Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Today I received an email from a staffer at the Washington Office on Latin America, informing me about HR 4645, a bill that would eliminate the travel ban to Cuba for U.S. citizens and increase U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba. The bill is currently in committee in the U.S. House of Representatives but is expected to go to the floor for a vote within two weeks.

One-page summary of Bill to open Cuba to travel for U.S. citizens

Normally, I don’t discuss politics on this blog, but this subject is extremely timely for me, so I’m making an exception. Why is it timely? I’m currently in the Yucatan of Mexico and I discovered that I could go to Cuba for 4-5 days for as little as $500, including airfare, hotel, and all meals. I salivated at the prospect; going to Cuba has long been at the top of my travel wish list. Cuban immigration officials don’t stamp the passports of U.S. citizens entering or leaving the country, so there would be no way for the U.S. government to know I’d been there, since I would have flown in and out of Cancun. But in the end I decided against going because I couldn’t have written about my experience in Cuba and that would have killed me. So, like thousands of others, I decided to wait until the ban was lifted.

This could happen soon if the bill is successful, but our help is needed. If you agree with lifting the ban, please contact your State Representatives, tell them you support HR 4645, and ask them to vote for the bill. I’ve provided a one-page overview of the bill above. Click on the image to download it in a PDF format.

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When I set off on this four-month backpacking trip at the end of February, my cultural travel itinerary included Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador. I envisioned ten weeks in Mexico, followed by whirlwind tours of the other four countries, including hiking the Machu Picchu Trail in Peru and the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Some of you are looking at the calendar right now and noting that it is now nearly four months later and my blog posts are still all about Mexico. Yes, I am still in Mexico and will not make it out of the country on this trip.

On my RTW (round-the-world) trip in 2007, I did 17 countries in six months. Although I’d previously traveled for a month each year, my RTW trip was my first foray into real long-term travel. I’d recently recovered from a serious illness that had filled me with fear of dying before I could visit all the places I’d longed to see, and I was determined to strike as many of the world’s travel wonders off my bucket list as possible. The trip was fascinating and exciting and educational, and exhausting. I well remember hitting the two month mark and wanting to pack up and go home. Fortunately, I took a couple of days of down time at that point and the urge to flee back home disappeared.

Strangely, the exact same thing happened on this journey, at exactly the two month mark. Not only was moving rapidly from one place to another exhausting, I had more obligations than in 2007. I had contracted to write four travel articles per week for one client, wanted to post to Hole In The Donut at least four times per week, and was writing an occasional feature story for other online travel publications as well. By day I would see the sights and try to learn about the local culture; by night I had to sort and catalog the 200-400 photos I took each day, decide which ones to use and size them, before finally writing and uploading my posts. I was averaging perhaps four hours sleep per night, sometimes less, and it finally caught up with me when I experienced chest pains in Queretaro. Fortunately, the pain was the result of a combination of Read More

Although I had been assured that it was not difficult to find last minute accommodations during Mexico’s Cinco de Mayo holiday, upon arriving in Veracruz I was informed that every single hotel room in and around the Zocalo was sold out. Initially, I was surprised, since Veracruz is hardly a prime tourist destination; as Mexico’s largest port, its Malecon runs past cargo and military ships rather than gorgeous beaches and the city offers very little in the way of museums or other attractions. But I hadn’t figured on the Zocalo, the city’s central plaza, being such a cultural mecca.

Palacio Municipal, the oldest government building in Mexico, anchors one end of the Zocalo

Outdoor restaurants line pedestrian-only streets around the Zocalo

Even in the middle of the day, the tree-filled Zocalo was a feast for the eyes. On one side of the square, worshipers stopped into Virgen de la Asuncion Cathedral for quick devotions; on another, people streamed in and out of the brilliant white Municipal Palace, the oldest city government building in Mexico. Waiters stood in pedestrian-only streets choked with dining tables, enticing passers-by with promises of discounts and fresh seafood, while a string of dance troupes performed on a portable stage in the plaza. Phoning around, I’d found a hotel room a mile away, but that simply wouldn’t do; I had to stay on Read More

Within a month of my arrival in Mexico I was complaining about the food, saying: “If I have to eat one more tortilla, I’m going to barf.” Fortunately, soon after that I began discovering that there is more to Mexican cuisine than beans and tortillas. I sampled cheese enchiladas smothered in mole, a sweet-spicy brown sauce made with chocolate; fried Platano (a dense type of banana) topped with with cream and cheese; and scrumptious sherbet flavors like Guanabana (sour sop), mango, and mamey, a tropical fruit that tastes like a combination of sweet potato, cantaloupe and pumpkin pie. But of all the unique foods I have sampled, my favorite are the nopal cactus sold by vendors in the Mexican markets.

Vendor sells nopalitos at Hidalgo market in Guanajuato, Mexico

Most will recognize these oval green pads as the same spine covered Prickly Pear cactus that grow like weeds throughout the American Southwest. While they are virtually ignored and even scorned in the U.S., nopales are considered a delicacy in Mexico. After carefully peeling to remove its needles, the pads are boiled or roasted until tender. I have tried them in a cold salad flavored with green chiles, Read More

Within moments of the bus leaving the Mexico City terminal bound for Veracruz I was fast asleep. I’d been traveling hard, seeing sights and meeting people by day, cataloging photos and writing by night. An eight hour bus ride meant a welcome opportunity to catch up on sleep. Some hours later I awoke and was surprised to see what appeared to be pollution from Mexico City still floating above the flat horizon like a gray blanket. But there was also something else: a brilliant white point floated atop the layer of grit.

Pico de Orizaba volcano

I blinked a couple of times and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, suspecting a mirage, but with every subsequent mile the snow-capped pinnacle grew clearer and more impressive, protruding effortlessly and suddenly from a flat plain. My map showed that this was Pico de Orizaba volcano, the highest mountain peak in Mexico, third highest in North America, and second most prominent volcanic peak in the world after Africa’s Mount Kilimanjaro. It is considered an active volcano, although it hasn’t erupted since 1687. Read More

Sweat dripped from my scalp into my eyes, ran in rivulets down my cheeks and pooled in the hollow of my neck. A merciless sun beat down on my bare head, laughing at my attempts to staunch the flow with the few measly tissues left in my backpack. I stood atop the Pyramid of the Sun at Teotihuacan, looking down upon ruins stretching far into the distance, wondering how an ancient civilization ever flourished on this God forsaken, barren plateau, and marveling at the massive structures they were able to erect without the assistance of machines.

Can’t view the above YouTube video of the ancient ruins at Teotihuacan, Mexico? Click here.

As I descended the steep stone steps, I glanced down the wide avenue leading to the Pyramid of the Moon. Despite oppressive heat and torpid air, I knew I would also climb this sister pyramid, if only because it was there.

Can’t view the above slide show of the ancient ruins at Teotihuacan, Mexico? Click here.

Late in the day, having survived two steep climbs, I hurried to the far end of the park before it closed to see the final pyramid, the Temple of Quetzalcoatl. I debated whether or not I needed to climb it for about a nanosecond before turning for the exit. Maybe later I’d kick myself for not having stood atop this third ruin, but I was out of energy and out of kleenex.

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