Category Archives: Travel

Tikal, Guatemala: A Glimpse of the Americas in 900 A.D.

Some big piles of rocks in a Guatemalan jungle may change your thinking about “American” history.


Tikal, Guatemala — Temple II

In the year 800 or so, Tikal was a city of nearly 100,000 Mayan people, set in the northeast part of what is now Guatemala.  Huge temples and plazas were the centerpiece of the city; farmers tended the fields for miles in every direction.  The society collapsed around the year 900, for reasons no one fully knows for sure, and the huge structures were quickly swallowed up by the jungle until they were rediscovered and revealed by archaeologists 1,000 years later.


Tikal – Northern Acropolis

 If your image of our continent’s early history is mostly teepees and arrowheads, you’ll be pretty impressed by places like Tikal.  Most of us (including, I think, many Native Americans themselves) picture the American continents’ indigenous peoples as mostly hunters and gatherers in sparsely populated environments, living lightly on the land with modest agriculture and minimal construction.  If that’s the image in your head, a trip to a place like Tikal, Guatemala will change your assumptions.  Before the end of the first millennium A.D., there were tens of millions of people in the Americas, including huge cities and huge structures in what are now Mexico, central and South America.*


Exactly what happened to all those ancient “Americans” is a bit of a mystery, but at least a part of the answer is smallpox.  The first European explorers – themselves largely immune due to generations of exposure – inadvertently brought the smallpox virus when they landed in the New World.  The virus spread faster than the European explorers did, so by the time (decades or even centuries later) most of the region was seen by Europeans, most of the “natives” were already dead from disease.  By some estimates, 95% of the continents’ population – perhaps a fifth of the world’s population — died in a wave of smallpox.  What European explorers “discovered” as they probed the continents were the minimal remnants of civilizations that had been as big (and in many ways as advanced) as those in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.  Tikal was already six feet under (literally) the jungle floor.


Though Tikal had apparently seen its decline before the smallpox era, the site will certainly give a glimpse of the degree of “civilization” that existed on our own continent long before Columbus stumbled upon it.  Besides the sheer number of walls and buildings and monuments, the most striking features are the big temples – meso-American pyramids.  A similar temple at one of the Mayan sites in nearby Belize is, to this day, the tallest manmade structure in that country.


Tikal — Stone monument detail

Tikal – Grand Plaza (from Temple II)

This was my first trip to Guatemala, and I was surely impressed.  More to come from Central America…

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Update:  A few more daylight images from my return to Tikal a week later.  Night time images are here.


New Zealand Roadtrip

Of course New Zealand has plenty of famously beautiful spots, but maybe the most striking thing about it is just how pretty the ‘ordinary’ roadsides and countrysides are.

I wound up with several images that hadn’t found a ‘home’ in the prior posts, so I had to add one more.  Most were just stops along the road as I logged 2,000 or so miles criss-crossing the South Island.  I’d also planned to see the North Island, but I somehow never made it that far and had to fly out of Christchurch instead of Auckland.  Plenty to see here.  In case it’s not already obvious, I like just driving around seeing the sights (and the sites).

I spent another night in Queenstown and made another trip through Wanaka after I did my first post.  Thus the nighttime shot from the gondola above Queenstown, and the shots of the sailboats and the somehow-famous semi-submerged tree at Lake Wanaka.  The glacier is Fox Glacier — on the West (Tasman) coast about halfway up the South Island.  My favorite image here is the one of the Waiau River, up near Hamner Springs.  Those wild yellow flower bushes were amazing.

Since a couple of the shots have sheep and deer in them, I’ll offer one last set of New Zealand factoids — about animals.  New Zealand has no indigenous land mammals (there are a few bats and several sea mammals).   Also no land snakes.  Whether you ascribe this to Noah or to Darwin, it’s a fascinating curiosity that New Zealand was (forgive me) mostly ‘for the birds!’  The absence of mammalian predators has lots of impact:  Many of the bird species (including the kiwi itself) are flightless, for example.  And when humans (starting with the Polynesian Maori) brought with them (purposefully or inadvertently) mammals like deer, rats, and possum, they multiplied like crazy to the point they all became major pests.

Today there are lots of mammals.  Plenty of cattle, and sheep that outnumber humans 10 to 1.  The deer ‘problem’ has been solved by domesticating them; there are huge high-fenced fields of hundreds of deer, grazing just like cattle and creating a significant venison industry.  Amusingly, I decided to be sure I got a nice New Zealand Merino Wool sweater while I was here.  When I tried on my favorite, they bragged that it was actually 40% possum.  I told them that wouldn’t seem very luxurious in the U.S., but they insisted that the south-seas Australian brushtail was a different animal altogether.  I was dubious on several levels.  But I bought the sweater.




By the time you’re reading this, I’m already home in Houston — mostly likely planning another trip. 





New Zealand: Abel Tasman National Park

Abel Tasman is a big name in New Zealand.  You may think you’ve never heard of him, but you’ve heard of the Tasmanian Devil (from Bugs Bunny if not from the local zoo).  That little devil was named after the Australian island of Tasmania, which in turn was named after Abel Tasman.  He was the Dutch explorer who first sailed to New Zealand back in the 1640s.  Today, New Zealand’s longest glacier, its second-highest mountain, a river, a lake, a rock band, a national park, and the entire Tasman Sea between New Zealand and Australia are named for him.

Tasman stopped for water in New Zealand, wrongly thinking it was part of Argentina.  The friendly Maori locals attacked him and killed some of his sailors.  He bravely sailed away, never to return.

A lot of the European explorers of that era were “discovering” lands that had been inhabited by humans for thousands or even tens of thousands of years.  But the arrival in New Zealand of the Europeans and the ‘aboriginal’ Polynesian Maori was a virtual dead heat by those standards — the various tribes of Maori arrived starting around the year 1300 and apparently spent much of the next 500 years warring among themselves for control of lands (occasionally eating the conquered, and maybe a few 18th-century European missionaries).  It was the Brits who ultimately took control in the 1800s, so British customs, language, culture (and left-sided driving) prevail today.

The Abel Tasman National Park is New Zealand’s smallest national park — and perhaps that’s fitting, given his short and inauspicious time here.  (I’ve spent more time here than he did, after all, and my interactions with the locals have been much more amicable).  The main activity at the Park is hiking — mostly along the coast, from beach to beach through rain-foresty jungle.  I spent a couple of days here.  There are ‘huts’ where you can sleep inside the isolated parts of the park, but I’ll admit I caught the water taxi out and slept in a snug bed at a little ‘lodge’ back in the town of Motueka.




Mt. Cook, New Zealand

2013 was my Year of Mountains!  I hiked and/or biked them on four continents in Patagonia, Europe, Colorado, and here.  Next year?  Beach!!

Pennies aren’t lucky in New Zealand.  In fact, so ill-fated is the New Zealand one cent piece that it’s been extinct for over 20 years.  So, too, is the New Zeland nickel a numismatic dinosaur.  The smallest coin is a dime (worth about 8 U.S. cents).  How refreshing it is not to fill one’s pockets with coins that buy nothing.   And to see prices (except gas)* almost always rounded to the nearest dime or dollar.  How many collective seconds, minutes and hours do American waste shuffling copper coins, making change, and accounting ‘down to the penny’?  We could learn some things from the Kiwi.

And sales tax (actually a “goods and services tax”) is built in to the retail prices — not calculated anew on each transaction and awkwardly added on after the fact like we do in the States.  So if something is priced $1.00, that’s actually what you pay.  Coincidentally — but further contributing to Kiwi transactional simplicity  — ‘tipping’ is not part of the traditional custom or culture here.  Of course in tourist areas it’s not unheard of, but it’s not an expectation and your credit card slip won’t even have a place to add the tip.  No pennies, no tax, and no tip unless you want to.  Thus when the cafe menu at Mt. Cook Village said my fish and chips would be $18, that’s what they meant:  $18.  I got a $2 coin back from my $20 bill.

The nearby mountain — the tallest in the country — is over 12,000 feet, which means Mt. Cook rises about 10,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.  I did a 3+ hour hike to get sort of close and to see the 7-mile-long Hooker Glacier dumping icebergs into muddy Hooker Lake, but the clouds never really parted enough to see the whole of Mt. Cook all at once.  That picture at the top of the post — showing at least most of the mountain without cloud cover — was taken from the highway about 20 miles from the mountain as I drove away in the late afternoon.  I took this in the first 30 seconds after hopping out of the car, then stood around nearly an hour waiting for the clouds to part again and give me another chance once I got into a better spot.  That didn’t happen.


The picture (below) with the crazy-blue lake and the mountain (still covered mostly by clouds) in the distance is from Lake Pukaki — about 40 miles south of Mt. Cook.  It gets the turquoise color from the silt that comes out of the glaciers.  The glowing blue of the lake even made the clouds above it look a strange bright blue.

*Gas is around $2.30.  Per LITER.  So over $9 a gallon.

Milford Sound: Fjordlands, New Zealand

One of New Zealand’s top destinations is a town with a population of just about 150.  There’s one cafe and one ‘lodge’ with mostly dorm-style rooms and a few bathroomless ‘cabins’.  But there’s a whole fleet of boats and ships ready to take you through the valley and out to the Tasman Sea.

Milford Sound is a “fjord” – a large bay-like inlet, initially carved by a glacier thousands of years ago.  This means it’s U-shaped at the bottom, not V-shaped like canyons that are carved by rivers.  In the rainy spring season, there are waterfalls everywhere – several of which run off cliffs and then disappear into the wind before the water ever hits the ground.


The Sound is part of southwest New Zealand’s Fjordlands National Park, and part of the Te Wahipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Site.  If you’re not already familiar with UNESCO’s list and if you ever get anywhere near the bottom of your personal bucket list, check out the UNESCO sites (1,000 or so natural and cultural wonders around the globe) and you’ll have lots more destination ideas.  Apparently there’s a lot to see in the World.


That pointy peak you see in several pictures is Mitre Peak – named after a bishop’s hat, which has roughly the same shape.  The dark blobs on that rock (with a boat in the background) are sleeping seals.  The humans you see in a couple of shots are American photographers who were my hitchhiker/travel buddies for a few days (Mark Hubbard and Josh Whiton).  The shots below are from the long out-and-back road that leads out to Milford Sound.