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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


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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)

Hanging Out in the Holy Land: Tel Aviv and Acre

These days I don't think I would consider spending fifteen hours in transit each way to for just a week of travel, but back in 2014 we were feeling invincible after our successful first European road trip and the whole world seemed open to us. I was taking off as much time from work as I could and we were making a significant dent in the list of desirable countries we had never visited. One country still at the top of the list was Israel, an ancient and culturally diverse nation with a great deal to see despite its small size.
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We made it to Ben Gurion airport after two long flights with a changeover in Paris. For all practical purposes Ben Gurion is Israel's only airport for international tourists, serving both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Our original plan was to spend five days in Tel Aviv and three in Jerusalem, focusing on the major cities rather than attempting to cram too much into such a short visit. Tel Aviv is technically smaller than Jerusalem, although if East Jerusalem is not included then Tel Aviv is bigger. Israel's political situation is so complicated that one can't even determine what the largest city in the country is without running afoul of different interpretations of the country's borders. Irrespective of size, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are two very different cities. The former is one of the most illustrious historic cities in the world, packed with sites of critical importance to three major world religions. The latter is a much more modern creation that has become the financial center of Israel and a magnet for leisure tourism thanks to Mediterranean beaches and nightlife. We began our road trip in Tel Aviv partly because it was closer to the airport and partly because I expected we would like it more than Jerusalem.
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The logical place for tourists to stay in Tel Aviv is close to the long beach near the city center. Aside from the beach itself there's a high concentration of restaurants along iconic streets such as Ben Yehuda and Dizengoff. We had a room at an undistinguished Best Western a block back from the beach promenade. We arrived early enough in the day to take a walk along the promenade and give the kids a taste of the sun and sand. There were plenty of people out enjoying themselves but it wasn't one of the more beautiful Mediterranean beaches we've been too. The strip of sand was relatively narrow and the buildings along the promenade had a somewhat dilapidated appearance.
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All internet searches for street markets in Tel Aviv lead to Shuk HaCarmel. The market is a hundred years old and occupies a long pedestrian street just south of the center. It's a colorful and busy place with stalls full of produce and spices as well as some small restaurants offering Middle Eastern standards like falafel and hummus. It was also clearly a tourist attraction more than a place where locals would stock up on kitchen staples. There were a lot of places to buy souvenirs and travel clothing, and the food seemed to be geared more towards quick consumption than home cooking. We were fine with that given that it was our first day in the city but we made a note that there were probably more utilitarian markets hidden away somewhere that didn't make the guidebooks.
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Tel Aviv was founded in the early twentieth century as a Jewish suburb of the ancient port city of Jaffa. Tel Aviv grew rapidly and became an independent municipality before the two cities were reunited after Israeli independence. By this time Jaffa had dramatically receded in importance and is now best known as an Arab suburb of Tel Aviv. Having already seen most of downtown Tel Aviv we spent most of our second full day exploring the compact Old City of Jaffa. The main attraction here is the flea market where merchants have been selling second-hand items for almost a century. Between the displays of tarnished silverware and restored furniture are quiet cafes and fruit stores with stacks of the famous Jaffa oranges. Although we didn't have much interest in the various odds and ends for sale we enjoyed the palpable difference in atmosphere from bustling Tel Aviv. Here everything felt more languid and immersed in the past.
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By now we had realized that we weren't going to stay in Tel Aviv for the five days we had originally planned. The city definitely had its positive attributes but we couldn't think of much outside of the beach and downtown that we hadn't already done. Instead we decided to check out early and spend a couple of days in northern Israel before our stay in Jerusalem. We did have one mission for our final afternoon in Tel Aviv which was to find a real community market, if such a thing existed. Fortunately we encountered a local who claimed to know of such a place and directed us to the working class neighborhood of Hatikva far from downtown or any sign of tourism. At first we thought we'd been had as there was no sign of a market amid the utilitarian array of shops and low residential buildings but then we rounded a corner and suddenly found ourselves at the threshold of paradise. This was a huge and authentic local market which existed for the sole purpose of stocking the larders of the neighborhood inhabitants. Here were all the objectionable foodstuffs that might have driven tourists away from the Carmel Market: whole, bloody brains in styrofoam trays, lamb heads in various stages of dismantling, and every kind of animal viscera we love to find when we travel. The smell of butchery was heavy in the air. Of course, many stalls were piled high with fresh fruits and vegetables as well as bread and dairy. My eyebrows lifted as Mei Ling busied herself purchasing an idiosyncratic collection of offal including chicken kidneys and rooster testicles. The rooster testicles were pale, bean-shaped objects of surprising size. I had no idea what we were going to do with this stuff given our lack of kitchen facilities at the total but I've learned not to object.
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After a few more minutes of walking around we came across the food court of the mall where there was a far greater variety of restaurants than we had seen at Shuk HaCarmel. One guy was cooking for his tiny restaurant on an outdoor griddle and Mei Ling immediately entered into negotiations with him. I thought he would wave her off but he seemed pleased and soon they were dumping the bags of offal onto the griddle. The cook picked up handfuls of chopped onions and peppers from his bins and began expertly stir-frying the unusual concoction. As I watched there was a loud pop and I felt a searing pain in my right eye. My eyelids clamped down and I staggered away from the grill holding my face in my hands. Even amid the fog of pain I could sense the ridiculousness of what had happened. A testicle had exploded on the griddle and sent a jet of boiling rooster juice into my eye. Regardless, if I ended up in an Israeli emergency room half-blind there wouldn't be any humor in the situation. Our vacation would be over. Someone took me by the arm and guided me to a spigot which released cooling water over my closed eye. Eventually I was able to open it just a little and the water streamed over my seared eyeball. I gradually got my eye to open more and more and after a minute I realized the pain had receded and I could see again. I even took out my contact lens and replaced it to make sure it hadn't melted to my cornea. By the time I'd recovered it was time to participate in the meal Mei Ling had created with the restaurateur. I took my revenge on the rooster testicles with gusto, filled with relief that our journey could continue.
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The next morning we departed Tel Aviv with only a vague plan to drive north to Acre, an ancient port city with a mixed population of Jews and Arabs. Although Acre is the official name of the city it is commonly referred to as Akko for reasons we never understood. We only visited in the old city which occupies a small peninsula at the southern end of the town. The maze of narrow alleys filled with bazaars made the ancient sector of the city seem much larger than it was. The souks felt more authentic and intimate than what we had experienced in Jaffa, as far fewer tourists made it up here close to the Lebanese border.
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We enjoyed the atmosphere in Acre so much that we decided to have dinner and spend the night there. Of course, we hadn't reserved any accommodations and this was before the time we had travel phones with internet access. We found a main street with several large hotels but surprisingly none of them had any availability. It was well after dark and starting to get chilly when we made our way back into the souk and found an enchanting small hotel where we were welcomed and spent a very comfortable night.
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The next morning we had plenty of time to browse the colorful bazaars of Acre. Bags of aromatic spices lined alleys that were paved with flagstones. Most of the arcades were covered to protect shoppers from what must have been frequent rains, but we only experienced clear skies. I found a small barbershop and got a rather military-looking short haircut. Once we were sure we'd perused every corner of old Acre we regretfully took our leave and began our drive east to Galilee.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 06:59 Archived in Israel Tagged israel tel_aviv jaffa family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman zzlangerhans hatikva Comments (1)

America's Northern Midwest: Chicago

I had been to Chicago twice before and the city had never left a great impression on me. In fact, my first visit suggested Chicago was unfit for human habitation. I was interviewing for medical school one February and staying on campus. When I walked out of my room into the street an Arctic wind hit me in the face full blast, wringing a stream of tears from my eyes. Seconds later the tears froze on my cheeks. I made it to the interview but I'm not sure if I listened to a word. There was no way in hell I was going to be moving to that tormented place. My second visit had better weather but a paucity of inspiring sights and experiences. I was hoping that with more experience traveling and all my Internet research that I could show my family a more exciting and interesting city than I remembered.
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When we reached Chicago we drove straight for the Navy Pier, a popular entertainment complex which was providing a relatively inexpensive venue to watch the Fourth of July fireworks over Lake Michigan. It's probably a fun place on a regular day with carnival rides and exhibitions but as the evening set in the limited open space became more and more crowded and oppressive. The food options were awful and the breeze off the lake brought in cooler temperatures than we were dressed for. By the time the fireworks were halfway over I was pushing us towards the exits ahead of the rush. The view of the skyline was more impressive than the fireworks themselves.
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In the morning we were eager to explore the third largest city in the country. We drove straight to Chinatown for brunch. The view from the traditional Chinatown Gate was encouraging with a long line of Chinese restaurants and other businesses but we soon discovered that almost everything was concentrated on this one street. At the end of the street was a plaza with several more restaurants including Joy Yee, a Pan-Asian noodle shop where we had a pleasant meal. Aside from the restaurants there was little sign of Chinese culture and few of the pedestrians and customers were Chinese. Unlike either of New York's Chinatowns or the ones in Boston or San Francisco, it wasn't the kind of place where you could suspend belief and imagine you had been transported to the other side of the globe.
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People have many different images of Chicago but few think of it as a beach town. That's somewhat odd because I'm hard pressed to think of any American cities that have as many beaches close to the city center as Chicago. Even living in Miami we have to schlep across the bay to get to Miami Beach. People forget that Chicago is along the shore of a lake so large it might as well be an ocean and there are actually twenty-four public beaches within the city limits. We picked Oak Street Beach, not far from downtown, and I was surprised by how much sand there was. I would never have known I wasn't at the oceanside. The towering skyscrapers just behind the beach made the incongruous feeling of being at the beach and in the city even more acute.
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One thing that we weren't expecting was that Chicago would have the most beautiful and impressive downtown of any American city. Naturally the first one anyone would think of is my hometown of New York City but I found Chicago's to have more interesting architecture, more space between the skyscrapers and therefore more sunlight, and a more energetic vibe overall. We walked up and down a long stretch of North Michigan Avenue that is known as Magnificent Mile. We ducked in and out of high-end boutiques and enjoyed amazing views of historic buildings and the Chicago River. The rippled, aquamarine surface of the water was a splendid accompaniment to the distinguished skyline.
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South of the river a series of enormous parks occupies the space between Michigan Avenue and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Here we found the reflecting Cloud Gate sculpture, affectionately known to locals as The Bean. Artist Anish Kapoor has never provided a detailed explanation of the sculpture's meaning but the prevailing interpretation is that the reflection of the sky and clouds on the polished metallic surface is like a doorway from the ground into the heavens. It's a perfect sculpture for a public place as the distorted reflections make for awesome photographs and the curved underside invites pedestrians to walk beneath.
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Bistro night was at The Girl and the Goat, a very buzzy restaurant whose owner had been featured on the Top Chef cooking competition. We had made our reservation weeks in advance and naturally the restaurant was packed and full of energy. It was a great night out after a long day of sightseeing although the menu wasn't quite as innovative as we were expecting.
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We started the next day at a farmers market uptown before moving on to the curiosity shop Woolly Mammoth. The market was good-sized but unremarkable and Woolly Mammoth was mostly focused on taxidermy and the grotesque, which wasn't as fun for us as the offbeat boutiques we'd visited in Wisconsin.
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We were more impressed by the greenhouses at the Garfield Park Conservatory in central Chicago. This was our third botanical garden of the trip even though I'm not particularly interested in botany. However there's something about greenhouses that I find impossible to resist. In the best ones I feel like I've been transported to a primordial Earth unsullied by human civilization. The Garfield Park Conservatory was particularly lush and aesthetically pleasing, a wonderful respite from the urban expanse.
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We went directly from raw nature to one of the extremes of human audacity. The Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) was the tallest building in the world from its completion in 1973 until 1998 when it was surpassed by the Petronas Towers in Malaysia. I wouldn't call the tower ugly but its black, block-like composition doesn't carry the same gravitas as the New York City skyscrapers that held the title before it or the innovative and beautiful Asian buildings that surpassed it. The main attraction for travelers is the Ledge, a small glass-floored balcony that projects outward from the observation deck to give visitors the illusion of being suspended hundreds of meters above the city streets. It was somewhat annoying being forced to watch the painful social media antics of those in the line ahead of us once they took their places in the box. Exaggerated expressions of terror and handstands seemed to be the most popular choices, accompanied by low grumbles from the line once people had gone over their time allotment in search of internet-based validation.
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We planned to have dinner in one of Chicago's ethnic neighborhoods. My research advised me there was a Little Italy just west of Interstate 90 in the center of the city, but once we arrived we didn't see much except for a couple of fairly low-end restaurants and pizza places. It seemed like a typical generic residential area with a lot of businesses catering to college students, unsurprising since the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago was a block away. There may have been a more Italian flavor to the neighborhood in the past, but to someone who cut his teeth on Little Italy in Manhattan and the North End in Boston it was pretty disappointing. Even The Hill in St. Louis would easily take the title of the best Italian neighborhood in the Midwest over Chicago's version. Instead of stopping we drove uptown to Little Vietnam, also known as Little Saigon. I was surprised to find out that Chicago had a Vietnamese neighborhood given that the vast majority of war refugees emigrated to California and Texas. However, Argyle Street was packed with authentic pho restaurants and Vietnamese boutiques. The only drawback was that the commercial part of the neighborhood was quite small, occupying only a few blocks of one street. It had begun pouring by that point and we couldn't have done much exploring even if there had been anything to see so we picked the most promising restaurant and were soon tucking into steaming bowls of delicious pho.

Our last full day in Chicago was centered around the Taste of Chicago, the celebrated food festival that had given me the idea to make Chicago the culmination of this road trip. One of my medical school roommates had told me about it and made it sound like the gastronomic experience of a lifetime. When I looked it up, it did sound good. Dozens of Chicago restaurants setting up booths in a park for samples of their specialties? Count us in. It sounded like a food hall on steroids.

On the way to the festival we stopped off at the Shit Fountain. The unusual sculpture was created by local artist Jerzy Kenar in response to all the dogs that have been allowed to defecate on his property without a clean-up afterwards. Surprisingly there was no outcry from the community or the city and the fountain has become one of Chicago's offbeat attractions.
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We hadn't made it as far south as Grant Park on our long walk down Michigan Avenue earlier in the week, but we discovered it had one of the best views of the spectacular Chicago skyline we'd seen yet. Especially with the rococo Buckingham Fountain in the foreground, there couldn't have been a more beautiful setting for the Taste of Chicago.
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Sadly, the culinary prowess of the festival failed to live up to the setting. It was far less a showcase for Chicago's bistros than a smorgasbord of fast foods, mainly dominated by every conceivable variety of sausage. It was reminiscent of a food court at the world's largest sports stadium. There was no shortage of patrons lining up for bratwurst, pizza, turkey legs, nachos, and burgers but I think we could have eaten just as well without paying the steep admission by walking up and down the block outside of Wrigley Field. I don't know whether there was a more restaurant-oriented selection when the festival started out in the 1980's or if I had just completely misunderstood the concept. Either way the food festival we'd chosen as an anchor for our road trip was one of the biggest disappointments. The funny thing was that by that point we'd had so much fun and seen so many amazing places in four states that it hardly even mattered.
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We didn't stay at Taste of Chicago as long as we'd expected but we had a back-up plan. Two days earlier we'd spotted the Crown Fountain just south of The Bean but couldn't let the kids play in it. This time we'd come prepared with bathing suits for the kids. As soon as they saw the water they plunged in and had a great time while we watched the faces change on the singular LED monoliths from which the water spewed.
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That was pretty much the end of the trip. We had a little time the next morning to stop at a couple of Polish and German grocery stores on our way to the airport but didn't encounter anything very surprising. Chicago had shown us an amazing downtown but had batted well below its size when it came to ethnic diversity. Overall I left with a greater appreciation of the city than on my previous visits but I didn't get the impression that Chicago was a world class city on the scale of New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even Boston. Nevertheless it had been a great itinerary and there's nothing I would have changed. Minneapolis, Madison, and especially Milwaukee had been unique and fascinating cities as well and the experience had recharged my determination to visit all the remaining major American cities.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 07:16 Archived in USA Tagged chicago midwest tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (1)

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