Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Galapagos - October 4-18, 2017

In October we treated ourselves to a fabulous 2-week visit to the Galapagos Islands, on a boat called "Beluga". WiFi on the boat was non-existent, so we had to postpone our blogging until we returned. We took hundreds of photos and some videos which are posted on Flickr. Here are links to a selection.

Galapagos Places and People
Galapagos Birds
Galapagos Mammals
Galapagos Reptiles

The picturesque sailboat we were expecting to sail on, the Cachalote, had a “maintenance issue” so we were assigned to a much more luxurious, if less elegant one, with 8 double cabins. We later learned the sorry fate of the Cachalote when we spotted two masts and half a hull poking up from the waves in the harbor. Apparently some workers had tipped the boat over to paint the hull and had omitted to close the portholes - the boat sank in a few minutes. 

Consequently, our boat trip was delayed for two nights which we spent in a hotel in Puerto Ayora, the largest town in the Galapagos, from where we took day trips with our dynamic and enthusiastic guide. 
He was appropriately named Darwin—as were the finches, a small island, a large caldera on the island of Genovesa, the Research Station, an active volcano and a shrub on the largest island, Isabela. He spoke excellent English (his wife is from London), he could swim like a fish, and was extremely knowledgeable about the birds, fish, geology, animals, plants and history of the amazing islands.
The guide for our second week on the Beluga was also extremely knowledgeable, full of fun, a master of story-telling with a wicked sense of humor. Juan shared his photos with all of us each evening, along with the names of fish, plants, animals, and birds in English, Spanish, and German.

We feel incredibly lucky to have seen so many of the species of ridiculously tame birds, fish and reptiles that are mostly unique to the Galapagos Islands.

Each day followed a similar pattern of walks and snorkeling activities, but the experiences, wildlife and landscapes were very different at each place we visited. The boat sailed mostly at night to a sheltered spot designated by the Park Service as a landing site. The schedule has to be fixed and approved a year in advance so that the number of boats and tourists at any one stop at any one time is restricted and tightly controlled.
After an early breakfast of fruit, juice, cereal, toast, eggs, yoghurt, cheese, coffee/tea, we set off in the pangas (rubber zodiac-style motor boats) to a landing spot for a walk of 1-2 hours, with frequent stops to learn about the wildlife and the environment.  
Back on the boat, after a quick snack, we put on wet suits and grabbed masks, fins and snorkels for an hour or so of snorkeling with fish (including sharks and rays), turtles, sea lions and even penguins, in the cool waters of the Pacific.        The water temperature at this time of year is no higher than 68F (20C) — we definitely needed those wet suits if we wanted to stay in the water for more than 5 minutes. 
Warmed up with hot soup as part of a hearty and healthy lunch, while the boat moved on to another bay, we were ready for another walk and more snorkeling, or sometimes kayaking. We were welcomed aboard with cups of hot chocolate and warm gougeres (baked cheesy pastries) with honey, as the sun set. 
After a delicious dinner, we learned about the next day’s program, and retired to bed exhausted at about 9 PM. The Beluga's chef was excellent, catering for 16 passengers and seven crew members, including some vegetarians. He prepared  a wide range of dishes with plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, salads, and of course lots of tasty, fresh fish. 

  • Giant tortoises on several islands. Many are at least 100-150 years old. The big ones weigh up to 400 pounds and eat 50 pounds of green vegetation a day. Experts can tell which island tortoises come from by the shape of the shell. On the main island there are even road signs for “tortoises crossing”.
  • Kayaking along a tall cliff-face in the evening sun, with blue-footed boobies, brown Noddy terns and flightless cormorants, only feet way from us, watchful but unafraid.
  • Chasing after a mother and baby humpback whale in a panga, with the huge animals rising to the surface every few minutes to blow off steam.
  • Catching up with a vast pod of dolphins — probably more than 150 — accompanied by pilot whales and even a couple of sharks, then dropping into the water with mask and snorkel to see them streaking by, whistling and squeaking to each other.
  • Beaches thronged with adorable sea lions coming up close to sniff our feet. There are many babies at this time of year, newborns suckling and young ones playful and curious, swimming athletically around each other and us, and doing yoga stretches on the rock. Some even frequenting the fish market in Puerto Ayora, or making themselves comfortable on the benches on the boardwalk, or on the platform at the back of the Beluga.
  • So many beautiful birds - albatrosses, pelicans, herons, boobies, frigate birds, tropic birds, lava gulls, Darwin finches, Galápagos penguins, flamingos, noddy terns, storm petrels and many others found nowhere else on earth.
  • Snorkeling with colorful Pacific fish, dozens of sea turtles, sharks, rays, weird, chocolate-chip starfish and sea urchins.
  • Relaxing on a sunbed on the top deck at night look up at myriads of stars.  There is no light pollution the air is crystal clear, and the Milky Way clearly visible. There are too many stars to pick out constellations, which all look different anyway when you are at the Equator.
  • Sitting on a pristine, yellow-sand beach listening to our guide, Juan Tapia's tall tales of early 20th century settlers in the Galapagos -- the toothless German dentist who was a disciple of Nietzsche, the countess with her three lovers, the mass murderer who was was never caught... The tales are apparently based on truth with colorful local embellishments.
  • Shining flashlights on the water at night from the deck of the Beluga and watching large pale sharks -- 2 meters and more -- gliding past. 
  • Lying flat on a bed of 100-year old pahoehoe (ropy) lava pretending to enjoy a massage.
  • Watching the GPS on the bridge of the Beluga gradually clicking down to latitude 0.00.000 as we crossed the Equator, then enjoying a celebratory cocktail and photo with the Beluga's captain.
  • Making new friends among passengers from many places -- USA, Sweden, Peru, Puerto Rico, Germany, Austria, Spain, Australia, and England.
It was truly the trip of a lifetime.  

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Turkey -- October 2016 -- Part 2

We have now finished our second and final week aboard the “Ya Selam” and have left the coast to start our trip home. The boat became our home, and we greatly appreciated the competent and ever-smiling crew, who practiced their English on us as we practiced our Turkish on them. The guest cabins were full, with a Turkish-English family of 4; our English guide and historian, John; a South African resident of Turkey who lived in Uzbekistan and Afghanistan, speaks fluent Russian and is currently trying to trace the travels of St Paul in Turkey; and the four of us. Conversations at meal times were lively and wide ranging as we all sat around a large table where a wide variety of delicious dishes were served family style, while Turkish wine and beer were dispensed liberally by the attentive crew.

The weather has been so far uniformly wonderful, with cool nights and warm sunny days in the 70’s. The day starts with a beautiful sunrise at about 7:30 over the Greek islands, which are only a few miles away. Breakfast at 8:30 with thick yogurt, 5 different sorts of cheese (including fried cheese), toast, jams and honey, scrambled eggs, cucumber and tomato salad, tea and coffee. After breakfast each day we either sail in the morning then hike in the afternoon, or vice versa.

Some of the notable sights we have seen and things we have done…

We anchored in the ancient port of Knidos at the tip of a beautiful peninsula. The ruins of a 2,500 year-old city still exist, with shops, theaters, temples, and a huge plinth that once housed a gigantic nude statue of Aphrodite – designed to attract tourists. The statue is long gone, and an equally ancient statue of a lion from the other side of the port is now in the British Museum.

We were dropped at a tiny, wild and stony beach at the tip of the uninhabited  Bozburun peninsula and hiked up a steep rocky track lined with thorny bushes to an old Greek church abandoned since 1923 when the Greeks left Turkey. Then on to a small equally abandoned village of stone houses, with an old windmill tower. The roofs of the cottages have long since collapsed from the earthquakes that occur regularly in the area, but we found red roof tiles, marked with the name of the manufacturer in Marseille, France.

We stopped for the night in the tiny village of Selimiye, and scrambled up the steep slope through terraces of olive trees to an ancient 16th century Ottoman castle, with spectacular views over the sea and the surrounding mountains. The town is so sheltered that it is full of citrus and palm trees.

Each day, our “gulet” anchors in a sheltered bay where we enjoy a swim in the crystal clear and buoyant Mediterranean water. It is bracingly cool and refreshing. The gulet has two little kayaks that we have paddled around the bay. At night we can sit on the front deck on a moonless night and see infinite stars and the Milky Way against the blackest of skies – a rare sight for Americans and northern Europeans.

We spent one day in Datca, a pleasant small town mostly given over to Turkish retirees who seem to enjoy sunning themselves and swimming in the sea as much as we do. Elderly gents sit in cafes drinking hot bitter Turkish tea and playing backgammon and “okey” – a cross between rummy and Mah Jongg. A hike through the town brought us to extensive ruins, so old there is little but rubble left, though much excavation is being done by archeologists. Enterprising local farmers grow peppers and tomatoes among the ruins. Everywhere there are shards of broken pottery and tiles of ancient origin among the rocks..

With a strong north wind and a due east coast, the captain decided to raise the sails and cut the engine. It was thrilling to see the huge white sails hauled up by our trusty crew and to feel our gulet moving along as fast as it did with the engine. It is a big heavy boat, but designed for sailing in these waters.

There is very little evidence of the State of Emergency in Turkey, or the refugee crisis. We did have an armed member of the military board a bus we were riding on, but they did not ask for IDs. One day, however, a fast Coast Guard cutter came up on the gulet and asked us to cut the engines. They tied up alongside, and demanded all our passports, plus the captain’s log and maintenance records. They also asked Lin to delete photos she had taken of their boat. After a few minutes, during which they presumably checked with the immigration authorities that we were all legitimate, they roared off. According to the captain they were acting on a tip-off that there was some people-smuggling in the area – we were only a couple of miles from the Greek island of Rhodes. A couple of days later we were stopped again, and woken up by the Coast Guard at 6 in the morning with bright searchlights. The captain was very annoyed.

Anthony and Sandy have been on the lookout for birds, though they are few and far between in this arid countryside. We have seen long-legged buzzards circling above the cliffs, and regularly hear the beautiful song of the rock nuthatch, but apart from that, not much of interest. We have seen goats, sheep, and donkeys on shore, and flying fish in the bays.

Now (Saturday) we have taken a taxi to Dalaman Airport and a plane to Istanbul, where we will get. Flight early tomorrow to Frankfurt, then Philadelphia, sadly leaving behind or on-board life of relaxation and rich indulgence.

We have posted some more photos on DropBox:

Friday, October 21, 2016

Turkey -- October 2016 -- Part 1

Turkey October Part 1
Turkey has beautiful scenery, an interesting and ancient history, friendly and charming people, fabulously fresh and interesting food. But, thanks to some terrorist activities and an ill-advised attempted coup there are hardly any tourists.

We spent a couple of days in ever-fascinating Istanbul after meeting up with Lin’s sister Brenda and her husband Anthony. Our little hotel near the Blue Mosque was quiet, disturbed only by a highly amplified call to prayer 5 times a day. We spent a day visiting the amazingly overblown Dolmabahce Palace, built by the Ottoman sultans in the middle of the 19th century beside the Bosporus when they found the ancient Topkapi palace too old fashioned and drafty. The rooms are encrusted with enormous chandeliers, parquet floors and beautiful carpets. Part of the palace, in much more modest style, is given over to the harem where the sultan’s several wives lived with their children and various other cloistered ladies. Of course, all this extravagance was much too late to save the Ottoman empire, which fell apart after the First World War.

A walk through the Egyptian Spice Bazaar led to many encounters with stall holders. “Let me sell you something you don’t need….because I need your money” declared one inventive spice seller. At the gorgeous and impressive Sulemaniye mosque, elegantly dressed Istanbullus were parading with their families and admiring the wonderful views over the Sea of Marmara, the Bosporus and the Golden Horn – the waterways that surround and define Istanbul. It is a huge and impressive city, and there was little sign of the recent troubles apart from the striking  number of Turkish flags flying from many buildings and even from the minarets of mosques.

Part 2 of our adventure involved an hour-long flight to Cappadocia, an area in central Turkey famed for its extraordinary rock formations, ancient churches carved out of the rocky cliffs, and underground cities. We spent 5 nights in the cute and curious town of Goreme, where many of the buildings, including the hotels, are partly or completely carved into the sides of the strange stone pillars and cliffs throughout the town. Goreme has a wonderful “Open Air Museum” – a deep and steep valley outside the town where churches were carved into the solid rock in the 9th and 10th centuries. The intricately carved and painted stone churches are a wonder to behold – it’s amazing the effort that people will expend in the name of religion.

Days in Cappadocia were warm and dry, the nights cool. It was perfect weather for walking, which we did – at length. There were picturesque paths through the rocky valleys, each view showing cliffs and towers of different colors. Most unusual of all were the “fairy chimneys” – a strange formation with a hard rock protecting the softer rock below, while the area around is eroded leaving a tall cone of stone with a rock on the top.

One day we used the efficient dolmus  – shared taxi – system to visit a huge underground city. There are many such underground cities in Cappadocia and they are still being discovered. They date back to ancient prehistoric times and were used by the local population to hide when their town was invaded. The one we visited was 8 floors deep with places for animals, churches, speaking tubes, wells, ovens, wineries, food storage areas, and family homes – everything that 5,000 people needed for 6 months of living underground.

Food in Cappadocia is excellent. Breakfasts consist of fruit, multiple different cheese, juices, jams, olives, salad, bread, omelettes, thick yogurt and fruit. We tried a different restaurant each night. Because of the dearth of tourists the restaurateurs were delighted to get our custom and went to great efforts to provide delicious dinners with soups, salads, appetizers, and main courses all prepared with excellent fresh ingredients. Tomatoes, cucumbers and potatoes just seem to taste better than elsewhere.

On Saturday, we flew from Cappadocia to Bodrum in the southwestern corner of Turkey, where we were warmly welcomed on board our beautiful home for the next 2 weeks  -- a traditional wooden gulet sailing boat with cabins for 12 people and a crew of 4. Each cabin is fitted in well-varnished wood with a nice double bed, ample storage space and a cute little tiled bathroom with washbasin, toilet and shower. There is only hot water when the engine is running but that is of little importance as the clear blue sea is always available for a swim when we are anchored. The captain is incredibly proud of his boat and when the crew are not rustling up delicious meals, they are cleaning and polishing.

Our first day we spent walking round Bodrum, a small city that has been occupied by every ancient civilization you can think of – Greeks, Persians, Spartans, Romans, Byzantines and Turks – as well as some we have never heard of – Lycians, Carians, etc. All of them left buildings and stonework lying around and the whole area is one huge archaeological site. Bodrum was once Hieropolis and the site of one of the Seven Wonders of the World – the tomb of Mausoleus, now reduced to a pile of rubble, and a few walls and pieces of pillar. The most intriguing sight was an ancient Carian tomb, 2,500 years old, in the back interior wall of the supermarket among the bottles of Coca-Cola and Sprite.

After lunch we  set off on our 2 week trip, the boat working its way around the coast, stopping at small bays and inlets, where we can swim in the evenings, and in the day time take strenuous hikes along parts of the Carian Way – a coastal path which gives wonderful views of the deep blue sea, dusky green olive orchards, steep cliffs and dark green forests.

On board are the four of us, our guide – a well educated Englishman who speaks fluent Turkish – plus a friend of his who knows all about the paths and the ruins we encounter and a Turkish/English lady from the tour company. We are amazed at the meals that are produced by the crew in the little ship’s galley. Every meal has 4 or 5 dishes, always including a salad, some thick creamy yogurt and vegetable dish, rice or some other grain, and meat, fish or chicken.

Yesterday’s hike was a steep and strenuous 9 miles through spectacular terrain, but today was more relaxing with a visit to “Cleopatra’s Island”, complete with a beach of golden sand reputedly brought there by Mark Anthony in 50 BC(?) for his lady love. I think we can take a few more days of this lifestyle…warm, dry days under blue skies, peaceful nights, healthy food, interesting sites and sights, Turkish wines and coffee or tea on request….

(It is too tricky to post photos with the flaky WiFi connection we have on the boat, so here is a link to some photos on DropBox – hope out works

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mexico: Part 3

We are now home to sunshine and spring flowers after our interesting, enjoyable though not exactly restful trip to central Mexico.

Palm weaving outside the church in Taxco
Last Saturday night, the evening before Palm Sunday, we were sitting on a balcony overlooking the main square of Taxco, and watching some highly energetic and costumed locals performing dances that involved a lot of foot stamping and handkerchief waving. 

The next morning we enjoyed watching skilled weavers making elaborate crucifixes out of palm leaves to sell to everyone entering the church, which was packed. And then, a noisy procession of several hundred people, many with middle-Eastern head dresses, came winding through the steep cobbled streets blowing trumpets, sousaphones and whistles and letting off fireworks. They were carrying a complex, palm-bedecked float to the church, which was already filled to capacity. We did not stay to see how that worked out, but instead went to the Taxco silver museum – named after the American silversmith, William Spratling, who revived the silver industry in Taxco. 

Palm Sunday Procession in Taxco
Interesting that two of the best local museums we visited in Mexico were founded by gay expat American artists in the 1950s.

The long drive from Taxco (southwest of Mexico City) to Puebla (southeast of Mexico City) turned out to be a lot easier than we expected, and was interrupted by an entertaining stop for “breakfast” at a roadside café – plastic chairs and a tarpaulin roof beside the highway. The place was very busy at 11 AM, the main attractions being inexpensive and excellent food, and the three buxom waitresses in stretch tights with colorful eye make-up, one of whom provided an endless supply of fresh tortillas, flattening the dough into thin circles and toasting them on a griddle. Our two breakfasts of eggs, rice and beans, a liter of fresh guava juice, plus unlimited tortillas – $8.

Pottery Market
Speaking of late breakfasts, we eventually worked out that in central Mexico people eat only two meals a day – a late breakfast/early lunch between 10 AM and 12 noon, then an early dinner between 5 and 7 PM. Being used to Argentina and Spain where dinner doesn’t start till very late at night, at first we were turning up for dinner to find that restaurants were closed, closing, or empty. More than once the floors were being washed and chairs being put up on the tables while we ate. We got into the swing of it, however, and started eating earlier and earlier in the evening. Mexico is also great for snacks – there are stalls selling potato chips, popcorn, cakes, ice cream, and fresh fruit snacks everywhere, as well as more exotic local treats like chilaquiles, tlacoyos, and chapulines. The last of those is fried grasshoppers – not sure what the others are.

Our final stop was the colonial city of Puebla. If you visit just one city in Mexico, this is the place to go. It has beautiful old, well-kept buildings, quiet streets (no car horns!) with bike lanes, great restaurants and good museums, and is so well organized that it is easy to find your way around. 
Puebla street - old buildings, no cars, bike lane!!
The city is famous for its pottery, and many of the buildings and most of the churches are decorated with blue and white tiles (azulejos). Added to this, the attractions are (unlike most Mexican cities) very well signposted with information about the sights in Spanish and English, and sometimes Nahuatl and Braille. The cathedral is vast and relatively austere – it was packed when we first visited as the archbishop was conducting Mass on the Tuesday of Holy Week. 
Puebla tiles in the Capilla del Rosario
Our bibliophile friends will be happy to hear that one of the main attractions in Puebla is a library – the Biblioteca Palafoxiana, claimed to be the oldest library in the Americas. We also enjoyed visits to the artisan market and the artists’ quarters, both located in their designated areas by the well-organized Poblanos.

On our way back to Mexico City for our flight home, we stopped for half a day at the pyramids of Teotihuacan, a huge complex of ancient buildings, many decorated with fantastic stone sculptures and murals, which was constructed by a civilization far older than the Mayans or Aztecs from 100 BC to about 500 AD. 
Teotihuacan - Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Moon
We spent an interesting (and exhausting) few hours clambering up precipitous pyramid steps and walking along the 1½ mile Avenue of the Dead.

What struck us most about our trip to Mexico was how kind, friendly and helpful the Mexicans we encountered were. The streets of the cities felt safer than many we have visited, with little excessive alcohol consumption and minimal begging; people would stop in the street to ask us if we were lost or needed directions; locals were happy that we were visiting their towns or eating in their restaurants. Reputedly some parts of Mexico are dangerous for travelers and infested with robbers, kidnappers and drug dealers. Happily we avoided them, or perhaps we two elderly gringos just did not look like good targets. We even got out a few hours before the 7.2 earthquake hit central Mexico. We plan to go back and do some more exploring before our legs give out – we walked over 100 miles in 20 days.

Plumed Serpent carvings in Teotihuacan

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mexico: Part 2

Taxco Cathedral, with VW beetles
It is the Saturday before Palm Sunday, and we are in the small Mexican hill town of Taxco (pronounced (Tach-ko). Our little hotel is perched on a steep hillside with a wonderful view of small white houses, churches, flower gardens and swimming pools (!) clinging to the precipitous slopes. Taxco is famous for silver mines -- long exhausted -- and now boasts hundreds of little “tianguis” (stores) where silver jewelry and other handicrafts are sold.  The main square is dominated by a mostly pink baroque fantasy cathedral built by one of the richest silver barons. It has a beautiful wood floor and excessively elaborate gilt altars. We treated ourselves to tasty ice-creams, from over sixty different divine flavors, “los sabores de los dioses”, including tequila and burnt milk.

Hat seller in San Miguel
We have covered a lot of ground in the past week. We left Guanajuato by bus last Saturday for the short trip to San Miguel de Allende – a beautiful town of orange, brown and yellow buildings built upon a hill. We spent three days wandering the streets, checking out the local markets and visiting a lovely botanic garden and nature reserve with a great range of cacti in bloom, and some interesting birds. 

San Miguel (or SMA, as those in the know call it) has become a haven for gringo ex-pats, and in several of the restaurants they were quite reluctant to speak to us in Spanish. It appears that many of the gringos expected life to be a lot cheaper in SMA than turns out to be the case, and many have turned to selling real estate, or their own art work. The amount of art on sale and on display was astounding. We were not tempted… 

Our hotel in San Miguel
Despite this, San Miguel is definitely worth a visit for its beautiful buildings, friendly people, and great food and lodgings. The bedroom in our tiny 4-room hotel had a 16 ft. high brick vaulted ceiling and a bed the size of a small football field.

Kitchen in Robert Brady Museum, Cuernavaca
After an easy bus trip back to Mexico City and a slightly nerve-wracking subway trip across the city with our luggage, we picked up a rental car and headed off south, in the rush hour, towards Cuernavaca, where we spent 2 nights. We would not recommend Cuernavaca as a place to spend much time – it is a bit grungy and down at heel. The cathedral is built of stone that Cortes salvaged from the local Aztec temple and it looks like it – a large pile of black rock in the general form of a European cathedral, with primitive frescoes inside painted by locals who converted to Christianity. It is extraordinarily old for the New World, having been started in 1528. One delightful surprise which redeemed Cuernavaca for us was the Robert Brady Museum – a beautiful collection of arts and crafts in a fine old house. The former American owner, Robert Brady, was educated at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and at the Barnes Foundation. You could see Barnes’ influence in the collections of old keys, painted chests, African masks and Asian wall hangings in among paintings and prints of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.

Aztec temple in Malinalco
We would never have realized Mexico was so mountainous if we had not driven from Mexico City to Cuernavaca and from there to the “pueblo magico” of Malinalco, a very picturesque little town southwest of Mexico City. It was once an important Aztec religious site, and boasts the only monolithic pyramid in the world, carved out of the side of a cliff. It was really impressive, and because it was built out of one piece of solid stone, the Spaniards weren’t able to use it elsewhere as building material. 

We had our first lodging disaster and “Lonely Planet” letdown in Malinalco, where the hotel we had booked turned out to be awful – a small, cell-like room, with minimal curtains, a narrow and uncomfortable bed, zinging mosquitoes, barking dogs, and the rumble of trucks and cars on the nearby highway. We stuck it out for one night, despite having prepaid for two (not like us). For our second night we found a beautiful little B&B with a pool and tranquil garden where we enjoyed a happy afternoon, a quiet night and a delicious breakfast.

And so to today, where we are sitting on a terrace looking down on the higgledy-piggledy rooftops of Taxco. It is hard to believe we’ll be back home next Thursday.

San Miguel de Allende


Friday, April 4, 2014

Mexico: Part 1

We have been on holiday for a week now and are having a great time…here are some of the highlights.

We spent our first 5 nights in Mexico City. What a huge place…we were on a subway train heading south of the city center for nearly an hour and a half and still did not reach the countryside...roads and buildings and people everywhere. Overall, it is a very pleasant city with friendly people, lots of nice parks, fantastic buildings, museums and art galleries, and good restaurants. Our hotel was a small B&B in an old section of the town about 30 minutes’ walk or 10 minutes’ metro ride from the center, in an elegantly restored house from the mid-19th century, with high ceilings, tall windows, interesting art on the walls and very friendly and helpful staff. Unlike Argentina, they know how to do a good breakfast in Mexico – fresh fruit and yogurt, eggs and salsa, freshly squeezed juice and excellent coffee.

Perfectly polished peppers
The B&B was near a good small but lively and colorful market with amazing of displays of fresh fruit and vegetables. We could not get over how carefully and spotlessly everything was presented. Potatoes were scrubbed clean and piled in elegant rows, peppers looked polished, onions were peeled, fruit was sold whole or sliced, and in a fabulous range of color and size. There were at least 5 varieties of avocados on sale, and various exotic fruits that we had to ask the names of – guanabana, mamey, cherimoya, and others.

Aztec Rain God
We went to some excellent museums – the Templo Mayor is a huge archaeological site of an Aztec temple in the center of Mexico City, with a very interesting museum beside it, where they show the artifacts that have been dug up during the excavation of the temple and building of the metro. Reminders of the Aztecs are everywhere in the stonework and statues around the city, and in the place names spelled with x’s.

Sunday is the day when families go out together and all the museums are free for them but less often for foreigners. We went to the huge central Chapultepec Park, where we visited the palace of the Mexican/Austrian Emperor Maximilian, now converted into a museum of Mexican history. It is in a beautiful setting overlooking the city and surrounded by trees, with spectacular purple jacarandas in flower. The museum itself was an eye-opener – Mexico certainly has a complicated history.

The highlight of Sunday for us was a visit to the National Museum of Anthropology, where artifacts of Mexico’s dozens of existing and past cultures and nations are displayed, along with overwhelming levels of information about their history and ways of life. The museum starts with an explanation of human evolution and the current theories about how humanity reached the Americas, that was better than anything we have seen elsewhere – including the Smithsonian and the Museum of Natural History in London. The vast stone monuments of the Aztecs, Toltecs and Mayans were truly impressive.

Families enjoying the water sprays
at the Monument to the Revolution
Part of the fun of Sunday in the park was seeing the population of Mexico City at play. The paths were thronged with people and lined with stalls selling all kinds of food, drink, clothing and tourist souvenirs. Everyone was happy, the huge concrete plaza turned into a “spray-ground” for the young and adventurous, and we felt safe and secure – not at all the picture of Mexico that one gets from reading the news in the U.S.

Colorful punts in Xochimilco
We also found our way to a unique corner of the city in the far south, the small town of Xochimilco. What an interesting place! It features the last remnants of the huge lake that once surrounded this area. Much of the lake has been semi-reclaimed by the creation of artificial islands that now house plant nurseries. Instead of cars, the primary means of transport is by boat. Because it is an attractive area with canals in lieu of roads, and gardens along the banks, it has become a great tourist attraction. We spent a leisurely couple of hours being poled gently along the waterways on a brightly colored punt past fabulous displays of flowers, watching the local people working in the gardens, paddling to or from school, or working on their boats. Our punt was regularly pursued by smaller boats from which people tried to sell us drinks, food such as grilled sweetcorn, blankets, dolls and sombreros. There were also boats with bands of musicians offering to sing a song and play for us. Some had full mariachi bands, others had xylophones, and singers with guitars. No motorized boats are allowed and all the boats were paddled or punted by skilled operators, though there were frequent close calls.

We did not see any of the fish or snakes reputed to live in the lake of flowers, but the axolotl is worth a mention: an incredibly ugly amphibian tadpole that has forgotten how to turn into a frog, it only existed in the Xochimilco Lake. The Aztecs caught them for food, and it is at risk of extinction. Pollution in the water has caused them to disappear from the lake though they are now being bred in captivity.

Mexican Hairless Dogs -- one is real, one is a statue.
We would also recommend the nearby Dolores Olmedo museum, set in a beautiful garden with peacocks under the trees, and a small pack of Xoloitcuintle (Mexican hairless dogs) that are sadly endangered because of their delicate skin. La signora Olmedo was a wealthy patron of the arts and a friend of Diego Rivera’s, so she owned a huge collection of unique paintings and portraits of his and Frida Kahlo’s, along with a large collection of Asian treasures, including giant ivory carvings and sculptures.

Frida and Diego pinatas
After our days in Mexico City, our five-hour bus ride to Guanajuato was surprisingly pleasant, with a bag-lunch provided, WiFi available on board, and interesting movies to while away the hours. Even the bus station was clean, with airport-style X-ray machines and screening of passengers and their bags. We learned that just as Philly was briefly the capital of the U.S., so Guanajuato was once the capital of Mexico. Silver is still mined here, and the old colonial buildings and many huge churches reflect the wealth of the former silver barons. It is a beautiful town now declared a UN World Heritage Site, and justifiably. Every corner is another picture-worthy moment.

Colorful Guanajuato
After our long winter in Philly, days of 80 degrees F. are especially welcome. We managed to get soaked in a couple of late-afternoon thunderstorms in the capital, but the air is mostly dry and clear and the nights are cool. We walk miles each day, and enjoy being outside. We just spent a delightful morning in the garden of a former hacienda and home of one such rich citizen, now a museum with old paintings and furnishings. We enjoyed the 17 different garden styles represented with fountains, patios, walls of flowering vines and climbing plants, huge trees and containers of small flowering plants. We even spotted 3 different species of woodpeckers, along with warblers, hummingbirds and a magnificent vermillion flycatcher.

The steep slopes of Guanajuato
Because Guanajuato is built on the steep slopes of the surrounding hills and the town is mostly tiny, twisting alleys, the cars and buses drive through an underground system of tunnels. It is definitely a little scary to be walking underground with the traffic after getting off a bus and trying to locate the right tunnel to take to reach the surface. A great relief to emerge into the bright sunshine again.

Most of the restaurants do not stay open late, so eating dinner at 7 or 8 at night is far from unusual. We like the Mexican tacos, enchiladas, soups and salads, and have eaten a variety of chicken, seafood, bean and cheese dishes.  We avoid the slabs of deep-fried tripe, the goat stews and any spiny unrecognizable fish.

Our next stop is San Miguel De Allende, only an hour or so away on the bus.
Silver Baron's garden outside Guanajuato

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Traveling in Argentina

Curious woodpecker in the mountains
After our six weeks of volunteer work in Salta we are now exploring the northwest corner of Argentina, and enjoying wonderful weather, good food and wine, comfortable lodgings, and long hikes in interesting and beautiful mountains and valleys.

Our last few days of work in Salta were quite hectic. Lin made purchases of educational games and books as a donation to the foundation where she was working. Sandy gave his final lessons and established plants in the garden at his two comedores. We both had touching farewells and presentations of mementoes. We hope that our work will have a more than transitory effect – certainly the signs for sustainability are good. We also had an enjoyable farewell lunch on Saturday with our FSD friends.

We have been struck over and over with how safe Argentina feels and how friendly the local people are. In the little town of Cafayate where we stayed for three nights, doors are rarely locked and bicycles are left leaning against trees or walls apparently without any fear that they will be gone when the owner returns. 
Confusing keys
Argentinian house and room keys are rather peculiar…they appear symmetrical, but they only “work” if inserted correctly in the lock. We have had two incidents when we could not get into our lodgings and had to climb in through the window. At our home in Salta the lock was “stuck”, but luckily there was someone inside who kindly opened the shutters and passed out a chair which we put on the sidewalk so that we could climb in through the window. It was a little trickier in Cafayate, where the hostel owner had forgotten to give us a key and had locked up for the evening. No one answered our frantic hammering and shouting, so eventually Sandy removed some screen and squeezed into our room through the window. Several people saw us but nobody seemed to think it was out of the ordinary.

Getting ready to sample some local products
Cafayate is about 3 hours from Salta on a bus which takes you through a spectacular canyon to a high dry valley that boasts 320 days of sunshine a year and a large wine industry – reputedly the highest vineyards in the world with some at over 2000 meters (6,500 ft.). We spent our two days there hiking up the sides of the valley through vineyards and desert-like scrub, and visiting bodegas, wine bars, and a museum devoted to wine and grapes. They are famous for a strong white wine that smells fruity and tastes dry and crisp called “Torrontes”, which we had never tasted before we came to Argentina, and we have become big fans. We hope we’ll be able to find it in the US at an affordable price. Here it is the equivalent of US $3.50 a bottle, though some are much more. 
Loud parrot
Cafayate also had some interesting bird life, including a nonstop screeching chorus of rather dull-colored burrowing parrots, which descend on the town at dawn every day and go back to their nests in the mud cliffs of the canyon at 5 PM sharp.

Our second stop was Tafi del Valle, even higher in altitude, and accessed by bus over a somewhat terrifying 3000 meter (10,000 ft) mountain pass appropriately called “Infiernillo” (Little Hell). Tafi is a spread out little town of mostly summer cottages, where people escape the heat of the pampas. It is very green. We are regularly surprised by the amount of water, streams and springs in areas which seem to have little rainfall. Most of the rain appears to fall in the mountains and then flow underground down into the valleys. As a result there is plenty of pasture for horses and cattle and water for lawns and gardens. Again we spent our days on long hikes in the cool mountain air. We are nearly always the only people walking on the trails, though we regularly see local people in small adobe houses and farms. On one hike up to a beautiful waterfall we were thrilled to see two huge (10 ft. wingspan) condors soaring above us. 
Jesuit cheese
We also happened on a small “estancia” founded by the Jesuits in 1779, where they still make delicious cheeses from the milk of the local cows. We could not resist buying a half-kilo cheese and eating large chunks then and there. Local buses to and from the high valleys stop when flagged down and are full of friendly people curious to see two elderly gringos with backpacks. Another walk along the shore of a small lake took us to a huge cemetery with graves covered in vividly colorful plastic flowers, most likely especially abundant because the locals have just celebrated the Day of the Dead. 
Menhirs, from about 1,000 BC
In a small town with an archaeological park we saw over 100 “menhirs”, of which the meaning and purpose has been lost in time. They were quite similar to menhirs we have seen in Brittany, but not so old – the Stone Age went on far longer here than in Europe.

Today (Saturday) we traveled from the high mountain valleys down into the plains for a long bus ride through endless countryside – with a few cultivated areas and some with huge herds of cattle. It really brought home how empty this country is with only 40 million people in a country with 1/3rd of the area of the US, and most of them live around Buenos Aires. (Argentina has 38 people per square mile compared with the UK’s 650 and the US 84). We spotted three greater rheas – huge flightless ostrich-like birds nearly 6 feet tall in the shade of a tree. Pity we couldn't get a photo.

Tomorrow we are off to Cachi -- another small mountain village -- for more hikes and relaxation before spending a couple of days in Salta and then heading home.

Argentina is full of freely wandering animals, like these horses

...and these donkeys, near our favorite icecream shop
...and this fierce looking bull, which turned out to be quite docile.