Tag Archives: casual walkers

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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Templo del Dios Viendo – Temple of the Wind God.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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

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And this eagle…

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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.

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

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

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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’.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

The World Wanderer

Palenque, Mexico – Impressions

Palenque is a small city in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico on the border of Guatemala. There’s not much going on in the city itself with the city’s recognised monuments all being covered for restoration while I was there. But it’s not the city that draws people to this region, it’s the nearby ruins of the same name only 20 minutes away.

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The Palenque ruins aren’t the only ones in this area though, there’s also Yaxchilán nestled on the Guatemalan border and Bonampak a further 40km south. It’s not difficult to get to any of the sites, with regular collectivos – taxi buses – going to the Palenque ruins every few minutes and daily tours leaving to the other two sites.

I began with a tour to Yaxchilán, a two and a half tour bus ride south of Palenque. The tour picked me up from my hostel at 6am and delivering me home at 7.30pm, so I prepared for a long day. The roads in Mexico are no better than anywhere else in Central America, but because of the early start I slept through the bumps and regular speed humps. There was even a stop for breakfast along the way, all included in the tour. We eventually arrived at Rio Usumacinta, the river that separates Mexico from Guatemala, and boarded a river boat for a 45 minutes trip.

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The river is wide and deep and is said to contain five metre crocodiles, but we only spied two small ones that were shy at our approach.

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After another nap, we eventually arrived at the Yaxchilán ruins. To get into the site you need to walk through some dark tunnels made by the Mayans around 700AD. The tunnels are said to travel 30-40km to Bonampak to the south, but most are closed. There’s also an ancient ritual associated with the tunnels which involved the ingestion of magic mushrooms and walking through the tunnels in the dark being casted depending on which exit you emerge from.

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On the other side of the tunnels is the Grand Plaza stretching 750 metres in length with temples and buildings along each side. It was originally an open plaza, the trees have grown in the 14 centuries since the city was built.

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The Mayans had a fascination with ball games, where inevitably one of the players gets his head cut off. If it’s the captured leader of another city and he loses, chop chop and his head becomes the ball, if he wins he’s set free. If the match is between people from the same city then it’s the winner that faces the chop, that’s right, the winner. It’s an honour for him to be beheaded, as he goes forth into the underworld in style.

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In the Mayan world the royal family and priests had to be the fittest people, as they were the only ones allowed to climb the many steps to the temples or to the Grand Acropolis.

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Dotted around the Grand Plaza are several Esteli – carved stone blocks. Most depict members of the royal family in different poses, often giving blood sacrifices such as the queen piercing her tongue and running a two metre rope through it, or the king having his penis pierced. Lovely.

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After a couple of hours at the site, we travelled back along the river to the bus then set off to Bonampak, which also has a grand plaza, although smaller than Yixchilán.

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Bonampak was a ceremonial site important to the Yixchilán kings. Bonampak means ‘painted walls’ in the ancient Mayan language as on the inner walls of one acropolis are several full colour paintings.

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We only had an hour at Bonampak before it was time to head back to the city. We were thankful for the air-conditioned tour bus as the last couple of hours of the day became quite humid.

The following day, a couple of us caught a collectivo to the Palenque Ruins.

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But since we arrived an hour before closing, entry was free but meant we had to rush around the complex. Still it was a wondrous place to visit and thankfully quieter near closing time. Similar to Yixchilán they have a grand acropolis, several temples and a palace boasting a tall watch tower.

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Next, I head north to the city of the Merida on the Yucatán to explore the ruins of Uxmal.

The World Wanderer

Caye Caulker, Belize – Impressions

Belize is a small country on the edge of the Yucatan peninsula. Unlike the countries that surround it, where they speak spanish, Belize’s primary language is english. After a year in spanish speaking countries where I couldn’t fully understand the everyday conversations around me, on arriving in an english speaking country it was a little overwhelming. It was like suddenly being able to read the thoughts of everyone around you.

As I’m nearing the end of my Latin American journey, I’ve chosen to spend only three days in Belize and all of that time on the island of Caye Caulker. Thirty kilometres from Belize City by water taxi, Caye Caulker was made popular by hippies travelling through the area in the 1970s. Since then the tourism industry along the coast has blossomed.

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On first impressions, arriving in Caye Caulker feels like arriving in Jamaica. There’s a strong reggae groove, plenty of locals with dreadlocks wearing rastafarian style clothing and that familiar accent: ‘yeh mon,’ and ‘want some gunga mon.’

One end of the eight kilometre long island is criss-crossed with white sand roads while the other is still claimed by mangroves. There is an estimated 40 hotels, hostels and boarding houses on the island, with fresh fish on the menu of the many waterfront restaurants.

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One of the more popular activities in the region is diving with divers hoping to swim in the infamous Great Blue Hole, an underwater sinkhole 300 metres across and 124 metres deep.

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But as I don’t dive, I chose to snorkel along the Great Barrier Reef and in Shark Alley. So, booking a tour, I set out with a group of fellow snorkelers for a day in the sun on a boat. And what a day it was… We began in Hol Chan marine reserve where the fish knew our arrival meant feeding time. Schools of large fish swum around the boat as our guide took us on a swim around the reef, spying a lone barracuda, sea turtles and even managing to lure a Moray Eel out from its hole in the rocks.

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Along shark alley the Nurse sharks came looking for food. There were probably a dozen of them, some more than three metres long. We were able to ‘pet’ one of them although their scales felt hard to the touch. Then came the Eagle Rays, allowing us to write our names upon their back.

A german girl in a bikini, I mean, a friendly three metre Nurse shark swimming past.

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Back on the island, there are several ways to get around. Most people hire cycles and ride around the unsealed, potholed sandy roads but I chose to hire a golf cart, the only powered land vehicle on the island.

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With my ‘wheels’, I toured the quieter end of the island where there were only a few secluded homes and hotels among the plentiful mangroves.

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Overall, Caye Caulker is a great place to spend a few days if you like water activities, seafood, partying or just hanging around with well-tanned beach clad people.

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Next I head into Mexico, my final Latin American country as I follow the trail of the Mayan Ruins.

The World Wanderer

Flores, El Petén, Guatemala – Impressions

Why the northern province of Guatemala between Mexico and Belize looks like Bart Simpson’s head is anyone’s guess…

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But about where Bart’s eye would be is a lake called Lago de Petén Itzá. And on that lake is the island of Flores.

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Connected to the mainland by a causeway, Flores is a popular tourist destination with plentiful hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars. The island isn’t that large and is easily walked around in about ten minutes, but unfortunately before my arrival substantial rains had caused the lake’s level to rise, flooding the road that runs around the island in several places.

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But flooded or not, water taxis transport locals and tourists alike from the island to many locations including the small colourful settlements around the edges of the lake…

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You can also visit the small island of Santa Barbara which holds the local museum, which was unfortunately also flooded when I arrived.

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On one side of the lake is a lookout, which after a stiff climb provides impressive views of both the island of Flores and other portions of the lake.

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A short Tuk Tuk ride from Flores is Las Cuevas Actun Kan, a natural system of caves being set up as a tourist attraction. When I visited the complex, which stretch through many caverns both large and small, I was the only one there. The silence underground and the sometimes misleading signs had me walking in circles, which I’m sure would be nerve-wracking for some, but something I thoroughly enjoyed as I eventually navigated my way out.

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But Flores isn’t the primary reason most people come to this part of Guatemala. Barely an hour by bus north of Flores in the depths of the jungle is Tikal, a set of Mayan temples and ruins dating back before the birth of Christ.

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I chose to take a tour beginning at lunchtime and ending well after dark, walking for several kilometres to various structures in the spread out complex that once housed around ninety thousand people.
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The tour also included encounters with spider monkeys and this cute little guy, a tarantula…

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Then as it began to grow dark we climbed one of the pyramids to watch the sun set across the jungle and the monumental temples rising from the trees.

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The many temples are a wonder to behold and add to the rich history of Latin America in a similar way as the ruins of Macchu Pichu in Peru, Incapirca in Ecuador and Ciudad Perdida in Colombia.

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My visit to Tikal is the first in a series of Mayan ruins I plan to visit in my last weeks in Latin America.

Next, I travel to the island of Caye Caulker in Belize.

The World Wanderer.