Monday, March 23, 2015

Belize Speaks English!

Central America provides the traveler with an astonishing array of adventure and beauty.  From breath taking vistas a top its many volcanoes, to its’ isolated beaches sandwiched between the Caribbean and Pacific Oceans.  From El Salvador to Panama, the region beckons for exploration, investigation and enjoyment

However, one problem occurs for most U.S. tourists.  That problem is the language.  Better defined,  is the lack of our ability to converse in Spanish.  This problem steals from the experience. Not only does it isolate us from the normal day to day conversations of the public, but it also adds to our frustration in everything from renting a car to ordering food.   Making the inhabitants of Central America seem alien and difficult because of our inability to communicate with them.

One country is different.  Belize.   Perched at the north east corner of Central America, the official language of Belize is English!   Once an English Colony, British Honduras became an independent nation in 1981.  The country changed its name to Belize, but maintained English as the language of choice.   The historic ties to Jamaica are heard in the rhythms and delivery of the natives’ speech.   
Belize is a small country, rectangular in shape.  One can drive from the east coast to the western border in a couple of hours.  Driving the length of the country takes longer due to the increased distance and the decreased maintenance of the highways.

As spectacular as the country is, like all nations, it’s the people that make it special.  Belize is certainly no exception.  Not only is the local population open and cheerful, but they possess a seemingly genuine interest is communicating.  At a restaurant in Belize City, my waitress not only served me, but then sat down and entered into a conversation with me over dinner.  

Another time, the man that was serving as my guide into the rain forest was as informative about local politics as he was on Howler Monkeys.  I learned of his views, his family, his childhood, etc.  In general I learned about Belize as I learned about him.  

Beside the enjoyment factor, safety also comes along with a common language.  Warnings, written and verbal take on more meaning with one can understand and realistically determine the risk.  One lunch time placard advertised a “Cow Foot” soup special.  Perhaps I may have missed out on a local culinary specialty, but by understanding what I was to be ingesting helped me make an alternative selection more to my liking.

Belize, like all of Central America is a land of great scenery and history.  Yet it alone provides the non Spanish speaking traveler the opportunity to really delve into the culture.  The culture communicated to you by, guides, waitresses, taxi drivers and more.  The past and current Belize comes alive as it is told to you by the countries most valuable commodity of all, its people.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Belize Zoo - Lions and Tigers and Bears, "Oh No!"

If you are looking for cages filled with animals from Africa, Asia or the Antarctica, you had better reset your course for San Diego.    However, if you find yourself in Belize I would encourage you to seek out the Belize Zoo.  It advertises itself as the “Best Little Zoo in the World”.  Whether that’s true or not, the claim is certainly not without merit.

Located just north of Belize City, the facility is easy accessible.  Housed within the confines of a rain forest, it’s easy for the visitor to feel like they are on an expedition.  The grounds span across 29 acres encased under the tropical canopy.  Well groomed dirt paths lead you to the ticket office where once a ticket is purchased you are allowed to enter into the local menagerie.
Exotic animals abound, over a 150 in total, all indigenous to Belize.    Brightly colored reptiles and amphibians are showcased along with their more camouflaged kin.   Blue frogs and red hued snakes lurk silently behind glass, while crocodiles lay almost lifeless in pools of water.  Information is given to the viewer that new species are still being discovered annually.
With 543 species of birds living in Belize the zoo only houses a small sample of its population.  For me the giant black vulture was memorable, and who can visit a jungle without thinking of the toucan.  

As for the mammals, the large cats are definitely must sees.  Ocelots to jaguars are showcased.  I learned that a black panther was just the latter with a pigmentation disorder.  Tapirs and Howler monkeys may be less dangerous, but no less exotic.  It’s quickly apparent on how close you can actually get to the animals.  Although secure, tourists’ views are not hampered by moats or other large separation obstacles.

There are several paths that you can follow, all wind and meander throughout the establishment.  It is impossible to get lost, but it is easy to pass by exhibits if you are not careful.  Maps are provided and I would strongly encourage everyone to take advantage of them. 

Although it is easy enough to view the zoo in one day, lodging is available at the park.  Three types of hospitality are offered.  The top, a single cabin priced at $84 dollars, $60 dollars will get you a mid level cabana, and for those on a budget, dormitory housing is available for just over $30 a night.
The zoo provides a glimpse into the animals and fauna that abound in Belize.  Arguments can be made for or against the morality of such establishments.  However, here in the dense jungles of Central America, it would be virtually impossible to spot even one of these secretive, illusive animals.  In its favor, the zoo provides education and exhibits on the importance of conservation.  A central theme is that if we were all more attentive and practiced better conservation methods, perhaps zoos would not be necessary.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Zonkeys – Uniquely Tijuana

Like most border towns, Tijuana is not reflective of Mexico as a whole.  It is a city full of window dressing, of hawkers and tourist attractions.  The once quaint town is a hodgepodge of immigrants and transplants drawn to the city for work and the promise of a better life.  Spurred by the anemic Mexican economy and an influx of maquidoras, it is a region that’s population has exploded in recent years and now totals over 1.7 million. What little was left of its innocence was destroyed by the recent drug cartel wars.

Add to its problems tighter security and longer wait times to re-cross the border in to the U.S. and Tijuana’s tourism industry has slowed to a trickle. 

Yet the people try.  Revolution Boulevard is sparsely populated compared to years past. Yet it is still home to great drink specials, counterfeit watches and pharmacies.  And yes, although the herd has been culled, “Mexican Zebras”.

The one constant in Tijuana tourism for the past 60 plus years are the “Zonkeys”.  From a far the striped animals do appear to be zebras.  However, in actuality they are donkeys with black stripes painted on them.  These docile animals stand along the famed boulevard for hours.   Harnessed to a wagon they wait patiently for visiting tourists to climb aboard, don brightly colored sombreros and have their picture taken.  It is as clique as any tourist attraction in the world.

No one can say for certain, but it is believed the tradition of painting the animals derived out of necessity.  Since donkeys’ hair is light colored they often looked faded in tourists’ photographs.  Until one day one of the handlers decided to add stripes to his animal.  He figured it would show up better in that Kodak moment.   One wonders if he knew what impact it would have on future generations for man and beast alike.

With the Baja turf war among cartels waning, it is anticipated tourism will increase this year.  In a city that has so much to offer it is bound to lure visitors from across the border. 
And for those striding down Revolution the zonkeys will be waiting, patient, striped and uniquely Tijuana

Ron Dawn a Corn Island Specialty

We first heard about Ron Dawn at the Miami International airport gift shop.  Like all secrets, it was passed to us from a most unexpected source.  As luck would have it the woman at the check out counter was from Nicaragua.  When we told her we were heading to the Corn Islands off the country’s eastern coast.  Her eye grew wide and she exclaimed, “You must try the Ron Dawn.  It is so good, do not leave without trying some”.

As our plane approached the beautiful Caribbean island all thoughts were lost on our first sign of the land’s spectacular beauty.  A sea of green rain forest floated in a turquoise ocean bordered by white sandy beaches.

Tired from the travel, we checked in at our hotel and had lunch.  No mention of Ron Dawn was on the menu.  For dinner we tried a local restaurant with the same result.  The next day we casually mentioned it to our waiter.  “Oh”, he said.  “You want the Ron Dawn”.  It was as much an accusation as it was a question.  When we answered in the affirmative he responded. “Ok, we can prepare it for you.  What time would you like it?”

He explained that the dish takes approximately 4 hours to prepare.  By this time another server appeared and joined the conversation.  When we said we would like it for dinner, she warned us against it.  The Ron Dawn is very rich she said.  You will not want to go to bed on such a full stomach.  We chose not to heed the advice and requested the dish for our evening supper.  Luckily we decided to order just one serving and split the meal.

The dish is large, more food than one person needs.  Like the island it is a collection of what Nicaragua offers all rolled up into one.  Ours came in a light coconut sauce, bordered with boiled plantains, potatoes, frangipanji, red peppers and bananas.  A top of this massive amount of starch was lobster, conk, and one whole fish, head included.  Unfortunately I found the dish to be bland.  We added chili sauce but the starchy vegetables were still too over powering.  The sauce was excellent but the coconut flavor was a mere hint as opposed to a statement.

All in all, the dish was the epitanome of the Corn Islands.  It was raw, ample and undeveloped.  For now it will remain a spoken delicacy, but as the world becomes more aware of it the recipe like the Islands will not remain a secret for long.

Toasting the Ghost of Pancho Villa!

No stop in Ensenada, Mexico is complete without a visit to Hussong’s Cantina.  It matters little whether you arrive in the city by car, bus or boat; it seems all roads will eventually lead you to this historic establishment.   Opened first in 1892, many a celebrity has walked through the doorway. Although maybe none more well known in Baja than the infamous Pancho Villa.  It is said that Hussong's was a frequent hangout for the outlaw when he was in the parts.  It was common that he and his banditos would appear seemingly out of nowhere to stop in for a night of drinking and all around merriment.  His drink of choice of course was none other than a glass of tequila with a cerveza chaser. 
Today the bar remains much the same as when it opened.  Save the much needed modern day accommodated restrooms out the rear of the bar.  (When I first visited Hussong’s 30 years ago, the male facilities were little more than a trough.)   The doors are left wide open during the day but the interior is blocked by a wooden partition.  A doorman checks ID’s as the age limit requirement of 18 is tightly enforced.  Once inside the door the décor is circa 1892.   The wooden frame building consists of one rectangular great room.  A long wooden bar runs the length of the tavern on one side, while the rest of the area is filled with tables and chairs.  Almost every inch of space on the walls is adorned with pictures or caricatures of past patrons.  Two long mirrors decorate the wall behind the serving area.  It’s easy to imagine the reflective glass being shattered by a stray beer bottle being thrown during a past melee.
Gone are the days of the Mexican bad man clientele, having been replaced by reveling tourists and cruise ship passengers on a port of call.   To accommodate the vacationing crowd countless peddlers work the room, selling everything from flowers to cheap trinkets and jewelry.   No Mexican cantina is complete without a mariachi band, and Hussong’s does not disappoint.  For a small tip, their trio will strike up your favorite South of the Border tune.  

Keeping to its heritage, Hussong’s serves only Mexican beers.  Hard liquor and mixed drinks are also available.  For being such a tourist Mecca, drinks are very reasonable.   A bottle of beer costs $2.50 U.S. and margaritas are just slightly higher.  There isn’t a kitchen, and absolutely no food is available for purchase.  In what I see as an oversight in today’s environment of microbrews, the establishment does not have its own brand of cerveza.  Instead the cantina clings to its origins, protecting its history either out of pride or respect to the ghosts of customers past.    

The Longest Rivers on Each Continent

Rivers run.  There is a sense of romance that floats by us as we stand at their shore.  They are a moving mystery making us wonder what lies beyond the next bend or further downstream.  The bigger the river, the more draw it has on us.  River cruises are becoming more and more popular to the traveling public and are operators rushing to service those desires.

Following is a list and short description of the longest river on each continent.  So whether you will be sailing, kayaking, fishing, or just dipping your toes in one of these massive rivers, you will now know a little bit more about them.

Nile River (Africa) – 6,825 km (4,238 miles).  There is some controversy but most now agree that the Nile is the lengthiest waterway in the world.  This ancient waterway goes back to the Pharaohs of Egypt.  Its source starts in Burundi, where it flows northeast to the Mediterranean Sea.  Along its travels it passes through Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda as well as Burundi and Egypt
Amazon River (South America) – 6,437 km (4,000 miles).  Although no longer believed to be the longest, this waterway remains the wildest.   Bordered by thick rainforests on each shoreline much of the Amazon remains remote and unspoiled.  Teaming with piranhas and fresh water dolphins it is home to more fish species that any other river in existence.  With its source high in the Andes Mountains, the river runs east towards the Atlantic Ocean.  Even though it traverses only through Peru, Columbia and Brazil it is the single most dominating geographically area on the continent of South America.
Yangtze River (Asia) – 6,380 km (3,964 miles).  Unlike other waterways, the Yangtze is contained entirely within China.  Many tours now operate on the river and will guide you through any one of the eleven provinces it passes through.  As China becomes more industrialized the Yangtze has become more and more important to its economical and power resources.
Mississippi River (North America) – 3,612 km (2,230 miles). Our own river has a storied past.  From riverboat gamblers, to the fictitious characters of Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer the “Mighty Mississip” has enough folklore to overflow its banks.  Starting in Northern Minnesota, it flows south ending its journey in the Gulf of Mexico.  Ten different states line its shores, and all claim stake in its history and beauty.  It is fed along the way with the Missouri, Ohio and Arkansas Rivers.
Volga River (Europe) – 3,530 km (2,193 miles).  Often referred to as the Mother Volga, the longest river in Europe begins and ends in Russia. It flows from Moscow to the Caspian Sea and passes by over 40% if the country’s population that make their home near the waterway.  
Murray River (Australia) – 2,508 km (1,476 miles).  Bubbling out of the Snowy Mountains of New South Wales, the Murry picks up steam and volume as it meanders its way to its mouth at the Southern Ocean.   Along the way you will pass through parts of Victoria, New South Wales and South Australia. Paddle boats are as prevalent today as they were a century ago and have become one of the favorite ways for tourists to enjoy the river.
Onyx River (Antarctica) – 40 km (25 miles).  By far the smallest of the seven rivers, this waterway is often referred to as a melt water stream.  Only 25 miles in distance and unlike its six brethren the Onyx ends in a lake.  In fact it flows westward away from the ocean.  To date there is little more than a small research station manning its shores.

The 3 Best Reasons to Visit Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Bocas Del Toro is located in the Northeast corner of Panama.  The islands appear to be as much part of the Caribbean as they are Panamanian.  With its colorful buildings and warm tropical breezes it has a much more festive feel than the rest of the country.  Another separating factor from the mainland is the number of U.S. citizens and the common use of the English language versus the almost one hundred percent Spanish speaking population found elsewhere.

There are countless ways to enjoy the area, however the reason most people come here is as follows:

  1. Surfing
    without a doubt, the sport put this area on the map.  Bocas offers both reef and beach breaks.  Along with choice of bottom also comes skill level.  Although it is an annual stop over for the pro circuit, beginner waves can be found.  Most of the waves to be found that are waist high or lower are at La Punta, Paunch Reef, and Wizard Beach.  If you are an experienced surfer then you have discovered your paradise.  Waves often exceed 12 feet in the winter season that runs from November thru March.  Most breaks are accessed by water taxi.  For only a few U.S. dollars the boatmen will drop you off and pick you back up at an arranged time.
  2. Snorkeling & Diving - 
    The abundance of reef acts as a magnet for underwater life.  The sea levels between islands is fairly shallow and allows for one to jump in almost anywhere with their face mask and flippers.  If you feel the need to go deeper, then stop in at any of the 12 dive shops in the area.  Certified instructors from all accredited disciplines are available.  New to diving?  No problem, fun dives, or open water certifications are available for those with the time and interest.
  3. Relaxing - If you want to slow down, then Bocas Del Toro is the spot for you.  The weather, hot and humid during the day acts as an inhibitor for anything other than water sports or lying on the beach.  Bring a book, find a hammock or beach chair, settle in and enjoy.  However, the breezy nights bring a cooling trend that allows for a rejuvenation and enticement to enjoy the evenings.  An array of restaurants lines the streets.  With limited traffic walking to any of the eating establishments can be done in less than 10 minutes.  A slew of culinary options await.  The must popular are La Casbah, Om Café and Beso del Dragon. Want to feel what it would be like to live here?  Check out the ex-pat hangout at the Rip Tide.

Sleeping with Mark Twain - San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

The best thing about travel is coming upon the unexpected.  San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua is known for surf.  Big, heart pounding waves are the custom.  Most travelers here were the nomadic surf types.  With boards in tow, they moved up and down the coast of Central America in search of the perfect wave.   Other than these well tanned watermen few if any knew of the region’s beauty and remoteness.

That all changed in 2010 when Hollywood found its way to southern Nicaragua and filmed its Survivor Nicaragua season.  Quickly the town became more than just a dot on the map.  Restaurants and hotels sprang up to accommodate the flood of tourists.  Even an upscale resort has been built that overlooks the city’s bay.  Rooms at the Pelican Eyes Resort and Spa are pricy and not what most have become accustom to paying when in this developing country.

All of the above I knew.  In fact I was drawn by the siren of the world class waves with third world prices.  I did find that.  While prices in San Juan del Sur are not what they used to be, they are still affordable.  A decent meal with waterfront dining can be had for under $15 dollars per person.  Beer and rum are equally cheap and seemingly run without end to the majority of the youthful visitors.

One hotel stands apart.  Built in 1902 the Victoriano Hotel is one of the oldest buildings in town.  The structure is of Victorian Architecture and was built using cedar.  The smell is both romantic and intoxicating.   The entry doors are like a portal into a different era.  Ceiling fans whirl overhead and the wooden floors creak out your arrival.  Old black and white photos adorn the hallway walls.  Most depicting either pictures of the once sleepy fishing village or of the hotels most famous guest, one Samuel L. Clemons.

What we learn is that before the Panama Canal was built, in an attempt to bypass the arduous trip around the bottom of South America travelers cut across Nicaragua.  Debarking at San Juan del Sur, they traveled by horse drawn wagons to Lake Nicaragua.  Here they boarded boats that ferried them to the opposite side of the large body of water and down the San Juan River until they hit the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Like most travelers, Twain spent his first night ashore at the Victoriano Hotel.  The lodge has memorialized the room and for an additional $10 dollars over the normal rate you can sleep there.  With hopes that some how, some way the great authors ability or spirit would in some shape or form rub off on me I was happy to pay the extra.  As you can tell, it was money misspent.  Regardless, it was an added extra surprise to our travels in this wonderful country and a brush with history that will long add to my wealth of memories.

San Ramon Waterfall, Ometepe Nicaragua

Feeling the spray of a volcanic waterfall.

High on the volcano Maderas on the island of Ometepe cascades the water of San Ramon.  The waterfall is not reached easily but is well worth the effort.  What creates the most difficulty in not the 4 hour hike, but actually reaching the starting point. The road to the Nicaraguan wonder is not paved, and most likely will not be.  If you do not have a four wheel drive vehicle then you will be forced to by hike, bike, motorcycle or take a bus. 

Nicaragua is a country of contrasts.  There is unbelievable beauty and unimaginable poverty.  High surf dominates its Pacific border while tranquil seas lap at its’ Caribbean beaches.  No where is that more apparent than on the island of Ometepe.  The small land mass was created by two volcanoes.  One dormant and covered in rain forest, the other active, its cone left barren.

The volcano Maderas is a thick chocking mass of forest and undergrowth.  It can be climbed, but most visitors prefer to stop at the waterfall.  A trail beginning at the Biological Field Station leads to a fork about 3 kilometers up the mountain.  Here you can choose to continue on for an all day outing and strenuous climb to the summit, or veer right and head to the waterfall.  A road also exists that leads to a power plant and will save you at least two hours of hiking.  However, be aware if you do not have a motorcycle or a four wheel drive vehicle the drive is impossible. 

There is a small fee to enter the park, but the cost is the same regardless of which activity you choose.  The hike to the falls is steep and steamy.  Humidity is high as is the heat index.  Bring plenty of water with you and be prepared for frequent stops.  Once upon your quest you will be enveloped by a thick jungle canopy.  Bird calls are frequent and on going, however it is difficult to spot them in the dense foliage.  The trail is most often wet and slippery as the sun strains to break through. There is also a stream bed that you must cross along the way. 

Depending on where you start form your destination will come into view in about 1-2 hours.  You will hear the falls prior to seeing it.  As you do break out of the forest you will see the water coming from high above.  Crashing and spraying down from hundreds of feet.  A pool has formed in catching the endless supply of water coming off the volcano.  It is not deep enough to swim in, but you can easily enough wade in it until you find yourself underneath the down rush of water.  Be warned that the water is cold, and the pool is filled with sharp volcanic rocks.  However, after a hard hot hike, the temperature of the falls is refreshing and welcoming. 

Poway’s Potato Chip Rock World Famous

It’s no longer necessary to spend your money traveling to see Victoria Falls or the ancient pyramids.  Low and behold one of the eleven amazing places you need to visit once in your life is located right in our back yard.

The website has just named Potato Chip Rock as a must see and placed it tenth on their list of “Once in a Life Time” experiences.  Located officially in Poway, it can be most easily accessed from Highway 67 on the Ramona side of Mt. Woodson.

The more popular route up to this rock out cropping is an out and back trail beginning at Poway Lake.  It is a semi strenuous hike that covers 7.5 miles.  Bring plenty of water and your camera to capture your picture on this now famous exposure.

Late Night Dining in Del Mar, CA

The North County coastal region of San Diego is the epitome of trendy.  No where is that more apparently than the upscale hamlet of Del Mar.  This small village is so full of itself that it changed the name of its main roadway, relabeling the historic California Hwy 101 to Camino Del Mar for its 2 mile stretch through town.

So it goes without saying if you open a restaurant here it had better be good, or it will be gone quicker than a plastic surgeon can make an incision.  Following are four of my favorite restaurants that have stood the test of time by providing good food, better service and the all important late night dining.

Brigantine Seafood Restaurant:  If you enter Del Mar from the North you will pass by the “Brig”.  Perched a top of a bluff the back patio looks out over the famed Del Mar Race Track.  During the racing season it can be difficult to get a table, but if you do its great for people watching.  The food is excellent as well and is why the establishment stays busy year around.  Besides their fresh seafood entrees, they also offer an oyster bar, their own “Brig Brew”, and the surprisingly affordable Taco Tuesday. 

Jake’s Del Mar:  As stated earlier Del Mar expects excellence, and Jake’s does not disappoint.  Probably the restaurant that is most associated with the city, Jake’s sits on the beach.  Its upscale beach flair provides for an enchanted evening.  However, I prefer lunch as the daytime allows for the diner to watch the surfers navigate the waves as they crash down on Powerhouse Beach.  Like the Brigantine, Jake’s specialty is also seafood.  However, they also serve one of the best steaks in town.  It too is open later, but to me much is lost when the light goes out on the ocean.

En Fuego Cantina & GrillDel Mar’s answer to Mexico dinning is a resounding “Si”!  Located along the main business area of the town, the restaurant’s décor is a rambling maze of levels and rooms.  It is quite easy to believe you are south of the border as you are led to your table.  The fajitas are my favorite, but their margaritas are the best in town.  For late night food and fun the downstairs bar provides entertainment for tourist and locals alike. 

Jimmy O’s:   The perfect place to catch up the latest sports scores while enjoying some spicy chicken wings or the restaurant’s signature OFB Burger.  With the beach just a block it way it could be easy to feel guilty watching your favorite team on the big screens.  However, the happy hour prices and appetizers will quickly wipeout that concern.  Jimmy O’s also provides DJ’s and Karaoke for late night happenings.

K-38, Baja, Mexico

K-38 may not mean much to you, but mention the words to any surfer and they will know exactly what you are talking about.  K-38 is nothing less than a famous surf break located in Baja, Mexico.   The K stands for kilometer and the 38 means that you have traveled 38 kilometers from the U.S.-Mexican border.  Code deciphered. 

Most travelers enter the Baja Peninsula in Tijuana, by way of San Diego.  As you navigate the maze that has been created to enter the country, one well marked exit is the Trans-Peninsula Highway #1.  Signs direct you south, towards the cities of Rosarito and Ensenada.  The road by passes the very crowded city that is Tijuana, and corals you on to a two lane divided toll road.  Currently the toll is $2.40 U.S. per automobile.  Heavier trucks pay more, while motorcycles pay a bit less.  There is an option to drive along the frontage road for free, however it is time consuming and more fraught with stop signs, jaywalkers and pot holes to make it worth it.

From the border it will take you only about 30 minutes to reach K-38.  If the distance indicators along the highway are not enough to guide you, once you get with in a couple of kilometers you will see an extremely tall statue of Jesus Christ.  With outstretched arms the Savior stands at least 150 feet high and welcomes you to this surf Mecca.

You do not need to be a surfer to enjoy the area.  A small outdoor grassy area overlooks the surf break.  Sit for a while and watch the surfers ride the waves.  From this vantage point you may also be treated to the sights of dolphins and sea lions at play in the water.  California Grey Whales may also be spotted on their annual migration during the months of December through March.

Due to the rocky shore, the size and strength of the waves I would not recommend surfing if you are new to the sport.  Lessons are available at the surf shop, but there are certainly less dangerous places to paddle out for the first time.

Where to Stay:  If you are a surfer, Robert’s K-38 Surf Motel is the only place you want to stay.  The accommodations range from a 2 bedroom suite, to hostel type bedding.  Count on meeting surfers from around the world, here to enjoy the famous right break that has made K-38 famous.  If you are not a surfer, my recommendation would be to retreat a few miles back north to the famous Rosarito Beach Hotel, or continue south 15 minutes to La Fonda Hotel and Spa.  Both of these facilities are more upscale with rates $100 per night and below.

Where to Eat:  If this is your first trip to Northern Baja, then Puerto Nueva is required eating.  This once small fishing village has blossomed into a town full of restaurants.  All serve Mexican Lobster.  Understand this is a tourist trap and know that the food is overpriced and not very good.  Surfers tend to have a taco at the K-38 taco stand or go a few blocks to “Teresa’s” for authentic Mexican faire.

3 Highest Mountains of Mexico

In a land best know for its warm coastal beaches, Mexico is also home to numerous mountains.  Volcanoes, both active and not, stretch their summits towards the heavens in dizzying heights.  In all, the country has over 20 mountains with peaks that exceed 10,000 feet above sea level.

The majority of the mountains are located in the center of the country.  West of the Gulf of Mexico and east of its capital city, Puebla is the best choice for a base to explore the region.  All but one is climbable and with such easily accessible summits the mountains draw climbers from around the world.

The three most popular and visible are:

1.      Pico de Orizaba – 18,491 ft.  Often referred to as Citilatepetl is the tallest of all Mexican mountains.  Ranked third highest elevation in North America behind Mt. McKinney and Mt. Logan, it is also second highest volcanic peak in the world.  Only the world famous Mt. Kilimanjaro stands higher in that geological class. Other than its height the summit is very straight forward.  Piedra Grande is a hut located at the base of the mountain and serves as the primary starting point for 90% of all climbers.  Orizaba can be climbed year around, but the best season is from December through March.  During this time you will find climbers on its routes from all over the globe.  Even though it can be considered easy by some, each year the extreme altitude claims the lives of those attempting to reach the top.

2.      Volcan Popocatepetl – 17,749 ft.  Popo, as it is called by the locals is currently Mexico’s only active volcano.  The latest eruption occurred in the summer of 2013 and caused delays to many of the major airlines servicing Mexico City.  Not long ago, this peak was a highly sought after summit.  However, when an eruption happened in 1994 that changed.   Popo is now deemed unsafe and has had additional notable activity.  Seeing the plum of smoke escaping from the top cone is a wonder in itself.

3.      Volcan Iztaccihuatl – 17,159 ft.  Nicknamed the “White Woman” for its     perpetual snow cap, this mountain can be easily seen from Mexico City.  Since the eruption of Popocatepetl, “Ixta” has taken on a much more prominent role in the country’s climbing community.  Technically this mountain is not difficult and you may find young and old climbers on its sides.  There are several false summits so it is imperative you find the correct one before heading back down.  If you follow the most popular route referred to as the Ridge of the Sun it should not be a problem.

Block Island Treasures

Discovered in 1614, Block Island has a storied past.  From pirates to presidents, many a person has landed here.  The small piece of land lies just off the northeastern coast of the U.S. and is only reachable by air or boat.  Ferries shuttle to and from the many ports along Connecticut, Massachusetts and its home state of Rhode Island.  Our departure city was New London and for $22 we each received a round trip ticket.
It is said Captain Kidd visited the Island prior to his final capture in Boston.  Since no treasure could be found upon his arrest where else could it be but upon Block Island?  Whether the treasure exists or not I don’t know, but I do know that it costs a pirates’ booty to enjoy the area.

The shore is lined with grand old hotels standing vigil over the bay. The National Hotel is the most dominant and has been keeping watch since 1888.  Other lodging choices are available and range from small inns to quaint bed and breakfasts.  In fact it would appear that most homes are no more than vacation rentals. 

Although smaller in land mass, the area most reminds me of Catalina Island only with Victorian architecture.  Most of the businesses and dining establishments are centered near the bay.  The rest of the island is not quite desolate, but is much less populated. 

We started out on Ballard’s Beach.  An area mostly comprised of the younger crowd that has come for sun and fun.  I thought it would be nice to enjoy a sandwich and watch the water.  However, after downing a very bland $19 plate of fish and chips I was ready to venture on.

Cars are allowed, but the best way to explore the whole island is by scooter or moped.  Our rate was $40 for a half day rental which gave us ample time to circumvent the isle.

Light houses bookend Block on the north and south sides.  Other popular attractions are Settlers Rock, Mansion Beach and the Block Island Historical Society.  At the latter you will learn the island remained neutral during the Revolutionary War, trading with both sides.  Also that during President Grant’s administration he met here with the Supreme Court.  For the present day, those whom are star struck amongst us will be happy to know that Christopher Watkins keeps a vacation house here.

My favorite site by far was the coast line below Mohegan Trail.  Mostly deserted, the wave’s crash upon sandy rock covered beaches. For those so enthralled, nude sun bathing is allowed along this strand.

Based upon locals’ recommendation we chose to have our dinner at Winfield’s.  The menu was awash in local catches and the entrees were excellent.  Be prepared to drop in excess of $100 for dinner if you are dining with a friend. 

Block Island is primarily a summer destination.  Tourists and vacationers flock here for the calm warm waters and sense of history, my self included.  Personally I think the real story might be told in winter.  Less than 1000 hardy souls brave the bone chilling North Atlantic winds during this season, presenting a wonderful opportunity to convene with the true treasure of the region.

Belize and My Bucket List Full of Tear

Long before I had heard the term “Bucket List” I had compiled my own set of adventures that I wanted to experience prior to my demise.  Towards the top of my goals was travel to and the exploration of Central America.

Of those Latin American countries, Belize was an easy choice.  First and foremost the nation’s language is English.  Second the cost of living is inexpensive, and last but not least the area holds a plethora of activities.

My order was quite simple:
1.      Relax a couple of days by the beautiful Caribbean Sea
2.      Visit the Belize Zoo and Baboon Sanctuary
3.      Explore the Mayan Ruins of Altun Ha, Xunantunich,  and Cahal Pech
4.      Hike through the jungle and spelunk in the Lost World Cave

I choose to do the hiking and spelunking at the end of my trip as it was what I was looking most forward to and I wanted to save the best for last.  It turned out to be my best and worst trip.

After spending a couple of days in Belize City I took off for the Zoo and Baboon Sanctuary.  Both were interesting as well as educational.  Note to the reader, Belize Baboons are actually Howler Monkeys. 

Next it was off to the ruins of Altun Ha.  It was here the Crystal Skull was found.  Again a note to the reader, the skull was jade not crystal.  Temples and other buildings have been unearthed and now sit amongst well manicured lawns.  Unlike travel in the U.S., here one can freely walk or scramble upon the hundreds of steps of the structures.  Xunantuich was equally as impressive if not more.  Knowing that from the high terraces you can scan the panorama and imagine many of the hills in the distance may well hold other undiscovered ruins.  Cahal Pech was the least impressive, but its completion meant I was closer to the “Lost World” tour. 

That evening things changed.  I awoke in the middle of the night to a pounding headache, a bloated stomach and severe nausea.  It did not take long for my body to begin expelling everything that I had drank or eaten in the prior few days.   

Armed with bottles of Pepto Bismol and Power Aide I made it back to Belize City and my original hotel.  With what little energy I had left I climbed into bed and turned on the T.V.  Low and behold what was on but “The Bucket List”?  For those whom are not familiar with the story line, it involves two men that are terminally ill.  The roles are played by Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman.  Amid their misery they talk about the so called “Bucket List” of activities they always wanted to do prior to dying.  Now with eternity calling it appears they will never achieve their goals. 

Its funny how ones mind works.  But when you are sick and alone in a foreign country it’s quite easy to deduce that this could be your final curtain as well.  In between trips to the bathroom I bonded with the movies characters.  Even though I think of myself as a rough and rugged individual I found myself literally crying.  The tears were as much for me as for the movie.  Together, Jack, Morgan and I lay in bed sick, vomiting and sobbing over what could have and should have been.

I now travel with a different action itinerary.  I would encourage the reader to adopt these tips as well.
            1.  Always schedule the most desirable activity first
            2.  Always travel with someone if possible
            3.  Always travel with plenty of Imodium A.D. and Tylenol Flu
            4.  Remember to keep your mouth shut in the shower
            5.  And last but not least -Never watch sad movies on vacation.

Best Travel Movie by 180 Degrees

Take one part “ Endless Summer”, a pinch of “The Hobbit - There and Back Again”,  (the animated version), a couple of teaspoons of “Into Thin Air”, throw in a dash of Blue Hawaii, and you have the film “180 Degrees South”.   If this outdoor documentary doesn’t whet your appetite for adventure, then, perhaps you need to check your hunger for life.
Film maker and adventurer, Jeff Johnson ponders the question that many of us do.  What is left to do that hasn’t already been accomplished?  Instead of dwelling on the negative, he determines to recreate a journey made first by Yvon Chounard,  founder of Patagonia and Dave Tompkins   the creator of the North Face.  Like the title of the film, the goal is to head south 180 degrees.  Johnson doesn’t mimic the outdoor pioneers exactly; instead he makes his way to the bottom of the world a bit differently, but by means no less difficult or intriguing. 
Choosing water over a Volkswagen Van and the open road, he hires on as crew on a ship heading south.  A decision he initially regrets due to his propensity towards sea sickness.  Although he later overcomes the nausea, video of him retching, sprawled out on a filthy cot deep in the ship’s bowels is moving.  Feelings not lost on those of us whom has suffered the same fate.  It’s not long before the craft itself is disabled as its mast is broken.
We are rewarded with great surf footage as the crippled vessel arrives at Easter Island for repairs.   Of course a South Pacific surf goddess named Makohe lives and teaches others on the island how to ride the waves.  A hint of a relationship surfaces between her and Jeff, and another person is added to the journey.
Upon arrival in South America, we are introduced to Yvon and Doug.  Over tea, they educate us on times past, and the wanderlust they shared.  Both men now are multi-millionaires many times over.  Yet, they reminisce with fondness over days past that were void of money, but bursting with adrenaline. Businessmen by accident, they are now environmentalists and conservationists by design and intent.   They chose to follow their dreams, living life on their terms.  A thread which plays strongly throughout the documentary.   To say which man returns more towards the preservation of wild lands is a tossup.
The film unintentionally shows the viewer how quickly extreme sports have grown.  While the men are now in their 70’s, the 1960’s was not that long ago.  Developing clothing and equipment to solve the problems of their passions for climbing, surfing and other outdoor sports they in turn inadvertently launched an industry that was nonexistent.
The cinematography of Patagonia is unparalleled.  The story continues with more action.  Two of Jeff’s friends arrive.  One is an accomplished climber, the other an equally adept surfer.   Minus Tompkins and the surf buddy, the others gear up and set out to reach the summit of Mt. Fitzroy.   This last part of the trek is filmed in detail, yet the movie leaves enough time to educate the audience on the eco-abuse going on in this southern continent, as well as around the world.
Without doubt the film takes liberty to editorialize the views of the producers and cast, however the message does not drowned out the entertainment the movie provides.   It is without question one of the best outdoor documentaries to be aired in reason times.
Other great movies and documentaries along the same lines you might enjoy are:

1.        Endless  Summer II
2.       To The Limit
3.       Born Free
4.       Into the Wild
5.       Everest

3 Factors in Determining Your Next Destination

3 Factors in Determining Your Next Destination

Heineken Beers has a new marketing promotion.  It evolves around the premise of dropping everything at a moments notice and traveling the world.

Unfortunately not all of us are able to travel with such spontaneity.  In fact, as romantic as the notion sounds, such ill planned adventures can and often due fall far short of the traveler’s expectations.

Three important factors should be considered prior to choosing your next travel destination.  Along with matching your explorations with these factors to maximize your pleasure, planning a trip adds to the enjoyment.   

Cost – If you have an unlimited trust fund, then you can skip this section.  If not, cost is the biggest determining factor when deciding on where your travels will take you.  Fuel prices affect both auto and air travel.  Compare oil prices to the past.  It will help you determine if it is the correct time to go far, or stay nearer to your home. 
Secondly, find out about the local economies of the areas you want to visit.  Is the country experiencing a recession or a booming economy?  Deals can be had if the U.S. dollar is strong compared to the currency at your final destination. 

Time – It seems like a no brainer.  However, ask yourself, “Do I have enough time to see or experience the area.”  If you are doing a multi city or country trip, plan enough days at each to be able to immerse yourself in the culture.  Don’t forget travel days.  Delays and detours are inconvenient and can cut deeply into a trip with a tight itinerary.   Remember, it’s better to take time to enjoy where you are at the moment as opposed to rushing onward to complete your checklist.

Inconveniences – This term covers a lot of ground.  Since we often book our travel months in advance, it is not always possible to predict the stability of a country or region you plan to visit.  I once had a trip planned to Honduras.  Unfortunately the country experienced a coup attempt the day before I was supposed to take off.  Travel Insurance would have come in handy.  Instead I was forced to eat the ticket cost. 
Foreign languages can be a blessing or a curse.  If you can’t speak the county’s language, find out how common English is.  Spending two weeks without being able to communicate is at best frustrating, not to mention the loss of the experiences you would other wise have.  Hiring a guide is away around the problem.  The cost is far less than wasting your time and money you already paid. For me shots are another inconvenience.  They hurt and can often cause flu like symptoms.  However, weighed against the alternative they can truly be a life saver.  Know which inoculations you need and how long the doses last.

In conclusion, plan carefully but don’t let any of the above factors discourage you from exploring and discovering through travel.