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2024
South Pacific Voyage - February/March
Chile - January

2023
Canada - November
China - September/October
Marquesas Islands - June
Japan & Alaska - April/May
Mexico Cruise - February
Chile - January

2022
Mexico Cruise - December
Mexico City - October
Alaska - September
Colorado - July
Galapagos Islands - June
Argentina & Peru - March
Costa Rica - January

2021
Italy - October
Croatia - October

Iceland - July/August
Costa Rica - April

2020
Bolivia - February
Panama Canal Voyage - January

2019
Atlantic Crossing Westbound - October/November
Naples & Civitavecchia - October
Thailand - October
Alaska - August/September
Nepal - June

Mediterranean Cruise - April
Atlantic Crossing - March/April

2018
Chengdu, China - November
Jordan - October

Colorado Revisited - September
Polar Ice Voyage - July
Tibet, China - June
Colorado Springs - June
Mandalay, Myanmar - March
Bagan, Myanmar - March
Northwest Argentina - January

2017
Northern Territory, Australia - October/November
Pacific Ocean Cruise - September/October
Chongqing, China - June
Thailand - June
Pacific Northwest - April/May
China: Yunnan & Guangxi Provinces - March

2016
Mediterranean Cruise - October/November
Greek Isles - October
Taiwan - August
China: Xinjiang Province Part 1 - July

China: Xinjiang Province Part 2 - July
Pacific Northwest - May
Thailand - April

2015
China: Yangtze River Tour - October
China: Chongqing - October

China: Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces - August
Taiwan - July
Seattle - May
China - April
India - January

 

2014
South America - December
Australia - October
Abu Dhabi, UAE - September

China - August
China - April
Norway - February
India - January

2013
Batam, Indonesia - October
Cambodia - October

Dubai - September
Datong, China - August

Alaska - May
Dazu County, China - April
Vietnam - March
India - January/February

2012
Nepal & Thailand - November
China - August
San Francisco - July

Turkey - June
Orcas Island - May
Java - April
Malta - February
India - January

2011
Nepal - November
Australia (HMB Endeavour) - August
Thailand - June
Sri Lanka/Thailand - March/April
Sofia, Bulgaria - February
India/Thailand - January

2010
Thailand - October
Egypt - September
Australia - July
Maui - May
South America (Europa) - March-April
Bucharest - February
India - January

2009
Laos/Thailand - November
Ireland - September
Boston to Halifax (Europa) - July
Sydney - June
India - April
Portugal - March
Budapest - February
Thailand - January

2008
South America (Europa) - October
London - May
Thailand - April
Turkey - March
Berlin - February
Bali - January

2007
Thailand - October
Around the World in 98 Days - February-May  

2006
Thailand - November
Australia/Thailand/Singapore - July  

2005
Antarctica - December
Thailand - October
Thailand - April  

2004
Thailand - February  

2003
India/Thailand - October

 
 
   
  February/March 2024
South Pacific Voyage

Travel Notes

 

While on the Holland America voyage circumnavigating Japan and Pacific Ocean crossing via Alaska, we booked a South Pacific Holland America itinerary round trip out of San Diego, California. The voyage was 35 days to the Hawaiian Islands, Fanning Island, Raiatea, Tahiti, Moorea, Fakarava, and Nuku Hiva on the cruise ship KONINGSDAM.

Since the Amtrak train tracks were washed out near San Clemente, we took the bus from downtown Los Angeles to Old Town San Diego on Friday, 16 February, and a taxi to the Westin Bayview hotel. The following day, we boarded the KONINGSDAM at the San Diego Cruise Ship Terminal to begin the voyage. During the sea days en route to Hilo, Hawaii, we attended several presentations on board the ship and enjoyed the evening performances.

We arrived at Hilo on Friday morning, 23 February, and went on the “Hawaii Volcanoes National Park & A Taste of the Big Island” excursion. The first stop was to visit Rainbow Falls. Waters of the Wailuku River drop 24 meters (80 feet) to create Waianuenue or Rainbow Falls. The falls plunge in front of a lava cave that has been created by the back splash as it falls into the pool below. After arriving at the Volcano National Park, we drove the Crater Rim Road to the Kilauea Crater Overlook. This lookout provided unobstructed panoramic views of the crater. From here we back-tracked on Crater Rim Road to view several steam vents en route to Volcano House. We also saw some Hawaiian Geese by the road before reaching Volcano House.

Volcano House, opened in 1846, is situated above the crater rim. It has hosted numerous famous guests including Mark Twain, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amelia Earhart, Louis Pasteur, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The Volcano House Overlook is between Volcano House and the rim of the crater. Not only is the view from the overlook spectacular, but the panoramic views from within Volcano House are stunning.

After leaving Volcano House, we drove to an area of a lava flow where people can experience walking on lava from an eruption several years earlier. Our final stop at the park was to hike the Thurston Lava Tube (Nahuku) trail. A lava tube is created when a river of molten lava leaves a cave-like tube after the molten lava has finally drained from it. The trail is 0.8 km (1/2 mile) long and runs through a rainforest to and through the Thurston Lava Tube.

We stopped at the Volcano Winery where we tasted several wines and ate a picnic lunch provided by the excursion. This winery claims the title of being the southernmost winery in the USA. Our final stop was to visit the Macadamia Nut Factory before returning to the ship.

On Saturday morning, 24 February, the ship arrived at Kahului, Maui. Since we didn’t have a shore excursion booked, we took a taxi to the Maui Nui Botanical Gardens. This garden was established during the 1970s and is the only botanical garden in Hawaii. It is located on a coastal dune system featuring native Hawaiian coastal and dry forest plants. The site was formerly a zoo and a botanical garden before the zoo closed in 1997. The garden is home to more than 60 varieties of native Hawaiian plants.

On Sunday, 25 February, the ship arrived at Nawiliwili, Kauai. We had visited Kauai in the past and took a short walk from the ship along Kalapaki Beach. The weather was nice and the scenery was beautiful.

The ship arrived at Honolulu, O’ahu on Monday, 26 February, for a two day visit. Since I didn’t have a shore excursion booked, I walked to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum, designated the Hawaii State Museum of Natural and Cultural History. It was founded in 1889 by Charles Reed Bishop in honor of his late wife, Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop, the last descendant of the royal Kamehameha family. It is the largest museum in Hawaii and houses the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and natural history specimens.

The museum is well worth visiting when in Honolulu. The artifacts are truly exceptional and well captioned. I only visited the main museum building with the Hawaiian and Polynesian artifacts, but there are additional exhibits as well as a planetarium. The collection of numerous wooden sculptures was extensive and well presented. A 1909 giant sperm whale is suspended in the main exhibit hall. A small hall beside the main hall had a wonderful exhibit showing all of the Polynesian island chains and nearly all of the various outrigger canoe styles from each region. After visiting the museum, I walked back to the ship.

On the morning of Tuesday, 27 February, we embarked on the “Iconic Diamond Head Adventure Hike” shore excursion. The proper name for Diamond Head is Le’ahi, a volcano formed about 300,000 years ago during a single brief eruption. The crater covers 350 acres and is about 0.65-mile wide. The summit of the crater is 232 meters (761 feet) high and is at the southwestern rim. In the late 1700s, Western explorers and traders visited Le’ahi and mistook the calcite crystals in the rocks of the slopes of the crater to be diamonds. The name Diamond Head became the common name for the crater. Today, Le’ahi (Diamond Head) is the most recognized landmark in Hawaii. It was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1968.

After driving to Diamond Head, we drove through the Kahala Tunnel into the crater. The hike is 1.3 km (0.8 mile) to the summit one way. The trail climbs to 171 meters (560 feet) above the crater floor. It follows an uneven and vertical terrain with steep stairways and semi-dark tunnels. Highlights along the trail included a lookout on the concrete foundation which held a winch and cable that lifted materials from the crater floor to this point during construction at the summit. Two more lookout sites are available en route to the summit observation station. The Fire Control Station Diamond Head, summit observation station, was built at the summit of the crater between 1908 and 1910. The tunnel and metal spiral stairs within the Fire Control Station add interesting aspects to the hike.

We departed Honolulu on the evening of 27 February to sail to Fanning Island. At about 11:00 AM, the Captain made an announcement that, due to a medical emergency, the ship would change course and sail toward Kona, Hawaii, to meet a US Coast Guard helicopter to perform a medical evacuation of the patient at an estimated time of 4:30 PM. As we continued toward Kona, the time for the evacuation kept slipping and at the end of the day, we sailed to Kona and the patient was evacuated via tender boat at midnight. We were informed the following morning that the coast guard helicopter designated to perform the medevac procedure refueled at Kona, and then was unable to take off due to a mechanical malfunction. The result was that we would now skip Fanning Island and would continue directly to Raiatea.

After several sea days, we arrived at Raiatea, French Polynesia, on Tuesday morning, 5 March. Jan and I went on the Holland America shore excursion that consisted of a catamaran cruise from the port to the Marae Taputapuatea UNESCO protected site. We passed Tapioi mountain and the Temehani plateau surrounded by lush deep green valleys en route to the archaeological site. Marae Taputapuatea is a large marae complex at Opoa in Taputapuatea, on the south eastern coast of Raiatea. The site features a number of marae and other stone structures and was once considered the central temple and religious center of Eastern Polynesia. In 2017, the Taputapuatea area and the marae complex were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List because of its political and religious significance and its testimony to traditional eastern Polynesian culture.

Marae generally consist of an area of cleared roughly rectangular land (the marae itself), bordered with stones or wooden posts (called au in Tahitian and Cook Islands Māori), and perhaps including paepae (terraces), which were traditionally used for ceremonial purposes, and, in some cases, a central stone ahu or a'u. The Marae Taputapuatea complex is positioned at the end of a peninsula that juts into the lagoon surrounding Raiatea. The center of the complex holds the marae itself, a rectangular courtyard measuring 44 by 60 meters and paved with basalt. At the east end of the marae is the ahu, a basalt and coral platform used for ceremonies. Other marae are located within the marae complex, including marae Hauviri, which was used for the naming of chiefs.

I found the site to be very interesting with similarities of the terrace construction to the sites at Rapa Nui (Easter Island). At the location where the catamaran docked, a local guide escorted us to the site and provided ample historical information on Marae Taputapuatea. After the description by the guide, we were given some free time to explore the site before returning to the catamaran for the cruise back to the ship.

On Wednesday, 4 March, we walked around the Raiatea port area, visited local shops, and found an ATM to obtain some local Pacific Francs for use while visiting French Polynesia. We departed Raiatea at 5:00 PM to sail to Papeete, Tahiti.

We arrived at Papeete, Tahiti on Thursday, 7 March, and, after disembarking, we went on the afternoon Holland America Tahiti West Coast shore excursion. The morning excursion was delayed nearly an hour due to extremely heavy street traffic. This delay, in addition to the heavy traffic we continued to encounter, added time constraints to our scheduled visits.

The first stop on the excursion was at the Museum of Tahiti and The Islands. Since I visited here in July 2023 and have extensive photos of the exhibits, I took minimal photos during our visit. This museum is located on an ancient site in Tahiti and showcases ancient Polynesian history and culture. Our visit was limited to 30 minutes which is much too short for a first time visit to the museum.

Our second stop was at the Arahurahu Marae, a sacred structure of black stone built solely for rituals. The Arahurahu was set at the foot of a cliff surrounded by jungle. Access to the site was by a trail lined with tikis leading to a three-story marae. This site was restored in 1953 and is still in use today as part of the Polynesian Renaissance. It is the only marae in all of Polynesia that has been fully restored.

We continued on to visit the Vaipahi (rushing water) Gardens. Our stop here was approximately twenty minutes, but the site was wonderful with a waterfall and amazing colorful plants and ponds with water flowing through them. I recommend this as a not-to-be-missed attraction when visiting Papeete. The photo opportunities here are amazing.

Our final stop was to visit the Grottos de Mara’a, also known as Ferns Grotto. These grotto caves were described in Captain Cook’s journal and were also a popular bathing spot for Paul Gauguin on hot afternoons as described in his book, Noa Noa. Once again, due to time constraints, we were only able to visit the Grotto Vaipoiri. After visiting the grotto, we drove back to the ship and arrived nearly two hours late. Fortunately, the ship spent the night at Papeete.

On Friday, 8 March, since we didn’t have a shore excursion scheduled, we walked from the ship along the harbor to visit Paofai Gardens. The Gardens of Paofai were inaugurated on 2 February 2010. It encompasses an area of five hectares open to the public and offers a peaceful, shady area in the middle of Papeete town center. There is a fitness trail, leisure area, and picnic site, as well as several grassy lawns where people can relax. Since it is adjacent to the harbor, it provides stunning views of the harbor and Moorea. After exploring Paofai Gardens we returned to the ship, which was scheduled to depart Papeete at 4:30 PM.

We arrived at Opunohu Bay, Moorea, on Saturday, 9 March, and took a tender boat to go ashore at Papetoai Marina. We paid a deposit for a 3 hour shore excursion reservation for the following day at 9:30 AM. Since we didn’t have any shore excursion booked for the day, we set out to explore the local area near the marina. As we walked along the main road, we soon discovered that aside from the marina proper the only nearby attraction was Magic Mountain Lookout. I decided to hike up the mountain in the sweltering heat while Jan visited with a local lady at her roadside handicraft stall.

I paid 200 Francs to access the steep road up the mountain. I was passed along the road by several small 4x4 ATV off-road vehicles as I trudged along on the steep uphill hike. I didn’t have enough water as I continued toward the top and finally decided to abandon the hike with about 10% remaining to the summit. I did take some beautiful scenic photographs of Opunohu Bay, the mountains, and the atoll reef in the distance. After returning to the main road, I stopped to purchase a Coca Cola before walking back to meet Jan. We continued walking to the tender dock at the marina to return to the ship.

On Sunday morning, 10 March, we took a tender to meet our 9:30 AM excursion that we reserved the day before. After paying the balance due for our reserved excursion, we were told to wait for the excursion to begin. At 9:30 AM, we were told that the tour needed to book at least 2 more people to go forward. After another 20 minutes, the tour offered to take us on a private tour for double the amount that we had already paid. We declined the offer, and the tour operator reluctantly refunded our money. We looked around and found another comparable tour for a slightly larger fee departing in ten minutes. We booked the tour and joined other people in a small air conditioned van that was less than half full.

Our first stop on the tour was at Belvedere Lookout which offered views of both Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay. From there we visited the Opunohu Valley Maraes but did not have time to visit the entire site. This site will be a good place to explore if I ever return to Moorea. We continued on past pineapple and sugar cane fields to the main road. We then continued driving around Opunohu Bay and Cook’s Bay with excellent photo stops. One highlight as we drove around the island was a stop at the iconic Toatea Lookout. We made a brief stop at the Moorea ferry terminal and at a Polynesian Warrior statue as we continued our drive around Moorea. The tour was excellent and well worth the cost. We returned to the ship which departed Moorea at 4:30 PM.

After one additional sea day, we arrived at Fakarava, Tuamotu, on Tuesday morning, 12 March. Fakarava is an atoll in the west of the Tuamotu group of islands in French Polynesia. It is the second largest of the Tuamotu atolls. The atoll is roughly rectangular measuring 60 kilometers (37 miles) in length and 21 kilometers (13 miles) in width. Fakarava has approximately 837 inhabitants. This was a tender port and, aside from the beach, there is a unique lighthouse and a colorful church in addition to some local shops.

After I arrived on shore, I walked along the lagoon beach to visit the church and walk through the local cemetery to access the ocean side of the atoll. The temperature was very hot with periods of light rain. As the rain intensified, I returned to the tender dock and then returned to the ship. From the ship, the unique lighthouse was clearly visible off in the distance. I was able to take a decent long-range photo which I cropped into a good photo of the lighthouse. Several fellow passengers said that they were able to travel to remote locations where they encountered good snorkeling opportunities.

After another day at sea, we arrived at the island of Nuku Hiva on the morning of Thursday, 14 March. Nuku Hiva is an island in the Marquesas group of the French Polynesian islands. Since I had visited here last year during my voyage on the ARANUI 5, mixed-class freighter, I booked “Taipivai Valley: Scenic Drive,” the only shore excursion offered by Holland America, hoping to see some new sights. During my visit to Nuku Hiva last year, Lehai, my English speaking tour guide, told me of another archaeological site in Taiohae village which we didn’t have time to visit. The name of this site is Tohua Temehea and I decided to visit the site before my pre-booked excursion began.

After arriving via the tender, my first stop was to visit the handicraft shop near the pier to shop for a “flower stone” sculpture. Flower stones are only found on two beaches world-wide with one being at a Marquesas island beach. I found a flower stone sculpture of a sea turtle which I immediately purchased. With my flower stone purchase completed, I walked along the shore to the location of Tohua Temehea.

Tohua Temehea is an ancient ceremonial and meeting site in Taiohae, Nuku Hiva. A Tohua is a large rectangular plaza with flat areas surrounded by platforms. It is the ancestral home of Queen Vaekehu who was considered to be the last queen or chieftainess of the Taiohae. She married another chief of the once divided tribe reuniting the two halves of the tribe. The site now contains a number of carved stones brought from around the Pacific for the First Marquesan International Art Festival. I highly recommend a visit to this site for travelers visiting Nuku Hiva for the first time.

After exploring Tohua Temehea, I walked back to the pier to wait for Jan to take a tender to join me for our afternoon Taipivai Valley Scenic Drive excursion. Taipivai Valley is a valley that runs from inland Nuku Hiva to the Comptroller Bay. The tour consisted of a caravan of vehicles and we were in a small 4 wheel drive truck. The tour stopped at a couple of high viewpoints overlooking the valley and then descended into the valley to visit the historic site of Tohua Te Aitua. There is not much literature available about this site, but there was one reference that it is the location of a Marquesas Islands Festival held there once every five years. There were several platforms within a large plaza-like area with many beautiful sculptured tiki statues at various locations. We were offered fruit to snack on as well as a variety of handcrafted items for sale. From here we drove to Taipivai Beach, located at Comptroller Bay, for a brief stop. As we drove back to Taiohae, we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking both Taiohae Bay and the cruise ship before another stop at the cathedral. From here we returned to the tender docking area and took a tender back to the ship. This port concluded our island visits before returning to San Diego, California.

After eight more days at sea, we disembarked at San Diego and took a Lyft car back home.

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  January 2024
Chile

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Chile, South America, in January 2024 to expand on my prior travels there. After returning from the Holland America voyage circumnavigating Japan and Pacific Ocean crossing via Alaska, I began planning a possible itinerary for Chile. I finally decided that I wanted to spend a week at the Atacama Desert, visit Torres del Paine, take the Navimag Ferry through the Patagonian Fjords, visit the Chilean Lake District near Puerto Montt, and possibly visit a high altitude lake on a day trip from Santiago.

I booked a one-stop flight on Latam Airlines from Los Angeles to Santiago departing 4 January with a return Latam Airlines nonstop flight on 30 January. I also booked travel between Santiago, Calama, Puerto Natales, the Navimag Ferry, and Puerto Montt. Since the regular passenger car that I had previously rented at Calama during my 2023 visit was inadequate for the Atacama Desert roads, I booked an Avis 4-wheel drive 6-speed manual transmission mining truck for driving the Atacama roads.

This was my fifth visit to Santiago. I revisited the Pre-Columbian Museum and old Santiago Railroad Station Museum. I also decided to take the metro train to visit Plaza de Maipu at the end of Line 5. Plaza de Maipu, however, was nothing to write home about. On Tuesday, 9 January, I flew from Santiago to Calama and rented a red Mitsubishi L200 4x4 truck from Avis at the Calama Airport and drove to San Pedro de Atacama where I checked into the Terrantai Lodge Hotel for the next seven nights. This is the same very nice hotel that I stayed at in 2023.

On Wednesday morning, 10 January, I drove to the Rainbow Valley, Valle de Arcoiris, which I had not previously visited. I drove on Highway 23 and turned right at Highway B-207, driving past the Petroglifos de Verbas Buenas to an unmarked road just before reaching Rio Salado. I turned left on the unmarked road and, after fording Rio Salado four times with my 4x4 truck, I finally arrived at the Rainbow Valley. I drove through the valley until the road ended and did a small amount of hiking. The valley was picturesque but was not as spectacular as I was hoping. After driving back to Highway B-207, I continued on to revisit the small village of Rio Grande. It was now time to backtrack to San Pedro de Atacama with a stop to revisit Petroglifos de Verbas Buenas.

On Thursday morning, 11 January, I decided to visit an archaeological site near the town of Peine about 100 kilometers south of San Pedro. I drove south on Highway 23, past the town of Toconao, to Highway B-355, which would take me to Peine. As I approached the turnoff to Peine, a group of civilians had set up a roadblock to prevent travel on B-355 in both directions. I later learned that the civilians were protesting Lithium mining that is threatening flamingos in the National Flamingo Reserves at Salar de Atacama.

Since I could no longer continue to Peine, I turned left on B-379 to Highway 23 and continued to the town of Socaire. I stopped at a tourist office in Socaire and purchased admission tickets to visit Salar de Aguas Caliente, Laguna Miscanti, and Laguna Miniques. I continued on Highway 23 to Salar de Aguas Caliente. After hiking around a portion of the picturesque trails there, I backtracked on Highway 23 to an unmarked unpaved road leading to Lagunas Miscanti and Miniques. Laguna Miscanti and Laguna Miniques are both situated within the National Flamingo Reserve Sector 3. Both picturesque lagoons had interesting wildlife to photograph. After visiting the lagoons, I photographed the church at Socaire on the return trip to San Pedro. In retrospect, the roadblock en route to Peine was a blessing.

On Friday morning, 12 January, I decided to visit Geysers del Tatio approximately 84 kilometers north of San Pedro. I drove north on Highway B-245 past Quebrada Escalera and stopped to admire Laguna Flamingos which was part of Rio Putana where I also saw gunacos, vicuñas, wild donkeys, and many birds including Andean Flamingos. After passing the village of Machaca, I got a wonderful view of Volcan Putana before Highway B-245 turned into a terrible unpaved road. After continuing on the unpaved B-245, I encountered road construction and was directed to leave B-245 and drive on tracks in the desert paralleling the highway construction. The off-road driving became increasingly challenging as I tried to determine which set of track ruts to drive in as I continued on to the geysers.

Before arriving at the geysers, unpaved Highway B-245 was once again navigable but had a washboard-like surface typical of unpaved secondary roads. Geysers El Tatio is a geothermal field with many geysers at 4,320 meters (14,170 feet) above mean sea level. It is the third-largest geyser field in the world and the largest in the Southern Hemisphere. It is also the highest altitude geyser field in the world. After touring the visitor center, I drove to the first of several parking areas and hiked around several geysers that were the location of what was sometimes used as a hot spring swimming area. The swimming area was pretty much empty of water and was surrounded with Do Not Enter barriers. I continued driving from here to other areas of the geyser field and hiked around several spectacular geyser cones and colorful hot springs.

After visiting the geysers, I drove back to San Pedro and was lucky enough to find the Church of San Pedro de Atacama open for visitation. It is a Catholic church constructed during the Spanish colonial period and is reportedly the second oldest church in Chile. The original church was destroyed by fire and was reconstructed. Notable is the use of dried cactus wooden planks for the roof and the use of llama skin leather strips to lash together the joists and rafters supporting the roof. The entry gate is also constructed with dried cactus boards and lashed together with llama skin leather strips.

On Saturday, 13 January, I decided to drive Highway 27 across the mountains past the Paso Portezuelo de Cajon border crossing into Bolivia to Salar de Loyoques ó Quisquiro, approximately 25 kilometers from the Paso Jama border crossing into Argentina. This was a trip that I was unable to accomplish during my 2023 visit. Highway 27 was a very good road and my first brief stop was to view Salar y Laguna de Tara. Tara means nest of flamingos. The Salt Lake Tara is the natural habitat for a large number of Andean Flamingos nesting here. The fauna consists of three species of flamingos, vicuñas, foxes, highland guinea pigs, chululos, Andean gulls, jergon ducks, and guallata geese. It is located in between volcanos in the National Reserve of the Flamingos at 4,300 meters (14,107 feet) elevation. Its surface is 48 square kilometers big and is composed by lagoons and small rivers, creating spectacular scenery with hilly regions, volcanos, animals and native vegetation. After taking some photos here, I continued on to Salar de Loyoques Quisquiro and would return here on the return drive to San Pedro. This site should not be missed when in the area.

Salar de Loyoques ó Quisquir covers an area of around 80 square kilometers. The average surface elevation of its drainage basin is 4,430 meters (14,530 feet) and is located within the La Pacana caldera. After purchasing admission, I hiked around a portion of the trails within the tourist access to the site. The flamingos here also provided for wonderful photo opportunities. The weather was perfect for beautiful photos of all of the salars and lagunas that I visited.

On the return drive to San Pedro, I also stopped to view and photograph Vega Quepiaco adjacent to Highway 27. Vega Quepiaco is the Quepiaco River located at approximately 4,500 meters (14,764 feet) elevation and covers an area of 28 hectares. It was very picturesque with several vicuñas grazing in the river. Continuing my drive back to San Pedro, I photographed both the Paso Portezuelo de Cajon border crossing into Bolivia and Volcan Licancabur on the border of Chile and Bolivia.

On Sunday morning,14 January, I decided to drive north to visit the small village of Caspana on the recommendation of one of the employees of the Terrantai Lodge Hotel. This involved repeating the drive north of San Pedro on Highway B-245 to Highway B-157. This time I stopped at the viewpoint to take photographs of Quebrada Escalara, a deep canyon with dramatic curves and lines with a reed-filled riverbed at the bottom. As I continued north, I drove past the Laguna Flamingos, Rio Putana, Machaca, and the unpaved off-road portion of B-245 to the intersection of Highway B-157 to Caspana. After turning onto B-157, I was able to photograph many vicuñas grazing in the picturesque Rio de Juana. Highway B-157 was a beautiful drive over the mountains and around Quebrada Chita, Chita Canyon. Before reaching Caspana, I saw a sign pointing to Caspana on an unpaved road. I took this unpaved road which ended up being a shortcut to Caspana across a desert plateau. After arriving at Caspana, I found it to be a small village with difficult access involving extremely narrow one lane roads. I stopped at a small store to purchase a soft drink before beginning the long drive back to San Pedro.

On Monday, 15 January, I decided to revisit the Valley of the Moon. After arriving at the visitor center for the Valley of the Moon, visitors were required to purchase admission tickets at a ticket vending machine. Much to my surprise, many people were having difficulty getting the machine to issue tickets with the staff needing to reset the machine multiple times. When my turn came, the machine attempted to charge my credit card and after my credit card sent a validation code to me, the machine denied my card which I had been using on a daily basis. I decided that I would not continue trying to get admission to the Valley of the Moon and left. I continued down the road from the Valley of the Moon to visit the Aldea de Tulor Archaeological Site. The visitor center has replica structures with a guided tour to brief people before allowing them to visit the actual site. This is one of the oldest sedentary archaeological sites in northern Chile. It is composed of the remains of a series of interconnected circular structures used by the ancient inhabitants of the site. Two replica structures had been constructed on the site.

I continued on the road to attempt to visit Laguna Cejar. Since I was not part of a large pre-reserved tour group, I was denied access and simply took a long distance photo of the lake. Not to be deterred by the events so far today, I drove to Highway 23 where I photographed some goats drinking at a waterhole adjacent to the highway and continued on to visit the town of Toconao. Toconao had a wonderful town square with a gorgeous white bell tower across from the Toconao Church. The church was impressive and, as I walked around the town, I came across the wonderful remains of an old truck that I found to be very photogenic. After a brief visit to a souvenir shop, I continued driving to the intersection of Highway B-355 which I took until I came to the intersection of a road with a sign to Laguna Chaxa.

I took the unpaved road B-373 to Laguna Chaxa and purchased admission at a very impressive visitor center with extensive displays in both Spanish and English about the site. Laguna Chaxa holds the title as the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos’s most easily accessible flamingo-breeding site. All three types of flamingos found in South America can be found at Laguna Chaxa: the Andean, James, and Chilean. I hiked along the pathway across a portion of the laguna to an elevated concrete visitor viewing platform and took spectacular photos of the laguna and the many flamingos present. This wrapped up my visit to the Atacama Desert, and I returned to San Pedro.

After breakfast on Tuesday, 16 January, out of an abundance of caution, I walked to the hotel secure parking lot to make sure that my rental truck was ready for the 100 kilometer drive to the Calama airport. Much to my surprise, my left rear tire was flat. I walked back to the hotel and one of the ladies called her husband who came to help me change the tire. After the tire was successfully changed, I examined the flat tire and observed that a nail had punctured the tire when I parked the truck in the lot the night before. With the tire changed, I checked out of the hotel and drove to the airport to fly back to Santiago.

Since my next flight departed Santiago to Puerto Natales at 5:31 AM on Thursday, 18 January, I spent Tuesday and Wednesday nights at the Santiago Airport Holiday Inn hotel. My flight to Puerto Natales was uneventful and, after collecting my checked bag at the tiny airport, I arrived at the Hotel Costaustralis by taxi a little before 10:00 AM. The hotel gave me an early check in as well as a buffet breakfast. What a great way to start my visit at Puerto Natales. The hotel was on the waterfront with a nice pedestrian path along the shore of the Señoret Channel.

Puerto Natales is a port city on the Señoret Channel in Chile’s southern Patagonia. It is the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park to the northwest, and the port for boats touring the Patagonian fjords. Since I already had reservations for a day trip to Torres del Paine for Friday, 19 January, I walked along the waterfront and then walked through a portion of downtown Puerto Natales. I located the Navimag Ferry Office and docking area during my walk along the waterfront.

Torres del Paine National Park is a massive, mountainous national park in southern Patagonia known for its scenic glaciers, beautiful lakes, lush forests, and the three iconic granite peaks of Paine Massif. The Torres del Paine are the distinctive three granite peaks of the Paine mountain range or Paine Massif. From left to right they are known as Torre d'Agostini, Torre Central, and Torre Monzino. They extend up to 2,500 meters (8,200 ft) above sea level and are joined by the Cuernos del Paine. The area also boasts valleys, rivers such as the Paine, lakes, and glaciers. The well-known lakes include Grey, Pehoé, Nordenskiöld, and Sarmiento. The glaciers, including Grey, Pingo, and Tyndall, belong to the Southern Patagonia Ice Field.

Early morning on 19 January, I was picked up at the hotel by a tour group in a small bus for a 10-hour full-day tour of both Torres del Paine and Milodón Cave. The weather was overcast with occasional drizzle and low clouds obscuring much of the view of the mountains. We stopped en route at a rustic handicrafts store where people purchased some food and souvenirs before continuing into the national park proper. The route taken by our driver was reversed from the advertised route and when we arrived at the classic viewpoint for the three granite giant peaks beyond the lake, the clouds obscured the view completely. This was probably the biggest disappointment of my entire trip.

As we drove in the park, we saw a flock of Andean Condors devouring a carcass. The condor sighting was very cool and provided wonderful photos. We also saw two Rheas, ostrich-like birds, close enough for decent photos. I really appreciated seeing the Rheas since I hadn’t seen any during my trip to the Atacama Desert. During the drive through the park, we also stopped to sample Calafate Berries which grow wild in the park. We also stopped at viewpoints near different lakes and at a viewpoint for the Salto Grande Waterfall between Lago Nordenskiöld and Lago Pehoé. Some of the lakes had rainbows due to the ongoing occasional drizzle. We stopped for a wonderful buffet lunch at a restaurant near the boat landing for the catamaran cruises to the Grey Glacier.

After lunch we drove to visit Milodón Cave. The Cueva del Milodón Natural Monument, located 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Puerto Natales, is situated along the flanks of Cerro Benitez. It consists of several caves and a rock formation called Silla del Diablo (Devil's Chair). The monument includes a cave which is notable for the discovery in 1895 of skin, bones, and other parts of a ground sloth called Mylodon darwinii, from which the cave takes its name. The largest cave in the monument is the 200 meters (660 feet) long Milodón Cave. It was discovered in 1895 by Hermann Eberhard, a German explorer of Patagonia. He found a large, seemingly fresh piece of skin of an unidentified animal. In 1896, the cave was explored by Otto Nordenskjöld and later it was recognized that the skin belonged to Mylodon – an extinct animal that died 10,200–13,560 years ago. A life size replica of the prehistoric Mylodon, an herbivore resembling a large bear, was erected at the entrance of the cave. It became extinct at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch.

After hiking from the parking lot to visit the Milodón Cave, we walked past the Mylodon replica and along a pathway through the cave. Aside from the history of the cave, the actual cave itself was nothing special. As we were leaving, we saw a Caracara bird which provided a photo opportunity before the drive back to Puerto Natales.

In the interim, after receiving a message from the Navimag ferry that the departure to Puerto Montt would be delayed from early Saturday morning until sometime Saturday evening, I extended my reservation at Hotel Costaustralis to add one additional night. The message also stated that passengers should meet Saturday evening, 20 January, with their luggage at a room around the corner from my hotel.

After breakfast on 20 January, I spent time walking around Puerto Natales to find some camera lens cleaner and purchased a cup of cappuccino with a delicious cookie. I did an early check-out at the hotel that evening, took my luggage to the room, and checked in for the ferry. The weather had deteriorated and the winds became so strong that the ferry Captain could not dock at Puerto Natales. Finally, at approximately 10:00 PM, the ferry management advised that the Captain would not dock that night and instructed us to leave with our luggage and wait for a new departure time the following day, 21 January. I took my luggage back to the hotel and re-claimed my room. During the night, I received a message that we would meet to board the ferry at 12:00 PM on Sunday.

On Sunday morning, 21 January, I once again checked out of the hotel and walked with my luggage to the ferry office where all the passengers waited to be taken by bus to board the Navimag Ferry ESPERANZA. I finally boarded the ferry for the trip to Puerto Montt. This would be my third trip northbound through the fjords toward Puerto Montt. The best voyage through the fjords was on the tall ship EUROPA in 2010 which included visits to the Fairway Island Lighthouse, the Skua Glacier at Esterno Amalia, Puerto Eden, and Locos Island. I encourage readers to also explore this South America March-April 2010 trip on my website.

The Navimag Ferry had a no smoking policy, and no alcoholic beverages were available for purchase. It had a large room for guest relaxation as well as cafeteria dining for meals. The meals were all the same unless a passenger specified a food allergy on the booking form. Passengers lined up at designated times for meal service and were served portions as they passed with their tray along the food. Additional portions could be obtained by going through the line a second time. Water, coffee, tea, and three very sweet fruit drinks were available self-serve 24 hours a day. There was also a lounge on deck where specialty coffee drinks, tiny microwaved pizzas, and other pastries could be purchased during specified hours.

There was a map of the ship’s route through the fjords on the wall of the cafeteria where a small magnetic ship would occasionally mark our position. The crew would post scenic highlights on tv monitors in the cafeteria, along with available activities and the menu for the next upcoming meal service. There was access to the main deck bow during most of the voyage as well as other areas for viewing the surroundings. The weather was overcast with low clouds and occasional drizzle for much of the voyage. During the voyage we saw waterfalls cascading down the sides of mountains and occasional decent views of the mountains when the clouds permitted. We stopped to deliver some cargo at Puerto Eden, the only village in the area, but no passengers were allowed to disembark. We actually got sunshine during the last day as we sailed toward Puerto Montt and were treated to good views of islands, mountains, and local volcanos.

After disembarking from the ferry at approximately 6:00 PM on Wednesday, 24 January, I took a taxi to the Marriott Courtyard hotel. This is a franchised hotel. The passenger elevators were out of order so I had to use the food service elevator accessible through the kitchen. Other than the elevator issue, my room was nice and the restaurant was good. Since I arrived one day later than originally planned, my pre-booked Get Your Guide tour of the Chilean Lake District was scheduled for the next morning.

Early Thursday morning, 25 January, the small tour bus picked me up for the lake district tour. The bus continued on to Puerto Varas to pick up the remaining additional passengers. Puerto Varas is a city in southern Chile's Lake District. It sits on the southwest banks of the expansive Lake Llanquihue and offers commanding views of snow-capped Osorno Volcano and Calbuco Volcano, both still active. Traditional German-style architecture characterizes the town, reflecting its colonial past. Other attractions in the area include the Saltos del Río Petrohue (Petrohue Falls) within the Vicente Perez Rosales National Park, Lake Todos los Santos, and the Osorno Volcano Ski Center.

We drove Highway 225 from Puerto Varas along the shoreline of Lago Llanquihue and then along Río Petrohue to Vicente Perez Rosales National Park. We stopped to visit Petrohue Falls and hike the trails adjacent to the Río Petrohue rapids downstream of the waterfalls. We were able to get good views of Volcan Calbuco and Volcan Osorno during our visit. We continued on Highway 225 to Petrohue where we took an optional boat ride on beautiful Lago Todos los Santos. The views of Volcan Calbuco and Volcan Osorno including Volcan Puntiagudo with the lake in the foreground were spectacular. After the boat ride we drove back to Ensenada for lunch at Restaurante Bordelgado situated on the shore of Lago Llanquihue.

After a very nice lunch, we took Highway 225 to Highway U-55-V climbing up the mountain to Highway V-555 and on to the Osorno Volcano Ski Center. From here I took the two optional ski lift rides up another 4,000 feet near the Volcan Osorno Glacier. The views from the ski lift chairs were stunning and offered a photo opportunity for decent close up photos of the glacier. After returning to the ski center, we boarded the bus and drove back to Puerto Varas, where we saw many people swimming in Lago Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is truly a much nicer tourist destination than Puerto Montt.

On Friday morning, 26 January, I flew back to Santiago and returned to the Sheraton Convention Center Hotel. Since this would be my sixth visit to Santiago, I decided to spend Saturday and Sunday at the hotel working on my photos. On Monday, 28 January, I decided to schedule one last day trip for the following day: a Get Your Guide tour to a vineyard with a hiking trail through an archaeological site at the vineyard and continuing to the Portillo Ski Center and Laguna del Inca. I chose this day trip primarily because of the advertised archaeological hike. The evening before the trip, I received an sms text advising that the vineyard would be closed and the wine tasting would be held at a restaurant along the route to Laguna del Inca.

The tour picked me up early Tuesday morning, 29 January, and the first stop was at a convenience store on Highway 60 where the tour guide and several passengers purchased food for breakfast. We continued on Highway 60 to a restaurant where the tour guide and driver served a white wine and a red wine for tasting while the restaurant provided snacks. After the wine tasting several guests walked to an area nearby where they interacted with domesticated llamas and other animals. From here we continued on Highway 60 toward the Argentine border. At one point along the way, we were able to catch a glimpse of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the western and southern hemispheres, with an elevation of 6,961 meters (22,838 feet) which exceeds any peak in Europe, Africa, and North America.

The Portillo Ski Center is 160 kilometers (100 miles) by vehicle from Santiago. Its hotel sits at an elevation of 2,880 meters (9,450 feet) above sea level, and the highest ski lift reaches 3,310 meters (10,860 feet). It is located close to the Argentina border. Portillo has become one of the principal destinations for ski racers to train during the northern hemisphere summer and hosts the national ski teams of Austria, Italy, and the United States. Laguna del Inca is a glacier fed lake with a surface elevation of 9,360 feet and a surface area of 353 acres. The Portillo Ski Center is located at the southern end of the lake. The stream that drains the lake is a tributary of the Juncalillo River, which flows into the Juncal River.

Before arriving at Portillo we needed to drive the 29 hairpin turns climbing 2,000 meters (6,561 feet) on Highway 60. The locals in Chile often refer to this section of hairpin turns as “Los Caracoles.” After parking in the Portillo Hotel parking lot, we ate lunch at the hotel and then had free time to explore the Laguna del Inca viewpoint exhibits and to hike down to the lake. Laguna del Inca was very beautiful and I hiked about half way down to the edge of the water. We drove back to Santiago after visiting Portillo.

On Wednesday, 30 January, I packed up and went to the airport for my Latam Airlines flight back to Los Angeles. This was another very good trip to Chile.

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  November 2023
Canada

Travel Notes

 

On 18 September, while on a high speed train from Shanghai to Zhangjiajie, China, I sent an SMS text message to Rob Kendall, a fellow passenger on the ARANUI 5 when I traveled to the Marquesas Islands. I told him that I was back in China and planned to hike a mountain the following day. He replied that he had just returned home from three weeks in Spain, Ireland, and Portugal. He also said that his next trip would be to Churchill, Manitoba, for Hudson Bay polar bears and added: “Wanna go?” I replied that I wouldn’t return home until mid-October and probably would not be able to fit it into my travel schedule.

He wrote back that it would only be a long weekend: one day there, three days on the ground, and one day returning. After he confirmed that the operator, Heartland International Travel & Tours, only had three spots left, he sent me the information which I immediately sent to Jan at home in Los Angeles. After Jan said that she would like to go on the trip, I got back with Rob to let him know that both Jan and I wanted to go but only on the condition that two spaces were still available. Rob confirmed the availability of two spots but notified me that the operator could only hold them for two days due to our last minute booking.

I asked Rob to send the information to Jan who filled out the required paperwork for both of us and returned the paperwork along with payment to Rob to finalize the trip. Meanwhile, I booked the air travel for me and Jan through CtripEnglish while I was at my hotel in Zhangjiajie. With everything confirmed, upon my return home, I would gather up my winter travel clothes and anything else that I might need.

On the morning of 1 Novembert, Jan and I flew nonstop on WestJet from Los Angeles to Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. After clearing Canada Immigration, I called the Winnipeg Airport Hampton Inn to pick us up at the arrivals terminal. We had a very nice room at the Hampton and were impressed with the complimentary shuttle service provided by the hotel to/from nearby places. We walked to Chicago Joe’s, a restaurant in the Victoria Convention Center and Spa, for a very nice dinner. After dinner, the Hampton provided shuttle service back to the hotel.

Rob, Tony, Salle, and Ellen arrived at the Hampton very late that night and we didn’t meet up with them until mid-morning the following day. I knew both Rob and Tony from the Marquesas voyage, but it was my first introduction to Salle and Ellen. After our morning organizational meeting in the lobby, Jan and I elected to take the hotel shuttle to visit the Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada while the others decided to visit the Manitoba Museum and walk to other places of interest.

The Royal Aviation Museum of Western Canada is located in a new facility that was completed 4 August 2021 at the Winnipeg Richardson International Airport. The museum has a large hangar floor and a mezzanine with a view of the airport runways. The museum’s collection includes more than 90 historic aircraft as well as 70,000 artifacts, texts, and photographs. Aircraft are displayed on the floor and suspended from the ceiling. Also included are one-of-a-kind aircraft, military jets, bush planes, and commercial aircraft. Exhibits are clustered in zones representing different aspects of aviation history, such as Canadian Innovation, Northern Connections, and Military Skies. Interactive displays such as Experience Flight and the Mechanics Workshop present a hands-on educational experience. A comprehensive aviation library located within the museum is one of the largest in Canada.

After the shuttle returned us to the hotel, we began organizing our belongings for the next day when we would board our charter flight to Churchill. Our remaining luggage would be transferred to our pre-arranged rooms at the historic Fort Garry Hotel. Rob and Tony called later in the afternoon to let us know that both Salle and Ellen had decided to skip dinner. The four of us went to Chicago Joe’s Restaurant for dinner.

We departed the Hampton Inn lobby at 5:30 AM on Friday, 3 November, to go to the Charter terminal for our CalmAir charter flight to Churchill. We departed Winnipeg at 6:15 AM, were served breakfast on board, and arrived at Churchill around 8:45 AM. We took a bus some distance to the Tundra Buggy Dock where we would board our Tundra Buggy.

The visibility at the Churchill Airport was 5 miles at 10:00 AM, decreasing to 3 miles at 10:45 AM, and further decreasing to 2 miles at 1:50 PM. The average windchill was -4 degrees F (-7.78 degrees C) with wind gusting up to 40 miles per hour (64 kilometers per hour). We also experienced blowing snow flurries with rapidly drifting snow. Our Tundra Buggy driver informed us that in very cold windy conditions, polar bears hunker down to shelter from the wind.

According to the tour operators, the Tundra Buggy is described as “... a very unique vehicle, well heated, and washroom equipped. The Buggy’s over-inflated tires allow unparalleled access onto the tundra. Conservation regulations restrict the routes these vehicles can follow in order to protect the fragile ecosystem of this sub-arctic region. The knowledgeable Tundra Buggy driver/interpreter will make every effort to ensure you have the most favorable conditions to photograph the bears. A platform on the rear of the buggy allows passengers to get an unrestricted view of the bears.” The Tundra Buggy passenger capacity is 40 people, with a spacious center aisle, and it has school bus type windows all along each side of the vehicle. The upper portion of each window can be lowered for unobstructed viewing from within the vehicle.

After boarding our Tundra Buggy, our driver/interpreter provided a briefing and then began our drive along the Tundra Buggy Trails. Our driver told us that it would be about an hour drive to reach the optimum polar bear viewing areas. During our drive out, one of our passengers spotted what he believed to be a polar bear walking far away in the distance. Our driver stopped and, sure enough, we could see a polar bear walking. I lowered the upper portion of the window adjacent to our seat and was able to photograph the bear using my camera’s maximum 30x optical zoom.

The weather continued to deteriorate during our Tundra Buggy day trip expedition. We were able to see another polar bear sleeping while sheltering from the wind. This bear ultimately moved, and I was able to take some additional photos and short video clips. Later, when we returned to this same location, it was completely covered with snow accumulation. I took a short video clip of the partially snow-covered polar bear with movement of the snow confirming that the bear was breathing.

During our time in the Tundra Buggy, we saw the two Tundra Buggy Lodges where people can book overnight and longer stays. We were also served a very nice lunch in our Tundra Buggy and were well informed by our driver during all our time on board. Beside the polar bears, we saw an Arctic Fox sheltering adjacent to a large rock, two Red Foxes, and a covey of Ptarmigans.

After returning to the Tundra Buggy Docking area, we transferred to a bus that took us into the town of Churchill where we were served dinner at the Seaport Restaurant. After dinner, the bus took us to some local stores for people who wanted to do some shopping. We returned to the Churchill Charter Terminal in time for our 8:30 PM flight back to Winnipeg. Shortly after arriving at the terminal, we were informed that CalmAir had diverted the airplane, which we had chartered for the entire day, to replace another CalmAir airplane that was delayed by a mechanical issue.

After a lengthy delay at the Churchill Charter Air Terminal, we finally boarded another CalmAir airplane around 11:00 PM for the return flight to Winnipeg. Upon arrival at Winnipeg, we were transferred to the Fort Garry Hotel and arrived in our room sometime after 2:00 AM. After arriving at the hotel very late, we decided that we would plan to leave the hotel at 11:00 AM the following morning instead of the original 9:30 AM departure time for our scheduled Winnipeg sightseeing tour.

The next morning, Saturday, 4 November, we met up in the lobby of the hotel at 11:00 AM to go to the Leaf Botanical Garden. The Leaf is located in Assiniboine Park and is surrounded by roughly 30 acres of public gardens known as Gardens of The Leaf. The Leaf Botanical Garden is a spectacular indoor horticultural attraction where visitors journey through four distinct biomes: the Hartley and Heather Richardson Tropical Biome, the Mediterranean Biome, the Babs Asper Display House, and the Shirley Richardson Butterfly Garden. Since we arrived later than originally planned, we were given a short guided tour before our pre-scheduled lunch at the Gather Restaurant at the Leaf. The food at the restaurant was amazing.

We continued from the Leaf to embark on a short sightseeing tour en route to the Canadian Museum of Human Rights. During this drive, our guide pointed out many landmarks, including a house that Neil Young once lived in, the Manitoba Legislative Building, Union Station, and the Esplanade Riel.

The Manitoba Legislative Building, originally named the Manitoba Parliament Building, was completed in 1920 along with its famous Golden Boy, a gold-covered statue that sits at the top of the building’s cupola. It is the meeting place of the Legislative Assembly and accommodates the offices for Manitoba’s Premier, the Lieutenant Governor, and the ministers and deputy ministers of provincial departments.

The Esplanade Riel, named after Louis Riel, is a five-meter wide and 250 meter-long foot bridge located north of the junction of the historic Red and Assiniboine Rivers and provides a link between The Forks and Winnipeg’s French Quarter. The bridge is cable-stayed from a single, transversely inclined pylon rising 57 meters above the Red River. It was opened in December 2003. It is also the only bridge in the world to have a restaurant in the middle where people can meet.

The last stop on our Winnipeg sightseeing tour was at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. It is the world’s first museum dedicated to human rights. Located adjacent to The Forks, it is also a Canadian Crown corporation and national museum. The purpose of the museum is to explore the subject of human rights with a special, but not exclusive, reference to Canada, to enhance the public’s understanding of human rights, to promote respect for others, and to encourage reflection and dialogue. It was opened on 19 September 2014. We had a short guided tour of the museum, which was excellent, but we could have used more time to truly appreciate the museum. I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Winnipeg.

After we returned to the Fort Garry Hotel, Rob, Tony and I walked to the historic Winnipeg Union Station. It was constructed between 1908 and 1911 as a joint venture between the Canadian Northern Railway, the National Transcontinental, the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway, and the Dominion government. The first train to enter the station was on 7 August 1911 and the station officially opened on 24 July 1912. The main hall has a beautiful dome, and the building has large pictures along the wall as you walk toward the tracks. It is well worth a visit. After I returned home, I discovered that I missed seeing the Winnipeg Railway Museum located on the no longer used tracks 1 and 2. I am disappointed that I missed this museum.

After exiting the station, we walked behind the station en route to the Forks Market. In the open area behind Union Station, I saw a couple of vintage passenger rail cars and a caboose which are, in hindsight, part of the railway museum. The Forks Market was the first building to open at The Forks in 1889 as a horse stable. It is now a vibrant food hall with endless dining choices plus more than fifty shops. Rob and Tony had coffee before we walked back to the hotel.

The Fort Garry Hotel was built between 1911 and 1913 for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railway. It is one of a series of hotels constructed by Canadian railways in what is known as Chateau style. It is referred to as a palatial edifice on a downtown street lined by major institutional, commercial, and apartment structures. The Fort Garry Hotel is unique and is said to be the last surviving grand hotel in Manitoba. Our room was very comfortable, and we enjoyed our time there.

On Sunday, 5 November, we took a taxi to the Winnipeg airport and boarded the first of our Air Canada flights back home to Los Angeles. In retrospect, this was a phenomenal trip, and our experience on the day trip to see the Hudson Bay polar bears was fabulous.

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  September/
October
2023
China

Travel Notes

 

My last trip to China was in 2020 prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and the worldwide testing and strict travel restrictions. Although I was able to travel extensively to many foreign countries beginning in 2021, China remained closed to most foreign travel until mid-2023. After returning home from circumnavigating Japan, I learned that China opened up travel to foreigners and would honor all China tourist visas previously issued with expiration dates into the future. Since my existing China tourist visa would not expire until February 2025, I booked a return trip to Shanghai for mid-September 2023 with a return home in mid-October 2023.

Without any fixed agenda, I booked four nights at the Westin Shanghai Bund Center hotel where I planned to research and book additional travel reservations while in Shanghai. After arriving in Shanghai and taking a taxi to the hotel, I began to feel the impact of current governmental restrictions. I discovered that my current email, AOL, is no longer supported in China so I suddenly had no access to my AOL email and contacts. In addition, I learned that Gmail and all things supported by Google, including Google Maps and Google Translate, were no longer accessible. WhatsApp was no longer available and, although I could receive limited WhatsApp messages, I could not connect to my WhatsApp account. I also found that my T-mobile SMS text messages worked between China and the USA but not within China. About halfway through my trip to China, T-mobile no longer allowed me to make local phone calls within China. I also quickly discovered that none of my American credit cards could be used with local merchants in China.

Today in China, nearly all transactions are electronic transactions by a mobile phone App. Almost nobody carries Yuan currency and most merchants were unable to provide Yuan as change for cash purchases paid for in Yuan. Fortunately, Bank of China still honored my ATM card and allowed me to obtain China Yuan to pay for items. Carrying around large amounts of small Yuan notes for ordinary transactions like restaurants, admission fees, taxis, trains, etc. would become the new normal for me. Apple based applications (Apple translate and Apple maps) would become godsends and the Ctrip English app and website would accept charges booked on my American credit cards for airline, train, and hotel reservations. In addition, my Bonvoy and Hilton Hotel apps worked for hotel reservations. When I tried to use Skype, Microsoft determined that I was logging in from an unusual location and then sent a sign-on access code to my inaccessible AOL email which made Skype also unusable. Welcome to travel within China as a foreigner.

I arrived at the Shanghai Pudong PVG airport on 14 September at 4:40 PM and, after clearing immigration, I took a taxi to the Westin Shanghai Bund Center hotel. Over the next several days, I spent time walking around downtown Shanghai and obtaining a large quantity of Yuan for ordinary purchases. While in Shanghai, I also spent time researching and booking ongoing travel reservations. My new itinerary would include Zhangjiajie, Chengdu, Kāshí, Urumqi, Lanzhou, Nanjing, and Suzhou.

On Monday, 18 September, I took high-speed train G1369 from Shanghai Hongqiao station to Zhangjiajie West station to visit Tianmen Mountain. After checking into the Zhangjiajie Hilton Hampton Inn hotel, I ate dinner at a local restaurant. I then located the nearby Tianmen Mountain Cableway station that I would take to the mountain the following morning. Tianmen Mountain, located about 8 kilometers from downtown Zhangjiajie, is 1,518 meters (4,196 feet) high. Tianmen Mountain got its name from the Tianmen Cave, a natural karst cave across the mountain, that is 431 feet high and 187 feet wide. This cave is also referred to as the “Stairway to Heaven.” The Tianmen Mountain Cableway is claimed in tourist publications as the “longest passenger cableway of high mountains in the world.” The mountain has glass walkways, escalators, and walking paths that make it a unique mountain hiking experience.

On Tuesday morning, 19 September, I purchased an all-inclusive access ticket to visit and hike Tianmen Mountain. The ticket provided access to the Tianmen Mountain Cableway, the mountain escalators and chairlift, the second Tianmen Mountain Cave Express Cableway, and the shuttle bus back to the main cableway station.

After riding the main cableway all the way to the upper station, I hiked to Yunming Fairy Peak Pagoda and then took a chairlift across the mountain summit to the Tianmen Mountain Temple. From there, I hiked to the Cliffside Path South and continued on via the Eastern Cliffside Glass Bottom Path. From the glass bottom path, I hiked across the top of the mountain, above the cave, to the North Overlooking Tianmen Cave. From here I hiked to the Transmountain Escalator which took me to the entrance of Tianmen Cave at the top of the Stairway to Heaven. After spending some time in the cave, I hiked to the multiple Tianmen Cave escalators that took me down to the square at the base of the Stairway to Heaven looking up toward Tianmen Cave. I hiked from there to the Upper Station of the Tianmen Cave Express Cableway. I took the cableway down to the lower station and boarded a shuttle bus that took me to the main cableway station near my hotel. By the time I reached my hotel, I had logged 18,741 steps for the day.

On Wednesday, 20 September, I took a bus to the Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon to visit not only the canyon but also the Zhangjiajie Glass Bridge. This glass bridge has a length of 430 meters (1,410 feet) and a height of 300 meters (985 feet). I admired the beautiful Zhangjiajie Grand Canyon below as I walked across the bridge. As I returned back across the bridge, a rain shower began and continued in earnest during the bus ride back to Zhangjiajie.

As rain continued on Thursday, 21 September, I visited the Zhangjiajie Museum which had a nice arrangement of exhibits and artifacts. From the museum, I continued on to visit what is referred to as Dayong Ancient City. This area appeared to be a modern-day creation of an ancient city in which most of the buildings were unoccupied and closed. I ate lunch here and had a delicious spicy shrimp dish.

On Friday, 22 September, I took the G6429 high-speed train from Zhangjiajie West station to Huaihua South station and connected with the G2165 high-speed train to the Chengdu East station. After arriving at Chengdu, I took a taxi to the JW Marriott Chengdu hotel. The following morning, I took the metro to the Chengdu East station, where I purchased a train ticket from Chengdu to Leshan to visit the Leshan Giant Buddha on 24 September. I also purchased a train ticket from Lanzhou to Nanjing for later in my travels. During the afternoon of 23 September, I re-visited the Chengdu Museum located near my hotel.

The train trip to Leshan took about one hour on Sunday, 24 September. Located at the joint of the Minjiang, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers, Leshan Giant Buddha sits facing Leshan City across the river. It is the largest cliff rock carving Maitreya Buddha statue in the world. It was listed as a World Natural & Cultural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1996.

In ancient Tang Dynasty (8th century AD), the water at the confluence of the three rivers was very fierce and boats were often capsized here. Thus, to slow down the water flow, Monk Haitong recruited craftsmen to build the Giant Buddha. Haitong began the carving in AD 713. When carving the shoulder of the Buddha, Haitong passed away. After his death, the project was suspended for a long time. Some years later, the apprentice of Haitong continued to build the Giant Buddha with the help of a donation from local government officer Zhangchou Jianqiong. The project was suspended again when the knees were just completed. Forty years later, the project was continued again, and, after the efforts of three generations, the Giant Buddha was finally completed in AD 803. This huge project took nearly 90 years to complete.

The Giant Buddha was carved from the Lingyun Mountain, with its head reaching to the mountaintop and its feet standing next to the river. The total height is 71 meters. The head measures 14.7 meters high and 10 meters wide. The ears are 7 meters long, while the nose is 5.6 meters long and the mouth and eyes are 3.3 meters long. The distance between knees and insteps is 28 meters tall. The insteps can hold over a hundred people. There are 1,021 spiral coils on the Buddha head, all consisting of stones inlaid onto the rocky head. Two Virudhakas that measure over 16-meters tall stand side by side on the cliff to protect the Giant Buddha.

On Monday, 25 September, I flew from Chengdu to Kashi on Air China and checked into the Radisson Blu hotel. Locked away in the westernmost corner of China, closer to Tehran and Damascus than to Beijing, Kashi is a beautiful oasis that has been the epicenter of regional trade and cultural exchange for more than two millennia.

Kashi is located in the southwestern edge of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. As the westernmost city of China the name Kashi has its origin in the Uyghur word Kashgar and has multiple meanings including “colored brick houses” or “jade converging land.” Kashi area was ruled by Kingdom “Shule” which was once of the ancient kingdoms in the Western Regions during pre-Qin times. During the late Qin and early Han Period, the area was under the jurisdiction of the Huns. In 119 BC, Zhang Qian entered Shule on his mission to connect with the Western Regions. In 60 BC, the imperial court of the Han Dynasty set up a Western Regions Frontier Command and Kashi was officially incorporated in the Chinese territory as part of the Western Regions. By the Tang Dynasty, Kashi had become an important military stronghold, one of the four towns in Anxi of the Western Regions.

From the Five Dynasties to the Song Dynasty, Kashi was ruled by the Karahan Empire and the Western Liao Kingdom successively. Kashi was made the capital city of the Karahan Empire. After the successful westward expedition by Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire, Kashi was granted to Chagatai, Genghis Khan’s second son, as his fief. Since the Han Dynasty, the southern, northern, and central routes of the Silk Road all passed through Kashi, where it became the meeting point for westbound travels. As the distribution center and transit point of commodities, Kashi played a pivotal role in the development of the Silk Road. To this day, Kashi still retains many famous historical sites such as the Apak Hoja Tomb (Fragrant Princess Tomb), the Id Kah Mosque, the former site of the Yarkant Kingdom, the Moer Pagoda, the Stone City, etc. All of these sites attract people to come to Kashi to track down the vicissitudes of history and culture of the Western Regions.

The unique regional environment of desert oasis and the heavy historical and cultural influences formed Kashi’s unique ancient style and traditional district layout. While this was very common in Central Asia, West Asia, and China’s Western Regions in ancient times, it is no longer seen in modern times. As the only existing district bearing typical western region characteristics in ancient times, Kashi’s historic old district offers valuable information for the study of cultural development and evolution of cities in the Western Regions in ancient times and the developmental history of Xinjiang.

On Tuesday, 26 September, I visited Kashi Ancient City, walking around the narrow streets and taking in the atmosphere of a bazaar dating hundreds of years old. It is difficult to determine how much is actually ancient and how much has recently been restored. I also took a shuttle bus ride through two portions of the old city.

The following day, I visited the Xiangfei Garden complex which was quite large and included not only the Arbaheja Mausoleum complex but also two old mosques and a Uyghur folk village and bazaar. The Arbaheja Mausoleum, a magnificent Muslim building in the outskirts of Kashi, is said to have been built during the seventeenth century and is covered with glazed green tiles with a vaulted top. The walls and doorways are all elaborately decorated with flower patterns. Inside the mausoleum are seventy-three tombs of five generations of the Arbaheja clan. Much of the social position of the Arbahejas came from the fact that during the Qing Dynasty, a daughter of the family was married to Emperor Qian Long and was given the title Xiang Fei (Fragrant Concubine). She was buried at the Eastern Tombs in Jixian County, Hebei Province, after her death. Her mausoleum is still called Xiang Fei Tomb in her memory. I went from here to visit the Kashi Museum which was well worth the visit.

On Thursday, 28 September, I tried to find the Kashi Grand Bazaar which was listed as a must-see attraction. The first taxi driver dropped me off in front of a bazaar that had no connection to the Kashi Grand Bazaar. It was located beside the river, opposite the Kashi Ancient City, and provided several good photos. After three missed attempts by taxi drivers who had no idea where the Kashi Grand Bazaar was located, I settled on walking down a traditional Uyghur food street and purchased some delicious naan bread. In retrospect, I probably should have requested the taxi drivers to take me to the Kashi Sunday Bazaar. I then returned to the Kashi Ancient City where I took a couple of photos of the Id Kah Mosque.

On Friday, 29 September, I flew from Kashi to Urumqi on Hainan Airlines. It had been seven years since I visited Urumqi and I was interested to see the extent of the changes over that time period. Urumqi is the capital of the Uyghur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. The city (whose name in Uyghur means “fine pasture”) is situated in a fertile belt of oases along the northern slope of the eastern Tien (Tian) Shan range. Urumqi commands the northern end of a gap leading from the Tarim Basin into the Junggar (Dzungarian) Basin.

The area first came under full Chinese control in the 7th and 8th centuries, when the Chinese established the protectorate general of Beiting some 80 miles (130 km) to the east. A county named Luntai, which had earlier been founded at Urumqi in 640, became an important center for caravans traveling into the Ili River valley from the main route across Turkistan. After the withdrawal of the Tang Dynasty (618–907) from the area in the 750s, Urumqi came under the control of the Uyghurs. It again came under Chinese rule during the campaigns of the Qing Dynasty against the Dzungars in the 18th century.

In 1760, military colonies were established in the surrounding oases, and, in 1763, a Chinese city called Dihua was founded there. The city became an important Manchu garrison for northwestern China. When the Muslim rebellion broke out in Xinjiang in the 1860s, Urumqi was taken by the rebels in 1864, but it was eventually recaptured in 1876 by Qing forces under Zuo Zongtang. When the province of Xinjiang was set up in 1884, Urumqi (Dihua) became its capital.

Since my last visit, massive infrastructure changes had been completed including everything from the airport to elevated highways and an extensive high-rise apartment development. I stayed at the Hilton Urumqi hotel. This hotel was adjacent to a new exhibition center as well as the Hongguangshan Mountain Park, the Red Hongguang Dafo Temple, the new Urumqi Cultural Center, and the new Urumqi Museum. The infrastructure changes were so dramatic that I didn’t recognize Urumqi after seven years of modernization.

On Saturday, 30 September, I hiked through the Hongguangshan Mountain Park to visit the Red Hongguang Dafo Temple. This temple, the largest Han Buddhist Temple in Northwest China, is notable for a very large Golden Buddha statue that dominates the skyline above the temple complex. The Buddha statue measures 40.8 meters high and 14 meters in diameter. Buddha’s hands are 5.7 meters high while Buddha’s ears are 2.6 meters high.

After spending time to thoroughly explore the temple, I took a taxi to visit the new Xinjiang Museum. Another magnificent museum complex, Xinjiang Museum has imported several exhibits that I had seen at other regional museums seven years earlier. The exhibits here were wonderful, and I am very happy that I chose to visit the museum.

On Sunday, 1 October, I walked from my hotel to the Urumqi Cultural Center to visit the new Urumqi Museum. In this municipal museum, the exhibits were very well presented. I was amazed that nearly everything here in Urumqi appeared to be very newly constructed. I took a taxi from the Urumqi Cultural Center complex to the Urumqi Grand International Bazaar.

During my last visit here, I had the opportunity to hold a golden eagle in a relatively uncrowded area of the bazaar. This time, access to the Urumqi Grand International Bazaar was controlled similarly to downtown Lasha, Tibet, and the bazaar was packed with people. I was looking forward to having lunch at one of the local Uyghur streetside restaurants of seven years ago, however, the streetside restaurants were also a thing of the past. I settled on some grilled lamb kabobs at one of the current restaurants within the confines of the updated bazaar.

On Monday, 2 October, I flew from Urumqi to Lanzhou on China Southern Airlines and stayed at the Hilton Lanzhou City Center hotel. Since I had visited Lanzhou on prior occasions, I visited the Gansu Provincial Museum the following day. It was a rainy morning, and the museum was very crowded. Parts of the museum building appeared to have been recently refurbished while other parts of the building appeared neglected. The exhibits were worth the visit, and I was glad that I took time to return.

On Wednesday, 4 October, I took high-speed train G1972 for an all day trip to Nanjing. After arriving at Nanjing station, I stayed at the Westin Nanjing Xuanwu Lake hotel.

On Thursday, 5 October, my first visit was to the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre by Japanese Invaders. This memorial is very well organized and presented. It documents the 300,000 victims of the 13 December 1937 Japanese bombardment of Nanjing and takes several hours to completely tour the exhibits. I didn't realize that Nanjing (Nanking) back in 1937 was the capital city of China and the fall of Nanjing was a massacre of epic proportions. After the fall of Nanjing, the capital of China was relocated to Chongqing.

My second visit was to the Nanjing Municipal Museum, also referred to as the Chaotian Palace or Worshiping the Heaven Palace. It was originally a temple and one temple building contained a large collection of historical exhibits and artifacts. After visiting this museum, I had the taxi driver drive across the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge before dropping me off at my hotel.

On Friday, 6 October, I went to the Qinhuai River Scenery Belt, a scenic zone en route to the Confucius Temple. The Confucius Temple was very picturesque and well worth the visit. I then took a taxi to the Nanjing Museum, a large new complex, and visited the Historical Exhibits Hall. From here, I continued by taxi to a park adjacent to the Xuanwu Lake and the Nanjing City Wall. After hiking along the lake, I came to a place where I could climb up to the top of the Nanjing City Wall. I hiked along the top of the wall to an exit point near my hotel. The wall has been restored and is a truly wonderful experience – almost like a section of the Great Wall of China.

On Saturday, 7 October, I took high-speed train G7009 from Nanjing to Suzhou and stayed at the Marriott Suzhou hotel. The following day, I walked along Dongbei Jie eu route to the Humble Administrator’s Garden and Suzhou Museum. The Humble Administrator’s Garden is a World Heritage Site and is considered by some people to be the finest garden among China’s four most famous gardens. It was a spectacular garden and one of the highlights of this trip.

The Suzhou Museum is located on a portion of the Humble Administrator’s Garden. Although it was nice, it simply couldn't compare to the many other museums that I visited during this trip.

My last stop was at the Hanshan Temple. Hanshan Temple, literally meaning Cold Mountain Temple, is located in Gusu District of Suzhou city. In the Zhenguan period (AD 627-649) of the Tang Dynasty, Hanshan and Xiqian, two famous monks at that time, founded Hanshan Temple. In more than 1300 years, Hanshan Temple was destroyed by fire at least five time. The last reconstruction was during the Guangxu period (AD 1875-1908) of the Qing Dynasty. In history, Suzhou Hanshan Temple was one of the top ten famous temples in China.

On Monday, 9 October, I took high-speed train G2873 from Suzhou to Shanghai and returned to the Shanghai Westin Bund Center hotel. Since I had been to Shanghai on previous occasions and did not have a burning desire to visit anything new there, I stayed at the hotel and began working on editing photos and writing my travel notes.

On Thursday, 12 October, I flew back home to Los Angeles. As I contemplate the complexities and difficulties with my current independent travel to mainland China, I have decided that this could very well be my last trip to the mainland.

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  June 2023
Marquesas Islands

Travel Notes

 

After visiting Easter Island in January 2023, I researched travel to the Marquesas Islands, French Polynesia, because the native inhabitants of Easter Island (Rapa Nui) believe that their ancestors came to Easter Island from the Marquesas Islands. Recent scientific and archaeological evidence tend to support this belief. I found that a mixed-class freighter operated by Aranui Cruises sails between Papeete, Tahiti, and the Marquesas Islands. I booked this 12-day voyage for June 2023 aboard the ARANUI 5.

I departed Los Angeles on Thursday, 15 June, on a flight to Papeete, Tahiti. I spent two nights at the Tahiti Hilton Hotel before boarding the ARANUI 5 on Saturday, 17 June. The ARANUI 5 is 124 meters long and carried 120 crew members plus approximately 130 passengers on this voyage. Meals for the passengers were served in the dining room on Deck 4. Breakfast was always buffet while lunch and dinner were served. Wine was included with both breakfast and dinner. Other public areas included a Lounge on Deck 5, the Veranda Bar on Deck 6, a Sky Bar on Deck 9, as well as open deck areas aft on decks 7 and 8.

We sailed from Papeete at 4:00 PM en route to the atoll of Rangiroa in the Tuamotu Archipelago. After sailing, we had an English Speaking group meeting with our assigned guides, Lehi and Spencer, who would be our personal guides for the duration of the voyage. This was the first of daily meetings where they would brief us on the upcoming activities and shore visits. Our first dinner onboard was at 7:30 PM and breakfast in the morning was between 6:30 and 8:30 AM.

We arrived at Rangiroa on Sunday morning, 18 June. Rangiroa is the largest atoll of French Polynesia and the second largest atoll in the world. We were transported to the beach in what Aranui describes as barges. I believe they are more like the design of beach landing crafts used during the Second World War. They are flat bottom vessels with a ramp at the front to allow for dry landings on the beaches. They are much better for beach landings than the typical Zodiac boats. They also have doors on both sides to allow boarding and disembarkation at the ship and at piers.

People desiring to go ashore had the choice of an optional glass bottom boat excursion, spending time on the beach, going snorkeling from the beach, or visiting a pearl farm. I opted to walk along the beach looking for some scenic photo opportunities. The total time on shore was nearly four hours.

Back on the ship, lunch was served as we began the long journey to the Marquesas archipelago. During the afternoon, we had our daily English-speaking group meeting to discuss upcoming itineraries. Prior to dinner, we were given a presentation by the Captain. This was followed by a fashion show where two crewmembers demonstrated the pareo attachment possibilities.

Monday, 19 June, was a sea day. Unfortunately, the guest lecturer on the Marquesas for this voyage missed the ship. As a result, onboard activities included weaving of leis, our daily group meeting, a presentation on the preparation of raw fish, an Ori Tahiti dance class, a ukulele class, a fashion show, and karaoke in the Veranda Bar.

We arrived at Nuku Hiva on the morning of 20 June. Nuku Hiva is 1,400 km away from Tahiti and is part of the northern group of the Marquesas archipelago. Like all the islands of the Marquesas archipelago, Nuku Hiva is volcanic and formed by the emerged ridge of volcanoes that have been extinct for 2 million years. The highest peak is 1,223 meters above sea level. Nuku Hiva is the second island after Tahiti in size. The municipality of Nuku Hiva is made up of 3 associated municipalities: Taiohae, Taipivai, and Hatiheu-Aakapa. The Taipivai Valley is famous for being home to the American writer Herman Melville. The village of Taiohae is the administrative capital of the archipelago.

After disembarkation, we visited the Cathedral of Taiohae. We continued from there to visit a craft center at Taipivai en route to the Kamuihai Archaeological Site. Here we were greeted by local dancers performing a pig dance in front of a gigantic Banyan tree. We toured the site and the one item that I found to be the most impressive was a large turtle petroglyph on top of a large boulder sitting on one of the platforms near a stone tiki.

We continued to the village of Hatiheu for a buffet lunch at the Chez Yvonne Katupa restaurant. The lunch was local Marquesas cuisine, and it was wonderful. After lunch, we could either take a car back to the ship or further explore Taiohae and then walk back to the ship. I opted to go to Taiohae and walk back along the beach to take photos of sculptures along the way.

Back on the ship, we had our daily group meeting and then had a Polynesian evening with an exquisite buffet on Deck 7 followed by a Polynesian show.

On the morning of Wednesday, 21 June, we arrived at the island of Ua Pou. Ua Pou is the third largest island of the Marquesas archipelago after Nuka Hiva and Hiva Oa. It has stunning basaltic peaks that dominate the bay of Hakahau. It is also famous for its “flower stones” because the designs of the stones look like flower petals. The real name of this volcanic rock is Garnet Phonolite, which is found only here in Hohoi Bay and in Brazil.

After breakfast, people without an optional excursion could disembark at the pier in Hakahau and hike up a nearby mountain to the cross overlooking the village of Hakahau. I had booked the optional full day excursion that consisted of both a morning 4x4 guided tour to Hohoi Bay as well as an afternoon 4x4 guided tour to Hakahetau. Yolani was the driver of my 4x4 vehicle. The morning tour stopped at various viewpoints en route to Hohoi Bay including the site where the 2019 Festival of the Marquesas Islands (Matavaa O Te Henua Emana) was held. The festival occurs every two years and gathers dancers, singers, and artists from not only all over the Marquesas but also from Tahiti and Rapa Nui. This festival consists of three days of music, dance, and joy to celebrate the beauty of the Marquesas culture and to share it with everyone who has the chance to be there. It also rotates among different islands.

After spending some time at Hohoi Bay, hoping to find a flower stone on the beach, we returned to the Hakahau Cultural Center to see a Polynesian dance performance. We then walked from the cultural center to the Chez Tata Rosalie restaurant for a very nice buffet lunch featuring local food varieties.

After lunch, I again met Yolani for the afternoon excursion. While I was on the afternoon excursion, the other passengers had free time and were treated to a Tahitian “Ori Tahiti” performance on board the ship. Meanwhile, my afternoon excursion took in several very nice viewpoints en route to the village of Hakahetau. Hakahetau is a small picturesque village at Hakahetau Bay. Village residents and the mayor served drinks and fruit to us while they played Polynesian music. We returned to the ship from here, arriving about thirty minutes before the ship departed.

We arrived at Ua Huka Island early morning on Thursday, 22 June, and anchored in Vaipaee Bay. Ua Huka is in the Northern group of the archipelago and is one of the smallest islands in the Marquesas. The highlights include an arboretum that brings together more than three hundred species of trees from all over the world. It is also famous for its endemic Blue bird, the Pihiti (Marquesas lory). Ua Huka is the only island free of the black rat in the Marquesas archipelago.

After breakfast, we were transported to the pier by the ARANUI 5 landing barges. We boarded 4x4 vehicles at the pier and were driven to the Arboretum for a guided tour. From here, we drove along the coast with a stunning viewpoint stop en route to visit the Community Museum of Ua Huka that has wonderful historical exhibits. We continued on to the Hane Handcraft and Sea Museum. After visiting the sea museum, we continued on to visit the Te Tumu Museum and then had a very nice buffet lunch featuring local dishes at the Te Tumu restaurant. After lunch, we were given a choice of riding back to the ship by 4x4 vehicle or returning part way and hiking the last two miles back to the ship to be ready for the daily English-speaking group activity meeting.

We arrived at Hiva Oa on the morning of 23 June. Hiva Oa is the second largest island in the Marquesas archipelago. This island is famous because both French artist, Paul Gauguin, and Belgian poet, singer, and actor, Jacques Brel, are buried here. The village of Atuona is where Paul Gauguin lived and created some of his works of art. The village has a wonderful museum displaying replicas of many of Gauguin’s works in addition to a replica of his “house of pleasure.” Brel was an avid pilot and would use his twin engine airplane, named Jojo, in medical evacuations to Tahiti when locals were in need. The small Brel museum is adjacent to the Gauguin museum. It is a green building that houses his restored airplane. While I believe the Gauguin museum is a bargain, I feel that the Brel museum admission is somewhat excessive.

We docked at the Atuona pier. People who wanted to take a two-mile hike to visit the cemetery departed the ship first. Later, people who wanted to take a bus to town disembarked. I chose to hike to the cemetery to see the graves of Gauguin and Brel. I continued hiking downhill into town and visited both museums. I returned to the ship for lunch and then returned to town after lunch to visit the Tohua Pepe, town square. It was restored for one of the installments of the legendary Marquesas Arts Festival. It resembles an ancient ceremonial complex and is lined with stone statues. As I walked around the complex, some young girls were practicing Marquesas dancing. I later returned to the ship to get ready for the daily activity meeting.

We returned to Hiva Oa on the morning of 24 June and docked at the Pumau pier to visit the Maa’e Iipona archaeological site, which had incredible tikis. Much of this site remains unexcavated, and it was the most elaborate site that we visited in the Marquesas Islands. After visiting the site, we returned to the ship for a group activity meeting to prepare for our visit to Fatu Hiva. During lunch, the ship relocated to Tahuata Island. Tahuata Island is only four kilometers away from Hiva Oa and is only accessible by boat. It is also the smallest island in the archipelago. We visited the village of Vaitahu and the craft center with an adjacent festival area containing many tikis. We also visited the Catholic church with pebble walls and a magnificent stained glass window featuring Marquesan history embedded within the glass.

We arrived at Fatu Hiva during the morning of 25 June and docked at the Omoa pier. This island is only accessible by boat from Hiva Oa. Fatu Hiva is not only the southernmost island of the Marquesas archipelago but also the most isolated. The island is made up of only two villages located in the hollow of two calderas formed by the two volcanoes of the island. Hanavave features baroque basalt columns while Omoa, the capital, features a rocky peak with a profile of a moai pascuan. Fata Hiva is also the island of tapa, the transformation of plant fibers into fabrics. Tapa making is traditionally done by women, and the designs are often inspired by ancient Marquesan tattoos.

We were given three options upon arrival. People who signed up for the 15 kilometer (10 mile) hike from Omoa to Hanavave disembarked first and began hiking after viewing a tapa demonstration on the waterfront. People who signed up for the optional tour and non-hikers disembarked later and also viewed the tapa demonstration for all non-hiking passengers. Non-hikers would return to the ship for lunch and continue to Hanavave Bay aboard the ship.

I signed up for the optional tour from Omoa to Hanavave in a 4x4 vehicle. After visiting the craft center on the waterfront, we drove the same mountain road that the hikers walked along. At the summit, we were served the same picnic lunch that the hikers ate, then continued by 4x4 to Hanavave. We were treated to many stunning views during the optional tour.

After arriving at Hanavave, people had a choice of returning to the ship or watching a demonstration of “Pani” and “Aeu pipi” in the Vanavave Cultural Center. I chose to return to the ship. That evening we had a farewell to the Marquesas with musical entertainment on Deck 7.

After a sea day with a lovely Polynesian brunch, we arrived at Makatea on Tuesday morning, 27 June. Makatea is an isolated coral island situated within the Tuamotu Archipelago. It has a wide 30 square kilometer plateau bounded by 80 meter-high cliffs that rise up from the sea. It is also the remnant of a barrier reef now disappeared. Important quantities of phosphate were discovered on the island and were mined from 1917 until after the end of World War II. Today the island is home to 94 inhabitants.

Passengers from the ARANUI 5 picked up a picnic lunch before being transported by the barges to shore. They viewed remnants of the phosphate mining operation and railroad en route to a cave where some people went swimming. After enjoying a picnic lunch, they returned to the ship to begin packing up for disembarkation at Papeete, Tahiti, early the following morning.

We arrived at Papeete at 7:00 AM on Wednesday, 28 June. After disembarking, I took a taxi to the Tahiti Hilton hotel where Hilton upgraded me to a multi-room suite. The following day, I took a taxi to visit the Tahiti and the Islands Museum. This museum reopened in the spring of 2023 following extensive renovations. The building was gorgeous, and the exhibits were exceptional with some back on loan from the British Museum. Reviewers have complimented the museum on its picturesque location on the Nu’uroa Cape. It is divided into four distinct sections: the first focuses on geography and natural history; the second on pre-European culture; the third on the effects of colonization; and the fourth on natural wonders. I would recommend this museum to anyone visiting Papeete.

After the wonderful visit to the museum, I returned to the hotel and prepared for my flights home the next day. On the evening of Friday, 30 June, I boarded my flight to San Francisco where I connected with my flight to Los Angeles. I returned home on the morning of Saturday, 1 July.

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  April/May 2023
Japan & Alaska

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I originally booked a Holland America voyage circumnavigating Japan and continuing on to Vancouver, BC, during 2019 prior to the outbreak of COVID-19. It was canceled and rescheduled several times by Holland America. Holland America finally rebooked us on a similar voyage departing Yokohama, Japan, on 10 April 2023 and ending at Seattle, Washington, on 7 May 2023.

We flew to Yokohama, Japan, on Tuesday, 4 April, and spent three nights in Yokohama before boarding the Holland America WESTERDAM cruise ship. It rained the first two days at Yokohama, but we were able to visit the Sankeien Garden on Sunday, 9 April.

The Sankeien Garden is a beautiful 175,000 square meter Japanese garden. It was created by Tomitaro Hara, a Japanese businessman who is often referred to as Sankei Hara. He acquired the land in 1902 and began construction of the garden. The centerpiece landmark of the garden is the Tomyo-ji three-storied pagoda that was originally constructed in Kyoto in1457 and relocated to Sankeien in 1914. The garden has a beautiful lake and, as of 2022, contains 10 national important cultural property buildings and 3 Yokohama city-designated tangible cultural buildings. There are a total of 17 buildings located on the grounds. The garden was first opened to the public in 1906. It was given to the city of Yokohama in 1953. We hiked around the garden and marveled at the gorgeous photo opportunities available.

During the morning of Monday, 10 April, we boarded the WESTERDAM and settled into our stateroom on Deck 8. We departed Yokohama in the evening and arrived at Omaezaki, Japan, the following morning.

Our first Holland America shore excursion was a visit to the Nihon-daira National Park, the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, and the Yaizu Fish Market. The Nihon-daira National Park is a scenic area located in Shimizu-ku, Shizuoka, Japan. Nihon-daira is a hill area with a height of 307 meters. It won 1st prize of Japan’s Top 100 Tourist Attraction competition, with a panoramic view of Mt. Fuji, Shimizu harbor, Izu peninsula, and the Japanese Southern Alps. There are many different views that can be seen from the top, such as the plum plantation blooms during February and March and the cherry blossoms in late March. When we visited the Nihon-daira Lookout, the weather was hazy and Mt. Fuji was barely visible.

We also rode the Nihon-daira ropeway that connects the Nihon-daira peak with the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine. The ride to visit the shrine took about five minutes each way and offered a beautiful view of Suruga Bay.

The Kunozan Toshogu is a Shinto shrine that is the original burial place of the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Thus, it is the oldest of the Toshogu shrines in the country. The shrine has a history of over 400 years. It enshrines Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate in 1603 and brought peace to Japan for 265 years. Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) endured many hardships in his youth before becoming the first Tokugawa shogun in 1603. He retired as Shogun in 1605, and spent the remainder of his days in Sumpu, the current Shizuoka City. At the age of 75, he passed away on 17 April 1616. Before his death, Ieyasu had instructed his retainers to bury his remains at Kunozan. Ieyasu’s successor, the second Shogun, Tokugawa Hidetada, carried out Ieyasu’s instructions and ordered a shrine to be built to enshrine Tokugawa Ieyasu. The beautifully decorated shrine buildings were designated as a National Treasure in 2010.

We stopped at the Yaizu Fish Market before returning to the ship. This was the obligatory shopping stop. The only thing that intrigued me was a machine where people could try to snatch crabs from a bin using a mechanical arm with a drop-down claw. It was similar to machines in the USA that children use to get stuffed animals from a bin.

After sailing overnight, we arrived mid-morning at Kobe, Japan, on Wednesday, 12 April. Since we didn’t have an excursion, we took taxis to visit both the Ikuta Shrine and the Sorakuen Garden.

The Ikuta Shrine is a Shinto shrine in the Chuo Ward of Kobe, Japan, and is among the oldest shrines in the country. According to Nihon Shoki, the second oldest book of classical Japanese history, it was founded by the Empress Jingu at the beginning of the 3rd century AD to enshrine Kami Wakahirume. It was one of three shrines established at this time; the others are Hirota Shrine, dedicated to Amaterasu, and Nagata Shrine, dedicated to Kotoshiro-nushi (also known as Ebisu).

Ikuta Shrine is worshiped as a guardian of health. This is also reflected in the shrine’s name, as the first Chinese character means “life.” For the people of Kobe, Ikuta Shrine is also a symbol of resurrection, as it survived several challenges in the past: wars were fought in and around the shrine grounds during the Genpei War (1180 - 1185​); heavy flooding from the nearby river occurred in 1938; there were air raids over Kobe during World War II; and it suffered from the damage caused by the Great Hanshin Earthquake in 1995. Ikuta Shrine withstood all the damage and is therefore a symbol of hope for the residents. This is particularly evident on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, when people throng the shrine by the thousands for hatsumode (the first Shinto shrine visit in the New Year), praying for good health and happiness for the coming year.

Our next stop was to visit the Sorakuen Garden which is located in Chuo-ku, Kobe, Japan. It is one of the few historical Japanese gardens that exists within Kobe city. It adopts a “chisen kaiyu shiki” style that features a path around a pond. The giant camphor tree standing inside the garden is considered one of the most iconic elements of the site. This tree is known to have been there before the original residence of Kodera Yasujiro was built. It was formerly attached to the Taisho-era residence of Kodera Yasujiro. Ownership passed to the city of Kobe in 1941. Most of the former residence was destroyed in the Pacific War; the stables of 1907 survived and have been designated an Important Cultural Property. Also contained within the garden are the former Hassam Residence, built by the English architect Alexander Nelson Hansell in 1902 and relocated to its current site in 1963; an Edo-period building shaped like a boathouse, dating from 1682-1704; a tea house; and a stroll garden. In 2006 Sorakuen was registered as a Place of Scenic Beauty.

After another night at sea we arrived at Kochi, Japan, on Thursday morning, 13 April. Since we didn’t have an excursion, I took a taxi from the ship to visit the Chikurin-ji Temple and the Kochi Prefectural Makino Botanical Garden.

Chikurin-ji is a Shingon temple located on top of Mount Godaisan about 5 kilometers southeast of downtown Kochi. Godaisan was named after a famous mountain temple in China, Wu-t’aisan (Mount Wutai, Shanxi Province). The name Chikurin-ji means “Bamboo Forest Temple.” According to legend, Emperor Shomu (701-756) ordered the monk Gyoki to find a mountain that resembled Wu-t'aisan, and, after having chosen this mountain, established a temple here. Gyoki is also credited with carving the honzon (main image) for the temple, a statue of Monju Bosatsu. Known as the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Monju is very popular with students taking exams. Chikurin-ji Temple is the 31st temple on the Shikoku Pilgrimage and has a 5-story pagoda in the style of the Kamakura Period, though it was built in 1980.

The Makino Botanical Garden, also known as the Kochi Prefectural Makino Botanical Garden, was established in 1958 with a research laboratory and museum dedicated to Tomitaro Makino (1862-1957), the “Father of Japanese Botany.” Today, its collections include Japanese Rhododendron, Acer, Chrysanthemum, serpentine plants, limestone plants, plants of the Sohayaki region, and wild plants of the Kochi Prefecture region. This beautiful 8-hectare garden, characterized by slopes and dells, contains more than 3,000 species of plants related to Dr. Makino’s work and brings color to all four seasons. The garden is the only one in Shikoku that is constructed to have a natural ecosystem that balances the rich and beautiful environment of Mount Godai at an elevation of 130 meters above sea level.

After sailing overnight, we arrived at Fukuoka, Japan, at noon on Friday, 14 April. We took a taxi to Sasaguri to visit the Nanzo-in Shingon Buddhist temple.

The Nanzo-in temple is notable for its bronze statue of a reclining Buddha, said to be the largest bronze statue in the world. Nanzo-in was originally located on Mount Koya, but local anti-Buddhist authorities threatened to destroy the temple in 1886. Public outcry led to a decade-long effort to have the temple transferred to Sasaguri. It was moved in 1899, under the leadership of Sasaguri priest, Hayashi Satoshi. Nanzo-in is the main location among the 88 temples that make up the Sasaguri Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage.

The reclining Buddha statue, known as either Nehanzo or Shaka Nehan (“Nirvana”) is 41 meters long, 11 meters high, and weighs nearly 300 tons. The statue depicts Buddha at the moment of death, or entrance into nirvana. The interior holds ashes of Buddha as well as two Buddhist adherents, Ananda and Maudgalyayana. Those relics were a gift from Myanmar as thanks for the sect’s donations of medical supplies to children in both Nepal and Myanmar. In 1995, 1,300 monks from Myanmar and Nepal attended the unveiling of the reclining Buddha statue. Inside the sculpture, sand from each of the 88 shrines that make up the Sasaguri Shikoku 88 Pilgrimage are stored below bricks within a narrow hallway.

The Nanzo-in temple has 4,315 nokotsudo, places where bones of the deceased are stored. The temple has a non-traditional fee structure for housing remains that is open to all sects of Buddhism, as well as to Shinto remains. This aligns with many other Buddhist temples that rely on a monthly fee for housing the bones of the deceased, which are then disposed of after a set period of time. Nanzo-in has one fee, which covers 200 years.

After a full day at sea, we arrived early morning at Kanazawa, Japan, on 16 April. Once again, we took a taxi from the port to visit the Kenrokuen Garden which is located next to the Kanazawa Castle.

Kenrokuen (Garden of Six Attributes) is a strolling style garden. It was constructed during the Edo period by the Maeda clan, the feudal lords who ruled the former Kaga Domain. Along with Kairakuen and Korakuen, Kenrokuen is considered one of the Three Great Gardens of Japan and is noted for its beauty across all seasons, particularly during winter. Spread over nearly 25 acres, features of the landscape include meandering paths, a large pond, several tea houses, and one of Japan’s oldest fountains. First open to the public in 1871, the garden was later designated a National Site of Scenic Beauty in 1922, and subsequently received status as a National Site of Special Scenic Beauty in 1985.

The garden restoration began in 1774 by the 11th daimyo Harunaga, who created the Midori-taki (Emerald Waterfall) and Yugao-tei (teahouse). Improvements continued in 1822 when the 12th daimyo Narinaga created the garden’s winding streams with water drawn from the Tatsumi Waterway. The 13th daimyo Nariyasu subsequently added more streams and expanded the Kasumi Pond. With this, the garden’s current form was complete. The garden opened to the public on 7 May 1874.

Kenrokuen contains roughly 8,750 trees and 183 species of plants in total. Among the garden’s points of special interest are the oldest fountain in Japan, operating by natural water pressure; a Karasaki Pine, planted from seed by the 13th lord Nariyasu; and a stone lantern with two legs. In winter, the park is notable for its yukitsuri – ropes attached in a conical array to carefully support tree branches in desired arrangements to protect the trees from damage caused by heavy snows.

After another day at sea, we arrived mid-morning at Busan, South Korea, on 18 April. Here we went on our second Holland America excursion to visit the Tongdosa Temple and the APEC House.

Tongdosa is Korea’s largest temple. It is one of the Three Jewels Temples and represents Gautama Buddha. Tongdosa, known in Korean as “Salvation of the World through Mastery of Truth,” is a head temple of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism. It is located in the southern part of Mt. Chiseosan near Yangsan, South Gyeongsang Province, South Korea. It was established by the monk Jajang-yulsa after he returned from Tang China in 646 AD, during the reign of Queen Seondeok of Silla. It thrived throughout the later Silla and Goryeo periods (918-1392), when Buddhism was the state religion, and remained strong even during Joseon.

Tongdosa is famous because there are no statues outside of the Buddha at the temple. The “real shrines of the Buddha” (relics) are preserved at Tongdosa. Courtyards at the temple are arrayed around several pagodas that house several relics of the Buddha himself, including a robe, a begging bowl, and a bone from his skull. All relics were brought back from Jajang-yulsa’s travels to Tang China that he undertook in 636 to study with ten other monks.

Only one building, the Mahavira Hall (the main Dharma worship hall), survived the Japanese invasions of Korea in the late 16th century (1592–98). The other buildings were rebuilt later in that period. At the height of its prosperity in the mid-15th century, Tongdosa is said to have had hundreds of buildings and thousands of monks. For over 1,300 years, Tongdosa’s Beopdeung (temple candle) has never gone out.

Our next stop was the Asian Pacific Economic Conference (APEC) Memorial Hall in the APEC Naru Park at the southern end of Dongbai Island, Busan, South Korea. The APEC Memorial Hall was built to commemorate the success of the 2005 Busan APEC Conference. All three floors were built with transparent glass and tempered brackets. The exterior was built with elements of the traditional Korean pavilion. The two-floor outdoor courtyard has panoramic sea views. There is a huge traditional Korean mural that features twelve kinds of plants and animals, including pine, cypress, deer, and turtles.

After another day at sea, we arrived at Otaru, Japan, at noon on Thursday, 20 April. Prior to disembarking the ship, we were required to be processed by Japan Immigration officials to re-enter Japan. Otaru is a port city on Hokkaido, the northernmost of Japan’s main islands.

Once we disembarked from the ship, we took a taxi to visit the Otaru Railroad Museum, which is part of the Otaru Museum complex. The facility is located on the 5.8 hectare site of Temiya Station on the former Temiya Line, which was the birthplace of railways in Hokkaido. The museum owns 8 of the 12 quasi-railway monuments in Hokkaido, including the Railway Vehicle Preservation Museum, which is the oldest existing locomotive depot and railway monument in Japan. The museum itself is an impressive display of the development of the rail system in Hokkaido, beginning with the Meiji Restoration Period when the government mandated expansion and settlement into the area.

The centerpiece is the Japanese Government Railway (JGR) Class 7100 No. 7106 “Shizuka” steam locomotive built by H. K. Porter, Inc. of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which was first used in Hokkaido. The oldest brick roundhouse in Hokkaido and Japan was built in 1885 and it remains here to this day. From old conductor uniforms to railway lights and signals, the interior of the museum is a great introduction into the history of rail in Hokkaido. Outside the main building there are trains, tracks, and stations from every era on display everywhere. The museum was fully made over and re-opened on 14 July 2007. This museum was amazing.

After completing the visit to the museum, we began walking back toward the cruise ship port. We walked along the picturesque Otaru Canal to the intersection of Sushi Street. We decided to have sushi while in Otaru and walked up Sushi Street to a small sushi restaurant. We ordered sushi from what appeared to be a set lunch menu and enjoyed possibly the best sushi that we have ever eaten. With lunch complete, we continued walking along several “shopping streets” en route to the ship.

After sailing overnight, we arrived early morning at Aomori, Japan, on Friday, 21 April. We had another Holland America excursion to visit the Seiryu Ji Temple and the Sannai-Maruyama Archaeological Site. This excursion also included a very nice lunch at a Japanese wedding facility.

Seiryu Ji is a newer Buddhist temple that was opened as a branch temple of Koyasan in 1984. It was founded by a Great Acharya Ryukou Oda, who later built Showa Daibutsu. Showa Daibutsu is approximately 21.35 meters in height and is the tallest seated bronze figure of Buddha in Japan. Within the site of the temple, there are the Main Hall, Five-story Pagoda, Kondo Hall, and some other buildings and statues. The Five-story Pagoda is 39 meters high and is the fourth highest in Japan. The grounds were picturesque with some cherry blossoms still blooming.

After lunch we visited the Sannai-Maruyama Site. It is an archaeological site and museum located in the Maruyama and Yasuta neighborhoods to the southwest of central Aomori. It contains the ruins of a very large Jomon period settlement. The Jomon Period is the earliest historical era of Japanese history beginning around 14,500 - 300 BC. The ruins of a 40-hectare settlement were discovered in 1992, when Aomori Prefecture started surveying the area for a planned baseball stadium. Excavation led to the discovery of storage pits, above ground storage, and longhouses. These findings demonstrated a change in the structure of the community, architecture, and organizational behaviors of the region. Because of the extensive information and importance, this site was designated as a Special National Historical Site of Japan in 2000. In 2021, it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the Jomon Prehistoric Sites in Northern Japan. Its various reconstructions of Jomon structures, as well as a museum that displays and houses artifacts collected on the site, have collectively been designated an Important Cultural Property.

We sailed overnight and arrived early morning at Hakodate, Japan, on Saturday, 22 April. Since we didn’t have a shore excursion here, we took a taxi to the Goryokaku Tower to get an aerial view of Goryokaku Park and Fort Goryokaku.

The original Goryokaku Tower was completed in 1964. The present structure opened in 2006. It stands 107 meters tall and its observatory decks command the entire view of Goryokaku Park. It also provides views of Mt. Hakodate, Tsugaru Strait, and the Yokotsu mountain range. We were fortunate to be there at the peak of the cherry blossom viewing season. The 1,600 cherry trees that line the moat around the star-shaped fort turned the citadel pink. The tower is a premier viewing spot for the cherry blossoms.

Goryokaku was a fort completed in 1866 and was the main fortress of the short-lived Republic of Ezo. It was designed in 1855 by Takeda Ayasaburo based on the work of the French architect Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban. The fortress was completed in 1866, two years before the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate. It is shaped like a five-pointed star. This allowed for greater numbers of gun emplacements on its walls than a traditional Japanese fortress, and reduced the number of blind spots where a cannon could not fire.

The fort was built by the Tokugawa shogunate to protect Tsugaru Strait against a possible invasion by the Russian fleet. It became the capital of the Republic of Ezo, a state that existed only in 1869. It was the site of the weeklong last battle of the Boshin War between the Republic and the Empire of Japan. Today, Goryokaku is a park declared as a Special Historical Site, being a part of the Hakodate city museum and a citizens’ favorite spot for cherry-blossom viewing in the spring.

We took a taxi from the tower to the Mount Hakodate Ropeway lower station. The ropeway is an aerial lift that climbs Mount Hakodate. As of 2004, this was the most heavily used aerial lift line in Japan, transporting 1,559,000 riders yearly. The “Michelin Green Guide: Japan” gave the experience three out of three stars. In addition to the ropeway, the peak is also accessible by hiking, by bike, and by motor vehicle.

Mount Hakodate is an inactive volcanic mountain that was once separate from the mainland. Around 3,000 years ago, a sandbar connected the island to mainland Hokkaido, creating an isthmus called a tombolo on which downtown Hakodate is now located. The sandbar makes Mount Hakodate a tied island. It is renowned for its view of the surrounding bay and city.

When we arrived at the lower ropeway, we discovered that the ropeway was not operating. Consequently, our taxi driver drove us to the summit while stopping at a viewpoint mid-way up the mountain for a photo opportunity. At the summit, our taxi driver escorted us through the nearly deserted observation building providing us with a private tour of the facility and amazing views from the summit. We continued back to the cruise ship from here.

After another day at sea, we arrived early at Yokohama on Monday, 24 April. Due to forecasted bad weather to the north, the captain canceled the port visit to Kushiro, Japan, scheduled for 26 April and opted to stay at Yokohama overnight and depart during the evening of 25 April.

With two days in Yokohama, we decided to take a taxi to visit the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum on Monday, 24 April. The Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum, a food court that opened in 1994, is located in the Shin-Yokohama district of Kohoku-ku, Yokohama, Japan. It is devoted to Japanese ramen noodle soup and features a small recreation of Tokyo in the year 1958, the year instant noodles were invented. Within the museum are branches of famous ramen restaurants from Kyushu to Hokkaido. The list includes Ide Shoten, Shinasobaya, Keyaki, Ryushanhai, Hachiya, Fukuchan, and Komurasaki. In 2013, the museum added American restaurant Ikemen Hollywood to their restaurants, but subsequently closed the branch in June 2014. The museum has a Showa-era theme.

After touring the museum, we ate a bowl of ramen noodles in one of the restaurants and then took a taxi to the Aka-Renga Park located adjacent to the Osanbashi Yokohama International Cruise Terminal. Here we walked past the foundation ruins of the old center office of the Customs House Annex and visited a flower arrangement being constructed between the two Yokohama Red Warehouses. This provided several wonderful photo opportunities.

We continued walking along the waterfront to Yamashita Park where we strolled through the many flower exhibits that were part of the Garden Necklace Yokohama 2023 Expo. The exhibits were both extensive and amazing. We also viewed the ship NYK HIKAWA MARU which was docked adjacent to the park.

The following day, we took a taxi to visit the Yokohama Doll Museum. The doll museum is located near the Yokohama Marine Tower across the street from Yamashita Park. It is one of the largest doll museums in Japan. It displays 1,300 rare dolls from 140 countries around the world. The Yokohama Doll Museum first opened in March 1979. Earlier, in September 1978, a very large collection of dolls belonging to Hideko Oono was donated to the city of Yokohama. The 30th anniversary of Pickles the Frog special exhibit was featured on the third floor of the museum. This museum was definitely worth the visit.

We walked back to the ship from the museum and cleared Japanese Immigration prior to boarding the ship for our long repositioning voyage to Seattle, Washington, via Alaska. After six rainy days at sea, we arrived early morning at Kodiak, Alaska, on Tuesday, 2 May, where we cleared USA Immigration prior to disembarking.

The weather during the morning at Kodiak was beautiful and the morning light was perfect for photos. While in downtown Kodiak, we visited the National Wildlife Refuge Visitors Center which had excellent exhibits. Once we completed our visit downtown, we walked back to the ship along the small boat harbor and canneries.

That evening, we departed Kodiak and had another day at sea en route to Sitka. We arrived at Sitka, Alaska, early on the morning of Thursday, 4 May, where we had another beautiful day. We had booked the “Birds, Bears and Barnacles” Holland America excursion which first took us to the Alaska Raptor Center. The center was established in 1980. The personnel there treat and rehabilitate injured raptor birds – with the goal of releasing them back into the wild. We were given an orientation presentation and viewed the bald eagle rehabilitation flight training center before going outside to see many of the birds at the center. There was also a nice nature trail through the forest adjacent to a stream where visitors could hike. The Raptor Center was well worth a visit. We continued on to visit the Fortress of the Bears, where orphaned black and brown bears reside in open areas. This stop provided photo opportunities of the bears.

A stop at the Sitka National Historic Park was substituted for the barnacles portion of the excursion which was canceled due to personnel illness. Since we had visited the National Park on two prior occasions, we walked back to downtown Sitka along the waterfront and I purchased a reindeer Polish sausage sandwich before returning to the ship to sail overnight to Ketchikan.

We arrived mid-morning at Ketchikan, Alaska, on Friday, 5 May. The weather at Ketchikan was overcast with periodic light rain. We had been here several times before and had booked the Holland America “Saxman Native Village Dance Performance and Totem Park” excursion for this visit. The village was about a fifteen minute bus ride from the pier. Here we visited the Beaver Clan House for a native dance performance and then went to the totem carving house where three carvers demonstrated totem pole carving techniques. We were then given free time to explore the numerous totem poles at the village. This was a very interesting excursion that I recommend.

After another day at sea, we completed our Holland America voyage and arrived at Seattle, Washington, early morning on Sunday, 7 May. We met up with our friends, Tom and Leslie from Orcas Island, and spent two more days in the Seattle area. On Monday, 8 May, we visited Kubota Garden, a 20-acre Japanese garden in the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle. It was started in 1927 by Fujitaro Kubota, a Japanese immigrant. Since 1987, the Garden has been maintained as a public park by Seattle Parks and Recreation and the Kubota Garden Foundation. Major features of the Kubota Garden include the Kubota Terrace, the Bamboo Grove, the Necklace of Ponds, the Mountainside, and the Tom Kubota Stroll Garden. Admission was free and strolling through the garden was wonderful.

On Tuesday, 9 May, we departed Seattle and flew back home to Los Angeles.

See pictures from Japan and Alaska

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  February 2023
Mexico Cruise

Travel Notes

 

After completing our Princess Cruise in December 2022, we arranged a family cruise for sixteen people and eight cabins aboard the DISCOVERY PRINCESS for the eight day cruise in February 2023. Jan and I boarded the ship at the Port of Los Angeles on Saturday, 25 February, to sail down the coast of Mexico and visit Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, and Puerto Vallarta.

Sunday, 26 February, was a day at sea and we arrived at Cabo San Lucas at noon on Monday, 27 February. After disembarking at Cabo, we walked to Marina Door 2 and located Esmeralda Tours for our whale watching tour that was scheduled to depart at 2:45 PM. A representative asked us if we would like to depart immediately instead of waiting until 2:45. We agreed and departed on a small boat with several other people to search for whales.

After sailing to the famous rock formations for the benefit of the other people in our boat, we began searching for whales in earnest. Although we saw a number of whales, most were visible only from a distance. It turned out to be mainly a nice boat ride. Of course, whale watching is a matter of being at the right spot at the right time to see the best whales.

We sailed from Cabo to Mazatlán and arrived at Mazatlán early Tuesday morning, 28 February. Well in advance of the cruise, we had booked a hike to the Faro Lighthouse on Cerro del Creston for 10:00 AM. About a week before arriving at Mazatlán, we received an email advising us that the hike would meet at the same location at 9:15 AM. When we arrived for the hike, we were informed that the hike was canceled due to insufficient interest. We were offered a Mazatlán City Highlights tour with a drop off at the lighthouse trail at the end in lieu of our hike. We agreed and joined eight other people for the city tour.

The first stop on the tour was at the viewpoint on Cerro del Vigia overlooking Cerro del Creston with views of the Faro Lighthouse, the Malecón, and the three offshore islands. One of the famous MAZATLAN tourist signs is situated here along with an old 1875 cannon commemorating the end of the Mexican-American War. We continued from here to Plaza Republica where there is a concentration of shoe shine and shoe repair stalls. The Plaza Republica was originally constructed in 1870. The ironwork Porfirian bandstand was constructed in 1909.

The plaza is situated in front of the Mazatlán City Hall building and the Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepción, the Central Mazatlán Cathedral. Construction of the cathedral began in 1856 on the site of an ancient Indian temple. Mazatlán’s turbulent history delayed completion of the church until 1899. After additional work, the church was elevated to the status of a “basilica.” The basilica has a unique architectural feature: each of its 28 stained glass windows incorporates a Star of David installed in gratitude for donations from German Mazatlán Jews.

We walked to the central market, Mercado Pino Suarez. This market is divided in sections by food types. There are aisles with fresh seafood, chickens, beef, and pork, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables. The market also has cheese vendors as well as herb and spice shops. Beyond food, the market has numerous shops and vendors of tourist items, like t-shirts, hats, and all sorts of souvenirs. The upper level of the market has numerous small restaurants.

We continued on to El Clavadista where the Mazatlán Cliff Divers perform every day. People come here to watch the famous divers who collect tips following each dive. The divers climb to the top of the cliff, watch the waves below, and dive from the cliff into the ocean with as little as five to six feet of water. This is a truly amazing sight.

We drove along a portion of the Malecón before visiting old town Mazatlán. Plaza Machado is at the heart of Mazatlán Centro Historico and is one of the loveliest plazas in Mexico. Originally constructed in 1837, it is the oldest plaza in Mazatlán. Today, the restored Plaza Machado and its 19th century historic buildings are populated with sightseeing and tourist attractions like chic cafes, bars, art galleries, the Angela Peralta Theater, and other cultural attractions.

While at Plaza Machado, we visited the Hotel Raíces del Mar to see the fabulous art and décor of the building. It is a very popular hotel for tourists who want to stay at Plaza Machado. We walked from the plaza to see the Mazatlán Fine Arts Center and the Angela Peralta Theater.

After leaving Plaza Machado, we drove along the Malecón to the tourist area, with the exclusive tourist hotels and resorts, before driving back to see Liverpool Alley and returning to the ship. Liverpool Alley has sculptures of the Beatles walking across the street depicting the Abbey Road Album Cover. In addition, the alley has a mini cooper car, a red British phone booth, and a yellow submarine in the distance. We decided to return to the ship instead of being dropped off at Cerro del Creston for the hike to the Faro Lighthouse.

On Wednesday, 1 March, we arrived at Puerto Vallarta early in the morning and took a taxi to the Marina Vallarta for our Whale Research Adventure excursion. Our taxi driver did not know exactly where to drive us and, after stopping numerous times for directions, dropped us off about 500 meters from the location for our excursion. We finally arrived at the Ecotours office where we met up with other people for whale watching.

Prior to going to the boat, we were treated to a fabulous 20 minute presentation about the Whale Research Center conducted by a marine biologist who would also be our guide. After the presentation, we went to our small boat to begin our whale watching excursion. While out on the water, we saw dolphins and many whales. It was a marvelous whale watching excursion and our lucky day.

We returned to the ship and prepared for two more days at sea before docking back at the Port of Los Angeles. We disembarked at the Port of Los Angeles on Saturday, 4 March, and took a taxi home.

See pictures from the Mexico Cruise

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  January 2023
Chile

Travel Notes

 

After I decided to spend most of January 2023 in South America, I booked discounted business class flights on Aeromexico to Buenos Aires, Argentina. I then decided that I would like to visit Easter Island, Chile, and found the only available itinerary was a package through Expedia from 15 January to 20 January, which I purchased. I also wanted to visit the Atacama Desert in Chile and was able to book a package through Expedia from 22 January to 26 January. Since this itinerary did not allow me time to acclimate to some of the other higher altitude destinations in Chile, I decided to revisit Santiago and do some local sightseeing from there.

On Wednesday, 4 January, I boarded my Aeromexico flights from Los Angeles, California, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Since my first flight was to Mexico City, Mexico, with a long connection layover, I spent the night at the Izzesleep Sleeping Pod hotel at the Mexico City airport after clearing Mexico immigration. I connected with my second Aeromexico flight the following morning and arrived at Buenos Aires on schedule late at night on 5 January and took the Airport Holiday Inn shuttle bus to the hotel.

After exchanging some US dollars for Argentina Pesos with the owner of the gas station near the hotel the following morning, I spent most of the day at the hotel and checked out at 2:30 AM to catch my LATAM Airlines early morning flight to Santiago, Chile. After arriving in Santiago on Saturday, 7 January, I received an early check in at the Santiago Sheraton Hotel where I would spend the next eight nights before traveling to Easter Island.

The Sheraton hotel upgraded me to a two room mini-suite with a wonderful view across Rio Mapocho, the river that flows through Santiago. Igor, the hotel bellboy, loaned me one of his Metro “bip!” cards which saved me cost of purchasing a card of my own. I added money for my metro usage during my eight days in Santiago revisiting some areas of Santiago and also exploring several new sights.

On Sunday, 8 January, I walked from the hotel to the nearby Pedro de Valdivia Norte neighborhood entrance to Metropolitan Park to ride the Santiago Cable Car to the station near the top of Cerro Cristobal. Metropolitan Park, covering 722 hectares, is the largest urban park in Santiago. The park was created in April 1966 to incorporate the Chilean National Zoo and the services of San Cristobal Hill. San Cristobal Hill began to be used in 1903 with the installation of the Mills Observatory, currently known as the Manuel Foster Observatory. The Statue of the Virgin Mary inaugurated on April 26, 1908, is the main icon on the hill.

I walked around the viewing terrace at the top of Cerro San Cristobal, visited the church, and climbed up to the Statue of the Virgin Mary before taking the Funicular down to Barrio Bellavista. The funicular runs nearly 500 meters on a 45 degree incline from the Barrio Bellavista station to the zoo station and continues to the summit. Although I had ridden the funicular and visited Cerro San Cristobal, this was my first time riding the Santiago Cable Car. After walking around the Barrio Bellavista, I returned to my hotel.

On Monday, 9 January, I took the Tours 4 Tips Offbeat Walking Tour that began at a meeting point in front of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Although I had taken this tour on a prior visit to Santiago, each tour guide interjects their own personal views into the tour. This time, the first stop was at an early Santiago house. Next, we took the Metro to visit Mercado Central de Santiago, which opened in 1872 and is primarily a fish market. We continued walking across a bridge over the Mapocho River to visit the La Vega Central Market, also known as Feriqa Mapocho. It was constructed in 1895. La Vega has 60,000 square meters of stalls and is home to over 500 dairy, meat, fruit, vegetable, and merchandise stores.

The last stop was at the General Cemetery of Santiago de Chile located in the district of Recoleta. The cemetery, inaugurated on December 9, 1821, by the supreme director Bernardo O’Higgins Riquelme, occupies 85 hectares and is where nearly two million people are buried. Originally, Protestants, then called “dissidents,” could not be buried here. The Cemeteries Decree of 1871 established burial without distinction of creed in a duly separated space for dissidents and allowed the creation of secular cemeteries. This cemetery is the final resting place of almost all of the supreme directors and presidents of the Republic, as well as most of the relevant people of Chilean history. I took the metro back to Mercado Central where I ate lunch at one of the small fish restaurants before returning to my hotel.

On Tuesday, 10 January, I went to the Plaza de Armas, the main square in Santiago. I visited the Santiago Metropolitan Cathedral that faces the northwest corner of Plaza de Armas. The cathedral was constructed between 1753 and 1799. I continued from here to the Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, an art museum dedicated to the display of pre-Columbian artworks and artifacts from Central and South America. The museum has more than 3,000 pieces representing almost 100 different groups of people ranging over 10,000 years. I had visited this museum two times before and was surprised to find that the second floor exhibits were closed to the public. The second floor had been closed for some time and no date was offered as to when it would reopen. Disappointed, I visited the exhibits contained in the basement. I will return here on a future visit to Santiago.

I returned to the Plaza de Armas and visited the National Historical Museum. Since 1982, this museum has been installed in the former Palace of the Royal Court, also called the Palace of Independence, on the northern side of Plaza de Armas. The building dates from 1808. A historical museum was originally installed in Hidalgo Castle of Santa Lucia hill in 1874, and, due to its popularity, organizers asked the government to create the National Historical Museum on May 2, 1911. It was moved to the current location in 1982, and the exhibits contained here are wonderful. From here, I walked to explore the neighboring streets and then returned to my hotel.

On Wednesday, 11 January, I took the metro to visit Cerro Santa Lucia, Santa Lucia Hill. It is a small 69 meter hill over the surrounding area. It is the remnant of a 15 million year old volcano and contains a 65,000 square meter park with ornate facades, stairways, and fountains. The name comes from the day in which Pedro de Valdivia conquered the hill on December 13, 1540, which celebrates “Santa Lucia.” Notable landmarks include two forts or castles built in 1816, an observatory built in 1849, and the exquisite Neptune Fountain and Terrace. Since I had not visited here before, I hiked the hill and was impressed by the diversity of photographic opportunities.

I walked from Cerro Santa Lucia to the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. It was founded on September 18, 1880, under the name Museo Nacional de Pinturas and is the first art museum in Latin America. Since 1910 it has occupied the Palace of Fine Arts building in the Forestal Park. I was able to view all of the open galleries in about an hour before returning to my hotel.

On Thursday, 12 January, I took a hotel car to visit the Concha y Toro Winery tour. The Concho y Toro Vinyard was founded by Don Melchor de Santiago Concha y Toro, VII Marquess of Casa Concha and ex-Minister of Finance, and his wife, Emiliana Subercaseaux, in 1883. He brought grape varieties from the Bordeaux region in France. The grape varieties that he brought were: Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Merlot, and Carmenere. The tour began with a walk through the gardens, the park, and the outside of the summer residence of the Concha y Toro family towards the end of the 19th Century. It included a visit to the Variety Garden where 26 varieties of grapes are growing. The tour visited the Old Pirque vineyard and afforded a panoramic view of the Maipo Valley from the vineyard's terraces where I tasted 3 wines. After the wine tasting, we visited the wine cellars, including the famous century-old Casillero del Diablo and also included a light show. Finally I was provided with exclusive tasting of four varieties of the Super Premium Marques de Casa Concha line accompanied by fine cheeses. This was a great tour and a wonderful way to spend the day.

On Friday, 13 January, I went to visit the area around the Palacio de La Moneda. I first visited Plaza de La Ciudadania, or Citizenry Square, which is situated in the southern facade of Palacio de La Moneda. It was built between November 2004 and January 2006 to celebrate the bicentennial of Chile’s independence in 2010. Paths leading down from the plaza give access to the Centro Cultural Palacio de La Moneda, a 7,200 square meter cultural facility with two main exhibition halls.

From here I walked past the Palacio de La Moneda, which was closed to the public and protected by guards. The palace occupies an entire block in downtown Santiago and is the seat of the President of the Republic of Chile. In 1930, a public square named Plaza de la Constitucion, Constitution Square, was built in front of the northern facade of the palace. During the military coup d’etat on September 11, 1973, the Chilean Air Force strafed the palace with unguided rockets and automatic cannon fire. The president Salvador Allende committed suicide in the palace. Reconstruction and restoration projects of the damage were completed in March 1981.

I arrived at the Plaza de la Constitucion and walked through the plaza as public demonstrations were in progress. I continued walking to Cerro Santa Lucia and north to the Bella Artes metro station to return to my hotel.

On Saturday, 14 January, I walked through the parks adjacent to the Mapocho River to revisit the Providencia Sculpture Park. It is located on the north bank of the river along Santa Maria Avenue, between Pedro de Valdivia and Nueva de Lyon Street. It was inaugurated in 1986 and has exhibits from more than 30 works by renowned Chilean artists. Since 2002 the park has been the arena for the Providencia International Jazz Festival. In 2008, the park was admitted to the International Council of Museums as a member in the open-air museum category.

After strolling through the sculpture park, I continued on to visit the Costanera Center Tower 2, also known as Gran Torre Santiago. It is a 62-story skyscraper, is the tallest building in South America, and is the second tallest building in Latin America behind Mexico’s T.Op Torre 1. It is part of the Costanera Center complex which includes the largest shopping mall in Latin America. Construction of the building began in June 2006 and was completed in 2013, reaching a maximum height of 300 meters (980 feet). In August 2015, an observation deck, called “Sky Costanera,” was opened to the public in floors 61 and 62.

On Sunday, 15 January, I flew to Hanga Roa, Easter Island, Chile, which is called Rapa Nui in Polynesian and Isla de Pascua in Spanish. I was met at the airport by a representative of the Uka Mana Hotel. The hotel was near the airport and some distance from Hanga Roa, the only urban center on the island. The hotel was recently renovated and my room was clean with an adjacent common area shared by hotel guests. While the complimentary breakfast was inconsistent and marginal, I tried two of the home-cooked dinners, which were subpar, more expensive than restaurants in Hanga Roa, and should be avoided. Prior to arriving on Easter Island, the hotel put me in touch with Guillermo Tephi who ran the 3-day Moana Tour that I booked in advance. In addition, I booked a fourth day hike to Maunga Terevaka volcano summit, which is the highest point on the island.

The name Easter Island was given by the first recorded European visitor, Jacob Roggeveen, who arrived at it on Easter Sunday in 1772 while searching for “Davis Land.” It is one of the most remote inhabited islands in the world with Pitcairn Island, 2,075 kilometers away, being the nearest inhabited land. In 1995, UNESCO named Easter Island a World Heritage Site, with much of the island protected within Rapa Nui National Park. Chile annexed Easter Island in 1888 and, in 1966, the Rapa Nui were granted Chilean citizenship. Since 2007, it has been a special territory of Chile in the southernmost point of the Polynesian Triangle. The island is most famous for the nearly 1,000 extant monumental statues, called moai, which were created by the Rapa Nui people.

After getting settled into the hotel, I called a taxi recommended by the hotel to take me to Hanga Roa to purchase the $80 USD required official Rapa Nui National Park Tourist Permit. The permit allows entrance to the park and access to all of the tourist sites within the park. While in town, I explored the portion of the town adjacent to the ocean and the small boat harbor area. Back at the hotel, I ate my first home-cooked dinner prepared by the hotel which had tiny portions. I figured that the dinner was sparse due to short notice and I made the mistake of ordering the home-cooked dinner for the following night.

On Monday, 16 January, Guillermo picked me up at the hotel for the first day of the Moana Tour. Our first stop was at Puka Manu Mea, a replica ancestral village that shows structures of different types. We walked from here to the site of Vaihu, the platform (“ahu”) of 8 moai that is next to the fishing bay of Hanga Te’e. The 8 moai now lie face down just as they were when they were knocked down from the ahu platform, while the cylindrical headdresses rolled a little farther. This is a place depicting how the ahu were left after the decline and destruction of the ancient culture.

We continued on to visit Rano Raraku, the moai statue quarry. The Rano Raraku volcano is an incredible and extraordinary site where the moai statues were made. Ranu Raraku became the quarry where almost all of the 1,000 that have been found were sculpted. The moai were carved here, then taken to the ahu or ceremonial platforms, and distributed along the entire coast to honor the memory of their ancestors.

Here we saw 397 moai in different stages of construction as we hiked the trail from the visitor center. About 70 moai are seen standing half-buried on the upper slopes. A kneeling moai is also found here. This was one of the most interesting sites that I visited on the island. The Ahu Tongariki site is visible in the distance near the shoreline.

We continued from Rano Raraku to Ahu Tongariki, the largest ceremonial site on Easter Island. Its moai were toppled during the civil wars and, in the twentieth century, the ahu was swept inland by a tsunami. It has been restored and has fifteen moai, including one that weighs eighty-six tons, the heaviest ever erected on the island. All the moai here face sunset during the winter solstice. Guillermo told me that we would return the following morning to see the sunrise behind the moai.

We continued on to Anakena, which is a white coral sand beach in Rapa Nui National Park. It is one of only two small sandy beaches in the otherwise rocky coastline. Anakena has two ahus: Ahu Ature has a single moai and Ahu Nao-Nao has seven moai. The beach also has a palm grove and a car park.

On Tuesday, 17 January, we departed the hotel at 5:30 AM and drove to Ahu Tongariki to see the morning sunrise behind the fifteen moai. This is a very popular experience with the tourist visitors to the island. Although this was interesting, the moai are all in the shadows and might offer better photographic opportunities with the moai facing the sunset.

We went from here to a spot on the coast where Guillermo’s wife brought food and met up with us for a breakfast adjacent to a small cave. After breakfast we went to the Rano Kau, a 324 meter (1,063 feet) tall dormant volcano that forms the southwestern end of Easter Island. Rano Kau has a crater lake which is one of the island’s only three natural bodies of fresh water. The archaeological site on Rano Kau is the ruined ceremonial village of Orongo situated at the point where the sea cliff and inner crater converge. The houses here are made entirely of a flat stone called kehu. This material allows the houses to survive the strong winds at the top of the volcano. In 1974 and 1976, all houses were restored. Many petroglyphs can be found here.

In ancient times, the annual “birdman” competitions took place here in which a representative from each of the tribes fought. Competitors would climb more than 200 meters down the cliff wall, swim out to the islet called Moto Nui, retrieve a newly laid egg from the manutara bird, swim back, and climb up the cliff again. The first competitor to return with an intact egg was declared the winner and would earn the privileges of the king for the next 12 months. He was also offered to choose for a wife one of the virgin girls from Ana O Kere, “Virgin Cave,” where the girls had been trapped to obtain white skin, which was considered a sign of beauty.

Our last stop of the day was at the Tahai Ceremonial Complex restored in 1974. Tahai comprises three principal ahu from north to south: Ko Te Riki, with restored eyes, Tahai, and Vai Ure. Many people come to this site at sunset to watch the sun descend behind the moai. I told Guillermo that I would like to return early in the morning for better photos.

On Wednesday, 18 January, we began the day at Puna Pau, the quarry of the pukao. Puna Pau was the sole source of the red scoria that the prehistoric Rapa Nui used to carve the pukao (topknots or headdresses) that were put on the heads of some moai statues. We hiked the trail around a portion of Puna Pau where there were large abandoned portions of red scoria with large petroglyphs carved into them.

We continued on to visit Ahu Akivi, a sacred place looking out towards the Pacific Ocean. The site has seven moai, all of equal shape and size. This site is located inland rather that along the coast. A particular feature of the seven identical moai statues is that they face the sunset during the Spring Equinox and have their backs to the sunrise during the Autumn Equinox. This precise feature is seen only at this location on the island.

We continued on to our last stop of the day to visit Ana Te Pahu, often referred to as Banana Cave. It is one of the most spacious caves of the many lava tubes found on the island. We hiked through a portion of the cave that was used to collect rainwater during the rainy season. Many edible and useful plants flourish in the cave.

On Thursday, 19 January, we first stopped at Tahai for the early morning photo opportunity before continuing on to hike to the summit of the Maunga Terevaka, the tallest and youngest of the three extinct volcanoes. The summit is 507.41 meters (1,664.73 feet) above sea level. Terevaka is the 12th most topographically isolated summit on Earth. The view from the summit covers the entire island including the two older volcanic peaks of Poike and Rano Kau.

After a short stop at one of the best handicraft stores in Hanga Roa, we returned to the hotel where I bid farewell to Guillermo at my hotel. At the end of that day, my pedometer had recorded 21,129 steps.

On Friday, 20 January, I flew back to Santiago where I spent the following day working on my photos before flying on to Calama, Chile. I arrived at Calama and picked up my Budget rental car to begin my 100 kilometer drive to San Pedro de Atacama where I checked into the Terrantai Lodge Hotel. My rental car was a Volkswagen GOL which, in retrospect, was a mistake. Given the condition of the roads that I encountered, I should have rented a heavy-duty 4-wheel drive vehicle with good road clearance.

The Atacama desert in northern Chile, often referred to as the driest non-polar desert in the world, has been used as an experimentation site on Earth for Mars expedition simulations. Most of the desert is composed of stony terrain, salt lakes (salares), sand, and felsic lava that flows towards the Andes. The Atacama is so arid that many mountains higher than 6,000 meters (20,000 feet) are completely free of glaciers. The Atacama Desert is among the top three tourist sites in Chile and about 80 geysers occur in a valley about 80 kilometers from the town of San Pedro de Atacama. San Pedro de Atacama lies at an elevation of about 2,400 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level. It was part of Bolivia since independence from Spain until Chile claimed ownership during the War of the Pacific when the Battle of Rio Grande was fought in the surroundings.

During the drive to San Pedro de Atacama, I stopped at a viewpoint overlooking the Valley of Death. The landscape was rugged and picturesque. I continued on to the Terrantai Lodge Hotel which turned out to be one of my better choices for this trip. It was like an oasis in the middle of the desert. The building was clean and attractive with a very attentive outgoing staff led by Christian. My room was spacious and, with the ceiling fan, very comfortable. I had arrived at the hotel in time for “Tea Time” with complimentary teas and cookies from 4 to 6 PM. In addition, the hotel had complimentary wine tasting from 7 to 9 PM. The hotel also has a secured parking lot nearby and car owners are given a key to the lot. The buffet breakfasts were wonderful and included fresh squeezed orange juice, homemade breads and pastries, fresh ground coffees, cereals, fruit, cold cuts, cheeses, and eggs cooked to order. Christian gave me good advice on things to see and recommended a wonderful restaurant, Ckunna, where I enjoyed two excellent dinners.

After checking into the hotel, I explored the neighborhood around the hotel in search of the Tourist Information Office. The town is very picturesque with a town square, full of immense California Pepper trees, located adjacent to the Church of San Pedro de Atacama. This church was constructed during the Spanish Colonial Period in 1577 and is reportedly the second oldest church in Chile. I found out that the tourist office is closed on Sunday and decided to try again the following day. That evening, I experienced the Terrantai wine tasting and was impressed by the quality of the wines and the opportunity to meet and converse with other guests from many places.

On Monday, 23 January, I went to the tourist office only to find out that it is also closed on Mondays. I walked to a small store where I was able to purchase a very nice map to use for visiting different sites. I decided to visit the Yerbas Buenas, an area near the Rainbow Valley which has one of the most important groups of petroglyphs in the region dating from 3,000 years ago. The site had two groups of rock formations, and I hiked both to explore all of the ancient petroglyphs that I could discover. While driving, I saw feral donkeys, wild vicunas, and wild guanacos. From here, I continued as the paved road became continuously narrower until I arrived at the tiny town of Rio Grande which was settled beside the small river, Rio Grande. This small town has fewer than 100 inhabitants with structures made of stone, mud, and straw. After a short visit here, I drove back to San Pedro de Atacama.

On Tuesday, 24 January, I decided to visit Lake Lejia which is a circular, shallow lake at an elevation of 4,325 meters (14,190 feet) and a surface area of 1.9 square kilometers. This is a polymictic lake that occasionally freezes over. The lake is in a basin surrounded by volcanoes, such as Aguas Calientes, Lascar, Tumisia, Corona, and Overo. Andean Flamingos, phalaropes, and their parasites exist at the lake, and I was fortunate to see the flamingos when I finally arrived there.

I first drove across a portion of the Reserva Nacional Los Flamencos in the Salar de Atacama en route to the town of Toconao. At Toconao, I took secondary road B-357 to the small town of Talabre where I was required to register and pay admission to continue on to Lake Lejia. I also purchased a very nice waterproof descriptive map of the immediate area. The quality of the road steadily deteriorated as I continued on to view the Talabre old town ruins. The town of Talabre had been relocated to the new location after a volcanic eruption of Volcan Lascar in 1993. Volcan Lascar is the only currently active volcano in the region and has an elevation of 5,592 meters (18,346 feet).

As I continued driving around Volcan Lascar through a valley toward Lake Lejia, I saw many feral donkeys, wild vicunas, guanacos, and llamas as well as a rhea which looks like an ostrich or emu. The scenery was absolutely stunning. As I arrived at Lake Lejia, there was a road that branched off to take hikers to a trailhead to hike to the crater of Volcan Lascar, the only active volcano in the region. I took many photos of the landscape and the lake which changes color in the sunlight during the day.

It was a long stressful drive back to Talabre and the car suffered a tire failure on the way. After changing the tire, I continued on with four tires and no spare. Back at Talabre, I registered to visit the Quebrada de Kezala rock art in the Talabre ravine. The same man who registered me for Lake Lejia closed his building and became my required guide to visit Kezala. We drove to a spot where we hiked down into the Talabre ravine to explore the extensive petroglyphs on the rock formations in the ravine. I was surprised at how many petroglyphs were at this site. After hiking out of the ravine, I drove him back to Talabre and continued back to my hotel.

That evening, I called the emergency roadside assistance phone number provided by Budget Car Rental at the Calama Airport. Much to my surprise, the number could not be reached by my iPhone. I also tried other phone numbers for Budget without being able to connect with any of them. The following morning, a staff member at the hotel tried with her mobile phone and was able to connect. We discovered that the phone numbers for Budget Car Rental and Emergency Roadside Assistance can only be reached using a mobile phone with a Chilean chip. When I talked to the Emergency Roadside Assistance, I found out that I needed to drive to Calama to get a new tire. Since I only had one more full day of sightseeing, I decided to visit the Valley of the Moon and roll the dice on my four good tires.

On Wednesday, 25 January, I visited the Valle de la Luna (Valley of the Moon). It is only 13 kilometers from San Pedro de Atacama and has various stone and sand formations that have been carved by wind and water. The Valle de la Luna is a part of the Reserva Nacional los Flamencos and was declared a Nature Sanctuary in 1982 for its natural environment and strange lunar landscape. A prototype for a Mars rover was tested here by scientists because of the valley’s dry and forbidding terrains.

After purchasing admission, I drove to Duna Mayor, the first scheduled stop, and hiked to the scenic viewpoints. The black major sand dune was magnificent and the surrounding landscapes were amazing. The second stop was at Mirador Achaches where there were several scenic viewpoints. After hiking up to the first and highest viewpoint, I decided to take a pass on the very long hilly hike to the other two viewpoints. People returning from the other two viewpoints said that the first viewpoint, where I was standing, was the best viewpoint of the three. I continued on to the Mina de Sal Victoria and hiked to an abandoned salt mine where I saw wonderful salt crystals. My last stop was at Parada los Vigilantes o Tres Marias which was a collection of interesting stones. Since this was my last full day, I drove to the single petrol station in San Pedro de Atacama. It was the only petrol station within 100 kilometers of San Pedro de Atacama and added petrol for my upcoming drive back to the Calama Airport.

On Thursday, 26 January, I bid goodbye to Christian and the staff at Terrantai before driving back to the Calama Airport. After returning my car and checking into my flight to Santiago, I reflected back on my trip and decided that I would like to return to the Atacama next year and acclimate to the altitude before visiting the high Andes in southern Chile.

On Friday, 27 January, I spent a final day walking around parts of Santiago before flying back to Buenos Aires on Saturday, 28 January and arriving home on Monday, 31 January.

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  December 2022
Mexico Cruise

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to accompany our friends, John and Nancy, on an eight day Princess Cruise. On Saturday, 3 December, we boarded the DISCOVERY PRINCESS at the Port of Los Angeles to sail down the coast of Mexico to visit Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán, and Puerto Vallarta.

Sunday, 4 December, was a day at sea and we arrived at Cabo San Lucas at noon on Monday, 5 December. After disembarking at Cabo, we walked to the Marina Door 2 to locate the tour company for our glass bottom boat excursion to the famous rock formations at the southern tip of the Baja Mexico Peninsula where the Pacific Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. It was a small boat with eight people on board.

We sailed out of the Marina to Lovers Beach and continued on to the rock formations. The guide pointed out several formations that he described as Neptune’s Finger, Pelican Rock, the Window to the Pacific Ocean, Scooby Doo Rock, and Arcos de Cabo San Lucas. The weather was perfect with clear blue sky and calm seas. After photographing the formations from the Sea of Cortez, we sailed around to photograph them from the Pacific Ocean side. We stopped at Lovers Beach to pick up a young couple who strayed there from an earlier tour. After returning to the marina, we explored a small area of Cabo before returning to the ship.

We sailed from Cabo San Lucas to Mazatlán and arrived at Mazatlán early Tuesday morning, 5 December. Since we had booked a Presidio River Adventure excursion, we located the tour desk inside of the cruise terminal building and checked into our tour. There were four of us on this tour which would take us to kayak on the Presidio River.

We were driven to the Presidio River in a relatively new Toyota SUV. After arriving at a location near the river that was some distance away in the mountains near Sinaloa, Mexico, we transferred from the SUV to a small truck equipped with six kayaks. We were then taken to the shore of the Presidio River downstream from the immense Picachos Dam. After being introduced to our experienced river guide, we were each issued an individual kayak and life vest along with kayaking tips. Once on the river, we were instructed to kayak single file behind the lead kayak while another kayak guide brought up the rear.

The river was much larger than I had expected and, although the current was slow for much of the trip, the current picked up as we made our way through a number of rapids. After about ninety minutes of kayaking, we beached the kayaks on the river bank and were picked up by the truck and transported to Restaurante Veranos in Sinaloa.

We enjoyed one of the very best authentic Mexican lunches I have ever had. The lunch for each couple included a prepared pico de gallo salsa, guacamole, a container where we prepared our own salsa from grilled tomatoes, jalapeno peppers, and other condiments, as well as shredded beef wrapped in tortillas, beans, corn tortillas, a flaming tequila cheese dip, a beverage of our choice, and desert. Before returning to Mazatlán, we visited a small leather shop and a small tequila factory. The tequila factory store had an interesting presentation of coral snakes, rattle snakes, and a scorpion preserved in bottles of tequila. We returned to the ship approximately one hour before the ship sailed to Puerto Vallarta.

Upon arrival at Puerto Vallarta early morning on Wednesday, 7 December, we located our tour representative for our historic San Sebastián del Oeste excursion. Because we were provided with incorrect directions, we were lucky to finally find the tour representative. San Sebastián del Oeste is a small town founded after the mines of San Sebastián del Oeste were discovered on January 20, 1605.

San Sebastián del Oeste was one of the main mining centers in New Spain during the Colonial period. By 1785, ten gold and silver reduction haciendas and nearly 30 mines had been established there. The small town became a city in 1812 and reached its full maturity around 1830. San Sebastián’s productivity was halted by the 1910 military revolution. Soon after the revolution, foreign companies in charge of mining works moved to other areas. The last mine was abandoned in 1921 and San Sebastián fell into decay. It is off of the beaten path and, because it is at an elevation of 1,480 meters (4,856 feet), the climate here is a cloud forest. Today, San Sebastián del Oeste is known for its organic coffee and blue agave production.

We departed Puerto Vallarta in a van with a driver, a guide, and seven passengers for the 65 mile drive on a mountainous road to San Sebastián. As we got closer to San Sebastián, we crossed the Progresso Bridge. The literature states that it is one of the most beautiful concrete arch bridges in North America. It is 119 meters (390 feet) high, has a 144 meter (472 feet) span, and was completed in 2007. Immediately after crossing the bridge, we stopped at Hacienda Don Lalin.

Hacienda Don Lalin is a small tequila distillery. Our host and distiller, Lalo, gave a presentation on his distillery operation. He buys his piñas from commercial growers to make his tequila varieties. He offered us sample tastings of each of his tequila varieties including his raicilla which is similar to tequila or mescal, but has a smoky flavor.

As we entered San Sebastián del Oeste, we stopped at La Quinta Cafe De Altura (a farm and coffee plantation dating from the nineteenth century). San Sebastián is known for its organic coffee production and we were given an opportunity to taste some of the freshly brewed coffee. The farm grows organic food in addition to coffee and sells its products to visitors.

We continued on to have lunch at Comedor La Lupita for authentic Mexican food. The meal was served family style and was just average at best. Although there is another restaurant that is advertised as “world class” situated within San Sebastián, this was the one provided by our tour company.

After lunch we photographed the Small Bridge, a stone bridge from the nineteenth century, before continuing on to the main plaza where we parked and were given free time to explore the town. The town has retained its Spanish colonial influence with public squares, winding alleyways, original stone pavements, plastered mud-brick walls, archways, attics, and wooden and tile roofs among its distinctive traits. The Church of Saint Sebastián was originally constructed in 1608 and was designed in the Colonial Spanish Baroque style. It has Corinthian columns and ceiling vault murals. It was rebuilt after an earthquake in 1868. We walked around the town and enjoyed the quiet atmosphere. Our tour guide said that it is a popular destination for visitors during the weekends and holidays.

We returned to the ship and prepared for two more days at sea before docking back at the Port of Los Angeles. We disembarked at the Port of Los Angeles on Saturday, 10 December, and took a taxi home. The DISCOVERY PRINCESS is a beautiful new ship, and we enjoyed our short eight day cruise.

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  October 2022
Mexico City

Travel Notes

 

On Wednesday, 19 October, I boarded my United Airlines flights from Los Angeles, California to Mexico City, Mexico. The flights were uneventful and, after clearing Mexico immigration, I found an ATM where I obtained some Mexican Pesos. Taxis were located outside of Baggage Claim Door 8, and I took a taxi to the Mexico City Marriott Reforma Hotel.

I planned on staying in Mexico for six days and decided to take day trips to the sites that I most wanted to visit. After checking into my hotel, I booked a day trip by van to visit Tlatelolco, Teotihuacan, and the Basilica de Guadalupe for Thursday morning. I then visited the hotel Concierge Desk to discuss sites that I was most interested in visiting. The Concierge was very helpful, and I booked a taxi to visit the Tenayuca Pyramid for Friday morning. I also booked a hotel car to take me to the Tula Archaeological Zone on Saturday. I left Sunday open to visit the National Anthropological Museum and Templo Mayor.

On Thursday morning, 20 October, I was picked up at the hotel for my tour by van. Much to my surprise, the tour consisted of the driver, the tour guide, and three other passengers. The van was quite spacious and turned out to be wonderful. Our first stop was at a place overlooking Tlatelolco, one of the two original cities of the classical Mexico City. This stop provided an overview from one corner of Tlatelolco. I was able to return here for a complete visit of the site later in the week.

We continued on to Teotihuacan with an obligatory shopping stop just outside of our final destination. The most interesting thing at this stop was a dog with many different colored markings.

We finally arrived at Teotihuacan where our guide obtained our entrance tickets. We entered near the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl which was our first stop. After exploring the Courtyard of the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, we walked to an area that provided a panoramic view of the Temple of the Moon. Our guide explained that the Mexican Government blocked access to the pyramids at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and has decided to permanently block access to better preserve the site. This meant that the overlook near the Palace of Quetzalpapalotl was the only viewpoint overlooking the site. The lack of higher viewpoints enticed me to book a hot air balloon trip for my last day, weather permitting.

We took a stairway down into the main plaza area in front of the Temple of the Moon. After our guide gave us some additional insight into Teotihuacan, we were given an hour and a half to explore the site on our own. During this time, I walked down the Avenue of the Dead to the Temple of the Sun. The Temple of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world after the Great Pyramid of Cholula and the Great Pyramid of Giza. Since I was not allowed to climb it, I walked around it to take photos. As I walked back along the Avenue of the Dead, I stopped to take a photo of the Puma mural under a shelter. I continued back to the Temple of the Moon where access around the base of the pyramid was also blocked.

The Avenue of the Dead is about 4 kilometers long running from the Temple of the Moon to the Feather Serpent Temple with the Temple of the Sun roughly midway in between them. Teotihuacan is thought to have been established around 100 BC, with major monuments continuously under construction until about 250 AD. Teotihuacan was the largest city in the pre-Columbian Americas, with a population estimated at 125,000 or more, making it the sixth-largest city in the world during its epoch. Its major monuments were sacked and systematically burned around 550 AD.

After visiting Teotihuacan, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant which was favored by our guide but where the service was extremely slow. As we returned to Mexico City, we stopped to visit the Basilica de Guadalupe complex. Here we visited both the original Old Basilica of Guadalupe and the new ultra-modern Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

On Friday, 21 October, I met my taxi to visit the Tenayuca Archaeological Site and museum. Around 1434 AD, Tenochititlan conquered Tenayuca, bringing it into the Aztec Empire. Tenayuca was still occupied at the time of the Spanish Conquest and fighting took place there in 1520. The conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo referred to Tenayuca as the “town of serpents.” The base of the pyramid is surrounded by a low platform supporting 138 stone sculptures of snakes. All of the serpent sculptures were associated with fire and sun worship. There is also a nice museum situated at the site adjacent to the pyramid. After visiting the museum, I was able to walk around the perimeter of the pyramid but access to the pyramid was not allowed.

On Saturday, 22 October, I took a hotel car to visit Tula, a Mesoamerican archaeological site that reached its height as the capital of the Toltec Empire between the fall of Teotihuacan and the rise of Tenochtitlan. The site is large with two large pyramids, two Mesoamerican ball courts, and several large buildings facing the main plaza. One of the buildings, the Burnt Palace, is covered with a series of columns. The main attraction at Tula is Pyramid B, the Pyramid of Quetzalcoatl. This pyramid is topped by four 4-meter high (13 feet) basalt columns carved in the shape of Toltec Warriors that once supported the roof of a temple on top of Pyramid B. These are replica columns with the original basalt columns on display at the Mexico National Anthropological Museum in Mexico City. Visitors to the site are allowed to climb to the top of Pyramid B which provides wonderful views overlooking the site. Visitors are also allowed to walk through the Burnt Palace.

Around 1000 AD, there were problems created by the leaching of soil and the drying of the climate. Many of the living quarters appear to have been abandoned by 1150. It is not known when the ceremonial center fell but it was burned and the pyramids destroyed. There is evidence of the ceremonial center being burned during the 12th century.

After returning to Mexico City, the traffic on Paseo de la Reforma, the main street in Mexico City, as well as the street in front of my hotel, were blocked for the 14th Annual Parade of Fantastic Animals – “Alebrijes.” The parade started at the Zocalo at 12 noon and continued through to the Angel of Independence very near to my hotel. I was able to see some of the parade from my car as we drove nearby. After I returned to my hotel, I could see the parade unobstructed from my hotel room. This parade marks the official beginning of the Day of the Dead Festivities season. The fantasy animals will remain on display on the Paseo de la Reforma between the Angel of Independence and the Glorietta of Diana the Huntress from October 22nd to November 6th.

On Sunday, 23 October, I visited the Mexico National Anthropological Museum which was absolutely amazing. It contained the world’s largest collections of ancient Mexican artifacts from all over Mexico with 23 permanent exhibit halls for different regions. In addition to indoor displays, there are also displays outside including a large scale model of Teotihuacan and one of the large Olmec stone heads. One section had the original basalt columns of the Toltec Warriors from Tula. Another had a replica of the Temple of the Serpents from Teotihuacan. Another highlight was learning about the Danza de los Voladores, the Dance of the Flyers. I viewed the artwork indoors and then was thrilled to see the actual Dance of the Flyers during my visit to the museum.

When I visited Palenque many years ago, I was able to go inside the pyramid where the tomb of the ruler, Pakal, was found. It was here that I viewed the replica massive stone cover for the sarcophagus. At the time, I was told the original stone cover was at the national museum in Mexico City. Sure enough, it was on display within a replica of Pakal’s tomb chamber, and I was able to view the original tomb cover. It was wonderful to have visited both places.

I continued on to visit the Zocalo and the Templo Mayor, the main temple of the Mexican people in their capital city of Tenochtitlan, which is now Mexico City. According to tradition, the Templo Mayor is located on the exact spot where the god Huitzilopochtli gave the Mexican people his sign that they had reached the promised land: an eagle on a nopal cactus with a snake in its mouth. The Zocalo, or main plaza of Mexico City today, was developed to the southwest of this archaeological site.

Since Day of the Dead festivities were ongoing, several streets leading to the Zocalo were closed to motorized traffic. My taxi driver drove as close to the Zocalo as he could, and I walked the remaining distance. The Zocalo was crowded and there were street performances at different locations. I walked across one end of the Zocalo en route to Templo Mayor.

Aztec temples are typically expanded by building over the earlier temple. The first temple was begun by the Aztecs the year after they founded the city, and the temple was rebuilt six times. Construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325. The seventh and last temple is what Hernan Cortes and his men saw when they arrived at Tenochtitlan in 1519. Very little of this layer remains due to the destruction by the Spaniards when they invaded the city.

Today, in addition to the excavated portion of the site, there is a wonderful museum adjacent to the site with eight floors of permanent exhibits. I was impressed by the site and the extensive artifacts on display. This museum, combined with the anthropological museum, provided a brain overload of artifacts from earlier Mexican cultures. I finally found a taxi to return to my hotel.

The traffic to my hotel was once again terrible due to the Catrinas Mega Procession that was taking place from the Angel of Independence down Paseo de la Reforma, onto Avenida Juarez, and then to the Zocalo. The parade is open to the public and costumes are mandatory. Make-up artists occupied Paseo de la Reforma between the Estela de Luz monument and the Angel of Independence for those who wanted the full experience of the parade.

On Monday, 24 October, I was picked up at my hotel at 5:30 AM to go for a hot air balloon trip over Teotihuacan. This was a wonderful experience. My balloon pilot was able to fly over the Pyramid of the Sun at a low altitude before increasing altitude to more than 9,000 feet above sea level for wonderful panoramic views over Teotihuacan and the surrounding areas. The weather was clear and sunny, but a haze over Teotihuacan prevented crystal clear photos.

Following the balloon flight, a buffet breakfast was served and people were given a choice to visit Teotihuacan or return to Mexico City. Since I had visited Teotihuacan several days earlier, I opted to return to Mexico City. After returning to my hotel, I took a hotel taxi to return to Tlatelolco, the sister city to Tenochtitlan, where I had only seen a brief overview from the southwest corner of the site. The site had a small museum adjacent to the entrance. The site was very interesting with more than sixteen archaeological structures and sites identified on a map. This turned out to be one of the best archaeological sites of my visit to Mexico City and should not be missed. The site contains the current Iglesia de Santiago, Church of Santiago, constructed in 1610. This church is adjacent to Colegio de Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, the oldest European school of higher learning in the Americas.

After visiting Tlatelolco, I took a taxi back to my hotel. I walked along Paseo de la Reforma to photograph some of the large decorated Day of the Dead skulls placed along the street between my hotel and the Angel of Independence. There were also tent-like structures where street vendors were selling Day of the Dead food, flowers, and souvenirs.

On Tuesday, 25 October, I took a hotel car to the airport and flew back home to Los Angeles.

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  September 2022
Alaska

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked a 14-day Alaska Voyage from Vancouver, BC, Canada, onboard the Holland America cruise ship Nieuw Amsterdam. After submitting the documentation required by the Canadian government, we flew to Vancouver on 9 September. Prior to boarding the ship at the Vancouver Cruise Port, Holland America required us to obtain a COVID-19 negative test result.

We boarded the ship on Sunday, 11 September, and sailed through The Inside Passage on Monday, 12 September. After a full day at sea on Tuesday, we arrived at Kodiak Island, Alaska, on Wednesday morning 14 September. Since this was our second time visiting Kodiak, we hiked into Kodiak and visited the picturesque Holy Resurrection Orthodox Cathedral, the Alutiig Ancestors’ Memorial Park, and the Kodiak History Museum. After returning to the ship, we talked to a passenger who hired a taxi at Kodiak and requested a ride to find a Kodiak Brown Bear. Her ride was successful, and she obtained several wonderful photos of a Kodiak bear in the wild. We will try a taxi when we next visit Kodiak Island.

We arrived at Anchorage on Thursday, 15 September, and took a photo excursion from the ship. The excursion included a professional photographer who gave instructional tips for better photos. We stopped at a viewpoint of Anchorage with mountains in the background, the Lake Hood Seaplane Base, Turnagain Arm, McHugh Creek, and an Anchorage Overlook Trail. The weather was overcast but the excursion was worthwhile.

After another day at sea, we arrived at Valdez on Saturday morning, 17 September. We took a cruise excursion to the Columbia Glacier. En route we saw Steller Sea Lions on Glacier Island and Mountain Goats on the shoreline of Columbia Bay. The Columbia Glacier has receded to the point that it is now two separate glaciers calving into Columbia Bay. We visited the smaller glacier to the west due to excessive ice on the route to the larger glacier to the east. The sun briefly came out, and the glacier provided very good photo opportunities.

After another day at sea, we arrived at Sitka on Monday, 19 September. We visited Sitka in 2019 and walked around the downtown area. This time we went inside St. Michael’s Cathedral and continued on to re-visit Sitka National Historical Park. The weather was bright sun, and I was able to purchase a reindeer polish sausage hot dog from a street vendor.

We arrived at Skagway on Tuesday, 20 September. Skagway was a very picturesque town and was one of the two towns from which the miners embarked to the Klondike Gold Fields. I walked around Skagway during the morning and later we took another photographic excursion. The weather had deteriorated to the point that the photo excursion was not able to travel up the mountain along the route of the Klondike miners. Instead, we visited the Skagway Gold Rush Cemetery, a waterfall upstream from the cemetery, and along the Tiaya River to the Klondike Gold Rush National Park. Along the river, we were able to photograph a Bald Eagle sitting at the top of a pine tree. This was the highlight of this excursion.

We cruised on Glacier Bay during Wednesday, 21 September. The weather was mostly overcast, and we were able to visit the Margerie, Lamplugh, Gillman, Johns Hopkins, Hoonah, Topeks, and Reid Glaciers. We also saw sea otters and interesting ice bergs.

We arrived at Ketchikan on Thursday, 22 September. Since we had visited Ketchikan previously, we walked around historic Creek Street and the downtown area. The weather was overcast and we didn’t spend much time ashore.

When we arrived at Prince Rupert, British Columbia, Canada, the following day, the weather was cloudy and raining. After looking at the activities on shore, we decided to remain on the ship during this port of call.

After another day at sea, we arrived back at Vancouver, BC, Canada, early Sunday morning, 25 September. After disembarking we took a taxi to the Vancouver International Airport and flew back to Los Angeles later that afternoon.

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  July 2022
Colorado

Travel Notes

 

I booked a return trip to Colorado for July 2022. I planned to revisit Colorado Springs, Manitou Springs, Cripple Creek, and Victor to begin altitude acclimation. I would then continue on to hike trails and explore sights around Leadville, Colorado, the highest elevation incorporated municipality in the United States at 10,200 feet above sea level. Prior to departing for Colorado, I noticed that the Pikes Peak Cog Railroad reopened in 2021 after being closed for several years for renovation. It was closed during my previous two trips to this area and this trip gave me a chance to book a round trip ride from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet elevation. I also booked a Pikes Peak Bicycle Expedition for my last full day in Colorado.

I flew to Denver, Colorado, on Wednesday, 13 July, and picked up my Budget rental car before driving to Manitou Springs. Fortunately for me, Budget gave me an all-wheel drive KIA SUV which turned out to be a God-send on several unpaved mountain roads that I encountered while visiting Leadville. I selected the Manitou Springs Villa Hotel because it was centrally located with free parking and is within walking distance to nearly everything in central Manitou Springs. It is also very close to the Garden of the Gods, Broadmoor Seven Falls, and the Pikes Peak Cog Railway. Since Manitou Springs has very limited parking available, that evening I walked to The Loop Mexican Restaurant which is my favorite Mexican restaurant in Manitou Springs.

On Thursday, 14 July, I revisited the Garden of the Gods from the entrance south of Balanced Rock and drove to the parking area north of the Central Garden Area. I hiked the Central Garden Area before driving to the parking area for the Scotsman Picnic Area. From here, I hiked around the Siamese Twins Loop Trail before returning to Manitou Springs. The Garden of the Gods is one of my favorite areas to hike. I had been here before and numerous photos can be found on my two 2018 visits to Colorado. I spent the remainder of the day walking around Manitou Springs and made a preliminary visit to the Cog Railway Station in advance of my upcoming reservation. Thunderstorms occur during most afternoons and evenings this time of year, and a good rule of thumb is to be off of the mountains by early afternoon.

On Friday,15 July, I drove to the parking area for the Broadmoor Seven Falls and took the shuttle bus to the visitor entrance where I purchased admission. This is another one of my favorite places to hike when I’m in the area, and numerous photos can be found on my two 2018 visits to Colorado. I visited the Eagle’s Nest Viewpoint overlooking the seven waterfalls before climbing the 224 stair steps adjacent to the waterfalls. After arriving at the top of the falls, I hiked both the Inspiration Point Trail and the Midnight Falls Trail.

After returning to Manitou Springs, I decided to put on my raincoat for an afternoon walk before the thunderstorms arrived. Much to my surprise, I discovered that I had packed my wife’s raincoat by mistake and set out to buy a new raincoat for the remainder of my trip. Also to my surprise, I found no stores in Manitou Springs that carried raincoats. I decided to drive to the REI store in Colorado Springs where I found a nice Gore-Tex lightweight raincoat. I bought the only one in the store that was my size. I returned to Manitou Springs with my new raincoat and went to dinner.

On Saturday morning, 16 July, I rode the Pikes Peak Cog Railway from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak. I had not been to the summit since my prior visits in 2018 and was surprised to find major changes. The prior visitor center had been demolished, and a new summit house visitor center had been constructed. In addition, the original footpaths had been replaced by a cantilevered pedestrian walkway erected around a large portion of the summit. Finally, large rocks and boulders had been brought to the summit to reconfigure the original open parking area into paved parking areas. I preferred the previous summit configuration that can be seen in my two 2018 visits to Colorado. After approximately one hour, we boarded the cog railway for the return trip to Manitou Springs.

Upon arriving at Manitou Springs, I walked to Miramont Castle. Miramont Castle is a 14,000 square foot National Historic Landmark built in 1895 as a private residence. The Castle features nine styles of architecture ranging from English Tudor to Byzantine, all crafted from locally quarried greenstone. It is dedicated to preserving the Victorian heritage of Manitou Springs and the Pikes Peak region. A special Manitou Springs Fire Department Exhibit was situated in an area of the first floor. The second floor rooms contained other Victorian Era exhibits and highlighted a servant’s stairway behind the dining room wall. A separate tea room was also accessible via a separate outside entrance.

On Sunday, 17 July, I decided to visit the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument en route to Cripple Creek. The Florissant Fossil Beds have yielded over 50,000 museum specimens from fossils of over 1,700 species, including 1,500 insects, 150 plants, and one of the world’s only known fossil records of the tsetse fly, which is now only found in equatorial Africa. In addition, petrified giant sequoia stumps from the ancient ecosystem are also preserved here. The fossils here are from the Eocene Period some 34 million years ago.

After spending time at the visitor center where I watched a wonderful indoctrination video and examined the extensive exhibits, I decided to hike the Petrified Forest Loop Trail to see the massive petrified sequoia Big Stump. It was excavated during the 1890s and was a local public attraction. An unsuccessful attempt was made to cut it into portions to be able to transport it to the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Portions of the rusty saw blades are still embedded in the Big Stump. The petrified stump is over 12 feet in diameter and the original tree is estimated to have been over 230 feet tall and 500-1,000 years old when the lahar layer buried its base. Other massive petrified stumps can be seen along the trail as well as other massive petrified stumps protected by shelters near the visitor center. After hiking the Petrified Forest Loop trail, I hiked along the Ponderosa Loop and around the Boulder Creek Trail before returning to the visitor center.

I continued on to Cripple Creek and checked into the Wildwood Casino and Hotel. This is a relatively new hotel on the outskirts of Cripple Creek but is still within walking distance of the downtown area. Later that afternoon, I walked through the downtown area. Much had changed since I was last there during 2018. Bronco Billy’s Casino is currently building a gigantic casino and parking structure in the middle of the downtown area. Many local stores were vacant, and there were precious few pedestrians on the sidewalks. I ate dinner at one of the downtown casinos where the meal was grossly overpriced with average quality food.

Newmont Mining has been surface mining the area and rebuilding the mountain for many years. In the last four years, Newmont has been encroaching on the area called Poverty Gulch and threatens to close the Gold Belt Trail that I hiked in 2018. I drove to the Heritage Center overlooking Cripple Creek and Poverty Gulch, and then to the Gold Belt Trailhead and onto Grassy Valley Overlook to view the Newmont Mining changes since 2018.

Since I had come to Cripple Creek and Victor to hike some of the mining area trails, I began by revisiting the Vindicator Valley Trail on 18 Julyl. This is a wonderful trail and extensive photos from it, Cripple Creek, and Victor are available on my two 2018 Colorado visits. On Tuesday, 19 July, I drove to Victor and hiked both the Independence Mill Site and the Battle Mountain trails. Since I had not hiked these trails before, I have included these photos on this trip’s gallery.

The Independence Mill Site trail is essentially a loop trail around the industrial complex for crushing, processing, and extracting gold from ore transported to this location. Much of the ore processed was hoisted from the Stratton Mine headframe. Most of the remainder came from the Portland Mine dumps via rail cars through the A level tunnel to a building between the headframe and the concrete foundations. The concrete foundations are very impressive and are well worth a visit.

The Battle Mountain Trail transverses the upper portion of Battle Mountain past the Portland and Ajax mines above the Strong and Gold Coin mines below. The current steel headframe at the Ajax mine came from the Pike View Coal Mine of the Golden Circle Corporation and was erected in 1959 to replace the original wooden structure. The Ajax mine ceased operation in 1961. It also provides marvelous views of Victor and the surrounding area. The Cresson Sorting display was relocated near the Stratton Mine by the Newmont Mining Company. The portion of this trail to the Ajax Mine was not open during my visit.

On Wednesday, 20 July, while en route to Leadville, I revisited the Florissant Fossil Beds to hike the Sawmill Trail. When I arrived at Leadville, I immediately checked into the centrally located historic Delaware Hotel on Harrison Avenue. This hotel is undergoing renovation and had mixed reviews, but I decided that I wanted the historic hotel experience. I was given Room 203 and directed to the stairway leading to the second floor. Upon arriving at my room, I was happily surprised to see that, while the room had recently been renovated, it still had the sloping floors, an in suite toilet and shower, a four poster king size bed, and wonderful antique furniture. I knew in an instant that I had made the correct choice in a Leadville hotel.

After I relocated my rental car to the hotel's private parking lot, I decided to walk around and explore the picturesque downtown area. As I walked along Harrison Avenue in both directions, I located the Tourist Information building. Although it was closed, it had a large selection of tourist brochures in a rack on the front porch. I selected brochures that looked appealing and returned to the hotel to review them. I booked a reservation for a table in the lounge car of the Leadville railroad for the following morning. A late afternoon thunderstorm materialized and I ate dinner at a Sichuan Chinese restaurant near the hotel on Harrison Street.

After breakfast on Thursday, 21 July, I walked to the Leadville Railroad Train Station where I picked up my train tickets. The train ride was along one of the railroad tracks from the peak of the mining operations in the Leadville area. It was an interesting ride along the mountain above the Arkansas River Valley. At the midpoint of the ride, the train stopped along a railroad water tower, some mining equipment artifacts, and a bright red caboose car. After walking around this area, I returned to the train for the return ride back to Leadville.

Upon disembarking from the train, I walked back toward downtown Leadville and came upon the outdoor exhibit of the Leadville Heritage Museum. I admired several of the exhibits and continued walking along Harrison Avenue where I ate lunch at the Golden Burro Café. That evening, I ate dinner at the Casa Sanchez 2 Mexican restaurant.

The following day, I started walking eastbound along East 7th Street to visit Matchless Mine and Baby Doe Cabin. I somehow ended up eastbound on East 5th Street which becomes Lake County Road (LCR) 1. I hiked along LCR 1 until I came to the Robert Emmet Mine site which is adjacent to the Mineral Belt Trail. The Mineral Belt Trail is an 11.6 mile paved trail that integrates portions of the grades of the three major rail lines that served the Leadville Mining District around the turn of the century. Its alignment parallels California Gulch, site of Leadville's first gold strike and earliest settlement, and cuts through the heart of the mineral belt that earned Leadville the moniker of “Colorado's Silver City.”

After exploring the Robert Emmet site, I walked southbound along the Mineral Belt Trail to the Greenback Crib Wall site before turning around. I continued walking northbound along the Mineral Belt Trail past the Denver Mine site until I crossed LCR 3 and exited to visit the Matchless Mine and Baby Doe Tabor’s cabin. I paid my admission and toured the cabin and mine exhibits. It was interesting to see where a railroad spur line came right up to the mine. After a lengthy conversation with the caretaker of the Matchless Mine, I became increasingly interested in the Leadville Mining District. I changed into my rain pants and raincoat just before the afternoon rain began while walking back along LCR 3 toward Leadville that afternoon,.

Later, after the rain subsided, I walked to the Temple Israel Synagogue. Although I arrived just before closing time, William Korn of Temple Israel Foundation let me enter. During my visit, I struck up a conversation with Mr. Korn who gave me wonderful information about the Leadville Mining District and places to visit along the Route of the Silver Kings. I found the synagogue to be very interesting and well worth visiting when in Leadville.

The Route of the Silver Kings provides a trip through the Leadville Mining District which was one of the richest and best-known mining camps in the United States. Mining began when placer gold was discovered in April 1860. It ended in January 1999 when the American Smelting and Refining’s Black Cloud mine and mill closed. Hundreds of mines and 17 smelters operated during that time. The district was served by three railroads: the Rio Grande arrived in 1881, the Union Pacific in 1884, and the Colorado Midland in 1887. The district produced 3.3 million ounces of gold, 265.4 million ounces of silver, 2.4 billion pounds of lead, 1.9 billion pounds of zinc, 110 million pounds of copper, and significant amounts of manganese and iron.

On Saturday, 23 July, I drove the Route of the Silver Kings eastbound on LCR 3 past the Matchless Mine, the Mineral Belt Trail, and the Silver Spoon Shaft headframe and arrived at the Resurrection Mine. An unmaintained gravel 4-wheel drive (4WD) road branched off the left to go to Mosquito Pass, the highest 4WD mountain pass in the United States. Another gravel road branched off to the right, which I presume was LCR 3C and part of the Route of the Silver Kings. As I turned onto this road, I encountered a mound of gravel across the road. Undeterred, I drove past the mound of gravel and, farther down the road, I found the road to be totally blocked by huge boulders placed across the road. I had no choice but to negotiate a U turn.

After returning westbound on LCR 3 toward Leadville, I took the next left turn which I presume to be the 4WD road between LCR 3 and LCR 38 on the Route of the Silver Kings. My all-wheel drive KIA was able to navigate this road and I eventually came to the New Monarch Mine timber ore house and concrete foundations adjacent to LCR 38. As I continued southbound on LCR 38, I admired the old mining structures of Stumpftown before arriving at the junction with LCR 1. I turned southbound on LCR 1 which eventually became LCR 1a. I followed LCR 1a south until it turned into another 4WD road. This was the location of the town of Ibex at an elevation of 11,500 feet. This location afforded magnificent views overlooking Leadville and across the valley to Mount Massive. The Ibex No. 4 shaft is adjacent to a collapsed shaft house. I backtracked from here to LCR 1 and continued on LCR 1 past the Robert Emmet Mine and into Leadville, completing another leg of the Route of the Silver Kings.

Back in Leadville, I visited both the Leadville Heritage Museum and the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum. Although both museums were well worth visiting, I especially enjoyed the well captioned early Leadville photos of the heritage museum.

On Sunday, 24 July, I decided to complete the remaining portion of the Route of the Silver Kings. When I looked at the small map of the route, it did not show that I would encounter both Toledo Avenue and South Toledo Street. Consequently, when I arrived at the intersection of Monroe Street and Toledo I inadvertently turned onto Toledo Avenue and followed it as the road became an increasingly narrow and unimproved mountain road through a forest area. I soon realized that there was no way to turn around. I continued driving forward with pine tree branches scraping both sides of my all-wheel drive SUV until I finally arrived at LCR 2 near the Newmont Water treatment facility. I was finally back on the Route of the Silver Kings and continued eastbound on LCR 2 through California Gulch. In retrospect, looking at maps of the area, the unimproved extension of Toledo Avenue is not defined.

I first came to the Yak Power Plant, a large brick building erected as a coal-fired, steam-powered, electricity-generating plant that operated between 1903 and 1909. Further along LCR 2 are the A.Y. Pump shaft headframe on the south side and cribbing on the north side. These are all that remains of the A.Y. and Minnie Mines which, in 1892, launched Meyer Guggenheim’s fortune.

The Mineral Belt Trail crosses LCR 2 just east of the A.Y. and Minnie Mines. I parked and hiked southbound on the Mineral Belt Trail admiring the views across the California Gulch. Upon returning to my car, I continued driving LCR 2 and looking at relics from the heyday of mining activities here. Although I intended to turn northbound onto LCR 2a, I actually ended up on LCR 2b and continued driving until it ended near Mount Sherman. I backtracked once again until I finally found LCR 2a to continue northbound to the junction with LCR 1. Back in familiar territory, I returned to Leadville and relaxed at the hotel, getting ready to return to Manitou Springs in the morning.

On Monday, 25 July, I returned to the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument to hike the Sawmill Trail and the Hans Loop Trail en route to Manitou Springs. After checking into the motel, I made a dry run to the Pikes Peak Bike Tours office in Colorado Springs in advance of my bicycle expedition early the following morning.

On Tuesday, 26 July, I arrived at the Pikes Peak Bicycle Tour office for my bicycle ride down from Pikes Peak summit. Mark and Luke met me as I arrived and confirmed that they would be the tour guides for our bike ride. The first order of business was to outfit me with full helmet, gloves, knee pads, and elbow pads. The second order of business was to match me up with my bicycle and do some practice rides in the street in front of the office. The third order of business was to eat some breakfast that they provided. After meeting the other three women riders for our trip, our bicycles were secured to the top of the van that we rode to Pikes Peak summit at 14.115 feet elevation.

We were given some free time to explore the visitor center and the summit while Mark and Luke set up the bicycles. Once we started our descent, Luke rode the first position and Mark brought up the rear in the van. Mark and Luke maintained voice communications during our descent. The speed limit on Pikes Peak is approximately 20 mph and we rode single file in the middle of the traffic lane. The tight switchbacks were a bit challenging and our average speed on straight downhill was approximately 25 mph. We stopped occasionally at viewpoints for photographs and to prevent vehicular traffic from stacking up behind us. There were a couple of uphill grades that required some effort and gave us some cardiovascular activity. For one very long uphill grade, we put the bikes on the van and rode to the end of the grade. I enjoyed the experience very much and would recommend it for anyone who might be interested.

On Wednesday, 27 July, I stopped at the Garden of the Gods for one last hike before driving to the Denver Airport to return my rental car and board my flight back to Los Angeles. It was a very good trip to revisit Colorado.

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  June 2022
Galapagos Islands

Travel Notes

 

After booking a 5-day Northern Galapagos Islands tour with Metropolitan Touring, Quito, Ecuador, we flew from Los Angeles to Guayaquil, Ecuador, arriving at the Hilton Guayaquil Hotel on Sunday, 5 June. On Monday, 6 June, we took the hotel shuttle to the Guayaquil International Airport where we met representatives from Metropolitan Tours to receive our boarding passes for our flight from Guayaquil to Baltra Island, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, and begin our Northern Galapagos Islands tour.

According to the literature, Metropolitan Touring was established in 1959 and has been providing tours to the Galapagos Islands for many years. It owns several ships used to tour the Galapagos Islands and is also contracted by other tour companies. We were able to keep in contact with the Metropolitan Touring representatives via WhatsApp phone and chats prior to meeting the representative at the airport.

After arriving at the airport, we obtained our required documentation for entry to the Galapagos Islands, proceeded to have our checked bag inspected and sealed, and met up with the Metropolitan representative. The representative gave us our boarding passes for our Latam Airways flight to Seymour Airport on Baltra Island.

After arriving at Baltra Island, we were processed by Baltra Immigration officials. Once our hand carry luggage was scanned, we found the Metropolitan Touring representatives who assisted us with locating our checked bag and then escorted us to a bus for a transfer to the dock where we boarded an inflatable panga boat to complete our journey to the SANTA CRUZ II. Aboard the SANTA CRUZ II, we received a welcome introductory briefing, a boat drill, and lunch. During the orientation, passengers were assigned to small groups with a permanent guide – Jan and I were assigned to the Frigatebird Group.

When we arrived for lunch, we selected a nice table for two and later found out that it would be our table for all meals on the ship. During our wonderful lunch, we selected our dinner items from a menu. We learned that breakfast would be buffet style every morning and that we would select our lunch and dinner items during breakfast – this proved to be extremely efficient. We also learned that, although the ship has a capacity of 90 passengers, our voyage had only 62 passengers and more than 60 crewmembers.

 During lunch, we sailed to the Las Bachas white sand beach on Santa Cruz Island for our first wet landing excursion. All excursions from the SANTA CRUZ II would be carried out using the inflatable panga boats for both wet and dry landings. While at Las Bachas, we saw several Whitetip Reef Sharks swimming in the surf next to the beach, as well as Sally Lightfoot Crabs, Marine Iguanas, a Great Blue Heron, and Brown Pelicans on the beach. We also found gorgeous Galapagos Flamingos in a couple of brackish lagoons near the beach that provided amazing photo opportunities.

After returning to the ship, we were treated to a welcome cocktail and presented with the expedition plan for Tuesday, 7 June. We then went to the dining room where we were served the delicious dinner that we had ordered during lunch. Advance ordering lunch and dinner during breakfast saved an enormous amount of time each day and provided information to the kitchen to precisely prepare the exact amount of food for these meals.

On Tuesday morning we anchored offshore at Buccaneer Cove on Santiago Island. This cove is home to natural formations such as the “Elephant Rock,” “The Bishop,” and a natural cave. It is also home to marine birds, sea lions, and inter-tidal organisms. Our Frigatebird Group boarded a panga and slowly cruised along the coast of Buccaneer Cove where we were able to capture magnificent photos of Blue-footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, Brown Pelicans, frigatebirds, a Lava Heron, and a sea lion. We also enjoyed the unique natural formations before returning to the ship. After the tour with panga boats, we had the opportunity to snorkel, kayak, paddle board, or ride a glass bottom boat. During lunch, the ship sailed to a location offshore from Puerto Egas on Santiago Island.

On Tuesday afternoon we made a wet landing on the beach at Puerto Egas. Our guide promptly warned us that the solitary beautiful green tree on the beach was a poison apple tree and then we changed into hiking shoes for a wonderful hike. The hike was through the native vegetation to a location on the beach with a landscape of tuff-stone layers and lava flows. During the walk, we observed a Galapagos Hawk, several Lava Lizards, sea lions, fur seals, sea turtles, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and a Hermit crab. While we went on the hike, others elected to spend time swimming and snorkeling.

The SANTA CRUZ II sailed to Rabida Island and, on Wednesday morning, 8 June, we had a choice between a panga ride along the shores and some snorkeling or going on a hike. Rabida Island’s red-colored beach is caused by unusually high iron content in the volcanic material. I chose the hike and Jan chose the panga tour. After landing, we first walked to a nearby salt pond where we found American Flamingos and noticed a small snake coiled up under two adjacent rocks. From here we continued on a short hike around the interior near the shoreline with stunning scenery. We were able to see a Galapagos Dove and several Marine Iguanas. After returning to the ship, we opted for another glass bottom boat excursion. During lunch the ship sailed to a location offshore from Bartolome Island.

Wednesday afternoon was spent at the famous Bartolome Island which is dominated by the imposing Pinnacle Rock. There were glass bottom boat rides, snorkeling, kayaking, and paddle boarding opportunities in addition to panga shoreline cruises and a hike to the summit that affords spectacular iconic views of the archipelago. Jan did some snorkeling, highlighted by three sea lions frolicking around her, and took a panga volcanic shoreline cruise that took her close to many Galapagos Penguins and several Whitetip Reef Sharks near the shore.

I hiked the modestly steep 372 wooden step climb to the summit with an elevation of 114 meters (374 feet) above sea level. The hike began at a small landing platform with concrete stairs to the elevated coastline plateau. From here, a wooden walkway ran around the base of the volcano and then up one side to the portion with the 372 wooden steps to the summit. During the assent, there were several platforms where our guide described the landscape with the lava tubes and vegetation including a lava cactus. Upon arriving at the summit, the iconic view across the island with Pinnacle Rock appeared. After photos at the summit, we hiked back to the bottom and boarded a panga boat and saw Galapagos Penguins before returning to the ship.

The SANTA CRUZ II sailed across the equatorial line to the sunken crater of Genovesa Island, which is home to thousands of marine birds and is frequently referred to as the bird island. On Thursday morning, 9 June, we took a panga boat to the Prince Phillip Steps, a steep climb 90 feet up rocky stairs to the flat rocky plateau. After reaching the plateau, we began walking along the trail and observed nesting birds everywhere we looked. These birds included Frigatebirds, Nazca Boobies, Blue-footed Boobies, Red-footed Boobies, Galapagos Mockingbirds, Galapagos Darwin Finches, and Galapagos Short-eared Owls. We saw many baby birds in nests with adults. We also enjoyed stunning landscape views before returning to the ship. People not wishing to disembark at Prince Phillip Steps had the option of a longer panga ride along the cliffs.

After lunch, the afternoon was spent with a wet landing at Darwin Bay with a choice of snorkeling, swimming, kayaking, paddle boarding, glass bottom boat rides, or a hike along the beach. Before dinner that evening, we all met in the bar area for a farewell party and slideshow of photos taken by the ship’s photographer. Unlike many tours, the photos taken by the ship’s photographer were emailed to everyone free of charge in a zip file. After dinner, we finished packing to disembark very early the following morning.

Before breakfast on Friday morning, 10 June, we placed our luggage to be checked for our flight back to Guayaquil outside our cabin, took our hand carry baggage with us, and left our cabin empty. After breakfast, we were transported by panga boat to the passenger’s wharf on Santa Cruz Island. While our luggage was taken to the airport, we had a bus ride to the Tortoise Reserve located on the highlands of the windward side of the island. These highlands have areas with Galapagos daisies, orchids, and bromeliads as well as endemic land birds.

After we arrived at the Rancho Primicias Tortoise Reserve, we were taken to an area where we exchanged our shoes for rubber boots to wear while at the reserve. The first stop at the reserve was at a location with several giant tortoise shells where our guide gave us an extensive background on the Galapagos Giant tortoises and invited several people to climb inside two empty giant tortoise shells. From here we walked along a footpath past a large pool with several giant tortoises relatively motionless in the water and mud. One tortoise was slowly crossing the path while eating a mango. There were many photo opportunities of the tortoises including individual people photographed with a tortoise in the foreground.

Upon conclusion of our visit at the Tortoise Reserve, we were transported directly to the airport on Baltra Island for our flight to Guayaquil. Once we located our bag to be checked and were given our boarding passes, we went to a special counter where the airline checked our bag for the flight. Everyone with Metropolitan Touring was given access to the lounge at the airport while we waited for our flight. The flight to Guayaquil was uneventful and, after retrieving our checked bag, we found the Hilton Guayaquil Hotel shuttle bus waiting for us in front of the terminal.

We checked into the Hilton on the Executive Floor at approximately 3:50 PM on Friday afternoon, 10 June. Since the USA still required a COVID-19 test one day before arrival in the United States and our flight home was scheduled to depart Guayaquil at 3:00 AM on Saturday, 11 June, we needed to get tested immediately. The Hilton Executive Floor Concierge arranged for a hotel taxi to take us to a drive thru testing facility at 4:30 PM. We met the taxi and the driver took us to the drive-thru facility that had just closed for the day. He talked with the gatekeeper at the facility who directed him to take us to a medical laboratory across the street. Upon entering the facility, the driver talked with the receptionist and we were checked in for a rapid antigen test with results to be sent to us within one hour. The cost of the test was 21.00 USD each. We received our tests and returned to the hotel where we paid our driver and waited for the results.

After receiving the required negative results, I submitted both the test results and the declaration documents required by the USA for our return flight home to the airliine. We ate dinner at the hotel, received confirmation from COPA Airlines that all of our required paperwork was complete, and received PDF files with our boarding passes. The hotel printed our boarding passes, test results, and declaration documents for me. We slept for several hours and went to the airport at 1:00 AM on Saturday morning for the first of our flights home. What a great trip this was.

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  March 2022
Argentina & Peru

Travel Notes

 

On Friday, 11 March, I boarded my United Airlines flights from Los Angeles, California to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The flights were uneventful with full COVID-19 precautions in place throughout the flights. Upon arrival on Saturday morning, 12 March, the Immigration Official required me to show both proof of Vaccination and the required Argentina health form with the code to enter Argentina.

Argentina Government Regulations required everyone to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when near other people. As I exited immigration into the main terminal, I proceeded to the location of the shuttle bus for the Holiday Inn EZE Airport Hotel. After I called the hotel, the hotel bus arrived and took me to the hotel. The hotel had hand sanitizer stations located throughout the hotel public areas. Face masks were required in all public areas of the hotel.

Since I had booked a flight from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, for Monday, 14 March, I had an extra day at this hotel in case there had been a cancellation delay on my flight to Argentina. I spent Sunday, 13 March, resting up at the hotel after walking through the small town to a bank with an ATM to procure some Argentina Pesos.

On Monday, 14 March, I flew to Salta and took a taxi to the Sheraton Salta Hotel. The elevation at Salta is 1,152 meters (3,780 feet) above sea level. I was upgraded to a suite at the Sheraton when I checked in. I had booked a 15 hour tour from Salta to Hornocal before traveling to Argentina. The tour was scheduled to depart early morning on Wednesday, 16 March. It was unclear whether this tour would pick me up at the hotel or if I needed to meet the tour in downtown Salta.

After spending nearly an hour on Tuesday morning trying to reach the organizing tour company, I finally was told that my hotel was too far away for the hotel pick-up option and was given a downtown Salta address of a local tour company to meet the tour at 6:30 AM the following morning. After my phone calls to the tour company, I decided to walk to downtown Salta and visit the address of the local tour company so I would know where to meet the tour the next day.

The local tour company office was near the Salta central plaza, and I went inside to talk with the representative. After I was told that the tour to Hornocal was in a small bus with approximately ten people, I inquired about changing my tour to a private tour and found out that the cost was not a whole lot more than I had already paid. I changed my booking to a private tour that would pick me up at my hotel and return me to my hotel. I continued exploring downtown Salta which had not changed from my prior visit four years earlier.

The driver for my private tour arrived on time Wednesday morning and we embarked on the tour to Hornocal. I had visited this region four years earlier but when I went to Hornocal, I went too early in the day and the sun pattern was totally wrong to bring out the 14 color landscape. I was hoping that this trip would allow me to arrive at Hornocal in the early afternoon and that the weather would be favorable for photographs. The first stop was at Pumamarca at an elevation of 2,324 m (7,625 ft) above sea level. I walked through the town and purchased a caprese empanada as a snack. We continued northbound and briefly stopped at Tilcara en route to Humahuaca.

We ate lunch at Humahuaca which is 3,012 meters (9,882 feet) above sea level. We then continued to the viewpoint at Hornocal, which is 4,340 meters (14.239 feet) above sea level. The weather was partly cloudy at the viewpoint but decent photographs of the 14 color landscape were possible. After spending some time at Hornocal, we began the long drive back to Salta. Since my tour was private and, since I had visited everywhere previously, the tour did not require the advertised 15 hours.

On Thursday, 17 March, I flew from Salta to Lima, Peru, and took a taxi to the JW Marriott Hotel overlooking the ocean in the Miraflores district of Lima. I had stayed here approximately twenty years prior and some of the elite amenities, including the lavish executive floor lounge, had been closed due to COVID-19. Fortunately the buffet breakfast was wonderful. Peruvian Government Regulations required people to wear masks inside privately owned buildings and to wear either a KN-95 mask or double medical masks inside airports, train stations, airplanes, trains, taxis, buses, and all Government buildings.

The following day, I explored portions of the Baranca district of Lima. This district was described as the historical Bohemian district of Lima.

On Saturday morning, 19 March, I took a Daytrip private car trip to Paracas with a scheduled en route stop to visit the pre-Inca archaeological site of Pachacamac. This was the first time that I used the Daytrip point to point travel service. My driver, José Rebaza, picked me up at my hotel right on time and began the drive to Paracas. When we arrived at Pachacamac, the entrance was closed. Today just happened to be the first day of a multi-day closure for some sort of maintenance.

After being unable to visit Pachacamac, we continued southbound on the Pan American Highway toward Paracas. We stopped to photograph La Cruz del Vajero, a monumental cross erected in 1579 by Catholic missionaries. We continued southbound and stopped at Don Roberto Panes Artesanales to sample some artisan brick oven baked bread. Later, we passed E.T. ice cream stands on both sides of the highway. José explained that local fascination with extraterrestrials inspired an ice cream stand that became popular and led to many more stands opening up along this stretch of the highway. We also stopped en route to visit the seaside resort town of Paracas before arriving at the DoubleTree Resort by Hilton Hotel. This was a very nice hotel with both a swimming pool and a private beach. José Rebaza was wonderful and I wished that he could be my driver for the return trip to Lima.

On Sunday morning, I was picked up at the hotel for a Nazca Lines flight from Paracas. We drove from the hotel to the Pisco Airport where I checked in for my Aerodiana Nazca Lines sightseeing flight. The flight lasted several hours and provided wonderful low altitude views of many Nazca lines and figures, including the hummingbird, condor, spider, monkey, heron, lizard, tree, hands, parrot, royal family, and flower. The copilot narrated the flight while the pilot circled above the figures to make sure everyone on board could see them. I was thrilled that this flight was so wonderful. After the flight, a driver took me back to my hotel.

The following morning, 21 March, I had another Daytrip scheduled to take me back to the Lima JW Marriott Hotel. The driver picked me up and we had an en route stop at Tambo Colorado on the way to Lima. The driver missed a turn to go to Tambo Colorado and had to backtrack several kilometers to San Clemente to continue to Tambo Colorado.

Tambo Colorado is an adobe Inca complex adjacent to Rio Pisco most likely built near the end of the 15th century. Due to the dry climate, some of the original colors are faintly visible on the walls of several adobe structures. The site is divided into four sectors around a large central plaza. We continued northbound from here to the JW Marriott Lima Hotel.

After spending one night in Lima, I flew to Cusco, Peru, on Tuesday, 22 March. I took a local taxi to the JW Marriott Cusco hotel where I enjoyed a suite upgrade. The altitude at Cusco is 3,400 meters (or 11,152 feet) and is the third highest city in Peru. I spent the remainder of the day relaxing and acclimating to the altitude.

On Wednesday, 23 March, I walked around portions of historic central Cusco continuing the process of altitude acclimation. The following day, 24 March, I took another Daytrip to Ollantaytambo with en route stops at Tambomachay and Saqsaywaman – I had visited both of these sites about twenty years ago. Adner, my Daytrip driver, picked me up in his van, and we drove to Tambomachay, our first stop.

En route to Tambomachay we passed the site of Puka Pukara which may have a military base located along a major road in the Cusco area. Tambomachay is a small site, and I took several overview photos before continuing on to visit Saqsaywaman, the large fortified complex site overlooking the city of Cusco. Saqsaywaman is situated at an altitude of 3,701 meters (12,142 feet) above sea level.

The first thing that I noticed upon arrival at Saqsaywaman was the introduction of tourist walking routes that didn’t exist twenty years earlier. This was particularly aggravating when a short path to a viewpoint overlooking Cusco city was blocked to tourists. There was no other viewpoint with the same view of the city. The massive stones fitted together without mortar tends to make this site unique. I walked around the site and continued to be amazed at the gigantic stonework. Estimates for the weight of the largest andesite stone block vary from 128 tons to almost 200 tons.

After visiting Saqsaywaman, Adner drove through the Sacred Valley to the town of Ollantaytambo. On the outskirts of Ollantaytambo, we drove past the Skylodge Adventure Suites clinging to the side of a mountain. I had reservations at the Ollantaytambo El Aubergue Hotel, which is a historic hotel adjacent to the train tracks at the railway station. Since Adner was unable to drive to the entrance of the hotel, he drove as far as he could and dropped me off beside the Inca Rail ticket office. He informed me that he was scheduled to be my Daytrip driver for my return to Cusco and, before he left, we set up a place to meet at noon on 28 March.

I walked down the street and through the railway entrance to go to my hotel. After checking into the El Aubergue Hotel, I walked to the Peru Rail ticket office to pick up my round trip train tickets to Machu Picchu Pueblo and continued walking to the Ollantaytambo archaeological site entrance. The Pinkuylluna archaeological site is situated on the slope of Wiracocha Mountain across the valley and faces the Ollantaytambo archaeological site. I took photos of Pinkuylluna but did not hike to the site. Ollantaytambo town and the archaeological site entrance is located at an altitude of 2,792 meters (9,160 feet) above sea level.

On Friday, 25 March, I visited the Ollantaytambo archaeological site, which reportedly dates from the mid-15th century. I first walked past the pre-Inca section and began climbing to the upper levels to access Diez Hornacinas and the Templo del Sol with the six gigantic stones facing the morning sun. These six stones appeared to have very faint petroglyphs once engraved on the outward facing surfaces. The size and weight of these stones makes people wonder how the Inca people could have possibly transported them from a quarry and elevated them to this very high mountain-top location sometime during the mid-15th century.

I found that the site has also incorporated one way tourist walking routes and restricted access to several locations at the site – these restrictions did not exist when I had visited here previously. I walked around the upper levels where I was not restricted and continued walking along the Cliffside trail marked “Balconpata.” I continued along Balconpata until I reached a barricade to restrict me from continuing on to visit the structure named “Qoloqas.” I then descended down to the valley floor to the Inka Misana. From here I walked along the valley floor to the far end of the site. As I returned to the main entrance area, I stopped to visit the Templo del Agua before exiting the site.

On Saturday, 26 March, I checked part of my luggage at El Aubergue and took the Peru Rail Expedition train to Machu Picchu Pueblo. This is a very scenic train trip and the conductor pointed out the two locations where people can depart the train to access the longer and shorter Inka Trail to Machu Picchu. I was happy to continue on to Machu Picchu Pueblo, which was previously known as Aguas Calientes during my previous visit.

Several weeks prior to embarking on this trip, I had booked reservations to enter Machu Picchu at 9:00 AM on Sunday, 27 March, and booked roundtrip tickets for the bus from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Machu Picchu. The tickets that I purchased for Machu Picchu included not only entrance to Machu Picchu but also access to the Waynapicchu Mountain trail. I wanted to climb the same trail to the summit of Waynapicchu that I had climbed twenty years previously.

Upon arrival at Machu Picchu Pueblo, a representative from the Machu Picchu Inkaterra hotel met me and escorted me to the hotel. This hotel is a wonderful luxury hotel that has been greatly expanded during the twenty years since my prior visit. After checking into the hotel, I was escorted up the mountain side and through the jungle to the building that contained my room for the next two nights. Prior to going down to the restaurant for dinner, light rain began falling and I was happy that my room also had a large umbrella waiting for me.

After breakfast on Sunday, 27 March, a hotel employee escorted me to the location to board the bus to Machu Picchu. I got in line for the group of people with the same departure time as me. This bus route is the famous road with many switchbacks up the side of the mountain to reach Machu Picchu. Upon exiting the bus, I went to the entrance. Since I had arrived about ten minutes before 9:00 AM, I was told to wait beside the entrance until precisely 9:00 AM when I was summoned back to present my passport, tickets, and COVID vaccination documentation before entering the site.

Once inside the site, I quickly learned that Machu Picchu had constructed four different one way tourist routes designated as red, blue, black, and white to visit the site. The red and blue routes were for the trail up Machu Picchu Mountain to enter from above the upper level where the Machu Picchu Trail enters the site. The black and white trails entered the site about half way up terraces of the site. Twenty years ago, there was free access to visit the site but, since I really wanted to climb Waynapicchu Mountain, I chose the black route that would take me there.

As I entered, Machu Picchu was shrouded with clouds and visibility was limited. I first walked across the terraces to the area with the Temple of the Sun and the Ritual Fountain. I continued walking toward the area beneath the 3 Windows Temple. Although I was able to get beside and below the 3 Windows Temple, the stairway to the upper level entrance was blocked. I continued walking alongside the main square opposite the area with the factory houses until I came to the Sacred Rock.

The entrance to the trail to Montana Waynapicchu is near the Sacred Rock. I proceeded to the checkpoint where I presented my ticket and passport to sign in to climb the mountain. The sign near the checkpoint showed the altitude of the checkpoint to be 2,433 meters (7,982 feet) above sea level and the altitude of the Montana Waynapicchu summit to be 2,682 meters (8,799 feet) above sea level. Clouds still shrouded the area and rain remained in the forecast. The trail to the summit was steep with numerous switchbacks and stone steps of various heights. Handrail cables were occasionally installed beside very narrow and steep rock steps. Near the summit the trail branched into two one-way routes that would circle the Inca site at the summit. As I neared the summit, rain began in earnest and I continued on to the top. The view from the top was totally obscured most of the time and partially obscured the remainder of the time that I was on the mountain. It continued to rain for most of the time that I hiked back down the mountain. In retrospect, it was a much easier climb when I was twenty years younger.

Back down at Machu Picchu, I hiked toward the Temple of the Condor. Since access to the Temple of the Condor was blocked when I arrived, I continued walking across the industrial zone to exit Machu Picchu. After riding the bus back to Machu Picchu Pueblo, I returned to the hotel and spent time with the hair dryer trying to dry out my camera which began malfunctioning during my hike down from Waynapicchu. Later I obtained some rice from the hotel kitchen and packed my camera in a plastic bag with the rice. Fortunately I was able to continue taking photos with my iPhone until I returned to Cusco.

On the evening of 27 March, I received a text message from Adner, my Daytrip driver from Ollantaytambo to Cusco, advising me that a transportation strike scheduled for 28 March would result in road closures and other transportation stoppages. He would keep me apprised as to whether he could get to Ollantaytambo to drive me back to Cusco on 28 March.

I took Peru Rail from Machu Picchu Pueblo to Ollantaytambo without incident on Monday morning, 28 March. After retrieving my checked luggage at El Aubergue, I found out that Adner was still in Cusco and had not been able to find a route out of the city. Fortunately the person at the hotel front desk was able to locate a person to drive me to Cusco, and the driver would pick me up within one hour. Such wonderful news!!!!

The driver picked me up and, while driving back roads toward Cusco, was on his mobile phone constantly checking with other people about current road closures. Needless to say, the drive to Cusco was both scenic and an adventure. As we entered Cusco, my driver drove through a barricade of smoldering tires and took me to the JW Marriott El Convento Hotel.

Upon arrival at the hotel, I was greeted by the staff who had decorated my upgraded suite for my birthday which was a couple days earlier. The staff at the hotel was wonderful and cooked a special dinner for me on my final night at the hotel. I cannot say enough good things about the staff at the JW Marriott El Convento Hotel in Cusco.

I spent Tuesday, 29 March, walking around Cusco. My first stop was a visit to the Convent of Santo Domingo Cusco, also known as the Qorikancha Museum. The Spaniards ordered the Qorikancha temple to be torn apart for materials to construct the convent, which was built on the remains of the Inca temple. After touring Qorikancha, I walked to sites in the vicinity of the Cusco Plaza de Armas. These sites included the Cusco Cathedral, Templo de San Cristobal, Church of the Society of Jesus, Basilica of La Merced, Arch of Santa Clara, Church of Santa Clara, St. Peter's Church, Plaza San Francisco, Church of San Francisco de Asis, and the Contemporary Art Museum. That evening, I took a tour of the archaeological remains of the ancient convent beneath the JW Marriott El Convento Hotel.

On Wednesday, 30 March, I flew back to Lima to spend my last two nights in Peru at the JW Marriott Lima Hotel. That evening the hotel arranged for a nurse to visit my room to administer the COVID antigen test required for my return flight to Buenos Aires. The following day, I took a hotel car to visit both the Museo Larco and the Plaza de Armas historical center of Lima. I arrived at the Plaza de Armas in time to witness the Changing of the Guard at the Government Palace. I explored the area around Plaza de Armas and viewed sights that included the Lima Metropolitan Cathedral, Archbishop's Palace, Lima Municipal Palace, Plazuela de Santo Domingo, Cajamarca, and Plaza Peru. After returning to the hotel, I walked along the coast at Miraflores to the Parque del Amor.

On Friday, 1 April, I flew back to Buenos Aires to be in position for my return flight to Los Angeles. On 2 April, I took another COVID antigen test as required for return travel to the USA. After two long flights, I arrived home on Monday, 4 April. This was a gratifying trip after two years of enduring the restrictions imposed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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  January 2022
Costa Rica Revisited

Travel Notes

 

I booked a return trip to Costa Rica during January 2022. Since this trip to Costa Rica would mostly be a repeat itinerary of my April 2021 visit, I booked the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel for the duration of my visit. I also contacted Diana with Mardigi Tours to arrange for five Mardigi private tours in advance with Gerardo Scriba as my tour guide. Four of the tours would be repeats of my prior April visit and I would add a new tour.

On Tuesday, 11 January, I boarded my United Airlines flights from Los Angeles, California, to Liberia, Costa Rica. The flights were uneventful with full COVID-19 precautions in place throughout the flight. Upon arrival, the Immigration Official required me to show the health requirement form with the code to enter Costa Rica, my hotel reservation, and a copy of my return flight ticket.

Costa Rica Government Regulations required everyone to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when near other people. As I exited immigration into the main terminal, I proceeded to the location of the shuttle bus for the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel. Within 15 minutes, the hotel bus arrived and took me to the hotel.

The hotel had hand sanitizer stations located throughout the hotel public areas. Face masks were required in all public areas of the hotel. After checking into my spacious room, I relaxed until it was time to go to the restaurant for dinner. The restaurant operated at 50% capacity and maintained social distancing between tables.

I spent Wednesday, 12 January, resting up at the hotel and working out the final details for my five Mardigi private tours. Since Gerardo had been my private tour guide previously, I wanted confirmation that he would be my guide for all five tours. Once the Mardige tours were finalized and paid for, I spent the remainder of the day relaxing at the hotel.

On Thursday morning, 13 January, Gerardo met me at the hotel and we embarked on the Palo Verde National Park Boat Tour on Rio Tempisque. Rio Tempisque is 144 kilometers long and flows from the Guanacaste Cordillera near the Orosi Volcano to the Gulf of Nicoya. It passes through the Palo Verde National Park and is habitat for various species of crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, and birds.

After arriving in Ortega, we stopped at the Palo Verde Boat Tour Headquarters to check-in for our tour. The boat tour headquarters is also a restaurant where we would eat lunch after the tour. It was nice to be welcomed back as a returning participant of the boat tour.

The section of Rio Tempisque that we would visit on the tour is within the Refugio National de Vida Silvestre Cipanci. As we drove through the refuge to the river we were able to photograph a large group of Wood Storks, a Jabiru Stork, and other birds. We were especially fortunate to see the Jabiru Stork since, according to the Internet, only 95 of these storks continue to be found in Costa Rica.

At the river, Gerardo and I boarded a large tour boat and, since my tour was private, we were the only passengers. This tour was really special with close interaction with Gerardo and the boat driver who happened to also be our boat driver during my April 2021 tour. We were in no hurry and stopped many times to look at and photograph the wildlife. The wildlife that we observed included crocodiles, a Capuchin Monkey, Green Iguanas, a Basilisk Lizard, Howler Monkeys, Fasciated Tiger Heron, Great White Egrets, a Blue Heron, a Green Heron, and Proboscis Bats. During the boat ride, we also saw a pair of Scarlet Macaws flying across an open space above the river. Please see my April 2021 Palo Verde Boat tour for more detailed notes and additional photos for most of the wildlife associated with this tour. The Palo Verde Boat Tours restaurant served a wonderful lunch to us before we returned to the hotel.

On Friday morning, 14 January, Geraldo met me at the hotel for a repeat visit on Las Hornillas Miravalles Volcanic Mud Tour. Please see my notes and photos associated with my April 2021 tour. Our first stop of the tour was the Catarata Lianos del Cortes Trail for a short hike to Catarata Lianos del Cortes, a very beautiful waterfall. We drove from here to Las Hornillas Miravalles in the foothills of Volcán Miravalles where we began hiking the Cataratas Cabro Muco Trails.

We hiked the upper portion of the trails first. After entering the upper trail, we crossed a suspended walkway to hike along numerous Cataratas Cabro Muco waterfalls cascading down the mountainside. These were also spectacular with iron oxide deposits turning the rocks beside the waterfalls and along river a brilliant orange color.

We returned from the upper trail to hike the lower trail to the large Cataratas Cabro Muco waterfall. In order to arrive at the waterfall, we traversed a very long suspended walkway over the river and above the waterfall. When we arrived at the viewpoint for the waterfall, there were metal stairs descending to a platform about half way down the height of the waterfall. This waterfall was stunning with turquoise water at the base of the falls with orange iron oxide deposits coating the rocks in and beside the river. Hiking both portions of these trails through lush dense vegetation was exhilarating after more than a year of observing COVID-19 lockdowns in the USA.

Our next stop was at a nice restaurant for a wonderful lunch. After lunch we continued on to visit the Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center. This center is situated at a live volcanic crater with hot springs, mud pots and fumaroles, openings in or near a volcano, through which hot sulfurous gases emerge. Visitors here have options to not only walk around and through the crater but also may elect to bathe in a mud bath and/or hot springs. Public lockers, dressing rooms, and open public showers were available for visitors.

As we drove back to the hotel, we saw a White-nosed Coati beside the road. We stopped to observe it and then noticed that it was heading to a group of White-nosed Coatis a little farther down the road. What a thrill to actually find a whole group of Coatis milling about beside the road. We watched them until they headed into the forest and then we returned to the hotel.

On Saturday, 15 January, Gerardo and his wife, Gaby, who also works for Mardigi Tours, met me at the hotel to take the Hiking Celeste River Tenorio National Park tour. This is the tour that I had not previously taken. I was happy that Gaby was able to join us for the tour. We drove to Liberia and took Highway 1 southeast to the intersection of Highway 6. We continued northeast on Highway 6 to Bijagua where we turned right onto Pers de Heliconias to Volcán Tenorio National Park. We parked in the lot for entrance to the park and the Rio Celeste Trail.

The challenging Rio Celeste in-and-out hiking trail within Tenorio Volcano National Park is approximately five kilometers long. We began our hike and then we came to a fork in the trail with the waterfall in one direction and El Teñidero in the other direction. El Teñidero is formed where the minerals of two rivers meet (Quebrada Agria and Rio Buena Vista) and turn Rio Celeste bright blue. It’s an impressive sight to see as the otherwise normal-looking rivers converge into one electric blue current.

We decided to hike to El Teñidero before visiting the Rio Celeste Waterfall which plunges 98 feet into a pool of turquoise blue water surrounded by dense rain forest. As we continued hiking through the lush rainforest, the first view of Rio Celeste was at Laguna Azul. Gerardo described it as a blue lagoon where the brilliant turquoise water forms a large pool of relatively still water. As we continued upstream, we arrived at Los Borbollones, a spot in the river where sulfuric gasses from the volcano bubble up through the water.

Continuing the hike upstream we crossed two suspension foot bridges before arriving at El Teñidero. This is a spectacular sight where the confluence of the clear Quebrada Agria and Buena Vista rivers form the headwaters for Rio Celeste. Since the Quebrada Agria and Buena Vista rivers are both transparent, when they converge a chemical reaction occurs which forms a white precipitate that coats the rocks on the bottom of Rio Celeste for the next 14 kilometers. The white precipitate on the rocks reflects sunlight and gives the appearance of the turquoise blue color to Rio Celeste.

After viewing and photographing El Teñidero, we backtracked to the turnoff for Catarata Rio Celeste. We descended a series of about 250 steep paved stairs to arrive at the viewing platform for the waterfall. In addition to taking photos at the viewing platform, we took several photos of the waterfall as we descended the stairs. Catarata Rio Celeste is truly a stunning sight, and Rio Celeste continued to have the turquoise color downstream for as far as we could see.

We ascended the steep stairs and hiked back to the trail entrance. When we arrived at the entrance, there was a long line of people waiting to enter the trail. Since the park has a certain quota for the number of people that can hike at any one time, as each person exited the trail one of the people in waiting was granted admission. We were fortunate to have arrived early before the crowd.

Before going to eat lunch, Gerardo continued northeast on Highway 6 for a view of Lago Cocibolca (Lake Nicaragua) and to a location marked by a sign beside the road that read “ZONA DE MAGNETISMO.” Highway 6 had an uphill grade at this location and when Gerardo placed the transmission in the Neutral position, the magnetism pulled the car uphill. In the return direction, after we stopped at this location, the magnetism pulled the car backwards uphill. This was a very interesting location indeed.

As we continued back on Highway 6, we turned onto Pera de Heliconias and continued to a dirt road that took us to Finea Verde Lodge where we ate lunch. While here, we saw several Toucans, White Face Monkeys, and several Sloths in the trees. It was nice to see these birds and animals in the wild. We also stopped for a very short visit at the Las Pumas Rescue Center on our way back to the hotel. On Sunday morning, 16 January, Gerardo and I departed the hotel to go to Rincón de la Vieja National Park to hike in the foothills of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. Since I had previously taken this tour with Gerardo in April 2021, I did not take many duplicate photos of the April visit. A more detailed description of this trail can be found in the notes for my April 2021 visit.

After arriving at the park, Gerardo checked us in and we began hiking the 3.2 kilometer Sendaro Pailas Loop portion of the Rincón de la Vieja Trail. During the hike, we revisited several fumaroles, the fumarilic lagoon, bubbling mud pots, and bubbling water pots. Near the beginning of our hike, a snake approximately one meter long crossed the path in front of us and then vanished in the vegetation adjacent to the trail. The weather was beautiful and we once again had a marvelous view of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. We saw several Spider Monkeys, Black Iguanas, a crested Guan, and two Agoutis.

Before going to lunch at the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant, we hiked the one kilometer Posa Roja trail. We stopped and took photos at Poza Turqueza before continuing to Poza Roja. Much to our disappointment, many tourists were swimming in Poza Roja and had left their personal belongings scattered about the gorgeous red boulders adjacent to the water. I decided to rely on photos from my April visit and we returned to have lunch before returning to the hotel.

On Monday morning, 17 January, Gerardo and I took the Waterfall Lovers tour. Since I had previously taken this tour with Gerardo in April 2021, I did not take many duplicate photos of the April visit. A more detailed description and photos of this tour can be found in the notes for my April 2021 visit.

We went back to Hacienda Guachipelin where we checked-in for access to the sites and hiked the Catarata Chorreras Trail to Catarata Chorreras. The entire hike is on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. Catarata Chorreras is very beautiful and consists of a river forming double waterfalls that combine with a second smaller river forming a confluence of the two rivers at the base of the waterfalls. The larger river produces turquoise color near the base of the falls, and the smaller river produces darker colored water at the base of the falls. During the hike, we passed a number of very interesting different large trees and we observed several beautiful Lineated Woodpeckers.

From here we drove to the entrance of the Catarata Oropendola Trail. This trail and waterfalls is also on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. The trail was downhill most of the way to the waterfalls and we had to hike down a long suspended stairway that had a weight restriction of Max 2 persons/300 Kg. This time, as I descended the suspended stairs, I counted sixty-four steps. I descended the steps first, and Gerardo followed once I reached the bottom. Catarata Oropendola was a very impressive waterfall with turquoise water at the base of the falls and crystal clear water flowing downstream from the falls.

Our next stop was at the entrance of the Cataratas Rio Negro Trail where we hiked upstream along Rio Negro to see the Catarata #1, Catarata #2, Catarata #3, and Catarata #4 waterfalls. The trail was through another forested area and the caretakers had added a layer of crushed rock on the trail since my April 2021 visit. Please see my April 2021 visit for more complete photo coverage of these waterfalls. We returned to the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant for the buffet lunch before going back to the hotel where Gerardo and I parted ways. Gerardo was an exceptional tour guide during my two visits in Costa Rica, and we continue to be good friends and keep in touch.

With the surge of the Omicron variant of COVID-19 in December 2021, the Biden administration changed the requirements for entry into the United States from testing within 72 hours of departure to the USA to within one calendar day. Technically speaking, one calendar day should be anytime the day before traveling but many people and entities interpret that to mean within 24 hours of departure to the USA.

My first flight leaving Costa Rica to Houston, Texas, had a scheduled departure time of 2:20 PM on January 19, 2022, on United Airlines. The United Airlines Travel Ready website referred to the testing period to be 24 hours prior to departure with a NEGATIVE test result. The USA’s new shorter time frame and the ambiguity of the 24-hour language required me to stay close to the hotel the entire day before departing Costa Rica. I was able to have the hotel arrange for a nurse to come to my room at the hotel at 3:00 PM on 18 January to administer the required rapid antigen test.

The nurse arrived on time and administered the test. I received an email a couple of hours later with a PDF attachment showing my NEGATIVE test result. After uploading the PDF file to the United Airlines Travel Ready Center, I received approval and printed out my boarding passes before having one last dinner at the hotel.

Wednesday, 19 January, was my final partial day in Costa Rica and, after securing a late checkout, I spent time editing my travel notes and sequencing my photos for my website. The hotel shuttle bus took me to the airport and I boarded my return flights back to Los Angeles. This trip turned out to be wonderful.

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  October 2021
Italy

Travel Notes

 

I originally booked a 12 day tour of Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia through a travel agency located in Boston, Massachusetts. That tour began in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and ended in Ljubljana, Slovenia. After booking the tour, I booked a roundtrip flight on Air Canada to Rome and additional flights from Rome to Dubrovnik and from Lubjiana to Rome with dates that matched up with the tour. While I was in Iceland, I received information from the Boston travel agency that my Croatia to Slovenia tour had been canceled and would I like to book a similar tour on different dates. Since my Air Canada business class flight was not refundable, I canceled the tour and received a cash refund. I also ended up canceling the flights from Rome to Croatia and from Slovenia to Rome that matched up with the tour.

Upon rethinking the trip to Italy, I decided to spend a couple of days in Rome and then fly to Dubrovnik for several days and then return to Italy to finish up the trip. I booked roundtrip air from Rome to Dubrovnik. In the meantime, since the dates for the European flights and hotels changed, completing and submitting the documentation required from the Italian and Croatia governments turned out to be a time-consuming nightmare.

I flew from Los Angeles, California to Rome, Italy arriving at the Rome International Airport (FCO) on Tuesday morning, 5 October 2021. Since I usually try to avoid spending time in Rome, I decided to stay at the Hilton Rome Airport which is very convenient for both the airport and the Leonardo Express train into Rome and everywhere in Italy. It was raining when I arrived at FCO and after clearing immigration, I walked to the Rome Airport Hilton hotel where I received an early check in. The long term weather forecast for Rome was for a lot of rain.

On Wednesday, 6 October, there was a break in the forecasted rain and the hotel called a taxi to take me to Parco Archeologico di Ostia Antica, the site of the Rome’s ancient port city at the entrance to the Tiber River. The city of Ostia was situated on the River Tiber about 25 kilometers southwest of Rome. Due to silting over the years, it now lies about 3 Kilometers (2 miles) from the sea. Although an inscription seems to confirm the establishment of the old centrum of Ostia in the 7th century BC, the most ancient buildings currently visible are from the 3rd century BC. Ostia fell slowly into decay after the end of the Western Roman Empire and was abandoned in the 9th century AD after repeated sackings by Arab pirates.

The entrance to the site appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, adjacent to a parking lot about 100 meters from the ticket office. Several tour buses had also unloaded tourists at this location. The driver gave me a telephone number to call when I was ready to return to my hotel. He said that after I called for a car, it would take about 20 minutes for a car to arrive.

I purchased my ticket at the ticket office and began exploring the site. I was immediately impressed by the sheer size of the site with an area of 50 hectares (173 acres). The remaining structures which included the Castrum, the theater and the Capitolium (temples of Jupiter, Juno and Minerva) were very impressive. The city walls and roads were also impressive. I spent most of the afternoon walking through much of the site.

Once I returned to the place where my driver originally dropped me off, I called for a car to come to pick me up. I was told by a dispatcher that due to high demand, a driver would arrive within an hour to pick me up. As I kept reminding myself that this is Italy, the driver showed up about 90 minutes later. Back at my hotel, I continued to marvel at how nice this site actually was. Anyone with some extra time should consider visiting here.

I had been to Italy many times before but had not been into Rome for more than twenty-five years. On Thursday, 7 October, I took the Leonardo Express train into Rome. After arriving at the Central Train Station, I took a local taxi to re-visit the Roman Forum and the Coliseum. I was immediately surprised that free access to those areas had been eliminated with the perimeters fenced off. Special admission is now required with ticket purchases only available on the Internet and which must be purchased one to two days in advance. Consequently, I just viewed from a distance and am happy that I have many photos from earlier and much more interesting visits.

After getting tested for COVID-19 at the Rome airport, I flew from Rome to Dubrovnik, Croatia, on Friday, 8 October. Notes and photos from Croatia are available separately. On Wednesday, 13 October, I flew from Dubrovnik to Rome FCO airport and returned to the Hilton Rome Airport hotel for the evening. Later that afternoon, I went to the train station and purchased my train tickets to go to Naples the following day.

On Thursday, 14 October, I took the express train from Rome to Naples and then a taxi to the Renaissance hotel. After checking into the hotel, I booked a ticket to go to the Naples Archaeological Museum on Sunday, 17 October. My next stop was to meet with the hotel concierge to book both a small historical walking tour of Naples and a small group tour from Naples along the Amalfi Coast with stops in Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi before returning to Naples.

Since I had part of the afternoon open, I walked to the Castel Nuovo (New Castle) and signed up for a castle tour. I had seen this castle on prior visits to Naples but never had an opportunity to visit. It is a medieval castle located in front of the Piazza Municipo and the city hall. It was first erected in 1279 and further reconstructed between 1453 and 1479. It was the royal seat for Kings of Naples, Aragon, and Spain until 1815. The single-sided white marble triumphal arch commemorating the arrival of Alfonso of Aragon’s entry into Naples stands between two western towers of the castle above the main entrance. The castle currently houses the civic museum which has both a permanent collection and temporary cultural exhibitions. Several locations within the castle were inaccessible during my visit.

On Friday, 15 October, I met my guide, Marco, for the Naples historical walking tour at the Neptune Fountain in the Piazza del Municipio which is one of the largest squares in Europe. The square is in front of San Giacomo palace, the town hall. We had a small group of people for the tour and Marco conducted the tour in Italian, Spanish, and English. After the initial introductions, we walked to the entrance of the Castle Nuovo and then visited the archaeological site of the ancient port of the Greco-Roman Neapolis adjacent to the castle.

We walked to the Galleria Umberto I, a public shopping gallery which was built between 1887 and 1890. It is a magnificent cross-shaped building with glass dome and glass-vaulted wings and is part of the UNESCO listing of the Historic Center of Naples as a World Heritage Site. After exiting the galleria, we walked past the Real Teatro di San Carlo. It is commonly referred to as Teatro San Carlo. It opened in 1737 and is the oldest continuously active venue for opera in the world. It was not open when we walked past.

We continued walking to the Piazza del Plebiscito, a large square constructed between 1809 and 1846 which is bounded by the Royal Palace of Naples to the east and the church of San Francesco di Paola to the west. As we entered the square, Marco pointed out Caffè Gambrinus which is a coffeehouse founded in 1860. The café is one of the oldest in Europe and was also known for being a meeting place of intellectuals and artists. In addition, Marco pointed to the location of Pizzeria Brandi where legend says the pizza Margherita was invented. We were given free time here to explore on our own.

I visited the Royal Palace of Naples which was constructed between 1616 and 1644. In 1888, King Umberto I of Savoy added niches to the façade to display statues of prominent rulers of Naples since the foundation of the Kingdom of Naples during the 12th century. I walked through the main entry to the Royal Gardens behind the palace and returned to the piazza to visit the Basilica of San Francesco di Paola.

The Basilica of San Francesco di Paola was originally conceived as large building with colonnades as a tribute to the emperor Napoleon. After the Bourbons were restored to the throne of Naples, Ferdinand I continued the construction but converted the building into the church that was completed in 1816. I briefly visited the interior of the church before walking past Caffè Gambrinus and exploring Via Gennaro Serra and the alley where Pizzeria Brandi is located. Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to purchase a cappuccino at Caffè Gambrinus before rejoining Marco and the tour.

The tour continued along Via Toledo to the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo which was constructed during an expansion of Naples to the west beginning in the 16th century. It contains three prominent landmarks: the Church of Gesù Nuovo, the Church of Santa Chiara, and the Spire of the Immaculate Virgin. The Spire of the Immaculate Virgin stands in front of the church of Gesù Nuovo. It is a monument built to invoke the Virgin Mary’s protection from the plague. We were given free time to explore the Gesù Nuovo area.

Construction of the Church of Gesù Nuovo began during 1584 by the Jesuits and was completed in 1750. When the Jesuits were expelled from Naples in 1767, the church passed to the Franciscan order. The Jesuits returned in 1821, only to be expelled again in 1848. The façade of this church is unique and I briefly visited the interior of the church.

Santa Chiara is a religious complex that includes the Church of Santa Chiara, a monastery, tombs, and an archaeological museum. The church complex was built from 1313 to 1340 and was partially destroyed by a fire after Allied bombings during World War II. It was brought back to the alleged original state by a disputed restoration completed in 1953. The Basilica of the church faces Via Benedetto Croce, the easternmost leg of Via Spaccanapoli. The bell tower is immediately adjacent to the street.

After I visited the interior of the Church of Santa Chiara, I paid for admission to the famous Majolica Cloister transformed in 1742 by the addition of majolica tiles in Rococo style. The cloister arcades are also decorated by frescoes which have become degraded. Both the church history museum and the archaeological site are accessed via the cloister.

After rejoining the tour, we walked along Via Spaccanapoli and turned left on Via S Sabastiano, right on Vicoletto S Pietro a Maiella and veered right along Piazza Luigi Miraglia to Dia del Tribunali. We stopped at the intersection of Via del Fico Al Purgatory to view the Bust di Pulcinella. We continued walking along Via del Tribunali until we arrived at Piazza S Gaetano. Piazza S Gaetano is at the intersection of Via San Gregorio and also where San Lorenzo Maggiore is situated. San Lorenzo Maggiore is a church and monastery located at the precise geographic center of the historic district of the ancient Greek-Roman city. The archaeological area of San Lorenzo Maggiore that lies beneath the church is often referred to as the Macellum of Naples and also as Underground Naples.

About half of the Macellum of Naples, an original Roman market, has been excavated. It dates from the 4th century BC when the area was the location of the agora during the Greek period. When Neapolis became a Roman possession, it was eventually transformed into a macellum. It was covered by a mudslide in the 5th century AD.

After Marco purchased tickets for us to tour these underground ruins, we descended into Underground Naples. The macellum had a rectangular porticoed area with workshops and an internal open space with mosaic floors. In the middle was a tholos, a circular building for selling food. We also saw a small laundry and a treasury during our tour. The tour ended as we exited the San Lorenzo Maggiore.

After the tour, I walked along Via San Gregorio Armeno, the famous street known as the street of nativity workshops. I walked under the bell tower of the Church of San Gregorio Armeno, which spans the street, and turned right on Via Spaccanapoli. Continuing along Via Spaccanapoli, I passed Piazza San Domenico Maggiore and photographed the Oblisco di San Domenico en route to Via Toledo. From here I pretty much retraced the route of the tour as I walked back to my hotel.

On Saturday, 16 October, I was picked up at the hotel in a nearly empty small bus for the small group tour from Naples along the Amalfi Coast with stops in Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi. I met Kamal from Trinidad as we left the hotel to enter the bus. Kamal and I became good friends during the tour and will probably continue to keep in touch with each other.

The bus made several other stops in Naples to pick up additional people before continuing along the scenic route along the Italian coastline en route to our first stop, the town of Sorrento. Sorrento is situated above cliffs that overlook the sea and the harbor below. After the tour group visited Limonoro Fabbrica Liquori, a shop famous for lemon-flavored liquor, chocolates, gelato, and other items, we were given one hour of free time to explore the town. Kamal and I walked along the small picturesque streets to a park area overlooking the harbor with a panoramic view of the coastline, Capri and Mount Vesuvius. We also visited the Piazza della Vittoria, the Piazza Tasso and several churches including Chiesa di San Paolo, the Church del Carmine, and the Sorrento Cathedral.

We continued driving along the beautiful scenic coast to the town of Positano. Positano was especially interesting in that it hugged the steep hillsides down to the ocean. The access road into Positano was a narrow one way road into the upper area of the town where the bus parked. During our free time, Kamal and I hiked down the steep narrow pedestrian walkway into the town and down to the beach. After exploring the beach area, we visited La Chiesa di S. Maria Assunta and Chiesa Santa Maria del Rosario before tackling the steep hike back uphill to the parking area to rejoin the tour.

Positano lies at the western end of the Amalfi Coast which continues east through Amalfi and ends at Vietri sul Mare. It is celebrated worldwide for its Mediterranean landscape and natural diversity. The Coast is named after the town of Amalfi. The Amalfi Coast was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The challenging Amalfi Drive consists of a single road with one lane in each direction that snakes around colossal 500-foot-tall cliffs and is outfitted with hairpin turns both left and right. The scenery from the road is stunning.

We stopped at La Conca Azzurra, a restaurant situated high above the ocean with panoramic views, where we ate a nice lunch provided by the tour. After lunch, we continued our drive along the Amalfi Coast to the town of Amalfi. Amalfi lies at the mouth of a wide ravine at the foot of Monte Cerreto (1,315 meters, 4,314 feet) and is surrounded by dramatic cliffs and coastal scenery. It is the main town on the Amalfi Coast and is included in the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The patron saint of Amalfi is Saint Andrew, the Apostle, whose relics are kept in the Amalfi Cathedral (Cattedrale di Sant'Andrea/Duomo di Amalfi).

The bus let us off at the harbor in front of the town center. Unlike the nice beach at Positano, the beach at Amalfi near the harbor was tiny and relatively uninviting. During our free time at Amalfi, the tour offered an optional scenic boat ride along the coast. Kamal and I signed up for the boat ride and then visited the Amalfi Cathedral. The cathedral faces the Piazza Duomo and dates from the 9th and 10th centuries and has been added to and redecorated several times. The bell tower was constructed between the 12th and 13th centuries.

The scenery from the boat ride was gorgeous and provided many beautiful photo opportunities. I would definitely recommend a scenic boat tour when visiting Amalfi. After boarding the tour bus, we drove across the coastal mountains to the main highway back to Naples and were dropped off at the hotel.

On Sunday, 17 October, I revisited the Naples Archaeological Museum. I had purchased advance tickets on the Internet and was granted admission when the museum opened. This was my second visit to the museum and I was somewhat disappointed that the temporary exhibition relating to gladiators could not compare with the special Pompeii exhibition when I was there previously. I walked through the museum until I satisfied myself that I had seen all that there was currently available to see.

On Monday, 18 October, I took the train back to the Rome FCO airport and returned for one last night at the Hilton Rome Airport hotel. I flew from Rome to Toronto on Air Canada on Tuesday, 19 October, and, after boarding my connecting flight to Los Angeles, the flight was canceled. Air Canada transferred me to the same flight the following day and put me up at the Sheraton Toronto Airport hotel for the night. The following day, I returned home to Los Angeles.

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  October 2021
Croatia

Travel Notes

 

I originally booked a 12 day tour of Croatia, Montenegro, and Slovenia through a travel agency located in Boston, Massachusetts. That tour began in Dubrovnik, Croatia, and ended in Ljubljana, Slovenia. After booking the tour, I booked a roundtrip flight on Air Canada to Rome and additional flights from Rome to Dubrovnik and from Lubjiana to Rome with dates that matched up with the tour. While I was in Iceland, I received information from the Boston travel agency that my Croatia to Slovenia tour had been canceled and would I like to book a similar tour on different dates. Since my Air Canada business class flight was not refundable, I canceled the tour and received a cash refund. I also ended up canceling the flights from Rome to Croatia and from Slovenia to Rome that matched up with the tour.

Upon rethinking the trip to Italy, I decided to spend a couple of days in Rome and then fly to Dubrovnik for several days and then return to Italy to finish up the trip. I booked roundtrip air from Rome to Dubrovnik. In the meantime, since the dates for the European flights and hotels changed, completing and submitting the documentation required from the Italian and Croatia governments turned out to be a time-consuming nightmare.

After getting tested for COVID-19 at the Rome airport, I flew from Rome to Dubrovnik, Croatia on Friday, 8 October. I took a taxi to the Sheraton Dubrovnik Riviera hotel which is a short distance from Old Town Dubrovnik. After checking into the hotel, I booked a “Game of Thrones” Tour and arranged for a taxi into Dubrovnik for the following day. On Saturday, 9 October, I met up with a small group of people and my tour guide, Mihaela, at the Amerling Fountain to begin the “Game of Thrones” Tour. Although Malta was the site for “Kings Landing” for Season 1 of “Game of Thrones,” Dubrovnik was selected as “Kings Landing” for Season 2 and subsequent seasons. Two Dubrovnik website links providing additional information about “Game of Thrones” are https://travelwithsheemelle.com/dubrovnik-game-of-thrones/ and https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=1CMu8ACaHRf9yQSMBu2I_mq1d9LIaBe-Z&ll=42.644653748097575,18.134199038183628&z=13.

Mihaela was a wonderful tour guide who was very knowledgeable. She had a large group of photos of different scenes from the “Game of Thrones” series that corresponded to the different places that we visited. She would hold up a photo of the scene at each of the different places where we stopped on the tour and give us background information on the scene.

Mihaela began the tour outside of the Old Town Dubrovnik at the West Dubrovnik Harbor which was Blackwater Bay in the “Game of Thrones.” From here we went to Fort Lovrijenac which was the Red Keep in “Game of Thrones.” Gradec Park which was the location for the Purple Wedding episode of “Game of Thrones” was visible from Fort Lovrijenac.

The tour continued through the Pila Gate into the remains of the Pila Fortress where additional scenes from the series were filmed. We entered Old Dubrovnik and arrived at the plaza with Large Onofrio's Fountain in the center. Mihaela pointed out the stairway up to the Old City Walls, the Crkva sv. Spas, the Stradum main street of Old Dubrovnik, and the Franciscan Church and Monastery. There is a museum within the Franciscan Church and Monastery that contains a pharmacy that dates from 1317. It is the oldest still-functioning pharmacy in Europe and third oldest in the world. A canal once ran the length of the Stradum but was paved over at some point in the distant past.

Our tour continued on past the Tržište - Market Sq Plaza Del Mercado and up the street to the Jesuit Stairway where the “Game of Thrones” Walk of Shame scene was filmed. In addition to walking through old town Dubrovnik to different scene locations, the tour included a boat trip to Lokrum Island where additional scenes were filmed. HBO donated a replica of the Iron Throne to Dubrovnik after the series ended. The replica throne is on display in a room at a building used for a scene in the series. People are invited to sit on the replica throne for photos. The throne is actually made of a plastic material.

The “Game of Thrones” tour ended at Lokrum Island with free time. Before leaving Lokrum Island, I hiked to the ruins of Fort Royal which is situated at the highest point on the island. The island is also a large botanical garden which makes hiking there very interesting.

While we were at Lokrum Island, Mihaela told me that she also conducted a historical walking tour of Dubrovnik. After returning to my hotel, I met with the concierge and booked two additional private tours. I was able to book a private Dubrovnik Historical tour with Mihaela for the next day and a private tour to Mostar, Bosnia and Herzgovina for the day after that.

I met up with Mihaela early on Sunday,10 October, for the private half-day historical walking tour of Dubrovnik.

The old town portion of Dubrovnik was heavily bombed by Serbia during the 1991 war but has been nicely restored. The 1991 Croatian War of Independence began when Dubrovnik was bombed by the Yugoslav People’s Army for seven months. The Yugoslav People’s Army was made up mostly of Serbs in an effort to secure a greater Serbia. This tour was excellent and, since it was a private tour, very comprehensive and informative. During the tour, we stopped at different churches, a mosque, and the Old Synagogue. The Old Synagogue is the oldest Sefardic synagogue still in use today in the world and is the second oldest synagogue in Europe. We also visited the Croatian War of Independence memorial which is housed in the Sponza Palace. I would definitely recommend the historical walking tour for anyone who has enough time to take it.

On Monday, 11 October, my driver, Christian, picked me up at the hotel in a nearly new BMW for our road trip to Mostar. The drive along the costal Adriatic Highway 8 northbound from Dubrovnik to the turnoff to Route E73 toward Mostar is breathtakingly beautiful. While I rode in the front passenger seat, the BMW hugged the road as Christian drove along the mountainous coastline. We went through several border checkpoints along the highway as Bosnia and Herzegovina have territory to the sea that separates portions of Croatia. After we turned off of the Adriatic Highway to go to Mostar, highway E73 essentially follows the Neretva River toward Mostar. Highway M6.1 joined E73 and we continued on M6.1 into Mostar.

Mostar is situated on the Neretva River and is the fifth largest city in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mostar was named after the bridge keepers (mostari) who, in medieval times, guarded the Stari Most (Old Bridge) over the Neretva. In 1468, the region came under Ottoman rule. The Old Bridge was erected in 1566 on the orders of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent. The single-arch stone bridge spans 28.7 meters (94 feet) of the Neretva River, 21 meters (69 feet) above the summer level of the river and quickly became a wonder in its own time. The arch is a perfect semicircle 8.8 meters (28.1 feet) wide and 4.15 meters (13.6 feet) high. The Halebija and Tara Watch Towers have always housed the guardians of the bridge and, in Ottoman times, were also used as storehouses for ammunition. The bridge was destroyed in 1993 during the Bosnian War and the reconstruction of the Old Bridge and restoration of the surrounding buildings was initiated in 1999 and mostly completed by spring of 2004. The current “Old Bridge” is an exact replica of the original Old Bridge. In July 2005, UNESCO inscribed the reconstructed Old Bridge and its surrounding vicinity into the World Heritage List.

Upon my arrival in Mostar, I walked along Onescukova Street into Old Town Mostar and noticed a single arch stone bridge spanning the Radobolja River. After making my way along a pedestrian walkway to this bridge, I walked across it to Jusovina Street. I later discovered that this is the oldest single arch stone bridge in Mostar, the Kriva Cuprija (“Sloping Bridge”) which is also called the Crooked Bridge. It was built in 1558 by the Ottoman architect Cejvan Kethoda and is said to be a test before the major construction of the Old Bridge began.

As I explored Jusovina Street in the vicinity of the Crooked Bridge, I photographed the Black Dog Pub, Hotel Kriva Cuprija, and the Nezir-agina Mosque. Other prominent sights that I was able to see while in Mostar included the Koski Mehmed Pasha Mosque, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity, the Tabacica Mosque, and the Church of St. Peter and Paul.

I continued walking along Jusovina Street parallel to the Radobolja River until I arrived at the confluence with the Neretva River. Standing on the shore adjacent to the confluence of the Radobolja and Nerevta Rivers, I was able to see for the first time the magnificent Old Bridge. After photographing the Old Bridge, I hiked back up Jusovina Street, across the Crooked Bridge, and back to Onescukova Street. I continued along Onescukova Street, lined with shops, until I arrived at the Tara Tower end of the Old Bridge. I walked across the Old Bridge and followed Kujundziuk Street upstream along the river. I walked down steps leading to Restaurant Labirint which is situated above the shore of the river. The view of the Old Bridge from the restaurant was excellent and, after photographing the Old Bridge, I ate a traditional Bosnian lunch there.

After exploring more of Old Town Mostar, I returned to where Christian had dropped me off. Christian met me and we drove to visit the Waterfall Kravica on the Trebizat River before returning to Dubrovnik. I had to hike down to the falls and, although the sun pattern was wrong for good photographs, I managed to get some average photos of the waterfalls. The waterfall height varies from 26 to 28 meters and houses a water amphitheater under the waterfall with a diameter of 120 meters. Morning would be the best time to visit here. The drive back to Dubrovnik along the Adriatic Highway was once again spectacular.

On Tuesday, 12 October, after taking the COVID rapid antigen test required for my return flight to Italy, I returned to Old Town Dubrovnik. This would be my last day in Old Town Dubrovnik, and I spent most of my time there walking around the perimeter on top of the Old City Walls. The weather was beautiful and offered wonderful photo opportunities. I attempted to locate the copy of a medieval bible that was said to reside in the Cathedral, but I was unsuccessful. While visiting Old Town Dubrovnik, I managed to identify more than thirty-four different historical buildings and monuments.

On Wednesday, 13 October, I flew from Dubrovnik to Rome FCO airport and returned to the Hilton Rome Airport hotel for the evening. Later that afternoon, I went to the train station and purchased my train tickets to go to Naples the following day.

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  July/August 2021
Iceland

Travel Notes

 

After Iceland opened for fully vaccinated travelers from the USA, Jan and I booked a self-driving tour of Iceland for late July/early August 2021. Since the USA continued to require a negative COVID-19 test within three days of the return flight from Iceland, I purchased the Abbott Labs BinaxNOW kits which I had been told were approved for the return flights. The day before we departed for Iceland, I learned from Abbott technical support that Abbott manufactures two different versions of BinaxNOW – one approved for airplane travel and one for home testing only. Unfortunately the version that I purchased was unapproved for airplane travel. The approved version was available only by Internet purchase and I did not have time to purchase it via the Internet. I decided that we would take the required return travel test at a hotel en route in Iceland prior to our return flight home.

We were also required to produce a negative test result prior to flying to Iceland. After testing negative and uploading the test result to United Airlines, on Tuesday, 27 July 2021, we were allowed to board our flight to Iceland departing Los Angeles (LAX) with a connecting flight at Chicago (ORD). We departed Chicago at 6:55 PM on 27 July and about 45 minutes after taking off from ORD on the flight to Reykjavik, Iceland (KEF), a passenger became seriously ill and the flight was turned back to ORD where all passengers were deplaned. After returning to ORD, we were informed that our pilots had “timed out” and United needed to locate three qualified replacement pilots for the flight to continue on to KEF. Several hours later, while being held at the gate in ORD, we were informed that United was unable to locate the third required pilot and the flight would be delayed until 11:30 AM on 28 July.

Sometime after midnight, United Airlines provided vouchers for a hotel stay, a taxi to a hotel, and food vouchers. We were given a taxi voucher for a 303 Taxi to take us to the Comfort Inn O’Hare Hotel. When we exited the terminal and determined where we were located, we called the 303 Taxi Company and were told that there was a shortage of available drivers, that we were added to the waiting passenger list, and a driver would call us when he was approaching our location. While we were waiting, other people were also waiting for a 303 Taxi. When a large 303 Taxi van came by, we all climbed in and were taken to our hotel. We never received a call from a 303 Taxi driver who was supposed to pick us up.

We arrived at the hotel after 2:00 AM. During check in, we were informed that the hotel shuttle bus for the following morning was fully booked for departures from 8:00 AM through 10:00 AM to ORD (up to a forty-five minute drive in rush hour traffic). We reserved a 7:30 AM shuttle bus departure. The hotel was barely okay and we passed on the self-serve breakfast the following morning. After arriving at ORD, getting checked back into our flight, and going through security, we went to the United Club where we ate some breakfast.

With a new crew, our flight to KEF departed at 11:30 AM and arrived at KEF at 10:45 PM (15 hours and 45 minutes later than our original 7:00 AM scheduled arrival). After clearing Iceland Immigration, we were fortunate to be able to walk to the Blue Car rental car agency and pick up a rental car using the voucher provided by the tour company with which we booked our self-drive trip. We navigated to our hotel using our iPhones with the hot spot Internet provided by the rental car company.

During the drive to Reykjavik, we were treated to a magnificent nighttime display of the current volcano erupting east of Reykjavik. It was lighting up the sky like a bright red geyser and would be the only time that it was visible to us. We checked into our hotel sometime after midnight and finally slept well.

On Thursday morning, 29 July, we began following the pre-arranged driving schedule that the tour company, Guide to Iceland, provided for our self-drive tour. We drove the “Golden Circle” route to visit the Pingvellir National Park, the geysers at Haukadalur, and the Gullfoss Waterfall. We had taken the “Golden Circle” tour during our prior visit to Iceland as part of our Polar Ice Voyage in July 2018 and additional 2018 photos can be viewed there.

During our visit to Pingvellir National Park (often anglicized to Thingvellir), we were reminded that this is a very historically significant site. The Icelandic Parliament was founded by the Vikings in 930 AD and remained here until 1799 when it moved to Reykjavik. Iceland is the world’s longest running democracy. Pingvellir was made a national park in 1928 and declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2004. Pingvellir is situated in a valley known as the North Atlantic Dorsal Rift, a region between the Eurasian and North American Tectonic Plates. The edges of the tectonic plates are clearly visible and we hiked through a portion of the fissure while we were there.

We continued driving to Geysir where “The Great Geysir” is located in the famous hot spring Haukadalur valley. This area features geysers that erupt every so often. Since we had visited this site previously, we slowly drove past it en route to the Gullfoss waterfall.

Our next stop was at the Gullfoss waterfalls situated on the Hvita River. This mighty waterfall cascades 32 meters (104 feet) in total, in two separate falls, into a dramatic gorge formed in the last ice age. Platforms near the river, open during good weather, allow people to stand close enough to feel the water spray on their face. While we were there, we viewed the falls from the upper platforms and then drove to the lower parking area to view the falls from the lower platforms. The wind was very strong and was blowing so much mist from the falls across the parking area that I decided not to become totally soaked hiking to the lower viewing platforms. After taking a couple of photos from the lower parking lot, we decided to rely on our 2018 photos from the lower viewing areas.

We drove from Gullfoss down the east side of Lake Thingvellir to the town of Fluidir where we didn’t see anything especially interesting. With no restaurants open for lunch, we continued driving to the Ion Luxury Hotel at Nesjavellir by Lake Thingvellir. This hotel is out in the middle of nowhere and is advertised as a popular hotel for people visiting Iceland to watch the Northern Lights.

On Friday, 30 July, we drove along Route 1 east of Selfoss to visit the Seljalandsfoss and the Gljufrabui waterfalls. Seljalandsfoss was a beautiful 63 meters (207 feet) tall waterfall. It has a large cavern behind it and people can hike around the cavern behind the falls. We hiked the trail behind the falls and it was very wet, slippery, and difficult in places. The much smaller Gljufrabui waterfall, which is 40 meters (131 feet) high and partially obscured by a cliff, is nearby.

We continued along Route 1 to the Skogafoss waterfall which is located on the Skoga river. According to the literature, it is one of the biggest waterfalls in Iceland with a width of 25 meters (82 feet) and a drop of 60 meters (200 feet). We decided to view this waterfall from a distance and opted not to climb up the staircase beside the falls.

Further along Route 1, we came to Reynisfjara which is a black pebble beach near the town of Vik. This beach was chosen in 1991 by Islands Magazine as one of the ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world. Halsanef, a magnificent cliff face of basalt columns, resembles a step pyramid. Many species of birds nest on this cliff including puffins, fulmars, and Arctic terns. I was able to take a couple of photos of puffins high up on the cliff face. The hexagonal basalt columns that form part of the cliff are very impressive. In addition, Reynisdranger are basalt sea stacks situated out in the ocean from the black pebble beach. These sea stacks jut up from the ocean 66 meters (217 feet) at their peak. There are signs on the beach warning people not to enter the water because sneaker waves can quickly pull people out to sea. As we departed Reynisfjara, we stopped to photograph an interesting small church.

As we drove into the town of Vik, we stopped to photograph the picturesque Vic Church that stands on a hill overlooking the town. Since I was beginning to develop head-cold symptoms, we stopped at a store in Vik to purchase some Listerine Cool Mint mouthwash. We continued on Route 1 toward Kirkjubaejarklush through the Katla Geopark. The landscape here was created by lava flows from the huge Laki Volcano eruption on June 8, 1783. Most notable was the Wooly Fringe Moss that had formed on the surface of most of the lava in the area. The Katla geopark region extended for many kilometers along Route 1. After we drove through the village of Kirkjubaejarklush to see remains of an ancient convent, the road was closed and we attempted a short hike up a mountain that provided a nice view of the surrounding area. We passed the beautiful Skaftafellsjokull glacier with a lake in the foreground and large glacier in a distant landscape as we continued on to Hnappavellir where we checked into the Fosshotel Glacier Lagoon.

On Saturday morning, 31 July, we drove along Route 1 through the Skaftafell National Park toward Svartifoss. Unfortunately the road to Svartifoss was closed so we continued on toward the Jokulsarlon Glacier Lagoon where icebergs calve year round. Before arriving at the main entrance to the glacier lagoon, we stopped at a turnout and hiked to an area overlooking the lagoon to view the glacier and the icebergs. We then arrived at the main entrance and walked along the shoreline of the lagoon and along a river-like channel that passed under the bridge on Route 1 to where water from the lagoon empties into the ocean. Icebergs continually flow from the lagoon through this channel and into the ocean. Once in the ocean, portions of some of the icebergs are carried by the surf back onto the beach where they resemble diamond-like ice sculptures. Hence the beach is named Diamond Beach. This stop was one of the highlights of our road trip.

We continued driving along Route 1 to the fishing town of Hofn. The harbor area of Hofn was charming, but none of the small restaurants at the harbor were open. We continued on to the Stokksnes peninsula via a gravel road. After driving for several kilometers, we arrived at the Viking Café where we ate lunch. The soup of the day was lamb soup which was very good. Although Vestrahorn, one of Iceland’s most impressive mountains, was further down a private gravel road, we opted not to go there due to the poor visibility in the area.

At this point in our itinerary, we realized that the tour operator had booked us at the Hali Country Hotel at Hornafjordur which was more than 70 kilometers back westbound on Route 1. This meant that we would be required to drive an extra 140 kilometers to get back to the Stokksnes peninsula the following day to continue on with our road trip. The Hali Country Hotel was situated next to the shore and was within an Arctic tern nesting area. Arctic terns are very protective of their nesting area and tormented us when we walked approximately 200 meters from the building with our room to the building with the hotel restaurant. Since Arctic terns are one of my favorite birds, it was a joy to be so near to so many terns.

We departed Hornafjordur early on the morning of 1 August for a very long drive along the Eastfjords to Egilsstadir. The weather was foggy and the visibility was impaired for much of the day. Consequently, we were unable to enjoy the dramatic coast region as we drove through cloudlike foggy weather. In addition, since the drive was extremely long, we were forced to eliminate several of the recommended side trips along the visiway. We visited the villages of Djupivogur and Eskifjardur en route to our hotel in Egilsstadir. It was a long tedious drive with much of the scenery obscured due to poor visibility and the extra distance from our hotel at Hornafjordur. Photo opportunities were limited; I took a total of 7 photos during the day.

On Monday, 2 August, we continued driving along Route 1 to Lake Myvatn in North Iceland. The Lake Myvatn area is a geological wonder containing hot mud springs, volcanos, and amazing lava formations. The drive was pleasant and we arrived at Lake Myvatn late morning and were able to have an early check in at the Fosshotel Lake Myvatn overlooking the lake. Lake Myvatn is located on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is 36.5 cubic kilometers and is the fourth largest natural body of water in Iceland. It is a very shallow lake rarely getting deeper than 3.5 meters (11 feet). It also has magnificent lava pillars rising above its surface.

After checking into the hotel, we drove to Grjotagja, a lava cave with hot clear blue water. The cave was small and picturesque with signs warning visitors not to try to swim in the water. While at Grjotagja, I took a photo of nearby volcanos with steam rising into the atmosphere.

Our next stop was the Aldeyjarfoss waterfall. It was situated in the upper Baroardalur valley, in the glacial river Skalfandafjot more than 20 kilometers upstream of the Godafoss waterfalls. This is one of Iceland’s most photogenic waterfalls with the waterfalls flowing over a layer of intriguing basalt columns. Access to Aldeyjarfoss is by a gravel road beside the river to an unmarked turnoff and through a gate preventing access to the road. A local person told us to return to the closed gate that we had driven past and to continue on to the waterfalls. Further down the road, we encountered a second gate with a sign “Please Close the Gate.” After passing through both gates we finally arrived at a parking area to hike to the waterfalls. These waterfalls were spectacular and may well be the most impressive waterfalls of our trip. We returned to the hotel where we would spend two nights.

We decided to drive the “Diamond Circle” on Tuesday, 3 August. We began by driving to Jokulsargljufur Canyon to visit the Dettifoss and the Selfoss waterfalls in the Vatnajokull glacier river. Dettifoss has the greatest volume of any waterfall in Europe with 500 cubic meters of water per second plunging over its edge. It is 45 meters (148 feet) high and 100 meters (328 feet) wide. We hiked from the public parking to Dettifoss and around the viewpoints overlooking the waterfalls. From here, I hiked upstream to view the Selfoss waterfalls. Although the literature describes Selfoss as less impressive than Dettifoss, I found Selfoss to also be very impressive.

We continued driving northbound through Jokulsargljufur Canyon to Asbyrgi within Vatnajokull National Park. Asbyrgi is a 3.5 km long and 1 km wide canyon within the national park. We drove through the canyon and stopped to photograph Eylan, a vast island formation that rises dramatically within the center of the canyon.

We continued northwest along the coast to the town of Husaik situated on the shores of the Skjalfandi bay. This town draws many whale watchers to view minke, humpback whales, white-beaked dolphins, and harbor porpoises as well as other more elusive species of whales. We walked around the town and purchased fish and chips for lunch at a local restaurant at the harbor. To complete our Diamond Circle, we took Route 87 from Husaik back to our hotel.

During the day, Jan developed a persistent cough and, out of an abundance of caution after returning to the hotel, we scheduled a COVID-19 test for Jan at Akureyri for the morning of 5 August. In the meantime, I called the hotel in Stykkisholmur where we were scheduled to arrive on 9 August to arrange for an appointment for the COVID-19 test required to travel back to the USA. The hotel referred me to the hospital in Stykkisholmur to make an appointment. The hospital informed me that there were only two locations in Iceland that could give the travel COVID-19 test to travelers – Reykjavik and Akureyri. This meant that we would be unable to get tested before returning to Reykjavik for our flights home.

At this point, I made a judgment call for us to cancel continuing on the Westfjords and to instead return back to the Reykjavik area. We could then do local day trips and be in position to take the required antigen test on 8 August for our return flights home on 11 August. I booked a 4-night stay at the Marriott Courtyard Airport hotel starting 5 August and planned to keep our existing 9 August hotel reservation in Stykkisholmur and 10 August hotel reservation in Reykjavik.

On the morning of Wednesday, 4 August, we visited the Godafoss waterfalls en route to Akureyri. Godafoss literally translates to “the waterfall of Old Gods.” It is in the glacial river Skalfandafjot, measuring 12 meters (39 feet) high and 30 meters (98 feet) wide, and is easily accessed on Route 1. Godafoss is very picturesque from the viewpoints and should not be missed when traveling in North Iceland.

We enjoyed the drive to Akureyri and checked into the Icelandair Hotel Akureyri. Jan called the COVID testing facility in Akureyri and was told that she could receive the test that afternoon instead of the following morning. After taking the test, we drove along the Troll Peninsula to the town of Siglufjordur where we took some photos prior to returning to Akrueyri. Since Jan received a negative test result while we were driving to Siglufjordur, we decided to explore downtown Akureyri after dinner.

We departed Akureyri on Thursday morning, 5 August, westbound on Route 1 en route to Reykjavik. Our first planned stop was to visit the Kolugljufur waterfalls situated in the Vioidalur valley. The river Vioidalasa flows by the farm Kolugil down into the magnificent gorge, Koluglijufur. The powerful waterfalls this gorge creates are named after the Troll-woman Kola. The scenery was spectacular, and we stopped at a roadside viewpoint overlooking the Island of Hrutey for a landscape photo.

Continuing on Route 1, we finally arrived at the junction of Route 715, a gravel road leading to Kolugljufur. As we slowly drove along this road, we came upon farmers herding Iceland horses along the road. We were forced to follow the horses down the road for several kilometers until they turned off of Route 715. We eventually arrived at a narrow bridge crossing the Kolugljufur gorge and stopped at a small off-road parking to view the waterfalls and the gorge. The site was very picturesque, and we are glad that we chose to visit it.

Continuing on toward Reykjavik, we arrived at the three Grabrokargigum Craters which are part of the Ljosulfjod volcanic system. The Ljosulfjod volcanic system belongs to the Snafellsnses volcanic system. The Grabok is the largest crater, and I hiked up to the rim of the crater. The views from the rim were spectacular.

A little further down Route 1, we stopped to visit the Ginguleidir waterfalls. These waterfalls were a short hike from the parking area and were very beautiful. This waterfall should not be missed when visiting this area.

We continued on Route 1 through Reykjavik en route to the Marriott Courtyard Reykjavik Airport hotel. As we approached the hotel, we could see the building next door where the COVID-19 rapid antigen testing for travel was being conducted. By the time that we arrived at Reykjavik, we had completed driving the Route 1 “Ring Road” around Iceland even though we skipped the Westfjords portion of the country. The scenery was truly spectacular whenever visibility permitted.

Friday, 6 August, was a relaxing day spent at the Courtyard hotel and we were able to book our COVID-19 rapid antigen tests for 12:30 PM on Sunday, 8 August. We planned to explore local sites on the Supurnes peninsula where the Reykjavik International Airport and the Reykjanes Geo Park are located. We would get our required rapid antigen tests on Sunday and then visit a couple of museums in Reykjavik. On Monday, 9 August, we planned to drive westbound to the Snaefellsnes peninsula to continue the last portion of our self-drive tour. We also booked an evening visit to the Blue Lagoon for 10 August, our last night in Iceland.

On Saturday, 7 August, we drove to Gardur and visited the old lighthouse at Gardskagi. The old lighthouse was impressive and a nearby church was picturesque. The beach also served as a nesting area for Arctic terns. We continued around the peninsula to Sandderoi, where we found a cute black church, and continued on to visit the Stafnesviti lighthouse. Further along the coast, we visited the small church at Hvalsnes before continuing on to the Reykjanes Geo Park.

On Sunday, 8 August, we went to the testing center and took our rapid antigen test on schedule at 12:30 PM. After taking the test, we drove to the Saga Museum in Reykjavik. When we arrived at the museum parking lot, we received emails that we had tested positive for COVID-19. We were instructed to go immediately to another facility to be given the PCR Molecular Test. After taking the PCR Molecular Test, we were told to go back to our hotel and wait for the results. We drove back to the hotel and packed our luggage. We then ordered and ate room service dinner at the hotel.

A little later that evening, we received a call that the PCR test was also positive. We were instructed to stay in our hotel room and that a medical transport was being sent to the hotel to take us to an Iceland government Isolation Hotel in Reykjavik. Within the next hour, the transport arrived. We were escorted out of the hotel with our luggage, instructed to leave the keys to the rental car with the hotel, and the hotel checked us out remotely.

We were driven to the Fosshotel Lind, one of the Government Isolation Hotels, where we were confined to Room 317. It was a nice small en-suite hotel room with broadcast TV and WiFi. We had no idea how long our isolation confinement would be but fourteen days was the most popular number. We were told that the Government of Iceland was providing the isolation hotel room for the duration of our confinement and that we would be given three boxed meals a day delivered to our door by the Iceland Red Cross. Fortunately, we were not experiencing serious COVID-19 symptoms and were fever-free.

The following day, 9 August, a doctor contacted us to discuss our symptoms and arranged for Jan’s prescription medication refills to be delivered to the hotel by a local pharmacy. We received daily phone calls from the doctor. On 12 August, the fourth day of our confinement, we were contacted by a Government COVID Coordinator who informed us that since we were both fully vaccinated and fever-free, our required confinement period would be ten days. Our potential confinement had just been shortened by four days. We were informed that 9 August was day one, that we could be released on 18 August, and we could book a flight back to the USA for the following day. I called United Airlines and booked our return flight for Thursday, 19 August.

On Friday, 13 August, a nurse visited us and drew a blood sample from Jan to check on her level of antibodies. If the test showed low antibodies, they would give her additional medication while in isolation and if she didn’t hear back from them, the test results would have been normal. We never heard back from the blood work results.

On Tuesday, 17 August, we received a phone call from one of the doctors who confirmed that we would complete our required isolation confinement on 18 August. He stated that he would send a letter confirming our positive PCR Test, documenting our isolation and clearing us for travel. We received the PDF letters the morning of 18 August and uploaded them to United Airlines. After United replied that the letter was insufficient, I called United and entered into an SMS text discussion with a United agent. I finally determined that we needed to submit the official positive PCR Test documentation to United in addition to the letters.

Since we had never received copies of the positive PCR Test results, I contacted the Iceland COVID Coordinator, who sent me PDF copies of the positive test results. After uploading the letter and PCR Test documentation to United several times, United finally accepted the documentation and cleared us to fly back on our scheduled 19 August flights. Out of an abundance of caution, I sent the PDF files to the Isolation Hotel and the receptionist printed out and delivered hard copies of the letter and positive test results to me. The hotel receptionist also ordered a taxi for 8:18 AM on 19 August to take us to the Reykjavik International Airport (KEF). Jan and I had finally completed our ten day conjugal visit in the COVID Jail at Reykjavik.

The hotel called us when the taxi arrived and we departed the Isolation hotel to go to the airport. At the airport, our letters and PCR test documents were inspected by United Airlines personnel three different times when we checked in for the flight from KEF to Newark, New Jersey (EWR).

The flight to Newark was uneventful and, when I handed my Global Entry printout to the Immigration Agent, I was so happy to finally be back in the USA. After a couple of hours at EWR, we boarded our connecting flight to LAX for another uneventful flight. After waiting for nearly one hour for a taxi at LAX, we finally made it home. Borrowing words from the Grateful Dead – “what a long strange trip this has been.”

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  April 2021
Costa Rica

Travel Notes

 

After receiving my new expedited USA Passport, I completed the Costa Rica health requirement form. This form requires travelers to purchase COVID-19 Medical Travel Insurance and generates a coded image permitting travelers to check in for flights to Costa Rica. This same code would also need to be scanned by Costa Rica Immigration upon arrival.

On Saturday, 24 April, I boarded my United Airlines non-stop flight from Los Angeles, California, to Liberia, Costa Rica. The flight was uneventful with full COVID-19 precautions in place throughout the flight. During the flight, I filled out the Immigration Arrival Form which contained such small print that it was a challenge to read even with my reading glasses. Upon arrival, the Immigration Official didn’t want to look at the arrival form but asked me to show the health requirement form with the code to enter the country and a copy of my return flight ticket. I surmised that some other immigration person would collect the arrival form but nobody ever requested the form.

Costa Rica Government Regulations required everyone to wear masks both indoors and outdoors when near other people. As I exited immigration into the main terminal, I looked for information on where to find the location of the shuttle bus for the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel. Not seeing any signs for the shuttle bus, I asked for directions and everyone was very friendly and helpful. One person actually took me outside to an area near the arrivals entrance and told me to wait there for the hotel shuttle bus. Sure enough, after about 15 minutes, the hotel bus arrived and took me to the hotel.

The hotel had hand sanitizer stations located throughout the hotel public areas. Face masks were also required in all public areas of the hotel. During check-in, my temperature was taken before my registration was completed. After settling into my spacious room, I briefly explored the hotel facilities. Since the restaurant areas had social distancing between tables, I decided that I would eat all of my breakfasts and evening meals at the hotel.

I decided to spend Sunday, 25 April, resting up and checking out possible options for day trips from the hotel. Mardigi Tours had a tour desk in the hotel lobby and I consulted Diana, their representative, about tour options from the hotel. After discussing the various tours and options, because of the potential COVID-19 risks, I decided to book three Mardigi private day trip tours beginning the following day.

On Monday morning, 26 April 26, I met Gerardo Scriba, my private tour guide, for my Las Hornillas Miravalles Volcanic Mud Tour. Gerardo drove a small multi-person vehicle and provided a constant supply of hand sanitizer and water for the tour. We both wore face masks whenever we were in the car and/or public buildings with other people present. Gerardo had an extensive knowledge of the area, vegetation, and wildlife. He not only took special care to search out interesting vegetation and wildlife, but he was also interested in taking photos as well. This proved to be so beneficial that I contacted Diana and requested Gerardo to be my private guide for all of the subsequent day trips I had booked.

Our first stop of the tour was beside a standard cashew tree where he pointed out the red cashew flower and the dark cashew fruit (the cashew nut). We drove on and took the Catarata Lianos del Cortes Trail for a short hike to Catarata Lianos del Cortes, a very beautiful waterfall. We drove from here to Las Hornillas Miravalles in the foothills of Volcán Miravalles where we began hiking the Cataratas Cabro Muco Trails. We hiked the lower portion of the trails first to the Cataratas Cabro Muco waterfall. In order to arrive at the waterfall, we traversed a long suspended walkway over the river and above the waterfall. When we arrived at the viewpoint for the waterfall, there were metal stairs descending to a platform about half way down the height of the waterfall. This waterfall was stunning with turquoise water at the base of the falls and orange iron oxide deposits coating the rocks in and beside the river.

We returned from the lower trail to hike the upper trail. After entering the upper trail, we crossed another suspended walkway to hike along numerous other upstream waterfalls cascading down the mountainside. These were also spectacular with iron oxide deposits turning the rocks beside the waterfalls and along the river a brilliant orange color. Near the end point of this trail, I spotted and photographed some gorgeous grasshoppers. Hiking both of these trails through lush dense vegetation was exhilarating after more than a year of observing COVID-19 lockdowns in the USA.

Our next stop was at a nice restaurant for a wonderful lunch. After lunch, we continued on to visit the Las Hornillas Volcanic Activity Center. This center is situated at a live volcanic crater with hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles, openings in or near a volcano through which hot sulfurous gases emerge. Visitors here have options to not only walk around and through the crater but also may elect to bathe in a mud bath and/or hot spring. I elected to just walk through the crater where I was fascinated with sulphur crystals that had formed near some small fumaroles. Although nobody was in the mud baths while I was there, some people were bathing in the hot springs. Public lockers, dressing rooms, and open public showers were available for visitors. When we returned to the hotel, Diana confirmed that Gerardo would continue as my private tour guide for the duration of my day trips.

On Tuesday morning, 27 April, Gerardo and I departed the hotel in a twelve-person van to travel to Rincón de la Vieja National Park and hike the foothills of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. En route to the park, we drove past a large geothermal power plant, one of many that provide a large portion of the electricity consumed by Costa Rica. After arriving at the park, Gerardo checked us in and we began hiking the 3.2 kilometer Sendaro Pailas Loop portion of the Rincón de la Vieja Trail. As we were about to begin the trail loop, Gerardo received information from another guide that spider monkeys were just seen near the other end of the loop. Gerardo told me we would hike the loop trail in reverse order to possibly see the spider monkeys. Sure enough, we soon came upon spider monkeys traveling high up through the enormous trees. We were able to take a few photos of them before they disappeared in the forest.

As we continued hiking through the forest, Gerardo pointed out many different species of vegetation before we arrived at the fumarolas where there was a slight change in the vegetation nearby. Since the hot bubbling mud was difficult to photograph, I took a short video clip at the fumarolas. We continued hiking and left the forest of tall trees and hiked to an area where there were bubbling mud pots. From there we had a spectacular view of Volcán Rincón de la Vieja. Continuing on, we passed an area with a fumarolic lagoon and another area of volcanic activity with “Do Not Enter” warning signs before ending the loop portion of the trail. This was a very interesting area that I would be happy to revisit on a future trip.

We ate a wonderful buffet lunch at the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant before visiting Poza Roja (Red Pond). After lunch we hiked the one kilometer Poza Roja trail past the archaeological site of an ancient cemetery with large signs describing the site. Poza Roja, which is situated on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin, was absolutely beautiful and well worth the hike.

On Wednesday morning, 28 April, Gerardo and I took the Waterfall Lovers tour. We returned to Hacienda Guachipelin where we hiked the Catarata Chorreras Trail to Catarata Chorreras. The entire hike is on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. During the hike, I took a video clip of large numbers of leaf-cutter ants that we passed along the trail. Gerardo told me that the ants carry the leaf portions back to the nest where a guard ant at the entrance passes judgment on whether to accept or reject the individual leaf portion. I took a photo of the entrance of the nest of some of the leaf-cutter ants.

Catarata Chorreras was very beautiful and consisted of two small rivers coming together near the top of the waterfalls and then forming a confluence of the two rivers where the rivers combine at the base of the waterfalls. The larger river produces turquoise colored water at the base of the falls while the smaller river produces dark colored water. During the hike, we passed a number of very interesting large trees.

From here we drove to the entrance of the Catarata Oropendola Trail. This trail and waterfall is also on the private property of Hacienda Guachipelin. This trail took us past some very large trees including a tree with a termite nest high above the ground. The trail to the waterfall was downhill most of the way, and we had to hike down a long set of suspended stairways that had a weight restriction of Max 2 persons/300 Kg. Gerardo descended the steps first and I followed after he reached the bottom. This was the first time that I had ever seen a suspended stairway. Catarata Oropendola was a very impressive waterfall with turquoise water at the base of the falls and crystal clear water flowing downstream. As we returned to the beginning of the trail, we spied and photographed several white tail deer in the forest.

Our next stop was at the entrance of the Cataratas Rio Negro Trail where we would hike upstream along Rio Negro to see the four Cataratas waterfalls. The trail wound through another forested area, and the views of the black river were beautiful. Each waterfall was unique, and this hike was delightful. We returned to the Hacienda Guachipelin restaurant for a buffet lunch before returning to the hotel.

After I returned to the hotel, the person at the front desk scheduled an appointment for a nurse to visit me at the hotel the following day to administer the COVID-19 test required for my return flight to the USA. Later the following night, I received an email with my antigen negative test result which the hotel printed out for me. I uploaded the test result to United Airlines which approved the test results and instructed me to take the copy of my test results to the airport for checking into my flight home.

On Thursday morning, 29 April, Gerardo and I drove to the Palo Verde National Park Boat Tour on Rio Tempisque. The 144-kilometer Río Tempisque flows from the Guanacaste Cordillera near the Orosí Volcano and empties into the Gulf of Nicoya. It passes through the Palo Verde National Park and is a habitat for various species of crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, and birds. This river is highly silted and the Costa Rica Government only permits the manual extraction of sand from the river bottom by means of bucket, boat, shovel, cart, and oxen. The oxen take the loaded cart to an area where it is allowed to dry. This same sand has been used in the material to build many of the main roads in Guanacaste Province.

We drove past the area where people were in the process of manually extracting sand with the carts and oxen. The people wade into the river and load sand into a small boat to take it to be offloaded into the oxen carts. They only extract the sand from the river during the early morning while the crocodiles are inactive. This process was very interesting and I am grateful that Gerardo took me here on the way to the boat tour. After I returned home, I found this link to a video clip of the sand extraction process.  .

As we continued on the road to Ortega, we stopped near a bridge over a small stream where I photographed a basilisk lizard and some howler monkeys. After arriving in Ortega, we stopped at the Palo Verde Boat Tours headquarters to check-in for the tour. The boat tour headquarters is also a restaurant where we would eat lunch after the tour. Before continuing to the river, two employees demonstrated the process of making corn tortillas from scratch and cooking them on a wood fired stove. I was served the hand-made tortilla and a glass of yellow mango juice.

The section of Rio Tempisque that we visited on the tour is within the Refugio National de Vida Silvestre Cipanci. As we drove through the refuge to the river, we were able to photograph howler monkeys, a white-nosed coati, and a yellow hawk. We also saw two scarlet macaws flying across an open space.

At the river, Gerardo and I boarded a large tour boat and, since my tour was private, we were the only passengers. This tour was really special with close interaction with Gerardo and the boat driver. We were in no hurry and stopped many times to look at and photograph the wildlife. We saw crocodiles, a white ibis, capuchin monkeys, green iguanas, a basilisk lizard, howler monkeys, bare-throated tiger heron, great white egrets, a green heron, an Amazon kingfisher, proboscis bats, a water termite, and a small blue butterfly. When a tour boat stops, the capuchin monkeys frequently come down from the trees to the river to drink water because the tour boats provide a measure of safety from the crocodiles. The boat driver said that proboscis bats nest in a line along tree trunks because they may appear to be more like a snake. During the boat ride, I was able to take several wonderful photos of the wildlife. The Palo Verde Boat Tours restaurant served a wonderful lunch to us before we returned to the hotel.

Since Friday, 30 April, was my last full day in Costa Rica, I decided to book a private custom day trip with Gerardo. Before visiting several local Guanacaste beaches, we first took a short tour of the rather small town of Liberia including the Museo de Guanacaste, the central plaza, the cathedral, the Palicio Municipal, an old small church, and a small house where the Padre lived. The Museo de Guanacaste, which was originally a prison, is a magnificent structure from the outside, but the old prison portion on the inside was very rundown and disappointing. This museum should be skipped during any visit to Liberia. Our tour of the town convinced me that I had made the correct decision to stay at the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel.

We drove from Liberia to visit Playa Penca, Playa Potero, Playa Flamingo, Playa Brasilito, Playa Conchal, and Playa Tamarindo. Gerardo told me that all beaches in Costa Rica are public beaches and that all private land holdings end a certain distance from the beach. I photographed some pelicans at both Playa Penca and Playa Potero. In addition, I photographed a frigate bird and some black vultures at Playa Potero. Playa Conchal was unique because the beach consisted of small sea shells instead of sand. Playa Conchal is surrounded by the Westin Conchal Golf Resort and Hotel. Since the Westin Hotel property encompasses the shoreline of Playa Conchal, the hotel provides direct access to the beach for paying guests. Public access to Playa Conchal is along the coastline where we hiked from Playa Brasilito.

We drove to the town of Tamarindo and visited Playa Tamarindo. I took close-up photos of black vultures beside the road. Tamarindo has many beach-front hotels. It is definitely a tourist beach town with extensive shopping and many restaurants. The beach was crowded with tourists, but the quality of the beach was not world class. Of all the beaches that I visited, only Playa Conchal appealed to me, but that would require a stay at the Westin Conchal Hotel.

Since lunch was not included in this tour, we headed back to the hotel where Gerardo and I parted ways. Gerardo was an exceptional tour guide and we became good friends during my time in Costa Rica. I would definitely contact Gerardo to be my private guide for any future visits to northern Costa Rica.

Saturday, 1 May, was my final partial day in Costa Rica. After securing a late checkout, I spent time beginning the process of editing and sequencing my photos for my website. The hotel shuttle bus took me to the airport where I boarded my return flight back to Los Angeles. This trip turned out to be wonderful. For a return trip to Liberia, Costa Rica, I would continue to take private volcanic mountain and rainforest hikes and the river boat tour. I would avoid the beaches and would return to the Hilton Liberia Airport Hotel.

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  February 2020
Bolivia

Travel Notes

 

I became intrigued by Puma Punku after watching the television series Ancient Aliens: Season 4 Episode 6 “The Mystery of Puma Punku.” I spent some time researching ancient archaeological sites in this area of Bolivia with an emphasis on Puma Punku and Tiwanaku. Puma Punku has massive precision-cut monolithic stonework fabricated with precise details that would require very specialized tools and techniques to replicate them today. The intricate shapes with such precision make Puma Punku one of the most unique sites on planet Earth. The origin of Puma Punku remains a mystery with some conjecture dating the site as far back as 14,000 years. Puma Punku was destroyed by some cataclysmic event which deposited a deep layer of mud and sea shells among the scattered and fragmented remains of Puma Punku. During 2000, an Italian team of divers discovered evidence of pre-Columbian constructions consisting of a huge temple, traces of a paved road, an 800 meter retaining wall, and terrace for crops and ceramic artifacts beneath Lake Titicaca. This discovery fueled speculation that this might be the lost underwater city of Wanaku and that it became submerged during a cataclysmic event that flooded the area forming Lake Titicaca and destroying Puma Punku.

The large archaeological site of Tiwanaku (also referred to as Tiahuanaco) is situated about one half mile from Puma Punku and is believed to have been constructed much later than Puma Punku by the ancient Tiwanaku culture. The Tiwanaku Archaeological Zone has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site administered by the Bolivian government.

The following two links provide additional insight for anyone interested in Puma Punku: www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJMZyl6zbKU and www.history.com/shows/ancient-aliens/season-4/episode-6.

I finally decided to travel to Bolivia to visit the archaeological sites at Tiwanaku and Puma Punku. Since I would need a visa for Bolivia, I completed the necessary tourist visa application documentation on-line and delivered it with my passport to the Bolivia Consulate at Los Angeles, California. The consulate processed my visa and within two weeks I returned to retrieve my passport containing my Bolivia tourist visa. To my surprise, the visa was valid for multiple-entries for the next ten years.

I then prepared a tentative travel itinerary for Bolivia, and booked my airline flights and hotel reservations on-line. I would fly from Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, Argentina, before flying on to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. I would spend three nights at Santa Cruz before taking an overnight bus to La Paz and a local bus to Tiwanaku, Bolivia. After visiting Tiwanaku, I would continue on to visit Copacabana on Lake Titicaca and then La Paz.

I arrived at Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia, on the evening of 2 February 2020 and, after clearing immigration, I found the driver with my name on a sign to take me to the Marriott Santa Cruz de la Sierra Hotel. The hotel was wonderful and, with my elite status upgrades, made me feel special. Santa Cruz is situated on the Pirai River in the eastern Tropical Lowlands of Bolivia. It is Bolivia’s most populous city and produces nearly 35 per cent of Bolivia’s gross national product.

The following day, the hotel arranged for a private day tour of Santa Cruz with an English speaking driver. The driver took me to the old downtown area of the city, to an area alongside the Pirai River where local entertainment was available in the evenings, and to the new country club development that is currently being constructed. We drove past a demonstration in front of a Government taxation building en route to the downtown area. After arriving downtown, I visited the Unacruz Mercado before continuing on to the Plaza 24 de September. The buildings in the vicinity of the plaza were very picturesque. The Cathedral Basilica of San Lorenzo was situated across from one corner of the plaza.

On Tuesday, 4 February, I took a taxi back to the downtown area where I walked around the plaza, visited the cathedral, visited the Marzana (Grand Plaza) Uno Espacio de Arte, and explored the downtown area admiring the architecture. After returning to my hotel, I walked to a large shopping mall with high end shopping stores.

I had advance-purchased a reserved ticket on an overnight bus from Santa Cruz to La Paz. On Wednesday, 5 February, I took a taxi to the bus station where I located my bus and settled in for a long 18 hour bus ride to La Paz before transferring to a local bus to Tiwanaku. Tiwanaku has an elevation of 3,870 meters (12,700 feet) above sea level. Although I was hoping to be able to get some altitude acclimation at Santa Cruz, I was disappointed to find out that the elevation at Santa Cruz is only about 400 meters (1,300 feet) above sea level. Since the elevation of La Paz varies from 3,640 meters (11,942 feet) to 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level, my bus trip would do little to help with altitude acclimation.

After several hours, the bus stopped at a large roadside establishment where people could use toilet facilities and purchase hot meals and snacks. I opted for a hot meal before continuing on the bus to La Paz. It rained throughout the night and the highway was marginal, which made the bus ride an experience. The rain stopped and the sun appeared early morning as we drove through El Alto, the high city above La Paz. El Alto is adjacent to La Paz and has an average elevation of 4,150 meters. El Alto is the second largest metropolitan city in Bolivia.

La Paz is situated on a bowl-like canyon below El Alto, and the bus snaked its way down the canyon through La Paz to arrive at the bus station near the city center at approximately 8:00 AM on Thursday, 6 February. I ate breakfast at the bus station and took a taxi to the Cemetery where people gathered to take local buses to Tiwanaku. The local buses continue to wait for paying passengers until the bus is full before departing for their destination. While waiting for additional passengers, I offered to buy several empty seats in order to eliminate an unknown waiting time. The bus driver accepted my offer, and we departed for Tiwanaku.

We arrived at Tiwanaku village, and I checked into Hotel Akapana in the early afternoon. I could see the Tiwanaku Archaeological Site from my hotel window. Since the village of Tiwanaku is quite small, I opted for the hotel to cook dinner for me for the three nights that I would be staying there. After settling into my room, I decided to take a very slow walk around the village to visit the main plaza and see the church. The air was very thin at nearly 3,900 meters, and I wanted to take extra precautions not to become a victim of altitude sickness. Since I would have two more days here, I decided to visit Puma Punku one day and Tiwanaku the following day.

It rained during the night and was overcast when I left the hotel to walk to Puma Punku on the morning of 7 February. I stopped at the ticket office in the Tiwanaku train station and purchased my ticket to visit Puma Punku, Tiwanaku, and the Tiwanaku museum. My first stop was at the small museum that contained interesting artifacts and exhibits, including the original Bennett Monolith. Unfortunately, the museum did not allow any photographs to be taken.

I continued walking along the road that led to the site of Puma Punku. I was stopped at the entrance where the attendant punched the Puma Punku portion of my ticket. Since I had previously visited the ancient site of Göbekli Tepe in Turkey, I was excited to actually be among the massive stonework which could possibly date back more than 14,000 years. I marveled at the smooth surfaces with sharp 90 degree edges, the round holes in the corners of some pieces, and the intricate recessed areas with sharp edges and corners. In addition, the “H-blocks” were uniform and some recessed cutout portions were dovetailed. These were massive andesite and granite stones that had been quarried many miles away and transported by some means to this location. The site included several gateway-like structures more than 26 feet high and quite wide that were fabricated from one massive solid. While archaeologists are at a loss to explain how the civilization back then could have fabricated Puma Punku, many people believe that extraterrestrial aliens fabricated the site. In any event, I agree with the people that say that Puma Punku is one of the most unique places on the planet.

After I returned to the hotel, the rain and thunderstorms arrived and lasted most of the night. The morning of 8 February, remained overcast and I walked from the hotel to the entrance of Tiwanaku. After getting my ticket punched, I began walking within the four square kilometers that comprises Tiwanaku. The literature describes Tiwanaku as the capital of a powerful pre-Inca civilization that dominated the Andean region between 500 and 900 AD. This site includes several temples, a pyramid, symbolic gates, monoliths, and mysterious carvings of alien-like faces. Arriving later, the Incas regarded Tiwanaku as the site of creation by their god, Viracocha, who rose from the depths of Lake Titicaca.

I decided to walk past the western end of the Putuni Temple en route to the Gate of the Moon, Puerta de la Luna. I passed an area of underground ducts that were used to drain water from Putuni Temple. The Gate of the Moon was carved in andesite stone 2.23 meters high and 0.26 meters thick. The upper lintel has a frieze with decorations engraved in high relief. Its original location may have been at Puma Punku. After I photographed the Gate of the Moon, I took a panorama photo looking across Putuni Temple toward the Temple of Kalasasaya and the Pyramid of Akapana.

The Putuni Temple, sometimes referred to as the Sarcophagus Palace, is an enclosure with a rectangular floor that forms rooms around a patio. The outer wall built with andesite ashlars is approximately 68 meters by 52 meters and the patio is 52 meters by 40 meters. Burial chambers with sliding stone doors are contained within the walls. The entrance to the patio faces the western end of the Temple of Kalasasaya.

I walked along the southern edge of the Putuni Temple and through the entrance to the patio at the eastern end. I walked around the perimeter of the patio and was unable to find the monolith that the tourist sign said was located at the center of the patio. There were several large intricately shaped stones within the patio that appeared to have been transported from Puma Punku. After exiting the Putuni Temple, I climbed a metal stairway to enter the southwestern corner of Kalasasaya where I came upon the Estela Fraile. The Estela Fraile is a red sandstone monolith 2.45 meters high carved in high relief. Some people believe that it may represent a female idol dedicated to the lacustrine cult.

The Temple of Kalasasaya is a low platform mound with a large courtyard that is surrounded by high stone walls. Kalasasaya is about 120 meters by 130 meters and aligned in the cardinal directions. It has an opening at the eastern end with a monumental staircase that leads down toward the Subterranean Temple. Since the 1980s, the consensus of researchers state that the construction of Kalasasaya dates to 200 or 300 BC. After photographing the Estela Fraile, I walked across the Kalasasaya and exited it near the northwestern corner to hike over to the Gate of the Sun, Puerto del Sol.

The Gate of the Sun is one of the largest and most enigmatic representations of the Tiwanaku Culture. It measures 2.88 meters high, 3.84 meters long, and 0.50 meters thick, is fabricated from a single andesite stone, and weighs approximately 10 tons. The stone would have been brought from the Kapia volcanic hill in Peru. There are several interpretations of the mysterious carvings of alien-like faces that decorate the gate and are believed to possess astronomical and/or astrological significance. Some people believe the main images to represent Viracocha, the Inca creator god, surrounded by flying figures. Although this is the place where the Gate of the Sun was originally found, some people believe that this may not be the original location of this structure.

I returned to the Kalasasaya where a large group of people were conducting some sort of ceremony at a raised altar-like platform in the center of the large courtyard. As I continued walking toward the opening at the eastern end, I arrived at the Estela Ponce. It is a 3.05 meter high andesite stone monolith carved in high relief and discovered in 1957. It was placed at this location so that it would appear in the center of the opening on the eastern end of Kalasasaya when viewed from the Subterranean Temple.

I walked to the opening at the eastern end of Kalasasaya where the monumental staircase leads down toward the Subterranean Temple. This opening is like a deep gateway at the top of the stone stairs into the Kalasasaya main courtyard. Since both this opening and the stairway were closed to visitors, I took some photos of the subterranean Temple from here before walking back to the opening in the southern wall to go down to the level of the base of the outer wall. I walked along the southern wall and around the eastern end to the edge of the roped off stairway where I took some panorama photos looking at the Subterranean Temple. In order to get down to ground level at the base of the stairway and the top of the Subterranean Temple, I would need to walk back along the southern wall to a place where I could descend to ground level and then walk back westbound until I reached the eastern end of Kalasasaya.

I stopped to view the Estela Descabezado situated south of Kalasasaya en route to the eastern end. Estela Descabezado is a headless monolith with anthropomorphic features which include carvings of snakes, feline ears, and faces on the lower portion of the monolith. It is presumed to have been worshiped between 100 BC and 400 AD. After arriving at the eastern end of Kalasasaya, I took photos of the end of Kalasasaya and looking down into the Subterranean Temple.

The Subterranean Temple, Templete Semisubterraneo, is a semi-underground structure with a 28.5 meter by 26 meter rectangular floor that is 2.2 meters deep. A seven-step staircase carved in stone provided the original access. A metal staircase has been installed adjacent to the original roped-off stone staircase to provide access to visitors. The retaining walls consist of fifty-seven large monolithic, mainly red sandstone pillars arranged at irregular intervals interspersed with coarse ashlar red sandstone brickworks. In addition, 175 carved heads are inserted in the walls. An open canal along the base of the walls provides for drainage. This structure is presumed to have been built during the Early Tiwanaku IV Period.

The original Bennett Monolith was discovered in the central part of the Subterranean Temple during 1933. It was one of the largest anthropomorphic monoliths whose body was carved in high relief. Due to its iconographic richness, it was transferred to different places in the city of La Paz where it suffered deterioration. It was transferred back to the people of Tiwanaku in 2002 where it remains in the Tiwanaku Museum.

The Barbado Monolith, carved in red sandstone, shows an anthropomorphic bearded figure with crossed hands, open fingers, serpents adorning its sides, and a pair of felines on the shirt. It is currently situated in the center of the Subterranean Temple along with two smaller anthropomorphic monoliths standing next to it.

I descended into the Subterranean Temple and proceeded to walk around the perimeter walls admiring each of the 175 carved stone heads inserted into the walls. The heads are all different and, according to people in episodes of the Ancient Aliens series relating to Tiwanaku, they represent cultures from all over the world including extraterrestrial beings. They also assert that both the Bennett and Barbado Monoliths represent Viracocha, the Inca creator god. I had someone take my photo beside the Barbado Monolith while I was in the Subterranean Temple.

I continued on to a location above the eastern end of the Subterranean Temple. I took some panorama photos and the classic photo of the entrance gateway of Kalasasaya with the Estela Ponce in the center before heading north toward the Akapana Pyramid. As I followed the path around the eastern end of the Akapana Pyramid, I found the pathway closed to visitors at the eastern end of the pyramid. Undaunted, I backtracked and walked along the northern wall of Kalasasaya which provided some excellent photo opportunities of both Kalasasaya and the Akapana Pyramid. After reaching the western end of Kalasasaya, I took some additional panorama photos and continued walking along the western end of the Akapana Pyramid.

The Akapana Pyramid, Piramide Akapana, is an approximately cross-shaped structure 257 meters wide, 197 meters long at its maximum and 16.5 meters high. On a clear day, snow capped Illimani and Lake Titicaca, the sacred geographical features of Tiwanaka, can be seen from the summit. The central portion of the pyramid shows massive destruction caused by treasure hunters from Spanish colonial times. In 2009, state-sponsored restoration work on the Akapana Pyramid was halted due to a complaint from UNESCO.

As I arrived at a path adjacent to the stairway on the western end of the Akapana, the path up the end of the pyramid was roped off. Since I had observed visitors going up and down this path during the prior two days, I decided to continue hiking up to the summit. Although the weather had been mostly sunny during the day, by the time that I started ascending to the summit, it was overcast with dark clouds rapidly approaching. At the summit, I was able to take some wonderful panorama photos overlooking Kalasasaya and the adjacent sites. I backtracked to the roped-off entrance and, as I continued hiking back to my hotel, light rain showers began.

Back at the hotel, the staff told me how to take a taxi to El Alto where I would be able to catch a bus to Copacabana. They also told me that I would need to exit the bus at a river, pay 2 Bolivians for a boat ticket, and then rejoin the bus on the other side while the bus was ferried across to the Copacabana peninsula. The rain steadily increased and we had additional heavy rain throughout most of the night. I was fortunate that I had been able to visit both Puma Punku and Tiwanaku without being subjected to rain showers.

On Sunday morning, 9 February, I took a taxi to the bus stop at El Alto where I transferred to a minibus full of local people to continue on to Copacabana. Since I was one of the last passengers, I was seated at the back of the bus with limited outside visibility. After approximately one hour, we arrived at the town of San Pedro de Tiquina on the bank of the Strait of Tiquina on Lake Titicaca. This strait separates the two separate basins of Lake Titicaca and is 850 meters (2,790 feet) across at its narrowest point. This small town is actually on both sides of the strait and is also home to the Bolivian Navy flotilla and 4th Naval Service Area/Naval Military Police Battalion #1.

I exited the minibus and made my way along with other passengers to a small building where I paid the 2 Bolivians for my boat ticket to cross the strait. The vehicles, ranging from motorcycles and cars to trucks and buses, were ferried across the strait on wooden flat-bottom barge-like vessels propelled near the shore by people using long poles and across the lake by a single outboard motor. I was told that the people from the town have been operating these ferries for decades and I watched them bail water from them after each crossing. After I reached the other side of the strait, my next challenge was to remember which ferry my bus had boarded and exactly where to meet the bus containing my luggage. I had tried to keep an eye on my bus during the crossing and recognized it as the ferry approached the docking area. The docking area had several docking spaces and my ferry with my bus had to be poled by hand from one location to an adjacent location whereupon wooden planks were positioned between the ferry and the dock for the bus to drive on as it backed off of the ferry. The bus driver stopped nearby and allowed all of us to re-board and continue on for approximately 45 minutes to Copacabana.

Copacabana is the main Bolivian town on the shore of Lake Titicaca. It is known for its famous basilica, Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana, for trout from the lake, and its quaint atmosphere. It is situated between Mount Calvario and Mount Nino Calvario, has an elevation of 3,841 meters (12,602 feet), and has a population of approximately 6,000 inhabitants. Copacabana’s religious celebrations, cultural patrimony, and festivals are well known throughout Bolivia.

When the minibus arrived at a bus station of sorts adjacent to Plaza Sucre in Copacabana a little before noon, the sky was clear with bright sunshine. After I left the bus, I found a taxi and, although I had a confirmed reservation for Hostel Los Olas, the taxi driver consulted with several people before actually getting me to the hotel. This hotel was situated part way up Mount Calvario and the climb from the shore to the hotel was both long and steep. Fortunately the proprietor of the hotel helped me transfer my luggage to my room, Suite 3. The room was amazing with an expansive spectacular panoramic view of the harbor area and Lake Titicaca. It had a kitchen area, a loft, a hammock, a small wood burning stove, two large beds, and modern en suite toilet facilities. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven. The hotel was an eco-hotel and every cabin was architecturally different making it look like a fairyland of sorts. The hotel did not have a restaurant but recommended that I could eat next door at the Hostal La Cupula restaurant. Suddenly, I was sorry that I had only booked two nights at Copacabana.

After getting settled into the room, I went for a walk through the hotel gardens down to the street that would take me toward the center of the town. This property was simply fantastic with two hammocks in front of my room that overlooked the beautiful harbor area. I stopped at a small restaurant for several small caprese empanadas and a cappuccino for lunch before walking past Plaza Sucre and then on to Plaza 2 de Febrero where Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana is situated.

Construction of the Basilica of Our Lady of Copacabana began in 1668, was inaugurated in 1678, and was completed in 1805. When Bolivia gained independence in 1825, it was attributed to the faith of the population through the Virgin of Copacabana, its patron saint of Bolivia. In 1826, Marshal Antonio Jose de Sucre, the President of the Republic of Bolivia, expropriated all of the jewels and colonial treasures at the Shrine of the Virgin and used them to create the first coins from Bolivia. The basilica is both very large and picturesque. At first I thought there was a wedding celebration with people decorating vehicles in front of the basilica. I later learned that every day on the street in front of the Basilica, car owners decorate their cars with colorful banners and flowers while the vehicle is blessed by a priest and doused with champagne or Coca Cola. After visiting the basilica, I walked through Plaza 2 de Febrero and then through the town back to my hotel to rest up before going to dinner at Restaurant La Cupula.

It rained during the night and was partly overcast the following morning, 10 February. I decided to hike to the top of Mount Calvario, Cerro El Calvario, and sometimes referred to as Calvary Hill. Mount Calvario is not only the main viewpoint for Copacabana but also a sacred pilgrimage site. Since the weather was deteriorating, I donned protective rain gear and started walking from my hotel. Partway up the hill I came upon a series of monuments that represent the 14 Stations of the Cross. Pilgrims ascending the hill visit the Stations for prayer. The views of Copacabana were splendid and, as I reached the shrine at the summit, the rain began in earnest. I took shelter in a small building that acted as a storeroom for vendors normally selling souvenirs and food, until the rain subsided. The hike down the hill after the rain was slippery and challenging.

I returned to my hotel and spent the remainder of the day looking out my panoramic windows admiring the view. At one point, the intermittent sunshine and rain combined to form a beautiful rainbow that descended into the harbor area amid the boats anchored there. It was the first time in my life that I actually looked down on the end of a rainbow. It continued raining during the night and became intermittent in the morning.

I checked out of Hostel Los Olas that morning, 11 February, and took a taxi to Plaza Sucre where I negotiated for a minibus to take me all the way to my hotel in La Paz. Since I was the only passenger of the bus, I had room to spread out and to enjoy the views of the surroundings. When we came to the Strait of Tiquina, I gave the driver my 2 Bolivians and remained on the bus with the driver as we were ferried across the strait. The remainder of the drive was uneventful as we drove through El Alto. We then snaked our way down the winding steep 400 meter (1,300 feet) slope of La Paz to the Tourist Zone and past Plaza Juariste Eguino to Hotel Rosario, my hotel located near the famous Witches Market.

La Paz is officially known as Nuestra Senora de La Paz. It is the seat of government and the de facto capital of the Plurinational State of Bolivia (the constitutional capital of Bolivia is Sucre). La Paz is located in a canyon on the Choqueyapu River and El Alto is located on the Altiplano plateau. The metropolitan area formed by La Paz, El Alto, and Viacha is the highest metropolitan area in the world with a population of approximately 2.3 million people. Since La Paz is situated on a bowl-like canyon below El Alto, the elevation of La Paz varies from 3,640 meters (11,942 feet) to 4,150 meters (13,615 feet) above sea level. It is also the home of Mi Teleferico, the largest urban cable car network in the world.

Mi Teleferico is an aerial cable car urban transit system that was planned to address chaotic traffic and a precarious public transit system that could not cope with growing user demands. It was authorized in July 2012 and began operation on 30 May 2014 with three lines - Red, Yellow and Green - connecting La Paz with El Alto. An additional eight interconnecting lines were constructed and have become operational. These are the Blue, Orange, White, Sky Blue, Purple, Brown, Silver, and Gold lines. Mi Teleferico is the first system to use aerial cable cars as the backbone of an urban transit network.

After settling into my hotel, I briefly explored the neighborhood and quickly realized that La Paz had a unique charm and that I would thoroughly enjoy my visit. Since La Paz is in a canyon with steep slopes, it seemed like I had to hike up or down steep portions of the streets to go anywhere. At the high elevation of La Paz, I soon realized that I would need to walk slowly while I continued my altitude acclimation. I returned to the hotel and decided that I would walk several blocks to Restaurant 1700 for dinner. Although that relatively short walk consumed much of my available energy, the dinner at Restaurant 1700 was amazing.

The following morning, Wednesday, 12 February, a lady working at the hotel front desk who spoke very good English, gave me a large tourist map and recommended that I ride the Mi Teleferico to circumnavigate the city of La Paz. Following her advice, I had the hotel get a taxi for me to go to the Mi Teleferico Red Line station. It was located behind Central Cultural Museum, the old La Paz railway station with an outdoor museum. The Red Line station is Estacion Central and connects both the red and orange lines. After purchasing my ticket for the Red, Silver, Yellow, Blue, White, and Orange lines to circumnavigate La Paz, I boarded the Red Line to El Alto.

The weather was clear and views from the different cable cars were stunning. We passed over the large Cemeterio and the very colorful Challuma Neighborhood en route to El Alto. I transferred to the Silver Line at Estacion 16 de Julio and passed through Estacion Faro Murillo (Purple Line). I transferred to the Yellow Line at Estacion Mirador where I stopped in the passageway between the Silver Line and the Yellow Line at the viewpoint of La Paz for a photo. As the Yellow Line descended down the steep slope I passed through Estacion Sopocachi and transferred to the Blue Line at Estacion del Libertador.

As I rode the Blue Line, I passed through Estacion del Poeta where I was supposed to transfer to the White Line. After realizing my mistake, I made a U-turn at Estacion El Prada. While on the Blue Line, I saw the exposed portion of the Choqueyapu River. I also saw the Theatro de Aire Libre before I returned to Estacion del Poeta and transferred to the White Line. I passed over the Monumento a German Busch en route to Estscion Busch where I transferred to the Orange Line. I passed over the Cemeterio La Llama as I returned to Estacion Central where my Teleferico journey began. This was a wonderful way to see La Paz, and I recommend anyone who visits La Paz to circumnavigate the city via Mi Teleferico. I ate lunch at a nice restaurant in the Central Cultural Station before hiking back to my hotel.

One of the main reasons that I wanted to visit La Paz was to see the Fuente Magna of Pokotia Bolivia which currently resides at the Museum of Precious Metals, also referred to as the Museum of Gold, Museo del Oro. The Fuente Magna is a large stone vessel that resembles a libation bowl. A farmer working on a private estate owned by the Manjon family near Lake Titicaca in Bolivia discovered it by accident in 1958. It is often referred to as “the Rosetta Stone of the Americas” because it features beautifully engraved anthropomorphic characters, zoological motifs characteristic of the local culture, and, more surprisingly, two types of scripts – a proto-Sumerian ancient alphabet and a local language of the ancient Pukara, forerunner of the Tiahuanaco civilization. It is one of the most controversial artifacts in South America because it raises questions about whether there may have been a connection between the ancient inhabitants of the Andes and the ancient Sumerians located thousands of miles away.

On Thursday morning, 13 February, I decided to visit the Museum of Precious Metals, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Archaeological Museum. Once again, the lady at the front desk helped me map out the route and told me where I would need to go to purchase the ticket for entry to the precious metals museum and several museums nearby. After I took a taxi to Calle Apolinar Jaen and purchased the ticket, I visited the Museo del Litoral where I found out that no photos were permitted inside the museum.

I continued on to the Museum of Precious Metals where the security person spoke some English. I bemoaned the fact that I had come all the way to La Paz primarily to see the Fuente Magna and would not be allowed to take photos of it and the other unique artifacts in the museum while all of the museums in Peru allowed photos of exhibits. Since I was the only person in the museum, he must have felt sorry for me because he told me that I could take photos as long as nobody saw me taking photos. With that caveat in mind, I very discreetly took some photos of exhibits that I found to be most interesting, including the Fuente Magna, the elongated skulls, some gold items, and several stone and ceramic exhibits.

The Museo Casa de Murillo, dedicated to the patriot Pedro Domingo Murillo and the revolution of July 1809, was my next stop. It is a building from the beginning of the 19th century which has two floors with the following exhibition rooms: Furniture Room, Presidents Room, Crafts Room, and Baroque birth. The second floor comprises the Colonial Gallery, the Conspiracy Room, Oratory, and Bedroom. This museum had numerous wonderful exhibits that I was not permitted to photograph.

En route to Plaza Murillo and the Metropolitan Cathedral, I walked past Plaza Monroy, the La Paz Municipal Theater, and the Santa Domingo Church. Plaza Murillo is the central plaza of the city of La Paz and the plaza most connected to the political life of Bolivia. Prominent buildings on the plaza include the Legislative Palace, Government Palace, and the Cathedral Basilica of Our Lady of Peace Metropolitan Cathedral, which is often referred to as the Metropolitan Cathedral.

The Metropolitan Cathedral was the first cathedral of La Paz and was completed in 1692 after 70 years of construction. The first building was made of stone, lime and brick. In 1831, it was demolished due to several cracks that threatened its collapse. The construction of the current cathedral began on March 24, 1835. It was inaugurated in 1925, marking the first centenary of the founding of the Republic of Bolivia. Although it opened that year, its interior ornamentation still continued until 1932.

As I continued walking along picturesque streets toward the National Archaeological Museum, I passed the Self-Government Department building, the Ministry of Cultural Tourism, and the San Juan de Dios Church before arriving at Plaza Camacho where the Mercado Camacho is located. Since it was already lunchtime and the museum was closed until later in the afternoon, I ate lunch at the food court in the Mercado. After lunch, as I was leaving the Mercado, light rain began followed by a very large hailstorm. I waited under a bus stop overhang with many local people until the rain subsided and I could continue walking to the archaeological museum. The walk to the museum was only a few blocks and it had already opened by the time I arrived.

The National Museum of Archaeology of Bolivia is operated by the National Institute of Archaeology, a specialized agency of the Deputy Minister of Culture. Although it is said to be the most prominent museum in Bolivia, the Museum of Precious Metals was more impressive. A member of the museum staff treated me to a virtual reality experience that the museum had recently completed. Although no photos were permitted, the staff member gave me a book and several leaflets describing many of the exhibits in the museum.

The hotel staff member and I had planned the route from Calle Apolinar Jaen to the archaeology museum so that it would be mostly walking downhill. Since the route from here back to my hotel would be a long uphill hike and the rain could begin any minute. I returned to my hotel by taxi.

Since Friday, 14 February, would be my last day in La Paz, I decided to walk from the hotel to the Coca Museum, then to the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco, and finish by visiting the Witches’ Market. My first stop was the Coca Museum which had a small area of cannabis exhibits. Their primary business is selling cannabis type candy, beverages and snacks at an upper level. I was disappointed and would not recommend this museum to tourists.

After leaving the Coca Museum, I walked to the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco. It is a large plaza in front of the San Francisco Cathedral, Iglesia de San Francisco, and is a frequent location for public gatherings and political protests. San Francisco Church (Iglesia de San Francisco), also known as the San Francisco Basilica (Basílica de San Francisco) is one of La Paz’s most important and historical landmarks. Construction of the original San Francisco Church began on this site in 1548, one year before the founding of La Paz. The church collapsed under the weight of snow in 1610 and was reconstructed in 1784. The church’s outer walls, built in the baroque-mestizo style, feature carvings of indigenous symbols, such as snakes, dragons, tropical birds, and masked figures. A contemporary statue of rock columns in the upper section of San Francisco Plaza is intended to honor the Tiwanaku, Inca, and modern cultures of Bolivia.

A celebration was in process when I arrived at the Plaza Mayor de San Francisco. A stage had been set up in front of steps on the uphill portion of the plaza with entertainment in progress. I walked up the steps on the side of the plaza adjacent to the Iglesia de San Francisco to photograph the church. I then crossed over in front of the church for additional photos before purchasing a ticket to enter the Iglesia de San Francisco Museum. Upon entering the museum, I was greeted by an English speaking tour guide who escorted me throughout accessible areas of the church. Photos were generally prohibited in the church but I obtained permission from my guide for the limited photos that I took. This museum is excellent, and I encourage everyone visiting La Paz to tour it.

The last place that I wanted to visit is the famous Witches’ Market of La Paz where vendors line the streets to sell a number of strange and fascinating products and raw ingredients used in rituals to call on the spirits that populate the Aymara world. Among the many items sold at the market are dried llama fetuses that are said to bring both prosperity and good luck, dried frogs used for Aymara rituals, soapstone figurines, aphrodisiac formulas, owl feathers, dried turtles and snakes, herbs, and folk remedies. Witch doctors in dark hats and dresses wander through the market offering fortune-telling services.

The dried llama fetuses are the most prominent produce available at the market. These animals are fairly large and are used throughout the country, buried in the foundations of new buildings as an offering to the goddess Pachamama. It is believed that the buried llama fetuses keep construction workers safe, but these are only used by poor Bolivians. Wealthy Bolivians usually sacrifice a living llama to Pachamama. I purchased a small soapstone monolithic sculpture of Viracocha at the Witches’ Market as a souvenir from Bolivia.

Since this was my last night in La Paz, I returned to Restaurant 1700 for another wonderful dinner. My flight the following morning was scheduled to depart La Paz at 5:40 AM. After I returned to the hotel, I paid my hotel bill and requested a wake-up call for 2:30 AM and scheduled a taxi to take me to the airport. The hotel opened the restaurant so that I could eat a continental breakfast before departing to the airport.

The taxi was right on time, and there was very little traffic on the way to the airport at that early hour. I had connecting flights on Boliviana de Aviacion from La Paz to Santa Cruz and then to Buenos Aires, Argentina. My flight to Santa Cruz was delayed. While waiting, my name was announced, and I was put on another flight to Santa Cruz in order to ensure my connection to Argentina. I made my connection at Santa Cruz and arrived in Buenos Aires mid-afternoon. I overnighted at Buenos Aires and flew back to Los Angeles on Tuesday, 18 February. As I flew back to Los Angeles, I reminisced about how wonderful my trip to Bolivia had been.

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  January 2020
Panama Canal Voyage

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked a 17 day Panama Canal Voyage from San Diego, California, aboard the Holland America cruise ship Rotterdam. We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego on 6 January prior to boarding the ship at the Port of San Diego on 7 January.

After we boarded the Rotterdam, we settled into our cabin and explored the ship. We had two sea days before we arrived at Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, on 10 January. We took the Holland America “Marina Vallarta, Old Town, Cathedral and Tequila Distillery” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Hacienda Dona Engracia tequila factory where we toured a typical tequila distillery and were shown how tequila is made from the blue agave cactus plant. The guide described the process used to distill tequila, the difference between 100% tequila and 51% tequila, and the various grades of tequila. After touring the small distillery area, we were taken to a room to taste the four different grades of tequila as well as three flavored tequilas and their special hot sauce. Of course, all seven tequilas and the hot sauce were available for purchase. After the tour, we had an opportunity to purchase tacos for lunch before departing for the next stop on the tour.

We drove through the Marina Vallarta section of Puerto Vallarta en route to the Malecon. The Malecon is a waterfront promenade area of the Old Town section of Puerto Vallarta. The Malecon is charming and offers not only tourist shopping but also many wonderful photo opportunities of sculptures, the beach area, and beautiful architecture. We continued from the Malecon into the Old Town to visit the Cathedral of our Lady of Guadalupe. After walking through a portion of the Old Town, we stopped for a short visit for tourist shopping before returning to the ship.

We had another day at sea before arriving at Huatulco, Mexico, on 12 January. Here we took the Holland America “Copalita Archaeological Exploration” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Huatulco Viewpoint for a photo opportunity. We continued on to visit the Eco-Archaeological Park Copalita which covers more than 200 acres of diverse ecosystems. One area contains the archaeological remains of Copalito, referred to as the Archaeological Zone. This site is believed to be a mixture between a Mayan and an Olmec city more than 2,500 years old. Some archaeologists believe that this pre-Hispanic city was one of the largest on the Oaxacan coast.

Upon arrival at Copalito, we walked through portions of the Archaeological Zone where we saw the Serpent Temple, a ball court, and the Main Pyramid Temple. We continued walking to a large wetland pond where we saw many iguanas in the trees above the pond. The green iguanas were female and the orange iguanas were male. The tour also included a hike up to the Cliff Viewpoint where the Vigil of Copalito is situated and offers a 180-degree view of the coastline and Copalito River delta. We also visited the Zone Museum with many archaeological exhibits prior to returning to Huatulco. After strolling through the village of Huatulco, we walked along the pier to board the ship.

After sailing overnight, we arrived at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, at 9:00 AM on Monday morning, 13 January. Here, we took the Holland America “Tikal, Mayan City of Voices” excursion which was our over-the-top excursion for this voyage. It consisted of a transfer to a nearby airport for a 90-minute flight by chartered aircraft to the airport at Flores in the northern region of Peten. After disembarking from the airplane, we were assigned a local tour guide for our visit to Tikal and boarded a small bus for a one-hour drive to Parque National Tikal. This site was previously known as the Ancient Mayan City of Mutul and is known today as Tikal in the New Mayan Era. According to the literature, Tikal National Park, along with other protected areas forms the largest natural reserve of Mesoamerica known as the Maya Biosphere, measures approximately 21,000 square kilometers. The Tikal forest is approximately 11,000 years old. Our guide informed us that Tikal was established as a National Park in 1955 and was the first site in the world to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. Tikal is believed to have been founded around 600 BC and abandoned around the year 900 AD – a period of 1,500 years of continuous occupation.

We were given a wrist band as we passed through the entrance gate to Tikal. This is a rainforest and we encountered periodic rain showers during our visit. With the help of our guide, we were able to drive to a location near Temple 4, the Two-headed Snake Temple. This is the tallest temple at Tikal, standing an impressive 70 meters high and providing a spectacular view of Tikal from the top. This temple, as with all of the main temples at Tikal, has a stepped pyramidal base with a crested enclosure at the top. It was built by the twenty-seventh Ruler of Tikal, Yik’in, around the year 750 AD. Access to the top of this temple is provided by a wooden stairway from which the panoramic view of the tops of Temple 1, Temple 2, Temple 3, and Temple 5 can be seen towering above the forest.

We climbed the stairway to the top. Although entrance to the enclosure is not permitted, we were able to enjoy the panoramic view during intermittent misty rain showers. After descending from Temple 4, we hiked along a pathway past a low enclosure containing a stela and the circular Altar 5 stone carving. As we continued along the pathway, we passed the Palace of the Windows which is also referred to as the Palace of the Bats. A short distance farther along the path afforded a view of the top of the back of Temple 3. Continuing along the pathway, we approached Temple 2 from behind as we entered the Great Plaza. The Great Plaza is bounded by Temple 2 or the Mascarones Temple, the North Acropolis, Temple 1 or Temple of the Great Jaguar, and the Central Acropolis.

Temple 2 measures 57 meters in height and affords a panoramic view of the Great Plaza, the North Acropolis, Temple 1, and the Central Acropolis. Access to the top of Temple 2 is provided by a wooden stairway from behind the temple. Access to the enclosure is not permitted; however, some of the best photos of the Great Plaza area of Tikal Temple 1 can be taken from here. A brief interval of sunshine provided an opportunity for a couple of nice photos of Temple 1 which stands 47 meters high. After descending from Temple 2, I hiked to the North Acropolis to view a very large stone carved figure under a protective shelter and another protected stone carving.

We continued our tour by hiking through the Central Acropolis and passed the Maler Palace to another viewpoint of the Great Plaza area. We then continued through the Central Acropolis where we could view the top of Temple 5 which is the second highest temple at a height of 57 meters. After passing through several more structures in the Central Acropolis, we hiked to meet our bus for the drive to a restaurant where we ate lunch before returning to the airport. The restaurant featured a large model of Tikal and had a wooden musical instrument similar to a marimba.

We returned to the airport where we cleared immigration and airport security prior to boarding our flight from Flores back to the airport at Puerto Quetzal and another bus ride to the ship.

Once again we sailed overnight and arrived at Corinto, Nicaragua, on Tuesday morning, 14 January. We did not have an excursion booked at this port and, on the advice of Galih, our dining room waiter, we walked out of the port and hired a local person for a bicycle rickshaw-like tour of this small village. The village was very clean and colorful. We were able to see many sights including the main town square and the old train station, which now houses a one room museum and a tiny library. Other sights included a small boat harbor with a restaurant, Hollywood Street, the village baseball park, a soccer stadium, the central market, and various monuments.

After sailing overnight, we arrived at Puerto Caldera, Costa Rica, on 15 January. We booked the Holland America excursion, “A Walk in the Clouds.” It consisted of a two hour bus ride across the continental divide of Costa Rica to the Canopy San Luis. This is a site situated at approximately 4,000 feet elevation on the Caribbean side of Costa Rica. Here, we visited a tiny butterfly farm and hiked through the rainforest, both across suspension bridges and along paths through the forest. As we exited the forest, we visited a site that attracts hummingbirds. We were served a traditional Costa Rican buffet lunch prior to re-boarding our bus. En route to the ship, we stopped at an overpriced souvenir shop that had several interesting murals painted on the exterior walls.

Thursday, 16 January, was a sea day prior to arriving at the Pacific Ocean entrance to the Panama Canal early Friday morning. The Captain anchored the ship outside the entrance of the canal at 10:00 PM to join the queue of ships waiting to enter the canal. Since Holland America had a prearranged reservation for the Rotterdam, we were able to begin our entrance to the canal early in the morning of 17 January. We were able to see the skyline of Panama City off the starboard side of the ship as we entered the channel to the canal prior to passing under the Bridge of the Americas. This bridge is 5,425 feet long, and was completed in 1962, and cost the United States 20 million US dollars. It was a key part of the Pan American highway. It is interesting that the Panama Canal runs from the Southeast on the Pacific side to the Northwest on the Caribbean side, not from west to east.

We continued along the entrance past the new Cocoli Locks off of the port side of the ship. These new locks on the Pacific side were part of the Panama Canal expansion to add a third lane of canal transit and allow larger ships to transit the canal. They include three water-saving basins that reduce the water volume used during lock operation. The Rotterdam would use one side of the original Miraflores Locks, which are 110 feet wide, to begin our canal transit to the Caribbean Sea. Since the Rotterdam is 106 feet wide there isn’t much clearance on either side. Vessels ascend or descend 54 feet (16.5 meters) back to the Caribbean side. Due to the extreme variation of the Pacific tides, the lower chamber gates are the highest of any of the Panama Canal locks. Each lock chamber here, except the lower locks, has intermediate gates to conserve water by reducing the size of the chamber.

We transited the Miraflores Locks in the eastern-most lock chambers after arriving at the locks at approximately 8:22 AM. After transiting both chambers of the Miraflores Locks we entered Miraflores Lake at approximately 9:55 AM. This is a small freshwater body of water between the two sets of Pacific locks, Miraflores and Pedro Miguel. A tectonic fault beneath this fresh water lake led to these chambers being spread apart, unlike the chambers of the Gatun Locks which have remained in the same place.

As we continued sailing across the lake, we passed the enormous crane called “Titan.” This was described as being one of the four huge cranes obtained by Allied Forces from Germany after World War 2. This was the crane that the United States obtained and eventually ended up here at the Panama Canal.

We arrived at the Pedro Miguel locks at approximately 10:04 AM. The Pedro Miguel set of locks raises northbound ships 30.5 feet (9.3 meters) from Miraflores Lake to Gatun Lake. We exited the Pedro Miguel Locks into Gatun Lake at approximately 10:55 AM. and sailed under the Centennial Bridge. This bridge opened in 2004 with a goal to lessen traffic on the Bridge of the America that is located 9 miles (15 kilometers) south. It also replaced the Bridge of the Americas as carrier of the Pan American highway traffic.

Gatun Dam was constructed in 1908 to dam the Chagres River, provide all of the electricity for operation of the canal, and allow for the formation of Gatun Lake. Gatun Lake, encompassing 166 square miles (430 sq. km.), was formed in 1912, and the surface sits at an elevation of between 82 and 87 feet (23 and 27 meters) above sea level.

We sailed across Gatun Lake through the famous Culebra Cut and arrived near the Gatun Locks at approximately 2:00 PM. The Gatun Locks separate Gatun Lake from the Caribbean Sea and provide two transit channels for ships. Three sets of double-lock chambers raise to allow ships to ascend to Gatun Lake or descend back to the Caribbean side of the canal. As we got closer to the Gatun Locks, we could see several very large vessels off of our starboard side entering and utilizing the Auga Clara Locks that opened in 2016 as part of the Panama Canal expansion.

After waiting for a container ship to descend from the first chamber of the locks, we entered the west-most channel of the Gatun Locks at approximately 2:28 PM. Since another ship was coming up the east-most channel, these locks provided some wonderful photo opportunities of ships passing in opposite directions. After transiting all three chambers of the Gatun Locks at approximately 3:40 PM, we arrived in the Caribbean Sea and passed under the Atlantic Bridge which was designed for the passage of huge container ships. This road bridge in Colon, Panama, spans the entrance of the canal and was completed in 2019.

Once in the Caribbean Sea we encountered strong headwinds that produced very large sea swells. Reaching Aruba on schedule after one day at sea would require an average speed of about 19 knots. Due to the large sea swells, our speed during the night and next morning was between 9 and 11 knots. The Captain finally made an announcement that, in the interest of the safety of the passengers and crew, we would skip Aruba as a port of call and Sunday, 19 January, would become an additional day at sea.

We arrived at Willemstad, Curaçao, at 8:00 AM on Monday, 20 January. Since our Holland America “Discover Curaçao” shore excursion didn’t begin until 12:30 PM, we disembarked during the morning and walked around areas of Willemstad, the very colorful capital city of Curaçao. It has two districts, Otrobanda and Punda which are separated by the Sint Anna Bay. This bay is a natural deep harbor with much commercial shipping traffic. The Queen Emma Bridge is the oldest and longest floating bridge in the world and spans the entrance to Sint Anna Bay. It is a pedestrian bridge only, has operated since 1888, rests on 15 pontoons, and swings open 30 times a day to let oil tankers, container ships, and cruise ships in and out of the harbor. A second bridge, the Queen Juliana Bridge, is a very high bridge for highway traffic and also spans the entrance to Sint Anna Bay.

After disembarking from the ship in the picturesque Punda district, we walked to the Queen Emma Bridge to cross over to the Otrobanda district. The Otrobanda district is also very colorful and picturesque. While exploring the Otrobanda district, we photographed a bright yellow building that we later found out to be the Synagogue Mikve Israel Emanuel. It was built in 1632 and is the oldest operating synagogue in the Western Hemisphere.

After exploring the Otrobanda district, we also crossed back over the bridge to explore more of the Punta district. We visited the Rif Fort, originally built to protect the entrance to the port and which now contains a shopping mall, before returning to the ship where we ate a quick lunch prior to meeting up with our shore excursion.

Our excursion took us to the Curaçao Museum which was a former Dutch military hospital. We drove past the new hospital and through many sections of the city. We also drove across the Queen Juliana Bridge in both directions – one of the highest bridges in the Caribbean. Our next stop was at Chobolobo, the Dutch colonial mansion where the famous Curaçao liqueur is distilled. After a short tour of the distillery and a tasting of three of their liqueurs, we continued on to visit the side of the island en route to the Hato Caves.

Upon arrival at the Hato Caves, we were met by a guide for a walking tour of the cave. We climbed in excess of fifty rock steps to reach the entrance of the cave. The tour of the cave consisted of walking along a concrete pathway with some steps to visit two chambers of the cave. Small fruit bats could be seen in some areas within the cave. The written tourist description about this underground grotto over-promises and under-delivers; we never saw any underground waterfalls as described in the literature. After visiting the cave, we continued driving through additional sections of the city. We briefly stopped beside a lake for a photo opportunity of wild flamingos before returning to the ship.

We had two more days at sea en route to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. We arrived at Fort Lauderdale on Thursday, 23 January, and disembarked from the ship. After a couple of days in Fort Lauderdale, we flew home to Los Angeles on Saturday, 25 January.

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  October/November 2019
Atlantic Crossing Westbound

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I flew to Rome, Italy to spend several days in Naples and Civitavecchia, Italy, before boarding the 14-Day Holland America Passage to America Voyage. This voyage would travel westbound from Rome, Italy, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stopping at three ports of call in Spain and one port of call in the Azores, Portugal.

We checked out of our hotel in Civitavecchia, Italy, on Sunday morning, 27 October, and took a taxi to the cruise port to board the Holland America cruise ship, NEIUW STATTENDAM, for our voyage to Ft Lauderdale. This ship is the newest ship owned by Holland America and, for the most part, was a very nice ship. We were disappointed that the ship’s guest Internet for which Holland America charges fees to access, was not fully functional during the days that the ship was sailing at sea. As a result, we could not access our email accounts during the seven days that we were at sea from the Azores to Ft Lauderdale – this is unacceptable for a brand new ship.

Our first port of call was at Cartagena, Spain, on 29 October. Since we had been here on a previous voyage, we decided to hike from the ship to the Castillo de la Atalaya which is situated on top of a high hill overlooking Cartagena and the surrounding area. The person at the tourist information office at the port gave us a tourist map of the city but had no idea how to hike to the fortress. We resorted to Google maps, which directed us to an area near the fortress, and then asked local people for directions before finally finding a trail up to the fortress. The fortress was abandoned but the interior could be accessed by some rock climbing. The views from the fortress were stunning and the hike was well worth the effort. By the time we returned to the ship from the fortress, my pedometer registered more than 19,000 steps.

The following day we arrived at Malaga, Spain, where I took a Holland America excursion to hike the Caminito del Rey trail that crosses the beautiful Gaitanes Ravine and which was once called one of the world’s scariest hiking routes. This hike was about five miles long and, for much of that distance, continued along a pathway hanging on the rock faces of cliffs high above the ravine. The original trail was closed by the government while a new suspended pathway was constructed above the old one. The scenery from the trail was stunning.

On 31 October, we arrived at Cadiz, Spain. Since we had previously visited Cadiz, we took a Holland America small group excursion to Seville, Spain. We boarded a small bus at the port and were driven to Seville accompanied by an English speaking guide who provided entertaining information along the way. After arriving at Seville, we drove past the pavilions of several different countries that were erected for the 1929 Ibero-American Exhibition and visited the Plaza de Espana where the 1929 Exhibition was held. Painted ceramic benches with murals representing all of the provinces in Spain are arranged around the square. We stopped at several of these beautiful ceramic benches and murals where our guide gave detailed descriptions of the specific province represented. The plaza is semicircular and dominated by two towers – one on each side of the enclosed area – that frame the central building where the main rooms are situated. We returned to our bus and were transported to the Jardines de Murillo (Murillo Gardens).

We exited the bus and walked through portions of the gardens and then through an entrance in the old city wall to the old Jewish Quarter. We admired the architecture as we walked through the old Jewish Quarter to visit the Real Alcazar, the palace built for King Filipe. It is the palace where Christopher Columbus met with Queen Isabella to secure funding for his first voyage to the New World. It is also the residence of the current King of Spain when he is in Seville. The architecture of the Alcazar is magnificent.

After touring the Alcazar, we walked to the impressive Cadiz Cathedral. The cathedral stands on the site of what was the Great Mosque during the 12th century. Today the only part of the old mosque that remains is the minaret, also known as the Giralda. The Abluciones courtyard and the Puerta del Perdon door are also parts of the old mosque. The mosque was converted into a Christian church in 1248 when the city was conquered by Ferdinand III of Castile. During our visit inside the cathedral, we saw the tomb that contains the remains of Christopher Columbus.

We continued walking from the church through the old Jewish Quarter and back to the Jardines de Murillo to meet up with our bus to go to a restaurant where we were served a very nice lunch. After lunch, we boarded our tour bus for the journey back to Cadiz. Seville was a very interesting, picturesque city that we would like to visit during a future trip to Spain.

After two days at sea, we arrived at Ponta Delgada on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores, Portugal, on 3 November. We disembarked from the ship and walked into town where we rented a car for the day to explore the main tourist sites of the island. Our first stop was at a viewpoint overlooking Lagoa do Fogo, a lake in the caldera of an extinct volcano near the center of the island. After taking some photos of the lake, we drove to Furnas where we visited Lagoa das Furnas, another lake in a caldera nearer to the eastern end of the island. From here we visited the Terra Nostra Garden in the town of Furnas. This botanical garden encompasses a large area and includes several hot spring pools where people were swimming, a stream with several cold water ponds, a topiary garden with many topiary animals, a flower garden, and hiking trails. We drove from Terra Nostra Garden up the side of the volcano to the Miradouro Pico do Ferro, a viewpoint overlooking Lagoa das Furnas and the surrounding countryside.

Our last destination was at the north end of the island, which was called Lagoas das Siete Cidades, another crater lake that is famous for two lakes, Lagoa Verde, a green lake, and Lagoa Azul, a blue lake. It was a long drive from Furnas to Sete Cidades, and we found signs for a secondary road which we took to Sete Cidades. The secondary road was a narrow road up the volcano to the Miradouro do Cerrado das Freiras overlooking Lagoa Verde and Lagoa Azul. From here we drove down into the caldera to the shores of both lakes.

We had a feeling of mission accomplished as we drove back to Ponta Delgada. Upon arriving at Ponta Delgada, we visited the Ponta Delgada Sao Bras Fort, which is now a military museum with a one (1) Euro admission charge. The fort was an interesting place to visit before returning the rental car and walking back to the ship.

We had six more days at sea before arriving at Ft Lauderdale on the morning of 10 November.

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  October 2019
Naples & Civitavecchia

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I flew to Rome, Italy, to spend several days in Naples and Civitavecchia, Italy, before boarding the 14-Day Passage to America Voyage. This voyage would travel from Rome, Italy, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, stopping at three ports of call in Spain and one port of call in the Azores, Portugal.

We traveled by train from Rome Fiumicino Airport to Naples on 22 October 2019 and checked into the Renaissance Naples Hotel. The following morning, as we ate breakfast at the hotel, we were greeted by a panoramic view overlooking the Naples harbor with the sun rising behind Mount Vesuvius. We were able to enjoy the sunrise over Mount Vesuvius every morning that we were in Naples.

On the morning of 23 October, we were picked up at our hotel for a small group day trip to the island of Capri. This tour was split into two groups: one Italian speaking and the other English speaking. Since there were only four of us who spoke English, we essentially had our own private tour for our visit to Capri. After sailing to Capri from the Port of Naples, we disembarked at the Marina Grande, the main port of Capri, and traveled with our guide to board another smaller boat to go visit the famous Blue Grotto of Capri.

The entrance to the Blue Grotto is through a small cave that requires visitors to transfer to and lie down in small rowboats in order to clear the rocky, low cave entrance to the grotto. A rowboat operator uses a chain to quickly pull the boat through the mouth of the cave. Once inside, the grotto is very large and the vibrant blue color is spectacular. We were told that Tiberius Caesar loved to go swimming in this grotto. After spending some time in the grotto and trying to take a good photo with the boat bobbing in the waves while rowers sang “Volare,” we once again laid down so the rowboat operator could use the chain to quickly pull the boat out of the small cave entrance.

After transferring from the rowboat back to the other boat, we were taken back to Marina Grande. Our guide escorted us onto a bus that drove us to Anacapri, a town higher up in the mountains. We took a chairlift called the Seggiovia Monte Solaro from Anacapri up to the 589 meter summit of Mount Solaro, the highest point on Capri Island. The views from both the chairlift and from Mount Solaro were stunning. They included the Italian coastline and Mount Vesuvius as well as sweeping views of Capri Island.

We returned to Anacapri via the chairlift and walked to a restaurant where we had a very nice lunch. After lunch, we walked along the picturesque pedestrian street that goes beside the Villa San Michele Museum to the top of the Scala Fenecia (Phoenecian Steps). We were able to view the sculpture of the Egyptian Sphinx that is situated high above one corner of the museum overlooking the ocean in the direction of Mount Vesuvius.

After some free time to explore some of the tourist shopping stores, we continued along additional picturesque streets en route to the Piazza Armando Diaz and the Church of San Michele (Saint Michael Church). We paid the entrance fee to visit Saint Michael Church and see the magnificent mosaic floor depicting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. We continued walking different streets back to the Anacapri main bus stop.

After boarding another tour bus, we continued down the winding mountain road from Anacapri to Capri town where we transferred to another bus to go to Piazza Umberto I. The Piazza Umberto I Clock and the San Stefano Church are located here. We continued walking past the famous Hotel La Palma to the other side of Capri where we visited the Garden of Augustus. We were treated to spectacular views of the Marina Picolla, the distinctive Faraglioni islands near Marina Picolla, and the Via Krupp pathway that curves down the mountain from the Garden of Augustus to Marina Picolla. The monastery, Charterhouse of St. James, was clearly visible from the Garden of Augustus. This essentially completed our sightseeing tour of Capri, and we returned to Marina Grande, where we boarded a ship that returned us to the Port of Naples.

We had visited Mount Vesuvius when we were in Naples in April 2019. Since the weather in April was so inclement that the views were totally obscured, we decided to return to Vesuvius. We booked a day trip at the hotel that was to include a trip to Vesuvius and a wine tasting. The tour company picked us up at our hotel on Thursday, 24 October, for our trip to Vesuvius. After leaving our hotel and picking up additional people, the guide introduced a person already on the bus who would be our guide for our visit to Pompeii. After arriving at Pompeii, which we had previously visited, I informed our guide that we had booked a trip to Mount Vesuvius and a wine tasting. When she said that the hotel must have made a mistake, I produced my receipt for the tour from the hotel. She made several phone calls and then asked if we would accept a free tour of Pompeii before going to Mount Vesuvius – we accepted her offer.

Although the guided tour of Pompeii was less than three hours in duration, our guide was very informative. Our first stop was at the Quadriporch where gladiators both lived and trained. We continued on to visit the Theatro Picccolo, a small amphitheater. Our next stop was at the House of Menender, which is one of the best excavated Roman villas at Pompeii. We walked along ancient streets where we observed holes in the rocks in front of buildings where people would tie up horses as well as lead water pipes and some street water fountains. We also visited a lupanare, one of many ancient brothels in Pompeii. The lupanare had a carved phallic symbol above the entrance and murals of the menu of services offered on the walls. There were carved phallic symbols on the walls at some street corners and in the street pavers to help direct prospective patrons to the lupanares. After a stop at the Forum and the Mensa Ponderia, we returned to the tour bus.

We were then transported to a restaurant for lunch where we met a family from France who had also booked a wine tasting. Lunch was very good. Afterward, we, along with the family from France and several other guests, were taken to Mount Vesuvius. The weather at Vesuvius was very good, with spectacular views of both the crater and the surrounding landscape. Despite our unexpected detour to Pompeii, all was well.

On 25 October, we took the train from Naples to Civitavecchia, Italy, the cruise ship port for Rome. We stayed at the hotel Porto di Roma in the old town area of the city. This location was within walking distance of the harbor, the fort, and downtown Civitavecchia. After exploring the neighborhood adjacent to the hotel, we ate at one of the upscale restaurants recommended by the hotel.

After breakfast the following morning, we obtained a tourist map and walked through the central farmers market which was very large and picturesque. We continued from the market to visit the fort that, according to Google was supposed to be open to visitors on the weekend, but which was closed to the public. The guards near the fort entrance had no information regarding visits by the general public. We continued walking southbound along the beach to a pier where some people were fishing. We then walked past an amusement park and some restaurants facing the ocean.

As we returned to the downtown area near the fort, we visited the small Museo Archeologico which offered free admission. The exhibits were small but interesting and well worth the visit. We continued to explore the city and walked past the cathedral and another church in the old area of the city. Later, we searched Google for a seafood restaurant and found the ocean-facing Restaurant di Delphino that had more than 600 reviews and an average score of 4.5 out of 5. We made a dinner reservation using Google and enjoyed one of the best Italian seafood meals that we have ever eaten.

We checked out of the hotel on Sunday morning, 27 October, and took a taxi to the cruise port to board the Holland America cruise ship, NEIUW STATTENDAM, for our Atlantic Crossing westbound voyage to Ft Lauderdale, Florida.

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  October 2019
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Thailand for about a week in October 2019 to revisit Chiang Mai for several short day trips. I flew from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Saturday, 5 October, and took a taxi to the Holiday Inn Chiang Mai hotel. After checking into my hotel, I went for a walk to explore the nearby neighborhood.

On Sunday, 6 October, I took the hotel complimentary shuttle to downtown Chiang Mai and walked through the old city wall and around part of the downtown area. During my walk, I stopped at a travel office to book a day trip to Doi Inthanon National Park which is also referred to as “The Roof of Siam.” I visited Wat Muen Lan and Wat Phan On where I was able to take several very nice photographs. As I continued walking, I passed many small shops and stopped at one to enjoy a cappuccino before arriving at the plaza in front of the City Art and Culture Museum before returning to the hotel.

The following day, I requested a taxi to take me from the hotel to the Chiang Mai National Museum. The driver dropped me off at the City Art and Culture Museum instead of the National Museum. Admission was free here but the exhibits were very sparse and, after the museum staff explained to me that I was at the wrong museum, they called a taxi that took me to the National Museum.

After arriving at the Chiang Mai National Museum, I took photos of ancient kilns in front of the museum and spent several hours viewing the exhibits and reading the many English descriptions accompanying the exhibits. Of particular interest was the Phra Saenswae, the giant head of a Buddha image, which was originally found at Wat Yangkuang near the Chiang Mai Gate. In 1953, the Buddha image’s head was moved to an exhibit at the Bangkok National Museum. When the Chiang Mai National Museum was constructed in 1973, the Buddha image’s head was brought back to Chiang Mai to be housed and displayed in this museum.

A Buddha’s Footprint, made of teak wood and decorated with mother of pearl and glass, is another one of the very special artifacts on display. The remainder of the museum houses an extensive collection of beautiful exhibits. This museum should not be missed when visiting Chiang Mai.

On Tuesday, 8 October, I was picked up at the hotel to begin my day trip to the Doi Inthanon National Park. The park was a long distance from Chiang Mai and the bus ride was bumpy and somewhat cramped. After we arrived at the park and our tour guide paid the entrance fees, we continued a long uphill drive toward the summit of Doi Thanon, the highest point in Thailand. Our first stop along the way was to view the Sitirhan Waterfall. After a short hike, we came to a viewpoint where we had a nice view of the waterfall. With an abundant amount of water flowing, the view provided for some nice photos.

Our next stop was at the Baan Pa Mou Hilltribe Village to view the way of life of the inhabitants. They were producing both rice and coffee. We continued ascending the mountain to visit the Wachirathan Waterfall. We stopped at a visitor area where we could hike to various vantage points to view the waterfall. It was a very large waterfall with a lot of mist that made taking photos a little difficult. Fortunately, I hiked up to a higher elevation and was able to take some nice photos of the waterfall with a rainbow in the mist. While we were here, we were served lunch at a restaurant beside the river flowing from the waterfall.

Our next stop was near the summit, where we exited the bus to hike the Yod Doi Nature Trail. After a short uphill hike, I arrived at a sign denoting that I had indeed arrived at the highest point in Thailand. A small pedestal marked the spot of the highest point and a small temple-like shrine was situated nearby. Continuing on the trail downhill, past the summit, I returned to the road and then hiked the Angkha Nature Trail that looped through rainforest and ultimately returned to the road. We then reboarded the bus to continue our day trip.

Our final stop was to visit the spectacular Royal Stupas, the Phra Mahathat Naphamethanidon Stupa, and the Phra Mahathat Naphapholphumisiri Stupa, built by the Thai Royal Air Force in commemoration of Their Majesties the King and Queen’s Sixtieth Birthday Anniversaries in 1987 and 1992 respectively. These stupas were magnificent and provided beautiful gardens, sweeping panoramic views over the countryside, and superb carved murals. This stop was the highlight of this day trip for me. It would be another long, cramped bus ride back to Chiang Mai, but the day trip was wonderful.

I took a few more daytime hikes around Chiang Mai before taking my final day trip to visit the Royal Flora Ratchaphruek Gardens. The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek was an international horticultural exposition in Chiang Mai that drew 3,781,624 visitors between 1 November 2006 to 31 January 2007. It is a wonderful garden area with gorgeous landscaping and many pavilions from different countries. The Royal Flora Ratchaphruek is the national flower of Thailand, and these expansive gardens are truly a must-see when visiting the Chiang Mai area. I took a shuttle bus ride around the gardens when I first arrived and then walked through the gardens to take spectacular photos.

I was scheduled to check out of the hotel and fly to Bangkok on Saturday afternoon, 12 October. After breakfast that morning, however, I received an SMS text message from United Airlines that my flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles on 13 October had been canceled due to the enormous cyclone that was approaching Japan. This was extremely bad news because I was booked on Al Nippon (ANA) from Bangkok to Tokyo and ANA had still showed my flight to Tokyo as being on schedule. I called ANA and was told by the agent that, since my flight was a code-share flight booked through United, that only United could revise or rewrite my ticket. I spent an eternity trying to contact United Airlines by phone but none of the United phone numbers were accessible to me in Chiang Mai. As I frantically searched the United website, I finally stumbled upon a phone number for a United Airlines office in Bangkok that was open on Saturday morning until noon. It was now 11:40 AM, and I called the number on my Thai mobile phone. A wonderful person answered my call and was able to rewrite my ticket for flights from Bangkok to Los Angeles for Tuesday, 15 October. This would mean a 48 hour delay for my return flights home.

I flew to Bangkok and spent an extra two days before finally boarding my ANA flight to Tokyo and connect with my United Airlines flight back to Los Angeles. All’s well that ends well.

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  August 2019
Alaska

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked a 14-day Holland America Alaska Voyage from Seattle, Washington, onboard the Holland America cruise ship Amsterdam. We flew to Seattle on 22 August and visited with friends in Federal Way, Washington prior to boarding the ship at the Port of Seattle on 26 August. One of our objectives on this cruise was to book enough excursions to achieve 4 star Mariner status for subsequent Holland America cruises.

After we boarded the Amsterdam, we settled into our cabin and explored the ship. That evening we ran into two old friends, Bill and LaVonne, from our South America voyage. We would spend some time with them during this voyage. We had one sea day before we arrived at Ketchikan, Alaska, on 28 August. While at Ketchikan, we took the Eagles, Raptors & Rainforest Shore Excursion which included a nature hike through a rainforest, a visit to a raptor center with a raptor show in an enclosed theater, and a walk past a salmon hatchery to a location with an old sawmill and numerous totem poles. This excursion was very good with a guide who was both knowledgeable and entertaining.

The following day we enjoyed scenic cruising through Tracy Arm and viewed the wonderful mountains and glaciers. We continued on overnight and arrived at Juneau, Alaska, on the morning of 30 August. While at Juneau, we took the Mendenhall Glacier Guide’s Choice Hike Shore Excursion with a hike through another rainforest to the Mendenhall Glacier Visitors Center. After viewing the glacier, we walked along a stream with Sockeye Salmon returning from their time in the open ocean. Some of them were a vibrant pink color before depositing their eggs and ending their life cycle.

We continued overnight to arrive at Icy Strait Point, Alaska, on 31 August. Although there appeared to be little to explore at the port, we took the Whales, Wildlife & Bear Search Shore Excursion. This excursion consisted of a boat ride for whale watching where we saw harbor seals and several humpback whales. After returning to the port, we were met by a guide and transported by bus to a trail near a river. This was the starting point for our hike through the habitat of the area to a couple of viewing platforms to hopefully see local wildlife, including bears and other mammals. We were able to see several bald eagles from one of the platforms but no mammals of any kind – just the luck of the day. I would not take another shore excursion at this port of call.

After another day at sea, we arrived at Anchorage, Alaska, on 2 September. The weather was overcast with some scattered rain showers and fog. We disembarked and took the 26-Glacier Cruise & Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center Shore Excursion. This was an all day excursion that included a bus ride to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which we had visited a couple of times before. The tour continued along the Turnagain Arm where we were able to see some beluga whales – a first for us – and then through the shared cruise/rail tunnel to Whittier. We boarded a high speed catamaran to explore Prince Edward Sound. The ride on the catamaran, where lunch was served, was wonderful, but the views of the glaciers were impaired due to the weather. Despite the weather, we still had impressive views of both the Harriman Glacier and the Surprise Glacier. This would be a world class excursion in clear weather with spectacular views of the glaciers.

Again, after sailing overnight, we arrived at Homer. Homer is a quaint location where we would have liked to have spent more time. We disembarked, met up with our guide for the Glacier Lake Interpretive Hike Shore Excursion and were given a box lunch for the hike. We were transported across the bay to the beach at the Kachemak Bay State Park where we began a guided hike from the beach on the Grewingk Glacier Trail to the bank of Grewingk Lake. This was a picturesque hike with an extremely knowledgeable guide who explained the flora in great detail. After we arrived at the very picturesque Grewingk Lake, with icebergs and unobstructed views of Grewingk Glacier, we ate lunch on the shore. After lunch and many photos, we continued hiking on the Saddle Trail to another Kachemak Bay State Park beach. Although this excursion was classified as moderate, the steep descent down to the beach and across many large rocks could better be classified as extreme. Several people had considerable difficulty completing the hike down to the boat that was waiting to take us back to the Port of Homer. This was a very good excursion but should be classified as much more difficult.

Following another night at sea, we arrived at Kodiak Island, Alaska, on the morning of 4 September. Although we had booked a 7:30 AM small group excursion months in advance of this cruise, the person at the Cruise Excursions Desk booked us on the 10:30 AM Kodiak Sightseeing & Wildlife Cruise. The later excursion meant we would not have any time to explore Kodiak after the excursion. Unfortunately, by the time I realized that we had been ticketed on the later excursion, we were unable to get ticketed on the excursion that we had originally pre-booked. The Holland America person from the excursion desk said that he just ticketed people as he came upon the reservations without regard to the pre-booked excursion times. We felt that we had been cheated out of proper shore time at Kodiak. That said, the later excursion was very good with wonderful viewing of harbor seals, puffins, sea otters, and a pod of Orcas feeding in the distance. We would like to return to Kodiak sometime in the future.

We continued sailing overnight and arrived mid-day on 5 September at the Hubbard Glacier. This glacier and the surrounding mountain scenery are magnificent, and the weather was picture perfect. We lingered near the glacier for more than an hour and then continued overnight to Sitka.

We arrived at Sitka, Alaska, on the morning of 6 September. Sitka is one of the most picturesque locations in Alaska. The cruise port of Sitka is situated some distance from the town of Sitka and complimentary shuttle bus service was provided between the port and downtown Sitka. We disembarked, met our tour guide, and took the Tongas Rainforest Nature Hike excursion. After a short bus ride, we hiked a portion of the Mosquito Cove Trail before transitioning to the Estuary Life Trail. We continued on via the Forest and Muskeg Trail and ended up at the beachfront site of Old Sitka where we met our tour bus. The bus took us to downtown Sitka where we opted to explore the town on foot. We headed to the Sitka National Historical Park, the Sheldon Jackson Museum, and the St. Michael’s Cathedral which serves as the seat of the Russian Orthodox Diocese. As we walked to the Sitka National Historical Park, we passed both the picturesque St. Peter’s by the Sea Church and the Russian Bishop’s house.

After we arrived at the Sitka National Historical Park, we hiked through the forest and saw many wonderful totem poles before stopping at the Sitka National Historical Park Visitor Center where I purchased a book on Alaska Totem Poles. On the way back to town, we visited the Sheldon Jackson Museum. This small museum had many wonderful exhibits, but a large tour group entered while we were there and the museum became very crowded. After walking back to town, we stopped for a reindeer hot dog en route to see St. Michael’s Cathedral. With our Sitka visit complete, we took the shuttle bus back to the ship.

We enjoyed two more sea days before arriving at Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, on 9 September. Although the cruise did not end until returning to the Port of Seattle, we had arranged to disembark at Victoria. After clearing Canadian customs, we took a taxi to our hotel where we met up with our friends, Tom and Leslie, who had taken the ferry from Orcas Island, Washington, to Victoria. We always enjoy any opportunity to connect with Tom and Leslie. This time we took several hikes around Victoria and went to Butchart Gardens for a lunch reservation that I had made several months in advance. The gardens are always spectacular and the lunch in the dining room was exquisite. We will do lunch there again whenever we visit Victoria.

On 10 September, we traveled with Tom and Leslie on the ferry back to Orcas Island where we enjoyed several more days visiting with them. During our stay, we enjoyed Leslie’s world class cooking and attended a wonderful play at a small theater on Orcas. On Friday, 13 September, we took the ferry from Orcas Island to Anacortes, Washington, where we connected to the Bellair Airporter Shuttle Bus. John and Diane met us at the Seattle Airport for another four day visit with them at Federal Way.

During our stay at Federal Way, we took a couple of local sightseeing trips that included Flaming Geyser State Park, Soos Creek Botanical Garden, and the Tacoma History Museum. The Soos Creek Garden was just ok – most of the colorful flowers and vegetation were out of season – but hiking the trails were very nice. Flaming Geyser was a day trip and it also had some good trails to hike, although the flaming geyser was not flaming. We were very surprised at how wonderful the Tacoma History Museum actually was. The exhibits there were world class and the model railroad was beyond belief.

On Wednesday, 18 September, we flew back home to Los Angeles and reflected on what a great trip we had just experienced.

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  June 2019
Kathmandu Valley, Nepal

Travel Notes

 

On 25 April 2015, a magnitude 7.8 earthquake struck Nepal, toppling multi-story buildings in Kathmandu and creating landslides and avalanches in the Himalaya Mountains. According to the literature, nearly 9,000 people died and more than 22,000 suffered injuries. It was the deadliest earthquake in the seismically active region in 81 years.The earthquake was followed by hundreds of aftershocks, and only 17 days later, there was another major quake, a magnitude 7.3 temblor. Thirty-nine of the nation’s 75 districts with a population of 8 million people were affected. More than 600,000 homes were destroyed and more than 288,000 were damaged in the 14 worst-hit districts.

Since I had previously visited Nepal in 2011 and 2013, I wanted to return to Nepal to assess the recovery and reconstruction efforts of the damaged temples and structures following the devastating 2015 earthquake.

I contacted my good friend Chiranjibi Kafle who, along with his brother, Ishwar, operates Smile Travel. I requested that he arrange for specific hotel accommodations and a car with an English speaking driver for nine days. I also provided him with a list of places that I wanted to visit so that he could arrange the most efficient travel itinerary. He agreed and said that he would meet me when I arrived at the Kathmandu International Airport.

I arrived at Kathmandu, Nepal, on Saturday, 1 June 2019, at about 12:30 PM. After obtaining my Visa on Arrival and clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and located Chiran from Smile Travel who was waiting for me. He introduced me to Bissal who would be my driver for the next nine days in Nepal. We went to the Fuji Hotel where I stayed during my previous trips to Kathmandu. It survived the earthquake and had been remodeled. It is located in the Thamel district of Kathmandu with wonderful streets for walking to local restaurants and shops. After checking into the hotel and meeting with Chiran to firm up my itinerary for the next eight days, I took the remainder of the day to rest up from my travels.

Chiran met me Sunday morning, 2 June, to make sure that Bissal and I were all set for my first day of sightseeing. Bissal, who had spent time driving in Dubai prior to returning to Nepal, spoke very good English, and we had a wonderful time together for the next eight days. There were many areas within Kathmandu city with buildings still collapsed or with major structural damage from the earthquake.

Our first stop was at Swayambhunath, an ancient complex on top of a hill in the Kathmandu Valley. A large stupa dominates the complex along with a number of shrines and temples. I was relieved that the reconstruction of the complex was either very good or the complex did not suffer extreme damage from the earthquake. I spend a lot of time walking around the complex and taking some very nice photographs.

We continued on to visit Kathmandu Durbar Square, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I was astonished at the damage still remaining from the earthquake. In fact, the damage had been so extensive that I did not recognize it as I entered the square. After paying the fee to tour the area, I took photos of some of the temples which were destroyed and under reconstruction. I walked away convinced that the reconstruction effort there would never be able to match the detail of the original carved portions of the temples that existed before the earthquake.

On Monday morning, Bissal and I went to Patan Durbar Square, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. As I walked around the complex, I was intrigued by the reconstruction efforts underway. The reconstruction efforts were being funded by many different organizations and governments world-wide. Large posters were erected adjacent to many of the temples depicting photos of the temple before and after the earthquake along with renderings of the proposed reconstruction. Unfortunately, the detail in the reconstruction effort simply could not compare to pre-earthquake construction especially with regard to the erotic carvings on the temples.

While at Patan Durbar Square I was able to visit the Patan Museum that is located within a former palace. Since this museum was closed during my prior visits, this was an unexpected welcome opportunity. The museum was very nice with some fantastic exhibits that included a throne of the Patan Kings and a metalsmithing exhibit. While at Patan, I ate lunch at the same restaurant that I had eaten at during my 2013 visit to Patan.

After visiting Patan Durbar Square, we stopped for a short visit at the Sankhamul Ghats on our way back to the hotel. According to Bissal, these ghats are no longer being used for cremations.

On Tuesday, 4 June, Bissal and I set out to go to Dhulikhel where I would overnight for two nights at the Mirabel Resort hotel. It is a hotel situated on a hill with sweeping views on a clear day of the Himalaya Mountains across the valley. Unfortunately, the clear day views mostly occur during October so my sunrise views were obscured. I had stayed at the hotel during my 2013 visit, but the hotel recently had a change of ownership and the service was less than I was expecting.

We stopped at Bhaktapur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, en route to Dhulikel. It is a very extensive site that was once the capital city of Nepal. Bhaktapur also suffered extensive damage with many buildings being shored up and braced from the outside. In addition, many buildings had collapsed and the reconstruction effort for many structures within the heritage site area was ongoing. Although there are no automobiles or buses allowed within the complex, there was a continuous flow of motorcycle and motorbikes dodging pedestrians on many of the very narrow streets. During my prior visit here, motorbikes and motorcycles were also restricted within the site.

While at the Durbar Square area of Bhaktapur, I noticed a temple that seemed to escape the carnage of the earthquake adjacent to a temple that had collapsed. The temple that survived still had the pre-earthquake erotic carvings on the roof struts which was a refreshing sight. The area around Pottery Square suffered extensive damage. It will take a long time to complete the restoration of Bhaktapur.

We continued on to visit Changu Naryan, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and the most ancient pilgrimage site in the Kathmandu Valley. This site dates back to the 3rd century AD and is considered to be the oldest temple in the history of Nepal. This was my first visit to this temple and I am very glad that I was able to see it. It contains, among other things, a historical stone pillar with a Sanskrit Language inscription engraved in Pre-Licchivi times. This is the oldest script in the Kathmandu Valley and the pillar was established by Licchivi King Mandev during 464 AD. The two story temple is famous for its erotic motifs that are depicted in the struts of the roof. This is a site that should not be missed during a visit to Nepal.

Our next stop was at the Kailashnath Mahadev Statue which sits high up on a hilltop overlooking the Kathmandu Valley. I had seen this statue from the highway during my prior visits to Nepal but this was the first time that I actually visited the statue. Measuring 44 meters (144 feet high), it is the tallest statue of Lord Shiva in the world. We continued on to the Mirabel Resort hotel where I spent the night.

Bissal picked me up at the hotel on Wednesday morning to drive to the Thrangu Tashi Yangtse Monastery (also known as Namo Buddha). This is a very beautiful Tibetan Buddhist monastery and is situated on top of a mountain. It was founded by V.V. Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche in 1978 and has grown to become home to more than 250 monks. I was relieved that it looked the same as it did during my pre-earthquake visit.

After spending a second night at Dhulikhel, I checked out after breakfast, and Bissal drove me to Old Town Dhulikhel to visit some temples there. I had visited here during 2011 but did not remember much about that visit. After comparing my pre-earthquake photos to my current photos, I realized that Dhulikhel Old Town either did not suffer extensive damage to the temples or the ongoing reconstruction effort was progressing very well.

Our next stop was at the Dhulikhel Kali Temple on top of a mountain overlooking Dhulikhel and the valley toward the Himalaya Mountains. According to the literature, it is a shrine dedicated to the goddess of time, change, power, and creation. It is also a manifestation of Durga. Shiva is her consort and you can see his trident in front of the shrine. Of course, this is another viewpoint for a clear day which might come next October. This temple is also called the Temple of One Thousand Steps because a person can walk up the side of the mountain on concrete steps. Since we were somewhat short on time we drove up an unimproved road to the temple. There were a couple of hotels near the temple complex. I noticed a huge rock in the shape of a giant frog overlooking the valley with many people climbing upon it.

About half way down the mountain, the unimproved road crosses the concrete steps. We stopped here and hiked to visit the Golden Buddha Statue that overlooks the valley. It is an impressive statue and well worth a visit in connection with a visit to the Kali Temple.

We continued on to Panauti which is in the process of being classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is often referred to as Panauti Heritage City because it is like an open-air museum itself. It is situated at the confluence of two rivers and has many wonderful ancient temples. Old Panauti seemed to be very much as I remembered from my pre-earthquake visit. I was excited to find that many of the temples appeared to have suffered very little earthquake damage and required only a relatively small restoration effort. I visited the Panauti Museum and was impressed with the collection of exhibits. After visiting Panauti, we returned to the Fuji hotel.

Bissal picked me up the morning of Friday, 7 June, to drive me to Boudhanath, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Boudhanath Stupa suffered extensive earthquake damage that cracked the spire. The entire structure above the dome and the religious relics it contained were required to be completely removed. The reconstruction began on 3 November 2015, with the ritual placement of a new central pole or “life tree” for the stupa at the top of the dome. The magnificent reconstruction of the stupa appeared to be complete.

After visiting Boudhanath, we continued on to visit the Pashupatinath Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is a famous and sacred Hindu temple complex situated on the banks of the Bagmati River. This complex also has cremation ghats that are still in use with several cremations in process. This temple complex, which dates from the 5th century, encompasses 264 hectares of land and includes 518 temples and monuments. It was pretty much as I remembered from my pre-earthquake visit and either suffered minor damage or the reconstruction efforts were very well done. I was delighted to see one of the temples that had the pre-earthquake erotic carvings on the roof struts.

We went from Pashupatinath to the Garden of Dreams where Bissal dropped me off. The Garden of Dreams is like a small serene oasis beautifully landscaped in central Kathmandu. I admired the architecture and took some wonderful photos as I walked around the garden before walking back to the hotel.

Saturday, 8 June, was to be my last full day in Nepal. Bissal picked me up to drive to visit the Chobar Gorge, the Jal Binayak Temple, and Kirtipur. Chobar Gorge is where the Bagmati River cuts through Chobar Hill. Geological studies have shown that the Kathmandu valley was once a large lake that drained southwest through Chobar Gorge. According to the literature, the narrow suspension bridge that spans the gorge was imported from a manufacturer in Aberdeen, Scotland, in 1903. The bridge was transported to Nepal in pieces over the mountains and assembled at Chobar Gorge. The bridge is accessible on foot and provides a stunning viewpoint for the gorge. The gorge was exactly as I remembered it from my pre-earthquake visit.

The Jal Binayak Temple is situated on the river bank beside the Bagmati River at the downstream end of Chobar Gorge. When I visited this temple pre-earthquake it was the most colorful and interesting temple that I had seen in Nepal. I was looking forward to seeing it once again. Alas that was not to be as the temple was demolished during the earthquake and the reconstruction effort appears to be painstakingly slow. Most of the original roof struts that had been intricately carved and painted, were nowhere to be found. Most of the lower portion of the temple had been partially reconstructed and some people were there praying and sacrificing chickens at the temple. This temple had some of the best erotic carvings on the roof struts. Although it appears there is an attempt to reconstruct new roof struts, they will never be able to replicate the originals. My visit to this temple was the most disappointing moment of my trip.

We continued on to visit the ancient city of Kirtipur, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, located southwest of Kathmandu city. After visiting the Jal Binayak Temple, I was expecting to see extensive damage at the main temple in Kirtipur. Even though many buildings in Kirtipur were extensively damaged, I was surprised to find that the temple complex appeared to have escaped large damage and was pretty much as it was when I was there during my earlier visit. After visiting Kirtipur, we returned to the hotel and I began packing up to depart Nepal the next morning.

Bissal picked me up one last time on Sunday morning, 10 June, to drive me to the Kathmandu International Airport for my flight to Bangkok. I would overnight at Bangkok before flying back home to Los Angeles.

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  April 2019
Mediterranean Cruise

Travel Notes

 

After Jan and I took a Holland America Voyage from Florida, USA, to Lisbon, Portugal, onboard the Holland America Prinsendam, we were booked to continue on another voyage from Lisbon to Rome, Italy, with our friends, Nancy and John. We arrived in Lisbon on Friday, 12 April 2019. Since we had visited Lisbon two times previously, we walked from the ship along the waterfront to the downtown area to purchase a local cappuccino and do some shopping before re-boarding to continue on to Rome.

The ship departed Lisbon at 11:00 PM and after one day at sea, we arrived at Cadiz, Spain, at 8:00 AM on Monday, 14 April, as the first port of call. Prior to disembarking at Cadiz, we decided that we wanted to visit Castle de San Sabastian, Castillo de Santa Catalina, Museo de Cadiz, and perhaps Parque Genoves. After disembarking, we took the Cadiz Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus through the old city wall, Puerta de Terra, and along the coast past the old Roman Theater ruins and the Cadiz Cathedral. We exited the bus at the Playa de La Caleta stop and walked past the La Palma Spa and through the gateway to Playa de La Caleta en route to Castle de San Sabastian. We walked along an embankment between the entrance gate to the beach and the castle. After walking past some local fishermen on the embankment, we arrived at Castle de San Sabastian which was closed to the public for some renovation. The embankment and the castle provided some excellent photo opportunities.

After visiting the castle, we continued walking to the Castillo de Santa Catalina, which was open and included an art exhibit contained within the castle. We continued walking to Parque Genoves, which is an authentic botanical garden, within the city center. The walk through the park was very interesting. We walked past the Church of Carmen en route to the Museo de Cadiz where photos were discouraged. The narrow streets were very picturesque as we continued to Plaza de Espana and the Constitution Monument. Continuing on, we walked past the San Agustin Church and a wall with signs discussing the Cadiz Meridian and its significance to early nautical navigation. We also visited the Plaza San Juan De Dios before walking back to the port. In retrospect, hiring a taxi to take us to the cathedral via Puerta de Terra would have been better than spending money on the Hop-On, Hop-Off Bus.

The ship departed Cadiz at 11:00 PM and sailed overnight through the Strait of Gibraltar to arrive at Ceuta, Spain at 7:00 AM Ceuta is actually on the African Continent opposite the Rock of Gibraltar on the European Continent. A statue of Hercules pushing the continents apart stands at the Ceuta Harbor entrance. A second statue of Hercules is situated alongside the port at Plaza de la Constitution in the Ceuta city center. The Rock of Gibraltar is visible from Ceuta, and Hacho Mountain rises from the eastern end of the harbor with the Hacho Forterss dominating the summit of the mountain. After disembarking at Ceuta, we took a taxi to Castillo de Desnarigado on the northeastern slope of Hacho Mountain. This castle also houses the Desnarigado military museum, which was closed to the public during our brief visit. We continued on around the mountain to the Mirador de San Antonio viewpoint overlooking the Rock of Gibraltar.

The viewpoint provided spectacular panoramic views of Ceuta, the Strait of Gibraltar, and the Rock of Gibraltar. We continued on to Playa la Ribera and left the taxi at the Spanish Legion Museum. We walked through the Central Market and continued on to see the Dragon House, Plaza de Los Reyes, and the Church of San Francisco. After returning to Playa la Ribera, we walked past the Santa Maria Cathedral en route to the extensive Complex of Royal Walls which provided passage between the walls for Phoenician ships in ancient times. The Regiment 30 Monument is prominently placed adjacent to the royal walls. The royal walls are extensive, very photogenic, and worth an extended visit. As we were returning to the ship, we walked through the Plaza de Africa and past both the Al-Idrisi and Henry the Navigator statues. Prior to departing Ceuta, the Maritime Park with the lighthouse was clearly visible from the ship.

The ship departed Ceuta at 4:00 PM and sailed overnight to Cartagena, Spain, arriving at 8:00 AM on Tuesday, 16 April. Since we had been to Cartagena previously, we wanted to visit the Underwater Archaeological Museum and walk through the old city to visit a tapas restaurant. I had visited the Underwater Archaeological Museum previously but only had approximately 15 minutes before they closed the museum. This time we had ample time to explore the museum and the marvelous exhibits on display. This is a wonderful museum that should not be missed when visiting Cartagena. We continued walking through the old city and found a tapas restaurant where we enjoyed a light lunch before returning to the ship.

The ship departed Cartagena at 2:00 PM, sailed overnight, and arrived at Barcelona, Spain, at 8:00 AM. We had visited Barcelona previously and took a taxi to the Picasso Museum for which we had booked a reservation in advance on the Internet. The Picasso Museum was amazing and should not be missed if visiting Barcelona. After touring the Picasso museum, we walked through the picturesque streets to the Central Market which was very colorful and provided many photo opportunities. The Barcelona Erotic Museum is situated across the street from the central market and houses one of the most extensive erotic exhibit collections that I have ever seen. After visiting the erotic museum we walked back through the old quarter to the shuttle bus back to the ship.

The ship departed Barcelona at 11:00 PM and, after one day at sea, we arrived at Alghero, Sardinia, Italy, at 8:00 AM on Friday, 19 April. Alghero is a very picturesque city with a castle, city walls, and watch towers overlooking the port. We had booked the Sardinia Sights excursion and our first stop was to visit Palmavera, which is an ancient Nuraghi cultural site with round towers and huts. This site would have been much more interesting if I had seen the “Ancient Aliens” television show about the land of the giants before visiting Sardinia. After realizing that Sardinia is home to many wonderful archaeological sites, I will return to spend more time here with a rental car exploring ancient sights of the island. The tour continued through the National Park of Porto Conte and through the Sede del Parco en route to Capo Caccia where we stopped at a viewpoint overlooking Foradado Island. We were also able to view the lighthouse before driving past the ancient Roman Bridge and Torre del Buru as we drove back to the old Alghero city center. As we walked through the old town, we were able to see the Tower of Sulis, the Tower of San Giovanni, and get a glimpse of the top of the Church of San Michele. After stopping to visit the Church of San Francesco, we continued walking through the old town, past the Tower of Ports Terra and the old city walls, as we made our way back to the port.

The ship departed Alghero at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Ajaccio, Corsica, France, at 8:00 AM on Saturday, 20 April. We decided to explore Ajaccio on our own and walked along the large Ajaccio Citadel, which is situated by the ocean between the port and the Plage St. Francis beach. We continued walking through the picturesque narrow streets and through the markets at Place Foch. I continued on to explore Place de Gaulle, a large square with a big statue of Napoleon on a horse, accompanied by his four brothers.

I continued on to Place du Telethon which is situated in front of the Cathedral where Napoleon was baptized. After passing the John the Baptist Church, I visited the Maison Bonaparte House Museum. It is the house where Napoleon was born and both the house and the exhibits on display were very impressive. As I walked back to the port, I walked through a narrow street with several quaint interesting restaurants and stopped to enjoy a wonderful local cappuccino.

The ship departed Ajaccio at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Portoferraio, Elba, Italy, at 8:00 AM on Sunday, 21 April. Sailing into the port of Portoferraio is very picturesque. Cosimo I, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, had the Medicean Ramparts constructed to protect Portoferraio from Turkish attacks. These magnificent walls seem to rise up from the sea and include the Bastion Medici and the Torre del Martello. Since I had already booked the “Hiking the Slopes of Mt. Capanne” excursion, I did not have time to explore the ramparts and hope visit them on a future return visit to Elba.

The excursion that I had booked began with a bus trip to the village of Marciana. While en route to Marciana, the tour guide pointed to a valley where the residence of Napoleon was located during the time that he was sent into exile on the island of Elba. We drove along the coast to the beach town of Marciana Marina before driving up the slope of Mount Capanne to the town of Marciana. After hiking through very picturesque Marciana, we continued hiking along the slope of the mountain with stunning landscape and panoramic views. Our guide told us that many wild pigs inhabit the area and pointed out a wild pig trap as we hiked nearby it. We hiked under the Mt. Capanne Cableway which transports people the village of Marciana Marina to the top of Mount Capanne in yellow cages. Each cage will accommodate a maximum of two people who must stand in the cage during the entire twenty minute trip each way. We continued on to the old Church of San Cerbone and then to the village of Poggio.

Poggio is another very picturesque village and we stopped to have lunch at Restorante Publius, a very upscale restaurant where we had a marvelous four course lunch with wine. We walked from the restaurant to rejoin our tour bus for the drive back to the port.

The ship departed Portoferraio at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Porto, Isla di Porto, Italy, about 7:00 AM on Monday, 22 April. This was a tender port and, since the sea conditions were too turbulent for us tender to the port, the Captain cancelled the visit to Porto and continued on to Naples, Italy. We were actually happy that Porto port of call visit was cancelled because we would arrive at Naples around noon one day ahead of schedule and give us an extra day at Naples. This would also allow us to visit the Naples Archaeological Museum on Monday afternoon, as this museum is closed on Tuesdays.

We arrived at Naples around noon and after disembarking, John, Nancy, Jan, and I shared a taxi to visit the archaeological museum which would be open until quite late that night. We spent several hours visiting the wonderful exhibits in the museum including the Secret Cabinet collection of erotic exhibits. The artifacts on display from Pompeii were very impressive.

Jan and I went on the small group “Mt. Vesuvius” tour on Tuesday, 23 April. We traveled by bus along the Bay of Naples to Mount Vesuvius where we hiked up to the crater and walked around the rim of the crater. Unfortunately for us, the weather was inclement and we were hiking in the clouds with very limited visibility. While hiking around the rim of the crater with zero visibility both into the crater and down the side of the mountain toward Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the sea, I finally purchased a tour book with photos of the sights that we did not see. Based on the tour book photos, I would like to visit Mount Vesuvius on a clear day sometime in the future. Visibility had improved somewhat by the time we returned to the ship.

We departed Naples at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to arrive at Civitavecchia, Italy, the cruise port for Rome, Italy, at 7:00 AM on Wednesday, 24 April. Since this was the end of our voyage, we disembarked and took a local minibus to our hotel near the Fiumicino Airport where we stayed the night before flying back home to Los Angeles the following day.

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  March/April 2019
Atlantic Crossing

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I flew to Ft Lauderdale, Florida, to board the 18-Day Casablanca & Canary Islands Explorer Holland America Voyage. This voyage would go from Ft. Lauderdale to Madeira, Portugal; three ports of call in the Canary Islands; three ports of call in Morocco; and two ports of call in Portugal ending at Lisbon, Portugal.

We boarded the Holland America Prinsendam on Monday, 25 March 2019, to begin our journey. Later that day we met up with John and Nancy with whom we had sailed on two prior voyages. We were delighted to re-connect on this voyage and shared many meals and activities throughout the voyage.

After eight days at sea, we arrived at Funchal, Madeira, Portugal, on Wednesday morning, 3 April. Madeira is an island situated off the coast of Africa approximately 1,000 kilometers southwest of Lisbon, Portugal. We were scheduled to spend two days here before continuing on to the Canary Islands.

Since we had visited Madeira previously, we walked from the ship along the waterfront to the marina where we saw the galleon ship, Santa Maria de Colombo, a replica of the ship sailed by Christopher Columbus to the New World during 1492. After taking some photos of the ship, we walked past the Palacio de Sao Lourenco and Fort and followed Avenida Zarco toward the center of town. After passing a monument to Zarco, we continued along Rua das Pretas to visit the Natural History Museum. We went from the museum, past a Jesuit university and church, to the Funchal Municipal Plaza. Both the Jesuit church and Funchal City Hall face the plaza.

We visited City Hall where the “Weirdness” art exhibit was in progress. We observed some of the artwork on display and looked at the areas currently open to the public. We then continued walking through the city to the Funchal Cathedral and back to the marina where I noticed that the Santa Maria de Colombo also took passengers on short day trips. Although the ticket office was closed due to poor weather, a person on the ship said that it would sail the next day if the weather was acceptable. I decided to return early the following morning to try to purchase tickets for a voyage for us.

Back on board, John and Nancy said that they would like to join us if we could get tickets the following morning. Early on the morning of 4 April I walked back to the marina and, after waiting for the ticket office to open, I secured tickets for us to sail on the Santa Maria de Colombo. The trip took us several kilometers offshore and then northwest along the coast to a location near Faja dos Padres. Towering above us was Cabo Giro, a lookout area 550 meters high frequented by tourists. Cabo Giro is often referred to as the second-highest sea cliff in the world. We also got a good look at the Faja dos Padres Elevator that was installed in 1998. In addition, we also saw the Faja dos Padres Cable Car that was installed in 2016. Prior to the installation of the elevator and cable car, the only access to Faja dos Padres was by boat. On the way back to the marina, we sailed past the fishing village, Camara de Lobos. Since Jan and I had visited both Cabo Giro and Camara de Lobos on our prior trip to Madeira, we enjoyed viewing them from an offshore vantage point. Before returning to the Prinsendam, we took one last walk through portions of the downtown area.

We departed Funchal at 5:00 PM to sail overnight approximately 650 kilometers south to Santa Cruz (Tenerife), Canary Islands, Spain, arriving at 10:00 AM on 5 April. We decided to spend the day visiting the Santa Cruz Museum of Nature and Man, the Inglesia de La Concepción church, and the UNESCO Old Town Santa Cruz de la Palma. As we walked from the ship, we passed the Plaza de Espana with a beautiful pond that had been constructed above the ruins of Castillo de San Cristobal. As we continued on to the museum we walked past the Theatro Guiomer opera house and the Inglesia de La Concepción which is the only church in the Canary Islands that has five naves.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Nature and Man had superb exhibits. In addition to the history of the volcanic origin of the Canary Islands, models of ancient settlement archaeological sites found on the islands of Fuerteventura, Gran Canary, La Gomera, El Hierro, Lanzarote, and La Palma were on display. While visiting the island of La Palma, we drove past the same archaeology site that was on display here. The extensive museum anthropology exhibits included excavated skeletal displays and mummies. The mummies were some of the best preserved that I had ever seen.

After leaving the museum I walked to the nearest Line 1 Tram Stop and purchased a ticket to go to San Cristobal de La Laguna where the historic quarter was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Historical Site in 1999. My first stop was at the La Laguna Cathedral which was originally built in the 16th Century as the Parish of the Remedies. It was established as a Cathedral in 1819 and was rebuilt into its current form in the early 20th Century. I continued walking through the historic quarter and visited the Lercaro Palace which houses the Museum of History and Anthropology of Tenerife. The mansion architecture, courtyards, and museum exhibits made the visit very worthwhile. According to the legend of Catalina Lercaro, who killed herself, this mansion/museum is the most famous "haunted mansion" of the Canary Islands.

I continued walking among the wonderful old historic quarter and enjoyed a local burrito at the quaint Con Limon Taqueria restaurant. After lunch, with the help of Google Maps, I returned to the tram stop and returned to Santa Cruz de Tenerife. I walked back to Plaza de Espana to take some additional photos before returning to the ship.

We departed Santa Cruz de Tenerife at 11:00 PM and, after sailing overnight to La Palma Island, we arrived at Santa Cruz de La Palma on Saturday, 6 April. Jan and I went on the North Island Nature Walk excursion where the Mirador de San Bartolo de la Galga viewpoint was the first stop. In addition to the spectacular panoramic views, there was a platform with celestial information and the “lover’s jump statue” of a broken-hearted shepherd boy jumping from the mountain. The tour continued to the Los Tilos Forest where we walked along a deep gorge with lush vegetation to a waterfall with only a small amount of water dripping down the face of the cliff. The tour continued on along the San Andreas coast through the town of San Andreas y Sauces to the coast near the natural pools of Charcol Azul. From here, we walked along the San Andreas Coast to the town of San Andreas while admiring spectacular coastline views. After lunch in the Old Quarter of San Andreas, we went back to the port. Before reboarding the ship, we walked through a portion of Old Town Santa Cruz de La Palma and past the Town Hall to the Plaza de Espana. After a brief visit to the beach, we returned to the ship for a 5:00 PM departure to the Lanzarote Island where we arrived at Arrecife at 8:00 AM on Sunday, 7 April.

Lanzarote is sometimes referred to as “Isla de Fuego” since it has 300 volcanic peaks. I went on the Timanfaya Moonscape Trekking excursion to the Timanfaya National Park which encompasses the volcanic landscape surrounding the Fire Mountains. It stretches across 19 square miles of Lanzatote’s northwest coast. The fire Mountains resulted from dramatic volcanic eruptions between 1730 and 1736. After a bus ride to the park, we hiked to and through the volcanic crater of the first 1730 volcano eruption. The volcanic landscape was dramatic, and we hiked to view several lava gorges, volcanic canals, and lava tubes. The guide cut the hike short due to some older people on the hike and added a stop at a winery on the return to the ship.

We departed Arrecife at 5:00 PM and, after sailing overnight, we arrived at Agadir, Morocco, on Monday, 8 April. Agadir seems to be best known as a beach resort city for European visitors. Although Agadir has some interesting sightseeing destinations, since we had a 1:00 PM departure, we decided to walk in the vicinity of the beach area. After taking a shuttle bus from the port to a downtown adjacent popular beach area, we walked to the expansive public beach with several small sections reserved for guests of the hotels that were situated uphill from the beach. The beach was very clean and several people were offering rides on their camels. We walked uphill through the Berber market area before descending a stairway through a mini-souk leading back down to the beach and returned to the port.

After departing Agadir, we sailed overnight and arrived at Casablanca, Morocco, on Tuesday, 9 April. John, Nancy, Jan, and I had booked a private tour for sightseeing at both Casablanca and Rabat with a stop for lunch at Rick’s Café. We located our guide after disembarking and began our tour with the first stop at the Hassan II Mosque from which we could see the El Hank Lighthouse in the distance. The Hassan II Mosque is magnificent both inside and outside. Our next stop was at the Tropicana Beach Club for photos of the surrounding landscape and of a sign with a picture of the Morocco Royal Family. We drove past the Casablanca Cathedral en route to the Mohammed V Square. The cathedral is now open to the public as a museum. The new Casablanca Grand Theater is currently being constructed across the street from the square. The square is a popular tourist destination and features a beautiful fountain and people dressed up in traditional Moroccan attire.

The next stop was in the Jewish Quarter at the Temple Beth-El. We visited the temple where we were able to photograph the interior and the beautiful stained glass windows. We continued to the New Medina for a quick stop at a tourist shop and then to the Old Medina where we walked through a portion of the Central Market. We enjoyed a wonderful lunch at Rick’s Café before driving to Rabat.

We drove past a Rabat lighthouse near the Kasbah of the Udayas where we walked downhill through the garden inside the Kasbah. Since we were time-limited, we were unable to visit within the main interior portion of the Kasbah. We continued on to the Hassan Tower, which is the minaret of an incomplete mosque. It was commissioned by Abu Yusuf Yaqub al-Mansur, the third Calif of the Almohad Caliphate, in 1195. The tower was intended to be the world’s largest but construction on the mosque stopped when al-Mansur died in 1199. At 44 m (140 ft) high, the tower is approximately half of its intended 86 m (260 ft) height. The rest of the mosque was also left incomplete with only the beginnings of several walls and 348 columns being constructed. The Mausoleum of Mohammed V is situated on the opposite side of the Hassan Tower.

The next stop was at the Chellah, a fortified medieval Muslim necropolis. The Phoenicians established a trading emporium at the site and it was later the site of an ancient Roman colony. The Berber Almohads used the site as a burial ground and the Marinids, who rebuilt the site during the 13th century, built a complex that included a mosque, minaret, and royal tombs. Many of the remaining ruins are now the home to white storks that nest on top of the ruins.

The last stop at Rabat was at Dar al-Makhzen, the primary and official residence of the king of Morocco. We were able to view the main residence from a distance and take a couple of photos before driving back to Casablanca.

Since it was late in the afternoon, the traffic on the main highway in the vicinity of Casablanca was near gridlock. Our guide and driver decided to take an alternate route through the Old Quarter in hopes of making the travel time shorter. The traffic in the Old Quarter was some of the most congested that I have ever witnessed. When we finally returned to the port, our tour had lasted for more than ten hours.

We departed Casablanca at 9:00 PM and, after sailing overnight, arrived at Tangier, Morocco, on Wednesday, 10 April at 8:00 AM. Jan and I went on the Tangier Highlights excursion which began with a walking tour at the Bab Al Kasba entrance and continued through the Kasbah of Tangier to the Kasbah Museum. After visiting the Kasbah Museum, we exited the Kasbah and continued walking through the Tangier Medina which is also referred to as the Grand Socco. The Grand Socco was reminiscent of walking through portions of Old Jerusalem.

We were served a light snack at the Continental Hotel before exiting the medina to board a bus to continue driving through the diplomatic district and on to Cap Spartel. Cap Spartel is the geographical dividing point with the Atlantic Ocean to the west meeting the Mediterranean Sea to the east. Before departing Cap Spartel to return to the port, we also visited the Grotto of Hercules which has two openings, one to land and the other to the ocean.

We departed Tangier at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to Portimao, Portugal, arriving Portimao at 8:00 AM on Thursday, 11 April. Jan and I went on the Moorish City of Silves excursion with the first stop at a viewpoint overlooking Silves. The panoramic views were spectacular from the viewpoint with the Silves Cathedral and the Moorish Castle dominating the hilltop above the old city. We passed a Roman bridge as we entered Silves. We walked from the bus through the Central Market and continued uphill through the wall into the old city en route to the castle. We walked past the Cathedral just before arriving at the gate to the Moorish castle. The castle was a very impressive structure with many photo opportunities. After visiting the castle, we visited the Silves Archaeological Museum before returning to the port.

We departed Portimao at 5:00 PM and sailed overnight to Lisbon, Portugal, arriving Lisbon on Friday, 12 April at 7:00 AM. Since this was the end of the Atlantic Ocean Crossing portion of a collector voyage to Rome, Italy, we disembarked to walk to downtown Lisbon to drink a cappuccino and did a bit of shopping. It had been a wonderful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean with wonderful ports of call to visit.

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  November 2018
Chengdu, China

Travel Notes

 

I wanted to return to Xinjiang Province, China, in November 2018. However, after I booked roundtrip travel from the USA to Chengdu, China, I determined that ten days in China would not allow sufficient time for an adequate return trip to Xinjiang. As a fallback position, I researched possible day trips from Chengdu and decided to stay in Chengdu. I also arranged for an early morning check in at the Chengdu Holiday Inn Chengdu Oriental Plaza hotel prior to departing for China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Friday, 2 November 2018 at about 6:00 AM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. The hotel front desk was expecting me and my room was ready for my immediate occupancy. I frequently stay at this hotel when I am in Chengdu, and its downtown location is very convenient. The entrance to the Dongmen Bridge Metro Station is less than 50 meters from the front door of the hotel. The popular Chunxi Street district is also only a short walk from the hotel.

I spent the first couple of days walking around the Chunxi Street district and researching possible daytrips and rail transportation to various destinations in and nearby Chengdu that I had not previously visited. I finally decided that I would take three high speed rail trips to three different UNESCO World Heritage Sites and used Ctrip on my computer to make my high speed train ticket reservations. The following day I took the metro to the Chengdu East Railway station and purchased my high speed train tickets. I was now ready to explore several local Chengdu sites as well as the three high speed rail day trips.

I chose the Jinsha Site Museum for my first day trip visit. This major archaeological site in Chengdu’s western suburbs was discovered in 2001 and contains ruins of the 3,000 year old Shu Kingdom. It covers an area of approximately 38,000 square meters (9 acres) and includes a Relics Hall, an Exhibition Hall, and an Ecological Garden. Altogether, 63 sacrificial spots, 6,000 pieces of precious relics, over 70 building sites, and 3 centralized cemeteries have been unearthed here. Compared to other sites of this same time period, it has the most concentrated ancient ivory, the most gold articles and the most jade. This museum is on the list of Important Monuments under Special Preservation by the State Council. The famous gold Jinsha Sunbirds Foil is exhibited here and has become the symbol of China’s cultural legacy.

On Tuesday, 6 November, I took the metro from the hotel to the station closest to the Jinsha Site. I arrived at the site and visited the Relics Hall first. It is an impressive open span structure with an area of 7,000 square meters (2 acres) with column-free space above the excavation site. There are walkways both around and through the site with photos and written descriptions at the locations of the most precious relic excavations. I continued on to the Exhibition Hall which consisted of a basement and three floors above ground. The enormous collection of exhibits is amazing and wonderfully displayed. This is a must-see Chengdu attraction.

The morning of Wednesday, 7 November, I took the high speed railway to Dujiangyan City to visit the Dujiangyan Irrigation System, the oldest and only surviving no-dam irrigation system in the world. This irrigation system was invented around 250 BC during the Warring States period by Li Bing. He gave up on the old ways of dam building, which were mainly directed at flood control, and devised a new method of channeling and dividing the water of the Min River. He accomplished this by separating the project into two main parts: the headwork and the irrigation system. This system has functioned for 2,000 years to prevent floods and to provide substantial irrigation. In 2000, Dujiangyan became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After arriving at Dijiangyan City, I first explored two of the ornate bridges over a portion of the Minjiang River before paying for admission and entering the Dijiangyan Irrigation Site. I hiked along the main picturesque path to a temple that was overlooking the river with one segment of the Anlan Suspension Bridge visible at some distance upstream. The literature describes this bridge as the most scenic place of the entire irrigation project. I continued hiking upstream along the artificial island to the Anlan Bridge. It was comprised of two segments that spanned the entire river from the island. Only one segment is open to pedestrians and I walked across that segment to the other side where I had the option of hiking along and over the mountains downstream or returning to the island and hiking back downstream. Since I was marginal on time to return to the train station, I opted to return the way that I had come to the bridge. After a short taxi ride to the railway station, I took the high speed train back to Chengdu.

On Thursday, 8 November, I took the metro to visit the Yongling Museum that is built on the foundations of the Yongling Mausoleum, the only known above ground imperial tomb in China. It is also known as the Tomb of Wang Jian, the founder of the Former Shu Regime during a chaotic period after the Tang Dynasty, who ruled as emperor of the Shu Kingdom.

The Yongling Mausoleum has a circular base 80 meters (262 feet) in diameter and stands 15 meters (48 feet) high with 14 archways made of gray bricks. Wooden doors partition the burial chamber into three sections. The first section serves as an aisle. The coffin platform of Wang Jian occupies the middle section and a platform with a stone statue of Wang Jian occupies the back section. The tomb interior is decorated with carvings of dancers, musicians, and murals. The tomb had been looted prior to its discovery during a 1942 archaeological excavation. The Exhibition Hall is a three story building with exhibits from the life and times of Wang Jiang. It also contains the remaining artifacts, including the jade belt, left behind when the tomb was looted. In addition, the area surrounding the mausoleum is known as Yongling Park which provides a wonderful tranquil environment with pavilions, statues, and enchanting landscapes.

I decided to walk from Yongling Park to the Sichuan Museum. I took a photo of the Diajiang Cottage and ate lunch at a wonderful small Chinese Halal restaurant. As I continued walking, I came upon a beautiful street with sculptures and a center median that divided wonderful ancient-like buildings on both sides. As I arrived at the river, I photographed a bridge and a beautiful pagoda. After I arrived at the Sichuan Museum, I realized that I had visited this museum on a previous trip to Chengdu. The museum has very nice exhibits of bronze, jade, and Buddhist statuary. Since it was already late afternoon, I walked to the closest metro station and returned to my hotel.

On Friday, 9 November, I took the high speed train to the Mount QingCheng UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mount QingCheng is also known as Qingchenshan. When I arrived at the Qingchenshan railway station, I found that I needed to take either a bus or taxi for the fourty minute drive to the Qingchengshan entrance. By the time I arrived at the entrance, I realized that I should have allowed at least two days for a visit to this site. After entering the site, I walked through the Tia’an Ancient City, which was very picturesque, and across the Weijiang Rope Bridge. I then rode the Jinli Ropeway up the mountain to the Upper Jinli Ropeway stop which was about midway up the mountain. From here I hiked a trail that went around the mountain to Jade-Green Lake until I had to turn back if I wanted to be able to keep my ticketed seat on the high speed train back to Chengdu. There is another ropeway called the White Cloud Ropeway which goes much higher to a station relatively close to the summit. Even though the weather was overcast, the scenery was spectacular, and I decided I would like to return during a future trip to China.

On Saturday, 10 November, I took the high speed train to the Mount Emei UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mount Emei is also known as Emeishan. The entrance to Emeishan is also a long bus ride from the Emeishan railway station. This site is another place that I should have allowed a minimum of two days to visit. I took a bus to the Wuxian Parking Lot entrance to Emeishan and determined that I only had enough time to explore a portion of the Qingyin Pavilion Scenic Area.

Since I had multiple hiking routes available, I decided to hike toward the wild monkey area. I hiked along the river past Qingyin Lake and crossed a stone bridge with monkey head sculptures along the side rails. I continued on to the twin bridges with a pavilion where a sign said that this was the best place to take photos at Emeishan. After taking some photos, I continued on to the Qingyin Pavilion where I made a quick visit before continuing on toward the wild monkey area. I passed an area with exquisite rock carved statuary and continued on the trail until my watch indicated that I needed to return to catch my train back to Chengdu. Since there are multiple places that provide lodging accommodations at various locations on Emeishan, I plan to spend some time here during a return trip to China.

Sunday, 11 November, was my last day at Chengdu, and I decided to take the metro to Tianfu Square to visit the Chengdu Museum. The Chengdu Museum is located adjacent to Tianfu Square in a relatively new building with multiple floors of exhibits. I was most impressed with the huge exhibitions of puppetry that included both shadow puppets and marionette puppets, as well as theatrical costumes. There were also exhibits of Chengdu Sichuan cuisine, early Chengdu street fast food vendors, and early Chengdu lifestyles. In addition to a Chengdu teahouse exhibit, there was a boat coffin from the Warring States Period. There were also many interesting bronze exhibits including a bronze chess set.

This museum concluded my sightseeing, and I departed Chengdu on Monday, 12 November, to fly back home to Los Angeles.

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  October 2018
Jordan

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I arrived at Amman, Jordan on Wednesday, 10 October, and were met at the airport by a representative of Bridge Travel, the agency that we had contracted with for our tour of Jordan. He helped us navigate the immigration process into Jordan and escorted us to an area in front of the terminal where he introduced us to Kamel who would be our driver for the tour. Kamel drove us to our hotel and informed us that two ladies from Canada would also be accompanying us on the tour. After checking into the hotel, Kamel said that he would meet us in the hotel lobby at 8:00 AM the following morning to begin our five day sightseeing tour of Jordan.

We joined Kamel and the two Canadian ladies, Kathy and Sandy, to begin the first full day of our five day Jordan tour in the very comfortable small bus. Our first stop was at Mount Nebo which is located in the Madaba Governorate and has an elevation of 710 meters (2,300 feet) above sea level. This is mentioned in the Old Testament as the place where Moses was granted a view of the Promised Land. The view from the summit provides a panorama of the Holy Land, and to the north, a more limited view of the valley of the River Jordan. The West Bank city of Jericho is usually visible, as is Jerusalem on a very clear day. Some scholars believe that Moses was buried here.

The remains of a Byzantine church and monastery were discovered on Mount Nebo in 1933. The church had been constructed during the second half of the 4th century AD to commemorate the place of Moses’ death. The church was enlarged in the late 5th century AD and rebuilt in AD 597. The church is first mentioned in an account of a pilgrimage made by a lady Aetheria in AD 394. Six tombs have been found hollowed from the natural rock beneath the mosaic-covered floor of the church. A modern chapel was built to protect the site and the remnants of the mosaic floors from different periods. This chapel was closed for renovation from 2007 until 2016.

A serpentine cross sculpture (the Brazen Serpent Monument) on the summit was created by Italian artist Giovanni Fantoni in 2005. It is symbolic of the bronze serpent created by Moses in the wilderness and the cross upon which Jesus was crucified.

Pope John Paul II visited Mount Nebo in March 2000 and planted an olive tree beside the Byzantine chapel as a symbol of peace. Pope Benedict XVI visited the site in 2009, gave a speech, and looked from the summit in the direction of Jerusalem.

Our next stop was at the town of Madaba, the capital city of the Madaba Governorate and once a Moabite border city. During the rule of the Roman and Byzantine empires from the end of the 2nd to 7th centuries, the city formed part of the Provincia Arabia set up by Roman Emperor Trajan to replace the Nabathaean kingdom of Petra. Here we visited the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George to see the famous 4th century Byzantine mosaic map of the Holy Land on the floor of the church. The map depicted many places including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea, the Jordan River, Jericho, the Nile Delta, Kerak, St. Lot’s Monastery, and Hebron. We had seen a photo of this mosaic map when we visited the Roman agora in Old Jerusalem and it was very exciting to see the original mosaic map in person.

Our next stop was at the town of Al-Karak, the capital city of the Karak Governorate, and home to the Kerak Crusader castle. Al-Karak has been inhabited since at least the Iron Age and was an important city to the Moabites. It has an elevation of 930 meters (3,051 feet) above sea level and is surrounded on three sides by a valley. The town is built of a plateau with the castle at the narrow southern tip. The castle was originally built during 1132 and has been modified many times. The castle was in the hands of the Crusaders for 46 years. After being threatened by Saladin’s armies several times, it finally surrendered in 1188 following a siege that lasted more than a year. The main significance of the castle was its control over the caravan route between Damascus and Egypt.

As we continued en route to Petra, we stopped for a short visit at Shoubak village where we saw what is billed as the “World’s Smallest Hotel,” an old Volkswagen beetle that had been converted into a hotel room in front of a cave dwelling for a man who served tea to us. He gave me three ancient coins and an interesting fossil while we were there.

The Montreal Crusader castle (also referred to as Shoubak castle) was situated on the summit of a mountain overlooking this location. The Montreal castle was originally built during 1115 AD as a Crusader castle. It was strategically important because it also dominated the main passage between Egypt and Syria. After a siege lasting nearly two years, the castle fell to Saladin in 1189. We drove past the Montreal Crusader castle after departing Shoubak as we continued our journey to the town of Petra where we would spend the night.

Petra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in the Ma’an Governorate at an elevation of 810 meters (2,657 feet) above sea level. Petra is believed to have been settled as early as 9,000 BC, and was possibly established in the 4th century BC as Nabatea, the capital of the Nabataean Kingdom. The Nabataeans were nomadic Arabs who invested in Petra’s proximity to major trade routes. The Nabataeans established Petra as a major trading hub. In 106 AD, Petra fell to the Romans who annexed and renamed Nabatea to Arabia Petra. Petra’s importance declined as sea routes emerged and after a 363 AD earthquake destroyed many structures. By the early Islamic era, Petra became an abandoned place where only a few nomads lived. It remained unknown to the world until it was rediscovered in 1812 by Johann Ludwig Burckhardt.

According to Arab tradition, Petra is the spot where Moses struck a rock with his staff and water came forth. It is also the place where Moses’ brother, Aaron, is buried at Mount Hor, known today as Jabal Haroun or Mount Aaron. A mountaintop shrine to Moses’ sister, Miriam, was still shown to pilgrims at the time of Jerome in the 4th century, but its location has not been identified since.

On Friday morning, 12 October, Kamel introduced us to our guide for the UNESCO World Heritage archaeological site of Petra. We walked from our hotel to the entrance of Pertra Archaeological Park where the guide purchased our admission tickets. We entered through the eastern entrance by walking past the Bab Al Siq monument, known as the the gateway to the Siq, and through the 1.2 kilometer long famous Al Siq, a deep narrow gorge passage in some places only 3 to 4 meters wide, to the main portion of Petra where Petra’s most impressive facade, Al Khazneh (popularly known as “the Treasury”), is hewn into the sandstone cliff. The Treasury is nearly 40 meters high and is believed to be the mausoleum of Nabataean King Aretas IV.

Our English speaking guide was wonderful and took great care to describe the various features and areas of Petra that we visited. We walked along the Street of Facades past the Theater which is unique in that it is carved completely into the sandstone rock. The Royal Tombs are located further along and across the Street of Facades from the Theater. We continued on to the Colonnaded Street which was a Roman shopping area and past the Great Temple Complex. Across from the Great Temple, I decided to ride a mule up the Al-Deir (Monastery) Trail with more than 730 ancient steps up a mountain gorge with steep cliffs while Jan, Kathy, and Sandy decided to visit The Church where floor mosaics have been preserved.

The Al-Deir Trail was 2.5 kilometers up to the Al-Dier (popularly known as “the Monastery”). The Monastery is Petra’s largest monument and dates from the 1st century BC. It is carved into a mountaintop and measures 47 meters wide and 48.3 meters high. According to information inscribed on the ruins of the Monastery, it was dedicated to Obodas I and is believed to be the symposium of Obodas the God. After visiting the Monastery, I rode the mule back down the Al-Dier Trail and then walked back to the main entrance where I met up with Jan, Kathy, Sandy, and Kamal.

After visiting Petra, we drove to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Wadi Rum (also known as Valley of the Moon). In Arabic, “wadi” means valley and Wadi Rum is the largest wadi in Jordan. Wadi Rum is a desert with an elevation of 1,750 meters (5,741 feet) above sea level. It was featured in the 1962 movie Lawrence of Arabia and is credited with kick-starting Jordan’s tourism industry. This portion of our tour should have been billed as an overnight Bedouin desert experience with a Bedouin dinner and breakfast along with a jeep tour.

After checking into our hotel, Desert Planet Camp, Kathy, Sandy, and I went on the jeep Safari Wadi Rum billed as one of the most impressive desert landscapes in the world with sand dunes and the Nabataen rock inscriptions. I must confess that, although the Nabataen rock petroglyphs were interesting, this tour was nothing special. I have seen better desert landscapes in other places during my worldwide travels.

While our other hotels were rated as four star hotels, this hotel would barely rate as a one star hotel. The Bedouin dinner was good but the morning breakfast was subpar. While other hotel camps at Wadi Rum got very good reviews, this hotel camp got many bad reviews. What could have been a wonderful unique desert experience turned out to be just so-so. My visit to the Tar Desert in western India was by far superior to this Wadi Rum experience.

Early Saturday morning, 13 October, we drove to the Wadi Rum Hejaz Train Station to see the refurbished locomotive complete with vintage rail cars. The Hejaz Railway train originally ran from Istanbul to Medina and Mecca via Damascus and Wadi Rum. It provided the main line of communication and supplies within the Ottoman Turkish Empire. During the Great Arab Revolt, the Arabs fought a guerilla-style war interrupting train passages on the Hejaz Railway. In the first three weeks of May 1918 alone, the Arabs destroyed railway tracks on 25 separate occasions, wreaking havoc on Turkish lines of communication, and were instrumental in defeating the Turks. On certain occasions, visitors may pay to board this train at Wadi Rum and partake in a mock battle during a show put on by the Jordan Heritage Revival Company.

After arriving at Aqaba to visit the Red Sea, we decided to take a glass bottom boat tour on the Red Sea and saw a military tank submerged in the sea and some very nice coral. Jan went snorkeling among the coral while Kathy and Sandy swam near the boat. Jan said that the coral was so good that she would like to include the Red Sea as a destination on any future Middle Eastern trips. After returning to the hotel, we relaxed and went for a walk around the market area of Aqaba.

On Sunday, 14 October, we drove to the Jordan resort hotel zone area at the Dead Sea and checked into our hotel. The Dead Sea is the lowest point in the world at 394 meters (1,269 feet) below sea level and the water is too salty for marine inhabitation. It is naturally endorheic with the Jordan River being its only major source. Jan and I hiked down from the hotel to the beach area where Jan went floating in the sea and Dead Sea mud was available for tourists to cover their bodies for health benefits.

Kamel met us early Monday morning and drove Jan and me north to the town of Jerash, the capital city of Jerash Governorate with an elevation of 600 meters (1,968 feet) above sea level. We visited the ancient Roman city of Gerasa which was later named Jerash. Ancient Greek inscriptions from the city support that the city was founded by Alexander the Great and his General Perdiccas, who allegedly settled aged Macedonian soldiers there during the spring of 331 BC. Other sources point to a founding by King Antioch IV while other sources attribute the founding to Ptolemy II of Egypt. The Romans conquered the city in 63 BC. In AD 106, the Roman Emperor Trajan constructed roads throughout the province bringing more trade to Jerash. The Emperor Hadrian visited Jerash during AD 129-130 and the Arch of Hadrian was built to commemorate his visit. Jerash is considered to be one of the largest and most well-preserved sites of Roman architecture in the world outside Italy.

Kamel introduced us to our English speaking guide, Mohammed, who led us through the archaeological site with wonderful descriptions of the ruins. Jerash included a hippodrome, two Roman amphitheaters, the oval Forum, a colonnaded street, the Arch of Hadrian, the Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Artemis, a Nymphaeum fed by an aquaduct, and a Hebrew-Aramaic mosaic. The city flourished until 749 AD when the Galilee earthquake destroyed large parts of it. The subsequent 847 Damascus earthquake contributed to additional destruction. Jerash was a marvelous site and should not be missed when visiting Jordan.

We continued to the town of Ajloun, the capital town of the Ajloun Govenornate with an elevation of 719 meters (2,508 feet) above sea level. We visited the Ajloun Castle which is located on the site of an old monastery at the summit of Auf Mountain. The castle was constructed as a fort in 1184 by Izz al-Din Usama, a general in Saladin’s army and was one of the very few Muslim fortresses built by the Ayyubids to protect their realm against Crusader incursions. After Kerak castle fell to the Saladin Ayyrubids in AD 1187, the Ajloun castle lost its military importance. The castle was renovated several times prior to a recent restoration program by the Department of Antiquities of Jordan. We hired an English speaking guide who provided us with a very informative tour of the castle.

After visiting the Ajloun Castle, Kamel drove us back to Amman and took us on what was described as a panorama tour of Amman. This tour drove us through the old section of Amman, the new section of Amman, and to the Amman Citadel before taking us to our Amman hotel for our last night in Jordan.

Kamel drove us to the Amman international Airport early on the morning of 16 October to catch our Royal Jordanian flight to Chicago where we connected for a flight home to Los Angeles. Although this was a short trip for us, it provided a wonderful and varied tour of Jordan.

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  September 2018
Colorado Revisited

Travel Notes

 

After hearing about my trip to Colorado in June, Sunny, my friend from Taiwan, came to Los Angeles to go hiking with me near Colorado Springs, Colorado, before continuing on to visit Mexico and Guatemala. While in Colorado for eight days, we revisited places from my prior trip and hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

On Monday, 3 September, we flew from Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado, where I rented a car and drove to Colorado Springs. Since Colorado Springs has an elevation of 6,035 feet above sea level, we walked around downtown Colorado Springs during the afternoon to begin the process of altitude acclimation.

After breakfast on Tuesday, 4 September, we drove to the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center to introduce Sunny to the Garden of the Gods park and get an overview of the Pikes Peak Region. We began our Garden of the Gods visit at the North Main Parking Lot and hiked both the Upper Loop Trail and the south extension loop trail. Once again, the red rock formations were magnificent against the clear blue sky. We then drove to the Scotsman Picnic Area Parking Lot and hiked along the Gateway Trail to the Siamese Twins Trail. After hiking the complete Siamese Twins trail and hiking back to the car, we stopped to visit the famous Balanced Rock. Upon returning to Colorado Springs, we once again walked throughout the downtown area and to show Sunny the Pioneer Museum.

On Wednesday, 5 September, we drove to the parking lot where the complimentary shuttle buses transport visitors to and from the Broadmoor Seven Waterfalls. We took the first bus of the day and, upon arriving at the entrance gate, hiked nearly a mile along South Cheyenne Creek to the base area of the Seven Waterfalls. Seven Waterfalls is where the South Cheyenne Canyon Creek cascades 181 feet down a granite cliff forming seven distinct waterfalls.

Before hiking the 224-step stairway along the falls, Sunny hiked the steep stairway to the Eagle’s Nest viewing platform which afforded wonderful panoramic views of the canyon and waterfalls. I opted to take the elevator up to the viewing platform, and we both took the elevator down from the platform. We continued hiking to the falls and then hiked the 224-step stairway to the top of the falls at an elevation of 6,800 feet.

After arriving at the top of the waterfalls, we decided to first hike the 1.5 mile round-trip trail to Inspiration Point. The trail passes Helen Hunt Jackson’s gravesite, and the views from along this trail were stunning. We also hiked the trail to Midnight Falls before descending the 224 steps to the bottom of the falls. The descent on the stairway alongside the falls was much faster than our initial climb to the top. After hiking back to the free shuttle bus, we drove to Cripple Creek with an elevation of 9,494 feet.

Cripple Creek and nearby Victor are located on the western slopes of Pikes Peak. A major gold strike was made in 1890 and 1891 in Cripple Creek and Victor. In prehistoric times, the area was volcanic which created the riches that made this mining district famous. The six square miles that make up the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining District are located in the caldera of an extinct volcano. The millions of dollars made from 1891 to the present time earned it the title of the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

The gold rush brought lumber yards, hotels, 100 saloons, over 40 assay offices, an equal number of brokerage firms, 80 doctors, 91 lawyers, and 14 newspapers. Electricity lighted the streets in 1892 and in 1893 the city’s water system was completed. All of the buildings in Cripple Creek were wooden and during 1896 two fires destroyed the business district and many residences. After the fires, the city fathers ordained that the business district must be built in brick. Today many of the 1890’s brick buildings on Bennett Avenue are home to modern-day casinos, shops, and restaurants.

Our first stop on the drive to Cripple Creek was at a viewpoint overlooking the caldera where Cripple Creek is located. The next stop was at the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center overlooking the town of Cripple Creek. In addition to tourist information, it has wonderful exhibits of the gold mining era, geology, Colorado dinosaurs, and a wall of windows overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Across the road from the Heritage Center is an overlook viewpoint for Poverty Gulch.

After arriving in Cripple Creek and checking into the Century Casino Hotel on Bennett Street, we walked slowly, due to the higher altitude, along Bennett Street to the old Midland Terminal. The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad operates from this Railway station. The train has a 15 ton locomotive of the 0-4-0 type typical of the early day steam engines. It belches smoke from a coal fired boiler, with sounds of steam, a piercing whistle, and the sound of working steel on steel during the four mile round-trip. The conductor narrates the journey as it passes many old gold mine sites en route to Echo Valley where it backs up, turns around, and returns to the old Midland Terminal. Since the train had ceased operations for the day, we decided that we might take a ride on it the following day if time permitted.

Thursday, 6 September, was another picture perfect day. We walked back to the old Midland Terminal and hiked the Gold Camp Trail from the station up through Poverty Gulch most of the way to the upper trailhead on Teller County Road (TCR) 82 across the road from the Hoosier Mine. It is nearly one mile long and begins at 9,528 feet altitude. Traveling the entire trail round-trip is 1.9 miles with a total elevation gain of 500 feet. This was a trail that I had not previously hiked and it was wonderful.

Upon returning to Cripple Creek, we drove to the Mollie Kathleen Mine to take the tour of the mine. The mine was started in 1891 on a mining claim staked by Mollie Kathleen Gortner, after whom the mine was named. Except for a suspension of mining during World War II that was ordered by the Government, the mine operated continuously until it was closed in 1961. It is a historic vertical shaft mine that descends 1,000 feet into the mountain, a depth roughly equal to the height of the Empire State Building in New York City. Visitors are crammed into a skip and lowered approximately 1,000 feet down the vertical mine shaft to an area with horizontal shafts for the tour.

Since we just missed a tour about to begin, we purchased our tickets and explored the exhibits above ground. These included an old steam shovel, a steam engine tractor, a belt driven saw mill, and various other mining artifacts. When it was time for our tour, we were instructed to put on hard hats and were crammed into a skip. The skip was lowered by a steel cable from the headframe down a vertical shaft to a depth of 1,000 feet below the surface. Electric lights illuminated the horizontal mining shafts where we were escorted by our tour guide who had spent his entire working career in the vertical hard rock mines. He stopped at several different stations where he demonstrated the evolution of the techniques and equipment through the years of this mine. He actually demonstrated various types of drills used for blasting the hard rock shafts. In addition, he took us for a short ride on an air driven locomotive in one of the horizontal shafts. I had not been here before and it was an exceptionally wonderful tour!

After this tour, the guide directed us to Teller County Road (TCR) 82 where we drove to the Hoosier Mine for some photos and continued on TCR 82 to the Grassy Valley Mining Overlook. This overlook features a CAT 793 Haul Truck Bed that has been converted to an observation deck. The 360-degree view from here takes in the historic Grassy Valley, Pikes Peak, and one of Newmont Mining historic preservation sites known as Hoosier Mine, an open pit mine. We drove to TCR 83 and continued to Victor Pass before returning to Cripple Creek.

Back in Cripple Creek, we returned to the old Midland Terminal where we rode the Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad. Sunny sat at the very back of the open sided car so she could take unobstructed photos from the rear of the train.

On Friday morning, 7 September, we stopped en route to Victor, Colorado, and hiked the Little Grouse Mountain Trail. It was another beautiful morning and this trail is another trail that I had not hiked previously. It is approximately one mile long and passes by the relocated American Eagles Mine above the Eagles Historic Overlook. The view from the overlook features the Sangre de Cristo mountain range to the south, the Collegiate Mountain peaks to the west, and Cripple Creek to the north. The view from the overlook was very good in the morning sunlight. The Sangre de Cristo range forms the state border with New Mexico.

We continued on to the town of Victor. After walking around this historic mining town, we drove along Highway 83 to the lower trailhead for the Vindicator Mine Trail, which I had hiked during my trip in June. After hiking the Vindicator Mine Trail, Sunny wanted to return to the Grassy Valley Overlook for a final farewell look at the area before driving to Manitou Springs.

After arriving in Manitou Springs, we walked around the city and sampled some of the water from the seven naturally carbonated mineral springs that once made Manitou Springs famous.

On Saturday, 8 September, we drove the Pikes Peak Highway to the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115 feet elevation. It was a beautiful day with bright sunshine, and it was very crowded because of the “Pikes Peak Challenge,” a special hiking event. The Challenge consists of a 13 mile hike from Manitou Springs to the summit of Pikes Peak along the Barr Trail with a 7,500 feet increase in elevation. Medals are presented to everyone who completes the Challenge. There were remnants of fresh snowfall from a rain two days before which made our photos more interesting. We enjoyed looking at the places that we had visited several days before from the summit.

On Sunday, 9 September, we decided to hike the Manitou Incline. It is classified as an extreme hike with many cautionary signs at the trailhead. This trail was once the railway for the historic Manitou Incline. The rails have been removed from the railroad ties which now become stepping areas to climb the 2,744 steps straight up the side of the mountain. The trail begins at an elevation of 6,600 feet and ascends 2,000 feet to the summit at approximately 8,600 feet elevation.

Sunny had already reached the top well in advance of me. However, after a long slow hike, I finally reached the summit where I ate the snack that I had brought with me. We took a short hike around the summit before descending. The descent back to Manitou Springs was a four mile winding portion of a connector trail and the Barr Trail. After reaching the lower trailhead, my fitbit showed a total of 18,094 steps for the incline hike.

Before driving to the Denver airport on Monday morning, 10 September, we returned for one last visit to the Garden of the Gods. It was another picture perfect day and the colors were magnificent in the early morning sunshine. The flight back to Los Angeles was uneventful, and Sunny departed for Mexico on Tuesday morning, 11 September. It was another wonderful hiking trip to Colorado.

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  July 2018
Polar Ice Voyage

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I flew to Amsterdam, Holland, to board the Spitsbergen & Arctic Circle Explorer Holland America Voyage. We arrived at Amsterdam on Saturday, 14 July 2018, and checked into our hotel. That evening we walked around a portion of downtown Amsterdam and ate dinner at the Tibet Sichuan Restaurant where the food was very good. The following morning we visited the National Maritime Museum which is situated in a former naval storehouse built in 1656. The museum has a large collection of artifacts and many exhibits related to sailing and shipping. One such exhibit is the extensive map collection from the works of cartographers Willem Blaen and his son, Joan Blaen. The museum also has a first edition copy of “De Moluccis Insulis,” which is the first book to describe Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world.

We viewed the Royal Barge built for King William I of the Netherlands between 1816 and 1818. It is currently on display in a specially designed boathouse. In addition, we toured the replica Dutch East Indies Company 18th century cargo ship, Amsterdam, which is moored adjacent to the museum.

The original ship, Amsterdam, was built in 1748 for the Dutch East Indies Trading Company. During its third attempt for a maiden voyage to transport cargo from Texel to Batavia, East Indies, it sank in the English Channel during a storm on 8 January 1749. The replica ship, Amsterdam, was built between 1985 and 1990 and towed to the museum.

While waiting in the cruise ship terminal to board the Prinsendam, we saw John and Nancy with whom we had sailed before. We were all surprised and delighted to reconnect on this voyage and shared many meals and activities throughout the voyage.

We boarded the Holland America Prinsendam on Monday, 16 July, to begin our Arctic Circle Explorer Voyage. After one sea day, we arrived at Alesund, Norway, on the morning of 18 July. We had booked the Holland America EXC Excursion “Romsdal & The Troll Path.” We were assigned to tour bus “White 6.” This excursion turned out to be very disappointing because the English Guide hired by EXC Excursions had such bad English that we could only understand every fifth or sixth word during her descriptive narrative which she had to read from a script. After we returned to the ship and complained about the quality of the excursion to Guest Services, they arranged for us to meet with the EXC Excursion manager who essentially just “blew us off.” Needless to say, we will have a much diminished view toward EXC Excursions on any future voyages with Holland America. Unfortunately, other people who paid for a future EXC Excursions tour will likely be subjected to this same incompetent tour guide. That said, the scenery was beautiful although I needed to spend several hours reviewing data on Google after I returned home, in order to properly caption my photos from this tour.

The tour began by following the shoreline of a couple of fjords to the village of Sjoholt. It continued on to drive by the Stordal Old Church en route to the Valldola River. The tour continued along the river for a photo stop at the Gudbrandsjuvet Gorge. The next stop was at the Troll Path Viewpoint which provided spectacular panorama views of the mountains, waterfalls, the large valley below, and a very winding road – the Trollstigen (Troll Path) – descending down to the valley floor. The bus slowly descended the Trollstigen and we stopped at Trollstigen Camping and ate at the Gjestegard restaurant for lunch. The tour continued through the valley to stop at the Troll Wall Visitor Center to view the Trollveggen (Troll Wall), which was completely obscured by clouds. The tour followed the Romsdals Fjord for a portion of the journey back to the ship. Prior to returning to the ship, I took several photos of the picturesque town of Alesund.

We spent the next two days at sea en route to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen. Spitsbergen is the largest island in the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. The islands of the Svalbard group range from 74° to 81° north latitude, and from 10° to 35° east longitude. The Svalbard Treaty of 1920 recognized Norway’s sovereignty over the Svalbard archipelago. Longyearbyen is the largest settlement on Spitzbergen and is situated on the Isfjorden at 78° degrees north latitude. Both whaling and coal mining were once flourishing industries but currently only Mine 7 remains operational. Remnants of the mining operations remain in and around Longyearbyen including portions of an aerial tramway that once transported coal from the mines to the ships.

The ship docked for several hours at Longyearbyen, and we walked around the settlement. There were signs to warn people of polar bears and not to go beyond certain limits without a rifle. Although the post office claimed to be the northern-most post office in the world, the post office at Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen, is farther north – it is amazing that I will have been to both the highest elevation post office at Everest Base Camp and at the northernmost post office at Spitsbergen within one calendar month. The northern-most ATM in the world is located here. Longyearbyen afforded travelers good photographic opportunities. The World Seed Bank is also located nearby Longyearbyen and was undergoing repairs.

The ship conducted scenic cruising in the Isfjord to allow views of the coastline, the World Seed Bank, Coal Harbor, and the glacier at the southern end of the fjord. The ship continued north along the coast of Spitsbergen arriving at Liefdefjorden to begin scenic cruising of the fjord to view several glaciers along the fjord including Erikbreen, Emmabreen, Seligerbreen, and the spectacular Monacobreen. After leaving Liefdefjorden, the ship continued farther north to Moffen Island where a walrus colony both on the beach and in the water was visible at a distance.

The original itinerary for the voyage called for the ship to continue farther north to the polar ice cap. Since the current satellite images for the ice cap showed the ice to be both much farther north and also to the west of Spitsbergen, the Captain decided to go the polar ice to the west. He also added scenic cruising of the Smeerenburg Fjord at the northwestern end of Spitsbergen en route to see the polar ice. The ship traveled into the Smeerenburg Fjord and continued into the Bjornfjord past Amsterdam Island, where another walrus colony was visible both in the water and on the beach. The ship cruised past numerous glaciers as we went to visit the Smeerenburg Glacier before continuing west to the polar ice.

We arrived at the portion of the polar ice cap to the west of Spitsbergen at a position of Latitude: 80°08.68’ N and Longitude: 007°28.29’ E. After slowing for a photo opportunity, the ship began a southeasterly course toward Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen.

Currently, Ny Alesund is a research station situated on the Kongsfjord where several arctic explorers launched expeditions to try to reach the North Pole. Both Admiral Byrd of the USA and Roald Amundsun of Norway launched their successful North Pole expeditions from Ny Alesund. The ship made a short duration stop at Ny Alesund on Monday, 23 July. Upon arrival, each passenger was given a map of the research station with a path on which tourists were instructed to remain while walking at Ny Alesund. Personnel from the ship were stationed along the tourist path to ensure that nobody strayed from the path. It was a very picturesque settlement with great landscape photo opportunities. Polar bear hazard signs were conspicuous. In addition to a wonderful museum with exhibits and relics from past arctic explorations, there was the post office which also laid claim to being the northernmost post office.

After departing from the Ny Alesund port, the ship continued with scenic cruising along the Kross Fjord and past the King Hook Peninsula into the Lilliehook Fjord to the Lilliehook Glacier which was approximately 7 kilometers wide. This glacier was spectacular and, while the ship navigated relatively close to the glacier, some crewmembers took a tender from the ship and brought a large piece of glacier ice aboard to display on the Lido Deck.

The ship charted a course toward Iceland and sailed past Jan Mayen Island early in the morning on Wednesday, 25 July. The island is volcanic with the last eruption in 1980. The Breerenberg Volcano is 2,277 meters high. Since the weather was very foggy as the ship approached Jan Mayen Island, the main portion of the island was totally obscured during the scheduled scenic cruising. A portion of the small southern tip of the island became recognizable as land after we had cruised past most of the island.

The ship arrived at Akureyri, Iceland, on 26 July. Akureyri is situated on the Eyjafjordur, which is Iceland’s longest fjord. After disembarking, we took a shore excursion from the ship that went along Eyjafjordur, across Vikurskard Pass, to the Fnjoskadalur Valley to the Lake Myvatn Region. The first stop of the tour was at Namafjall Hverir, which was a large region of high-temperature geothermal fumaroles and mud pots. The temperature at a depth of 1,000 meters is above 200° C. The steam contains fumarole gas such as hydrogen sulphide, and the hot springs produce considerable sulphur deposits.

The next stop was at Dimmuborgir, which was an area of lava labyrinths that formed during a volcanic eruption 2,000 years ago. There were extensive hiking trails within Dimmuborgir including lava castles, lava arches, and many lava grottoes. We took a short hike along a portion of a couple of the trails.

The tour continued to a viewpoint above Lake Myvatin for a panoramic view of the lake and the Skutusadir Craters. The restaurant where we ate lunch was across the road from this viewpoint. This region is also within the intersection of the North American and Euroasian tectonic plates, which are separating and leaving visible fissures in some of the mountains that we drove past.

After lunch, the tour proceeded to the Godafoss Waterfalls where we hiked along the river to view the falls both from the overview area and from alongside the river below the falls. The Godafoss Waterfalls is fed by the glacier river Skjalfandafjlot and is considerd to be one of the great waterfalls in Iceland. The Skajlfandafljot River is 180 km long and flows from the Vatnajokull Glacier. This was the last stop of the tour, and we returned to the ship via the same route we’d taken from the ship.

The ship conducted scenic cruising of Eyafjordur after departing Akureyri, en route to Isafjordur, Iceland, which is situated on the Isafjardardjup. We arrived at Isafjordur early in the morning on Friday, 27 July. After disembarking, we took a shore excursion to visit Thingeyri, Dynjandi Waterfalls, and Sudureyri Village. The first stop of the tour was at the small village of Thingeyri on the Dyrafjordur en route to the Dynandi Waterfall. A national monument, the Dynjandi Waterfall is situated at one end of the Arnarfjordur and is fed by the Dynjandis River. It is quite impressive as it consists of several waterfalls cascading down the mountain to the fjord. During the stop at Dynjandi, we were able to hike alongside the individual waterfalls as high as we wanted to go. After hiking past several waterfalls, I determined that the best photo opportunities were from the lower elevations. A lunch for the tour was provided here.

The next stop was at Sudureyri, a small fishing village where the guide showed us how fish are dried for future consumption. We were offered samples of the dried fish and fresh cod cakes as a snack and given hot beverages before boarding the bus to return to the ship. I took some photos of Isafjordur from the ship before departure. I also took several photos during scenic cruising of Isafjardardjup as we departed for a sea day en route to Reykjavik, Iceland.

We arrived at Reykjavik, Iceland, on the Sunday morning, 29 July, and were moored some distance from the main cruise ship terminal area. Since we were scheduled to spend two days in Reykjavik, we took a Golden Circle shore excursion on the first day to visit the Hellisheidi Geothermal Power Plant, Gullfoss Waterfall, Geysir, and Thingvellir National Park. The first stop was at the geothermal power plant, with educational exhibits about Iceland’s geothermal electricity generation. We continued on to visit Gullfoss Waterfall, which is located in the canyon of the Hvita river. It is spectacular and is one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland. We hiked along the area above the falls to several viewing locations and then part-way down to a lower viewing area which was being deluged with mist from the falls. The Langjokull Glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland, was visible in the distance from an upper viewing area.

The next stop was at the Geysir Geothermal Area, which is located in the Haukadalur Valley. It had many hot springs and at least one active geyser which erupted with some regularity. We watched two eruptions and went to have lunch in a new hotel across the road from Geysir. During lunch, additional eruptions could be seen through panoramic windows facing the geyser.

The final stop was at Thingvellir National Park, where we encountered rain. There was a large fissure which people could walk through to get to a valley below. The separation was purportedly caused by the continuing slow separation of the two tectonic plates that bisect Iceland. I took photos from above the separation and hiked in the rain part way down through the separation before returning to the tour bus. The bus drove to a parking lot in the valley below the separation to pick up members of our tour that hiked through the fissure in the rain down to the valley. The tour returned to the ship where we spent the night.

The following morning we planned to take the Hop On Hop Off bus to get an overview of Reykjavik but, since there were two other large cruise ships in port, the line for the bus was much too long. We ended up walking from the port along the water to the city center. Along the way, we passed the Recycled House, home to film director of the legendary feature The Raven Flies. It was very interesting and loaded with photo opportunities. We also passed the Partnership Sculpture, a duplicate of which is located in Miami, Florida, and finally took a street up the hill toward the city center. As we arrived at Laugavegur Street, we noticed the Icelandic Phallological Museum and since it was a Monday, we doubted that it would be open. We walked to the front door and discovered that it was open. What an amazing museum! It describes itself as the only museum in the world to contain a collection of phallic specimens belonging to all the various types of mammal found in a single country. It is definitely not to be missed when visiting Reykjavik.

Since Laugavegur Street is listed as one of Reykjavik’s main shopping streets, we walked along it to the intersection of Skolavordustigur Street. We took Skolavordustigur Street to the iconic Hallgrims Church. There were many wonderful photo opportunities as we walked around Reykjavik before walking back to the ship. Since the ship was moored at a remote location with no signage indicating the way to the ship, we encountered several missed approaches to the ship which added additional distance to our already lengthy hike into Reyjavik.

The Prinsendam departed Reykjavik on an overnight course to Heimay, Iceland, which is part of the Westman islands. Upon arriving at Heimay, the sea conditions were so unfavorable that the Captain opted to skip landing at Heimay and instead charted a course directly to Seydisfjordur, Iceland.

We arrived at Seydisfjordur Village on Wednesday, 1 August. Seydisfjordur Village is situated on Seydisfjordur fjord and was a quaint village with some interesting photo opportunities including the famous Blue Church. During the afternoon, the ship began cruising Seydisfjordur fjord en route to Rosyth, Scotland, which is situated on the Firth of Forth and serves as the port for Edinburgh, Scotland.

After another sea day, the radar mast on the Prinsendam was lowered to allow the ship to sail under the three bridges spanning the Firth of Forth. Sailing under the Forth Rail Bridge, the Forth Car Bridge, and the Queensferry Crossing Bridge provided a wonderful photo opportunity. We arrived at Rosyth, Scotland, on 3 August. After disembarking at Rosyth, we took a train to Waverly Station in downtown Edinburgh. August 3rd was the first day of not only the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo but also the first day of the Fringe Festival. The Fringe Festival has performances all over Edinburgh, and a portion of the Royal Mile was closed to vehicular traffic for some Fringe performance stages. Since our granddaughter performed at Fringe during the summer of 2017, we opted to join the masses to see part of the Fringe street performances. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon in Edinburgh.

In order to accommodate the passengers who took shore excursions to the Tattoo performance, the ship departed Edinburgh at approximately 1:00 AM on 4 August on a course back to Amsterdam, Holland. After another sea day, the ship arrived at Amsterdam early in the morning on Sunday, 5 August.

After disembarking from the ship, we took a taxi to a hotel near Schipol Airport to be positioned for flights back to Los Angeles. We flew home to Los Angeles on 6 August after a wonderful excursion above the Arctic Circle.

See pictures from our Polar Ice Voyage

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  June 2018
Tibet, China & Mount Everest Base Camp

Travel Notes

 

Although I have been traveling to mainland China for several years, it is impossible as a foreigner to independently travel in the Tibet Autonomous Region unless traveling as part of a Chinese Government Approved Tour Group. After finally reconciling myself to the fact that I could only travel to Tibet as part of an approved tour group, I began researching tour groups and soliciting word-of-mouth recommendations from people who had traveled to Tibet or had friends who had traveled to Tibet. A good friend in Los Angeles, California, recommended Explore Tibet, an approved travel company in Lhasa, Tibet, that offers small group tours that include traveling to Mt. Everest Base Camp at an elevation of 5,200 meters (17,060 feet) above sea level.

Before I decided to book a trip to Tibet and Everest Base Camp, I took a trip to the Salta and JuJuay Provinces of northwest Argentina in January 2018 to determine if I would be able to physically acclimate to the very high altitudes of Tibet. The trip to Argentina was successful, and I seriously researched several Tibet travel organizations upon my return home. I finally decided that Explore Tibet offered the best small group package for me and booked their 8 Days Everest Base Camp Small Group Tour beginning 14 June 2018 at Lhasa, Tibet.

I would fly to Chengdu, China, and then Explore Tibet would obtain my Chinese Government Tibet Travel Permit, book round-trip Air China flights from Chengdu to Lhasa, and conduct my Tibet tour. After I sent the payment for the tour along with copies of my USA Passport and China Tourist Visa to Explore Tibet, I received full confirmation for my Tibet travel. Later, I received my e-ticket for the Air China Chengdu/Lhasa flights.

Since my home in Los Angeles is at sea level, I decided to travel to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for some high altitude mountain hiking to acclimate to higher altitudes before flying to Chengdu. While in Colorado for eight days, I hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

I arrived at Chengdu on 11 June and picked up my China Government issued Tibet Travel Permit which was waiting for me at my Chengdu hotel. Since all of my Tibet travel details were complete, I took a day trip to re-visit the Chengdu Giant Panda Research Base on 12 June and the Leshan Giant Buddha on 13 June. The Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest stone carved Buddha image in the world.

On Thursday, 14 June, I flew from Chengdu to Lhasa. I was required to show my Tibet Travel Permit when I checked in for my flight, when I went through airport security, when I boarded the flight, and when I exited the baggage claim area at the Lhasa airport. Upon exiting the terminal, I saw a lady holding up a sign with my name on it. Her name was Migmar, and she would be my guide for the duration of my Tibetan travels. The elevation at Lhasa is approximately 3,600 meters (11,995 feet), and I could immediately feel the altitude with the thin dry air. Migmar immediately gave me a bottle of water to help with the altitude, and her driver drove me to Lhasa Tashi Takgye hotel in a ten passenger minibus which would be the vehicle that our small group would use during the entire Tibet tour.

After checking into the hotel, I continued to drink a lot of water and rested for several hours before venturing outside. The hotel was located in the old part of Lhasa within a couple of short blocks from the famous Bakhor Street. After going through a Government security checkpoint, I walked around Bakhor Street on a clear afternoon and marveled at the unique architecture and the local people of Lhasa. There are ubiquitous Government security checkpoints within the old part of Lhasa and at most popular attractions. Later I went out for dinner and had a Nepal set dinner at one of the local restaurants.

After breakfast on the morning of 15 June, I met the remainder of my small group which would total six people for the first two days of local Lhasa sightseeing and then five people for the subsequent travel days from Lhasa to Everest Base Camp and back to Lhasa. Traveling with five people in a ten person minibus was quite comfortable for the long road trips. In addition, our driver kept both the minibus interior and the windows very clean during the entire trip.

Our first sightseeing stop was to visit the Drepung Monastery located about 10 kilometers from Lhasa. It was built in 1416 and more than ten thousand monks resided here prior to the 1951 Liberation making it the largest monastery in Tibet. It has six main temples in addition to three monastic colleges for the study of philosophy and one for the practice of Tantric Buddhism. The monastery covers an area over 200 thousand square meters. This monastery was very impressive and no photographs were allowed within the monastery.

We continued on to visit the Sera Monastery, which was founded in 1419. It has an assembly hall, three colleges, and thirty-three houses. The monastery covers an area of 114,964 square meters and is the second largest monastery in Tibet. After visiting the monasteries, we had free time to explore Lhasa for the remainder of the day.

On the morning of 16 June, we visited the Potala Palace which is across from the Potala Plaza where, during 2001, the Chinese Government erected the Monument to Tibet's Peaceful Liberation marking the 50th Anniversary of the peaceful liberation of Tibet by Chinese troops in 1951.

Although the Potala Palace was originally built during the time of the Songtsan Gampo in the 7th century, it was reconstructed by the 5th Dalai Lama in the 17th century. It was the residence of the successive Dalai Lamas and the center of Tibet local government. The main palace construction is divided into two sections: the White Palace and the Red Palace. It has 13 stories and is 115.7 meters high. It mainly consists of living quarters, chapels, tomb stupa chapels, and monk dormitories. It is listed as a World Heritage Site and was an incredible place to visit.

During the afternoon we went to Bakhor Street in old Lhasa to visit the beautiful Jokhang Temple. Construction of this temple began in 647 AD during the time of the Tibet King Songtsan Gampo. The four-storied temple faces west and, after extensions in later years, occupies an area of 25,100 square meters. An alloy statue of the twelve year old Sakyamini, brought by the Princess WenChang, sits in the central hall on the first floor. It was also a very interesting temple to visit.

After visiting Jokhang Temple, we walked around Bakhor Street and then returned to our hotel to pack up for our upcoming road trip to Everest Base Camp the following morning.

We checked out of our Lhasa hotel on Sunday, 17 June, to begin our two day journey to Everest Base Camp. Our driver would follow the China-Nepal Highway, also known as the Friendship Highway, from Lhasa most of the way to Everest Base Camp. It would cross several high mountain passes before arriving at Tingri where we would take another road to the base camp. We would stop along the way at interesting places to visit.

Our first stop was beside the Brahmaputura River, also known as the Yarlung River in Tibet. This was a scenic area where many tourist groups stop and the photos were wonderful. As we continued on, we arrived near the top of the Gambala Pass where many Tibetans had yaks, Mastiff dogs, and other animals for tourist photos in addition to many tables with Tibetan items for sale. I bought a Tibetan singing bowl here.

We continued along the Gambala Pass to a viewpoint at an elevation of 4,998 meters (16,398 feet) with views of both the Brahmaputura River Scenic Area and the Yamdrok Lake Scenic Area. We descended from here to Yamdrok Lake at an elevation of 4,441 meters (14,570 feet) where we stopped for photos. Tibetans had yaks along the shore for photos with tourists as well as a couple of Mastiff dogs. There were also the ubiquitous tourist souvenirs for sale. I walked down to the shore of the lake to take some photos of a yak standing in the crystal clear water.

We stopped for lunch at Nagarze before continuing on to the Kharola Glacier viewpoint. This glacier was stunning against the clear blue sky and is within 300 meters of the highway. We stopped at the viewpoint parking area across the highway from the glacier. There is a Kharola Glacier Stupa at a viewing area in front of the glacier which provides an interesting backdrop for photos of the glacier. A stone marker indicated the elevation of this mountain location to be 5,020 meters (16,470 feet).

Our next stop was at a colorful viewpoint above the Manak Reservoir. The elevation at the viewpoint was 4,354 meters (14,285 feet) with a wonderful view of the reservoir amid an abundance of so many beautiful Tibetan prayer flags. Prior to departing this viewpoint, I observed several Tibetan goats crossing the road and climbing up the hillside.

We continued on to Gyantse where we saw the Gyantse Dzong, also known as Gyantse Fortress, before visiting the Palcho Monastery where the Kumbum Stupa is located. The original fortress dates back to 840 AD, and the present walls were supposedly built in 1268. The fortress was overrun by a British invasion during 1904. Although the walls were dynamited by the Chinese in 1967 during the Cultural Revolution, it has gradually been restored.

The Palcho Chode Monastery is the main monastery in the Nyangchu River Valley. It was built in 1418. According to the literature, it is a non-sectarian Buddhist center where Gelugpa, Sakyapa, and Butompa co-exist in harmony and peace. In 1427, the Great Stupa Kumbum was erected in the pattern of the Multi-door Stupa (Tashi Gomang), one of the eight prototype stupas of Buddhism. Kumbum is 32.4 meters high and includes 108 altars where a hundred thousand Buddhist images are enshrined as statues and murals.

We stopped at the Mananarovar Gesar hotel in Shigatse to spend the night and rest up for the final leg to Everest Base Camp the following day. The elevation of Shigatse is 3,800 meters (12,467 feet). While in Shigatse, Migmar obtained the Aliens’ Travel Permit that was required for our small group to travel to Everest Base Camp. This was in addition to the Tibet Travel Permit that was issued to me prior to entering Tibet. By this time, we had become accustomed to multiple police checkpoints all along the Friendship Highway.

We departed Shigatse on Monday morning, 18 June, to continue on the Friendship Highway (China-Nepal) toward Shelkar (New Tingri) where we would turn onto another road that is the gateway to Everest Base Camp. Our first stop was at place with a large marker as the location of the 5,000 kilometer point from Shanghai on the Friendship Highway.

Our next stop was at Gyatso La mountain pass, the entrance to the Mount Qomolangma National Nature Reserve (QNNR). Mount Everest is known as Mount Qomolangma in Tibet, China. The elevation of Gyatso La Pass is 5,260 meters (17,257 feet) – the highest mountain pass on the Friendship Highway. It was another checkpoint along the way and another photo opportunity. We would continue within the Qomolangma National Nature Reserve until we arrived at Everest Base Camp.

We continued on to the Mount Qomolangma North Gate, which was another checkpoint along the way, then from the north gate to the Kya Wu Lha Pass, which has an elevation 5,198 meters (17,054 feet). This pass afforded spectacular views of the Himalayan Mountains from the China side. Four peaks above 8,201 meters were visible from here: Mt. Everest at 8,844.43 meters, the highest mountain on Earth; Mt. Lotse at 8,516 meters, the fourth highest; Mt. Makalho at 8,463 meters, the fifth highest; and Mt. Chopya at 8,201 meters, the tenth highest. The pass also afforded a dramatic view of the road with more switchbacks than I could count leading down the valley toward Everest Base Camp. I purchased two sets of Tibetan prayer flags here.

We descended down the valley and then ascended up to Mount Everest Base Camp, which is known in Tibet as Mount Qomolangma Base Camp and has an elevation of 5,200 meters (17,060 feet). We would spend the night in a traditional Tibetan tent guesthouse. The tent had two sections separated by a tent curtain down the middle. Each side could sleep ten people and had a Tibetan stove for boiling water and heat during the day and evening. The stove, which was bare metal and burned cow dung for fuel, was manned by a Tibetan caretaker who boiled water on it for green tea and oversaw the activities within the tent. The tent had a carpeted floor and hard platforms to sit and to sleep. Although there were heavy quilts for sleeping, we rented sleeping bags when we were at Shigatse for what we perceived would provide better sanitation for sleeping in the tent. The ground outside the tent was small rocks that surrounded the base camp. A group of about ten young Chinese men and women moved into the other side of the tent and wanted a group photo with some of us after they arrived. They invited us to join them later to share some wine with them but we politely declined since alcohol and high altitude are a bad combination.

The toilet facilities consisted of a public pit toilet located some distance from the tents with a concrete floor above the open pit with rectangular slots in the floor. The left side was for men and the right side was for women. Each side had two rectangular slots in the floor, no lighting and no water. The floor of the toilets appeared to have never been washed or cleaned. A Tibetan man was stationed nearby the toilet building to collect 2 Yuan from each person every time someone used the facility.

The air was thin and very dry which required us to consume extra large quantities of water and green tea during our time at base camp. After we settled into the tent and rested for a while, we hiked to the Mt. Qomolangma Base Camp rock marker for a photo opportunity. Since it was warm when we started out, I didn’t wear a jacket. Although it was windy and became colder, the photo opportunity was wonderful. Because I didn’t wear a jacket, I opted not to continue on to the visit the nearby Rongbuk Monastery – a decision that I will probably regret later since it is reportedly the highest monastery in the world. Within the base camp is a post office which is also the highest post office in the world.

As we took photos of Mount Everest as the sun was setting the wind increased and it was becoming much colder. I had a bowl of noodles and cabbage with a fried egg on top and green tea for dinner while our caretaker kept the fire in the stove going. By the time we decided to try to go to sleep, the temperature in the tent was quite hot. The electrical generators are turned off at midnight and the entire complex was plunged into total darkness. When the caretaker went to bed, the fire in the stove died out and the tent began to get cold, colder, and much colder. In addition, the moisture from our breath made the tent damp, then damper, and much damper. Government officials performed a bed check of our tent during the night by shining a flashlight on each of us and checking some paperwork.

The noise from people walking and talking outside the tent en route to the public toilet continued to interrupt my attempts at sleeping. As the night wore on, the minutes turned into hours as I attempted to sleep. The worst parts of the night were the decisions to get up and attempt to find the gross public toilet by the light of my mobile phone. Outside the sky was clear and the stars appeared to be very close. I had never seen the Big Dipper constellation to be so enormous.

We planned to get up and leave by 6:00 AM to go back to Kya Wu Lha Pass to watch the sunrise over Himalayas. I was up and dressed well before 5:00 AM wishing that we could leave early. In retrospect, I might have gotten about one hour of sleep during the night but it was a genuine Tibetan tent experience at a very high elevation that I can talk about for years to come.

Migmar and our driver came at a little before 6:00 AM on Tuesday, 19 June, and we departed to go see the sunrise over the Himalayas. We arrived at Kya Wu Lha Pass a little bit late for the initial sunrise but in time to see most of the beautiful sunrise on Mount Everest and the Himalayas before continuing back to Shigatse to spend the night. Back at the hotel in Shigatse, the hot shower felt so wonderful followed by a very good sleep that night.

Prior to departing Shigatse on Wednesday, 20 June, we visited the Tashi Lhunpo Monastery which was one of the six “Yellow Hat Sects” monasteries. It was founded by Gedun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama, in 1447 and occupies 700,000 square meters. It contains the highest sitting Maltreya Buddha Statue in the world. The statue was made of gold and copper alloy.

After a long drive, we arrived back at Lhasa and had some free time to explore Lhasa after dark. I ate dinner at the Lhasa Burger King restaurant where I enjoyed a flame grilled double whopper. I walked to the Potala Plaza where I took photos of the fountain in front of the Liberation Monument and photos of the reflection of the Potala Palace on the pools of water at the plaza. I also took photos of the palace at night. By chance, all five of our small group tour met at the plaza and we had someone take several group photos of us in front of the palace – those would be the last group photos of us.

The following morning, we were driven to the airport to take flights home. I flew back to Chengdu to overnight and then flew back to Los Angeles on Friday, 21 June.

See pictures from Tibet, China & Mount Everest Base Camp

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  June 2018
Colorado Springs

Travel Notes

 

Since my home in Los Angeles is at sea level, I decided to travel to Colorado Springs, Colorado, for some high altitude mountain hiking to acclimate to higher altitudes before flying to China for my upcoming trip to Tibet, China, and Mount Everest Base Camp. While in Colorado for eight days, I hiked at elevations from 6,000 to 14,000 feet.

On Thursday, 31 May 31, I flew from Los Angeles to Denver, Colorado, where I rented a car and drove to Colorado Springs, Colorado. After checking into my hotel, I walked around downtown Colorado Springs which has an elevation of 6,035 feet above sea level. While walking, I finally arrived at the Colorado Springs Visitor Center where I obtained tourist sightseeing information for Colorado Springs and the Pikes Peak Region. The Pioneer Museum was closed by the time I arrived so I decided to return the following day for a visit.

After breakfast on Friday,1 June, I drove to the Garden of the Gods Visitor & Nature Center where I obtained a map and recommended hikes from a park ranger. Armed with my map, I drove to the North Main Parking Lot and proceeded to hike the Upper Loop Trail and the south extension loop trail. The red rock formations were magnificent against the clear blue sky. I then drove to the Scotsman Picnic Area Parking Lot and hiked along the Gateway Trail to the Siamese Twins Trail. After hiking the complete Siamese Twins Trail, I hiked back to my car. Before leaving the park, I stopped to visit the famous Balanced Rock. According to my pedometer, I had hiked 11,357 steps at the Garden of the Gods.

Upon returning to Colorado Springs, I once again walked throughout the downtown area and returned to the Pioneer Museum located within the historic Colorado Springs Courthouse building. It was a very interesting museum that I was glad to have visited. My pedometer registered 19,000 steps at the end of the day.

After receiving a late checkout from my hotel on Saturday, 2 June, I drove to the Broadmoor Hotel to take a shuttle bus to the entrance to Broadmoor Seven Falls. While waiting for the first shuttle bus of the day, I walked around the historic Broadmoor Hotel and admired the lobby area.

Upon arriving at the entrance gate, I hiked nearly a mile along South Cheyenne Creek to the base area of the Seven Waterfalls. Seven Waterfalls is where the South Cheyenne Canyon Creek cascades 181 feet down a granite cliff forming seven distinct waterfalls. Before climbing the 224-step stairway along the falls, I hiked the steep stairway up to the Eagle’s Nest viewing platform, which afforded wonderful panoramic views of the canyon and waterfalls. I took an elevator down from the viewing platform – I didn’t notice the elevator prior to taking the stairs to the platform. I continued hiking to the falls and then hiked the 224-step stairway to the top of the falls at an elevation of 6,800 feet. After arriving at the top of the waterfalls, I decided to hike the 1.5 mile round-trip trail to Inspiration Point. The trail passes the Helen Hunt Jackson gravesite, and the views from along this trail were stunning. The descent on the stairway alongside the falls was much faster than my initial climb to the top. I took the elevator back to the Eagle’s Nest platform to capture photos of the falls with a better sun pattern than my photos earlier in the morning. After hiking back to the free shuttle bus, I returned to check out of my Colorado Springs hotel and drive to Cripple Creek with an elevation of 9,494 feet.

Cripple Creek and nearby Victor are located on the western slopes of Pikes Peak. A major gold strike was made in 1890 and 1891 in Cripple Creek and Victor. In prehistoric times, the area was volcanic which created the riches that made this mining district famous. The six square miles that make up the Cripple Creek & Victor Mining District are located in the caldera of an extinct volcano. The millions made from 1891 to the present time earned it the title of the World’s Greatest Gold Camp.

The gold rush brought lumber yards, hotels, 100 saloons, over 40 assay offices, an equal number of brokerage firms, 80 doctors, 91 lawyers, and 14 newspapers. Electricity lighted the streets in 1892, and the city’s water system was completed in 1893. Originally, all of the buildings in Cripple Creek were wooden. However, after two fires in 1896 destroyed the business district and many residences, the city fathers ordained that the business district must be built in brick. Today many of the 1890’s brick buildings on Bennett Avenue are home to modern-day casinos, shops, and restaurants.

My first stop on the drive to Cripple Creek was at a viewpoint overlooking the caldera where Cripple Creek is located. The next stop was at the Cripple Creek Heritage and Information Center overlooking the town of Cripple Creek. In addition to tourist information, it has wonderful exhibits of the gold mining era, geology, Colorado dinosaurs, and a wall of windows overlooking the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Across the road from the Heritage Center is an overlook viewpoint of Poverty Gulch.

After arriving in Cripple Creek and checking into the Century Casino Hotel on Bennett Street, I walked slowly due to the high altitude along Bennett Street to the old Midland terminal. The Cripple Creek & Victor Narrow Gauge Railroad operates from this Railway station. Since the train was still operating, I bought a ticket and took a seat at the back end of the train to maximize my photo opportunities. The train has a 15 ton locomotive of the 0-4-0 type typical of the early day steam engines. It belches smoke from a coal fired boiler, with sounds of steam, a piercing whistle, and the sound of working steel on steel during the four mile round-trip. The conductor narrates the journey as it passes many old gold mine sites en route to Echo Valley where it backs up, turns around, and returns to the old Midland Terminal. It was a wonderful way to see the Cripple Creek area while beginning to acclimate to the 9,500 feet elevation.

Although it was overcast with occasional misting rain on Sunday morning, I walked to the Cripple Creek District Museum. The main museum building, with three floors of fascinating exhibits, is the Midland Depot Terminal which was built in 1895. At one time, it had three railroads passing through—the Midland Terminal Railroad, the Colorado Springs & Cripple Creek District (Short Line), and the Florence & Cripple Creek Railroad—with an average of ten passenger trains daily. It was in continual operation from 1895 to 1949 and survived the fires of 1896 making it one of the oldest buildings in Cripple Creek. There are different exhibits in each of the rooms of the museum. The cantilevered staircase is a double spiral staircase supported by the exterior wall and is an example of late Victorian craftsmanship.

The museum also has additional outside exhibits including an assay office, a train waiting station, the Colorado Trading & Transfer Company building, a miner’s cabin, the French Blanche LeCroix’ cabin, and the Pinnacle Mine headframe. This museum is a “must see” destination in Cripple Creek.

I walked from the District Museum to the Mt. Pisgah Cemetery which was a 40-acre cemetery donated on March 21, 1895, to the Mount Pisgah Cemetery Association. The donors retained the mineral rights but noted that any mining would be done “without injury to the surface.” The earliest marked burial is 1892, which indicates the land was in use as a cemetery before 1895. The grave for Pearl DeVere, a famous madam of Cripple Creek, is located here with a large white marble heart tombstone.

As I walked back to town, I stopped at the Outlaws & Lawmen Jail Museum. This was interesting in that men were housed in metal cages on the ground level within the main structure and women were housed in metal cages on the upper level. For more than 90 years, the people incarcerated here had to tolerate some very grim conditions – the jail was in use from 1901 to 1992.

My last stop of the day was at the Old Homestead House museum on Meyers Avenue. It was Cripple Creek’s finest parlor house and was operated by Pearl DeVere. Pearl required a bank account certification for every prospective client. She died at a very young age from a morphine overdose and was buried in the town cemetery with a lavish celebration where nearly everyone in the town attended her funeral procession. The museum remains furnished much as it was in the day of Pearl DeVere. The rooms are furnished with priceless artifacts from all over the world donated to her by wealthy clients. This is another “must see” destination.

After checking out of my hotel on Monday, 4 June, I decided to drive Highway 67 to Victor. Along the way, I stopped at a roadside turnout at the trailhead of the Little Grouse Mountain Trail. The trail looked interesting, and I decided that I would hike it after visiting Victor. I also passed the site of the old Mary McKinney Mine and headframes for numerous other mines. Upon arrival at Victor, with an elevation of 9,708 feet, I observed the headframes of the Ajax Mine (est. 1895), Portland Mine (est. 1892), Independence Mine (est. 1891), and Strong Mine (est. 1891) situated along the mountain above Diamond Avenue and Teller County Road 81. After walking around much of downtown Victor, I passed the relocated Cresson Mine Headframe en route to the old Relocated Alta Vista Railroad Station that is now a small museum. The museum caretaker was very interesting; he gave me a map and suggested that I drive to Goldfield and hike to some of the old mine sites. I decided to forgo the Little Grouse Mountain Trail and embark on hiking around the old gold mines near Goldfield that the caretaker recommended. The drive along SR 81 to Goldfield was short, and I missed the initial turnoff for the trail and ended up at the Victor Pass with an elevation of 10,201 feet. After making a U-turn, I located the lower parking area for the Vindicator Valley Trail. I hiked along the trail to the Teresa Mine and continued on past old powder magazines, the Anna J. Mine, the Christmas Mine, and past a Pikes Peak Viewpoint. Continuing uphill, I passed the Bebee House, the Lillie (G.G.) Gold Mining Company, and the Vindicator Consolidated Mining Company. The Bebee House is adjacent to the upper parking area for the Vindicator Valley Trail. I hiked back down to the parking lot without taking the trail out through the valley. I continued driving to Manitou Springs.

I arrived at Manitou Springs during the late afternoon and, after checking into my hotel, I walked along the main street of Manitou Springs. Manitou Springs is a small laid back tourist town with many restaurants and shops. It is home to the famous Manitou Incline Trail, which is a hike along the right-of-way for the original Manitou Incline after closure of the powered incline and removal of the metal rails. Hikers climb up the mountain to approximately 8,000 feet elevation and then return to Manitou Springs via a lower portion of the Barr Trail between Manitou Springs and Pikes Peak. It was also the starting point for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway which ceased operations during the spring of 2018.

On Tuesday, 5 June, I drove to the summit of Pikes Peak via the Pikes Peak Highway. The elevation at the gateway to the park is 7,800 feet. My first stop along the highway was at Crystal Reservoir, with an elevation of 9,160 feet, where I took some spectacular photos of Pikes Peak. As I continued to drive higher, I photographed some mountain goats on the roadside. In addition, I occasionally stopped for some panoramic photos as well. While I was at the summit, my pedometer showed that I hiked around the summit area for approximately 6,000 steps at 14,000 feet elevation without any ill effects from the high altitude. I now felt confident that I had become somewhat acclimated to the altitude.

After returning to Manitou Springs, I walked around the main street before having dinner. That evening, I decided that for my last full day in Colorado, I would forgo attempting to hike the Manitou Incline Trail, as it would only take me to an elevation of 8,000 feet. Instead, I would return to the gold mines trails near Victor at an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet.

On Wednesday morning, 6 June, I returned to Victor and again hiked the complete Vindicator Valley Trail loop from the lower parking area. It was a beautiful day and the photo opportunities were superb. As I returned to Manitou Springs, I stopped at the Manitou Cliff Dwellings on the outskirts of Manitou Springs. The cliff dwellings were interesting but not spectacular.

On Thursday morning, 7 June, I attempted to get a late checkout from my Manitou Springs hotel but my request was denied. Since my flight from Denver to Los Angeles was at night, I decided to return to the Garden of the Gods for several hours of hiking the same routes that I had hiked several days earlier. The early morning light was wonderful for photos at Balanced Rock and several other monuments.

I returned to my hotel, checked out, and drove to the Denver International Airport where I returned my rental car. I was able to get an earlier flight home to Los Angeles and returned home that evening. I now felt that I was acclimated enough to travel to China in a couple of days to continue on to Lhasa, Tibet, China, with an elevation of nearly 12,000 feet before continuing to Mount Everest Base Camp with an elevation of more than 17,000 feet.

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  March 2018
Mandalay, Myanmar

Travel Notes

 

Although I had been traveling to Southeast Asia for more than twenty years, I had never visited Myanmar (Burma) because obtaining a tourist visa for Myanmar was difficult. In December, I found a website that advertised the possibility of obtaining a Myanmar Visa Approval Letter from the Myanmar Government. I decided to try to obtain the e-visa approval letter. I filled out the online application form and attached a photo to the application. The application requested a travel date to Myanmar, the departure airport to Myanmar as well as the arrival airport in Myanmar, and the hotel that I would be staying at upon my arrival into Myanmar. I decided to fly from Bangkok, Thailand, to Mandalay, Myanmar, on a date during February 2018 and specified the Mandalay Hilton hotel. After completing the application and providing my credit card information, I received an email with my Myanmar Visa Approval Letter from the Myanmar Government.

Now that I had my visa approval letter, I needed to decide where in Myanmar I wanted to visit. I prepared an itinerary that consisted of three nights at Mandalay, four nights at Bagan, and an additional two nights at Mandalay. I booked roundtrip flights from Bangkok to Mandalay, and booked online hotel reservations within Myanmar. The final step was to book travel to Bangkok from Los Angeles to be in place for my trip to Mandalay.

I flew from Bangkok to Mandalay on 2 March 2018. After exchanging money into Myanmar Kyats at the Mandalay airport, I booked a taxi to the Mandalay Hilton hotel. Much to my surprise, the preferred currency was USA Dollars but only pristine perfect USA Dollar denominated bills – no creases, no nicks, no small tears, no pencil or ink marks. I had some USA Dollars but none would meet the pristine perfect condition so I used some of my newly acquired Myanmar Kyats for the taxi fare.

While I was checking into the hotel, I asked a lady at the front desk about booking a day trip local tour for the following day. She said that the hotel could arrange for a private car, driver, and English speaking guide for local sightseeing day trip tours of Mandalay. I immediately reserved the car and guide for two day so of local sightseeing. When I asked about traveling to Bagan, she offered several options of local bus, private car, or by boat on the Irrawaddy River which is also referred to as the Ayeyarwaddy River. I told her that I would like to take the bus and she made the bus reservation for me for Monday, 5 March, to Bagan.

In a matter of less than fifteen minutes after I arrived at the hotel, I had firmed up my next three days in Myanmar. The hotel had been completely refurbished by Hilton and had opened only several weeks before my arrival. My room was very nice and overlooked the Mandalay Fort and Royal Palace complex.

After a very nice buffet breakfast on Saturday, 3 March, my guide with car and driver picked me up at the hotel to begin the first sightseeing day in Mandalay. I soon discovered that everyone visiting temples and monasteries in Myanmar is required to remove shoes and socks and to walk barefoot. Myanmar also has very strict dress codes for visiting temples and monasteries.

Our first stop was at the Gold Leaf Buddha Factory where people were making gold leaf. The next stop was at the Mahamuni Buddha Temple which was very large and picturesque with many young children wearing traditional celebration clothing. As I walked around the Mahamuni Image statue, one man gave me some gold leaf to place on the statue which is 12 feet 7 inches high. The surface of the statue was somewhat sticky so that the gold leaf would adhere. Mahamuni was a very large complex and took about one hour to visit.

After visiting a stone carving factory in the Stone Carving Quarter of Mandalay, we visited the Shwe In Pain Monastery. Upon entering the gate to the large monastery complex, visitors are required to remove shoes and socks with a long walk to the old wooden monastery building that we came to see. It was another picturesque setting with some exquisite wood carvings.

We continued on past the Mandalay Clock Tower to see some of the Mandalay markets before continuing on to the Mandalay Fort and Royal Palace. Mandalay was founded in 1857 by King Mindon, and a majority of the monuments—including the palace, city walls, pagodas, and monasteries—were built during 1857 or soon after. The fortified city is in the form of a square with each side being 10 furlongs long. The battlemented wall of brick and mud mortar is 25 feet high and backed by an earthen rampart. There are 12 gates on each side equal distances from one another. The moat that surrounds the city averages 225 feet wide and 11 feet deep. Royal Palace occupied the central part of the fortified city. It was removed from Amarapura and reconstructed at Mandalay. It consisted of numerous wooden buildings on a large platform enclosed by a brick wall. All of these original palace buildings were destroyed by fire during the last war.

There is one entrance to the fort that is open for tourists to visit the area occupied by the original royal palace. There are many structures and several mausoleums including King Mindon’s. 600 inscription stones are contained within these structures. The Mya Nan San Kyaw Golden Palace Cultural Museum is also situated here. I was told that the other buildings throughout the walled fort are occupied by family members of the Myanmar military.

After lunch, we visited the the Kuthodaw pagoda which was built by King Mindon in 1859 AD. In addition to the pagoda, this site is described as the world’s biggest book and houses 729 marble slabs of the Buddhist Cannon. We also visited Shwe Nandaw Kyaung (Golden Palace Monastery) and the Kyuak Taw Gui Pagoda before traveling to the top of Mandalay Hill where we visited the Su Taung Pyai Pagoda. We returned to the Mandalay Fort to view a gorgeous sunset over a portion of the moat and fort.

On Sunday morning, 4 March, we drove to Amarapura which was the capital city before King Mindon moved the capital to Mandalay. We visited the Pahtodawgyi Pagoda which was built in 1820, and then drove past Taungthaman Lake en route to the Mahagandayon Monastery which was founded in 1914. It is one of the largest teaching monasteries in Myanmar, and home to up to 2000 monks at any given time. We came here to watch the resident monks line up silently and systematically for their lunch – their last meal of the day. This monastery is considered to be a must-see tourist attraction and is on most tourism itineraries. As I was leaving the monastery, I noticed a beautiful clock tower which I have called the Amarapura Clock Tower, although it might be part of the Mahagandayon Monastery complex.

Our next destination was the Shwe Sin Tai Silk Weaving showroom and silk weaving factory en route to Sagaing Hill. As we crossed the Irrawaddy River via the Yadanabon Bridge built in 2008, Sagaing Hill became visible. The Yadanabon Bridge is adjacent to the 16 span cantilever Ava Bridge between Ava and Sagaing. Sagaing is one of Myanmar’s most picturesque sites with numerous pagodas crowning the hills. While in Sagaing, we visited the Thidagu Buddha University, the U-min Thonze Pagoda, the Soon Oo Pone Nya Shin Pagoda, and the Kaung Mutaw Pagoda.

We drove from Sagaing to a jetty to board a boat to cross the Dokhtawadi River (also referred to as the Myitnge River) to go to Innwa (also referred to as Ava). Innwa is situated at the confluence of the Irrawaddy and Myitnge Rivers and was founded in 1364. It was the capital of a kingdom for nearly 500 years. After nearly being destroyed by an earthquake in 1838, Innwa was abandoned in favor of Amarapura in 1841.

After crossing the river, we hired a horse drawn cart to take us to several different sites at Innwa. We visited the Bagaya Monastery which was constructed of 267 teak wood posts and most of the exterior adornments had been lost due to exposure to the weather. Our next stop was at the Yandana Simme Pagoda en route to the ancient Innwa Watch Tower which was situated near a water pool. Before returning to the boat dock, we visited the Maha Aung Mye Bozan Monastery.

After returning to the car, we drove to the Taungthaman Lake where we parked and walked nearly half way across the U Bein Bridge. It is 1.2 kilometers long and was built from teak planks. It is said to be the longest bridge of its type in the world. In 1857, when the capital moved from nearby Amarapura to Mandalay, the local mayor (named U Bein) salvaged wood from pieces of the dismantled teak palace and reconstructed it into this magnificent bridge. We were there during the dry season when the water level was very low and polluted. During the rainy season, the water level reportedly rises to just below the planks of the bridge. Since I decided not to travel by small boat out on the lake to take a sunset photo of the bridge due to the excessive pollution of the water, we returned to the hotel.

After returning to the hotel, I reserved the same car and driver for one more day of sightseeing on Saturday, 10 March, when I would be back from my excursion to Bagan. I also received my local bus ticket from the front desk clerk for my trip to Bagan.

My visit to Bagan from 5 March to 9 March is documented in my separate Bagan, Myanmar Travel Notes.

On Friday, 9 March, I checked out of the hotel in Bagan at 5:00 AM and picked up my breakfast-to-go from the hotel before being picked up by a taxi to go to the jetty to board the boat to Mandalay. It was still dark when I arrived at the jetty parking area where I was immediately met by several people who checked my ticket and carried my luggage to the boat. The gangplank was a board that I had to walk across from the river bank to the boat – glad that my balance was good enough to not fall off of the board.

I took a seat near the front and waited for the journey to begin. The passengers on the boat were mainly tourists, and there were plenty of empty seats for the non-stop trip upstream on the Irrawaddy River to Mandalay. Sunrise over the Irrawaddy River was spectacular as we approached the Pakokku Bridge with the sun in the background.

The Pakokku Bridge was built between 2009 and 31 December 2011. It is both a rail and highway bridge. It is part of the India-Myanmar-Thailand Trilateral Highway and is the longest bridge in Myanmar. It opened on 1 January 2012.

Even though the Irrawaddy River level was low and the river had receded from the high water marks on portions with high banks, it was quite wide and would flood wide swaths of the adjacent lowlands during the wet season. The trip upstream was interesting with many photo opportunities of different sizes and types of ships, boats, barges, and gigantic bamboo rafts.

As the boat approached Sagaing, it passed under both the Ava Bridge and the Yadanabon Bridge. Sigaing Hill was illuminated by sunshine and provided very good photo opportunities. Upon departing the river boat, I took a taxi to the Mandalay Hilton and was charged an excessive amount because I was obviously a foreign tourist. It was the only time that I was overcharged during my time in Myanmar.

On Saturday morning, 10 March, I was greeted by my previous guide and driver for my last local tour at Mandalay. We decided to visit Mingun and stopped en route at Sagaing to visit the Ook Kyaung Temple and the small pool adjacent to the temple. We continued along the Irrawaddy River to Mingun where we parked to visit the Mya Thein Dan Pagoda. After removing my shoes and socks, my guide and I climbed to the upper level of the pagoda and enjoyed several marvelous panoramic views. Next we visited the enormous Mingun Bell before going to the ancient Pahto Daw Gyi Pagoda which has sustained earthquake damage and a portion of the stairway to the upper level was closed to the public. Another site called The Lions was situated along the bank of the Irrawaddy River opposite from the bell and pagodas. These “lions” were two huge monuments which I believe resembled two elephants. The head portion had separated from the main portion of one of the two monuments.

We passed the Kyat Daijng Lake while driving to a restaurant for lunch. It was more like a pool constructed with stone stepped sides and worthy of a photo. After lunch, we returned to the hotel where I said goodbye to my guide and driver.

I checked out of the Hilton Mandalay on Sunday, 11 March, to go to the Mandalay International Airport for my flight back to Bangkok. While on the flight, I realized that I had just completed a fantastic trip to Myanmar.

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  March 2018
Bagan, Myanmar

Travel Notes

 

After visiting Mandalay, Myanmar, from 2 March to 4 March, 2018, I obtained my local bus ticket from the hotel front desk clerk for my trip from Mandalay to Bagan. On Monday morning, 5 March, I was picked up at the hotel in Mandalay by the local bus company and taken to the Hello Express local bus where they had reserved a front row seat for me – I believe that only a limited number of seats were reserved. Throughout the trip to Bagan, the bus driver and his assistant would stop whenever someone wished to board or to disembark from the bus. Although it was a long bus ride, it was also a very interesting and inexpensive way to travel. Of particular interest to me was the use of manual labor for road construction including melting the tar in barrels for the road construction. Upon arrival at Bagan, I was taken directly to my hotel by the bus company.

While on the bus, I called the Areindmar Hotel, where I had made advance reservations, to reconfirm my arrival and request them to arrange for a private car and driver for the following day for local sightseeing. Upon arrival at the hotel, I was able to arrange for a hotel car with an English speaking guide for three days that included a day trip to Mount Popa. I was also able to have the hotel book a reservation on the boat from Bagan to Mandalay for Friday, 9 March. I paid for the boat ticket in USA Dollars as required by the hotel. I picked up my boat ticket from the front desk the following morning before eating a very nice buffet breakfast.

The ruins of Bagan extend over a tract of land measuring about 16 square miles along the east bank of the Irrawaddy River. The monuments, which are in all stages of decay, were erected mostly from the 11th to 13th centuries A.D. when Bagan was the seat of the Myanmar Dynasty. My guide said that currently there are more than 3,200 monuments in Bagan.

On the morning of 6 March, my guide with the car and driver met me at the hotel for a full day of local Bagan sightseeing. During the day we saw and visited many monuments and our day trip culminated in watching the sunset from a temple adjacent to the Dhammayazaka Pagoda. Our first stop was at the Nagayon Temple which contains a large standing Buddha with two smaller Buddhas, niches with statues, and wonderful wall paintings.

Next we visited Manuha Temple which was built in 1059 AD. Manuha contains images of three seated Buddhas and a gigantic recumbent image of Buddha. We walked from Manuha to visit Nanpaya Temple with a magnificent stone relief figure of Brahma. While walking, we also saw remnants of the Old Bagan City Wall, Thatbyinnyu Temple, Ngakywenadaung Pagoda, and Patothamya Temple. Our next stop was at a popular Bagan overlook with panoramic views over parts of Bagan. Since the daytime haze tended to obscure the distant views from the overlook, we drove to another overlook with somewhat better visibility.

We went from the second overlook to the Sulamani Temple which was built in 1188 AD. This temple features a large seated Buddha in a deep recess in a wall on the east side. It also has vaulted corridors with remnants of wonderful ancient wall and ceiling paintings. We continued on to visit the Dhamayangyi Temple which was never completed because the king building the temple was assassinated during the construction. We took photos as we drove past the Thabeikhmauk Temple Complex en route to the Ananda Temple.

Our last stop before lunch was at the Ananda Temple built in 1091 AD. It is one of the finest temples at Bagan and has recently been refurbished. It is beautiful, and I spent a lot of time visiting Ananda. It also contains magnificent stone sculptures. We also stopped to take photos of temples and pagodas near the Min O Chanta Phaya on our way to a restaurant for lunch. While driving around Bagan we saw and photographed many unidentified temples, pagodas, and other structures.

After lunch, we visited the Sarabua Gateway and took photos of the Shwe San Dav Pagoda as we returned to the hotel for an afternoon break. My guide met me late in the afternoon to go to Pwasaw to visit both the Dhammyazika Pagoda, built in 1196 AD and the adjacent Pwasaw Temple Complex to be in position to view the sunset over a portion of Bagan. I viewed the sunset from an upper level of one of the adjacent temples.

The following day, my guide met me at the hotel and we embarked on a road trip to visit the monastery at Taung Kalat commonly referred to as Mount Popa. Mount Popa is a volcano 1518 metres (4981 feet) above sea level, and about 50 km southeast of Bagan. Southwest of Mount Popa is Taung Kalat (pedestal hill), a sheer-sided volcanic plug, which rises 657 metres (2,156 ft) above sea level. Since Mount Popa is the name of the actual volcano that caused the creation of the Tuang Kalat volcanic plug, to avoid confusion, the volcano (with its crater blown open on one side) is generally called Taung Ma-gyi (mother hill). A Buddhist monastery is located at the summit of Taung Kalat. The Taung Kalat pedestal hill is frequently called Mount Popa. I will refer to Taung Kalat in my photos as Mount Popa. At one time, the Buddhist hermit U Khandi maintained the stairway of 777 steps to the summit of Taung Kalat.

Our first stop en route to Taung Kalat was at the Palm Toddy Workshop adjacent to the highway. Here I was shown how people use the toddy palm trees for a livelihood. The sap is used to produce wine and stronger alcohol. While the toddy fruits are used to make jelly and other edible foods, the leaves are used to make craft articles for tourists. It was very interesting watching the processes.

We also visited the Shwe Si Tiaung Village to see how the local villagers live. We walked through the village and the villagers were very friendly. Tamarind, peanuts, and lentils are among the food items harvested here. They also still use oxen carts for transporting goods.

Before arriving at Taung Kalat, we visited the Shwe Bone Taco Win Monastery where I was able to photograph the Taung Kalat and the monastery on top. Since we were not able to drive all the way to the base of Taung Kalat, my driver let me and my guide off in a village on top of an adjacent hill from where we had to walk to Taung Kalat before climbing to the monastery.

The monastery at Taung Kalat is famed for being home to 37 nats (Burmese spirits), which are represented by statues at the base of the volcanic outcrop. From here, we climbed up the 777 steps to the monastery at the top, had a 360 degree panorama view and a labyrinth of shrines to explore. Before climbing the steps to the monastery, we had to remove our shoes and socks. We also had to be careful when passing by numerous monkeys along the stairway. To complicate matters, tourists purchased small cardboard tubes full of dry lentils to feed the monkeys and the monkeys spilled many of the lentils on the steps which were difficult to avoid while barefoot.

The monastery was very interesting and the view was spectacular. The climb down was still complicated by the monkeys and lentils on the steps. After returning to the car, we stopped for lunch and then returned to Bagan. I took photos of several more temples en route to Bagan. The trip was wonderful and I was able to return to the hotel with many very nice photos.

My guide picked me up at my hotel at 5:00 AM on Thursday morning, 8 March, to see the sunrise over an area of Bagan. We parked at a location near the Tamani Pagoda and hiked to a temple where we climbed up a set of narrow stairs to an upper lever to await the sunrise. I took several photos of temples illuminated by electric lights in the darkness and many photos as the sun gradually illuminated the area. We descended from the temple and found several other areas to continue photographing the sunrise and the hot air balloons floating across Bagan with the rising sun in the background.

We returned to the hotel where I ate breakfast and met my guide later in the morning to go to the Bagan Archaeological Museum. The relatively new museum was large and replaced a much smaller adjacent building. Although cameras were not allowed in the museum, visitors were allowed to take photos with mobile phones. The exhibits were well worth the visit.

After the museum, we visited the West Pwa Saw Village in Bagan. The village was also very interesting even though it was somewhat similar to the village that we visited the day before. From the village we continued along the Myat Lay Road to visit the Lemyethna Group and Temple, Thamanpaya Temple, Narathihapatae Temple, Payathonzu Temple, and Thambula Temple. These temples completed my local tours of Bagan, and I said goodbye to my guide and driver upon returning to the hotel.

I checked out of the hotel at 5:00 AM on Friday, 9 March, and picked up my breakfast-to-go from the hotel before being picked up by a taxi to go to the jetty to board the boat to Mandalay. The boat trip to Mandalay is documented in my separate Mandalay, Myanmar Travel Notes.

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  January 2018
Northwest Argentina

Travel Notes

 

Prior to booking a trip to Tibet and Everest Base Camp, I wanted to determine if I would be physically able to acclimate to high elevation altitude. Since Lhasa is approximately 12,000 feet above sea level and Everest Base Camp is approximately 18,000 feet above sea level, I decided to go to Salta and Jujuy Provinces of Argentina during the southern hemisphere summer month of January where I could experience elevations up to and over 14,000 feet.

I flew from Buenos Aires to Salta, Argentina, on Thursday, 4 January. Salta is the Provincial Capital of Salta Province and is 3,780 feet above sea level. After checking into my hotel, I decided to explore the neighborhood near the hotel. Although it was the rainy season in Salta and Jujuy provinces, the afternoon was clear and I decided to walk to the San Bernardo Cable Car, Teleferico San Bernardo, by following the overhead cables in the distance. I eventually arrived at Parque San Martin where the downhill station was situated. It was already too late in the day to ride the cable car, I decided that I would return the following day.

I continued walking until I arrived at Plaza 9 de Julio, the main plaza in Salta. It was dark by the time I finished eating dinner near the plaza. I continued walking around the plaza and admired the area as it was illuminated after dark.

Friday morning, 5 January, was beautiful with bright sunshine, which was a perfect time to return to the cable car. The cable car construction began during 1987 and it began operation in 1998. The panoramic views of Salta from the cable car as it ascends 285 meters to the Cerro San Bernardo viewpoint are stunning. In addition, there is an artistic water project at the summit which has many interesting features as people walk around and over it. Since Cerro San Bernardo is the highest point within the city, there are panoramic views in all directions.

I walked to the Plaza 9 de Julio where I visited the Museo de Arqueologia de Alta Montana (MAAM), the high altitude archaeological museum of the north. It features the discovery of the three incas “Liullailaco Children” found frozen at the peak of Mount Liullailaco. They are some of the best preserved mummies in the world. The museum displays one of them at any one time and cycles the mummy on display every several months. No photographs are allowed within the museum.

After booking the Train to the Clouds Tour for Saturday and a tour to Cafayete for Sunday, I continued exploring the Plaza 9 de Julio area of Salta. In addition to the interesting structures within the plaza, the architecture of the surrounding buildings was also very nice. Most noteworthy were the Salta Cathedral, Cathedral Basilica, and the San Francisco Church, Basilica Menor y Convento San Francisco. These two churches were very beautiful both during the day and at night. The Old Town Hall, Cabildo Historica, is another prominent structure adjacent to the plaza. At night the plaza was full of people.

I was picked up at my hotel at 6:15 AM on Saturday morning and driven to the Salta Train station where I received my ticket and seat assignment for the Train to the Clouds, Tren a las Nubes, and the bus that would take me to the train station at San Antonio de los Cobres where I would board the train. The bus trip would include the very scenic Route 51 through the magnificent Quebrada del Toro. This gorge follows the Rio Toro and has constantly changing dramatic scenery and multicolored rocks. The first stop of the bus was at Campo Quijano to see an old steam locomotive that was on display. An additional stop was at the Viaducto El Toro for photos.

The bus continued northwest on Route 51 to El Alfarcito where the tour served coffee and a light breakfast snack. El Alfarcito is at an elevation of 2,800 meters (9,187 feet). In addition to a school, it has the San Cayetano Church, Capilla San Cayetano. The bus continued the assent to the Abra Blanco with an elevation of 4,080 meters (13,385 feet) before descending to a plateau and continuing to San Antonio de los Cobres with an elevation of 3,774 meters (12,382 feet). Spectacular views of Nevado de Acay with an elevation of 5,950 meters (19,521 feet) could be seen from Route 51 on both sides of the Abra Blanca.

We boarded the Tren a las Nubes at San Antonio de los Cobres and rode for 21 kilometers past the old Concordia Mine, Minos Concordia, to the famous bridge, La Polvorilla Viaduct. The bridge is 223.5 meters long with a maximum height of 63 meters above the ground and at an elevation of 4,220 meters (13,845 feet). It was constructed in 1932 and inaugurated on November 5, 1939. After a brief stop at La Polvorilla, the passengers on the train switched sides in the cars so they would have a different view as the train returned to San Antonio de los Cobres.

After disembarking from the train, the bus stopped in San Antonio de los Cobres for us to purchase lunch from any place of our choosing. During lunch, intermittent light rain showers began with snow accumulating on Nevado de Acay. The bus returned to Salta via Route 51 with a short stop at Santa Rosa de Tastil. This stop was to allow the passengers to walk to a viewpoint overlooking the archaeological ruins site at Tastil. Since it was raining and the visibility was very limited, I decided to remain on the bus. I returned to my hotel at approximately 8:30 PM after the long day trip.

On Sunday morning, the tour to Cafayete did not come to pick me up at my hotel at the appointed time. After waiting for more than 30 minutes, the hotel receptionist called the tour company which said that the tour bus was en route to the hotel. After another 30 minutes the tour company told the hotel receptionist that maybe the bus was stuck in traffic. Finally after another long delay, the tour company acknowledged that they had booked the tour for the prior day, the same day as my Tren a las Nubes tour. They refunded the cost of the tour to me after they opened later in the day.

Since I was not able to take the Cafayete tour, I decided to walk to the Salta Anthropological Museum, Museo de Antropologia. The museum was situated behind a small park with the Monumento al Gral. Martin Miguel de Guemes. Although the museum was small and was very much a work-in-progress, it was well worth a visit. After visiting the museum, I walked around several different areas of Salta.

On Monday, 8 January, I boarded a long distance bus to Humahuaca in Jujuy Province where I boarded another bus to Iruya. The bus trip from Salta to Humahuaca was 245 kilometers north on Route 9. The bus stopped at the new bus station at Jujuy city and at several other places including Purmamarca and Tilcara. Route 9 between Purmamarca and Humahuaca ascends through the Quebrada de Humahuaca with gorgeous colorful mountain scenery. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003. After arriving at the Humahuaca bus station, I found the ticket sales for the bus to Iruya and purchased my ticket. The elevation at Humahuaca is 2,936 meters (9,633 feet). The road from Humahuacqa to Iruya was a narrow, winding, and mostly unpaved mountain road that is not for the faint of heart.

Iruya is a small town nestled against the mountainside at an elevation of 2,780 meters (9,120 feet) along the Iruya River. Although it is located in Salta Province, there is no road connecting it with the rest of the Salta province. Access to Iruya is through a road to the adjacent Jujuy province. The church in Iruya was built in 1690. The bus stop for Iruya is along the road to the town. The portion of the road and the streets within Iruya are paved with large uneven cobblestones which made rolling my carryon luggage nearly impossible. Fortunately, a local man took pity on me and offered to help me with my luggage to my hotel which ended up being nearly one kilometer away from the bus stop and mostly uphill. I was moving slowly in Iruya due to the high elevation and was happy that I had been acclimating for several days. I rested at my hotel for a couple of hours before looking to find somewhere nearby for dinner.

On Tuesday, 9 January, I went for a hike up the slope to the Iruya Hotel. It is the finest hotel in Iruya and is also the hotel farthest up the mountain. I walked from the hotel to the colorful Iruya Cemetery and then hiked to the viewpoint above the town with panoramic views of the town, the Iruya River and the portion of Iruya across the river accessible via a footbridge. I also booked an afternoon 4x4 tour to several smaller nearby pueblos. The only other attraction in Iruya was the museum located at the church – it was tiny but interesting. Since I was still getting acclimated to the altitude, I continued to walk slowly on the steep rough cobblestone streets.

The afternoon 4x4 tour was very good with a wonderful driver who would stop for photos anytime I asked. We traveled on one lane dirt roads up and down the mountains and visited several small pueblos including Campo Carpipas and Pueblo Viejo. The tour lasted nearly four hours and was a very good way to see the surrounding area.

After breakfast on Wednesday, 10 January, I decided to hike across the footbridge to the part of Iruya situated across the Iruya River. I was told that there was a trail up the mountain above this part of Iruya that led to a viewpoint to watch condors. The trail was a long steep climb up the side of the mountain with continuous switchbacks. In some places it was partly washed away and somewhat dangerous and of course, there were no handrails for support. I had been able to see several condors as I began the trail but the clouds began to obscure the view. I walked slowly with many rest stops due to the high elevation. After hiking nearly 80% of the trail elevation, it began to rain with thunder and lightning off in the distance. Since I did not want to be on the mountain during a potential thunderstorm, I decided to return to Iruya. In spite of stopping my hike, I was delighted that weather permitting, I would have been able to hike the top of the mountain.

On Thursday, 11 January, I hired a man to drive me and my luggage down to the bus stop to catch the bus back to Humahuaca. The bus ride to Humahuaca was a bit tricky as the rivers that we needed to drive across had increased water levels due to an overnight rain. En route to Humahuaca, the bus stopped for a few minutes at the picturesque village of Iturbe. It was misting rain when I arrived at Humahuaca, and I took a taxi to my hotel. Since I would have two days here, I went to find a travel desk to try to book a tour to Serrania de Hornocal and a tour to Tilcara. There were no pre-arranged tours available to Hornocal for Friday but I was able to book a 4x4 tour to Tilcara and Purmamarca for Saturday, 13 January. I was instructed to walk to the bridge on Friday and negotiate a 4x4 tour with one of the many trucks at the bridge.

On Friday morning, I walked to Gomez Plaza where I saw the Cabildo, the Inglesia de la Candelaria, and the small plaza in front of the steps leading up to the Heroes of the Independence Monument. It was a beautiful clear morning, and the views of the colorful mountains from the monument were stunning. The Santa Barbara Tower is situated near the monument, while the Humahuaca Cemetery is situated about 200 meters behind the heroes monument.

After walking to the cemetery, I returned to the monument and walked back down the stairs. To my surprise, what appeared to be a beauty contest was now in progress in the small plaza in front of the monument. I continued to explore portions of Humahuaca and eventually arrived at the bridge where several drivers with trucks were looking for people to go on tours. I found a man with a red truck who would take me to Hornocal as soon as he could find two more people for the trip. After several minutes, I told him that I would pay the additional amount and go with him as a private tour.

Serrania de Hornocal is a beautiful mountain range with multicolored triangular formations. The literature states that Hornocal has fourteen different colors and is best seen during the late afternoon on a clear day. Unfortunately, the clouds were rapidly moving in and the weather was deteriorating. The road to Hornocal was a winding ascent through the mountains to reach the viewpoint at an elevation of 4,350 meters (14,272 feet). By the time we arrived at the viewpoint area, the clouds had moved in with visible heavy rain in the distance. The good news was that I was at the highest elevation of my trip, but the bad news was that the vibrant colors of the rocks were diminished by clouds and fog. During the drive to Hornocal we saw several herds of wild Vicugna near the road. By the time we returned to Humahuaca, it was raining and I spent the remainder of the afternoon at my hotel.

I met my 4x4 tour on Saturday morning to go to Tilcara and Pumamarca. It was another beautiful clear morning as we drove southbound along Route 9 through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Tilcara. We stopped for a few minutes at the picturesque village of Uquia en route to Tilcara. After arriving at Tilcara, with an elevation of 2,400 meters (7,874 feet), we stopped for photos in the town center and then continued on to the Pucara de Tilcara and the Jardin Botanico de Alturam. Jardin Botanico, which is located next to the pucara, is a botanical garden with cactus species native to the area. It is well worth a visit.

The Pucara de Ticara is a pre-Inca fortification or pucara located on a hill just outside of Tilcara. The pucara was originally built by the Omaguaca tribe around the 12th century. At its peak, the pucara covered up to 15 acres and housed over 2,000 inhabitants that lived in small square buildings with low doorways and no windows. The pucara also contained corrals for animals, sites to perform ceremonies, and burial sites. The Inca conquered the site during the late 15th century. The Spanish arrived in 1536, conquered the Incas, and founded the town of Tilcara. After excavation of the site during the early 20th century, the site was opened as an archaeological museum in 1966.

Our tour continued southbound on Route 9 through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Purmamarca. Purmamarca, with an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet), is a small town situated at the base of many colorful mountains. The most famous of these is the Hill of Seven Colors, Cerro de los Siete Colores. After stopping for photos along the main road, where most tourists take photos of Cerro de los Colores, the driver took us back through a valley and over a pass with multi colored landscape on all sides. As the road ascended, the driver asked me if I was able to walk downhill at this altitude. I answered that I was. Later near the top of a pass overlooking a beautiful valley, the driver stopped for photographs and then drove off to the valley floor to wait for us. I didn’t realize that he was going to drive off and left my hat on the front seat of the truck. It was a long beautiful hike to the valley floor to retrieve my hat and my face received a severe sun burn during the hike. After a visit to downtown Purmamaca for lunch, we returned to Humahuaca.

On Sunday, 14 January, I took the long distance bus back to Salta. After checking into my hotel, I went to book small group tours to Cachi, Cafayete, and Salinas Grandes for the following three days that I would be in Salta.

I met my small group tour to Cachi early Monday morning. After a brief stop at Parador El Maray, the bus continued on Route 33 through the Cuesta del Obispo, which is a zigzag and steep section of road between Parador El Maray and the summit of Piedra del Molino at an elevation of 3,450 meters (11,319 feet). Route 33 continues on crossing the Los Cardones National Park. We stopped at a visitor area in the park with signs describing the park and a pathway to walk among several of the many Candelabro Cactus nearby. The cactus reaches 4 meters (13 feet) in height. Its solid branches and trunk are used to craft furniture, beams, and handcrafts. The elevation of the visitor area was 2,871 meters (9,419 feet).

The tour continued to a location where local people operated a roadside spice market adjacent to a popular tourist viewpoint. The market had a wide selection of spices and people from our bus purchased many different spices. The snow covered Nevado de Cachi, with an elevation of 6,380 meters (20,932 feet) and nine summits, was visible in the distance.

The tour continued to Cachi, where I purchased lunch at a restaurant across from the main plaza and the Church of San Jose. The small town of Cachi has an elevation of 2,200 meters (7,218 feet) and is surrounded by majestic mountains. Downtown Cachi was very picturesque and maintains a big tourism business.

On the return across the Parque National Los Cardones, heavy clouds began moving in. By the time we were near the summit at Piedra del Molino, the road was barely visible to the bus driver as we continued on at a snail’s pace. As we descended, we finally got below the clouds and continued back to Salta.

On Tuesday morning, 16 January, I met my small group tour to Cafayete. The tour headed southbound on Route 68 and, during our first stop, vehicles participating in the Dakar Rally 2018 (Peru to Bolivia to Argentina) began passing where we were stopped. This provided a great opportunity to see and to photograph some of the unique vehicles in the rally as they drove along Route 68. After we resumed our tour toward Cafayete, vehicles in the rally continued to pass us.

We stopped at several viewpoints with spectacular scenery as we drove along Route 68 and through the Quebrada se las Conchas. These included Mirsador Tres Cruces, Garganta del Diablo, El Amfitheatro, Valles Calchaquies, and Los Castillos. As we entered Cafayete, the tour stopped to tour a winery. The tour was short and superficial. Although Cafayete is known for some very good wines, I believe that the wine being tasted and sold to the tour visitors was of somewhat poor quality. I ate lunch at Cafayete and, except for the plaza and church, Cafayete was not a picturesque town. After the lunch stop, the tour returned to Salta.

On Wednesday morning, 17 January, I met my tour to Salenas Grandes. This tour would take us northbound on Route 51 through the magnificent Quebrada del Toro to San Antonio de las Cobres for lunch and then to Salenas Grandes before descending to Purmamarca and returning to Salta.

The bus driver was nearly thirty-five minutes late picking us up. He stopped at a convenience store before departing Salta. At the first tourist police checkpoint, one of the policemen requested our driver to blow into a breath tester. To everyone’s surprise our driver did not pass the breath test and was instructed to park the bus off of the road. The police escorted the driver inside a facility and we were informed that we were to get a new driver. Our new driver arrived wearing an olive colored tee shirt with a skull on the front with the captions “BAD DECISIONS” above the skull and “GOOD STORIES” under the skull. The police informed him that our bus would not be going anywhere and we would all need to wait for the company to provide another bus.

The replacement bus finally arrived and, after a brief stop at Campo Quijano to use public toilets, we continued our journey with our new driver ascending Route 51 to San Antonio de los Cobres for lunch. Once again, we were treated to beautiful views of the snow covered Nevado de Acay from Route 51. When our driver stopped at a turnout north of Abra Blanco overlooking the plateau, he pointed out the conical shaped Tuzgle Volcano behind a mountain range across the plateau. It has an elevation of 5,500 meters (18,044 freet).

The tour company bought lunch for the group as compensation for the arrest of our first driver. The road from San Antonio de los Cobres to Salinas Grandes was an unimproved dirt road across the plateau and provided views of the snow covered Nevado de Chani with an elevation of 5,893 meters (19,334 feet).

Salinas Grandes is a spectacular salt plain at an average altitude of 3,450 meters (11,319 feet). According to the literature, it is the largest salt flat in Argentina and the second largest in the world after Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. It covers an area of approximately 6,000 square kilometers (2,300 square miles). There is a road that cuts across the salt plain where a visitor center is located.

After visiting Salinas Grandes, we continued northbound on the unimproved dirt road to the intersection of Route 52. We continued eastbound on Route 52 to the top of the Lipon Slope where the elevation is 4,140 meters (13,583 feet). We continued the long zigzaging nearly 1,940 meter descent of the Route 52 Lipon Slope into Purmamarca. After a brief stop at Purmamarca, we drove back to Salta.

I flew back to Buenos Aires on Thursday, 18 January, with the satisfaction of not only experiencing beautiful locations in both Salta and Jujuy Provinces, but also knowing that I will be able to acclimate to the high altitude of Tibet.

See pictures from Northwest Argentina

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  Oct/Nov 2017
Northern Territory, Australia

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to visit or friend, Lily, in Sydney, Australia, and then rent an all-wheel drive SUV to explore the Litchfield, Nimiluk, and Kakadu Australian National Parks in the Australian Northern Territory after completing our Pacific Ocean crossing aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM.

We arrived at Sydney during the early morning hours of Saturday, 21 October. After disembarking from the MAASDAM, we took a taxi to our Sydney hotel. We walked from the hotel through the Darling Harbour area to the Australian Maritime Museum so Jan could tour the replica of Captain Cook’s ship, HMB ENDEAVOUR. I had sailed on this ship from Darwin to Broome in 2011 as part of the Circumnavigation of Australia by the ENDEAVOUR. I had purchased one of four Supernumerary sailing openings for the voyage to Broome and was given the cabin of the botanist, Joseph Banks, who had accompanied Captain Cook. After visiting the maritime museum, we returned to the hotel and called Lily. We arranged to meet up with her the following morning to go hiking at the Blue Mountains.

On Sunday morning, we took the train to Paramatta, Greater Western Sydney, to meet up with Lily. She drove us to the Blue Mountains where we hiked through the Minnehaha Falls Reserve to view the Minnehaha Falls. We ate lunch at a small family operated restaurant at the town of Blackheath. After lunch, we visited Govett’s Leap and then hiked to the Pulpit Rock Lookout – the landscape views at both of these locations were magnificent. Our final stop at the Blue Mountains was to at the famous Three Sisters viewpoint. Lily drove us back to see her new home on the Paramatta River where she cooked dinner for us. After dinner, we returned to the hotel, sorted our luggage, and packed up for an early morning flight to Darwin. Although I had visited Darwin before boarding the ENDEAVOUR in 2011, I did not have enough time to visit any of the national parks in the Northern Territory (NT).

On Monday morning, 23 October, we placed one piece of our luggage in storage at the hotel and took a taxi to the train station and boarded the train to the Sydney Domestic Airport. Our flight to Darwin, NT, arrived early afternoon, and we drove our rental SUV to our hotel. That afternoon, we walked along the Esplanade to the tourist information office to obtain information on the national parks that we would be exploring. The outside temperature was very hot and was an introduction to the many very hot days ahead of us. That evening, the sunset viewpoint at the Esplanade provided us with an exquisite Darwin sunset.

There are only a few good highways in the Northern Territory and there are many “truck Trains” on these highways. Lily advised that we should give plenty of space when near a truck train. She also said that we should always slow down when we see birds gathered on the highway as they often will fly toward an approaching vehicle. The Stuart Highway between Darwin and Alice Springs is a very good road with many strategically spaced protected passing areas.

We departed Darwin early Tuesday morning and drove the Stuart Highway southbound to Batchelor, NT, near the entrance to Litchfield National Park. We visited the Batchelor Museum which was very interesting. It had a large collection of World War II exhibits including a Bombing of Darwin DVD on the Japanese sneak attack on Darwin a couple of months after the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Australian war efforts. The attack was carried out by the same carrier group that attacked Pearl Harbor. It devastated Darwin and was only one of many Japanese attacks on the Northern Territory. It resulted in the building of the Stuart Highway and the installation of many Allied airbases spread out in the Northern Territory. The museum also had exhibits on the aboriginal tribes that lived in the area, other settlements in the area, and the local Rum Jungle Uranium mining operations during the 1950s.

After checking into the Batchelor Butterfly Hotel, we drove into Litchfield and visited the Magnetic Termite Mounds which had both magnetic termite mounds and cathedral termite mounds. Although the cathedral termite mounds were found throughout the park, the magnetic termite mounds were concentrated in this area. We continued on to the Buley Rockhole turnout where we hiked to the Buley Rockhole portion of the Florence River and found people swimming in several of the rockholes as the river cascaded down the hillside. We continued on to the parking area for the Florence Falls Lookout and hiked to the lookout, which provided a spectacular view of the Florence Falls. We then descended 135 stairs down the Florence Creek and hiked to the Florence Falls Rockhhole at the base of the falls where people were swimming. Jan didn’t have her swimsuit but soaked her feet on the water at the rockhole. We climbed back up to the lookout and hiked back to the car. Since it was already late afternoon, we returned to the hotel and visited the butterfly enclosure and other animals at the butterfly farm.

On Wednesday morning, 25 October, we returned to Litchfield and began sightseeing the relics of the abandoned Bamboo Creek Tin Mine situated at the opposite end of the park. While hiking to the tin mine, we stopped for photos at a very large cathedral termite mound. The vegetation was interesting as were the remains of the tin mine which had been closed after miners began contracting silicosis. Our next stop was at the Cascades Creek parking area. We opted to hike along the Lower Cascades Creek, which was posted with warning signs regarding the presence of saltwater crocodiles. The hike was spectacular with crystal clear water and wonderful landscape scenery.

Our next stop was at Wangi Falls, the most popular location at Litchfield. We hiked to the falls and the rockhole at the base. This is also a popular location for people to swim in the rockhole with the freshwater crocodiles that inhabit this location. There were two separate waterfalls and, although some people were swimming, Jan opted to wait for us to return to the Buley Rockhole to go swimming.

After Wangi Falls, we drove to the Tolmer Falls parking area. We hiked to the Tolmer Falls Lookout which provided a superb view of the very high Tolmer Falls. Tolmer Creek flows across a plateau and then cascades down two escarpments into a distant deep plunge pool below and across the lowland plains.

We returned to the beautiful Buley Rockhole for Jan to go for a swim. Although the underwater rocks at the cascading creek and at the rockhole plunge pools were very slippery, the water was cool, clear, and refreshing after hiking in the hot weather. Jan’s swim concluded our visit to Litchfield, and we returned to the Batchelor Butterfly Hotel.

We departed Batchelor on the morning of 26 October and continued southbound on the Stuart Highway to Katherine, NT. Our first stop was to take a photo of the fire station at Adelaide River. Our next stop was at the Katherine Tourist Information Center where we purchased our permit to visit Kakadu National Park and gathered information on recommended sites to visit at Kakadu. We also obtained detailed information about Nimiluk National Park, which would be our next stop. After visiting a Woolworth store in Katherine, we drove along the Katherine River to Niniluk National Park. After stopping at the Nimiluk Visitors Center, where we obtained the key to our chalet at the Nimiluk Chalets, we ordered dinner to be delivered to our chalet and signed up for two tours the following day.

Once we moved into the chalet, we returned to the visitor center to view a video about Nimiluk and then walked down to the boat dock area on the Katherine River to make sure we knew where to go for our dawn cruise in the morning. We were impressed by the very large numbers of flying foxes (bats) in the trees beside the river. As we walked back to our chalet, we saw several wallabies in an open area near the chalets. The chalet was very nice with a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, living, and dining area with separate air conditioning in the bedroom and the other portion of the chalet.

On Friday, 27 October, we took a dawn cruise to Katherine Gorge No. 1 and Gorge No. 2. Since gorge 1 is separated from gorge 2 by an area with many large rocks, we disembarked at the upstream end of gorge 1, admired some aboriginal rock art, and hiked along a path to the downstream end of gorge 2, where we boarded a second boat. The second boat took us to the upstream end of gorge 2. The early morning sun shining on the beautiful tall escarpment cliffs made for wonderful photo opportunities. We were there during the dry season, but these areas of Katherine Gorge are flooded during the wet season as the river water level rises.

Since the outside temperature was over 100 degrees F, we ate lunch at the visitor center, ordered dinner to be delivered to the chalet, and spent the afternoon at the chalet until time to hike back to the boat dock for our afternoon cultural safari.

We met the Ancient Garlarr Safari at the boat dock and, since we were the only people who had signed up, instead of canceling the trip they gave us a private tour. The safari was hosted by several aboriginal people who demonstrated how the aboriginal people have lived in the area for thousands of years. En route to the upstream end of gorge 1, a woman demonstrated how they obtained vegetation to weave and dye various articles including baskets, mats, and hunting pouches.

We disembarked at the end of gorge 1, where the men showed us how they make spears, spear throwers, fishing spears, boomerangs, and clubs. They also provided information on aboriginal history and customs including the skin system used for marriage. In addition, they described in detail the different ancient rock art images on the escarpment cliffs. When we returned to the boat dock, once again, we were in awe at the large numbers of flying foxes in the trees. We were extremely impressed with this safari and would recommend it to any visitors to Nimiluk National Park.

We departed Nimiluk on Saturday, 28 October, for the very long drive to Kakadu National Park. We drove northbound on the Stuart Highway to Pine Creek where we visited the Pine Creek Railway Museum. We turned onto the Kakadu Highway at Pine Creek and continued northeast to Kakadu. We stopped at a ranger station inside the park which had an open door with some tourist information brochures and some exhibits on the aboriginal history, wildlife, vegetation, and geology of the park. We continued on to a parking area with hiking trails to the South Alligator River and the Gungurul Lookout.

The trail to the river had a warning sign for the presence of saltwater crocodiles. After I hiked to the river, which was completely dry, Jan and I began hiking to the lookout which turned out to be a very steep climb on a very hot afternoon. About half way up to lookout, Jan returned to the car while I continued to the top. The views from the lookout showed a vast area of lowland plain with several ranges and some tall escarpments toward the east. In addition, a large billabong was visible in the distance toward the west.

We continued on to the Kakadu Visitor Center, where a park ranger provided us with additional tourist brochures and marked up a park map of places that we should visit based on our expressed desire to visit rock art sites and take a couple of river cruises. The visitor center also had extensive exhibits on the cultural history, wildlife, and geology.

We continued driving to Jabiru, near the eastern side of the park, where we checked into the very upscale Mercure Crocodile Hotel. We booked a South Alligator River sunset cruise for the following afternoon and a mid-morning cultural cruise on the East Alligator River for the second day. We enjoyed a wonderful buffet dinner at the hotel that evening.

On Sunday, 29 October, we drove to the Anbangbang Billabong where we saw an enormous quantity of birdlife that included black cockatoos, white cockatoos, and magpie geese. Of course, all along the pedestrian trail near the billabong were the crocodile warning signs. We continued on to the Anbangbang Rock Art Gallery where we hiked along an escarpment with areas of ancient aboriginal rock art. This art was not only extensive but was very impressive. From here we took a trail to the Gunwarrdehwarrdeh Lookout to see the surrounding area with spectacular landscape views. As we left this area, we noticed a sign for the Nawurlandja Lookout and decided to stop.

We hiked up across a large escarpment to the lookout which provided an outstanding view that is reported to be spectacular at sunset. The view included the Anbangbang Billabong off in the distance from the side opposite to where we visited earlier.

En route to Cooinda, we stopped at the Warradjan Cultural Centre which housed wonderful exhibits of the aboriginal culture in the area. The museum did not allow any form of photography, but it is a must-see when visiting Kakadu. We ate a late lunch at the Cooinda Lodge where we met the courtesy bus to take us to our sunset Yellow Water River Cruise on the South Alligator River.

The river cruise departed from a dock in a billabong where we could see saltwater crocodiles swimming in the distance. After cruising through the billabong, where we saw numerous crocodiles on the shore, the cruise entered the South Alligator River where we saw water buffalo, crocodiles, wild horses, and many species of birds. The guide on the boat was very good and stopped the boat for people to observe different birds that most of us would otherwise probably not have noticed. As dusk set in, the guide pointed out the many thousand magpie geese flying overhead to their nighttime roosting place. Storm clouds began forming, with lightning off in the distance, as we ended the cruise.

It was after dark when we drove back to Jabiru and it was raining by the time we arrived at the hotel. We were treated to a spectacular thunderstorm with driving rain during the night. By morning, however, the storm had passed and we had another sunny day.

On Monday, 30 October, we drove to the East Alligator River Upstream Boat Ramp near Cahill’s Crossing for our cultural river cruise. The ubiquitous crocodile warning signs were also present here. The cruise took us downstream to Cahill’s Crossing and then upstream. The boat driver and guide was a local aboriginal person who was exceptionally good. There were countless saltwater crocodiles along both sides of the river. The guide showed us how they have fished, hunted, and lived off the land for thousands of years. He also showed us how the three-prong spear, used for fishing, pops back up in the water after he throws it. He also provided aboriginal cultural history and pointed out some ancient aboriginal rock art. After a stop for people to climb up to a lookout spot, we returned to the boat dock. It was another wonderful river cruise at Kakadu.

We visited the Border Store to get a snack and then drove to Ubirr to visit the Ubirr Rock Art Galleries. There were several galleries with exceptional ancient rock art that included the rainbow serpent, a Tasmanian tiger, barramundi, turtles, hands, wallabies, and Mountford Figures. As we drove back to Jabiru, we passed the remains of an abandoned car with extensive fire damage – it appeared to have been beside the road for a very long time.

We checked out of the hotel on 31 October and began driving along the Anthem Highway toward Darwin. We stopped to visit the Mamukala Wetlands, which is part of the South Alligator River Floodplain. This area was declared a Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. It is also visited by more than 60 species of birds. It is most spectacular during September and October when thousands of magpie geese visit to feed. Fortunately the magpie geese were present during our visit. As we continued along the Anthem Highway, we came upon another large billabong on the north side of the highway. I stopped to photograph two Jabirus - black-necked storks - standing in the water relatively close to the highway. I had seen a Jabiru when we were driving to the East Alligator River cruise but was not able to get a photo.

As we continued on the Anthem Highway, approximately 30 kilometers before reaching the Stuart Highway, we noticed a sign for the Fogg Dam Conservation Project. Since we had no knowledge of the Fogg Dam Project, we decided to drive there. It is a wetland area within the Adelaide and Mary River Floodplains. It attracts a wide range of local and migratory water birds and other wildlife including one of the largest populations of snakes in Australia including the Water Python and Death Adder. As we slowly drove across the dam, we were lucky enough to see and photograph several Brologas - Australian Cranes - standing in the water. The weather closed in and, as we were driving back across the dam, a torrential rain ensued but subsided as we were exiting the dam.

We continued driving to Darwin during intermittent rain showers. We stopped at downtown Darwin to fill the SUV with gasoline before going to our Darwin airport hotel. After checking into the hotel, we returned the rental car and walked back to the hotel. We flew to Sydney on the morning of 1 November and checked into an airport hotel. The following day, we took the train into Sydney to retrieve our stored luggage from our first Sydney hotel. We repacked for our flight the following day and flew back home to Los Angeles on Friday, 3 November.

See pictures from Northern Territory, Australia

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  Sept/Oct 2017
Pacific Ocean Cruise

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Pacific Ocean repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Sydney, Australia, aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM. The cruise itinerary included en route ports of call in Hawaii, American Samoa, Fiji, Vanuatu, and New Caledonia. Our good friends, Tom and Leslie, from Orcas Island, Washington, USA, decided to sail to Australia on the same cruise, which was wonderful.

We departed San Diego on Wednesday, 27 September, and arrived at Honolulu, Hawaii, on Tuesday, 3 October. After arriving at Honolulu, we took the Holland American “Monarchs & Missionaries: Hawaii’s Royal History” shore excursion. The first stop was at the Nu’uanu Pali Lookout which was the site of the Battle of Nu’uanu, one of the most important battles in Hawaiian history. The lookout provided magnificent views of Honolulu and the Pacific Ocean coastline.

The second stop was at the Hawaiian Mission Houses Historic Site & Archives. We visited three restored mission houses, two of which are the oldest houses in Hawaii. Prior to the arrival of the missionaries, the Hawaiian Islands had no written language. The missionaries developed what is now the written Hawaiian language, and one of the buildings contained the print shop that houses both printing and book binding presses.

The Kawaiahaʻo Church, situated across the street from the mission houses, was designed by Rev. Hiram Bingham in the New England style of the Hawaiian missionaries. It was constructed between 1836 and 1842 of some 14,000 thousand-pound slabs of coral rock. The Kawaiahaʻo Church was once the national church of the Hawaiian Kingdom and chapel of the royal family; the church is popularly known as Hawaii's Westminster Abbey.

Kawaiahaʻo Church was frequented by the chiefs of the Hawaiian Islands as well as the members of the reigning Kamehameha Dynasty and Kalākaua Dynasty. The upper gallery of the sanctuary is adorned with 21 portraits of Hawaiian royalty. The mausoleum of King Lunalito is situated adjacent to the Kawaiahaʻo Church – he preferred burial in a church cemetery to burial in the Royal Mausoleum.

A statue of King Kamehameha is situated in front of the court house. King Kamehameha was the king who united the Hawaiian Islands after the famous Battle of Nu’uanu.

The Iolani Palace is located across the street from King Kamehameha’s statue. This is the only royal palace in the United States and was built by King Kalakaua in 1882. It was the official residence of the Hawaiian Kingdom’s last two monarchs – King Kalakaua and Queen Lili’uokalani. The Hawaiian Kingdom was a sovereign nation until Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown during a coup and imprisoned within the palace. After the palace tour, we walked to the Aloha Tower Pier area and then continued back to the MAASDAM.

Since we had two days in Honolulu, we took a second shore excursion to visit the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument at Pearl Harbor on Wednesday, 4 October. After viewing a documentary film about the attack on the United States Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, we boarded a Navy launch to go to the USS Arizona Memorial. After a talk by one of the docents at the memorial, we returned by another Navy launch to the main area for some free time before being transported to Ford Island to visit the battleship, USS Missouri. The USS Missouri was the last battleship built by the United States and was the vessel where the surrender of Japan took place on September 2, 1945, in Tokyo Bay ending World War II. After a guided tour of the decks of the ship, we were given free time to continue on a self-guided tour to explore other areas of the battleship. The tour then drove us to the Punch Bowl National Cemetery before returning to the pier.

After five days at sea, we arrived at Pago Pago, Tutuila, American Samoa, on the morning of 10 October. We decided to visit the Jean P. Haydon Museum and then explore the neighborhood in the vicinity of the port on foot. The museum is dedicated to the culture and history of American Samoa. It has extensive exhibits that include canoes, pigs’ tusk armlets, natural history, tapa making, tattooing, kava bowls, war clubs, and historical photographs.

We continued from the museum, along the picturesque waterfront, toward the McDonald’s restaurant where we purchased milkshakes and used their WiFi to check email. During our walk around the area, we passed the outdoor town market and many small businesses as well as the District Court, the High Court, and the Police Station. The Fagatogo Congregational Christian Church of American Samoa O LE KI LE MALO O LE LAGI (CCCAS) stood out as a landmark. The original church dates back to the 1830’s; however, the current building was reconstructed between 1933 and 1949. After damage from three cyclones, the church was closed for a two-year renovation and re-opened in 1994.

Although we intended to walk in the opposite direction from the port to see one of the local beaches, it began to rain as we were passing the port. As a result, we decided to skip the long walk to the beach and returned to the MAASDAM which departed Pago Pago later that evening.

After two more sea days, we arrived at Port Vila, Suva, Fiji, on the morning of 13 October. After disembarking from the ship, we walked through an immense municipal market before arriving at the downtown center of Suva. We visited the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart which was first used in 1902. As we continued walking, we admired many very nice colonial buildings in downtown Suva. We passed the Carnegie City Library, a large complex of Government buildings, and Albert Pavilion en route to Fiji National Museum. The museum is located in the large Thurston Gardens botanical garden. The museum is magnificent and contains a large array of diverse Fijian and Melanesian cultural exhibits. One unique exhibit is the rudder from the famous HMS BOUNTY, the ship the mutineers, led by master’s mate Fletcher Christian, took from Captain William Bligh on April 28, 1879.

After visiting the museum and Thurston Gardens, we walked along Suva Harbor past the Parliament of Fiji and the Police Academy before walking back along the harbor to the ship, passing the Grand Pacific Hotel and Umoria Park along the way.

We arrived at Dravuni Island, Fiji, on the morning of 14 October. This was a tender port with a small village at the small pier. The island had a very nice beach and a hiking trail to a couple of mountain viewpoints. Jan opted to spend time at the beach with our two new friends Bob and Bernie. I purchased a boat ride around the island to get an overall assessment of the island from the small boat and some photos in the morning light. The owner of the boat unsuccessfully tried to solicit additional passengers after I had climbed into the boat. Thus my own private boat ride around the island provided some very good photo opportunities. I joined Jan on the beach after the boat ride and then decided to hike the hill top trail to the two highest viewpoints. Both the beach and the hilltop viewpoints also provided some very good photo opportunities.

After another sea day, we arrived at Port Vila, Vanuatu, on the morning of 16 October. Since the cruise ship port was quite a distance from downtown, we took a water taxi from the ship to downtown Port Vila. The water taxi took us across Port Vila Harbor and provided close-up views of Iririki Island and several wrecked ships along one side of the harbor possibly awaiting a salvage operation. After arriving at the downtown mooring dock, we departed and walked around the downtown area before arriving at a small city overlook area with a bench under a very large tree. We continued on in the direction of the Venuatu National Museum when we came across a large open area where the Week of Pacific Agriculture Expo was being held. We walked through several of the expo exhibits that were open and continued walking until we came upon the new Vanuatu National Convention Center, which is near the museum. The National Convention Center project is being jointly funded by the Chinese Government.

The Vanuatu National Museum is a wonderful museum that depicts the Vanuatu and Melanese cultures. While we were there, a tour group arrived, and the museum put on a special cultural demonstration for them. After being fortunate to see the special event, we spent considerable time viewing the museum exhibits. We walked back to the downtown area and found a small restaurant where we could connect to WiFi. Since we were still quite a distance from the cruise port, we caught a local bus that took us back to the MAASDAM.

We arrived at Tadine, Île Maré, New Caledonia, during the morning of 17 October. This was another tender port in the Tadine Bay. Tadine village is small and the main attraction as a cruise ship destination is Yejele Beach. There was round-trip bus service from the dock to Yejele Beach. Jan, Bob, Bernie, and I all took the bus to the beach. After walking the beach from one end to the other to take some photos, I left Jan, Bob, and Bernie on the beach and took a bus back to the village. The coastline adjacent to Tadine Bay is described in the literature as being a natural aquarium. I decided to hike the coast beside the bay to view the exquisite rock forms and beautiful ocean scenery.

After walking to the area described as a natural aquarium, I returned to Tadine village where I spotted a shipwreck monument near the dock. The village had erected the MONIQUE Shipwreck Monument to remember tihe disappearance of the MONIQUE during the night of July 1, 1953, en route from Tadine to Nouméa with 126 passengers aboard.

On the morning of 18 October, we arrived at Nouméa, New Caledonia, where we were instructed to take a complimentary shuttle bus from the MAASDAM to the downtown ferry building. After exchanging money at the ferry building, Jan and I purchased tickets for the hop-on-hop-off bus and went to visit the Nouméa Aquarium. We arrived about ten minutes before the museum opened and were among the first visitors of the day before the tour bus crowds arrived. The aquarium was exceptionally nice with both indoor exhibits and an outdoor turtle tank, as well as a viewpoint overlooking Lemon Beach. The indoor exhibits are very well presented and make this a world-class museum. We continued on to the Museum of New Caledonia which offered free admission on the day we were there. The museum closed for lunch about fifteen minutes after we arrive, and we were told to return after lunch.

We walked across the street to a small plaza area with two monuments. One monument honored the US Forces whose presence during World War II prevented the island from being overrun by Japanese soldiers. The second monument appeared to be associated with the Melanesian culture.

We returned to the Museum of New Caledonia and spent a couple of hours viewing the extensive cultural exhibits. The museum is very large and also has an outdoor area for special events. This museum should not be missed when visiting Nouméa. Instead of waiting for the hop-on-hop-off bus, we walked to the Nouméa Central Square where we were unsuccessful at connecting to public WiFi. We continued walking back to the ferry building where we caught the shuttle bus back to the MAASDAM.

We departed Nouméa during the evening en route to Sydney, Australia. After two more sea days, the MAASDAM arrived at Sydney during the early morning on 21 October. We said goodbye to our friends, disembarked, and took a taxi to our Sydney hotel where Jan and I would begin a new adventure to visit and explore three National Parks in the Northern Territory of Australia.

See pictures from the MAASDAM

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  June 2017
Chongqing, China Weekend

Travel Notes

 

I took the high speed train from Chengdu, China, to Chongqing, China, on Friday, 16 June, to visit with friends in Chongqing over the weekend. After arriving in Chongqing, I took a local taxi from the high speed rail station to my hotel. I called my friend Summer, who currently works for China Express Airlines, to let her know that I had arrived. She had arranged for me to accompany her and several China Express flight attendants to go to the Sante Blueberry Camping Garden that evening to pick blueberries and have a multi-course dinner.

Later in the afternoon, Summer sent one of her friends to pick me up at my hotel and take me to meet up with her and three more of her China Express friends. As we all drove high up in the Gele Mountain International Citteslow mountains, we passed the No Feng Shui Treasure Land Park en route to the Sante Blueberry Camping Garden. The people at Sante also grow many different kinds of fresh vegetables in terraced plots. We proceeded to pick as many blueberries, fresh off the bushes, as we could eat.

After picking blueberries, we were served an eight course meal plus steamed rice. The people at Sante used their fresh picked vegetables in the food preparation, and the food was marvelous. During the dinner, I took my chopsticks and the piece of chicken that I extracted from the dish turned out to be the entire chicken head. I looked at the chicken head and said to Summer, “I don’t know how to handle this,” and she politely replied, “just give it to me.” We all ate as much as we could, and the folks at Sante packed up the remainder of the food for them to take home.

After dinner, we hiked around the camping area as the sun went down. A few goats were kept at one section, and, at another section, the China Express people enjoyed bouncing on two trampolines while I attempted to take some photos of them. I managed to capture one photo of Summer at the top of one of her high bounces. After the trampolines, we drove back to Chongqing and I was dropped off at my hotel. It was a wonderful evening with Summer and new friends.

On Saturday morning, 17 June, Thong and Peng, two of my friends from Chongqing, drove Summer and her daughter, Nancy, to pick me up at my hotel. They decided that our first stop would be to visit a portion of “Old Chongqing” in the Na’nan District of Chongqing. Thong parked near a tower that Peng referred to as the Tower of Scholars, and we walked down a stairway to “Old Chongqing.” We walked along the ancient pedestrian streets and admired the architecture and surroundings. Some buildings appeared empty while others were occupied by local residents whom I was told refused to leave their homes to allow demolition of the area by the Government for new development. A few of the buildings had small shops and small local restaurants open for tourists. At one street corner, several artists were busy painting images of the ancient buildings.

We ate lunch at a tiny Chongqing local noodle restaurant and then went to visit the Huguang Guild Complex. The complex consists of old buildings dating from 1759 that served as a cultural, business and social center for more than 200 years. It was built for people from Hubei, Guangdong, Guanxi, and Hunan. It opened for tourists in 2005 after a renovation. The complex was very interesting and provided many photo opportunities.

We ended our day with a visit to a shopping center on Nanbin Road east of the Sheraton Grand Hotel. It had a several art galleries and a large modern book store. The top floor was occupied by a very nice restaurant where we ate a classic Chongqing hot pot dinner while overlooking the Yangtze River. After dinner, we visited the bookstore where Nancy, after browsing through many books, purchased several. I had read recent newspaper articles discussing the increasing popularity of bookstores in China, and this bookstore was packed with young people and families with young children.

Thong then drove us back to my hotel where I thanked all of them for a wonderful day in Chongqing. Hopefully we can all get together for another visit either in Chongqing or in my hometown of Los Angeles, California.

On Sunday, 18 June, I took the high speed train to the Chengdu East Station. I transferred to the metro and rode it to the Dongman Bridge Station near my Chengdu hotel. The following morning, I boarded the first of my flights from Chengdu back home to Los Angeles.

See pictures from Chongqing

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  June 2017
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I flew from Chengdu, China, to Bangkok, Thailand, on Friday, 2 June, en route to Chiang Rai, Thailand. After overnighting in Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Rai and checked into my hotel on 3 June. The purpose of this trip was to rent a car and take a road trip in the far north of Thailand. Although I did not have a pre-planned itinerary, I wanted to either visit the mountains in far northwestern Thailand near Myanmar or visit the Nan and Phrae Provinces of central northern Thailand near Laos.

I rented a car on Sunday, 4 June, and drove to Doi Tung, north of Chiang Rai, to visit the beautiful Mae Fah Luang Gardens. I hadn’t visited the gardens in several years, and I wanted to see the most recent changes. I noticed a huge white Buddha statue on a distant hill north of Chiang Rai. Since I had never seen the statue before, I decided to take a detour to visit it first. The giant white Buddha statue is part of picturesque Wat Huai Pla Kung. The Buddha statue is still a work in progress and is twenty-six stories high with the middle interior portion still under construction. I took the interior elevator to the 25th floor, and the white interior sculptures were spectacular. The white Buddha statue is adjacent to a nine story high Thai-Chinese style pagoda which is also very nice. Of the numerous times that I have visited Chiang Rai, I was overjoyed to discover Wat Huai Pla Kung. I continued driving to Doi Tung and spent the remainder of the afternoon strolling around the Mae Fah Luang Gardens.

After deciding to visit the Phu Langka Forest Park en route to Nan, I began my road trip in earnest on Monday, 5 June. The fairly long drive to the park consisted of some narrow secondary roads with beautiful mountain scenery. After I booked a cabin at the Pulangka Resort on Thai Route 1148 for the night, I hired a driver and took an off-road trip to Phu Langka Forest Park. Since it was the rainy season, the off-road trip through the park was on a slippery dirt trail, with many deep ridges and gullies, ascending the mountains to a hiking trail-head that led to the two mountain peaks. My driver and I hiked to both the lower Doi Phunom peak and then to the higher Doi Phu Langka peak. The elevation at the Doi Phu Langka peak is 1,720 meters. The spectacular views from the peaks were somewhat obscured by distant high-humidity haze. During the downhill return, my driver nearly lost control of the vehicle in a deep rut and damaged his off-road vehicle. Fortunately for me, the vehicle was drivable back to the resort where several people began to assess the damage.

Although the cabin was very primitive, the double bed had very good mosquito netting. I placed all of my belongings on the bed within the mosquito netting to prevent them from becoming infested with ants and other insects within the cabin. The view from the cabin porch, overlooking a valley, was spectacular, and, off in the distance, I could see a portion of Route 1148, where I would be driving to Nan the following day. Since the nearby Magic Mountain Bar and Restaurant was closed, I ate dinner at the resort.

I woke up early the next morning to view the sunrise across the valley, and after breakfast at the resort, I began my drive to Nan via Route 1148 and Route 101. Although the drive to Nan was supposed to be relatively short, I missed a U-turn as I exited Route 1148 onto Highway 101 and drove in the wrong direction on Highway 101. I realized my mistake when I saw a sign for a Laos Immigration checkpoint. After making a U-turn, I backtracked along Highway 101, past Route 1148, and then continued on to Nan. Although the scenery was beautiful heading to Laos, I regretted the extra 90 to 100 kilometers of driving.

I checked into a very nice hotel in Nan and then went to a recommended local Nan restaurant for a late lunch. After lunch, I visited Wat Phrathat Chang Kam Wara Viharn, Wat Phrathat Chae Haeng, Wat Phrathat Khao Noi, Wat Phumin, and Wat Sripanton (Golden Temple). Beautiful murals decorated the walls of Wat Phumin. There were also some amorous murals on the temple walls including one famous mural of a man and woman referred to as “The Whisper.” In fact, ubiquitous images of the “The Whisper” mural were displayed throughout Nan City. The image was even displayed on the curtains in my hotel room.

On Wednesday, 7 June, I drove to the entrance of the Doi Phaphueng Waterfalls but was turned back because the waterfalls were closed due to the rainy season. My next stop was at the Sao Din Na Noi Landforms to walk among unique soil formations. I continued driving to Doi Samer Dao, a mountain in the Si Din National Park. Doi Samer Dao has a ridge with a view of a “lion head” rock formation and expansive landscape views. It is also referred to as the mountain to the stars. I also observed stunning views in the opposite direction from another ridge as I hiked back to my car.

After a long drive back to Nan City, I visited Wat Boon Yen, Wat Huay Kuang, the Nan National Museum, and then revisited Wat Phumin to take additional photos of the wall murals.

I drove to Phrae on Thursday, 8 June, and checked into another very nice hotel. I really appreciated the nice hotels after staying in the very primitive cabin at the Pulangka Resort. After attempting to visit another waterfall that was closed due to the rainy season, I visited Wat Doi Leng, Wat Phrathat Chohae, Wat Phrathat Chom Chaeng, Wat Phrathat Jom Jang, Wat Phrathat Suton Mong Kol Kee Ree, and Wat Phra Non.

The following day, I first drove north to visit the Pha Nang Khol Cave, which was interesting but not as spectacular as some of the karst caves of southern China. My next stop was at the Phae Mueang Phi Forest Park, another landform with unique soil formations. I then returned to Phrea City and visited Wat Phrathat Pu Jue, Wat Hua Kuang, Wat Si Chum, Wat Luang, and Wat Pong Sunan. Since I still had ample time, I drove a long distance along Route 1023 to visit Wat Phrathat Lam Lee and Wat Phrathat Hi Soy.

On Saturday, 10 June, I began the long drive back to Chiang Rai. Along the way, I visited Wat Phra Tet near Khaewn as well as Wat Phrathat Phra Lo near Song. I returned my rental car after I arrived in Chiang Rai and spent the next day editing photos.

On Monday, 12 June, I visited the relatively new Wat Rog Sell Ten, commonly referred to as the Blue Temple, which is beautiful and another work in progress. I also visited Wat Phra That Doi Kow situated above the Chiang Rai reservoir lake. My last stop was at the Chertawan International Meditation Center. This center is very large and was a very interesting place to visit.

I flew back to Bangkok on Monday, 12 June, en route to Chengdu, China. I was disappointed that I was unable to visit the two waterfalls, but I was very happy to have been able to visit so many beautiful temples and drive through the wonderful mountains of Nan and Phrae Provinces.

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  April/May 2017
Pacific Northwest

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington, as well friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands. We booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada, aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. Since the cruise itinerary included an en route stop at Victoria, BC, we requested and were granted permission to disembark at Victoria. This would be our third Holland American repositioning cruise from San Diego to British Columbia.

On Saturday, 22 April, we took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego, boarded the ZAANDAM, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Victoria.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during the late afternoon on Tuesday, 25 April. Since we had special permission to disembark at Victoria, we were required to wait on board until the Canadian Immigration Officials were ready to clear us into Canada upon disembarkation.

We took a local taxi from the port to our hotel near the inner harbor. After checking into the hotel, we met up with Tom and Leslie, our friends from Orcas Island, who had taken the ferry from Orcas Island to Victoria to meet us. This visit to Victoria was earlier in the year than our two prior visits, and the flowering trees and tulips were stunning. The weather was perfect as we walked around the inner harbor to go to a restaurant where Leslie had made dinner reservations.

Although Jan was recovering from a foot problem that impaired her ability to walk for any great distance, she felt that she could probably manage a morning walk with Tom and Leslie to find a restaurant for breakfast. After leaving the hotel on Wednesday morning, we walked past the inner harbor and along the scenic coastline past the road to the cruise ship port until we finally ended up at the entrance to Beacon Hill Park.

The flowers, flowering trees, and landscape scenery within Beacon Hill Park were magnificent. Since the flowers were so beautiful, I called the Butchart Gardens to made a reservation for lunch on the following day. By this time, Jan’s foot was beginning to give her trouble, and we still had not found a restaurant for breakfast. I was unable to find a local taxi as we continued walking back toward the inner harbor area. As we came upon the Royal BC Museum, we decided to stop and get some food at the museum restaurant.

We had previously admired the collection of totem poles on the grounds of the Royal BC Museum while on a walk during our May 2016 visit to Victoria. Since we were already at the museum, we decided to purchase tickets and tour at least part of the museum. We visited the temporary Terry Fox Exhibition which was scheduled to run from 12 April to 1 October. Terrance Stanley “Terry” Fox was a young Canadian athlete who inspired Canada and the world through his struggle against cancer and his determination to raise funds for cancer research. After losing his right leg to cancer, he decided to run across Canada to raise awareness and funds for cancer research. He ran 5,373 km in 143 days from St. John’s, Newfoundland, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he was forced to stop after cancer invaded his lungs. He died one month before his 23rd birthday. He received numerous awards, was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, and became the youngest person to be made a Companion of the Order of Canada.

Since the museum’s permanent collection was quite large and Jan’s foot was becoming increasingly painful, we only toured a portion of the Native American exhibits. The totem poles inside the museum were amazing, and this museum is a place that I look forward to revisiting during a future trip to Victoria.

As we were getting ready to leave the museum, Tom wanted to go to a special restaurant for lunch, which he said was nearby. I wanted to have the museum call a taxi to take us to the restaurant but Tom insisted that the restaurant was very close to the museum. Jan thought that she would be ok for a very short walk to the restaurant, which turned out to be more than a kilometer uphill from the museum.

Although we had planned to visit Craigdarroch Castle after lunch, Jan and I decided to forgo the castle and took a taxi back to our hotel. Jan and I took a taxi to meet up with Tom and Leslie for dinner that evening.

The extended walking had aggravated Jan’s foot problem to the point that she would not be able to walk more than a very short distance during the remainder of our time in Victoria. On Thursday morning, after canceling our lunch reservation at Butchart Gardens, Jan remained at the hotel resting her foot while I met up with Tom and Leslie. Jan and I continued to take taxis to the other wonderful restaurants at which we ate in Victoria.

On Friday, 28 April, Tom and Leslie drove us to the ferry terminal at Sydney, BC, where we cleared Canada Customs, and boarded the ferry to San Juan Island, where we then cleared US Customs. After disembarking from the ferry, we drove around the ferry parking lot and got into the queue to wait for the ferry to Orcas Island. It was a short ferry ride to Orcas Island, and we drove home with Tom and Leslie, where we visited until 3 May. I helped Tom with a couple of projects at their home during our stay on Orcas Island, and Leslie prepared some of her wonderful meals that we all thoroughly enjoyed.

On Tuesday, 3 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal, we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class with each class painting over the work of the prior years’ class – the old barn was last painted by the Class of 2014, and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2017. The old barn continues to be on the verge of collapse. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to SEA/TAC International Airport.

Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington, met us at the airport. We spent the next four days visiting with them as well as their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington. Since Diane was having problems with her hip, both she and Jan ended up on the disabled list. Consequently, we limited our sightseeing activities here as well.

David and Doreen drove all of us to revisit Fort Nisqually at Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday, 6 May. The fort was closed when we visited it during our 2015 trip. At that time, we were only able to take photos from the outside. The fort was established as a fur trading outpost in 1833 by the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Hudson’s Bay Company sold its holdings to the United States Government in 1869, and Fort Nisqually became the homestead of the last manager, Edward Higgins. The fort is now a museum that portrays the British establishment during the year 1855.

The working blacksmith shop was one of the main attractions, where the blacksmith was making forged metal puzzles that ended up for sale in the fort’s gift shop. Other attractions at the fort included cabins with circa 1855 furnishings, a general store exhibit, and a meeting building that housed a selection of hats and early American clothing that tourists were welcome to try on. Of course, I had to try on several of the hats while John and Diane donned a complete pioneer couple’s wardrobe. We all had a wonderful time at the fort, which is currently also used for additional public educational functions.

On Sunday, 7 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit the award winning Chase Garden near Orting, Washington. It is a 4.5 acre naturalistic retreat created by Emmott and Ione Chase. It reflects Japanese and modern design influences of the 1950’s and 1960’s in a native woodland carpeted with wildflowers and a sunny meadow. The garden also provides a spectacular panoramic view of Mt. Rainier and the Cascade foothills. We enjoyed a leisurely stroll around the garden before returning to Federal Way for dinner.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Monday, 8 May, and are looking forward to future trips to the Pacific Northwest.

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  March 2017
Yunnan & Guangxi Provinces, China

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, in March 2017 to revisit the Yunnan Nationalities Village and then visit some places in the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region. When I visited Kunming in August 2015, my trip was hampered by rain and I was unable to see the entire Kunming Nationalities Village site. Kunming seemed the perfect place for me to resume my visits to the far south of China.

I arrived at Kunming early afternoon on Sunday, 5 March. After checking into my hotel, I walked to the nearest Bank of China ATM to obtain additional China Yuan for my journey. While returning to the hotel, I passed a huge construction site for a very tall commercial building surrounded by a picturesque fence. A small white building was situated on the side of the street and inset into the fenced off construction area. There was a banner on the fence adjacent to the small white building announcing the public opening of a new Kunming Flying Tigers Museum. I entered the building and toured the museum, which occupied both floors of the building. The museum exhibits were very nice, and it was a lucky find for me. This is a second Flying Tigers Museum Exhibit – the Kunming Museum also has a Flying Tigers Exhibit Hall.

I visited the Kunming Museum on the following day. It opened to the public in 1997 and contains more than 20,000 items. The museum has six basic exhibition halls: “Dinosaurs in the Kunming Area,” “Dianchi Lake Area Bronze Ware,” “Sutra Pillar of Dizang Temple,” “Tigers in the Sky – Flying Tigers Museum,” “Fan Paintings,” and “Blue and White Porcelain Hall.” The museum also has five temporary exhibition halls. The Dianchi Lake Area Bronze Ware exhibition was closed when I was there but the other exhibits were very well organized and many of the exhibits had English captions. In addition, a temporary exhibition of paper cutting art was fantastic.

Tuesday, 7 March, was a partly cloudy day with intermittent sunshine and proved to be the perfect day for a return visit to the Kunming Nationalities Village. This lakeside village is situated on the shore of several islands formed by channels of Dian Lake. It shows the ethnic residential houses, customs, music, dance, and religious culture of the twenty-six ethnic groups of Yunnan Province: Dai, Lahu, Yi, Bai, Miao, Wa, Hani, Zhuang, Hui, Naxi, Lisu, Yao, Jingpo, Tinetan, Bulang, Buyi, A’chang, Pumi, Mongol, Nu, Jinuo, Deáng, Shui, Man, Dulong, and Han nationalities. This is one of the most interesting tourism sites in the Kunming area. I managed to spend the entire day at the village and recommend it as a site not to be missed.

I took the high speed train to Nanning in the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region (commonly referred to as Guangxi) on Wednesday, 8 March, and then took a bus to Chongzuo, China. The following day, I hired a taxi for the day to visit the Huashan Mountain Mural Paintings, which are located on a rock mountain by the bank of the Mingjiang River. The mural paintings, located on a huge and steep precipice, contain more than 1,800 images of primitive people with the largest measuring more than three meters tall and the smallest measuring about 0.3 meter. The tourism literature states that these mural paintings are more than 2,000 years old and date back to the period before the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-200 AD). It also states that among all of the ancient mural paintings in the area, the Huashan Mountain Mural Paintings are the largest scale with the highest concentrations. A very scenic boat trip on the Mingjiang River is required to reach Huashan Mountain, and the murals are best viewed from the boat.

On Friday, 10 March, I hired a taxi for the day to visit the Detian Sino-Vietnamese Cross-national Waterfalls. They consist of the Ban Gioc Waterfalls of Vietnam and the Detian Waterfalls of China and span the Guichun Boundary River, which forms the China-Vietnamese border in this region of Guangxi. It is the largest cross-national waterfalls in Asia – the waterfalls are more than 200 meters wide and 60 meters deep with a drop of 70 meters. The viewing area for the Detian Waterfalls on the China side of the river begins with a walkway from near the top of a mountain gorge down to the side of the Guichun River downstream of the falls and along the river bank up to the bottom of the waterfalls. There are spectacular views of the falls from the riverbank. A stairway near the base of the falls ascends to the top of the waterfalls with several viewing platforms along the ascent. Once at the top of the falls, a walkway along the edge of the gorge back to the entrance provides additional spectacular views of the Ban Gioc Waterfalls as well as a temple situated high on a mountain in Vietnam. I also consider the Detian Sino-Vietnamese Cross-national Waterfalls to be another site not to be missed when visiting Guangxi.

On Saturday, 11 March, I took the train from Chongzuo to Nanning. After checking into my hotel, I went to the Museum of the Guangxi Zuhang Autonomous Region (commonly referred to as the Guangxi Museum) and the adjacent Minority Cultural Relics Garden. The museum houses more than 50,000 cultural relics. The Guangxi Baiyue Cultural Relics Exhibition is a magnificent collection that includes hand axes dating from 800,000 years ago and big stone spades from the Neolithic age. The Bronze Drum Hall has the world’s biggest bronze drum and boasts having the most drums collected as well as a comparatively complete collection of the different types of bronze drums. The Hall of Ethnic Folk Customs displays the customs of eleven ethnic minorities in Guangxi. The Museum also had a wonderful porcelain collection exhibition.

The Guangxi Minority Cultural Relics Garden, located next to the Guangxi Museum, is a nice outdoor garden that contains a restaurant where I relaxed and enjoyed a pot of tea. The garden is situated around a pond that is spanned by the famous wind-and-rain bridge, Guangxi Chuan Tong Gong Yi Zhan Shi Guan. The garden is a nice place to walk around and enjoy the architecture and scenery.

On Sunday, 12 March, I visited the Guangxi Museum of Nationalities and the Guangxi Ethnic Village located behind the museum. The Nationalities Museum had extensive exhibitions including Zhuang Culture, bronze drum, Guangxi ethnic costumes and customs, occupational tools, ethnic architecture, ethnic religious beliefs, world nationalities, and cliff painting exhibitions. The exhibits are magnificent, and this museum is now one of the most popular attractions in Nanning.

The Guangxi Ethnic Village was still a work-in-progress when I visited it. There will be many ethnic houses when the village is completed. The Auki Town Water-sprinkling Festival was being filmed while I was there. The people were splashing and throwing water on each other. It reminded me of the Songkran Festival in Thailand and would have appeared to be more spontaneous if it was not being scripted and paused by the filming crew.

On the morning of 13 March, I took the high speed train to Guilin which is also in Guangxi. The city of Guilin is noted for having four interconnected lakes - Song Lake, Rong Lake, Gui Lake, and Mulong Lake - which are connected by locks to two rivers (Peach Blossom River and Lijiang River). The section of the Lijiang River between Guilin and Yangshuo is designated as a AAAAA national scenic zone. When I checked into the Guilin Park hotel, I was given a room overlooking Gui Lake. I decided to explore the local neighborhood and walked along the shore of Gui Lake before going into the nearby downtown area.

While walking along Gui Lake, I observed many tourist river boats navigating the lake in both directions. After returning to the hotel, I asked the lady at the hotel tour desk where to go to board one of the tourist boats. She asked me if I wanted a daytime boat trip or a night trip. Since the night boat was nearly three times more expensive than the day boat, I figured there must be something special about the night trip and booked a 7:00 PM trip for that evening. She gave me the address of the wharf in Chinese for the boat departure.

I took a taxi to the wharf and boarded my Guilin Two Rivers and Four Lakes Boat trip which is designated as a AAAA national tourist attraction. There are nineteen bridges on the four lakes and when night falls, the scenic zone of bridges, trees, numerous towers, pagodas, and pavilions is brilliantly illuminated. The scenery was spectacular, and even my hotel was outlined in vivid red lighting. What a beautiful way to see the lakes and rivers in this scenic zone.

It was misting light rain on Tuesday, 14 March. I decided to have the hotel book a flight for me to go to Chengdu on 17 March. After arranging for my flight, I went on the Ctrip English web site and booked a private Lijiang River Scenic Zone cruise with an English speaking guide for Wednesday, 15 March.

After booking my flight and river cruise, I took a taxi to visit the Reed Flute Cave, another AAAA national scenic zone. The entire cave is illuminated like a magnificent underground palace made of corals, jade, and other precious stones with many different fascinating scenes. The rain had subsided by the time I exited the cave, so my next stop was at the Guilin Classic Lin Sanjie Grand View Garden. This is another ethnic minority folk park and might also be classified as another work-in-progress. Shan Lake was my last stop for the day. I walked around the lake, which features twin towers, the Sun Tower and the Moon Tower. Both towers were beautifully illuminated when I saw them during my night boat trip.

Early the next morning, Jack, my private English-speaking guide, met me at my hotel with a driver and private mini bus for a 40 minute drive to the Zhujiang Wharf to board the ship for my river cruise to Yangshou. After the cruise, our driver would meet us in Yangshou to drive us back to Guilin. There were literally more than fifty ships docked at the wharf, and I sure was glad to have Jack get us on the correct ship and to our preassigned seats. The river travels 83 kilometers as it winds its way from Guilin to Yangshou through thousands of spectacular grotesque peaks. Jack was very familiar with the entire river and was able to point out not only the section of the river that was the most scenic where I should be on the open deck on top of the ship but also individual special scenic spots along the way. Jack was wonderful, spoke nearly fluent English, and stayed with me during the entire voyage. The weather was cloudy with occasional light rain showers. The clouds, which shrouded some of the mountains, added to the mystic of the spectacular scenery. One section of the river is featured on the back of the 20 Yuan banknote, which Jack pointed out to me during the cruise.

Thursday, 16 March, was my last day at Guilin. I took a taxi to the Guilin Museum only to find that it had been moved and the building was being demolished. Since nobody seemed to know the new location of the museum, I continued on to the Elephant Hill Scenic Zone, which is designated as a AAAA national scenic zone. It is designated as Elephant Hill because it is in the shape of an elephant drinking water from the river. It is a pure limestone Karst landform situated beside the Lijiang River. The scenic area includes a park upstream on the Lijiang River from Elephant Hill and an island called “Love Island.” Both the park and Elephant Hill provided wonderful photo opportunities.

After visiting Elephant Hill, I walked along Rong Lake and Gui Lake back to my hotel. During my walk, I photographed many of the beautiful nineteen bridges on the lakes to complete my visit to Guilin and Guanxi.

On Friday, 17 March, I flew from Guilin to Chengdu where I edited photos and wrote my travel notes in preparation for my upcoming flights back to Los Angeles.

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  October-November 2016
Mediterranean Cruise

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Mediterranean cruise during October and November 2016. I booked a 30-day Mediterranean cruise from Athens, Greece, that ended up at Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The cruise itinerary included ports of call in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Since the voyage would begin at Athens, Greece, we decided to spend five days visiting Athens and Delphi prior to boarding the ship. Our visit to Greece and some Greek Isles is documented in a separate narrative.

We boarded the Holland America PRINSENDAM on 20 October and arrived at Larnaca, Cyprus, on Saturday, 22 October. Since we had booked a Holland America shore excursion, we were transported by bus to the Choirokoitia Neolithic Settlement which was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1998. This site is located on the slopes of a hill partially enclosed by a portion of the Maroni River. The literature states that the site at Choirokoitia reached apogee during the second half of the 7th millennium BC. The basic architectural unit was a circular structure with a flat roof. Several modern reconstructions located near the site were constructed for the benefit of visiting tourists.

After visiting Choirokoitia, we traveled to the picturesque village of Lefkara, which is noted for handmade embroidery products on linen imported from Ireland. We walked through the narrow streets of the village and visited the Holy Cross Church of Pano Lefkarah. We continued on to visit what is referred to as the most interesting church in Cyprus, the Byzantine Church of Pnagia Aggeloktisti (meaning Angel-Built) before returning to the ship.

We arrived at the port of Ashdod, Israel, early morning on Sunday, 23 October, and took a taxi to the Jaffa Gate in Jerusalem to meet Vivian, our private tour guide booked through Zion Tours, for a full-day tour of Jerusalem. After meeting up with Vivian, we began our walking tour of the walled Jerusalem Old City. Vivian was wonderful and took us past the Tower of David Museum to the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (Wailing Wall). Since it was the last day of the Sukkot holidays, the Plaza of the Western Wall was crowded with worshipers visiting the Western Wall. To place our handwritten prayers in the wall, I visited the men’s side of the wall and Jan and Vivian visited the women’s side.

We went from the Plaza of the Western Wall to the Temple Mount where we observed the Alaksa Mosque and the other structures on top of Temple Mount. We were able to walk around the Dome of the Rock Temple of the Mount but were not allowed to enter the temple. We continued on to view nearby architecture from the time of the Knights Templars that currently houses some Muslim schools. We exited the old city through the Lions’ Gate to view both the outer portion of the old city wall as well as the Mount of Olives. Some notable sights on the Mount of Olives included the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of All Nations (also referred to as the Basilica of the Agony), the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, and the Old Jewish Cemetery on the hillside.

We re-entered the old city through the Lions’ Gate and walked to the beginning of the Via Dolarosa and the Basilica of St. Anne, a site that Christian tradition identifies as the home of Anne (Hanna) and Joachim, the parents of Mary, mother of Jesus. The remains of ancient pools, a Roman temple, and churches are situated behind the Basilica of St. Anne – these pools have been identified with the Pool of Bethesda mentioned in the New Testament.

As we walked along the Via Dolarosa from the Sanctuary of the Flagellation and the Chapel of the Condemnation to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Vivian pointed out various Stations of the Cross to us. Although the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was packed with people, Vivian was able to bypass the crowded lines to show us the must-see portions of the church.

We also visited the Cardo, which was Jerusalem’s main street 1500 years ago. It was originally paved in the 2nd century when Hadrian rebuilt Jerusalem as a Roman polis called Anelia Capitolina. The Cardo was extended south to the area of the Jewish Quarter during the 6th century by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. In its day, the Cardo was an exceptionally wide colonnaded street running through the heart of the city on a north-south axis.

In addition, we walked past the Synagogue Haraban before we exited the Old City through the Jaffa Gate. Here, we temporarily left Vivian to visit with Jan’s cousin, Beverly, and her husband, Yusef, who live near the old city. We enjoyed a very nice lunch prepared by Beverly during our visit. Later in the afternoon, Vivian met us with her car at Beverly’s home, and we continued our tour to visit a newer portion of Jerusalem. After visiting the Knesset, we walked to the Benno Elkan sculpture “The Menora” and to the Jerusalem Bird Observatory. We also visited the Wohl Rose Park of Jerusalem and the Garden of the Nations. We concluded our tour as Vivian took us through some older residential neighborhoods and a local market that was in the process of closing for the holiday. After saying goodbye to Vivian, we took a taxi back to the ship. It was a wonderful day of sightseeing.

We arrived at the port of Haifa, Israel, on Monday, 24 October. Since that day was an important Jewish holiday and many places were closed, we booked a Holland America excursion to visit the Baha’i Gardens and the Caesarea Maritima.

The Baha’i Gardens in Haifa, also known as the Hanging Gardens of Haifa, form a staircase of nineteen terraces that extend all the way up the northern slope of Mount Carmel. They were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in July 2008. Our tour bus stopped at the bottom of Mount Carmel to view the gardens from below and then took us to a viewpoint at the top of the Baha’i Gardens to see a wonderful view of the gardens, the bay, and the Galilee Hills.

Our next stop was at Caesarea Maritima, an Israeli National Park in the Sharon Plain that includes the ancient remains of the coastal city of Caesarea. According to the literature, the city and harbor were built under Herod the Great between 22 and 10 BC near the site of a former Phoenician naval station. It later became the provincial capital of Roman Judea, Roman Syria Palestina, and Byzantine Palestina Prima provinces. The city was populated throughout the 1st to 6th centuries AD and became an important early center of Christianity during the Byzantine period.

The ruins of Caesarea were excavated during the 1950s and 1960s before being incorporated into a new national park in 2011. Major sights at the ruins included a Roman theater, the Coral Palace, the Hippodrome, two Crusader Gates, Caesarea Ancient Vaults, and the Sebastos Harbor. The Sebastos Harbor was built during the 1st century BC and was the largest artificial harbor built in the open sea. King Herod built the two jetties of the Harbor between 22 and 15 BC, and Herod subsequently dedicated the city and harbor to Augustus Caesar. After driving past the remains of an ancient Roman aqueduct located north of the ancient harbor ruins, we returned to the ship.

We arrived at Valletto, Malta, on 30 October, and took a taxi to visit the Tarxien Temples, the Blue Grotto, the Minajdra Temples, and the Hagar Qim Temple. I had visited and documented all of these sites in February 2012, but Jan had never seen them. I was surprised that Malta had added additional pedestrian walkways to improve viewing of the Tarxien Temple site and to provide much better photo opportunities. We continued on to visit the city of Mdina, Malta, so that Jan could witness the marvelous architecture built by the Crusaders. Our last stop was at the Archaeological Museum of Malta, which houses some priceless artifacts.

Since our scheduled port visit to Gozo, Malta, on 31 October was cancelled due to poor sea conditions, the ship continued on to Messina, Italy. We arrived at Messina on Tuesday, 1 November, and walked to the Plaza Duomo where we took a sightseeing tram around the city. Some of the sights that we observed during the tram ride were the Santuario Santa Maria di Montalto, the Monte di Piet’a, the Sacario Cristo Re, the TeatroV. Emanuel, and the Duomo e Campanile. The highlight was our noon visit to the Duomo e Campanile Bell Tower, which houses the world’s largest astronomical clock with animated and mechanical statues that are only seen in movement at noon.

We arrived at Naples, Italy, on Wednesday, 2 November, where we had booked in advance a Mondo Private Day Tour to Pompeii and Herculaneum. This was our extravagant shore excursion, and we were not disappointed. After disembarking, we met Francesco Iaccarino, our Mondo guide, who escorted us to a new chauffeur-driven Mercedes to begin our all-day tour. Francesco’s English was impeccable, and he took us to visit what he considered to be the very best sites of Pompeii. In addition to visiting the normal tourist sites of Pompeii, he took us to one of the brothels with the menus painted on the walls. Before leaving Pompeii, we visited the building where the plaster casts of some of the victims of the Mount Vesuvius eruption are on display. We were treated to a nice restaurant for a multi-course lunch prior to visiting Herculaneum.

Herculaneum is a seaside resort city and an amazing place to visit. Some of the original charred timbers remain in several buildings. There were amazing murals remaining on the walls of several buildings including one mural depicting King Solomon arbitrating the dispute between the two women as to whom the baby belonged. A somber area of Herculaneum is the dock area where the skeletal remains of people waiting for ships to come take them away are located. We returned to the ship after our private tour and were amazed at how fortunate we had been to have had Francesco as our guide.

We arrived at Civitavecchia, Italy, on Thursday, 3 November. Although this is the port city for Rome, Italy, it is quite a long distance from the city of Rome. We decided that we would take the shuttle bus to downtown Civitavecchia and then walk around the downtown area. Fort Michelangelo, situated beside the harbor, was interesting but was closed to the public when we walked past it. In addition to colorful markets and some picturesque buildings, the Museo Archeologico, the Cathedral, and the recently restored Teatro Comunale Traiano were interesting to visit.

We arrived at Barcelona, Spain, on Saturday, 5 November, and took a walking tour through the Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. The tour began at Place de Saint Jaume where the Palau de la Generalitat and City Hall are located, and continued past the Claustre de la Catedral, Placa de Sant Felip Neri, Casa de I’Ardiaca, Roman Walls, Casa de la Pia Almonia, the Cathedral, the Medieval Jewish Quarter, and the Museu D’Histora de Barcelona. The tour provided personal audio headphones and was extremely interesting. We then went to see Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia Church. It was surrounded by throngs of people and the wait to enter the building was several hours. After admiring the architecture of the Gothic Quarter, we were disappointed by just how gaudy the building appeared. We took a couple of photos and then returned to the ship.

We arrived at Cartagena, Spain, on Sunday, 6 November. After visiting the Teatro Romano and Museum, we walked to the Molinete Archaeological Park – both were very interesting. We walked through the Plaza San Francisco en route to Concepcion Castle. The views from the castle were impressive, but the castle tour was very short. We were running short of time and briefly visited the Museo Nacional de Arqueologia Subacuatica as we returned to the ship. I believe that the two sculptured Bronze Sabazius Hands representing Sabazius, a god of eastern origin, were among the most interesting exhibits at the museum.

We arrived at Malaga, Spain, on Monday, 7 November. We took a taxi to visit the Castle of Gibralfaro, which is situated on a hill overlooking the city and dates back to the Phoenician period. Views from the castle were spectacular, and the Malaga bullring, Plaza de Tores, could be seen from the Castle. After touring the castle and a small museum within the castle, we took a taxi to the Alcazaba, which is described as the most well-preserved citadel in Spain and houses the Archaeological Museum. After visiting the Alcazaba, we decided to visit the Fundacion Picasso, the birthplace house of Pablo Ruiz Picasso. Since we had booked a wine and tapas tasting walking tour, we walked through the picturesque streets of downtown Malaga past the Cathedral of Malaga with one of its towers uncompleted. We met our tour guide at the Plaza de la Constitucion where we admired the prominent Source of Genoa statue. We visited three separate tapas restaurants as part of our wine and tapas tour before walking back to the ship.

We arrived at Huelva, Spain on Tuesday, 8 November. We had originally booked a Holland America shore excursion to the Riotinto Mines. Prior to arriving at Huelva, however, we were informed that the Riotinto tour had been cancelled because too few people had signed up for it. Since we did not want to book an all-day long-distance tour to Seville, we walked through Huelva and saw the City Hall of Huelva, the Church of La Concepcion, and the Church of San Pedro.

We arrived at Lisbon, Portugal, on a rainy Wednesday, 9 November. We had originally booked a wine and food tasting tour for our visit to Lisbon. However, when we arrived at Lisbon, the ship re-scheduled our departure for an earlier time, and this forced us to cancel our tasting tour. Since we had both spent a lot of time visiting Lisbon in March 2009, we went shoe shopping for Jan in downtown Lisbon and then enjoyed a wonderful cappuccino. We walked through the Rue Augusta Arch to the Plaza do Comercio and past the statue of King Jose I before returning to the ship.

Our last European port of call was at Maderia, Portugal, on Friday, 11 November. We had booked an inexpensive local four-wheel drive sightseeing tour in advance and had a marvelous tour both through tiny narrow mountain streets and off-road as well. At one point, while we were on an off-road mountain trail, we were passed by people running on the same trail. The views were stunning en route to the Miradouro do Cabo Girao and the Caba Girao Cliff. The Cabo Girao Cliff Skywalk is the highest cliff skywalk in Europe. The views over the edge of the cliff, along the coastline, and of nearby landscapes were spectacular. We stopped at Camara dos Lobos, a small picturesque beach town, where Jan had a Nikita cocktail at a small café. We loved our visit to Maderia and would not hesitate to return.

The remainder of the cruise was an Atlantic Ocean crossing that ended at Fort Lauderdale, Florida on Saturday, 19 November. After clearing US Immigration, we spent several days visiting with relatives in Fort Lauderdale before returning to Los Angeles on Thursday, 24 November.

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  October 2016
Greece & Greek Isles

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I decided to take a Mediterranean cruise during October and November 2016. I booked a 30-day Mediterranean cruise from Athens, Greece, aboard the Holland America ship, PRISENDAM, to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. The cruise itinerary included ports of call in Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Spain, and Portugal before an Atlantic crossing to Ft. Lauderdale. Since the voyage would begin at Athens, Greece, we decided to spend five days visiting Athens and Delphi prior to boarding the ship. These travel notes will only cover our Greek Isle ports of call visits.

We arrived at Athens during the evening of Friday, 14 October, and checked into our hotel. The following day we visited the National Archaeological Museum of Greece. It is the largest museum in Greece and provides extensive insight into the history of the Greek civilization from prehistoric times to late antiquity. The exhibits include treasures from the royal tombs of Mycenoe, the famed Antikythera mechanism, and a large sculpture and pottery collection.

We took a day trip from Athens to the archaeological site of Delphi on Sunday,16 October. Delphi is famous for being the home to the Oracle of Delphi with whom many leaders of the ancient world consulted for advice. The trip consisted of a bus ride to Delphi and time to visit the extensive ruins of the upper portion of Delphi, including the Sanctuary of Apollo. The highlights included the Temple of Apollo, the ancient theater, the ancient stadium, and the Athenian treasury. Unfortunately the tour did not allow us time to visit the lower portion of the ruins at Delphi that included the Sanctuary of Athena Pronaia, but they were visible from the upper portion. We also had some time to visit the Delphi Archaeology Museum. In lieu of time to visit the lower ruins, the tour opted to stop at the picturesque resort town of Arachova to provide some time for local shopping.

Prior to visiting the Acropolis, we decided to visit the Acropolis Museum in Athens on Monday, 17 October. This museum was founded to exhibit all significant finds from the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis and its foothills. It was inaugurated during the summer of 2009. The museum is situated 300 meters south of the Acropolis and is supported by more than 100 concrete pillars that provide a shelter above the site’s archaeological excavation which extends beneath the museum. The upper level of the museum contains the Parthenon Gallery, which houses a rectangular concrete core that was built to the same dimensions and orientation as the Parthenon. It was built to receive and display the entire temple frieze. The museum utilizes transparent outer glass walls to maintain a direct visual link between the museum and the Parthenon on the Acropolis. This museum houses many artifacts from the Acropolis and provides valuable insight into the history and different stages of the Acropolis as it was occupied by different rulers.

We visited the Acropolis on Tuesday, 18 October. The Acropolis is very impressive and many of the hillside structures of the Acropolis are as impressive as the structures at the top of the Acropolis. For example, the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus, which dominates the South Slope of the Acropolis, was once a wooden theater used for the cult dance in honor of Dionysus. It was rebuilt as a more permanent theater utilizing rock, gradually leading to the birth of ancient drama, and has been restored. Famous tragedies and comedies such as Antigone, Medea, the Birds, and Peace were first presented here. The very impressive “Herodium” Odeum of Herodes Atticus is a theater that is also situated on the South Slope of the Acropolis west of the Theater of Dionysus Eleuthereus.

The Areopagus hill is situated beneath the west end of the Acropolis, is connected with mythical and historical trails, and is the world’s oldest court of law. The seat of the first aristocratic senate of ancient Athens was here. It is the place where the Assembly of Athenian citizens gathered and is essentially the birthplace of democracy. Important ancient orators and politicians, including Demosthenes, Pericles, Themistocles, and St. Paul spoke from the site’s bema, the speaker’s platform.

According to the literature, cults devoted to fertility and vegetation performed in open-air sanctuaries and cavernous openings in the rock on the North Slope of the Acropolis. Among the site’s most important monuments are the Klepsydra and the three caves dedicated to the cults of Pan, Zeus, and Apollo. In addition, a large cave dedicated to the nymph Aglauros dominates the East Slope.

The top of the sacred rock of the Acropolis was for many centuries a place of worship of Athena, the patron goddess of Athens. Due to the ambitious artistic program of Pericles during the 5th century BC, the monumental Propylaia, the Erechtheion, and the Parthenon were constructed. The Parthenon is the eternal symbol of Greek and European civilization.

After visiting the Acropolis, we walked through Hadrian’s Gate en route to the Temple of Olympian Zeus. Hadrian’s Gate was built by the Athenians in honor of the Roman emperor who completed the Temple of the Olympian Zeus. This temple was one of the largest temples in the ancient world measuring 110 meters in length with more than 104 columns. Sixteen of the columns have been preserved. Construction of the temple required six centuries to complete.

Our final stop of the day was at the Panathenaic Stadium which according to the literature dates from the 4th century BC. The stadium was used for the first time during the celebration of the Great Panathenaia in 330/329 BC to host gymnikoi which had, since early times, been held in a space south of Athens. During the reign of Emperor Hadrian, significant works were carried out in the stadium between 139 AD and 144 AD due to the generosity of the orator and magnate Herodes, son of Atticus. These included changing the rectangular shape of the stadium to a horseshoe shape, the installation of white Pentelic marble seats for spectators, and a vaulted passage under the east retaining wall that terminated at the back of the stadium and the Temple of Tyche/Fortuna. The first modern Olympic Games were held here in 1896. This Panathenaic Stadium was also used to host some of the events during the Athens 2004 Olympic Games.

On Wednesday, 19 October, we visited the Kerameikos, the oldest and largest Attic cemetery that extends outside the ancient city walls on the northern outskirts of Athens. The site is dominated by stately tombs with sculptural masterpieces. Many of the on-site sculptures are replicas with the original sculptures on display in the Kerameikos Museum. The Demosion Sema (public cemetery), a site for the burial of war casualties, is also located here.

We walked from the Kerameikos to the Ancient Agora. It was the center for Athenian democracy where the city’s most important political functions were exercised and where both Pericles and Socrates once walked. The exceptionally well preserved Temple of Hephaistos is situated within this archaeological site. We walked from the Ancient Agora to the Roman Agora which was built during the 1st century BC with gifts from Julius Caesar and Augustus to house Athens’ commercial activities. It is bordered by the Gate of Athena Archegetis, while the Clock of Kyrrestos, where relief figures of the eight winds and the Fethiye Mosque, stands at the corner.

Our last stop of the day was at the Library of Hadrian, which was built during AD 132-134 as a donation from the Roman Emperor Hadrian to the city of Athens. It is a large rectangular peristyle structure with an interior courtyard and only one entrance. The main areas of the Library were on the monument’s eastern side. The papyrus scrolls were kept in a large central two-story building. The Library suffered severe damage during the Herulian invasion of AD 267 and was later repaired by Herculius, the Prefect of Illyricum, during AD 407-412.

We boarded the Holland America PRISENDAM on 20 October and, after stopping at Cypress and Israel, arrived at Rhodes, Greece, on Wednesday, 26 October. After disembarking, we began our own walking tour and entered the walled Medieval City portion of Rhodes Town through the Virgin Mary’s Gate. Our first stop was at the ruins of the Church of the Virgin of the Burgh built in 1300 and used by the Knights of St. John Hospitaller. Until its partial destruction, it was the largest church in the city and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We continued walking to the Square of the Jewish Martyrs, which is also called Seahorse Square. The square’s Holocaust Memorial pays tribute to the 1,604 Jews of Rhodes that were sent to die at Auschwitz. Only 151 Jews survived the Holocaust. The literature says that today there are only about 35 Jews living in Rhodes.

We walked through Ippokratous Square en route to visit the Hamman Baths (also called the Turkish Baths) which are housed in a 17th century Byzantine building. The baths were closed and we continued walking past the Sulleimaniye Mosque and the ruins of a Muslim school en route to visit the Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes.

The Palace of the Grand Master of Rhodes was built during the 14th century by the Knights of Rhodes who occupied Rhodes from 1309 to 1522. After the island was captured by the Ottoman Empire, the palace was used as a fortress. The original palace was mostly destroyed by an ammunition explosion in 1856. In 1912, the palace was rebuilt by the Kingdom of Italy in a grandiose pseudo-medieval style as a holiday residence for Victor Emmanuel III of Italy and later for Benito Mussolini. In 1948, Rhodes was transferred from Italy to Greece, and the Greeks converted the palace into a very nice museum.

We exited the Medieval City through St. Antonio’s Gate and Gate D’Amboise to walk to the Ancient Acropolis hill of Rhodes. Here we visited the ancient theater, the ancient stadium, and the remains of the Temple of Apollo. The views from the Acropolis of Rhodes were stunning.

After walking back to the Medieval City, we re-entered the old city via the same gates that we used earlier to go to the Acropolis site. Back in the old city, we walked the 600 meter length of the Street of the Knights, where knights once lived and worked. It was restored by the Italian Government between 1913 and 1916. Before returning to the ship, we visited the 15th century hospital that has been converted into the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes.

The walled Old City is spectacular, and I wish we’d had more time to explore the perimeter of the fortification walls. The Medieval Old City was designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 1988. When I return to Rhodes, I will rent a car and spend several days leisurely exploring its many interesting sites.

We arrived at Santorini, Greece, on Thursday, 27 October. The island of Santorini was originally known as Thera. It was re-named as Santorini by the Latin Empire during the 13th century and was a reference to St. Irene. The name Thera (officially Thira, Greece) was revived during the 19th century as the official name of the island but the name Santorini remains in popular usage.

Since we had booked a Holland American tour to visit the archaeological site of Akrotiri, we were transported by a Santorini tender boat to a docking area to meet up with our tour bus. Akrotiri was a flourishing prehistoric city prior to the final quarter of the 17th century BC when its inhabitants abandoned it due to powerful earthquakes and the enormous volcanic eruption that followed. The volcanic material that covered the city and the entire island has provided excellent protection for the buildings and their contents up to the present time. The city covered an area of approximately 20 hectares and its multi-story buildings - adorned by superb frescoes, rich furnishings, and household effects - signify the high level of development at that time.

After a very nice tour of Akrotiri, we were taken by bus to the town of Fira, the main town on the island, where our tour guide took us to the Santozeum Museum. The Santozeum Website states: “The Santozeum is an interdisciplinary creative platform that fosters dialogues between the arts, humanities and sciences in its local and international communities. The Santozeum environment connects a global network of art professionals and academics with the island of Santorini.” The museum was currently exhibiting a collection of Akrotiri Wall Paintings on loan from the Thera Foundation, developed in collaboration with the Getty and Kodak Pathe. These paintings were superb copies of paintings that had been removed from the Akrotiri Archaeological Site – the original paintings currently reside in the National Museum at Athens and at the Museum of Prehistoric Thera.

We were then free to visit other places of interest in Fira on our own before making our way back to the ship. We decided to first visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, which displays exhibits from the excavations of ancient Akrotiri as well as from some other sites around the island. This museum opened in 2000 and features exhibits from the 18th and 17th centuries BC which include fresco compositions, plaster casts of furniture, the unique gold wild goat figurine, and impressive collections of pottery and bronze working.

We walked to the splendid Catholic Cathedral of St. John the Baptist which was built during the 17th century AD, en route to visiting the Archaeological Museum of Thera. The Archaeological Museum featured sculptures and inscriptions from the Archaic to the Roman periods. It also has a collection of vases and clay figurines from the Geometric to the Hellenistic periods.

We took the cable car down from the top of the hillside near the archaeology museum to the old port area where we were transferred by tender back to our cruise ship.

We arrived at Crete, Greece, on Friday, 28 October, and decided to walk around Heraklion City on our own. After disembarking from the ship we walked along the port to view the Venetian Koules Fortress which is situated at the entrance of the Venetian Harbour. We then walked to Dematas Gate and up the street to the Morosini Fountain which was inaugurated in 1628. We continued on to visit the Heraklion Archaeological Museum which had an amazing collection of exhibits. It is known worldwide as the most important museum of the Minoan Civilization. This museum should not be missed by anyone visiting Crete. After spending several hours at the archaeology museum, we walked along many picturesque streets en route to the port.

Crete was the last Greek Isle port of call portion of our cruise. The remaining ports of call on our Mediterranean cruise to the countries of Cyprus, Israel, Malta, Italy, Spain, and Portugal are covered in the separate “Mediterranean Cruise” set of travel notes.

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  August 2016
Taiwan

Travel Notes

 

I decided to return to Taiwan to meet up again with Sunny to hike some more trails in Taiwan and visit southern Taiwan. I had visited northern Taiwan in July 2015 but was unable to hike the more difficult trails due to problems with my right hip. After my total hip replacement in November 2015 and clearance from my doctor, I wanted to try to hike the Zhuilu Old Trail in the Taroko National Park.

I originally met Sunny while traveling in southern Turkey in June 2012. Our paths crossed again in Juaiquan, Gansu Province, China in April 2014, and she and her family showed me much of northern Taiwan in July 2015.

I arrived at Taipei, Taiwan, on Saturday, 13 August 2016 at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and located the hotel car that Sunny had arranged for me. After checking into my hotel, I met Sunny in the lobby and we met up with her friend Jessie to go to dinner. It was like old times because Jessie was with Sunny in Juaiquan, China and again when we all met up for dinner at the DinTaiFung restaurant the previous year in Taipei. Since the DinTaiFung was totally booked, we went to another restaurant for a wonderful dinner.

Sunny met me at my hotel the following morning and we took the train and a bus to Yangmingshan National Park to hike to the main peak of Qixing Mountain, the highest mountain in the national park. We hiked the 2.0-kilometer Xiaoyukeng Trail from the bus stop to the Qixing Mountain Main Peak. The mountain was originally formed by a volcano. The trail passed steam vents and the Xiaoyukeng Fumaroles – both continued to emit steam and sulfur fumes. The weather was picture perfect and the scenery was impressive. The main peak has an elevation of 1,120 meters. The view from the main peak summit provides a 360-degree view of the entire Yangmingshan National Park. After spending some time at the main peak, we hiked down the 2.4-kilometer Maiopu Trail to a bus stop in the park and then returned to Taipei City. My pedometer logged more than 14,000 steps over the uneven large rock stepping stones and cobble stone paths during the hike.

Sunny met me at my hotel at 6:00 AM on Monday morning to take the train to Hualien. We met up with Sunny’s friend Joyce at the train station and continued to Hualien. Joyce is a middle school teacher in Taiwan. Sunny and Joyce rented motorbikes at Hualien, and I rode behind Sunny on the motorbike to the Taroko National Park to hike the Zhuilu Old Trail, which is one of the most spectacular hiking trails in Taiwan. The trail is naturally formed from marble above the Taroko Gorge and is the last remaining section of the old Cross-HeHuan Mountain Road. It was the trail to connect different aboriginal Taiwanese tribes 100 years ago. Some sections of the trail follow the Zhuilu Cliff where the trail is extremely narrow with the Liwu River 500 meters below. Sections of the trail are very challenging to hike and a hiking permit is required in advance. Only 95 people are allowed per day due to the fragile landscape. Although the trail is 10.3 kilometers long, the western portion was closed due to typhoon damage the previous year and only the last three kilometers of the eastern end of the trail from Cliff Outpost to Swallow Grotto was open for hiking. Fortunately for me, the most famous Zhuilu Cliff portion of the trail was open for our hike.

Sunny had obtained the necessary permits in advance for the three of us to hike the trail. We parked the motorbikes at the western end of Swallow Grotto and walked to the suspension bridge near the eastern end of Swallow Grotto to check in for our hike. The weather was beautiful and, after signing in at the entrance, we began the hike by crossing the suspension bridge over the Taroko Gorge. The next 2.5 kilometers would be a very challenging uphill climb to reach the Zhuilu Cliff for the 500-meter hike along the cliff face. Although I had been going on daily hikes of 7 to 10 kilometers in Los Angeles for several months, the altitude coupled with the rough terrain made the Zhuilu Old Trail hike very challenging for me; the residual fatigue from the hike to the Qixing Main Peak the day before probably contributed to my difficulties with this 6 kilometer hike.

I was extremely fortunate to be with Sunny who had hiked the trail several times before and provided additional incentive for me to complete the hike. After the grueling climb up to the Zhuilu Cliff, the scenery was magnificent and I felt so much exhilaration – truly a Eureka moment! Upon completion of the round trip one-kilometer hike of the narrow trail along the side of the magnificent Zhuilu Cliff, I needed to muster up enough energy to complete the long 2.5-kilometer hike down the mountain to exit the trail. Although uphill was grueling, I also found the downhill hike to be very challenging. What a relief it was to finally cross the suspension bridge and be able to say “mission accomplished.” My pedometer logged more than 19,000 steps during the hike.

After a brief rest at a 7 Eleven store outside the park entrance, we ate dinner at a wonderful hot pot restaurant in Hualien before returning the motorbikes and taking the train back to Taipei. We reached the Taipei train station at 10:32 PM and I arrived at my hotel around 11:00 PM – a wonderful fifteen-hour day.

I slept in on Tuesday, 16 August, and Sunny met me at 3:15 PM to go to the Mid-Summer Ghost Festival 2016 at Keelung City. We took the train to Keelung and ate dinner before going to the festival. The Ghost Festival is an annual event with both Taoist and Buddhist traditions. The Keelung Ghost Festival begins on the first day of the seventh lunar month when the tower Gate of the Old Venerable Temple is opened to let the wandering, hungry, and lonely ghosts in Hell return to the world of the living to seek food for one month. On the 12th day, lamps on the altar are lighted. On the 13th day, the procession of the dipper lantern is held. On the 14th day, a parade is held for releasing the water lanterns. On the 15th day, water lanterns are officially released and sacrificial rites for delivering the ghosts are performed both in public and in private. The purpose for releasing the water lanterns is to illuminate the waterways for lonely souls on the water and to bring them to land so the ghosts on both land and water can co-exist in peace. On the first day of the eighth lunar month the tower gates are closed for sending the ghosts back to the nether world. The first Keelung City Ghost Festival was held in 1856. For additional information, visit the website link to the Keelung Ghost Festival. Since there is a mismatch between the solar Gregorian calendar and the lunar calendar, the 7th month of the lunar calendar began on 2 August 2016, which meant Sunny and I arrived at Keelung City on the 14th day of the seventh month to see the Parade for Releasing the Water Lantern. The parade lasted for nearly three hours. We then took a taxi to the seaside to also see the releasing of the water lanterns into the sea at the beginning of the 15th day. After the ceremony for releasing the water lanterns was completed, we took a bus back to Taipei. It was nearly 2:00 AM when I finally arrived back at my hotel.

I decided to take a day off from sightseeing to edit photos and to begin writing my travel notes on Wednesday.

On Thursday, 18 August, I met Sunny at the Songshan Train station to take the train to Ruifang County on the north coast of Taiwan. After arriving at Ruifang, we took a local northbound bus to the Bitou Fishing Port where we hiked the Bitou Cape Trail. After our hike, we took the southbound bus back to the Shuijinjiu Area, which includes not only the three towns of Shuianandong, Jinguashi, and Jiufen, but also the hillside architecture. We got off of the bus at the Golden Waterfalls in Jinguashi. The waterfalls are yellow in color from the mineral deposits in the water and the yellow color continues as the water cascades down the river to the sea at a point called Yin-Yang Sea. It is called Yin-Yang Sea because the yellow river water colors the ocean water in a crescent-like area at the mouth of the river. As we walked along the river to the Yin-Yang Sea, we passed the enormous abandoned Shuianandong Smelter also known as part of the Kinkaseki Copper Mine. Form our vantage points, we were barely able to view portions of the three cement flues that extend up the mountain from the smelter which carried the smoke and toxic fumes up the mountain and away from the populated area – they are possibly the world’s longest smokestacks.

This area is very picturesque and has become a popular tourist area after the movie “A City of Sadness” was filmed at Jiufen. We took the bus from Yin-Yang Sea to Jiufen and walked along the now famous Jiufen Old Street also called Jioufen Old Street. We ate lunch at a restaurant with a magnificent view of the mountains, coastline to Keelung, Keelung Island, and the sea. After relaxing and indulging ourselves with the view from the restaurant, we took the bus back to the train station and then a very crowded train back to Taipei.

Friday, 19 August, was a travel day and we took the high-speed train from Taipei to Kaohsiung. It was raining when we arrived at Kaohsiung, and I spent the remainder of the afternoon at my hotel. The rain subsided during the early evening and Sunny met me to go to the Sabben Beef Noodle restaurant for dinner. This restaurant has become very popular for both local people and tourists.

On Saturday, 20 August, I met Sunny at the high speed train station where we took a local bus to go to the Fo Guang Shan Monastery and the Fo Guang ShanBuddha Memorial Center located in the Dashu District of Kaohsiung. The Fo Guang Shan Monastery is the largest Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. It was founded by Hsing Yun who purchased more than 30 hectares as the site for the construction of the monastery. The groundbreaking ceremony was held on 16 May 1967. The monastery embarked on many construction projects including university buildings, shrines, and a cemetery. In 1975, Fo Guang Shan’s 36-meter tall statue of Amitaba Buddha was consecrated and in 1981, the Great Hall was built. During May 1997, Hsing Yun announced that he would close Fo Guang Shan to the general public to give the monastics the cloistered atmosphere they needed for their Buddhist practice. After a visit in 2000 by the president of Taiwan and officials from Kaohsiung, Fo Guang Shan decided to reopen the monastery to some extent to the general public.

In 1998, Hsing Yun traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, to confer the precepts for full ordination. Kunga Dorje Rinpoche entrusted Hsing Yun with a Buddha Tooth Relic that he had safeguarded for nearly thirty years. With the tooth relic in his possession, Hsing Yun looked for a suitable piece of land to build the Buddha Memorial Center, which, by luck, just happened to be behind the Fo Guang Shan Monastery. After acquiring more than 100 hectares, construction of the Fo Guang Shan Buddha Memorial Center as a Mahayana Buddhist cultural, religious, and educational museum began in 2008. The museum was opened to the public in December 2011 and construction has continued ever since. Since its opening, the Buddha Memorial Center has been featured as one of the top ten landmarks in Taiwan.

The Buddha Memorial Center guide brochure states that there are ten must see splendors at the Buddha Memorial Center, including the Fo Guang Big Buddha, the largest drum, the Main Hall Museum of Underground Palaces, the Buddha Tooth Relic in the Jade Buddha Shrine, the Golden Buddha Shrine, and the Maitreya Buddha in the Museum of Buddhist Festivals. The Jade Buddha Shrine is magnificent and features a Reclining Buddha statue sculpted out of Burmese white jade, a reliquary above the statue containing the Buddha tooth, jade reliefs on the walls on both sides of the Buddha statue, and sandalwood reliefs of stupas and pagodas on the side walls. The Fo Guang Big Buddha, which was completed during 2011, took more than a year to cast and required a total of 1,800 tons of metal. The statue itself measures 40 meters high, while the seat is 10 meters high and the total height is 108 meters.

Sunny met me at my hotel on Sunday morning, 21 August, to go for a walk around the Southern end of the Kaohsiung Lotus Pond. The Lotus Pond is a large lake in Kaohsiung that is home to several beautiful temples and pavilions as well as the Lotus Wakepark. We visited the Dragon and Tiger Pagodas, Spring and Summer Pavilion, Wuli Pavilion, and Beiji Pavilion. After walking around part of the Lotus Pond, we took a train to Tainan and then a local bus to visit the Amping Old Street area and the Amping Fort.

We ate lunch at a restaurant in the Amping Old Street area and then walked to the fort. The Amping Fort dates from 1624 when the Dutch military-business alliance troops conquered the current-day Amping and built Fort Zeelandia as a defense base at the Bay of Taijiang in 1634. In 1662, the 16th year of the Emperor Yongli’s reign during the Ming Dynasty, Zheng Chenggong (Koxinga) seized Fort Zeelandia and renamed it as Amping Township. During the Qing Dynasty, the Bay of Taijiang was becoming silted and the Qing army demolished Fort Zeelandia to build the Eternal Golden Castle which was gradually abandoned. Fort Zeelandia was rebuilt after the Japanese Occupation and renamed as Amping Fort after Taiwan’s Retrocession. Today, the only remains from the Dutch period are the southern brick walls of the fort. The fort and museum are very picturesque and definitely well worth a sightseeing visit.

After visiting the Amping Fort, we took a taxi to downtown Tainan to visit the Tainan Confucius Temple, also called the Scholarly Temple (to be called “Wen Miao” hereinafter). It was built in 1665 when Cheng Ching, son of Koxinga, approved the proposal for the construction. It holds the distinction of being the First Academy of Taiwan. It has been renovated many times over the years and the last major renovation was in 1917. After visiting the Confucius temple, we walked past the Pangong Stone Archway and visited the site of Fort Provintia. The fort was originally built in 1653 during the Dutch colonization of Taiwan. During the siege of Fort Zeelandia, the fort was surrendered to Koxinga but was later destroyed by an earthquake in the 19th century. It was later rebuilt as Chihkan Tower. We also visited the Sacrificial Rites Martial Temple en route to the train station to return to Kaohsiung.

On Monday, 22 August, I got up early and walked to the Old Fongshan City East Gate, which is now a Taiwan National Historic Site. I walked along a section of the old city wall that extends from the ancient city East Gate a short distance to the north and south to the Old Fongshan City South Gate. The South Gate currently sits in the center of a traffic circle. Both gates and the old city wall are very picturesque. I checked out of my hotel after my walk, and met Sunny at the high-speed train station to return to Taipei City. Back at Taipei, I met up with Sunny in the late afternoon to go see the Taiwan President’s Building and Jieshu Park before meeting up with her friend Joyce at the DinTaiFung restaurant at the Taipei 101 Mall for dinner. I had originally met Joyce last year at the Wisteria Teahouse and it was a nice reunion. After a wonderful dinner, I took a taxi to my hotel and packed up for my flights home early the next morning.

Since Sunny wanted to visit a tea store in the international airport terminal, on Tuesday morning, 23 August, she picked me up at my hotel with a car to drive me to the airport for my flights home. After thanking her for her fabulous hospitality, we said goodbye at the tea store, and I continued on to catch my flights home. It was a wonderful trip to Taiwan to visit with Sunny and her friends and embark on more superb sightseeing trips with Sunny.

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  July 2016
Xinjiang Province, China: Hami and Turpan

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Xinjiang Province, China during July 2016 to continue my travels west along the Silk Road and southwest to Kuqa before heading northeast finally ending up at Urumqi, China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Saturday, 9 July, at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I took an early morning flight on 10 July from Chengdu to Dunhuang, Ganzu Province, China. Upon arrival at Dunhuang, I took a three hour taxi ride to the Liuyuannan Railway Station where I boarded the high speed train to Hami, Xinjiang Province, China.

I arrived at Hami late afternoon on 10 July and took a taxi to my hotel. The following morning, I managed to find a taxi driver who agreed to take me to the Buddhist Temple Ruins at Baiyang (White Poplar) River near Baiyanggou Village. It was a very long drive over some unimproved Gobi Desert roads with detours around washed out bridges from earlier heavy rains. The driver asked directions many times when as we approached Baiyanggou Village until we finally arrived at the entrance to the location of the temple ruins. We parked the taxi near the entrance and hiked approximately half a kilometer along the river gully to reach the temple ruins.

The grand temple was in existence from the Thang Dynasty (618-907) to the period of the Gaochang Uyghur Kingdom. The main part of the ruins is found on the western side of the Baiyang River. Remnants of the main hall, side halls, a pagoda, and Buddha niches are visible on the site. The temple ruins were very picturesque with ancient grottoes on both faces of the river gully. Although the literature said that there were also some Buddhist rock carvings nearby, I apparently did not hike far enough along the river gully to find the location of the carvings. There were no other tourists at the site and very few tourists actually visit the site.

On the morning of 12 July, I visited the Komul Mukham Heritage Center, which includes two museums, the Hami Folk Museum, and the Hami Museum. The Hami Museum was closed due to power outages and the Folk Museum was open but, also due to power outages on the upper floors, only access to the first floor was available. The museum first floor was very interesting with exhibits of Uyghur ethnic clothing and musical instruments. I walked across the road from the heritage center to the Hami Moslem King palace which was very interesting and well worth a visit. The Islamic King Tombs are located adjacent to the Moslem King Palace. The tombs are officially named The Mausoleums of Hami Royal Uyghur Family. The mausoleums site also included a mosque and a very interesting exhibition building.

Shortly after returning to my hotel during mid-afternoon, a sand/dust storm rapidly swept across the city and lasted for nearly two hours. Being back at my hotel was definitely the best place for me to be during the storm. The storm subsided as quickly as it came and the view of the horizon once again became clear.

On Wednesday morning, 13 July, I took a taxi back to the Hami Museum only to find that it was once again closed due to the ongoing power outage. Since the museum was closed, I continued in the taxi to an interesting sculpture in the center of the intersection of two major streets where I exited the taxi. After photographing the sculpture, I walked back to my hotel. Later in the afternoon, I walked to the train station and took the high speed train to Turpan. I took a taxi from the Turpan high speed train station to my hotel in Turpan.

Upon arrival at my hotel, I negotiated hiring a taxi driver for the next three days of sightseeing in the Turpan area. During the three days, I visited the ruins of Jiaohe Ancient City, the Bizaklik Thousand-Buddha Grottoes, the ruins of Gaochang Ancient City, the Ancient Tombs of Astana, the Turpan Museum, Grape Valley, and Tuyu Gully. Tuyu Gully is the picturesque location of the Mazar Village, Mazar Mosque, and the Tuyugou Thousand-Buddha Grottoes.

The ruins of the ancient city of Jiaohe, which was originally named Yar City, are situated about 13 kilometers from downtown Turpan. Yar City was in existence from the Warring States Period (475-221 BCE) to the Yuan Dynasty (1206-1368). It stood on an oblong tableland 30 meters above the riverbed with three gates in the southern, eastern, and western sides. Vestiges of 85 Buddhist temples, prayer halls, pagodas, and altars remain at the site; the Grand Buddhist Temple and the Grand Pagoda are two of the most impressive ruins. The city covers 37.6 hectares and is both the largest and best-preserved earthen architectural site still in existence in China. Yar City was a central town in the Turpan Basin laying along the Silk Road dating back from the 2nd century BCE to the 14th century AD.

The ruins of the ancient city of Gaochang, which is commonly referred to as Qocho City, are situated in Astana Village about 40 kilometers from Turpan city. It is comprised of three parts: outer city, inner city, and core city surrounded by rammed earth walls. The outer city is in an irregular rectangular shape. The inner city is inside the outer city and the core city is inside the inner city. Remnants of the Grand Buddha Temple are probably the highlight of the city ruins. During the Tang Dynasty, Buddhist monk Xuanzang (602-664) lectured in the Grand Temple when he stopped by on his western pilgrimage journey.

The Ancient Tombs of Astana were a communal cemetery when the Gaochang Kingdom was in existence. Many artifacts have been unearthed from the tombs including up to 1,000 official documents, clay and wood figurines, pottery, and silk fabrics of various kinds of brocades such as kesi, thin silk, laced silk, gauze, and double-sided embroidery. Three of the tombs are accessible by the public with two mummies in one of these three tombs. Many of the artifacts from these tombs have been transferred to the Turpan Museum and to the Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in Urumqi.

The Turpan Museum is the second largest museum in Xiajiang Province and is housed in a modern building in Turpan city. It has magnificent exhibits of early inhabitants of the area including their customs and many of their artifacts. The exhibit about burial customs was superb including several mummies from different ethnic people of varying status. The museum has no admission charges and is definitely worth a visit.

Flaming Mountain is about 98 kilometers long and 9 kilometers wide. The Uyghurs call it Kezletag, which means Red Mountain. In high summer the red rocks give off strong and shimmering light like bulging flames toward the sky. The Flaming Mountain Scenic Area is a small park-like area with various sculptures and amusements and is situated adjacent to the major highway approximately 30 kilometers to the east of Turpan city. Some people, including me, stop on the highway to photograph the mountain and the various sculptures from a distance.

The Tuyu Gully is a sanctuary for both Buddhists and Muslims and is situated approximately 40 kilometers to the east of Turpan city. The Mazhar Village is a picturesque ethnic Uyghur village currently occupied by approximately 65 families. The village contains some ancient houses and the famous Mazhar Mosque. The Mazhar Mosque is described in the literature as a holy land for Muslims in China. It is worshipped as “Mecca in China.” Tuyugou Thousand-Buddha Grottoes are located on both sides of the Tuyu River approximately one kilometer upstream of the village. The grottoes were first discovered in 1905 and contained many beautiful frescos. They were known in ancient times as “Dinggu Temple” and were built at an early date in the Turpan area. The literature states that many of the frescos were damaged or destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.

During my visit to the grottoes, the original wooden stairs and scaffolding had been damaged and/or destroyed all together. A photo in the Turpan Museum showed how the stairs and scaffolding once existed for tourists to visit the caves. Since some local village people had climbed up to some of the caves, I made the very challenging assent up the cliff-side of the mountain to visit the major area of the accessible caves. The fact that the caves had not yet been converted into a new tourism destination with the mountain cliff-side face being covered with concrete and doors in front of the caves made this visit very worthwhile for me.

The Bizaklik Thousand-Buddha Grottoes are situated in the Mutougou River Valley less than 20 kilometers from the Tuyu Gully. It is the site of a Buddhist temple that was in existence from the 5th century to the 13th century when Turpan was under the rule of the Gaochang Kingdom and the Gaochang Uyghur Kingdom. There are 83 intact caves in a sheer cliff over a distance of one kilometer along the western bank of the river. I was really looking forward to visiting these grottoes.

When I arrived, I found that the Government had resurfaced the face of the mountain containing the grottoes with concrete and concrete walkways. All of the caves had locked doors at the cave entrances and only six caves were open for display to the public. In addition, only one small section of the walkways in front of the caves was accessible. The normal exit route down into the valley beside the river was locked, which only added to my frustrations. The mountain scenery was spectacular and a very large beautiful sand mountain, which tourists could visit by camel ride, motorized vehicle, or hiking, was adjacent to the parking area for the grottoes. In addition, a large Earth Art area was located on both sides of the road nearby the Bizaklik grottoes. I took several photos of the Earth Art area en route back to Turpan city.

The Islamic tower, called the “Emin Pagoda,” built during 1777 is 44 meters high and has a base 11 meters in diameter. The brick-wood tower tapers upward tier by tier to resemble a vase. It has a spiral stairway of 72 steps inside the tower. It is situated adjacent to a mosque and there was no access to the inside of the pagoda. It is said to be the largest pagoda from ancient times in Xinjiang Province.

On Sunday, 17 July, I departed Turpan via a local train to Kuqa to continue my visit in Xinjiang Province, China.

See pictures from Hami and Turpan

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  July 2016
Xinjiang Province, China: Kuqa and Urumqi

Travel Notes

 

On Sunday, 17 July, I continued my visit to Xinjiang Province, China by taking a local train from Turpan to Kuqa, and checking into my Kuqa hotel. To begin my sightseeing in Kuqa on Monday, 18 July, I hired a car and driver for a full day trip to take me to the Kezil Grottoes, the Kumtula Grottoes, the Kezilgaha Beacon Tower, and the Kezilgaha Grottoes.

My first stop was at the Kezil Grottoes. Although these grottoes are highly rated, the Government has preserved the site with concrete covering the cliff-side of the mountain containing the grottoes. The Government also installed concrete walkways with stairs and doors at the entrance to each grotto. Guides are required to escort small groups of tourists to the grottoes and only a few are accessible to tourists. The rest of the concrete walkways are blocked off. Of the small portion of the grotto site that was accessible to visitors, the guides only opened six caves during my visit and no photos were allowed within the caves. There are much better Buddhist grottoes in other areas of China and, unless a person has a VIP Status, these grottoes should probably be avoided.

There was a group of resident tourist guides at the Kezil Grottoes and they insisted that tickets for all of the accessible grotto sites in the Kuqa area must be purchased at the Kezil Grotto ticket counter. Furthermore, an additional charge was required to have one of these guides accompany tourists to each of the other grotto sites. The only other tickets available for purchase were the Kezilgaha Grottoes at a cost of 55 CYN with an additional charge of 300 CYN for one of the guides was required – the guide said that six caves at Kezilgaha would be shown to tourists. No tickets were available for the Kumtula Grottoes or the Sensaim Grottoes. I decided not to pay for a ticket and guide for me to visit the Kezilgaha Grottoes.

My second stop was at the Kezilgaha Beacon Tower which is prominently situated above the Yansnui Valley. It is described as one of the grandest beacon towers in Xinjiang Province. In the Uyghur language “Kezilgaha” means “Red Headed Crow” or “Red Sentry Post.” The remaining portion of the tower is approximately 16 meters high. While at the beacon tower, a very good view of the Kezilgaha Grottos could be seen. After taking some photos of the grottoes, we drove to the grotto entrance, which was closed to the public.

We continued on to the Kumtula Grottoes. The police had blocked the roadway near the entrance to the site of the Kumtula Grottoes. Since I was not allowed to visit the grottoes, the police finally allowed my driver to walk down to the Kumtula Grotto sign near the actual entrance at the grottoes where he took a photo of the sign – none of the actual grottoes were visible from the sign. On the way back to the hotel, we visited the Kuqa Folk Museum, the King Palace in Kuqa, and the Kuqa Mosque.

On Tuesday morning, 19 July, I visited three remote sites not typically frequented by tourists. They were the Kerxishu Fort, the Mazabaiha Grottoes, and the Sensaim Grottoes. My driver needed to stop many times to ask the local people for directions to these sites. Of these three sites, the Sensaim Grottoes is one of the more notable grotto sites in Kuqa. The grottoes were built during the Jin and Tang Dynasties (265-907) and make up the largest grotto group in the eastern part of the Qiuci area. There are 52 stone caves and some of the caves are said to have many murals. Driving to the grottoes was difficult and included driving through a dry river bed. Although the grottoes were closed to the public, the grotto caretakers allowed me to see and photograph many of the grottoes from the perimeter fence.

After lunch at a local village restaurant, I visited the Subash Buddhist Ruins which is also called the Zhaoguli Grand Temple. The temple complex was built during the Wei and Jin Dynasties (230-420). The temple was divided by the Tongchang River into the Eastern Temple and the Western Temple. All of the structures were built with adobe bricks. I was able to visit the Western Temple Ruins. The two best preserved portions of the Western Temple were the Hall of the Western Temple and the Pagoda on the Center of the Western Temple. I was able to photograph the Eastern Temple Ruins on the opposite side of the river. The Eastern Temple Ruins were closed to the public during my visit.

I spent the remainder of my time sightseeing the local Kuqa city, visiting the Ruins of the Qiuci Capital City, and taking another day trip to the Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark.

Resitan Road runs through the Unity Bridge which spans the Kuqu River. There are markets along Resitan Road on both sides of the Unity Bridge. The market on the east side of the bridge was in a somewhat run-down condition whereas the larger street market on the west side of the bridge was much more prosperous. I have designated Resitan Road on my photos as ‘Resitan Road – East’ and ‘Resitan Road – West’ to differentiate between east and west of the Unity Bridge. I walked along Resitan Road west of the bridge for approximately 1 kilometer and admired the colorful picturesque buildings on both sides of the street. There were lights hanging from the trees on both sides of the street which gave the appearance that this street would be beautifully illuminated at night. A lady in a red dress ran up to me from across Resitan Road and wanted a photo with me, I handed my camera to one of two men who came with her and he photographed us with the other man standing next to me. After two photos were taken, he told me that the lady in red was his mother.

The Qiuci Capital City ruins occupy the largest area of all ruins of ancient cities in Xinjiang, but only the foundations of rammed earth for six large scale buildings are still in existence. The city was named Yangcheng in the Han Dynasty and Yiluolu in the Tang Dynasty. During the Tang Dynasty, the Governor of the Western Region set his headquarters in this Yiluolu. I visited the portion of the Qiuci Capital City foundation of the city that is situated in Kuqa city.

During my final day at Kuqa, I took a day trip north to the Kuqa Grand Canyon National Geopark, which includes many different sites with unique names. For example, the southern portion is called the Salt Water Valley Scenic Spot and it contains an area that is called Buddhala Landscape. Continuing northbound is an area called the Red Mountain Stone Forest that is followed by the Kizilya Scenic Spot. At the northern end of the Geopark is the famous Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon. I hiked the length of the Tianshan Mysterious Grand Canyon. The area is very beautiful. I also hiked down into the Buddhala Landscape. Some of the areas resemble colorful rock formations found in Southern Utah, USA.

I took a local night train from Kuqa to Urumqi, which is also called Wulumuqi, and arrived at Urumqi early morning on 22 July. After checking into my hotel and eating breakfast, I went to visit the Museum of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and the Xinjiang Exhibition Hall of Geology and Minerals. Although both museums had spectacular exhibits, the cultural museum was amazing. Among the permanent exhibits are exhibits related to ethnic minorities living in Xinjiang, the history of Xinjiang, artifacts unearthed in Xinjiang, and ancient mummies found in Xinjiang.

Saturday, 23 July, was an interesting sightseeing day in Urumqi. I started out in the morning to go to the Silk Road Museum, which is said to be situated on Shengli Lu but, once I arrived there, I was not able to find the museum. I believe that I may have been in or nearby the old Uyghur Muslim part of the city. The area was very interesting with a small park with some interesting sculptures and an interesting mosque. Nearby I found the International Grand Bazaar Xinjiang where there were throngs of people and many colorful shops of all kinds. After I photographed a man with a huge falcon or eagle, he approached me and offered the glove with his bird to me. The glove fit and suddenly I was holding the bird on my right arm. I gave my camera to another man who began photographing me. The man then coaxed his bird to spread its wings to show how large and powerful it was. A huge crowd gathered around and many many people were taking photos of me with the bird. When the man then touched the bird, it brought it's wings back close to its body and he then had me put my left hand on the bird. A very exhilarating experience for me and probably also for the large crowd of people photographing me with the bird. After the man retrieved his bird from me, I gave him a nice tip and continued exploring the bazaar.

As I continued exploring the area, I visited the Erdaoqiad Grand Bazaar which was situated nearby. After I explored the area and the bazaars, I walked along a street adjacent to the International Grand Bazaar Xinjiang to try to find a taxi to return to my hotel. One side of the street was lined with small shops and many restaurants charcoal grilling lamb kebabs in front of the restaurants. I went into one of the restaurants that was packed with locals and had wonderful noodles with lamb and several of the kebabs for lunch – very spicy and very good.

On Sunday, 24 July, I visited the Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone, Hongshan Park, and the Shaanxi Grand Mosque. The Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone is a narrow mountain valley about one kilometer long with a mountain stream flowing through it. There are many interesting sites to visit while hiking along mountain-side trails and along the stream with exquisite footbridges. The Qingquan Great Buddha Temple was very large, and the Lovers’ Trees site was also very interesting.

After the Shuimo Gully Scenic Zone, I went to Hongshan Park, which is also called Red Mountain Park. It is 1,500 meters long and 1,000 meters wide. A nine-storied tower of gray bricks stands on top of the mountain. A beautiful Buddhist temple is also near the top, and a red rock pagoda is prominently situated at a point high above one end of the mountain. The park also features amusement areas for children and families to enjoy.

I continued on to visit the Shaanxi Grand Mosque. The literature states that the Shaanxi Grand Mosque is the oldest and largest mosque in Urumqi. The main hall within the square compound of the mosque is a palace-like wood-brick structure of the traditional Chinese architectural style. The front part of the main hall has a hipped single roof while the rear part is an octagonal tower with multiple eaves.

On Monday, 25 July, I visited People’s Park, which is more popularly known as West Park. It was first built in 1883, the 9th year of the reign of Emperor Gaungxu of the Qing Dynasty. Features of the park include several beautiful temples and pavilions, beautiful flower gardens, the Pavilion of Mirror Lake, a Jade-Belt Arched Bridge, and an outdoor amusement park. I walked round trip from one end of the park to the other. After my visit, I returned to my hotel and packed up for my upcoming flight to Chengdu.

I flew from Urumqi to Chengdu on Tuesday, 26 July, to be in position well in advance for my flights home from Chengdu on Friday, 29 July. While in Chengdu, I spent most of my time drafting my travel notes and editing photos for the trip. During my brief stay in Chengdu, I reflected on how much I enjoyed traveling in Xinjiang Province. The people were friendly and I thought that the food was exceptionally delicious. I am looking forward to a return trip in the future to explore more areas of Xinjiang Province.

See pictures from Kuqa and Urumqi

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  May 2016
Pacific Northwest

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands and in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington. In addition, we wanted to visit Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia (BC), Canada. We booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego to Vancouver aboard the Holland America ship, MAASDAM. The cruise itinerary included a stop at Victoria, BC. This would be a repeat of the same repositioning cruise that we took in May 2015.

We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego and boarded the MAASDAM on Wednesday, 18 May, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Vancouver.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during late afternoon on Saturday, 21 May. The ship arrived at Victoria several hours late due to some time lost when we encountered rough seas west of San Francisco. Since the weather at Victoria was overcast with misting rain showers when we arrived, we opted to take a short walk along the Unity Wall and Breakwater adjacent to the cruise ship port.

We set sail at midnight for the short voyage from Victoria to Vancouver and disembarked at Canada Place pier on Sunday, 22 May at about 9:30 AM. After checking into our hotel, we took a taxi to visit the University of British Columbia (UBC) Botanical Garden and the UBC Museum of Anthropology. The UBC Botanical Garden is situated in one of Vancouver’s Coastal Rainforests. In addition to viewing the beautiful flower gardens, we also took the Greenheart Canopy Walkway within a portion of the forest. The canopy walkway is a series of suspended walkways and tree platforms high above the forest floor.

We took a UBC campus bus from the main botanical garden area to the Nitobe Memorial Garden, which is also part of the UBC Botanical Garden. It is a Traditional Japanese Tea and Stroll Garden that is ranked in the top five Japanese Gardens in North America. It was small and very beautiful, with another party taking wedding photos. We walked from the Nitobe Memorial Garden to the UBC Museum of Anthropology. This museum was magnificent and should not be missed when visiting Vancouver. In addition, this museum had a special exhibition of the Contemporary Art of the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea.

We visited the Capilano Suspension Bridge Park located in North Vancouver on Monday, 23 May. I had purchased tickets in advance on the Internet, and we were able to catch a special Capilano Bus near our hotel that took us directly to the park. The park is named after a suspension footbridge 450 feet long and 230 feet high across the Capilano River Canyon. The park has been attracting tourists since 1889. In addition to the suspension bridge, the park has a rainforest with paths and boardwalks, a Cliffwalk, and a Treetops Adventure. The Cliffwalk is a structure attached to the face of the cliff on one side of the canyon for visitors to walk along the face of the cliff, examine the geology of the cliff, and enjoy exhilarating views of the canyon below. Raptors Ridge is a path and boardwalk through the rainforest. The Treetops Adventure is a system of tree-friendly platforms and suspension bridges that allow pedestrians to walk the treetop canopy.

After we returned to our hotel, we decided to use the Downtown Vancouver Official Walking Map to walk to the Chinatown district and visit the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden. The map was a godsend and easy to follow, but the museum was closed when we arrived. We continued walking to the Gastown district on our way back to the hotel.

The following day, we continued walking in Vancouver. During our walk we visited the Bill Reid Gallery of Northwest Coast Art, a private museum displaying many of the works of Bill Reid. It was a very impressive museum and we were glad we stopped to have a look inside. We also visited the Christ Church Cathedral, Harbour Green Park, the Digital Orca sculpture, the Vancouver Convention Centre, the Steam Clock, the Gassy Jack Statue, the Chinatown Milenniun Gate, and finally the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.

The Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden is the first of its kind built outside of China. Fifty-three master craftsmen came from China with 950 crates of material and constructed the Garden using traditional methods – no glue, screws, or power tools were used. It is modeled after the highest standards of private classical gardens in the city of Suzhou during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Construction began in March 1985 and cost 5.3 million dollars. It was officially opened in 1986. Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Park is a public park adjacent to the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Garden.

On Wednesday, 25 May, we took the BC Ferries Connector service from Vancouver to Victoria, which is located on Vancouver Island. I had advance purchased tickets and we were picked up at our hotel by a shuttle bus that transferred us to a large bus that drove us to the ferry. The bus boarded the ferry and then delivered us to downtown Victoria. It was the perfect way to travel from Vancouver to Victoria and exceeded all of our expectations.

Upon arrival at Victoria, we walked to our hotel and waited to meet up with Tom and Leslie, our friends from Orcas Island. They had taken the ferry from Orcas Island to Victoria to meet up with us. That evening, we ate dinner at the Fish Hook Restaurant where Leslie had made reservations weeks in advance. Leslie said that it was rated the best restaurant in Victoria. It was casual, very small, the food was superb, and it certainly lived up to its reputation. After dinner, we all walked around old town Victoria and along the Inner Harbour. The Legislature Building was illuminated with lights very similar to the way the Palace at Mysore, India, is illuminated after dark – very beautiful indeed!

The following morning, Tom and Leslie drove us to the world-famous Butchart Gardens. It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect weather to stroll leisurely through the magnificent gardens. There were so many beautiful landscapes that included the Sunken Garden, Rose Garden, Japanese Garden, Star Pond, Italian Garden, Piazza, and Mediterranean Garden. Butchart Gardens covers more than 55 acres of a 130 acre estate and has attracted visitors since the 1920s. We were in awe and amazement throughout our visit.

We also visited the Victoria Butterfly Gardens, which is located near the Butchart Gardens. It was also an amazing place to visit with at least twenty-five different species of butterflies, many rainforest plants, parrots, flamingos, turtles, and a large Iguana lizard. The butterflies would land on the visitors and people needed to check to make sure that they weren’t wearing any butterflies when they exited the enclosure.

We returned to downtown Victoria and ate a late afternoon lunch at a classic pub before continuing to walk around the old town area and inner harbor that afternoon. During our walks, we stopped to admire the collection of totem poles on the grounds of the Royal BC Museum.

On Friday, 27 May, we drove to the ferry terminal at Sydney, BC, where we cleared US Customs and boarded the ferry to San Juan Island. After disembarking the ferry, we drove to the San Juan Island Sculpture Park where we strolled among acres of interesting sculptures, all of which were for sale. We returned to the ferry queue and ate lunch at a quaint local pub while waiting for the time to board the ferry to Orcas Island. It was a short ferry ride to Orcas Island and we drove home with Tom and Leslie where we visited until Tuesday, 31 May. I continued daily hikes during our stay on Orcas Island and Leslie prepared some wonderful meals that we thoroughly enjoyed.

On Tuesday, 31 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal, we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class with each painting over the work of the prior years’ class. The old barn was last painted by the Class of 2014, and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2016. The old barn continues to be on the verge of collapse. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to the SEA/TAC International Airport. Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington, met us at the airport. We spent the next five days visiting with them and their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington.

On Wednesday, 1 June, John and Diane drove us to the Flying Heritage Collection at Paine Field near Everett, WA. This is the collection established by Paul Allen in the 1990s and houses a unique assemblage of rare aircraft and vehicles from the World War II era. Not only does each artifact appear exactly as it did in combat, most are fully functional. These vintage planes also take to the skies on scheduled Fly Days.

On Thursday, we visited the Soos Creek Botanical Garden in Auburn, WA. It occupies 22 acres of beautifully designed gardens and woodland. We strolled through the gardens and woodland admiring the landscaping and blooming flowers that were in season. There is no charge to visit the garden and different plants bloom at different months during the year. John and Diane plan to return during different times of the year.

David and Doreen drove all of us to Mt. Rainier National Park on Friday, 3 June. We drove southbound on Route 410 to the park and entered at the White River Entrance en route to the Sunrise Visitor Center at 6,400 feet elevation. Since it was still early in the season for visiting the park, the road was only open to the White River Campground at an elevation of 4,400 ft. We backtracked and continued on Route 410 where we transitioned to Route 123 and entered the park at the Stevens Canyon Entrance. We continued on the Stevens Canyon Road to Henry M. Jackson Memorial Visitor Center at an elevation of 5,400 feet. We continued on along the Nisqually River until we exited the park at the Nisqually Entrance where the road continued westward as Route 706. We stopped in Elbe, WA, at the Mt. Rainier Scenic Railroad Depot where we ate dinner before returning to Federal Way. It was another beautiful sunny day and we saw some spectacular views of Mt. Rainier, which, at an elevation of 14,410 feet, dominates the surrounding landscapes.

On Saturday, 4 June, we went to the 10th Annual Pacific Northwest Evergreen Eggfest. It is an event sponsored by the manufacturers and distributors of the Big Green Egg barbeques. People make advance reservations to attend and are able to sample different barbeque recipes cooked on many Big Green Egg demonstration barbeques. Beverages are provided as part of the admission and people also sign up in advance to purchase the demonstration Big Green Eggs. There were literally more than 100 different barbeque foods being offered for people to sample. In addition, there was a live band as well as recorded music. Everyone in attendance appeared to have a good time and nobody left hungry.

On Sunday, David and Doreen drove us all to Olympia, WA, where we took a guided tour of the Washington State Capital. It was completed in 1928 and has one of the tallest masonry domes in the world, rising 287 feet high. It also has one of the world’s largest collections of chandeliers and decorative lighting fixtures made by the famous Tiffany Studios of New York. We walked past the Executive Mansion, which is the official home of the Governor, en route to the Olympia Visitor Information Center where we obtained a walking map of Olympia.

We decided to continue walking in Olympia and visited the Old Capital Building that was built in 1862 and now houses some Government offices. It is across the street from Sylvester Park, which was the location where the Oregon Trail ended. Our next stop was at Percival Landing, where we toured the classic tugboat SAND MAN. It was commissioned in 1908 and built by the Crawford & Reid shipyard in Old Town Tacoma. We continued walking northbound on the Boardwalk along the Deschutes Waterway toward the Port of Olympia. We observed some interesting sculptures as we walked along the boardwalk. About halfway to the port, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant overlooking the waterway.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Monday, 6 June, and are looking forward to returning to the Pacific Northwest on future trips.

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  April 2016
Thailand

Travel Notes

 

I flew from Chengdu, China, to Bangkok, Thailand, on Tuesday, 5 April 5 en route to Chiang Rai, Thailand. After overnighting in Bangkok, I flew to Chiang Rai and checked into my hotel on Wednesday, 6 April. The purpose of this trip was to attend the annual Songkran Festival celebration the Thailand Traditional New Year and to update my Thai mobile phone, which had become outdated. This was my first trip following my total hip replacement surgery in November 2015, and I wanted to continue taking daily hikes to keep improving my physical endurance capabilities.

I did not have a pre-planned itinerary for this trip and after I arrived at Chiang Rai, I learned that the father of Praima, a good friend of mine in Chiang Rai, had fallen the day before I arrived and broken is right leg. He was 88 years old and was hospitalized. Because Praima and her brother were the only family members there to care for her father, I decided to remain in Chiang Rai to provide some emotional support for them.

I had visited Chiang Rai on numerous occasions but most of the visits were to relax after visiting some other part of Asia and to work on my travel notes and photos. Although the air quality in the Chiang Rai area was impaired due to burning in the mountains of Myanmar and Northern Thailand, I decided to spend time taking a daily hike in Chiang Rai city. I also decided that I would try to take my hikes during the morning in advance of the afternoon high temperatures. My hikes ranged from 6 km to 12 km. I also took a couple of short day trips outside of the city while I was there.

During my first morning hike on Friday, 8 April, from my hotel to the new bridge over the Mae Kok River, I passed a place that had a museum learning center and a large garage for some spectacular Royal Carriages. This was quite a find for me because I had never read or heard about these carriages in Chiang Rai. Since I only had my mobile phone with me for photos, I decided that I would return the following day with my camera. Back at my hotel, I searched the Internet but was unable to find any information about these carriages. They are one of Chiang Rai’s best kept secrets. I later learned from a Tourism Authority of Thailand Bicycle Map of Chiang Rai that this place is called the “Hall of Royal Carriage.”

I returned to the Hall of Royal Carriage the following day and took photos of the carriages and the descriptive signs for each of the Royal Carriages which are also referred to as Royal Chariots. There is a sign on the wall behind the carriages captioned “The History and Construction of the Nine Royal Chariots” with the following description:

Chiang Rai is the historical land of the ancient Lanna civilization. Chiang Rai Municipality intends to maintain its cultural heritage and the various Buddhist images that people worship.

The mayor of Chiang Rai, Mr. Wanchai Chongsutthanamanee, had a vision to make merit. He and the citizens of Chiang Rai built Nine Royal Chariots to display the precious Buddha images. The images are paraded throughout the city every New Year in hopes of bringing prosperity to all.

Chiang Rai Municipality
6 February 2005

Each of the carriages is fashioned after one of the following locations:

  • Phrae Style Carriage built in 2001

  • Chiang Mai Style Carriage built in 2002

  • Chiang Rai Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Lampoon Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Nan Style Carriage built in 2003

  • Mae Hong Son Style carriage built in 2006

  • Lampang Style Carriage built in 2012

  • Phayaeo Style Carriage built in 2013

  • Chiang Sean Style Carriage built in 2015

The Hall of Royal Carriages is open Tuesday through Sunday 8:30 AM to 4:30 PM and is closed on Mondays and holidays.

Chiang Rai has several main landmarks and tourist attractions. Perhaps two of the most famous landmarks are the Golden Clock Tower and the King Mengrai the Great Memorial. The clock tower puts on a ten-minute light show performance every night at19:00, 20:00 and 21:00 hours. Of course there are also many Buddhist temples Wats located throughout the area. In addition, the White Temple and the Baan Dam Museum (also known as the Black House and the Black Temple) were built by two of Thailand’s National Artists. The Oub Kham Museum is a private museum that includes objects from the ancient Lanna Kingdom – it should not be missed when visiting Chiang Rai.

I had an appointment at the mobile phone store to upgrade and re-register my Thai mobile phone with the Thai Government on Sunday, 10 April 10. Praima said that she would take me to the mobile phone store. In the morning, before the phone store opened, she took me to the Baan Dam Museum. The Baan Dam Museum consists of a group of more than 40 houses and buildings built by Thai national artist Dr. Thawan Datchancee. All of the houses of many styles are painted black and contain many things such as household furnishings, ancient utensils, horns, and bones of animals for his painting inspirations. There is also a gift shop complex that offers some of his renditions for sale. After visiting Baan Dam Museum, Praima took me to the phone store and helped me get the necessary paperwork completed for the new sim card, which the phone company would activate after re-registering it with the Government. Due to the Songkran holidays, this process would take about one week.

On Monday, 11 April, I obtained a tourist map from my hotel and located the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) office. I decided to walk to the TAT office to try to find out more information on the royal carriages. Although I was unable to find any additional information, they gave me a Chiang Rai Bicycle Map that identified the location of the carriages as the “Hall of Royal Carriage.” This map was my second best find in Chiang Rai because it had different bicycle routes for sightseeing as well as the locations for many places of interest for tourists. It also had a descriptive paragraph both in Thai and in English for each of the places of interest. Armed with my new map, I began hiking individual bicycle routes and stopping at various places of interest. Since I had been to many of these places during my January 2011 initial visit to Chiang Rai, I did not take interior photos of the temples that I had previously visited as they are already documented on my travel website.

I visited more than twelve Buddhist temples during my daily walks. Although each temple has its own story to tell, there were two temples that I found especially noteworthy. The first was Wat Phra Kaew, which was originally founded as Wat Pa Yia or Temple of the Bamboo Grove. In 1434, the Emerald Buddha was revealed to be enshrined in the temple pagoda. This event caused Chiang Rai to rename the temple “Wat Phra Kaew” or Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The original Emerald Buddha is currently enshrined at the Royal Chapel in the Grand Palace, Bangkok. Wat Phra Kaew also houses a very nice small museum in the Lanna style and the entire building is decorated in teak.

The second temple that I found very interesting was Wat Ming Muang due to its elephant sculptures. It is a seven hundred year old Tai Yai temple. A historical record illustrates that King Mengrai generally visited the temple to make merit at least twice a year: one was on the full moon night of Visaka, the sixth month of the lunar calendar. Another was on Loy Krathong (Ye Peng Festival), in the twelfth month. The original name of this temple was “Wat Chiang Moob,” meaning “The Temple of Crouching Elephants.” In 1970, the temple received the royal appointment for becoming a formal Buddhist temple of Thailand and was given the name “Wat Ming Muang, the Auspicious temple of the city.”

The first day of the Songkran Festival celebration in Chiang Rai began on Wednesday, 13 April. Many people reveled in the traditional water fights in the streets and along the sidewalks that have become part of the celebration. While the water fights began during late morning, they grew in intensity during the afternoon and lasted into the evening. Since it is difficult to capture the essence of the water fights in still photos, I took a couple of short video clips that depicted the action. The celebration lasted for three days and became less intense on the second and third day.

During my early morning hike on Friday, 15 April, I visited the Orb Kham Museum that I had also visited in January 2011. The exhibits at the museum from the Lanna Kingdom are superb. My main reason for visiting the museum was to purchase some more of the “Emperor Tea” that is for sale at the museum. Of course, the lady at the museum poured several complimentary cups of tea for me after my purchase.

As I was walking back toward my hotel after visiting the Orb Kham Museum, I felt a huge thud on my back as a truck filled with Songkran celebration people passed me. After the initial shock, I realized that I had just been drenched by a bucket of water tossed from the truck that hit me behind my right shoulder. I had also just joined in on the fun!

Other places of interest that I visited included the City Market, Thung Park, the Brahman Shrine, Nung Pung Reservoir, a Chinese temple, the City Naval Pillar, Darunaman Mosque, the Old Moat location of the old city wall, the Night Bazaar and Food Court, and the two weekly one night bazaars (the Saturday Walking Street and the Sunday Happy Street). In addition, I happened upon many interesting sights that are normally only seen while walking the streets and sidewalks of Chiang Rai. One was the Golden Triangle Palace hotel, which was designed and built by the owner who invited me onto the property and described his creations.

Praima and I ate dinner together on several occasions, and she drove me to several nice restaurants for dinner. These included a Vietnamese restaurant, Sa-Tha-Nee-Nam-Nuen; a restaurant beside the Nong Pung Reservoir, Soom-Kung-Ten; and a restaurant beside the river, Lu-Lumm.

On Saturday, 16 April, Praima needed to drive to Mae Sai to pick up a physician to visit her father. She invited me to ride along and we visited the Choui Fong Tea Plantation and Doi Mae Salon en route to Mae Sai. Both of these are located in the mountains to the north of Chiang Rai. In spite of the fact that there was much burning occurring in the mountains and the air was filled with smoke, the visit to the tea plantation was very nice. As we continued on to Doi Mae Salong, the burning intensified and obscured all of the normally beautiful views from the mountains. We ate lunch in Doi Mae Salong, and I took some photos of a hillside landscaped with beautiful flowers.

Since several other locations that I wanted to visit were closed due to the holidays or closed on Monday, I planned to visit Wat Rong Khun (the White Temple), Chiang Rai Historical Hall and the Mengrai Plant Nursery on Tuesday, 18 April. However, the smoke was so bad in Chiang Rai on this day that I opted to remain inside the hotel most of the day. Since the White Temple is such a famous Chiang Rai landmark, I have included several photos from my January 2011 visit to the White Temple.

I departed Chiang Rai on Wednesday, 19 April, and flew to Bangkok. The following day, I flew to Chengdu, China, in anticipation of my flight back home.

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  October 2015
China - Yangtze River Tour

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked an October 2016 Roof of the World China Tour by Viking River Cruises which included visiting Shanghai, a Yangtze River cruise from Wuhan to Chongqing, visiting Tibet, visiting the Terra Cotta Soldiers at Xi’an, and visiting Beijing. During July, Jan’s doctor told her that she could not go to Tibet due to the high altitude. Instead of canceling the tour, we decided to visit with my friends in Chongqing and then re-join the tour at Xi’an.

We arrived at Shanghai during the evening of 21 October 2016 and checked into Hotel Indigo on the Bund. The Bund is the famous waterfront and has been regarded as the symbol of Shanghai for hundreds of years. Our last visit to Shanghai was approximately 25 years ago. At that time, the Pudong district, across the Huangpu River from the Bund, was mostly an undeveloped area. Since then, it has been developed as the Pudong New Area and is home to many of Shanghai’s best-known buildings, such as the Oriental Pearl Tower, the Jin Mao Tower, the Shanghai World Financial Center, and the Shanghai Tower. The Shanghai Tower is currently the tallest building in China and the second-tallest in the world. We went to the lounge at the top of the hotel to get an aerial view of the Bund and the Pudong New Area.

The following morning we walked along the Bund. During the afternoon, we transferred to the Fairmont Peace Hotel to meet up with Leo, our Roof of the World tour guide. Later that evening, I took a leisurely walk along the Bund to view the spectacular lighting of both the Bund and the Pudong New Area at night.

Our tour began on the morning of 23 October with a visit to the Yuyan Garden in Shanghai’s Old City. It was the private garden of the Pan Family and was first conceived in 1559. It has a total area of five acres with an exquisite layout and beautiful scenery that have made the garden one of the highlights of Shanghai.

After lunch, we visited the Shanghai Museum, which is considered to be one of China’s first world-class museums. It has a collection of over 120,000 pieces, including bronzes, ceramics, calligraphy, furniture, jades, ancient coins, paintings, seals, sculptures, minority art, and foreign art. I was particularly impressed by the ancient Chinese bronzes including the Bianzhong of Marquis Su of Jin from Western Zhou. This set of ancient bronze bells is 3,000 years old, and they are now listed by the Chinese Government as one of the first 64 national treasures forbidden to be exhibited abroad. The arts and crafts exhibits by Chinese Minorities and the ancient Chinese sculptures were also very interesting. After dinner, we went to a wonderful performance of the Chinese Acrobats.

On Saturday morning, 24 October, we flew to Wuhan, the port city for our Yangtze River cruise. After lunch in Wuhan, we visited the Hubei Provincial Museum featuring the Bianzhong of Marquis Yi of Zeng, a complete ceremonial set of 65 zhong bells dated 433 BC. A replica set of the ancient bells is located in an adjacent building called the Music Hall – musicians played the replica bells for us before we entered the main Exhibition Hall. The museum has a collection of more than 200,000 artifacts including extensive artifacts from the Tomb of Marquis Yi of Zeng and the tombs at Baoshan. Due to limited time, we were unable to thoroughly explore this superb museum.

After departing the museum, we were taken to the Wuhan Passenger Port to board our cruise ship, Viking Emerald. After settling into our cabin, we explored the ship and prepared for our cruise up the Yangtze to Chongqing. The ship departed Wuhan in the evening and we sailed through the night to Yueyang.

We arrived at Yueyang on Sunday morning, 25 October 25. While at Yueyang, we visited the Yueyang Bazimen Primary School, which was renovated and sponsored by Viking River Cruises. The children greeted us with musical and dance performances before inviting us to visit their classroom. Jan and I sat at a desk occupied by two young girls who showed us their workbooks and we practiced English with them. One girl tried to put a bracelet on my wrist but since my wrist was too large, she gave it to Jan and put it on her wrist. The school visit was a delightful way to spend time in Yueuang and gain some insight into education in China’s rural areas.

After sailing for approximately five hours west of Yueyang, we passed the salvage operation for the Eastern Star cruise ship. The ship capsized on 01 June 2015 during severe weather resulting in the loss of 442 people with only 12 survivors. We continued sailing through the night toward Yichang.

During Monday afternoon, 26 October, we arrived at Yichang and sailed into the lock at the Gezhou Dam, China’s largest dam before the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. As we exited the lock, we entered the Xiling Gorge, the largest of the three Yangtze River Gorges. We encountered rain and fog during the afternoon, which diminished the views of the gorge. Later, some passengers disembarked early in the evening to be bussed to view the Three Gorges Dam, the largest hydroelectric power station in the world that became operational in 2011. Due to the inclement weather and approaching darkness, Jan and I opted to remain on the ship. Later that night, we entered the first of five locks of the dam and continued sailing through the night.

Tuesday morning, 27 October, we sailed through Wu Xia (Witches Gorge) to Wushan and docked near the entrance of the Daning River for a lesser Three Gorges excursion. We disembarked from the Viking Emerald and boarded sampans for a cruise on the Daning River through the Lesser Three Gorges. The weather was bright sunshine with clear skies, which made the scenery spectacular. Without a doubt, this was the highlight of our Yangtze River cruise and I purchased a photo book from our local guide. Upon returning to the Viking Emerald, we sailed through the Qutang Gorge which is the shortest and narrowest of the three gorges. The sunshine continued, and we exited Qutang Gorge during the late afternoon.

We arrived at Shibaozhai on Wednesday morning, 28 October. The original village of Shibaozhai was submerged with the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and a new Shibaozhai has been constructed for tourist ships to dock. A dam has been constructed around the base of the Shibaozhai Pavilion to prevent the higher river water level from submerging the base of the pavilion – leaving a mountain with the pavilion as an island in the river. We docked at the new Shibaozhai village and walked through the village and across a bridge to the island with the pavilion. We walked along the top of the dam to stairs leading down to the base of the pavilion that is at least eleven stories high. We then climbed up through each story of the pavilion to the top and visited the temples on the top of the hill before descending down steps on the opposite side of the island.

We continued sailing toward Chongqing and arrived at Chongqing early Thursday morning on 29 October. That afternoon, we took a tour of the bridge of the Emerald Viking. We said good-bye to our friends on the tour before they disembarked to continue on to Tibet. After visiting with my friends at Chongqing, we would re-join the tour at Xi’an. Our Chongqing visit with friends is detailed as a separate side trip on my travel website.

After our Chongqing visit, we flew to Xi’an on Monday, 1 November, to re-join our tour group. We arrived at our hotel just in time to join the tour for a wonderful buffet dinner. The following morning we visited the Terra Cotta Army UNESCO World Heritage Site where thousands of statues of soldiers, archers, horses, and chariots were buried with the Emperor Qin Shi Huang more than 2,000 years ago. When Jan and I were there twenty-five years earlier, access was limited to one end of the single building containing the warriors, and photography was forbidden. This time, ample access around all three buildings was provided and photography was allowed. This visit was another highlight of our tour.

After lunch, we visited the Xi’an Wild Goose Pagoda. It was an interesting seven story square tower and Buddhist temple complex. A disappointment for me was that our tour did not visit downtown Xi’an with the city wall, city gates, drum tower, and bell tower which are very beautiful. Downtown Xi’an is detailed during my ­­­August 2012 trip to China.

We flew to Beijing on Wednesday morning, 3 November. After arriving at Beijing, we visited the Beijing Bell Tower, Beijing Drum Tower, and the Zhonglouwan Hutong. The Bell Tower and Drum Tower were built in 1272 and rebuilt twice after two fires. They were the time-telling center of the capital city during the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasties (1271-1911 CE). The towers are approximately 100 meters apart and are separated by a plaza. We visited a tea market that occupies the first floor of the Bell Tower where we tasted several varieties of tea. We walked the length of the plaza past the Drum Tower, which was closed, and continued on to visit the Zhonglouwan Hutong.

Beijing Hutongs are residential neighborhoods which still form the heart of Old Beijing. The hutongs which survive today offer a glimpse of life in the capital city as it has remained for generations. We toured the Zhonglouwan Hutong by rickshaw and stopped at one home where the family artists painted the insides of small glass bottles. Following our hutong tour, we checked into our hotel.

The weather on Thursday morning was cloudy, foggy, and cold. Despite the weather, we visited the Badaling Great Wall. We took the cable car from the parking area to the station adjacent to the Great Wall. The Great Wall at Badaling is considered to be the best-preserved and most completed section of all of the Beiging Great Wall sections. In addition to being among throngs of tourists, the inclement weather persisted with very slippery footpath portions of the wall and very limited visibility, which made for a disappointing visit.

Jan and I had visited and hiked the Beijing Great Wall section at Simatai about twenty five years earlier on a clear day. At that time Simatai was the most unrestored portion of the Great Wall and very few tourists visited this area. According to the Internet, the wall and first ten beacon towers east of the lake have now been restored and a cable car has been installed since our visit to Simatai. We were glad to have visited Badaling, but it was not one of the highlights of our tour. Additional Great Wall sections much farther West along the Old Silk Road near Dunhuang and Jiayuguan are detailed during my April 2014 trip to China. The Outer Great Wall north of Datong is detailed during my August 2013 trip to China.

The weather improved after lunch and we visited the Sacred Way of the Ming Tombs. We walked along the Sacred Way from one end to the other. There is a grand marble gateway more than 400 years old at one end of a long avenue lined with eighteen pairs of massive stone sculptures of elephants, lions, camels, and mythical beasts.

The weather was overcast with occasional light rain and fog on Friday morning, 5 November, the last sightseeing day of the tour. Our first stop was to visit Tiananmen Square, which is the world’s largest public square and is situated directly in front of the Forbidden City. We continued on to visit the Forbidden City, another UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Forbidden City was completed in 1420 and is the world’s largest palace complex with many buildings and 9,999 rooms. It was the palace during the Ming and Qing Dynasties where outside visitors were forbidden for five centuries. Our guide informed us that portions of the Forbidden City had been restored prior to China’s Olympic Games. The tour was very structured, proceeding from the main entrance straight through to the back exit.

After lunch, we visited the Summer Palace which was once the summer retreat and playground for the imperial family during the late Qing Dynasty. It is considered to be one of the finest Chinese architectural gardens and spans over 700 acres. The entire Summer Palace complex is centered around Longevity Hill and Kunming Lake. Kunming Lake covers three quarters of the area and both the lake and Longevity Hill were man made. The dirt removed from the lake was used to build Longevity Hill. In November 1998, the Summer Palace was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In spite of misting rain, we rode a dragon boat across the lake to a dock nearby the white marble Stone Boat. The Stone Boat is 98 meters long. The original boat was burned in 1860 and was restored in 1893 on the order of Empress Dowager Cixi, with a copy painted to look like white marble with western style paddle wheels. After visiting the Stone Boat, we walked under the Long Corridor from the boat dock to a point opposite the Tower of Buddhist Incense and then returned to the boat dock. The entire corridor is 728 meters long and contains artistic decorations, including paintings of famous places in China and scenes from Chinese mythology and folktales, The Twenty-four Filial Exemplars, and the Four Great Classical Novels. The rain continued and, after a return dragon boat ride to the entrance, we returned to our hotel.

It was snowing in Beijing on Saturday, 6 November. After breakfast at the hotel, we went to the airport and checked in for our flights back home to Los Angeles.

See pictures from China: Yangtze River Tour

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  October 2015
China - Chongqing with Friends

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I booked an October 2016 Roof of the World China Tour by Viking River Cruises which included visiting Shanghai, a Yangtze River cruise from Wuhan to Chongqing, visiting Tibet, visiting the Terra Cotta Soldiers at Xi’an, and visiting Beijing. During July, Jan’s doctor told her that she could not go to Tibet due to the high altitude. Instead of cancelling the tour, we decided that we would visit with my friends in Chongqing while the tour visited Tibet and then re-join the tour at Xi’an.

We arrived at Chongqing early Thursday morning on 29 October. After saying good-bye to our friends on the Viking River tour, we disembarked from the Emerald Viking cruise ship and took a taxi to the Chongqing Crown Plaza Hotel. Later my friends – Summer, Peng, and Peng’s husband, Thong – picked us up at the hotel. Summer and Peng are Air China flight attendants, and Thong is an Air China mechanic. They took us to visit the Three Gorges Museum and the People’s Auditorium, which are both situated on the People’s Square. I had visited both in 2013, but I wanted Jan to see them. Unfortunately, the Three Gorges exhibit hall was closed, but the remainder of the museum had wonderful exhibits. The People’s Auditorium is directly across the square from the Three Gorges Museum. Both the museum and auditorium are detailed during my April 2013 trip to China.

Our next stop was at the Hongya Cave Folk-Custom Scene Area where we ate lunch and walked through multiple floors of small shops and a rooftop patio. Our last stop of the day was Ciqikou (Porcelain Village), an ancient village situated on the bank of the Jailing River where we ate dinner and explored the village. The history of Ciqikou can be traced back more than 1,700 years and provides some insight into what Chongqing looked like in the distant past.

On Friday, 30 October, Jan and I took a tour with a private English-speaking guide to the Dazu Rock Carvings that Peng had arranged for us in advance. The tour included a stop at the Dazu Haitangxiangguo Style Historical and Cultural Center and lunch at the China Dazu Best Kitchen Culture Museum before actually visiting the rock carvings. Haitangxiangguo is best described as a modern-day replica of an ancient town, and the Kitchen Culture Museum was a knife store with some statues on the lawn in front of the store.

Dazu is famous for the Dazu Rock Carvings that were carved in the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE) and early Song dynasty (960-1279 CE) and were included on the World Cultural Heritage List in 1999. I had visited multiple sites of Dazu Rock Carvings in April 2013 by private car and driver, but the Goddess of Mercy statue at Baoding Mountain was closed at that time.

The Baoding Mountain Cliff Carving is located in a U-shaped valley surrounded by cliffs on three sides with a 500-meter long religious art gallery carved on the cliffs. Marvelous statues are carved along the mountain with one giant niche beside another. Our English-speaking guide provided comprehensive explanations of the different statues to Jan as we strolled among the several thousand different carvings. The statue of the Goddess of Mercy with 1,000 hands and 1,000 eyes is vividly and delicately carved. Her 1,007 hands fan out on an 88 square-meter cliff just like the tail of a peacock. She is truly a breathtakingly beautiful sight to see, and I was very happy to see her this trip.

On the way back to Chongqing, the traffic was so bad that our guide suggested that we get off of the bus and walk to the nearest train station. We rode the train to a station near our hotel and took a taxi from there to our hotel. Anyone who wants to visit the Dazu Rock Carvings should consider hiring an English speaking guide who can also arrange for a private car or taxi instead of booking the group bus tour.

Peng and Summer picked us up early Saturday morning, 31 October, to go to the Chongqing Zoo to see the Red and Giant Pandas. Summer continued on to a family gathering while we walked around the zoo admiring the pandas and other animals. Peng had never been to the zoo, and she decided that she will bring her baby boy there as soon as he is a little bit older.

Since 31 October was also Buddha’s birthday, we went to the Huayan Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Chongqing. We ate lunch at a local noodle restaurant across the road from the temple. There were throngs of people visiting the temple with offerings, and it was an amazing sight to experience. We explored the temple grounds and later Summer joined us. That evening, Summer and Peng took us to the Dezhuang Meimeimei Hot Pot restaurant for traditional Chongqing hot pot. The hot pot dinner was superb and, after dinner, we all said good-bye at our hotel. Our visit with my friends in Chongqing was wonderful, and we hope that they can come to Los Angeles to visit with us in the near future.

We flew to Xi’an on Monday, 1 November, to re-join our Viking River tour group.

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  August 2015
China - Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to Asia during August 2015 and booked flights to Chengdu, China. I had not decided whether to continue on to Thailand and Cambodia or to continue on to Guizhou Province and possibly also visit places further south in China.

I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Saturday, 15 August, at about 6:40 PM. After clearing immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I spent the following day deciding on my final destination for the trip and booked a flight from Chengdu to Guizhou Province. I spent the remainder of the day resting up from the long flights from Los Angeles, California.

Monday, 17 August, was a travel day when I flew from Chengdu to Guiyang, China, and settled into my hotel. I decided to spend two days exploring Guiyang, the capital city of Guizhou Province, before continuing on to Anshun, China.

On Tuesday, 18 August, I was greeted by intermittent rain showers. I took a taxi to visit the Jaixiu Tower and the adjacent Cuiwei Garden. The Jaixiu Tower (or Scholar’s Tower) sits on the huge Turtle Rock in the middle of the Nanming River and is a landmark of Guiyang. The beautiful Fuyu (Floating Jade) Bridge which looks like a jade belt floating on the river, is connected to the tower. I walked across the bridge to the tower. After visiting Jaixiu Tower, I continued walking on the bridge to visit the Cuiwei Garden.

In the distance, I was able to see part of one of the buildings of the People’s Square from the Jiaxiu Tower as I looked upstream along the Nanming River. Since the rain had subsided, I decided to walk along the river to People’s Square. My stroll along the sidewalk adjacent to the river was very picturesque and the rain returned as I arrived at People’s Square. People’s Square is large with a major public street bisecting it. A large building with a large statue of Chairman Mao is on one side of the street and a very unique structure stands at the far end of the square on the opposite side of the street. Although I was told that the square was recently completed, I could not find any definitive description of the square. Heavy intermittent rain returned while I was visiting the square, and I returned to my hotel.

On Wednesday, 19 August, I took a day trip to the Qingyan Ancient Town which was originally the Qingyan Fort built during the Hongwu regin of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1398). The walls around the ancient town were impressive and appeared to have been recently reconstructed. The town has four main streets, several temples, churches, restaurants, and shops. I ate lunch at an ethnic noodle shop during intermittent rain showers.

After returning to Quiyang, I visited the Wenchang Pavillion which is situated on top of the Quiyang Eastern City Gate. It is a three-story building with triple-eaves, nine irregular angles, and a pointed roof. It was first constructed in 1596, or the 24th year of the reign of the Ming Dynasty.

On Thursday, 20 August, I traveled by train to Anshun City. After checking into my hotel near the city center, I found a restaurant that specialized in grilling and serving lamb at tables with a small charcoal pit in the middle of the table. I couldn’t resist the temptation, and dinner there was wonderful.

Friday, 21 August, was a sunny picture-perfect day, and I took a day trip to the Huangguoshu Waterfall National Park situated 45 km from Anshun. It is a national AAAAA scenic zone known for hanging waterfalls, karst caves, natural miniature landscapes, stone forests on waters, running waters in the mountains, and deep and serene valleys. The park provides special buses to take visitors to scheduled stops and hike to various sights of interest near each stop.

There are eighteen waterfalls in the area around the Huangguoshu Waterfall. My first bus stop was near the Doupothang Waterfall, which is upstream from the Huangguoshu Waterfall on the Baishui River. Doupothang is the widest waterfall in the area, measuring 105 meters in width and 21 meters high. Although the trail upstream toward the waterfall was packed with tourists, the walk was beautiful with nice occasional views of the waterfall. There were also viewing platforms adjacent to the river near the waterfall that provided spectacular photos opportunities.

After visiting the Doupothang Waterfall, I hiked downstream along the Baishui River and crossed a footbridge at one of many cascades in the river before arriving at a second Doupothang area tourist bus stop. I boarded another bus that took me to the Tianxingqiao Scenic Area. This area has karst caves, small waterfalls, and a small stream running through it between ponds of various sizes. I hiked along the trail, which was also packed with tourists, through some magnificent scenery that included walking on stepping stones through the stream and ponds. After eating lunch at a small noodle shop, I walked along a road back to the Tianxingqiao bus stop.

My next stop was at the Huangguoshu Waterfall bus stop. There is a mini-scape garden with more than 3,000 bonsais of various kinds en route to the trailhead of the waterfall. Huangguoshu Waterfall is listed in tourist literature as the most famous waterfall in China and the largest waterfall in Asia. It is 101 meters wide, 78 meters high, and surrounded by 18 smaller waterfalls in nine layers.

I enjoyed a nice hike through the wonderful mini-scape sculpture and bonsai garden en route to the trailhead to the Huangguoshu Waterfall (also referred to as the Grand Waterfall). During the long hike down into a valley to arrive at the bottom of the Huangguoshu Waterfall, there were several viewing platforms amid the mist from the waterfall. Visitors can opt to continue an ascending trail to view the waterfall from a higher elevation or take another trail to the Water Curtain Cave that is situated behind the waterfall.

Since it was already late afternoon, I opted to skip the ascending trail and the Water Curtain Cave. Instead, I walked downstream to the Grand Escalator that people can ride back up to the mini-scape garden at the top of the valley. After riding the escalator, I took one of the tourist buses back to the public parking lot to meet up with my driver. The Huangguoshu Scenic Zone is a must-see when visiting Guizhou Province.

Saturday, 22 August, was another sunny picture-perfect day. I visited the Loong Palace (Dragon Palace), which is also a national AAAAA scenic and historic interest zone. The central scenic zone consists of a cluster of water karst caves. The Loong Palace Scenic Zone boasts the longest water karst cavern, the largest waterfall in a karst cavern, the lowest natural radicalization in China, and is known for oddly-shaped pools, many short rivers, and large Buddhist prayer rooms. It covers an area of more than 20,000 square meters and houses the longest underground river in China, some 5,000 meters long, that flows beneath more than 30 hills and connects over 90 limestone caves within the scenic zone.

I began my visit to Loong Palace at the public parking lot above the valley floor where there is a meadow that has the Chinese character for a dragon planted in contrasting vegetation. After purchasing my admission ticket, I hiked down into the valley and visited a waterfall upstream from the boat dock for boats traveling to the Xuantang Pond. I took a boat downstream to Xuantang Pond. The Xuantang Pond is also called the Whirling Pond because it has a whirlpool exit to an underground river beneath the pond. Due to the high water and surface currents, the slight whirling action on the surface was not visible while I was there. I hiked from Xuantang Pond to Kwan-yin Cave which contains chambers named Mahavira Hall, Guan Yin Hall, Huahu Hall, Reclining Buddha Hall, and Ksitigarbha Hall.

Continuing onward, I came to the Jiujiutun Bell tower where I joined other tourists in ringing the bell. Jiujiutun is the highest point on the footpath in the Loong Palace Scenic Area. It is also adjacent to one station of the Long Gong inertia ropeway (zipline). I rode the zipline across the valley to the opposing station. After walking to another ropeway station nearby, I rode the zipline back across the valley to Jiujiutun.

I then hiked from Jiujiutun, across the valley floor and past the entrance to Jade Long Cave, which was closed due to high water levels from large amounts of recent rainfall. After finally climbing out of the valley adjacent to the ropeway station, where I had just taken the ropeway to Jiujiutun, I continued hiking to Yulong Pass. Beyond Yulong Pass, I entered Tiger Cave which is a 400 meter long dry karst cave. Tiger cave is beautifully illuminated inside.

After exiting Tiger Cave, I hiked to the entrances of the Second Loong Cave and the First Loong Cave. A river flows through both of these caves. Although the Second Loong Cave was also closed due to recent heavy rainfall, the First Loong Cave was open. I hiked along the river in the First Loong Cave and then along a floating pathway on the surface of the river to a boat dock. I boarded a boat that sailed through the beautifully illuminated cave to Tianchi Lake where it docked near the viewing platform at the top of Longmen Waterfall.

Tianchi Lake, which is at an elevation of 1,170 meters and has an average depth of 28 meters, was formed when the ceiling of the karst cave collapsed and the water began to spread out. The water from Tianchi Lake flows into the Longmen Waterfall, which is 25 meters wide, 38 meters high, and thunders down through a karst cave to the lower mouth of the cave; it is the largest in-cave waterfall in China. A beautiful dragon bridge crosses the river below the waterfall. The river continues with cascades beyond the waterfall into Menghu Lake.

After viewing the waterfall from the top, I took an elevator down to the bottom of the waterfall and walked across the dragon bridge through the mist. I continued walking downstream along the river and past the Longevity Wall until I reached a tourist shuttle bus stop, where I took a shuttle back to the public parking area. The Loong Palace Scenic Area is another must-see location when visiting Guizhou Province.

On Sunday, 23 August, I traveled by train from Anshun to Kunming. It was raining when I arrived at my hotel late at night. I took a day trip to the Stone Forest of Yunnan the following day. The Stone Forest of Yunnan was designated as a UNESCO Geopark in 2004 and is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

As my driver approached the stone forest zone, intermittent rain began and continued throughout the day. Tourist shuttle buses are used here between the parking lots and entrance, as well as on a circular route around the site that contains several stone forest groups. Visitors can either walk throughout the area or take one of the tourist shuttles around the area.

After purchasing my admission ticket, I walked around the lake near the entrance and through the Major Stone Forest area in the rain before boarding one of the inner circle shuttles to ride through the park. The area was very beautiful and offered many good photo opportunities. This site is very good but would best be visited on a day without rain as the wet pathways were very slippery.

Upon returning to my hotel, I met with personnel at the front desk to map out locations of various local sites that I wanted to visit. Since I would have two more days in Kunming, I planned visits for both days. After dinner I walked from the hotel to the Dongsi Pagoda, the Xisi Pagoda, and the Jinma (Golden Horse) and Biji (Green Rooster) Memorial Archways.

On Tuesday, 25 August, I went to Gandu Ancient Town and visited the Gandu landmark Jingang Tower, the Shaolin Temple, the Fading Temple, and the Tuzhu Temple. My next stop was at the new Yunnan Provincial Museum, which has more than 156,000 relics. It had some of the finest relics from the Bronze Age that I have seen, including a bronze coffin. It also had some magnificent fossils from the Middle-Triassic Era and an exhibition on the evolution of human beings. This museum should not be overlooked when visiting Kunming.

My next stop was at the 100,000 square meter Yunnan Nationalities Village. It borders Dianchi Lake to the south, Kunming City to the north, and the Xishan Scenic Area to the west. It features the ethnic residential houses, customs, music, dance, and religious culture of the 25 ethnic groups of Yunnan Province. Unfortunately, I encountered more intermittent rain and thunderstorms while I was there. I was, however, able to visit villages of the Dai, Buyi, Bulang, Jinuo, Yao, Hui, Manchu, Lisu, Hani, and Tibetan ethnic minorities. This is another must-see location when visiting Kunming. I hope to return sometime when the weather is much more favorable and spend an entire day there. My last stop was to be Daghan Park but, due to the rain, I cancelled that stop and returned to my hotel.

On Wednesday, 26 August, my first stop was to visit the Yuantong Temple. It is the largest and one of the earliest Guanyin temples in China, built during the Nanzhao period (624-902) of the Tang Dynasty. Han Buddhism, Nan Buddhism, and Tibetan Buddhism all coexist in this temple. This is the most picturesque temple that I encountered while in Kunming. I continued on to Chihu (Green Lake) Park where I strolled around the lake and enjoyed the beautiful scenery. My next stop was at the Fine Arts Museum, but I found that it was closed and the collection had recently been relocated to the new provincial museum.

I walked from the old fine arts museum to the Zhong’ai Memorial Archway and observed some interesting street art painted on the sidewalk en route to the archway. I continued walking through a park-like area to the Biji (Green Rooster) and Jinma (Golden Horse) Archways that I had visited a couple of nights earlier so that I could see them in the daylight. As I walked back to my hotel, I passed an old Christian church and a clothing store with a school bus storefront and Disney characters on the sidewalk.

Thursday, 27 August, was a travel day back to Chengdu. I went to the Chengdu Global Center on Friday. The Chengdu Global Center just recently opened and is now the largest building in the world under one roof. In addition to two five star hotels, office space, a huge Lotte department store, a huge shopping mall, an ice skating rink, an arcade area, and an enormous food and beverage area, it features an enormous indoor water park that includes an indoor beach with wave pool and a giant LED screen behind the water with appropriate outdoor scenes playing. There is also a water amusement park and a 500-meter long “Lazy River” where people float on boats or other floatation devices. It was a very interesting way to spend my last full day in China.

I flew back home to Los Angeles on Saturday, 29 August.

See pictures from China: Guizhou & Yunnan Provinces

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  July 2015
Taiwan

Travel Notes

 

I met Sunny at Sanliurfa, Turkey, in June 2012. She was from Taiwan and was traveling by herself in Turkey. We took several day trips together with Mustafa from Sanliurfa before she went to Van, Turkey, and I returned home. We kept in touch via email and were able to meet up again for one day of sightseeing at Jiayuguan, China, in April 2014. I sent an email to her with a photo of my recent trip to Mount Huangshan, China, and she said that we should try to meet up again somewhere later this year. I replied that I could probably arrange to travel to Taiwan sometime in July, and she said that she would love to show me some of Taiwan. She also said that I should plan to spend at least ten days, and then she planned a complete Taiwan travel itinerary that included traveling with her family and friends.

I arrived at Taipei, Taiwan, on Friday, 10 July 2015 at about 6:30 PM. After clearing immigration, I located the car that my hotel had arranged in advance. I called Sunny to let her know that I was en route to my hotel and she was waiting in the hotel lobby when I arrived. Sunny assisted me with checking into the hotel. After I deposited my luggage in my room, we took a taxi to the Taipei 101 Mall where we met up with Jessie, a co-worker of Sunny’s, for dinner. The Taipei 101 Building was the tallest building in the world from 2004 until 2010 when it was eclipsed by the Burj Khalifa in the UAE. In 2011, Taipei 101 was awarded the LEED platinum certification and became the tallest and largest green building in the world.

Dinner was at DinTaiFung, one of Taipei’s most popular restaurants, and it was wonderful. I had previously met Jessie when she and Sunny met up with me for one day of sightseeing at Jiayuguan, China, in April 2014. It is always nice to have dinner with friends when I am traveling. After dinner, I took a taxi back to my hotel and arranged to meet Sunny at my hotel the following morning.

I met Sunny in the hotel lobby on Saturday morning, 11 July, for some local Taiwan sightseeing. Sunny gave me a prepaid metro card and we took the metro to visit old town Taipei. We walked from the Daqiaotou Metro Station to the Taipei Bridge to view the Tamsui River and then walked through the old town area of Taipei. In addition to enjoying the architecture and small business shops, we visited the Cisheng Temple, the former building of the Ren-an Hospital, and the Xiahai City God Temple. The Ren-an Hospital was a modern westernized hospital set up by the Taiwanese during an era when Taiwan was still ruled by Japan. The Xiahai City God Temple is a century-old temple that has statues of the City God, his wife, the Chinese Cupid (Matchmaker God), and 200 other deities. Tradition has it that if the statue of the Chinese Cupid is standing, he is eager to find a good marriage for people.

We ate a wonderful lunch at a small restaurant that had a long queue of people eager to eat lunch. After lunch, we continued walking and went to a shop that served shaved ice desserts which were very refreshing on this hot Taipei day.

After exploring old town Taipei, we took the metro to the Guting Metro Station and walked to the Wisteria Tea House which occupies a central position in the political culture of Taipei. During the 1950s, Professor Chou Te-wei and a group of leading academics met here regularly to discuss, study, and promote western liberalism in Taiwan. The building was first turned into a tea house in 1981and named Wisteria Tea House after the old wisteria vines growing along the eaves of the building. The tea house was designated as a city historic site in 1997. Joyce, another of Sunny’s co-workers, met us at the tea house to enjoy a genuine Taipei tea house experience. It was my first real tea house experience.

After departing the tea house, we took the metro to the Longshan Temple Metro Station to visit the Longshan Temple. The temple has been declared a Secondary National Heritage Site and houses hundreds of Buddhist, Taoist and Confucian deities. It was very beautiful as we arrived at sunset. In front of the temple, there was a very beautiful dragon fountain on one side and a large waterfall fountain on the opposite side.

Our next stop was the Hua Xi Night Market where we ate dinner and then strolled through the market area. We agreed to meet up in the morning at the high speed train station to go to Hsinchu. Since it was getting late, I said goodbye to Sunny and took a taxi back to my hotel. It was a wonderful day of local sightseeing.

I took a taxi from my hotel to the high speed train station early Sunday morning, 12 July, and met up with Sunny to travel to Hsinchu. The train to Hsinchu took about thirty minutes. We met up with Sunny’s mother, Sunny’s cousin, Alice, and Alice’s boyfriend, Alex, at the Hsinchu station where Sunny rented a car for us to visit the aboriginal villages of Smangus and Cinsbu in the mountains. We stopped at the Yu lao Viewpoint en route to Smangus for a photo opportunity. The roads became increasingly narrower as we continued driving deeper into the mountains. Sunny had pre-arranged our permits to enter the area and, after obtaining the permit at the checkpoint, we continued on to Smangus. The road to Smangus was quite narrow with many switchbacks, and we stopped at the Sima Kushi Bridge over the Taigang Stream for another photo opportunity.

Smangus is one of Taiwan’s most remote villages; it only received electricity in 1979, and the road to Smangus was not completed until 1995. Atayal is the local language spoken in Smangus. Smangus was completely cut off from civilization prior to the discovery of the giant Chamaecyparis trees about 5.2 kilometers from the village. The biggest tree is 20.5 meters in circumference and the giant trees became a large tourist draw which prompted the building of the road to Smangus.

After parking at Smangus village, we set off to hike the Smangus Big Tree Trail. It began to rain shortly after we started our hike and intermittent rain continued for the duration of the hike. We all hiked through bamboo and deciduous forests, across streams with waterfalls, along mountainside paths with spectacular landscape views, and past some very large trees before reaching the Tayux Raga trail marker. Since it was already late afternoon and I was the slowest hiker, I decided to return to the village and let the others continue on. The rain continued intermittently with heavy rain at times while I returned to the general store at the village to dry out and wait for the others to return. Since Taiwan is on the extreme eastern edge of the time zone for China, sunset occurs very early in the evening. After circling the famous grove of giant Cypress trees, the others returned to the village well after dark.

We drove from Smangus to the village of Cinsbu where Sunny had made reservations for all of us to spend the night. Sunny had stayed there on prior occasions and the proprietors cooked a big dinner for us. The hostel was relatively new, and my room was very nice.

After breakfast the following morning, we went to the peach orchard owned by the hostel proprietors. The family was busy sorting and packing freshly picked peaches to deliver to their private market customers. The peaches from this region of Taiwan are highly valued and the rejected ones that we ate were delicious. The children showed us around the mountainside orchard, and we bought several boxes of peaches before leaving.

We drove back to Hsinchu with a short stopover at the Yu lan Viewpoint for lunch. We also stopped at the Beijiao suspension bridge en route to a tea manufacturing plant where the Oriental Beauty tea is produced. After we sampled some tea, Sunny purchased a couple of packages of tea and we continued on to Hsinchu.

We visited the Hsinchu Chenghuang Temple (Chenghuang means City God) during sunset and ate dinner at a restaurant near the temple. After dinner, we visited the Hsinchu Falian temple and then had dessert at a shaved ice desserts establishment. Our last stop at Hsinchu was at the train station where Sunny returned the rental car. We said goodbye to her mom, Alice, and Alex before catching our train back to Taiwan. I took a taxi from the train station back to my hotel to complete another long, action-packed travel day and a wonderful two-day excursion to Hsinchu, Smangus, and Cinsbu.

On Tuesday morning, 14 July, I took a taxi from my hotel to go to the National Palace Museum which contains more than 696,000 pieces of ancient Chinese imperial artifacts and artworks. The collection encompasses more than 10.000 years of Chinese history. The collection was originally housed in the Forbidden City at Beijing until it was crated up during the Second Sino-Japanese War with Japan which merged into World War 2. The crates were moved from place to place until they ended up at a Nanjing warehouse. During the Chinese Civil War, after the surrender of Japan, General Chiang Kai-skek ultimately decided to evacuate the crated arts from the Forbidden City to Taiwan. The Communist Army seized control of the Palace Museum collection before all of the crates could be shipped to Taiwan. In the end, a total of 2,972 crates of the Forbidden City artifacts moved to Taiwan, which accounted for approximately 22% of the original crates stored at Nanjing. These artifacts are considered to be some of the very best of the collection.

I spent a total of six hours at the museum, which included an English speaking tour that Sunny had reserved for me in advance. The museum has amazing collections of ancient artifacts that include wonderful jade and bronze exhibits. I arrived at the museum at about 10:30 in the morning to be on site during the lunch hour when the crowds would be smaller. Three of the most important pieces in the museum are the Jadeite Cabbage, the bronze Zong Zhou Zong (Bell of Zhong), and the bronze Mao Gong Ding (C of Duke of Mao). The Palace Museum should not be missed when visiting Taipei.

After I returned to my hotel, I called Sunny who gave the hotel front desk directions to give to a taxi to take me to a restaurant to meet her and Joyce for dinner. I took my Taiwan guidebook with me, and Sunny pointed out some places for me to visit the following day.

The morning of 15 July, I took a taxi to the Maokong Gondola (cableway system) where I rode the gondola from the Taipei Zoo Station up to the Maokong Station. The gondola system began operation during 2007 and serves four passenger stations. It also has two angle stations where the gondola changes direction. There are many tea plantations and hiking trails near the Maokong Station. After a short visit at Maokong, I rode back down to the Zhinan Temple Station. There is a very picturesque small temple located at this station, and there is a trail to walk to the Zhinan Temple.

After purchasing a cold drink at a small shop, I rode back down to the Taipei Zoo Station where I took a taxi to the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Memorial Hall. The memorial hall was established in memory of Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the father of the Republic of China. The hall has extensive exhibits about the life of Sun Yat-sen and is surrounded by a large park with some very interesting sculptures. My next stop was at the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. This memorial hall was built in memory of Chiang Kai-shek, the first president of the Republic of China. The hall has extensive exhibits about the life of Chiang Kai-shek.

My last stop was at the National Museum of History which is located within the Taipei Botanical Garden. The museum has grown over the last 50 years to include works donated by more than 400 private collectors, including rope-pattern pottery, Han ceramics, painted dancer and musician figurines from the Six Kingdoms period, Tang-era tri-color glazed ceramics, oracle bones, bronze vessels, porcelain, historic documents, and other precious works. The museum also had a special textile exhibit on display while I was there.

After returning to my hotel, I called Sunny who again gave the hotel front desk directions to give to a taxi to take me to meet her for dinner. This time we met up at a noodle shop. After dinner, Sunny took me for a hike up Elephant Mountain to several places overlooking Taipei for gorgeous views of the city after dark. During the hike, we encountered some enormous snails in the pathway. After the Elephant Mountain hike, I returned to my hotel and packed my daypack for a three day excursion to Hualien on the eastern coast of Taiwan the following day.

On Thursday morning, 16 July, I met Sunny at the train station to take a regular train to Hualien. The train ride was several hours, and we met up with Alice and Alex at the Hualien train station where Sunny rented a car. We ate lunch at a hot pot restaurant in Hualien and then had dessert at a popular shaved ice dessert shop before checking into a hostel that Sunny had reserved in advance for two nights.

Sunny had pre-arranged for our permit to visit Muku Mugi Valley on the Internet, and we drove from Hualien to Muku Mugi Valley after checking into the hostel. We passed a Duck Festival on the way to Muku Mugi. When we reached the police checkpoint, we were given our permit but were not allowed to drive any further and were told that we needed to be back before 6:00 PM. We hiked as far as we could go before having to turn back to exit by the 6:00 PM deadline. The river gorge was beautiful, and the hike was refreshing.

Before returning to Hualien, we visited Qixingtan Beach at sundown. The beach was rocky and there were many people fishing in the surf. We continued on to the Zigiang Night Market where we purchased food to take back to the hostel for dinner. We also stopped at a local bakery to purchase some food to have for breakfast in the morning.

On Friday morning, we got an early start and drove to Taroko National Park. We decided that Alice and Alex would hike the Jhuilu Old Road Trail and Sunny and I would hike the Eternal Spring Trail. We would meet up later at the Swallow Grotto Trail. We drove along the spectacular Liwu River Gorge to the trailhead for the Jhuilu Old Road where we dropped off Alice and Alex.

Sunny and I went back along the gorge to the trailhead for the Eternal Spring Trail (also referred to as the Changchun Temple Trail). We found a parking place near a small restaurant/gift shop and began hiking toward the temple where the eternal spring gushes from the mountain down to the river. We then began climbing the mountain cliff-side trail toward the Changchun Temple. The scenery was spectacular and the rock cut trail was often narrow. We hiked to the Bell Tower high above the Changchun Temple and then returned to a small restaurant beside the river where we ate lunch.

We then drove to the trailhead for the Swallow Grotto Trail and hiked along the trail admiring the Liwu River Gorge far below. The scenery from the Swallow Grotto Trail was beyond spectacular. After we hiked the Swallow Grotto Trail, Sunny and I went farther along the river to a campsite area with an observation deck not far from a suspension foot-bridge over the river. Although the bridge had a sign limiting the number of people on the bridge to eight people, many of the visitors paid no attention to the limitation. The trail at the opposite end of the bridge was closed when we were there.

When Alice called Sunny to tell her that they had completed their Jhuilu Old Road hike, we drove back to pick them up, exited the park, and went to dinner at the Yan-Liao Seafood restaurant. In the meantime, Sunny also learned that the HaHo Yang 2015 Festival was scheduled to begin that evening. After our wonderful seafood dinner, we went to the festival. It was a dance festival for all of the aboriginal tribes and was held in a stadium. There were many dance performances that culminated with nearly all the tribes joining into a group dance. At this point, Sunny and Alice took me down with them to join in with the local people celebrating. After leaving the festival, we returned to the hostel.

On Saturday morning, 18 July, we drove along the east coast of Taiwan to the Baqi Observation Platform that is situated halfway between Jiqi Beach and Niushan Beach to admire the view of the Pacific Ocean coastline. On the way back to Hualien, we stopped at Niushan Beach and made several roadside stops for photos. We returned to the Hualien hot pot restaurant for lunch before returning the rental car. Sunny and I said goodbye to Alice and Alex at the Hualien train station before returning to Taipei. I met up with Sunny and Jessie for dinner at a very nice restaurant in a Taipei mall.

Sunny met me at my hotel on Sunday morning, 19 July, for my last day of Taiwan sightseeing. We took the Metro to Beitou which is famous for hot spring spas. We visited the Ketagalan Culture Center which had wonderful displays of Taiwan aboriginal culture, including art and native dress. We walked from the cultural center through Bietou Hot Spring Park to the Beitou Hot Spring Museum which is located in a Japanese occupation era building formerly used as a Japanese officer’s club during World War 2. It is designated as a Taipei historic site. We continued walking through the park to visit Thermal Valley which is one of the sources supplying the area’s hot springs.

After visiting Beitou, we took a taxi to Tamsui to visit some of the old colonial buildings in Taiwan. Our first stop was a hike up a tall hill to the old former British Consulate building museum located adjacent to Fort Santo Domingo. After visiting the consulate building museum, we walked to the Aletheia University, which was originally founded as Oxford College in 1882, and continued on to visit the Little White House which once was Tamsui’s Custom Inspector General’s residence in the Qing Dynasty. There are impressive views of the Tamsui River to the Guanyin Mountain. We walked in light rain from the Little White House down the hill to the Tamsui Church which was established by Reverend Mackay who arrived in Taiwan in 1872.

We continued walking to the Tamsiui metro station where we took the metro to a stop near my hotel and had one last dinner at a small noodle shop. After dinner, we walked to my hotel where I said goodbye to Sunny and thanked her profusely for sharing my visit with her family and friends and making my trip to Taiwan very extra-special indeed.

I flew home from Taiwan on Monday, 20 July, and pondered just how lucky I was to have Sunny as a good friend who went out of her way to show me some of Taiwan. We will continue to keep in touch and will try to meet up somewhere in the world hopefully in the not-too-distant future.

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  May 2015
Seattle

Travel Notes

 

Jan and I wanted to visit friends on Orcas Island, Washington, in the San Juan Islands and in the vicinity of Seattle, Washington. I booked a repositioning cruise from San Diego, California, to Vancouver, British Columbia (BC), Canada aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. This cruise itinerary included a stop at Victoria, BC.

We took the Amtrak train from Los Angeles to San Diego and boarded the ZAANDAM on Wednesday, 13 May, and settled into our cabin. The ship departed San Diego that evening and began the journey to Vancouver.

After open-ocean sailing for the next three days, we arrived at Victoria, BC, during the late afternoon on 16 May. We ate dinner aboard the ship and then took a taxi to explore a portion of downtown Victoria. Here we visited the historic Empress Hotel and saw the British Columbia Legislative Buildings and Royal British Columbia Museum. The Empress Hotel was where Jan’s mother and father spent their honeymoon many years ago. The waterfront area across from the Empress Hotel was bustling with activity which included numerous street performers.

After strolling along some of the streets in the downtown district, we hailed a taxi to go back to the ship. The taxi driver offered to show us some more of Victoria on the way back to the ship for a flat rate which we accepted. He drove us past some lovely older homes and then drove us through Beacon Hill Park. The park is beautiful and retail sales within the park are forbidden. The driver pointed to several peacocks all of which he had named “Dave” and he normally feeds them water crackers. He stopped and called to one peacock which walked over to the taxi and ate a water cracker out of my hand. He very nearly also took one from Jan but reneged at the last moment. He then drove us back to the cruise ship terminal.

We set sail at midnight for the short voyage to Vancouver, BC, and disembarked at Canada Place pier, Vancouver at about 8:30 AM. While waiting for our bus from Canada Place to Bellingham, Washington, our friends, Tom and Leslie, on Orcas Island called to inform us that due to a ferry problem earlier in the morning, they would not be able to meet us at the Bellingham Airport as planned. I immediately called San Juan Airline and was able to book a flight from Bellingham Airport to Orcas Island to be available shortly after our scheduled bus arrival.

The Quick Shuttle bus from Vancouver to Bellingham was on schedule and received priority passage through the United States Border Immigration checkpoint. After arriving at the Bellingham Airport, we made our way to the San Juan Airline hangar where we paid for our tickets and took the short fifteen-minute flight to the airport at Eastsound, Orcas Island. The visibility of the San Juan Islands during the flight to Orcas Island was spectacular, and Leslie and Tom were waiting for us at the airport. We spent the next three days relaxing at their wonderful secluded home in the forest, visiting with them, and enjoying Leslie’s wonderful cooking.

On Thursday, 21 May, Tom and Leslie drove us to the Orcas Island Ferry Terminal. En route to the terminal we stopped at the two barns painted by the high school senior class – the old barn was painted by the Class of 2014 and the new barn was painted by the Class of 2015. Since the old barn is on the verge of collapsing, the new barn will be used for all future barn paintings by the high school senior classes. We also stopped to photograph a longhorn bull before we arrived at ferry terminal. We boarded the ferry to Anacortes, Washington, and then caught the BelAir Airporter Shuttle bus to the Seattle International Airport. Our friends, John and Diane, from Federal Way, Washington met us at the airport. We spent the next six days visiting with them as well as their son, David, and his wife, Doreen, who live in Tacoma, Washington.

On Friday, 22 May, David and Doreen drove us all to Seattle where we rode the Ducks of Seattle Tour. The “Ducks” are vehicles that are both a land vehicle and an amphibious vehicle. The driver for our Ducks of Seattle Tour was wonderful – wearing different hats, singing along with the pre-recorded music on the “Duck”, and interacting with the passengers in addition to pointing out and describing different sights from the “Duck.” The tour route included sailing on Lake Union and driving past many of the popular attractions in the downtown Seattle area. We all had a marvelous time on the Ducks of Seattle Tour and agree with the literature describing it as the number one attraction in Seattle.

After disembarking from the “Duck,” we walked to the famous Pike Place Markets where we explored many of the shops. Our next stop was at the downtown central waterfront area near Waterfront Park and the Ferris wheel known as Seattle Great Wheel. Normally this area is very popular with many shops in the warehouses at the piers. Due to ongoing construction, however, most of the warehouses were inaccessible which forced many shops to close. We were allowed access to the Pier 57 where the Ferris wheel and some shops are situated – a couple of restaurants and an ice cream shop happened to be open. After eating some ice cream, we drove back to Federal Way via surface streets close to Puget Sound.

We spent the next two days visiting and enjoying meals cooked by both David and Doreen. On Monday, 25 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit Mount St. Helens, the volcano that erupted in 1980 with enormous devastation to the surrounding area. The18 May 1980 eruption caused the largest landslide in recorded history and removed the upper 1,313 feet of the volcano. The most popular route to Mount St. Helens is along State Route 504, the Spirit Lake Memorial Highway, from Interstate 5 eastbound to the Johnson Ridge Observatory at an elevation of 4,200 feet near Mount St. Helens, which has an elevation of 8,365 feet. Although the weather was partly cloudy, we were hopeful that the mountain would not be obscured by the clouds.

As we traveled eastbound on SR 504, we passed Silver Lake and stopped at Kid Valley to visit the North Fork Survivors Gift Shop where a partially buried A Frame House, a partially buried refrigera,tor and a 28 foot high “Bigfoot” sculpture are situated. The A Frame House was nearly completed when the volcano eruption left it partially buried by mud, ash, and debris called lahars. While in the gift shop, we viewed a wonderful video documenting the eruption and destruction in the aftermath of the eruption.

Our next stop was at a public viewing area where we hiked along a short trail through the forest to a viewpoint of the area where a dam had been constructed after the eruption to help contain further flooding damage along the North Fork of the Toulte River.

We continued on to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center at an elevation of 1,400 feet, which offers the first panoramic view of the Toutle River and the valley that leads to Mount St. Helens. We also saw the KOMO 4 News Car that was in the blast zone and was later donated to the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center. Shortly after leaving the Hoffstadt Bluffs Visitor Center, we arrived at the Hoffstadt Creek Bridge which is the largest of the fourteen new bridges constructed for SR 504. The bridge is 2,340 feet (713 meters) long and 370 feet (113 meters) high. The western end of the bridge marked the edge of the blast zone of the eruption. From here to the Johnson Ridge Observatory we would be traveling through the blast zone.

Our next stop was at The Forest Learning Center at an elevation of 2,600 feet. Herds of elk are frequently observed in the Toutle River valley below but none were visible today. The panoramic views of the valley were spectacular and, although we could see the base of Mount St. Helens, clouds obscured the summit. We walked through the visitor center and viewed another short video documenting the eruption.

We stopped at a roadside viewpoint before arriving at turnoffs for both the Science Learning Center and Coldwater Lake. The panoramic views from the roadside stop allowed us to view Castle Lake and see intermittent views of the summit of Mount St. Helens. Since it was already mid-afternoon, we decided to continue on to the Johnston Ridge Observatory as our next stop.

After we arrived at the Johnston Ridge Observatory, we were able to view portions of the summit of Mount St. Helens as the clouds were passing by. Inside the visitor center we watched the video of the eruption and the continuing reforestation of the area. Normally after the video, they open the curtains behind the projection screen to expose a dazzling view of Mount St. Helens, but the clouds obscured our view of the mountain. The view below the clouds gave us a view of Spirit Lake in the distance. The clouds rapidly moved in and completely enveloped the visitor center as we were leaving. We were grateful that we had been able to see portions of Mount St. Helens on our drive from the Forest Learning Center to Johnson Ridge.

During our return drive on SR 504 we finally descended below the clouds and visited Coldwater Lake which was formed after the eruption. We attempted to also visit the Science Learning Center but it was in the process of closing for the day just as we arrived. We continued westbound on SR 504 to northbound SR 505 as a shortcut to Interstate 5 and our return to Federal Way, Washington.

On Tuesday, 26 May, David and Doreen drove us to visit the Bass Pro Shop, which is a very large sporting goods store, in Tacoma. The store included a restaurant and the Fish Bowl, a bowling alley decorated in an underwater theme. Our next stop in Tacoma was to visit Wright Park, which had beautiful flowers and gardens. We continued north adjacent to Puget Sound from Wright Park to Point Defiance Park via Ruston Way and the five-mile drive through the park. Point Defiance Park is very beautiful and we passed raccoons at three different locations beside the road. At one viewpoint we were able to see the Tacoma Narrows Bridge before arriving at Fort Nisaqually. Two of the fort’s original structures were relocated to the present site during the 1930s. The remainder of the fort has been reconstructed to reflect how Fort Nisqually appeared during the 1850s. The fort is now a living history museum and was in the process of closing when we arrived. Our next stop was at the Pagoda, a 1914 streetcar station, across from an Asian garden in Point Defiance Park. We returned to downtown Tacoma for dinner before returning to Federal Way.

On Wednesday, 27 May, John and Diane drove us to the Emerald Queen Hotel & Casino in Fife, Washington, where we enjoyed a buffet brunch before going to the hotel lobby to review tourism brochures. Although we found many attractions to be considered for a return trip, we were intrigued by the brochures for the Pacific Rim Bonsai Museum and the Rhododendron Species Botanical Garden which are located in Federal Way. Since both of them were on our way, we decided to stop for a visit. They are both situated next to each other; there is an admission fee for the Botanical Garden while the Bonsai Museum is free.

We visited the Bonsai Museum first and were amazed at the very extensive collection of beautiful bonsai creations. Some bonsai pieces were constructed entirely out of metal wires. The collection of traditional living bonsai trees and shrubs was absolutely amazing. We also visited the Botanical Garden, which encompasses 22 acres of woodland gardens, features over 600 rhododendron species, and is advertised as the largest collection of its kind in the world. The gardens were magnificent and the Himalayan Blue Poppy Meadow was in full bloom. Many of the rhododendrons had already bloomed but there were ample varieties of other flowering plants to make these gardens picture perfect. Anyone visiting the Seattle area who enjoys beautiful gardens should definitely visit the Bonsai Museum and the Botanical Garden in Federal Way.

We flew home to Los Angeles on Thursday, 28 May, and are already looking forward to returning to the Pacific Northwest on some future trips.

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  April 2015
China

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to China to visit Hangzhou City and to hike on Mount Huangshan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and one of the five sacred Taoist mountains in China. I arrived at Chengdu, China, on Sunday, 26 April 2015 at about 6:40 PM. After clearing Immigration, I exited the terminal and took a local taxi to my hotel. I spent the following day resting up from the long flights from Los Angeles to Chengdu.

Tuesday, 28 April, was a travel day where I flew from Chengdu to Hangzhou and settled into my hotel. I went to visit West Lake National Park in Hangzhou on Wednesday, 29 April. West Lake National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and receives mixed reviews from tourists. The landscaping adjacent to the lake was very beautiful with flowers in full bloom. I arrived at the northeast corner of the lake and took a small boat rowed by one man for a one-hour tour of the north end of the lake over to the famous bridge at the north end of the Bai Causeway. After disembarking from the small boat, I purchased a ticket on one of the local ferryboats to go to Xiaoyingzhou Isle, a small island in the center of the lake. The island contains an architectural complex dating from 1723-1735 and consisting of the Nanshu Pavilion, Yingcui Veranda, and Huaniao Hall. I disembarked at the island and admired the beautiful architecture and scenery.

I boarded another local ferry that took me from the island to Zhongshan Park at the southern end of the Bai Causeway. The remains of the Temporary Imperial Palace of the Qing Dynasty are situated at Zhongshan Park. It was a very nice place to explore with lush vegetation amid the ruins of the palace. After visiting the palace, I took an electric shuttle bus to the north end of the Bai Causeway and walked along the north end of the lake. After visiting West Lake, I walked from the northeast corner of the lake into Hangzhou City and found a small restaurant where I purchased beef and noodles for lunch. With the help of my map and several local pedestrians, I was able to walk back to my hotel in about forty minutes.

On Thursday, 30 April, I took a bus from Hangzhou City to Huangshan City and checked into the Crowne Plaza hotel for three nights. After checking into the hotel, I was able to arrange for a hotel car to take me to Mount Huangshan early the following morning.

On Friday, the hotel car drove me to the Huangshan Tourist Center at the southern entrance to Mount Huangshan where I purchased my ticket for the tourist bus up to the Yungu Cableway Station. Since May 1 is the first day a of major three day national holiday in China when many Chinese people travel for sightseeing, the crowds at Huangshan were massive and I was glad that I had already booked a room at the Beijai Hotel for the night on top of the mountain. There are two cableways from the Huangshan southern entrance to the top of the mountain but the Yuping Cableway was closed for repairs which effectively doubled the number of people wanting to take the Yungu Cableway.

After arriving at the Yungu Cableway station, I purchased my admission ticket to Huangshan and my ticket for the cableway. I then joined in one of the largest queues I have ever seen to wait to board the cableway. The wait to board the cable car was in excess of 90 minutes even though each cableway car could carry eight persons. After boarding a cableway car, the views during the journey to the top were spectacular.

Once I exited the cableway station, I took some very scenic photos and began hiking mostly downhill for about one kilometer until I reached the Beiloit Hotel where I checked into my room for the night and purchased lunch at the hotel restaurant. After lunch, I began hiking both up and downhill to visit the “Flying Over Rock” which is probably one of the most spectacular sights associated with Huangshan Mountain and was one of the main reasons that I wanted to visit Huangshan. The scenery en route to “Flying Over Rock” was spectacular and the seven-kilometer roundtrip hike from the Beiloit Hotel was strenuous. It began to mist light rain during the last kilometer back to the hotel. The mist then developed into torrential rain and thunderstorms during the night. I was very happy that I decided to hike to “Flying Over Rock” during the prior afternoon in picture perfect weather.

After breakfast the next day, I purchased a lightweight plastic rain suit at a shop in the hotel and began the one-kilometer, mostly uphill, hike back to the Yungu Cableway in heavy rain. I was amazed at the constant flow of people who were just arriving to visit Huangshan and who were going the opposite direction from me. After reaching the lower cableway station, I purchased my ticket for the commuter bus back to the southern entrance tourist center and then took a local taxi back to my hotel in Huangshan City. It continued raining the remainder of the day at Huangshan City while I spent the remainder of the day drying out my wet clothes and shoes in my hotel room.

I took the bus back to Hangzhou on Sunday, 3 May. The weather was nice at Hangzhou City as I went to visit a portion of the Hangzhou section of the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal. The Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is the longest canal of artificial river in the world. The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th Century BC. Today the Hangzhou portion of the canal is known as the Jiangnan Canal and is the southernmost section of the canal. There were some park-like areas adjacent to the section of the canal that I visited with many beautiful flowers blooming.

I went to visit the Grottoes at Feilai Peak and the Lingyin Temple on Monday, 4 May. These are situated to the west of West Lake. The Grottoes at Feilai Peak are one of the most representative historical sites of Buddhist culture of the West Lake landscape. They are located at the southern base of the northern peak of Feilai Mountain, opposite the Lingyin Temple and alongside Lengquan Brook. They are mainly situated on the 500 meter-long cliff along the brook and in natural caves such as Qinglin Cave and Longhong Cave. The statues were first carved in 951 CE and at the present time there are 390 statues in 115 niches carved into the limestone mountain. The statues integrate both Han Chinese and Tibetan styles of Buddhist statues and manifest the thriving Buddhist culture in Hangzhou from the 10th to the 13th centuries. During February 1982, the Chinese Government listed the Grottoes at Feilai Peak as a cultural relic.

The Lingyin Temple is one of the representative historic sites of Buddhist culture in the West Lake area. It is said that the temple was first built by an Indian monk, Huili, in 326 CE. As the earliest Buddhist building complex in the Hangzhou area, it enjoyed a remarkable status during the period of “Buddhist Realm in Southeastern China” during the 10th to 13th centuries. The temple is still considered to be one of the most important locations of Buddhist activities in the southeastern coastal regions of China. The temple is very large and extends upward along the northern side of the southern peak of Feilai Mountain. Both the Lingyin Temple and the Grottos at Feilai Peak are easy to get to and are well worth visiting when sightseeing at Hangzhou.

Tuesday, 5 May, was another travel day where I flew back to Chengdu. On Wednesday, May 6, I visited the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. The research base is like a very large park with a museum, a lake, and a rose garden in addition to the research facilities for both Red Pandas and Giant Pandas. It is listed as a National AAAA Scenic Area and has received the “Global 500” Award from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). I spent nearly five hours at the research base and recommend it as a very good place to visit when in Chengdu.

On Wednesday, 7 May, I visited the Chengdu Zoo. Although the zoo has previously received many awards, I was disappointed that it seemed to be in a somewhat run-down condition. The clear partitions that separated the people from the animals and reptiles were very dirty and, in my opinion, it was not nearly as nice and well maintained as the Chongqing Zoo which I visited during April 2013.

I flew back home to Los Angeles on Thursday, 8 May. During the flights home, I reflected on my trip and was very happy that after visiting Mount Huangshan, I have had the satisfaction of hiking upon four of the five sacred mountains in China since August 2012.

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  January 2015
India

Travel Notes

 

I decided to travel to southern India and, after looking at several possible travel itineraries, I worked with Hi-Life Tours (also known as Caper Travel) to construct a tour primarily in the state of Karnataka that would begin in Bangalore and end in Goa. The tour was designed to include temples and ruins of medieval South India.

I arrived at Mumbai, India, on Thursday, 15 January 2015 at about 10:00 PM. After clearing Immigration, I located a taxi kiosk and procured a prepaid local taxi to my hotel. The prepaid taxi was old, small, and in need of mechanical repairs but it survived the poor roads and dense traffic and delivered me to the Holiday Inn Mumbai Airport hotel safely. I spent the night and then flew to Bangalore, India the following afternoon.

I arrived at Bangalore, India, on Friday, 16 January, and was met at the airport by the representative of Hi-Life Tours. He introduced me to Mr. Shivu who would be my personal driver for the duration of my trip in India. After checking into my hotel, I met with the Hi-Life representative to receive my hotel vouchers and to review my complete travel itinerary.

The following morning, Mr. Shivu picked me up at 8:00 AM to begin visiting some local Bangalore attractions before continuing on to Mysore. Although we already had a very full schedule for the day, Mr. Shivu agreed to add two visits to my Bangalore itinerary – the Bangalore Palace and the ruins of the Bangalore Fort. Our first stop was at the Vidhana Soudha, the Bangalore Parliament Building. The inscription above the main entrance to the building reads: “Government Work is God’s Work.” It is a new building built adjacent to the previous parliament building that is now used as a government office building. We drove past the Central Library building en route to the palace and fort. A security guard informed us that access to the palace grounds was closed due to a special private function.

After being denied access to see the Bangalore Palace and Bangalore Fort, we continued on to Tipu Sultan Palace, which is now a museum. An interesting temple is situated adjacent to the Tipu Sultan Palace and, due to some miscommunication with my driver, I was only able to take some photos from outside of the temple. Bangalore has many parks and tree-lined streets.

Our next stop was at the Lai Bagh Garden where a flower show was to be held. The flower show was to be inside the main building and I arrived prior to the opening of the show. The park was very large and contained many interesting areas to explore. Being pressed for time, I decided not to wait for the flower show to open. We also drove past the local fast food canteen and visited the Bangalore Big Bull Temple and a cobra temple. After a brief visit to the Sri Radha Krishna Temple, we continued on to see the Shivanasamudra Falls en route to Mysore.

As a result of large speed bumps installed along the highway, the journey to Mysore was very slow moving. Shivanasamudra Falls was a side-trip en route to Mysore and is advertised as the second largest waterfalls in India and the 16th largest in the world. This claim may be true during the monsoon season, but there was very little water cascading down the falls. The barren rocky cliffs where the large falls occur provided an interesting landscape above the river below. The British built ¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬the Shiva Hydro Electric Project, a hydro-electric plant, in 1902. It still operates and, according to my driver, was the first electrical power plant in India.

Before arriving at Mysore, we stopped at Somanathapura to visit the Keshava temple. It was built in 1268 CE when the Hoysalas were the major power in South India. The temple is in the care of the Archaeological Survey of India and is advertised as one of the finest and most complete examples of Hoysala architecture – the carvings at this temple are exquisite.

I checked into my hotel at Mysore at about 4:45 PM and Shivu suggested that we meet at 6:45 PM to go to see the light show at the Mysore Palace. The light show is only performed during weekends and special festivals. When we arrived at the Mysore Palace, we were once again turned away because a private function had reserved the palace for the evening. Since we would be in Mysore for two nights, we decided to try to return the following night to see the light show.

On Sunday morning, 18 January, our first stop was at the Clock Tower en route to the Mysore Palace. The palace is magnificent but photography within the palace is prohibited. I took the palace tour and purchased a palace CD which I hoped might have some images of the interior. There are also several ancient Sri Lankan temples within the palace complex and I visited two of them – photography was allowed in some parts of the Sri Lankan temples.

Our next stop was at Chamundi Hill which is topped by a 12th century temple of Durga. We parked in the lower parking lot adjacent to a small reservoir and then I climbed a stairway to the top of the hill. Since it was a weekend day, the temple complex was inundated by very large crowds of people and huge queues of people waiting to enter the main temples. I decided to photograph the temples from a distance. While descending from Chamundi Hill we stopped at the Large Bull Temple for a quick photo opportunity.

Our final stop of the morning was at the Mysore Sand Museum. It is advertised as the first sand museum in India. It was inexpensive and the sand sculptures within the museum were very well done. We decided to take a lunch break and then go to the Mysore City Market in the late afternoon before going to see the light show at the palace.

On the way to the city market, we stopped to take some photos of an abandoned ancient temple near the city market. The city market was very large and colorful. According to my driver, it is the main market for many products including fruits, vegetables, and flowers. The market was very colorful and crowded with shoppers.

The light show at the Mysore Palace was spectacular. It began at 7:00 PM with the main lighting turned on all at once as a band began to play. The lights illuminated not only the main palace building but also the walls, gates and adjacent temples. I believe that the palace at night during the light show is one of the most popular photos depicting tourism at Mysore.

We departed Mysore on the morning of 19 January to do some sightseeing en route to Hassan, India. Our first stop was at the town of Srirangapatna which was situated within a fort on an island formed by branches of the River Cauvery. We visited the Jamia Masjuid, Tipu Sultan’s death site, and the ruins of Lal Mahal Palace. Before leaving Srirangapatna, we visited the Darya Daulat, commonly known as the Summer Palace of Tipu Sultan. Although the interior walls and ceilings are exquisitely decorated, photography within the palace is not allowed. Many of the murals and ornate decorations are currently being restored.

We continued on to visit Shravanbelagola, a temple complex on top of a hill and known for a giant statue of Lord Gomateshwara. Upon arrival at the temple entrance I discovered that I would be required to leave my shoes at the entrance and then climb a rock-cut stairway of nearly 400 steps to reach the temple. I decided that my bare feet were not up to that sort of physical abuse and opted not to climb up to the temple.

We continued on to Hassan and, after I checked into my hotel, we visited ¬¬¬four different ancient temple sites: the Hoysaleshwara Temple at Halebidu, the Jain Basadi Complex at Halebidu, the Kedulshwara Temple at Halebidu, and the Lakshmi Devi Temple at Doddagaddavally. Halebidu was once the capital of the Hoysala Empire and was called Dwarasamudra (Entrance from Ocean) mainly because of the huge lake. When the rulers from Delhi sacked the city during the 14th century, it marked the end of the Hoysala Empire and Dwarasamudra became Halebidu (old village).

The Hoysaleshwara Temple was built in 1121 CE and is well known for its magnificent rock-carved wall sculptures including depictions from Hindu mythology. The Jain Basadis Temple Complex houses three Basadis built during the 12th century CE and is approximately one-half kilometer from the Hoysaleshwara Temple. It consists of the Parshavanatha Basadi, the Shantinatha Basadi, and the Adinatha Bisadi. The interiors of these three Jain temples were all very well preserved. The Kedareshwara Temple situated several hundred meters from the Jain Basadis Complex was built in 1219 CE and also has very nice stone carvings.

The Lakshmi Devi Temple is located at the village of Doddagaddavally. It was built in 1114 CE and is said to be one of the earliest known temples built in the Hoysala style. The temple does not stand on a platform which became a popular feature in later Hoysala temples. It has four shrines on the inside. One feature that makes this temple unique is a shrine to the mythological Kali which is guarded by two sculptures of large demonic living corpses called betala. This was one of the most interesting temples that I visited.

On Tuesday, 20 January, we traveled to Hospet, India. The drive from Hassan to Hospet is about 340 km and consists of some very good and many very bad roads. We stopped en route to visit the Chennakeshava Temple at Hullekere village. It was built in 1163 CE and is protected by the Archaeological Survey of India. A caretaker was kind enough to open the temple for our visit. The remainder of the day was enduring the long drive to my hotel at Hospet.

We got an early start on Wednesday, 21 January, to go on a day trip to Hampi, the capital city of the Vijaynager Empire. Hampi is a magnificent World Heritage Zone and is spread out over a large area amid large hills and spectacular rock formations. During my visit to Hampi, I hiked several kilometers between temple sites and we drove to several other main temple complexes. I visited more than thirty individual temples with exquisite rock carvings. The highlight of my visit to Hampi was the rock-cut Stone Chariot located at the Vitthala Temple complex. I had admired it in photos for more than ten years and was delighted to actually visit it in person.

I was unable to properly see Hampi in one day and would have enjoyed hiking between and through more of the temple complexes. In retrospect, I should have booked two nights at Hospet and taken two days to visit and explore Hampi.

We drove to Badami via Aiole and Pattadakkal on Thursday, 22 January. Aihole is famous as the Cradle of Indian Architecture and is situated on the banks of the Malaprabha River. It was established in 450 CE as the first capital of the Early Western Chalukyas and has more than one hundred temples scattered around the village. Our first stop was at the Aihole Kontigudi complex which has many beautiful temples with spectacular rock carvings and the Aihole Museum. The Lad Khan Temple is the oldest temple at Aihole and was built in 450 CE. The Durga Temple is the best known temple with a curvilinear pillared corridor an is exceptionally beautiful. We also visited the Ambigera Gudi complex and the Jyotirilinga complex. I also observed the Aihole Fort on top of the hills adjacent to the village. Once again, I was time-limited and will return to spend more time here on a future trip.

We continued driving on the very bad road from Aihole to Pattadakkal. Pattadakkal is also located on the banks of the Malaprabha River and was the third Chalukyan capital. It has ten major temples built between the 7th and 9th centuries that represent the early Chalukya architecture. It is also a World Heritage site. We continued from Pattadakal to the Mahaakua temple complex en route to Badami. The Mahaakua temple complex was part of the ancient capital Badami with temples dated to the 6th or 7th century. It featured several temples and a large tank with a four human-faced Shivalinga where many people were bathing and swimming. After traveling on more small and very bad roads, we finally arrived at Badami.

Badami is picturesquely situated at the mouth of a river between two tall rocky hills. It was also a capital of the Early Chalukyas. Badami has forts on top of the two hills: the North Fort and the South Fort. There are four famous ancient rock-cut cave temples along the side of the South Fort Hill. Cave Number 4 is a Jain temple cave and has exquisite Jain rock carvings throughout. It is also the only Jain temple in Badami. The other three caves belong to the Vedic faith and have exquisite carvings. Cave Number 1 has a rock-carved eighteen-armed Nataaraja striking 81 dance poses. There is also a dam that forms a huge lake between the north and south hills.

We began touring Badami on Friday morning. After I visited the cave temples, Mr. Shivu and I climbed to the top of the hill to the North Fort. There were several ancient temples at various locations en route to the temple at the top. The remains of the fort include walls and a circular watchtower. Although the Badami Museum beside the lake was closed on Friday, I was able to visit the Bhutanatha Temple Groups around the lake. The famous Bhutanatha Temple at the end of the lake is very picturesque. In addition, there are rock-cut carvings along one side of another hill with a small temple on top.

On Saturday, 24 January, we drove to Hubli which was placed into my itinerary by Hi-Life Tours in order to provide my driver with a break instead of traveling directly to Goa. Since there are no tourist attractions at Hubli, this was a completely wasted day for me. Anyone traveling by car between Badami and Goa should avoid any suggestion to stop at Hubli. In fact, my driver was actually surprised that a stopover at Hubli had been added to my itinerary.

On Sunday, 25 January, we drove to Goa where Mr. Shivu was to drop me off at my hotel as his final portion of my trip. Hi-Life Tours was to provide me with another driver for my remaining time at Goa. The fact that both Mr. Shivu and I had spoken to the manager of Hi-Life Tours several times during the prior four days to make sure that the coordination with the Hi-Life Tours Goa office had taken place, Hi-Life Tours failed to coordinate properly and nothing had been arranged prior to our arrival at the hotel in Goa.

After a series of phone calls to Hi-Life Tours, Hi-Life Tours finally arranged for a Goa driver named Sam to pick me up at the hotel to visit the Aguada Fort in North Goa. The fort was built when Goa was under Portuguese rule and was very interesting. I discovered that Goa is very spread out with many small villages nestled among hills. When my new driver dropped me off at the hotel, he did not know if he would be my driver for the following day.

On Monday morning, 26 January, since I had heard nothing from Hi-Life Tours, I once again called the manager in Delhi to get a status update. He did not know anything but called back within ten minutes to tell me that a driver would arrive in about thirty minutes. The driver was another new driver named Raflik who took me on a local Goa sightseeing tour. The highlights of the Goa tour included the Shree Mangueshi Temple, the Shri Ganesh Temple, the Basilica of Bom Jesus, and the Se Cathedral complex. In addition, there was a site of ruins of another ancient church in the Old Goa church complex. We also drove along the southern bank of the river from old Goa to Miramar Beach. When we returned to the hotel, I requested Raflik to pick me up at 10:00 AM on following day to take me to the airport to catch my flight to Mumbai.

On Tuesday, 27 January, Rafik picked me up on time at 10:00 AM and drove me to the Goa Airport for my flight to Mumbai. When we arrived at the airport, we once again had to call the Hi-Life Tours manager in Delhi to obtain authorization for my already prepaid transfer to the airport to be paid to Rafik. Hi-Life Tours/Caper Travel certainly did not provide the proper services at Goa until I made several rather expensive phone calls on my mobile phone. My flight to Mumbai was uneventful and I continued my journey home on 28 January.

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  December 2014
South America

Travel Notes

 

After our Alaska cruise in 2013, I wanted to take Jan on a South America cruise around Cape Horn to hopefully see the magnificent Chilean Andes and glaciers along the Chilean Fjords. I booked the cruise aboard the Holland America ship, ZAANDAM. The cruise itinerary included Buenos Aires, Argentina; Montevideo, Uruguay; Port Stanley, Falkland Islands; the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenus, Chile; Ushuaia, Argentina; Cape Horn; the Beagle Channel; the Chilean Fjords to Puerto Montt, Chile; and ending at Valparaiso, Chile.

I had previously sailed from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Ushuaia, Argentina, on the tall ship bark EUROPA in 2008. I had also sailed from Ushuaia around Cape Horn and through the Chilean Fjords to Valparaiso on the EUROPA as part of the “Tall Ships Sailing Around South America” in 2010. Both of these trips aboard the EUROPA are previously documented on my website (larryfoggtravels.com).

We arrived at Buenos Aires on 5 December 2014. After checking into our hotel in the Palermo Soho District, we explored the neighborhood street market area and admired some of the “local street art.” That evening we went to dinner at Efimero Festin Restaurant. It is operated by Carolina LaVecchia with whom I met in 2010 and have since kept in touch. Carolina is a marvelous cook and our dinner was superb. Carolina invited us to return for dinner on Sunday, 7 December. The restaurant is closed on Sundays but she cooked exclusively for us as the only guests in the restaurant and we all ate dinner together. It was a marvelous seven-course dinner and was by far the very best meal that we ate during our entire South America trip.

We boarded the ZAANDAM on Monday, 8 December 8, and settled into our cabin. While the ship remained docked at Buenos Aires, we enjoyed numerous shipboard activities and met two new friends, LaVonne and Bill. The ship arrived at Montevideo on Wednesday, 10 December, and we spent part of the day taking a self-guided walking tour of the city.

After open-ocean sailing for the next two days, we arrived at Port Stanley, Falkland Islands, early morning on 13 December. The Falkland Islands are also referred to as Isla Malvinas. Jan decided to take a four-hour ship’s shore excursion with LaVonne and Bill to visit a Rockhoppper Penguin colony. The weather cooperated and she had a very good time with the penguins.

I opted to take a bus and explore the Gypsy Cove area on my own. The landscape around the Gypsy Cove area was magnificent – it was a combination of beautiful beaches, Magellan penguins, scenic views from the hilltops, and interesting vegetation. One area called Ordnance Point had remains of an artillery outpost overlooking the harbor area of Port Stanley. Upon returning to Port Stanley, I walked along the waterfront from the dock to the Port Stanley Museum and enjoyed exploring part of this small but colorful city.

After another day at sea, we entered the Strait of Magellan and continued on to Punta Arenas, Chile. Upon arriving at Punta Arenas, Bill and LaVonne joined us to hire a taxi to go to the cemetery. Upon arrival at the cemetery, I instructed our taxi driver to wait for us near the entrance with the intention of paying him when our tour was completed. I had visited the cemetery in 2010 and wanted to return to the gravestone where the last Onas, the extinct Fireland Natives, are buried. In addition, the cemetery is beautifully landscaped with beautiful mausoleums. When we returned to the cemetery entrance, we could not find our taxi driver anywhere and I had memorized only the last three letters of his taxi license plate.

After searching in vain for our taxi driver, we decided to walk along the waterfront area back to downtown Punta Arenas. As we approached the waterfront road, we noticed the Cervecia Artesanal – Hernandes de Magallanes micro-brewery on the corner facing the Strait of Magellen. The brewery was open and we purchased two cold Hernandes de Magallanes Imperial Stout beers. The proprietor opened the bottles which we drank while sitting on a bench overlooking the Strait of Magellan. We later learn