nuns to cross from the convent to the school without being seen.

This is one of the most photographed sites in the city.

Antigua was originally the capital of Guatemala and the first Capital of Central America. That’s until the earthquake of 1773, when most of the city was destroyed.

It was rebuilt and is now the tourist capital of the country. Full of beautiful old colonial buildings and cobblestone streets, it’s regarded as a gem within Central America.

It was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1979.

As much as there are renovated buildings in Antigua,there are ruins, again a result of the earthquake.

The most spectacular is the San Josè Cathedral. The original church of Guatemala, built in 1680, it has three enormous domes and a labyrinth of catacombs.

As we found in Mérida, Mexico, the indigenous population add another rich cultural layer to the local Hispanics.

The women and girls still wear traditional clothes and sell their handicrafts on the streets. There are no stalls, they just squat down on the pavement and the tourists and locals mill around them.

A thunderstorm hit on our first afternoon. No one seemed perturbed and just waited for it to blow over.

The next day we decided to walk to the lookout at Cerro de La Cruz. This is a hilltop overlooking the city. It gives you a wonderful perspective of the classic colonial city layout.

It’s much like Melbourne and built on a grid system. However the grid in Antigua is perfectly aligned on a north, south axis.

The Casa Santo Domingo is a museum, of pre and post Columbian art and artifacts, plus contemporary art, all set within an archeological area, adjacent to a five star hotel.

I was initially reluctant to visit ‘yet another museum’ but Thea talked me into it.

What started out as a simple ethnological display turned out to be an ever unfolding trip though ancient and modern Guatemalan history. This was all housed in what was the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the Santo Tomás de Aquino College.

Much of the church and convent were destroyed in the 1773 earthquake. This Museum Promenade, or cultural route, has renovated the ruins to house their exhibits.

We continued our walk to the San Francisco Church and ruins. There was an almost festival feel in the church grounds, with many families filing in and out of the church and others having picnics in the back of their utes.

There was one, rather corpulent, friar sitting under a tree and blessing the children of passing families with his bucket and brush.

There were food and souvenir stalls lining the church yard.

The next day we went to the last church on our list, La Merced. Again it had a festival feel.

There were girls dressed in white, for their first communion, others taking communion and many more just hanging around the entrance, chatting to friends or having their photos taken.

Outside was more like a fairground with hawkers and stalls selling everything from hand crafts to the off cuts of the ‘Host’ wafers.

It was a special day for ‘mans best friend’ and there were dogs of all shapes and sizes all over Antigua.

The dog food brand Purina seemed to be the sponsor. There were water stations set up to keep Fido hydrated. There were also Purina branded bibs on many of the dogs.

We even saw one poor pooch served Coke in its bowl.

Lunch is the main meal of the day in Latin America and the restaurants in Antigua were full.

Many brought their dogs along for the treat, with lots of scraps being dropped under the table.

The dogs would have slept well that Sunday night.

Apart from the one who had the Coke that is.

Panajachel.

It’s only 76km from Antigua to Panajachel but it was one of the longest drives of my life.

It took us just under three and a half hours.

Leaving the relative calm of Antigua we joined Highway 14 and suddenly encountered a nose to tail line of trucks entering Chimaltenango. This continued for what seemed an eternity.

Then we hit the Pan American Highway and I thought that the worst was over.

My relief was short lived.

Our route took us from four lanes to one as we passed over the mountains. There were potholes, landslides and a river to forge before we reached Panajachel.

The river crossing was both scary and amusing.

As we rounded a bend the road suddenly ended – there was nothing but a ravine in front of us. We backed up and took what appeared to be the road, now a dirt track, down a steep incline.

At the bottom was a rather quickly flowing river.

A road gang, working on replacing the bridge that had been washed away, assured us it was safe to pass.

Also other vehicles seemed to be coming and going, so this was obviously the way.

We then, very cautiously, crossed the river. We were in a Toyota Yaris not a Landcruiser, so I had visions if us being washed down stream.

When we reached the other side there seemed to be no obvious way to rejoin the main road. Again more locals ushered us in the right direction, gabbling in Spanish and madly gesticulating.

Getting to our hotel in Panajachel wasn’t as dramatic but it still took ages.

Most of these small towns have a one way road system which are not, as I have experienced, clearly marked. We therefore had to circle around until we approached the street from the right direction.

After three and a half hours it was a great relief to reach our hotel and find that we could park in front of our room.

It was now late in the day and we went for a short walk down to Lake Atitlán.

It had been a harrowing drive and a cool beverage was needed.

It then started to pour, as a thunderstorm rolled in over the lake. From our vantage point at the bar the sound and light show was spectacular.

Lake Atitlán was the reason we had come to Panajachel.

It’s a large freshwater lake with jagged peaks, like the Atitlán and Jolimán volcanoes, plunging into the water.

Atitlán is an ancient caldera formed only 85,000 years ago, which makes it quiet young.

It is regarded by the tourist authorities and guide books as one of the most beautiful lakes in the world.

The 130 square kilometre lake is fed by the three rivers, a waterfall, springs, rainfall and watershed from the surrounding mountains.

The Reserva Natural Atitlán is on the lakeside and was once the finest coffee plantations in Guatemala. The bushes have now all but gone and the forest has grown back.

There are a number of walks you can take. One to the lake and another through the forest to a waterfall.

We took both but unfortunately didn’t finish the forest walk as we could hear another thunderstorm approaching.

The reserve was well designed with tracks, linked by swing bridges. There was also a butterfly enclosure, teeming with life.

We even got to see some more spider monkeys. These are amazing primates that have long limbs and an even longer, prehensile tail that’s used as a fifth limb.

As seems to be the trend, there was also Zip Lining. We could hear the screech of the cable and hoots from the riders as they passed through the forrest above us.

Built in 1948, Casa Cakchiquel was one of the first hotels on the lake. It was visited by the likes of Ernersto “Che” Guevara and Ingrid Bergman.

There is a small photo gallery showing Guatemalan life from the turn of last century.

It’s also home to Restaurante Hana, serving traditional Japanese food. We decided that Japanese would be a good change from the local fare and Classic Italian, that seems to have become the ‘World Food’ of choice in most tourist destinations.

No matter where you travel pizza and pasta is much easier to find, than local food, in most cities.

Japanese and Koreans seem to have a liking for Panajachel and have started businesses there.

The best coffee, that we found in Panajachel, was at Cafe Loco and it was run by Koreans.

The young barista was taking it all very seriously. When we were there he was experimenting with a cold filtered coffee, that took twelve hours to prepare.

Chichicastenango.

The trip to Chichicastenango was less than 50km. With a small diversion to San Catarina Palopó, more heavy traffic and endless mountain villages to negotiate, it took us over two hours.

Our hotel was the Museo Mayan, a quaint and eclectic establishment that was built in 1932 by Alfred S Clark (1893-1937).

Alfred was a pioneer of tourism to Guatemala but had a problem with where to accommodate his tour groups. He saw the potential to bring Westerners to Chichicastenango and its unique cultural experience.

He was so successful that within two years of building the Mayan Inn he had to build an extension.

The only available WiFi in the hotel was near the front desk and it was there that we met José. He supposedly spoke five languages, had been a guide for over forty years and was there to help us get the most out of Chichicastenango, meaning ‘Place of the Nettles’.  The  locals call it Chichi, which is much easier to say.

José was hard to resist.

He showed us through the two main churches, Calvario del Sr. Sepuitado and Santo Thomás. They sit at either end of the Central market square.

The market is the main attraction of Chichi but the churches are a revelation. Here both Catholicism and Mayan rituals exist side by side. There seems to be a strange blend of both faiths.

San Thomás Church, which is 400 years old, was built over the ruins of a Mayan temple. The difference here is that the Mayans disregard the church and still go there to carry out their religious activities and rituals.

Fires and the smell of incense permeates the Chichi air.

The same happens in the cemetery. Here tombs are painted in different colours, according to the day of the week that the first person who is buried there died. They are gaudy shades of blues, greens, mauves, oranges, yellows and reds.

In the midst of the graveyard are Mayan sacrificial fires, where offerings are made to help the deceased in the afterlife.

Below the graveyard is a Mayan temple, built at the end of 26,000 years on the Mayan calendar, which was in 2012.

The mask and costume maker, Miguel Ignacio, is an important part of the Chichi community. Here they make the masks and costumes for the Festival of Santo Thomas, which is held in late December.

Inside they had a shrine for San Simón, the god of cigarettes and booze.

We had a brief walk through the market area and preparation was in full swing for next day’s activities. Markets are held on Thursdays and Sundays.

Next to the Central Square is a large mural depicting Mayan life, which runs along the walls of the Regional Museum.

The next day was market day and we had a quick walk around before breakfast.

Jose had told us to go to the church early, where the flowers sellers display their blooms on the steps, before the sun gets too hot.

This is an excellent and colourful market with a huge variety of merchandise on offer.

It’s all laid out in areas that seems to radiate out from the small square that lies between the two churches.

There’s handicrafts, clothing, fruit, vegetables, meat and livestock.

There was quiet a kerfuffle in the livestock area when a rather large sow escaped.

As we walked around there was the gentle sound of clapping. We soon discovered that it was the local ladies making tortillas. Three or four would gather around a hot plate and pat the dough until it became flat enough to bake.

The Guatemalans, especially the Mayan women are minute and I was continually feeling a rush of air under my elbow as another Indian rushed past.

The Regional Museum has a small display of Pre-Hispanic artefacts, which was nothing to get excited about. It did however explain the importance of the Highland region to Guatemala, both in terms of Mayan culture and the provision of fresh produce.

When we went out for dinner on the Thursday night most of the market had been dismantled.

A bi-product of the Chichicastenango Market is a very healthy pack of stray dogs. At the end of market day they were eagerly devouring a large pile of scraps and leftovers before they were removed.

We drove from Chichicastenango to Guatemala City Airport, where we dropped off the Yaris.

We gave ourselves plenty of time, knowing the slowness of traffic in Guatemala.

We needed most of it.

Apart from the inevitable time spent in traffic, it took over an hour to check in the rental car.

They go over the vehicle with a magnifying glass, trying to find the slightest blemish in the body work, that wasn’t there before. This is a scam to try and get you to pay for repairing the car.

I usually take my own photos and that tends to put them off.

Flores and Tikal.

Late in the day we flew 300km north from Guatemala City to Flores, an island town on Lago Petén Itzá. A causeway connects the Island to the twin towns Santa Elena and San Benito.

In Pre-Columbian times Flores was the Mayan city of Nojpetén.

We were in Flores primarily to tour to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal, which is about 63km away.

Our bus had a mixture of Spanish and English speakers. Our English guide was Manuel, a very sprightly Guatemalan, who seemed to possess amazing reserves of energy.

We walked for fours hours around Tikal, much of it through the tropical rainforest. Manuel would stride ahead leaving the younger members of the group behind.

At our first Mayan Pyramid he bounded up the stairs, demonstrating the best way to climb. Then he virtually ran down, again showing us the way to descend.

Tikal was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

The Mayans chose the area because of the abundance of limestone, their primary building material.

The area was gradually deforested as roads, temples, public buildings, housing and crops covered the landscape.

The clearing of the jungle caused a drastic climate change, culminating in a severe drought that left the city, of over 100,000 inhabitants, without any water.

Because there was no natural source of water, the Mayans built a series of reservoirs. These were fed by rainwater that was abundant when there was nothing but rainforest, but sadly lacking when there was none.

The main part of Tikal covers about 16 square kilometres and includes around 4,000 structures. At its zenith it covered a much lager area than this.

Very few of the original buildings are visible.

It was primarily built during the Early Classic Period, 4th to 6th centuries AD, but started in 750 BC.

There was an alliance between Tikal and Teotihuacan, near Mexico City, making the twin cities the most powerful in Mesoamerica.

Tikal’s power fluctuated, reaching its zenith in the early 8th century but it then went into decline. By the year 1,000 it was abandoned and not rediscovered again, and publicly recognised, until 1848.

During that time the jungle repossessed the land and now the vast majority of the buildings are just mounds of vegetation.

Nicaragua, right on the Pacific Ring or Fire.

June 11th, 2015

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Managua.

After two short flights from Manuel Antonio, one in a 12 seater Cessna, we reached Managua, the capital of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is the largest of the Central American countries with a relatively small population.

I think they all live in Managua.

It also has two of the largest fresh water lakes in Central America, predictably named, Lake Managua and Lake Nicaragua.

The tropical weather had set in and it was 35°C with high humidity.

Managua is divided into two distinct districts, the old part, which is north of the small volcanic lake, Laguna de Tiscapa, and the new part which is to the south.

It’s a sprawling city and we didn’t feel like trying to navigate around it in the heat.

So we hired a driver, come guide, to show us the highlights.

Eyner showed us the best of the old and new parts.

Managua suffered a devastating earthquake in 1972 that destroyed 90% of the downtown city area and killed over 19,000 people.

One of the buildings to suffer the most damage was the Catedral de Santiago. At the time it was deemed impossible to rebuild and at present just the shell remains.

It was designed by Pablo Dambach in 1920, then built and shipped from Belgium.

There is now talk of repairing it.

The new Cathedral of the Conception, that was completed in 1993 and replaced the ruined one, is a contemporary reinforced concrete construction, that really lacks the charm of the original church.

The locals believe it looks like a crate of eggs from the outside. This is due to the multitude of domes on the roof.

On the same square as the old cathedral is the National Palace, built in 1935, it currently houses the museum and library.

Like much of Central America, Nicaragua has had its share of heroes, violence and corruption.

There is a memorial and many statues to honour Augusto César Sandino (1895-1934)

He was a hero to the Nicaraguans and branded a bandit by the US.

He was assassinated in 1934.

In 2010 he was named by the nation’s congress as a ‘national hero’

A fascinating part of the rejuvenated city is the old port area on Lake Managua. This has been turned into a restaurant and picnic area.

Unfortunately there are no water sport activities as the lake is heavily polluted.

A rather bizarre addition to the street-scape are the giant, yellow, illuminated trees. These apparently are the brainchild of Rosario Murillo, wife of the president, Daniel Ortega. Inspired by Gustav Klimt, these symbolise the Tree of Life and are all over the city.

The locals believe that the money could have been better spent.

Our final stop on our Managua city tour was the food and craft market.

As Eyner pointed out, this market is the only one that’s safe enough for tourists.

We chose to stay at the more business oriented Holiday Inn Express.

This was for a reason.

One of our credit cards had been compromised and shut down so we had a new one sent by DHL courier to Managua.

We felt a business hotel would know how to handle a delivery.

They did and the new card was waiting for us when we arrived.

Because of the layout of the city there is no real tourist oriented hub where there are hotels with restaurants near by.

As it turned out our hotel selection was a good one, as the Galerías Santo Domingo was just up the road.

This is a shopping mall with a large and varied restaurant area in an enclosed courtyard.

The Holiday Inn even provided an hourly shuttle bus to the mall.

It’s a great solution for a city with a new growth area, that doesn’t have a traditional restaurant scene.

We returned to the Galerías Santo Domingo on our second night and the place was alive. There was even a band playing in a central courtyard.

The mall still had the ubiquitous fast food court, but this restaurant area was set apart and much more up-market.

A similar idea could breathe life into Southland and Chadstone malls that are traditionally lacking style, substance and good food.

Leon.

We hired a car in Managua and drove the 80km to Leon.

It was an easy drive in a rather abused Nissan Tilda.

The roads were mainly concrete and the surrounding country was more dry scrub than tropical.

Navigating is made much easier using the off-line features in Google Maps and Triposo.

Leon is one of the former capitals of Nicaragua, the other being Granada.

There was squabbling between the the two cities until Managua became a geographic and political compromise.

Leon was also the ecclesiastical centre and there is practically a church on every corner to prove it.

It’s a colonial city, the heart of which is Parque Central. There are many grand buildings, some in need of restoration and others already being restored.

The Cathedral is one that’s under renovation so the facade was a mess of scaffolding. However the interior was still open and very impressive.

The current church was built in 1747 in an American-Baroque style. The Stations of the Cross are vast murals, considered masterpieces in Central America, painted by Antonio Sarria.

On our first full day we went for a drive, firstly to the coast near Poneloya and Las Penitas then north to Chinandega.

The day was very hazy and not great for snaps.

We did drive on part of the Volcanic Route that took us past San Jacinto, Telica, Castila, San Cristobal and Chonco Volcanoes.

Both Telica and San Cristobal are still active.

Part of the road north from Chinandega is under repair, and for very good reason. The pot holes, I did’t manage to avoid, did nothing to improve the performance of the aging Nissan.

Once we were back in Leon we had our first encounter with the law.

Leon is full of one way streets, that aren’t always marked as such.

I stupidly followed one of the tricycle taxis (Tuc-Tuc) and found myself going against the traffic.

Obviously it was ok for him but not for me.

I turned around and went back, only to be confronted by a sour faced traffic policeman.

I acted dumb, not hard to do, and tried to explain that there were no signs.

He wanted to see my license, so I gave him my International one, even though it was out of date. I figured that if he wanted to use it as leverage, I still had my Victorian one.

Once he realised we were Australian he loosened up, gave me back my license and we were sent on our way, with instructions on how to find our hotel.

Our last day in Leon was a Sunday and coincidently Mother’s Day in Australia.

We had a leisurely lunch near Parque Central and then wandered around the city centre.

The days are getting hotter and more humid – the rains are on the way.

The eruption of the nearby Telica Volcano was a reminder that this whole area is sitting on what’s called the Pacific Ring of Fire.

Granada.

Driving from Leon to the outskirts of Granada was a breeze, then we encountered the one way streets again.

At many intersections there are no signs indicating that the street ahead is one way. I again found myself going the wrong way.

We eventually found the Hotel Dario and the bell boy jumped in the car and showed us how to get to the car park. This turned out to be just a street behind the hotel.

The Hotel Dario is a charming colonial building, right in the centre of the walking street and surrounded by bars and restaurants. It has an open court yard and wide breezy verandas.

Opposite the hotel was O’Shea’s Irish Pub. I am not usually one to visit Irish pubs, except in Ireland.

This was different – they served craft beer on tap.

I had a couple of glasses of Moropotente’s, 19 Días and it was very good.

I returned the next night to make sure that the 19 Días wasn’t an aberration, and ran into the owner, Tom O’Shea.

I questioned him about the brewer and the brew.

Tom had no idea. “It just comes in in big silver cylinders”

The luck of the Irish.

Granada is very different to the far lest developed and more modest Leon.

To start with it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More of the buildings had been renovated and there was a greater tourist infrastructure in place.

This also means that everything is more expensive.

It was late in the day when we checked into the hotel and the afternoon thunderstorms were threatening. We walked around the city centre and then down to the edge of Lake Nicaragua. This is more an inland sea than a lake. In the haze the other side was barely visible.

Leon might have had a lot of churches but Granada wasn’t far behind. They were larger and in various states of repair.

After a morning of sites we headed into the mountains to La Catarina, a small tourist village that has a wonderful lookout over Laguna de Apoyo.

This is a volcanic crater lake with Granada just visible behind.

It was cooler and less humid with lots of locals also looking to escape the heat of Granada.

The next morning we took a tour of the isletas or islands near the coast of Lake Nicaragua. There are reportedly 365 tropical islands dotted around the lake, edge.

We stopped to visit Castillo San Pablo, a fort built by the Spanish in 1784 to protect Granada from pirate raids.

With 68% of Nicaraguans on the poverty line, life on the waterways is about survival. Fishing isn’t restricted so the locals fish to sell and feed their families.

They live side by side with the rich Nicaraguans and foreigners who build luxury housing on their own private islands.

The family who own Ron Flor du Caña, one of the worlds best rums, owns an island on the lake.

The Mombacho Volcano is a constant backdrop over Lake Nicaragua. In fact wherever you look there are the telltale silhouettes of volcanic peaks.

Spider Monkeys were introduced as a tourist attraction to one of the small islands. Aptly named Isla de los Monos or Monkey Island.

On the drive back from Granada to Managua we stopped off at the Masaya Volcano National Park.

As we pulled into the car park we were greeted by the smell of sulphur, as it wafted out of the Santiago Crater.

This is the most active volcano in Latin America and there are evacuation signs as we entered the park. I was particularly intrigued by the photo of a late model car with a rather large volcanic bolder imbedded in the bonnet.

I wasn’t particularly fond of the Nissan but I couldn’t see it subjected to that grizzly fate.

There’s even a warning to spend no more than five minutes at the crater’s edge, in case you are overcome by the fumes.

However there are flocks of parakeets that nest inside the crater and manage to survive.

We chose to do the rim walk around the extinct San Fernando Crater trail. This was a four kilometer, rocky, narrow and slippery track. Most of it running around the crater rim.

The highlight, apart from the views was discovering a flock of resting vultures.

These are truly ugly birds.

Then in total contrast we came across a white frangipani in bloom.

There were blossoming trees covering the crater floor.

Nature’s full of contrasts.