Brutally Beautiful

Sunrise Brighter

I never really wanted to go to Hawai’i. Sure it has Hula dancers and volcanoes, but in all the magazines and friend’s photos, Hawai’i looked pretty much just like Florida or some other place in the Caribbean I could get to on a much shorter flight. It’s not. Step outside the resort areas and Hawai’i is a rural, wild, and brutally beautiful place. Even the chickens are wild. Later we find out they were set free, or rather blown free, by hurricane Iniki and have since thrived on their own.

We visited the four main islands— Kaua’i, Maui, Hawai’i (or Big Island) and Oahu. We had 22 days from late October to the middle of November to explore and this wasn’t nearly enough time. But that’s just a good excuse to go back. And live there forever.


Nearly all the reviews of our hotel gushed about the lei greeting; somehow these special touches always elude me. We made it all the way to the reception desk when I was asked “did you get a lei?” “No.” “How many people?” “Four.” The receptionist hiked four beautiful flower leis over the counter. It was only later that we realized my husband should have had a kuki nut lei (he was getting our bags out of the car). He looked pretty though and the breeze from the ocean and the scent of the leis made it impossible to complain. We were officially hypnotized.

The one thing I like about traveling west is that I get the right kind of jet lag— my night owl turns into an early bird. We had an ocean front room facing east; we left the curtains and the lanai doors open overnight so we could fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. When I opened my eyes, the sun was just beginning to rise; at first it was the slightest tinge of pink on the clouds behind a silhouette of palm trees, then the blues began to lighten and some tangerine joined in. All this while I’m lying in bed.

On our first day we took a boat trip to see the Na Pali coast— the scene stealer in movies requiring a lush but forbidding landscape. One thing I learned about Hawai’i is that, while the islands may not really have seasons, the water does. If you want to kayak, snorkel, or just swim, the water is calmer in the summer months. In the winter, particularly in the north and west (windward), the water can be brutal— good for surfing though. When we went, it was between seasons; we happened to get lucky and the water was calm enough to go all the way up the coast and even enter a sea cave but we had to go in the morning. On the way back, we stopped at a spot to snorkel; the water here is so clear it’s like a giant aquarium, you don’t even need to snorkel to see the fish— we saw flying fish, turtles, dolphins, and all sorts of colorful fishies. One thing I will say is that if you have the option to do this trip in the afternoon (which would be more likely in the calmer water summer months), the sun will be shining on the cliffs rather than coming from behind, as it is in the morning. This would make the scenery easier on the eyes and much, much better for photos.

Na Pali Bad
Na Pali coast washed out in the morning sun.
Inside a sea cave.

The next day, we tried snorkeling at Lawai Beach. We went with SeaFun Kauai as I wasn’t really comfortable taking my kids out in the real ocean by myself. Up until this, the only snorkeling we had done was in the highly controlled environment at Discovery Cove in Florida. It’s amazing what you see just putting your face in the water: we saw a whole aquarium’s worth of tropical fish and got hugged by a little octopus— they feel like velvet but they stick like glue— I was afraid one of it’s legs would rip off. We were also supposed to snorkel in an area with sea turtles, but the water was getting a little too rough— in Hawai’i, the water is always in charge. We were lucky that SeaFun had us in wet suits: the water gets pretty chilly when you’re just floating around and you can get a pretty nasty sunburn on your backside without realizing it. While we were snacking afterward, we saw another group go in without wetsuits and mostly everyone came out shivering after about twenty minutes. We were in for a whole hour. That afternoon we hiked the first of many stunning trails. The Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail is not difficult —we were able to pick it up at the end of the beach from our hotel— but trying to take in the dramatic lithified sand cliffs, sapphire water, tide pools, and rainbows really slows you down. I half expected a unicorn to run past us.


Rainbow 2

Having done a balloon ride in Arizona, this seemed the place for a helicopter ride. We saw Waimea Canyon, which we would hike through later in the week, the Na Pali coast (again with sun behind since it was morning), and a really dramatic up-close of Manawaiopuna Falls which were featured in Jurassic Park. Some trips briefly land there a la the movie scene, but only on certain days— because the falls are on someone’s private property. You get a really good and close view from the air though. This was also the day we discovered Savage Shrimp. They were mentioned a few times as a food truck in travel blogs I read before the trip. Now they are tucked in the side alley of a shopping center not far from our hotel. They are all about shrimp: not too big, not too small shrimp, deveined with shells on in a garlicky finger-licking sauce, a lightly dressed mixed cabbage salad (I’m calling it cabbage salad because where I live ‘cole slaw’ is the tribal word for ‘one who swims in mayo’) and a scoop of rice. This and Hawaiian Sun Passion Orange was pretty much all we ate for dinner the rest of the week. I wish I could figure out how they got the garlic flavor to pop like that— it wasn’t raw, but it was GARLIC in all caps.


Trips like this are always a good excuse to try new things, to be the adventurer, to boldly go where, well, lots of folks go, so I booked the Kipu Zipline Safari through Outfitters Kauai. This is not really an exclusively Hawaiian thing to do, but it seemed like a good place to do it and my kids were both the right age. The trip involved a short kayak, which unfortunately was in a tandem kayak—unfortunate because I wanted to see how far my younger daughter could paddle so I could take her on trips back home. However, she saw no reason to paddle if her sister was in the boat with her. And she didn’t just not paddle, she let her oar drag in the water and complained about how slow they were going. Her sister tried to smack her with the paddle, but she couldn’t get enough leverage. Then it was over Kipu Ranch in a ‘farm wagon’. The ranch, we were told, was used in Jurassic Park and Raiders of the Lost Ark, but all the voodoo natives and dinosaurs must have run away because it looks like a a regular farm now. And finally the zipline. You never realize how strong your survival instinct is until you have to jump off a ledge, but we all did it. Before the day was up, we visited some swimming holes that you could swing into, one of which involved my older daughter getting a bunch of little fish stuck in her swimsuit.

I thought the Na Pali coast trail (Kakalau Trail) would be too much for us this time and we did see the coast by both boat and helicopter; still, I wanted us to do some hiking on Kauai. The more research I did, the more I realized there are a lot of unique environments on Kauai. We decided to go with Chuck Blay and his company Kaua’i Nature Tours on a hike into Waimea Canyon. Although Chuck has a PhD. in geology, he was able to explain the native plant life and the formation of the islands and canyon so that we could make sense of what we were seeing. You could read a book about Hawaii’s geology and fauna, but when you learn about something as you’re looking and touching, it creates a much more memorable experience. We have learned about basalt several times and even have a little geology kit with samples, but my kids didn’t really understand the processes that created it until they got to see it, to feel really massive pieces of it and see how the forces of nature had shaped it in situ. In some ways the canyon looks like the Grand Canyon and it is often called the ‘Grand Canyon of the Pacific,’ However, it was created by a completely different process and has a different color scheme. We hiked to the top of a waterfall and ate our lunch to the majestic view of the canyon out to the ocean. You can’t get that in a restaurant.


Our last day on Kaua’i, we visited Allerton Gardens. Wow. The tropical profusion was both beautiful and strange. The year round growing season gives plants the opportunity to get creative. We saw breadfruit trees while our guide explained some of the research the institute was doing to bring breadfruit, which is a good staple food, to regions with food shortages through their hunger initiative, we smelled the very stinky fruit of the skunk tree, learned how vanilla is grown (it kind of looks like it’s being tortured)… My kids thought the best part was sitting in the big ficus tree roots where there were some fake raptor eggs. This was of course where the scene from Jurassic Park was filmed. Life finds a way.


Allerton Tree


House plants

The next island was Maui. Kaua’i is often called the garden island and, while Maui looks drier from the western side, if you head out to Hana you’ll probably think Maui is the jungle island; I saw several of the tropical plants I have in my home— only here their leaves were platter size or bigger. Now I feel like I’m keeping my houseplants from reaching their full potential. We decided to stay in Hana to enjoy some of the different beaches, waterfalls, and hiking out that way. To get there you have to take the ‘road to Hana’; many guide books describe it as a winding road. We have winding roads where I live; this was not a winding road, this was a very long series of left and right turns. My older daughter threw up on us in the car— the first time since she was a baby.

Hana Waterfall
Hana waterfall after rain.

Hana is a small town with just a couple of ‘eat places,’ Hasegawa General Store, a luxe adults only hotel, a few condos, and some other small shops and places to stay. And it is unbelievably lush. On our first day, we headed for the Kipahulu side of Haleakala National Park. On this side of the park, you have a rainforest with waterfalls that run out to the sea after a series of pools called ‘Ohe’o Gulch. The pools are also referred to by their tourist attraction name: ‘Seven Sacred Pools’— although since it had rained on the mountain the night before, they looked more liked the seven stages of the great muddy deluge. No swimming in sacred water for us, so we headed up the Pipiwai Trail. This is a stunning trail leading over waterfalls, past a huge Banyan tree, through a zen grove of bamboo, and finally to the base of 400 foot Waimoku Falls. I usually try to avoid writing too much advice about what to do, but here I think it’s warranted. This part of the park is a rainforest, which means it rains a lot. A few other hikers actually hiked in their bathing suits, so that’s an option, but the main thing is not to wear hiking boots. Sturdy water shoes, like Tevas, are the best footwear for this trail and especially the stream crossing near the falls (a group in flip flops did pass us, but gee I would feel like an idiot if I wiped out— and I wouldn’t be able to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion). We didn’t go right up to the falls or swim in the pool below it because there was a flash flood warning in effect that day and the ranger had emphasized to us that you never know when a glut of debris and water or a large log will come over the falls when they’ve had a lot of rain. Still, that couldn’t take away from the fantasy of walking through the jungle and coming to a magnificent waterfall. I’m beginning to think Hawaii was born under a water sign as the ocean and the waterfalls make all the rules here.


The next day we drove to the other side of Haleakala National Park, taking the road that goes along the southern part of the island. I had read some nerve-wracking descriptions of the road and some folks we asked in Hana said not to take it, but Google had driven it and other Hana natives said it would be fine. It winds for awhile just like Hana Highway (we did pass what looked like a dinosaur-sized air plant on the road that had fallen off a cliff and, if it had fallen on the car, would have done serious damage— yes, I told you the plants out here are really big, that’s how big— insurance claim size). It was graded gravel and dirt for a bit and then we came onto a part of the road appeared to be ‘hand-paved’ by dumping small buckets of asphalt until it looked like a road. There were also some cows— cows have waterfront here. Then we came to a modern, paved section around the back of the volcano. Suddenly all the green was gone— replaced by reds, browns, and yellows. Then the road opened up to a spectacular view of the island and the ocean, passing a sea arch along the way. Just when we thought we were there, we had almost as far to go— you have to zig zag your way up above the cloud line on a guardrail-free road to get to the ranger station at the summit. Some folks even gather up here to watch the sunrise; we were here to hike on the Sliding Sands Trail. WOW! The scenery on this trail is like something from a science fiction movie and a surrealist painting: the landscape sweeps down, dotted with smaller cinder cones and dappled in red, brown, orange, yellow, and purple. It looks exactly like the photos you see on the web— you could not saturate it any more. Hawai’i is a place where you can put your camera on automatic exposure and get a mind-blowing photo. On our way back, we passed several tour buses coming from Hana, so I guess the road is fine— in daylight, with a full tank of gas, and a good spare tire.


Mars 3

We decided to explore some sites closer to Hana before it was time to move on; thus began our quest to see all the different colored sands of Hawai’i. Hana has a red sand beach called Kaihalulu Beach tucked away behind a headland. There are plenty of websites with directions for the trail and all warn that it is a very short but narrow, eroded, cliff hugging trail that should only be done at low tide. I agree. We went at low tide and found the cliff hugging part to be dry and not slippery on that day, so we managed to get there without feeling that we were taking undue risks— but as we all know, anything can happen. As usual, a woman in flip flops with her dog passed us on our way out (I say ‘as usual’ because I seem to encounter people wearing what is considered very inappropriate footwear on everywhere we hike). The red sand is more rust colored but it punches out the turquoise in the water creating the most striking natural color sensation I’ve ever seen. Our next stop was a nearby black sand beach at Waianapanapa (I’d like to buy a vowel, please) State Park. The thing about the black sand it that it’s glittery; you can’t really photograph it unless you use a star filter. For about ten minutes we had all this glittery beauty to ourselves and then Scotty beamed down an entire tour bus of people. As soon as they hit the beach, they were all on their cell phones— except one guy who was taking pictures of everything with his ipad. There was supposed to be a trail along the shore that we could have taken back to Hana, but I couldn’t pick it out. Darn. I love ocean trails.

Red Sand

This was just at the mid-point of the trip, when it starts to feel like it’s going by fast. Next, we headed to the Big Island and getting there was half the fun— security at the airport was a phone with a note on the counter to call for check-in and the pilot was both the ticket taker and baggage handler. A reminder of air travel’s simpler days.

Hawai’i (Big Island)

Staying in Hilo put us closer to Volcanoes National Park and away from the beach resorts. Hilo looks a lot like where I grew up— a once thriving place that has fallen on hard times. Bits and pieces of Hilo’s former glory days poke out here and there. And just like my town, there are a few green shoots sprouting up: a couple of quirky boutiques and a few trendy cafes. We stayed at the Hilo Honu Inn owned by Bill and Gay. Their top floor Samurai Suite is a Japanese tea room that was brought from Japan and reassembled in situ. I couldn’t believe how soft and warm the tatami mats felt underfoot. It would be here, courtesy of Gay (she dances with a local halau), that we would learn about real Hula dancing— not the sequined hip sashaying from the tourist aimed luaus. She showed us a few traditional dances and then how each move expresses a part of the story. All the fierce beauty of Hula came out and all the coconut bra cheesiness disappeared. Hilo is also where the Merrie Monarch Festival for Hula takes place each year attracting the best halaus (hula schools) and performers. I don’t know what my chances are, but the festival is on my wish list.

But we were here from some volcanic action and volcanoes we would see. With volcanoes, there is as much going on underneath the ground as there is above it. Harry Shick, who runs Kazumura Cave Tours, just happens to have the longest lava tube known in the world in his backyard. This lava tube was bizarre: huge and almost perfectly round, like it was created by a giant worm, and with a semi-gloss coating of black on the walls, it made for one very dark cave. Harry was another stoke of luck for us: a very knowledgeable guide who can explain things in terms that make sense to the rest of us. The lava creates a surprising number of structures depending on its temperature, flow rate, and mineral composition.


Today was our day to head south to seek out Papakolea, the green sand beach. On our way we stopped at Punalu’u, a black sand beach to see some more black sand and hopefully some sea turtles. There were a lot of turtles on the beach, but also quite a few  tourists and, despite signs asking that we give the turtles a wide berth, many people felt the need to have a picture of themselves touching a turtle. We found a few away from from everyone and watched them from afar. It seems like such a struggle for them on the beach; they even appear to take a nap after every few feet. After a bit of a drive and one wrong turn, we somehow found the parking area for the green sand beach. There are a bunch of islanders with four-wheel drives willing to wisk you there for a fee, I think one said $35. They seemed like good guys and I haven’t read  anything warning folks to beware, but if you do that, you’ll miss the natural exfoliating facial you’ll get by walking— wind defines the southern tip of Hawai’i as much as rain defines Hilo. We walked for a little over an hour before we could see some green poking up from the far side of the cove. You enter from the back and climb down; it looks steep and scary from the top, be you’re never on an exposed ledge, so even a scaredy cat like myself was able to do it. And it is totally worth it. The color of the sand is more of a khaki green, but once you pick it up, you can see it is make of finely crushed olivine crystals. I need a star filter for my camera. There were maybe a dozen people, some swam— not something I would chance. When we got back to the car we scared ourselves— the sweat and the wind had given everyone giant sand mustaches.

Green Sand

Wind Tree
Wind sculpted tree on the southern tip of Hawai’i.

We were definitely tired heading back, but as we approached Volcanoes National Park at dusk, we saw quite a few cars going in and decided to see what was going on. This is the home of Kilauea, one of the most active volcanoes on earth. When we stopped by after the lava tube hike, we didn’t see anything but steam rising from the crater— you can’t get very close. At dusk though, the show begins: the crater was glowing and changing with the light from purple to orange and finally vermillion. I love vacation days like this— beautiful turtles, sand made of gems, glowing volcanoes.

Dusk Volcano

There was still one more volcano related thing we wanted to do: hike across the still steaming crater of Kilauea Iki. The trail begins along the rim giving you an almost birds-eye view before you descend into the crater. If you see any hikers at the bottom, they’ll look like ants. Once you get to the crater floor and scramble over the massive pieces of upturned and ripped lava, the effect will flip— now you feel like an ant. The floor is warm; light rain dries on it instantly. Some of the vents have steam coming out; we have lunch sitting next to one of these. Wow.


We spend our last day on the Big Island around Hilo. We take in Rainbow and Akaka Falls, which are unfortunately not very pretty due to the intense rain the night before. On the other hand, Hawai’i Tropical Botanical Garden seems to have benefited from the rain— the garden was like a B-12 shot of flora and fauna. Back in town, we have our first ‘plate lunch’ at Blane’s: roast pork with white rice and macaroni salad— the last two I would never think to put together. Around town, I score some signed posters from the artist who creates them for the Merrie Monarch Festival as my souvenir before we head out to Puna to see some of the more recent lava flows and visit some trees that were flocked with lava at Lava Tree State Park. Eventually, we come to where the road stops because lava flowed over it. There are a few ‘new age’ vendors selling crystals and hats woven from palm fronds. We walk out over the black lava to the ocean. I don’t know if people are planting them or they’ve landed here, but the lava is studded with sprouting coconuts. In twenty years this will be a beautiful beach with swaying palm trees and someone will clear out the crystal people and build an exclusive luxury resort.



Honolulu’s Waikiki Beach seemed like a fun place to end our vacation. We stayed in the penthouse apartment at the Aqua Bamboo Waikiki and, while not the luxury accommodation that most of us think of when when we hear ‘penthouse’, it was spacious, offered sweeping views of the city, and the all-important kitchen.

Wandering a few blocks from the hotel we spy a line. It’s for Marukame Udon Tempura Musubi. There is a chef in the window wielding and enormous piece of dough into fresh udon noodles. The line moves quickly, almost too quickly for us since we can’t decide what— or figure out how— to order. We end up with a bowl of steaming udon with several toppings and tempura. After one bite, we decide to spend the rest of our time in Waikiki mastering the art of ordering food here. Everything we have there is the food equivalent of cashmere.

In the lobby of our hotel, my younger daughter plucks out a brochure for Sea Life Park with dolphins all over it. This was supposed to be our day for going to Chinatown and exploring Honolulu, but she was on a mission and loaded with missionary zeal— otherwise known a begging. A few year ago we visited Discovery Cove in Florida, and although she swam and played with the dolphins, she needed the trainer to hold on to her. Never in my life did I imagine she would be afraid of a dolphin, but she was— and very much so. Now she wanted a chance to put that behind her and I have some very expensive pictures to prove it. The park was cute and my kids enjoyed themselves. We also finally tried the sushi made with Spam — called musubi— that we had seen on practically every food store countertop. It might be something you have to work up to, but always good to try new things. Spam has a long history in Hawai’i, having come over with the GI’s and somehow infusing into the local cuisine.

The next day, my older daughter and I did a kayak tour with Kailua Sailboards & Kayaks. I thought it would be a nice paddle over crystal clear waters in a protected reef area— and it was supposed to be except on this particular day they were having ‘unusual weather’ and high winds. Of course. One wave was so big it took the kayak my daughter and I were in and pointed it torpedo style at the couple in the other kayak on our trip. We also did something that in hindsight, and knowing how unpredictable the ocean can be, was dangerous: my daughter got in what looked like a calm tide pool— called the Queen’s Bath on Mokulua Island— but almost immediately a wave rushed over it. She looked like she was in a washing machine and I almost had a heart attack. Luckily she had just a few small cuts from the very sharp lava that lined the pool. Brutally beautiful.

We didn’t want to leave Oahu without a visit to Pearl Harbor. We’ve all seen the film: the planes flying low, the ships laying on their sides burning. The site does a good job paying homage to a really bad day. At the memorial for the USS Arizona, where 1,102 sailors and Marines remain entombed, we watched oil droplets slowly make their way to the surface and disperse into an iridescent sheen— the effect made it feel connected to the present, as if in a small way it was still happening. We took the extra battle stations tour on the USS Missouri, or Mighty Mo, which gave us a close up look at the turrets and controls for the big guns and the engine rooms— everything on a battleship is super-sized except where the people go— the people spaces are tight. This is the ship where, in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered and ended World War II; a plaque that seems almost too small for such a momentous event, marks the place on deck where the agreement was signed.

We knew the last day would come as it always does. Our late night flight gave us time for a very fitting ending: a hike up to the ridge of Diamond Head, the tuff cone volcano you see from Waikiki beach. I thought it was the perfect ending.

Moon over Waikiki.

Food: As with every place we go, we find food and drinks we wish we could get at home. Not fancy stuff, but simple comfort food like hibiscus juice in Egypt, açma in Turkey, or star shaped ravioli in Italy. In Hawaii, it was produce. We saw at least five different kinds of avocado, dragon fruit, rambutans, purple sweet potatoes, carrots in different colors, mangosteen, different varieties of papaya, little eggplants, all different shapes and sizes of mangoes, white pineapple, different kinds of bananas, giant bunches of chives. We saw unique fruits and vegetables everywhere we went and we tried as much as we could. But the best thing was POG; I avoided it at first because it sounded yucky. Big mistake. POG (pinapple, orange, guava) is the juice of gods.

Trip: Hawai’ian islands (Kauai, Maui, Big Island, Oahu) October 26- November 16 2011

Family of four, kids 11 & 15

Guide Books: The Ultimate Kauai Guidebook, Maui Revealed, Hawaii the Big Island Revealed, Oahu Revealed.

Accommodations: Grand Hyatt Kauai Resort & Spa, Hana Kai Maui, Hilo Honu Inn, Aqua Bamboo Waikiki.

Copyright © 2013 MRStrauss • All rights reserved

Yucatán Colure

We arrived in Cancún after the end of the world, so why they had to look through all our luggage was beyond me. The only thing that caught their attention was a bag of Peppermint Patties. Never pack Peppermint Patties, if they go soft, and ours did, you could attract the attention of airport security and end up a cautionary tale: stupid Americans shut down resort airport for hours with mint scented explosives. Luckily, after much serious deliberation and lots of fierce body language, they decided to simply dispose of the bomb in an ordinary trash can. And by the way, when airport security empties your bags, they don’t repack them for you. They stare at you while you do it.

We headed straight out of Cancún with our guide, Fausto Lugo, who will be with us for most of the next two weeks. No one can believe we’re going to miss Cancún, but I’ve seen the pictures and, to me, it looks a lot like Vegas with sand— all everyone is doing is drinking and buying Louis Vuitton— or they are in one of those hermetically sealed all-inclusives. Maybe I’m just jealous because I don’t look good in swimwear and I can’t hold my liquor, but I hope to at least attempt to experience México. I’m not known as an intrepid traveler and sometimes I really get confused, but I really try to put my toe in the stream of local culture and, as I travel more, I get a tiny bit better at it. The area we are traveling through, known as the Yucatán Peninsula, is rich in both Mayan and Spanish Colonial history and, over the next two weeks, we will make a big circle that encompasses Chichén Itzá, Mérida, Campeche, Calakmul, Soliman Bay and back out through Cancún. We do this during the ‘cool’ season in January which feels to me exactly like the ‘hot’ season here in the South. Our guide, who carries a towel tucked into his belt to wipe the sweat off and makes a beeline for shade trees at every site, confirms that, yes, this is the cool season.

It is just a two hour drive to Chichén Iztá where we spend our first night at the Hacienda Chichén. And where we are greeted with a glass of bright green chaya juice— every place we go we encounter food and drink that is so good we can’t believe we can’t get it at home. Chaya juice, which is usually mixed with a little pineapple juice, is green in all the right ways— refreshing without feeling like you may have had some lawn clippings. The main part of the hotel was part of an old hacienda, but our rooms were in newer bungalows with brightly colored hammocks on their little front porch. These weren’t the rough rope things from home that like to flip you onto the ground, these were softly woven cocoons. We got in them, and they were pretty nice, but we couldn’t quite see how how people would sleep in them all night (as we would see in our travels, many of the people in this area do sleep in hammocks, you can see them hanging in their homes, especially in the older thatched roof adobe ones). It wasn’t until later in the trip, when we visited the home of Don Hernán Perera Novero, that we realized why we weren’t blissed out laying in one: we were using them all wrong— you don’t lay in them end-to-end, but more like if the top of the hammock is 12 and the bottom 6, you put your head at like 10 and your feet at 4. You get into it by putting the far side over your left shoulder while standing up, pulling the rest underneath so you are sitting in the middle of it and then pivot to bring your feet in; you can even make it rock gently. Once we learned this, you couldn’t get us out (my daughter sees this and says “are you working for Ikea? Just say ‘lay in it at a diagonal.”)

Mexico Church-Watermark 3

Well-fed Iguana on the grounds of Hacienda Chichén

One of the best things about Hacienda Chichén is that you can walk over to Chichén Itzá early in the morning and have the place almost to yourself until the buses from Cancún begin to arrive around ten. When you get there, you don’t really see the main pyramid from all the iconic pictures until you’re almost right up to it because the site is surrounded by forest, but it’s still pretty exciting as you start to see the bottom of it through the trees. I won’t go into all of the history of the site, you can easily get that, but it is, as many ancient sites are, planned to make use of astronomical events: the shadow of the corner of the main temple become the body of the serpent head you see at the bottom of the steps during the fall and spring equinoxes. Further on you see the famous ball court (this was the biggest and best-preserved ball court of all the sites we saw), the iconic Chac Mool at the Temple of the Warriors, and a strikingly modern-looking observatory. Other buildings featured serpents and skulls— all designed to inspire fear and awe (my kids though they looked more funny-scary— something that probably would have gotten their fool heads chopped off back then). The whole Chichén Itzá complex is well-preserved, making it a good first site to give context to some of the later, more ‘ruined’ sites we would see. If I ever come back, I’d visit the site at Ek-Balam and spend a night or two in colonial Valladolid.

Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá
Touch of Goth at Chichén Itzá

I could have stayed at the Hacienda Chichén one more day to relax and explore the grounds a bit more, but our plan was to head for Mérida. On the way, we stopped at one of the famed cenotes that dot the limestone shelf the Yucatán sits on. The one hundred-thirty plus foot deep Cenote Ik Kil looks just as exotic as it does in pictures and I was really looking forward to swimming is such amazing scenery until I put my foot in and it froze and fell off; my kids got in and swam to the middle, waited for their lips to turn blue and swam back. We’re such babies. It wasn’t crowded, but the scene was a study in stereotypes— there were a few vigorous Germans swimming laps and a small group of life-jacket clad Asian tourists floating around taking pictures of themselves with their iPhones. The cold water didn’t seem to bother anyone else. From there we stopped in Tixkokob to see hammocks being made but we were out of luck. Apparently the Christmas holiday is so overwhelming here that everyone takes all of January to recover— I even see a Christmas tree in a hammock on someone’s porch. We did learn from one weaver about the the different qualities of hammocks and we did buy a ‘Mexican place’ of our own. You could also try Izamal for traditional hammocks and crafts. We didn’t have time, but Izamal is on my list for future trips.

Mérida is a classic Spanish colonial town laid out in a very easy to navigate grid set around the Plaza Grande (on a scale of 1 to 10 with New York City a 1 and Venice a 10, Mérida is a 2). Over the next few days, we would see very few tourists— here we really stick out. Our hotel, the very charming if somewhat street noisy Casa del Balam, is just three short blocks from the plaza. It is here in Mérida where we realize there is no such thing as ‘Méxican’ food. México has regional food just like we do. And just as you wouldn’t order Maryland crab cakes in Wisconsin, you don’t order fajitas in the Yucatán. The next night we found La Chaya which served traditional foods like salbutes, poc-chuc, and pollo pibil. All the flavors were so alien to me I can’t even form an opinion. Bright magenta pickled onions, something we would see on top of many things in the area, were a big hit from the start. Coming back from dinner at La Chaya, we come across the coolest gift shop ever— Miniaturas at No. 507 on Calle 59. They have all these strange, small handmade dioramas with skeletons playing different roles— my daughter chose one depicting a skeleton teacher with little skeleton students for her Spanish professor. They have all sorts of miniatures, folk art, tin work, ‘trees of life’ and much, much more in a densely packed and endless visual assault.

Miniaturas in Mérida
Miniaturas in Mérida

From our base in Mérida, we were able to explore a number of places. We spent a day watching the masses of pink flamingos in Celestún with their bright pink coral color set off perfectly by the aquamarine water. Another day we visited Uxmal, Kabah, and the caves at Loltun. Although the caves, called Grutas de Lol-Tun, are large and contain some hints of long-ago civilization, anyone who has visited the caves around Luray, Virginia is not likely to be impressed. Add to this that the guides, and you must use their guides, make endless references to all the special things they do for you and how little they get paid to do it (we heard the same from the guide of the group behind us— sound travels well in caves). Uxmal and Kabah, however, are completely unique sites. Where Chichén Itzá was all angles, the main pyramid at Uxmal is all curves and, according to myth, it was built overnight by the magician on a challenge from the king; the fanciful shape only lends credence to the story. To get a awe-inspiring view of the top of the Pyramid of the Magician (sometimes called the Pyramid of the Soothsayer or Dwarf) and a panorama of the whole of the complex, you can climb La Gran Pirámide at the back of the complex. Next, we visited Kabah. Although a small site, it is famous for the Codz Poop, a building wallpapered with mask of the rain god Chaac; a visualization that not only honors the god but expresses the desperation for rain in an area where rain is the only source of fresh water. We also see about a million iguanas.


It is on a side trip from Mérida that our guide takes us to meet Don Hernán Perera Novero and Doña Felicita Huchin Itzá somewhere near Santa Elena. They have dedicated their home to the preservation of Mayan culture. It’s hard to convey how special this place is: there are no signs, no gift shop, no release forms— nothing but a simple educational setting. You step into the traditional palapa roof adobe house —one of many we see still in use throughout the area— and with open doorways front and back, you immediately feel the cool air; this house was designed to have natural air conditioning. Señor Novero (through our guide) told us about how the roof is constructed to keep out rain and then demonstrated for us the proper was to use a hammock, which is completely different than anything you see in travel pictures. In the corner of the house, there is an alter mixing Catholic icons with Mayan deities, a visually hypnotic sight, which is traditional in the Yucatán. Man, I really wish this were my house; with the smooth adobe floor and the hammock for a bed, cleaning would be done in five minutes. In an almost identical hut behind the house Señora Itzá grinds corn and makes tortillas on a convex steel griddle set over a wood fire. We tried some of these fresh, soft tortillas as a snack with ground pumpkin seeds and some scorching green salsa. I had bragged that I like really spicy stuff so I had to stand there and pretend didn’t bother me at all while it cleaned out all my pores.

Traditional palapa roof adobe house
Traditional palapa roof adobe house.
An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures
An alter with Catholic and Mayan figures.
Traditional tortilla making
Traditional tortilla making.

As we walk around the property, Señor Novero shared some of his extensive knowledge on regional and medicinal plants. He has tobacco, which he says keeps insects away, cotton, annatto, peppers, and many others that defy translation from Mayan; I would have to come back with a field guide. We were shown how the fiber from the henequen (a type of agave) is extracted to make rope; this was the primary industry in the Yucatán, and the reason for which the haciendas (think plantation) were built during the 1800’s. He then gave a us the highlights of the very complex religious ritual Ch’a Chaak, still used today, to ask the gods for rain. If I got this right, they ask the Mayan gods, Christian saints, and even their ancestors for help; every single step of the ritual, from the orientation of the alter to plants used, has meaning and purpose. If I were one of their gods, and they did this for me, they’d have all the rain they want. The area is also known for it’s pottery; on our way back to Mérida, we visit a pottery studio specializing in reproductions of traditional Mayan designs. It is here that I see the weirdest thing ever: a statuette of what appears to be a deranged woman/god/creature giving birth.

Henequen leaf being prepared for rope
Henequen leaf being prepared for rope.
Rope Making Better Copyright
Rope making.
Ch’a Chaak rain ritual
Ch’a Chaak rain ritual.
Traditional pottery
Traditional pottery.

Birth Better Copyright

It is interesting just to walk around Mérida— the colors, the people. One day, after filling up on horchata and people watching in the Plaza Grande, we headed for the massive Mercado Lucas de Gálvez just south of the Plaza Grande. We spent most of the day here visiting food stalls and looking at the odd collection of shops; you can get everything here: turkey jerky, life size statues of Jesus, sneakers, phones, everything. There are also tons of Disney characters and riffs on the Disney theme everywhere. If I had known the Disney theme was so big, I would have taken more pictures of all these handmade homages. If Disney ever builds a theme park in México, half the people would faint from excitement. Oh darn, my local market fantasy gets killed: we come to a shop selling puppies and it’s not good; they’re in small cages and they look sickly. I took a couple of photos but they didn’t come out well. There were other things too, such as really young kids selling stuff, but these puppies looked really bad. We headed back later to look again, but they had closed. What can you do? If I were home, I would have called animal control.

At night, the Centro Historico really comes to life. After getting some more horchata and some hot churros, all we had to do for entertainment was walk around: a man making music with a saw, a spray paint street artist who uses fire as a finishing touch (and amazingly doesn’t blow up the whole plaza), a remarkably realistic store mannequin, and a Catholic church so busy that one bride was just leaving in her calesa as the next one was entering the church. The second bride was actually sitting in her bridal car during most of the ceremony for the first bride.

Jesus Better Copyright

Disney fever
Disney fever.

Potbelly Better Copyright

Street artist in Mérida

Saw Music Better Copyright

The next day we were off to Campeche, but not before stopping in Becal to see Jippi (aka Panama) hats being created. The weavers work in small limestone caves because the humidity keeps the reeds pliable. The thickness of the reed determines how soft and pliable the hat will be; the more expensive ones are so fine they almost look like woven cloth and they feel like butter. The city of Campeche is a step up from Mérida in the Spanish Colonial theme: the gulf-side town is surrounded by a defensive wall, parts of which you can walk on, and anchored by two forts decked out in iron cannons. Our one night here is spent in the recently renovated, throughly charming, and again somewhat street noisy (the cobblestone streets seem to be the culprit) Hotel Castelmar located within the old city walls. At Puerta de Tierra (land gate) we were able to walk on the ramparts of part of the old city wall, see where the guards went potty, and take in a strange, yet brilliant sight: Campeche, having fallen on hard times, decided there was no need to look that way and decided to hide their urban decay behind beautiful facades. From on top of the wall, you can peek over the facades and see the dilapidated weed-infested ruins.

Cutting reeds for Jippi-Jappa hats



Campeche Fronts Better Copyright

The Fuerte de San Miguel, which also houses the Museo de Arqueología, was our chance to get our pictures taken with big cannons and take in the endless views of Campeche and the Gulfo de México. The real surprise though was the beautiful, but not overwhelming, collection of Mayan artifacts in the museum. The highlight was one particularly evocative and intricately created jade death mask from Calakmul— something I wanted to see since we would be heading there next. All this sightseeing made us very hungry. We headed to the locals-filled La Parroquia (we won’t see many tourists in Campeche either) where we immediately ruin our dinner by scarfing down a plate of Richaud charritos topped with pickled onions and huge goblets of fresh juice. And just as Mérida did, the main plaza in Campeche comes to life at night with church services, what looked like bingo played with glass beads, and tons of people. The city used to hide in tunnels during pirate raids, but now pirates are their calling card: an image of a one-eyed scallywag adorns all their tourist trinkets. My daughter scores a t-shirt proclaiming her pirate status. I end up with ice cream from a little hole-in-the-wall McDonald’s that only serves dessert on the main plaza because they have a never-before-seen Oreo cone. Yum. I always try to stop in McDonald’s when I travel and I always find something interesting  that I never see back home. The next morning it was time to leave Campeche. I wish I could have had at least one more day to just explore the small, almost traffic free, city and contemplate all of the interesting pieces of modern sculpture dotted throughout. I’m not sure if this was a temporary show or a permanent installation, but I’ve never seen so much public art. I also would have loved to go to the huge mercado just outside the city walls now that I had some market practice in Mérida.


From here, most folks head south to Palenque and perhaps the murals Bonampak. We headed east to Calakmul, a somewhat recently excavated and remote Mayan site set deep in the jungle of the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve. En route we stopped for lunch at Restaurant y Hotel Calakmul where, despite the unpromising setting, I had my favorite meal of the trip: light and tender meatballs stuffed with hard-boiled eggs and smothered in a sort of smoky chipotle sauce with arroz (rice). Here we stayed at the comfortably rustic Hotel Puerta Calakmul; an eco-lodge just inside entrance to the reserve. We needed an got a wonderful dinner and a good night’s sleep so we could be ready to leave at six in the morning. Why? Because it is another hour and a half from here to the site and we wanted to see the monkeys and any other wildlife while they were still active. Only people waste their energy in the heat of the mid-day sun— animals nap. We did see a group of monkeys at the site and they were really swinging around but it was a little hard to see them up in the tall trees. The site is not as cleared as Chichén Itzá, Uxmal, or Kabah, so it’s hard to get a sense of its enormity. Several structures have large trees growing out of them; their roots so deep that trying to remove them would cause further damage. The highlight is climbing the approximately 390 ft Gran Pirámide for a view of jungle as far as the eyes can see (and as far as the binoculars can too). I’ve never seen so much green. Some people say you can see the top of the Danta pyramid at El Mirador in Guatemala, but we weren’t able to pick it out. Climbing down these pyramids can be scary because they are so steep each step looks like the edge. Don’t worry if you’re afraid of heights, just crawl down backwards like a baby—that’s what I did. It’s the tree-root loaded flat ground around the pyramid that you need to watch out for. I tripped and nearly took our guide down with me. Many people talk about how incredible Palenque is; having not seen both, I can’t compare them. However, if you like an undiscovered jungle kind of vibe, then Calakmul, for the time being at least, is for you.

Tree Roots

While we could have used another day in Calakmul to explore some of the trails in the biosphere, we had already planned to head to the Laguna Bacalar near Chetumal. On the way we stopped at two smaller and somewhat more ruined but worthwhile sites: Becán and Chicanná. Becán has a small, but well-preserved section of original carving featuring the other-worldly image of the sun god Kinichná. The small traces of original paint make it seem as if it is trying to reach out across the eons. What a brilliant place this must have been. Our time may be preserved for the ages by our digital presence, but with our glass boxes and blacktop, will any sort of emotion travel into the future? What I wouldn’t give to see just one of these places in their heyday even for just fifteen minutes. At Chicanná, we see a really fierce looking structure called the House of the Serpent Mouth; with sharp teeth all around the entrance it looks as if you are literally walking into the serpent’s mouth— a great photo-op for the kids (there is a mouth door at Chichén Itzá, but it is not as ‘toothy’). Contrary to popular belief, It was not the Spanish who caused the downfall of the Mayan cities; they were already in ruin or on their last legs. Just as it did for the American Indians of the southwest, it is believed my many that prolonged drought and depletion of resources, which in turn would have exacerbated wars and disease, slowly ground down the great Mayan cities. Amazingly, the Spanish conquest seems to have mostly positive reviews from the folks I meet. They spoke of their reverence for the Catholic Church, which is clear at every turn: from packed church services, to crosses everywhere—even in our hotel rooms— and religious supplies and icons proudly displayed in every market. One person I spoke with pointed out that it was different here— the Mayans were not driven onto desolate reservations. Even now, most of the people here resemble the carvings I see at the ruins more than the Spaniards. If I came this way again, I would visit Kohunlich which appears to have some well-preserved stucco masks.


Ceiba Tree Better Copyright
Sacred Ceiba Tree

Sweaty and tired, we headed for Akal-ki, a hotel that looks like something out of Tahiti on it’s website. They consider themselves an eco-lodge, which has come to mean no air conditioning. This was fine— I actually enjoy not having it unless it’s oppressively hot and humid. But they take it a step further: electricity, which is provided by eco-unfriendly and noisy generators, is shut off sometime around midnight and does not go back on until—I don’t know when since we left the next morning. I guess the idea seems very eco-edge, but as soon as the ceiling fans stopped, the poorly sealed hut was overrun with humidity, bugs, and mosquitos. I usually have nightmares about spiders, but that night I had to kill a real one by candlelight—actually a hotel provided tea light and a hot one at that. The LED flash light brick thing they provided only gave off an eerie glow that just made shadows of everything. I hate it when camping and staying in a hotel get smushed together. This was the difference between this place and the very comfortable eco-lodge in Calakmul which also had thatched roof huts: they paid careful attention to to sealing the screens to keep most bugs out and kept power use down using a mix of LEDs and compact fluorescents rather than cutting the power completely. Being able to have the fan on low overnight kept the bugs and humidity at bay. Although the almost bath temperature lagoon was very pretty, I wouldn’t stay at this hotel again. I can’t even remember what we had for dinner at the very romantic over-water restaurant because we were almost consumed by mosquitos as soon as the sun went down. I probably even ate a few. The next morning our guide looked at my welted legs and said “what happened to you?” If I had to do this again, I would probably give Hotel Rancho Encantado a chance.

I realized the trip was winding down when we had to confirm the times for our flight back home. Our last stop would be Bahía Soliman near the Sian Ka’an Biosphere. Bahía Soliman is one of those places you see on posters that have the word ‘relax’ written across the bottom and this time we had the hotel to match: Jashita. With the beautiful, calm, azure, reef-protected water, we fit in all our water fantasies here: kayaking, snorkeling, paddle boarding. We were glad we had our water shoes, though, as there is a lot of sharp coral both on the beach and in the water. We visited the very crowded ruins at Tulum, which, after everything we’ve seen, weren’t very impressive; the view from the site is no where near as dramatic as the one from the water often seen in photos. Damage from crowds has made it necessary to keep people a good distance from the structures. This was one place where our early morning strategy of avoiding crowds didn’t quite work. If I had to do this again, I would set out early for the Reserva de Monos Arañas de Punta Laguna for a chance to catch some wildlife and then onto Cobá where it says you can ride bikes around the ruins.


We spent most of the next day visiting the super-ruined Muyil and the Centro Ecologico Sian Ka’an; a vast wildlife preserve on the Carribbean Coast that features a clear white sand bottom lagoon (similar to the one in Bacalar) and miles of coastline and coral reef. It is said that all five of the areas wild cats can be found there (Margay, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, Jaguar, and the Puma) as well as some smaller mammals, turtles, dolphins, crocodiles, manatees, and numerous birds. The part of the preserve where we were, though, was strangely devoid of any wildlife given how few people were around. The preserve extends out to the sea past the clear bay and canals where we were, so maybe there is more wildlife in that area. Could also have just been an off day. My kids did like the lazy river where they floated wearing their life jackets upside down in a mangrove-lined canal that had been carved out by Mayans ages ago. Our last day was spent relaxing on the beach at Bahiá Soliman. I could see from the beach what looked like a shelf extending out from the north edge of the bay and I wanted to explore. We walked to the edge of the bay to find a coral-encrusted shelf teeming with tide pools. We saw sea urchins, lots of little fish, colorful snails, crabs, calcified corals, sea fans, and, in some spots, unfortunately, a lot of washed-up garbage.




All things must come to an end, good ones especially it seems. On the way through airport security, with no Peppermint Patties to confiscate, they throw out my half empty 3.6 once face mask. My fault. It seemed like they made sure they got something from everyone, although the guy ahead of me who had a liter of Jack Daniels confiscated when he couldn’t produce his duty-free receipt, really paid a big price. The trash can nearly tipped over when they threw it in. I wonder if the security folks get to take all this stuff home?

Traveling is like being a newborn baby. you see so many things for the first time, it’s hard to take it all in. I hope I get to go back, and I say this about all the places I’ve been to only once, so that I can make sense of everything.

Guide: Fausto Lugo

Guidebook: The Rough Guide to the Yucatán


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