A Travellerspoint blog

Mexico - Tequila and Copper Canyon

Route: Mexico City - Guadalajara - Uruapan - Tequila - Chihuahua - Creel - Divisadero - Los Mochis

semi-overcast 20 °C

FEBRUARY - MARCH 2020

The next part of our travels through Mexico started in Guadalajara, a one hour flight west of Mexico City. Although we were told Guadalajara was quite a nice city our plan was to see the surrounding countryside. After a night in an airport hotel we hired a car and headed south east. The journey began along a highway with cultivated fields on either side. Once we left the highway the scenery became more varied and the road undulated through small towns and villages, over hills and into valleys with what looked like extinct volcanoes all around us. This was definitely more rural Mexico where pickups outnumbered cars, men on horseback were a common sight and many of the woman still wore traditional dress. We also saw quite a few open-backed police vehicles with one officer manning a mounted gun, we weren’t sure whether this was reassuring or disconcerting.

Market day in Michoacan state on our way to Uruapan

Market day in Michoacan state on our way to Uruapan

Travelling in Michoacan state

Travelling in Michoacan state

Street shop in a village on a road in Michoacan

Street shop in a village on a road in Michoacan

Paracho roundabout

Paracho roundabout

Road through Michoacan state

Road through Michoacan state

Roads scenery in Michoacan

Roads scenery in Michoacan

After a four hour drive we reached our destination, the bustling town of Uruapan.
Uruapan was our base for three nights and chosen because of its highly recommended national park. We also had high hopes for our accommodation, which didn’t disappoint. Our one bedroom apartment sat on top of a steep valley that descended to a fast flowing river below. We looked out onto a lush garden where humming birds fed on the nectar giving foliage, then beyond to hills and forest. A path led from our apartment past a multitude of wood sculptures to various seating areas all uniquely fashioned. It was such a nice environment we spent the first day in the garden gently swinging in hammocks, catching up on some reading, watching the wildlife and all the time being serenaded by the river that rushed down the valley just below us. The relaxing day did us a world of good especially as I was suffering from a bit of a stomach problem.

Our garden in Uruapan

Our garden in Uruapan

wood carvings in our garden in Uruapan

wood carvings in our garden in Uruapan

Bird life in our garden in Uruapan

Bird life in our garden in Uruapan

Humming bird in our garden in Uruapan

Humming bird in our garden in Uruapan

Feeling rested and keen to see more, the following day we visited the Uruapan National Park. Although only a short drive from the apartment it felt longer than it was. This was because our “SatNav” took us through all the narrow back streets of the town which was an interest experience in itself. The National Park is only small but very beautiful and quite unique. Cobblestone paths lead you in a circuit that follows the river for the most part. Every so often a stone bridge allows the river to be crossed and provides a good view of the many cascades that fill this stretch. The environment is sub-tropical with a mass of tree growth, which in turn is filled with a good variety of bird life that serenade you as you stroll by. The most unique feature of the park is how they have harnessed the power of the river to form canals that run alongside the pathways and then used to create fountains and water spouts. The whole circuit of the park took us less than two hours and felt very tranquil and refreshing with the rushing water and tree cover providing a cool environment away from the scorching Mexican sun.

River running through Uruapan National Park

River running through Uruapan National Park

Uruapan National Park

Uruapan National Park

Water Sculpture in Uruapan National Park

Water Sculpture in Uruapan National Park

Back at the apartment we had some lunch, collected our laundry and then retired to the hammocks in the garden.

The following day we left Uruapan and retraced our steps back through the lovely countryside of Michoacan state and on towards Guadalajara. This time Guadalajara wasn’t our destination, we were going about an hour further west to the town of Tequila. We were now in the state of Jalisco, and once past the concrete sprawl of Guadalajara, in a much more mountainous region. Tequila is a small town nestled in a valley and surrounded by distilleries producing its famous liquor. The outskirts of town appear a bit run down but the centre is much more attractive and that’s where we were staying. Once checked in, it was time to explore. We walked down to the plaza, past brightly coloured buildings to were all the action was. This area was very busy with tourist climbing on and off the strange shaped buses that transport them on tequila tours. An early diner in the historic La Fonda restaurant was then followed by a relaxing evening to recover from the long drive.

Arriving in Tequila

Arriving in Tequila

Guadalajara Bridge

Guadalajara Bridge

The activity for the next day was a tour of a tequila factory. For that we had booked a visit at the long established and well respected Casa Herradura 15km outside of town. The distillery is a grand walled establishment set amongst manicured lawns and historic buildings, with the mountains for a back drop. Our tour was in english and shared with six other guests, four Mexicans and two Brazilians. Our guide Fernanda first explained the history before showing us the the family house and the bottling plant.

Tequila Distillery Casa Herradura (meaning House of Horseshoe)

Tequila Distillery Casa Herradura (meaning House of Horseshoe)

Casa Herradura

Casa Herradura

We then moved on to the agave preparation area. The agave plant is the key ingredient in the making of tequila and it needs to be trimmed of its foliage before being put into the ovens. Continuing our tour, we passed the ovens, the crushing process, the liquid extraction and all the way to the filtration cellar. The cellar contains stills that filtrate the raw agave liquid into pure tequila. Finally it was time to taste the finished article, of which we sampled three, surprisingly we concluded the pure 55% was our favourite.

Preparing the agave plant

Preparing the agave plant

Agave ready for processing at Casa Herradura

Agave ready for processing at Casa Herradura

Oven

Oven

Agave processing

Agave processing

Filtration plant

Filtration plant

Tequila tasting

Tequila tasting

Field of  blue agave

Field of blue agave

By now it was “muy caliente” so we retired to our apartment until the early evening. By six pm it was cool enough to venture out and we made our way down to the central plaza. Here it was a hive of Saturday activities which kept us entertained for several hours. There were bands playing, people dancing, performers on an open stage and some dare devil rope artists called “Papantly Flyer” from the state of Veracruz. Four guys made up the “Papantly Flyer”, they would climb a trimmed plan tree, rope them selves up and then dive off the top spinning in the air as the rope unwound, all without any safety harness, spectacular but crazy.

Tequila Plaza

Tequila Plaza

Tequila tour transport

Tequila tour transport

Tequila Street

Tequila Street

Street of Tequila

Street of Tequila

Street art in Tequila

Street art in Tequila

Flying fearless mexican act

Flying fearless mexican act

Climbing up the tree

Climbing up the tree

Finally, before returning to our apartment we got chatting to three guys on horseback who offered us tequila before we both went on our way.

Chatting with their friendly barber

Chatting with their friendly barber

Dos caballeros in Tequila for the Fiesta

Dos caballeros in Tequila for the Fiesta

The following day we left the lovely town of Tequila and returned to Guadalajara to start the next stage of our journey around Mexico.

A two hour flight north from Guadalajara got us to our next location, the city of Chihuahua. We also had a time zone change and were now one hour earlier than in Guadalajara. The first task of the day was to buy our train tickets for our onward travel, billed as one of the worlds most amazing train journeys . This achieved, we had time to look around the city. Although not a particularly attractive city it does have some nice buildings and statues in the centre, but most of the colour is provided by the traditional dressed indigenous Tarahumara. The Tarahumara call themselves “Raramuri” which means “Barefoot Runner” and because they are famous for their long distance running. Today they are attracted to the cities to try and make a better living than can be achieved in their harsh rural homeland.

City sign

City sign

Chihuahua, chihuahua

Chihuahua, chihuahua

Chihuahua Street Art

Chihuahua Street Art

Cathedral

Cathedral

Quinta Gameros

Quinta Gameros

Two days in Chihuahua and then our real adventure begins. From Chihuahua we took the Chepe train almost 700km, south through the Copper Canyon, to its terminus in the coastal town of Los Mochis. However, this was not done in one long journey, we split it up to allow us to explore the area on route.

The first leg was a six and a half hour trip on the Chepe Regional train from Chihuahua to Creel. There is only one train every two days and ours left at 06:00am, so a very early start was required. We chugged out of Chihuahua station just as the sun was rising and headed across an arid plain with cultivated land or livestock on either side of the track.

Chepe Regional Train leaving Chihuahua

Chepe Regional Train leaving Chihuahua

Views between Chihuahua and Creel on the Chepe Train

Views between Chihuahua and Creel on the Chepe Train

Apple Orchards views from the train

Apple Orchards views from the train

Apple Orchard outside of Chihuahua

Apple Orchard outside of Chihuahua

It had been quite chilly in Chihuahua and much cooler than we had experienced so far in Mexico, so it didn’t come as a surprise to see a hard frost on the fields. The cultivated land then turned to vast orchards of apples although the trees were bare this time of year. The track now started to climb up into the mountains and scenery changed with it. Alpine meadows, mountain rivers and steep gorges replaced the cultivated land at the start of our journey. But what was the biggest surprise was that there was snow, we never expected to encounter snow in Mexico. By now the sky was clear and the sun was shining which provided the perfect light to appreciated the beautiful surroundings.

On our way to Creel

On our way to Creel

Chepe train

Chepe train

View from the train

View from the train

Soon after mid-day we arrived in Creel our overnight location. We got off the train and soon realised it really was quite cold even in the sun. We were in the mountains after all and at about 2,400m. Our hosts met us at the station and whisked us off to the apartment we had booked. A charming rustic place with cooking/dinning facilities and sleeping possibilities on two floors, we were recommended to sleep upstairs as it would be warmer.
We took a private excursion in the afternoon to explore the area. A visit to the land owned by the indigenous Tarahumara allowed us to see some unique rock formations and browse the local crafts on sell. Whilst there, we were able to visit the Mision de San Ignacio a church that incorporate the beliefs of both the catholic faith and the Tarahumara people.

Creel

Creel

Valle de los Hongos Mushrooms rock formation on the Tarahumara land

Valle de los Hongos Mushrooms rock formation on the Tarahumara land

Mision de San Ignacio, Tarahumara people

Mision de San Ignacio, Tarahumara people

Inside the Mision of San Ignacio, kept very simple to allow the Tarahumara to dance as it is how they worship

Inside the Mision of San Ignacio, kept very simple to allow the Tarahumara to dance as it is how they worship

The tour ended at Lago de Arareco, a beautiful body of water surrounded by a tranquil forest, an ideal place for us to stretch our legs before an early dinner back in town.

Lake Arareco

Lake Arareco

Suitable fed it was back to the apartment to light the fire as the outside temperature was now approaching freezing. After a bit of resistance we finally got it lit and the room slowly began to warm, assisted by an additional gas fire. However, it was still to cold to venture into the bathroom for a shower.

Our wood fire in Creel

Our wood fire in Creel

Due to a change in train schedules our original two nights in Creel was cut short to one, so the next day we were on the move again. Another early start to catch the Chepe Express train from Creel to Divisadero meant leaving the apartment at 07:15 and braving the -2C outside temperature. This leg of our train journey was even more beautiful than the day before. The track wound its way further up in to the mountains and through dense pine forests. Unlike the previous day there were no settlements up here just nature and scenery. It then descended a little to arrive at our next destination of Divisadero. We had now lost any sign of the snow, although the temperature hadn’t increased much.

On the Chepe Express from Creel to Divisadero

On the Chepe Express from Creel to Divisadero

Train track from Creel to Divisadero

Train track from Creel to Divisadero

Our hotel room was warm and comfortable and we had no desire to venture far during the rest of the day, just a walk up to the sister hotel for dinner. The sister hotel was the smarter residence and had great views over the canyon. We felt that we had the best of both worlds, our comfortable and much more affordable place with access to the luxury up the hill.

Our hotel at Divisadero

Our hotel at Divisadero

The Mirador Hotel where we had our meals

The Mirador Hotel where we had our meals

The following day was all about the main purpose of the train journey: to see the Copper Canyon. The Copper Canyon, Barrancas del Cobre in Mexican, is the most spectacular view of an interlinking canyon system that is longer and deeper than the Grand Canyon in USA. With the small community of Divisadero sitting right on the canyon rim.
We wanted to see this natural wonder from as many vantage points as possible. We felt we needed to first get from the outer rim to the inner rim so as to get the best view of the gorge. There was a number of options to achieve this but we decided to take the “Zip-Line”, and not just any old one, the longest and fastest in the world (that was until 2018 when Dubai built one 300 meters longer but slower). First step was to get our safety helmet and harness and then proceed to the launch site.

Geared up, ready for the Zip-line

Geared up, ready for the Zip-line

After being explained the safety measures we launched ourselves off the “Zip-Line” platform and in to the abyss. The journey from the canyons outer to inner rim took only 2 minutes, covered a distance of one and half miles (2.5km) and reached a speed of over 80 mile per hour (130km/h). By the time we had reached the “Zip-Line” terminus we had descended 1500 feet (457 meters) and had the most incredible view of the outer canyon on the way down.

End of the Zip-line looking back toward the start

End of the Zip-line looking back toward the start

Malcolm on the Zip-line

Malcolm on the Zip-line

Ready to jump Zip-line

Ready to jump Zip-line

We were now on a rock outcrop that forms part of the inner rim of the canyon and provided views down into a river gorge hundreds of meters below us. Once unhooked from the “Zip-Line” we started the walk up the cliff face to catch a cable car that would return us to the outer rim. For the first couple of hundred meters we were still carrying all our “Zip-Line” equipment but were then able to deposit it before making the final ascent to the cable car station. All around us were spectacular views and endless opportunities for photos.

Rock outcrop known as Eagle Nest

Rock outcrop known as Eagle Nest

Canyon view

Canyon view

Canyon view

Canyon view

Our return to the outer rim was more sedate in the cable car but still provided some amazing views and yet more photo opportunities. However, we didn’t return directly but did a bit of shopping instead. All around the cable station the indigenous Tarahumara had set up stalls to sell their wears and in particular the intricate baskets. We watched two girls making them from reads and couldn’t resist buying a couple to add to our vast collection of local crafts from all around the world.

Raramuri girl or Tarahumara girl weaving a basket

Raramuri girl or Tarahumara girl weaving a basket

Weaving basket

Weaving basket

Once back on the outer rim we proceeded to hike along its edge, stopping regularly to admire the scenery and take yet more photos. Around every corner there was a new view, be it of a massive eroded rock formations or a boulder teetering on the cliff edge, it was a true natural wonder.

Canyon view

Canyon view

Canyon view

Canyon view

Turkey vulture flying over Copper Canyon

Turkey vulture flying over Copper Canyon

Canyon view

Canyon view

It was then a transfer back to the hotel for a late lunch and a bit of relaxation.

Any activity on our last day in Divisadero was rather curtailed by the heavy rain that arrived in early afternoon. We did manage a short walk but then took advantage of the weather and caught up on a bit of travel admin.

Heavy rain once again greeted us for our third and final leg of the train journey. Today we were descending from the mountains to the coast. Around 09:30 the train splashed its way out of Divisadero station bound for Los Mochis. For the next four hours we would traverse the mountains, through lush river gorges and in and out of narrow tunnels cut into the rock face. The scenery was stunning and even surpassed what we had seen on the first two legs.

Divisadero train station, a wet departure

Divisadero train station, a wet departure

Train track at Barrancas del Cobre

Train track at Barrancas del Cobre

Montain scenery from train

Montain scenery from train

We are heading towards the bridge in the valley

We are heading towards the bridge in the valley

Journey to Los Moches

Journey to Los Moches

Waterfall and memorial

Waterfall and memorial

Memorial sign and sculpture

Memorial sign and sculpture

One of the 86 tunnels

One of the 86 tunnels

Chepe Express on our way to Los Moches

Chepe Express on our way to Los Moches

Mountain scenery

Mountain scenery

Leaving the mountain

Leaving the mountain

Scenery from the train

Scenery from the train

As we descended through the mountains the flora began to change. The pine forests had gone and been replaced by more deciduous tree species. There was also more colour with spring blooms of pink, yellow and white brightening up the predominant green landscape.

Forest in bloom

Forest in bloom

Finally as the terrain flattened out, fields of crops and livestock appeared. The tree cover was now more sparse and dispersed with giant Cardon Cactus. This was now the scenery all the way to our final destination of Los Mochis.

Out of the mountains, on to the plain, cactus and livestock

Out of the mountains, on to the plain, cactus and livestock

Once we had checked-in to our hotel in Los Mochis there was time to look around the central plaza. It was the “International Day of the Women” so lots of things were going on. The plaza was full of stalls selling everything you could think of, there were artists performing on stage, the church had a full congregation and there was a parade of floats. Enough to keep us amused for quite a while.

View from our hotel room toward Los Mochis central plaza

View from our hotel room toward Los Mochis central plaza

Los Mochis square

Los Mochis square

Los Mochis parade

Los Mochis parade

Parade

Parade

Our visit to Los Mochis was just for one night and the following morning we flew off to start the third section of our Mexican adventure.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Security
One thing that is very noticeable when you travel in Mexico is the level of security. I don’t think we have ever seen so many armed police in one place as we did in Mexico City. This didn’t change when we ventured out into the more rural areas. It was common to see several police officers in the open back of a pick-up, all armed and one standing with a mounted machine gun. It was the same in other big cities, where it was common to see heavily armed (a rifle, hand gun and baton) police patrolling the streets. There was even a security guard on the train from Chihuahua to Creel armed with a rifle and hand gun.
On the one hand it makes you feel secure but on the other it makes you wonder how dangerous it is to warrant this level of security. But to be fair we never felt in any danger during our whole stay in Mexico.

Chepe Train through the Copper Canyon
The Copper Canyon railroad is a marvel of engineering that took almost 90 years to build and cost US$90million. It was opened in 1961 and was designed to connect the Pacific Ocean with Mexico’s central desert territory of Chihuahua. At over 700km in length it crosses 36 bridges and passes through 86 tunnels on its way across the coastal plain, over the mountains and into the central desert. Once in the mountains in zig-zags through river gorges clinging to the cliff face, reaching a height of 2500 meters in some places. It is a true feat of engineering and a wonderful experience for those travelling on it.

Map of Chepe Train

Map of Chepe Train

The speed limit on Mexican Roads
When driving on Mexican roads it doesn’t take long to realise that all the speed limit signs are wrong, at least according to the locals. As a rule of thumb you need to add 20km/h to that advertised so a que of traffic doesn’t build up behind you. The only exception to this rule is when there is a police patrol in the area. Anne quickly became accustomed to this rule and followed soon after.

Coronaviras (Covid-19)
We left the UK on 12 February and have been in Mexico ever since. When we left there had only been a few cases of Coronaviras reported in Europe and almost all those in the UK could be attributed to a single carrier. At that time it was China and a few other far eastern counties that were really suffering.
Now we are in mid-March and the virus has spread rapidly. Europe appears to be suffering the bulk of the new confirmed cases and associated deaths, with Italy being the worst affected. On the other hand China, the source of the virus and hardest hit by it, appears to be getting it under control with only 19 new cases reported on Wednesday 11 March. To put that into context, that is 19 of 80,754 (3,136 of whom have died) confirmed cases since the end of January.
During our time in Mexico only 3 people have been confirmed to have Coronaviras, all in Mexico City. Therefore the population is aware but not over concerned. No one is wearing a mask because of it, there is not a shortage of toilet paper and life is going on as normal. This level of calm is likely to change for us next week when we travel into the USA where the cases are on the increase. At the time of writing there had been 1,875 confirmed cases and 41 deaths, of which 252 cases and 4 deaths had been reported in California, the state we are visiting. President Trump is initiating various measures he believes will fight the spread of the virus, one of which is to ban all foreign visitors from mainland Europe (this excluded the UK at the moment) for at least one month. But as we are arriving from Mexico we don’t expect to have a problem.
Check the California blogs to see how we got on.

Posted by MAd4travel 19:22 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

Mexico City

Route: Mexico City Area

semi-overcast 25 °C

FEBRUARY 2020

Our next journey took us away from the inclement weather of a British winter to the much more pleasant climate of Mexico. Due to the benefits provided by the jet stream our route took us north over Greenland, with nice views of the winter ice through the aircraft window, then down through Canada and USA before arriving in Mexico City nearly 12 hours later. Once the formalities were dealt with we took a taxi to our apartment in downtown Mexico City. Although the apartment wasn’t as good as we had expected it was ideally situated to visit all the main attractions the city had to offer.
Jet-laged and bit disoriented by the six hour time difference our bodies took a bit of time to adjust so the first few days we took it easy. We explored the historic streets that were right on our door step and admired the colonial architecture that was all around us. We checked out the local and tradition supermarkets to purchase our food and managed a few of visits to local attractions.

Historic Centre in Mexico

Historic Centre in Mexico

Street view in Mexico Historic centre

Street view in Mexico Historic centre

Mexico historic centre

Mexico historic centre

Mexico historic centre

Mexico historic centre

Ottoman Clock tower

Ottoman Clock tower

The first of those was the national cathedral that sat on the the edge of Plaza de Constitution. A grand building with fine carving covering the outside and an equally impressive interior dominated by its vast organ complex.

Cathedral

Cathedral

Cathedral

Cathedral

This was followed by the intriguing “House of Tiles”. Here, in the nineteenth century, the son of an aristocrat wanted to prove his worth to his father. To do this he undertook the renovation of one of the family mansions and to make a statement covered the exterior in tiles. The building is also beautifully decorated inside and is now a favourite restaurant for local Mexicans to have breakfast. Today the building is protected and stands out as something quite different to all those around it.

House of Tiles

House of Tiles

Whilst travelling we like to send postcards to friends and family. This usually requires a post office visit to acquire stamps and often turns into a fascinating experience, for which the one in Mexico City didn’t disappoint. The stamp purchase was quite straightforward, especially with Anne’s grasp of Spanish. But what was amazing was the building. Palacio Postal, as it is called, had an attractive colonial exterior but it was the interior that caught the eye. It was like stepping back in time as none of the fixtures or fittings had been changed since the early 20th century. And not only that they had been maintained beautifully. When we left we hoped that more stamps would be required making an excuse to return and look around some more.

Palacio Postal or Post Office Palace

Palacio Postal or Post Office Palace

Palacio Postal

Palacio Postal

One of Mexico City’s most magnificent building is the Palacio de Belle Artes so a visit was a must. Built between 1932 and 1934 the exterior of the building is primarily Art Nouveau and Neoclassical and the interior is mainly Art Deco. The building is best known for its murals by Diego Rivera, Siqueiros and others, as well as the many exhibitions and theatrical performances its hosts, including the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico.
Our visit was to see the exhibitions and architecture both inside and out. Architecturally the building is impressive from the outside but even more so once you get inside. We spent a very enjoyable hour or so wandering around the first and second floors admiring the massive wall murals and taking in a very interesting exhibition dedicated to the life of Emiliano Zapata Salazar. Emiliano Zapata Salazar was a leading figure in the Mexican Revolution, the main leader of the peasant revolution in the state of Morelos, and the inspiration of the agrarian movement called Zapatismo.

Palacio de Belle Artes

Palacio de Belle Artes

Inside of the Palacio de Belle Artes

Inside of the Palacio de Belle Artes

By now we were getting a good feel for the city and enjoying our exploration of its central attractions, but were also keen to venture further afield. For over ten years, and following a TV documentary, we had dreamt of witnessing the Monarch Butterfly migration (the longest on land) and Mexico City is the ideal place to do this from. So with the assistance of our friend and Mexico City resident, Flor, a trip was arranged.

The Monarch Butterfly Biosphere Reserve is a world heritage site situated in a protected pine forest about 100km north east of Mexico City. The morning sun hadn’t risen by the time we met our tour guides but by 07:00 we were loaded in the tour bus with 12 other guests and on our way out of the city. The drive itself was interesting as we were able to see the city suburbs and business district of Santa Fe as we headed into the hills. The area we were entering into is known as the volcano belt and as the road climbed through the forest and past fields of avocados we could see conical peaks all around us. It was a 3 hour drive to reach the reserve and after a brief explanation about the Monarch Butterfly we began our climb into the forest to meet the creatures in question.

Monarch Butterfly

Monarch Butterfly

Millions of Monarch Butterflies over-winter here between October and March and then return back north into the USA and Canada for the summer. As we climbed up through the pine forest we couldn’t believe the number of Monarchs that were feeding on the flora all around us. Photograph stops were numerous, both to capture the moment and to catch our breath as this walk was at altitude, around 3,300 meters.

Monarch Butterflies feeding

Monarch Butterflies feeding

Once at the top of the path we then descended into a valley. It was at this point that we were really blown away by what we saw. Millions upon millions of butterflies filled the air, the trees and small streams that ran through the forest.

Pine tree branch covered in Monarch Butterflies

Pine tree branch covered in Monarch Butterflies

Monarch Butterflies clinging to a tree trunk

Monarch Butterflies clinging to a tree trunk

Butterflies resting on a tree trunk

Butterflies resting on a tree trunk

Monarch butterfly gathering

Monarch butterfly gathering

Snowing Butterlfies

Snowing Butterlfies

As they went about their business it felt like it was snowing butterflies. We paused every few meters to take photographs and would become yet another perch for them to settle on. They came so close and in such quantity you could hear the beat of their wings, it was truly a magical moment.

Butterflies covering stream

Butterflies covering stream

More butterfies looking for water

More butterfies looking for water

Monarch Butterfly looking for anything to land on

Monarch Butterfly looking for anything to land on

By the time we had climbed back out of the valley and down to the car park we had spent around three hours in the company of these magnificent creatures and had fulfilled a long held dream. As we sat chatting over lunch everyone agreed what an incredible experience it had been and one that will be remembered and cherished for life.

Preparing tacos for lunch

Preparing tacos for lunch

The kitchen

The kitchen

Our next day of discovery only required a short walk from the apartment. Situated right in the centre of Mexico City is the most important temple of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, and now known as Temple Major. This is a relatively recent discovery which only came to light during the construction of the city’s metro system. The reason it had been hidden for so long was because the invading Spanish destroyed the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan and built what is now Mexico City on top of the ruins (see”Mexico City” below for more details).
Albeit only a fraction of the original temple complex remain, this is a magnificent archaeological site, made even more impressive by its location. The Great Temple, devoted to Huitzilopochtli (God of War) and Tlaloc (God of Rain & Agriculture), measuring approximately 100 by 80 m (328 by 262 ft) at its base would have dominated the Sacred Precinct of Tenochtitlan. The construction of the first temple began sometime after 1325, and it was then rebuilt six times.
Wooden walkways allow you to walk around the site without damaging the ancient structures and provides excellent viewing points. At the end of the walkway is a museum containing many of the artefacts found on the site.
We spent several hours admiring the Aztec engineering and artistry, leaving with a much better understanding of one of the worlds most famous civilisations.

Temple Major

Temple Major

Temple Major

Temple Major

Temple Major museum, God with his liver showing

Temple Major museum, God with his liver showing

Temple Major, the dismembered sister of the god in the museum

Temple Major, the dismembered sister of the god in the museum

Temple Major

Temple Major

Temple Major

Temple Major

Continuing our adventures further afield we took a trip to Coyoacan with our local friend Flor. Although a town in its own right, Coyoacan has now been swallowed up by the Greater Mexico City. Fortunately it has retained its charm and has the bonus of being connected to the Mexico City Metro network, which is what we used for our visit. The focus for the excursion was to visit the house and museum of Frida Kahlo. Frida is one of Mexico’s most famous artists and was married to another one, Diego Rivera. The museum is small so it didn’t take long to look around. We left, not being a fan of her work, but with a great admiration of what she stood for and for what she achieved considering all her health issues.
From the museum we walked to Coyoacan centre to find somewhere for lunch. On our way we called in at a traditional market where stalls were packed tightly together displaying their goods on every free surface including the ceiling. It also contained many eating establishments all offering a similar basic menu of traditional Mexican food. It turned out to be a fascinating and interesting experience made all the better for having our own local guide and friend, Flor.

Market

Market

Market

Market

Market stall specialising on Day of the Dead

Market stall specialising on Day of the Dead

Mexico spice

Mexico spice

Piñata

Piñata

Crystallised fruits in Coyoacán Market (including a cactus in green)

Crystallised fruits in Coyoacán Market (including a cactus in green)

A nice lunch was then taken at the central plaza before returning to Mexico City’s historical centre. An enjoyable day was then completed by a Tequila supper on the roof terrace of our apartment.

Tequila on the roof terrace

Tequila on the roof terrace

After a restful day catching up on a bit of travel admin we were then on the move again, this time it was a visit to Teotihuacan. At 07:00 we meet our friend Flor and our guide for the day Fernando outside the apartment and headed off for a day full of history and discovery.
Our first stop was still in the city at a place known as the Plaza de las Tres Culturas. The name "Three Cultures" is in recognition of the three periods of Mexican history. The square contains the archaeological site of the city-state of Tlatelolco and is flanked by the oldest European school of higher learning in the Americas called the College of Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (built in 1536 by friar Juan de Torquemada) and by a massive housing complex built in 1964. Fernando explained the history and significance of the site and what the rest of the day had in store for us, it was at this point we realised we were accompanied by an excellent guide.

Plaza of the Three Cultures

Plaza of the Three Cultures

We then fought our way through traffic to reach the small town of Acolman on the outskirts of the city. The reason for the stop was to visit its famous monument, the Temple and Covent of San Agustin.

Monastery Acolman from Conquistador period

Monastery Acolman from Conquistador period

Cross from the time of the Conquistador, with some images such as flower to attract the locals

Cross from the time of the Conquistador, with some images such as flower to attract the locals

Now out of the city, progress was much faster and we soon arrived at the highlight of the day, the ancient city of Teotihuacan.
Teotihuacan is an ancient Mesoamerican city located 40 kilometres northeast of Mexico City and is the site of the most architecturally significant pyramids built in the pre-Columbian Americas. It is the most important and largest pre-Columbian city in Mexico and at its peak, in the first millennium CE (Current Era), it had a population estimated at 125,000 or more. This would make it at least the sixth-largest city in the world during that time.
We spent the rest of the day walking around this vast archaeological site, climbing pyramids and being amazed by the quality of the murals and carvings. Fernando explained the history of the site based on archaeologist assumptions, as this ancient civilisation had no written records to refer to.

Pyramid of the Moon

Pyramid of the Moon

Starting climbing the Pyramid of the Sun

Starting climbing the Pyramid of the Sun

View from the Pyramid of the Moon

View from the Pyramid of the Moon

Nobel residence

Nobel residence

Mural inside one of the many ancient houses

Mural inside one of the many ancient houses

Details of a mural inside one of the many uncovered buildings

Details of a mural inside one of the many uncovered buildings

City of Teotihuacán

City of Teotihuacán

View from the top of Pyramid of the Sun

View from the top of Pyramid of the Sun

View of the Pyramid of the Moon from the Pyramid of the Sun

View of the Pyramid of the Moon from the Pyramid of the Sun

View over the ancient mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán

View over the ancient mesoamerican city of Teotihuacán

Jade Goddess

Jade Goddess

Temple of the feathered serpent in Teotihuacán

Temple of the feathered serpent in Teotihuacán

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Temple of the Feathered Serpent

Our final day in Mexico City was a city tour, courtesy of our friend Flor. We started with a walk down Av. Paseo de la Reforma past the skyscrapers to the Angel of Independence then on to Chapultepec Park. Being Sunday the roads were closed which meant that locals could cycle, jog, walk, skate and even exercise without the fear of being run over.

Business Centre

Business Centre

Business Centre

Business Centre

Sunday, car free Business centre

Sunday, car free Business centre

Chapultepec Park is a large leafy place with lakes, a castle, sculptures, museums, to name just a few of its attractions. We had a brief visit to the Modern Arts Museum and took a look at the castle on our way to our lunch destination in the up market Polanco district.

Park Chapultepec

Park Chapultepec

Statues in the Chapultepec Park

Statues in the Chapultepec Park

Frida Kahlo famous self portrait

Frida Kahlo famous self portrait

Lunch was at the best taco place in town and it was really good. A walking tour around Polanco followed and the day finished with a coffee at the Mirador Torre Latino. At 166 meters the tower used to be the tallest building in Mexico and still provides great views of the city, especially the Palacio de Belle Artes, from its cafe viewing deck.

Torre Latinoamericana

Torre Latinoamericana

Palacio de Belle Artes from the Torre Latinoamericana

Palacio de Belle Artes from the Torre Latinoamericana

Torre Latinoamericana

Torre Latinoamericana

And that was our 12 day stay in Mexico City. The following day we boarded a plane for Guadalajara and the start of more Mexican adventures.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Mexico
Mexico, officially the United Mexican States, is a country in the southern portion of North America. It is bordered to the north by the United States; to the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; to the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and to the east by the Gulf of Mexico.
It has a population of 127 million with 9 million living in its capital Mexico City. This figure increases to 21.3 million when you include the suburbs (the 10th largest in the world). It is a democracy but has incurred political instability for most of its existence. The majority of its people, 83%, follow the catholic religion and its GDP is the 15th largest in the world.

Mexico Flag

Mexico Flag

Living in Mexico City (Historic Centre)
Spending two weeks in Mexico City’s historic centre allows you to get a real feel for area. It is always busy with people going about their business and traders spill out onto the street to attract potential clients to see what they have to sale. It also appears that streets have trading specialities, around us we had the music street selling instruments, speakers (with the volume tested regularly) and other associated accessories. Close to that is a street that only sells phones and other associated technologies. We passed a street that specialised in jewellery and even one that only had chicken meat for sale.
As usual we self-catered as much as possible which meant visiting food shops of all types. The local supermarket had the usual products and provided for most of our needs with one of the numerous convenience shops catering for what we had forgotten to buy. However, the most interesting place was Mecardo 77, a vast covered traditional market with stalls selling everything you could think of. It catered for the specialist Mexican taste, selling a large array of spices, meats, vegetables, fruits and even fried scorpions and grubs.

Grubs for sale at mercado 77

Grubs for sale at mercado 77

Delicacy at Mercado 77

Delicacy at Mercado 77

Mercado 77

Mercado 77

Mercardo 77

Mercardo 77

The more time you spend in the city the more you learn about it.
One interesting fact is that the city is sinking by around 10cm a year. This is because it has been built on a dried up lake. It first became a capital city in the time of the Aztecs when it was known as Tenochtitlan. The city was originally built in 1325 on an island in Lake Texcoco. This worked well until 1521 when the invading Spanish completely destroyed the city using their modern military hardware. In 1524, the municipality of Mexico City was established, known as Mexico-Tenochtitlan and as of 1585, it became officially known as Ciudad de Mexico (Mexico City). The subsequent damming and diversion of rivers that fed lake Texcoco caused it to completely dry up. This in turn allowed the city to spread out across the now dry valley and create what we see today.
At 2,240meters above sea level Mexico City is one of the highest capitals in the world. This altitude takes a bit of getting used to when arrive. The thiner air makes you feel a bit breathless and just doing ordinary things requires more effort.
The city also suffers from a high level of pollution. In the 1990s it had become infamous as one of the world's most polluted cities; however, it has become a model for drastically lowering pollution levels. By 2014 carbon monoxide pollution had dropped drastically, while levels of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide were nearly three times lower than in 1992. Despite the cleanup, the metropolitan area is still the most ozone-polluted part of the country, with ozone levels 2.5 times beyond WHO-defined safe limits. Something we noticed when returning from excursions outside of the city. Especially when coming back from Teotihuacan, the pollution haze could be seen hanging over the city from some kilometres away.

Posted by MAd4travel 12:52 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

France & Malta 2020

Route: Hove - Lyon - Grenoble - Morestel - Lyon - Hove - Marsaskala - Hove

sunny 15 °C

JANUARY to FEBRUARY 2020

The end of 2019 was something quite different for us as we spent Xmas and New Year in the UK. Usually this time of year is spent in the southern hemisphere where the weather is much more pleasant. We stayed with our good friend Rob, who really knows how to celebrate this festive season, and was able to catch up with friends and family at the same time.

The Tree

The Tree

Papillote a chocolate speciality of Lyon area

Papillote a chocolate speciality of Lyon area

Our Xmas Lunch

Our Xmas Lunch

In early January we travelled to France. First we stayed in Grenoble to spend some time with Anne’s dad. Then had a couple of days in Morestel with good friends David and Sue. Finally finishing our trip in Lyon catching up with family.

Quai du Rhone

Quai du Rhone

Getting good luck from the LOU Mascot

Getting good luck from the LOU Mascot

Rugby Match Lyon (LOU) vs Northampton (The Saints)

Rugby Match Lyon (LOU) vs Northampton (The Saints)

Lyon Mural

Lyon Mural

The Rhone

The Rhone

One of many murals in Lyon, this one is full of Lyon famous people over the centuries

One of many murals in Lyon, this one is full of Lyon famous people over the centuries

Then after a brief stop in the UK we were off again, this time Malta was our destination. A three hour flight south changed the weather from cold, damp and dreary to bright and sunny with a temperature in the high teens. Immigration and car hire formalities were swiftly dealt with and in no time we were in our apartment in the attractive fishing village of Marsaskala.

Malta view from the air

Malta view from the air

Our apartment was modern and comfortable with a balcony that looked out over the fishing harbour and right in the centre of town. Ideal for a bit of relaxation in between excursions to explore the island.

View from our apartment in Marsaskala

View from our apartment in Marsaskala

I can safely say that during our stay we managed to visit all corners of the island and left with a pretty good idea of what it had to offer. The one exception was a visit to the neighbouring island of Gozo.
The south of the island is the most built up and at times it feels a bit claustrophobic as you drive through the concrete jungle that seems to spread out continuously from the capital Valletta. But usually by the the time you reach the coast the scenery improves and the traffic calms.
The north of the island is much less developed and more pleasing to the eye. Small farms grow vegetables, mostly for domestic consumption, and the lack of buildings allow an uninterrupted view of the island’s rocky terrain.
Away from the urban sprawl Malta has a lot to keep you interested. The old town of Valletta and Mdina are steeped in history and we found it fascinating to look around. The islands archeological sites are also worth a visit, we particularly liked the Neolithic remains at Hagar Qim and Mnajdra. There are a few quaint fishing villages that are worth exploring for the colour and activity, Marsaskala and Marsaxlokk being two of the best.

Fishing Village of Marsaxlokk

Fishing Village of Marsaxlokk

Traditional fishing boat

Traditional fishing boat

Mdina

Mdina

Mdina

Mdina

Street in Mdina

Street in Mdina

Detailed iron work in Mdina

Detailed iron work in Mdina

View from Mdina

View from Mdina

Hagar Qim

Hagar Qim

Hagar Qim

Hagar Qim

Valletta harbour

Valletta harbour

St Paul's Cathedral

St Paul's Cathedral

Overview of St Paul's Cathedral, Valletta

Overview of St Paul's Cathedral, Valletta

Inside St Paul's Cathedral, Valletta

Inside St Paul's Cathedral, Valletta

St Paul's Cathedral Ceiling in Valletta

St Paul's Cathedral Ceiling in Valletta

Valletta Street

Valletta Street

Finally just driving around is a pleasure, once you get away from the urban sprawl. Narrow lanes lined with cactus fences take you to tiny hamlets and then on to sheer cliffs that stretch all along the islands coast. The “Blue Grotto” is a the foot of one of these impressive cliffs.

Blue Grotto

Blue Grotto

Gozo from Malta

Gozo from Malta

Cliff

Cliff

Rural road

Rural road

And so to the end of an enjoyable week in Malta and back to the cold of England. Not for long though, Mexico was calling and just 10 days away.

Posted by MAd4travel 13:31 Archived in Malta Comments (0)

Dubai

Route: Colombo - Dubai - London

sunny 26 °C

December 2019

As the plane approached Dubai the clouds parted to reveal a pristine desert below us. Then as we got closer the view began to change, the desert was now filled with small construction sites that finally turned into a sprawling concrete jungle.
Dubai airport is clean, smart and efficient so passing through it was easy and fast. With our bags collected and a taxi secured we left the airport and headed for the bright lights of downtown. It was evening now, all the roads and buildings were illuminated, so much so that the level of visibility wasn’t much different to the daylight hours.
Our apartment was on the 13th floor with the balcony looking across to the Dubai Mall. Once settled in, we spent some time out on the balcony admiring the massive skyscrapers all around us and being dazzled by the amount of artificial light on display together with the variety of colour.

View from our apartment balcony

View from our apartment balcony

View from our apartment balcony

View from our apartment balcony

View from our apartment balcony

View from our apartment balcony

Our apartment block, we are staying on the 13th floor

Our apartment block, we are staying on the 13th floor

Before arriving we had perused the attractions that Dubai had to offer. Many were family oriented (not of interest to us), many were silly money (out of our price range) and others offered something that we had been lucky enough to experience before and didn’t need to do again. However, we did find a few that interested us and managed to do all of them during our stay.

Our first visit was to the Dubai Mall, not because we wanted to shop, although we did need to go to the Waitrose supermarket that was there, but to experience the vastness of it and to see the shear number of outlets in it. It was also on our doorstep and had the novelty of visiting it without having to go outside. The Mall was connected to our apartment block by a number of elevated corridors all with conveyor walkways. No Poundshop or H&M in here, all the shops were high end and catering for the wealthy clientele that were circulating inside. It is very big, in fact the biggest mall in the world with 5.9 million square feet of internal floor area made up of 3.77 million of retail space and 2.13 for entertainment. It is also not very easy to find your way unless you download the app to help navigate you, conventional signage is a bit lacking. There are also buggies circulating for shoppers who can’t walk the vast floor space or just get tired.
Impressive as it was inside, the outside fountains stole the show. At a certain time in the evening an illuminated lake would become a spectacle of water jets that seemed to dance to the music that accompanied it. This was then followed by a light show on the outside of the Burj Khalifa, again accompanied by music and best viewed from the lake side.

The Fountain display, the show lasted 3 minutes and photo doesn't do it justice

The Fountain display, the show lasted 3 minutes and photo doesn't do it justice

Burj Khalifa at night

Burj Khalifa at night

Burj Khalifa light show

Burj Khalifa light show

Our second visit was to the Burj Khalifa, at 829.8meters the world tallest building. Not cheap, with the basic entrance at £50.00 per person, and that only gets you to the 125th floor viewing deck (there are 160 floors). An impressive structure and an interesting visit, especially the light show in the lift as you go up. The view from the deck was obviously amazing but still not worth £50.00.

View from the Burj Khalifa

View from the Burj Khalifa

View from Burj Khalifa

View from Burj Khalifa

View from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa

View from the 125th floor of the Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

Burj Khalifa

View from taxi on our way to stadium with light shining on Burj Khalifa

View from taxi on our way to stadium with light shining on Burj Khalifa

Next on the agenda was a day at the Dubai Rugby Sevens, this one had been planned for some time and tickets bought in advance. A full day of rugby was rather a lot to ask of Anne but she was great and agreed to join me. The day started with a 36km taxi ride out into the desert. A rather strange location for a venue that needs lots of water to maintain several rugby pitches to an international standard. What followed was an entertaining day of sevens rugby, enhanced by a cloudy sky filtering out the worst of the suns rays. We even had a bit of rain which seemed surreal considering we were in the desert. I also didn’t touch a drop of alcohol, not because of any local laws but for the fact that a small (33cl) can of Heineken cost £7.30.

Entrance to Rugby 7's tournament

Entrance to Rugby 7's tournament

Rugby 7's (England vs France)

Rugby 7's (England vs France)

Crowd at Rugby 7's

Crowd at Rugby 7's

Our last activity during our stay was to explore the coastal strip. This was partly done by taxi, aided by a very informative driver, and partly on foot. Our first stop was the supposed seven star hotel of Burj Al Arab Jumeirah. An impressive structure, but with a wow factor somewhat subdued due to all the other amazing buildings in the area.

Burj Al Arab Jumeirah

Burj Al Arab Jumeirah

Next it was a drive along the coast with insightful commentary from our taxi driver before we arrived at the start of the Dubai Marina Walk. This was listed as a highlight but let us some what underwhelmed. We started by walking along a pedestrianised zone lined with restaurants and gift shops, then finished on the sidewalk of an inland waterway filled with a few expensive boats. Even with the sea on one-side of us it felt claustrophobic from all the high rise hotels and apartments that we were required to negotiate. Even the architecture was uninspiring, resembling Disney-world more than cutting edge construction.

Marina Walk

Marina Walk

Marina walk street mural

Marina walk street mural

Marina walk street art

Marina walk street art

Marina Walk street mural

Marina Walk street mural

Dubai Marina, a very small portion of it

Dubai Marina, a very small portion of it

Dubai Ferris Wheel, the highest of it's kind at 210m

Dubai Ferris Wheel, the highest of it's kind at 210m



With that our time in Dubai had come to an end and the following day we flew back to the UK. In conclusion, we were pleased we had seen it, weren’t as impressed as expected and unlikely to return.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Dubai
Dubai is one of seven emirates making up the United Arab Emirates, the other six being: Abu Dhabi, Ajman, Fujairah, Was Al Khaimah, Sharjah and Umm Al Quwain.
The United Arab Emirates, sometimes simply called the Emirates, is a country in Western Asia at the southeast end of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf, bordering Oman to the east and Saudi Arabia to the south and west, as well as sharing maritime borders with Qatar to the west and Iran to the north. It has a population of 9.2 million, of which 1.4 million are Emirati citizens and the other 7.8 million expatriates.
Dubai has risen from a small fishing port to a sprawling modern city funded by oil money. But with the demand for oil set to decline its economy is diversifying into finance and tourism. In fact it is now the fifth most popular tourist destination in the world.

UAE Flag (Red is for sovereignty, Black for courage and power, white for peace and green for goodness and agriculture)

UAE Flag (Red is for sovereignty, Black for courage and power, white for peace and green for goodness and agriculture)

The Dubai Experience
It wasn’t very long after our arrival that we realised that there was something very different about this city. With most of it built in the 21st century it doesn’t resemble anywhere else that we have visited. It felt more like a movie set, a Sci-fi town or you had joined Jim Carrey in the “Truman Show”.
Very few people venture out on the streets and that is not because of the heat, it is quite mild at this time of the year, they stay in the buildings or use vehicles and connector bridges to get around. That is except for one of the few pedestrian only areas, where you do see a good number of tourist and nannies entertaining the children in their care.
The streets are clean (which is commendable) and manicured but lifeless. This is definitely not a London, Paris or New York.

Downtown Dubai street, its only 19h00 on a Saturday.

Downtown Dubai street, its only 19h00 on a Saturday.

There are no old vehicles, even the cheapest looks as though they haven’t been long out of the show room. There is also a disproportionate number of luxury cars which emphasises the wealth of the city. There is not many places in the world where the front few rows at traffic lights will consist of a Rolls Royce convertible, a Ferrari, a Bentley, a couple of Lexus and a top of the range Land Rover. It was also interesting to see the car show room segregation as we drove down one of the main roads, on the left were Bentley, Lamborghini, Ferrari and Maserati and on the right Toyota, Hyundai and VW.
We came to the conclusion that the bird population of the city was three. As we only ever saw a group of three doves at any one time. Although a couple of sparrows did make an appearance on our last day. There are also no dogs or cats, unless they are confined in the apartment blocks.
With the exception of a few bushes, ornamental trees and small patches of manicured lawns, there is no greenery in Dubai (hence the lack of bird life). I am sure this statement could be challenged but I believe it gives the general picture. What there is, is a lot of concrete and more is arriving by the day. For every new glistening sky scrapper there is another one being built next to it and that is not to mention the ongoing construction of the World Island and Dubai Creek .
The city has unbelievable wealth from the few home grown mega rich to the very wealthy foreigners who now call Dubai home (well at least for part of the year). For those with very deep pockets anything is possible, we even heard of a hotel where every room has its own private swimming pool and I am not talking about a plunge pool.
But not everyone is rich in Dubai, in fact the majority of residents aren’t. They are the people that work in the construction and service industries and who are generally not Emirati. There is plenty of employment in Dubai for these sectors and we understand wages are quite good. But what we were never able to ascertain is where they live, eat and socialise.
There appears to be no homelessness, at least not in the areas that tourist frequent. The government does not release official data regarding any local poverty levels, but independent studies suggest that this effects 19.5% of the population. However, it should be stressed that the government have policies in place to start tackling the problem.
Now I am not a city person so the above commentary may come over as a bit negative and I won’t make it worse by questioning the city’s climatic impact.
This is rather a long script of observations so I will stop now.

Posted by MAd4travel 09:12 Archived in United Arab Emirates Comments (1)

Sri Lanka

Route: Colombo - Wilpattu National Park - Dambulla - Kandy - Ella - Yala National Park - Mirissa - Colombo

sunny 30 °C

NOVEMBER 2019

Following our stop over in Bangkok, Thailand, we continued our Asian journey with a flight to Colombo, Sri Lanka. We were in Sri Lanka for a month and aimed to explore as much of it as possible. Our route went clockwise around the country, starting and finishing at Colombo airport.
Our arrival in Sri Lanka was very early in the morning (1am) and we're pleased at how quickly we were able to clear immigration and collect our bags. A short taxi ride got us to our accommodation for the rest of the night, a private hotel run by very friendly and helpful hosts.
After a good nights sleep, even if a bit short, and a hearty breakfast we were on our way to our first destination. What followed was a fascinating four hour drive, first through urban then rural Sri Lanka, to reach the Wilpattu Tree Houses, our accommodation for the next three days. As the name suggests our accommodation was best described as a cabin on stilts, about 10 meters off the ground and with great views of the lower tree canopy that was all around us. The level of comfort was actually a bit better than we might have expected. The one room cabin had its own bathroom, air-conditioning and a quite comfortable bed.

Our room is on the top floor

Our room is on the top floor

Our Tree House

Our Tree House

A monsoon shower had greeted our arrival at the Tree Houses, so sheltering from the rain was the first order of the day. The rain continued into the afternoon which meant we couldn’t do much other than organise our activities for the following day.

Fortunately by the next day the storm had cleared and the weather was good for our half day safari into the Wilpattu National Park. Soon after dawn we were in the park scouting for some of its iconic wildlife. It has a good population of Asian Elephant, Leopard and Sloth Bear, but unfortunately all eluded us, but on the plus side it's a beautiful park and saw lots of other wildlife. The next day was more of the same and equally enjoyable.

White throated kingfisher

White throated kingfisher

Water monitor lizard

Water monitor lizard

Asian Mongoose

Asian Mongoose

Toque Macaque

Toque Macaque

Mugger crocodile

Mugger crocodile

Bird of Prey

Bird of Prey

Crested Hawk-Eagle

Crested Hawk-Eagle

Samba Deer

Samba Deer

Peacock in a tree

Peacock in a tree

Croc

Croc

Jungle fowl, Sri Lanka National Bird

Jungle fowl, Sri Lanka National Bird

Land Monitor Lizard

Land Monitor Lizard

Wilpattu National Park

Wilpattu National Park

Painted Stork

Painted Stork

Wilpattu Lake

Wilpattu Lake

The afternoons were hot and humid. We had an early start each day, so after the safari we generally relaxed in the tree house. Excursions out onto our elevated deck to watch the bird life, and some mad Palm Squirrels, together with a short walk to a nearby lake were our only other activities.

From Wilpattu we had a scenic taxi ride south east, through the central lowlands, to the town of Dambulla. Our hotel was modern and comfortable and we seemed to be the only guests. The reason for our visit to this part of the country was to see two of Sri Lanka’s famous ancient monument.

The first was the Cave Temples of Dambulla. Only a few kilometres from our hotel we decided to make our own way there. A short walk to the main road followed by a 5 minute Tuk-Tuk ride got us to the entrance of the temple complex. Easy so far, but that wasn’t the case when it came to finding the ticket office. There were no signs that we could see and the directions we were given by different people didn’t seem to help. Finally we came across a monk who was much more helpful and we eventually found the ticket office. By now we had been wondering around for about 30 minutes, up and down slopes and in and out of the complex. But this hadn’t dulled our determination and we climbed up even more steps to the top of as massive bolder where the temples were located. In the end it was well worth the effort, the temples were not only amazing they were quite unique. Built between the surface of the bolder and an enormous rock overhang they numbered five with each being a bit different. The floor, ceiling and some inner walls are all the natural rock of the bolder, with only the outer and some dividing walls manmade. Dating back over 2000 years they were originally the hiding place of the exiled King Vattagamini. Who, when he regained his throne, had the temples constructed as an act of gratitude for the shelter the rock had offered him. Hundreds of statues of Buddha and other important figures fill the temples together with detailed artwork on the walls and ceiling. Although a lot has been repaired and renovated over the years the core is original and quite spectacular to behold.

Snake encounter on the steps to the Cave Temples

Snake encounter on the steps to the Cave Temples

Cave Temples, Dambulla

Cave Temples, Dambulla

Painting on the rock of cave temple

Painting on the rock of cave temple

Cave temple of Dambulla

Cave temple of Dambulla

Cave temple of Dambulla

Cave temple of Dambulla

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Golden Temple of Dambulla

Our second visit was to Sigiriya, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most visited attractions in Sri Lanka. We left our hotel early to avoid the heat and the crowds and the plan worked well.
Dating back to the 5th century and built by the kings Dhatusena and Kassapa, the citadel covers a vast site with its huge rock outcrop its focal point. You enter over a moat into a water garden and can immediately see how grand it must have been from the structures that remain. Following the central path we arrived at the rock crop and the start of a long steep climb to the city on the top, 200 meters above our heads. The stairs climb up the rock face past thrones and sacred caves until you arrive at the mirror wall. Here the rock face was once so polished it reflected the kings image as he passed by. Further up in a sheltered cave you arrive at the Sigiriya Damsels, Sri Lanka’s most famous frescoes. These busty beauties were also painted in the 5th century and once covered the whole 140 meter length of the cave but now only 21 remain, but very impressive even so. The climb then continues to the ruined city on the top where the foundations of palaces, bathes and other building can be clearly seen, the view is also incredible. One question that is constantly on your mind as you climb the rock, is why build your city up here. The answer to that question is that Kassapa was in constant fear that his brother would invade the kingdom to take his throne, so he reasoned that building up here would aid his defence.

Sigiriya and its moat

Sigiriya and its moat

Starting the climb up to the top, going through gate made of boulders

Starting the climb up to the top, going through gate made of boulders

The mirror wall of Sigiriya

The mirror wall of Sigiriya

Sigiriya Rock

Sigiriya Rock

Top of Sigiriya Rock

Top of Sigiriya Rock

We spent our last day in Dambulla doing a bit of travel admin and looking around the town. Sometimes the most enjoyable and memorable times during travelling are not the visits to the country’s major attractions, but getting immersed in the local life going on all around you. Our day Dambulla was one of those occasions. Our goal was to go to an ATM and the Post Office, but the enjoyment was watching people go about their daily business, and there was plenty to see. Dambulla is a busy little town with most of the action going on around the wholesale market. Here all modes of transport were arriving stacked with fruit and veg and an equal number leaving with their purchases. Unsurprisingly, a major traffic jam was the result outside the market gates.

Wholesale fruit & Vegetable market in Dambulla

Wholesale fruit & Vegetable market in Dambulla

Colourful truck

Colourful truck



From Dambulla we travelled into the country’s central highlands and to the town of Kandy. Our hotel in Dambulla had arranged our transport and as it was voting day for the country’s presidential election we departed quite early. However, as our driver had already voted by the time he picked us up, he suggested stopping at a few attractions on route. This sounded interesting so we agreed.
Our first stop was at the Nalanda Gedige Temple. Not on the usual tourist route so we had the site almost to ourselves. It’s a mixed religion temple, both Hindu and Buddhist, and dates from the 8th century. The approach path must have been quite grand at one time as there were the ruins of ornately carved pillars laying on either side. The temple is at the end of the path and sits on a piece of land protruding out in to a lake. Its a very peaceful spot and an ideal location for it. After more than 1000 years time has taken its toll, but you can still see some of the details in its stone work, buddha heads and hindu gods are still visible.

Centre of Sri Lanka

Centre of Sri Lanka

Gate to Gedige temple

Gate to Gedige temple

Gedige Temple

Gedige Temple

Continuing our surprise tour our next stop was a herb and spice garden. Here a guide showed us the plants and explained their medicinal use. Then came the surprise, at the end of the tour we were offered a massage (I say offered but there wasn’t really anyway we could decline) using the plant oils we had just been shown. To be honest the massage was quite pleasant even if it did take place in the garden on a wooden table. There was no fee for the whole experience just a donation. So once we had handed over a suitable sum and bought some of the herbs that were on sale, we were on our way again.

Herb & Spice garden

Herb & Spice garden

Green Pepper in herb garden

Green Pepper in herb garden

With the weather now turning against us we were only to make one more brief stop. This was at the Sri Muthumariamman Thevasthanam, one of Sri Lanka’s biggest Hindu temples. Very colourful and very ornate, we only had time for a quick photograph of the outside before the rain started and we continued our journey.

Hindu temple

Hindu temple

Hindu temple

Hindu temple

Finally we arrived at our accommodation in Kandy, a beautiful guesthouse run by a lovely family. It was located up in the hills above the town in a peaceful area with not much more than the sound of birds for company. We had a great room with a balcony and were very comfortable throughout our stay. We chilled out for the rest of the day, recovering from our busy morning activities.

The following day we hired a tuk-tuk and went exploring Kandy.
The first stop was the “Temple of the Tooth” which houses the “Buddha’s Tooth”. Legend has it that when Buddha died one of his teeth was saved and it eventually ended up in Sri Lanka. Because of the importance of the relic a whole temple was constructed within the grounds of Kandy Palace, just to house it. The temple was interesting enough but what made the visit special was that we were there for the “Puja”. The “Puja” is a ceremony to allow the public to see the tooth relic. It is preceded by a lot of drumming and flute playing, then a door is opened and everyone in turn can get a glimpse of the tooth. However, seeing the tooth is rather stretching the truth, what you see is an ornate casket that has multiple caskets inside the last of which contains the tooth. Still, an interesting experience all the same.

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

Temple of the Tooth in Kandy

Punja at Temple of the Tooth

Punja at Temple of the Tooth

A glimpse into the shrine holding the 7 caskets where the tooth is being kept

A glimpse into the shrine holding the 7 caskets where the tooth is being kept

Temple of the Tooth

Temple of the Tooth

Next stop was the botanical gardens and a much more impressive place than we had expected. Billed as one of the largest and finest in Asia the 150 acres is enclosed in a loop of the Mahaweli River. It is tastefully laid out and contains a large variety of local and foreign flora. There are also a number of greenhouses, although you question the need for them in this heat, including an orchid house and a fern house both of which we visited. We spent close to two hours in the the gardens, enjoying the displays, the quiet and the wildlife. There were lots of different birds amongst the foliage, fruit bats sleeping high up in the canopy, a Rat Snake searching for prey on the lawns and even some native cattle.

Botanical garden, Kandy

Botanical garden, Kandy

Kandy Botanical garden, ladders made of 6 or is it 7 seven ladders tied together

Kandy Botanical garden, ladders made of 6 or is it 7 seven ladders tied together

Orchid greenhouse

Orchid greenhouse

Canon ball tree

Canon ball tree

Fruit bats in botanical garden

Fruit bats in botanical garden

Rat Snake appearance

Rat Snake appearance

Rat Snake encounter

Rat Snake encounter

As we exited the gardens we felt the first signs of rain so looked for an inside attraction next. That was a woodcraft workshop that carved ornaments by hand from a variety of locally sourced woods. We were given a demonstration then invited to view the shop, finally leaving with a rather nice wooden mask.

Woodwork demonstration

Woodwork demonstration

All this exploring had made us hungry so it was time for a late lunch. During our time in Asia we have had some very nice local meals but every so often you feel the need for something your taste buds are more use to, so we sought out a recommended pizza place. Following a very tasty pizza we were ready to call an end to our exploring for the day and headed back to our accommodation.

Rested and revived after a good night sleep and a hearty breakfast we were ready to explore more of Kandy. Our main focus was to walk around the lake and to observe what went on around it. This included short conversations with locals and watching the surprisingly plentiful wildlife, in particular a large Monitor Lizard searching for buried eggs on the shoreline. With the lake circled it was time to find an ATM and check out the shops, then another late lunch and a chill out back at the room.

View of the Temple of the Tooth and Queen's temple

View of the Temple of the Tooth and Queen's temple

Kandy lake

Kandy lake

Confining our Kandy activities to an extended morning worked well as by mid afternoon the rain would arrive. This weather pattern had been with us for all of our time in northern and central Sri Lanka. Morning would dawn bright and sunny, then the clouds would build up and finally a heavy downpour would arrive by mid to late afternoon.

The next day it was time to leave our comfortable accommodation and to journey further into the central hills. The journey started at Kandy railway station were we caught the 11:10 bound for Ella. We arrived at the station in good time and while waiting were entertained by locals, who had left their arrival a bit late, running and jumping on the train as it was leaving the station. This reminded us of the old days in Europe before health and safety went mad.

Kandy train station

Kandy train station

Boarding the train at Kandy station

Boarding the train at Kandy station

Our journey to Ella took six and a half hours and once clear of the Kandy suburbs was through rolling hills dissected by rivers, past numerous waterfalls and what seemed like a never ending tea plantation. With a comfortable carriage, we had splashed out £5 each for 1st class with air conditioning and reclining seats, and beautiful scenery it was a pleasant way to travel. The train itself was pretty old rolling stock pulled by a diesel locomotive and rattled along at a stately pace. The slow speed aided in the taking of photographs which were best achieved through the opens doors between the carriages. That was when the space wasn’t blocked by other tourists hanging out taking selfies. You also had to hold on tight as the carriage would shake around constantly whilst the train negotiated the uneven track.

First class carriage

First class carriage

On our way to Ella

On our way to Ella

Tea plantation from the train

Tea plantation from the train

Train to Ella

Train to Ella

More tea plantation from the train

More tea plantation from the train

Train to Ella

Train to Ella

Once in Ella a short taxi ride up into the neighbouring hillside got us to our accommodation. First impressions weren’t good as it appeared that we had arrived at a building site, but once inside things improved greatly. The views from the dining area and our bedroom balcony were stunning and it reminded us why we had booked the place. In addition to the balcony view the room had a chaise longue, comfortable king size bed, en-suite and an unusual wall decoration. The wall was cleverly sculptured with three elephants protruding from it and with foliage both painted and planted on it to make the scene more realistic. Just beneath it there was a small shelf that was plastered to resemble the forest floor and acted as a secure surface for the plant life to grow from.

Bedroom decor

Bedroom decor

However, the only downside of the wall display and a forest buffing up against our balcony, was the insect life that wanted to share our room with us. To be honest it wasn’t to difficult accommodate them and it was a trade off for the beautiful location we were in.

We had two days to explore Ella and its surrounding countryside and needed to choose what we wanted to see. We could see “Little Rawana Falls” from our balcony so hiking closer wasn’t necessary and the town of Ella was full of restaurants and curio shops so wasn’t of interest to us. We settled on two excursions, one for each morning as rain was forecast for the afternoon.

View from our bedroom

View from our bedroom

View from our bedroom balcony

View from our bedroom balcony

Our first was to visit the Nine Arch Railway Bridge a few kilometres outside town. A tuk-tuk got us to the top of the valley and from there we walked down to the railway line. The track is not electrified so it is quite safe to walk along, provided you stay vigilant for any approaching train. A short walk got us to the bridge and quite a feat of engineering it is. Nine brick arches, of typical victorian design, carry the railway track across a deep ravine. Today it was also doing the same job for quite a few tourist all looking for a photo opportunity. We crossed the bridge, traversed a railway tunnel and started our walk back to town. Walking along the railway track was quite easy going which was handy as there was only thick bush either side. Although we were aware that this might be our only refuge should a train arrive unexpectedly. We had been told the times of the trains and had managed to reach a safe vantage point on another bridge when one passed. It was now just a short stretch of track before reached Ella station and the end of the day’s excursion.

Nine Arch Bridge

Nine Arch Bridge

On track

On track

Nine Arch Railway Bridge

Nine Arch Railway Bridge

The Train!

The Train!

Scarecrow to ward off Evil

Scarecrow to ward off Evil

Ella railway station

Ella railway station

The second excursion was to summit “Little Adams Peak”. Not as dramatic as it sounds more of a gentle walk up through a tea plantation then some steep steps at the end to reach the top. Well worth it though just for the view.

Little Adams Peaks

Little Adams Peaks

View from Little Adams Peak

View from Little Adams Peak

Tea picker

Tea picker

It was time to move on again so we left the hills and headed to the south eastern coast. Home for the next five nights would be a very comfortable room in the Laya Safari Resort. With a view of the Indian Ocean and the beach only a few steps away our room was quite idyllic.

Our room at Laya

Our room at Laya

Our room with a view

Our room with a view

The plan was to relax, continue our catch-up on travel planning and to visit the Yala National Park, which was only a few kilometres away. In fact our resort was located in the park’s buffer zone, something that became very obvious when on two occasions we had Elephants in the hotel complex. The guests were warned of their presence and we were safely able to observe them strolling past reception, onto the lawns and around the swimming pool. We were told that although there are electric fences around the park the Elephants have learned to place a tree branch on the wires so they can safely step over them.

Elephant entering the hotel complex

Elephant entering the hotel complex

Elephant sneaking in

Elephant sneaking in

Elephant attempting to enter reception

Elephant attempting to enter reception

Going for a dip at the swimming pool?

Going for a dip at the swimming pool?

Palm leafs feast

Palm leafs feast

Trimming the palm tree

Trimming the palm tree

What a view

What a view

Elephant by the pool

Elephant by the pool

There are fish in there but elephant only interested in the lotus flowers

There are fish in there but elephant only interested in the lotus flowers

Elephant leaving

Elephant leaving

Warning

Warning

(The Asian Elephant differs from its African cousin in many ways but the most notable are the tusks, ears and size. The Asian Elephant has much smaller ears, very few have tusks, weighs around 6 tons and has a shoulder height of around 3meters when fully grown. Where as the African Elephant almost always has tusks, can weigh up to 9 tons and have a shoulder height of 4 meters.)

It wasn’t just Elephants that visited the grounds, frequent sightings of Grey Langur Monkeys, Wild Boar and an array of different birds made you wonder whether a visit into the park would be necessary. But we did visit the park, on two occasions, with the main aim of seeing the two iconic animals that had so far eluded us during this Asian trip, the Asian Leopard and the Sloth Bear.

Samba and Spotted deer

Samba and Spotted deer

Whistling duck in a tree

Whistling duck in a tree

Oriential Pied Hornbill

Oriential Pied Hornbill

Rose Ringed Parakeet

Rose Ringed Parakeet

Chestnut Crowned Bee Eater

Chestnut Crowned Bee Eater

Kingfisher

Kingfisher

Little Heron

Little Heron


Male peacock in full display

Male peacock in full display

During those two visits we saw some beautiful wildlife but not a Leopard or Bear. Then just as we were giving up all hope of seeing either our guide got word of a sighting. That word soon spread and before we knew it we were amongst many other jeeps racing through the park to the location where a large male Leopard had been seen sleeping in a tree. We soon knew we were at the correct location when we got into a long queue of vehicles slowly filing past the felines resting place. This number of safari vehicles in one place was a first for us, but it was well managed by the guides and everyone was allowed two minutes to view and photographer the leopard before moving on. The Leopard seemed unconcerned by all the activity going on below him, which again surprised us. The answer we learned was that the park animals had been well protected for a long time and they have come very used to tourist vehicles. It is as though they know that the more tourist there are the lower the risk of poachers being present.

Jeep queue to view the Leopard at Yala National Park

Jeep queue to view the Leopard at Yala National Park

The star of the Show, male Leopard

The star of the Show, male Leopard

A beautiful leopard

A beautiful leopard

(The Sri Lankan Leopard is a recognised sub species of the Asian Leopard. Both Asian and African Leopards are around the same size, but a resident of Yala National Park weighed almost 100kg and is believed to be one of the biggest ever recorded.)

Although we were not able to see a Sloth Bear we left the park feeling very happy with our Leopard sighting. But before we left completely we visited a memorial site right on the beach. The memorial was to the people that lost their lives when the December 2004 Tsunami hit this part of Sri Lanka. The Tsunami took the lives of 35,000 Sri Lankans across the country, including the occupant (both local and foreigners) of three safari jeeps that happened to be at this spot when it struck. Ironically the death toll amongst the wildlife was much lower, as a mass movement away from the coast was observed just before the wave struck, an observation that has been replicated in other effected areas.

Our journey then continued along the south coast as far as the town of Mirissa. We had secured another lovely accommodation on the quieter side of town. Our room was in a period building with a balcony view of the pool, garden and forest beyond.

Our accommodation in Mirissa

Our accommodation in Mirissa

There was a secluded sandy beach just five minutes walk away where a dip in the Indian Ocean was a refreshing relief during the heat of the day.

Our local beach at Mirissa

Our local beach at Mirissa

The town itself was much more touristy than anywhere we had encountered so far which made a change for us. As well as the beach there was a fascinating fishing harbour, which made an interesting morning excursion, and from there we were able to climb a rocky headland to get a panoramic view all along the coast.

Harbour, Mirissa

Harbour, Mirissa

Mirissa Harbour

Mirissa Harbour

Mirissa traditional fishing boat fleet

Mirissa traditional fishing boat fleet

Traditional fishing boats

Traditional fishing boats

Sunset at Mirissa

Sunset at Mirissa

Although we were quite content hanging out in Mirissa we did have a day in the historic fortified city of Galle. The day started with a one hour Tuk-Tuk ride along the coast, stopping to see the traditional stilt fishing along the way.

Stilt fishing

Stilt fishing

Drying tuna

Drying tuna

Our arrival in Galle coincided with a torrential downpour so the first job was to find shelter, for which the National Museum came to the rescue. The rain was very heavy but didn’t last long and we were soon on our way. Next stop was the Post Office as we had a few more postcards to mail. Our guidebook said that it was still functioning and well worth a look around inside. However, although our guidebook was quite up to date things had changed a lot and what was once the post office is now just a derelict building.

Galle Post office (no longer operating)

Galle Post office (no longer operating)

Undeterred by our poor start we continued our exploration and spent several enjoyable hours discovering the historic buildings, narrow back streets and walking along the ramparts.

Galle from the ramparts

Galle from the ramparts

Our last location was Sri Lanka’s capital city Colombo. A drive up from the south coast along the western highway reminded us just how much forest still remains in Sri Lanka. Although suffering deforestation there are still trees covering half the island’s land mass.
Colombo is a sprawling and chaotic city with lots of traffic and lots of noise. Fortunately our accommodation was tucked away and felt like a little bit of calm, although this did mean it was a challenge for taxi’s to find it.
It was almost a one hour Tuk-Tuk ride to get into the city centre, not because of the distance but due to the traffic congestion. There it was equally manic but interesting to look around. However, we were pleased when we got back to the sanctuary of our apartment.

Government building in Colombo where is the president works from

Government building in Colombo where is the president works from

Street of Colombo

Street of Colombo

Downtown Colombo

Downtown Colombo

Sri Lanka was almost the end of our asian trip as we now headed back to the UK. I say almost because we had a five day stop over in Dubai on the way back.

Personal Observations & Interesting Facts

Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka, officially the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, is an island country in South Asia, located in the Indian Ocean to the southwest of the Bay of Bengal and to the southeast of the Arabian Sea. Its population of 22 million are mostly Sinhalese and the prominent religion is Buddhism. The official languages are Sinhala and Tamil although English is also widely spoken. It is the oldest democracy in Asia and has a free education system resulting in a literacy rate of over 90%.

Sri Lanka Flag

Sri Lanka Flag

Station Toilets
What surprised me at Kandy railway station was the toilets. Not that they were of unusual design or anything but they were restricted to foreign use only. The sign outside stated “For Foreigners Only”.

Temples
To visit a temple it is required that you remove your shoes. A perfectly reasonable request and one that we abided by on every occasion. However, for us soft westerners there is an unexpected side effect. On many occasions the temple complex is not all covered and there is a need to walk in open courtyards etc. In these areas, either the sun heats the floor to such an extent you feel like you are walking on hot coals or they are untended and you are walking on gravel. In both instances it’s not very comfortable and even leaving our socks on didn’t help much.
[Photo’s - Any shot showing shoe removal at temples?]

Sri Lanka Bomb & Impact on Tourism
On 21 April 2019, Easter Sunday, three churches in Sri Lanka and three luxury hotels in the commercial capital of Colombo were targeted in a series of coordinated terrorist suicide bombings. Later that day, there were smaller explosions at a housing complex in Dematagoda and a guest house in Dehiwala. The casualties were high, with 259 people being killed, including at least 45 foreign nationals and three police officers, and at least 500 were injured. Not only a terrible event but one that has had an adverse impact on Sri Lanka’s main industry, tourism. Where ever we went the tourist numbers were lower than would normally be expected and this is having an adverse effect on the livelihoods of ordinary Sri Lankans. Hopefully the tourist will soon return to this beautiful country.

Posted by MAd4travel 01:42 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (5)

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