Archive for the ‘culture’ Tag

Rural America: Summary Musings   15 comments

Rural ranchland of southwestern Colorado.

We’ve been rambling through the rural western U.S. on a series of road-trips.  Now it’s time to pause for a bit of reflection.  I’m greatly enjoying this series and hope you are too.  It’s been great to get away from photography topics for awhile and celebrate the reason I do it in the first place.  I first got into photography on my first ever solo road-trip at the tender age of 18.

A couple months after graduating high school I escaped my east-coast birthplace and drove across country in my Pontiac.  I’d been given a little manual camera as a gift.  Knowing nothing of the rule of thirds or anything else about photography, I shot many rolls of Kodachrome on that trip.  To this day documenting subjects I find while traveling is my #1 reason for doing photography.  I’m more serious about it now, with the added motivation of artful expression thrown into the mix.  But it’s still all about exploration and inspiration.

An old wood Baptist church sits in the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

America celebrates horses (and doesn’t eat them): wild foal and mare, North Dakota.

The trips I’ve featured in this series have balanced visits to natural wonders with route variations that take in remnants of rural America and its history.  What is so fascinating about many parts of the country is the way that these three (the land, its human history and the way people interact with it now) are interwoven.  It’s possible when traveling in sparsely-populated areas, especially in the West and parts of the Midwest, to feel the power that the landscape exerted on past explorers and settlers, both native and white.  And it’s fascinating to see how the land continues to influence the way modern people live on it.

An old-time antebellum mansion on Georgia’s Atlantic coast.

Tending the land demanded bigger families in America’s past.  These folks lived at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in what was New Mexico Territory.

But everywhere you go in this great country it’s impossible to escape the obvious: things have changed in fundamental ways.  Gone are those days when most people made their living off the land, when they stayed at or very near their birthplaces for their whole lives.  Here’s an important fact about American history: those relative few who did not stay home were critical to shaping the young country.  They were responsible for America spreading westward to the Pacific.  They created the reality of the American spirit and formed the basis for the myths that would later be woven into that reality.

A cemetery out on the windblown plains of western Oklahoma.

Interior of a round barn: southeastern Oregon.

Nowadays nearly everyone moves somewhere else.  The same kinds of motivations are at work for us as for our forebears: a desire to start anew.  But since travel today does not entail near the hardship of days past, many more people move.  A person who is willing to take the chance that moving across country may mean that some of the family will die on the way is quite different than one who drives a U-Haul to California for a new job.  The latter is taking risks, but nothing like the former, whose life could literally collapse around her.

A cabin draws a small herd of free-range horses at the base of remote Steens Mountain, Oregon.

Crystal River runs down one of my favorite little valleys in the Colorado Rockies, home to a lucky few.

In my own travels through the west I’ve often tried to put myself into the boots of those risk-takers.  I imagine riding into rough country without maps, where my destination was more hope than reality, where I was in very real danger of being assaulted by robbers or bands of vengeful braves.  The change that has overtaken the world has not spared the western U.S.  But in out-of-the-way corners it is still possible to see things that have changed little, or even not at all.  And that’s what this series was all about.  (I say ‘was’ but I’ll return to the theme again when the mood strikes.)  Thanks for reading!

Spring daffodils bloom at an old cabin in Cades Cove, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee.

The Great Smoky Mountains in Tennessee live up to their name.

Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

Here’s a sad story:  Imagine driving through a typical developed section of the United States.  You drive by a continuous series of shopping complexes, fast-food joints, theaters, condo developments and all the rest.  It’s just the way it is, right?

Now imagine a long-time local in the car with you.  Inevitably he or she would be able to point and tell you that not long ago this was all farmland (or forest, or grass meadows, or swampland, or tidal marshes).  I’ve heard this told of many areas across the country, and I could tell the story for numerous places that I’m personally familiar with.

America has experienced continuous growth and development for quite some time now, and the effects are many.  This blog series is about one of them, the swallowing up of rural farm- and ranch-lands as the suburbs have pushed outward.  We’ve lost much of the on-the-land character here, and visitors from other countries, along with younger residents, simply do not know what the country was once like.

When you come upon a rare round barn in rural America, you stop and take a picture: east Oregon desert.

Thankfully rural America does still exist in places.  But in order to see it, you must be willing to get away from the popular routes and sights.  It’s one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to put into effect during a trip.  The internet tends to push us into narrow tourist-trails, perhaps more so than travel books and magazines once did.  But the internet can also give you ideas for getting off those beaten trails to explore just a little bit of the original character of the country and its people.  It’s that rural character that made this country great in the first place.

The last few posts have been exploring the Desert Southwest with some of my favorite road-trips.  This post continues with that theme, moving east and south to explore the Four Corners region, especially the native tribal lands of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  It’s part of a big loop starting and ending in Page, Arizona.  Next time we’ll cover the southern leg of the loop.  If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, your trip could start in Arizona from either Phoenix or Flagstaff.  Or you could fly into Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico and start the loop on the eastern end.

The famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Page to Cortez

Page, Arizona is a little town on the shores of Lake Powell.  It’s popular with snowbirds and retirees, but is probably best known as a minor tourist town.  It’s the base town for house boat trips on the lake and also for desert tours.  The town is set in ridiculously scenic desert, so it’s popular with photographers.  There is a balloon fest the first weekend of November (image below).

If you love slot canyons and can’t resist an over-photographed location, visit nearby Antelope Canyon.  It’s on Navajo land and a guided tour costs anywhere between $20 and $40, not including the $6 tribal fee.  The cheaper option is for the lower canyon while the upper costs more.  Both are stunning visually.  Another superb but over-shot location is Horseshoe Bend just south of town (image above).  The whole area is like candy for landscape shooting.  I recommend a sunrise at Lone Rock Beach (image at top).  You can camp right there on the beach.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

If you have extra time a great side-trip from Page travels Hwy. 89A past Marble Canyon on the Colorado River and up to Jacob Lake.  Turn south on 67 and enjoy the cool pine forests on a short jaunt to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Our trip will take us east into very different country.  This is vast, unpeopled desert, dotted with small communities that are a mix of American Indian, white ranchers and more recent immigrants.  Many towns are dominated by native tribal people.

Looking east over the upper Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

Drive to Kayenta, AZ and turn north toward Monument Valley on the Utah border.  As you near this iconic place of the west, the terrain begins to look like an old John Ford movie.  There is a fee to enter the tribal park, and it is 100% worth it.  Make sure and stop for some Navajo fry bread at road-side and chat up the friendly locals.  I’ve camped out in the desert here and had locals roll up in their pickup trucks to check me out.  Instead of running me off their reservation they’ve been friendly once they know I’m just after a good night’s sleep.

A young Navajo pony is curious about the white stranger in Monument Valley.

Continue north, making sure to stop and look behind you for the view from the movie Forrest Gump.  Mexican Hat on the San Juan River is a tiny town typical of this part of the country.  Stop for lunch and learn something from a local or two.  Continue up the San Juan to Bluff, another interesting little place.  There are spectacular rock art panels along the river just west of Bluff.

Pictographs: southern Utah.

A side-trip north toward Blanding, Utah takes you into the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument.  You can stop along the roadside in this area and walk cross-country, exploring randomly, and come upon ancient Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins and rock art.  It’s that rich with prehistoric treasures.  A hiking trip into Grand Gulch will take you into the heart of this amazing piece of America.  This place has become a political hot-button issue, as the Utah state government attempts to convince the current president (who is sympathetic) to undo its protective Monument status.

Bear paw petroglyph: Bear’s Ears Natl. Monument, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries set in a cliff overhang: Bear’s Ears, Utah.

Continue east on Hwy. 162 to the Four Corners area.  This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, the only place in the country where four states meet.  But let’s take a little detour to see some unique native ruins and drive an out-of-the-way little valley lined with pretty ranches and farms.  You can turn north on Hwy. 262 or the road a few miles to the east.  Or in Bluff just set your GPS to find Hovenweep National Monument.

Square Tower under winter stars, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

You’ll come to the main ruins of Hovenweep, where the visitor center and a nice campground are located.  A short loop hike takes you around Little Ruin Canyon, where the Ancient Ones built towers of the local stone.  Driving the dirt roads north from here will lead you to short hikes that visit other towers (directions at the visitor ctr.).  I recommend doing this for the strong feelings you’ll get with nobody else around.  The ghosts of a past long before this was called America haunt this lonely region of shallow sandstone canyons.

The towers of Little Ruin Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Retrace your steps back south and find Ismay Trading Post Road (ask a ranger for directions or study the map).  Take this straight east into Colorado.  It’s a beautiful way to enter the state.  You can stop and take a short hike into the public lands of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the north side of the road.  Too soon you’ll reenter the modern world at Cortez, where you can gas up and stock up.

Cortez is jumping-off point for Mesa Verde National Monument.  Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans whose ruins and rock art you’ve already been seeing, and visit their truly amazing cliff dwellings.  I recommend not stopping with seeing Cliff Palace but also doing the ranger-guided hike to Balcony House.

Rock art of the Fremont people, who came after the Ancestral Puebloans: Colorado.

Spruce Tree House on a beautiful October morning at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cortez to Santa Fe

From Cortez head south on Hwy. 491 into New Mexico. You will reach the Navajo town of Shiprock.  You are now in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, in both area and population.  Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles!  Nearby sits the “ship of the desert”, Ship Rock.  Approach it on undeveloped roads and tracks.  But remember you are not technically in the U.S. here.  It is Navajo land and you must abide by their rules.  On the plus side they are generally very chill and willing to let a person just be.

From Shiprock drive east to Farmington where you have a choice.  You can head south on Hwy. 371.  then, after about 35 miles, turn left on road 7297.  Drive a few miles on the sandy road to parking for Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness.  After hiking through this geological wonderland, continue on the unpaved roads to reach U.S. Hwy. 550.  Or you can continue east of Farmington to Hwy. 550 and head south.

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

Either way I recommend taking the turn off Hwy. 550 for Chaco Canyon.  The recognized center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, Chaco is home to a complex of dwellings, rock art and spectacular kivas (excavated places of spiritual practice).  The hike out to Penyasco Blanco ruin offers sweeping views of the canyon and passes the famous Supernova pictograph.

Continue southeast on Hwy. 550 to the oddly named town of Cuba, where a turn east on route 126 takes you up into the mountains.  The Desert SW is not all desert, especially in New Mexico’s high country.  Here you’ll find forest and grassy mountain meadows.  In some places ranches are still running cattle according to season as they have done for centuries.  In others the land has been protected to preserve its unique plants and animals.

A wind-powered pump at a ranch in remote northwestern New Mexico.

The road ends at Hwy. 4, where you’ll turn left and continue east through Valles Caldera Preserve, a lovely ancient caldera now covered with grass and pine trees.  You will finally leave forest and mountain behind when you reach Los Alamos.  Still an active research complex, this is where America developed the world’s first atomic weapon.

Continue east until you pass over the Rio Grande at Santa Clara Pueblo.  Here you can either turn south and go on into Santa Fe, or turn north on Hwy. 68.  The northern detour takes you alongside the beautiful Rio Grande River to the adobe-covered town of Taos, where you can visit the home of Jesse James on a self-guided walking tour of the charming town.  Taos Pueblo, a village adjacent to the main town, is a native community that you might consider visiting on a guided tour (click the link).

A frosty autumn morning along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico.

This leg of our loop ends in Santa Fe, a smallish city with many layers.  On the surface it might seem a little too slick with its modern adobe architecture.  But this place figures in the history of the Southwest from the very beginning and hosts a diverse population.  In North America you simply do not find places with this many layers of history.  At the least enjoy a good meal at one of its many restaurants and do a walking tour of downtown’s historic buildings.

Thanks for staying with this series.  I’m really getting a kick out of sharing some of my best road-trips through rural America.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Monument Valley at dusk.

Rural America, Part II: The Pacific Northwest   10 comments

Snowy Mt Hood catches the first rays of the sun as it presides over rural Hood River Valley, Oregon.

America is still largely a rural nation.  And not just in terms of area.  Many states lack major cities and most people still live rurally.  In states with metropolises, a well-documented trend, the return of Americans to city centers, has been going on for some time.  But another trend has continued unnoticed, and it involves far greater numbers of people.  Suburbs have expanded into more traditional rural areas, places once dominated by farming and ranching.  These so-called exurbs sit some distance from a city but are still connected to it in many ways.

While some of the exurbs resemble true suburbs and should probably be described as quasi-rural, many actually have a strong countryside feel.  They’re usually centered around small towns that retain much of their original character.  As mentioned in the last post, those living here are an important political force these days, as witness the last election.

In many exurbs it is only a matter of time before they lose any remnant rural feel.  A progressive expansion, fed in large part by retiring baby-boomers but also by steady population growth, is pushing aside America’s original rural character.  But this blog series is not about bemoaning that loss.  I prefer to celebrate what is left, which while inevitably changed from the old days, is still very much intact.

Western Oregon.

Seeing Rural America – The Pacific Northwest

Let’s start out in a part of the west that will always be special to me.  If you have read this blog for awhile, you know that Oregon is where my heart lies.  It’s a place I’ll always call home.  I was born and raised on the east coast, but I’ve lived by far most of my years there.  I’m currently living in Florida, in self-imposed exile.  But I’ll return someday.

A farmhouse sits in the Willamette Valley south of Portland.

DOWN (UP) THE WILLAMETTE

In order to see some of the prime farmland of that drew early settlers to this territory on the Oregon Trail (see the Addendum below), start in Portland and drive south up the Willamette River.  I know, south upriver sounds strange.  Avoid Interstate 5 wherever possible.  Instead take the back roads, hopping back and forth over the river using the few ferries that remain (Canby, Wheatland).  Visit Aurora, and Silverton, stretching your legs and being wowed on a hike in Silver Falls State Park near Silverton.  Continue south past Eugene, saying goodbye to the Willamette as it curves east into the Cascades.  The Cottage Grove area is famous for its covered bridges, so get hold of a map and enjoy the photo opps.!

Keep going south, making sure to stop at the Rice Hill exit off I5.  Here you should partake of Umpqua ice cream the way it should be eaten.  Delicious!  Visit the little town of Oakland just north of Roseburg, where I lived for a time.  Then divert west from Sutherlin on Fort McKay Road. to the Umpqua River.  Then wind down the river on Tyee Road.  Drive slow or better yet, do this on a bicycle!

You can keep going to the coast or return to I5 on Hwy. 138.  Another detour takes you east from Roseburg up the North Umpqua to Diamond Lake and the north end of Crater Lake.  If you’d rather stick with the rural theme and save nature for later, keep going south and visit the rather large but still charming town of Ashland, where a famous Shakespeare Festival happens every summer.

It’s difficult not to include Mount Hood, Oregon’s tallest peak, in photos of rural bliss.

THE OLYMPIC PENINSULA

Let’s not forget the great state of Washington.  One of my favorite places in the world is the Olympic Peninsula.  It can be visited on a road trip that takes in both nature and rural charm.  The towns are spaced far apart here and Olympic National Park covers much of the northern peninsula.  But lovely farms still lap the slopes of the Olympic Mountains and talkative waitresses serve pie at cafes in towns like Forks, which retain much of their timber-town flavour.  Everybody still knows everybody in these towns.

Lake Crescent (image below) is incredibly scenic and a great place for a swim.  At dusk, in certain light, you can sit lakeside and easily transport yourself back to quiet summer evenings at the lake.  I wonder when vacations stopped being full of simple pleasures like jumping off a tire swing, fried chicken on a screened porch and word games in the dark, and became all about ticking off bucket lists and posting selfies?

Even areas quite close to the metropolis of Seattle retain much of their charm.  Take the back roads directly east of the city and drop into the valley of the Snowqualmie River.  Take Hwy. 203 north or south through Carnation, site of the original dairy farm of the same name (remember?).  Generally speaking you need to travel either east or, overwater via ferry, west of Seattle and the I5 corridor in order to experience rural western Washington.

Lake Crescent on the Olympic Peninsula in very interesting dusk light.

HEADING EAST

I’d feel bad if I didn’t mention the forgotten half of the Pacific NW.  It encompasses an enormous region east of the Cascades, one that retains in many places nearly all of its rural character.  The Palouse is a perfect example.  Lying in southeastern Washington and far western Idaho, the Palouse is wheat-farming at its purest.  It is an expansive area of rolling hills, backroads and picture-perfect barns.  Despite having become very popular with landscape photographers in recent years, its size means it always feels quiet and uncrowded.  I won’t say anymore about it since I posted a mini-series on the Palouse geared toward anyone contemplating a photo-tour.  Check that out if you’re curious.

There are so many other routes to explore in the Pacific NW that will allow you to experience the unique flavour of each region.  For example a fantastic road trip, again from Portland, is to travel east over Mount Hood.  But instead of continuing to Madras, turn off busy Hwy. 26 at easy-to-miss Hwy. 216.  Drop into the high desert and visit the little burg of Tygh Valley.  Continue east to Maupin on the Deschutes River, famous for its trout fishing and whitewater rafting.  Then drive over Bakeoven Road to historic sheep central, Shaniko.  Then drop east down twisty Hwy. 218 to Fossil and on to the Painted Hills.  This tour, by the way, is popular with motorcyclists in the know.  Thanks for reading and have a fun weekend!

A patriotic barn in the Palouse of Washington state.

Addendum:  Pacific NW History

I’ve always vaguely resented the fact that the Pacific NW is divided into two states.  I think the Oregon Territory should have been left as Oregon, no Washington.  To make 50 states we could have split off northern California (plus far SW Oregon) and called it the state of Jefferson.  I know a bunch of people who would be very happy with that!

Native tribes have occupied this region for thousands and thousands of years.  In fact some of the earliest remains of paleo-indians in North America come from eastern Oregon and Washington.  Now a semi-desert, back then it was significantly wetter, with large lakes full of waterfowl, and the rocky hills bursting forth every spring with all sorts of edible plants.

White Europeans began to take an interest in the area very early on in the 1700s.  But they only visited by sea.  To the north, British fur trading companies sent parties into the Canadian part of the Pacific Northwest eco-region.  But it would not be until Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led a party of young, energetic men down the Columbia River to the Pacific Coast near what is now the little town of Astoria, Oregon in 1804 that the young country signalled its intention to make the region part of America.

Edgar Paxson’s famous painting of Lewis, Clark, Sacajawea, Charbonneau and Clark’s slave York at Three Forks.

In the mid-1800s mountain men of the west, with beaver all but trapped out in many areas, turned to guiding settlers west along the Oregon Trail.  The destination these hardy families had in mind was the rich farmland along the Willamette and other rivers of the Oregon Territory.  Some never made it all the way, instead stopping in cooler, drier areas like the Baker Valley of eastern Oregon and the Palouse, a dryland farming area in Washington.

Timber harvesting, farming and ranching have long been the mainstays of the Pacific Northwest.  If you’ve never read Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Keasey you should do so.  It is expertly written and imparts an authentic look at traditional family-based logging in Oregon.  The movie is top-notch as well.

But times have changed.  The mills are shut down in most places.  Private timber lands are still harvested but with few exceptions federal National Forests are for reasons both environmental and economic no longer being cut.  The ways in which people here make a living have largely changed from natural resource-based to a mix of technology, tourism and a variety of service jobs.

 

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

Zion_National_Park_Nov-2013_5D3_046-Edit

VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Happy Mother’s Day!   4 comments

This is the day to celebrate all the things your biggest fan has done for you.  So I have put together a short series of photos from my travels.  Pictures of my own mom remain in printed form only.  Just click on any image you are interested in to be taken to the main part of my website where purchase options are easy (just click “add image to cart” and then choose your option – download, prints, etc.).  They are not available for free download, sorry.  Please contact me if you have any questions.  Enjoy!

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana's Chobe National Park.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the hot direct sun during the hottest days of the year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

 

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

A woman in the Himalaya of Nepal is proud of her vegetable garden, and her grandson.

 

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

A family of vervet monkeys stick together in Kruger National Park, South Africa.

 

Mother's day is a great time for a new hairdo!  A Himba mom in Namibia.

Mother’s day is a great time for a new hairdo! A Himba mom in Namibia.

 

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

A white rhino mom is not about to let the stranger with the camera get anywhere near her baby.

 

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

A cheetah mom shades and protects her cub while she scans the bush for dinner in Etosha National Park, Namibia.

 

 

 

 

 

Baja California III   2 comments

Along Ensenada, Mexico's waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

Along Ensenada, Mexico’s waterfront are a number of places to eat fresh and cheap seafood (mariscos).

This post is about some of my experiences with people here in Mexico.  I love the focus on family, and the mellow attitude most Mexicans have toward rules and regulations.  There seems to be too many Americans these days who are in love with rules and regs., official and otherwise, if it allows them to act with disdain towards people they come across during the day.  This is not very true in Mexico.  And on the Baja Peninsula, which is this country’s wild west, things are pretty relaxed.

Elephant Tree in Black and White

An elephant tree grows large in the desert of interior Baja Peninsula, Mexico.

 There is a general lack of people photographs here, and I apologize for that.  If you’ve read some of my posts from other countries you know I do not have an aversion to taking photos of people.  But for me it has to be the right atmosphere.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day's last light.

The enormous granite boulders of the northern Baja Peninsula desert catch the day’s last light.

I almost never do casual people photography in the U.S., or most other developed countries.  Most people do not like it, and they are harder to approach anyway.  When it seems right, I always ask, and almost always engage the person in conversation, with some laughs thrown in.  My goal is to loosen them up.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

The northern Baja Peninsula in Mexico shows off some color after rains.

But sadly, Mexico is getting to be more and more similar to the U.S.  There is a sort of standoffish vibe here now, and it seems to get more and more prevalent with time.  Perhaps not coincidentally, I have noticed a real increase in the desire to shop and accumulate stuff in Mexico.  I think the same is happening in China, but I don’t have enough visits to that country, so as to make that observation.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

This statue of a native warrior in Ensenada, Mexico has one heck of a headdress.

But go into the rural areas of Baja, and you will meet friendly farmers, ranchers and woodcutters.  They survive on the edge, working a dry piece of land, or even living off broad stretches of land.  I’ve met a few of these folks – always men it seems.  Things are still very much traditional in rural Mexico (not just Baja).  There is a traditional division of labor between men and women, and the woman runs the house with real power.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

The Riviera, an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico, basks in golden late afternoon light.

Actually, I’m fascinated with the traditional, matriarchal senora of rural Mexico.  I’d love to do a photo essay one day.  Another great thing to do would be to take a horse or burro and travel down the length of Baja, staying well away from bigger towns and cities.  I wonder if my horse could do it?  A burro and walking would definitely work better, what with the lack of grazing.

The cactus in Baja California's desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

The cactus in Baja California’s desert take on vibrant reddish hues after a winter rainstorm.

I have stayed in Ensenada for a few days now, getting something done.  I’ve started to discover the out-of-the-way places: the little corner deli with great sandwiches, the best streetside stand for shrimp tacos, the sections where families walk, as opposed to those where streetwalkers walk.  It is pretty cool for a traveler who is normally on the move to be somewhere for awhile, to begin to get to know the place.

There is green space along Ensenada's waterfront.

There is green space along Ensenada’s waterfront.

In Mexico, it is usual for the town or city to at first appear very ugly.  Trash on the streets, a sad, polluted and concrete-lined ditch that used to be a stream flowing down to the sea, houses made of sheet metal and plywood.  But if you hang around, you start to notice how people use the place, how they make the best of things.  Eventually you start to ignore the negatives and focus on the positives.  I wish I were better at this, but I’ve always been a neither glass half-full or half-empty sort of person.  I’m really in the middle, though the really bad stuff I have a habit of completely ignoring.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico's Baja Peninsula resembles a Chrismtas ornament.

A type of gall growing on a desert plant in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula resembles a Christmas ornament.

Ensenada draws tourists.  There are a few big hotels here, and quasi-resorts line the rocky coast to the north.  Cruise ships actually call here, disgorging passengers to roam the streets where tequila and trouble await.  I’m always one to be drawn to the seedy side of town, at least for one late-night foray.  What can I say, I like living dangerously.  Last night I went out, and visited a very popular bar.  On a Tuesday night it was elbow to elbow with locals, all having a drink and listening to a mariachi band, who played with real spirit while being jostled by people weaving their way through the crowd.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

The Riviera is an architectural landmark in Ensenada, Mexico.

Then I went to a not so popular club, with maybe a dozen men sitting and watching girls dance.  I had a couple lap-sitters come my way, angling for that expensive drink, or possibly more?  After pleasantries (I want to help them learn their English after all!), I sent them gently away.  In Mexico the girls generally do not take everything off, and some even strip down to nothing less than you see on many American streets, in broad daylight.  So it seems somehow a bit classier than the typical place in the U.S. (which I haven’t visited in many years).

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California's desert.

There are numerous sculpted caves in the granite of Baja California’s desert.

It’s funny to see Mexicans all dressed up in their winter clothes, as the temperature dips to 60.  Many are women who are taking the opportunity to wear fashionable stuff, the kind that only comes in cold-weather style.   They are quite image-conscious here, slightly more so than in the U.S. I would say.  Of course this goes for the single senoritas much more so than the settled senoras.  I think men are too, but in a totally different, more subtle way.  Or maybe I pay more attention to the women.  This isn’t to criticize, just an observation.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico's Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The town of Ensenada on Mexico’s Baja Peninsula shows a nice face when the light is right.

The sun is out again, with clear blue skies after a stormy day yesterday.  So I will head out and try to get a few people pictures before posting this.  Thanks for reading!

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

The Baja California Desert in Mexico quietly bids goodbye to another day.

I didn’t get any photos of people, though I met plenty today.  But I did get this photo of the Carnival ship that is docked in the harbor right now.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico's harbor.

A Carnival cruise ship is docked in Ensenada, Mexico’s harbor.

 

The Ancient Ones V: Hopi Mesas   Leave a comment

While at Monument Valley (see previous two posts), I heard from a fellow traveler of the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona.  I was immediately intrigued.  I thought I had never heard of them, but later that evening I realized that the name rang a distant bell in my mind.  The reason for my interest at this moment was obvious to me.  This trip has had a theme that I never intended when I started out.  What had started out as a quest to photograph fall colors and wildlife has recently become a trip back in time, to those lonely mesas and canyons once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).  I found only their ghosts in the stone pueblos and cliff dwellings.  While those experiences were certainly magical, they were somehow incomplete.

View from Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona.

The Ancient Ones did not disappear of course, but migrated to the west and south.  The modern Hopi, along with other tribes, are their descendants.  I realized on that last night in Monument Valley that I very much wanted to meet living and breathing Puebloans.  And so the thought of visiting the three mesas deep within the Hopi reservation had enormous appeal.  Add to this the fact that many Hopi continue to live traditionally, and the draw for me was great enough to take the long detour south. If you follow Arizona Highway 264, you will pass, from east to west, the First, Second and Third Mesas.  There are a total of 12 villages on the Hopi reservation, all centered in this region.  Further west, you’ll find Moenkopi, a village adjacent to the much more modern Tuba City.

The village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.

I approached the Hopi Mesas from the west, camping just before reaching Third Mesa.  In the morning, I drove into the village of Old Oraibi (pronounced “Oraivi”).  Oraibi (image above) is a unique village.  Native Americans have lived there since the 1100s.  That makes it one of this continent’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.  It was certainly one of the first places that the Ancestral Puebloans settled on their migration out from the Four Corners region. Oraibi lacks electrical power, though the lines pass a mere few hundred yards from its stone houses.  Some of the houses definitely remain as they were originally built nearly a thousand years ago.  Newer roofs, windows, and the like have been added of course, a few have solar panels on them, and there are generators.   But the walls, floors, interiors, and most of the woodwork is original.  The residents keep the interiors in a tidy original form as well.  They live in close accord with the rhythms of the sun and seasons, in peace and quiet away from modern intrusions.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  They also drive trucks, have occasional domestic and community disputes, and leave for school and jobs on the outside.

The First Mesa and the village of Walpi is visible from Second Mesa.

A Hopi man from Old Oraibi shows me one of his childhood swimming holes, a deep water pocket atop Third Mesa in Arizona.

As the lone tourist I attracted some attention as I drove in.  I quickly met a young man who directed me to a table of crafts for sale.  A few men sat carving kachina dolls and working on other artwork.  After a bit of talk, I wandered off.  I felt the eyes of the inhabitants keeping watch from their small windows.  I took a picture of an old uninhabited stone building, and was immediately approached by a woman in a Suburban.  She told me in a very stern manner that taking pictures was not allowed, nor was wandering alone.  So I apologized and put my camera away. I hitched on to a young man standing in a nearby doorway.  We spoke for awhile and I got the full story.  Some tourists have in the past abused the privilege of their visit.  They had snapped pictures of dances and ceremonies without permission, traipsed across sacred ground, and even collected shrine articles.  I was told that if I was caught taking pictures, my camera would be confiscated and held for 30 days.  30 days!  Needless to say I didn’t take any more photos.

Back at the crafts table, I was invited by one of the men for a walk to view some rock art.  Some of the petroglyphs were obviously very recent, but others looked old and were similar to those I had seen in the ancient sites.  We scrambled along the edge of the mesa, and he showed me the places where they played as children.  There are waterpockets on the top of the mesa.  These are natural depressions in the sandstone where water collects during summer thunderstorms.  Some were pretty big, and he told me they had played and swam in these natural swimming pools as children.  They hold water for quite some time after storms, and form a very important source of fresh water.

It was a beautiful morning, and it was a delightful walk.  I saw subtle features that would have escaped my notice if I was alone.  He allowed me to take some pictures, since we were away from the village.  I really enjoyed the personal and casual nature of the tour.   He showed me the old church, built by Mennonite missionaries during the Spanish expansion in this area.  Lightning had struck the church twice.  On the second occasion, it was mostly destroyed and all the worshippers inside killed.  I don’t need to tell you what this signified to the villagers who were resisting conversion.  He asked only a modest amount of money for his time, which I appreciated.

After bidding the guys goodbye, I drove down and back up to Second Mesa.  At the community center/museum, I ran into some trick or treaters (it was Halloween).  I just love native American children, the smaller the cuter.  The brother and sister posed for my camera, and the photo was not the best.  I did not re-position them in the shade, nor try for a better photo.  They were on a very important mission after all, and far be it from me to interrupt it.  I picked up a hitch-hiking older Hopi gentleman on the way back west to Tuba City.  I learned some things from him about their ways.

Two Hopi children from Second Mesa in Arizona are somewhat annoyed at having their trick or treating interrupted.

A young American Indian boy in Tuba City enjoys a Halloween hot dog and Charl knows just how often kids drop their food.

For instance, the coming of age rituals do not necessarily take place at a specific age.  The boys are initiated when they are ready; they’re not forced into it.  As in the old times, they are dry land farmers who do not irrigate their crops.  Instead they depend on natural rainfall and snow melt.  Thus their springtime rain dances and rituals still hold immense importance.  The god called Maasau (sp?), the guardian of the world, is responsible for the care of all animals, things and people, including outsiders like me.  In fact, elders will often give eagle feathers to outsiders who become close friends.  Eagle feathers are worn as protection, and one will last one year before it is replaced.   A very peaceful and gentle people the Hopi are.

When I got to Tuba City, I was approached by a slightly drunken man.  At first he cursed me, but I thought nothing of it.  I have seen enough drunk native Americans to know it is definitely the liquor with them, not their nature.  He needed a ride home, which was all the way back at the Mesas (an hour’s drive).  I didn’t want to backtrack, but was thinking of relenting when he admitted he had been coughing up blood.  So I took him to the emergency room instead.

I was going to leave Tuba City but the sight of so many cute trick or treaters made me stay awhile.  Towards sunset I visited a roadside stand that some families had set up.  They were serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to all trick or treaters, plus their parents.  I tried to pay them, having no costume after all, but they refused.  A woman even cooked me up some fry bread.  So I hung about for awhile, talking with various friendly folks.  I’m not certain but I believe both Navajos and Hopis live around Tuba City.  No matter, they are equally as friendly (though they apparently do not like each other, because of land disputes primarily).

I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and spend enough time to make real friends with some of these fine people.  They are poor but very giving, and very easy to talk to.  They are quite guarded about their religious beliefs and much of their people’s history.  But I think I could eventually be invited into their (very traditional) homes, eat with them, go horseback riding.  I might even one day be lucky enough to receive an eagle feather from an elder.  I could use all the protection (from myself?) that I can get!  Headed over toward the Grand Canyon!

Free hot dogs and burgers draw a crowd on Halloween evening in Tuba City, on Reservation land in northern Arizona.

Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

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.

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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