Holidays in Oaxaca….Mexico

We arrived in Oaxaca after a first class, 6.5 hour ($24 each) bus ride from Mexico City.    The scenery was beautiful, pocked full of very erect cacti (which are pictured at the very end) and the erupting volcano Popocatépetl.

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Popocatépetl Erupting
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Scenery between Mexico City and Oaxaca

They don’t have Uber in Oaxaca, but our five minute taxi to the hotel was still only $2.50.  My parents were majorly delayed, as Aeromexico has not got their sh*t together and canceled their connection from Mexico City a week earlier.  While we waited for their arrival, we hunted for a grocery store, sat on the main square, another Zócalo, and watched the Christmas Eve festivities, which were plentiful.  Sparklers, and brass bands, floats and giant walking puppets.  Just general pandemonium.  It had died down a bit by the time my parents arrived, but they still caught some of the fun.

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Elaborate firework hats
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Oaxaca Zocalo Christmas Tree
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Spinning fireworks
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Baby Jesus parade

We had a slow start on Christmas day, but managed to explore a few neighborhoods in Oaxaca, including the area around the aqueduct and Jalatlaco.  We continued our evening ritual of finding a place on the Zócalo for drinks and then ended our night at a restaurant/hotel with an impressive nativity scene in its courtyard.

 

Monte Alban is located 6 miles (9 km) outside of Oaxaca at 6,400 feet (1940 m) and is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site along with the historic center of Oaxaca.  Monte Alban was the ancient Zapotec capital and was founded around 500 BC.  The mountain was carved away to make space for the buildings, forming a large flat area on the top.  There are a  number of uniquely carved stones and an interesting ball court still visible, along with many temples.

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Monte Alban
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Monte Alban
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Monte Alban mountain platform

We took a tourist bus to the top and spent three hours wandering the site before taking a brutally hot bus back to the city center.  It was so stifling that we got off early and walked rather than continue to where we were supposed to be dropped off.  We explored the Mercado Benito Juárez and Mercado 20 de Noviembre just south of the Zócalo and then had a massive lunch at Mayordomo – a chain of chocolate cafes that didn’t disappoint.  We took a much needed break before the obligatory Zócalo drinks and snacks.  Pretty sure we skipped dinner as we were so full from lunch.

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Oaxaca market
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Oaxaca market

There are a number of towns just outside of Oaxaca that we wanted to visit.  We didn’t want to rent a car, so we opted for a half day tour to Santa María del Tule, Mitla and Teotitlán del Valle.  We got lucky and our tour ended up with just the four of us and an American couple.  Tule is home to one of the world’s oldest, widest and largest trees, a 2000 year old Montezuma cypress.  The tree was struggling a number of years ago, so an irrigation system was installed to keep the tree hydrated and it has recovered.  The immense cypress dwarfs the neighboring church and gardens, which were festively decorated for Christmas.

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2,000 year old Montezuma cypress in Tule

Our next stop was Mitla, a Zapotec religious center from perhaps as early as 900 BC.  It has some really intricate stone geometric mosaic work unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  All put together without mortar.  They are really impressive. 

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Mitla church
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Mitla
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Riki takes way too many shots of cacti, but in the background you can see the crazy geometric mosaic stones
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Main street in Mitla. Check out those shadows.

 

Our last stop was Teotitlan del Valle, a Zapotec village well-known for its naturally dyed wool rugs.  Our tour only stopped at one craftsman’s shop, but we were given a demonstration on how the wool is dyed and the type of loom they use.  Of particular interest was the way they achieve red by crushing a cochineal beetle.  Add lime to pomegranates and you get purple.  We weren’t blown away by any of the rugs we saw, but the other couple in our group managed to spend $1500 on a big rug.

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Wool rug in progress

We were back in Oaxaca in the early afternoon and went to Biznaga for a large and delicious birthday lunch for my dad.  They had massive tlayudas (Mexican pizzas) and I finally found Pulque to try, a milky drink made from the fermented sap of the agave.   We continued our traditional Zócalo drinks, snacks and people watching that evening.

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Santo Domingo in Oaxaca

With the same company from the day before, we booked a tour of some more artisanal villages outside of Oaxaca.  This tour was fuller and felt more like a glorified shopping trip than a tour, as our guide was less informative than the previous day’s guide had been.  However, we got to see the black pottery in San Bartolo Coyotepec, copal wood carving (alebrijes) in San Martin Tilcajete, and traditional hand weavers in Santo Tomas Jalietza.  We had demonstrations at the pottery and wood carving places.  The process to make the alebrijes is incredibly time-consuming and it made a lot more sense why these little guys were so expensive.

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The Alebrije from the movie Coco apparently
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Santo Tomas Jalieza church

Our next stop on the tour was to the Friday market in Ocotlan, where we wandered the numerous lanes of stalls before having a typical Mexican meal of tortillas with sauce.  Our final stop on the tour was to a mezcal distillery in Santa Catarina Minas where they showed us the process and then let us sample numerous different kinds out of communal gourds before dumping the leftovers (and perhaps backwash) back into the glass jugs.

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Meat in Ocotlan market
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Distilling mezcal
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Hand bottled mezcal

On Saturday, we walked over to the weekly market and proceeded to walk in what seemed like circles, though managing to find some of the coveted woven plastic bags my dad had been looking for every day.

 

Right next to the market is the main bus station and we headed there to try to find a bus back to Teotitlan del Valle, the wool weaving village we had visited the outskirts of on our first tour.  We managed to flag down a bus headed in the right direction for 10 pesos (50 US cents) for the 17 mile (28 km) trip.  After being dropped off on the highway a bit outside of town, we hopped in a collectivo, which is like a fixed route taxi for 8 pesos/person, which took us to the center of the village.  From there we explored the church and wool rug market as well as some of the shops scattered around the village.  We managed to spend all of our cash on small, but gorgeous hand woven rugs, having to resort to using US dollars for the last purchase.  We took the same collectivo (though with 5 people in the little sedan this time) back to the highway intersection and pretty soon a bus headed back to Oaxaca stopped to pick us up.

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Teotitlan del Valle. Riki can find a parade anywhere. This one was for a wedding.
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Some of the spoils from Teotitlan del Valle

Our last full day in Oaxaca, we climbed a hill hoping to get a good view of the city, but ended up in the Xochimilco neighborhood instead, where Riki eagerly photographed all the street art.  We stumbled upon another market and a little chocolate shop where we took a break to try their omnipresent cacao drink.  After some light souvenir shopping, we had lunch at a food stall place which vaguely reminded me of the Timeout Market in Lisbon.  Finally tired of Mexican food, I ordered a chicken sandwich, which didn’t disappoint.

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Oaxaca window
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Oaxacan Street art in Xochimilco
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Xochimilco pinata
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Rooftop hummingbird
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Oaxaca theater
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Cylinders of air make the best toys
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Another pinata

My parents left for the airport at 4:30 in the morning on New Year’s Eve.  Unfortunately, Aeromexico once again screwed up and they were delayed so much that they missed their connection in Mexico City and were rerouted through Dallas and then Austin.  Riki and I had opted to spend NYE in Mexico City so we took the luxury $30 7 hour bus ride at 9:30am.  This bus was even plusher than our ride down, with three seats across, fully reclineable, two bathrooms, individual TVs and free drinks.

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As promised, the erect cacti on the way back
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Volcán Iztaccihuatl

We took a taxi to our hotel, which was slightly nicer than our previous stay, but was also located closer to where the party was supposed to be that evening.  Riki napped and then we walked down Paseo de la Reforma looking for a place to eat.  Lots of restaurants only offer fixed menus on NYE, as it is common for people to eat late dinners with family in Mexico. So we were limited on our choices, but eventually found a cute place that had quick service and delicious food.  We met up with a friend from New Orleans later that evening and stood on the street awaiting the fireworks, which never came. We did get a concert and a pretty impressive laser show.  Apparently, due to pollution issues, the city cancelled the fireworks.

A seamless trip home, we picked up our car in San Antonio and made it back to Austin mid-afternoon on New Year’s Day.  Mexican food is one of my favorite cuisines, but it has been a few weeks and I still am not craving it.  Austin has good Mexican, but it can’t really compare to all the amazing meals we had on our two week trip.  I have some research to do on Oaxacan dishes, as I’m still unclear on the difference between enchiladas, enfrijoladas, and entomatadas, which all appeared to just be tortillas and sauce.  Why are corn tortillas SO much better in Mexico?  I also discover the Oaxacan version of pizza, the tlayuda, which I will attempt to replicate one of these days.  And we had numerous other delicious dishes.

Riki and I have decided we need to go back to Mexico in the near future, perhaps the Yucatan next, or Guadalajara.  We’ll see.  We’ve got a lot of trips state-side the first half of this year, so it may be awhile.

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Exploring the Mega….Mexico City

With a population of around 9 million, it is hard to believe that Mexico City is basically built over a lake.  Factor in frequent seismic activity and terrible air pollution trapped in a geographic bowl and you might wonder why Mexico City still receives over 2 million international visitors each year.   But Mexico City checks every box, besides beach.  It’s got history, culture, food, architecture, and even sun.  Sun being our main goal, as even Texas gets too cold in the winter for Riki.

Central Mexico has a very lengthy and unique history.  Twenty five miles northeast of modern day Mexico City lies Teotihuacán, which dates to around 200 BC and was occupied by up to 250,000 people at its height.  The pyramids still located at this archaeological site are one of the most popular day trips from Mexico City.  Teotihuacán fell in the 7th or 8th century possibly due to internal uprisings.  But other city centers in the area filled the void after its collapse.  In 1325, the Mexicas, took a small natural island in Lake Texcoco and expanded it to create a new city, Tenochtitlan, now known as Mexico City.  The Aztecs dominated the area until the arrival of the Spanish, who conquered the city in 1520.  The Spanish built over the historic city and expanded the metropolitan area, which has now reached over 20 million people.  But that’s just the brief version.

We flew out of San Antonio a week before Christmas.  The flights were significantly cheaper, non-stop and San Antonio is only about an hour south of Austin. Plus, we got to stop at the outlets on the way so I could get new walking shoes for the trip, which is always a gamble but my other ones were just as much of a gamble considering the rough shape they were in.  At the airport, we bought a sim card for $6 and then took the metro to our hostel near the Zócalo.  We pack light, but I would not recommend taking the metro with any type of bag, and not recommend taking it at all during rush hour.  It’s chaotic, completely packed and involves a lot of stairs.  We dropped our stuff in our $25/night hostel (on the fifth floor, no elevator, no window, shared bathroom, but great location) and headed out to explore the historic district.  The Zócalo, which is the main square in the historic district, was completely covered in potted red poinsettias and the facades of half the buildings were lit up with giant Christmas light displays.

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Radio Stations
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Ciudad de México
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Mural

We braved the metro again the next day and stumbled upon the Artesania Ciudadela, which is a tangled market selling a lot of souvenirs.  We must have been there a bit too early, as most of the shops were closed, so we carried on to Chapultapec Park to visit the Anthropology Museum.   I had visited the Museo Nacional de Antropología (Anthropology Museum) last time I was in Mexico City, but that was 10 years ago, and honestly, even after three hours in the museum, Riki and I both agreed that we could come back.

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Entrance to Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Inside Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Teotihuacan model in Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Sacrificial stone in Museo Nacional de Antropología, where they put the bloody hearts apparently
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The start of Mexico City
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Aztec sun stone in Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Oaxaca mural, Museo Nacional de Antropología
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Monte Alban near Oaxaca, Museo Nacional de Antropología

However, lunch beckoned.  We didn’t exactly hit the jackpot with food though. Ordering randomly, we ended up with some sort of meat item vaguely resembling cloudy jello in a taco. It was better than it sounds. Later, after walking Zona Rosa and the San Juan market, we again ordered randomly and got a white bread sandwich with hogshead cheese, or at least we think that’s what it was.  Luckily, the mojitos were good.

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Mexico City skyscrapers
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Ángel de la Independencia
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Ángel de la Independencia
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CDMX street corner

That evening, after over 30,000 steps, a hot shower was in order. Unfortunately, there was no hot water in our shared bathroom, I forgot to bring my towel and because I was standing there so long waiting for the hot water to arrive, the motion-sensing lights went out me.  Cue naked flailing around, splashing cold water everywhere as I tried to get the light to come back on before someone else walked in.

As we usually avoid group tours, we did some research on how to get to Teotihuacán on our own.  So we set out early-ish. 3 metro lines and a $2.75 beater of a bus later complete with hitchhiking mariachi players, we arrived at the pyramids.  This being my second time here, I was surprised to realize we must have skipped the south part of the site before.  Our first stop was to see the plumed or feathered serpent, which we had seen a replica of in the anthropology museum and something I don’t remember seeing on my last trip.  This section of the pyramid is largely intact because it was protected by a later pyramid built up against it.  These phenomenal creatures are supposed to represent Quetzalcoatl, the God of Wind and Wisdom, who is kind of like a snake-bird.

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Near the entrance to Teotihuacán
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Teotihuacán
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The plumed serpent temple

Next, we went all the way to the other side of the archaeological site and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun, the tallest one at 216 feet (65 m).  It was quite crowded as we ascended, but about halfway up we found orange barricades set out in a way which suggested they had to stop people on busier days to limit the flow.  The steps are very steep and there is only one hand rail but the view from the top is worth it.  Next we climbed the Pyramid to the Moon, though you are only allowed about halfway up.  This site is largely reconstructed and it is interesting to see the different techniques used at different time periods to delineate the reconstructed parts.  Old photos show this site largely covered in brush and there are still some grassy mounds that haven’t been excavated.  There are even a couple of spots where you can still view original murals.

Our return bus left from right outside of the last gate, was a bit less beat up than the first one and dropped us off at a metro that was more convenient to get back downtown.  We headed straight to the Roma neighborhood where we had delicious, large mojitos before wandering back to the hostel.

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CDMX Street art

I was excited to show Riki the Templo Mayor, which is located just off the Zócalo and is the area where Tenochtitlan was founded in 1325.  The museum is amazing and showcases the artifacts found in the archaeological site. It also does a great job explaining how the 7 different layers of the superseded temples interact.  You can walk down between the ruins and then visit the museum where they house the artifacts; my favorite being the exhibit where they lay out the bones of the numerous animals they found.

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Templo Mayor and the Cathedral in the background
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Skulls at Templo Mayor
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Templo Mayor Mosaic
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Diego Rivera mural at Palacio Nacional

We did a quick visit to the Palacio National to see the Diego Rivera murals before finding a sophisticated place overlooking the Templo Mayor for lunch.  Two hours, numerous fancy drinks, multiple courses including crickets, and less than $50 later, we needed a nap.  Some of the indigenous tribes were out on the square blessing people with odorous herbs and dancing.  We watched that before heading into the cathedral and then back for a rest.

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Torre Latinoamericana from the Zócalo
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Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heavens
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Blessings on the Zócalo

Later, we walked to the Bella Artes, where there was a folkloric ballet performance that evening.  We inquired about the ticket cost, but as they were almost $100 a piece, we opted to walk towards the Republic tower for a nice view.  From the top, we could see the skating rink and then spotted what looked like a carnival in the streets.  We ventured a few blocks north and were overwhelmed by the noise, lights, and atmosphere of the street fair.

Saturday we reserved for markets.  After running to catch the metro, Riki managed to squeeze in, leaving me on the platform as the doors thumped shut.  Luckily, the trains come so often that he caught me on the next train just a few minutes later, but we never ran for the metro again.  Our first stop was in San Angelo, where they have a lot of local artists, but it was quite packed with tourists and expensive.

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El Bazar Sabado, San Angelo

We took the metro to Coyoacan, where we found the main square packed with people hanging out.

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Coyoacan most likely means “place of the coyotes” in Nahautl

The market here was huge, loaded with piñatas, which were very tempting, if only we had a better way to ship them home.

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Coyoacan Market

 

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Outisde Frida Kahlo’s house

We found a rooftop near Frida Kahlo’s house to rest before the long metro ride back to the Zócalo.  We ventured into a packed restaurant called El Quatro 20, where, surrounded by chaos, we had a great, cheap meal with huge beers. Just what we needed after a long day of shopping (though not buying).

On our last full day in Mexico City, we caught La Lagunilla market, where Riki was hoping to browse the antiques, probably looking for old books, if I had to guess.  There was a small section of antiques, but the quality varied and nothing really struck us.  We then ventured to the Jardin del Arte, which had some of the same artists we had seen on Saturday.

We then found a fruit market and walked on Reforma to the Metro Insurgentes.  Unfortunately, on our way home, in the Pino Suarez metro stop, Riki got pickpocketed as he entered the metro.  A group of people pushed us into the car as people were still trying to exit and managed to reach in Riki’s front pocket during the chaos and take his wallet.  We spoke with the police there who recommended reporting the incident back by the Insurgentes stop.  We went back to the hostel to cancel all our cards and then took an Uber to the Tourist Police.  And we were not alone.  Three other groups of tourists were in there, and the exact same thing had happened to them, in the same metro station.  He didn’t have that much money in his wallet, as we always split it up between us, but we were left without a debit card and down to one credit card.  Luckily, we were meeting my parents the next day and they were able to hold us over for the rest of the trip.  But it left us with an unfortunate impression. And we didn’t ride the metro there again.  To mourn the loss of the wallet, we stopped at a bar on Calle Geneve where we met two Mexican-Americans who cheered us up as we enjoyed our liquid dinner.

Uber is so cheap in Mexico City.  I was feeling generous as it was Christmas Eve and gave a 50% tip, but our 20 minute ride to the bus station was still less than $5.  We next took a first class bus for 6.5 hours ($24 each) to Oaxaca to meet up with my parents for a week.

Big Bend Road Trip….West of the Pecos, Texas

Two weeks before our 8 day West Texas camping adventure, Riki tells me that he’s only slept in a tent twice.  Not sure how that has never come up before in the 13 years I’ve known him, but it didn’t, and it made me slightly nervous.  But, so you don’t have to read to the end to find out if he made it – I’ll just tell you, he’s a pro.  Especially in the cooking category.  Who would think to make pad thai or coconut corn chowder on a little backpacking stove?  Riki did, and it was amazing.  It helped that we borrowed some very thick sleeping mats, too.  

Our route:

1219 miles (1962 km) in 8 days

We stayed in the Chisos Basin, in the geographic center of Big Bend National Park

Day 1: Drove from Austin to Marathon via Route 90 through many small towns and along the Mexican border. Stopped in Uvalde for Vietnamese lunch and some antiquing (which two weeks later resulted in a return trip to buy a massive Indonesian wardrobe that is now on display in our dining room).  Then short stops at the Amistad Reservoir and Langtry before hightailing it through pitch black roads to get to Marathon in time to set up our tent with the help of the car’s headlights and eat some BBQ at one of the only restaurants in town.

 

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Amistad Reservoir Railroad bridge
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Mexico, across from Langtry

Day 2: Marathon to Rio Grande Village area.  Stopped at Fossil Discovery Exhibit and Panther Junction.  Hiked from Daniel’s Ranch to top of canyon and return (1 hour up, 20 min down).  Brisk walk on Boquillos Canyon Trail (45 minutes round trip).  Checked in to Chisos Basin campground.

 

 

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Riki is a large as an Alamosaurus’ femur
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First look at the Chisos Basin in Big Bend National Park

 

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I have endless pictures of Riki taking pictures.
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Rio Grande from above Daniels Ranch
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Rio Grande looking downriver from above Daniels Ranch
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Mexico and the canoe that some entrepreneurs use to transport their little art pieces across the river to sell.
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Boquillas Canyon
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View from our campsite (#3) in Chisos Basin

 

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Sunset in the Chisos Basin and our lodging for the week

Day 3: South Rim hike. 8 hours round trip. Pretty steep on the Pinnacles trail until Emory Peak and then a more gradual incline. Came back via Laguna Meadow Trail.

The view from the South Rim is astounding, definitely worth the hike, though the last few hours down were tough.  We saw people coming down who had camped up in the mountains somewhere. I can’t imagine having to carry even just enough water up some of these trails.

 

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Mules going up to collect “humanure”
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The Pinnacles


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The South Rim, where we ate lunch.  Pretty good visibility apparently for this spot.
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From the south rim.
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South Rim – There’s a massive cliff just over my right shoulder.
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We must have a thousand pictures of cacti now.
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South Rim – Looking for bears.

 

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South Rim – Can you spot Riki?
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Headed back down from the South Rim
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These Mexican Jays were all over the place but very difficult to photograph.
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Chisos Basin – our tent is down there in the middle somewhere

 

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Riki made amazing pad thai and some sort of coconut corn chowder that I have requested again.


Day 4: Window Trail in the morning. Lost Mine Trail in the afternoon.
We wanted to go to the Lost Mine Trail first, but the parking area was already packed at 9 am, so we went back to our campsite and walked to the Window Trail instead.  We were quite lucky and had the place to ourselves for about 20 minutes before a rambunctious group of girl scouts showed up. 
 
The end of the Lost Mine Trail turned out to be a gorgeous ridge with nerve-wrackingly steep sides.


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Riki walking into the Window Trail. While most of the trail was pretty tame, the water was high and there were a few spots where crossing was difficult and slippery.
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The water drops off quite sharply at the end of the Window Trail

 

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Riki taking pictures at the end of the Window Trail
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We actually had a mother bear and her cub in our campground one night. We didn’t see them but we heard our next door neighbors yelling and clapping to scare them off.

 

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Tips for the wildlife at the start of the Lost Mine Trail
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Lost Mine Trail
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Lost Mine Trail
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Looking back towards the Chisos Basin on the Lost Mine Trail
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The end of the Lost Mine Trail

 

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Riki going down one of many switchbacks on the Lost Mine Trail
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This guy was scurrying away, but I think its a Big Bend Canyon Lizard, which only lives in and around the park, and can change colors.
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Our trusty transportation at our camp site during sunset.


Day 5: Drove to Castolon Visitor’s Center.  Hiked into Santa Elena Canyon.  Had to remove our shoes to get across a Rio Grande tributary to get into the canyon. Ate lunch in the canyon.  Part of Mule Ear’s Trail – found a very sun bleached $10.  Drove to see Burro Mesa Pouroff. Walked to Sam Nail Ranch. Nighttime walk near the Chisos Basin Visitor’s center with a ranger.

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We did actually see a number of roadrunners, but unsurprisingly didn’t even get close to catching them on camera. We also spotted a coyote along the road one morning.
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West side of Big Bend National Park

 

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Luckily there weren’t many cars.
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Castolon area with the Santa Elena Canyon in the background. Left side of the canyon is Mexico. Right is the US.  We could just put a wall right down the middle, no problem.
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Cerro Castellan mountain from the Castolon Visitor’s Center
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Entrance to Santa Elena Canyon. A ranger told us it has been like this for a few weeks, but it is often completely dry.  The water was only knee deep, but was pretty chilly.
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Santa Elena Canyon
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Tuff Canyon – we didn’t have time to go down, but it looks like a nice trail.
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Mule Ears Peaks behind cacti
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Massive mountain lion track on the Mule Ears trail
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Posing in front of the Chisos Mountain

 

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Posing with the (almost) full moon, which made star gazing tough.


Day 6 Thanksgiving: Left Chisos Basin and headed west out of park to Terlingua. Explored the cemetery, ghost town and some art galleries. Drove through Big Bend Ranch State Park and up to Marfa, which was mostly all closed up.  Continued to Alpine.  Dinner at the only restaurant open – the Panda Buffet.

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Leaving the Chisos Basin
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I must confess, I did not get out of the car to look at this tarantula.  Apparently, he/she was very friendly.  I took Riki’s word for it.
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Leaving Big Bend National Park
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Ocotillo plants
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Leaving Big Bend, headed west
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Cemetery in Terlingua
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Ghost town of Terlingua, which used to have 8,000 inhabitants due to mining of cinnabar (to get mercury) and now has something like 80.
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Rio Grande from Rte 170 which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in Texas (and probably is)
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Marfa – they did not sell gas, or art. And didn’t appear to be open.
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Railroad crossing in Marfa
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Riki got his flag fix.


Day 7: Explored Alpine, which has lots of interesting little shops.  Drove north and stopped at the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute.  Continued to Fort Davis and the Davis Mountains State Park.  Early dinner in the old drug store and then up to MacDonald Observatory for the star party. 

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Alpine mural
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Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute – They had a great cacti greenhouse and some short trails.
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Some deer at our Davis Mountains State Park campsite
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You already know how he got this one. Luckily no cars.

 Day 8: Took I-10 back to Austin, poking around little towns along the way.

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More flags in Ft. Stockton

 

 

 

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Crockett County Courthouse in Ozona
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Llano River post flood in Junction

 

Overall, we had a great trip.  We probably could have stayed longer in Big Bend, but it was really nice to get somewhere that had showers.  And to eat something besides sandwiches for lunch.  We were lucky enough to have great weather the whole trip and it only really got cold at night.   Despite it being Thanksgiving week and the park being “full” we often found ourselves alone in the wilderness.  I can see how the summer must be unbearable, despite the amazing scenery.  I had no idea of what to expect before heading out there.  Texas just keeps on surprising me.

 

More Eastern Europe in the fall….Budapest, Hungary

It has taken me awhile to get around to typing this one up, but I’m pretty much settled in Austin now, so there are no more excuses.  Riki had been to Budapest years ago and I have been itching to explore more of Eastern Europe since visiting Prague, Vienna and Bratislava.  Another cheap EasyJet flight from Basel made this possible.  That and the incredibly cheap accommodations available.  A morning flight in Basel got us to Budapest in time for a pho lunch on the way to our apartment.  I hadn’t done much research on Budapest, mainly relying on Riki’s memories from 10 years ago to guide the way.  So I didn’t realize how huge Budapest was going to be.  Budapest is the combination of the two cities, Buda and Pest, with something like 2 million people.  They, along with Óbuda (Old Buda) were combined in 1872 to form Budapest.  During WW2 Budapest suffered a lot of damage, especially the castle area, where the Germans were barricaded.  The Germans also blew up the bridges on the Danube to slow Soviet troops.  Later, when the Soviets occupied Hungary, they rounded up many Hungarians and sent them to forced labor camps.  Despite officially ending Soviet military operations in 1945, the Soviets managed to leave behind a government dominated by Communists.  This led to revolution in 1956 and the return of the Soviets to crush said revolution.  The first free parliamentary election wasn’t held until 1990 and the last of the Soviet troops left in 1991.

Here are some of the highlights:

  • Budapest’s House of Terror is a museum portraying to the horror events caused by Nazi Germany and the Soviets.  As we were visiting Budapest during the anniversary to the revolution, the museum was free.
  • Riding the old trams.  Budapest has an affordable 5 day pass which let us on buses, metro, trams and even boats.  We partook in all.
  • Parliament at night, and from the water (via public boat). The changing of the guard was also interesting though just a coincidence we saw that.
  • Cheap restaurants. We ate as many types of food as we could and only had one meal that wasn’t great. Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian, American, Tex Mex, Thai, English, Indian, and of course Hungarian.
  •          Walking St Margaret’s Island. A really nice park which I imagine to be even nicer when flowers are in bloom.
  • Kerepesi Cemetery was amazing.  Way in the back the graves are a bit overgrown.  There is a really interesting old hearse in the front of the cemetery with a video in English.
  • Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park and Heroe’s Square.  There was a festival by the castle when we were there with lots of food and seemed to be medieval themed.

  • Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias church and castle hill is a must see.  We went multiple times as the views are amazing both during the day and at night.

 

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Parliament from Castle Hill

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Chain Bridge

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Church roof

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Fisherman’s Bastion

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Changing of the guard

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On the bridge

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Hazy day in Budapest

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St Margaret’s Island zoo

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Sculpture on St Margaret’s Island

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Parliament

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Tram lines along the Danube

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Central Market Hall

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Kerepesi Cemetery portico

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Kerepesi Cemetery

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Vajdahunyad Castle

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At the festival in city park – an expert at the whip

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Andrassy Avenue

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Special event with people dancing on the sides of a building

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Liberty Bridge

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Buda castle

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Fisherman’s Bastion at night

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Parliament from Fisherman’s Bastion at night

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Parliament – We stood here a long time so Riki could get this shot just right

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Szimpla Kert ruin bar, which has a morning market

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Szimpla Kert ruin bar

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A closed Chain Bridge because of a parade

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Inside St. Stephen’s Basilica, hiding from the rain

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Inside St. Stephen’s Basilica

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Budapest was a great place to visit. According to Riki, it has changed drastically in the last 10 years.  It has plenty to offer for cuisine and culture and an equally fascinating history to go along with it all.

A road trip in shoulder season….Iceland

There is a very good reason Iceland, with a population of about 330k people, had 1.8 million international visitors in 2016 (Iceland Tourist Board).  It is unlike any other place I have visited.  With majestic waterfalls, the original geyser, bubbly hot springs and bright blue icebergs washing up on black sand beaches, Iceland offers unique scenes that impress and awe its visitors.  That being said, it is not all scenic and natural like you might imagine, or conclude from the massive amounts of gorgeous pictures to follow.  Massive deforestation began with the Vikings, and continued as land was needed more and more for sheep grazing, an important food source. The forests that do still exist are few and far between, making it necessary to import wood from hundreds of miles across the ocean.  Not a cheap task.  Iceland continues to lose more vegetation due to wind erosion, making it even harder to reforest.  Iceland also hosts 3 aluminum smelters that depend on massive amounts of cheap hydro and geothermal power to provide enough energy to extract aluminum from imported alumina.  While they do use renewable energy, a multitude of environmental impacts make it a controversial industry.

Despite these issues, Iceland’s tourism industry is booming and it is evident that it could spiral out of control quickly.  A large part of the appeal of Iceland is that many of the main attractions are right along the ring road, are free and relatively easy to reach.  Small buses ply around the ring road dropping off small hordes of people to quickly snap their Instagram-worthy shot before being shuttled to the next attraction.  The Icelanders are fed up with their antics.  Tourists are not respecting the landscape and a few even died this year while straying off the marked paths.  Public pooping has even become a big problem.  We witnessed first-hand a lot of poor behavior, ranging from flying drones in clearly marked no-fly zones, to getting dangerously close to the edges of waterfalls.  To combat this, some of the sites have started charging for parking.  I’m guessing they will use some of the revenue to construct more barriers and signs to try to control the flow of tourists.  However, this may not be the best approach.  They are preparing to attract more tourists, but not the right kind.  They should be focused on the tourists who want to experience Icelandic life and culture, those that want to preserve the wilderness, not trample all over it.  In this way, they may be able to prevent the “Disneyland” effect that is plaguing places like Venice and Barcelona.  Perhaps they can follow Costa Rica’s example and focus on sustainable tourism.

Our 14 day itinerary can be found at Iceland in Two Weeks – Itinerary and Tips , but basically we started in Reykjavik and headed north to the Westfjords and then continued on the ring road clockwise, with a detour in the diamond circle and and day trip into the highlands. Here is a great map with lots of points of interest that you can even customize through Google maps: 14 day Iceland Itinerary Map. We skipped the Blue Lagoon, as it sounds like it has become a major tourist trap and certain members of our group don’t have the attention span to soak lazily in the water when there are photographs to be taken elsewhere.  Its also insanely expensive.  We managed a few hot pots instead (for free) and you can easily visit the local swimming pools in many towns.

Riki’s Favorite Photos

It was a fabulous trip, where we didn’t think we could see something cooler, until the next day, when we did.  Seals were the highlight for me. Riki obsessed a bit about capturing the Northern Lights.  And the sheer amount of beautiful scenery was astounding.  Hopefully, it will stay that way.

Iceland Map - Original

 

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On the way to Snaefells

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Some trees

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Raudfeldsgja Gorge

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Inside Raudfeldsgja Gorge

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Just outside Raudfeldsgja Gorge

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Saga Statue of Bárður Snæfellsás in Arnastapi

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Öndverđarnes lighthouse on Snaefells peninsula

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Washed up dolphin

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Kirkjufellsfoss with Kirkjufell Mountain beyond

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Kirkjufell Mountain

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Stykkishólmur harbor

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Stykkishólmur harbor

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Súgandisey Island Lighthouse in Stykkishólmur

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Into the Westfjords

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Westfjords rock formations

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Westfjords coastline

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Brjanslaekur harbor, West Fjords

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Birkimelur hot tub

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Westfjords – view from our guesthouse

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Westfjords church

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Westfjords waterfall

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Garðar BA 64 near Patreksfjörður

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Garðar BA 64 near Patreksfjörður

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Patreksfjörður harbor

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Westfjords

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Westfjords

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Rusty tractor east of Bíldudalur in Arnarfjörður

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Sheep crossing in Westfjords

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Family photo at Dynjandi waterfall

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Dynjandi waterfall

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Winding roads crossing the Westfjords

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Westfjords near Ísafjörður

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Seals at lowtide in Hestfjörður

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Wink, wink.

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Happy seal

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Fish ladder in the Westfjords

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Abandoned (?) house in the Westfjords

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Caution: Birds.

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Icelandic sheep

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Icelandic horse

Back on the ring road.

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Northern lights in Laugarbakki

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Seals on Vatnsnes peninsula

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Low tide at Hvitserkur on the Vatnsnes peninsula in the pouring rain

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Wind on the Vatnsnes peninsula

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Basalt fortress of Borgarvirki

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Windy on top of Borgarvirki fortress

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Víðimýrarkirkja

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Bumpy road on the way to Akureyri

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Akureyri – Iceland’s second largest city. Pop. 18,000

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Goðafoss

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Goðafoss

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Bracing the wind

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Sunny day at Mývatn

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Lava fields of Dimmuborgir near Mývatn

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Lava holes of Dimmuborgir

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Mývatn scenery

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Lava near Mývatn

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Lava road near Mývatn

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Hverfjall crater

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Hverfjall crater

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Walking the edge of Hverfjall crater

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Inside the Grjótagjá cave, Game of Thrones filmed a steamy scene here

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Blue Lake near Mývatn

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Steam along the Blue Lake near Mývatn

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Hverir geothermal area with sulphurous mud springs, steam vents, cracked mud and fumaroles

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Hverir geothermal area

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Hverir geothermal steam

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“Riki, are you done taking photos? It stinks here!”

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Sputtering mud at Hverir

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Krafla Crater near Mývatn

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Leirhnjukur geothermal area near Mývatn

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Lava fields of Leirhnjukur near Mývatn

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Húsavík church

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Húsavík street art

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Húsavík harbor

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Ásbyrgi canyon

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Hafragilsfoss just below Dettifoss

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Jökulságljúfur canyon

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Dettifoss

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Rainbow in Jökulságljúfur canyon at Dettifoss

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Above Dettifoss

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People getting way too close to the edge at Dettifoss

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Common road sign

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Yellow fields in East Iceland

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East Iceland

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Seydisfjordur – where the ferry from Denmark lands

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Unique house painting in Seydisfjordur

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Whooper swan crossing

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Last day of reindeer season in the eastern Highlands

Reindeer are non-native and there is a fixed number that are shot every year.  We spotted these hunters in the highlands in the east.  They half-joked that reindeer is the most expensive meat because the permits cost $700-1250 depending on the gender. And you have to hire a guide as well.  We also visited the East Iceland Heritage Museum in Egilsstaðir which houses an interesting exhibit on reindeer.  We saw a mink, another non-native species and Riki and I glimpsed an Arctic fox, the only native land mammal in Iceland.  Seals don’t count I guess, even though they seem to spend quite a bit of time on the beach.  Otherwise, it was a whole lot of sheep, some horses, and a spattering of birds.

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The exactness of these signs was very amusing

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Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach

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Smooth rocky beach at Hvalnes Nature Reserve

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Horse near Höfn

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Sometimes the roads suck

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Our first live reindeer

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Jökulsárlón icebergs

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Iceberg in Jökulsárlón

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Icebergs on the beach near Jökulsárlón

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Fjallsárlón glacier lake

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Edge of Fjallsárlón

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On the way to Skaftafell National Park

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Svartifoss in Skaftafell

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Wind so strong the waterfalls were defying gravity

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Road to Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge

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Fjaðrárgljúfur gorge

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Black sand at Reynisfjara Beach near Vik

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Skógafoss in the pouring rain

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Steinahellir Cave covered in moss

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Seljalandsfoss in the rain

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Rain parted on our way to Geysir

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Stokkur geyser moments before erupting

 

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Stokkur geyser erupting

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Stokkur geyser – my first GIF

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Gullfoss

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Reykjavik

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Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik

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Geese in Reykjavik

There were thousands of photos taken on this trip between my parents, Riki and me.  For more, check our Riki’s photo site at Riki’s Photo Website

 

Iceland in Two Weeks – Itinerary and Tips

Our two week Iceland road trip planning began months before our September flight.  Iceland was expected to have 2 million visitors in 2017.  Even though we decided to go after the high season, I read that accommodation can still be difficult to find as there just isn’t enough for all the people coming to Iceland.  Thus, by June I had already booked our accommodation, flights and car.  That was no easy feat, as we weren’t willing to spend an arm and a leg, nor were we willing to rent a camper van and rough it for two weeks.  In the end, the accommodation dictated our itinerary.  I tried to space our lodgings out by about 4 hours drive according to Google Maps.  I thought this would be a reasonable amount to drive each day, with plenty of stops in between.  I quickly discovered that 4 hours on the map can be up to double that depending on the road conditions, the quality of the scenery and opportunities for photos.

I decided to travel clockwise from Reykjavik (Point 12) so that we could be in the West Fjords (Points 2 & 3) earlier and hopefully get better weather, as it can get colder there before the south.  We stuck pretty much to the original itinerary, until the last few days, when the weather took a turn for the worse and we had to skip the Westman Islands (Bed icon between Points 10 and 11) due to gale force winds and the ferry potentially being cancelled.

TIPS:

  1. Iceland is easy to navigate.  There are not many roads, and some are in less than desirable conditions, but they are well-signed and with the help of a good offline map (we love maps.me– I don’t get any compensation from them) you should have no problem getting around.
  2. We never needed to use cash, but did get a little out at the ATM at the airport just for fun. You can use credit cards everywhere.
  3. We made sure to get gas when we were in big towns, and stocked up on groceries as well, at Bonus and Netto.  We brought a small cooler and ice packs with us as well.  This allowed us to bring perishables in the car, as we never stayed more than one night anywhere, except Reykjavik.
  4. Buy any alcohol you want at the Reykjavik airport duty free shop – it is far cheaper than the little liquor shops, which also have short hours.
  5. Having more than one driver was also key to our trip, as a few of the days were quite long.
  6. I booked all our accommodation on Booking.com (for their refund policy) and AirBNB (for the smaller towns).  This gave me flexibility when some better accommodation did become available closer to our departure.  Book in advance and shop around for car rentals.  I ended up getting a great deal on a 2015 Citroen Berlingo from Northbound/Thrifty for about 82,000 ISK (before insurance and extra driver cost) for two weeks in September 2017. Similar cars from other companies were often twice that.
  7. Every one speaks English. Icelandic words are long and look unpronounceable, but once you know a few of the basics, you can start to decipher the word, though probably never pronounce correctly. Here are a few key phrases that should help:
  • fjörður = fjord
  • vik = inlet
  • foss = waterfall
  • jökull = glacier
  • lón = lagoon
  • á (at the end) = stream
  • vatn = water (often lake)

Even more photos can be found on Riki’s website: Favorite Photos

Iceland Map - Original

 

Our basic itinerary follows:

Day 1: Arrive Reykjavik airport (Pt A, southwest) 8 am.  Pick up rental car and drive to Costco outside Reykjavik.  Drive 191 miles (307 km) to Grundarfjordur (Pt. 1) via Snaefells Peninsula.

Day 2: Drive from Grundarfjordur to Bjarkarholt (Pt. 1 to 2, 194 miles/312 km) with lunch stop in Stykkisholmur. Alternately there is an expensive 3 hour ferry across Breidarfjordur.

Day 3: Bjarkarholt to Isafjordur (Pt. 2 to 3, 129 miles/208 km) with stop at Dynjandi waterfall.

Day 4: Isafjordur to Laugarbakki (Pt.3 to 4, 222 miles/357 km).

Day 5: Laugarbakki to Akureyri (Pt. 4 to 5, north side, 167 miles/269 km) via Vatnsnes peninsula for seal watching.

Day 6: Akureyri to Husavik (Pt. 5 to 6, 92 miles/148 km) via Godafoss and Myvatn.

Day 7: Husavik to Seydisfjordur (Pt. 6 to 7, 170 miles/274 km) via Asbyrgi and Dettifoss.

Day 8: Seydisfjordur to Eskifjordur (Pt. 7 to 8, 46 miles/74 km) with day trip to highlands and Laugarfell for (dead) reindeer spotting.

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Reindeer are very precise about where they cross the road

Day 9: Eskifjörður to Höfn (Pt.  8 to 9, 151 miles/243 km) with stop at Hvalnes Nature Reserve Beach.

Day 10: Höfn to Vik (Pt. 9 to 10, 169 miles/272 km) with stops at Jökulsárlón and Skaftafell National Park.  This was a long day due to lack of accommodation in the area.

Day 11: Vik to Birkikinn on the Golden Circle (Pt. 10 to 11, 89 miles/143 km) with stops at Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, Hellisheidi power plant, Geysir and Gullfoss.  Our original itinerary included the Westman islands, but due to gale force winds we were forced to skip that.

Day 12: Birkikinn to Reykjavik (Pt. 11 to 12, 74 miles/118 km) with stop at Thingvellir National Park.

Reykjavik
Reykjavik

Day 13 and 14: Reykjavik and surrounding.

North to Fes, Volubilis and back to Marrakech….Morocco Road Trip (Part 2)

I read a number of books about Morocco before our trip, in particular a few by Paul Bowles.  While I had trouble getting through parts of his stories, I found his outsider’s viewpoint to be an intriguing glimpse into a incredibly complex country.  Morocco has a deep Phoenician and Berber history, and the far southwest border of the Roman Empire even ran through northern Morocco.  Then the Vandals and Byzantines came along in the 5th and 6th centuries.  Arabic and Islam spread to Morocco in the 8th century and then it only got more complicated.  Between French and Spanish colonization in the early 1900s, I got lost in the intricacy of who had what, when and how.  And don’t ask me how Morocco and Western Sahara are related.  That’s still an ongoing dispute.  But one thing stuck out.  Morocco’s diverse history has left it with an incredibly friendly population, who, while only a short distance from Europe, live a world away from the average European.

This is a long one.

We left the Erg Chebbi dunes and Hassilabied (near Merzouga) to head north toward Fes.  Not wanting to rush, we planned on stopping in Midelt for the night just to break up the drive.

Morocco road trip with cities
This blog entry covers the stops from Hassilabied north to Midelt, Fes, Volubilis and Meknes, as well as the return journey through Mohammedia to Marrakech.

Having read about a tourist loop near Rissani that included a number of historic ksars, or fortified dwellings, we decided to check some out.  Unfortunately, we found it difficult to find this route, despite following the one sign we saw.  Fortunately, we saw a tour group stopping near Moulay Ali Cherif mosque and tagged along to an unidentified ksar, which has very intricate mud work.

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Rissani ksar building – maybe Ksar Arzbat

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Rissani

Leaving Rissani, we headed further north into the Ziz river valley, which was no less than spectacular.  The contrast between the green around the water and the never ending brown elsewhere made for some great photo opportunities.  Plus, the flat topped cliffs and viewpoints helped a bit.  I haven’t been to the Grand Canyon, but I imagine the Ziz valley to be just as stunning.

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Entering the Ziz Valley

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Ziz Valley

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Ziz Valley again

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Riki in the driver’s seat

Along the Ziz River near Meski there is a spot called the Source Bleu.  For a modest 5 Dirhams (50 cents) you can enter the grounds, swim, picnic, and hang out.  Well, only the boys were swimming.  The women and girls were all involved in a group sing along in the shade.  And the men were drinking tea in the little cafes.  We wandered through the area and eventually ended up in a palmery where we found a crystal clear channel where women were doing laundry.

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Source Bleu

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Source Bleu laundry stream

Jumping back in the car, we continued north through more incredible valley sights, eventually nearing the snow capped mountains again.  We went through 4 police checkpoints this day, though were stopped at none.  One, outside of a military town, even had spikes laid out ready to deploy.  Riki wouldn’t let me sneak even a photo from my phone, so I have no documentation of these.  I was going to be really stealthy, but that was vetoed.

Throughout our trip we encountered a feeling of things yet to come.  For instance, huge, new gas stations that look fancy from afar, but when you get up close, you realize that the shop, cafe, and even service center are completely empty and have never been opened and won’t be any time soon.  Entering many towns, the roads would widen, be dotted with oh so many street lights and speed bumps, and there would be nothing on either side of the road.  The most fun were the gates in the middle of nowhere.  Huge, ornate structures we could see from way off and would pass through thinking we were entering another town.  And then there would be nothing.  Not even a house.  It is as if Morocco is preparing for major, instantaneous development.

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“We’re here!” says Riki. “Where?” says I. “Nowhere, but they have impressive gates.” says Riki.

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Lake north of Errachidia

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Another section of the Ziz River

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Sheep in the road

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Contrasting landscapes

We arrived in Midelt late afternoon and briefly hunted for the Sunday carpet souk (market) before deciding if must have only been in the morning.  Then we hunted for somewhere recommended to us to eat, failed and then just settled on a place near the bus station.  This was a fortunate find, as I had the best chicken pizza I’ve had in ages.

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Donkey

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Cat in Midelt

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Midelt mosque

I upgraded us to a nicer hotel when we were in Midelt (13 Euro more).  I thought that after two nights in the desert we may need a few extra comforts.  We didn’t really need the rose petals scattered on the giant, sand-free beds, but the scalding hot water and English television were real treats.

We had been warned while in the desert that a few days earlier there had been a decent amount of snow on our impending route, causing traffic jams and accidents.  Luckily, the roads were clear upon entering the cedar forest near Ifrane.  We did spot some of the endangered Barbary apes in the snow along the road, but opted not to stop to feed them like many of the other cars.

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Heading north

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Aguelmame Sidi Ali lake

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Storks on a roof

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Barbary ape crossing near Azrou

We slowed long enough to get a few shots of the apes and the snow.

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Barbary ape in the snowy cedar forest

 

Ifrane is supposedly the Switzerland of Morocco.  You can see why by the variation in the architecture and the vegetation – complete with mountain chalets.  Wanting to get to Fes in time for a late lunch, we just did a driving tour and continued on our way.

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Chalets above Ifrane

We tried to do some birding just outside of Ifrane, but the lack of water in the Aoua lake made that tough.  Though we did spot a big grey heron and another black and white bird from our travel guide.

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Half full Aoua Lake

Riki handled the entry into Fes like a pro.  After what seemed like a hundred roundabouts, we finally found the dirt parking lot where we were to leave the rental car for three days, at the very reasonable price of 30 Dirham ($3) per night.

We spent the next two days wandering the Medina of Fes, taking in pretty much all the regular tourist sites.  I particularly liked the Medersa Bou Inania and the Medersa Attarine.  While we could not access as much as the one in Marrakech, they had the same intricacies on every surface.

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Fes doorway

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Satellite dishes of Fes

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Moulay Idriss Mosque

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Fountain by Najjarine Museum

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Check out those patterns – wood, plaster and tile

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Tomb of the Merinides

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They don’t even use pay phones here anymore

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In a souk

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Book store

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Getting in the way of Riki’s photo

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Oued Bou Khrareb

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Bab Rcif

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Another amazing and intricate door

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The Blue Gate, which is actually green too

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Cats on cats on cats

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Our kitten neighbors, who don’t eat bread no matter how many times you try.

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Madrasa Bou Inania

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Madrasa Bou Inania

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Madrasa Bou Inania

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Getting in the way again.

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Fes

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Water clock in Fes

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Mmmmm, fish

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Serious underbite on this guy

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Typical traffic jam

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Madrasa Attarine

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Madrasa Attarine

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Madrasa Attarine

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Overwhelming patterns

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Non-Muslims are not allowed into the mosques, but can take photos through the entrance

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So many patterns

Fes’s medina was much easier to navigate than Marrakech’s.  Fes has a few different major routes that are pretty well marked.  Each is color coded and tells you the destination as well.  Since we were staying near the Blue Gate, we often just had to find one of these major routes and follow the zig zagged path back to our riad.

Riki often looks for unique art when we travel.  It can be difficult to find things we like that are within our budget.  But while wandering Fes, we ended up at the end of a very narrow alley in an artists’ coop.  The man spoke French and we managed to ascertain that this guy, his two sons and a few other people all sold their art in this shop.  Riki was drawn to the style seen below, and we bought one of the larger pieces as we felt it represented the colors of Fes better than some of the others.

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Riki’s newest acquisition, and the artist’s father

I later purchased a small rug, where I wrongly asked if I could have tassels added to one side to match the other.  The salesman said no problem and before I could figure out what he was up to, he started to unravel the end without tassels.  I stopped him before he could do more than a few rows and decided to trim them myself later.

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My ‘Berber Picasso’ hanging in Zurich

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Jnane Sbil pond

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Stream on the way to the Jewish Quarter

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Riki in front of the Royal Palace gates

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Dog on a wall

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Jnana Sbil wall and palms

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Literal hole in the wall we ate at

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Meat.

I was not particularly fond of visiting the tannery.  The best views are from the balconies of the neighboring shops and if you don’t want to buy anything, the shopkeepers expect a donation for the necessary mint leave to cover up the stench.  Despite our small donation, we were still hassled a bit while just trying to take some photos.  And its awful to imagine having that job.  The guys stand in chemical muck and pigeon droppings all day.  Often times without any protective gear.

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Chouwara Tannery

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Fes

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Fes

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Fes

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More meat.

We walked up to the Merenid tombs one afternoon, a decidedly nice view, but had a very strange experience.  By this time, we were used to being told we were going the wrong way and offered directions from people who were looking to make a few Dirham.  But the little boy who we met at the top of the hill really threw us for a loop.  He seemed to be all alone and we chatted a little in broken English/French and he pointed to where he lived and where he went to school.  As we were leaving he asked us where we were staying and where we were going.  We told him roughly and politely said we knew how to get there so we didn’t need any help.  But that did not deter him and he proceeded to “lead” us back down the hill and into the Medina.  This is where Riki and I tried to pull a fast one on him, thinking he would get distracted in the chaos of the medina.  So Riki went one way and I went the other and agreed to meet at the Blue Gate.  The kid continued to “lead” Riki and we weren’t able to lose him until we got in a taxi headed to the other side of town.  Even then, he watched us go.  He never asked for money, nor really said anything, just walked a few feet in front of us, quietly glancing back every few seconds to make sure we were still there.

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Found a turtle

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View from the Merenid tomb

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View of Fes from the Merenid tomb

We had been eating 10 Dirham ($1) sandwiches for most of our meals, and mainly from the same stand.  On our last night, the stand was closed so we went to the next one over.  These sandwiches are basically grilled mixed meat with a delicious tomato sauce stuffed in a thick round bread.  Easy enough.  But as we watched, the cook took our raw meat slapped it on the grill and used the same hands to open the bread and then leave it propped up on the raw meat resting on his counter.  We paid for the sandwiches, but were ready to toss the bread, until we realized, the bread is about 10 cents at another stall.  We’ll just dump the cooked meat into new bread and be on our way.  So that’s what we did and still with some apprehension we had our last supper in Fes.

The next morning we checked out and retrieved our car safe and sound from the dirt lot.  We continued north and west to Volubilis, a Roman archaeological site.  The drive was really beautiful, though we encountered the worst roads so far.

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Sidi Chahed reservoir

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Road to Volubilis

Volubilis is a Berber and Roman city from the 3rd century BC.  Under the Romans, it grew and even had a basilica and aqueduct.  The incredible mosaics of the fancy houses have been largely restored, though are sitting out baking in the hot sun with no cover.  Not sure that’s the best preservation method, but it certainly makes for an impressive visit.  There is a new museum on the site which really explains the history well and displays some of the artifacts found there.  I have seen a number of Roman ruins, from all over Europe, but Volubilis was the best at really portraying how the city would have been.  I’m not sure if that’s because of the extensive restoration they have done, or just the sheer amount of ruins and mosaics still left.  Whatever it was, you can really imagine how the city looked under the Romans and how impressive it would have been.

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Volubilis

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Tile mosaics in Volubilis

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Volubilis ruins

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Volubilis basilica

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Volubilis gate

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Hijacking more photos at the Volubilis gate

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Volubilis mosaic floor

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Another mosaic

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Volubilis mosaic and view

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Volubilis mosaic

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Caught Riki taking pictures of bugs

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Getting in the way again. Main pedestrian path next to the main road.

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Volubilis basilica

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Restored mosaic

After a few hours in the scorching sun, we heading south again to Meknes.  We left our car under a tree and the parking attendant gave us a twig as a receipt.  We checked into our room, which was little more than a bed in a cubby with an attached bath separated by saloon style swinging doors.  And the whole room was directly over the alley below, with one little window at the far end.  Luckily, we had little luggage and only stayed one night.

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Road to Meknes

We found Meknes to be a much smaller city, with a lot of students and much more diversity.  The souks had a more modern feeling and the medina much less crowded.

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Gate in Meknes

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More intricate tiles

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Spice market in Meknes

We got followed by a man who insisted on showing us a silver shop and the typical work they did there.  It was neat, as they pound the silver in thin threads, but we weren’t really in the mood for any metalwork.

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Damascene metalwork

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Whole animal

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Meknes woodwork

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Meknes medina

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OMG, 17 cats!

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Meknes market

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Meknes main gate

After mediocre food in Meknes, including tacos filled with french fries, Riki was excited to travel along the coast and find some seafood.  We stopped in Mohammédia, just north of Casablanca to see the Atlantic Ocean and have lunch before returning to Marrakech.

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Mohammédia beach, just north of Casablanca

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Lemon in the sand

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Mohammédia

Back in Marrakech we headed straight for the airport to return the car.  Right outside the airport, we got hustled out of about $10 trying to fill up our gas tank, and even though we realized it was happening, we had no proof, and thus had to end our road trip with a bad taste in our mouths.  We took the bus back to the medina and checked into a different riad, which had tiny kittens on the roof and a very picturesque courtyard.  A much better way to end our two weeks in Morocco.

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Back in Marrakech

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Marrakech

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Riad in Marrakech

Travel goal:

“Even during the short periods when their lives were stationary, which had been few enough since their marriage twelve years ago, he had only to see a map to begin studying it passionately, and then, often as not, he would begin to plan some new, impossible trip which sometimes became a reality.  He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler.  The difference is partly one of time, he would explain.  Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another.  Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.”

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Marrakech to the Sahara….Morocco Road Trip (Part 1)

Our trips are planned according to when I can find the best deals and this trip was no exception.  Flying out of Basel can be much cheaper than Zurich, especially if I get a cheap train ticket ahead of time.  I managed to find a direct flight from Basel to Marrakech for less than $50.  The return was about twice that, but it came to Zurich and had free checked baggage, which was necessary after the shopping we did – more on that later.  I also booked most of our accommodation on Booking.com ahead of time.  I found the rates to be about the same or cheaper than booking in person, and without the hassle of wandering around looking for a room, which is nearly impossible in the medinas we stayed in.  I also booked the car from Hertz ahead of time, I got an incredible rate, and we even got an unnecessary upgrade.  The last thing I pre-arranged was our camel trek.  This was one of the things I was most excited for and wanted to be sure it went off without a hitch.  But for that I just emailed three companies with good reputations online and chose the one who gave me the best deal.  So, besides the flights, accommodation, car and camel trek, everything else was up in the air. More or less.

We took the earliest train from Zurich to Basel, which meant we had to walk to the train station because the trams were not yet running.  No big deal though because we travel light and each had just a backpack for the 15 minute downhill walk.  Luckily, security was light and we cruised through to our gate.  Any delay with the trains or airport could have meant a missed flight, we were cutting it that close.  Travel karma was on my side this time though, as unusual as that is for me.

We arrived in Marrakech and took the 2 Euro bus to the main square, Jemaa el-Fnaa.  Don’t ask me to pronounce it, we heard it so many different ways.  From there we walked about 20 minutes through the medina to our riad.  A riad is a Moroccan house with a courtyard.  The outsides are nondescript but the insides can be very fancy.  Many have been turned into guesthouses.  Though we thought we knew where we were going, we still ended up a bit confused and were hustled by two guys who insisted on showing us the way and both getting paid, despite us declining their services.  Not a very nice way to start the day.  But we made it to the riad, dropped our bags and continued out into the medina.