Monday, April 22, 2013

Location, Location, Location! The Ancient Mayans Got their Real Estate Right in Tulum, Mexico.

Picture of the Main Temple of the Descending God at the Tulum Ruins in Mexico
Temple of the Descending God in Tulum
I promised to finish our Tulum, Mexico trip in my last post since I hadn't gotten to the amazing ruins, so here you go.

The ruins at Tulum are perched on cliffs that overlook the beautiful Caribbean.  I have never experienced a more dramatic and beautiful location for ruins anywhere else in the world.  I know I haven't seen all the ruins in the world yet, but I am pretty sure Tulum is going to be hard to beat in terms of location.  

Pathway Through the Ancient Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Years ago Callie and our friends the Frogleys took a tour here with a local guide named Mosiah.  He was really great--he helped us feed Iguanas, showed us parts of the complex that were still being excavated, and explained all of the rich symbolism found carved throughout the complex--so we were very excited when we found him again on this trip.  He was equally great with our kids as he was with us years ago.  It is definitely worthwhile to find a guide that knows these ruins well.  I am usually one who doesn't like to be "guided", but in this particular case there is no way I could have gotten as much out of this treasure on my own.  You will definitely miss a ton trying to figure things out on your own at these ruins, so splurge and get a good guide to unlock the magic of this place for you.

The Back of the Ancient Temple of the Descending God Overlooking the Caribbean
The back of the Temple of the Descending God overlooking the Caribbean
In the picture above, you can see that the back of the Temple of the Descending God is right on the edge of the cliff overlooking the turquoise Caribbean.  Our guide explained that it wasn't simply because of the view that this temple was placed here--it points directly to where the "great white god" (perhaps the Spanish??) came from the sky, through the only passage in the reef (directly out from this temple) and to the land where he visited the people.  I'm not doing the story justice, but there is a lot of symbolism surrounding everything about these ruins, and a purpose for every building placement, carving, and even alignment with the sun, moon, and stars.

View of the Ancient Mayan Temple of the God of Winds Just Above the Waters of the Caribbean Sea
Temple of the God of Winds
The temple of the God of Winds also has a striking perch as it sits on a solitary outcropping with powdery sand beach (which is protected as a sea turtle nesting site) leading up to it.

Beautiful Palm Tree Right on the Public Beach Below the Ruins of Tulum
Gorgeous public beach directly below the ruins
Believe it or not, there is a public beach right below the main temple.  It is incredibly beautiful, and quite popular.  You won't find many places where you can play on the beach right below ancient ruins, but this is one of them.

View of the Ancient Mayan Ruin Called La Iglesia (the Church) with its Rounded Corners at Coba, Mexico
La Iglesia with its rounded corners at Coba
The most famous ruins in the Yucatan are those at Chichen Itza, and they are truly amazing, and very much a must-see.  We have visited them in previous trips and absolutely loved them.  They are also a long drive from Tulum (2 1/2 hours), very crowded, and more developed than other ruin sites, so we decided to visit Coba on this trip.  Coba is a sprawling (mostly still unexcavated) site only about an hour drive from Tulum. 

Ancient Mayan Ball Court at the Ruins of Coba Mexico
The ancient ceremonial ball court
The picture above is of the ceremonial ball court.  There are ball courts at many of the ruin sites throughout Central America, so they were obviously an important part of the culture in the ancient world.  We have heard various explanations about what the ball court was used for, and though not all of them agree with each other it is pretty likely that it was a symbolic game relating to the battle between good and evil, the heavens (high on the wall) and the underworld (below ground).  Either way, it is a very interesting structure.

The ruins at Coba are spread out and there is a lot of walking involved at discovering all of its hidden gems.  The walk--along the Sacbe (white road)--is one of the great parts of the visit. These roads have been in place as long as the ruins and they connect the major cultural and spiritual centers of the ancient Mayan world.  In fact, at least one of these roads continues through the jungle all the way to Chichen Itza almost 70 miles away. 

Approaching the Nohoch Mul Temple on the Sacbe, White Road, in Coba, Mexico
Approaching the temple of Nohoch Mul on the Sacbe--White Road
The pyramid temple of Nohoch Mul is the largest structure in Coba.  At 197 feet, it is actually the tallest accessible structure in the Yucatan (even taller than the great pyramid at Chichen Itza we were told--and that one has been closed to hiking now too).  It was raining quite hard the day we were here, and that was actually a really good thing--it was cooler, there were fewer mosquitoes, and fewer people, and it replaced my mandatory monthly bath ;-) 

The Steep Climb up the Pyramid Temple of Nohoch Mul in Coba, Mexico
Steeper than it looks from a distance
The climb to the top is much steeper than it looks from a distance.  The view from the top is incredible though.  There are no mountains in the Yucatan so most of the mounds you see in the jungle are actually ruins that just haven't been excavated yet.  We were told that the last hurricane uncovered at least 5,000 new sites!

Trying to keep my family from jumping off the top of the Pyramid Temple of Nohoch Mul in Coba Mexico
Good thing there was a No Diving sign on the top of the pyramid ;-)
 Behind us in the picture above you can see how far the view goes from the top.

My Sons Performing a Fake Human Sacrifice on the top of the Pyramid Temple of Nohoch Mul in Coba Mexico
I can't turn my back on my boys for fear of being sacrificed!
 So, I'll end this post with a picture of my boys being boys on the top of the Nohoch Mul temple.  As this picture suggests, there is something interesting for every member of the family at the ruins we visit.  We swung from vines, looked for paint on the ancient stone tablets, caught frogs and lizards, jumped in puddles, and found something fun around every bend in the White Road.  

As is the case with every one of my posts, I really only just scratched the surface on all the things we did on this trip.  If you would like any information on this great destination, resources we used, or suggestions on what to do when you go, please just let me know.  Now... get out there.  What are you waiting for!

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Mayan Ruins and the Turquois Caribbean--Tulum, Mexico!

Impossibly beautiful Caribbean water, powdery sand beaches, enormous nesting sea turtles, freshwater cenotes, homemade tamales... I can tell you that if I were an ancient Mayan I would have put up my civilization in Tulum too!

Mayan Ruins Overlooking the Turquoise Waters of the Caribbean Sea in Tulum, Mexico

Tulum is the much less frequented (read that infinitely superior to) city on the Mexican Riviera than the alcohol-soaked hot spot of Cancun.  Take my advice, if you would like to see the Mexican side of the Caribbean, once you hit the ground in Cancun get in a car and drive south for an hour and a half and leave the Spring Break side of the Caribbean behind.

New 3 Bedroom Villa in Tulum Mexico

Here's the part where I let you in on some travel secrets, so pay attention!  Tip number one: Rent a home/villa/condo on  We found a new 3 bedroom, 2 bath villa with a full kitchen, 2 pools, washer and dryer, full-time onsite grounds keeper in a gated community in Tulum for less than $900/week on (vrbo listing# 194243).  Having a kitchen and using it for most (not all) of your meals (Tip number two) is one of the best ways we have found to reduce the cost of travel.  This kitchen just happened to include 3 bedrooms for almost $100/night!  Try finding that at a hotel in Cancun...

Amazing Homemade Tamales Bought from a Mexican Woman on the Street in Tulum Mexico

Notice how I said cook almost all of your meals in the kitchen above?  Well, you can't really experience a place if you don't eat at least a little local homemade food.  These tamales were handmade (beef, chicken, pork, red, green, picante, and more) by a Mexican woman daily.  We noticed her sitting near a local shop with a huge pot, so we stopped to see what was in it.  When she opened the pot, the aroma of all those tamales made me instantly hungry.  She didn't speak any English, but it wasn't hard to communicate--just try and you'll find they are friendly and willing to try too.  These were only about $.70 each, and we ended up buying most of her supply on both days we stopped to pick them up for dinner (yes, we did go back again... they were that good!).  

Travel tip number three: Engage with the locals, ask them what they like, and what things you shouldn't miss while you are in their home city.  Be genuine.  Smile.  Try to speak their language even if you only know a few words.  This is probably the best tip I have for anyone who travels--and should really have been number one.  It has paid off so many times and in so many unexpected ways over the years that I can't emphasize it enough.

Sign at the Entrance to Sian Ka'an Biosphere Tulum, Mexico

Case in point.  While I was driving us down another crazy dirt (mostly mud actually) road doing my usual exploring off the beaten path, we pulled into the visitor's "center" of the Sian Ka'an million-and-a-half acre biosphere (I think of it as the Yellowstone of the Mexican Riviera). It was closed because it was Sunday, but I found a guy as I was walking around and struck up a conversation.  It turns out that he did work at Sian Ka'an, was a native Mayan, and was excited that we wanted to explore.  He offered to take us (all 6 of us for less than $200) on his boat the next day from the ocean inlet, through the huge lagoon, up the miles of natural canals (the Mayan highway), to ruins of the ancient trading post used by the inland and costal Mayans.  Having grown up in the area, served as a fly-fishing and birding guide, and working as a conservationist in the biosphere, he knew everything we could possibly have wanted to know, and exactly where to find everything--Manatees, Caymans (small Alligators), endangered Storks, Fish Eagles, and a lot more.  It was epic!

Guided Tour up the Mayan Highway Canals in the Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

There were so many forks and branches in this natural canal system that we were amazed he didn't get us completely lost.  It was like walking to school for him--he knew every stretch like the back of his hand.

Ancient Mayan Trading Post Ruins Deep in the Middle of the Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

Above is a picture of the ruins of the ancient Mayan trading post used by inland and costal Mayans to bring their fish, produce, and other goods to trade.  This is a ruin only accessible by an hour-long boat ride, so it is quite untouched.  We never saw another person the whole time we were there.  This was even more off the beaten path than I usually get us ;-).

Floating the Mayan Highway Natural Canal System in Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

Our guide then took us to a dock and gave us lifejackets and said, "go ahead and jump in!"  It was a real lazy river experience with tropical (freshwater) fish, crabs, exotic birds, and the family floating down the Mayan Highway for about a mile or so where he picked us up in the boat.

Flooded Ruins in the Lagoon of Sian Ka'an Biosphere in Tulum, Mexico

On our way back to the visitor's center, we stopped at some flooded ruins in the middle of the huge lagoon in the middle of the Biosphere.  And then, as if he had some innate sixth sense, he found a family of Manatees poking up their noses for a breath every few minutes way out in the middle of the lagoon (no markers, or other distinctions to indicate where we were, let alone that the Manatees would be right where he knew they would be...).  You just don't get these kinds of experiences when you stick to traditional guided tours that are easy to find in a tourism-driven area like the Mexican Riviera.

The Beautiful Sandy Public Beach at Akumal Mexico

Another tip we got--first from a neighbor, Russ, back home, then validated and expanded upon by our grounds keeper in Tulum--was to go to the public beach at Akumal which was about a 15 minute drive from our Villa in Tulum.  There is a tourist beach here too where they will charge you an entrance fee, rent you snorkels and lockers, and sell you expensive food (plus tell you that it is better snorkeling than anywhere else--even though it is only 200 yards around the corner from the public beach).

The public beach was awesome.  Besides my family, there were only some elementary school children there for a half-hour recess, and about 12 other tourists.  Oh... and huge sea turtles, Lion fish, stingrays, Parrot fish, eels, Barracuda, Iguanas, and a bunch of other aquatic and beach wildlife.  The water was warm and clear, with a very gentle slope from the beach (you could walk out 50 yards or so and still not be in over your head).  The reef--in pretty good shape and teeming with tropical fish--was an easy swim from where we put down our towels.  I could have snorkeled for 3 straight months without getting out of the water once.  Just ask my wife if you don't believe me!  This was definitely our favorite beach of the whole trip, though there were quite a few in contention for the top spot.

We took this trip in June--the day after school let out--and that is turtle nesting season in Mexico.  Everyone in our family is crazy about turtles.  We swam with them (and they with us) out at the reef, and found many the huge egg nests they had made during the night.  As you can see in the picture above, there are conservationists who protect the turtles while they are nesting and mark/watch the nests so that as the hatchlings get a good chance for survival.

The Public Beach at Akumal Mexico All to Ourselves at Sunset

Travel tip number four:  Try to travel in May (or as close to it as you can).  This has been the best month for us regardless of the destination.  It is a "shoulder season" and airfare, lodging, and even food are usually significantly less expensive--not to mention you will have the place mostly to yourself (that's why they consider it a shoulder season and are glad to have you come even at discounted rates).  The picture above was taken only a few hours after the previous one.  See how many people you can find on this huge stretch of pristine beach.  That's what traveling in the Spring can get you.

Tiny Gecko on Brigham's Finger

Also, do your best not to miss out on the little things.  My boys never do, especially if it is a little reptile, amphibian, or crustacean.  This little gecko was on the wall of our Villa.  I'm glad every time they remind me because I have a tendency of not wanting to miss anything big, spectacular, or sensational, and as a result I often miss all the things that are tiny, spectacular and sensational.  Yet another big reason to travel with your whole family.

This blog post has already gotten quite long, but guess what... I still haven't even gotten to most of the unbelievable ruins around Tulum.  But, since I have kept you long enough on this one, I'll continue with the rest of the great stuff from our Tulum trip on my next post.

Are you convinced to take your family traveling with you yet?  If not, I have just gotten started, and if you keep tuning in I'm going to get you convinced--you'll see ;-)  

Monday, April 8, 2013

Fossilized Dinosaur Footprints... and the Critters That Left Them!

I mentioned in my last post that Nine Mile Canyon was only one of the three days we spent on this Spring Break trip last year.  This post will cover one of the other two.

Fossilized Dinosaur Footprints Near Moab Utah
Two sets of dinosaur footprints
This bed of fossilized dinosaur footprints actually has two sets--the obvious ones on the left and a smaller set near the top of the bed in the center-right.  Callie loves fossil hunting and she came up with the directions to these which are between Green River and Moab Utah.

Close Up of a Large Fossilized Dinosaur Footprint Near Moab Utah
Close up of one of the smaller prints
There were also quite a few single or double footprints at this site.  Above is a close up of one of them.

Close Up Picture of What is Possibly a Fossilized Utah Raptor Footprint
Close up of what is possibly a Utah Raptor footprint

The above picture is of a footprint of a 3-toed dinosaur, and since it is smaller it may have belonged to a Utah Raptor as opposed to a Tyrannosaurus Rex.

Size Perspective on the Utah Raptor Fossilized Footprint with all of Our Feet in the Picture
Better size perspective on the Utah Raptor footprint
This picture with our feet in it gives you a better idea of the size of this footprint.  Notice the claw marks--they go pretty deep.

Fossilized Dinosaur Still In Tact from Head to Tail in Rabbit Valley Trail Through Time Colorado
Unexcavated dinosaur almost completely in tact
Just over the border into Colorado on I 70 we found some great unexcavated dinosaurs in the Rabbit Valley Trail Through Time.  Above you can see Kajsa examining some vertebrae.  Notice that the fossil starts at the marker above her and to the left and continues off the picture to the right.  This is one of the most spectacular fossils I have ever seen.  It is almost a complete dinosaur, from head to tail (the head was removed and put in a museum, but everything else is right out there in the open desert!)

Fossilized Dinosaur Vertebrae on the Rabbit Valley Trail Through Time Colorado
More dinosaur vertebrae
The Bureau of Land Management has created this trail and installed some information markers, but largely the area is left in its natural state.  Because of this, it truly makes you feel like you could be the first ones to discover them.  The trail is a loop that is about 1.5 miles long.  It is right on the side of the Interstate and very easy to get to. 

Fossilized Dinosaur Scapula in Rabbit Valley on the Trail Through Time Colorado
Callie getting a closer look
The other thing that was great about this site is that there are lots of fossils, not just one or two.  The list of dinosaurs found here is also very extensive, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus, Ceratosaurus, Allosaurus, and Nodosaurus.  You would have to ask Callie to help you know which is which though...

3D Jeep Trail Near Hidden Canyon Northwes of Moab Utah
Don't do it dad!
When we are on trips, I always like to see how far off the beaten path I can go.  Sometimes the family wishes I had a little more common sense, and sometimes I do too!  The above picture is the beginning of a Jeep trail named 3D near Hidden Canyon northwest of Moab Utah.

Kids Walking Down the Sandy 3D Jeep Trail Near Moab Utah
If you are going to roll the car, do it alone!
Our car is all wheel drive and has pretty good clearance, so why not?  Well, as you can see in the picture above, the sand was very deep and the kids weren't going to risk riding with me if I was going to be foolish enough to drive it.  One more thing... I wasn't sure where this trail came out, or if it did, or if I could get back up if I had to.  Adrenaline baby!!

Hidden Canyon Jeep Trail is Beautiful, but Obviously Not for Cars
Beautiful, but obviously not doable in a car
Hidden Canyon--above--was a beautiful place to hike around for a little while on foot.  What you don't realize is that this is a road for Jeeps and that they do go down this.  Thankfully, I was able to find a different route.

View of Tire Tracks on Hidden Canyon Jeep Trail from Below
View of tire tracks on Hidden Canyon jeep trail from below
You can see the tire tracks (black marks) where Jeeps climb up and go down Hidden Canyon in the picture above.  I'm crazy, but not that crazy!

Fossilized Dinosaur Footprints at Sunset Near Moab Utah
I did find the way out before sunset
Well, in the end I was able to find (just barely) a way out of the Jeep trails and back to normal roads.  The kids still claim I nearly killed us, but I didn't even so much as put a single scratch on the car let alone get anyone hurt... And, guess what?  They are never going to forget this drive!

Pinion Pine and Red Rocks at Sunset Near Moab Utah
Pinion Pines and red rocks make for an iconic Utah sunset
As you can see, this was a full day and it was awesome!  If you ever get a chance to spend some time near Moab and Green River Utah, you will love it.  There are hundreds (no exaggeration) of other must-see things in this area, so if you would like some tips on what not to miss, just let me know.

This trip was only a few hour drive from our house, but like I said in my last post, I am positive that there are hidden treasures near where you live too.  Get out there and find them!