Into the Abyss – Black Hole Drop, Caves Branch, Belize

Welcome to Belize where even the highways are nature-centric. Take, for instance, the Hummingbird Highway, one of four main paved roads in the country.


Not that Blue Hole…

St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park (not to be confused with the Great Blue Hole Marine Park, a UNESCO site way out at sea) is accessed right off the Hummingbird Highway not far from the capital, Belmopan. This is actually a two-parter park which includes a cave and a cenote, each accessed via its own distinct entrance just a short distance from each other along the Hummingbird.

A single entrance fee (US$4) gets you in to see St. Herman’s Cave, reached via a short trail through the jungle, and the Blue Hole, a small very blue cenote (roofless cave filled with water) in a park-like setting with picnic tables and changing rooms. The Blue Hole cenote is not as spectacular as the cenotes in the Yucatan in Southern Mexico, but it’s still a nice place to cool off.

The cenote which is part of St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park in Belize.

The mouth of St. Herman’s Cave, half of St. Herman’s Blue Hole National Park in Belize.


Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch

The turn off for Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge is almost directly across from the entrance to the Blue Hole. Arriving at the lodge was a surprise. Ian Anderson’s web site works hard to make the operation seem bare bones, rustic, “not for everyone.” That may be true, but the place was WAY more polished than we expected with stylish design and architecture, Wi-Fi, lovely grounds and a very pretty pool.

Gregarious owner Ian Anderson may shun the words “luxury” and “resort” but his ever-expanding lodge now encompass everything from camping to charming and spotless US$34 bunk rooms to new split-level, 800 square foot Treehouse Suites with two showers (one outdoor), wrap-around views and a full living room (private hot tubs and morning coffee service are coming) that go for US$400 a night. (If you’re going to the Garufina town of Hopkins, check out their sister properties Jaguar Reef Resort, Almond Beach Resort and Villa Verano which is an amazing full beach house with gourmet kitchen and  private pool).

Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Jungle Lodge offers, by far, the broadest spectrum of accommodation choices we’ve ever seen. Truly something for everyone and every budget and that’s how Ian likes it. He’s into mingling travelers from all spheres which is why meals are served family style, often accompanied by Ian’s storytelling.

The view from the open-air shower in one of the Treehouse Suites at Ian Anderson’s Caves Branch Adventure Co. & Jungle Lodge in Belize.


Adventure innovator

If Ian prefers to propagate his outdoorsy, rustic, rougin’ it reputation (despite increasing luxury at his lodge) at least it’s well-earned. He pioneered caving tourism two decades ago when a group of Peace Corp volunteers showed him some of the caves in the area. Ian fell in love with the terrain and saw opportunity in the fact that literally no one was offering cave tours in Belize at the time.

He also fell in love with one particular bend in the Caves Branch River–a bend that is now home to the lodge, his personal home and his adventure operation. In his spare time (chuckle) Ian also pioneered search and rescue training, procedures and operations in Belize, creating an infrastructure that’s still used country-wide.

We absolutely wanted to experience the caving (preferably without the search and rescue) so during our stay we signed up for three of Ian’s adventures. The first was ominously called Black Hole Drop (US$105 per person including transport, gear, guide and lunch).


This is why it’s called Black Hole Drop

We really did rappel way down into a black hole during the aptly named Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize. Note tiny human specs on giant sinkhole wall.


After a sweaty 30 minute hike through the jungle in the foothills of the Maya Mountains we arrived at the top of a giant cliff over the Actun Loch Tunich sinkhole. We’d arrived. Guides had gone ahead and checked ropes and rigging and they were waiting there to get us into our harnesses and helmets, ready to rappel

Karen has a fear of falling, so the longer she thinks about things like rappelling over the edge of a sheer cliff  into a space where you can’t even see the bottom 300 feet (92 meters) below, the harder it gets. So we volunteered to go first.

Karen beginning a 300 foot (92 meter) rappel during the Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize.


First rule of rappelling: “Just lean back…”

If you’ve ever done any rappelling you know that the first step is a doozy. As the guide urges you to “just lean back” into the  harness and over the abyss you struggle with the voice in your head that’s shouting DANGER at the top of its tiny little lungs. True, leaning back makes it easier to walk down the wall (which is, essentially, what rappelling is all about), counters the logical voice in your head. But it’s still easier said than done (for Karen, anyway).

Adrenaline pumping, we inched over the edge then started a leisurely descent, reaching the treetop canopy after about 200 feet (62 meters) and solid ground after about 300 feet (92  meters).

Karen mid-rappel during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize. That’s a nervous smile on her face since she hates heights. Note her death grip on the harness…

Karen mid-rappel during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop adventure in Belize.

Reaching the end of the rope (and solid ground) during the 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop rappelling adventure in Belize.


The Black Hole Drop on video.


All safely on the ground, we scarfed down a picnic, then hiked back out of the jungle–this time past a wide-mouthed cave which Ian uses as the site of a very unique honeymoon in Belize. Staff set up a suite just inside the cave which comes complete with a real bed, candles, champagne, flowers and a discreet guide to do your cooking and carrying.

Hiking back out through the foothills of he Maya Mountains after our 300 foot (92 meter) Black Hole Drop rappel.

For more adrenaline, check out the two other caving adventures we had in Belize: The River Cave Expedition and The Waterfall Cave Expedition.


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Into the Underworld – Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave, Belize

Some tours are so hyped it’s suspicious. Can they really be as good as the chatter about them claims? In the case of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize the answer is yes. Ancient Mayan ceremonies and superstitions, human remains, a virtually unpronounceable name, narrow water-filled passages and more await intrepid travelers.

It all starts out reasonably enough. After an early morning start with your tour operator in San Ignacio and a bumpy 45 minute ride you hike along a mellow, flat, scenic and mostly-shaded trail through the jungle for about 30 minutes until you reach the mouth of the cave. More precisely, you reach a rudimentary camping area at the mouth of the cave (tour companies offer an overnight trip to the cave with camping here) where you scarf down some lunch before entering the cave–a place the Mayan considered both terrifying and powerful.

The mouth of the culturally and geologically dramatic Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.


The mouth of the cave is beautiful–like a mysterious indoor/outdoor pool. The whole cave system is filled with crystal-clear water and the deepest section on the tour is right at the beginning. The only way in is to swim. Once inside it was nice to discover that the ATM cave doesn’t suffer from a gross bat guano smell.

Karen swimming into the mouth of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.


After the initial swim the water never gets much more than knee deep but the trail through the cave is wet and rocky the entire way as you slowly move deeper into what the Mayans called Xibalba, or the underworld. This is where they believed the dead went before working their way back up through various levels to reach a better place.

Xibalba was both feared and revered. Archaeologists believe that only a select few of the living Mayans ever entered caves and they did so only when necessary to perform rituals and ceremonies designed to solve problems.

The bigger the problem, the deeper they went into the underworld.

The entire route through the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize is covered in crystal clear water–from ankle-deep to many feet deep.


Mayan ceremonial sites inside the ATM cave (and other ceremonial caves) exist on natural shelves in the interior cave system. Here the Mayans built fires, burned incense and lit torches which cast shadows in the shapes of various gods (some carved out of natural stone pillars in the cave). They also brought in special ceremonial pots.

At the end of the ceremony, each pot was ruined in some way–cracked or punctured with what’s called a “kill hole” to release  its inner spirit and render the vessel useless. The deeper we traveled into the ATM the more we could relate to the feelings of power and mystery that must have lead the Mayans to believe that they could talk to their gods here.  It really was like entering another world.

A cave in created this skylight in the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize, a rare source of light in the otherwise pitch black underworld.


After about an hour of walking through the cave you reach a big boulder on the cave floor. Everyone in our group scrambled to the top of it and then hopped onto a lip in the cave wall–a journey many Mayans had made before us. The expansive area on this huge ledge is called The Cathedral and it’s an ancient offering site that’s literally littered with dramatic artifacts.

Ancient Mayan fire pits and ceremonial pottery in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.


The cave is thought to be about three miles long but you only have to travel about a mile in to reach The Cathedral area. The artifacts (and the cave environment) here are so fragile here that you have to take your shoes off and proceed with just socks on. This is, in part, because the soles of your shoes damage the cave. More important is the fact that we all pay more attention to where we’re walking when we’re barefoot and the trail through this section of the cave literally winds around the fire sites and ritually-arranged pots.

Some guides have managed to lay pitiful strips of glow in the dark tape around particularly vulnerable artifacts, but it still requires full attention to your footsteps to keep from stepping on the fragile remains of the Mayans’ ceremonies.

Ritually-arranged ceremonial pottery at a Mayan offering site inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.


The most dramatic artifacts are, of course, the human remains. Bones from 14 different bodies were discovered here including some children.

Yes, that’s a human skull. The remains of 14 bodies have been found in The Cathedral area of the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.


All of the remains belong to male victims except for the so-called Crystal Maiden (below) which is also the only intact skeleton found in The Cathedral. Nobody knows exactly how or why these people were killed inside the cave.

The “Crystal Maiden” gets her name because she’s the only female found inside The Cathedral area of Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave. Her intact skeleton has become covered in sparkling mineral deposits over the years.


Let our video, below, take you inside the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave without getting wet.



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Water, rock and time combine to create gorgeous natural formations inside Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave in Belize.

We exited Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave the same way we came in–with a swim.



Don’t forget to bring along an old pair of socks to wear in The Cathedral where you must remove your shoes.

Don’t wear just a bathing suit. Yes, you’ll be wet for the entire tour but you’ll also need to climb and scramble over rocks and through smallish spaces (nothing too tight) and up into The Cathedral area and having shorts and a t-shirt on make it more comfortable. It’s also quite possible to get cold inside the cave.

Because of the fragile nature of the cave and the Mayan artifacts it houses the Belizean government has licensed less than 30 guides to enter the cave. Most of them are working for tour companies in San Ignacio who will all bid hard for your business (we saw ATM tours for between US$60 and US$80 per person). No matter who you choose here are some crucial issues to address:

-Make sure you’re sent in with people with similar fitness levels. We got paired with a family headed by grandparents who had serious trouble balancing and making their way through the cave so our tour crawled along and lasted at least 30% longer than it should have. We were cold and frustrated by the time we emerged.

-Make sure the guide goes in with rescue gear and the tour company is fully insured. Accidents do happen.

-Ask if it’s a “cruise ship day” when the ATM cave can get to its maximum capacity.

And one last tip….

Go Now!

The ATM cave experience is all the more dramatic because these amazing artifacts are still in their original positions. However, damage is being done. A woman in our group blindly stepped on some pottery during our tour and one of the skulls in The Cathedral has a big hole in it where a visitor’s camera landed on it years ago. Local guides and others are saying it’s only a matter of time before the Belizean government closes the cave and/or moves the artifacts to a more protective museum setting.

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Pits and Parrots – Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero & Sima de las Cotorras, Chiapas, Mexico

In many ways it was very hard to leave San Cristóbal de las Casas. But in one way it was very easy: it’s all downhill from there. Between San Cristóbal de las Casas and Tuxtla Gutiérrez the well-maintained road drops 6,000 feet via the non-pay highway out of town. We didn’t touch the gas for 20 miles. Heaven.


Chiapa de Corzo & Tuxtla Gutiérrez

Our first stop, once we reached the bottom of that massive hill, was the colonial town of Chiapa de Corzo which was charming  but way too expensive for us (a festival was on so hotel prices were all jacked up). We quickly moved on to Tuxtla (no one uses the second half of this city’s name) where we found the biggest hotel values on the Journey so far.

Fuente Colonial, a brick fountain built in 1562 in Chiapa de Corzo.


Hotel San Antonio in Tuxtla has four rooms around a small back courtyard that go for 200 pesos (about US$17). Each is spotlessly clean (they have a gadget that dusts the ceiling fan blades and they use it!) with cable TV and a double bed and a private bathroom.

The courtyard is lovely and the WiFi works. For some reason the rooms upstairs are more expensive (perhaps because they’re larger) but they’re stuffy and dirty and the WiFi signal is weaker up there, so don’t get fooled. If you can get into one of the 200 peso courtyard rooms downstairs you’ve scored.

During an evening stroll around Tuxtla (not much going on) we discovered that the city’s cathedral was brutally “renovated” in the late ’80s and now holds no charm except for the hourly parade of saints out of its clock tower. We ended up at Jardin de la Marimba (Marimba Garden) where a dance festival was taking place featuring fairly aged dancers. Each surprisingly spry troop performed traditional regional dances in traditional regional costumes. Of course the troop representing Chiapas got the loudest applause.

See for yourself in our video, below.


Another Tuxtla bargain? The Zoologico Miguel Alvarez del Toro Zoo on Mondays when the zoo is free to nationals and visitors. The zoo is laid out on a sprawling, wooded, shady chunk of land just outside the city and it features a gorgeous black panther and some jaguars, a resplendent quetzal bird and a couple of sadly stuffed harpy eagles, among other things. The enclosures are decent and its a very popular place for families.


Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero

Part of the dramatic canyon that makes up Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero in Chiapas, as seen from one of the view points on the rim.


Between Tuxtla and Chiapa de Corzo is the entrance to the Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero. We opted out of the pricey and loud motor boat rides up the river at the bottom of this deep, steep canyon and chose to see its massiveness from above from a series of five miradors (view points) off a central road along the canyon’s rim.

Part of the dramatic canyon that makes up Parque Nacional Cañón del Sumidero in Chiapas, as seen from one of the view points on the rim.


The 10 mile road that connects the miradors was as close to a US-style National Park road as we’ve seen since leaving the US: narrow, winding and full of slow moving buses, passenger cars and tourist vans full of gawking travelers. The turnouts to the miradors had ample parking and paths to the canyon rim. All of the miradors except #5 had picnic tables too.


Sima de las Cotorras

The Sima de las Cortorras is 525 feet wide and 460 feet deep and full of parrots.


From there we headed to Sima de las Cotorras (Abyss of the Parrots), a massive almost perfectly round sinkhole that’s 525 feet (160 meters) wide and 460 feet (140 meters) deep. That’s amazing enough, but there’s a forest at the bottom of this sinkhole that’s home to hundreds of green parrots which fly out en masse each morning and trickle back in every afternoon.

A tame parrot amongst hundreds of wild ones at Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.


Tourist facilities around this amazing bird-filled hole in the ground were created with the help of Sendasur, the same orgnization that helped created Las Guacamayas (where the main attraction are scarlet macaws) and they’re both impressive places.

At the sima we checked into a room in the small two story stone guesthouse on the property. For 300 pesos (about US$25) we got a charming room with a great bathroom and a private furnished balcony. There are good raised-platform camping sites here too (100 pesos) that come with flush toilets and sinks (but no showers). The on-site restaurant also served great food, including some of the best hand made tortillas we’ve had in Mexico.

The pet parrot kept by the folks who run the restaurant loved the tortillas too, as Eric found out. Watch them sharing breakfast in our video, below.


Those bright green specks against the gray karst rock are parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras at dawn..

Wild parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.


A trail has been built below the rim inside the crater which takes you around the hole. A badass local guide named Nancy will lead you around or even harness you in for a rappel a bit deeper into the ground where you can see more than 40 pre-Hispanic paintings and hand prints which were somehow put on the walls more than 200 feet below the rim between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Wild parrots emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.


But the real attraction is watching the mass exodus of parrots at sunrise. Around 6 am we heard a tentative “buenos dias” outside our room and that was our cue that the birds were on the move. Sound is amplified inside the sinkhole, so the birds wings and cries sounded extra loud. They flew incredibly quickly (making photograhy and video tricky in the early morning light) as the first handful of birds grew into a crescendo of green wings.

Wild parrots taking a brief break after emerging from the Sima de las Cortorras in Chiapas, Mexico.


Like the thousands of swifts which saw emerge from the Sótano de las Golondrinas in Aquisimon, Mexico, this mega flight was amazing but brief.

Not so amazing? The nearby Aguacera Waterfall. Feel free to skip it and its 25 peso per person entrance fee.


Eric and his new friend.





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Too Much of a Good Thing – Wejlib-Já, Misol Ha and Agua Azul Waterfalls, Chiapas, Mexico

This area of Chiapas gets some of the heaviest rainfall in the whole country–120 inches in some parts of the state. Result? Lots and lots of waterfalls.

Not far from Palenque we turned down a dirt road in search of one of them. What we found was a mostly empty gravel parking lot. Now, a nearly empty parking lot is either a very bad sign (this place sucks so no one comes here) or a very good sign (this place is a hidden treasure). Cascada Wejlib-Já (a Mayan phrase for falling water) is a good example of the latter.

After paying 15 pesos (about US$1.15) each to the ejido (local community) which owns the waterfall we walked the path along the falls–which is really a series of small, wide falls. That gentleness was part of the reason the water was still clear and though there was plenty of it flowing through the falls there were still pools that were calm enough to swim and sit in–as a couple of Mexican families were happily doing.

Palapa-covered tables (but, weirdly, no chairs) had been turned into overflowing picnic spots and all that was missing was a six pack cooling in the water.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.

Cascada Wejlib-Já in Chiapas, Mexico.

Misol Ha Waterfall

The parking lot at the much-more-famous Misol Ha waterfall was packed, but we braved the crowds in order to see this 115 foot monster from a very unique perspective. Here a trail takes you from one side of the flow to the other by passing behind the waterfall itself, then going on to the other side of a huge pool that collects beneath the falls. There’s no way to stay dry. Because the water was extra high a safety rope had been put up across the pool and there were even a couple of whistle-toting lifeguards on duty making sure that swimmers stayed behind the rope, far from the dangerous cascade at the bottom of the pool.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.

And then it happened. When we turned around to see what all the sudden, frantic whistling was all about we saw that a young Japanese man had let go of the safety rope across the natural pool and was struggling to resist the pull of the water. He was no match for the flow, however, and was slowing but surely being sucked toward the lower falls.

In jumped one of the lifeguards (handily answering any questions we may have had about his ability to swim) and moments later he had the (very embarrassed) Japanese man back on dry land.

Misol Ha, where the trail takes you behind the spectacular cascade.

Check out the view from behind the spectacular Misol Ha waterfall in our video, below.

Agua Azul

About 15 minutes further down the road is Agua Azul (Blue Water), an even more famous series of waterfalls and cascades. True to Chiapas’ rainy reputation, the sky opened up and it poured for an hour as we arrived at Agua Azul so we pulled over and took a nap in the truck.

So many people visit Agua Azul that the trail from the parking lot up past the cascading pools is lined with food and souvenir sellers. During our visit the place was more like Agua Cafe, however, since the water had become so churned up and filled with silt on its way down the mountains that it looked like a foaming river of latte, not an inviting series of brilliant blue pools that appear to be melting due to the thick coating of mineral deposits draped over their edges. We guess that’s what postcards and imaginations (and the dry season) are for.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

Agua Azul is usually a series of brilliant blue pools but rainy season rain can stir up enough sediment to turn the pools temporarily brown.

See the high water at Agua Azul in action in our video, below.


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Best Campsite Ever (but the neighbors are kinda noisy) – Las Guacamayas, Chiapas, Mexico

One of the great things about traveling in Chiapas, Mexico is the chance to experience living Mayan culture but the region is also home to stunning natural beauty, great campsites and a flourishing population of endangered guacamayas (aka scarlet macaws).

A rough road to Las Nubes

The rough road that leads to Las Nubes (the clouds) in Chiapas, Mexico almost got the better of us, but we finally reached this collection of 18 wooden cabins and a nice camping area on the banks of the Santo Domingo River. The river drops here creating a series of rapids and swimming holes which are the main attraction.

When water levels are normal the water is clear and blue and you can swim in the refreshing pools. During our visit we were afraid to even approach the bank and walking across a footbridge over the churning whitewater and tumbling rapids was heart-pounding.

The Santo Domingo River as it rages through Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.

We walked past a few more seemingly-abandoned very large cabins in the jungle on our way up a trail to a dramatic overlook about 300 feet above the river–which felt like a relatively safe distance, at last.

The Santo Domingo River as it rages through Las Nubes in Chiapas, Mexico.


A wild pay off at Las Guacamayas

We didn’t stay at Las Nubes long, however. We were anxious to get to Centro Ecoturistico Las Guacamayas and check out their namesake scarlet macaws (called guacamayas in Spanish). NOTE: the road to Las Guacamayas was mostly paved and all of it was in good shape (a relief after the bone crusher out to Las Nubes), so don’t be scared off if your guide book talks about a bad dirt road.

Las Guacamayas was started by locals in the Reforma Agraria village–mostly aging original settlers and descendants of the folks from Oaxaca who were encouraged to move here by the Mexican government in 1976 as a way to populate this border area and work the land.

Our wildlife-filled campsite at Las Guacamayas in Chiapas, Mexico.

In 1991, the locals organized themselves and set up a 5.5 square mile (14.5 square km) preserve where they placed 30 scarlet macaw nests. This flamboyant relative of the parrot used to have a large range in Mexico but is currently found primarily in the southwestern region.

This preserve, on the banks of the Lacantún River abutting the vast Monte Azul Biosphere Reserve (one of the most bio-diverse areas in all of North America) has been very successful at increasing the scarlet macaw population and attracting tourists.

With the help of a group called Sendasur, a community-based organization devoted to preserving the flora and fauna in Southern Mexico and promoting sustainable tourism in the region, Las Guacamayas has expanded to include tour guides and a host of tours in the jungle and on the river, palapa roof cabins with private hot water bathrooms and a lovely open-air riverfront restaurant (the Sunday brunch buffet looked particularly good).

There’s also a wonderful grassy area very near the river that’s been set aside for camping, complete with running water and flush toilets and cold-water showers which are cleaned daily all for 30 pesos (about US$2.50) per person per night.

Just part of the flock of scarlet macaws which took over a tree next to our tent in Chiapas, Mexico.

A breakfasting scarlet macaw.

That would have been perfect enough. Then we woke up after our first night to discover that the tree next to our tent had been taken over by scarlet macaws.  They’d flown in for breakfast and up to 10 at a time were feasting in a tree literally right next to our tent. While other visitors to Las Guacamayas were out tramping through the sticky jungle trying to spot macaws we spent the entire day in our comfy camp chairs sipping coffee (and, later, cold beers) and watching the vibrant birds stuff themselves silly.

In the late afternoon a small family of howler monkeys showed up as well and decided to spend the night in another nearby tree. The following morning their dinosaur-like roars (they really should be called roaring monkeys) served as our (very early) wake up call.

Don’t miss our video, below, which gives you an up close look at the macaws and the chance to hear howlers monkeys at close range.


A male howler monkey marking his territory by howling like mad using a pouch under this chin to amplify the sound to truly creepy levels.

One creature really took us by surprise (see below). Meet megalopyge opercularis, otherwise known as the Southern flannel moth, the pussy moth or the puss moth.

This 3 in (7 cm) long dude was creeping along the riverbank and when we spotted him he quickly rolled up in a defensive ball. We know enough to never touch caterpillars or centipedes–they’re often poisonous. Little did we know that this fluffy guy is extremely poisonous, hence one of its other names: the asp caterpillar. This crazy thing eventually turns into a really glorious moth (and loses its poison).

Mother Nature is cooler than we’ll ever be.

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Water World – Lagos de Montebello & Cascadas el Chiflón, Chiapas, Mexico

Though coffee and Zapatistas might be the first things that spring to mind when you think about travel in Chiapas, this high-altitude state in southwestern Mexico also offers sophisticated city fun in San Cristóbal de las Casas, the remains of Mayan cities with unusual architectural features and plenty of great ways to get wet in the tranquil lakes of Lagos de Montebello National Park to the raging El Chiflón waterfall.


The famous pottery of Amatenango del Valle

After extending and re-extending and re-re-extending our stay in San Cristóbal (we had our reasons) we finally packed up and headed toward Comitán, passing through Amatenango del Valle which is famous for its pottery. Hand crafted animals of all shapes and sizes and colors are for sale everywhere you look in this town. We really loved the plump doves which make excellent planters by the way.

A selection of the famous pottery made in Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.

We stumbled upon a small wedding procession as we drove through Amatenango del Valle in Chiapas, Mexico.


The classic cowboy town of Comitán

Following the smorgasbord of indigenous (and foreign) cultures that make San Cristóbal so addictive, Comitán struck us as shockingly mainstream Mexican. Dudes in cowboy hats, norteño music, cattle farms, a Walmart (something the residents of San Cristóbal had successfully fought against).

Iglesia de Santo Domingo on the plaza in Comitán.

An art filled boutique hotel

Our base as we explored this so-called Frontier area (because it’s on the border with Guatemala) was the Santa Maria Parador Museo hotel, the sister property to the Parado San Juan de Dios where we stayed for a few nights in San Cristóbal.  Like its sibling, the Santa Maria has been created by art and antiques dealer Mario Uvence as a completely unique art-lovers’ paradise.

The small but powerful museum inside the small chapel at the Santa Maria Parador Museo is full of religious art.


The small simple chapel which served this 19th century hacienda has been turned into a thoroughly modern museum housing a fascinating collection of religious sculptures and paintings. The boutique hotel’s eight rooms (some of them on the tiny side), are all located in a long tile-roofed building that was a storeroom and each room is full of more art and opulent antique furniture. All open up onto a breezy communal patio that runs the length of the building. A fantastic restaurant and delicious coffee made from beans grown on-site plus a gorgeous little pool and a huge tented room decorated like a kasbah round out this unexpected gem.

The airy patio in front of the eight antique-filled rooms at Santa Maria Parador Museo.


Chinkultic Mayan archaeological site

Not far from Comitán lies the Chinkultic archaeological site where the remains of a Mayan city that dates back to 600 AD can be toured. Unlike most Mayan cities, large sections of Chinkultic were built on a hillside and ridge top not on an artificially leveled plateau. We hear the views from up there are fabulous, stretching all the way to the brilliantly-colored lakes of Lagos de Montebello (more on them in a minute).

During our visit to Chinkultic, however, all we could do was look up at bits of the ancient city poking tantalizingly through the wooded hillside as we stood stranded on the wrong side of a flood. Rain had turned the normally-docile creek that runs through the site into a wide, deep river that swept away the foot bridge.

The good news? The site’s entry fee was waved for as long as the flood persisted. We contented ourselves with the well-preserved stelae that are on display at Chinkultic–some even have some color left on them. The stelae are located out near the (oddly asymmetrical) ball court. Don’t miss them.

Because of high water, we couldn’t reach the main part of the Chinkultic archaeological site which was, oddly, built on the hillside you can see in the distance.


Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello

Parque Nacional Lagunas de Montebello was created in 1959 and its 15,000 acres and the surrounding area are punctuated with more than 50 gorgeous mountain lakes in varying shades of blue and green and blue/green. A good paved road winds through the park past a group of five lakes called Laguna de Colores because each one is a distinctly different hue.

All of the lakes in the park are visible from convenient roadside turnouts along what is one of the closest thing to a US-style National Park road we’ve seen in all of Mexico.

Just one version of the many shades of blue and green displayed in the lakes of the Laguna de Montebello region in Chiapas.


A warning though: as soon as your vehicle slows down you will be swarmed by men and boys offering to be your guide along trails to and around various lakes. If you happen to want a guide, look for 14-year-old Emmanuel. He is charming and has somehow learned how to speak very good English and if ever there was a kid who was worthy of your pesos it’s Emmanuel.

Past the lakes we parked the truck and took a short walk to see the caves and natural rock arch at Grutas San Rafael de Arcos. Ignore the Propiedad Privada (private property) sign and walk down the dirt road past a small group of houses and corn fields to get to the trail that winds through the forest. High water, again, prevented us from reaching the arch but we did get to see a group of caves with water raging through them. Pretty spectacular.

One of the inviting lakes of many colors in the Laguan de Montebello region of Chiapas, Mexico.


From there we backtracked past Lagos de Colores (where we waved goodbye to our new friend Emmanuel) and headed for Laguna Pojoj. After paying 10 pesos (about US$0.80) per person to the ejidos (local communities) that own the  lakes on this side we found ourselves amongst huge buses full of Mexican tourists hell-bent on getting onto Huck Finn style rafts and being paddled around Pojoj and deposited on a picturesque island. We fled.

Laguna Tziscao had more tour buses and more rafts plus a marimba band, which reminded us just how close to Guatemala we were. A bit further on, Laguna International is actually bisected by the border between Mexico and Guatemala and you walk across the border, enter Guatemala, then re-enter Mexico during a stroll around the lake–one of the rare visa-free crossings we’ve ever encountered.

The border between Mexico and Guatemala cuts right through Laguna International in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.

A quick trip into Guatemala…

The Lagos de Montebello area is right on the border with Guatemala and marimba players walk over the border and perform for lake visitors. Check them out in our video, below:


There were some tempting two story bungalows on the lake here, but we resisted their charms and moved on to the Cinco Lagunas area where (you guessed it) five more lakes awaited. Cobalt blue Laguna La Cañada was the most spectacular of this group with rocky spits on both sides which nearly cut it into two separate lakes.  Just begging for a kayak.


Laguna La Cañada in the Lagos de Montebello region of Chiapas.


High water at Cascadas El Chiflón

The next day (after more of the terrific coffee at Santa Maria) we headed to Cascadas El Chiflón for water of an entirely different nature. Where the lakes had been tranquil and relaxing Chiflón was raging in high water, beyond control, totally out of its banks due to the recent heavy rains.

Dramatically high water at Cascadas El Chiflón in Chiapas, Mexico.


And still, the trails and picnic tables and cabins and a few camp sites around the falls were busy with Mexican holiday makers. We put on our Crocs and grabbed a plastic bag for Eric’s camera (and our own picnic supplies) and walked up the trail toward the action.

Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls) is a nearly 400 foot monster at Cascadas el Chiflón in Chiapas.


The area’s namesake waterfall, Chiflón  (which means big whistle), is near the bottom of the trail. The real star, however, is Cascada Velo de Novia (Bridal Veil Falls), a nearly 400 foot monster at the top of the trail. With high water raging, this waterfall is more like a waterwall and Eric got soaked getting pictures and video for you–the spray alone was like a heavy rain.


Wet and hungry, we grabbed a picnic table back down at the bottom of the trail and made sandwiches while secretly wishing that one of the Mexican families grilling up beef and onions would take pity on us.


Tenem Puente Mayan archaeological site

Before leaving the region we also made a stop at Tenem Puente archaeological site. The remains of this Mayan city, possibly inhabited as late as 1200-1500 AD, are now grassy and inviting. Built along a series of slopes and hills, the site is more multi-level than most Mayan cities. It also boasts some wicked-long walls and sets of stairs.

Tenem Puente archaeological site in Chiapas, Mexico.

This wall of stairs at Tenem Puente archaeological site was more than 200 yards long.


Note: We’d read that the Tenem Puente site was free but we were asked to pay 31 pesos each. We paid, but when we got a less-than-official receipt (always ask for a receipt or ticket stub) we smelled a rat. Turns out, the site is now legitimately 31 pesos per person as confirmed by INAH, the Mexican branch of government which oversees archaeological sites.





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Flower Wars: Is Your V-Day Bouquet Destroying the Jungles of Belize?

The dense and protected jungles of Belize are many shades of green. To the untrained eye the verdant tones run together in a blur of lushness—one plant virtually indistinguishable from its neighbor. But the growing number of Guatemalan slipping into the under-patrolled border regions of Belize see things differently.

They’re interested in just two specific shades of green—the deep jade of the fronds produced by the fishtail xaté palm and the green, green color of cash—and they’re leaving cleared land, poached animals, frightened scientists, threatened tourists, pot farms and really, really pissed off environmentalists in their wake.

Why should you care?

Because one of the main buyers of xaté are big floral companies like the one you’re probably buying a Valentine’s Day bouquet from right about now (it’s estimated that 40% of flowers sold all year are sold for Valentine’s Day).


What is xaté, who buys it and why?

There are three species of Xatémora/Chamaedorea plants found in Central America. The one at the center of this story is the fishtail xaté (pronounced “sha-tay”), which produces a pretty frond that is prized in flower arrangements because it makes great cheap filler (like a green version of baby’s breath) which last up to 45 days after being cut.

The main buyers of xaté are international floral companies (mainly in the US and Holland) and the Catholic  Church which buys up the stuff for Palm Sunday services.

Where is xaté found and who supplies it?

There used to be plenty of wild xaté in the jungles of Guatemala (especially in the Peten region) but it’s been cut to near extinction in that country so now the xaté-rich protected forests just over the border in Belize, where palms grow dense and wild, are effectively the sole hunting grounds.

Virtually no one farms xaté.  However, as it gets harder and harder to find in the wild some Belizeans and Guatemalans are talking about establishing xaté “plantations” (something environmentalists have been pushing for) but no substantial progress on this front has been made.

Where is this happening?

Xaté is being heavily harvested from within the Chiquibul National Park, the largest park in Belize at more than 400 square miles (nearly 5% of the landmass of the entire country). Located in western Belize, the park (and the adjacent Chiquibul Forest Reserve) and its extensive and remote border with Guatemala is currently patrolled by just seven (some say six) rangers. Needless to say, you don’t have to be Jason Bourne to sneak across. You hardly have to sneak at all.

Is this a new problem?

No, but it appears to be getting worse. Illegal xaté collection by Guatemalans is believed to have been taking place since the 1970s. In the past decade, Belizean environmentalists say, the scale and scope of what was once a small problem has gotten steadily and dramatically worse. In the 1980s it was believed that xatéros (xaté harvesters) were impacting around 250 acres. Today it is estimated that hundreds of Guatemalan xatéros are in Belize impacting thousands of acres.

According to Flora and Fauna International, more than 400 million stems of xaté were harvested and sent to the US and Europe in 2007.

Xatéros apprehended with illegally harvested xaté near the Bladen Nature Reserve in Belize in March 2010 (photo courtesy of Ya'axche Conservation Trust).

Get the full story about the arrest of the xatéros pictured above from the Ya’axche Conservation Trust

What’s in it for the Guatemalans?

A xatéro makes an average of US$5 a day (a lot by Guatemalan standards) and they are mostly—but not exclusively—male. The people who pack the cut xaté, however, are almost exclusively female. Some say up to 100,000 women (mostly Guatemalan) earn their living as xaté packers or (more rarely) harvesters.

The emerging issue is that these xatéros are not just crossing over the border illegally and stealing a few plants before returning home. Belizean environmental groups, including Friends for Conservation and Development which manages the Chiquibul area, and Programme for Belize warn that xatéros have now cleared hundreds of acres of protected Belizean land and some have put up dwellings and started small farms in those clearings.

Inhabitants of these perma-camps are also believed to be poaching wildlife for food and for sale, logging, trapping endangered scarlet macaws for the pet trade (best estimates say there are only 100 mating pairs of these Technicolor birds left in Belize) and possibly growing marijuana in the park.

Though Chiquibul is ground zero (Friends for Conservation and Development representatives believe that 8,000 acres have been lost in the Chiquibul National Park alone), other protected areas being affected by Guatemalan border crossing xatéros include the Vaca Forest Reserve, Caracol Archaeological Reserve (where looting is also believed to be taking place) and the Columbia River Forest Reserve.

What does  this mean for conservation efforts in Belize?

Apart from the wear and tear on the land caused by Guatemalan squatters, encounters and clashes with the xatéros have begun to scare scientists, researchers and conservationists out of many areas of Belize. In 2004, for example, a group of researchers abandoned their work with the showy and enormous Harpy Eagle in Chiquibul National Park after tensions rose with the xatéros and after one researcher had more than US$10,000 in camera equipment stolen.

Because the areas in questions are so grossly under-patrolled, some environmental groups (like Programme for Belize)—already strapped for funds and resources—are stretching themselves even thinner to try and take up some of the policing slack.

What does this mean for travelers to Belize?

The Chiquibul Park incorporates portions of the Chiquibul Cave System which is the longest known cave system in Central America which, in turn, includes the largest known underground passages and cave chamber in the Western Hemisphere.  Belize would obviously like to encourage more sustainable tourism to the cave areas (tourism is Belize’s number one income generator—trailed distantly by sugar and bananas), but the volatile situation with xatéros in the region is making that difficult and even impossible.

Already-touristed areas are also suffering the effects of the xatéros. After a group of tourists was allegedly robbed at gunpoint by Guatemalan xatéros in the Caracol Archaeological Reserve a few years ago (there are also allegations that a tourist was sexually assaulted) the government now sends soldiers along as escorts with all visitors to the area. We can attest that this is still going on since we had to travel as part of a convoy when we visited Caracol last month.

What can you do?

By all means go for some flowers to make your someone special feel extra-special, but we urge you to build a better bouquet by asking your flower arrangement provider to leave out the plam frond filler.

Oh, and if you’re  an editor you can give us a big old Valentine by commissioning a piece about xaté harvesting. We’ve been researching (and pitching) the idea for almost a year now and we’re currently in Belize and Guatemala where we (and our contacts) are ready to complete final reporting and shooting for you.



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You Know You Want It: MORE Antarctica Photos

This post is part 2 of 3 in the series Antarctica

Because penguins are adorable and no one believes we were THIS close to killer whales or that icebergs get to be the size of skyscrapers we’re putting up even more of Eric’s photos from our recent Antarctic adventure aboard the MV Antarctic Dream. To learn more about travel to Antarctica, check out the feature we did for the Dallas Morning News including tips for making the most of your trip to Antarctica and our feature for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about all of the onboard adventures you’ll have.

Now, we turn it over to Mother Nature (you’re welcome).

The beauty of Antarctica.

The crazy blues created by icebergs in Antarctic water.

An excursion away from the M/V Antarctic Dream in small zodiacs to get closer to wildlife and icebergs.

Gentoo penguins are impossibly charming.

Gentoo penguins with our home for 11 days, the M/V Antarctic Dream, in the background.

Gentoo penguins in Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions on an Antarctic adventure.

It was tempting to travel through this arch created as wind eroded away an iceberg but that’s strictly forbidden since icebergs can capsize at any moment.

Antarctica, land of the midnight sun.

A killer whale (orca) welcoming party.

The crabeater seals were curious but cautious.

It’s clear how chinstrap penguins got their name.

Gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy, one of the land excurstions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins at Port Lockroy, one of the land excurstions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins were busy collecting small stones to construct their nests with when we were in Antarctica.

It was tempting to travel through this arch created as wind eroded away an iceberg but that’s strictly forbidden since icebergs can capsize at any moment.

A change in the weather had us traveling through surface ice that was clearly beginning to re-form.

Colder temperatures created conditions that made us glad our M/V Antarctic Dream ship was built as an ice-breaker with a reinforced hull.

This is what passes for flirting as gentoo penguins woo their partners so they can do what they came here to do…

…which they are not shy about at all.

Gentoo penguins are the cutest waddlers in the world.

Iceberg art in Antarctica.

Navigation charts keeping us on course and away from the bergs in Antarctica.


Check out the first post from our Antarctica adventure for more photos and stories.




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The White Continent or Bust – Antrctica

This post is part 1 of 3 in the series Antarctica

We know it’s been a few weeks since we’ve put up any new blog posts but we’ve got a good reason: we were in Antarctica!

No, we didn’t drive there. LAN Airlines got us to Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) and back and from there we sailed along the Antarctic peninsula for 11 days on the MV Antarctic Dream. Our thanks to both companies.

Our home for 11 days: the M/V Antarctic Dream


Followers of our Journey know that we’ve been anticipating our Antarctic adventure since August and the planet’s most remote continent totally lived up the hype and our expectations.

And that’s not even a BIG iceberg by Antarctic standards.


For one thing, penguins are even cuter than you think and we saw thousands of them–mainly gentoo and chinstraps.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.

Gentoo penguins near Port Lockroy, one of the shore excursions during an Antarctic adventure.


We also got a rare and exciting sighting of a lone emperor penguin (the four foot tall stars of March of the Penguins) on an iceberg far, far from its usual home.

A lost and lonely emperor penguin adrift on an iceberg.


The icebergs themselves (which can reach more than 10 miles in length) were stars of the trip as well. They came in intricate wind-swept shapes, impossible blue colors and the ice is ultra-clear–like glass. We know because Karen braved the frigid water and reached in to retrieve a small chunk to enjoy in our on-board cocktails that evening.

Literally the tip of the iceberg in Antarctica.

Icebergs as art in Antarctica.


We did NOT put our hands in the water during a zodiac excursion during which our inflatable boat was surrounded by a pod of seven killer whales. We also sighted minke whales on a couple of occasions and crabeater seals and Weddell seals also made appearances.

Our zodiacs were surrounded by pod of killer whales during one shore excursion in Antarctica.

Our zodiacs were surrounded by pod of killer whales during one shore excursion in Antarctica.

That killer whale dorsal fin is at least three feet tall and its heading straight for our shipmates.


There were also many human highlights on the ship including “Ernie Shack, Adventure Addict”, the captain’s wife, the crazy defense attorney from New York who brought along her Snoopy Snowcone maker, el capitan guapo, The Glen (who went skinny dipping one day and performed a necessarily brief yet impressive re-enactment of the loping way penguins swim), our fearless leader Pablo and, of course, Maxi. Oh, and Jacques Cousteau’s granddaughter Céline Cousteau was on the ship with a film crew working on a series of TV show about the waters around Chile.

Our shipmate The Glen (who has a tattoo of the Antarctic continent on his back) went skinny dipping in the frigid Antarctic waters off Deception Island just like…

…the penguins.

To learn more about travel to Antarctica, check out the feature we did for the Dallas Morning News including tips for making the most of your trip to Antarctica and our feature for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune about all of the onboard adventures you’ll have.


All travelers to Antarctica are required to have a medical evacuation insurance policy just in case something awful happens out there in the middle of nowhere. On Call International has covered us on our Trans-Americas Journey for more than a year now so we didn’t have to worry about arranging coverage (or dealing with a catastrophe). Because we were already covered we could focus on just being excited about this trip of a lifetime.

We weren’t taking any chances with the notoriously rough waters of the Drake Passage where the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans crash up against each other so we went the prescription route and used a Scopolamine patch. But we also armed ourselves with homeopathic remedies including a pair of Sea Bands. These simple, cheap, reusable devices–picture an old-school wrist sweatband like McEnroe used to wear with a plastic ball embedded in one side–stave off nausea caused by motion sickness (or morning sickness) by applying pressure to a specific point in your wrist. The combo worked and we made it through the passage without getting seasick.

We’re pretty sure nothing could stave off seasickness among the passengers on a different ship, the Clelia II, which sailed just a few weeks after our Antarctic trip. However, the Clelia II broke down in the Drake Passage and got tossed around by 40′ waves for a day or two. The ship is back in port now and everyone on board is fine but this report and dramatic video shows how rough it was for passengers and crew on the stranded ship.


Our route from Ushuaia, Argentina at the bottom of South America, across the Drake Passage and on to the Antarctic Peninsula.


Check out our follow-up Antarctica post to see many more photos.




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Wet, Wild and Woo Hoo – Riviera Maya, Mexico

It’s true. Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula is full of white sand beaches and true blue Caribbean water. But the jungle in the area is also dotted with an unknown number of cenotes which offer gorgeous ways to get wet and cool off without waves, sand or salt.

Cenotes are basically sinkholes. In the Yucatán Peninsula they’re usually caves that have become flooded causing the roof to collapse which exposes an almost perfectly circular opening to the sky above giving people and animals easy access to the water below.


The water level of some cenotes is at ground level,while others, like this one, require a climb down to reach their refreshing freshwater pools.

 Mayan swimming pools

And what water! Cenotes aren’t just filled with fresh water, they’re filled with rain water that’s filtered through the surrounding limestone. The result is water so clear it seems impossible. Yes, you can see clearly all the way to the bottom of a cenote (except for the ones that are 500 feet deep), but you can also see anything swimming in the water (people, fish, turtles) with amazing (and kinda spooky) clarity.

No wonder the Mayans consider cenotes sacred.

We consider cenotes a great way to cool off and we jumped into them as often as possible. Drive any road in the Yucatán Peninsula and you’re likely to see hand painted signs with the names of cenotes on them along with a crude arrow pointing the way to it. For a few pesos the property owner will allow you take a swim. Some cenotes have been built up with ladders and snorkeling gear rental and others have been left pretty much the way they were found. They’re all refreshing and gorgeous.

Check out our underwater video pieced together from a number of great dips in various cenotes, caverns and underwater rivers.

Scuba diving in a cenote

Because cenotes are not fully enclosed like intact caves are, scuba diving in a cenote is considered less extreme and less dangerous than cave diving. After scuba diving in Dos Ojos (Two Eyes) cenote with Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park, we’re here to tell you that’s it’s still one wild experience.

As we’ve said, the water in a cenote is hyper-clear–so clear that when you’re SCUBA diving in it it sometimes looks like air, not water. It’s also very dark once you swim back into the chambers of a cenote, past the point where the collapsed roof lets in light. And a little claustrophobic.

And then there are the areas where sea water is seeping into the cenote and mixing with the freshwater, causing something called a halocline. Imagine swimming through absolutely perfectly clear water one second, then everything around you leaps out of focus in a swirl as if some unseen hand just smeared Vaseline all over your diving mask. Then, just as quickly as you entered the halocline, you swim out of it back into crystal clear water and the world, thankfully, jerks back into focus. It’s absolutely disorienting and kinda fun.

Karen enjoying the Sky Cycle through the jungle at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park.


Another way to play in cenotes is at the numerous adventure parks in the Yucatán Peninsula. We were impressed with the serious fun at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park when we went diving with them in Dos Ojos. Then we learned that this park, one of the very first in the area, has not one but two rides found nowhere else in the world.

That’s easy to do when your founder and current co-owner is not just a world-class cave diver/adrenaline lover but a pretty badass (self-taught) engineer as well. Gordon “Buddy” Quattlebaum’s first invention for his Hidden Worlds park is a thing called a Sky Cycle. It’s essentially a modified bike that runs along a robust wire like that used for zip lines. You sit on the seat and lean back, recumbent style, then pedal your way above and through the jungle.

Eric’s view from the seat of his Sky Cycle through the jungle at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park.

Karen pedaling her Sky Cycle into a cave-like overhang at Hidden Worlds Cenotes Park.


The other ride that’s exclusive to Hidden Worlds is a creation Buddy calls the Avatar, claiming it’s the world’s first roller coaster zip line. Lucky (?) for us, Buddy was debuting the Avatar at  Hidden Worlds the day we were there and we got to take part in some “test rides.”

Once harnessed in we were attached to the ride a standing position–just as if we were about to take a traditional zip line ride. Unlike traditional zip lines, however, the Avatar runs on a rigid rail like the ones that rollercoasters run on. This rigidity gave Buddy and his team the ability to bend and curve the rail incorporating steep drops, swift climbs, vertebrae-jarring hairpin turns and other features normally associated with a roller coaster.

It’s a quick ride but a dramatic one and it culminates by dropping riders through a dark tunnel into the  mouth of a cenote where you descend at full speed through a winding, dark route for roughly 50 feet before splashing down into the water.

Our slide shows, below, demonstrate just what the heck the Avatar is all about. The first one shows a random Hidden Worlds guest. The second slide show is of Karen who, by the way, hates roller coasters. Suffice to say it’s a good thing there’s no sound with this…

This enormous multi-hued bad boy on display at Xel-Ha was definitely a supermodel among iguanas.


Occupying the other end of the Yucatán Peninsula nature park spectrum is Xel-Ha. Xel-Ha, and her sister parks Xcaret and Xplor, dominate the scene with relentless advertising–not unlike a Yucatan version of Disneyland. The approach works.  Xel-Ha alone averages 2,000 visitors (vs a  couple hundred at Hidden Worlds) every day.

Luckily, Xel-Ha also has some impressive eco-initiatives in place to reduce the impact of all of those visitors. You will never be given a paper bag. Or a straw. Or a map. Or a plastic water or soda bottle at Xel-Ha. Map billboards dots the vast property, soda and water are dispensed from big machines in to bio-degradable recycled-paper cups and straws simply aren’t allowed. Or necessary. Still, the park generates 4,000 pounds of trash a day which is recycled or composted.

A massive nursery on the park’s property grows a range of indigenous plants which are used to keep the park grounds lush and are also donated to area villages where park employees live. We were also happy to see a permanent policy of offering all residents of Quintana Roo 50% off admission to the park.

The quality of the snorkeling gear for guest use was also surprisingly high. Ditto for the food. The only disappointment was the lack of fish in the water. We snorkeled and snorkeled in the cenote-fed waterways of Xel-Ha but failed to find much life at all. Still, we had a really relaxing day at Xel-Ha (the hammocks! the beer!) and we were glad that we’d been advised to come early. Between the buffet and the snorkeling and the bike trails and the inner tube float we were there from opening to closing.

No matter which cenote you jump into skip the sunscreen and the insect repellent. Even the bio-degradable versions leave an ugly and toxic slick on the top of the water over time.

Xel-Ha, where a massive network of natural water features have been tamed just enough to let thousands of people a day enjoy them.


Our Crocs. Yes, they’re the ugliest shoes on earth. But they’re the perfect sturdy, non-slip, lightweight footwear for getting into and out of cenotes and for exploring the area’s watery adventure parks.




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