Who Was St. Nicholas?
Celebrating St. Nikolaos in Greece
St Nicholas in Turkey
Celebrating St. Nick in Most Other Countries of Europe
Celebrating Mikulás Day in Hungary and Romania
Sfintu Nicolae in Romania
Back to the Here and Now
One of the first stops on our latest Southern Arizona road trip was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the outskirts of Tucson.
Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool. Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time. But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.
The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails. Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.
Aquarium at the Desert Museum
As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium. Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense. We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it. Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez. Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.
Walking on the Trail
Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible. We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us. I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.
Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.
We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well. I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes. No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.
The Organ Pipe – Cactus
We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.
“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”
“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.
“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”
As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.
“Could ours get this big?” she asked. “It would take over the whole front yard.”
It probably would. As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night. It is a night-blooming cactus. Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open. It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.
Back on the Trail
Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.
We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside. Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon. The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see. My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago. They live in both environments.
Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time. It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day. But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike. Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.
Blue Heron in the Desert?
In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself. Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around. The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.
My Visit with the Mountain Lion
The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit. I noticed the mountain lion. She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine. As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her. Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.
They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program. So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.
Earth Science Center
Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.
With temperatures finally dropping, Phoenix becomes a paradise for hikers. You wouldn’t expect that from a huge city, home to over four and a half million people. Yet, we have hikes for people of all abilities. Huge areas of the desert are left untouched and protected within the city’s limits. One of them, South Mountain, is the largest preserve in the US in an urban area.
Within 41,000 acres of park preserves, Phoenix has more than 200 trails to enjoy. Though it is not only inadvisable but even dangerous to go out on any of these trails in the summer, in the winter they are the perfect place to be.
Easy Hikes for Families with Young Kids, or Those Who Are Not Ready for Anything Strenuous
You’ll find some of the easiest hikes in and around Papago Park, in the center of Phoenix. Each trail within the park is fit for children of all ages, and people of all abilities. One of the most popular hike here is the hole-in-the rock trail. It offers and easy walk around this known Phoenix spot. Kids and adults alike have enjoy looking at the city through the hole in the rock.
The Rio Salado Habitat Restoration Area is another spot for easy hikes. The trails run along the Rio Salado Riverbed, and offer a glimpse into the riparian habitat of the desert. You will find that the desert can be very green, full of life, especially along riverbeds.
Many of the Sonoran Preserve Trails offer easy walks through beautiful desert vistas. Most of them start at the Apache Wash Trailhead.
The Reach 11 Recreation Area in North Phoenix offers plenty of short and easy hiking trails. Enjoy the desert vegetation and wildlife that you will most likely see on any of these trails. You can even walk through a riparian area, if you take the trail to the pond off Tatum Boulevard.
You’ll find one easy trail in the North Mountain Park as well, the interpretive loop of the Penny Howe Barrier Free Trail.
For A Little More Serious Hikers the City Offers Many Moderate Difficulty Trails
Most of the trails in South Mountain Park are of moderate difficulty, still fit for most hikers. You’ll find beautiful scenery, gorgeous views and lots of petroglyphs on any of them.
North Mountain Park also offers miles of trails with moderate difficulty. On some you’ll hike up a few buttes, on others walk with some elevation gain through the valley between the peaks.
The trails in Dreamy Draw and Piestewa Peak are also fit for hikers of all abilities, and offer only a bit of a challenge. Hiking through the are you will most likely encounter desert wildlife, including coyotes and jackrabbits.
All the trails in Lookout and Shadow Mountains, areas known only to locals, are in this category.
Most of the trails in the Sonoran Desert Preserve that start at the Desert Hills trail head, are also moderately difficult. They take you through beautiful desert areas.
For the Serious Hiker, Phoenix Offers a Few Difficult to Extremely Difficult Trails
Th best known trails within the city limits also happen to be the most difficult ones. I am talking about the two trails that summit Camelback Mountain.
Echo Canyon Trail is the city’s most famous hiking destination, known to hiking enthusiasts all over the world. Though challenging, not only for its elevation gain, but the rocky terrain and exposure, since there is no shade on it, most Phoenicians hiked it at least once. Why do we live here, if not for this challenge, after all? Even if you don’t summit, the views from the trail are exquisite.
If you want to summit Camelback Mountain from the other side, the Cholla Trail is also spectacular, and just as difficult. Although at the bottom it does have an easy part. So if you want to hike within Camelback Mountain’s boundaries, but want an easy walk, start on this side, and turn around when it is too much.
With So Many Trails, There Is No Excuse to Stay Inside When the Weather is Finally Nice
When the temperatures drop, Phoenicians usually hit the trails. The summer months, with temperatures over 100 degrees, are so long, we usually can’t wait to get outside.
As soon as we do, we are rewarded with beautiful desert vistas and a variety of trails to choose from. Yes, we might live in the city, but we can get lost in the wilderness of the Sonoran Desert within a few minutes of stepping on a trail. This is what makes living here worth it. And this is what attracts so many visitors here in the winter months.
A road trip is just what we needed on a long weekend, with school being out on Friday. Since it is mid-November, almost winter, we opted for a Southern Arizona trip.
On a normal year this is the time when things finally cool down in the desert. On a normal year. However. This year is still a bit too warm. Next week is Thanksgiving. And we are still hot. We had the air conditioning on a few days ago. Yeah. Life in the desert.
Still. It is only in the eighties, and mornings and nights are pleasant. A Southern Arizona road trip seemed like a great idea. We haven’t been passed Tucson in years. And I wanted to take my youngest child to Kartchner Caverns. She’s never been there. The older two visited on school trips years ago.
First we figured, as usual, let’s go! Then we looked up the site – fortunately – and realized that we needed reservations. Since it is such a popular destination, we had to do it well in advance. We did make a reservation for sometime next month.
As luck would have it, someone canceled and we ended up with reservations for both tours in the same day, this past Sunday. Lucky us! Of course, we took the opportunity and made a three-day-weekend road trip out of it.
First Stop: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Our first stop was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. And of course, we were hot. Still, the museum is spectacular, a combination of zoo/aquarium/botanical garden/Earth Science Center all in one.
Despite the heat, we had a great time. And heat is relative. It wasn’t in the 100s, only the high eighties.
The animals were a bit sleepy, but we saw them all, even the mountain lion. I remembered them having more than one, but that was many years ago. I might have been mistaken. We caught a presentation of a ranger with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, sat in the shade watching hummingbirds flutter around us, walked through an aquarium, through an underground exhibit, under water through a riparian habitat, and even through a cave. We were going to see the real deal at the end of the trip, but this was a nice little preview.
Road Trip Stop 2: Saguaro National Monument
Since we were basically in Saguaro National Monument already, we decided to stop at the visitor center, and maybe even take a short hike. We did stop and enjoyed some time in the shade of the outdoor area, but we felt too hot for a hike. We live in the desert, after all, we have plenty of opportunities to hike through the land of cacti.
However, we don’t see such a concentration of saguaro cacti in one place anywhere else. It was nice to enjoy the view of it, then drive through it for a while.
Unplanned Stops: Apple Annie’s Country Store and the Amerind Museum
We spent the night in Wilcox, a small desert town with not much to see. But as we were driving towards it, we noticed a sign for the Amerind Museum. We originally planned to drive to the Chiricahua Mountains the next morning, however, after a fw minutes of debate, we decided to take a side trip the next morning and visit the Amerind Museum, as soon as it opens. It is the place where they have on display most of the finds from the archaeological site Paquime in Mexico, not far from the border, and we knew this.
We have been in Paquime (Casas Grandes) more than fifteen years ago, and we thought it would be great to see some artifacts from the site. So we changed the plan for the next day, and decided to visit the museum before heading to the Chiricahua National Monument.
Since it opened at 10am, we had some time on our hands, and stopped at Apple Annie’s, where we bought a delicious loaf of apple bread and spent some time enjoying a country store. (We are city slickers, don’t get to see many of them often).
We drove a few miles on a dirt road to reach the Amerind Museum, and it did seem like it was in the middle of nowhere, in a nice desert location though.
It didn’t have as many artifacts as we hoped for, but it was still pretty good. They have other Native American exhibits worth a look, and it is well organized. As bonus, we got to even visit an art exhibit on the premises – all Native American art, of course. In one of the first rooms we entered, I noticed the name on the painting as Ed Kabotie. I didn’t know he was an artist, too. We’ve seen him perform multiple times in Flagstaff with his reggae band.
4. Chiricahua National Monument
One of the highlights of the trip, Chiricahua National Monument is a beautiful place, and, being higher in the mountains, we finally felt cool enough to enjoy a few hikes.
The scenic drive through Bonita Canyon is spectacular and we enjoyed the slow winding road. We hiked to Echo Canyon, and a little beyond, a short but spectacular trail, with breathtaking views all around, then stopped at Massai point and hiked a little more. It was nice to feel cold at times in the shade of the cliffs. Once back at the Visitor Center, we hiked on the Rhyolite Trail, in the forest, for a short time as well.
We did not encounter either one of the jaguars seen in these mountains. Since 2015 as many as three jaguars were spotted in the mountains, to the delight of all those who hope to see them return to the US one day. I was looking out for them, but I guess fortunately for me, we didn’t see either one.
The Main Destination of This Road Trip: Kartchner Caverns
The highlight of the trip, the reason we took this road trip to begin with, Kartchner Caverns was our last destination. Save the best for last. Well, that and we could only get the reservations for Sunday.
I heard and read a lot about these caves. Still, seeing them was a treat I will never forget. No, it wasn’t my first time in a cave. We’ve been exploring caves in the Yucatan for years. I have been in a few in my childhood, growing up around he Carpathians. But this cave is truly magnificent.
Again, we left the best for last. Our second tour was the Throne Room, with Kubla Khan in the center. The light show was spectacular, we would not have been able to see this huge column and the surrounding stalactites, stalagmites and smaller columns in this room that the cave’s first explorers called Xanadu. Why did they call it that? Well, read the poem and you’ll guess. Then definitely go see the room.
The Throne Room tour is shorter than the Big Room. I am not sure which one I like better overall. As spectacular a Xanadu is, the Big Room has so many more things to explore. Bacon, fried eggs, and other food-related names on those formations made us all wonder if cave explorers are a starving bunch. Our guide indeed confirmed this, telling us that before entering a cave, they don’t eat for a while, so they are already hungry. Staying under ground without food for a long time, all they will think about is going to be food. Though no matter if you’re hungry or not, the formations called bacon, indeed look like perfect bacon slices. Interesting, and beautiful (if you happen to like bacon).
No photos because we were not allowed to take cameras or phones inside. You can look on their website for some great ones.
International travels are one of the best ways to learn about the world, and about different cultures. That is, if you are open to new experiences, meeting new people, understanding different cultures.
Of course you can just stay in a resort, and expect everyone to speak your language and cater to your taste. You are paying for it, after all. But in that case why leave your own country at all? The resorts are the same everywhere. And, if that’s the way you travel, this article is not for you.
But, if you are like me, and travel to expand your horizons, to understand others, read on. I’m going to share some tips I picked up from my own international travels.
1. Go during off-season, if possible
There are a few reasons you might want to do this. First of all, your airfare will be cheaper, and in general your money will go further, wherever you are. This might be important, especially if you are on a budget.
More important though, you won’t need to deal with too many tourists. You will have a chance to enjoy the place, and connect with locals. You’ll get a chance to understand the place better, since most well-known destinations have a different dynamic during tourist-season.
2. Learn at least a few words of the language people speak there
Today, no matter where you go, you will find people who speak English to one degree or another. You’ll get by, no matter what. However, locals appreciate it when you try to speak their language.
Even if you mispronounce words, they will smile at you and correct you or just acknowledge that you said it wrong but they still understand what you mean. If they don’t they will always switch to English, but you’ll make friends by trying. As a bonus, you will probably get better service in most hotels and restaurants as well.
3. Stay in smaller, locally owned hotels, away from the tourist zones
Like I mentioned before, if you plan to stay in a touristy resort, why are you traveling far from home anyway? By staying in locally owned hotels, you help their economy and have a chance to experience life like the locals. As a bonus, it will cost you a lot less. Local hotels have more personality, even if they are not quite as comfortable. How much time do you plan to spend inside your room anyway?
We made some very good friends in Mexico when we first decided to stay in a local hotel. We spoke a very broken Spanish, they spoke mainly Maya, and broken Spanish in addition to some English. Between the three languages we managed to communicate quite well, we ended up learning some Mayan and they learned more English from us. It was a fun learning experience, which we would have missed out on if we stayed in some resort on the Riviera Maya.
4. Eat where the locals eat
When you want to eat, follow the locals. They know the best restaurants, where you will get the best food, for the best price. Of course, it will be authentic, local fare. Try it. In my experience, even one of my pickier child always enjoyed a good meal in small, local restaurants.
5. Walk through the town or area you are visiting
Walking through new places is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the landscape, and the environment around you. You might find unexpected places, small museums or local stores that you didn’t know existed.
Or you might find yourself in nature, in unique environments, very different from your own, surrounded by vegetation or critters you’ve never seen before.
6. Use local transportation
To understand the people, to feel at home in a new place, use local transportation.
When my older kids were little, we took them to Puerto Vallarta. Of course, if you’ve had any of my articles, you know that we didn’t stay in the tourist zone. Instead, we found a hotel in the center of the city. When we wanted to go to a different beach, we took the local bus. We were the only gringos on that bus. Though people eyed us with curiosity, everyone was pleasant to us. The kids, five and three at the time, loved the experience.
And then again, two years ago, we took a bus through Europe. Most of it was easy, but one part of the trip was a true adventure, when the “real” bus broke down and they crammed us all in a small shuttle-size bus. We spent ten hours on it, driving in the middle of the night, through towns and country side. Ok, so it was a bit scary and not the most fun I, or any of us, experienced. But it was still a learning adventure, and no one got hurt in the process.
6. Don’t be afraid to get lost
This might be scary for some, but getting lost in a city is the best way to understand it. I’ve never been in a place I haven’t gotten lost at least once.
I don’t mean try to get lost, but don’t be afraid to wander around, even if it takes you off the beaten track, or in unknown places.
Don’t panic if you get lost, even if you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. Take it as an extra adventure. You are in no rush, and when you eventually find your destination, you’ll have a better understanding of the place.
7. Go With the Flow
Don’t rush through things. If the museum you wanted to visit closes before you get there, you can try again the next day. Find something else to do in the meantime. You might find something unexpected and even better than what you planned. Unexpected things always happen. You should have a plan, but be flexible with it.
On my very first time in Yucatan, I ended up stranded on a beach. We had car trouble and my husband had to go back to Cancun to the rental place. I did not speak a word of Spanish, I didn’t know anything about the place. Still, to this day I think of that time as one of my best adventures. I was a lone gringa, on a trail used only by locals, in Mexico. Still, I knew I was safe. The rest of our trip got delayed by a whole day. Bu tin the meantime I had an unexpected adventure.
8. Pick up a souvenir from a local artisan
I’m sure you’ll want to pick up souvenirs, most people do. Make sure you buy it from a local artisan. It will remind you of your trip, and you will help the locals.
9. Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures
Your photographs will be the best reminders of your international trip, as well a great opportunity to share your experiences with your friends.
Chichen Itzá is probably the best-known and the most spectacular ancient Mayan site. It is not only a World Heritage site but also one of the “new seven wonders of the world”. Architectural wonders, of course.
Over the years we visited the site often. While we always noticed changes, our latest trip, seven years after our last, took us by surprise.
We Notice the Changes As Soon As We Return
Once upon a time, it was possible to visit the site without the crowds that it attracts today. I remember climbing the Pyramid of Kukulcan, walking through its temple, and taking a tour inside of it. We climbed the Temple of the Warriors and even sat on its jaguar throne. No one stopped us, all the visitors did it. Only a handful of us drove to the site anyway. We climbed the Observatory or Caracol and walked through its rooms. I remember with nostalgia watching our kids play in the enormous ball court, and being virtually alone in it.
While we knew that we couldn’t do any of those things now, we still decided to revisit the site. Our youngest daughter was a tiny baby last time we walked through the site and she didn’t remember it. She wanted her to see this famous place.
At first I was disappointed. We stood on a long line for at least an hour to enter, even though we stayed in a hotel basically on the premises. As soon as it opened, the crowds were unbelievable. Vendors lined up the trails, calling to us as we passed by, offering tourist junk made in China. Yes, it was annoying.
“Call something Paradise, kiss it goodbye” – in this case, call it a “wonder of the world”. So true. However, we are trying to preserve these wonders for future generations. So I understand and even agree that no one is allowed to climb or even touch the monuments. When they get thousands of visitors a day, it is the only way to keep them from getting destroyed.
A Walk through the Ancient City
Once passed the shock of the changes, we managed to have a wonderful time.
How could we not? The structures are all spectacular, even more so than we remember them. More of the facades are restored and the paint in some of the rooms looks more vivid from outside.
We didn’t have a lot to walk, most of the trails we used to walk on are closed, and to look to the structures takes less time than to climb them. While I missed the old trails, it was nice to take it easy and be able to leave by noon.
Our first stop was the Sacred Cenote, where legend has it that virgins were sacrificed. I’m not so sure the legend is true though. Some of the early archaeologists searched the cenote and found lots of offerings. Not necessarily human ones though.
Thousands of beautiful artifacts found their tomb in the bottom of the cenote. Of course they found human remains as well, but not enough to prove the idea that they were sacrificed. It is quite possible that people fell into it by accident, either in the ancient times or much later. The edge is very steep, I remember worrying about my own kids a lifetime ago when we used to visit. It is not possible now to get close to the edge, so no danger of that kind lurks around it. The remains of the ancient temple sit on the edge of the cenote.
Walking through a Line of Vendors
Walking back towards the main plaza, we watched the vendors set up their fare. We walked fast past them, avoiding eye contact. We didn’t want to hear their offering of things that we were not interested in buying. I have trouble saying no to anything, and they seem to know it.
Though we entered the ruins as soon as they opened, by the time we were in front of the Pyramid of Kukulcan, the crowds have already descended on the plaza. Fortunately, it is a large enough area that we could enjoy the monuments if we lingered a few minutes in front of each.
The Ball Court, Temple of the Warriors and Caracol
The Ball Court is the largest in Mesoamerica. As I walked through it, I heard the familiar yells and hoots of the tour guides, demonstrating the acoustics of the place. It still makes me smile. The Maya figured out how to build an outdoor monument with perfect acoustics. If a person talks on one end, his voice is audible and sounds clear on the other side. It rivals the best opera houses of the modern world. And it is outdoors.
The Temple of the Warriors sits as magnificent as ever, though we couldn’t get too close to it. The Mercado with its hundreds of columns is off limits, as well. It is still beautiful to look at from the trail that goes around it.
We walked to the Observatory or Caracol and to the structures around it. As we shared the plaza with hundreds of tourists, people watching became part of the game. The Observatory is spectacular from the outside as well.
Looking at it makes me think of the ancient Maya watching the sky, night after night. Based solely on their observations alone, without the aid of modern telescopes, they understood the movements of the planets, the moon, and the stars. They were even able to predict eclipses, both lunar and solar. They based their calendars on the movements of these celestial bodies they watched from structures like this one.
The Pyramid of Kukulcan
Still, the greatest structure in Chichen Itzá remains the famous pyramid. I am lucky to have climbed it once upon a time and even walked inside it. But even looking at it from outside it is spectacular.
It sits in the middle of an open plaza, dominating the center of the site. Stairways lead to the top on all four of its sides, but the most spectacular one is the one facing north. It is the only one where two huge serpent heads adorn the bottom of the stairs. These are the representations of the mythical great serpent-god, Kukulcan. Hence the name.
During both spring and autumn equinoxes, at sunset, the whole serpent is visible, descending the stairs of the pyramid. How did they know to face the building in this way?
A few years ago we ended up in Chichen Itzá soon after the spring equinox. Though it was about a week later, we were still able to see the shadow of the mythical serpent descending the stairs of the pyramid.
In addition, the number of stairs on the four sides of the pyramid equals the number of days in a year. Each side has 91 steps (91×4=364), and one extra step on the top leads into the temple.
Leaving Chichen Itzá
We knew that it was probably the last time we would visit this amazing site. We’ve seen it many times, we have explored it, we have even seen the great serpent Kukulcan, descending the stairs a few years ago. We happened to be there about a week after the equinox. At the right time, it was still visible. We have seen the night show, where they reenact the great serpent descending, with artificial lights, as they tell stories from the ancient city. The show is spectacular, especially if you understand Spanish. You can listen to it in English as well, with headphones, but this version is never quite as vivid.
If it is your first time, it is worth the time and effort. Try to get there early though and remember that you need to deal with crowds. Sort of like Disneyland. If you don’t let the crowds and the heat (during the day) get to you, you’ll have an amazing experience.
Uxmal is one of my favorite ancient Maya cities in the state of Yucatan. Over the past twenty-five years, my family and I visited it often. No matter how many times we see it, we don’t mind coming back to it over and over.
Revisiting the Ancient City of Uxmal
The Pyramid of the Magician
Costa Rica was one of the places we have talked about going to, but kept postponing for a very long time. When we finally made it a few years ago, only one of our children was free to go with us. She was ten, the older ones were out of school, busy with college and jobs. Taking our ten-year-old proved to be the best thing for that rip. She’s a nature lover and Costa Rica is a nature lover’s paradise.
Traveling without a Plan
Kids Make You Slow Down and Smell the Roses
We Spend a Day at La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden
The happened to be close to the Waterfalls and Butterfly Gardens, so we decided to visit it the next day. We spent a full day there, from opening till closing time and we had a great time, in spite of the surrounding tourists.
While the waterfalls are undoubtedly the major attraction in the park, the animal sanctuary/zoo is also worth the visit.
The animals and birds that live there were rescued when they got hurt, or confiscated from people who tried keeping them as pets. Wild animals don’t make good pets. You can read their story as you enter the sanctuary, and always hope that they can be returned to the wild some day.
The butterfly garden is another great stop in the park. Thousands of butterflies, of all different species, some of which I’ve never seen before, fluttered around us, sometimes settling on a flower close by.
The major draw to the park are the waterfalls. Years ago visitors used to be able to see nine waterfalls. Although an earthquake buried a few, the remaining five are still spectacular and worth the hikes through the jungle.
At the end of the trail a shuttle bus is available to take you back to the visitor center. By the time we got there, we had spent a full day in the park, and enjoyed every minute of it.
We Help A Family of Agoutis Cross the Road
Visiting the South Rim
Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon for the first time was an experience I will never forget. I was in awe, with a total loss of words. No pictures, no video recordings can ever prepare you for the first glimpse of it.
The rock layers, each a different color, as you look deeper into it takes your breath away. It stretches on for miles and you can see all the way to the other side, the sheer size of it leaving you speechless. It seems impossible to fathom that a river carved it all. Here, in the desert of Northern Arizona, the rocks leave a valuable geologic record of what was going on over 500 million years ago on Earth.
Although it seems to stretch as far as you can see, looking at it from the top you don’t realize that it consists of thousands of miles of smaller canyons, mesas, volcanoes and a web of drainage that connects the Grand Canyon to the rest of the world. It all seems totally inaccessible.
Then you see the trails that lead into the depths of it, and you feel like you need to walk on them it, at least for a short distance, to feel like you are part of this wonder of the world. You hike a few steps on the closest trail you see, most likely the Bright Angel Trail. Quickly realize that it is descending so fast, it will be hard to get back out of it. So, you turn around and promise yourself that you will make it to the bottom one day. Just not today.
If you want to hike down to the bottom, you can find a few trails, as well as mules to carry your packs. You might want to stay overnight, in the camp ground on the bottom. But for now, just enjoy the scenery from the top, eye level with the birds.
The Grand Canyon Is Home to Indigenous People
The human history in and around the Grand Canyon stretches back at least 13000 years.
The Hopi, one of the tribes who still lives in the proximity, consider it sacred ground. For them, one of the points in the bottom of the canyon, is their ancestral home, their place of origin.
The Hualapai and Havasupai have inhabited the South side of the Canyon. The Havasupai still live on the bottom of the Canyon, far from civilization, since there is no road to their village, only an eight-mile long trail. You do have to hike there, if you want to visit them. They consider themselves the guardians of the sacred ground of the Grand Canyon system.
The Southern Paiute inhabited the North side of the Canyon and for them it is also holy land.
The Zuni have their place of origin in the depths of the Canyon a well.
The Navajos and the Western Apaches also inhabit the area, though they have arrived a bit more recently, but still hundreds of years before the Spaniards.
For all of these tribes, who have lived here for centuries, the canyon is sacred land, in one way or another. If you catch a glimpse of it, you will understand why.
You Are In a National Park
Given its beauty, geological and historical significance, you would have thought that the Grand Canyon was the first National Park in the US. It wasn’t so easy though. The first bill to establish the Grand Canyon as a National Park was indeed introduced in 1882. However, it took until 1919 (February 26th) to actually designate it as such. Miners opposed the bill, since they wanted to get to the copper, zinc and silver at the bottom. Developers wanted to build a railroad on the bottom of the Canyon, so they fought against the bill as well.
All is well if it ends well. After much debate, we have one of the natural wonders of the world designated as a National Park and as such, protected from developers. For now at least. Or so it seems.
My Visits Over the Years
The first time I’ve seen the Grand Canyon, I was visiting it as an out-of-state tourist, over twenty years ago. While it seemed a bit crowded, we were able to enjoy it. Now we live so close to it, we can see it multiple times a year if we want to. And we have seen too much development around it.
Now, there are moments when I get to the South Rim, to the Visitor Center and I want to run. There are so many people, I cannot get to the Canyon for a glimpse. But if you take some time, you can still get away from the crowds and have a moment to enjoy your surroundings. The view itself never loses its magic.
But you do have to walk to enjoy it. If nothing more, just walk the rim trail. Even on the busiest day, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of it. Take a break at each of the educational stops, and learn about the ages and consistency of the rocks that make up the Canyon.
Sure, you can take the shuttle. In fact, if you can’t walk, do take the shuttle instead of driving. Free to ride, it runs on compressed gas, so it doesn’t pollute like your car would.
But I always felt that we would miss something if we just rode the shuttle and stopped at each overlook. We dragged our kids, even when they were young, on the rim walk. They have complained at times, but overall, they had a better time. On our last visit, we would have missed the deer grazing by the trail, if we didn’t walk.
The park has seen too much development in the past two decades. A brand-new town was built just outside of the park’s boundaries, by the South Rim. Other than hotels and other amenities, it offers helicopter tours, and an I-Max movie theater so see the Canyon if you can’t make it a few more miles into the park. The problem is, the helicopter tours, and all sorts of other tourist traps are hurting the environment in the Canyon. If we want to keep it for the next generations, we need to take better care of it.
This natural wonder is fragile, and its National Park status protects it. But just outside the boundaries things are getting too built up. If everything that is proposed at this time happens, it will turn into an amusement park, instead of the National Park. I hope it won’t happen.
If You Go
Expect big crowds if you go, no matter the season. It is the worst during the summer, but it might still be crowded in November, even on weekdays. Try to walk in the morning, if possible.
No matter how crowded it gets, if you walk the rim trail, you might find yourself alone on some stretches of the it. Better yet, you can walk down a few meters either on the Bright Angel Trail or the Kaibab trail. You don’t need to go to the bottom to enjoy the feel of being in the Canyon.
You can take the shuttle at a few different points through the trail, if you get too tired or the desert sun gets to you. Please remember to carry water and wear a hat if you walk any distance.
As spectacular as the South Rim is, our favorite side is the North Rim, mainly because it is more remote. That’s where the historic Grand Canyon Lodge is, and you can stay in small cabins in the forest surrounding the rim. To visit that side, you need to make reservation well ahead.