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Wild Animal Encounters

Spotting critters is a big goal and a definite highlight of our Trans-Americas Journey and we’ve had some amazing wild animal encounters as we’ve traveled through The Americas. Back in 2010 we put together a list of our top wild animal encounters to that point which included grizzlies in Alaska, scarlet macaws in Mexico and (almost wild) jaguars in Belize. On the eve of Earth Day we thought it was high time we updated that list to include the whale sharks, resplendent quetzal birds, hammerheads, turtles and so much more that we’ve seen since.

Red eyed Tree frog Costa Rica

One of many red-eyed tree frogs that stared us down in Costa Rica.

See more of this adorable little guy and his other rainforest friends in our post from Rainforest Adventures in Costa Rica.

School of Hammerhead sharks

We were surrounded by hammerheads (and loved it) while scuba diving around Cocos Island in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of the Undersea Hunter Group.

Hammerheads were just the beginning of our underwater wild animal encounters. Get the full sharky story in our Cocos Island post.

Quetzal at Chelemha Cloud Forest Lodge

This male quetzal emerged from its nest inside a hollow tree trunk and posed for us on a nearby branch in the Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Learn how you can visit this wonderful protected forest and lodge and bag your own quetzal sighting in our post from Chelemhá Cloud Forest Reserve in Guatemala.

Gentoo Penguins Port Lockroy Antarcica

Gentoo penguins proved they are even more adorable in person when we visited Antarctica.

We also sighted killer whales, chin strap penguins and crabeater seals in Antarctica. See them all in our photo-filled posts from Antarctica.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Small snorkeler with massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico where we also got in the water with these giants. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

More whale shark details, including how to make sure sea sickness doesn’t ruin your encounter, are in our post about snorkeling with whale sharks near Cancun.

A herd of buffalo literally roamed through our campground in Badlands National Park.

Find out which campground and more in our Badlands National Park post.

Baby sea turtles El Salvador

We held life in the palms of our hands when we helped release baby olive ridley turtles near Barra de Santiago in El Salvador.

Watch these hatchlings scramble to the sea in our post from Barra de Santiago, El Slavador.

Black bear and cub Yellowstone National Park

A black bear and her cub explored downed trees in Yellowstone National Park.

See more bears and learn about the park’s wolf population too in our Yellowstone National Park post.

Hummingbirds - Giatemala

Hungry hummingbirds barely noticed we were there on a porch in Guatemala.

More amazing shots of these tiny stunners are in our photo essay of hummingbirds from Guatemala.

This young wolf seemed as curious about us as we were about it when our paths crossed on the Gunflint Trail in Minnesota.

See more in our Minnesota North Shore photo gallery. Read more in our Minnesota North Shore travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Harris Hawk Chucky - El Salvador Falconry

We had a wild animal encounter of a totally different kind when guide Roy Beers of Cadejo Adventures took us falconing with his Harris hawk, Chucky, in El Salvador.

Find out why hiking with a bird of prey is way cooler than normal hiking in our post about falconing in El Salvador.

A moose and her calf appeared around a bend during a hike in Grand Teton National Park.

See more in our Grand Teton National Park photo gallery.

We spent nearly an hour watching this female grizzly and her cub feast on blueberries in Denali National Park.

See more in our Denali National Park photo galleries – part 1, part 2, and part 3. Read more in our Denali National Park travel journals part 1, part 2 and part 3.

Muskox roamed the tundra on the North Slope in Alaska where we spotted them from a helicopter.

See more in our Deadhorse, Alaska photo gallery. Read more in our Deadhorse, Alaska travel journal.

This arctic fox already had its winter white coat on so it was easy to spot in the tundra of Alaska’s North Slope.

See more in our Dalton Highway photo gallery. Read more in our Dalton Highway travel journals part 1 and part 2.

Gray whales put on an impressive show for us in Baja.

We wandered among millions of migrating monarch butterflies near Valle de Bravo in Mexico.

See more from this epic annual migration in our monarch butterfly migration post.

Crocodiles of all sizes lazed near our boat as we traveled to La Tovara Springs in San Blas, Nayarit, Mexico.

See more in our San Blas, Mexico post.

Thousands of flamingos went about their strange pink business as we floated through the Rio Lagartos Biosphere Reserve in Mexico’s Yucatan State.

There are plenty more flamingo antics in our Rio Lagartos post.

We failed to find the whale sharks we were looking for during some scuba diving trips in Belize but a pod of bottlenose dolphins found us.

Learn more about our search for whale sharks in our post from Hopkins, Belize.

This spider monkey was just hanging out near Chan Chich Lodge in Gallon Jug, Belize.

See more in our post from Northern Belize.

A keel-billed toucan stayed put long enough for us to capture its impossibly long beak at La Milpa Field Station in Belize.

More toucans (and pygmy owls and laughing falcons and many other species) can be seen in our post about the birds of Belize.

Jaguar belize

Full disclosure: Tikatoo is not a wild jaguar but she is the closest we’ve come so far to seeing this elusive big cat in the jungle.

For more beauty shots of Tikatoo at her rescue home at Banana Bank Lodge check out our post from Belmopan, Belize.

A clan of howler monkeys befriended us while we camped at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico.

Learn how you can have your own howler encounter in our full Las Guacamayas post.

Wild scarlet macaws gorged themselves in a tree above our tent at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas.

Want your own face time with macaws? Check out our full Las Guacamayas post.

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One Million Eyeballs!

We can hardly believe it but we just reached 500,000 views of the 202 travel videos we’ve shot, edited and uploaded to our Trans-Americas Journey YouTube channel. That’s one million eyeballs!

As you know, Eric is a photographer, not a videographer, but in the summer of 2008 he was sent a Flip Video camera (now defunct) and started shooting an occasional video or two.

These days Eric shoots video using our GoPro camera and the video function on his compact Canon S95. Basically, we wanted to be able to enhance our travel blog posts with video since so much of what we do and see and eat and survive is best explained in moving pictures.

While none of our videos have gone viral (could use your help with that), we’re quite pleased that these videos have been viewed more than half a million times. Though Eric still does not consider himself a videographer even he admits that his videos have gotten better over time (the earliest videos were pretty rough around the edges). At least now he’s figured out the basics of Adobe Premiere to edit his footage into what he hopes are more watchable and entertaining little packages with graphics and everything.

To celebrate the unexpected success of our travel videos, here’s some of our favorite and notable footage.

 

Our most watched travel video is also a personal favorite (you can’t beat pint-sized dancing cowboys):

This video has been watched more than 49,000 times. It was shot in May of 2009 when we were invited to the annual fiestas in a town in Mexico called Union de Tula. Wandering from neighborhood party to neighborhood party we came upon the La Loma neighborhood, got handed an adult beverage and sat down to enjoy this little kid putting us all to shame on the dance floor.

 

The first travel video we ever uploaded to YouTube:

Nearly four years ago, on April 25, 2009, we were on Lake Chapala, near Guadalajara in Mexico with our dearly missed friends Tom, Iliana, Cristina and David. We were all enjoying the Red Bull Air Force, Red Bull’s world famous aerial acrobatics team as they did some awesome aerial ballet over the lake. Eric filmed a bunch of clips and uploaded some of those unedited clips that very night.

 

The first travel video we ever shot:

Shortly after receiving our first Flip Video camera we were traveling through the Southwest of the US and received a coveted permit to hike “The Wave” in the North Coyotte Buttes area of the Paria Canyon Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness area in Arizona. On October 28, 2008 Eric shot this “Walk through the Wave”. Sadly that first Flip Video camera didn’t have any kind of image stabilization and walking with the camera lead to a very shaky video. That said, it still conveys the awesomeness of that spectacular location and it’s been viewed more than 23,000 times.

 

Obligatory funny animal video:

No teasing ‘talking’ dogs with bacon or cat videos videos here. While Eric hasn’t videoed many animals (he’s usually too busy talking photos of them), in Northern Belize we came across this male ocellated turkey strutting his stuff. Really, still photos can’t do justice to this over-the-top display.

 

Another personal favorite:

This one is called Beetle Ballet and it has nothing to do with insects. Mexico’s famous silver mining town of Taxco is a Colonial classic built in the hills. In  addition to silver, it’s famous for wonderful architecture and some of the narrowest, steepest streets in the world. When we were there in September of 2010 it was also one of the few remaining towns in Mexico that still used old VW Beetles as taxis. This video shows how crazy these streets are, even for little cars like the VW Beetle. As you watch, imagine the shenanigans we went through to navigate our full-size truck through this town.

 

Our most recent travel video:

The most recent video we’ve uploaded comes from our great experience at this years Carnival in  Las Tablas, Panama. On Tuesday, the final evening of Carnival, the ladies dress up in the beautiful and very expensive national dress of Panama. It’s called a pollera and this video shows Polleras on Parade in the towns of La Villa de Los Santos, Santo Domingo and Las Tablas.

 

Our deepest travel video:

This video was shot during one of the coolest things we’ve ever done: riding a submersible down to 1,000 feet below the surface of the ocean while we were exploring Cocos Island in Costa Rica.

 

Famous folks caught on film:

We had press credentials which got us into Mexico City’s Zocalo (main square) for the gigantic bicentennial celebrations in 2010. Not only were we directly beneath President Calderone as he shouted the traditional “Grito, we were also beneath several other Mexican icons who were sharing the balconies of the Presidential Palace during the speech including one of Mexico’s most legendary singers, Vincente Fernandez, lucha libre wrestling star Santo Jr. and the (then) newly crowned Miss Universe, Mexico’s Ximena Navarrete.

 

Why time-lapse is our friend:

We’ve used time-lapse a bit–for example, to produce videos shot with our GoPro camera mounted in the windshield of our truck to show you our driving route each month by compressing all of our  driving into a 10 minute video that shows you Where We’ve Been. This video from the Panama Canal uses time-lapse to take you from the Atlantic to the Pacific through all six of the amazingly simple yet sublime locks of this engineering marvel.

 

Subscribe to our YouTube channel  and never miss another one of our travel videos from the road as our Trans-Americas Journey continues south to Tierra del Fuego.

 

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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Best Adventures & Activities

This post is part 2 of 4 in the series Best of 2012

Welcome to Part 1 in our Best Of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 series of posts. Part 1 is all about the Best Adventures & Activities from the past year on the road including SCUBA diving with hammerhead sharks in Costa Rica and perfecting the art of doing nothing on a (nearly) deserted beach in Panama. Part 2 covers the Best Food & Beverages of 2012 and Part 3 covers the Best Hotels of the year.

Yes, end of year round-ups can be lame. On the other hand, they can also be a valuable chance for us to look back on the year that was and remember just how damn lucky we are. Done right, an end of year round-up can also be a quick and easy way for you to get the best tips, tricks and truths that made our Trans-Americas Journey travels so special in 2012. Maybe, just maybe, you’ll hit the road yourself in 2013 (or 2014, no pressure).

First, a few relevant stats:

In 2012 the Trans-Americas Journey…

…thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama

…drove 8,349 miles

…spent $2,608 on fuel

…made seven overland border crossings

We did manage to spend some time outside of our truck doing and seeing exciting things. In no particular order, here are the…

Best adventures & activities of 2012

Best adventure of the year: SCUBA diving with dozens of sharks including scalloped hammerheads, tiger sharks, reef sharks and all kinds of rays with Undersea Hunter off Cocos Island in Costa  Rica. Find out more about this adventure and what it feels like to be 100 feet (33 meters) underwater surrounded by sharks in the Cocos Island feature we did for the Sunday travel section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

SCUBA diving with Hammerhead sharks - Cocos Island

A hammerhead making a quick underwater u-turn as it spots Eric clinging to a rock while diving in the waters around Cocos Island, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Roesch de Bedout.

Best extreme tubing: There’s a reason they give you a life vest, helmet and elbow guards when you go tubing with Blue River Resort & Hot Springs at the base of Rincon de la Vieja Volcano in the Guanacaste region of Costa Rica. This trip down the Rio Azul (which really is an incredible shade of blue) is no lazy float. Best to think of it as white water rafting without the raft.

Best (nearly) deserted beach bumming: Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region of Panama (below) will take your breath away with truly golden sand (and not the icky sticky kind), Caribbean blue water, shockingly powerful waves, chairs and hammocks and just a handful of visitors. Add in the recently opened Playa Bluff Lodge directly opposite the beach with US$1.50 icy cold Panama beers, a restaurant and even stylish rooms (US$95 including breakfast) and it’s really, really hard to leave. Totally worth the 5.5 mile (9 km) bike or taxi ride from Bocas town.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

Best all-around rafting trip: The Pacuare River in Costa Rica is a glorious combination of peaceful floats (ample time to appreciate the densely-jungled riverbanks and steep hillsides) punctuated with plenty of white-knuckle moments over exciting stretches of white water. Book your Pacuare River rafting trip with RiosTropicales and your time off the river is just as spectacular thanks to an amazingly rustic yet comfy river lodge they’ve built for their guests.

Best adventure we never thought we’d have: While SCUBA diving with sharks around Cocos Island we got an unexpected bonus with the chance to dive to 300 feet below the surface of the ocean in Undersea Hunter’s DeepSee submersible. You know how they say it’s another world down there? They’re right.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

Best perseverance-pays-off animal encounter: We’ve been trying to see whale sharks for years and either our timing is all wrong for spotting these seasonal giants or our timing is right but our luck sucks, as was the case when we spent three days diving at the right time in the right place in Belize but we still didn’t see a single whale shark. This is why we returned to Mexico for three days in 2012 just to try to see whale sharks. And it worked. Not only did we finally get in the water with whales sharks we snorkeled around with more than 100 of the giants as they cruised by feeding on plankton with their VW-Beetle-swallowing mouths agape.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Best swimming hole: Ojo de Agua on Ometepe Island in Lake Nicaragua where two bucks gets you access to chairs, tables, benches, hammocks and sun or shade (you choose) around roomy, crystal clear, refreshingly cold, spring-fed pools. The bottoms have been left natural but the sides have been built up in stone and concrete to create depth. There’s even a rope swing and a few enterprising vendors selling snacks and cold beer.

Best adventure activity we’d never heard of: Topless Sport Fishing in Costa Rica. And, no, we didn’t do it.

Find out which one of these adventures made the 25 Epic Adventures by Travel Bloggers in 2012 list as compiled by TravelingCanuck.com.

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In the Water with Whale Sharks – Cancun, Mexico

We’ve been trying to get in the water with whale sharks for years. Our most recent attempt in Belize earned us a fabulous underwater dolphin adventure, but exactly zero whale sharks. This is surprising since whales sharks, as their name would imply, are some of the largest creatures in the sea. They’re members of the shark family and the “whale” part of their name comes from their size. They’ve been measured at 45 feet (14 meters) long and more than 46,000 pounds (21,000 kilos), though scientists believe these filter feeders (they only eat tiny krill and the occasional small fish) can get much, much bigger.

Whale sharks: nomadic giants in the world’s largest swimming pool

The problem is that, despite their size, whale sharks are shy and they’re seasonal, only showing up in certain places at certain times of the year when their tiny food source is plentiful. However, every year between June and August hundreds show up in the waters around Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox near Cancun, Mexico. Isla Mujeres even hosts an annual Whale Shark Festival. In May nearby Isla Holbox also hosts an extended whale shark festival. 

We left Cancun and traveled to a spot in the ocean pretty much between these two islands, high hopes in tow.

Whales sharks: worth throwing up for

A handful of tour operators in Cancun have licenses to take small groups of snorkelers out to the open ocean where whale sharks congregate during certain period, drawn to high concentrations of food in the warm Caribbean water. We went as guests of Solo Buceo

After a choppy, seasickness-inducing, one and a half hour boat ride we arrived at the feeding grounds. How did we know? The surface of the water was cross-crossed and broken by hundreds of fins. They call this “the boil” and, if you squinted, it really did look like the water was boiling. Every once in a while the massive oval that is a whale shark’s mouth would break the surface of the water. Their gaping maws were big enough to take in a compact car. Or a snorkeler.

Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Small snorkeler with massive whale shark in the waters between Isla Mujeres and Isla Holbox off Cancun in Mexico. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

We pushed that last thought out of our minds as we scrambled to get our masks and fins on so we could jump into the water. Once in the water it hit us: we were surrounded by hungry animals the size of buses and we were in their watery world. Our captain, Anselmo, estimated there were nearly 200 whale sharks in the vicinity. Being among them was everything we’d dreamed it would be, and plenty more.  

Whale sharks: even bigger in person

Despite having imagined being face to face with a whale shark many times the reality proved more shocking than we anticipated. A few expletives were shouted through our snorkels until we got used to being sandwiched  between two of these massive creatures as they cruised along near the surface with their five-foot-wide mouths open, filtering food in a kind of grazing frenzy.

They didn’t seem to mind our presence, but they also didn’t make many concessions to us. Intent on feeding, they swam wherever the food was. If a snorkeler was also there, well then he or she should really watch out.  Many whale sharks came close enough for us to feel the swoosh of their meter-long tails as they passed. 

Get a feel for it in our video below and do not miss seeing Eric get totally blind-sided by a whale shark at one minute and 22 seconds into this footage.

 

Adding to the adrenaline was the fact that there was only about 20 feet (six meters) of visibility in the water which was all clouded up with the krill the whale sharks had come to gorge on. Many times a whale shark would be rising silently through the murky water below us and we would have no idea it was there until it was practically right under us.

Whale sharks: controversial contact

Swimming with Whale Sharks Cancun, Mexico

It’s a good thing whale sharks are filter feeders. Photo courtesy of Solo Buceo.

As whale shark tours gain in popularity, conservationists worry about potential harmful side effects of so much contact with so many humans and their boats. During our own encounter with whale sharks the water was often uncomfortably full of snorkelers. By the time we left the area at least 20 boats had amassed in a very small area and the human and boat traffic was changing the behavior of the whales sharks which dispersed into looser and looser groups as the crowd thickened.

The effect of humans and boats on whale sharks is being studied in places like the island of Utila in Honduras where we visited the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center and learned a lot. The lecture was fun and free and there were even with bar specials.  

Even more controversial is the practice of hand feeding small shrimp to whale sharks to make them rise to the surface where tourists can see them more easily. Boat captains have been doing that in the Philippines since the 1980s but the baiting of whale sharks was outlawed in August of 2012 after biologists raised concerns that the hand feeding was turning the whale sharks into dependent beggars.  

 

TIPS

The ride out to “the boil” and sitting around parked on the surface of the water are both choppy experiences and some of the people on our boat became so seasick they couldn’t snorkel. Take medication if this is a problem for you. And book the earliest boat possible since the sea is generally calmer in the morning.

Read more about our snorkeling adventure with whale sharks in our piece for TravelandEscape.ca, the website for Canada’s travel channel.

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Catching Up With One That Got Away – Los Tuxtlas, Veracruz, Mexico

During the course of our Trans-Americas Journey road trip we spent 18 months driving in Mexico, covering nearly 25,000 miles and telling you all about it in more than 250 posts about travel in Mexico. And yet some parts of the country eluded even us, including the Los Tuxtlas region of southern Veracruz state. With its witches and waterfalls, this region is one that got away.

When we attempted to visit the Los Tuxtlas area Mother Nature got in the way in the form of devastating floods which created water so high that the army stopped our truck and sent us right back to Veracruz City. We consoled ourselves by watching Veracruz’s soccer team, the Tiburones (Spanish for Sharks), lose to the team from Cancun while drinking enormous cups of beer and going slightly deaf.

So we were thrilled when we were invited to attend the recent Adventure Travel Mexico (ATMEX) conference in Veracruz (put on by the Adventure Travel Trade Association) and take part in a pre-conference trip through the Los Tuxtlas region of the state. This time for sure!

A tour van is like kryptonite to us

As fans of our little road trip know, we’re all about independent adventure travel. We’re used to having the freedom of our own vehicle with just the two of us inside it so we can go where we want when we want. We can count the number of times we’ve been on a guided, group trip on half a hand. We haven’t been on a tour bus in years. We consider three people a crowd.

Our trip through Los Tuxtlas was being hosted by a local tour operator called Totonal. It involved a tour bus, multiple guides and 10 other people. We braced ourselves. Happily, the van, the guides and even all those other people turned out to be terrific–outdone only by the satisfaction of finally getting to see some of the Los Tuxtlas area.

Lazing on Sontecomapan Lagoon

Even when the Los Tuxtas region isn’t experiencing destructive and deadly flooding the area is still wet, wet, wet with hundreds of miles of rivers and streams plus sprawling lakes and coastline.

One of the main watery attractions is Sontecomapan Lagoon which dumps into the Gulf of Mexico. The presence of fresh and salt water attracts birds and marine life that like both. Turtles nest on area beaches while freshwater birds and fish thrive in the lagoon.

Sunset  Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

A lone fisherman on Sontecompan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Nestled on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon is Los Amigos, a collection of dorm rooms and private stand-alone cabins for couples or families, all with lake views and hammocks (from 210 pesos/US$18 per person and all rates include full breakfast).

The only way to reach Los Amigos is by boat (US$45 round trip for the whole boat) which gave us a chance to check out the mangroves and bird life on the lake before pulling up to the Los Amigos dock where managers Valentina and Antonio greeted us with a refreshing mixture of coconut water and lychee juice garnished with a slice of star fruit, all from their land.

Los Amigos Hotel Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

Los Amigos, an eco haven with rooms and terrific food on the shores of Sontecomapan Lagoon in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Back in the late ’80s Valentina’s father, Don Juan Vega, had an early-adopter epiphany when he decided that he wanted to have the most beautiful ranch in the area and realized that the clear-cutting he was doing in order to create cattle pastures was not getting him any closer to his goal. So he started re-foresting his land with native trees and plants.Tens of thousands of them have been planted on his hilly hunk of land.

Today, the forested slopes show very few signs of their previous incarnation as denuded grazing land. Today it truly is a beautiful ranch. While many of Don Juan’s neighbors still graze cattle, more and more ranches are re-foresting. This, coupled with the fact that much of the Los Tuxtlas area is set aside as the Biósfera Los Tuxtlas, is very, very good news for the local flora and fauna.

Fisherman boat Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

Sontecomapan Lagoon is full of freshwater fish but because it spills into the Gulf of Mexico salt water fishing is also possible.

A kayaking tour of the lake had been planned after we arrived at Los Amigos, but the siren song of the hammock on the porch of our private, simple, comfortable cabin with a view got the better of us and we didn’t emerge until it was time for dinner. The food at Los Amigos is worth leaving your hammock for. Ingredients, mostly grown on their permaculture farm, are lovingly turned into delicious reasonably-priced dishes in an open air kitchen.

The next morning, after freshly brewed coffee, we took a boat tour of the lake spotting kingfishers, Caracaras, parakeets, parrots and a cuckoo before returning for breakfast featuring farm fresh eggs and hand made tortillas. Then it was back on the tour bus…

Beach Laguna Sontecomapan - Veracruz, Mexico

This beach stretches out along the Gulf of Mexico near where Sontecomapan Lagoon spills into it.

Sand Dollars Gulf of Mexico Veracruz, Mexico

Area beaches were full of sand dollars.

 

Our own private waterfalls

All that water gets into Sontecomapan Lagoon somehow–often by tumbling down a mountain. A loose network of community tourism projects, a specialty of Totonal, has been set up to provide food, accommodation and access to some spectacular waterfalls that you’ll have all to yourself.

El Salto de Eyipantla waterfall - San Andres Tuxla, Veracruz Mexico

This is El Slato de Eyipantla waterfall outside of San Andrés Tuxtla, a bustling warm up for the deserted waterfalls we were about to visit.

Near the village of Miguel Hidalgo a local family welcomed us with fortifying homemade sopes (extra-thick tortillas topped with sauce and cheese and beans) and then we hit the trail to Cascada Cola de Caballo (Horse Tail Waterfall). An easy, well-defined trail took us past two fantastic swimming holes, but they were just appetizers.

Sopes, Mexico

Delicious homemade sopes.

Cola de Caballo waterfall - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz mexico

Horse Tail Waterfall lives up to its name.

After 10 minutes of walking the trail delivered us to the base of the waterfall itself. The long, thin, straight waterfall lived up to its name. A rocky perch provides a good diving point into the deep pool below the falls and a natural smooth rock slide connects the upper pool with a calmer swimming hole below. 

After a cool dip in the crystal clear water we went into the village of Miguel Hidalgo for lunch at a community tourism project that includes six surprisingly well-appointed rooms (electricity, private bathrooms) and a basic outdoor kitchen that turned out a fabulous meal which included bean soup spiked with fennel, terrific hand made tortillas and succulent chicken cooked in banana leaves. Fully fed, we hit the trail (briefly) again, this time to check out Apompal crater lake.

El Apompal crater lake tour - Miguel Hidalgo, Veracruz Mexico

A local guide explaining the wonders of the jungle, like that crazy vine, during a short hike near the village of Miguel Hidalgo in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Even more impressive than the lake, which locals claim rarely changes its water level, is the amazingly well-constructed and well-placed bird watching tower nearby. We climbed the stairs (no swaying!) and immediately spotted toucans. 

In the village of Benito Juarez another eco-tourism project, the lakeside Cabinas y Cascadas Encantada, was the starting point of a well-made trail past five waterfalls (about 1.5 hours for the loop). The view of Lake Catemaco from the open air restaurant was only topped by the view from most of the cabins further up the hillside (150 pesos per person all with private cold water bathroom). The best room in the house is #9 which has corner windows and a particularly good vantage point on the lake.

Cascada Arcoiris - Benito Juarez Veracruz

Cascada Arco Iris near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Another waterfall you'll have to yourself near Benito Juarez. Someone cleverly cut foot holds in the tree trunk in the pool to create an easy jumping off point.

Waterfall - Benito Juarez, Veracruz, Mexico

Yet another private waterfall near Benito Juarez in Veracruz state, Mexico.

 

Island of the (creepy) macaques in Lake Catemaco

Water is also a major attraction in Catemaco, a small city that’s popular with Mexican travelers which means it feels festive and hasn’t become entirely tourist priced yet.

Catemeco church plaza veracruz, Mexico

The church and main plaza in Catemaco, Veracruz.

Catemaco is anchored by Lake Catemaco which is dotted with green islands. If the lake looks slightly familiar to you that’s because many movies (including parts of Apocalypto and Medicine Man) have been shot on and around the lake, many of them on the lakeside property of Reserva Ecológica Nanciyaga.

 Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Lake Catemaco which has been used as a set during filming of two movies you've probably seen.

Most of the islands in Lake Catemaco are gorgeous and lush and peaceful as you slip past them in small boats. However, we found the lake’s famous Monkey Island a bit creepy. The tiny island is inhabited by a band of macaque monkeys which were allegedly left there by a research facility in the 1970s. As we drifted past the fat, mottled monkeys our imaginations ran wild trying to figure out exactly what sort of terrible lab experiment had befallen them. Shiver.

Monkey Island -  Lake Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

We were creeped out by the macaques that are marooned on Monkey Island in Lake Catemaco.

Boat Lake Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

Just one of the festive boats waiting to take you on a tour of Lake Catemaco.

 

Witch hunting

Luckily, Catemaco has other attractions. Like witches! Over the years, the town has become famous for its brujos, a Spanish word that means witch. Every March the town hosts a “witch festival.” But the word brujo also means “alternative healer” and that’s a much more apt (though less sexy) definition of the brujos of Catemaco who are more likely to be leading purification ceremonies than riding broomsticks.

Brujo witch Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Catemaco is famous for its brujos--a Spanish word that means witch or alternative healer--and they milk it for all it's worth.

Brujo witch store Catemaco - Veracruz, Mexico

Virtually every market in Mexico has at least one stall selling lotions and potions that claim to do everything from attract love and money to repel back luck and loud mouths. Catemaco, famous for its "witches" and alternative healers, is certainly no exception.

We rubbed shoulders with some of those alternative healers while taking part in a traditional temazcal ceremony behind the Playa Azul hotel. Marisol, owner of Totonal, is well-versed in local traditions and she defines temazcal as “a steam bath with chants and herbal cleanses that make us come back to life symbolically. The way in which the temazcal room is built and its profound meaning recreate the mother womb. It is a place for reconciliation and interacting with the elements of the earth.”

Our temazcal, which is a type of sweat lodge which dates back to pre-hispanic times, started with a massage during which volcanic mud was applied to our skin then aloe was worked into our hair. Next, we assembled in a small round area like a tiny ampitheater where members of a local family, brujos all, chanted, sang and purified each of us with smoke and bundles of herbs.

Grandma was particularly fastidious about the purification process, visibly willing toxins and bad energy out of each body she focused on. Sadly, her purifications were taking quite a while so another family member grabbed some herbs and took up the slack, including our purifications. We can’t help but feel we’d be just a bit purer if we’d gotten Grandma…

Following our purification we were fit to enter the sacred temazcal structure. Picture an igloo made of adobe with an area in the middle for red-hot rocks and you’ve pretty much got it. Though temazcal structures are traditionally small and low, sometimes requiring participants to sit or lie on the dirt floor, this one was roomy enough to stand up in and stumps had been arranged in a circle for us to sit on.

Before entering the temazcal structure we kneeled at the entrance and asked Mother Earth for permission to go inside. As we all took a seat on a stump as the last of the 40 or so red-hot rocks were carefully added to a pile in the center.  We were instructed to greet and thank each rock. Finally, a heavy blanket was lowered over the door followed by a wood slab to keep light out and heat in.

In the pitch black, steamy space another member of the brujo family sang more songs, lead us in introspective sharings of what we hoped to gain from the temezcal experience and periodically said the magic word: Puerta! Over the course of the next hour or so our brujo guide called out puerta (Spanish for door) four times, each time symbolizing an element. The rush of light and cool air as the door was momentarily opened was a relief but also an intrusion as the “real” world rushed in too.

After the temazcal was concluded we marched our muddy, sweaty selves a short distance and bobbed under the stars in the warm water of Lake Catemaco until we were clean. 

We’ve experienced a temezcal before but this one was much more nuanced and involved and it made us curious to experience an even more authentic temazcal if we ever get the chance.

 

Little known fact about Veracruz: La Bamba, the song made famous by Ritchie Vallens, is based on a folk song written in Veracruz in the 17th century. For more bombs about La Bamba, check out the song sleuthing done by Scott Valor of the surf site Burning Pier who was on this trip through Los Tuxtlas with us. 

High speed La Bamba - Catemalco, Veracruz, Mexico

A band called Son Jorachos belting out a super-fast version of La Bamba, which, we learned is based on a folks song written in Veracruz in the 17th century.

Our thanks, again, to Totonal Tour Company owner Marisol Herrara who helmed our Los Tuxtlas expedition with knowledge, passion, flexibility and flair. Think of her as the anti-guided tour guide.

This was our third pass through Veracruz state and there are still a few things we have yet to  see including the Olmec ruins at Tres Zapotes and the beautiful pueblo magico town of Tlacotalpan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ah, Mexico. Just when you think you’re out she pulls you right back in…

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The Majestic, Mighty, Magical Ceiba

We spend a lot of time getting excited about the wild animals we see during our Trans-Americas Journey but there have also been some pretty spectacular trees along the way including Sequoias in California and ancient Bristlecone Pines. In Central America, it’s all about the ceiba (pronounced say bah) and we fell in love with this magestic, mighty and possibly magical tree.

Giant Ceiba at Tikal, Guatemala

This stately example of a ceiba tree greets visitors to the Tikal archaeological site in Guatemala.

Ceiba Tree

A mature ceiba tree.

 

A ceiba is usually the tallest tree in the jungle and can grow to more than 200 feet (70 meters) tall. The trunks are branchless and very straight, making them a favored tree for canoe making. A large ceiba trunk can yield a canoe large enough to hold 40 men.

All of a cebia’s branches are at the very top of the tree where  they radiate out like the ribs of an umbrella. The whole massive thing is held upright by wide buttresses at it’s base.

The ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala where it’s actually illegal to cut one down. This explains why its so common to see one giant ceiba looming large in the middle of an otherwise cleared field full of crops or cows.

 

The ceiba starts off its life with spikes that look a bit like shark’s teeth covering its trunk. As the tree matures, the spikes disappear.

Young Ceiba tree spikes

A young ceiba tree--it loses these spikes as it matures.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

These twin ceiba trees are at the Caracol archaeological site in Belize.

Cieba El Mirador National Park

Karen dwarfed by a ceiba tree at the La Florida archaeological site near El Mirador in Guatemala.

 

 

Though the ceiba is the national tree of Guatemala it’s found in Mexico and throughout Central America.

Ceibas are also known as cotton trees, named for the fluffy white stuff that comes out of pods which grow on the tree. The fluff used to be used to fill pillows and mattresses. One species of ceiba is also commonly called a kaypok tree

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

Buttressed above-ground supports like these help keep massive ceiba trees upright, even when they grow to 200' or more.

Ceiba tree at  Hacienda Uayamon, Mexico

This ceiba tree is as old and stately as its home, the historic Hacienda Uayamon hotel in Mexico.

The ancient Mayans believed the ceiba was the Tree of Life connecting heaven, the terrestial realm in which we live and the underworld (Xibalba). If you look at the tree’s shape it’s easy to see why: long straight trunk (terrestrial realm) capped with branches reaching for the heavens and secured to terra firms with an intricate network of roots headed for the underworld.

Rainforest canopy observation platform built high up in a ceiba at Belize Lodge Excursions

A small observation platform suspended 100' up a ceiba tree at Jungle Camp lodge (operated by Belize Lodge & Excursions) provides one of the best bird watching and rainforest observation points in all of Belize.

In 1963 President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba in front of the Foreign Ministry building in San Jose, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down in 2008 after it became unstable and threatened to fall on the building.

Giant ceiba tree in Costa Rica

This giant ceiba at the Shawandha Lodge on Costa Rica's Carribbean coast is over 205 feet (63 meters) tall and is believed to be the second tallest ceiba in all of Costa Rica.

Ceiba tree painted on a school in Belize

A ceiba tree painted on a the side of a school in southern Belize.

Bathroom built around Ceiba tree at Hacienda San Jose, Mexico

A ceiba tree continues to grow in the middle of the bathroom in one of the rooms at Hacienda San Jose hotel in Mexico.

Cotton tree (Ceiba) Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize

Cotton Tree Chocolate in Punta Gorda, Belize borrows another common name for the ceiba which produces pods that are full of a cotton-like fluff.

 

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