Hoover Dam and The Grand Canyon, Arizona – Impressions

Las Vegas, in the state of Nevada, is an intense place even if you’re only staying a couple of days. But if you’re planning to stay a week or more, getting out of the city should be a high priority. We did just that, hiring a car and driving to two features of the region:

Hoover Dam
Hoover Dan is situated on the U.S. state border of Nevada and Arizona, 50 kilometres from Las Vegas. The dam was built in Black Canyon on the Colorado River to prevent flooding, provide irrigation and generate power for the states of Nevada, Arizona and California. At the time of construction it was the largest concrete structure in the world.

wpid-dscf4457-2014-03-20-06-51.jpg

Completed in 1936, the dam was also used as a major highway, but due to increasing traffic concerns the Dam Bypass Bridge opened in 2010.

wpid-dscf4456-2014-03-20-06-51.jpg

The dam created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir of water in the United States by volume. The dam took only 5 years to build and during that time took the lives of 112 people. Sixteen people died in the first year of construction when temperatures in the area clocked in at close to 50ºC. Another forty-two died from pneumonia, although in later years this listing was seen as a cover-up of deaths caused by carbon-monoxide poisoning.

wpid-dscf4459-2014-03-20-06-51.jpg

The Grand Canyon
Nearly 200 kilometres from Las Vegas by car is the site of the Grand Canyon Skywalk. The Skywalk is near the western end of the canyon at a site ingeniously called Grand Canyon West. There are several sections tourists can visit at Grand Canyon West; one is  Eagle Point, named after the impression of an Eagle in the ridge opposite…

wpid-dscf4469-2014-03-20-06-511.jpg

Eagle Point is also the location of the Skybridge itself, a metal framed ‘bridge’ with a glass bottom. Unfortunately use of personal cameras on the bridge is not permitted, meaning the cost of entry onto the walk plus purchase the photographs is quite expensive. Taking the Skywalk is not required as fearless tourists can walk to the edge of the canyon beside the structure.

wpid-dscf4473-2014-03-20-06-511.jpg

Another point of interest is Guano Point, literally ‘Bat Shit Point’. Bat caves were discovered in the canyon, the guano being a good source of phosphates used in farming. The mining lift building still stands at the end of the point.

wpid-dscf4490-2014-03-20-06-511.jpg

Guano Point is at the end of a thin section of a ridge line stacked high with boulders, giving great views along three separate sections of the canyon.

wpid-dscf4499-2014-03-20-06-511.jpg

The Colorado River formed the Grand Canyon over the course of two billion years. It is 446 kilometres long, 29 kilometres at its widest and is 1,800 metres deep. It is in the top five largest canyons in the world, although the term ‘largest’ can have several meanings relating to depth, width and length.

While many simply bus to the sections of the canyon, boat, helicopter and small plane tours are available for those who wish an even closer look.

wpid-dscf4494-2014-03-20-06-511.jpg

Other Places
These are not the only getaways near Las Vegas, only the two we visited. Other sites of interest are:

  • Red Rock Canyon
  • Death Valley
  • Valley of Fire
  • Hidden Valley
  • El Dorado Canyon

The World Wanderer

Advertisements

Las Vegas, Nevada – Impressions

There’s no denying that Las Vegas is the Entertainment Capital of the World. While many cities try to match the intensity and vibrance of Vegas, only a few come close to the glamour and the hideous wealth that brings people from all corners of the world.

wpid-dscf4317-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Like a shining beacon in the Nevada Desert the city sparkles day and night with its brilliant lights flickering and dancing. This is especially so along the world-famous ‘Las Vegas Strip’, which dominates the southern end of the city even though it’s not actually within Las Vegas city limits, but in the cities of Paradise and Winchester that surround it.

wpid-img_1530-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

The wealth of the city is centred around the multi-billion dollar casino and hotels, and there are many of these block-sized behemoths owned primarily by two corporations. But if they didn’t have enough casinos in the city, more are being built. This includes completing some of the half-built skeletons of hotels left abandoned after the financial collapse a few years ago.

Even corporations that don’t have towering casinos are well represented, such as the massive Coca-Cola store and the four level M&Ms store, with one floor having an entire wall covered in M&Ms.

wpid-img_1529-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Las Vegas is definitely the city of the slot machine with nearly three hundred thousand scattered everywhere, from the airport foyer to gas stations. This isn’t to mention entire floors of them in every casino. The slot machines are themed on almost anything you can think of in attempts to draw the casual gamer. But like most, they give a little enticing the player with hopes of winning, then, if you let them, taking back all that was given and more.

wpid-dscf4278-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

There are many other attractions in the city beyond the casinos, such as the roller coaster circling the New York New York casino, the rides atop the towering stratosphere casino, the Mob Museum and the Fremont Street Experience. Fremont Street is in the centre of the Las Vegas ‘downtown’ area surrounded by older casinos. Along the covered street are many street performers, including many pop culture performers and celebrity lookalikes.

wpid-1970651_10202682748082352_962229911_n-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Fremont street also has several stages along its street with various bands playing. It was St Patrick’s Day when I visited so there were many kilts being worn and irish bands playing to celebrate this ‘holiday’ that was created by the Americans. Even those without a kilt kept the green theme…

wpid-dscf4423-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

There’s a lot of talent in Vegas with many comedians and musicians getting their start in the city. But Las Vegas is also the place where performers of old go to scrape out a living after their buzz has died down; these include David Copperfield, Celine Dion and Meatloaf, to name a meagre three.

wpid-img_0911-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Alcohol laws are relaxed around the city. Almost every store sells it and some in large vessels like the daiquiri filled plastic yard glasses or the near actual sized plastic guitars filled with some alcoholic concoction. Alcohol is everywhere at all hours of the day and night. Honestly, who can resist a shot or two of the sweetest Tequila in the world, Dirty. This is especially so when the shots are twice normal size and only $2 each!

wpid-dscf4427-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Debauchery is rife in the city, with mobile billboards advertising ‘the classiest girls’ delivered to your hotel room within 20 minutes. Strips clubs are also heavily advertised in the evenings, with many hawkers giving out numerous business card sized cards offering special deals. There are also plenty of these…

wpid-dscf4364-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

At a location along Las Vegas Boulevard between The Strip and the downtown is the towering casino Stratosphere. The building looks similar to the Skytower in New Zealand, and is only 20 metres taller. Atop the massive building there are four rides, a SkyJump similar to that on Auckland’s tower; The Big Shot, the highest thrill ride in the world which flings you into the air before letting you free fall down again; Insanity, dangling you over the building’s edge and spinning swiftly around; and lastly X-Scream, a roller coaster car that shoots you over the edge and stops suddenly, dangling you there.

wpid-dscf4447-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

While visiting the city we even took in a baseball game. The Cubs versus The Mets…

wpid-dscf4405-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

Overall, Las Vegas is an interesting place to spend a few days partying it up or throwing away your money, that’s if you can stand harassment by street hawkers or the relaxed inside smoking laws that make the slot machine floors harsh on the eyes and lungs. It’s not a bad place as long as you set a limit on everything and quit while you’re ahead.

The lights of our hotel, Excalibur…

wpid-img_1526-2014-03-22-04-49.jpg

This is my final stop on my trip through Australia, Antarctica and the Americas over the course of sixteen months. Next I’m off to London, England, for a well deserved rest from travelling and to begin planning my next escape.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Central America

While it took ten months to work my way up the massive continent of South America, three months seemed only a short time to explore the Central America sub-continent even though it’s barely larger than Colombia. But since I was in the neighbourhood…

wpid-04838a73ba16566078c9dbd7f4f662c1-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Panama

San Blas Islands

With no straightforward bus route from Colombia to Panama, I chose a five-day cruise through the San Blas Islands, finishing in Panama City. The San Blas Islands are a glorious chain of islands in the Caribbean Sea, but make sure you do your research as the cruises aren’t always up to standard.

wpid-dscf3016-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Panama City

After so long in South America Panama City feels a little like home with its massive skyscrapers, malls, cinemas and fast food chains. When travelling long-term you lose the sense of time and on arrival in Panama days before Christmas I forget that it was prime holiday season for the locals. With most of the holiday destinations booked solid and long lines to get on any buses, I decided to spend the holidays hanging around the city. While there I visited the colonial old quarter of Casco Viejo, the canal and the ruins of Panama Viejo.

wpid-dscf3062-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Being in Panama City feels like being in the United States. There are so many Americans and I rarely needed to use my spanish skills as most people spoke english.

wpid-p1000006-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Bocas del Toro

After the holiday break I headed west to Bocas del Toro, an archipelago on the border of Costa Rica. In the surf/party town I took the opportunity to spend a day on a catamaran snorkelling around the reefs and another sitting in a hammock at the hostel.

wpid-p1000110-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Boquete

Then taking a chicken bus, I spent three days in the cooler climes of the mountain town of Boquete. While there I climbed the tallest mountain in the country – Volcán Barú. The views were wonderful from the top, but starting the 26km hike at midnight is difficult. So to recover I spent time in some natural hot springs just outside of town.

wpid-img_1631-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Costa Rica

San José

Costa Rica has a reputation for being the most expensive country in Central America. From the capital, San José, I took a tour to the top of a volcano before boating along a river to see monkeys, a sloth, caimans, crocodiles and many different types of birds. It was during this tour that Iguana was served for lunch.

wpid-dscf3195-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Liberia

Next I headed north to the city of Liberia from where I visited the beach town of Playa del Coco and a set of waterfalls.

wpid-img_1661-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

My first stop in Nicaragua was the surf town of San Juan del Sur. A beautiful place to spend a couple of days with bars and beach-front restaurants aplenty. The town even has a statue of Christ atop a hill at the end of the beach.

wpid-dscf3226-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Isla Ometepe

No trip to Nicaragua is complete without catching the ferry across Lake Nicaragua to Ometepe Island with its pair of volcanos. Cruising around the volcanos on a scooter is a lot of fun, visiting beaches, cafés and thermal pools. Both volcanos are climbable and a group of us scaled the largest of the two.

wpid-img_1677-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Granada

Next, I was on a bus to the touristic city of Granada at the northern end of the lake for some amazing food and a visit to yet another volcano, this one spewing smoke from the crater within its crater.

wpid-dscf3308-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

León

Then a quick stop off on the city of Léon to go hurtling down the side of an active volcano on a volcano board.

wpid-dscf3378-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Honduras and El Salvador

With limited time, I set foot only briefly in both countries, mainly at customs on the borders. San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador seemed nice though for the thirty minutes we stopped there for lunch.

Guatemala

Antigua

Most travellers in Central America rave about Guatemala.  I arrived into Antigua to find another touristic city at the base of another volcano. Unlike other parts of Central America, Antigua has a lot of colonial architecture, although after numerous earthquakes over the centuries, many are in ruins.

wpid-dscf3448-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

San Pedro la Laguna

I enjoyed a couple of days in San Pedro la Laguna on Lago Antitla with its thin streets, crazy Tuk Tuk drivers, great small restaurants and amazing lake views.

wpid-dscf3471-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Flores and Tikal

Then after a brief visit back in Antigua, I caught a bus to the north of the country to the island of Flores on Lago de Petén Itzá.

wpid-dscf3654-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Flores is a tourist destination and gateway to the great Maya ruins of Tikal, where I spent several hours exploring.

wpid-dscf3560-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Belize

Caye Caulker

Then on the one year anniversary of my time in Latin America I arrived in Belize, an english speaking country. Staying on the party island of Caye Caulker, I spent some time in the pristine waters snorkelling with Nurse sharks and Eagle Rays, some larger than I am.

wpid-dscf3752-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Mexico

While Mexico is actually in North America I included the southern portions as part of my Central American adventure. From Caye Caulker, I caught a ferry to Chetumal in Mexico and stopped for the night before heading on.

Palenque and Yaxchilán

After an eight-hour bus ride I arrived at the city of Palenque to continue The Maya Ruins Trail I began at Tikal. My first stop was the peaceful ruins of Yaxchilán and its connected site of Bonampak on the Guatemalan Border.

wpid-dscf3863-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Next it was to the Palenque ruins only twenty minutes out of the city.

wpid-dscf3977-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Merida and Uxmal

Four hours north in the Yucatán is Merida, a large and popular touristic city and the nearby ruins of Uxmal and one of its satellite cities, Kabah.

wpid-dscf4011-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Valladolid and Chichén Itzá

Then it was across to the city of Valladolid to see Mexico’s most visited archaeological site, Chichén Itzá, seen by more people every year than Peru’s Macchu Pichu.

wpid-dscf4176-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Tulum

Then it was back to the Caribbean Coastline to the town of Tulum and the Maya fortress of the same name.

wpid-dscf4233-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Cancún and Playa del Carmen

The final distinction in my thirteen month trip through Latin America, Cancún, where I did little more than prepare for my exit from Latin America, but managed a quick visit to the beaches at Playa del Carmen.

wpid-dscf4270-2014-03-25-19-32.jpg

Next, is a well deserved rest from travelling for six months to save and plan a year through Asia.

Adios America Latina,

The World Wanderer.

Cancún and Playa del Carmen, Mexico – Impressions

The ultra touristy Cancún at the tip of the Yucatán Peninsula is the final destination of my three-month whirlwind tour of Central America and southern Mexico.

wpid-487303-mp0404twoweeks-2014-03-19-23-30.jpg

Cancun’s main tourist area is Isla Cancún and was created in the mid 1970s by the Mexican government. The island is actually part of the second largest barrier reef in the world, stretching 1000km from the tip of the peninsula along the entire length of Belize to Honduras. Cancún is renown for being one of Mexico’s two most famous resort cities, the other being Acapulco on the Pacific Coast.

wpid-800px-cancun001-2014-03-19-23-30.jpg

As Cancún was my final destination, I didn’t spend a lot of time exploring the city, instead preparing for my imminent departure. But I did take a day out to travel an hour along the coast to the popular tourist beach, Playa del Carmen.

wpid-dscf4270-2014-03-19-23-30.jpg

It’s easy to see why the beach town is so popular, the golden sandy beaches and clear blue waters are beautiful. And while the beachfront restaurants and resorts are numerous, they’re not as all-encompassing as those in Tulum, and hour further south.

wpid-dscf4267-2014-03-19-23-30.jpg

It’s been a long adventure through Latin America these past thirteen months but I’m ready for a well-earned rest. While the constant traveling has been both amazing and stressful at the same time, I’ll miss the diverse cultures and the beautiful places I’ve visited, not to mention the challenges of constant change that travel evokes. I do look forward to six months of stability before beginning my next set of travels.

For those few who’ve been following my travels, I hope you’ve enjoyed my posts and photos as much as I’ve enjoyed providing them.

Until my next trip,

The World Wanderer.

Tulum, Mexico – Impressions

Just a short handful of years ago Tulum Pueblo was a quiet little town near the ancient cliff top Maya fortress of Tulum. Few visitors came to the town itself, most busing in directly to the ruins from Playa del Carmen, an hour to the north, or Cancún, a further thirty minutes beyond that.

wpid-487303-mp0404twoweeks-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

Over the past few years that quiet little town has begun to grow as a tourist destination with restaurants and resorts growing along the waterfront. The Caribbean coastline is beautiful to behold with its golden sands and clear waters.

wpid-dscf4260-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

Unfortunately because of the growing number of resorts, which charge you to get access to the beach, finding a long stretch of beach to enjoy is difficult if you don’t have your own vehicle. And while bicycles are rentable everywhere in the town it’s still a long ride to a good beach.

wpid-dscf4195-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

With the growing popularity of the area, the food and accommodation is of high quality and makes it worth staying a night or two. The area also has plentiful cenotes, with several hidden and smaller ones near the beach.

wpid-dscf4257-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

But beyond the beach, the cenotes and the town, the ruins are the number one attraction in the area. The fortress was once called Zama meaning ‘City of Dawn’ as it faces the sunrise on the Caribbean Sea. It has since been renamed Tulum meaning ‘wall’ in the language of the Maya because of the great wall around the fortress city.

wpid-dscf4201-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

Tulum was one of the last Maya cities built and unlike many in the region, it’s very compact and small. A tour of the complex will take only an hour if you dawdle. And because it’s the third most visited historical site in Mexico, after Chichén Itzá and Teotohuacan, the site is often swarming with tourists.

wpid-dscf4224-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

There is access to the sea from the ruins and many tourists come to swim in the pristine waters beneath the 12 metre cliffs on which the ruins are situated.

wpid-dscf4226-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

Templo del Dios Viendo – Temple of the Wind God.

wpid-dscf4233-2014-03-17-18-08.jpg

Next I travel north to Cancún, my final destination in Latin America.

The World Wanderer.

Valladolid & Chichén Itzá, Mexico – Impressions

A short two hours by bus from Merida on Mexico’s Yucatán peninsula is the city of Valladolid. Named after the then capital of Spain, Valladolid was built atop the Maya town of Zaci, using the stones from the dismantled Maya buildings. This caused the Maya in the area to revolt but the uprising was put down by spanish soldiers arriving from Merida.

wpid-487303-mp0404twoweeks-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

Valladolid has a small town feel even though it’s population is more than 45 thousand. The central park is a hive of activity and similar to Merida it’s a free wifi zone. The city is otherwise fairly plain, with only a handful of touristy restaurants and hostels. The main plaza, however, does have a beautiful fountain at its heart…

wpid-dscf4098-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

There is one attraction in the city, the Cenote Zaci. A cenote is a sink hole that has filled with water and is commonly found in this region of Mexico with a reported two thousand of them. Many of the cenotes are deep wide tunnels filled from rainwater or underground rivers, but can also be where an underground river flows out onto a beach. They were used by the Maya as a water source although the sacred one at the Chichén Itzá ruins was used for sacrifices. Cenote Zaci is a half cavern filled with water and said to be 100 metres deep. It’s used as a swimming pool by locals and tourists.

wpid-dscf4103-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

But it’s the nearby ruins of Chichén Itzá that brings most travellers and tourists to the town, although few actually stay in Valladolid. Tour buses leave from either Cancun or Merida regularly, dropping tourists directly at the ruins. Chichén Itzá is one of the most visited archaeological sites in Mexico visited by 1.2 million people a year, which is more people per day on average than Macchu Pichu in Peru. I was prepared for this and had called the site ‘Mexico’s Disneyland’ before arriving. To make things more interesting it poured with rain soon after my arrival at the site. Thankfully they sold rain ponchos at the gate and the rain made my day cooler and more enjoyable.

wpid-dscf4112-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

Chichén Itzá is one of the larger sites, similar in size to Uxmal, Palenque and Tikal, with much of it still covered in jungle. While the constant stream of tourists was annoying, the sheer number of locals selling trinkets seemed to out number the tourists. The entire site is surrounded by trinket stalls with many scattered throughout as well. I did see several of the stall owners carving their own products, so at least some the items are not mass-produced.

The main temple…

wpid-dscf4147-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

Chichén Itzá houses the largest ball court of all the ruins I’ve been to. I even found a second court, but that one was smaller and in worse condition than the larger one.

wpid-dscf4118-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

There is a great deal of wall carvings at the site, many surviving the ravages of time. Such as this king…

wpid-dscf4142-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

And this eagle…

wpid-dscf4143-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

There is a large section of the ruins where long lines of columns stand. The one thousand columns are in three sections each with a different style. One section once held the roof of the warrior’s quarters.

wpid-dscf4155-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

At the end of a long path with trinket stalls on either side is the sacred Cenote…

wpid-dscf4190-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

The highpoint of the ruins was the observatory, the only round building I’ve seen at any of the ruins.

wpid-dscf4176-2014-03-7-21-05.jpg

Next, I head to the Caribbean Coast to the town of Tulum and another set of ruins, this one on the beach.

The World Wanderer

Merida & Uxmal, Mexico – Impressions

Capital city of the Yucatán peninsula region and with one million people, Merida is the 12th largest city in Mexico. Merida was built by the spanish conquistadors in 1542 and named after a city in mother Spain. It was built on top of a Maya city and some consider it to be the oldest continually lived in city in the Americas.

wpid-487303-mp0404twoweeks-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Merida also has the esteemed privilege of once having the most millionaires in the world living there and the architecture in the city shows both this and its colonial decent.

wpid-dscf3990-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

The centre of the city was alive with people during my visit, with the main plaza seemingly full at all hours of the day and night. This was primarily due to the city celebrating Carnival, plus, like many other plazas in Latina America, the main plaza is a free internet hotspot. A quick walk around the historical centre and I found many hotels, restaurants, horse-drawn imperial wagons and smaller plazas, all well maintained and functional. My favourite restaurant even has a wall commemorating the day of the dead…

wpid-dscf4091-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Beyond the city, the Yucatán Peninsula was the main region of the Maya civilisation with the majority of ancient cities scattered around the countryside. Studies have estimated the number of Maya cities at nearly 5000 and this includes one of the most important cities, Uxmal – pronounced ‘ooshmaal’.

wpid-dscf4011-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Uxmal was thought to have been built around 200BC and was abandoned before the arrival of the spanish 1700 years later. The city is said to span 35 square kilometres, with more than 95% still covered in jungle.

wpid-dscf4050-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

The derived meaning of the name Uxmal is ‘three times’, because the city was said to have been rebuilt three times by different kings through ages. The intricacies of the carvings on the buildings also surpass any of the other ruins I’ve seen to date.

wpid-dscf4057-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Uxmal has a large section set aside for nuns, who were bred for ritual sacrifice. This large plaza and its associated buildings are among the original buildings in the city.

wpid-dscf4028-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

There is also a very well-defined ‘court’ for their ball games, which was a similar sport played in most other Mayan cities. Teams could only use the grassy area in the centre and using only their hips – and sometimes paddles – to get a ball made from rubber through a goal. A goal is the just visible protruding ring on the right, the one on the left is no longer there. Because of the growth of rubber trees here, rubber balls were invented in this part of the world 3,500 years ago.

wpid-dscf4035-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

After a two hour tour around the ruins in the heat, we were taken 16km south to Kabah, a smaller city that was invaded and integrated into the city-state of Uxmal, one of several in the region.

wpid-dscf4076-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Kabah’s temples are being restored and will eventually hold the original 260 masks on its walls, representing the 260 days as defined in the Maya ritual calendar.

wpid-dscf4079-2014-03-4-19-46.jpg

Next I head to the town of Valladolid to visit another Maya site, the city of Chichén Itzá.

The World Wanderer