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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Route 66 and the Grand Canyon


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Once we had crossed into Arizona Mei Ling and I were feeling exhilarated. Las Vegas had been fun but now our road trip had started and we knew we would be seeing dozens of new places over the next month. The sheer expanse of the journey ahead of us was electrifying. We weren't daunted by the fact that the landscape we were now driving through was some of the most barren I could remember since the Dead Sea seven years previously. The scrub had its own strange beauty and in the distance we could see the blue of a river snaking between a low range of rocky, black mountains.
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We didn't see any signs of life until we came upon our first town more than an hour later. Kingman, Arizona seems like a generic hot and dusty Southwestern town these days but a century ago it was a bustling stop on the east-west railroad. We had lunch at a downscale but atmospheric diner in Kingman before embarking on our exploration of Route 66, which occupies a mythic position in the canon of Americana. The road was one of the primary means by which tourists and migrants reached California from the Midwest before the interstate highway system was developed and air travel replaced long-distance driving. The steady stream of travelers engendered a new form of roadside culture along the route, from motels to filling stations to souvenir shops. John Steinbeck christened the highway "The Mother Road" in his novel The Grapes of Wrath and the name has stuck. Most of the historic segments of Route 66 have been overlaid by interstates, with US 40 being the culprit in Arizona and New Mexico. However one long segment of the road between Kingman and Seligman has been preserved, largely through the efforts of local chambers of commerce. Most drivers choose the wider and faster interstate but for those of us in the area to see what is there and not just traverse it, the Mother Road still lives.

Our first stop after Kingman was just a photo op. Outside a shuttered souvenir store near the miniscule hamlet of Antares is Giganticus Headicus, a fourteen foot sculpture that resembles a truncated green moai. The head was created by a local sculptor in 2004 and is an apt symbol of the quirkiness of Route 66.
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Just five minutes further down the road we arrived at Hackberry General Store. When the store was built in 1934 it was the only option for residents of the small town of Hackberry short of driving to Kingman until it closed in the 1970's. When the abandoned store was reopened in 1992 the new owner carefully maintained the mid 20th century aesthetic which has been preserved through several owners since. To some extent entering the store feels like passing through a time warp into the 1950's, but there's no question that the expensive T-shirts and souvenir knick knacks that keep the store operating are straight from 2020's assembly lines.
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Route 66 and Interstate 40 meet again in the town of Seligman, the ultimate destination for all travelers obsessed with the history of the Mother Road. It was too late at this point to check out any of the famous Route 66 stores in town so we headed straight for our motel. By the time we'd settled and I was able to turn my attention to dinner, I found that the only real restaurant in town had stopped seating for the evening. They did agree to cook me up some food for pick-up, so we ended up eating in the parking lot of the motel using plastic furniture that the manager had generously provided. Eating in such humble conditions by the red neon light of the motel sign seemed like the perfect way to honor the generations of travelers that had wandered this glorious American road before us.
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We had breakfast at Westside Lilo's, the same restaurant I'd picked up dinner from the night before. Like everywhere in Seligman it was full of kitsch and character, from the animal trophies on the walls to the skeleton with a permanent seat at the bar. More importantly, the pancakes and omelets were delicious and filling.
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Seligman has the most famous souvenir stores on Route 66 but we didn't see much different than what had been on display in Hackberry. We did pick up a nice cowboy hat for Mei Ling that didn't seem unreasonably priced. The kids' endless begging for junk that they didn't really want got old quickly so after about an hour of browsing we decided it was time to get back on the road.
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Having departed Seligman earlier than expected we had a lot of free time before we needed to head to the Grand Canyon. I reviewed my trip planner and realized we were quite close to one of the activities I'd relegated to the Flagstaff stop. Bearizona is a wildlife park mainly focused on bears although there are sections for wolves, bison, and other animals. It's one of those places where you drive through and see the animals from the car. We'd had a really good experience with a park like this near San Antonio many years earlier but Bearizona was a disappointment. There were bears surely enough but they were mostly sleeping or listlessly wandering through their enclosures, which I'm sure is very appropriate behavior for bears. We caught some glimpses of deer and elk and even wolves but nothing that particularly justified the experience. In Texas we'd been provided food for the herbivores and the animals had been roaming the road and sticking their heads into the windows. Obviously that wouldn't work for bears and wolves but the lack of interest from the animals made for a rather boring drive. After the driving route ended there was a "walk-through" section that turned out to be a regular zoo. Once again I was bemused by how a seemingly pedestrian wildlife park garnered such scintillating reviews on TripAdvisor.
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The only other thing I could find to do in the area was ... a deer farm. I was a little hesitant to pile on another wildlife activity but my kids aren't old enough to be cynical and they generally trust me to find fun activities for them even if I've already swung and missed a couple of times. Fortunately the Grand Canyon Deer Farm turned out to be a lot better for us than Bearizona. The big difference here was that we got to get close to the animals and feed them which for kids makes all the difference in the world. The deer were pretty pushy and had a way of knocking the cups out of the kids' hands but they weren't as frighteningly aggressive as the ones we'd fed in Nara, Japan a couple of years before. Besides the deer there were farm animals, a camel, and a zonkey (zebra donkey hybrid). Luckily I had time to read the warning sign about the camel having a tendency to pluck hats off of heads so when he came trotting towards us I knew to step well back from his enclosure.
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Our lunch in Williams was bad enough that I forgot about my plan to bring take-out to the Grand Canyon. My search for restaurants worth eating at had turned only one: the restaurant at the El Tovar Hotel. Reservations there were snapped up immediately when they became available a month in advance. There was fast food for the kids but the actual sit-down restaurants seemed to be universally awful. I had been proud of myself for coming up with a solution in advance and now here we were on our way with nothing but snacks. The landscape was surprisingly flat and plain considering that we were headed to the most acclaimed natural sight on the continent. I had decided that it would be worth seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time via helicopter, even though it was an expensive trip for the five of us. I wanted our experience to be more special than just looking over the edge of a railing and saying "Yeah, that's a huge canyon". I figured at least the older two would be pretty excited for their first helicopter ride but once we arrived at the airport they were pretty blasé. We watched a safety video and got kitted out with flotation devices which were mandatory since our flight path crossed the Colorado River. Although there have been a number of helicopter crashes at the Grand Canyon I was more worried about Mei Ling or one of the boys getting motion sickness than anything else.
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Almost as soon as we took off we were floating over the densely packed ponderosa pines of the Kaibab National Forest. I was so preoccupied with hunting for wildlife amid the trees that it came as a shock when we flew over the edge of the canyon. As I looked back at the lip it struck me how much it looked like someone had cut a layer cake rather clumsily. The colored strata were sharply defined but the wall of the canyon had been scalloped and gouged by millennia of erosion by wind and water. As we flew out further it became clear how incomprehensibly vast the canyon was in width, with the area between the rims filled with its own terrain of nameless red and gray mountains, each bearing innumerable scars of time. At the very center of it all snaked the innocuous Colorado River which had done so much of the sculpting of this intricate landscape over the centuries.
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I needn't have worried about motion sickness. Mei Ling was fine and both boys had nodded off by the time we gently landed back at the airport. We drove on to our room at the Yavapai Lodge, which was the only accommodation still available at the canyon when I had gotten around to making reservations two months earlier. It was a fairly bare bones and unappealing motel with non-functional wifi. Once we were settled we decided we might as well drive to the rim although my research indicated that we would be completely unable to find parking in the early evening. As it turned out my premonition was false and we found the parking lot at the Grand Canyon Visitor Center to have plenty of space. There were plenty of people at Mather Point, the closest and most popular outlook, but it wasn't crowded by a long shot. We'd been spoiled by the views from the helicopter but it was good to be able to focus on the amazing colors and topography of the jagged rock formations that extended from the inner walls of the canyon. I realize now that it's quite challenging to get good photographs of the canyon from the rim with an iPhone, as any brighter objects in the foreground cause the camera software to wash out and blur the more interesting structures in the back. Fortunately I took enough photos to have a couple worth saving just by pure luck.
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We didn't have any intention of hiking into the canyon but we walked for a while along the paved rim trial, stopping at each viewpoint for a slightly different perspective on the canyon. The setting sun was continually changing the appearance of the rocks as clouds passed in front of us. My skin crawled as I saw people walking out on narrow promontories from the rim just inches away from unimaginable plunges. My rational side knew that there have been relatively few deaths from falling at the Grand Canyon over the years but at the same time I could never tolerate being just one misstep away from a sudden and grisly end to my existence.
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We never went out to dinner in the end and subsisted on our snacks without getting too hungry. In the morning we had a decent breakfast at a Mexican restaurant in the little commercial town of Tusayan and then headed back for one more look at the canyon rim. This time we chose Yavapai Point, about a mile to the west of where we had been the previous evening. The light and the perspective were a little different, but it was clear we had seen everything we were going to see from the South Rim.
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We drove a little further west to Grand Canyon Village which has the Hopi House, a pueblo-like gallery of mostly Native American artwork and crafts. The architect was Mary Colter, who designed many of the iconic century-old buildings of the Grand Canyon. There were two floors filled with pottery, rugs, jewelry and paintings of very high quality. Of course we still had the reservations ahead of us which is where we were planning to make any purchases of Native American art.
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Across the road from Hopi House is the El Tovar Hotel, considered to be one of the top national park lodges in the country. The hotel has an antiquated yet timeless look, constructed of pine wood painted dark brown to blend with its surroundings. We hadn't even been able to book a dinner reservation let alone a room but we took a short tour of the interior and marveled at the obvious sturdiness of the early 20th century wooden construction. By now we felt that we'd truly extracted everything we could from this visit to the Grand Canyon. Perhaps some day in the future we'll return and find our way to the base of the canyon by foot, mule, or helicopter but that will have to wait several more years at least.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 18:28 Archived in USA Tagged grand_canyon route_66 family_travel travel_blog tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

Belize Road Trip: San Ignacio


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

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

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

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

Belize Road Trip: Chan Chich


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

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

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

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

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

Belize Road Trip: Belize City and Belmopan


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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)

East Asian Immersion: Dalian part III


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I normally fit about two days of travel into a blog post, sometimes three, so it's strange to find myself working on my third blog post about the four days we spent in Dalian. I never expected there to be so much worth seeing and so many opportunities to take great pictures in this unheralded city. I'm not usually a history buff but I was motivated to look into Dalian's past to try to understand how it became such a unique place. I learned that thanks to its strategic location on the Bohai Strait, Dalian passed through a number of powerful hands in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The British, the Russians, and the Japanese all controlled the city between 1858 and 1945. There are still some architectural remnants of these occupations in the city, but I couldn't see how that distant past had much influence on the fascinating landscape of modern Dalian. Fortunately I have the best research resource a traveler could ask for, my Chinese-born wife, who could provide more insight into this recent transformation than a hundred hours on the internet.

Dalian's location and history of occupation probably made it a mildly interesting city to visit in the 1980's, but its captivating skyscrapers, squares, and parks are a much more recent development. Essentially all of this can be laid at the feet of one formerly illustrious mayor of the city, Bo Xilai. Bo was a scion of a prominent Communist Party family which was purged during the Cultural Revolution. He emerged from a labor camp in the 1980's and worked his way back into the Party, now that the pendulum had swung in another direction. Despite an apparent lack of connection to Dalian or Liaoning Province, Bo was assigned to a government position in the area and worked his way up through party ranks to become the mayor of Dalian in 1992. He oversaw the construction of Xinghai Square at the site of the former city garbage dump and was also responsible for the creation of Labor Park and several museums. In 2001 Bo became governor of Liaoning and in 2007 he ascended to the highest level of the Chinese central government. Between 2007 to 2011, he was the most prominent rising political star in China and many assumed he was on his way to being president. All of that ended in 2011 with a murder scandal that led to uncovering of widespread corruption and eventually life imprisonment. It seems that during Bo's few years of enormous power he decided to make Dalian a showplace of modernization, likely intending to use the city as a staging ground for a run at the presidency. Once he was a member of the Politburo, Bo likely diverted domestic financial resources to Dalian and also was involved in numerous foreign investment deals which led to the enormous number of skyscrapers that are still being built. Whether the city can sustain its growth now that its benefactor has been disgraced remains to be seen. It seems impossible that there would be enough wealthy citizens and businesses to fill all the new skyscrapers, so perhaps Dalian is destined to become a futuristic ghost town. I feel fortunate to have been able to see the city in possibly its greatest moment.

We kicked off our last full day in the food court of a Chinese department store not far from Eton Place. I'd seen how China was developing these food courts along the model of Japan and Korea two years earlier in Mudanjiang, but the size and sophistication of this display was quite impressive. There was a mouth-watering selection of produce, delicatessen items, and freshly-prepared fast food that was fundamentally Chinese but had enough international spin to generate a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Just as striking was the liveliness and amount of foot traffic in the food court despite the relatively high prices. Ten years ago a scene like this would have been hard to imagine outside of Shanghai.
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We had a long bus ride through the southern part of Dalian to the Laohutan Scenic Area. This part of the peninsula is filled with stocky little mountains that have residential communities packed into the narrow valleys between them. It wasn't unusual to see apartment buildings jammed up against steep hillsides and I wondered how safe they were from landslides.
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The bus dropped us off in front of Laohutan Ocean Park, an expensive theme park that contains an aquarium and a coral museum and features live performances with marine mammals. We had one of the world's most renowned aquariums coming up soon in Osaka so we gave the theme park a pass and walked across the bridge over the Ziyou Canal towards the famous sculpture that gives the area its popular name of Tiger Beach. The enormous marble tigers seemed to be leaping through the evergreens at the base of the hillside. A couple of souvenir vendors were demonstrating a styrofoam model plane and didn't seem to mind when the kids took it over. From the hill above us cable cars were transporting tourists across Laohutan Bay to the aquarium.
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Close to the tiger sculpture is the entrance to Bird Singing Woods, which is part of Laohutan Ocean Park but has a much more reasonable entry price as an individual attraction. This is a quite impressive bird park housing thousands of birds on a steep hill covered in netting. There are apparently 150 different species of birds in the park, but the most prominent were guinea hens, spoonbills, and peacocks. Feeding the birds was encouraged, naturally with the birdseed that was on sale inside the park. The birds were quite experienced and aggressive and our kids were no match for them.
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Most of the visitors stayed at the base of the hill but we followed the path to the top where the peacocks were clearly in charge. Even with their tails closed, these are incredibly beautiful birds and there were an amazing number of them perched on branches and railings. The netting filtered and diffused what little sunlight made it through the clouds and it was easy to forget that we were in a bird sanctuary and not atop a mountain far from civilization.
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Back on ground level we were just in time to catch a show with parrots that were trained to fly into the crowd and ferry bank notes from the audience back to their handler. The combination of entertainment and con-artistry was quintessentially Chinese and I was happy to contribute all the small denomination currency I had to the endeavor.

The coastal drive through the mountains along Binhai Middle Road is supposed to be another highlight of Dalian, but we didn't see anything remarkable from the windows of our taxi. Eventually we found ourselves back at Xinghai Square, where we ate dinner at a Japanese restaurant and let the kids have another round of entertainment in the amusement park. It was a much foggier evening than our previous visit and the skyscrapers seemed like ghostly apparitions in the mist.
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On our first visit to Xinghai Square we'd missed the evening light show at the fountain. As the moment approached, people began streaming to the center of the oval where there was an enormous circular pool. The water jets had already started to shoot into the air, illuminated in vivid colors and accompanied by haunting violin music. I tried to hold the kids back, expecting the crowd to become too dense for safety, but they were able to get all the way to the front. As the fog slowly lifted, the sparkling, disembodied cables of the Xinghaiwan Bridge came into view behind us.
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We had finally worn the kids out and by the time we had found our way back to Zhongyuan food street for a late snack the older two were out cold. In the morning we went straight to the airport for our flight to Qingdao. Mei Ling stopped briefly at a cosmetics counter at the mall in Eton Place where the salesperson's T-shirt provided us with an optimistic farewell from one of the most fascinating cities I've ever visited.
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Posted by zzlangerhans 21:46 Archived in China Tagged travel china liaoning dalian travel_blog laohutan xinghai_square tony_friedman zzlangerhans Comments (0)

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