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By this Author: zzlangerhans

A Southwestern USA Expedition: Las Vegas Strip


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Ever since 2017 we've adopted a consistent schedule of traveling during the kids' school breaks. We've taken short trips during the winter and spring breaks and either one or two longer trips in the summer, and it's worked out very well. We were putting a fairly sizable dent in the long list of places we still hadn't seen. Then in 2020 COVID came along and we went an entire year without any travel at all. By spring 2021 Mei Ling and I were vaccinated and it was possible to strategize around the epidemic. Our first post-viral expedition was a week in Belize, a country which had virtually eliminated the disease by strict border controls and tightly-enforced masking. It went well but we hungered for a longer and more intense road trip. I had the Eastern Europe itinerary I had originally planned for 2020 but at the time that was one of the worst-hit areas in the world. Even Western Europe seemed logistically dubious, Asia was locked down, and South America was unthinkable. It was clear that our best bet was domestic travel and there was only one region we hadn't visited that could support a month-long road trip. I had planned on leaving the American Southwest a couple more years until the kids were more capable of hiking and other adventurous activities, but it became clear that we really had no choice if we wanted the kind of travel experience we had become accustomed to. Somehow we'd have to make it work.

I devised my usual ambitious itinerary to include as much of the region as possible without skipping anything important. After checking weather patterns I quickly realized that summer is not the ideal time to visit Nevada and Arizona. I was determined to include Las Vegas but it had to be our point of entry in early June. That way we would at least have a chance at seeing some two digit temperatures. I had wanted to include Phoenix but didn't find enough there to justify the risk of overwhelming heat so it got axed. The Sonora Desert region may end up a future winter or spring break destination. Santa Fe, a city I've never found my way to despite an enduring fascination, was the other non-negotiable stop. It didn't make sense to travel to the Southwest without visiting the famous national parks of Utah. Salt Lake City therefore became the third vertex of the triangle of major cities that formed the skeleton of our itinerary. Small towns and national parks would fill the time between city explorations. Persistent research uncovered more and more interesting sights and activities and I soon realized we were about to have a very busy month on the road.
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Even though we didn't have to worry about serious cold weather we had more than the usual luggage. This was mainly because of all the hiking clothes for five people. We needed the water-resistant hiking boots with a solid grip and the fast-drying wool socks. I also bought everyone long hiking pants with a zip-off at the knee that converted them into shorts and long sleeve shirts like landscapers wear. I figured the long sleeves would keep us cooler in direct sun. We ended up with two large suitcases and one smaller roller instead of one large and two small like we usually have, in addition to the carry-ons. I was looking forward to a nonstop to Las Vegas from Miami but in the end we were forced to connect through Los Angeles on the outbound flight. At least we would have a direct flight home for the red-eye on the way back.

As we flew from LA back east towards Las Vegas, I watched the unfamiliar landscape passing beneath us. Irregular arrays of mountains almost devoid of vegetation looked like a model constructed from clay. Between the grey and brown sierras were enormous man-made metallic fields with irregular shapes. Were they solar power plants? Military air bases? I still have no idea.
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Once we arrived my main concern was whether our rental car would be there. I'd been hearing a lot of horror stories about rental car companies being short of cars and people showing up at the counter to be told that the car they had reserved wasn't available. Fortunately I needn't have worried - the agent took me to a whole row of SUVs in the garage and let me pick whichever I wanted. We chose a Ford Equinox that seemed to have the most trunk room. I was so relieved to have a car I completely forgot to ask the agent if any of the vehicles had a true four wheel drive.

Our Airbnb was close to the strip but not really within walking distance. It was a third-floor walk-up in a dingy, stained, concrete block of apartments but the price was right. The journey up the stairs with two 50 pound suitcases was miserable but the apartment itself justified its high Airbnb rating. It was emblazoned with full Vegas decor from the purple lighting to the pop art to the neon sign. It was also cool, comfortable, and immaculately clean. By now it was well after midnight Miami time so we headed directly to bed in order to be ready to begin our adventure in the morning.
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One of the little perks of traveling to the west is that the time change works in our favor. Despite our late arrival we were all up bright and early the next morning. Unfortunately we squandered our early start by driving half an hour to a breakfast restaurant far from the Strip that appeared on several top ten lists I'd read. The restaurant turned out to have pancakes and a build-your-own omelet station that reminded me of my hospital's cafeteria. We were the only customers.

I had decided to kick things off with an early morning tour of the Strip. One reason was that the temperature would be hitting 99 in the late afternoon, and this was projected to be the coolest of our four days in Vegas. On our last day it was going to be 108, but thankfully not until we had already left town. The other reason was I just couldn't wait to put my feet onto Las Vegas Boulevard. I'd done so much research and I had such a long list of things to see on the Strip that I knew I couldn't concentrate on anything else until I had that out of the way. One odd thing about the Las Vegas Strip is that there are quite a lot of casinos that allow you to park for free. That list is constantly changing so it pays to do research ahead of time, because the ones that do charge are quite expensive. We chose Planet Hollywood because it was the southernmost of the places we wanted to see on the Strip. I figured once we'd worked our way all the way north to the Wynn we could take one of the free shuttles back to where we'd parked.
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As soon as we walked out of the garage and into the Miracle Mile shopping mall we got our first taste of the buffet of visual delicacies that the Strip had in store for us. The high, curved ceiling of the upper level is deftly painted to simulate the evening sky and the exteriors of the stores are crafted to resemble an Arabian marketplace. The overall effect is quite beautiful and convincing, and I had the kids half-believing it was the real sky even though they knew that it was early morning.
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The only thing I wanted to see inside Planet Hollywood was the Tipsy Robot, a bar where customers order drinks from computer screens and robotic arms mix them from an array of bottles above them. The kids weren't allowed through the doors and although the exterior walls were glass paneling the robots were too far away to get a good look. I sent Mei Ling in to order a drink but she was worried about the number of customers inside. She figured she'd pay and then it would be an hour before her drink was made so we left empty-handed.
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Everything on the Strip is on an enormous scale so walking distances are much further than they appear on a map. The full city blocks are half a mile long. It seemed like we were walking in Planet Hollywood forever but eventually we spilled out onto the Strip and were greeted by the view of the Eiffel Tower replica and hot air balloon of the Paris Las Vegas Casino. Our first destination was the Bellagio which was directly across the Boulevard. We walked along a beautiful covered walkway with a great view of the Bellagio Fountain and Las Vegas Boulevard until we reached the entrance to the hotel.
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Inside the Bellagio the lobby has a ceiling installation of colorful glass flowers by renowned sculptor Dale Chiluly. Adjacent to the lobby is the Conservatory which is a large open area with a greenhouse roof filled with exuberant displays of flowers and plants as well as dramatic sculptures. On the periphery of the Conservatory were boutiques and restaurants. In any other city it may have seemed ostentatious but of course in Vegas it was absolutely on point and a great introduction to what we would see for the rest of the morning.
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We walked back up Las Vegas Boulevard and cut through the faux Roman ruins and gardens of Caesar's Palace. The grounds of the casino hotels were enormous and I was starting to realize that even though my planned tour looked very manageable on the map it was going to be rather hard on the kids. Once we reached the LINQ promenade we took a quick ice cream break and then had a pleasant walk down the busy promenade with the High Roller Ferris wheel in the foreground. Over our heads were the cables of the FLY LINQ zipline but it was still too early for them to be running.
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The next stop on our tour was the Venetian. I hadn't realized until then the outsized Italian influence on the Strip but up to that point all the casinos we'd seen were based on various eras of Roman and Italian architecture. As we walked over the elevated walkway we saw some people filming an oddly-shaped potted plant. As Cleo went for a closer look the plant suddenly stood up and started chasing her. She squealed and fled as the man inside the plant costume laughed. I saw one the the guys filming had a T-shirt with something about TikTok so presumably they were making videos for a TikTok channel. The Venetian had a nice layout with a sky blue canal, gondolas, and fair representations of St Mark's Campanile and the Rialto Bridge but it reminded me more of Little Venice in Dalian, China than the real thing.
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The kids were complaining pretty loudly about the walk by now but I still pushed them one block further to the Wynn, which reportedly had one of the most beautiful lobbies. However, after everything we'd already seen that morning we were underwhelmed by the long, ornate corridors. We enjoyed one interesting display of colorful orbs made from artificial flowers hanging from a grove of small trees in an atrium. To top it off I realized that Mizumi, the restaurant we'd be having dinner at the next evening, was inside the Wynn so we had wasted that last painful block getting to a place we would be seeing soon anyway.
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I had thought returning to the car would be a simple affair as I knew there were complimentary monorail trams between the casinos on the Strip and I assumed we'd be able to hop on one nearby and hop off close to Planet Hollywood. Unfortunately I hadn't done my research carefully because when I asked the valet at the Wynn for directions to the closest monorail he directed me to the monorail operated by the city, all the way back at the LINQ. Two stops later we got off a full block away from Las Vegas Boulevard, another half mile walk. By the time we reached the entrance to Planet Hollywood we'd walked further than if we hadn't bothered with the monorail at all. To add insult to injury, once we reached the garage we realized we'd retraced the whole distance we'd just walked on a higher level and we could have saved a mile by going straight into the back entrance of the garage from the monorail station. The only positive was that no one had collapsed during the walk. Later I figured out that the casino trams wouldn't have been any help either the way they're laid out, but the lesson learned was that especially with kids a tour of the strip needs to be planned very carefully.

We went about our other planned activities of the day away from the Strip and then returned for the events that only occur in the evening, the eruption of the volcano at the Mirage and the water show at the Bellagio Fountains. This time I had learned my lesson and took advantage of the one hour complimentary parking at both casinos. We got there about twenty minutes ahead of the first of the evening eruptions, which are scheduled from 8 to 11 pm on the hour. I expected it to be difficult to get a good viewing spot but the crowd remained fairly sparse. We occupied ourselves in the meantime taking more pictures of the Strip in the gathering dusk. I found the volcano pretty impressive although somehow the kids were more enthralled by a cloud of gnats that buzzed insistently around my hat. I also got fooled by a false ending to the eruption and ended my video before the grand finale.
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The Bellagio was a little easier to time since the fountains get activated every fifteen minutes. We still almost missed the time we had planned on because it was such a long walk from the parking lot. The fountain was a bit of a let-down after some of the exuberant and colorful displays I saw in Shanghai and Dalian a couple of years earlier, but it was a good opportunity to see the bright neon cityscape of Las Vegas at night. I realized that we could have timed our evening visit to see the fountains and the volcano as well as everything we had seen on the Strip earlier and spent the morning doing something completely different. Fortunately we still had a few more days to get through our Vegas list but my many mistakes of the first day helped me realize that I was definitely rusty at traveling and I needed to be a lot more careful how I was planning our itinerary over the next month.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 20:41 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip las_vegas family_travel tony_friedman family_travel_blog las_vegas_strip Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: San Ignacio


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Together with its sister city Santa Elena, San Ignacio is the second largest metropolis in Belize and the only major city in the western part of the country. The city was fairly busy when we drove in, perhaps because it was midweek. We went straight to the market which had a more upbeat feel than the Michael Finnegan market in Belize City. We had lunch at the food stalls which served mostly Latino dishes like quesadillas and pupusas as well as some barbecue.
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I wanted to get to work on our list of activities in town right away since we only had that afternoon and the next day. I expected everything to be shut down for Good Friday and we had to get a fairly early start on the road Saturday morning. I hadn't had any luck reaching the Marie Sharp showroom by phone but I had hopes that I'd be able to set Mei Ling up with one of their cooking classes if we walked in. Marie Sharp is the best known hot sauce brand in Belize, producing thirteen different habanero sauces and a variety of other condiments. The factory is in Dangriga but there's a showroom in San Ignacio which has a reputation for offering excellent classes on Belizean cuisine. We found the location and a banner advertising the showroom but there was no door to be found. Eventually someone yelled at us from a balcony that the showroom and the hotel housing it had closed because of the epidemic.

Fortunately we were close by Ajaw Chocolate and Crafts which proved to be open, although once again the person minding the desk seemed rather nonplussed to have visitors. She was even more surprised when we knew the correct spelling of Ajaw (a-how), although we had just learned it a few minutes earlier from asking directions. She took us through a brief presentation of how chocolate was derived from cacao beans following which the kids were able to make their own rather bitter chocolate paste from the ground up beans. It took a surprising amount of sugar to make a palatable drink out of the paste. Across the street from Ajaw was a majestic four story yellow house that was probably the most beautiful residence we had seen in the country. Afterwards we walked down to Burns Avenue, the main pedestrian street downtown. Here the effects of the pandemic were most visible with many shuttered shops and restaurants. Hopefully they were just in dormancy waiting for the travelers to return and not out of business for good.
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Our new accommodation at Table Rock Jungle Lodge was on the main road from San Ignacio south to San Antonio. There was a lot of road work and we had to detour through a colorful little village called Cristo Rey. The frequent buses had to do the same and there was one little side lane on the detour where I had to look carefully to make sure we had a clear path until the next turn because there wouldn't be enough room if a bus came from the other direction. At the lodge there was actually another car in the parking area, our first time sharing an accommodation with other tourists. The owners had done a good job of maintaining a forested environment but of course there wasn't the same sense of remoteness from civilization that we had in Chan Chich. The most beautiful spot was the infinity pool built on a slope with nothing but jungle on the other side.
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We drove back to San Ignacio for dinner at The Guava Limb, one of the best reviewed restaurants in the city. The food was better than the other restaurants we'd tried in Belize and the setting was very pretty. As usual we were the only customers when we arrived although another couple had arrived by the time we left.
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In the morning we headed back to the market for breakfast. Unlike the previous afternoon the parking spots outside were full and we had to park in a dirt lot a block away. We put together a solid meal and explored the stalls at their busiest time. Although it was more lively than the Belize City market it wasn't very large and we had seen everything after a few minutes. There was no comparison with the markets we had been to in Nicaragua or Mexico.
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Afterwards we drove to the San Ignacio Resort Hotel to experience the Green Iguana Conservation Project. The project was initiated in response to a dramatic decline in the green iguana population in Belize due to overhunting. We were lucky a guide was available that morning as we were the only ones visiting and it seemed that as with everywhere else the tourists hadn't returned yet. The guide took us to the enclosure and briefed us about the life cycle of the iguanas as well as numerous interesting facts about their biology. He advised us that iguana hunting was strictly prohibited during the breeding season from February to June, which left us scratching our heads about the trussed up iguanas we had been offered for dinner at the Michael Finnegan market. Large adult iguanas lazed in the sun within the enclosure while another specimen noisily crawled around on the plexiglass roof. The guide told us they had released him to the wild but he kept returning to the project to be fed.
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The juvenile iguanas were kept in a separate enclosure and the guide allowed us to gently pick them up and place them on our arms and shoulders. They instinctively crawled to the highest place to seek the sun which eventually led them to the top of Mei Ling's head. The bright green color of the juveniles exactly matched the foliage in their enclosure.
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We had wrapped up our activities in town a little more efficiently than expected so we headed back to the lodge for a swim. Table Rock was built above the Macal River upstream of where it divided San Ignacio from Santa Elena. We grabbed a few inner tubes and walked along the path down the hillside to the river where we eventually found a little beach where we could put our tubes in the water. For some reason I drifted downstream much more quickly than the kids and I got rather nervous even though they were wearing life jackets and can swim. To make things worse I heard a loud splash coming from the area of a submerged tree at the river bank. It seemed quite unlikely the lodge would be promoting tubing in an alligator-infested river but in the moment it seemed like the set-up of a horror movie. I kicked furiously at the water to get back upstream to the kids who were already bored and wading to the beach.
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Our last full day in Belize was Good Friday, a major holiday with mandated closures of most stores and restaurants. We'd already seen everything of interest to us in San Ignacio anyway. The lodge staff thought that the Belize Botanic Gardens would be open so we decided we would go for it. Although the gardens were quite close to the lodge as the crow flies, the only bridge to the other side of the Macal River was at San Ignacio. We had to drive back to San Ignacio and then another half hour on the Western Highway and a dirt road to the gardens. It would have been quite a disappointment if the gardens had been closed but fortunately they were open. Of course we were the only visitors and we had the expansive gardens entirely to ourselves. The gardens were so large it wasn't possible to see everything but I think we acquitted ourselves well. Some of the highlights were an orchard of tropical fruits, a grove of the thickest and tallest bamboo I've ever seen, and a wooden tower with a viewing platform. Mei Ling took some amazing pictures of flowers and insects with her Huawei phone.
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The only other activity I could find for the afternoon was an hour and a half away, but it was either that or laze around at the lodge for the rest of the day. I didn't want to waste any opportunities so we piled back into the car and retraced our path on the Western Highway past San Ignacio to the road that led to Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve. Once again I was glad we had the four wheel drive as each successive turn off led to a rougher road. The last stretch would have been close to unnavigable in a regular car, with huge pits and ruts in the dirt that tossed us from side to side as we slowly crept towards our destination.

The end of this fraught journey was a little anticlimactic, a small clearing with a couple of other SUV's already parked. We took a series of steep wooden staircases down to the creek. Some of the steps were broken or missing so I stayed in front of the kids in case one of them tripped. At the bottom was a series of pools of murky water separated from each other by piles of boulders and rocky outcrops. Once we were close to the bottom we could see a thirty foot waterfall in the background. The kids wanted to swim but the cloudiness of the water made me worried that one of them might get their leg trapped in the rocks under the surface, so I only let them dip in the shallow pools right at the edge. Afterwards we found a relatively flat area of the rocks and ate the barbecued chicken and flatbread we had bought on our last pass through San Ignacio.
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The next morning we didn't need to rush because we had an afternoon flight. We made one final stop in the market for breakfast and bought a hand-carved wooden plate as a souvenir. The two hour drive back to the airport was uneventful except that we did not pass a single gas station in the last thirty minutes. We were prepared to accept the penalty for the half-empty tank but the clerk at the rental office looked so perturbed that I agreed to follow her directions to the nearest station. With a full tank I was finally allowed to return our car to the clerk who didn't bat an eye at the thick layer of road dust that encrusted it.
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Our short trip to Belize had felt like it lasted much longer than a week. We returned home confident that we had captured the essence of a new and unique country, a diverse and oft-forgotten outpost of English colonial culture in Central America.

Posted by zzlangerhans 01:22 Archived in Belize Tagged road_trip belize san_ignacio family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: Chan Chich


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When I was researching the best jungle lodges in Belize there was one name that kept coming up. Chan Chich Lodge was built on the site of a former logging camp by Sir Barry Bowen, the scion of one of the most wealthy and prestigious families in Belize dating back to the early days of British colonization. The enormous estate surrounding the lodge is called Gallon Jug, which it part of the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area that occupies a large portion of northwestern Belize. Chan Chich is best known for birdwatching but is also considered an ideal location for spotting larger jungle animals since it is one of the most remote lodges in the country.

Most visitors reach the lodge either by airplane from Belize City or by arranged ground transport from Belmopan or San Ignacio. We were a rare breed arriving in our own rental vehicle which may have been the reason for the complete absence of any signage indicating that we were headed in the right direction. Not long after the turnoff from the Western Highway we found ourselves being directed onto a one lane dirt road with well over an hour of driving left to go. As the miles passed by without any change in the surroundings I grew increasingly nervous that we were being led to a dead end hours away. We had a Garmin with a local SIM card but the directory didn't recognize Chan Chich or Gallon Jug no matter how many ways we entered it. Eventually we reached a gate across the road in what looked like a tiny village. A guy playing soccer with some kids in a nearby field stared at us with a confused expression. I figured we had finally reached the end of a long false path but the guy came over to the car and asked me in Spanish where we were going. I asked him if this was the way to Chan Chich and he nodded and waved in the direction past the gate. He seemed very surprised to see tourists driving to Chan Chich in their own vehicle and asked to see my reservation. I was able to pull it up in my e-mail and he shrugged and opened the gate. This gave us some renewed confidence but we still had an hour to go.

Soon after we passed this gate we began seeing some large birds on the side of the road. Some were quite brightly colored and I thought they were peacocks, but Mei Ling insisted they were turkeys. They didn't look like any turkeys I had ever seen. Despite the assurances of the guy at the gate I was still uncomfortable with the long drive on a dirt road with no signs and no other cars moving in either direction. We finally came to a sign but it only said "Warning! British artillery testing area. Proceed at your own risk." Fortunately I knew that there hadn't been any British military presence in Belize for at least forty years and the sign looked like it could have been that old. We still had a half tank of gas and the shrinking blue line on Google Maps as we approached our destination. Finally we came to a second gate with a guard station, and the man who came out told me we had just a few minutes drive to Chan Chich. A few minutes later we crossed a small suspension bridge and it was clear we had arrived at the lodge. The skies unleashed a downpour just as we pulled up to the main building but it did nothing to quench our relief at having arrived.

By this point we weren't shocked to find out that we were going to be the only guests at the lodge during our two day stay. Chan Chich was a lushly beautiful place that looked like everyone's mental image of a jungle lodge. The birds we had seen on the road were everywhere here, and indeed they were turkeys although of a very unique type. These https://www.wideopenspaces.com/ocellated-turkey/ are named for the eye-like ocelli at the tips of their tail-feathers, although we never saw them fanning their tails. In fact I thought the staff was telling us they were "oscillated" turkeys until I had a chance to look them up. The five of us were staying in one cabin with two queen beds which had been beautifully prepared for our arrival.
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The next day a guide gave us a tour of the Gallon Jug estate in a specialized jeep. The farm conducts numerous commercial operations including raising cattle and horses, growing and processing coffee and cacao, and producing hot sauces and jams. Many of the cattle are a crossbreed of the English Angus and the Indian Brahman which they have named Brangus. The advantage is the meat quality of the Angus with the heat tolerance of the Brahman.
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Because the estate has so many workers and there is no city anywhere nearby, Gallon Jug acts as its own self-reliant community. It has its own school and post office among other standards of regular city life.
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As we returned to the lodge rain clouds were gathering and casting ominous shadows over lonely, fan-like trees on the grasslands. We wondered if the people who lived and worked here felt the same sense of remoteness that we did, or if they were so used to the isolation that it just felt like home.
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Back at the lodge we took a dip in their beautiful pool and lazed around the grounds for a while. We don't generally travel for relaxation but it was pretty clear that since we aren't birdwatchers there weren't going to be enough activities to keep us engaged from dawn until dusk. Anyway, soaking up the atmosphere in the beautiful lodge was a lot better than sipping on a cocktail at a beach resort.
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After lunch we got a ride in the jeep to a small pond where we paddled a canoe around for an hour or so. Once we were on the water a strong breeze kicked up which made it quite challenging to get back to the dock. The kids kept demanding a turn to paddle which meant that we kept getting blown to the far side of the pond until I finally took over for good.
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In the evening we went on a short wildlife safari in the jeep. We'd already seen our fill of turkeys and deer and the only additional wildlife we saw was a tarantula in the road and some nocturnal predatory birds. Our guide pointed out some eye reflections in the trees and told us they were raccoons. It was growing quite chilly especially when the truck was moving so we requested they cut the drive short and we returned to base.
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Another nice thing about Chan Chich was the opportunity for horseback riding. The horses hadn't been ready on our first day so we arranged to go on the morning that we left instead. While we waited for the guide to pick us up and take us back to the farm the kids tackled the steep hill behind the main building. I was a little nervous that one of them would lose their footing and tumble all the way back down to the bottom but they navigated their way to the top and soon afterwards tore back down at a frightening pace.
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The kids told me breathlessly there were monkeys in the trees at the top of the hill. I clambered back up with them and at first I couldn't see or hear anything in the trees. I was starting to think the kids had scared them away until I started to notice some tiny movements in the foliage. As my eyes adapted to the shadows in the branches I started to notice dark shapes moving around in the upper branches, and soon enough I could make out the forms of spider monkeys as they traversed the open spaces in the canopy. They were much further away than the ones we had seen at the zoo but it was much more interesting and exciting to see them in their natural habitat. Behind me was a beautiful view of the colorful foliage and thatched roofs of the lodge.
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Soon the truck arrived and brought us back to the farm for horseback riding. They only had three horses available which was fine as we just wanted the experience for the kids. Cleo and Ian had ridden once before in Uruguay three years earlier but had only vague memories and Spenser had never been on a horse. Unlike in Uruguay the kids were riding on their own which made me a little nervous. The plan was for the guides to lead their horses while we followed on foot. Spenser was uncomfortable on the horse from the get go and after walking a few yards he decided he wanted to get off. We encouraged him to try it a little longer but we felt he was a little young to be riding on his own anyway, so Mei Ling took his place. Spenser and I stayed at the stables and studied some ants which were ferrying little buds down the trunk of a tree.
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Overall we were pleased with Chan Chich although it was probably better suited for middle-aged birdwatchers. It was good practice for future trips to the Amazon and African jungles which I expect to be more challenging in a variety of ways. We filled our gas tank back at the farm and returned to civilization along the same road we had arrived on.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:24 Archived in Belize Tagged road_trip belize family_travel travel_blog chan_chich Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: Belize City and Belmopan


View Belize 2021 on zzlangerhans's travel map.

From 2014 through 2020 we had been traveling every single time we got an opportunity. Once the kids were in grade school we were limited to their vacations but that still gave us three opportunities a year and we never missed one. Then COVID-19 came along after we'd already planned our 2020 spring break trip to Belize and Guatemala. I kept the possibility open to the last minute but eventually the risk of flying seemed to be too high and we canceled. I think if our departure was scheduled two weeks earlier we would have gone for it. After spring break, every new school vacation was met with another wave of COVID and the summer and winter breaks passed by without any travel as well. Finally in 2021 I was vaccinated and cases were finally on the decline. Belize had gone though a nasty wave themselves but through closed borders and diligent observance of infectious control measures they had virtually eliminated their epidemic. They had now reopened the country to air travel although the land border with Guatemala was still closed. We wouldn't be able to include the leg to Lago Peten Itza but that still left a week's worth of activities in Belize that we had deferred from the previous year. We were fortunate in that the place we had plans to travel in was now one of the safest countries on earth with respect to COVID.

We had an easy two hour flight to Belize and then another hour to get our COVID test documentation cleared at immigration. Picking up the rental SUV was an easy process at Crystal Auto Rental, a locally owned company that had a better reputation than the international chains. We were starving and fortunately we didn't even have to leave the airport grounds to tuck into some authentic Belizean street food. A lady had set up a tent just inside the airport exit and was serving fried fish, pig tails, and other delicacies out of the back of her vehicle. We were off to a great start.
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Most tourists bypass Belize City completely on their way to the Cays or to lodges in the interior. The original capital of the colony of British Honduras has more than four times the population of the current capital Belmopan and has a reputation for being unsightly and somewhat dangerous. Our style of travel involves experiencing the daily life of natives in the population centers as well as the more traditional touristic activities, so we headed straight from the airport to the Michael Finnegan Market. I was a little nervous going in as the only article I had found about the market was an old one about a murder that had taken place there. We needn't have worried because it was a reasonably upbeat and energetic place where we had no concerns about our safety at all. The goods on sale weren't particularly exciting, just a selection of typical Caribbean fruits and vegetables and nothing we hadn't seen many times before.
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The only surprise we encountered was a vendor selling live iguanas for consumption. We had hoped to try some bush meat during our trip but we hadn't expected to find any in Belize City. One of the guys hanging around the booth offered to cook one of them for us at his house. I had fond memories of iguana meals in Nicaragua and Trinidad so I was ready to accept but Mei Ling didn't have a good vibe about it so she turned him down. We tipped the vendor for letting the kids hold the iguana and moved on from the market.
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Aside from the market Belize City had a rather desolate vibe on Saturday afternoon. The shops seemed to be mostly closed and there was hardly any foot traffic on the streets. We made our way to Digi Park on the shoreline which was known to have a large number of food kiosks, but all that was on the menu were fast food selections like fried chicken and hamburgers. We let the kids stretch their legs for a bit in the playground before moving on.
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At the tip of the polypoid peninsula that the city occupies is the rainbow-hued Belize sign. We stopped for a souvenir photograph and ice cream before getting on the road to that night's accommodation.
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I had chosen Ghan Eden because of its proximity to the local cave tubing outfits and the added bonuses of being close to the Belize Zoo and to Belmopan. The hotel wasn't far off the Western Highway that connects Belize City and Belmopan, but shortly after turning off the highway we found ourselves on a bumpy dirt road that made me thankful I had rented a four wheel drive vehicle. We passed some colorful houses on stilts and a decommissioned school bus which was being used as an outbuilding. The GPS would have sent me down the wrong path at a fork in the road but fortunately Mei Ling spotted the hotel sign pointed in the other direction. Another half mile of dirt road later we arrived at the grounds of an estate that lived up to its Hebrew name, the Garden of Eden. It was a meticulously landscaped property with an unmistakable tropical character. We found the manager there waiting for us and we soon realized that we were the only guests. The manager had driven from his home to the hotel just to check us in. It was lucky that we had foregone the iguana dinner in Belize City or we would have kept him waiting there a lot longer.
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It was a fifteen minute drive to Belmopan, which had all the restaurants that didn't seem to be geared exclusively to tourists. The Nepalese restaurant by the market that was our first choice was closed at seven o'clock on a Saturday evening. At our next choice we were the only diners and the staff appeared somewhat bemused when we walked in. It started to dawn on us that we were in the leading edge of tourists returning to Belize after the epidemic, and the country hadn't quite reoriented itself to accommodating international visitors. Our first dinner in Belize didn't come close to living up to the promise of the meal we'd had just after landing.

In the morning we headed back east on the Western Highway to the Belize Zoo. On the way we stopped at Amigos, a well-known family restaurant right off the highway. The food was excellent but once again we were the only patrons. We were starting to wonder if we would see a single other tourist on this trip.
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We might have given the zoo a pass if we were pressed for time on this trip but fortunately I had left a lot of time open to just wander around. The Belize Zoo is a little different from the typical American or European zoo in that it began as a conservation project almost forty years ago. The staff warned us to be on guard for doctor flies, a common biting pest in Belize, so we applied mosquito repellent liberally. The animals were kept in very natural-appearing enclosures, sometimes so natural that we couldn't spot the animals at all. The most rewarding were the howler monkeys and the tapirs. A jaguar eventually showed up at the fence of her enclosure but only after a keeper appeared with strips of raw chicken.
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Our initial choice for our first accommodation had been Sleeping Giant. a well-known lodge in central Belize. They weren't very responsive to my inquiries so I figured they must have had more business than they knew what to do with. The restaurant was supposed to be the best in the area so we decided to stop in as we drove back towards the coast on the scenic Hummingbird Highway. The lodge was a beautiful place with very colorful foliage and a balcony with a great view of the surrounding foliage. Unfortunately the food was unspeakably bad to the point of being inedible. We were so stunned by the awfulness that we didn't even realize we'd never ordered the styrofoam-textured chicken fingers we'd vainly begged the kids to consume. They'd brought them to us in lieu of the chicken fajitas we'd requested.
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Fortunately our breakfast had been substantial enough to keep us going through our next destination, the Billy Barquedier waterfall. The best part of this walk was the mildly strenuous half hour hike through a forest and across a river to reach the waterfall. At the base of the waterfall was a good-sized pool of cool water and fortunately we had brought our bathing suits. The kids really enjoyed the reward of swimming after making the effort to reach the waterfall.
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At this point it was just another half hour further to reach the coastal town of Dangriga so we decided to push onward rather than taking our chances with dinner in Belmopan again. It proved to be a good decision as Dangriga was an interesting and colorful town with its own unique character as the center of Garifuna culture in Belize. The Garifuna originate from the intermarriage between shipwrecked West African slaves and Carib Indians on the island of St. Vincent. Due to the ongoing turmoil created by colonial forces in the Caribbean, the Garifuna were scattered around Central America and eventually coalesced in southern Belize. The Garifuna have their own musical, artistic, and culinary traditions. We drove through residential neighborhoods and eventually found ourselves at a seaside park bordered by colorful houses and a beach lined with driftwood.
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A little research identified Tuani Garifuna as a promising spot to sample Garifuna cuisine. Despite being set back several blocks from the waterline, the restaurant captured the beach vibe with a couple of inches of sand. The waitress was taken aback when we requested the local coconut broth-based stews sere and hudut. We also discovered they had pig tail which wasn't on the menu, but the salt-cured version they served wasn't as much to our taste as the dish we had had at the airport.
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It took us a full two hours to get back to Ghan Eden from Dangriga but we were glad we had pressed on to the end and discovered a part of Belize that hadn't even been on our original itinerary. The Hummingbird Highway had lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful and interesting roads in Belize.
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I had scheduled a ziplining and cave tubing tour for our last day in central Belize. We had breakfast at one of the touristy restaurants near the hotel which proved to be quite a bit better than the food we had in Belmopan and at Sleeping Giant. Naturally we were the only guests once again.
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The tour outfit was right next door but here we ran into the first logistical problem we'd had since we'd arrived in Belize. The receptionist insisted that we pay up front for our activities in cash and the amount was quite a bit larger than what we had on us. The nearest ATM was fifteen minutes away in Belmopan. I was infuriated because I'd exchanged several emails with the owner and he'd never mentioned a word about taking cash only, despite having provided meticulous details about the location. I demanded to talk to the owner and the receptionist grudgingly got him on the phone, but he wasn't helpful at all. At this point neither owner or receptionist seemed to care particularly if we went or not. We decided to tell them we were headed to Belmopan to get cash but instead we drove to the other tour companies along the same road to see if they would be able to take us. It quickly became apparent that none of the other companies were operational and we were stuck with the original outfit. If it had just been Mei Ling and myself we would probably have blown them off but I didn't want to deprive the kids of a fun experience just because I was pissed off. To add insult to injury, when we got to Belmopan we had to try three banks before we finally found an ATM that would agree to surrender some cash.

Our ziplining guides were much more friendly and helpful than the receptionist. None of us had ever been ziplining before so it was quite a task to get us all into our gear. The first platform was quite high and neither Cleo nor Spenser could be cajoled to jump off alone, so they had to go in tandem with the guides. Cleo got it together by the second platform but neither she nor Ian weighed enough to make it all the way to the end, so they invariably slid backward along the line and had to be retrieved by the guides. Nevertheless it was an exhilarating experience for them and I was glad we hadn't let the initial problems dissuade us from going through with it.
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The second part of our tour was a float trip through a cave our guide referred to as Xibalba, although I think that might be a common name for caves in Belize as it is Mayan for "scary place". The Mayans considered caves to be openings to the underworld and used them to make offerings to the gods, including human sacrifices. I wasn't up for sacrificing any of our kids to the gods that day so I had picked one of the more family-friendly cave activities that Belize offers. The forty minute hike to the mouth of the cave proved to be more of an annoyance than an adventure, given that I had to carry two bulky inner tubes the entire distance. We passed through a small cave featuring some interesting limestone formations and our guide discovered a huge termite nest in a tree. He hacked into it with a pocketknife to show us the scurrying insects and was surprised when Ian and I accepted his offer to sample the bugs. Since they were so small we had to crush them between our incisors to avoid swallowing them whole. They had a faintly woody taste, not unlike wild carrots.
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The river tubing was a rather mellow experience with all our tubes roped together and our guide in the water shepherding the flotilla through the cave. There was hardly any current at all and we could dangle our feet in the cool water. The guide provided a narrative that was just creepy enough to thrill the kids without scaring them in the dark cave. Perhaps one day they'll go back and try one of the more challenging caves such as ATM.
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We stopped at the small daily market in Belmopan for a quick lunch before getting on the road to Chan Chich. We were headed to a remote part of northwestern Belize close to the Guatemalan border and I wanted to make damn sure we got there before dark.

Posted by zzlangerhans 00:58 Archived in Belize Tagged belize family_travel travel_blog belize_city belmopan Comments (0)

Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Eastern Israel and Jerusalem

Driving from the western to the eastern edge of Israel took less than an hour. We found a cabin on Airbnb that was part of a development right on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. We had a beautiful view of the sea, which of course is actually a freshwater lake, and the Golan Heights on the far shore. It was strange to think that this relatively nondescript place was the site of some of the most dramatic moments described in the New Testament. We went down to the beach and stripped the kids so they could play in the sand and the shallow water. The waves were surprisingly forceful for a small lake, apparently because of strong winds generated by the climactic difference between the low-lying shoreline and the surrounding hills. One particularly emphatic wave knocked Cleo flat onto her back and for a second or two she was submerged, staring up at me through the crystal clear water with a bemused expression. Although there was no real danger, the moment underscored how completely dependent she was on me to protect her from all the world's dangers great and small. I reached down and pulled her up before she had a chance to become scared.
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For some reason I have very little memory of Galilee, and very few photos. I don't remember where we had dinner, and I'm fairly sure we never went to Tiberias, the only major town on the lake. We left early in the morning to see the Dead Sea before doubling back to Jerusalem. One thing that had confused me when planning the trip was how to drive from the Sea of Galilee to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea without passing through the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. We had no intention of making that border crossing with two small kids. As it turned out, Highway 90 which passes through the West Bank is under complete Israeli control.
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Having a float in the Dead Sea is one of Israel's iconic experiences. The water is so heavily saturated with salt and minerals that it's almost impossible to submerge oneself in it. The sensation of effortless floating on the surface attracts tens of thousands of tourists every year, although the popular conception that it is impossible to drown is actually a myth. If someone accidentally turned onto their stomach, they might have a difficult time getting their limbs underwater to maneuver back to the face-up position. This can lead to swallowing of hypersaline water which can disrupt the body's electrolyte balance very quickly. It's not a place to let one's guard down. We arrived at the Dead Sea at the popular access point of Ein Gedi and had a quick float. I didn't particularly enjoy the oily feel of the water and we had to enter the sea in shifts because the kids were too young to join us. In fact Cleo got some water in her eyes just messing around at the shoreline and was howling up a storm until a more experienced tourist came by to bathe her eyes in bottled water.
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On the opposite side of the highway from the small beach is the Ein Gedi Nature Reserve. This lush oasis in the Judaean Desert is fed by several springs that flow downward from karst in the surrounding mountains. The most popular hike extends from the ticket office to David's Waterfall, named for the biblical hero who took refuge in Ein Gedi from the jealous king who wanted him killed.
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It was a short hike but much of it was uphill and we had the kids on our backs. Fortunately it was a relatively cool day or the half-hour climb would have been unbearable. Our efforts were ultimately rewarded with the sight of a staircase of natural pools connected by short waterfalls. We still had our bathing suits on so we were in perfect position to cool off underneath the last waterfall.
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Jerusalem had a quite different atmosphere from Tel Aviv. Our Airbnb was on the ground floor of an atmospheric stone building in a relatively modern area of the city, practically next door to the Machane Yehuda market.
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Of course it was no accident that we were situated in proximity to Shuk Machane Yehuda. The main produce market is always the first thing we look for when deciding which area of a city we're going to stay in. Machane Yehuda fell somewhere between the touristy superficiality of Shuk Ha-Carmel and the gritty utilitarianism of the Hatikva Market in Tel Aviv. We encountered all the usual Middle Eastern standbys but also plenty of creative and unusual delicacies. Best of all there was a large selection of restaurants inside the market and we eventually chose a small Lebanese place that was very satisfying. The market itself closes at seven but the area around it is filled with open air restaurants and bars and it was always still full of energy when we retired for the evening.
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Naturally the main draw of Jerusalem for travelers is the Old City. The Old City is surrounded by an imposing twelve meter wall that was built by the Ottomans five hundred years ago and the only entry is through one of the eight gates. We entered through the Damascus Gate and soon arrived at at the square outside of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which was built on the site of Jesus Christ's crucifixion and burial. Just on the other side of the division between the Christian and Muslim quarters is the Via Dolorosa, believed to be the path that Jesus walked while carrying the cross.
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The center of the Old City is largely occupied by an intriguing Arab bazaar filled with beautiful displays of ceramics, metalware, and fabric. One particular shop specializing in blue and white porcelain was especially stunning. The ancient alleyways and stone staircases lent historic gravitas to the merchandise.
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South of the Christian Quarter is the Armenian Quarter, which had more open space compared to the narrow alleys and tunnels of the other quarters. Here we were able to get to an upper level which gave us a better appreciation of the layout of the Old City.
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Eventually we found ourselves at Temple Mount, the most heavily touristed part of the Old City. At the Western Wall we had to split up as men and women are apportioned separate areas of the wall to pray at. It was fairly easy to tell the serious worshippers from the spectators because their religious fervor was palpable. I kept a respectful distance and only approached the wall to touch it briefly. We never found our way into the Al-Aqsa Mosque. Israeli soldiers barred our progress at the one entrance we found although we never determined if that was a temporary or a permanent state of affairs. We weren't tremendously enthusiastic about entering all the contentious religious sites so we let it go.
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The Muslim Quarter had by far the fewest tourists and we received a number of bemused looks from the locals as we passed through with the strollers. It must be an unusual existence for the Arabs living in Jerusalem, especially those without Israeli citizenship, being treated like foreigners or enemies in their ancestral homes.The hilltop area outside the Lions' Gate on the eastern side of the Old City was surprisingly desolate but had interesting views over East Jerusalem. I had a very limited understanding of the Israeli jurisdiction over the eastern half of the city and did not by any means feel safe bringing the family any further.
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Of course there was much more to Jerusalem than the Old City and the Machane Yehuda area and we had enjoyable walks going between one and the other. At one point we came across a Georgian restaurant which was something I had never previously encountered, and the food was quite good.
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We had quite an eventful final day in Israel. Our flight was a red eye departing late in the evening and we needed to fill the entire day before heading back to the airport. We first drove back to Highway 90 along the Dead Sea and drove south to Masada. The area around the desert fort was one of the most desolate environments I have experienced.
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We took the cable car to the top of the mesa where we toured the ruins of Herod's Palace and admired the views over the desert that extended as far as the Dead Sea. The legend of the heroic mass suicide of Jews in the face of Roman conquest has not been corroborated by archaeologic evidence, but it still makes for a compelling atmosphere at the top of the isolated mountain.
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We took the southernmost transverse back west towards the Mediterranean, on the northern edge of the Negev Desert. At Siderot we were less than a mile from the Gaza border, a place where Hamas rockets had landed many times. Nevertheless it seemed as peaceful a place as anywhere. An hour later we were back in Tel Aviv just in time to have dinner at a pleasant bistro on Ben Yehuda. We had come full circle after our whirlwind tour of this tiny but fascinating and historic country.

Posted by zzlangerhans 02:07 Archived in Israel Comments (2)

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