A Travellerspoint blog

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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)

The best travel experiences of my life: The top five

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

5. Tana Toraja in Sulawesi, Indonesia
Tana Toraja was the highlight of the most amazing solo journey I've ever taken, a ten day journey by bus and ferry from the southwestern to northeastern tips of the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. It was the roughest traveling that I've ever done but also the most rewarding in a place that few Westerners have heard of, let alone visited. Tana Toraja is an area of central Sulawesi that is home to an indigenous polytheistic society that has remained relatively isolated from the Islamic and Western influences that have defined the rest of Indonesia. Among the unique customs of the Torajans are funerals with sacrifices of domestic animals, internment of the deceased in cliff crevices and caves, and tongkonan houses with characteristic curved roofs. Perhaps the most remarkable custom is the carving of wooden effigies of the deceased called tau tau which are often placed on balconies attached to cliffs. Many of these customs seem primitive and morbid to Westerners but I felt as though I had arrived at the most physically and culturally remote place from my home that I had ever encountered in my travels. Given that I'm already twelve years older and now with a wife and three kids, it's probably unlikely I'll ever travel again in third world transportation shoulder to shoulder with locals conducting their daily lives. It's an experience that I am very grateful to have had in the final months of my single life.

4. Plitvice Lakes, Croatia
When I researched Croatia, Plitvice Lakes came up over and over again as a top destination if not the most rewarding in the country. I hesitated because it was difficult to ascertain how strenuous hiking in the park would be, and even if it might be dangerous for the kids. Eventually I read enough accounts from people who had brought small children that I decided it would be safe and worthwhile. It was quite a struggle to find the entrance to the park due to a lack of cell phone signal in the area. The lakes and waterfalls are formed by a confluence of small rivers that arise from runoff from the surrounding mountains and are shaped by the continuous action of the running water against the porous karst and travertine limestone. The lake at the highest level of the park conveyed a sense of serenity that contrasted sharply with the pounding waterfalls further down. There were paths of wooden planks on either side of the lake system, with occasional transverse pathways connecting them. These transverse paths allowed us to walk right at the base of several waterfalls. The number of shades of green and blue seemed infinite here. There was no question in our minds that all the difficulties and hard work we had encountered that day was more than worth it for the lifelong memory of one of the most beautiful natural places we had ever seen.

3. Mosquito Bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico
The more I think about Puerto Rico, the more I realize that our experiences there could have taken at least five places on our list. I included the beautiful colonial city of old San Juan, the exciting fishing trip at La Parguera, and now the bioluminescent bay at Vieques but I passed on the incredible views in the Cordillera Central and the roadside pig barbecues in Cayey. If there's one single most important thing to take away from this list, it's that Puerto Rico may be the most underappreciated travel destination in the Western Hemisphere.

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

Be aware that licensed tour operators are no longer allowed to permit tourists to swim in the bay, and also that the bioluminescent phenomenon was severely affected by Hurricane Maria. If you choose to visit Vieques make sure you do your own research to get the most up-to-date information regarding Mosquito Bay.

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

Not only was this one of my best travel experiences, but it was the trip on which I realized that after forty-two years on my own there was no way I would ever let Mei Ling go. Marriage was scary but Mei Ling was just too beautiful and too much fun to be with. After our Trinidad trip I knew that I would never regret spending the rest of my life with her. A month later I asked her to move to Miami and live with me, and six months after that we were married. Nine years and three kids later (including five or six more carnivals around the world) and our life together hasn't gotten any less exciting.

1. Amazon ecolodge in Brazil
I've finally arrived at the end of this list, my greatest travel experience of all time. Now that I've completed the list I would probably put a few experiences in different order, but not this one. The trip Mei Ling and I took to the Amazon was just one of those charmed events that could probably never happen again in the same way. Even our flight to Brazil was perfect - a five hour direct flight from Miami to Manaus in the center of the Amazon on an empty plane. We slept for the entire duration of the dawn flight stretched out on our own four-seat center rows. We had a fine day in Manaus and were taken by van and boat to our lodge the next morning. Once we arrived we discovered that we would be the only guests at the lodge for the entire three days of our stay. Given that it was 2009, I suspect they had a few cancellations because of the financial crisis. As soon as we disembarked we were greeted by an extremely affectionate and mischievous woolly monkey named Conchita who would be our constant companion and tormentor during our stay. If there wasn't any food in our hands to steal she was crawling into our laps to be cuddled.

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

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:33 Comments (4)

The best travel experiences of my life: 10-6

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

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

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

I know that nobody died at the festival that year, but many more than usual were gored and otherwise injured. Later we came across booths where photos were being sold of the day's action including many gorings. Huge photos of grisly gorings were on the front pages of the newspapers as well. I bought some and kept them for years before finally discarding them with our last move. I hadn't brought my own camera with me to the bull run, wisely realizing that I would be endangering myself by taking photos of the action from the middle of the action. I did have some photos from the festivities but those prints disappeared long before I had a scanner to preserve them. It's still the closest I've come to serious injury or death in all my years of traveling.

9. Rocca Calascio in Abruzzo, Italy
Our best European road trip to date was the time we circled the Adriatic Sea in 2014. Our last day started out extremely well with a rooftop breakfast in the town of Sulmona. After we left Sulmona we spent a couple of hours clambering around an ancient and largely deserted town called Santo Stefano di Sessanio. We still had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to be back in Rome for dinner. I thumbed through my Lonely Planet on the iPad and realized we were close to a ruined mountaintop fort called Rocca Calascio that was briefly mentioned in passing. We decided we would make that our last stop and then head back towards Rome and Fiumicino.

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

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

Rocca Calascio was one of the best experiences of the entire journey, and it came right at the end when we were practically ready to pack it in and head to our airport motel. It's very hard to find the words to describe the isolated beauty of the mountain fort, which felt like walking on the surface of another planet despite being only an hour away from Rome. As we descended the winding roads towards the highway, I wistfully looked at all the other hilltop towns and wondered what other Apennine secrets would remain hidden from us forever.

8. Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland
This is another experience from way back that remains engraved in my memory. I had a week vacation during my residency in Boston and there were cheap flights to Iceland that only lasted five hours. Why not? I really enjoyed my short stay in Iceland although I spent most of my time in Reykjavik due to time constraints. I only ventured out of the capital for a two day solo excursion to Vestmannaeyjar, a small archipelago off the southern coast that are called the Westman Islands in English. I stayed at a homestay in the town on the only inhabited island. Vestmannaeyjar was a picture-perfect Icelandic village with less than four thousand inhabitants. At the time of my visit it didn't seem like much of a tourist destination except for a few hikers.

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

I made my way back to town suffused with the enjoyment of having explored the entire island and having seen such a diversity of landscapes and lifeforms. In the evening I ate at a restaurant that served grilled puffin which proved to be delicious, with red meat more like a game animal than a fowl. It was another unique aspect of Heimaey that made me feel like I had stumbled upon an undiscovered paradise. Perhaps there are many remote islands in the North Atlantic just as beautiful and fascinating as Vestmannaeyjar, but there's no question that I will return there with my family once the kids are old enough to deal with all the rigors of a road trip around the entire circumference of the country. Hopefully puffin will still be on the menu!

7. Notting Hill Carnival, London
I've come to my best travel experience in London, my favorite city in Europe and second only to New York City in my heart. One of the ways in which London beats NYC is the sheer beauty of many of its residential neighborhoods, and none of them is more magnificent than Notting Hill. In August 2014 we were incredibly lucky to get an Airbnb in one of the immaculate white townhouses that line many of the streets in the neighborhood. The rows of Neoclassical columns, ornate windowsills, and wrought-iron balconies made a walk through the neighborhood seem like an encounter with an impossible fantasy land. But we hadn't come just to admire the architecture, we were there to party. One weekend a year that exquisite neighborhood is home to the greatest celebration of Caribbean culture outside of the islands themselves, the Notting Hill Carnival. We had been warned that it was dangerous but we've heard that kind of overcautious advice enough times to know that it was likely bred from unfamiliarity. In fact the atmosphere of the festival was extremely warm and welcoming even at the most crowded points. Unfortunately the kids were still a little too young to appreciate what was going on and slept through most of it, but Mei Ling and I still had a blast even with the kids passed out on our backs. There was great Caribbean food, music, and unbelievable energy all around us. The Notting Hill Carnival will certainly be a cornerstone of our visit when we finally return to the British Isles to give them the full and lengthy attention they deserve.

6. Iguazú Falls, Argentina and Brazil
I can't think of any natural phenomenon I've ever seen that is as magnificent as Iguazú Falls. The best part is that the falls can be seen from two completely different perspectives at the base and at the plateau. The base of the falls on the Argentinian side is incredibly lush with colorful butterflies the size of pie plates and a plethora of rainbows in the omnipresent spray from the waterfalls. The Brazilian side is just as incredible in its own way with a walkway and viewing platform that puts one right at the edge of the keyhole shaped chasm into which the water plunges. Our group splurged on a helicopter ride which gave us the best possible perspective of the majestic Paraná Plateau and the falls. I didn't take any photos because I didn't want my camera to be damaged by the spray but I'm confident that one day I'll return with my family and make up for that deficiency.

Posted by zzlangerhans 16:00 Comments (1)

The best travel experiences of my life: 20-11

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

20. Dotonbori, Osaka
Imagine Times Square, if you've been there, with all the dazzling crowds and displays and electronic billboards and multiply its size by ten. Then add a sparkling canal running right through the middle of it with boardwalks on either side lined with busy outdoor restaurants. Throw in tens of thousands of people hanging out or moving through at any time of the day or night and you might have a rough idea of what it feels like to be in Dotonbori, Osaka. I was completely flabbergasted that somehow I'd been traveling the world my entire life, reading all kinds of travel literature, talking to people from all over the globe and still had absolutely no clue that this incredible place even existed. I've been to most of the world's major metropolises and I can't recall experiencing anything as overwhelming to the senses. Our week-long stay in Osaka was filled with excitement and breathtaking sights but Dotonbori is certainly the most vivid and energetic spot in that amazing city.

19. La Boqueria in Barcelona
Of all the municipal daily markets we've visited in the big three of France, Spain, and Italy, there's no question in my mind that the king of them all is La Boqueria in Barcelona. I grew to love La Boqueria in 2001 when I spent a month in Barcelona doing a Spanish immersion course, so I eagerly anticipated bringing Mei Ling to experience it with me when I returned fifteen years later. The market had undergone a facelift but was still the vast shrine to gastronomy that I remembered. Everywhere we looked were huge stacks of produce, rows of jamon, and walls of colorful juices. Best of all, virtually anything the market had to offer could be sampled at one of several excellent tapas restaurants inside. On our last visit to Spain we came very close to detouring hundreds of kilometers from our itinerary just to pay another visit to La Boqueria.

18. Diocletian's Palace
It's hard to describe the amazement I felt upon first seeing Diocletian's Palace in Split, Croatia. Of course it's no longer a palace the way we think of Buckingham Palace or Versailles but in many ways it's even more impressive. It's a bustling, vibrant miniature city with all the modern conveniences existing entirely within the imposing walls of an enormous Roman ruin. Everywhere one turns is another well-preserved remnant of a civilization that died two millennia ago. At the same time the ruins have been overbuilt over the centuries with living quarters, churches, and other structures emblematic of countless centuries of history. The overall effect is breathtaking. Once I had walked inside the Palace for a few minutes the only question I could ask myself was "Why have I never heard of this?" I felt so fortunate to have stumbled onto this amazing place in the world out of pure luck. Discoveries like this are what motivated me to begin writing this blog, so that other travelers would be able to learn about these hidden gems that exist right under our noses but for whatever reason aren't well known.

17. Mercado Bazurto in Cartagena, Colombia
Mercado Bazurto is one of the best Latin American markets we've visited but that alone doesn't make it one of my best travel experiences ever. We almost didn't make it there at all during our visit to Cartagena in 2012. Like virtually every other tourist we stayed within the walled old town but unlike most of the others we decided to venture out into the congested metropolis outside where 99% of the locals live. I had misjudged the distance to the market so when we didn't pass any taxis on the way out of the old town we decided to walk all the way there. It was quite hot and Mei Ling was five months pregnant so I'm still not sure exactly what I was thinking. We walked for block after block without reaching the market. Every time I asked for directions I was told that the market was very dangerous and we shouldn't go. When I insisted we were invariably told it was just one block further and we should watch our possessions very closely. This cycle repeated over another ten blocks until we finally arrived at a sprawling community market that was worth every step of the long walk.

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

I felt an amazing array of emotions after this experience. I was very grateful to the family and to my good luck for having been able to see this side of Colombia that other travelers would never experience and most would never want. I had a new understanding of the difficult conditions that most people in this world live in from birth until death yet somehow manage to be happy, welcoming, and generous. Most of all I felt fortunate to have found Mei Ling who had somehow come into my world after spending her childhood in a similar deprived environment to the market family. I knew that my life with her would continue to be a never-ending series of adventures at home and around the world and that the arrival of children was only going to enhance that experience. As it turned out my feeling that day was exactly correct, our travels as a couple were just the first act of a lifelong commitment to travel and adventure.

16. Sanmiguelada festival in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
I loved my Spanish immersion course in San Miguel de Allende but not much was going on during the month of January. Everyone told me the best time to be in the city was the third weekend of September, when everyone in town and thousands of visitors celebrated the Sanmiguelada. The festival combined the observances of Mexican Independence Day and the holiday of the city's patron saint, and included a beauty pageant and a bull run. I decided to return just for the festival in September and it was fortunate I did not delay, because the festival was canceled after overcrowding and a gunfight in 2006 and to the best of my knowledge has not resumed in its previous form. In September the city was much more busy and vital than it had been on my previous stay and I had a blast getting reacquainted with the Spanish instructors from my language school. On Saturday morning I was the only one who had an appetite for the bull run, having experienced something similar in Pamplona three years previously. The bull run in San Miguel was a much less orderly affair as the bulls were basically loose in the town square rather than running a barricaded course. Just as in Pamplona, being on the ground with the confused and irritated bulls was a lot scarier than one might realize. I was filming with a digital point-and-shoot camera and I couldn't shake the feeling that the clusters of people moving in front of me would suddenly part and I would find myself staring right into the eyes of an angry bull.

15. Shanghai markets
I've finally reached the top of my list of the best market experiences of my life and it's only fitting I find myself in China, the greatest market country in the world. Sadly, the experience Mei Ling and I had in 2011 couldn't be duplicated today. The Chinese government cleaned many of the best wet markets out of the major cities as part of a modernization drive long before the coronavirus epidemic. Beijing and Shanghai particularly are but shadows of their former market heaven selves. Fortunately I met Mei Ling in time to have her guide me through a whole day of nonstop eating in Shanghai markets and street food stalls. To the best of my recollection we ate seven meals that day, to the point where I wasn't eating out of any sense of hunger but because the food was so unusual and delicious that it was irresistible. In the morning we stumbled on a seafood market just outside of our hotel and Mei Ling bought whatever looked most interesting. We had plastic bags full of fish bladders, eels, and shellfish and she marched us to a nearby restaurant and convinced them to cook it all for us. We sat on a little table outside and plowed into a seven-dish seafood feast at nine in the morning. I still remember the Shanghainese walking to work staring at us disbelievingly as we ate a breakfast that was sumptuous and bizarre beyond belief. Over the rest of the day we walked from the middle of the city all the way to Yu Yuan, sampling food at every market we encountered. Mei Ling always knew when we were near a market from the bags pedestrians were carrying and would track down the source relentlessly. Among the other delicacies we enjoyed that day were a stewed whole turtle, huge meaty snails, and crispy duck heads. The next day we brought my mother with us to the market where we had another turtle for an encore. When it comes to food experiences there aren't many countries that can compete with China, especially when one has a Chinese wife with an adventurous palate and a determined nature.

14. Taj Mahal
This is probably the most obvious of my top travel experiences, but it's not just because of the beauty of the mausoleum. Either we were lucky or our guide chose our timing well because I remember the crowds being very light and with few Western tourists. The white marble of the building was beautiful at dusk and Indians in colorful clothing were relaxing in small groups on the platform. The kids were wandering around and the locals would beckon them over and cuddle and play with them. I felt a great sense of accomplishment at having brought my pregnant wife and young kids to the opposite side of the world to experience what most would consider one of the most amazing and beautiful buildings that has ever been constructed.

13. Fishing for wahoo in La Parguera, Puerto Rico
Puerto Rico is a small Caribbean island that punches way over its weight. The two weeks that I've spent on the island in two trips account for three of my top travel experiences including two in the top thirteen. If I extended my list from seventy to a hundred I would probably include three or four more. On our return visit to Puerto Rico in 2010 we rented a car and explored a large part of the island including the less-traveled southern coast. The highlight of that trip was a sportfishing trip we took on a small boat out of La Parguera. I don't remember if we went out specifically for wahoo or that's just what was biting that day, but they were among the most fierce and beautiful fish I've ever encountered. It took every ounce of my strength to reel in one of the huge fish and when Mei Ling hooked one I was sure she wouldn't be able to do it on her own. One of my favorite travel videos in my collection is the one I have of my tiny girlfriend straining to lift the rod and pull in her prize over and over again until finally the wahoo was defeated. Once we docked the first mate was cleaning the fish and pulled a red blob out of its insides. "This is its heart!" It was still beating. I guess he expected Mei Ling to squeal or run away but she looked right at it and said "Cut me a piece!" His eyes widened but he cut the heart in half and offered a piece to Mei Ling who immediately wolfed it down. He looked at me next and I did what I had to do. It wasn't bad - kind of like tuna sashimi but bloodier. It broke our hearts to leave behind all that delicious looking fish but we were on the road with nowhere to do any cooking. Eventually we took about a kilogram with us and drove to the nearest resort. We walked into the restaurant which was nearly empty and asked the waiter if the chef would cook it for us. Soon afterwards we were served four different wahoo dishes including a seafood soup, tempura, grilled fish, and escabeche. It was a feast that exceeded our wildest expectations and was the perfect conclusion to an absolutely legendary day of travel and adventure.

12. Rio Carnaval
In 2001 I was freelancing as an emergency room physician and was making my own schedule, which gave me the flexibility to take long vacations. I used one of these to take an overland trip from Santiago, Chile down through Argentina and then up to Rio de Janeiro where the trip finished to coincide with the annual Carnaval. Americans don't usually take long travel holidays when they are young so all the other people in my group were Europeans and Australians. I had a great time for the entire trip and Carnaval was particularly wild. Every day throughout the city there were incessant parades and hundreds of people would follow along behind the floats and the music trucks, dancing until they were exhausted. I stripped off my shirt the second day and didn't put it back on until I left the city. I remember one municipal bus driver, also shirtless and looking to be about eighteen, who rounded curves so quickly and sharply that our feet would leave the floor as we hung desperately onto the overhead bars. We all tipped him handsomely as we left the bus and he shouted with delight. Little did I know that this amazing and riotous party wouldn't be my greatest travel experience in Brazil, or even my most exciting carnival. Unfortunately this was still before I had bought my first digital camera, and none of my Rio photos survived the many moves and housecleanings since 2001.

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

Next up are my best travel experiences 10-6

Posted by zzlangerhans 08:27 Comments (9)

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