A Travellerspoint blog

May 2020

Yucatán Adventure: Valladolid and Chichén Itzá


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Valladolid is a small colonial town in the state of Quintana Roo whose main draw for tourists is its proximity to the Mayan ruins at Chichén Itzá and Ek Balam. Our Airbnb was a surprisingly modern and chic villa in a rather nondescript residential neighborhood several blocks from the city center. Our host was very kind in helping us locate an ATM but we were completely unable to withdraw cash no matter how many we tried thanks to a scratch on the magnetic strip of our debit card. Eventually we were able to get a cash advance on our credit card which came with an irritatingly large fee.
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We spent our first evening in Valladolid strolling around the town. On the way to the center we passed by Cenote Zaci, a huge sinkhole right in the middle of town where many locals were still swimming. Next door was a touristy restaurant where they had dancing waiters and a lady making tortillas at the entrance.
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The Zócalo, or central square, was a grassy space with some kiosks selling street food, toys, and crafts. Surrounding the square were the main church, city hall, and several upscale hotels. We ate at one of the hotel restaurants where we had a good meal of Yucatan standards such as cochinita pibil accompanied by mezcal cocktails.
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In the morning we went directly to the municipal market. Valladolid had a typical mid-sized produce market where we were never far from the smell of freshly-slaughtered meat. There were plenty of food stalls lining the outer wall and we had an excellent breakfast of empanadas and tamales. Something about being around all the raw ingredients in a market makes the cooked food taste even better.
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We had thought Chichén Itzá was just outside town but it was actually a forty-five minute drive. As we neared the ruins traffic slowed to a crawl and it took us another half hour to reach the entrance. The parking area was blocked off and we were directed further down the road which was lined with parked cars. Eventually we arrived at the last car and walked about a half mile back in brutal heat. Long lines of people snaked everywhere and I took my place at the end of the one that seemed to be for the ticket window. For about ten minutes we stood around and nothing moved. Mei Ling went to the front with the boys and did her Jedi mind trick, and then brought me up to a security guard who showed me directly to a ticket window. The river of humanity passing through the entrance was pretty ridiculous.
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Chichén Itzá is by far the most celebrated of all the Mayan ruins and I'm sure there's a very good reason for that in terms of historical significance. However the reason was lost on us and I'm sure on 95% of the other visitors. Some of the buildings were impressive to look at, especially the Pyramid Of Kukulcan. Fortunately climbing was not allowed on the pyramid so we could see it in its original form rather than blanketed by people in their bright vacation outfits. However there were still thousands of people scattered around the large clearing in which the ancient buildings were situated and the setting was nowhere near as interesting as Coba or even Tulum. Hawkers were selling drinks and knickknacks everywhere and some people in indigenous oufits were performing a dance of very questionable authenticity. This was the fifth of the "Seven Wonders of the World" I had visited and the atmosphere was very similar to the other four - the Great Wall, the Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, and Christ the Redeemer. I have Petra and Macchu Picchu still to go. Hopefully I'll find them more worthwhile.
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As we walked out of the entrance to begin the long trudge back to our roadside parking spot, we noticed that cars were being waved through into the lot. Except for having jumped the line it didn't seem to have been our day. We hadn't spent as much time at Chichén Itzá as we anticipated so there was plenty of time to visit the local cenote Ik Kil. From above Ik Kil looked just as scary as Zaci and much more crowded, but there were plenty of life jackets so we climbed in and hoped no one would jump on top of us. It was quite different from Cenote Carwash which had been at ground level in a wooded area. Here we could look up and see sunlight streaming in from above as though we were in a stadium with a retractable roof. The cave walls were festooned with green plants and long vines hung down from the surface like the tentacles of a jellyfish. It was a very beautiful and refreshing experience despite the crowds.
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In the morning we trooped back to the market which we were pleased to see was in full swing despite it being Sunday. We had breakfast of roast chicken and tamales and took a short detour north to the Mayan ruins of Ek Balam.
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Ek Balam was as quiet and peaceful as Chichén Itzá had been chaotic and crowded. There were a few other people around but we often had an area to ourselves. I made up for leaving Ian out of the pyramid climb in Coba with a trip up to the top of the structure called the Acropolis. It wasn't as steep or slippery as the Coba pyramid but we still had an awesome view of the surrounding forest. It was funny that after I had resolved not to make any effort to see any Mayan ruins other than Chichén Itzá, we had already seen three other sites that we liked better. I didn't know it then but the best was still to come.
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About halfway between Valladolid and Mérida is the "Yellow City" of Izamal. The town gets its nickname from the yellowish-brown color of almost every building in the town center. We had a refreshing lunch on the outskirts of town and then drove into the center. The Zócalo was surrounded by buildings of different shades of yellow and gold including the Convent of San Antonio. There were a few food carts in the square and we got a dessert of marquesitas, crunchy crepes with caramel filling. Afterwards we walked up the hill to the convent and admired its colonial facade which looked from the front like it had been cut out of clay with an Exacto knife. Once back on the road we set a course for Mérida, the largest and most cosmopolitan city in the Yucatán Peninsula. It was New Year's Eve and we were ready to party.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 12:14 Archived in Mexico Tagged valladolid chichen_itza izamal Comments (0)

Yucatán Adventure: Cancún and Tulum


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I've always appreciated our southern neighbor Mexico and I was thrilled to introduce Mei Ling to that intricate and diverse country before Cleo was born in 2012. As I expected she fell in love with the markets, the cuisine, and the creativity of Mexico and we've been back twice since then with many future trips planned. Our most recent visit was a ten day tour of the Yucatán Peninsula at the end of 2017. I'd been holding off on the trip mainly because it looked so easy logistically and I wanted to get more challenging journeys done first. I planned an itinerary for Buenos Aires and Uruguay instead which looked great until I checked the flights which were outrageously priced around the holidays. After that I didn't have a lot of time and energy left so we went with the Yucatán backup plan. The itinerary came together fairly straightforwardly, given the amount of time we had and the placement of the major cities and sights on the peninsula. I had never thought of going to Cancún but once I researched the city I realized that there was enough there to keep us entertained for a couple of days. It was also a convenient airport to fly into and rent a car.

As it turned out, the trip almost didn't happen. As I was going over my travel checklist the night before the trip I heard Mei Ling cry out "Oh no!" in a desolate voice. I jumped up thinking something had happened to one of the kids but fortunately it was just that Mei Ling had discovered that Cleo's passport was expiring the next day, the day of our flight. We had completely forgotten about renewing it. We huddled together and decided that there was no time to do anything but go to the airport as planned and try to get on our flight. Once we arrived in Mexico we could visit a consulate and get some kind of emergency renewal or exemption.

At the airport we tried checking in using the machine and sure enough we were denied. We played it cool once we got to the check-in desk and handed our passports to the agent. I avoided looking at her and started loading our bags onto the scale. The agent did a double take when she looked at Cleo's passport and pointed out the expiration date. We told her we were planning to get the passport extended once we got to Mexico. She seemed very skeptical but called over a supervisor. The supervisor listened to the agent for a minute, looked at Cleo's passport, and literally broke out laughing and shaking her head. My heart sank. That's when Mei Ling went into action. I don't really understand this ability she has but the only thing I can equate it to is when Obi-Wan Kenobi tells the stormtroopers "These are not the droids you're looking for" in Star Wars. Usually she brings it out when she's bargaining for something, like when she got a jeweler to knock eight thousand dollars off the price of her engagement ring. I saw her close in on the supervisor and I had to walk away from the desk and pretend I was horsing around with the kids. When I finally got the nerve to circle back the supervisor was shrugging and saying something along the lines of "Fine, but don't blame us if they turn you back at immigration in Mexico". We had somehow gotten by.

I took the supervisor's warning pretty seriously. When our turn came to go up to the passport official in Cancún, I had coached Cleo to be as bouncy and cheerful as possible. She can be very cute when she wants to be. I also put on my best demeanor and greeted the official as verbosely as I knew how in my limited Spanish, and Cleo handed him a drawing she had colored on the plane. He was obviously taken aback by the most amiable American tourists he was likely to encounter that day and barely glanced at our passports before waving us through.

The Hertz rental office was a madhouse with lines snaking around in every direction. After several failed attempts I found a line that eventually delivered me to a flustered agent. He took me outside and brought me to a Nissan Versa, a pokey subcompact that was certainly not the "equivalent" of the full-size car I had reserved. He claimed that it was indeed an equivalent and shrugged me off when I provided him with a list of the real equivalent vehicles from the Hertz website. They were Hertz Mexico, and here it was an equivalent. Then he told me that I had lost my rights to any specific car type by arriving forty-five minutes after my reservation, even though that was entirely due to the late shuttle bus and the long lines at the counter. Eventually I grabbed our three child seats and saw that it was possible to wedge them all into the back seat, although the rear doors had to be slammed in order to close them. I knew the agent didn't give a damn if we took the car or left it so we packed ourselves and our gear into the Versa like sardines and took off. The Airbnb was a welcome respite from the logistical travails of the day. It was comfortable and atmospheric with a cute little indoor spa that the kids were able to take a dip in.
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I think most Americans and Europeans who have gone to Cancún don't realize they weren't actually in Cancún. The vast majority of tourists stay on a narrow strip of land that extends out into the Caribbean called the Hotel Zone. The Hotel Zone consists of a single road which is lined end to end with hotels, resorts, and clubs. Hardly any Mexicans actually live in the Hotel Zone, save for some housing for hotel staff, and there's almost no genuine Mexican culture there at all. It's more like an artificial community created for the housing and entertainment of leisure tourists. The single road through the Hotel Zone terminates at the airport, meaning that those arriving by plane never even need to see Cancún Centro. This is the real, rapidly-growing major metropolis of the state of Quintana Roo with almost a million inhabitants. We weren't in Mexico for beaches or discos, so Centro was where we stayed. I picked a spot close to El Parque de las Palapas, which seemed to be the center of social activity downtown.
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Once we were settled at the Airbnb we drove over to El Parque de las Palapas which was in full holiday mode. All kinds of food were being served from kiosks in the center of the park as well as street food stalls. One popular dish was corn on the cob slathered in spicy mayo and grated cheese. We went for some more substantial fare like pozole and enchiladas. The park was packed with people and had tons of activities from carnival rides to remote control toy trucks jousting with skewers and balloons. Mexico is one of the best countries in the world for fiestas and street life and we had found the perfect place to kick off our latest trip.
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Centro has two major community markets, the larger of which was within walking distance of our Airbnb. Mercado 28 was sizable enough but seemed mostly focused on crafts and dry goods which weren't of much interest to us. We did get an excellent Mexican breakfast at a colorful outdoor restaurant.
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Slightly north of Centro is Punta Sam, from where ferries embark on the short trip to Isla Mujeres. This little island packs in a host of tourist activities such as snorkeling, a turtle farm, and swimming with whale sharks. Most people cruise the island in rented golf carts but we chose to walk to our chosen activity, a swim with dolphins. Mei Ling and I had done this before in Jamaica so we figured it would be a thrill for the kids. It wasn't terrible, but the activities mostly involved standing in cloudy water against a dock while the dolphins bumped by us in a rather aggressive fashion. I think the kids were more scared than entertained. As dusk set in we walked back to the north end of the island where there was a quaint church and a pedestrianized street packed with busy outdoor cafes and craft shops. It was a very vibrant scene and we decided if we ever returned to Cancún we would probably stay on the island.
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We had to wait almost two hours on an atrociously long line for a ferry back to the mainland. For dinner we picked a restaurant in the Hotel Zone called Porfirio's, which turned out to be excellent. The tamarind and mezcal margarita alone justified our choice but the food was excellent and surprisingly daring for a restaurant in a tourist area. Some highlights were a salad with nopal cactus leaves and a sauce with chapulines, seasoned crickets.
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In the morning we were eager to get on the road to Tulum but we still had one community market to visit for brunch. Mercado 23 had a better community vibe than Mercado 28 and a great atmosphere with mariachis and lots of fresh produce. A seafood ceviche with slices of fresh avocado was particularly delicious.
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On the way to Tulum we passed straight through Playa del Carmen. The adventure parks in the area sounded really cool but our kids were still too young for that. Instead we got to Tulum in the early afternoon with plenty of time to visit the Mayan ruins of Tulum. At the entrance to the ruins the kids were amused by a gathering of coatimundis, small animals in the raccoon family that were accustomed to receiving tidbits from the tourists. The ruins were quite beautiful, scattered around a grassy landscape that extended to the edge of a cliff overlooking the Caribbean. Steps led downward to a narrow beach that appeared to be closed.
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After the ruins we drove to the main beach so the kids could enjoy the sand for a little bit. We tried to find a highly recommended restaurant on the road that went along the shore but as far as we could tell it didn't exist. Instead we ate at a crowded seafood restaurant in town that was quite good.
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In the morning we found a beautiful outdoor taco place for breakfast. On the way out of Tulum we stopped at Cenote Carwash for a dip. The Yucatan cenotes are natural freshwater pools formed by the collapse of limestone into underground caverns. Many of the cenotes are in caves or have steep staircases and aren't well-suited for young kids. I had researched the cenotes carefully to find the ones that would be best for us but I was still nervous as none of the kids were strong swimmers yet and Spenser couldn't swim at all. We needn't have worried about Cenote Carwash, though. It was very easy access and there were plenty of child-sized life jackets available. It was a very refreshing dip in crystal clear water in a beautiful natural environment.
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On the way to Valladolid we stopped at the Coba ruins, an architectural site spread over a wide area of jungle connected by a network of roads. Many people rented bicycles to get around which wasn't feasible for us with the three kids. Fortunately there were also three-wheel bicycle taxis available to transport us to the central pyramid Ixmoja. Surprisingly it was permitted to climb the pyramid and there were about a hundred people scrambling up the steps, most of them clustered around a rope that had been strung up the center. Clearly we were not going to get Spenser up there and it seemed way too risky to take both kids, so much to Ian's dismay I went up with Cleo while Mei Ling stayed at the base with the two boys. It was quite a nerve-wracking climb and just the latest of countless episodes where I've wondered to myself if I was underestimating the dangers I was putting my kids through. When we got to the top the view was quite amazing, what appeared to be unbroken jungle as far as the eye could see even though I knew we weren't far from the town. We carefully made our way back down and then got back on the road to our next destination.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 14:09 Archived in Mexico Tagged cancun tulum isla_mujeres cobá Comments (0)

The best travel experiences of my life: The top five

This is the final installment of an eight part series on the seventy best travel experiences of my life that begins here.

5. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja was the highlight of the most amazing solo journey I've ever taken, a ten day journey by bus and ferry from the southwestern to northeastern tips of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was the roughest traveling that I've ever done but also the most rewarding in a place that few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. Tana Toraja is an area of central Sulawesi that is home to an indigenous polytheistic society that has remained relatively isolated from the Islamic and Western influences that have defined the rest of Indonesia. Among the unique customs of the Torajans are funerals with sacrifices of domestic animals, internment of the deceased in cliff crevices and caves, and tongkonan houses with characteristic curved roofs. Perhaps the most remarkable custom is the carving of wooden effigies of the deceased called tau tau which are often placed on balconies attached to cliffs. Many of these customs seem primitive and morbid to Westerners but I felt as though I had arrived at the most physically and culturally remote place from my home that I had ever encountered in my travels. Given that I'm already twelve years older and now with a wife and three kids, it's probably unlikely I'll ever travel again in third world transportation shoulder to shoulder with locals conducting their daily lives. It's an experience that I am very grateful to have had in the final months of my single life.
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4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. It was quite a struggle to find the entrance to the park due to a lack of cell phone signal in the area. The lakes and waterfalls are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains and are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down. There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.
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3. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The more I think about Puerto Rico, the more I realize that our experiences there could have taken at least five places on our list. I included the beautiful colonial city of old San Juan, the exciting fishing trip at La Parguera, and now the bioluminescent bay at Vieques but I passed on the incredible views in the Cordillera Central and the roadside pig barbecues in Cayey. If there's one single most important thing to take away from this list, it's that Puerto Rico may be the most underappreciated travel destination in the Western Hemisphere.

Our short trip to the island of Vieques got of to an inauspicious start. While waiting for the little turboprop plane to fly us over we each had a margarita in the airport bar. I didn't feel a thing but by the time we arrived in Vieques Mei Ling was red faced and could barely stand. There also weren't any taxis at the airport. The information desk claimed to be calling us one but we waited at the entrance of the airport for an hour and no taxi showed. Finally some people in a passing car asked us if we needed a ride which we gratefully accepted. When the driver saw me practically carrying Mei Ling into the back seat he asked if we needed to go to the hospital but I declined, and by the time we arrived at our hotel Mei Ling was back to her old self. I had miscalculated the time it would take us to walk to the departure point of the kayak tour of the bay and halfway there I realized we needed to start running. We arrived breathless and just in time to be included. The experience was truly wondrous and unique. The luminescent protozoa filling the water sparkled and shone with every stroke of the oars as our kayaks glided through the darkness. Once we were in the center of the bay we were allowed to jump into the water and admire the glow around our limbs as we paddled. Mei Ling was especially amazed as she had never even heard of the phenomenon. We didn't want to take a chance with our precious cameras by enclosing them in plastic bags for the kayak trip so we don't have any photos of the bay but we have our memories and plenty of other pictures from the beautiful and peaceful island of Vieques.

Be aware that licensed tour operators are no longer allowed to permit tourists to swim in the bay, and also that the bioluminescent phenomenon was severely affected by Hurricane Maria. If you choose to visit Vieques make sure you do your own research to get the most up-to-date information regarding Mosquito Bay.
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2. Carnival in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad
Carnival in Trinidad is the greatest party I've ever experienced in my life, and I've seen a few good ones around the world. Everyone's heard of Mardi Gras and Carnaval in Rio, but the awesome thing about Trinidad is that it is for everyone. It's not drunk and rowdy, nor is it exclusive. Everyone gets to participate as much as they want and have an amazing time. Mei Ling and I signed up in advance for a Mas Band, which just requires a payment for costumes but no particular musical or dancing skills. We arrived several days in advance to participate in the many fetes and competitions that lead up to the Mas procession on the final day. We went to an exciting party every night and watched children's parades and steel pan band competitions during the days. The morning before the final parade we woke up at dawn for J'Ouvert, a riotous opening to the official Carnival involving heavy dousing with paint, flour, and chocolate syrup. It took us an hour to shower off the gunk to be ready for our Mas rehearsal. The Mas procession was exhausting but exhilarating, hours of constant dancing to soca music while surrounded by people of every description wearing some of the coolest costumes I've ever seen. One of the things I look forward to most is bringing my kids back to Trinidad for Carnival once they're all old enough to be part of the children's Mas.

Not only was this one of my best travel experiences, but it was the trip on which I realized that after forty-two years on my own there was no way I would ever let Mei Ling go. Marriage was scary but Mei Ling was just too beautiful and too much fun to be with. After our Trinidad trip I knew that I would never regret spending the rest of my life with her. A month later I asked her to move to Miami and live with me, and six months after that we were married. Nine years and three kids later (including five or six more carnivals around the world) and our life together hasn't gotten any less exciting.
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1. Amazon ecolodge in Brazil
I've finally arrived at the end of this list, my greatest travel experience of all time. Now that I've completed the list I would probably put a few experiences in different order, but not this one. The trip Mei Ling and I took to the Amazon was just one of those charmed events that could probably never happen again in the same way. Even our flight to Brazil was perfect - a five hour direct flight from Miami to Manaus in the center of the Amazon on an empty plane. We slept for the entire duration of the dawn flight stretched out on our own four-seat center rows. We had a fine day in Manaus and were taken by van and boat to our lodge the next morning. Once we arrived we discovered that we would be the only guests at the lodge for the entire three days of our stay. Given that it was 2009, I suspect they had a few cancellations because of the financial crisis. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by an extremely affectionate and mischievous woolly monkey named Conchita who would be our constant companion and tormentor during our stay. If there wasn't any food in our hands to steal she was crawling into our laps to be cuddled.

None of the staff at the lodge seemed disinclined to work because they only had two guests. In the morning we'd ask what activities were on the schedule and the guides would tell us all the options and ask us what we felt like doing. In the evening we'd ask what was for dinner and they'd ask us what we wanted to eat. Even though we had chosen a fairly cushy Amazon lodge not very far from Manaus, we still had a range of amazing experiences from piranha fishing to a night camping in the jungle. I felt like we were having the same experience a billionaire might get after reserving an entire lodge for his own family. I know we'll do the Amazon again when our kids are old enough but I don't expect we'll be lucky enough to have another lodge entirely to ourselves with another semi-domesticated woolly monkey to enchant our kids.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 16:33 Comments (4)

The best travel experiences of my life: 10-6

I'm finally getting to the best part of the series of blogs that began here. Of course this started out as a ten best idea, but the more I thought about it the more experiences got pushed out of the top ten until eventually I had a list of seventy. Even through the process of writing this blog I've thought of enough experiences that should have been included to round the list out to an even one hundred. Before I do that, though, it's time to get to the real point of making this list. What are the ten places in the world I would want to make other travelers aware of? The places that I would most appreciate having been told about if I had never stumbled upon them on my own? After much deliberation, here are numbers ten through six on my list.

10. Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona, Spain
I'm probably the one hundred millionth tourist to run with the bulls in Pamplona since Hemingway published "The Sun Also Rises" in 1926, so I wasn't exactly pushing the envelope of travel here. However, it was still a remarkable and memorable experience. I went to Pamplona for the weekend of the Festival of San Fermin with several friends from my Spanish immersion course in Barcelona. The first task was arranging accommodations using the rudimentary internet tools of 2001. When we arrived I realized we would be sleeping on mattresses in a barber shop with the chairs removed. The partying was legendary. All night long revelers in the traditional white outfits with red scarves stumbled through the streets drinking streams of wine from traditional porrons. Between inebriation and lack of experience, many drinkers had shirts that were more crimson than white as darkness fell. I turned in early for the morning bull run but the clamor outside kept me awake for hours.

In the morning none of my companions who had planned to run allowed themselves to be aroused. I walked out alone into the bright sun and saw that hundreds of people were sleeping in the streets, either due to intoxication or lack of accommodation. Many of them had chosen to use the curb as a pillow, with their bodies stretched lengthwise towards the middle of the street. I found a crowd in the main square and pushed my way through it to find the starting point of the run. People pushed back and I cried out in Spanish that I needed to get through, I was there to run. They replied that they were as well. There were several thousand people clustered together at the starting point. After what seemed an interminable wait a bell rang and the mass of people started to surge in one direction. I followed the crowd but soon realized if I kept running that I would reach the stadium at the end of the course without having seen a single bull. That wasn't the experience I wanted, so I backed up against a wall and waited. Soon enough I saw a group of what were clearly experienced runners carrying newspapers and behind them several charging bulls. The runners teased the bulls with the newspapers but always seemed to stay a foot or two ahead of them. Other people were pressed against the building and the barricades like I was. When the bulls got turned around and started running in every direction we were sitting ducks. At that point I had no choice but to freeze motionless and hope that none of the bulls would notice me. Whenever I didn't see a bull facing me I tried to inch a few meters further down the course. At one point I caught a blur of motion and realized that a bull had charged someone about fifty meters away from me and had flipped him up into the air. The bull moved on and I rushed over to where the person lay crumpled on the pavement. It was a girl with blonde hair and a backpack, a tourist. Her head was bleeding and she was unconscious with slow, deep breathing. I had nothing to press against her scalp so I waited by her side to start CPR in case her breathing stopped. Soon enough an ambulance pulled up and they waved me off and I watched them put a cervical collar on her and load her into an ambulance. I never found out what happened to her but it looked bad. By this time they were taking down the barricades on the cross streets so I never did make it to the stadium. I walked back to our accommodation somewhat stunned by the experience. I noticed some people gave me strange looks on the way back, and when I opened the door of the barber shop one of my friends inside looked at me and screamed. It wasn't until then that I realized my white outfit was covered with the girl's blood.

I know that nobody died at the festival that year, but many more than usual were gored and otherwise injured. Later we came across booths where photos were being sold of the day's action including many gorings. Huge photos of grisly gorings were on the front pages of the newspapers as well. I bought some and kept them for years before finally discarding them with our last move. I hadn't brought my own camera with me to the bull run, wisely realizing that I would be endangering myself by taking photos of the action from the middle of the action. I did have some photos from the festivities but those prints disappeared long before I had a scanner to preserve them. It's still the closest I've come to serious injury or death in all my years of traveling.
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9. Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo, Italy
Our best European road trip to date was the time we circled the Adriatic Sea in 2014. Our last day started out extremely well with a rooftop breakfast in the town of Sulmona. After we left Sulmona we spent a couple of hours clambering around an ancient and largely deserted town called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. We still had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to be back in Rome for dinner. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.

Rocca Calascio was just a few kilometers back on the mountain road we had taken to Santo Stefano, a turnoff just after the small town of Calascio. I had actually passed the fork earlier without taking note of the sign for the fort. We made our way up a steep winding road and past a few hairpin turns until the road eventually terminated in a small parking lot. From here, a pedestrian street led up into another deserted-looking medieval town. We stepped up onto a grassy platform just above the parking lot which was only occupied by a short segment of crumbling stone wall, and could see rolling valleys for miles around. In the distance were peaks and ridges of the Apennines. Behind us was a steep hill on top of which we could see more ruins. A cobblestone path led into the remains of a town that clearly had no permanent inhabitants. Grass and trees were growing over the buildings and paths. After a couple of turns, the path turned into a dirt road and the walk up the hill started to feel more like a climb.

A little further up we encountered the abandoned 17th century church of Santa Maria della Pietà. Although beautiful, its forsaken appearance on that desolate mountainside made it an intimidating sight. I don't think you could have paid me enough to spend a night in that place. At this point, there was no path left at all and rocky outcroppings impeded our view of the top. After a couple of false starts we eventually rediscovered the upward route and proceeded to the fort, which was absolutely spectacular. At the lower level of the ruin, we had the best views yet of the Apennine mountains and valleys extending for miles in every direction. The wind was forceful and would have chilled us to the bone in a cooler climate. As it was, I was grateful that Ian was kept snug by the carrier and my own body heat. We picked our way up the rocky slope to the main fort which was better preserved, with continuous walls and corner turrets. Cleo insisted on walking across the short wooden bridge into the fort by herself, although I was afraid the wind would blow her off her feet.

Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.
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8. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
This is another experience from way back that remains engraved in my memory. I had a week vacation during my residency in Boston and there were cheap flights to Iceland that only lasted five hours. Why not? I really enjoyed my short stay in Iceland although I spent most of my time in Reykjavik due to time constraints. I only ventured out of the capital for a two day solo excursion to Vestmannaeyjar, a small archipelago off the southern coast that are called the Westman Islands in English. I stayed at a homestay in the only town of Heimaey, the only inhabited island. Vestmannaeyjabær was a picture-perfect Icelandic village with less than four thousand inhabitants. At the time of my visit it didn't seem like much of a tourist destination except for a few hikers.

There wasn't much to do in the village and Heimaey is quite small so I set out on my one full day to explore the entire island. I mounted Eldfell, the 200 meter volcanic cone outside of town that formed during an eruption in 1973, without much difficulty. The views of the town from the summit and the rolling green landscape and coastline on the opposite side were breathtaking. I didn't have enough time to tackle Helgafell, the slightly taller of the two volcanoes, so I took the only road out of town that passed by the airport towards the southern end of the island. Along the way the road passed by imposing sheer cliffs which were the nesting ground for thousands of puffins. After the scattered birdwatchers here I didn't see another human until I returned to town in the early evening. Soon afterward I saw one of the most remarkable events I've ever witnessed. Inside a fenced enclosure were two magnificent black horses that I assume were stallions. At the very moment I set eyes on them one suddenly reared up and attacked the other with his front hooves. The other immediately rose up to defend himself and instantaneously both were standing on their hind legs and facing off against each other like two boxers. Within seconds it was over and the horses were pacing around a few meters from each other. I watched a little while longer as my heart pounded in my chest, but they left each other alone after that. The southern end of the island was a short round peninsula which was mainly composed of a steep, terraced hill covered with thick grass. The only living creatures besides me were a sizable number of woolly sheep that gazed at me phlegmatically as I picked my way around their droppings to the top of the hill.

I made my way back to town suffused with the enjoyment of having explored the entire island and having seen such a diversity of landscapes and lifeforms. In the evening I ate at a restaurant that served grilled puffin which proved to be delicious, with red meat more like a game animal than a fowl. It was another unique aspect of Heimaey that made me feel like I had stumbled upon an undiscovered paradise. Perhaps their are many remote islands in the North Atlantic just as beautiful and fascinating as Vestmannaeyjar, but there's no question that I will return there with my family once the kids are old enough to deal with all the rigors of a road trip around the entire circumference of the country. Hopefully puffin will still be on the menu!
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7. Notting Hill Carnival, London
I've come to my best travel experience in London, my favorite city in Europe and second only to New York City in my heart. One of the ways in which London beats NYC is the sheer beauty of many of its residential neighborhoods, and none of them is more magnificent than Notting Hill. In August 2014 we were incredibly lucky to get an Airbnb in one of the immaculate white townhouses that line many of the streets in the neighborhood. The rows of Neoclassical columns, ornate windowsills, and wrought-iron balconies made a walk through the neighborhood seem like an encounter with an impossible fantasy land. But we hadn't come just to admire the architecture, we were there to party. One weekend a year that exquisite neighborhood is home to the greatest celebration of Caribbean culture outside of the islands themselves, the Notting Hill Carnival. We had been warned that it was dangerous but we've heard that kind of overcautious advice enough times to know that it was likely bred from unfamiliarity. In fact the atmosphere of the festival was extremely warm and welcoming even at the most crowded points. Unfortunately the kids were still a little too young to appreciate what was going on and slept through most of it, but Mei Ling and I still had a blast even with the kids passed out on our backs. There was great Caribbean food, music, and unbelievable energy all around us. The Notting Hill Carnival will certainly be a cornerstone of our visit when we finally return to the British Isles to give them the full and lengthy attention they deserve.
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6. Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
I can't think of any natural phenomenon I've ever seen that is as magnificent as Iguazú Falls. The best part is that the falls can be seen from two completely different perspectives at the base and at the plateau. The base of the falls on the Argentinian side is incredibly lush with colorful butterflies the size of pie plates and a plethora of rainbows in the omnipresent spray from the waterfalls. The Brazilian side is just as incredible in its own way with a walkway and viewing platform that puts one right at the edge of the keyhole shaped chasm into which the water plunges. Our group splurged on a helicopter ride which gave us the best possible perspective of the majestic Paraná Plateau and the falls. I didn't take any photos because I didn't want my camera to be damaged by the spray but I'm confident that one day I'll return with my family and make up for that deficiency.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:00 Comments (1)

The best travel experiences of my life: 20-11

This is the continuation of the eight part series that begins here.

20. Dotonbori, Osaka
Imagine Times Square, if you've been there, with all the dazzling crowds and displays and electronic billboards and multiply its size by ten. Then add a sparkling canal running right through the middle of it with boardwalks on either side lined with busy outdoor restaurants. Throw in tens of thousands of people hanging out or moving through at any time of the day or night and you might have a rough idea of what it feels like to be in Dotonbori, Osaka. I was completely flabbergasted that somehow I'd been traveling the world my entire life, reading all kinds of travel literature, talking to people from all over the globe and still had absolutely no clue that this incredible place even existed. I've been to most of the world's major metropolises and I can't recall experiencing anything as overwhelming to the senses. Our week-long stay in Osaka was filled with excitement and amazing sights, but Dotonbori is certainly the most vivid and energetic spot in that amazing city.
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19. La Boqueria in Barcelona
Of all the municipal daily markets we've visited in the big three of France, Spain, and Italy, there's no question in my mind that the king of them all is La Boqueria in Barcelona. I grew to love La Boqueria in 2001 when I spent a month in Barcelona doing a Spanish immersion course, so I eagerly anticipated bringing Mei Ling to experience it with me when I returned fifteen years later. The market had undergone a facelift but was still the vast shrine to gastronomy that I remembered. Everywhere we looked were huge stacks of produce, rows of jamon, and walls of colorful juices. Best of all, virtually anything the market had to offer could be sampled at one of several excellent tapas restaurants inside. On our last visit to Spain we came very close to detouring hundreds of kilometers from our itinerary just to pay another visit to La Boqueria.
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18. Diocletian's Palace
It's hard to describe the amazement I felt upon first seeing Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia. Of course, it's no longer a palace the way we think of Buckingham Palace or Versailles but in many ways it's even more impressive. It's a bustling, vibrant miniature city with all the modern conveniences existing entirely within the imposing walls of an enormous Roman ruin. Everywhere one turns is another well-preserved remnant of a civilization that died two millennia ago. At the same time, the ruins have been overbuilt over the centuries with living quarters, churches, and other structures emblematic of countless centuries of history. The overall effect is breathtaking. Once I had walked inside the Palace for a few minutes the only question I could ask myself was "Why have I never heard of this?" I felt so fortunate to have stumbled onto this amazing place in the world out of pure luck. Discoveries like this are what motivated me to begin writing this blog, so that other travelers would be able to learn about these hidden gems that exist right under our noses but for whatever reason aren't well known.
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17. Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia
Mercado Bazurto is one of the best Latin American markets we've visited but that alone doesn't make it one of my best travel experiences ever. We almost didn't make it there at all during our visit to Cartagena in 2012. Like virtually every other tourist we stayed within the walled old town, but unlike most of the others we decided to venture out into the congested metropolis outside where 99% of the locals live. I had misjudged the distance to the market so when we didn't pass any taxis on the way out of the old town we decided to walk all the way there. It was quite hot and Mei Ling was five months pregnant, so I'm still not sure exactly what I was thinking. We walked for block after block without reaching the market. Every time I asked for directions, I was told that the market was very dangerous and we shouldn't go. When I insisted, we were invariably told it was just one block further and we should watch our possessions very closely. This cycle repeated over another ten blocks until we finally arrived at a sprawling community market that was worth every step of the long walk.

The amazing selection of Colombian fruits was on full display including the incredible diversity of passion fruit. Colombia has many delicious fruits that are virtually unknown in other parts of the world such as grenadilla, lulo, and uchuva. Even more remarkable were the butcher stalls that showcased piles of cow eyeballs and split chickens that had pink ovaries bursting with newly-developed eggs. Mei Ling was determined to try the cow eyeballs but none of the small restaurants in the markets served them. She harangued one butcher so mercilessly about where she could eat cow eyeballs that eventually he made a call on his phone and a few minutes later a woman showed up. We bought some cow eyeballs and a split chicken and she took us to the edge of the market where there was a row of shacks made of plywood and corrugated metal roofing. A multigenerational family lived in the shack along with a dog with a wry neck that always looked at us sideways. We soon realized the butcher had called his wife to take us to their house and cook for us. While the women busied themselves preparing the meat and chopping vegetables we socialized with the family. The pregnant daughter looked like she was about to pop but she was only five months along, the same as Mei Ling. She was also fifteen. Ulp! Welcome to reality in the third world. Cow eyeball and undeveloped chicken egg soup was quite delicious and naturally I had to crunch my way through a whole eyeball. No one ever asked us for money above what we had paid the butcher, and they just looked confused when I asked. I pressed a substantial bank note into the butcher's wife's hand before we left but I'm quite sure it was not expected.

I felt an amazing array of emotions after this experience. I was very grateful to the family and to my good luck for having been able to see this side of Colombia that other travelers would never experience and most would never want. I had a new understanding of the difficult conditions that most people in this world live in from birth until death, yet somehow manage to be happy, welcoming, and generous. Most of all I felt fortunate to have found Mei Ling who had somehow come into my world after spending her childhood in a similar deprived environment to the market family. I knew that my life with her would continue to be a never-ending series of adventures at home and around the world and that the arrival of children was only going to enhance that experience. As it turned out my feeling that day was exactly correct, our travels as a couple were just the first act of a lifelong commitment to travel and adventure.
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16. Sanmiguelada festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
I loved my Spanish immersion course in San Miguel de Allende but not much was going on during the month of January. Everyone told me the best time to be in the city was the third weekend of September, when everyone in town and thousands of visitors celebrated the Sanmiguelada. The festival combined the observances of Mexican Independence Day and the holiday of the city's patron saint, and included a beauty pageant and a bull run. I decided to return just for the festival in September and it was fortunate I did not delay, because the festival was canceled after overcrowding and a gunfight in 2006 and to the best of my knowledge has not resumed in its previous form. In September the city was much more busy and vital than it had been on my previous stay and I had a blast getting reacquainted with the Spanish instructors from my language school. On Saturday morning I was the only one who had an appetite for the bull run, having experienced something similar in Pamplona three years previously. The bull run in San Miguel was a much less orderly affair as the bulls were basically loose in the town square rather than running a barricaded course. Just as in Pamplona, being on the ground with the confused and irritated bulls was a lot scarier than one might realize. I was filming with a digital point-and-shoot camera and I couldn't shake the feeling that the clusters of people moving in front of me would suddenly part and I would find myself staring right into the eyes of an angry bull.
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15. Shanghai markets
I've finally reached the top of my list of the best market experiences of my life and it's only fitting I find myself in China, the greatest market country in the world. Sadly, the experience Mei Ling and I had in 2011 couldn't be duplicated today. The Chinese government cleaned many of the best wet markets out of the major cities as part of a modernization drive long before the coronavirus epidemic. Beijing and Shanghai particularly are but shadows of their former market heaven selves. Fortunately I met Mei Ling in time to have her guide me through a whole day of nonstop eating in Shanghai markets and street food stalls. To the best of my recollection we ate seven meals that day, to the point where I wasn't eating out of any sense of hunger but because the food was so unusual and delicious that it was irresistible. In the morning we stumbled on a seafood market just outside of our hotel and Mei Ling bought whatever looked most interesting. We had plastic bags full of fish bladders, eels, and shellfish and she marched us to a nearby restaurant and convinced them to cook it all for us. We sat on a little table outside and plowed into a seven-dish seafood feast at nine in the morning. I still remember the Shanghainese walking to work staring at us disbelievingly as we ate a breakfast that was sumptuous and bizarre beyond belief. Over the rest of the day we walked from the middle of the city all the way to Yu Yuan, sampling food at every market we encountered. Mei Ling always knew when we were near a market from the bags pedestrians were carrying and would track down the source relentlessly. Among the other delicacies we enjoyed that day were a stewed whole turtle, huge meaty snails, and crispy duck heads. The next day we brought my mother with us to the market where we had another turtle for an encore. When it comes to food experiences there aren't many countries that can compete with China, especially when one has a Chinese wife with an adventurous palate and a determined nature.
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14. Taj Mahal
This is probably the most obvious of my top travel experiences, but it's not just because of the beauty of the mausoleum. Either we were lucky or our guide chose our timing well because I remember the crowds being very light and with few Western tourists. The white marble of the building was beautiful at dusk and Indians in colorful clothing were relaxing in small groups on the platform. The kids were wandering around and the locals would beckon them over and cuddle and play with them. I felt a great sense of accomplishment at having brought my pregnant wife and young kids to the opposite side of the world to experience what most would consider one of the most amazing and beautiful buildings that has ever been constructed.
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13. Fishing for wahoo in La Parguera, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a small Caribbean island that punches way over its weight. The two weeks that I've spent on the island in two trips account for three of my top travel experiences including two in the top thirteen. If I extended my list from seventy to a hundred I would probably include three or four more. On our return visit to Puerto Rico in 2010 we rented a car and explored a large part of the island including the less-traveled southern coast. The highlight of that trip was a sportfishing trip we took on a small boat out of La Parguera. I don't remember if we went out specifically for wahoo or that's just what was biting that day, but they were among the most fierce and beautiful fish I've ever encountered. It took every ounce of my strength to reel in one of the huge fish and when Mei Ling hooked one I was sure she wouldn't be able to do it on her own. One of my favorite travel videos in my collection is the one I have of my tiny girlfriend straining to lift the rod and pull in her prize over and over again until finally the wahoo was defeated. Once we docked the first mate was cleaning the fish and pulled a red blob out of its insides. "This is its heart!" It was still beating. I guess he expected Mei Ling to squeal or run away but she looked right at it and said "Cut me a piece!" His eyes widened but he cut the heart in half and offered a piece to Mei Ling who immediately wolfed it down. He looked at me next and I did what I had to do. It wasn't bad - kind of like tuna sashimi but bloodier. It broke our hearts to leave behind all that delicious looking fish but we were on the road with nowhere to do any cooking. Eventually we took about a kilogram with us and drove to the nearest resort. We walked into the restaurant which was nearly empty and asked the waiter if the chef would cook it for us. Soon afterwards we were served four different wahoo dishes including a seafood soup, tempura, grilled fish, and escabeche. It was a feast that exceeded our wildest expectations and was the perfect conclusion to an absolutely legendary day of travel and adventure.
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12. Rio Carnaval
In 2001 I was freelancing as an emergency room physician and was making my own schedule, which gave me the flexibility to take long vacations. I used one of these to take an overland trip from Santiago, Chile down through Argentina and then up to Rio de Janeiro where the trip finished to coincide with the annual Carnaval. Americans don't usually take long travel holidays when they are young so all the other people in my group were Europeans and Australians. I had a great time for the entire trip and Carnaval was particularly wild. Every day throughout the city there were incessant parades and hundreds of people would follow along behind the floats and the music trucks, dancing until they were exhausted. I stripped off my shirt the second day and didn't put it back on until I left the city. I remember one municipal bus driver, also shirtless and looking to be about eighteen, who rounded curves so quickly and sharply that our feet would leave the floor as we hung desperately onto the overhead bars. We all tipped him handsomely as we left the bus and he shouted with delight. Little did I know that this amazing and riotous party wouldn't be my greatest travel experience in Brazil, or even my most exciting carnival. Unfortunately this was still before I had bought my first digital camera, and none of my Rio photos survived the many moves and housecleanings since 2001.

11. Dordogne evening markets
I haven't broken my promise that no more markets would appear on this list. The "marchés nocturnes" of the Dordogne are actually communal dinners rather than markets. Almost every village in the region has one of these during the summer months, and there are as many as a dozen on each evening of the week. We had dinner at a marché nocturne every night of our five days in the region and found that some seemed very local and others were dominated by tourists. The ones with the most buzz and approval on the internet tended to be the worst, while the ones that I had never heard of that we went to because we happened to be nearby proved to be the best. The really good ones felt like total immersion in the unique atmosphere that makes France one of my favorite countries in the world to travel in. They were celebrations of gastronomy, of community, of tradition, and small town life. The idea of getting a whole town together for dinner and opening the event to visitors is so good, I wonder why more places don't do it.
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Next up are my best travel experiences 10-6
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Posted by zzlangerhans 08:27 Comments (7)

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