Mexican Vacation

Mexican Vacation
Mexican Vacation

Friday, March 23, 2018

03-07-2018 Chichen Itza and Tulum

When we first started planning this trip, Daughter Deanna told us about Viator, a tour company that they used when she and her husband stayed at Vidanta Riviera Maya with their friends.  Following up on her suggestions, I booked a tour for us that included early entry to the ruins of Chichen Itza and Tulum on two separate days, with the hope of enjoying the sites before they became completely overcrowded.

The Pyramid of Kulkucan

Chichen Itza, Tulum, The Yucatan, the Mayans, words that bring to mind all sorts of magical, mythical thoughts of ancient cultures.  It always amazes me how archaeology manages to string together so many little unlinked parts into some kind of cohesive whole, developing an entire story around a few stone images, pieces of old pottery, a random tool in a random place.  Fascinating.

Like many people, I had always wanted to visit the Mayan temples, but also knew that so many of these sites are now completely overrun with tourists.  I knew it might be hard to really experience the temples in the same way that some of my friends have talked about who visited many years ago. Still, I didn’t want to miss out and was really looking forward to the next two days of seeing the magnificent ruins.

Once again, we discovered that Vidanta is not particularly excited about guests leaving the resort with any kind of private tour.  If you book through them, it may be a bit easier, but I didn’t know that at the time, and I am sure their tours are probably more expensive as well.  For us, we would be required to be at the main entry gate for our early morning pickup at 5 AM.  I called the concierge, the main desk, and anyone else I could think of to try to be sure that a shuttle would be at our building to pick us up in time.  I was told that we needed to be ready at least 45 minutes early, even though it was less than a mile to the gate from our room.  Still, we were as yet unsure of the layout of the resort, and had no clue how to actually walk to the main gate on our own in the pitch dark jungle morning, so we made plans to be outside at 4:30 AM for the shuttle.

As luck would have it, the shuttle was actually on time and we were at the gate half an hour early, along with one other couple waiting to go on a similar tour.  We laughed together in the dark, and once again the world got smaller when we discovered that the couple was from Pacifica, where Mo taught school for 25 years.  They knew many of the same people.

The tour bus was big, quite roomy, and comfortable, and we were the only guests on it at the beginning.  There were several stops before we actually got on the main highway leading to Chichen Itza, a toll road that was in excellent condition.  The Yucatan peninsula outside the window was broad and very nearly featureless, with miles and miles of thin trunked trees and vines.  I only discovered later why this jungle looks so not like a jungle.  The entire peninsula is formed in limestone and there are no above ground rivers or lakes, and as our guide said, it is like a giant green pool table.  No mountains, no rivers, and very flat.  All the water is underground, in the form of ceynotes and underground rivers that connect them, sometimes very deep below the surface, and the trees have to reach deep to get to the water, so they are skinny but have very long roots.

We arrived at the site a bit after 8, before most of the tourists, but there were definitely a lot of people already there.  Our guide, Frank, was Mayan, and talked incredibly fast, first in Spanish and then English, going from one to the other mid sentence, rapid fire.  He was interesting, and knowledgeable, but then once we were at the site, he turned us over to another guide, an archaeologist who conducted our part of the tour in English.  Carlos was also Mayan, and gave us lots of little tidbits of information about the current status of the descendants of Mayan people in Mexico, and his thoughts on some of the interpretations of the temples, the art work on the temples and what life was like during the time when Chichen Itza was the most powerful center of the Mayan culture.

I think the most fascinating thing were the acoustics in the “Ball Court”, where the rulers could hear every soft spoken word of visiting guests several hundred yards away, and yet the guests could not hear the rulers at the opposite ends.  Talk about surveillance! The guides all demonstrated this in one way or another and it was fun to hear the echoes and the conversations.

Notice the bearded man.  Maya do not have facial hair

He showed us some interesting images that indicated there was a great diversity of cultures that visited the city, including what he interpreted as a Viking, another as a Middle Eastern person, centuries before Columbus and his supposed “discovery” of the Americas.  He pointed out several images that showed how revered the snake was in Mayan culture, and images of eagles which do not exist on the Yucatan Peninsula, among other indications of a lively and varied trade with many cultures. 

The main pyramid follows the cycles of the sun and the Venus Platform follows the cycles of Venus.

Our guide showed us the interesting angles of the Pyramid of Kulkucan, the iconic image recognized by most everyone as the most famous Mayan temple.  He explained the complex astronomy of the temple, and its connection to the nearby Platform of Venus.  He discussed what is called the Temple of the Warriors and said it was really a marketplace.  (and he knows this how?)

The Sacred Cenote was not on our tour, with a long path leading to it that was a bit daunting for the time period we had to explore, and there were several other locations that we missed seeing simply because we weren’t sure what we had actually missed.  I should have done a bit more research before we traveled here so that I would have known better what to look for at the site.

I really wished for more information, more in depth detail, but realized again that as I perused the internet about the site, there are as many theories as there are scientists expounding them.  I learned that it is difficult to take in all the information given during these tours, especially when someone is talking fast and there isn’t a lot of background. 

After the guided portion of the tour was completed, we were given about 45 minutes to walk around and look at the buildings and take more photos.  I did get a few of the big pyramid, but the people were starting to pour in and I was worried because Mo and I had separated.  Seems we didn’t communicate well enough about our meeting point and I went outside the gates to find her.  We were told definitely that I couldn’t return once through the turnstiles, but with no Mo in sight, I convinced them to let me back in, and sure enough she was waiting for me at the place were she thought we had agreed to meet.  Lesson: don’t separate for any reason in a really big crowd!

The three hour drive home was broken up by a buffet lunch at the small town of Pista.  There were handcrafts, but more expensive and not nearly as charming as what was sold at the temple site.  I fell for the tour guides instructions not to buy at the site because where they were taking us had much better goods.  Stupid me, of course they say that.  How could I have forgotten.  I guess it was a good thing, I came away with no souvenirs of the place except photographs.

There were also a few moments of entertainment by some Mayan women who danced, and I literally mean a few moments, maybe 4 minutes at most.  They were waiting at the door for tips as we left the restaurant.  I don’t mind tipping for something like this, if it is at least some real entertainment. Call me a scrooge, but I didn’t tip the three girls.

Lunch was OK, with some typical buffet type food that wasn’t recognizable, but a big bowl of really good pica de gallo and some nachos that were yummy.

We arrived back at the resort just before 3pm, and as we had been instructed, asked the gate guard to call a shuttle for us.  Excuse me?  “There are no shuttles until 6pm, you will have to walk to the Main Lobby and get a shuttle from there to your room”.  The main lobby was much farther away than our room was, so we decided to take the service road I had seen that led along the back side of the resort directly to the Grand Luxxe Jungle.  Suddenly a nice little man tried to stop me, saying, “No, No, cannot go”.  He insisted we walk the other way. 

Walking home on the “service road” where we are not allowed to walk

Well, my red haired temper started rising, and I said, “Try and stop me!”  and I said to Mo, “Come On, I know the way”.  We didn’t go down the little guy’s road, but wandered off a bit till we found another entrance to the service road and in 15 minutes we were back at our room.  Man I was ticked off!  By that time of day the walk was hot, and I was really worried about Mo’s ankle, but we did fine and got to see the back end of the resort where all the dirty work is done in a way that isn’t usually visible.

Just to add a little perspective:  The blue line is our prohibited route that we took home.  The red line is what they wanted us to do, with the pink circle in the middle the lobby of the Grand Mayan.  We are in the second to the last building where the red and blue line join together.  The other pink circle by Azur Restaurant is where the front desk told us we would be located when they “upgraded” us. 

That evening we skipped supper, with a good lunch in our bellies, and neither of us had any desire to wander around the grounds looking for shuttles and food and instead relaxed at home in our comfy space. 

The next morning was another repeat, only we had an extra hour before having to get to the gate by 6:10.  I was a little less stressed about it because I knew the back road and could get us there even in the dark if I needed to and if the shuttle didn’t show up.  But it did, and we got there in time for our second day tour, this time on a less comfortable bus.

Our destination was the ruins of Tulum, about 2 hours southeast of our hotel right on the coast.  We stopped again to pick up several different people at different locations before continuing.  Just let me add a little side note here.  I spent the entire time on the Yucatan Peninsula trying to figure out which direction I was facing.  The sun was in the wrong place, the ocean was definitely in the wrong place, and no matter which direction we were traveling, it felt like the wrong direction!  I pride myself on my sense of direction, but that peninsula, with water on all sides and everything at crazy angles completely confused my map maker brain.

When we arrived at the site of the Tulum ruins, there was just a slight cloud cover, in spite of the day’s prediction for rain.  There is a small area of shops near the entrance, and then a long walk down a rough gravel pathway leading to the ruins.  Once we were through the entry gates, however, everything turned really magical.

Both of us immediately loved the place.  It felt different, probably because there has been a lot less restoration here than at Chichen Itza, and the ruins really feel like ruins.  There is also more vegetation, and the location is magnificent, right on the coast overlooking the sea.

Our fast talking guide held up tattered photos of what the temples and houses looked like.  I can only imagine how colorful the city must have been in its heyday.  Sophia was quick, especially in Spanish, and she was sharp tongued and a bit funny, but her part of the tour really didn’t last very long.  She gave us a few tidbits of information, but once again, I really wished I had done my research before I came to visit these amazing sites.

Later, at the resort, I attempted to find some kind of library or book store to follow up on some of the sites we visited, but they have nothing, except for a few tattered travel books scattered about the buildings here and there.  In my comments at the end of the visit, I begged for a bookstore or a library!

Tulum felt like a place where people lived, even though we were told it was only the wealthy rulers who actually lived within the walls and the rest of the folks who tilled the soil lived in the jungle outside.  The city was inhabited later than Chichen Itza, with theories that the Maya moved there as drought dried up the ceynotes inland.  At Tulum, there was more rain, and they had the sea to provide food even in times of drought.  Again, all theories, and I hope I can find the time to dig in a bit more into the assumed history of these places.  The Conquistadors destroyed the people with their diseases when they landed on the beach here at Tulum, and the city was found rotting in the jungle in 1842 by more explorers. The Mayans had no gold, no silver, no metal of any kinds, and so there was nothing for the conquerors to take from them except their health and their culture.

After the tour ended, we were again given a short hour to wander a bit, and to walk the steps down to the beach.  We had been told to wear swimsuits so we could swim in the water, but with all the algae the water seemed murky.  It was also quite windy, and the sediments were stirred up too much to even consider swimming.  Our snorkel gear is safely stashed in our suitcase back at our room.  Turns out the windy weather kept us from any chance to explore life beneath the surface of the water during any part of our Mexican vacation this time around.

On this day, there was no lunch offered, just a simple “snack”, which was a cookie and a box of some kind of tropical juice.  We were glad that we had taken the opportunity to pick up some snacks at the 7-11 type store in Playa Del Carmen when the bus stopped there to pick up a few people.  Eating lunch under the trees while we watched the coatis was delightful.  They are quick little animals related to raccoons, with prehensile tails like monkeys. 

There are still beautiful flowers and gardens around Tulum, and for the first time we saw the endemic Yucatan Jay.  The young birds have the yellow eye ring and yellow bill and the mature birds have a black ring and black bill.  As with all jays, they were friendly and noisy, and made for fun watching.

Once back home in the early afternoon, with Mo’s ankle feeling OK, we decided to walk the suggested route to the Grand Mayan Lobby and get a shuttle from there.  It took quite a bit longer, but was a pleasant walk and we got to see another part of the resort that we had previously only seen in the dark.

As we entered our room once again, the rains started in earnest.  Hard rain, and even a bit chilly.  We had no really warm clothes with us, and curled up in the big fluffy white bathrobes provided in our room while we tried to decide what to do about dinner.

The Taco Bar at Greens was the closest place, but in the pouring rain we thought better of walking and decided to take the shuttle instead.  Our concierge in the building was very helpful, and for a $300 peso deposit gave us a large umbrella.  With a shuttle ride to the Grand Mayan lobby once again, we just had a short walk along the boardwalks to get to the restaurant.  I think that was the hardest, thickest rain either of us have experienced, and by the time we walked the distance, in spite of the umbrella, we were soaking wet.  And in spite of the hard rain, the little taco bar was completely filled.  Our friendly hostess once again found a place for us to sit while we waited for a dinner table, but the rain was bouncing off the sidewalks and all over the table as well. 

No photo can show how hard that rain was coming down, but it was a true tropical magnificent crazy rain, and we laughed a lot as we got wetter and wetter waiting for our dinner.  Finally a table emptied, and we had one more luscious dinner full of Yucatan flavors that are so different than the typical Mexican food you find in a typical restaurant in the US.  Fabulous.  Not sure I even managed a photo of that dinner, and I cannot even remember what I ate, but I remember the flavors and how incredibly good it was.

When we finished the hostess told us to wait and she called a shuttle for us.  We stood under our trusty umbrella in the pouring rain and within 5 real minutes were on a shuttle scooting us to our warm and dry suite where we both immediately took a very hot shower and called it a day.  And yes, I DID manage photos of the dinner, including my quesadilla with a magnificent hand made corn tortilla, and the most perfect flan I ever tasted.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

03-05-2018 Let’s Go to Mexico

We are home again, back in Grants Pass at the Sunset House, where the chilly weather has no clue that Spring is officially here.  Before I tell the story, a caveat.  I wrote notes as we were experiencing this trip, and the blog will reflect that.  However, by the time it was all said and done, we both decided that it was a great value for the money, and we might choose to do it again someday.  So take our little rants about this and that with a grain of salt. It was a great vacation. Also, keep in mind if you click on a photo, you will be taken to the SmugMug album online where that photo resides, and will be able to see the entire album if you choose.

Even with three weeks in the Southern Deserts, we did know that March in Grants Pass can still be gray and wet.  Time for one more escape before spring brings out the daffodils, the party pretty pink trees, and the rakes and mowers.  Last Christmas when I was visiting Daughter Deanna in Northern Washington, we chatted about Mo and I wishing to fly off somewhere warm.  Air miles were waiting.  Originally, a tentative trip to the US Virgin Islands was floating around in the back of our minds, but the hurricanes put a big dent in those plans.

Deanna popped up with the great idea that we use one of their timeshare weeks near Cancun.  At $800 for the week, it was less expensive than most of the hotels I searched before we made the commitment.  Deanna found a nice week for us at Vidanta Riviera Maya, about half way between Cancun and Playa Del Carmen on the beautiful Caribbean coast of the Yucatan.  Air miles in hand, Mo and I managed to get decent flights leaving from our local Medford airport on United to Cancun with only one stop in Denver.  Although I was a bit leery about United, with some rather nasty reports on the news and from friends who had flown United recently, it was the best deal for the miles we had so we bit the bullet and booked the flight.

Similar to my recent flight to Spokane at Christmas, everything went without a hitch.  We got up at 2:30 AM, with plenty of time to leave by 3:30, drive to Medford and go through the check-in line at 4:15.  Perfect timing for our 5:30 flight.  I had previously downloaded the United app, and we received our boarding passes via the phone, including our passports being scanned and entered.  Seems crazy to put my passport on some kind of app, but I guess everything is a bit crazy in this digital world.  If they are going to get me, they will get me one way or another.

We packed fairly light, but with snorkels and cameras and such, still needed to check a bag each with the baggage charge of $25.  Another fact of life it seems.  One more time I was shifted into the fast lane for security, no idea why, but Mo wasn’t as lucky.  Still, we had plenty of time to get to our gate and wait for the on time airplane. 

I still love flying, and the plane was empty enough that we had the 3 seat row to ourselves, so I could stretch out and still get a good window seat to watch the landscape below.  I loved seeing Dallas/Fort Worth from the air, sooooo big!.  As we approached the Yucatan coast, the vast green jungle spread out below us, and I kept imagining how truly awful it would be to have to land in that jungle, no roads, crazy snakes and bugs, alligators, wild wild looking country.  I could see the famous cenotes, sinkholes in the limestone that characterize the peninsula, and along the silvery white strand of beaches there were strange colored backwaters. 

Some in orange, and pink and lime green in patterns that gave no clue as to their source.  I finally found them on Google Maps and read about the Parque Natural Ria Lagartos, “Alligator River”, and the nearby salt ponds that turn different colors based on types of algae that grow in them. The research confirmed that while the jungle may be beautiful and filled with all sorts of birds, the landscape was just as scary as I imagined it to be.

I was surprised to find that the plane wasn’t too terribly uncomfortable, although United now has an entertainment system on some planes that requires that you use your own device for movies or whatever, and for that to work the app must also be on your device.  I had it on my phone, but Mo didn’t have it on her IPad.  She had her card games to keep her occupied, however, and the flight to Denver was on time and uneventful, as was the next flight to Cancun.  On time, uneventful, no crying babies, and a bit of a view until the clouds took over.  We felt incredibly blessed.

Until we hit the airport in Cancun.  Seems as though the personnel was significantly reduced and at the more than 2 dozen booths available for immigration into Mexico, there were only 2 and sometimes 3 people actually checking in all the incoming passengers from many flights.  It took us two and one half hours of standing in slowly snaking lines around rows and rows of ribbons and frustrated people to get through that nightmare.  Sheesh!.  Luckily I had dressed in layers and managed to peel down a few of those layers to a light shirt and capris and no socks to enjoy the warm and humid Mexican temperatures.

By the time we got through the line, we were exhausted, and it was a bit of a kerfuffle trying to find the “man in the blue shirt” who would be taking us to our transportation for the resort.  Seems as though there are several men in blue shirts, all insisting that “they” are your transportation, but of course they weren’t.  After getting caught by a couple of them, thinking they were ours until they asked for a deposit for a “free day” at some new resort did we figure out we were being scammed.  And Deanna even warned me!  We didn’t fall for it, but by the time we did finally find the real guy, it was already getting late.  A man in a cart at the curb sold cold beer in a plastic glass and we gladly shared one while waiting another 90 minutes for our shuttle to actually pick us up.  The driver kept saying “5 minutes”, but we learned over the week that in Mexico 5 minutes can mean anything from 20 minutes to actual hours.

When we got to the resort, we had to jump through a few more hoops.  The shuttle took us to the “main lobby”, where our baggage was again rolled off somewhere to meet us later at our room.  We were then shuttled some distance to the lobby of the Grand Mayan Lobby, where we were to check in.  Another 40 minutes or so passed and we finally were assigned a room, an “upgrade” they called it, showing us on the map of the resort a very nice place not far from the pool and restaurants.  OK, whatever that means, I guess we will take the upgrade from the “Bliss” to the “Grand Luxxe Jungle”.  And please, where can we get some food? 

We finally decided to walk to the closest restaurant before going to our room, (which would require waiting for another shuttle) which turned out to be the Greens taco bar on the golf course, still open and very very busy.  The hostess took pity on us, weary travelers who hadn’t eaten since some ungodly morning hour, and found us two seats at the bar.  We watched the chef carve the roasted pork which ended up in our tacos, and had a meal that tasted fabulous to our tired and hungry souls.  (We ate there again later in the week, and the food was really fabulous then too.)

We walked back to the Grand Mayan lobby where we once more waited for a shuttle to take us to Grand Luxxe Jungle.  “Next one, 5 minutes”.  That became the refrain that we got used to by the end of the week, but we also learned that walking was often the best option, even if it meant 1.2 miles each way to get anywhere.  That was the downside of our upgrade to the newer and really quite lovely Grand Luxxe Jungle.

We were shuttled to our room, and when the bell boy opened the door I have to admit it was a bit overwhelming.  Our “room” was a suite with two bathrooms, a big kitchen, a living room, all sorts of really lovely decor and a LOT of space.  Quite the upgrade, for sure, and nothing like the photos I had viewed previously of the Bliss rooms.

We wandered around a bit, and almost got lost trying to find ourselves, but settled in to the truly comfortable king bed with luscious sheets, tons of good pillows and bolsters and a truly comfortable mattress.  I slept great every single night we were there.  The showers, both of them, were as big as most bathrooms, and the rain shower was my favorite, with plenty of hot water every time but once.  It had been a long travel day.

I turned on my phone, connected to the WiFi, and opened up Google Maps to try to figure out exactly where we were.  Seems as though everything was wrong!.  Google maps had the little blue dot at least a mile north of where I was told we were to be located.  I figured that something must be wrong with the satellite or maybe coordinates are different in Mexico, and I had no clue what to do about it, but decided I would worry about it the next day.

Morning dawned with a bit of sunlight coming through the filmy curtains and breezes in the jungle vegetation outside the big doors leading to the patio areas.  Thank goodness Deanna warned us about bringing our own coffee AND our own coffee filters, since it was a 2.5 mile round trip walk to the market, the restaurants, the pools, and anything else.  There was also a fancy Keurig pot with little tubs of coffee at 2.70 USD each, but we did find another regular coffee pot in the cupboard and made our own Seattle’s Best coffee. 

Mo has been having a bit of tendon trouble with her ankle lately, so we decided that I could go exploring, see where things were located, and hopefully find a bagel or something for breakfast.  Off I went, and of course there wasn’t a shuttle in sight, so I walked.

I had a map of the place, but each of the three maps offered of the resort are a bit different, and of course I didn’t think Google was telling me where I was.  Turns out it was, and we were exactly where Google thought we were located! I wandered the back roads toward the Grand Luxxe Lobby, through the back trails and onto the lovely boardwalk system that is well developed in the older parts of the resort, just not in our area.

I found the restaurants, the immense and quite beautiful swimming pool, and finally the market, with a coffee bar and a small bakery where I found a bagel and a roll to take back home to our room.  We knew that eventually we would need to get off the resort and go shopping for supplies in Playa Del Carmen, but didn’t want to try to do that on our first day there.  Turns out we never actually did that at all.  The taxi would have been $24  USD each way, and the shuttle was only $8 USD each way, but the shuttle only ran on the odd hours and the trip would have required us to stay in Playa Del Carmen for a few hours, and we never really wanted to do that, at least on this trip.  Next time we might know to head for the Mega store on the first day, and not worry about the lost day.

After breakfast, the two of us put on our swimsuits and cover ups and set off to explore the grounds and find the pools.  It was close to mid day by then, and when we arrived at the pools, they were busy, with every. single. deck. chair. taken.  Every one, both at the pools, at the beach, everywhere except in the “Premium” area by the beach for Grand Luxxe members only, of which we were a part since we had our Grand Luxxe upgrade.

We explored a bit, but found to our delight that the “river” that runs through part of the resort was accessible in several places.  No chair needed.  We dropped our shoes and cover-ups and slipped into the fabulous water.  Ahhhhh.  This is why we came to Mexico. 

After wandering the resort we found another lovely area reserved for Grand Luxxe upgrade folks only called “The Beach Club”.  It was private, and quite lovely, but also felt a bit snooty.  We asked for a chair and were told that the only thing available was one down toward the beach.  Seems as though people line up at 10 AM every day in order to get good seats even in the Beach Club. 

There are also sections there reserved for what is called “The Experience”, with unlimited food and drink all day long and a butler at your disposal for just $250 per day,. We took the small lounge that was offered near the beach, and decided to order a cocktail with a snack that would serve us for dinner.  After waiting some time for a menu, we found out from the folks behind us that it took them more than 2 hours to get served.  Nah, we had no desire to hang out there for that long at all so we left our “exclusive” strangely uncomfortable lounger and wandered back through the resort in search of some place to eat.  Near the pool we found a small informal restaurant that served excellent food at prices a bit less than most of the high end restaurants that define the resort.  Our service was also excellent, and very timely.  Exclusive isn’t all it is cracked up to be, for sure.

We had another lovely meal, with nachos served with several little dishes of amazing condiments, and something called a Mayan Wrap that was superb.  Great early supper for us before we headed back to our room to try to get oriented and figure out how we could manage to get to the main gate by 5 am the next morning for our tour of Chichen Itza.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

02-11-2018 Leaving Tucson Heading North

Remember that if you click on a photo, (except for maps and internet photos) it will take you to the larger version on my SmugMug site, where you can also see more photos in that gallery.

When Sunday morning arrived, the gorgeous clear skies over Tucson were showing a bit of gray.  Clouds were coming in.  We didn’t know at the time that there was a lot of rain heading towards the big city in the desert, and as the days passed with extended weather reports from friends and news sites, we knew how lucky we had been.  Our entire time so far had been gorgeous.  Sunny, warm, temperatures much above normal, no wind.  Who could ask for more?!

Leaving Tucson, we knew the best way out of town was on the interstate.  To our delight, I-10 at 9 on a Sunday morning was beautifully quiet.  Note to self, always leave big cities which require freeway travel on Sunday morning.  I was driving so we missed photographs of all the amazing freeway overpasses and bridges between Tucson and Phoenix.  Even the fences are covered with gorgeous sculptures, some in cement, some in rusted metal.  We enjoyed all the art along the highways, both in Arizona and in Nevada.  Next time I’ll have Mo drive this section so I can get some photos.

(The two photos here were taken from the internet just so you get the idea.)

I have noticed this trend growing in many places where we travel.  Made me wonder what it must be like to be a freeway graphic artist and to see your designs bigger than life in such a public venue.  Almost as much fun as the mural craze that seems to be everywhere as well.

We were still not absolutely sure about our route home.  I had checked the weather going north along Highway 395 in California, and it looked a bit iffy.  The fastest route would be to take Highway 95 directly north from Las Vegas to Reno, but geez that part can be boring.  We thought maybe we could boondock in the Alabama Hills if we could get through Death Valley.  Both of us remembered some of the climbs in and out of the valley.

The route we traveled from Tucson to Minden, Nevada

We decided to head for Phoenix, and then north, with no real idea of how far we could or wanted to go and where we might end up that night.  Beatty, Nevada was the goal, and then Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley, but who knew the timing.

I used the website and found quite a few boondock sites north of Kingman.  I couldn’t believe how big Kingman was, and as we passed through, the boondock sites didn’t look all that welcoming.  We continued north, thinking we could find something.  Once again, led the way.  We saw a big parking lot available across the street from the Hoover Dam Casino, just east of Boulder City and set a beeline for a free night spot that shouldn’t be terribly crowded.

Turned out to be a perfect place, and we never even bothered to cross the highway to visit the casino.  Dinner was once again some excellent leftovers from the freezer while we watched the sunset and settled in for the evening. A few rigs rolled in during the night, but they weren’t terribly loud.  By morning there were a few trailers, and some car and tent campers scattered around the edges of the big space.

Our plan was to continue north and then cross Death Valley, with a stay at Stovepipe Wells, but the weather had other plans.  It was COLD, and when we drove into Beatty I think the daytime temperatures were in the low 40’s, with a hard freeze predicted for the night.  I called Stovepipe Wells, where we were told all sites were taken, and we did a quick rethink.  We had passed a decent looking park on the way into Beatty, so gave them a quick call, and sure enough there was a space, full hookups.  Death Valley Inn RV Park was a good choice.

It was still early in the day, and as we thought about our options, it seemed like a good thing to relax early and spend some time playing and exploring.  We have been to Death Valley a few times, and the things we would see there are sights we have enjoyed in the past.  Something different would be fun.

We headed for the tiny Visitor center in town, next to the cheapest gas in town, and gathered up some brochures on local interesting things to see and do.  Rhyolite is a ghost town that is fun to explore, but we had already done that a few years ago.  We decided to explore some of the back 4 wheel drive roads, and found an interesting loop that meandered past old mining cabins, through “Secret Pass”, south to the desert, and back via the highway.

We explored the old Flourspar Cabin at a mining site before continuing up the road

The 8 miles to Secret Pass was challenging, but that is why we were out there.  I was a bit of a wreck actually, as Mo crawled over the big, pointy rocks, with me jumping out now and then to move some especially big ones.  Once we were past the bad part, it didn’t seem so bad.  I think for me it was the unknown factor of whether the road actually continued through.  I didn’t like the idea of having to back up and out over those rocks and ditches and eroded dry streambeds. 

When we got to an easier part, I started taking photos, and Mo asked why in the world we didn’t get photos of the scary parts?  I was too busy holding on and gasping! 

Of course, we didn’t have a good local map, and the phone map quit working about half way through.  We just kept going, and following our noses, found our way out of the mountains and across the desert back to the highway.  It was fun, and something we love to do when in the desert.  No flat tires, no getting stuck in sand or creekbeds, and beautiful views.

We had seen Big Dune on the way north to Beatty, and our dirt road intercepted the highway just a few miles north of the road to the sands.  We traveled the washboard gravel just 6 miles with the dunes looming in the distance.  This dune is incredible, a star dune out in the middle of the flat desert, and I loved it much more than the dunes in Death Valley.  Maybe because it rises all alone from the surrounding space, or maybe because it isn’t overrun with people, or at least it wasn’t when we were there.  Unprotected the way the Death Valley dunes are protected, it was covered with 4 wheeler tracks, but when we were there on this mid week afternoon, there wasn’t a soul around.

Mattie had more fun than she has had in a long time.  Something about soft sand makes her completely joyously crazy, and she ran around like a wild thing in the wind. 

She does the same thing at ocean beaches, and in big soft grass as well.  The dune was lit from the west with the late afternoon sun and the backdrop of dark clouds was a photographer’s dream.  Gorgeous!

On our way back, along Highway 95, we finally spotted the wild burros that were touted in the brochure.  All along our route we had seen burro apples, but no burros, so we were glad to finally see them.

A great mural in Beatty along the main road into town

The next morning was cold, so we took our time heading west toward Death Valley.  Stovepipe Wells was busy with tourists, and I stopped in at the Visitor Center and General Store hoping for a really good sweatshirt to add to the one I found at Chaco Canyon 4 years ago.  No luck.  I am pretty specific in what I want, and I guess my current version will have to suffice. 

I was glad we didn’t stay there, with all the people, visiting all the beautiful sights we have seen before.  It was enough to pass through this part of the valley and to save wandering around in the back country for another trip. 

Look closely to see the MoHo winding down the grade toward Panamint Springs

We knew about the long grade up from Stovepipe Wells, and then back down to Panamint Springs, not horrible, but definitely long.  We decided to unhook early on rather than waiting for the really big hill west of Panamint Springs.  Mo went ahead in the MoHo and I followed in the Tracker, making it much easier to stop along the way for photos.

We negotiated the really steep hill up from Death Valley toward Lone Pine without any mishaps, and stopped at the top for lunch and a walk with the dog.  The sun was warm coming through the windows, but the wind was really cold!

As we approached the intersection with Highway 395, I was again enthralled with the magnificent view of the eastern face of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.  Often at this time of year, the highways are snow covered, but this year the snowpack in the Sierra’s is extremely low.  It was our window in time to travel one of our favorite highways without being worried about the storms and snows.  We have been in serious snow storms with chains required on this road as late as Memorial Day!

We didn’t stop along the way, passing places we have visited in the past, reminiscing about good food, beautiful hikes, historic sites.  Many good memories along this route for us, and it was fine that on this trip we simply passed through viewing the incredible scenery.  We were heading home, and no matter how long we are out, when it gets close to home time, we tend to move along fairly quickly.

There is just so much to see and do along this highway, the list is huge.  It deserves a month, preferably in warmer weather, not just a day.  We will return.

Our destination for the night was Minden, Nevada, where we had stayed at a new park back in 2014 on our way home from Florida.  At that time, it snowed on us, April 1, and we were happy for hookups.  This time the prediction was for temperatures in the teens, and once again we were happy for hookups.  I called ahead, and was glad I did since Silver City Resort seems to have developed into a very popular place in the last 4 years.  Most of the people there are in for long term visits.  That surprised me because it can be cold in this area south of Reno.

When we woke up the next morning, the temperature was 12 degrees F, the Tracker was covered in thick frost, and even the MoHo had frost on the lower sides.  We had turned on our tank heaters for the first time in a long time.

It was time to figure out our home route, and we cooked a nice breakfast while debating whether to take our chances over the northern mountains or give up and cross the Sierra’s over Donner Pass and travel home via I-5.  Decisions, decisions!