Over the last few years I have been lucky enough to travel to some pretty amazing places. A few years ago I decided that photos alone were not cutting it. So, I picked up a video camera and started shooting. It’s been quite the learning experience and isn’t always easy. It’s amazing the added challenges you face as a travel videographer – things like wind, moving objects and shaky hands – which just aren’t real issues when shooting travel photos on the go. You can find all of my videos on my youtube channel. But, now without further adieu I give you five of my favorite travel videos.
Number 1 – Argentina
Number 2 – Scandinavia
Number 3 – Central America
Number 4 – Mixed Locations
Number 5 – The Grand Canyon
The footage in the above shots was taken on a Canon Vixia HF200 and a FlipUltra with waterproof casing.
Have a favorite video which I didn’t include on this list? Tell me which one. I’d love to know! Personally, I’m a huge fan of my Argentina series in particular – though I’m only including the summary video in this post.
Over a thousand years ago Mayan engineers laid down the plans for a mighty undertaking. One that required precision, patience, insane amounts of manpower, and a shocking scientific knowledge about the world, solar system, and engineering.
My morning started shortly after 7. As the sun rose over the bay, I meandered my way along the main drag in Playa del Carmen. I walked lazily, hoping to find something edible and affordable for breakfast, before connecting with the day-long bus tour to Chichen Itza and a large Cenote I’d booked the afternoon before. I was curious and a bit anxious. The all day tour was only $40 USD. A fair bit less than a lot of the other competitors and dirt cheap for an all day tour. Especially one that included the entrance to the ruins, a buffet lunch, and entrance to a large stabilized cenote/swimming area.
The weather was incredible. The remnants of the previous day’s storm were lazily clinging to life as the sun gently pushed its way towards apex. All the while the Sun’s rays cut giant holes through the clouds, lancing giant golden rays towards the coast and into the water. It was truly one of the most breathtaking sunrises I’ve seen in a very, very long time. In many ways, it was the most majestic thing I’d see all day. Eventually I found my way back to a bench in front of the closed restaurant where I was schedule to meet my driver. Ere long I noticed a few other travelers doing the same thing and struck up a conversation. As it turned out, several of the women near by were traveling together and from the west coast. The younger ones were in their late 20s/early 30s and were loads of fun. We quickly exchanged stories and laughed as we anxiously tried to figure out what/where/how we would be finding our way to the bus. As it turned out, the ladies were actually scheduled with a different tour company, much to our collective disappointment. My disappointment increased as I was led to the vehicle we’d be using: Unlike the van I’d been promised we’d be taking I was greeted by a 16 person mini bus. Annoyed at the increased size, my frustration deepened as I realized that I’d also been lied to about the tour language. I’d been told it was an English only tour, instead it quickly became obvious that the tour would be delivered in Spanish 2/3 of the time with the occasional English follow up. Uncomfortable in my tiny seat, pissed off about being lied to and anything but happy about the Spanish historical video playing on the Van’s TV I settled in for the 2+ hour drive from Playa del Carmen to the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza.
The city itself is thought to have become a regional power around 600 A.D. For the next 400 years the city enjoyed varying degrees of power before eventually collapsing around 1,000 A.D. – though the site itself retained a significantly reduced population there after and is believe to have remained active for several hundred years, largely due to the large Cenotes. Upon our arrival we made our way down dirt pathways that were lined by local Mayan craft art supplemented by the usual tourist crap. The sheer number of small table stands and vendors is a tribute to the immense draw Chichen Itza has as a tourist attraction. I recently read that Chichen Itza is Mexico’s second most popular/visited Archaeological site. The site itself was fairly sterile. Major buildings have been restored/stabilized, vegetation cleared, and grass planted in major areas. As we paused in front of the main pyramid, “El Castillo” our guide explained the incredible details of the pyramid’s construction and orientation. The pyramid was built with painstaking attention detail so that every step, tier, and decoration had some sort of powerful meaning or purpose. The most impressive of which was the way the steps and edges of the pyramid aligned during the equinox twice a year. Wikipedia explains the event, “On the Spring and Autumn equinox, at the rising and setting of the sun, the corner of the structure casts a shadow in the shape of a plumed serpent – Kukulcan, or Quetzalcoatl – along the west side of the north staircase. On these two annual occasions, the shadows from the corner tiers slither down the northern side of the pyramid with the sun’s movement to the serpent’s head at the base”. You can see the staircase sans shadows in the photo above.
From the main pyramid we cut down and across towards the “La Iglesia” structure in the Las Monjas complex of buildings. On the way we paused briefly at several small pyramids and temples before reaching a heavily decorated building, which had a number of powerfully carved decorates dedicated to/depicting the Mayan god of rain Chaac.
From there it was on to the Observatory – another incredible piece of astrological/archeological mastery, before pausing briefly for a snack. Then it was back to the main plaza by the primary pyramid – which, by the way, can no longer be climbed by the public.
From there we explored several of the other smaller temples and archeological ruins, pausing to take in the impressive carvings and monster-like figures carved into the local stone.
In addition to the site’s amazing archeological wonders, it’s also home to a plethora of unusual plant life. The plant life creates a vibrant, often enthralling backdrop to the ancient Mayan wonders, and re-affirmed my respect for the Mayan’s resilience and ability to carve their way through thick jungle. In retrospect, I wish I’d seen Chichen Itza long before visiting Guatemala’s Tikal. While impressive in scale and scope I could not help but feel that Tikal dwarfed Chichen Itza in every way. The pyramids were larger and more majestic, the jungle wilder, the ruin complex larger, the site itself less polished. I had high expectations for Chichen Itza. After all, the site has been selected as one of the “New Wonders of the World” and has drawn travelers, scholars and heads of state alike. These expectations were somewhat disappointed. That said, however, it truly is a wondrous place. Just make sure you see it BEFORE you see Tikal.
From Chichen Itza it was back onto the bus for a brief trip down the street to a large cenote-turned water park. The cavernous Cenote had been stabilized and reinforced, with a small, secondary tunnel carved into the side of the large cavernous area. I quickly changed into my swimsuit, and began to make my way down through the cave/tunnel, pausing briefly at the two overlooks that opened up onto the sinkhole/cenote’s interior.
The Cenote itself was incredible. A large tubular sinkhole that stretched at least 100 feet down into the earth, before cutting into deep blue/green water, there was a small waterfall that cascaded down the sheer face of the cenote’s walls, before splashing across the water’s surface. The whole area was surrounded by long vines, many of which stretched at least 100 feet from the surface, down into the cenote.
Once at the bottom, I jumped in and swam for a bit. Pausing briefly to look up towards the surface. All the while reveling in the natural beauty of the Cenote’s fern, moss and vine covered walls. From there it was up a series of steps to a jump some 15-20 feet up. Once there, after a momentary pause I launched myself out and into the dark green waters, dodging fish and hanging fines as I torpedoed down into the water. As impressive as the Cenote was above water, our guide told us it stretched another 70 some odd meters below the surface. Truly an incredible place. From there it was back onto the bus for a tired nap and long drive home. The following day I’d be piling onto a plane and making the short flight back to Arizona. The Yucatan is truly a wondrous place, one I hope you will all consider visiting. It is home to amazing natural beauty, delightful food, amazing experiences, and a rich archeological history. On that note, this post is the final in my series on my December 2009 Central America trip. Stay tuned for new posts, adventures and destinations.
**This is the 2nd part of a two-part series covering the Actun Tunichil Munkal Cave tour. Don’t miss part one [here]***
Actun Tunichil Muknal
I hate to see things like that happen, but was immensely relieved – as it meant that after an incredibly rough start, the trip was finally getting on track and shaping up to be what I’d paid for. Our group of 8 set off towards the cave mouth in the lead, pausing briefly to snap pictures and take in the site’s incredible beauty. The milky blue-green water, moss-covered rocks, and lush jungle served as an incredible backdrop for a somewhat intimidating start to our cave voyage.
We received a brief safety lecture, a quick warning not to get our headlamps wet, and a reminder that we’d be getting wet before moving towards the entrance to the cave. At the lead, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d been told I’d need to swim across the cave mouth, but was skeptical. I’m 6’4″ – over a foot taller than most of the Mayans. It couldn’t be that deep, could it?
The 78 degree water prickled up my legs. Cold enough for a quick intake of breath, but not quite cold enough to be truly unpleasant. The water was mineral rich, and as a result a murky green. I slowly made my way forward as the bottom gave out beneath me. I quickly found myself swimming, camera in hand, across a portal into another world.
Once across, I crawled my way up onto a flat area, before stepping aside to watch as the rest of the group followed in my footsteps. Once we’d all gathered, it was once again time to pause for a brief history of the 5+km deep cave. It is believed that the Mayans used the cave in some form or another for over 1,000 years before eventually abandoning it around 1000AD. After which it sat dormant and unexplored until the 1980s when early explorers re-discovered the ancient Mayan site.
Chomping at the bit, we quickly began to make our way into the cave, carefully – albeit usually quite clumsily – stumbling over rocks, tripping on submerged ledges, and relying heavily on hand holds. Every so often our guide would issue a word of warning. Step here, don’t touch that. Be careful, it gets deep, etc. – messages which we then transferred dutifully down the line to ensure everyone was kept in the loop.
The cave hasn’t been stabilized in any way, shape or form which makes for an, at times, delightfully perilous trip. The only light we had available came in one of two forms: The seldom used, hand-held spotlight our guide had and our smaller hard-hat based LED headlamps.
The going was slow, but stunning. We were almost always in water, though the depth of that water ranged widely. Most of the time it ran waist deep, though it regularly plunged far deeper, leaving me walking in chest/neck-deep water or carefully clinging to the side of the cave wall as I scooted along seeking slightly shallower ledges. Unfortunately, my digital camera was locked away in a waterproof bag, however I did shoot video (attached above) on my waterproof flip.
As we wound more than half a kilometer into the cave system we paused regularly to examine stunning rock formations. At times they consisted of odd circular holes carved into the ceiling, other times it was large crystalline sheets which caught, and reflected the glow of our headlamps sparkling like a thousand tiny stars. All the while the roof ranged from mere inches above my head to large cavernous expanses decorated by stalactites and beautiful, folded, begemmed – almost sheet like – rock pillars.
Eventually we reached a long, narrow cavern with a large, jagged, water worn rock. The rock rested next to a sheer, overhanging ledge which stood some 10-15 feet above water level. The distance between the rock and the ledge was some 2.5 feet up, and 1.5 feet out. Just manageable if you were careful, used your height and managed to swallow the sizable lump in your throat that inevitably formed.
One-by-one we made the climb, bridged the small gap, and then scaled another 15-20 feet up along a steep, but manageable rock wall, before settling into a small alcove at the top. There we were instructed to remove our shoes, and don our socks in preparation for the dry leg of the cave.
We set off once again, this time through a tiny, narrow crevice that left me bent nearly in two, as I hop-walked my way through, periodically bouncing my head or shoulder off the rock ceiling. Once up and out things opened up in a large open area. The ground was a mixture between slightly water warn rock, and much smoother/softer sandstone.
In the larger open areas the ground was a unique mixture of small depressions where water would normally pool and natural retainer walls which were often semi-circle in nature. The ground looked in many ways like it was dried and hardened mud sediment, left during mild flooding over hundreds of years. We quickly learned that the sandstone’s delicate nature was the reason we’d been asked to remove our shoes. Our guide also pointed to several small pieces of red tape laid out on the ground. He cautioned that those marked artifacts and pleaded with us to be careful.
As we carefully made our way from chamber to chamber – often through narrow/tight/difficult pathways that left me feeling very grateful I wasn’t 6’6″ or 50 pounds heavier – we passed a plethora of old Mayan artifacts before eventually arriving at the first skeletal remains. Each step we took required total attention. Constantly on the look out for the red tape that market artifacts, we quickly realized that the tape only marked major artifacts. This forced us to vigilantly navigate between smaller pieces of pottery. All the while, we carefully avoided stepping in depressions, walking instead along the ridges left between small areas where water had pooled in years past. These were raised and tended to be more durable than the depressions which also potentially contained submerged/undiscovered pottery or skeletal remains encased in the soft sediment.
As we paused our guide told us a bit about the skull that rested, badly battered but largely intact at our feet. He shared the individual’s approximate age, sex, and what little had been discovered about the person’s life and social status. The chamber stretched out to either side, with a largely smooth floor, before slipping up into beautiful stalactites that decorated the cavern’s walls. The stalactites themselves looked like melted wax, leaving me to ponder the incredible beauty of the place. I can only image the mystical ambiance the cavern would have held in the dim, wavering light of a hand held torch or small fire. It’s easy to see how the ancient Mayans – who had somehow navigated nearly a kilometer into the cave, relying only on torches and gusto – would have envisioned the place as a magical portal into the underworld and afterlife.
With stories of Mayan nobles and religious leaders, heavily reliant on hallucinogenic drugs, celebrating bloody rituals racing through our minds we continued to wind further into the cave system. Past small depressions which held skeletal remains. Small platforms which supported old pottery. Turtle shells, various other artifacts and incredible stalactites. Eventually we paused in the main gallery to snap a few photos and enjoy the sheer scope of the cavern we were in. There our guide explained that every single piece of pottery found in the cave had been damaged by the Mayans. Apparently, after each use they Mayans would leave the pottery as a gift for the dead, punching a hole, or damaging it in some way to free the item’s spirit.
From there it was up, through another series of tight, jagged passages that left us muttering soft curses as we carefully picked our way over, through, between and under sharp rocks and small broken stalactites. Eventually we came to a near dead-end: A 10-15 foot set of large boulders. The boulders had an old aluminum roof latter set up against them, and stabilized with a small rope at the top. Its wobbly, frail looking nature, especially set in the dimly lit light of the cave definitely added to the sense of adventure.
We paused briefly, listening all the while to our guide as he told us what to expect: The Crystal Maiden. A fully intact female skeleton, left as she’d died over a thousand years previous. Near her feet in a small depression, easily overlooked was a second, small/collapsed skeleton. Unlike the maiden who appeared laid out, the 2nd skeleton was in a position that left us all wondering if it hadn’t died with its hands and legs bound. Sacrifice? Honored burial for respected elders? Ritual self-sacrifice? It’s hard to know.
Eyes glinting in the harsh light cast by our head lamps we paused and reflected before slowly making our way back to the metal latter. It looked every bit as intimidating as I expected it to…with a resigned sigh, I swung my body weight out over empty nothingness, slowly stabilizing myself against the rocks, before slowly making my way towards the ground, foot by foot, wobbly rung by wobbly rung.
From there it was back through the winding warren of small tunnels and large chambers to the ledge where we’d left our shoes. Smiles on our faces and small goose bumps on our arms we donned our shoes and made the difficult descent back over the small gap, down the large rock formation and into the water. Hours had passed since we’d entered the cave and though we didn’t know it yet, the sun had already slid below the horizon.
Bats began to migrate over our heads, typically staying well clear of us. From time to time, however, we’d find ourselves started by a gray blur, as it spend past our heads often narrowly missing us and leaving us to start at the quick wash of moving air that tugged at our hair.
The water itself held its own mysteries. As the last three tours in the cave, things were stone quiet. The air was still, and the animal life was slowly returning to reclaim its territory. Before long we spotted small catfish, crayfish and even several fist sized freshwater crabs. An entertaining addition to our group as we waded, swam, and walked back down through the flooded hallways, past ancient stalactites and stalagmites towards the entrance.
Eventually, wet, and slightly cold we reached the mouth of the cave…pausing briefly to make sure we hadn’t lost anyone, our guide pointed to two glowing points along the sheer walls of the cave near the entrance. The first thing to catch our attention was the stunningly beautiful reflection of eyes – star-like in nature. Then, as our eyes adjusted, the outlines of massive spiders suddenly sprang into focus.
Eager and slightly anxious, I made my way once more into the deep pool at the mouth of the cave. This time, careful to stay near the center of the chamber – hoping to stay as far away from the spiders as humanly possible.
Drenched, but thrilled I made my way back over the submerged rocks, dinging my shins every now and then, before scrambling out onto the moss slicked stones that marked the mouth of the cave. There we spotted another large, freshwater crab, before carefully picking our way up the muddy embankment and back onto the main path.
It was dark. Long past sunset, with a nearly full moon slowly climbing towards apex. It was stunning. The sky and moon brilliantly outlined the jungle canopy as it stretched over our heads, allowing slight moonlight to filter down to the jungle floor. After a quick pause we set off, back to the parking lot and our cars. We had a 40 minute walk ahead of us, through the dark, in the middle of nowhere, down a small dirt path and across three large rivers. THIS was the adventure i’d signed up for.
A glowing smile on my face, I began back towards the parking lot, pausing from time to time to let out a sign of amazement. I mentioned previously that the spider’s eyes at the cave mouth had been impressive. As it turns out, the jungle to either side of the path itself was home to thousands of spiders. All of varying sizes, but sharing the same brilliantly reflective eyes. As the light struck the path, I could not help but feel as though I was on a path through space, with stars to either side stretching out into space.
Careful not to stray off the path we wandered along for some 20 minutes before suddenly stopping dead in our tracks. Sitting smack dab in the middle of the path was a giant toad. No doubt feasting on the veritable spider smorgasbord. It stared at us briefly before lazily launching itself to the side of the path, and then off into the thick underbrush beyond.
About half way back to the parking lot my headlamp began to blink. My battery was dieing. Luckily, the moon was bright, I still had some battery left, and the other two members of the group still had battery power.
Nervously chuckling and wondering what other animal life was roaming the path, we set back to our trek, before eventually finding our way back to the parking lot where we donned warm clothes, piled into one of the guides’ trucks and set off for San Ignacio.
The trip, which had started out in what looked to be miserable disappointment ended up being one of my favorite experiences in Belize.
If you ever find yourself in Belize, make sure you track down a guide and explore Actun Tunichil Muknal – but hurry! People were not kidding when they said this site can’t last. There’s simply too much exposure to the artifacts and remains. The site needs something more than red electrical tape marking artifacts if there’s to be any hope of persevering it. Add to that the rugged and dangerous nature of the tour and there’s no doubt in my mind that the government will end up shutting it down in the next couple of years.
Hopefully you’ve had the opportunity to read my post on my day long adventure exploring the cenote at Dos Ojos, ruins and city of Tulum and snorkeling at Akumal in Mexico. For those who haven’t make sure to view the post and photos [here].
As promised here’s a video compilation of footage filmed throughout the day/during the adventure. As always I value your comments and would appreciate it if you take an extra second to rate the video. Enjoy!
I stood in the area roped off by security and impatiently checked my watch. My assigned entrance time for the old Moorish palatial section of the Alhambra was 4 o’clock. Ever so slowly the line seemed to grow. Periodically dodging stray umbrellas wielded by careless impatient sightseers, I paced quietly. All the while a light misting, not yet rain, slowly fell.
Eventually the clock struck 4 and the line began to ooze forward. Fifteen minutes later I was in. The entrance was through a beautifully decorated, if otherwise unremarkable, side entrance chosen more for convenience than shock value. Once inside, the doorway served as a portal into a beautiful multi-level room. With walls covered in crawling Moorish carvings and wooden ceilings decorated with carved and inlaid wooden designs, the room had a powerful feeling to it – perhaps cozy describes it better? I can only imagine how visually overwhelming the site would have been when the walls were covered in vibrant colored paints, tapestries and plants.
Careful not to hit my head on the ceiling, I wound down small steps and through the open space. There at the foot of the room the far wall met me in an explosion of stonework. It was a giant, beautiful wall, carved window to ceiling with astounding intricate designs. Each portal a glowing orb looking out over all of Granada and the Albayzin. Even the windows were covered in beautiful stone screen work – a feat in and of itself given the age of the building and its constant battle against the elements.
With some difficulty I abandoned my inspection of the first room and walked across a stone floor worn smooth by the passing of tens of thousands of feet each year. I soon found myself in another room, again covered in beautiful carvings but made even more impressive by an intricately carved wooden ceiling with beautiful metallic inlays that artistically helped highlight the true complexity of the wood and metal work I was seeing.
As I wound through room after room, covered floor to ceiling, in beautiful flowing patterns and Moorish script I quickly realized that I was growing numb to it. The artisan’s work was so prolific, so impressive in scope that in an odd way it had begun to become mundane. My overloaded brain seemingly had decided enough was enough and left me rubbing my eyes, shaking my head and striving to pick small focal points within the designs that I could explore closely without overloading.
Moving at a leisurely pace, not unlike that which you would use in a museum, I wandered down hallways into small rooms, grand rooms and across beautifully decorated courtyards. The courtyards often were decorated with beautiful tile work, small fountains and manicured greenery in addition to the carved wood and stone features that decorated the rest of the palace.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the stonework was the vast diversity of the intricate design elements. I cannot fathom how difficult it was to repeat specific elements in the design motifs while making the stonework in each individual room unique and elegantly different.
One of the largest open spaces within the palatial complex was the central pool. With a beautiful fountain on one end and a large carved door on the other, the entire space was designed with symmetry in mind. Despite the tourist hustle and bustle it still maintained a beautiful aura of tranquility.
Beyond the large wooden doors, I woundthrough another series of stunning rooms before finding myself in the courtyard that houses the Alhambra’s famous Lion Fountain. Sadly, the fountain itself was surrounded by scaffolding and under renovation. The courtyard, however, transported me back in time to my youth…to days spent dreaming of Moorish palaces while watching the likes of Sinbad and Aladdin.
Throughout the palace I’d noticed beautiful domed stonework along doorways and in the ceilings of small rooms yet nothing prepared me for the scope and scale of the ceilings in several of the larger rooms. The ceiling, made entirely of carved stone, consisted of thousands of small domed stair steps which you can see in the image above. These tiny domes combined to create the appearance of fabric… an illusion that must have been even more powerful when painted. Though most has been worn off/cleaned off you can still see periodic signs of the original paint. As I stood in the center of the room with the walls climbing on either side of me, I could not help but close my eyes and envision the way it might have been. To this day that thought sends a chill down my spine in the most pleasant of ways.
Sadly, it would appear that the Moors were rather short. In fact, there were numerous occasions where I found myself ducking at the last moment and just narrowly avoiding a very up close and personal inspection of some of the stonework.
After making my way through the remaining rooms and courtyards I worked my way through a beautiful garden. The garden was full of fountains and flowers of various shapes and sizes.
Upon exiting the garden I soon realized that my palatial tour had finally come to an end. Eager to finish the rest of my tour of the Alhambra I set off to explore the old fortress – one of the original parts of the Alhambra. As I wound back through the areas I had already explored I soon found myself standing before an impressive Moorish gate. Once through, I ascended another hundred feet or so before crossing through what would have once been a mighty portcullis. From there it was up onto the castle wall and over a series of winding platforms and interior walls before eventually making my way to the ruins of the ancient keep. There my legs pumped away furiously as I ascended tiny stairs in a dizzying spiral which eventually dumped me out onto the roof…a large, flat area with a stunning view of Granada and the surrounding countryside.
I stood with a gentle wind playfully tugging at my hair as I to imagined how the city must have looked under siege in 1492 as the Spanish desperately tried to oust the last of the Moors. As I mused I gently drifted in and out of the present transported by the mist-like clouds that crowned the Sierra Nevada’s in the distance.
Eventually, I made the mistake of glancing at my watch and decided to make my way back to the hostel. What an amazing place. What an amazing adventure. If you have the opportunity to visit Granada and the Alhambra it is without a question, a must.