Chichen Itza as a Shore Excursion from Cozumel? It Depends

Tucked away on a jungle plain of the Yucatan Peninsula is one of the “New” 7 Wonders of the World – Chichen Itza. For a cruise ship passenger, getting to a monument tucked away on a jungle plain is something of a problem – something to do with access I suppose. For all their striking advances in mathematics and architecture, you can fault the Mayans for the shortsightedness of building one of their most impressive complexes so inconveniently far from what would become the region’s most popular cruise ship port. The way I see it, if you’re so bold as to predict the end of the world (strike 1), you should start by predicting your future source of revenue. Well,  revenue until said world ends. Regardless of the reasoning, this incongruity leaves the culturally-minded cruise ship passenger with a bit of a conundrum: How can you visit the greatest area attraction in the woefully inadequate amount of time spent in port? And even if such an option is available, would it be worth it? Let me give you the clearest answer possible to those questions: It depends.
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El Castillo – Chichen Itza, Mexico

Terms and Conditions

Allow me to further elaborate on my earlier point. Can a day trip to Chichen Itza be done as a shore excursion from Cozumel? Yes. Should it be done? Again, it depends. To reach Chichen Itza from Cozumel requires more than the usual investment of time and money. First, guests will disembark at the bustling tourist dock on the island of Cozumel, where they will be quickly transferred to a fast ferry for the approximately 45 minute ride to Playa del Carmen on the Mexican mainland. From there, they will then be boarded onto a bus or van that will pass through the congested roads of the town and onto a straight highway through low-lying jungle for about two hours. Counting all the various transfers and regrouping, figure on at least 3 hours of travel ONE WAY, which unless you wind up being sacrificed atop the main pyramid, will then require you to take the same trip in reverse. It is for this reason that I would very strongly suggest only booking such an excursion through the cruise ship. While I am notorious for going it alone when in port, considering the very stringent time constraints, you’re going to want to be sure that if there’s any holdup or delay the ship is going to wait for you. And while prices start at around $150 per person (check with your cruise line) it really isn’t all that bad a deal if you’re still insistent on making the trip.
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Columns for Days, Chichen Itza, Mexico

Is it Worth it?

The pressing question now, is whether or not all that travel, hassle and money is worth it. Well, let’s see…I’d say it depends. Perhaps a little more information will help you make up your own mind. The tour operator that Royal Caribbean teamed up with did a really nice job when I made this journey myself in February 2018. During the long ride out to the site, each couple was handed an iPad with photos and diagrams that our guide explained in detail so that we could make most of our limited time at the destination. He regaled us with lots of details on Mayan culture and history, but honestly the only thing that stuck in my brain is that the name Yucatan is actually derived from the Mayan term “you talk funny” uttered by the natives upon first contact with the arriving Europeans. Sufficiently equipped with a knowledge of what we’d see and what to look for, most of us ate our very meager bag lunches (like, ham and cheese sandwiches you would have brought to school, only without the note from your mom) and marveled at the throngs of tourists flocking to this remote outpost in the jungle. While it’s hard to imagine so many people visiting the location on their land-based tours, it did confirm that we were about to witness something rather special. Passing through the crowded visitor center, our guide took us down a long walkway lined with vendors, that in view of the time constraints, are best browsed on the way out. The main attraction was up ahead on an open field – El Castillo, the iconic pyramid that characterizes what is really an enormous complex of ruins. While our guide directed our attention to all the details I tuned out on the ride over, I went to town taking pictures, looking for unique angles and basically just absorbing the vibe of the place. We did a somewhat hurried tour of the main attractions like the ball field and some impressive colonnades, but again, the main draw to non-Maya scholars is the scenery and the vibe. Cue the rolling boulder. After about an hour of circling the basic tourist track (there’s a ton more to see if you have the time) we passed through the gauntlet of vendors, used the restrooms and were back in the van. Here’s where your own sense of math comes in: Is 6 hours of travel equal to or greater than 1 hour of sightseeing? The answer is, of course, it depends.
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Ancient Mayan Emojis? Chichen Itza, Mexico

My Professional and Personal Opinions

So was it worth it to me? Professionally speaking, if my travel clients had never been to Mexico before, and weren’t tremendously interested in world heritage sites, I would not recommend this excursion. You can get a similar flavor by going to Tulum or other sites that don’t require such exertion and would still leave you time to shop for liquor on the way back. Personally, since I’ve been to Cozumel a few times, and had spent approximately 80% of my time there underwater (the diving is superb) I found that being able to see in person such a historic and iconic site with my own eyes was well worth the effort. Now the important question is this: Is my professional or personal opinion the one you should trust? Come on people, you should really know the answer by now. But just in case you don’t, I would 100% absolutely without hesitation say:  it depends.

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Da Nang, Vietnam – Where Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad

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Time to party in Hoi An, Vietnam

Sometimes in travel – as in life – it’s not always a question of this and that, but rather this or that. But as opposed to those unpleasant times when you have to choose between the lesser of two evils, there are times when you can see or do most of what you’d like, even if it isn’t everything. It may not be ideal, but as the song goes: Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad.

Not too long ago I was faced with one such situation. Our ship was docking in the Vietnamese city of Da Nang (technically Chan May), and from there we had a choice of visiting two of the three UNESCO World Heritage Sites within striking distance of a one-day tour: The ancient capital of Hue, the ancient ruins of My Son, and the former trading village of Hoi An. With limited time available, we opted for the latter two on a whirlwind tour that gave us a taste – though not a full mouthful – of all that’s on offer in central Vietnam. It wasn’t an ideal way of visiting this fascinating region, but as I said before, two out of three ain’t bad.

My Son

My Son
Let the past (and rain) wash over you at My Son, Vietnam

My Son (pronounced mee- sahn) is an ancient site of worship tucked well inland from the emerald waters of the coast. Though a good portion of the site was reduced to rubble courtesy of the U.S. Air Force, there are various temples, halls and other religious buildings that either escaped bombardment or are in the process of reconstruction.

At the entrance, you’ll need to take a stretch golf cart up the winding road to the visitor center proper. I wasn’t looking at the odometer but I figure it was at least a mile if not more. Given the fact that we were experiencing a full-on torrential downpour, the golf cart seemed the best option.

The cluster of ruins that awaited us looked like a scene right out of every adventure movie ever made. There were artifacts, strange writing carved in stone, and various figures represented – not to mention the most gigantic centipede I’ve ever seen scuttling through the undergrowth outside. Surrounding the complex is thick jungle, and on the day of my visit there rivers were swollen to capacity and at times our feet were underwater. So if it’s a rainy day, I recommend that you wear foot gear that you wouldn’t mind getting wet. Don’t let that discourage you though – sloshing through the jungles of Vietnam really fleshed out the experience.

Unless you really care about every temple and building, a few hours here will suffice. And if the weather is clear, it should be a photographer’s playground.

Hoi An

Hoi An Riverside
Follow the River in Hoi An World Heritage Site

The ancient trading post of Hoi An is a colorful amalgam of Chinese, Japanese and Vietnamese culture and architecture. Once a major port for international trade, the town has been reborn as a tourist destination for its scenic riverfront and charming ambiance. In town you can busy yourself with a visit to the intricate Japanese Bridge or even more elaborate Chinese Temple. But most of all, take some time to wander the vibrant side streets which are filled with souvenir shops, a small museum and some of the most delicious Vietnamese food to be found anywhere. On the day of my visit, they were gearing up for a festival, so the streets and trees were decked out with colorful lanterns of all colors, shapes and sizes. Not only did I leave wishing I could see what it looked like at night, but also wishing I had at least five to seven days to fully explore the town and all the activities around it.

Marble Mountains

Marble Mountains
Scene from the Marble Mountains, near Da Nang, Vietnam

The Marble Mountains are close to the coast and not far out of the city of Da Nang proper – which, incidentally, is a city undergoing rapid modernization. These five mountains rise almost vertically from the relatively level coastal plain, and host a number of temples that can be visited by those who have more time at their disposition. Below are numerous artisans that sculpt the marble into all sorts of beautiful figures, fountains and statues. If you’re on a guided tour, you can be certain that you’ll be making a stop to see ‘how things are made’ which is code for: tourist trap, please buy something. Despite the obvious commercialism, this would be the place to buy that giant marble elephant you’ve always wanted.

Final Thoughts

The most obvious observation of a day tour from Danang is that you really need more than a day tour to do the area justice. With the royal city of Hue not too far away, and one of the largest cave systems in the world within range, you can easily spend an exciting week of discovery in this Southeast Asian playground. So if you can do so, stay for awhile. If you’re on limited time like I was, content yourself with the wonders you’ve seen, and accept that in reality – you guessed it – two out of three ain’t bad.

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Elevator Appreciation at Carlsbad Caverns National Park

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What goes down, must come up – Carlsbad Caverns Natural Entrance

They say that you don’t know what you’ve got until you lose it. That always seemed a bit of an understatement to me, especially with certain select nouns such as: life, an oxygen supply, or an extra ten pounds. While on a recent trip to New Mexico, U.S.A. I quickly recognized another one – elevator access.

The inspiration behind my epiphany stemmed from a visit to Carlsbad Caverns National Park – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and popular destination for visitors to the US Southwest. This subterranean wonderland is an amazing natural gem. The thing is, it’s underground. WAY underground. And those elevators that we all take for granted in our everyday life were undergoing renovation. In practical terms, that meant a hike of over a mile to descend 750 feet below the surface. And what goes down, must come up, so it also meant a 750 foot ascent back to the visitors center. That’s like taking the stairs down a 75 story building and remembering that you left your car keys back at the penthouse. Forget about using a Stairmaster machine – at that point you become the Stair Master.

So while my party was eager to see the sights beneath our feet, our calves and glutes were a bit reluctant. But we didn’t drive all that way just to stare at the big entrance hole (though it was pretty cool), so we resigned ourselves to guaranteed soreness and made our way past the impressive bat-watching amphitheater (they didn’t yet arrive for the season so there were no bats to see) to the large yawning maw dissolving into blackness. Sounds appealing, right?

Going Down

The Natural Entrance trail is a series of switchbacks that were easy enough to navigate while going downhill. The trick is not letting your mind dwell on what it’s going to be like coming back up. And even though you’re going with gravity at this point, you will still get a tremendous lower-body workout, as your trembling knees and heavy breathing will remind you. The good part, is that if the walk doesn’t take your breath away, the scenery most certainly will.

Discreet lighting illuminates surreal formations of all types of stalagmites, stalactites, soda straws, draperies and other cave-related formations – all on a huge scale, with chambers taller than your average cathedral. After about an hour of walking (more if you’re stopping like I did to take pictures) you will make it to what is appropriately called “The Big Room”. Even more importantly, you will reach a rest area where you can use the bathrooms, buy some snacks and drinks or even a souvenir t-shirt. You can also look longingly at the silent elevators with the “Closed for Renovation” sign stationed out front.

The Big Room

This series of interconnecting chambers some 4000 feet long and 625 feet wide is thankfully rather flat, winding you on a route past imaginatively-named formations such as ‘Rock of Ages’ and ‘Hall of the Giants’. I had my fun coming up with names of my own like ‘The Gates of Hell’ and ‘The Uvula’ (Tell me that’s not a great name for a cave formation!). There are small pools of water dotting the area and some great panoramas. The only thing that won’t have you gushing with praise is the prospect of climbing your way back out.

The Ascent

Before you start the long climb up, I recommend three things: 1) Use the bathroom, as both guests and park staff alike frown on unauthorized ‘erosion’ activities 2) Take a rest on the provided chairs and buy a reasonably priced bottle of water and a granola bar. You’re going to need the energy. 3) Resist the temptation to pry the elevator doors open with your bare hands, and take your time going up; preferably slow enough to catch your breath and take in a different angle of the formations you saw before. Eventually, you’ll see daylight again, and as you double over from exhaustion, you will still feel that it was well worth the effort.

Things to Know

All kidding aside, if you have health or mobility problems I strongly recommend that you wait until the elevators are working again. For real-time information, you can and should check the park website before planning your trip.

There aren’t a ton of lodging, eating or shopping options in the immediate area of the park, which has some scenic wilderness surrounding it and is good for some mountain goat watching and lovely turn-offs. The city of Carlsbad is many miles away and while tiny Whites City is literally at the gates, there isn’t much there.

The visitor center is large and modern, with excellent educational displays detailing the park’s history along with theories on how the caves were formed. There’s also an extensive and very reasonably priced gift shop and cafeteria, so feel free to treat yourself to a hoodie and a hot dog upon completing your trek. I’m pretty certain you will have burned off enough calories to indulge.

You should also keep in mind that temperatures in the caves are a steady 56 degrees, so a light jacket or sweatshirt will come in handy until you sweat so much from the hikes up and down you’ll want to take it off. Also, you’re going to be asked if you have worn your same shoes to any other cave systems in the past ten years. Apparently, certain cave systems are home to microbes that are harmful to the bats and whatnot in Carlsbad Caverns, so if you’ve been off spelunking somewhere in the recent past, bring some fresh footwear.

One last note about cell phones and photography. You’ll want to put your cell phone on ‘Airplane’ setting, as you will definitely not be getting any service while in the caverns. Also, it is possible to get some decent photos using your cell phone camera. Whether it’s your phone or a real camera the same basic rule applies – in low light you need to keep the camera very steady, preferably on a tripod so that you don’t wind up with a memory card full of blurry shots. And whenever possible, include people in your photos, as depicting the enormous scale of the formations is difficult without a point of reference.

Summary

Carlsbad Caverns is a world-class site, worthy of its accolades and international recognition. It is worth the trip wherever you’re coming from, with or without elevators. It will take your breath away and help you appreciate the wonders of creation. And if you go before the elevators get fixed, it will also give you the leg workout of a lifetime.

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The persistence of stalactites – Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, USA

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Bryggen of Bergen – Character & Charm That is Way Off the Level

Bryggen of Bergen, Norway
Bryggen of Bergen, Norway

The Norwegian city of Bergen, tucked into the hilly archipelago of Norway’s west coast, is a lot of things. It is charming. It is historic. It is picturesque. And when speaking about its main attraction – Bryggen – it is all these things, except level.

This colorful wharf in heart of the Bergen’s inner harbor is a combination window-to-the-past and current tourist destination. Originally a functioning German commercial base established by the Hanseatic League in the late Middle Ages, these rows of leaning wooden buildings in a palette of bright colors are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They are also among the most recognizable buildings in Norway. Nowadays, they host more tourists than merchants, but when the cruise ships pull out and the locals emerge, it’s also a cool place to explore, shop and even grab a bite to eat.

The Back-story

Back alley of Bryggen
Back alley of Bryggen

For those not up on their Germanic history, the Hanseatic League was a collection of merchant guilds and their associated market ports in northern Europe. Bergen was one such port established in the mid-1300’s, and since then the iconic row of houses and buildings known as Bryggen has burnt down and been rebuilt several times. With all-wood construction, I suppose that’s the risk you take. In view of the tilted, off-kilter nature of these buildings (some over 300 years old), I’m assuming their builders didn’t have access to a working level. The result is a charming warren of shops and restaurants, with quaint alleys and even quainter views. Picture in your mind Popeye’s Sweethaven dubbed in Norwegian, and you’ll have the general idea.

How to Get There

Bergen is nestled along a bend in Norway’s highly-irregular coastline, which honestly looks as if it were drawn by a seismometer during an earthquake. Many arrive by sea on one of the many cruise lines that include Bergen as a port of call before delving into the fjords. You can arrive by car, which will afford you some stunning views both on your approach and your departure. Or you can join the masses in a Norway in a Nutshell tour, which will take you via train between Oslo and Bergen, usually with a stop in Myrdal (and nearby Flåm) for some scenery. However you get here, finding the Bryggen is easy. Find the waterfront, and when you see a bunch of crooked wooden buildings lined up in a wobbly row of eye-catching colors, you’re there.

What to See

Bryggen at dusk
Bryggen at dusk

Beyond the Bryggen and its photo opportunities, the stone fortress called Bergenhus is a well-preserved castle at the entrance to the harbor. Some areas are accessible by paid admission only, but there are sections you can explore for free. At the edge of the harbor just down the street from Bryggen is the Fish Market, which sells, um, fish. Lots of fish. More fish than a visiting tourist would ever need. If you’re not into collecting seafood, many vendors set up souvenir stalls during the day just across the square.

Details (on the level)

In summer, expect Bryggen and surrounding tourist attractions to be filled with visitors. If you can wait for later on when the cruise ships cast off, you can mill about with the locals, who in summertime are out in force well into the night. Lodging is rather expensive (as are most things in Norway) and parking can be a real issue. Most of the city is walkable, so unless you’re arriving by car or just renting one for the day, a vehicle is neither necessary nor recommended. English is widely spoken, so if you get lost, most people can help you out. Most of all, while the city is a great place to see, make sure you spend the bulk of your time visiting Norway’s natural attractions, which are, to put it mildly, mind-blowing.

Bryggen in daylight
Bryggen in daylight

Yes, I recommend Bergen’s Bryggen to anyone planning a visit to the city. I was originally going to skip Bergen on my own itinerary, but in hindsight am very glad that I didn’t. So far, no World Heritage Site I’ve visited has ever disappointed, and Bryggen was no exception. Make room for it if you can in your travels to western Norway. Count on character. Count on charm. Count on that subtle thrill of being surrounded by authentic history. The only thing you shouldn’t count on, is encountering right angles.


Have you visited Bergen? What did you enjoy most? Comment here and share your expertise!

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