Category: Birds

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica

Or at least two of them.

We’ve ventured near cloud forests thrice on this trip: camped near one in Mexico, hiked near one in Guatemala, and intended but got blockaded near one in Nicaragua. We’ve ventured into cloud forests twice (thus far) in Costa Rica.


Despite occupying less than 1% of the world’s woodlands, cloud forest contain 15% of the world’s biodiversity. Or some remarkable stat like that. I can’t remember the exact numbers from the brochure I read — and Google isn’t helping at the moment — but, basically, lots of bio stuff happens in little space.


We went to Monteverde to witness this biodiversity. Or at least Andrea and the kids did. I went to see the Replendent Quetzal, a brilliant bird that eluded us in Guatemala, and to save you the drama, continues to elude us in Costa Rica…. We did see lots of clouds, however.

We arrived at dusk. The guards were chipper enough to let us camp just outside the gate. One even called me “dude”. They also encouraged us to check out the Colibrí (hummingbird) Cafe just outside the park. So we did. Hundreds of hummingbirds, from the cute and endemic Coppery-headed Emerald to the larger and aggressive Violet Sabrewing, buzzed our ears. It was awesome. It would, however, be the most birds we’d see.

We entered the park as soon as it opened. 7am. It was sunny. Briefly. Within meters of entering, the clouds, like an army of weary soldiers, began marching toward the forest. Then it began to drizzle. Then the wind began to whisper. We, like the guards from the previous night, who had remanned their posts that morning, remained chipper. We’ve fought weather before.

We spotted two Bananaquits and one Slaty-backed Nightingale-Thrush a few meters later. Except for one errant Azure-hooded Jay halfway into the hike, that’s all we’d spot. The entire hike. The allied forces of clouds, rain, and wind assaulted us for the next four hours. Visibility was reduced to a few meters. Yet the hike remained enjoyable. We even crossed a hanging bridge at one point.

As soon as we exited the park, the forces relented. A troop of howler monkeys appeared. A Green Hermit buzzed my ears. We retreated to the Colibrí Cafe for brownies, coffee, and hot chocolate.

Santa Elena

We took my parents — who left yesterday (sad face) after spending the last two weeks touring Costa Rica with us — to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest to see the Quetzal, err, biodiversity. Unfortunately, we saw much of the same: clouds, rain, and wind. Oh, and much more mud.

Santa Elena is an equally impressive forest in terms of terrain, though the trails aren’t as well-maintained. We hiked through mud the entire three hours — Everett and my father both had epic plummets into the mud. But, like in Monteverde, the hike was still beautiful. Otherworldly. Like venturing through a fantasy.

Here Comes The Sun, Doo Doo Doo Doo

If you visit the cloud forests of Costa Rica — and you certainly should! — stay nearby and wait for the weather to break before entering. You’ll see much more biodiversity if you do.

El Salvador

El Salvador

Home of the MS-13. And pupusas (stuffed tortillas)!

Crossing the Border

El Salvador is certainly one of the, how do I say this without frightening my parents, more murder-y, err, less safe, countries we’re traveling through. And border towns are typically less safe than other towns. We were determined to van through. Rápido. Then we saw a three-mile long line of semi-trucks….

We paid a fixer, a local that works for tips and speeds you through the crossing. Other overlanders seem defiantly against using fixers, as if it insults their travel expertise. We’ve loved the service. Saves mucho tiempo. Plus you get a new buddy for an hour or two.

We would not have made it through the border that day without our fixer. He told us exactly what copies to deposit in what rooms. Where to flash our passports. He weaved us in and out of traffic. Hustled. Bribed a few truck drivers. He even at one point held up traffic on a bridge, thus allowing us to pass a dozen semis. Earned his tip in other words.

The Roads

The roads were instantaneously better upon crossing the border. Smooth. Relatively trash-free. Canopied by flamboyantly red Árbol De Fuego trees (brachychiton acerifolius). Lined by an ocean on one side and quaint tiendas on the other. Gorgeous. I suppose, given my preconceived notions of El Salvador, I was expecting worse. Less developed. Bodies hanging from telephone poles. To be robbed at least twice — we even prepped both our fake wallets. But we’ve only had one attempted robbery on this trip….

That One Time in San Felipe

Our third night in Mexico.

Andrea was, as per usual, tossing and turning. Or so I thought. Then I heard her whisper-yell: “Someone is stealing our bikes!” I busted out of the van doors, launched toward the thief with my arms up in what only can be described as the “attacking gorilla” position, and released a guttural, primordial scream that, at least in my mind, sounded like a grizzly — it could’ve been a chirp, however. Whatever it was, it worked. The thief, who had successfully picked our bike lock and removed three of the four bikes, dropped his stolen bag of goodies and ran off. It was probably the manliest thing I’ve ever done — though I may have wept silently for the remainder of that night.

Rancho Carolina

Pronounced Care-o-lee-na, as we were quickly corrected.

We stayed here our first two nights. A black sand beach around the corner from one of El Salvador’s most famous tourist and surf destinations, El Tunco. Probably a great spot for surfers. Not for swimmers. The current was intense. Fortunately, the campground had a clean, cool pool.

Cadejo Brewing

Andrea spotted a brewery around the corner from the campground. I almost didn’t believe her. I didn’t want to believe her. I couldn’t be let down by another water-flavored beer. I have too many other first-world problems to deal with.

Taking all things into consideration — food and beverage quality, atmosphere, service, etc. — it was the best meal we’ve had in Central America. Awesome tacos. Amazing burgers. And great beers. All with incredible views and service to boot. Oh, and the sweet sculpture below.


At one point, in the middle of our bliss and as if on cue, the state bird of El Salvador, the Turquoise-browned Motmot, landed on a post below our table. Andrea, disbelieving, asked: “Is that a real bird?” I quickly quipped: “No, the brewery invested in flying mechanical birds.” It was surreal, however.

The Turquoise-browned Motmot has a turquoise brow and wings, a grassy-colored back, and an orange belly. It also has a crazy, long, turquoise and black tail that splits at the end; each end looks like a broom. See video below.

Playa De Esteron

We’ve spent the last three nights, and tonight, at Adela’s Hostel, Campground, and Restaurant. It’s an awesome locale. The beach is wide and flat and has some of the softest latte-colored sand we’ve ever encountered. If the sand were whiter — as mentioned before, I’m a beach color racist — it’d make my top ten list. And the water temperature, unlike most the Pacific coast beaches we’ve visited thus far, is perfect. For Andrea at least. It’s almost too warm for me.

And Adela is a wonderful host. Perhaps the nicest human we’ve met on this trip. She even went out of her to get medicine and electrolytes for Everett, who spent two nights ago upchucking everything in his belly.

Ya Feel Bad

Every El Salvadoran we’ve met has been innately and refreshingly friendly. It’s too bad a few gangs in a concentrated area in San Salvador have converted their beautiful country into the murder capital of the world.

I certainly wouldn’t dissuade anyone from visiting. I’m guessing, based on the prevalence of dying resorts near the beach, El Salvador could use the tourism. And bang for buck: you’d be hard-pressed to find a better beach vacation. Just fly into San Salvador during the day, and then get out as soon as you can. The rest of the country is, somewhat literally, waiting for you with open arms.

Birds of Lago Atitlan

Birds of Lago Atitlan

Hay mucho.

El Mirador

We went to see two things: the cloud forest and a quetzal. We saw one of those things.

The Resplendent Quetzal is the state bird of Guatemala. It lives up to its name. It has a dainty, yellow beak, an awesome mohawk, coral blue shoulders, a royal red belly, and a lime green forked tail that’s as twice as long as its body. It looks like, to me at least, the bird your kids would imagine after being asked to draw and color a tropical bird from some foreign country (see photo above, courtesy of Wikipedia). I’m hoping to see one in person one day….

(Since being in Guatemala, I’ve had this fantasy — which unfortunately demonstrates my ego; it’s also muy Colonel Kurtz of me — about a quetzal landing on my shoulder in some city centre and then the locals, shortly thereafter, declaring me king. The quetzal, which I’d name Buster, would remain on or near my should for the rest of my life and would become my best friend while the two of us guided Guatemala into the most advanced, progressive, and stable country in the world. We’d also eat a lot of Sponches together.)

Bird Noises

No roosters necessary here. A varietal of birds will wake you every morning.

Great-tailed Grackles start the morning with a fire alarm. Followed by a mechanical clacking. Then finish with a broken bicycle bell honk. While they do this, they fan their great tails and flaunt their long necks, fawning for other grackles. Or perhaps the campers. Then Tropical Mockingbirds, a white and grey and fairly clandestine bird, until it’s time to call, will sing through its entire songbook of calls. This takes several minutes. Then finally, the clay-colored thrush, a drab, dirt-colored bird that’s risen to the distinction of the state bird of Costa Rica, will complete a variety of “pretty bird” whistles. These beautiful “noises” will wake you by six.

Dog Fighters

We’ve narrowed it down to three: Black-Capped Swallow, Northern Rough-winged Swallow, and/or White-throated Swift. Our guts, our eyes really, think it’s one of the swallows, based on wingspan alone. But we’re not sure. They are swift. And erratic. They zig and zag and dive and dash like dog fighters in Top Gun. They also get particularly active at dusk. Given their shape and flight patterns, they’re easy to confound with bats.

Hummingbird Haven

For the next three weeks and for last three weeks — yes, I’m behind with the posts — we’ve been staying at a campground slash hotel, Pasaj Cap. Check it out here. It was built from stones and wood harvested onsite, and designed by a French architect, Pierre, with modernist and minimalists proclivities. The landscaping is lush and vibrant. Hummingbirds flutter everywhere. I’ve seen both the Cinnamon and White-eared Hummingbirds just outside our windows.

La Nariz del Indio

We hiked Indian Nose, as the locals say to us gringos, yesterday. Didn’t see many birds. Our guide, Clemente, who is also our Spanish tutor, blamed that fact on the locals clearcutting the forests. I did, or at least I think I did, see a Blue-and-White Mockingbird — I wasn’t confident enough in the spot to claim it in my bird log. I was, however, impressed with the hike. Incredible, panoramic views of the lake (see below).

Otros Pajaros

Quick list of other unique (to me at least) birds we’ve seen here: White-winged Dove, Bronzed Cowbird, Western Wood-Pewee, Yellow Warbler, Blue-gray Tanager, Rufous-collared Sparrow, and Black-venter Oriole. Hoping to see a lot more before we depart.

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Rio Dulce, Guatemala

Sweet River. Indeed.

Bye Bye Bikes

One too many topes. One too many crappy roads. The steel on our Yakima FullSwing severed in half, dragging our bikes on the highway. We were fortunate we checked our rear view camera when we did. We pulled over in a small village a couple dozen kilometers outside of Tikal. The rack was toast, ripped in half like a piece of toast. And we couldn’t fit all the bikes inside the van. Thus, the cheaper ones, Andrea’s and Paheli’s, were donated to the village, along with the remnants of the rack. We sold what was left of Everett and my bikes for pennies on the quetzal in Antigua.

The Funny Thing About Expectations

We’d been told from a fellow traveling family that it was a good stop. A great stop if you consider the quality of the showers. It was also a convenient half-way point between our previous destination, Tikal, and our next destination, Antigua. We didn’t see many other options on the map. At least other options that did not involve sketchy roads.

We’re not sure what we were expecting. A nice stop. A warm shower. Perhaps a flushing toilet. We weren’t expecting a gorgeous, otherworldly river.

It felt like floating through a scene in Avatar as we cruised up the river Rio Dulce toward the Caribbean. Limestone cliffs surround you. Volcanos overshadow you. Snowy and Great Egrets, pure white, glide from perch to perch over you. Northern Jacanas, Jesus birds as some call them, with their banana yellow beaks and scary, spidery toes, hop across lilly pads near you. Iguanas swim, yes swim, in front of you. And occasionally, an artfully and architecturally fetching hut, juts from the jungle next to you.

Fun Stops

We made two fun stops in route to Livingston, the town at the cusp of the Caribbean. The first was a restaurant slash place to extract tourist dollars for the local community (a non-profit restaurant, which is pretty cool). Next to the restaurant, a natural hot springs flowed into the river. It lived up to its name. You have to swirl the river with the spring water to make it tolerable. The second was a restaurant slash mini water park. A couple waterslides, a trampoline, a rope-swing, and several jumping platforms extend from the deck of the restaurant. You can eat here. You probably should eat here. But if you’re like the Lingle’s, you’ll be far too focused on the waterslides to concentrate on eating.

The Spanish Again

Spanish conquistadors sailed up the Rio Dulce to invade Guatemala. While, I suppose, it’s a bit sensational, a bit, como se dice, macabre, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would’ve felt like to witness the massive Spanish galleons wind from the ocean through the limestone cliffs, which get quite narrow in sections, to the mouth of Lago de Isabel, where they launched their attack on Antigua. But I’m fascinated by sailboats.

Ram Marina

Hence one reason we chose (or were likely forced, by me) to stay here. The facilities were immaculate, built for the yuppy yachters that dock here after a season sailing the Caribbean. It has laundry, a well-provisioned grocery store (one of the best we’ve seen in Guatemala), nice showers, and of course, bundles of beautiful boats. Most days, I found myself just strolling the grounds, ogling, lusting really, over the various catamarans “on the hard”.

Awesome Stop

This may have been our favorite stop on this trip thus far. Life mimics the tempo of the river here. Peaceful. Calm. Serene. It’s a place where you can, and you want to, just squat in a chair with a book and watch the sailboats meander by.



Okay. We lied: Palenque is not the Indiana Jones ruins. Tikal is. This is where you can harness your inner Indiana — though, unlike Palenque, they don’t sell fedoras at the entrance.

Calm Ruins

I’m sure Tikal gets overrun. We arrived on a Sunday. We expected throngs of tourbuses and tourists and trash and tiendas. General chaos. We expected to wait until Monday. What we got instead, was a handful of cars, a few buses, and two Ocellated Turkeys.

It was overcast and the Weather app said rain. We’d just polished off some fairly epic chicken paninis at the Jaguar Inn, where we were crashing (they allow overlanders to overnight in the parking lot). Given the weather, and our full bellies, naps seemed imminent. Or perhaps slices of key lime pie and then naps. Inertia for certain. But the more we looked around, the more we were reminded how few humans were around. It felt like having Disneyland to yourself. We couldn’t risk crowds on another day. We packed our raincoats and marched toward the entrance. Andrea grabbed a coffee.

Creature Sites and Sounds

When the Mayans left — reasons are uncertain, ranging from overpopulation to agrarian failures to meteorological drought — animals moved in. And mosquitos. Though I suspect both were there before the Mayans.

White-nosed coatis now roam the streets — a band of coatis passed right by us at one point, momentarily petrifying Everett and Paheli. Spider and Black Howler Monkeys leap through the trees. Red-lored Parrots, Masked Tityras, Lineated Woodpeckers, Keel-billed Toucans, and Montezuma Oropendolas fly overhead.

Tikal is a feast for the eyes and ears. Howler monkeys yell conversations between the trees. Spider monkeys drop fruit seeds from the canopy, which sounds like rain. Toucans croak. Woodpeckers hammer. Parrots squawk (they’re kind of annoying). And oropendolas make that bizarre, mechanical teapot sound heard here.

Sheer Size

Tikal is the largest excavated ruin in the Americas. It felt like it. It’s a twenty to thirty minute walk, down an ancient, crumbling Mayan causeway canopied by rainforest, to the first significant structures. Another twenty minutes to the next. I’m guessing we walked ten miles (at least). And we didn’t see everything.

We also hiked to both the top of the Lost World Pyramid and Temple IV, the tallest pyramid/temple in Tikal and pre-Columbian structure still erect in the New World. Our glutes were nice and taught. Temple IV was also where George Lucas filmed the scene where the Millennium Falcon flies over the Rebel Alliance base on Yavin 4 in Episode IV: A New Hope! We took the photo below from that exact location.

Tikal, with it’s bisecting causeways (named after the archeologists that discovered them), and grouped structures, felt more like a city than a site, unlike many of the other ruins we’ve visited, whose main structures were concentrated in a condensed area. Though Tikal (est. 90,000) never grew to the size of Teotihuacan (est. 250,000), it remained an important, some say the most important, Mayan site until its final collapse.

You could spend days, weeks, touring and absorbing Tikal. Many do. We only lasted an afternoon. It was, however, with the slight rain and slight tourists, just about the perfect afternoon to hike the tens of miles and thousands of steps to witness this archeological marvel. A world heritage site and one of seven wonders of the new world.

Clarissa Falls, Belize

Clarissa Falls, Belize

What’s around that corner? Greener grass? Whiter beach? On this trip, I often ruminate, sometimes pontificate, on those questions. I’m also innately antsy. And when you’re constantly looking elsewhere, you struggle to see what’s right in front of your face. I’m sure some famous person said that. Or something similar.

Third Day

We spent the first two days at Clarissa Falls, a campground a few miles outside of San Ignacio, Belize, debating if we should leave the campground. Go see those ruins. Tube in that cave. Cross into Guatemala. The debate occupied most of our free conversation — all while a beautiful river and jungle surrounded us.


We saw a Keel-billed Toucan perched atop a ceiba tree at our first meal in the campground’s restaurant. That should’ve been the first smack on the side of the head to stop and look around. Smell the jasmine. The next morning we saw two Collared Aracaris, named for the apple red collar that wraps around it’s berry black and banana yellow belly. It has a black sawtooth pattern on its red, yellow, and orange bill.

[Can you spot the aracari in the picture below?!]

Fun fact: Toucans, at least the keel-billed ones, croak. Like frogs. You can hear them above your head every other hour of the day. Yet even when you hound the sound, and despite their crazy colors, toucans remain difficult to spot.

Jade Water

Green water is suspect. Like swimming through algae. I’m much more inclined to hop into blue, or even brown, provided its brown from mud and not other sources, water. Perhaps it’s just unfamiliarity.

Hence my hesitance to swim or paddle board in the Macal River. The water was clear. But jade. Clear…. But jade. I contemplated that as I contemplated jumping off the dock below our campsite. I mean, there’s a difference between apparent and true color, right? And this river is surrounded by jungle. And limestone. It’s reasonable, almost rational, that the color would be a shade of green. Plus its clear. Yet jade….

I eventually took the plunge. We all did. The temperature was the perfect amount of cool to offset the, at times, stifling heat. We spent as much time in the water as on the land, mainly jumping from a deceased tree and then floating to the dock (see video below). This kids also caught minnows — using crackers and plastic bags! — off the dock. It was incredible. Refreshing. Though I now may have a horn growing from my back….

Electric Fireflies

The kids spotted fireflies the second night. Compared to the fireflies we’ve seen in the Northeast and Southeast US, which have more of a candlelight glow and casual flight, Belizean fireflies are electric, both in color, neon green, and action, swiftly zagging through the night, leaving a trail of light behind them.

Awesome Host

A host is as much as part of the overlanding experience as the site. Chena, the owner of Clarissa Falls Resort, was as good of, if not the best, host we’ve encountered on this trip-venture. Amazing, friendly, accommodating. She also cooks mean tacos and Belizean dishes. She cares, sincerely cares, about her guests, not just what’s in their wallet. You’d love her smile. And you, like us, would be excited just to order a meal from her.

Placencia, Belize

Placencia, Belize

The Caye you can drive to, as the locals say.

We skipped Ambergris Caye and Caye Caulker, mostly because the ferries to the islands were complicated with our van but also because, as we’ve read, and confirmed through other travelers, they’re crowded. And gringo. Expats have driven up the prices and out the local charm. Everyone is trying to access the same reef anyway. Placencia seemed as good a place as any to do so.

Mariposa Restaurant & Beach Suites

We crashed in the parking lot of the Mariposa. The owners, a cordial couple from Canada, just requires campers to eat at least one meal per day in their restaurant. Well well worth it. You get access to their sparkling pool, combed beach, and stunning views for the price of an excellent, albeit slightly expensive, meal.

Flat Wallet

Everything in Belize is expensive. Beers are served in 9oz to 10oz bottles (so you pay more per ounce). Food costs as much if not more than the US. Gas is twice as expensive as the US. And unless you just happen to have a SUV and/or a boat parked down here, to explore the jungles and cayes, ya gotta pay for guides. We spent as much in a week here as we did in two weeks in Mexico.

Belize Love

Nevertheless, we love Belize.

The towns, while not picturesque like some colonial towns in Mexico, are colorful and charming. They’re also clean, especially compared to most towns in Mexico. The highways are gorgeous. The Hummingbird Highway, which bisects Belize, is like driving through a jungle fantasy. The people are also incredibly, obnoxiously friendly. Not obnoxious in that they annoy you, but obnoxious in that they remind you that you’re not that friendly….

And the culture, a combo of British colonial and creole and Caribbean and Central American, is fascinating. And an anomaly in this region. It feels different. The casual tempo, the happy demeanors, the sweltering humidity. It also sounds different. The garifuna drumming, the sing-song English, the rastafari music. It’s a place where you want to sit and do nothing — which, if you do, will save you money.


You shouldn’t vacation in Belize for the beaches. They’re nice, but they’re not postcard, sleep-in-the-sand beaches — unless you’re fortunate to travel to one on some remote caye. The beaches are, however, excellent jumping off points for the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest reef system in the world. If you’re a diver and/or snorkeler, this is your place.

Silk Cayes

We took a snorkel tour of the Silk Cayes Marine Reserve. Even though it was overcast (see picture below), which obscured the visibility a bit, we saw as much marine life as we’ve ever seen. Dozens of varietals of coral and tropical fish. Nurse Sharks, Spotted Eagle Rays, Southern Stingrays, and Leatherback Turtles. Even saw a Magnificent Frigatbird get into a Top Gun dogfight with a Laughing Gull. While I’ve been to more easily-accessible reefs (US and Spanish Virgin Islands) and more colorful reefs (Hawaii), I’ve never been to a larger, more diverse reef. You can snorkel for days in any direction.

Belize Zoo

Belize Zoo

Our first stop.

Actually, the Tropical Education Center (TEC), an eco-reserve ran by the Zoo, was our first stop. They allow overlanders to camp in their parking lot. They also offer several cabanas for rent. TEC frontiers the jungle and features hiking and bird watching trails, an above-ground pool, meeting rooms, and a restaurant. TEC caters, it seems, to outdoor and nature clubs from high schools in the United States. You get a good education here. I learned that it is possible to sweat out ten pounds in one day.

We went to the Zoo the next day.


Ecotourism is in. So in. I don’t think we made a stop in Mexico that didn’t advertise an ecotour or eco-hotel or eco-something. However, in Mexico it mostly felt like a charade, strategic advertisements to lure gullible tourists. Nothing looked sustainable. Nothing felt ecological. And we didn’t witness any conservation (though we were told they were happening, somewhere over yonder).

Not in Belize. The ecotourism here appears legit. The facilities are built to minimize their impact. Workers and volunteers understand and can educate you on local environmental initiatives. And the conservation is easily witnessed, right there in the jungle or right over there on that reef. Kudos Belize. Kudos.


Not many dining options exist near the TEC and Zoo, which was on a fairly remote stretch of Belize — actually, all of Belize has felt remote; only 370,000 people live here. However, the one, easily-accessible restaurant was excellent. Great burger. Fantastic local food. And they even had a Boise State t-shirt hanging from their rafters!

Traveling Brewery

Outside Cheers, we met an Argentinian duo that owns and runs Sur, Cerveza Artesanal, a traveling craft brewery. These guys brew and sell beers as they travel — they’re currently traveling to Cancun to catch a flight to Russia for the World Cup! Awesome and inspiring idea. I got the sense they brew just enough to travel and live. We bought Sur’s Red Ale and Hefeweizen. With the Red Ale, I was hoping for hoppy — not many hops down here — but it was more of a farmhouse beer. It fell flat, both with my expectations and literally. The Hefeweizen, however, was incredible. One of the best I’ve ever had. If you see these guys on the road, make sure you flag them down!

The Zoo

Andrea and I love zoos. As most of you know, I proposed to Andrea with an elephant at the National Zoological Park in Washington, DC. However, we’ve also gotten increasingly skeptical of zoos as we’ve aged. I credit zoos for inspiring my love of animals — and in that sense, they add value to the world — but I get a little dejected seeing animals caged. Unless, of course, they’re caged for good reasons, like rehabilitation, breeding, legit study, and/or because they fell out of their nest and could no longer fly, like the Jaribu stork at the Belize Zoo.

All the animals here are here for a reason, not just display. They also only feature local animals. And instead of building structures and cages to contain the local animals, the Zoo just fences up areas of the jungle, leaving whatever landscaping is there. It’s the most natural-looking and -feeling zoo I’ve ever visited. You get the sense that they care, genuinely care, about each and every animal housed here.

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos

Mayan Ruins, Part Dos


Thousands of cenotes — sinkholes, some swimmable, some not — pepper the Yucatán peninsula. Cenotes are formed when limestone collapses into a subterranean water source. A vast costal aquifer resides under the Yucatán. Hence all the centoes. We crashed at one for a night in route to Chichen Itza.

We were famished when we arrived. Two competing taco stands across the street from the cenote entrance canvassed for our commerce. We chose the one on the right, mainly because there appeared to be actual cooking going on — the other stand appeared to be selling tacos and tamales from a Coleman cooler. We chose wisely. Some of the best tacos we’ve had in Mexico, rivaling the goat and fish tacos we had in Guerrero Negro.

After ingesting, we walked to the cenote. Then I inadvertently ordered the deluxe package for the family — I struggled with the Spanish — which was only two hundred pesos more and which included a zipline ride and kayak rental. We never used a kayak. But we did zipline across the cenote at a fairly dizzying height. Even the kids! See video below.

Villas Arqueologicos

We decided to crash outside of the van for a couple nights, mostly because we couldn’t remember the last time we showered. That crash was Villas Arqueologicos, across the street from the more exclusive, more expensive Hacienda Chichen, yet still within walking distance to the side, less well-known Chichen Itza entrance.

For the money, about $60 USD per night, this is a fantastic hotel. A pleasant, albeit chilly, pool flanks a palapa-covered restaurant in the center of a lush courtyard. Unfussy yet fetching Mayan-themed artwork and sculptures adorn the courtyard and rooms. It even has a bibliotheca, featuring a emerald-green felt and mahogany pool table that occupied most of Everett’s free attention. He was a shark by the end of the stay.

Chichen Itza

The gates opened at 8:00am. We arrived minutes thereafter. The line, at the less well-known entrance remind you, was dozens long. It was also the most expensive archeological site we’ve yet visited. Chichen Itza is certainly aware of its proximity to Cancun.

Hundreds of tourists managed to enter (mostly from the main entrance) before us. Yet it still felt, relatively, calm. Relativamente tranquilo. We marched toward the main draw, El Castillo first.

Six iguanas were basking in the sun in front of the temple. Or basking in the attention they were receiving. As many tourists were snapping photos of them as the temple. Count us amongst those tourists. Then we turned our attention to the temple. It is, especially compared to the other ruins we’ve visited, remarkably well-preserved. Remarkably reconstructed really (they were able to find and fit most of the fallen stones). Only one side looks ruined. The other sides look like they’re ready for another human sacrifice.

We took a lap around the temple. Then, after crossing the finish line, we witnessed thousands of tourists charge the compound. It felt like the tourist zombie apocalypse. You couldn’t even move a few yards without joining someone’s selfie. So we retreated to The Grand Ball Court, the largest of the over thousand ball courts discovered in Mesoamerica, about two times the size of a football field, on the other side of the complex. Here, many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of ball players lost their heads. I lost my mind. It was awesome.

After that, we ventured to a cenote where young Mayan girls were sacrificed to their gods and then to The Plaza of a Thousand Columns, which unlike most of the exaggerations above, likely does have a thousand columns. This part of Chichen Itza felt more European, more Roman than previous sites. Some scholars think the design looks Spanish, though it’s clear it was built before the Spanish arrived. Regardless, business happened here. Lots of it. You can easily picture crafts and produce and decapitated heads being sold here.

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Mayan Ruins, Part Uno

Well, we had our first mishap with the van, in route from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque. The road was narrow, hilly, curvy, and infested with topes and semi-trucks. Semiremolques, as they state in Spanish on their rear doors. Slow going in other words. I must’ve passed dozens of, or at least a few, semiremloques — even some doble semiremloques — in route. Then came the one after a few.

The road straightened. Briefly. I saw my shot. And I took it, pushed the pedal to the carpet. Pushed it real good. The van accelerated with the gumption of a lawnmower. I had almost passed the semiremolque when, in my periphery, I saw an indigenous Mayan (presumably) mother grab the back of her son’s camisa, to prevent him from dashing in front of our van (presumably).

I flinched. Swiveled a meter. The steel bolts that jutted a few inches from the semiremolque’s wheel shredded our van’s rim and tire. It was like that famous chariot scene in Ben Hur. Except no one was injured or killed.

Maya Belle

We arrived a few hours and one cuss word later (Andrea said it was only the second time she’s heard me cuss; I wonder what the first time was…). Not to the ruins but to the campground. Maya Belle. A welcome reprieve after a fairly stressful van ride. A jungle oasis replete with a pool, blended drinks, tezmecal (sort of a Mayan sauna), and tropical birds and animals. Tent campers, van dwellers, and cabana crashers all share the facilities, which sowed seamlessly into the surrounding jungle canopy. My favorite campsite to date. One of my favorite locales overall.

Lizards and Toucans and Monkeys, Oh My!

We’d played a few YouTubes of howler monkeys before we arrived. We didn’t want our kids — especially Everett, who is going through a bit of a “everything in the world is out to kill me” phase — to be scared. Or at least not frightened. I don’t mind scared. But I’m also not winning any Father Of The Year awards.

Howler monkeys project one of, if not the (depends on what scientist you ask), loudest vocalizations of any animal on the planet. And unlike, say, a lion, which roars infrequently, howler monkeys howl frequently. Like they’re just yelling their conversations at each other. Normal stuff. Like how to eat that bug or where to toss that poop and what not. It’s loud. Louder than the video below. And it’s frightening, err, fun to hear the volume crescendo as the troop nears — they can be heard up to three miles away.

We also saw a handful of scarlet macaws, dozens of lizards and iguanas, and one keel-billed toucan during our visit. I followed the toucan, which looks like a flying banana from the ground, from tree to tree, but unfortunately, as I learned, it will not lead you to the fruity taste that shows….

Indiana Jones

Palenque will summon your inner Indiana. Thick, like baseball bat thick, vines gnarl down from the cedar, mahogany, and sapodilla treetops to the moss- and fern-covered floor. Loud (sound-wise) monkeys and loud (color-wise) macaws fly between the vines and trees. Iguanas roam the grounds. Candles glow from skulls. Arrows shoot from walls! Evil cult warriors chase you through the jungle to steal back that emerald statue you stole (which they stole from the nearby village first)! You will have those fantasies while here. You just hope they don’t distract you from learning about the site.

Palenque rose to power between 600 and 800 AD, becoming one of the most prominent Mayan cities, alongside Calakmul, Tikal, Chichen Itza (where we visited a couple days later). It’s glory didn’t last long, however. It, like the Mayan civilization in general, declined in the late 800s and early 900s. The jungle reclaimed the territory shortly thereafter. The Spanish conquistadors never discovered it. It was rediscovered in the late 1700s, but it wasn’t until the mid-1900s when Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) began vast excavations.

Archeologists have restored a lot here — included Pakal’s tomb, one of the most significant archeological finds of the 20th century, the American equivalent of King Tut’s tomb — yet they estimate only 25% has been uncovered (some say as little as 10%). The jungle has engulfed the rest. Thus, there’s still treasure to be found, still time to summon your inner Indiana! You can even buy fedoras (but no whips) at the entrance.