Why Latin America?

There Is a Reason Why I Keep Going Back There

My first vacation on my own—at the age of thirty—was to Yucatán. In the intervening years, more than two-thirds of my international vacations have been to Mexico, Central or South America. Originally, my interest was in Pre-Columbian archeology. I still am, but I’ve added post-Columbian (i.e., Christian) archeology to my interests. The two exist side by side in fascinating ways.

Many Latin-American towns have museums of religious statuary and paintings that used to be in churches that are no longer in service. Lima, Peru, for instance has a fascinating museum in the former Archbishop’s palace adjoining the cathedral.

Sacramental Vessels from Lima’s Archbishop’s Palace

American tourists usually go in for all the pre-Columbian sites, but are totally uninterested in the ruins of Catholicism that are evident all over the place. In places like Buenos Aires; Cuenca, Ecuador; Mérida, Mexico; and Antigua, Guatemala there are old churches that are no longer in use, but there are thousands of items of religious art that are fascinating to me. One of the most incredible is the huge monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru, which is like a walled city in its own right.

The Monastery of Santa Catalina in Arequipa, Peru

In the morning that I visited Santa Catalina, I took the two-hour morning tour. Then I went to lunch and had some rocoto relleno (spicy stuffed Peruvian green pepper) in a restaurant behind the cathedral. Then I went back and spent the whole afternoon actually trying to get lost as I wandered through the narrow streets and saw the chapels, nuns’ cells, gardens, kitchens, laundries, and other services that made up the monastery.

Looking back, I think I’d rather see Santa Catalina again than Machu Picchu. In my mind, they are of equivalent interest, but Santa Catalina is much nicer.

 

Revisiting the Cretaceous Extinction

This Yucatán Fishing Village Along the Gulf of Mexico Hides a Secret

A few miles from Progreso, Yucatán, is the fishing village of Chicxulub (CHEEK-shoe-lube) which was the site of one of the great catastrophes in the life of the earth. Some 65 million years ago, an asteroid that was nine miles (fifteen kilometers) across slammed into Chicxulub at the speed of 44,640 mph (or 20 km/second) and destroyed some three quarters of all the life on earth, including all the dinosaurs. The impact was equivalent to a million times larger than the largest hydrogen bomb explosion and created a crater that was sixty miles (100 km) across and eighteen miles (30 km) deep.

Of course, that was millions of years ago, and the geology of the area has changed significantly.

Where the Asteroid Impacted

 

Signs of the Impact Today: A Ring of Cenotes

Today, the Yucatán Peninsula is a large limestone chunk that has been raised up, but with numerous underground rivers and caves admitting access to the water beneath. What you will not find there a river. This did not make it easy for the ancient Maya to grow crops—except in their areas where cenotes prevail. The dark green aresa beneath the ring of cenotes is where the Puuc Hills are located, which rise to an elevation of several hundred feet. There, the Maya dug cisterns, called chultunes, which frequently run dry during periods of drought.

I hope to visit Chicxulub Puerto when I stay in Merida or Progreso.

 

The Laws Railroad Museum

Gas Station and Jalopy at Laws Railroad Museum

It was January 2010 when Martine and I last drove through the Eastern Sierras. One of our favorite destinations was an outdoor museum of pioneer life in the hamlet of Laws, CA. Four miles northeast of Bishop, Laws was a station on the Carson & Colorado Railroad, which ran from Mound House, NV to Keeler, CA, site of the Cerro Gordo (“Fat Hill”) mines, which produced high grade silver, lead, and zinc. In 1900, the Carson & Colorado was sold to the Southern Pacific where it operated in various forms until around 1960.

Today, the Laws Museum is one of those outdoor museums to which various old local structures were moved, from railroad buildings and residences to various types of businesses. Martine and I plan to pay another visit next week.

One of the Original 19th Century Boxcars of the Old Carson & Colorado Railway

We love the strange desert landscapes of the areas flanked on one side by the steep eastern flank of the Sierra Nevadas on the left and the Inyo and White Mountains on the right. We expect that the Sierras will still be covered with snow because of the record precipitation this last winter.

 

The Living Desert

Mountain Lion at the Living Desert Zoo in Palm Desert

Not to worry: There was a thick layer of glass between me and that mountain lion. I took this picture ten years ago when I went with Martine to one of my favorite zoos in Southern California, the Living Desert in Palm Desert. (The other one is the small but otherwise perfect Santa Barbara Zoo in the city of the same name.)

This was before my brother and sister-in-law moved to Palm Desert. Martine and I had just done an overnighter, staying at the local Motel 6. J know it wasn’t exactly ten years ago because I can’t see myself visiting the lower desert in the Coachella Valley in the heat of July.

Martine and I will be taking something of a risk visiting the Owens Valley next week, as the daily temperatures are expected to range between 60º and 98º Fahrenheit (16º to 37º Celsius) with the humidity hovering around 20%. The only thing that will make that bearable is that, if it gets too hot, we can always drive to higher latitudes and relax. There are only a few things we want to see in the floor of the valley, but those are all things we’ve seen before.

We will have a large cooler with us filled with block ice and plenty of water, along with a few goodies in case we feel like roughing it at high altitude. After all, for most of our trip, we will be in the shadow of the highest mountain range in the contiguous forty-eight states.

 

Eastern Sierra Road Trip

The Alabama Hills Near Lone Pine

The Eastern Sierra Road Trip is now a definite go for next week. Today, Martine managed to get a few of her healthcare scheduling issues taken care of, so I went and reserved accommodations for our trip. I just have to do a little shopping, like getting good AA alkaline batteries for my little Canon rangefinder.

Most people don’t know much about the Eastern Sierras. They’re usually familiar with the National Parks along the Western Sierras, places like Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite—but the eastern edge of the range is steeper and the base is, for the most part, desert. In fact, we will have to drive through a good chunk of the Mohave Desert between the town of Mohave and Olancha, where the interesting sights begin, right near the turnoff for Death Valley. (Mind you, we don’t intend to visit Death Valley in July: That’s the sort of thing that only German tourists do for some reason.)

If you want to get an idea of what there is to be seen along Highway 395 as it wends its way along the eastern slope of the mountains, click on the California Through My Lens website, which does a fairly good job of enumerating what is to be seen along the way.

As I mentioned elsewhere, our three main destinations are:

  • The ghost town of Bodie
  • The Devils Postpile National Monument
  • The Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest

I have been to Bodie, though Martine has not. Neither of of us have seen the other two places. All three are on high ground off Highway 395, somewhere around the 10,000-foot (3,000 meter) elevation mark.

The great thing about traveling through the desert is that there are always a ton of minor destinations that amuse you without eating up too much time. One such place is Pearsonville, the “Hubcap Capital of the World,” where you can find a 25-foot-tall statue of a young woman:

On the Road to Olancha

 

Serendipity: Dealing with Misfortune in Greenland

Inuit Greenlander

The following paragraph comes from Lawrence Millman’s Last Places: A Journey in the North. I have always had a hankering to pay a visit to Greenland—and I might, as a side trip from Iceland. I cracked up as I read this:

One thing about Greenlanders: they tend to find misfortune amusing. I once saw a man return from Denmark in a wheelchair, and when his family met him, they slapped their knees and rolled in the snow, pointing and laughing at the old man (he laughed with them) stuck in this odd-looking chair of metal. In The Last Kings of Thule, my favorite book about Greenland, Jean Malaurie describes how the good people of Thule always used to mimic a lame man named Asarpannguaq trying to make love. Cruel, yes, but it’s cruelty that serves, or once served, a useful purpose: you’ve got to be tough in this vale of misfortune or you’ll exchange your breath for a pile of stones. There’s a saying that Danes beat their children but not their dogs, while Greenlanders beat their dogs but not their children. It’s probably true; not once have I seen seen a Greenlander strike a child. But he will ridicule that child unmercifully or perhaps give him a nickname like Usukitat (Little No-Good Penis) that will stay with him all his life. In Igateq, East Greenland, I once met a hunter named Itiktarniq (Liquid Dog Shit), who was as tough as nails.

 

 

In Iceland? Don’t Take the Train!

The Only Locomotive in Iceland

Although there has been talk about building a railroad connecting the international airport at Keflavík with the capital at Reykjavík, no one has laid any rails yet. The funny thing is that there have been Icelandic/English phrasebooks with entire sections on how to catch a train in Iceland. Too bad that there has never been a railroad with passenger service in the island nation.

The locomotive in the photo above was used to help load and unload ships in the Old Harbor area of Reykjavík. It rests on some narrow-gauge rails not exceeding some twenty feet in length.

If you want to get around Iceland, you just may have to take the bus.