Xel-Ha Ruins Are Always Worth a Visit When You Are on the Mayan Riviera

As soon as you start driving on the Mayan Riviera, in fact as soon as you land in Cancun, you’ll see signs for Xel-Ha Amusement Park.  I am not talking about that. I have never been in the park, and don’t intend to go. My own principles.

Instead, we always stop at the Ruins of Xel-Ha. I can’t go to Yucatan and not stop there.  I have somewhat of a love affair with the place. It was the first Mayan site I set eyes on, after reading about them and learning to decipher glyphs in my spare time.

Xel-Ha Ruins. House of the Jaguar.

When I first met my husband, he was reading about the Maya.  He attended workshops and studied everything written about them at the time.  When he showed me some pictures of a few sites in the jungles of Yucatan, and told me that excavations are still in progress in most of these places, I was hooked.

As a linguist, I was more intrigued by the glyphs, and I started studying them, until I was able to “read” some.

But we couldn’t visit Yucatan yet.  I was a visitor in the US, and if I crossed the border, I would not have been able to get back. So it wasn’t our first vacation destination.

As soon as we could, after we got married, we were on a plane to Cancun.  So it was our honeymoon, and we spent it sweating, climbing pyramids, wandering around ruins, and staying in tiny, out-of-the-way places. But that’s all another story.

Getting back to Xel-Ha. The first time I saw it, I was in awe.  Not necessarily about the ruins, though they are pretty spectacular for someone who has never seen any before.  What really got me was the paint inside the House of the Jaguar. We could walk inside it at the time, and I kept going in and out, marveling at how clear I could still see some of the images painted on those walls thousands of years ago. I won’t lie, I am sure I touched them.  So now, to protect it from visitors like I was in my twenties, it is closed, you can’t walk inside it. But an iPhone camera’s tiny lens can fit through the holes of the mesh that protects the entrances. So I was still able to take photos now, twenty-three years later.

Main Entrance to the House of the Jaguar

Since that first time, in 1995, Xel-Ha Ruins are still the first stop on our road trips through the Yucatan.

Still, we manage to be the only visitors at the site, even now.

The Ancient City of Xel-Ha

The name of the ancient city comes from Yucatek Maya, combining two words, Xel=spring/inlet and Ha=water. We could translate it into “Water Inlet”, which is just what Xel-Ha Lagoon is, where the waterpark is located now.

In ancient times, Xel-Ha was a port city for the much bigger site, Cobá. Some of its buildings date from as the Early Classic period of the Maya civilizations, as far back as 300-600 AD.  Other structures are more recent.

After it lay abandoned in the jungle by the coast for a few centuries, Stephens and Catherwood stumbled upon them in 1841. They described their journey on the peninsula in the Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, published after their return.

Since then, some of the ruins have been reconstructed, but most of them still lay in the jungle.

Walking Through the Site

Before you set out on your adventure to see the ruins, make sure you use bug repellent, and take some with you.  We had to return to the car halfway through, because the mosquitoes were eating us.  I use essential oils for everything (almost), so I have a few different oil combinations that work. But you can find great, natural bug-spray in any supermarket in Yucatan. If you are like us, and only bring carry-ons for vacations, stop and pick one up in Puerto Morelos or anywhere along the road.

Bug warning out of the way, the walk is very pleasant, and mostly shaded, unlike many other sites.

Xel-Ha Ruins trail

On our last visit, I took a beeline to the

Pyramid of the Birds.

I walked fast so the mosquitoes would stay away and as soon as I reached the pyramid, I climbed the few steps leading to the frescoes. Standing right by the highway, with cars were zooming below me,  I couldn’t help but wonder how many people drive past it, rushing to the water park. They don’t even notice it, though all they would have to do is look up.

Pyramid of the Birds. Fresco. Xel-Ha Ruins

 

The frescoes on this pyramid are spectacular. No matter how many times I see them I still never get tired of them.

The Castillo Group

A lower, but much bigger structure, the Castillo is a great place to walk through.  I notice a worker, cleaning the area around it and  realize that it is another sign that they are trying to open it up for more tourists.  I don’t mind, though I’ll miss being able to have the site all to ourselves.

Inside the Castillo at Xel-Ha Ruins.

Walking through the Castillo was pleasant this time.  Usually it is too hot to spend much time in the open, but in January the weather is perfect.

The House of the Jaguar and the Cenote

We decide to take the sacbe, the remnants of the ancient road to the House of he Jaguar instead of returning to the front and walking on the well-maintained trail.

I am surprised when I don’t stumble on the rocks as I usually do when walking on the sacbe.  Then I realize that I am actually walking on a new trail, next to it.  They must have cleared it within the past few months.  It wasn’t there las March when we visited.

The paint on the House of the Jaguar is still as beautiful as ever.  In the winter sunlight it shows up even better than I remember.  The Mayan blue, covering much of the stucco, is one of my favorite colors.

I look through the mesh covering the side doorway opening, and notice that the winter sun makes the painting of the jaguar stand out more than usual. I stand there for a while, admiring it.

The Jaguar Inside the Temple of the Jaguar in Xel-Ha Ruins

 

Then I look over to the clear blue water of the cenote nearby.  We walk down close to the water.  It is pleasant to just sit there, and listen to the birds.

Cenote at Xel-Ha Ruins

In fact, I see one of the blue birds common to the area.  I recognize it as the Mexican bluejay and read up about it.  Believe it or not, it is a crow.  I thought all crows were black. Not in Yucatan. Even the crows are colorful.

Goodbye Xel-Ha, Until Next Time

We spent more time in Xel-Ha than usual.  Since we are always flexible when we travel, it didn’t matter.  The weather was much nicer than we ever experienced it on the hot and humid peninsula.

I am excited to see how much they clear it by next time we go.  It might be a few years, we have other destinations in mind for a while, but I know that we will be back.  Though relatively small, this site is always going to be one of my favorites.

 

This post is for The Weekly Postcard Blog Link-Up Travel Notes & Beyond

Starting the New Year with a Trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

One of my favorite destinations, Yucatan is a place I can visit multiple times a year.  Which we did this time, returning after only a few months.  We were there in the spring of 2017, and we set off for the same destination once again, on New Year’s Eve.

View from the Top of Nohuch Mul, Cobá
View from one of the tallest pyramids of the peninsula, in Cobá. I have never seen the surrounding forest this green before. It’s winter, the wet season.

Air Travel on the Day of New Year’s Eve

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we set off to the airport on the morning of New Year’s Eve.  It was my birthday, and it was the second year that I spent half my birthday traveling.

Last year we were driving back from a short trip, but this time we were flying away for a week.  I’ve never been on a plane on a Holiday.  We try to avoid it, when we can.  However, this time it just worked out with our “free” tickets.  We travel on points many times, since we do have frequent flier miles and credit cards that add flying points from purchases.

The airport was almost deserted.  Getting through security was a breeze, and the flight itself was one of the most pleasant I have experienced in a long time.  The plane was half empty.

Since they had no stress that comes with crowded planes, too many different people to please, the stewardesses were at their most pleasant.  We could sit wherever we wanted, taken a whole row if we felt like it. When we commented on how we’ve never been on a plane so empty, and didn’t expect to be on one on a Holiday, the stewardess commented,

“Yes, because everyone thinks they don’t want to travel on New Year’s Eve.  You should not think like everyone.”

We landed on time, got our rental car, and by dinnertime, we were in Puerto Morelos, where I did make a reservation in a hotel, knowing that it might get booked.  We rarely make reservations, but this time I was glad I did.  It was the only way we got a room.  Though we could’ve slept on the beach, the weather was perfect, and there are no bugs by the ocean.

New Year’s Eve in Puerto Morelos

Once we got our room, we set off for dinner.  Our favorite restaurant, on the beach, was more crowded than I ever saw it, and they was closing for the night.

We stopped at one of the other ones we knew from the old days.  It was half-empty.

“Do you have reservations?”, asked the greeter.  We didn’t, so we couldn’t stay.

The same thing happened in two other restaurants.

We finally decided that we would eat some street food or a cliff bar for New Year’s Eve dinner.  But we walked around some more, off the main square.  We didn’t hope for much, all the restaurants that lined the streets were full.

Still, we stopped and asked if they had a table available at another one of the smaller restaurants we ate at in the past. Yes, they did, if we gave them a minute to set it up.  They moved a few chairs, and tables around, then invited us to sit.

Someone at a neighboring table tried to order two different things they didn’t have. We looked at each other and smiled. “Here we go again.” When our waiter got there, we asked,

“What do you have on the menu?”

“Almost everything”, he answered.  “Except coconut shrimp and any chicken.”

We still had a few choices. They did have fish, and that’s what I cared about. We were in a fishing village on the sea, after all.

The New Year’s celebration at midnight was subdued.  We watched kids lined up in front of a piñata in the shape of a person with 2017 written on it. They took turns hitting it, until it opened.  We weren’t close enough to see, but I think they had to break free the New Year, 2018.

A Week of Exploring Old and New Places on the Peninsula

 
We stopped at Xel-Ha Ruins, though I feel like I know every structure,  every stone and tree there.  It was the Mayan site I have ever seen, and as such, it will always have a special place in my hearth. We spent a few hours there, before moving on to our next destination. 
We always stop at Muyil (Chunyaxche), no matter how busy it gets (and it is still not too bad, once we pass Tulum).  The combination of great structures and a jungle walk makes it a treat. 
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
 
It was dinnertime when we arrived to Siiyil Noh-Ha. After settling in our hut, we climbed the Mirador – Lookout Tower – and enjoyed the view of the jungle canopy around us.
 
“We only have shrimp ceviche tonight”, our host told us, when we sat down for dinner. I never had it before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but didn’t have a choice.  We ordered one to share and I found my new favorite Yucatecan food. 
 
After two days in the middle of nowhere, with very limited phone and no internet service, we drove to Coba.  Two days exploring the ruins and the the town was perfect, while we tried to figure out what we would want to do next.
 
We found a great deal in a hotel we knew, so we returned to Chichen Itza. I know, I did say that I was done with the place, but it ended up being much more pleasant than I expected.  That is because we only used it for a base, to explore the back roads, the small towns, little-known ruins, places that we haven’t seen yet.  Yes, we still found some of those, close to the well-known and busy Wonder of the World.
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town
 

Another Great Trip to Yucatan

 
By the time we were ready to get home, we felt that we did a lot, once again. We didn’t swim much, except one day, since it was actually cold in Yucatan.  Relatively cold, meaning very pleasant for hiking and climbing pyramids.  
 
We explored sites we didn’t know existed.  Small sites, but still impressive, where we were the only visitors. 
 
We met volunteers who were cleaning another site. We talked to a Mayan who told us stories about the Caste War, the site and working with a renowned archaeologist I admire. I bought a beautiful huipil-like shirt made by his wife I met. 
 
We climbed cleared pyramids, and one that only has a trail leading up to the top, and is still covered by vegetation. 
 
We walked through the jungle and explored a colonial town we have never been in, where no one spoke English.  
 
As always, we left with plans to return soon.  

Outdoors Attractions in and Around Phoenix to Enjoy in the Winter

When everywhere else is cold and grey and people enjoy being inside, we, desert dwellers, finally venture outdoors.  It is the best time to visit Phoenix, when weather is perfect, the sky is still blue, and being outside is a pleasure.
 
Since everyone knows this, the city’s population quadruples this time of the year. Not only we get a lot of visitors, but we also have “snowbirds”, retirees who spend the winter here.
 
What do you do in the middle of the desert in the winter? Most of us go outdoors, and enjoy hiking of biking.
Outdoors in the Desert. Phoenix.
 
We have lots of trails to choose from in nature preserves in and around the city. We can even find ourselves alone in the desert on some of them.
 
For those who seek different attractions, the city offers options to enjoy the outdoors.
 

Visit the Deer Valley Petroglyph Preserve

Located in Northwest Phoenix, the Deer Valley Preserve is an indoors/outdoors museum. It showcasing ancient left by the Hohokam and the Patayan in this area. It is rarely visited, even by residents, so you’ll have a chance to be alone among petroglyphs, some of them 7,000 years old.
Start your visit at the indoors muesum, to learn about the ancients who left them behind. Then head outside and walk among the huge boulders filled with petroglyphs.
 

Take a Hike in South Mountain Park

To see more petroglyphs, head over to the other side of the city, to South Mountain Park. The largest nature preserve/park within city limits in the US, South Mountain Park is worth a full day to explore.  Look for petroglyphs on the trails. But even if you don’t find many, enjoy the outdoors in the greenest desert of the country, with great views of the city below.
 

Learn About the Ancients at Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological Site 

Hohokam Garden. Pueblo Grande Museum. Phoenix

After looking at petroglyphs, head into the city to learn more about the Hohokam, who created them. The best place to do this is Pueblo Grande Museum and Archaeological site.
The museum preserves and showcases ancient buildings, a garden and ball court. Stop in the indoor exhibit to learn more about the ancient people who made their home in the desert before air conditioning.
 
Head outdoors to check out the remains of their civilization.  They knew how to build a home to use the natural conditions for heating and cooling it. Also known as the canal makers, you’ll see one of the canals they dug in ancient times, still in use today.  They built most of the canals in Phoenix still in use today, thousands of years ago.
 

Walk Through the Desert Botanical Garden

To understand the desert around you, you might want to learn about the native plants surrounding you.  The best place to do this is the Desert Botanical Garden.  You’ve seen it in the garden of the Hohokam, but you’ll understand better the concept of gardening in the desert. You’ll also learn about all the native species of plants in the Sonoran Desert.
Prickly Pear in Bloom
The Botanical Garden is committed to the conservation of the biodiversity of the deserts of North America. They are especially concerned and working with the Southwest region. Leader and coordinator of the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance, it cares for the desert preserves around Phoenix.

Enjoy the Outdoors at the Phoenix Zoo

Another conservation site, the Phoenix Zoo showcases animals from all around the world.

At the Phoenix Zoo

While you visit, notice how the animals are cared for. They all have large habitats, but the staff goes beyond it. They go out of their way to assure that the animals live as close as possible to how they would in the wild.
 
The conservation program at the Phoenix Zoo helps to preserve diversity in nature. They have a breed and release program for some of the most endangered species. One of their special project is the black-footed ferret. You’re not going to see any of them in exhibits though. They are susceptible to human illnesses, and the stress of being on exhibit would also harm them. Still, when you visit the other exhibits, you know that you are helping with rehabilitation of endangered species.
 

Encounter Animals at the Wildlife World Zoo

Another zoo, on the West side of the city, the Wildlife World Zoo offers a different type of experience. This one has Arizona’s largest number of exotic and endangered animals. 
The Wildlife World Zoo is also dedicated to helping species survivals as well. In particular, they work hard for rhino conservation. They also award money, support, and staff to other organizations that work for wildlife conservation.

Learn About Local Wildlife at the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center

 
If you care about local wildlife and conservation, the Southwest Rescue and Rehabilitation Center is the one of the best place to visit. You do need a vehicle that handles dirt roads, since to reach the Center you’ll have to drive through a few miles of dirt road. You also need to register for a tour in advance, since they don’t have regular opening hours.
 
They don’t have animals from all over the world. What this Center is doing instead, is rescuing desert animals that got injured, or displaced in any way. Most of their animals get rehabilitated and able to live in the wild. Those are their temporary residents.
 
But, a few of the animals they rescue cannot be returned to the wild. They become permanent residents and you can visit them, or even “adopt” them. My daughter adopted Leonardo, the Jaguar/leopard, because she was moved to tears by his story.
 
The Center also helps with the rehabilitation of the Mexican wolves and returning them into the wild.
 
Try to go on a tour later in the day. If you are there at dusk, you’ll be able to listen to the wolves howling. They really howl in harmony, you wouldn’t believe it unless you heard it. It is some of the most beautiful music I have ever heard.
 

Pyramids Off the Beaten Track in the Jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula

I have been climbing Mayan pyramids, visiting ancient sites in the Yucatan peninsula with my family for over two decades.  We have seen a lot of changes during this time in most of the sites.  When we first visited, the Mayan Riviera didn’t exist, as it is now.  A narrow road let from Cancun down the coast, where most of the traffic we encountered was Mayan workers on their bicycles.
While twenty years ago we could climb every structure even in the most popular sites like Tulum, and in Chichen Itza, now it is impossible to do so in both sites.
<img src="pyramidkukulcan.jpg" alt="one of the Mayan Pyramids, pyramid of Kukulcan, Chichen Itza, Mexico">
“Look, don’t touch”, the rope around the pyramid keeps visitors off the structure. Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itza. 2017
Over time, we have learned to venture deeper into the jungles of Quintana Roo, Yucatan and Campeche, in search of lesser-known pyramids to explore.
 
Ancient Mayan sites are scattered all over the peninsula. Some are still covered by the surrounding jungle. They are off the beaten track, where you won’t find tourists. You just need to know where to look.

Climbing Pyramids in Lesser-Known Sites

Our last trip took us to Chacchoben, Kinichna, and Dzibilchaltun. We only shared the jungle and the ruins with spider monkeys, iguanas and birds of all colors and shapes. 
<img src="pyramidKinichna.jpg" alt="one of Mayan Pyramids, Kinichna. Yucatan"/>
We were alone with the ancient ruins. My girls climbing the pyramid at Kinichna

Calakmul

Calakmul is one of the most impressive and well-known sites on the Yucatan peninsula. But it is so remote that most tourists don’t bother driving to it. Located in a nature preserve with the same name, at the end of a 60 km long narrow, dirt road, it is still a challenge to reach.  Big tour buses from Cancun can’t make it through. And most tourists don’t bother to drive so far from the resorts. Most of the people we met on the trails were birdwatchers, and hardy travelers.
<img src="calakmulpyramid.jpg" alt="one of the pyramids in Clalakmul. Mexico. Wanderer writes.com"/>
On the way to the top of one of the pyramids in Calakmul.
The two major pyramids at Calakmul are tall enough to see the surrounding jungle canopy and other structures from.  We could climb them and feel on top of the world, eye level with the birds. 
Howler and spider monkeys, tropical birds, iguanas and ocellated turkeys kept us company.  

Balamku

<img src="Balamku.jpg" alt="Balamku inside temple. wanderer writes.com"/>
Inside the Temple of Balamku.
Not far from Calakmul, in the ruins of Balam-ku, we saw the most beautiful and well preserved Mayan murals. We were the only visitors there. The caretaker was kind enough to unlock the door that lead inside the pyramid where the murals are.  She also told us that underneath they have found an ancient tomb.  As we were walking around the other structures, only iguanas kept us company. 

Staying off the Beaten Track

 
As we prepare to return to Yucatan after the Holidays, we are looking for more treasures that are not overrun by tourists.  it is getting more and more difficult, but not impossible. One of our favorite spots is so remote, we can only get to it on a dirt road, and we only encountered locals there.  Mayans, who speak Spanish as a second language. In some ways it is easier to communicate with them. Since they speak slower, I can understand better. It also helps to pick up a few words in Maya. Not that I could communicate with them in their own language, though I wish I could. But it makes us all feel better when we try.
 
There are no pyramids very close to this place, that I know of, but we might find something new, unexpected. Yucatan tends to offer something new every time we visit.  
 
The best-known Mayan pyramids are so popular that they are hard to enjoy due to the crowds they attract. But the jungle still has plenty of hidden treasures. If you know where to look, you can still find solitude and adventure, even on the Riviera Maya. 

Celebrating St Nicholas Day Around the World

Today I am getting ready for greeting St Nicholas, Mikulás as we call him, in our household. I brought his character and his celebration with me from the old country.  
 
Mikulás is the Hungarian name for St. Nicholas, better known as Santa to American children.  But, in most European countries he visits households with children on the night of December 5th. He brings goodies and small gifts, depositing them in the boots, cleaned and set out for him. 
 
If you travel to Europe around December 6th, chances are, you’ll bump into St. Nick.  Or at least some traditions involving his person.  Not the Santa Claus of Christmas Eve, but the one who visits kids on the night of December 5th.
 

Who Was St. Nicholas?

 
He didn’t look anything like the Santa Claus we all think of when we hear the name, but St Nicholas was a real person.  Given that he lived in a warm climate, he didn’t wear the red and white suit we all know him for today.  This image of Santa came much later, and from a different place. 
 
Nicholas was a holy man, a bishop of Myra, sometime in the third century AD.  He was born in the village of Patara, in a territory that was Greek at the time, now part of Turkey. His parents were wealthy and raised him to be a devout Christian. But, they died when Nicholas was still very young. They left him extremely wealthy, and already a follower of Christian values. 
 
The main value he followed was not exclusively Christian, but humanitarian. All his life he was giving to the needy and to the less fortunate. He used up his inheritance by giving it away to those in need, and especially to children. By the time he became was Bishop of Myra, he was known for helping those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors. 
 
St. Nicholas died on December 6th, 343AD in Myra.  The anniversary of his death became the occasion for celebrating the Day of St Nick.
 

Celebrating St. Nikolaos in Greece

 
Since he lived in a territory that used to be Greece, St. Nicholas is very important in this country.  In fact, he is the patron saint of Greece. 
 
His main role is the protector of sailors and seamen.  On his Feast Day, December 6th, people eat traditional dishes of fried cod and garlic sauce.  The Greek Navy pays tribute to him with ceremonies at the Naval Academy. 
 
Small fishing boats honor him, especially in the Greek islands. They sail decorated with blue and white lights during this time of the year. 
 
Sailing ships carry an icon of St Nikolaos with them on their voyages. They bring him along, since he is the master of winds and storms. This tradition seems reminiscent of the ancient Greek religion. Also, if the ship is in danger, the captain prays to St Nikolaos for safe passage. He promises to bring a small ship of gold, silver or wood, called ex-voto, back if they return safely.  After his safe return, he brings the ex-voto to the church and offers it to St Nikolaos as thanks. http://www.stnicholascenter.org/pages/greece/
 
St. Nikolaos is also considered a wonderworker for the Orthodox religion, a saint who works miracles. He brings unity to different churches.
 

St Nicholas in Turkey

 
The birthplace of St Nicholas is in today’s Turkey. Though a predominantly Muslim country, Turkey also celebrates him.
 
In the early 1950s Turkey realized that Santa Claus is St Nicholas. They decided to use this fact to attract visitors.  For years, they held an Orthodox liturgy in St. Nicholas church on December 6th. To be fair, there are a few Orthodox people living in Turkey. They revere and celebrate St. Nick as their own. But those who celebrate him most are visitors.
 
If you go to Demre around December 6ht, you will encounter thousands of tourists. They come especially from Russia, in search for the roots of St Nicholas. Russians are an orthodox nation, and they consider St Nicholas the father of their religion.
 
Though they don’t consider him a saint, people in his native land remember and honor St Nicholas as a humanitarian, who cared for the needy and especially children.
 

Celebrating St. Nick in Most Other Countries of Europe

 
The Day of St Nicholas is celebrated all over Europe. The customs are similar, with slight differences. On December 6th, his Feast Day, his memory is kept alive in most places by stories shared about his goodness and generosity.
 
Since St. Nick is the patron saint of sailors and seamen, in countries on the sea-coast he comes on ships.  In the Netherlands and in Belgium he arrives on a steamship from Spain. He then rides a horse to the houses of children to give them the gifts.
 
Children in most of Europe clean their boots and put them out by the door for St Nicholas to fill them with presents. Gifts usually consist of fruits, nuts and chocolates, sometimes a small toy that fits in the shoe.  Dutch children leave carrots and hay for St Nick’s horse in exchange for the gifts.
 
In some countries, like Austria, Krampus, the antithesis go St Nick is added to the mix. He accompanies St Nick and leaves sticks to beat up the naughty kids with. 
 
Are you visiting England this time of the year? Watch the parade of the Canterbury Cathedral on December 6th. It goes through the city and ends at the cathedral, where the festivities include music and dance.
 
In Germany, people clean their house and polish the shoes on the 5th, in honor of St Nick’s visit during the night.  Children leave their shoes out, with carrots and hay for the horses, hoping for treats.
 
In Stuttgart, Germany, kids have their own tradition. If you visit the city during this time, you might think it’s Halloween, where everyone’s costume is the same. The kids dress up as St Nick, walking and walk from house to house, asking for candy.  
 

Celebrating Mikulás Day in Hungary and Romania

 
Growing up in a Hungarian household in Transylvania (Romania today), I always celebrated Mikulás Day.  We used to clean our boots and put them out by the door on the night of December 5th.  When we woke up the morning, on the 6th, we found some goodies in them, along with some silver tree branches. 
 
The goodies included oranges, walnuts, chocolate, or other candy treats.    The silver painted tree branches were for naughty children. They were a tool for their parents to punish them when they misbehaved.  Of course, since each child is both naughty and nice at different times, we all got both. It was all symbolic, of course, no one actually got beaten up with the stick.
 
In Hungary St Miklos or Mikulás visits preschools and kindergartens. He takes part of a celebration in his honor.  Children sing Mikulás songs and might recite poems as well.  Mikulás talk to them and may stay in the classroom to watch a movie with the children.
Sfintu Nicolae in Romania
In Romania, the day is celebrated in a similar manner.  Children and adults alike shine their boots and put them out on the night of December 5th. On the morning of the 6th, they find gifts in them. Since Romanians are Orthodox, they celebrate him as a saint as well.  On the 6th, people give gifts to friends, and to those in need, in his honor. 
 

Back to the Here and Now

 
I brought the idea of Mikulás with me to Arizona. 
 
My children always cleaned and put their shoes out by the door on the night of December 5th.  I used to fill their little shoes with candy and Santa-figured chocolates, besides a small toy. It had to fit in the shoes, that was the trick. 
 
I didn’t bother with the silver-colored stick.  Mikulás is a good guy who didn’t care about punishing naughty children.  Since he is an addition to Santa in our household, he had to be different. 
 
Because none of their preschool or school friends celebrated Mikulás or St Nick on December 6th, my kids felt special. They decided that he only visited Hungarian children, no matter where in the world they lived.  Since mine are half Hungarian, they qualified.  Once my daughter told me that she always imagined Mikulás to be a skinnier version of Santa.  I asked her why, but she couldn’t remember.    
 
As they got older, the toys got replaced by ITunes gift cards for the older ones.  They kept the tradition alive for their youngest sister.  Now, they all know that “mom, you were Mikulás.” But they still expect – and get – something small in their shoes tonight.  My 12-year old daughter asked me for a fish, since hers died a few days ago (he was very old – the fish, I mean).  So, she said, “put the new fish in a small bowl in my shoe, mom.”
 
A fish can’t be a present from St Nick though.  But we are all looking forward to eating chocolates. He always brings some for the parents, too.  After all, we deserve some treats for allowing him to visit our house.
 
__________________________________________
 
Happy St. Nicholas Day to those who celebrate him!
 
For others, thanks for reading, and Happy December!

A Visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

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.

Aquatic Life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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

Organ Pipe Cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

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.

 

 

 

Winter Hikes in Phoenix

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.

The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
The Desert in Phoenix the Winter
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.

Riparian Area at Reach 11, Phoenix
Riparian Area at Reach 11 in the winter

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.

Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter
Desert Trail in Phoenix in Winter

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.

View from Echo Canyon Trail
View from Echo Canyon Trail. Image by Flickr

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.

 

 

 

 

Revisiting Chichen Itzá and Its Pyramid of Kukulcan

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.

Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017
Pyramid of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá. 2017

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.

Chichen Itzá. Temple
Chichen Itzá. Temple
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.

Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul
Chichen Itzá. Chac Mul

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.

The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá
The Sacred Cenote. Chichen Itzá

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 Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá
The Great Ballcourt. Chichen Itzá

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.

Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá
Temple of the Warriors. Chichen Itzá

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.

Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá
Caracol. The Observatory. Chichen Itzá

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.

The Temple of Kukulcan. Chichen Itzá

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.

The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá
The Shadow of Kukulcan descending. Chichen Itzá

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 and the Pyramid of the Magician

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
We were some of the first visitors of the day to the ancient Maya site of Uxmal. We enjoyed the cool breeze when we started walking, since we knew that later it would be hot and sticky.  In the hills of Yucatan a breeze is a rare commodity and the humidity is high enough to make the heat unbearable.
Like every time we find ourselves in the region, we got up early to arrive to the site when it opened. Once again, we managed to beat the crowds that show up late morning in the tour buses from Cancun.
The Pyramid of the Magician
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
Pyramid of the Magician. Uxmal
The first structure we noticed upon entering the site was the Pyramid of the Magician. Its massive frame dominates the plaza, and the whole site.  One of the largest reconstructed pyramid on the peninsula, it is also my favorite.  Its rounded sides have more of an appeal to me than the sharp corners of the pyramid of Kukulcan in Chichen Itza.
But part of the reason I love this particular pyramid has to do with the legend of its creation.
 
According to this legend, a dwarf, hatched from an egg, built it in one night. While doing it, he proved himself worthy to be the king of the ancient city.  Read the whole legend, as well as a different point of view of my trip to Uxmal here.
Revisiting the Nunnery Quadrangle
The Nunnery. Uxmal
The Nunnery Quadrangle
Early in the morning we were sharing the site with only a handful of visitors. We made our way to the main compound of the Nunnery Quadrangle. The name doesn’t fit, it has nothing to do with nuns or any kind of nunnery. The Spaniards mislabeled it when they first saw it.  The plaza surrounded by four major structures resembled their idea of a nunnery.
Archaeologists think that the plaza was a palace for high officials. In the center, it has a stage for ceremonial dances.  Walking though it, we marvel at the elaborately decorated facades of the buildings. We can no longer enter any of the rooms, though we remember being inside them during previous visits. They are each very similar, in shape and size, with small variations.
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery. Uxmal
Archway Entrance to the Nunnery
Ball Court in Uxmal

We left the Nunnery Quadrangle, and walked through the ball court.  Not quite as large as the one in Chichen Itza, it is still spectacular. This time it looked better than I remembered. We could tell that work was done to reconstruct it in the past few years.

Ballcourt. Uxmal
Ballcourt.
Walking through the Palace of the Governors

We walked over to the Palace of the Governors, a long building on top of a high platform.  My favorite feature of it is the facade. In fact, it is the longest facade in the Yucatan featuring the Rain God, Chak.

Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Palace of the Governors. Uxmal

These rooms were not closed, so we were able to enter them once again. We revisited the rooms that Stevens and Catherwood, the first Western explorers of the region, lived in while here.  We talk about them as we walk through the rooms, and recognize the signs of fire in one of them.  I remembered reading an interesting entry in their book about how a native built the fire for them. They wrote the Incidents of Travels in Yucatan over a century ago, but the book is still a good read.

Facade on the Palace of the Governors. Uxmal
Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Facade on the Palace of the Governors

Casa de la Tortugas

We walked over to the Casa de Las Tortugas, the small structure decorated with turtles. It was starting to get warm as the day progressed. We were prepared for the usual hot and sticky feeling we always get while exploring Mayan ruins. This time, Chak must have been in an unusually good mood. Clouds rolled in and a welcomed breeze cooled us down.

Casa de las Tortugas. Uxmal
Casa de las Tortugas
On the Grand Pyramid
We moved on to one of the structures we can still climb, the Grand Pyramid.  We sat on top of it for a long time, enjoying the breeze, and the view of the site.  
The pleasant breeze was soon accompanied by a few drops of rain. We visited this site often during the years, but I don’t ever remember rain here.  Chak, the rain god, was happy indeed.  We stood on top for a long time, enjoying the water hitting our hot bodies.
On top of the Main Pyramid. Uxmal
On top of the Grand Pyramid
While we were enjoying the light rain, we didn’t notice the crowds coming into the site. We looked down and realized that the major parts of the site were overrun by huge tour groups. When one of the large groups started climbing the stairs of the pyramid, we decided that it was time to leave.
The Cemetery
We took the opportunity to revisit the cemetery. Most tours and visitors don’t bother walking so far, so we found ourselves alone once again. Later, we encountered one lone visitor here, among the stones decorated with skulls. Like us, he was enjoying the quiet that this out-of-the-way part of the site offered.
The Pyramid of the Old Woman
Later on we took the less traveled path towards the Pyramid of the Old Woman, the mother of the legendary dwarf. Overgrown by vegetation, the trail doesn’t seem to be used, though is not closed down. Few visitors wonder out this far off the beaten path.
The pyramid of the Old Woman is still in rubble, though for the first time since our many visits, it is roped off. ‘Will they work on reconstructing it?’, we wonder. It is a good size pyramid, though far from the center of the city.
According to legend, this Old Woman was a witch and lived in a small hut.  After her son, the dwarf, became king, he built this pyramid for her.  It must have been beautiful in its time.
 
On the way out, we had trouble navigating the crowds in the main plaza and the entrance area. We were glad that once again we managed to enjoy the site while sharing it with only a handful of fellow visitors.

Why Visiting Costa Rica Is More Fun With a Ten-Year-Old

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.

costa rica - la paz butterfly garden

Late Arrival
When we walked into the small, local restaurant at ten o’clock at night, the lingering teens turned their heads in our directions. Besides their group, no one seemed to be in the tiny establishment. The restaurant had only two tables, one taken by the above-mentioned teens. We sat down at the other one and hoped for the best.
 
We were in a local neighborhood of San Jose, Costa Rica. The tiny hotel we got our room in was close to the airport.  We picked it because our plane landed late at night. In another lifetime, without kids, we would have skipped dinner, opting for a few snacks. But, I could not let my child go to bed without a proper meal. So there we were, at an almost deserted restaurant, in the middle of a local neighborhood.
 
A middle-aged waitress came out and tried telling us in Spanish that they were closed. Then she noticed our daughter and smiled.
“Never mind, I can serve you anyway”, she added. I guessed that she was not only the waitress, but the owner as well.
She brought out a few tiny hand-written menus, and offered to bring us fresh fruit juices. We ordered three different flavors, pineapple, coconut, and strawberries.
 
As we watched, she put the fresh fruit in a blender, and whipped up some of the best, freshest smoothies we’ve ever tasted.
 
It was tricky to order since she did not speak a word of English and our Spanish was rudimentary. She had no children’s menu, no easy, fast food, only local fare. Still, she tried to find out what our daughter liked and work around her taste buds.
We ended up ordering three different meals, hoping that one of them would please her, and we’d eat the other ones. We expected our picky eater to be… well, picky, her usual self. To my surprise, she sampled everything and liked it all. She ended up eating the most unusual local dish, with nothing familiar in it. You never know with kids.
Traveling without a Plan
After that first night, we had no hotel reservations, only a vague idea of what we wanted to see and do. It was one of our regular “go with the flow, see what you can find” type of trip. No one I know does this with kids. I probably don’t know the right people. Our friends might think that we torture our kids when we take them on trips with no reservations and no plans. But, our kids are used to this and love it (or so they say). They have done it since the day they were born. Kids are much more flexible and resilient than we give them credit for.
 
On the first morning of our trip we got in our rental car and set off. We stopped at a local grocery store, bought plenty of water and snacks for the road, then started driving. Leaving the area proved harder than we anticipated. We drove around in circles for a while, feeling lost. I noticed the raised eyebrows and questioning looks of some locals watching us.  When we passed them the fourth time, we stopped by them. Without even waiting for us to ask, they came over and offered advice on how to make it out of the neighborhood.  We finally made it to the highway towards Poas Volcano.
Kids Make You Slow Down and Smell the Roses
Things were slower since we stopped more often with our daughter. After a “short” stop at the volcano, it was past lunch time. The snacks were not enough to hold her over longer. When we saw something that resembled a restaurant on the side of the road, we stopped.
 
 As we were exploring the premises, we realized that the restaurant was also a small hotel.  Yes, they did have one room left available for the night. By then our daughter already made friends with one of the dogs, and she begged us to stay for the night. Of course, we stayed.  We were in no rush, we had no set destination.
 
After our (very) late lunch, we got acquainted with all the other animals on the premises. The hotel seemed to be also a farm, with goats, sheep, cows, and more dogs.
 
Kids find everything, in this case, including a trail into the jungle right in our back yard. I followed my daughter into the dense forest. We live in the desert, so being in a tropical jungle was an especially great treat for both of us. She got excited about anything, a tree, a bush, a bug, even a broken bridge that we traversed.
breathe the fresh air. costa rica
bridge in the jungle. costa rica
We Spend a Day at La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden

Costa Rica - 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.

Costa Rica - Toucan in La Paz Gardens

Costa Rica - Jaguar in La Paz Gardens

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.

Butterfly in La Paz Gardens Costa Rica

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.

Costa Rica - La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden

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

On the road to another destination, she noticed a bunch of little animals. We stopped to watch a family of agoutis walk by the side of the road. We spent what seemed like hours on the side of the road, following them around.

Then, they decided to cross the road. My daughter asked me if we could help them. We walked out in the middle to make sure other cars would stop to let the little creatures cross. Would we have done it without her? I’m not so sure. Even if we stopped, we would have been long gone before they decided to cross.

Grazing Deer Lead Us to A Two-Day Stay in a Resort
Later on, we passed an area where a bunch of deer were grazing. Again, our ten-year old she asked us to stop. We pulled into the parking lot of what ended up being a hotel and restaurant. Since it was close to lunch time, we ate, then took a walk on the premises.
 
We ended up staying two nights there, and it was some of the best part of our trip. We found the pool deserted after we checked in, so we enjoyed a soak/swim/playtime. While swimming, we noticed a few howler monkeys in the surrounding trees.
howler monkeys in costa rica
 
Later in the day, they got very vocal, and we were able to follow them jumping from one tree to the next. A few families of howlers lived on the premises. They woke us up in the morning, since they sat up camp in the tree by our window.
 
We watched them for hours, following them as they moved from one tree to the next. While they were fun to watch on the treetops, the agoutis were hard to miss, walking around us.  We also noticed some other small animals that we only found out their local name (and forgot), and the deer that led us to stop there in the first place. Walking around the hotel grounds turned out to be a lot of fun itself.  We didn’t need to drive anywhere to enjoy nature and see plenty of wildlife. 

Without our daughter, we might have seen “more”. We would have rushed through things, trying to get to as many destinations as possible in a short time. She forced us to slow down, to enjoy time in another country, make friends with locals and local fauna. Taking our daughter on that trip made it slower paced, and much more enjoyable.