Amazing 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. This updated list now includes whale sharks, resplendent quetzal birds, hammerhead sharks, turtles, and so much more.

Our most amazing wildlife encounters (so far)

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 rain forest 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 and posed for us 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

A small snorkeler with a 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 we tried falconry in El Salvador.

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

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 Milpa Field Station in 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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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2012 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 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 Top Travel Adventures 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 we thoroughly explored Nicaragua, Costa Rica and northern Panama driving 8,349 miles (13,436 km), spending $2,608 on fuel, and making 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…

Top Travel Adventures in 2012

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 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 travel feature we did for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Adventure river tubing Blue River Resort and Hot Springs, Costa Rica

Tubing down the Rio Azul in Costa Rica.

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.

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro

Playa Bluff on Isla Colon in the Bocas del Toro region in Panama.

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 Playa Bluff Hotel 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.

White Water rafting Rio Pacuare River costa Rica

Enjoying the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica.

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.

DeepSee submarine under the surface - Cocos Island

On our way down to 300 feet / 90 meters below the surface in the DeepSee near Cocos Island in Costa Rica.

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.

Swimming with Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Snorkeling with whale sharks in Mexico.

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.

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.

Here’s more about travel in Costa Rica

Here’s more about travel in Panama

Here’s more about travel in Nicaragua

Here’s more about travel in Mexico


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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. Then we tried again in Cancun, Mexico.

Whale Sharks Isla Mujeres, Mexico

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

Whale sharks: hard to spot

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

Another fact that makes whale sharks hard to spot is that they 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 criss-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.

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. That’s when 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 1:22 into the 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.  

Whale shark travel tip

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 or use a Sea-Band or similar product if this is a problem for you. And book the earliest boat possible since the sea is generally calmer in the morning.

Here’s more about travel in Mexico


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

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. Until now.

Sunset Laguna Sontecomapan, Veracruz Mexico

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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, cara caras, 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 likely 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.

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/US$8 per person all with private cold water bathrooms). 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 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.

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 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.

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.

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.

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

Here’s more about travel in Mexico


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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 majestic, mighty, and possibly magical tree. Here are a few of our favorites.

Twin Ceiba trees at Caracol Mayan ruins

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

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.

Buttress supporting a giant Ceiba

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

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.

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

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 terrestrial 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.

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.

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.

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.


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Hotel Review: Live Aqua Resort & Spa in Cancun, Mexico

I’m barely over the shock of seeing not one but two white Rolls Royces parked in front of Live Aqua Resort & Spa  in Cancun when an employee, dressed in oddly medical-looking uniform consisting of white capris and a white tunic, guides me into a plush chair in the resort’s enormous lobby and begins giving me a hand massage. A hand massage.

Can this be Cancun? Yes, but a fresh Live Aqua take on Cancun where, despite its size (371 rooms and suites all with ocean view and private balcony), nurturing, personalized touches more commonly associated with a boutique hotel abound.  

The resort has a clean, Miami-hip look and feel (Paris Hilton has stayed here) with sharp angles, Spartan furnishings and liberal use of bright whites and earth tones to complement the famously blue Caribbean which is almost always visible. 

At turn down, a small sand Zen garden is left in your room and your choice from five custom-blended aromatherapy oils is activated in a charming ceramic burner. Not chill enough? Attentive staff will bring in a small gurgling water feature (aka, a table-top fountain) if you ask. 

The resort also has eight wonderful pools in varrying shades of blue that, from your balcony, appear to cascade their way into the even more intensely blue Caribbean. A couple of times each day a small flock of trained scarlet macaws circled over the pools to deliver messages (often marriage proposals) from one guest to another. 

Dinner at the resort’s flagship Restaurant MB was one of the best international gourmet meals I had in all of the18 months I spent traveling around Mexico. The tuna carpaccio was rich and fresh, the diver scallops were creamy and sweet, the veal chop was tender and the martinis were perfectly prepared. 

The breakfast buffet at Siete restaurant didn’t disappoint either with amazing home-cured smoked salmon, a vast array of Mexican breakfast favorites (from chilaquiles to cochinita pibil) along with US and European breakfast standards made to order, a wonderful freshly-baked bread selection and fruit galore. 

And now Live Aqua Resort & Spa is all-inclusive, or “Cancun Limitless” as they like to call their program which includes your room, all meals, all beverages (except super-top-shelf alcohol), most activities, mini bar, Wi-Fi, daytime use of tennis courts, use of the extremely well-appointed health club and daily yoga and Tai Chi classes. 

Treatments at the resort’s Aqua Spa are not included in rates, however, they’re completely worth the splurge. Allow 45 minutes to indulge in a free guided circuit through the spa’s sauna, steam room and hot and cool plunge pools before your treatment begins—assuming you can make a choice from the spa’s list of head-to-toe indulgences using ingredients and techniques from around the world like Moroccan argan tree fruit.

Rates from US$225 double occupancy, all-inclusive plus a US$50 spa voucher 

Live Aqua Resort & Spa 
Boulevard Kukulcan Km 12.5 
Cancun 77500 Mexico 
Phone: (888) 782-9722 

Our review of this resort was originally published by iTraveliShop

Here’s more about travel in Mexico


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