Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel
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When I travel, I am always drawn to the children because of their exuberant joy. Children live in a world of possibilities. They haven’t yet been told they “can’t” and don’t understand the concept of impossibility. They walk and run through the world in wonderment, absorbing everything, questioning, imagining.

Long ago, someone told me that I still had that same childlike curiosity and advised me never to lose it. I almost did. Years of working in a traditional job, denying my true path, gradually but inexorably sucked the joy out of my life. Fortunately, I escaped in time, deserting the world of business for the life of a travel writer and photographer. Now I wake every morning, eager to share my photos and travel stories about the places I visit and the people I meet. My insatiable curiosity ensures that there will always be another interesting cultural destination I long to explore, another culture immersion experience waiting in the wings. And on the rare occasion when I am irritated or unhappy, I need only to look to the children to recapture my joy.

To really experience the culture of a place when I travel, I try to interact with locals as much as possible, especially the kids. On a Zacatecas hilltop, the girl on the right followed me around for hours, whispering my name and tugging on my pants leg

I met many such children on my travels through Mexico. Usually I instigate the interaction, which is sometimes just a shared smile. Others times we engage in long conversations, the kids telling me Read More

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Ah, Mexico! How little I knew of your beauty and culture before I traveled your roads for four months. Having camped in the back of my truck on windswept Baja beaches, enjoyed dinner in a cave in Tijuana, seen my first and only “green flash” as the sun set over the Pacific in Puerta Vallarta, and luxuriated in a hillside cabana with its own private pool-for-two in Acapulco, I had experienced more of you than most Americans. But I had only just scratched the surface. I knew nothing of your stunning colonial cities, jungle-draped ruins, sacrosanct cenotes, and fascinating history. Never before had I swam alongside whale sharks, descended into the deepest canyon in North America, or been invited to a Semana Santa celebration with Tarahumara Indians. By the time I was halfway through my trip, I was hooked.

Yet, I met few other travelers from the U.S. I knew many had been scared away by over-inflated media reports proclaiming the danger of traveling in Mexico; still, I was puzzled by the absolute dearth of my fellow countrymen. I had run into a few expats in Cabo San Lucas and still more in San Miguel de Allende, but in the more remote places – the most alluring places – not an American was to be found. It finally clicked for me when I got to the Yucatan, where U.S. tourists were so prevalent that I no longer found it necessary to speak Spanish 24/7. By and large, Americans vacation in Mexican resort areas like Cancun, which the Mexican government spent millions to create and promote, and ignore the rest of this vast, beautiful country. It hurts my head to think about all they are missing.

Yet, there is a change afoot. I am excited. Mexico has just announced a new tourism campaign, “Rutas de Mexico” – Routes of Mexico. They previewed the new video at a press conference last week in New York City and I learned about it through fellow travel blogger and Read More

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Having spent the last half-hour fighting nausea brought on by curvy mountain roads, when my tour van finally pulled into the parking lot at Misol-Ha Waterfall I briefly considered dropping to my knees and kissing the hot, motionless asphalt. I might have done just that had the tour guide not insisted we hurry, since this would be only a 40 minute stop. Instead, I gulped fresh air and headed down the hill to view this lovely ponytail stream that falls over a rock lip into a circular pool at the bottom of a gorge.

Walk behind Misol Ha Waterfall and up to a wet cave on the other side of the gorge

Descending the concrete stairs I carefully picked my way over slick rounded boulders littering the path to walk under the cascade. Beyond the cataract the path climbed to a cave on the opposite ridge. Up I went, grasping naked tree branches and ducking under rocky overhangs along the unimproved trail. Anything for a good photo. Afterward, hurrying back over the treacherous wet path, I groused silently, “I hope the lighting at the next waterfall is better.”

Back in the van we wound deeper into the mountains. From hilltops scalded by sunshine we descended into dense jungle tunnels that all but blocked the sun. As I squinted and blinked, trying to adjust my eyes to the alternating light and dark, I suddenly smelled smoke. With each passing mile the scent grew stronger, until we rounded a long curve that opened out on a broad valley pocked with gray columns slowly rumbling skyward. Everywhere, the rainforest was being set aflame to clear farmland. Here and there, blackened patches littered with Read More

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The narrow mountain road carved a slithering path through impenetrable jungle that threatened to devour it. Even the view through the tour bus windshield provided no relief; the asphalt ribbon stretched into the distance until it too was swallowed by the green swath. With every curve my old malady, motion sickness, was kicking up, threatening to make me hurl. I put my head down and closed my eyes, attempting to block out the incessant greenness rushing past my peripheral vision. Breathing deeply, I concentrated on not throwing up. Mercifully, the bus suddenly slowed. I looked up just in time to glimpse a crudely hand-lettered sign at the edge of a clearing where a few ramshackle buildings had staked a claim. “You are in Zapatista territory,” it announced.

Sign at the entrance to a Zapatista contolled ejido reads: "Northern Zone. Good Government. Trafficking in weapons, planting and consumption of drugs, alcoholic beverages, and illegal sale of timber are strictly prohibited. We say NO to the destruction of nature. You are in Zapatista rebel territory. Here the people command and the government obeys."

A memory bubble lurched up. Back in the mid-90′s I had considered loading up my truck and traveling through Mexico but had decided against it because of the armed conflict between the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN) and the Mexican government. On January 1, 1994 an estimated 3,000 Zapatista insurgents, based in the southernmost State of Chiapas and comprised mostly of indigenous peoples of Mayan ancestry, took up arms in response to Mexico’s signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which they believed would further widen the gap between rich and poor people. They seized a number of towns and cities and freed prisoners from the jail in San Cristobal de las Casas, demanding governmental autonomy and more control over and remuneration from the vast stores of natural resources extracted from the State.

A bloody battle between the Zapatistas and government troops raged for 12 days before a ceasefire was brokered. As quickly as they had emerged, the Zapatistas melted back into into the jungle, choosing to eschew future violence in favor of disseminating their message via newspapers and the Internet. Although there were occasional skirmishes following the ceasefire, for the most part the fighting ended and the government pursued a policy of negotiation, to the point that they did not intervene when ELZN declared the establishment of 32 autonomous municipalities in Chiapas in 2001.

Now, 16 years later, I was finally making the pilgrimage I had put on hold due to the Zapatista rebellion. The further south I traveled the more I heard about Chiapas. Time and again during my four-month trip Mexicans I had met along the way extolled its beauty, insisting, “You must go!” Their passion was understandable. From the astonishing Mayan temples of Palenque to the mist-wreathed, jungle-smothered mountaintops, Chiapas is simply stunning. Read More

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Most visitors to the Palenque Mayan Ruins in Chiapas, Mexico make the mistake of staying in the town of Palenque. Because the town and the archeological site share the same name, tourists assume that they are one in the same. Upon arrival, however, they discover that the ruins are a 15-20 minute ride from town. The short trip can be done by taxi for 50 pesos (about $4 USD) or colectivo (shared van) for 10 pesos (about 80 cents US), but there is an even better solution. Rather than staying in Palenque, choose accommodations in the tiny jungle village of El Panchan.

The town of Palenque, located a 15-minute drive from the ruins

El Panchan’s location right outside the entrance gate to Palenque is one reason to choose it but there are even more compelling reasons. First, the price of accommodations in El Panchan is much more affordable. Although there are numerous options, I chose Margarita and Ed’s, where I rented a cabana with twin beds and a private, ensuite bathroom for about $15 per night. The room was spotless and well-furnished, there was round-the-clock hot water, and though the owners told me the closest Internet connection was in Palenque, I actually got a signal (albeit weak) on my Mexican TelCel Aircard that allowed me to get email and upload blog posts. Read More

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Brutal sun blazed down on the Mayan ruins of Palenque, Mexico. Heat penetrated the thick rubber soles of my boots and crept up my pant legs as I climbed steep stone stairs of the Palacio – the Palace. At the top, I ineffectually dabbed my beaded brow with a too-wet tissue and blinked away sweat that stung my eyes. Beneath me lay the powerful city that once ruled over a large part of the states of Chiapas and Tabasco in southern Mexico. For miles in every direction, ancient temples poked through dense vegetation. The wonder of this place is not how it grew to be such a powerhouse of Mayan culture. The wonder is how it existed at all.

Palenque’s Palacio – the Palace – with tower that most believe was used for astronomical observations

Seeking respite from the suffocating heat and humidity, I descended into the Palacio’s inner chambers and wound through narrow passageways to ancient living areas kept blissfully cool by stone walls. Slabs of the same stone served as royal beds; keyhole windows in the thick block provided vistas of the funerary complex. Life and death. Eternity inextricably intermingled with everyday existence.

Templo del las Inscripciones – Temple of the Inscriptions – a funerary site

Back outside I circuited the upper walls of this structure that was both royal residence and political-administrative center. One side of the Palace looked down upon the ball court, a swath of lush green grass bracketed by ancient stone bleachers, where Mayans gathered to watch their favorite sport. The other side overlooked tombs where members of the royal family were interred: the Temple of Inscriptions, Temple of Read More