Archive for September 2012

Nicaragua II: Omotepe   Leave a comment

The volcano Concepcion on the island of Omotepe in Lake Nicaragua is often shrouded in clouds.

I continued south through Nicaragua.  I only spent about 2 1/2 weeks in this country but a lot went on during that time.  I took the boat out to the island of Omotepe, in the middle of Lago Nicaragua, the largest lake in Central America.  This island is deservedly popular with tourists, but it isn’t a touristy place.  Instead, it’s a world apart, one of those places you occasionally run into that seems to live in its own time frame.  There are quirky characters, some from North America, who’ve settled here alongside longtime farmers.  It is gorgeous and has a great vibe.

The island is shaped like a dumbbell, because of the two large and potentially dangerous volcanoes that make up the island.  I only spent time on the larger, northern bulge of the dumbbell, where the volcano Concepcion dominates many of the views (see image).  I stayed a few nights at a nice family-run place, Charco Verde.  It is right on the lake and not at all expensive.  Small cabins start at around $20.  I worked a deal where my room and all the meals were free if I did some photography for them.  Most of that photography was at a big fiesta I was invited to.  The area is very rural, with a simple lifestyle.  I watched locals coming to the lake to bathe themselves and their animals as the sun set over the beautiful lake.

The peaceful shores of Omotepe Island in Lake Nicaragua basks in the fading light.

The whole family plus their friends participated in the party, which took place in Altagracia, the island’s main town.  Everyone rode their beautiful dancing horses.  Most of these are arabians, so being the owner of two arabians I liked that.  But these are certainly better trained than mine.  They perform a sort of dancing dressage, which is part of the romance of the Nicaraguan cowboy.  If you have a good singing voice and a dancing horse, there is no better way to woo your beloved.

It’s a dance party on Omotepe, and the horses are getting in on the action.

A pretty Nicaraguan girl from the island of Omotepe pauses in front of her horse.

After the parade featuring the requisite religious icon, everyone repaired to the beach and proceeded to get drunk and do some dancing.  All except me; I was on the job.  Another one who did not drink was one of the families daughters, who I fell hopelessly in love with (see image).  The day ended with a raucous rodeo, the wildest and least organized one I’ve ever been to.  They were using an American flag, upside down, as a lure for the enraged bulls (see image).

A truly wild rodeo on the island of Omotepe in Nicaragua.

Omotepe had been truly fun and relaxing.  I can’t recommend it highly enough.  But it was time to go, and I had chosen the more adventurous way to move on from the island.  As the sun set, I boarded the overnight ferry that heads down the lake to its main outlet, where the Rio San Juan heads east along the Costa Rica border on its way to the sea.  This route, Central America’s longest river, was originally proposed for the canal between the oceans, before Panama was ultimately chosen.  The canal would have likely been shorter and easier here, but the number of active volcanoes eventually nixed the idea.

I hung my hammock on deck and soon felt the strong breeze that presages a thunderstorm.  And boy was it a doozie, sweeping with fury across the lake.  Next up is the Rio San Juan and the final installment of my Nicaragua adventures.

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Nicaragua I: Highlands and Colonial Architecture   Leave a comment

Continuing southward through Central America, I entered a country I had high expectations for: Nicaragua.  I crossed in from Honduras and soon took a sharp left to the northern highlands, aka coffee heaven.  Day’s end saw me in Matagalpa, which looks and reads like a city in guidebook maps and descriptions, but is really just a large town.  The white-washed church in the town center is quite photogenic (image below).  The town is a busy one, being market central for an enormous swath of the country, and it has a nice mix of culture and modest tourist amenities.   But one needs to keep going north to get into the heart of the highlands.

The colonial church at Matagalpa, Nicaragua

By the way, clicking any of these images takes you to my website, where download rights or prints may be purchased.  The versions on this blog are too small for most anything, but if you are interested in any of them, and you can’t find them on my website, just contact me.  The images are copyrighted.  Thanks so much for your cooperation, and interest!

The beautiful highlands of northern Nicaragua, on the huge coffee finca of Selva Negra.

I headed to Selva Negra, an old coffee estate not too far north of Matagalpa.  The journey up there put me in mind of some of my rides in Asia – taking in the air on top of the bus instead of in the crammed interior.  Selva Negra was originally started by Germans and is still at least part owned by their descendants.  You occasionally see the (lucky) old farts walking around the place.  The countryside here reminded them of the Black Forest at home, thus the name Selva Negra.

The lake at Selva Negra, with its bordering cloud forest, greets guests on their way to an excellent cup of fresh coffee.

They have a sort of rustic resort up there on the shores of a beautiful man-made lake surrounded by cloud forest (image above).  There are rooms, cabins and a dormitory, along with a nice indoor/outdoor restaurant.  The food comes straight from the farm and is delicious.  The coffee, of course, is stellar.  There is a beautiful old stone church.  Nights are cool and days very comfortable up here.

The cloud forest blooms: Selva Negra, Nicaragua

The farm is huge and includes open ranch-type land along with acres of coffee.  There is also a school and an employee village set in idyllic surroundings.  Hiking trails take off into the beautiful cloud forest and horses are also available.  I took part in both of these activities over the three days I was there.  I stayed in one of the dorms only steps from the lake and, as I expected, had it to myself.

It was the type of climate and terrain I dream of living in, riding horses every day and eating fresh organic veggies, eggs and beef direct from the source.  One of the best parts about it was strolling down through the shady lanes leading to the employee village and goofing around with the kids making their way home from school.  What a paradise!

The streets of Leon, Nicaragua, are lined with colorful old colonial buildings.

I went on to Leon, and was yanked back to the often grim reality of traveling in the Isthmus.  The bus rides, though cheap, often have you wishing that death would come quickly.  In Leon, a proper city, there are loads of young people.  It is Nicaragua’s college town, with several universities.  The beautiful young girls walking the streets can drive a man to distraction!  Yet there are other beautiful sights as well.  The cathedrals and other Spanish colonial architecture had me slipping to my travel and street photographer persona.  Later I would visit Granada, Nica’s main town for colonial architecture (images below).  The architecture there smacks you in the face, and it’s impeccably restored.  I prefer to hunt around the narrow streets for treasures, and where it doesn’t feel so much like some sort of set that’s maintained for tourists.  In Granada, that takes getting away from the main square and its tourists; Leon is more of a working (or studying) kind of town.

The church La Recoleccion in Leon Nicaragua catches the late afternoon sun as a passerby casts his shadow on the old walls

The Munincipal Theater in Leon, Nicaragua employs very interesting colonial architecture.

The backstreets of Granada, Nicaragua.

I spent a few days on the gorgeous Lago Apoyo, which is, like most lakes in this area, a volcanic caldera now filled with clear blue water.  The lake is bordered by beautiful forest, and is near to the active volcano Masaya.  This part of the Americas is one of the most active segments of the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire (a line of volcanoes and earthquake faults encircling the Pacific Ocean).  The forest comes right down to the lake, and despite there being only a dirt track accessing the shore, there are several nice places to stay.  I spent $75 for two nights with meals, which is not all that cheap for Nica.  But for a room on that beautiful lake, swimming and relaxing in hammocks?  I’ll take it.

A golden-mantled howler (Alouatta palliata palliata) inhabits the trees near Lake Nicaragua.

Tearing myself away from the perfect swimming, I hiked up through the forest and got remarkably close to a troop of howler monkeys (see image).  You hear them all the time in Central America, but rarely get close enough for a good picture.  Along with a great Swedish couple I met, I visited Volcan Masaya on a taxi tour.  This volcano breathes, and it was a powerful experience being so close to its steaming crater.  There is also a very cool cave to explore, with friendly bats!  The last image is of living Masaya, the sun setting behind it.  Next up: Omotepe, Lake Nicaragua, and the jungles of the Rio San Juan.

Masaya volcano in Nicaragua remains active and is accessible by hiking trail.

Honduras   Leave a comment

On the island of Roatan, off the coast of Honduras, the pace of life slows to a standstill as the sun sinks into the sea.

Honduras, more than any other country in this part of the world, lies at both extremes of the Central American spectrum.  The extremes I’m talking about are not what your average Honduran would think about on a typical day.  They would just find this either hilarious or insulting.  I’m talking about the typical North American’s perceptions of Central America.  Almost anybody who thinks about going to Central America, if they’re honest, will tell you they’ve thought about crime, and usually it’s violent drug crime.  But they’ve also fantasized about walking along a glorious Caribbean beach, scuba diving over colorful reefs, or exploring a misty cloud forest.  Some of us push the worries to the back of our minds, embrace the positive, and plunge right in.

After visiting Copan, the southernmost known major Mayan ruin, I visited Lake Yojoa in central Honduras.  I got my nature fix here, hiking and birdwatching in the beautiful forest bordering the lake.  I actually saw, with the help of a guide, 75 different species of birds in one morning’s walk.  Then I headed north toward the Caribe coast.  Crossing Honduras, one thing becomes clear: this is the emptiest country in Central America.  It is El Salvador’s opposite.  Most people live near the coast, leaving the mountainous interior strangely (for Central America) lacking in people.

A waterfall near Lago Yojoa in central Honduras.

And it was to the coast that I traveled, winding up in the oppressively hot streets of La Ceiba.  I suffered through just one night in a dingy room downtown.  Seeking relief from the heat, I strolled down to the waterfront, looking for something to eat.  After dinner I visited a watering hole.  But once my eyes got used to the dim interior, I began to notice that my fellow patrons were not the type of folks I wanted to have a beer with, not unless I knew them very well that is.  Unsavory is not a strong enough word.  When I began to notice poorly concealed weapons, carried by most of the men, I performed my best quick-quiet exit.  Walking back to  my hotel in the now-empty streets, I put on my “dark” face, striding tall and with purpose, chastising myself the whole way for acting the clueless tourist.

The next morning I caught a taxi to the airport, intending to catch the day’s first flight to Isla Roatan.  On the way, we got stuck in a traffic jam.  The taxi driver somehow got out of the line and onto a frontage road, where we could bypass the stopped cars.  We came up on the cause of the backup, and I just stared.  It was a pickup turned on its side, with at least a dozen big shotgun blasts through its upturned side.  I saw two blanket-covered bodies lying on the shoulder as the police circulated through the scene, but there could have been more dead.  The taxi driver said it was probably a government hit.

Turns out that the Honduran government surreptitiously hires hit squads to take out the local leaders of drug smuggling rings.  It is quite an effective but unorthodox method, hiring criminals to act as judge, jury and executioner, and if it was done too openly the U.S. Congress might cut off the money.  But the average Honduran seems to supports the effort, and truth be told the U.S. undoubtedly knows what’s going on.

So those experiences hint at every would-be Central American tourist’s misgivings about coming here.  That is why most go to the Americanized and relatively beningn Costa Rica.  If they do come to Honduras, they fly directly to Roatan, which was my next destination.  Here you’ll find the other end of the spectrum, the paradise that brings tourists here despite their deeply held fears and biases.  Roatan and the nearby island of Utila are indeed idyllic, surrounded as they are by the warm waters of the Caribbean, and fringed by beautiful coral reefs.  The scuba diving here is quite inexpensive, and backpackers come to get certified on the cheap.  I did one morning and two night dives, wanting to see sharks and octopus (my favorite sea creature).  It was fun, but my standards have become too high with diving.

The beach and warm clear waters of the Caribbean at West End on Roatan, off the coast of Honduras.

And so I mostly just tooled around the island on my rented scooter, walked the beaches, and swam in the sea.  The island is not small, and it is quite hilly.  The pace of life here, as you might expect, is tortoise-slow.  If I had just flown directly from Miami to Roatan, however, the effect of this slow pace would have hit me in a different way.  As it was, after being in the hot, somewhat dangerous city of La Ceiba, the sleepy beaches of Roatan, with its blessed cool breezes, felt like a true Eden.  It felt more like salvation than simply an escape from cold weather.  I have to say that, despite all of the charms, I tend to become bored with places such as this.  I enjoy it for three, maybe five days max.  After I left, on my way to Tegucigalpa, I thought back and wondered why I didn’t stay longer.  I was just getting the rhythm down.  What did I have against relaxation anyway?  With no good answer, I looked out of the bus window at the highlands passing by, signalling the approach of the Nicaraguan border.

Sunset over the Caribbean.

The Land of the Maya IV   Leave a comment

Guatemala

A misty view of some of the major temples at Tikal, the huge ancient Mayan city in Guatemala.

This is the last of my posts on the land of the Maya.  I may continue to post on my swing through Central America, but once you have traveled southward into the highlands straddling the Honduras – Nicaragua border, you’ve left the Maya behind.

A bird of paradise flower blooms in a Central American cloud forest

I visited Tikal in the Peten of northern Guatemala.  This is without a doubt the most impressive Mayan ruins I’ve been to.  I already posted on the birds of Tikal and they are, along with the other wildlife, one of the best things about the ancient city.  Tikal lies in thick jungle, with plenty of room between the temples and pyramids to get lost in nature.

I stayed in El Remate, the nearest village to the ruins.  Many people stay in Flores, a much bigger, busier place that involves a longer drive to Tikal.  In El Remate, you can visit near the end of the day or very early in the morning, thus beating the crowds.  Simply take a taxi or hop in one of the many vans that ply the route to Tikal.  It’s a quiet village sitting on the huge Peten Itza lake, and lacks resorts & nightlife.  But that’s the way I like it.  By the way, there is also a hotel near the gate of Tikal, but then you’re not staying in a village, not soaking up much culture.  And Remate is cheaper.  My humble little room, but with it’s own private bathroom, cost $7/night.  A huge steak dinner one night cost $5.

On my first day, fresh from the Belize border, it was cloudy with showers.  I almost decided to wait until morning but then on a whim caught a ride up to the ruins, arriving less than two hours before they closed.  It was a great move, as I got some nice moody shots of the temples in misty, foggy conditions.  Also the weather had scared off most of the tourists.  Tikal gets plenty of tourist traffic, but the ruins are large and spread out, so you can always get away from people if you need to.  I’m not going to detail much about Tikal, since it is an easy thing to look up.  I’ll just say that this place has some fun (and steep!) temple climbs.

I thought about doing a trek in this area of Guatemala, to the relatively newly discovered ruins of El Mirador, deep in the jungle.  But I didn’t, thinking of all those countries left to explore.  You can trek or ride horses to El Mirador.  Check around Flores for guides.  It’s pretty exciting to think about exploring the remote Peten, which is prime hunting ground for uncovering new Mayan ruins, and as a bonus hosts abundant wildlife.  It’s also a drug-smuggling corridor, but I still want to return some day for an adventure.

So I headed south, stopping on the way at a wonderful farm-stay called Finca Ixobel.  It’s written up in Lonely Planet (of course), and has good, healthy food and truly excellent coffee. It’s situated in lovely partly forested country that just begs to be explored on horseback.  And so I did!  They have some horses and a good guy to take you out.  My mount, Frojo, looked lazy and a bit too small to me, but boy did he ever prove me wrong.  He was a real pistol, wanting to run more than I could handle!  You can also hike at Ixobel; I did the trek up a small mountain covered in beautiful subtropical forest.  I love this part of Guatemala.

A carved stela at the Mayan ruins of Quirigua in Guatemala suggests extra-terrestrial influences.

Tropical flower

A tropical flower blooms in the forest of central Guatemala.

I stopped at a fairly small Mayan site called Quirigua, in the far south of Guatemala just off the main highway.  While the temples are small, it contains some of the nicest carvings I’ve seen.  There are tall stelae (sculpted towers) and squat zoomorphic sculptures (see images).  There are also carved calenders, and together with Copan just across the border, it represents an excellent original source for the Mayan calender.  I don’t believe the Mayans thought the world would end in 2012, but there is so much we don’t know that they might have known.  So who knows?  We’ll find out in December.

I went on to El Salvador, but concentrated on other things (nature, surfing) while I was there.  So I won’t detail it here.  It is certainly a tough country in which to travel, and the most poverty-stricken in Central America.  The surfing set mostly is unaware of the reality there, since they plop down on the coast and don’t travel around.

Looping back into the blessedly cool hill country of western Honduras, I visited Copan.  My last Mayan ruin, I wanted some great pictures.  Unfortunately the light did not cooperate.  But I did get very close to one of the many scarlet macaws roosting in the trees near the entrance.

The little town of Copan Ruinas near the Mayan city of the same name is quite charming, with a nice cool highland climate and attractive architecture.  I met an American guy there who moved there from Texas and bought a coffee finca (farm).  It was interesting talking to him, finding out how he made it work.  His relatively high elevation means he has to find just the right genetic mix to grow coffee that survives, let alone tastes good.

Copan has some very impressive carvings.  There is a ball court flanked with carvings of macaws.  One of the more unique structures is the Hieroglyphic Stairway, which is the longest hieroglyph in the Mayan world.  The story told is still being deciphered.  Much of the artifacts and structures have been damaged or taken away by the Copan River. Copan was occupied for about 2000 years, and for much of that time was subject to flooding.  I always find it funny when some people remark that the new world is very poor in culture and history compared with the old world.  I guess they just don’t know.

A zoomorphic sculpture at Quirigua, a Mayan site in Guatemala. It is about 7 feet tall and 10 feet across.

Mayan Ruins

The highlands around the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras are made up of rolling hills and coffee farms.

Copan

The famous Hieroglyphic Stairway at the Mayan ruins of Copan in Honduras represent the longest untold story in ancient Mayan history.

Well that does it for the Maya.  I will always have deep admiration and respect for their stunning achievements, especially in astronomy and mathematics.  But this trip really opened my eyes to the Maya as they exist today.  The Maya who are living a simple agricultural lifestyle in Guatemala are not very different than their ancestors.  The ancient Mayan civilization after all, consisted of a few priests and elite while the bulk of the population were farmers and laborers.

This makes me wonder how many of these simple folk living in poor villages have, lying dormant within them, the ability to conceive of and accomplish great things, just as their ancestors did.  How often is a life lived, however fulfilling it is, where this latent potential is unrealized?  And how could I tell by just meeting them on my travels?  It’s interesting to think about.

A macaw perches near the entrance to Copan, the Mayan ruins in Honduras. Appearing in carvings in the ancient city, they remain to this day, roosting in the trees above the crumbling temples.

Copan

Large carvings of scarlet macaw heads adorn the side of the ball court in the ancient Mayan city of Copan. They would have been painted brightly.

Stars and Photography (follow-up)   4 comments

The Milky Way soars over the North Cascades, with the city lights of Seattle (left) and Vancouver, B.C. behind the mountains.

A short post on photographing the night sky.  I’ve discussed this before, so won’t repeat myself.  If you want some general advice on this check my post and some of the many other web resources.  For some inspiration try Wally Pacholka’s site or that for TWAN.

The above photo demonstrates a few interesting things about the subject.  I’m showing it because it illustrates not only a few good things, but at least one thing to possibly avoid.  I’m still learning a lot about this stuff so I don’t mind admitting when I mess up.  I still like the image though, primarily because it shows the following:

SCALE:  It is so hard to show scale in photographs like this.  A very common technique is to include a strong foreground element, like a strangely shaped tree, an interesting building, etc.  But this is not strictly showing scale.  The background in these images is still just assumed to be large – not exactly precise.   It is, nonetheless, a great way to “depthify” the picture.  Like that word?

In the above image I was able to show the city lights of both Seattle and Vancouver, Canada, which are 150 miles apart.  At first I thought the lights were messing with my desire to show a deep starfield, but then I realized that the lights actually helped with depth.  It happens so often when doing photography, that you are frustrated with an element you think is interfering with your composition.  The key is to take a deep breath and consider what that element is actually capable of doing for your composition.

LOCATION:  For the above image I knew I wanted to be as high up as possible.  The air was somewhat hazy because of fires, and during the day I noticed as I crossed Rainy Pass that the smoke was mostly hanging in the valleys.  So I decided to spend the night at the top of Slate Peak, which at nearly 7500 feet is about as high as you can drive in Washington.  The height helped me to shoot over the haze, and made the stars that much brighter.  On the downside the top of a mountain does not usually offer a strong foreground element.  There was a lookout tower, but I didn’t think it was interesting enough.

SIMPLE COMPOSITION: This is of course a goal for all landscape photography, but for starscapes it might be even more critical.  I mostly like to make the sky – Milky Way, comets, aurorae, etc. – the star of the show (pun intended).  And when I use a strong foreground element I want it to share the spotlight.  I want to wow people with the universe, which we don’t look at or think about very often.

And so I went with the simple composition of Milky Way arcing over the North Cascades.  I would have liked to have a better profile of the mountains, which are jagged and thus interesting in silhouette, but my viewpoint was much too high for that.  It was a tradeoff between wanting to be above most of the haze and having the mountains in silhouette.  I could have driven back down a ways after the sunset, but believe it or not I was nervous about trying to turn around at night from my precarious parking spot.  It was a long way down.

Also, a simple composition allows for a super quick and easy composite when you’re combining two shots (in this case one for the foreground and one tracking the stars so that they are sharp).

SHARPNESS:  One weakness of the shot is that the stars, while fairly sharp, are not perfectly round points.  I was using my tracking mount (a Vixen Polarie) to track the apparent movement of the stars.  This allows you to go much longer than the 20 or so seconds that you’re limited to when shooting from a regular tripod mount.  Of course you can always raise ISO, and if you have camera like the Nikon D4 or Canon 1DX, you (a) have more $ than I do, and (b) have more flexibility and might not even need to track in many cases.

The polar alignment you do for the Polarie is pretty basic.  You simply point it at the North Star, making sure it’s visible through a little hole.  Vixen sells a much more precise polar alignment scope for it, but for now I can’t justify the extra expense.  For one thing, when you use a very wide angle lens, as I usually do, the slight drift does not cause noticeable blurring of the stars.  But the longer your exposure, the better chance to get blurred or trailed stars.

I’ve already mentioned a second weakness of the shot.  It has no good foreground element, unless you count the mountains as foreground.  I happen to think the city lights add enough interest, but it certainly can be argued that this is a stronger image with a good foreground element, perhaps illuminated by “light painting” (shining a light on the subject).

EXPOSURE & PROCESSING:  I was using my Tokina 16-28mm f/2.8 on a Canon 5D Mk. II, at 16mm focal length.  I took two shots (actually three including the dark frame).  One was with the tracking mount switched off, and the other had the mount tracking the stars.  I shot both at the same exposure, but I don’t always do this, especially when there is a moon or other complicating factor.  That exposure: 133 sec. at f/2.8 (largest aperture for that lens) & ISO 200.  I shot the same with the lens cap on for the dark frame.

I processed pretty simply.  First I imported into Lightroom and worked on the image with sharp stars.  I moved the highlights and the contrast sliders pretty high, moved the blacks lower, upped the shadows and clarity a bit, and added quite a bit of  noise reduction and sharpness (with a healthy amt. of masking for sharpening).  Then I used synch. to apply the same settings to the image with a sharp foreground.  Then I opened this and zoomed in to the mountains to adjust both sharpening and noise until I had the best compromise.

Then I took both into Photoshop, made the sharp mountain shot my background, selected the stars from the other one, and copied this over.  I added a mask overlay and used a brush to clean up the horizon.  In this simple case  it only required a few long strokes along the mountain tops to reveal the underlying image’s sharp peaks.

I zoomed in and looked around the image for the tiny red or green dots that indicate hot pixels, a common effect of long exposures in darkness.  I didn’t see many, so I decided not to bother with dark frame subtraction.  If I was to print this image at a large size, I would have done it.  But for most things those hot pixels won’t show up.  That said, it’s very worthwhile to always take a shot with the lens cap on, and at the same exposure as your real shot(s).  It has to be at the same exposure as your main shot(s), and at or near the same time for the Photoshop technique of dark frame subtraction to work.  Do it right after your main shot(s).

Okay, hope you found this useful.  I always appreciate comments and questions.  I normally don’t do photography tutorials on my blog (too boring after awhile), and prefer to educate more on the subjects and locations I shoot in.  But I will do this from time to time.

The Maya III   Leave a comment

Dugout canoes are a common sight alonf the Rio Dulce in southeast Guatemala.

A continuation of my journey into the land of the Maya, where I visited every country in Central America.  After the highlands of Guatemala, I traveled through southeastern Guatemala, then into Belize, looping back through Guatemala and down into El Salvador.  I then went on to Honduras, finally leaving the land of the Maya when I continued into Nicaragua.

Guatemala

A boy who would not leave me alone until I befriended him on the western shore of Lago Izabel, Guatemala.

Lake Izabel in Guatemala is not as beautiful as Lake Atitlan, but it doesn’t have the tourist traffic either.  The town of El Estor, on the steamy lakeshore at the west end of the lake, is a haven for wildlife, including dugongs (like manatees).  You can simply ask around down at the lake to find someone who will take you out on their boat.  Just make sure he takes you well up the Rio Polochic.  You will certainly get close to howler monkeys, and you might see spider monkeys (which are probably my favorite monkey) as well.

The Rio Dulce connects Izabel with the Caribbean at Livingston (where you can either head into Belize or Honduras).  Here you are back on the “gringo trail”, which doesn’t mean it’s not beautiful, but make sure you check out Izabel’s western end too.  You take a small tour boat/ferry from the busy town of Rio Dulce to the coast.  There are several jungle lodges to stay in about halfway along, so if you have a couple days I would not go all the way to Livingston in one go.

Instead, enjoy the slow pace of life along these quiet tropical waterways, watching local fishermen in dugout canoes, doing a little hiking & birdwatching, and swimming.  I stayed at Finca Tatin, & my little jungle chalet (complete with outdoor rock shower) was named Tucano.  I can definitely recommend this place.  It’s popular with backpackers, but I don’t hold that against it – too much!

I’ll skip over my diving adventures in Belize.  I love diving in the Caribe, but Belize, along its coast at least, is not my favorite part of Central America.  The wilderness and Mayan ruins of western Belize however, are a different story.  The people are quite friendly in Belize, but I can’t say I’m impressed.  The poor Belizean women, they have to put up with men who don’t do much, just drinking beer most of the day and hanging out.

When leaving Belize the cabbie warned me to be careful in Guatemala.  I told him I’d already spent about a month there and felt safer than on the streets of larger towns in Belize.  It’s true.  At night the drunk guys hanging about are rather unsavory.  Of course Guatemala City & Antigua can present dangers too.

I rented a little motorbike of questionable quality in the town of San Ignacio (also called Cayo), which is the tourist basecamp for western Belize.  Central America, unlike most of Asia, is not a place where one can easily rent scooters & motorbikes.  Too bad, because it is perfect for that.  I had to resort to finding a repair shop and talked them into renting me one of their supposedly finished “projects”.

So I set off on the bike into the stupendous Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve, a huge plateau covered in pine forest, and graced by beautiful waterfalls and caves.  What a day of exploring!  I only saw a few jeeps.  The roads are rough but passable.  The sun was rapidly setting as I was racing back, when the front wheel turned without the handlebars doing so.  Not good!  I wiped out big time, but luckily got only a few scratches and scrapes.  I had to straighten the wheel with brute force, and take it very easy the rest of the way.  Lucky it was so late when I returned it nobody was around.  The bike had a fender hanging off, plus assorted other dings.

Guatemala

Tropical jungle surrounds my cabin at Finca Tatin, along the Rio Dulce in Guatemala.

Belize

My transport while diving on the coast of Belize.

Just before reaching Guatemala, near the town of San Jose Succotz, overlooking a beautiful river (the Mopan), lie the ruins of Xunantunich (pronounce CHEW-nahn-too-neech).  These Mayan ruins are relatively small, especially when compared to massive Tikal just across the border in Guatemala.  But they are beautiful, with a fantastic temple (El Castillo) that you can climb for outstanding views extending into Guatemala.  You have to cross the river on a hand-cranked ferry, then it’s a shortish walk up to the ruins.  I went towards day’s end, & ended up alone at the top of El Castillo as the sun was setting.  What a feeling!

Belize

Thousand Foot Falls in the Mountain Pine Ridge Reserve of western Belize is actually 1600 feet high and is the highest waterfall in Central America.

I stayed nearby in a quirky place I sadly forget the name of.  But if you’re there be observant at the east end of San Jose Succotz, you’ll see it up on the hill, or its sign claiming it’s an eco-“resort”.  I don’t care if they exaggerate about their status as a resort, it is an extremely relaxing and low-key place.  Very cheap too.

Belize

El Castillo is a temple at the Mayan ruins of Xunantunich in western Belize.

Well I crossed into Guatemala on my way to Tikal, but this is getting lengthy, so I’ll save that for next time.

Belize

The temple of El Castillo in western Belize basks in lonely late-day light.

 

More Smoke and Photography   2 comments

Fires in the North Cascades

This shot looking up towards the North Cascades from the town of Winthrop, Washington was only a moment after the sun had dipped beneath the horizon.

This is a short follow-up post to my recent trip into the North Cascades of Washington.  After I left the mountains and traveled southwest on Hwy. 2o, to the town of Winthrop, I immediately noticed an increase in the smoke in the sky.  When I was up in the mountains, I was protected somewhat by (A) being up in elevation (smoke tends to flow down into valleys) and (B) being north of the smoke when the wind was from the north.  That was nice since I was hiking.  But then I began to head south and downward, and the smoke thickened, and thickened, and thickened.

The view looking SW from the top of Slate Peak, Washington takes in some rugged country in North Cascades National Park. Smoke in the air from fires to the south is subtle here since there was a north wind, but the hue it adds is noticeable and beautiful.

But in the Winthrop area, a gorgeous piece of country not too far from the Canadian border, the smoke was still largely to the south.  So in photographing I had some great orange skies, if a bit overdone, at sunset, and yet I could actually breathe!  This wasn’t the case as I traveled south, down the east side of the Cascade Mountains, headed back home.  Not only was the smoke so thick my eyes started burning, but everywhere I tried to turn off and camp, there was a fire burning not far away.  I was afraid that while snoozing in my van, a fire might cut me off from the highway.

Northern Washington near the town of Winthrop has long winters, but perhaps it is because of this that it is so idyllic in early autumn.

These kinds of thoughts don’t exactly lend themselves to falling asleep, so I kept driving until at 3 a.m. I finally gave up and pulled off.  I slept very near the highway, next to one of the many temporary barriers across all the side roads: “Road Closed Due To Fire Danger”.  This further irritated me, since the phrase “due to” is a grammatical pet peeve of mine.  Why don’t people use “because of”?  I don’t get it, who owes somebody something?  Due to??

Winthrop, Washington

Smokey skies turn the dusk orange near Winthrop, Washington.

I woke with eyes itchy & burning.  The smoke was thick in the trees.  I love photographing mist and fog in the forests of the Pacific NW, and smoke is similar.  So I shot a few.  I’m not sure I like the image below very much, but it looks better than it felt to be there.

Fires in Washington

Smoke from several nearby fires drifts through the forest of central Washington

I finally got home to Portland, to find the air the clearest that I had experienced over the past two days.  But my fellow residents were complaining fiercely about the unhealthy air, and their were advisories in place.  I myself was relieved.

Next post maybe I’ll continue the Maya/Central America series.  Enjoy, and keep exploring!

Mount Baker

The sun has just set behind the highest of the North Cascades in Washington. Mount Baker is at center left.

Funny Animal Photos   Leave a comment

Charl the shih tsu attracts some strange looks. Obviously people aren’t the only creatures who wonder what type of animal he really is.

A quickie post on this favorite of our wonderful worldwide web.  There is almost no better way to get internet hits on a photo or video than to show an animal doing something funny. It’s a gimmie.  So here I am joining in, being totally gratuitous.

Fun in the park as my little dog Charl is surrounded by town deer.

My little shih tsu, Charl is getting pretty old now, and so is not always very alert to his surroundings.  He should have been aware that these three deer, who were hanging out in a little riverside park in the town of Winthrop, Washington (it’s hunting season & they know it’s illegal to discharge weapons in the city limits), were not exactly the friendly type.

As I was taking this picture, I realized that the deer on the left was about to use those sharp hooves to express her opinion of lap dogs.  He nearly got speared before I swooped in and chased them away.

This is not exactly what I expected to be doing on my recent road trip to northern Washington, rescuing my little traveling partner from fearless town deer.  But I shouldn’t have been surprised.  On more than one occasion, while we’ve been out hiking, I’ve noticed hawks or eagles who were quite interested in us.  One plus is that Charl is fairly indestructible.  My horse one time kicked him halfway across the barn. But he’s always so relaxed that I think he’s made of jelly.  He bends but doesn’t break.

I often sneer with contempt when I see the plethora of funny or stupid animal photos & videos on the web.  But I can’t take the high road anymore.  I’ve become one of them!

Posted September 19, 2012 by MJF Images in Animals

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North Cascades   7 comments

I’m in the Methow Valley, in Northern Washington, in bad need of a shower, having just tumbled out of the mountains of the North Cascades.  And rugged mountains they surely are!  This will be a relatively short post, as far as writing goes (I can hear the cheers already).  I’ve gone & broken my left hand, so everything is slower, especially typing.  It’s a long story how I broke it.  The short version is that I am sometimes a stupid man, and it costs me.

Blue Lake in the North Cascades of Washington is calm as the sun begins to set.

I approached from the south, camping along Baker Lake, then followed Hwy. 20 east to Ross Lake, taking a hike to Blue Lake for a sunset view of Early Winters Spires.  It is only 2 or 3 miles up to the lake.  You will likely run into rock climbers here.  The Spires are a prime challenge for rock jocks.  After this, I drove down into the tiny burg of Mazama, and then back up (way up!) to Slate Peak.

I was under the stars here, at 7400 feet elevation, and shot some night photos in the company of an astrophotographer.  He was shooting at a considerably narrower angle than I was!  He showed me my first ever view of the Heart Nebula, a beautiful object I’ve never seen before.  And I thought I was a pretty savvy stargazer.

The Big Dipper is nearly lost amongst the stars above Slate Peak Lookout in Northern Washington.

The view from Slate Peak is amazing, making the rough, steep “road” up there worth it.  If you are the type to balk at narrow dirt tracks carved out of a mountainside, with no guardrail between you and a sheer drop, get somebody else to drive it, take a pill, and keep your eyes firmly closed.  But what a view!  The jagged peaks of the North Cascades lie to the west, and the wild Pasayten country rises to the east.

The wind was blowing up there overnight, so it was downright cold!  In order to stargaze, I had to put on more clothes than I’ve had on since last March.  But next morning dawned clear & the day warmed rapidly.  This is the start of the Pacific Crest Trail’s last push northward to the Canadian border, & I hiked up a few miles, scrambling up a minor peak.  It was a good challenge though, having only one hand to rely on for the knife-edge ridge.

The sun’s last rays hit the popular climbing crags of Early Winters Spires in Washington’s North Cascades.

The larches are changing color now, making me want to keep pushing north & east to the Canadian Rockies.  But I don’t have my passport on me, alas.  Oh for those good old pre-9/11 days, when crossing into Canada was not very different than crossing a state line.  Oh well, I really should go home & get a real cast put on this hand.  But for now I’m off to enjoy the little town of Winthrop, & the gorgeous valleys here.  This country is covered in snow for most of the year, but now it’s basking in beautiful September sunshine.   Hope you enjoy the photos.

The Maya II: Guatemalan Highlands   4 comments

This is a continuation of my series on travel to the land of the Maya in Central America.  I flew into Cancun, and then worked my way down through the peninsula (see last post), traveling through Chiapas and entering Guatemala from the west.  Hope you enjoy the photos!  But please be aware that not only are they small files, but that it’s not okay to download them without contacting me for permission.  Clicking the photos will take you to my website where purchase of much larger files is easy as pie.

There is no way to travel through this area without being impressed not only with the Maya, but also towns with well-preserved colonial architecture.  I visited Campeche in the Yucatan, and San Cristobal de Las Casas in Chiapas.  Both are the home of incredible Spanish colonial architecture and each have their own character.

Campeche is, despite its spectacular architecture, relatively free of heavy tourist influence, while San Cristobal, maybe because it is smaller, has more of a tourist feel to it.  Also, Campeche is on the sea and Cristobal is not.  Both towns, however, are places where you can stroll the streets with plenty of photo opportunities, plenty of places to eat and drink, plenty of people-watching.  As a bonus, the two towns sit in an area of perfectly balmy climate.

A couple gets close near the cathedral in Campeche on the Yucatan Peninsula.

The colonial architecture of Campeche, on the Gulf of Mexico, is one of the highlights of a visit to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.

I After San Cristobal, I headed for Palenque in Chiapas, and toured that site amongst plenty of other tourists.  Aside from Chichen Itza, this is the most crowded Mayan site I visited, but it was a gorgeous day and I did not really bother getting there too early.  The occasional crowd never bothers me, since I make a point to get well off the beaten track on more than enough occasions.

The carvings at Palenque are very well preserved.  In general, you must go to museums to see well-preserved Mayan carved panels and stelae (stone pillars).  This is because the weather has really done a number on the artwork left at the actual sites.  But Palenque and a few other cities have plenty of artwork that is stunning in its detail.  Also, Palenque is set in gorgeous wooded hills, with a stream flowing right through it.  Go to the edge of the ruins and check out the jungle; you might see some wildlife.

The Temple of Inscriptions at Palenque, an ancient Mayan city in Chiapas, Mexico.

Leaving Palenque, I entered Guatemala.  The transition was definitely noticeable.  No more air conditioned buses and vans, no more leaving when scheduled.  Guatemala is a fairly chaotic country, full of people and energy, more traditional & not nearly as rich as Mexico.  North Americans who only travel to Mexico think that country is third world.  They have no idea.  If they were to continue south to Guatemala and beyond, then they would understand what third world actually means.

I don’t say this to denigrate these places.  It’s just a simple fact.  Mexico is more modern, easier to travel through than most Central American countries, much easier.  These days Mexico might be more dangerous in places, because of the drug war.  But it is most certainly more kind to travelers of all types than Guatemala (and let’s not even talk about El Salvador!).

A tricked out chicken bus in Guatemala.

So there I was in the highlands, waiting for the “chicken bus”  I had chosen at random to attract enough passengers for us to set out.  After a time, we were heading towards Xela (Quetzaltenango), the main city in the highlands.  By the way, to pronounce “X “in Spanish, you simply say “Sh”.  So Xela is “Shela”.  That chicken bus was taking me into another world, a parade of busy mountain villages with  hordes of people and energy.  There is nowhere on the planet quite like this, though parts of South Asia’s mountain terrain are closest.  The markets alone are enough to set this place apart, and the Maya culture is as dominant as it is anywhere in Latin America.

These Maya are different than those in the Yucatan.  It seems that each village brings a different dress, a different set of customs.  They all speak different languages, have a different look.  They do all share many similarities, but they’re not nearly as monocultural as the Yucatan Maya.  And another thing I noticed: in these highlands where you find so many traditional Mayan villages, you will be hard pressed to find any ancient Mayan ruins.  They’re all in the bordering lowlands and in Chiapas.  It seems that the big ancient Mayan cities were all built in the lowlands or hill country, whereas the modern Maya have been pushed into the highlands, where it is harder to make a living.  A simplistic observation with some exceptions I will admit, but the pattern is there.

A cool evening in a small town in the Guatemalan Highlands, with its white-washed church, is graced by a bright moon.

View from inside one of the colonial buildings surrounding the square in the town of Quetzaltenango (“Xela”) in the Guatemalan highlands.

The heart of Quetzaltenango (Xela) in the Guatemalan Highlands is its Parque Central.

Xela is a city surrounded by volcanoes, home to markets and many Spanish language schools.  Here the Maya are mixed in with other Guatemalans.  I enjoyed Xela’s central square (Parque Central), taking many photos.  I also was befriended by a few Mayan women in the market; they worried over me and made sure I was safely on a bus with my spendy camera gear.  I wanted to climb a volcano.  It was a tossup between the very active volcano Pacaya, and the highest mountain in Central America, Tajumulco.  I went with the highest one!

The sun rises over the Guatemalan highlands, as viewed from the summit of the highest mountain in Central America, Tajamulco.

We camped only 500 or so feet from the summit, so close that we reached the top just before sunrise next morning.  I managed to catch a pretty nice photo, the haze of the lower country setting a counterpoint to the intensely clear rising sun.  I visited the little village of Todos Santos Cuchumatan afterwards, managing to get my MP3 player stolen on the bus along the way.  But this was to be the only theft I’d suffer on the 3-month trip through Central America.

Todos Santos is fairly popular with travelers.  But it still feels way off the beaten track and the Maya there hold tight to their traditions.  The road is rough and the bus ride bouncy and long from Xela.  The town sits in steep terrain and by virtue of its elevation (8200 ft., 2500m.) is quite cool, especially at night (think wool blankets).  On the day I got there I walked uphill and soon ran into three Mayan girls who were chatty and friendly.  I spent some time with them, taking pictures, laughing, and sort of flirting.

A young and happy Mayan woman in Todos Santos, heart of the Mayan culture in the Guatemalan highlands.

A young Mayan lady high up in the Guatemalan highlands, in the village of Todos Santos.

Young men in Todos Santos Cuchumatan, in the Guatemalan Highlands, wear the tradtional colorful pants favored by the Maya in this region.

Colorful is a good way to describe the dress of most Mayan women, and these two were no exceptions.  What is different about this town, however, is the dress of the men.  Mayan men normally don’t bother with colorful dress, but here they tend to wear bright red & white striped pants, topped by a jaunty hat.  Even small boys wear this getup, and man are they ever cute!

After a few days relaxing along the shores of Lago Atitlan, I visited another remote town in the Ixil triangle, Nebaj.  From this town I hiked up a dirt track, following locals weighed down with incredible loads (from market) as they trekked across a pass and down into a beautiful valley.  There was a small village here, accessible only by foot.  As you might imagine, an agrarian, simple way of life prevails here, in utterly beautiful surroundings.

It was very warm during the day, cooling off a lot at night, just the way I like it.  (It takes a great amount of heat to get to me; same with cold.)  The night market at Nebaj was fantastic, with a whitewashed church, the bright moon, and some tasty and exotic (for me) treats all creating a magical atmosphere that just seemed to define the highlands.

Street food in a village square high up in the Guatemalan highlands includes unusual sweets.

The Ixil area drops off spectacularly to the east into central Guatemala.  I took a jam-packed van to an amazing place called Semuc Champey, passing one of the largest landslide scars I’ve ever seen.  The rainy season can see spectacular landslides on the rough roads that traverse the Guatemalan Highlands.  Once at Semuc Champey, I realized why it was listed in my guidebook.

A huge volume of re-deposited limestone (travertine) fills the river valley here.  It’s similar to what you find at places like Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs, but grey not white.  The river flows over, under and through all this limestone, forming a series of green, paradisical pools and waterfalls.  It is probably the most atmospheric swimming hole I’ve ever been to.

The clear pools at Semuc Champey in the Guatemalan highlands invite a cooling swim.

I was not done with the Maya.  From Semuc Champey I kept going east, heading for Lake Izabal.  But the roads turn into dirt through this area, and public transport just stops. So I hitched, something I did quite a bit of in my (much) younger days.  I was dropped off at a lonely junction where two dirt roads come together, and patiently waited under bluebird skies for any 4×4 to come by.  But it was Sunday and my wait was a long one.  No problem: the Mayan children from a village nearby kept me entertained.

Mayan children near the village of Cahabon in remote central Guatemala can’t stop laughing about having a stranger in their midst.

This is probably the most remote area I visited in Central America.  The people were nearly all Mayan, and were dirt poor.  I had stumbled upon it, and was leaving in the back of a pickup all too soon.  A definite negative was the state of their land.  Guatemala had seen fit to allow loggers to flatten the whole forest in this region some 15 or 20 years ago.  The trees are growing back, but so far are still quite small.  A mature tropical rainforest used to grow here, and it’s obvious the land and wildlife misses it.

My trip continued into eastern Guatemala, which was well on its way to becoming my favorite of Central America.  I continued my off-the-beaten track travels, staying on the shore of Lago Izabal where I took a small boat past dugongs and growler monkeys.  I also stayed at a jungle lodge along the Rio Dulce (my cabin was named Tucan).  But I was no longer in the land of the Maya.  I would return to Maya country in western Belize and northernmost Guatemala.  That’s the subject of the next post in this series.

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