Patzcuaro: Pueblo Magico

Landscape that some say looks similar to ones you see in the Hawiian Islands
The Mexican state of Michoacán stretches all the way from the Pacific Coast east through the colonial heartland of Mexico. Patzcuaro was once the capital of Michoacán and looks very much like it did after the Spanish rebuilt it over 500 years ago.  The area, with its interesting history, diverse culture, landscape and geography, makes for a fascinating place to explore.

Market day before the Dias de Los Muertos in Patzcuaro

What brought me here?

The Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead Festival) is the largest and most popular draw to this small town.  I later found out that Patzcuaro is well-known for many other celebrations centered around Christmas/New Years and Easter/Carnival. So, why not stay and see more.

Some say that the area reminds them of Hawaii.  After the crowds have left and the orange marigolds begin to fade, Patzcuaro takes on a different look.  The leaves fall, the rain stops, the skies clear, the days are warm and the nights are pleasantly cool. It gives photographers plenty of beautiful backdrops which helps to make great pictures of the town, its festivals, and the lovely scenery that surrounds the region.

What to expect:

Make sure you at least learn how to say Hello (Hola) Good Morning (Buenos Dias) Good Afternoon (Buenos Tardes) and Thank you (Muchas Gracias).  This is one of those wonderful places where people are friendly and  exchange greetings in public.  Don’t hesitate to be the first to greet a passerby when you are out exploring the area.

Patzcuaro’s sits up in the mountains and is about 2,140 m (7,020 ft) above sea level, so don’t be surprised if you find yourself gasping for air and/or feeling a bit hung over. It’s easy to become dehydrated and altitude sickness is common.  It’s important to stay hydrated and not push it.

It’s a quiet town, but they love firework’s here.  There’s always special events going that call for celebrating, so expect to hear them at any hour amongst other noises from dogs to music.

The towns along the lake have a history of being home to many highly skilled artists.  It’s a great place to pick up handmade hats, scarves, baskets, wood carvings, copper bowls, natural chocolate and more.  It’s also a wise way to spend since money will more than likely go straight to the artist and their family.

Patzcuaro has much to offer those looking for a place to see one of the most scenic parts of central Mexico.  There are many places to explore, natural beauty to discover and a great history to learn about.  What struck me most about Patzcuaro was the fact that the city and the region is full of charm, beautiful and fun to explore.

In a very practical sense,  Patzcuaro is very easy to get to.  There are several daily direct flights from the US to the state capital of Morelia, and it’s just a 4-5 hour first-class bus connection from Mexico City.  There are many apartments for rent in the area, so it’s wise to book one for a short or long stay instead of a hotel.  Not only is it good for the budget, but a great way to get to know the town.  There are plenty of wonderful options available on sites such as Airbnb and VRBO.  There’s a small but extremely welcoming and vibrant expat community that is always looking for new members.  They host weekly hikes, cocktail hours and offer great advise to those new to the area.

The Buzzing Silk Road Sands of Dunhuang

Dunhuang is different things to the various travelers who either arrive by private car, bus, train or plane into this “City of Sand”. Some come here seeking to concur the Gobi Desert by camel and others are simply looking to view what’s left of the ancient Silk Road. There is enough here to please both groups.

Mogao Caves - Dunhuang
The front of the Mogao Caves – Dunhuang
Entrance to Mogao Caves - Dunhuang
Entrance to Mogao Caves – Dunhuang

The Mogao Caves

Dunhuang is currently one of China’s top domestic tourist destinations and currently under construction. The Mogao Thousand Buddha Grottoes just outside of town is getting a complete makeover, like much of China’s top tourist sites and cities these days. According to our tour guide, the ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century. A.D. get up to 6,000 visitors a day during the high summer season. Carbon dioxide has been taking a toll on the interior paintings that have been open to the public since the 1980’s. The damaged cave doors will soon close when the brand new Mogao Caves Museum opens in a year or so giving the public a shiny new camera friendly scene to witness.

 Yadan Landforms inside the Yardung Geological Park outside of Dunhuang
Yadan Landforms inside the Yardung Geological Park outside of Dunhuang
 The Jade Gate outside of Dunhuang
The Jade Gate of the Silk Road outside of Dunhuang

The current ticket price to tour the caves is ¥160 + another ¥20 for a guide for Non-Chinese. Was it worth it? Yes, now it is even though no pictures are allowed. In the long run, the site will get a rest and hopefully will be properly preserved. At least some will be may happy with the change. I’m sure many welcome the chance to be able to take pictures despite the fact that they aren’t the real thing.

The Yardung Geological Park

To some, the desert areas that make up the Yardung Geological Park west of Dunhuang is just a bunch of rocks shaped supposedly like Chinese mythological creatures and leftovers from the good old days of when this area was the gateway of the Silk Road. It was once the area where dinosaurs roamed, a very large lake once stood. Centuries later, trade masters, maybe even Marco Polo, lead their camels through the Jade Gate. It was a place to refuel and pay taxes before continuing west to Central Asia and east towards Chang’an. Little has been left behind but there is still much to see here in the Gobi Desert even if it’s a rock shaped like a Phoenix.

Singing Sands - Dunhaung
Singing Sands in Dunhaung

The Buzzing Sands

The dunes resting next to fruit tree groves at the western edge of town where once a place where travels could rest and enjoy a sunset while listening to the wind pass through the orange sandy hills. They have long been known as Mingsha Shan or the “Echoing Sand Mountain”. Today, the luxury Silk Road Hotel Resort, cranes and workers building more resorts, thousands of camels and all types of recreation vehicles all can be found in amongst the dune landscape. The buzz of paragliders drowns out any singing going on here.

A ticket ¥180 gets visitors though the gates, into a rented a pair of orange booties and away off to explore the dunes on the back of a camel or inside of a less than safe looking paragliders. Many visitors can skip all of that. There are roads that lead into the apricot groves and end where the desert is less crowded. It is still possible to see the dunes minus the tour groups and hubbub of the theme park it has become.

Keeping it Real in the Desert in China
Keeping it Real in the Desert in China
Dune2edit (1 of 1)
Desert Fun in Dunhuang

A Little Time in Japan and Little Time in China

Kumamoto-Jo Castle
Kumamoto-Jo Castle in Kyushu – Japan
Mt. Aso - Kyushu
Mt. Aso – Kyushu

Japan will always be on the top of my travel list. June was spent traveling around the southern parts of Japan. Previous visits were short, but we now had the ability to spend as much time as we liked or could afford on the weak USD. We started in Osaka since a couple of friends were getting married in May on Lake Biwako near Kyoto. After that, we grabbed a Peach Airlines Flight to southern island of Kyushu and spent a couple of weeks hopping around the volcanic island. We ended up just skirting the usually wet rainy season they experienced just a few days after we flew to Tokyo.

We ended the Japan trip in Tokyo. We decided to rent out a service apartment in the Shinjuku. Here, we planned out our upcoming Fall trip and sorted out most of our visas to the “Stans” of Central Asia, spent our days hanging out with friends, enjoying the city, local food and the luxury of having access to real high-speed internet.

Narita Airport - Tokyo
Departing Gate at the Narita Airport – Tokyo
Beijing International Airport
Arrival Gate at the Beijing Airport

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Bumpy ride to Beijing!

It’s been a few years since I have experienced one of those flights that makes you swear you will never fly again. We landed after the pilot decided to head straight through a storm that was heading towards Beijing. When we landed, most passengers were flushed and blurry eyed as we streamed into to arrivals terminal at Beijing International. Some fellow passengers were stained by the flying sodas, juice etc. that flew through the air as our plane made an unexpected drop during dinner service. I managed to escape unscathed. I was just so happy to be on solid ground once again. The pilot did manage to get the plane down ahead of the storm, but the dark clouds caught up streamed in and opened up just as we arrived into the city.

The downpour started just as we got off the metro. We got trapped at the metro station without umbrellas or a small boat to get us through the flooded streets to our hostel. We ended up spending about 1 hour waiting for an opportunity to make a run for it. The journey from metro to hostel required some puddle and sidewalk sink holes dodging but we finally made it.

We managed to drag ourselves and our stuff safely to the Hutong west of the Forbidden City that first stormy night in Beijing. We got soaked but our stuff wasn’t. I’m not sure how we pulled that one-off, but we did thankfully.

Inside the Forbidden City on a Smoggy Day

Waiting on a Visa…

We had just one night at the Hutong Hostel and later moved to an apartment on the other side of Beijing until we headed west towards Central Asia in a couple of weeks. Hostels are great but having a washer, kitchen and quiet work area were necessary this time.

We were here to get our Turkmenistan Visa and see more of post-Olympics Beijing. It was a lot of work for all the back and forth, waiting, some more waiting all for a 10 day required tour. Beijing is a large city so there’s much to see and do while we wait.

Tiananmen Square
Tiananmen Square
Military Museum - Beijing
Military Museum – Beijing

The National Museum, the Olympic Park and the Military Museum were the top three on our must see list this time. We got our Turkmenistan visa, saw the top three, and managed to see both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square again.

Our time in Beijing soon came to an end. With our visas in hand and better idea of what direction we will be going in the next few months, we boarded an Air China flight to Urumqi. In Beijing, we managed to survive both the elevated AQI levels and a couple of storms that pummeled the city during our two-week visit. I’m sure Beijing will all be a totally different the next time we stop by for a visit or maybe not?

3 Farflung Museums of the World

My current home town of NYC has some pretty amazing museums.  The city is fortunate to have the world’s history and art come to them instead of traveling many time zones away to see it.

When I’m traveling I’m always up for checking out the ones that get a little less attention and are somewhat off the beaten path.  I’m in search of what will never reach any museum close to home because it’s just impossible to really appreciate something that is thousands of miles away from its origin.  It’s pretty hard to move an entire building as well.  Some have been somewhat successful.  For example,  the MET in NYC did do a great job of bringing the Islamic world back after being in storage for a decade.

I usually find places that are more known for both their architectural beauty and small collection of art inside. Here are a few of my favorites from my travels over the years.  Trips to Russia and Iran just require a pricey and lengthy visa approval process and Syria is considered very unsafe for foreigners and nationals alike.  Things will hopefully the violence will end and peace will resume in days ahead.   Here’s just a little look inside a few.

Moscow – The Gorky Museum

Gorky Museum
The stairway and beautiful lamp at its base inside the Gorky Museum in Moscow
Gorky Museum
The Art Deco designs on the outside of the Gorky Museum in Moscow


Kahn, Hamah – The Mosaic Museum of Syria

Mosaic museum
Syria’s Mosaic Museum displays amazing Byzantine works in the Town of Kahn just outside of Hamah
Mosaic museum
Highly detailed Byzantine Tile work on display at the Mosaic Museum in Syria



Yazd – Coin and Anthropology Museum

Yazd - Coin and Anthropology Museum
Yah..coins!!  The name sort of deters some but not me. Stunning sight for those who aren’t afraid to embrace their geekiness
Yazd Coin and Anthropology Museum
Don’t see many of these around
Yazd - Coin and Anthropology Museum
See…more than just coins and bills.  The empty rose filled courtyard of the Coin and Anthropology Museum in Yazd Iran.  It’s just you, the guard and his friend handing you the ticket.

Circling the Flame

Mount Ontake on Sakurajima

The one thing to not miss while staying in Kagoshima is making a day trip to the volcanic island of Sakurajima.  The last major devastating blast was almost 50 years ago and hopefully it won’t go off again anytime soon. One of the three peaks still gives the surrounding area a daily coat of grey ash which makes a sun umbrella really handy here. It’s an amazing site to see in person and biking is one of the best ways to see it from all angles. We bring along protective masks while we ride and hope we don’t inhale too much debris.

Ferry to Sakurajima
Ferry to Sakurajima

A trip to Sakurajima and a bike ride around the island pretty much takes up an entire day.  The ferry takes 10 minutes, leaves often  and costs just 150 Yen each way.  What a deal.  We rented bikes for 1500 Yen for the day and only knew that it was hilly and could take anywhere from 3-5 hours.  The route is hilly and sidewalks and bike paths come and go.  The hills did end up seeming longer and harder to conquer since the steel street bike frame is too small and it only has 3 gears. I’m used to my light bike back at home minus any gear.

Kurakami Buried Shrine Gate
Kurakami Buried Shrine Gate which led us to the Soba Restaurant across the street

The soba shop was a welcoming site at around the half way mark across from the buried Torii Gate on the eastern side of the island.  This is where we got the best and closest view of the active crater. The road continued to be hilly but it ended up being a good workout and the scenery was gorgeous.

Shoreline of Sakurajima
View to the east from the road above on Sakurajima
Sakurajima
Shrine on the west side of the island of Sakurajima

We ended our ride back at the ferry terminal, returned the dusty bikes and checked out the port area on foot. We were not on a schedule so we just watched the boats go by on one side and viewed the volcano let off steam in the other direction while relaxing and soaking our feet at the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park.  The days events reaffirmed my continuous love of Japan.

Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Ended it all at the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
View of the Mount Ontake from the Sakurajima Nagisa Foot Bath Park
Mount Ontake on Sakurajima
Just another volcanic burst from Mount Sakurajima

Quick stop in Kyoto and on to Kagoshima in Kyushu

On our way to #KyotoStation #japan

Our stay in Kyoto was only a few days but we’re without regrets and are looking forward to what’s ahead. Our plans on where we are going in the weeks ahead are still pretty undefined. They mostly will be dependent on the weather, if we can find an apartment in Tokyo for the month of June, and if we get totally killed by the weak dollar. For now, we are just careful and try to just enjoy our time whether it ends up being 4 weeks or 7.

We want to make sure we do something new at the beginning just in case we need to go back to China sooner for whatever reason. We are already in Kyoto for a wedding so we decided to head down south and see more of the Kyushu Prefecture. We have been to Nagasaki and Beppu but the rest of the island is new to us and a prices for hotel and transport are more inline with the budget.

Flew #PeachAirline today from #Kansei to #Kagoshima wonderful :)

We decided to try Japan’s first budget airline called Peach. Peach is an affiliate of with ANA, much faster and cheaper than the Shinkansen, and offers great rates to the few cities it currently services. I’m looking forward to it.

We land in Kagoshima and take a bus to the center town where we booked a room. Our list of things to see and do includes biking 37 km around Sakurajima’s volcanic Mount Ontake (working off the wedding food), touring a Shochu Factory, and relaxing an Onsen. Beyond that, I hopefully will get rid of this cold and have some time to figure out what’s next.

So goodbye to Kyoto for now…

While we were in Kyoto we did manage to get some touristy things in like:

#Sagano Scenic #Railway Along the #HozuRiver in #kyoto

Take a boat trip back up the Hozu River
Front row seats on the Boat Ride down the #Hozugawa River #kyoto #japan

and check out some of the temples of southern Kyoto

#Tenryū-ji Temple in #Kyoto #Japan

Trip to Iran: Shiraz Jet-lagged and caffeinated

The ride to the hotel is pretty much a blur. We learned that a light rail line would be completed sometime.  Construction started in 2001 and it’s still not completed.  I can relate since I spent most of my childhood waiting for the completion of the “Big Dig” in Boston.  Mahmoud also informed us his sister was getting married soon and he’s been busy planning and paying for the event.  We were not sure if this would delay travel but at this point whatever.

We reached the hotel before just loosing my mind and doing a total travelers freak out.  I’m not my pleasant self after 30+ hours without sleep and decent coffee.  At least the sun hadn’t risen yet so it seemed like we were just getting in from the occasional night out on the town back home.

I slept well for a few hours but hunger drove me out of bed.   The spread was amazing.  We feasted on fresh lavash, fruit, cheese, soup and a liters of water and tea.   I even managed to one more  good cup of coffee before I switched to widely available tea. We wait around the courtyard hoping our man Mahmoud would come back.  I sort of remember that he did mention returning around noon.  We’re stuck inside without him – or so we thought.  We were unsure if walking into the unfamiliar and beyond was wise at this point.    We ended up testing the waters and took a short walk about.  It was kind of like staying just playing in the yard and close to the house as kids.   There was very little to see and so we ended up going back to bed for a few hours.  I caved.

IMG_4303

I woke up and it was still Saturday.  I almost forget where I was.  I was in Shiraz – Iran.  My jet lag had worn off a bit and I was ready to see and do whatever was possible in what remained of the day.  At least if it wasn’t possible then the hotel courtyard would have sufficed.   It seemed our hotel is a Shiraz hotspot for locals.  The hotel has a tea shop/shisha lounge which attracts young couples looking for a good date spot and mingle with out-of-towners like ourselves.  I can’t imagine what this place would be like if alcohol was available.

The young guys here all sport gelled hair and have it styled the Rooster fashion – illegal I may add.  They have nabbed one of the best jobs in town.  They get paid to hang with friends, play Persian pop tunes until the early morning hours, smoke tons of Shesha, talk on their cell phones and occasionally get food and drink orders to guests.   I and other guest at the hotel get served. It’s not all bad since we get the opportunity to mingle with the  locals or in some cases be stared at by the locals.

Shah Cheragh Mosque
Weekend Shopping in Shiraz

After another meal, our guide Mahmoud showed up.  I was off to shop for some acceptable local gear.  The mall was typical except it had some moral police hanging out in the entrance way and only noticed them when we left.   There was a little light left in the day so checked out some sites before the sun set.  Shiraz street life on a Saturday night is something worth checking out.  All the shops are in full swing as families are spending the last hours of the weekend together.  It was the perfect introduction to Iran.

The club or hotel courtyard was in full swing.  The benches were all occupied with groups getting intoxicated on hot tea and Shisha pipe hits, the speakers were busting out Persian Pop remixes and foil covered hot coals were being spun around for the next smoker.  My head was spinning due to fatigue and over stimulation.  It’s time to call it a day.  All I need is a good pair of ear plugs and a somewhat comfy bed.

Egypt’s baksheesh industry..will it survive?

The people who are benefiting the least Mubarak leaving office sooner than later are his police forces and political allies.  They are the ones who ask for the baksheesh even if they don’t do anything helpful or even help someone cross the street safely in Downtown Cairo. Some took to the streets and were taking part in Pro-Mubarak demonstrations in Cairo today. Anderson Cooper and his crew got attacked by members of this crowd while reporting. It included men on camels and horse back seen in the photos above who usually come in handy when tourist go to see Abu Simbel and visit Giza.  They seem to just be as useful as those police cars that have a doll placed in the front seat to deter people from speeding on US Highways. When I was there a few years ago an officer said it was ok to climb one of the pyramids in Giza for a little baksheesh that it.  If only Zahi Hawass was there to witness.

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It is now a requirement for foreign travelers going down to the Upper Nile near the border to Sudan to be escorted by a Egyptian military convoy.  I just felt like a speeding line of sitting ducks but what do I know. A higher ranking officer of the tourist caravan target practice group.  Our driver seemed to know him since the officer had left his rifle in the van. Opps…probably didn’t have any bullets in it because he knew he would start running if anything started going down. Our he driver throw it to him like he was in a movie like he was in a Dirty Harry movie.  Kind of like giving a high five..catch yeah later.

Egypt needs its tourism since it historically it makes up around 10% of it’s GDP and employs 12.6% of Egyptians. In May 2010, Reuters projected that Egypt was recovering from the global economic crisis and fore-casted a steady growth of at least 2-5% this year.  It’s surprising on how much more money the Tourism industry makes than the revenue generated from the Suez Canal.  I’m not an economist but things are going to get pretty bad in the country if this mess doesn’t clean up soon.   The peak travel season will be soon coming to end in May.  Let’s hope its only a few months lost, not too much is destroyed and the people of Egypt are in a better place economically and politically.

Cairo and it’s baksheesh and sheesha

It’s hot and almost too hot, smoggy and as always, the streets are filled with cars, horse and buggies and motorbikes.   Taking the camera out and trying to capture what it’s like to walk around Cairo is the last thing I think about doing.  Just want to get around without loosing a body part or my life.  Something as small as a distracting camera could put me that much closer to being in harms way.  Getting hit by any one of the reckless drivers of Cairo was not in the plan.  Here, like many places of the world (Beijing and Hanoi are a couple of good examples) there are no rules, cars disregard anything smaller than them (people and animals included), the traffic lanes are not recognized and it’s every man, baby, horse and old lady for themselves.

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