Posts Categorised: Travel

BRAIN GYM:

“Brain Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change as a result of experience.” (Wiki)

I love the notion that many aspects of the brain can be altered right up until you are anciently old! The concept of neuroplasticity speaks to me! It suggests that my own well being depends on jogging those little pathways into responses to new experiences and perceptions.   So, What better way than to go off on a road trip to the Yucatán in Mexico with my fifteen year old great nephew?? This isn’t just any fifteen year old, nor just any old great nephew.  This is Mitch.  Not a sulky, grumpy, silent teenager but a dynamic, brave, sharp-eyed, wide-awake human being.   Here is his record of our road trip.

And here is mine!

Pretty Pretty Beaches

Terminal Shenanigans: I scooped Mitch off the 4 a.m. Aeroméxico London flight.  Easier said than done as my clever plan to stay in the Hilton Hotel which is actually in T1 backfired as his arrival was scheduled for T2…literally miles away!  Strangely, the Hilton took it upon themselves to pay for a taxi both ways.

Information: Here’s what we did in the Yucatán and you might like to do:

  • Fly to Mérida (don’t be tempted by Cancún)
  • Stay at Hotel Peregrino (unless you are a snooty traveller).  www.hoteldelperegrino.com.  We loved this hotel which has roof top places to hang out, use of kitchen, delicious breakfast, off-site pool and very helpful staff.  It’s squeaky clean and cheap as chips.
  • Love Mérida and pig out on all the delicacies.  We particularly enjoyed  the Mayan Museum.  www.granmuseodelmundomaya.com.mx.  It’s quite far out of town and you can catch a yellow bus there for 10 pesos.  We found the yellow bus but no bus stops so Mitch cleverly waved it down.
  • Hire a car and drive to the Caribbean.  Don’t be disappointed if there is seaweed in the sea.  Sometimes there is!  Driving is OK in Mexico.  I wouldn’t do it anywhere else in Central America.
  • Visit at least some of the archaeological sites:  Tulum, Chichén Itzá, Uxmal and Ek-Balam.  Tulum is the most gorgeous setting, unusually, for a Mayan site, on the beach.  Uxmal and Chichén Itzá are more complete and I haven’t made it yet to Ek-Balam but hear great things.
  • Go to as many cenotes as you can pack in.  If you want a real contrast go to the Sistema Dos Ojos – especially if you are prepared to put on diving gear as it’s a massively huge network; then go to Cenote Car Wash which is an open cenote and we found turtles and strange birds.  You can hire flippers.  Finally, go to Punta Laguna Nature Reserve where there is an activity package (sounds ghastly but we were the only people there).  Our five point package included a zip line across a lake, a canoe ride, a Shaman purification ceremony, and very scary cenote (you had to go down on a rope ladder with a harness – I chickened) and lots of monkeys – well to be honest only a few monkeys.
  • We stayed at Cabañas Zazilkin.   http://cabanaszazilkin.com/  It was a bit resorty for my taste, quite expensive and without much soul.  I think you could do better.  The coast near Tulum is not particularly cheap but it’s a great place to be based.

Thanks Mitch for accompanying me!  You were a great travel buddy and my brain is swimming with activity – especially after being consistently beaten at that evil game BLOKUS which I never got the hang of.  

Brain Defeater

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2017 Nicaragua: Rio San Juan

Journey Nicaragua

Getting there:

My destination was El Castillo on the R‌ío San Juan. After the initial humiliation of being weighed we crawled in to our eight-seater plane and flew over Lake Nicaragua and her magnificent volcanoes Madera and Concepción on the island of Ometepe to the totally unappealing town of San Carlos which straddles the end of the lake and the beginning of the river and serves as the gateway to numerous thrilling spots. The public river boat delivered us in three hours to the adorable Luna del Río with little wooden balconies and pink hammocks dangling over the river.

Potted History from the safety of my pink hammock:

It was so easy to sit gently rocking on my pink hammock chair and imagine the sequence of territorial grabs that have passed through my line of vision: The conquistadores “discovering” Nicaragua, founding Granada at the North end of the lake and 100 years later, in an attempt to keep out the stream of pirates who were drawn like magnets to the wealth of the city of Granada, building the Fortaleza de la Limpia, Pura e Inmaculada Concepción – or more simply El Castillo.

                                            El Castillo

Or the heroic Rafaela Herrera

                    Rafaela Herrera

who, in 1762, fired a cannon at a lead pirate ship which was conveniently slowed down by the Raudal El diablo rapids outside my bedroom – and all this in her nightdress. (they were different in those days – obviously!)

A couple of decades later our very own Horatio Nelson tried his luck at conquering the castle.

                       Got it wrong this time!

Reputedly, his gang had no maps, two days provisions and the madness to drink the river water. The Spaniards retreated with indecent haste and left the Brits to the fate of living in what turned out to be a breeding ground for the mosquitoes that supplied the bull sharks with tasty British bodies to fortify them on their way to the lake.

Rivalry and Greed:

Approximately a hundred years later a sinister liaison was formed between the reprobate William Walker (1824-1860) and the unmannered brute Cornelius Vanderbilt.

             William Walker

      Cornelius Vanderbilt

The latter, considered to be the richest man in the world, was a business magnet par excellence in railroads and shipping and the former a philibuster and self-appointed president of the Republic of Nicaragua. Walker wanted Nicaragua having failed to acquire the state of Sonora in Mexico. Vanderbilt wanted Nicaragua in order to build a canal from the Caribbean, up the Río San Juan, into Lake Nicaragua and across    the twelve miles of land to the pacific. This journey would be vastly superior to the practice of travelling across the isthmus of Panama – a much longer route and more distant from San Francisco. However, the Río San Juan was treacherous and Walker even more so! These two greedy men came to blows resulting in Walker facing the firing squad in Honduras but Vanderbilt reputedly died of exhaustion only at the ripe old age of 82.

The canal project is still a realistic proposition. In 2016 a Chinese company proposed the construction of a canal 276 kilometres long and between 230-280 meters wide, two ports, an airport, two artificial lakes, two locks, a free trade area and tourist facilities. The total destruction of wild life, river communities and subsistence fishermen seems a folly with the Panama Canal so close.

An equally fierce predator in the muddy waters of the Río San Juan and Lake Nicaragua is the bull shark.

                        bull shark

This creature has confounded scientists for centuries as it was not believed that any organism could adapt to salt and fresh water and, therefore, it was perceived to be a species which existed purely in the lake. However, scientists in the twentieth century have revealed that sharks do indeed have the physiology to switch from salt to fresh water environments. By a clever ability to adapt their processes of osmoregulation bull sharks possess several organs with which they can maintain appropriate salt and water balance. They can jump along the rapids of the San Juan River (similar to salmon) and tagged sharks inside the lake have turned up in the ocean and vice versa. Super clever fish (yes, he really is a fish not a mammal) and from the safety of my desk in Islington I do ask myself why I spent so much time swimming in both the lake and the river.

Mark Twain

My final personality who navigated the Río San Juan in 1866 was Mark Twain.

                          Mark Twain

He wrote a series of letters to the Alta California newspaper which were eventually published in 1940 Mark Twain’s Travels with Mr. Brown being heretofore uncollected sketches. Mr Brown, serves Twain as Sancho Panza did to Don Quixote. Twain travelled on a Vanderbilt steamship and refers to the “melancholy tidings” brought about by a serious epidemic of cholera to which many of his fellow passengers fell prey. His derogatory observations regarding the indigenous population are hard to justify.  Babies are seen as “vile, distempered, mud-coloured native brat[s]” and women reduced to “filthy heifers, dirty both physically and morally”. This, intermingled with commentary through his mouthpiece, Mr Brown, who contributed more lustful and salacious comments. Shame on you Mr Twain!

My friend and I were originally of a mind to paddle down to the Caribbean from El Castillo (approximately 72 kilometers). However, after a two-hour night trip in a three-seater paddle boat we radically adjusted our plan due to the very poor resilience of our derrières! We settled for a one-night camping trip down the Río Bartola, a tributary of the Río San Juan and in the centre of the Reserva Indio Maiz.

Unknown to me, my friend for the past 50 years was an expert on bird spotting and where I would be gazing at a blank tree she could identify the great egret, snowy egret, little egret, tri-coloured heron, bare-throated tiger heron, great and little blue herons, boat billed heron, straited heron and an equally baffling array of kingfishers, flycatchers, hummingbirds, vultures and ducks, to mention just a few. It was awesome. Apart from the outstanding bird watching opportunities we saw monkeys of the howler, and spider variety and quite wonderfully a three-toed sloth swam with perfect doggy paddle alongside our boat

and exited the river with a great deal of huffing and puffing extending his terrifying talons and massively long arm half way up a conveniently placed tree. I am told that the sloth is the laziest creature on earth and instead of evolving to eat more he evolves to do less. What a great philosophy – especially in view of the poor cuisine in much of Nicaragua.

Nicaragua is said to be the poorest of the Latin American countries but it is also reputedly the safest country in which to travel. Whilst the grinding poverty impacts on every aspect of the nation’s well-being, these marvellous trips were unfettered by the usual trappings of tourism. Every pound we spent (except flights) went directly in to the hands of those who were making our journey of discovery possible. Step in to this country before the river gets turned into a canal and before the locals learn to speak English and sell tat from China.

Prepping and Packing

The big trip looms!  I’m obsessed!   Will a suitcase 22” x 15” do me for 5 weeks?

1 pair of trainers seem to take up most of the suitcase

Good day to you all! ( In the unlikely event you are reading my blog. )

In case you haven’t read my “about me” I’m 71 and determined to keep the pathways of my brain open by forcing myself out of my comfort zone and doing things only a lunatic of 50 would do.

Last year- transport to the river

Part 1:

San José de los Laureles, Tlayacapan, Morelos

I stay in great luxury with my sister and brother-in-law outside this remote village.  By the end of a week I can usually pronounce at least the first two syllables of our shopping village, Tlayacapan.  Margarita comes in every day, dedicated to making our lives ridiculously comfortable.  She is the last of the maids in her family, having a lawyer, teacher and factory supervisor for children.

Gorgeous San José house

Photo by Adam Wiseman

Concerns:  getting there!  The bus station is a jumble of chaos, a pile of people, and a cacophony of announcements.  I will wheel around in a state of confusion trying to find the bus to Tlayacapan.

Part 2:

Out with the old, in with the new

A road trip with my 15 year old great nephew Mitch.  He’s taking his GCSE this year and gets a half term break and actually wants to come.

Mitch in Scotland this year

Photo by Adam Wiseman

Me: Mitchy, you don’t want to travel with me … do you?? Do you??

Him: Yes, I like old people, kids my age are a pain!

I don’t wipe the smile off my face for a week.  On this subject, I have serious trouble finding travel buddies.  Not only because I’m tricky but I don’t think this thing of going out of comfort  zones has allure for many of my friends.  It was beyond my wildest dreams to get such a great companion.  (nobody ever seems to come twice… be warned Mitch!)

So part 2 I scoop Mitch off the plane at 4 a.m. and we fly to the Yucatán later in the day.  We will head for the cenotes (natural reservoir of underground water), archaeological sites and who knows what else?  Beaches and eating, wrestling and markets… 5 days.  Sounds easy!   Sounds fun!

Cenote

Concerns: he plays chess, I don’t.  I play backgammon, he doesn’t.  He hates word games, I love them.

Part 3:

Solo Adventure

I fly to Managua Nicaragua.  I’m heading for Rio San Juan in the south and need to finish the trip I started last year. This includes visiting the Rama who are one of Nicaragua’s three main indigenous groups living on the Caribbean coast.   I’m not sure where my Rama guide is taking me but I get to spend a night in their community.  This is one of the villages where they live.

           Rama community

After a year to reflect about swimming in the river I have decided I was fool hardy.  I have been reading about bull sharks that inhabit the waters and other creepy things, one of which came home with me lodged in my arm and caused me a lot of annoying time in the Hospital for Tropical Diseases.  The guide swears that the alligators never swim in the tributaries but I say, “How do they know not to turn left or right?”  Reminder to myself: However hot I am DO NOT SWIM!

Oh! And do sloths bite?

Concerns:  I have a horrible feeling that my face in repose is bad tempered.  So when I’m dying of loneliness on day nine, I’ll still be scowling at people.

Talk to me please!

Part 4:

Family!

Cambridge, Boston, the home of three of my precious grand-children, my son and my daughter-in-law.

Concerns:  Arriving in flip flops and T shirt in minus 20 degrees centigrade.

© 2024 Margie Mitchell