Reality check

I saw this pair of photos on a Facebook post and had to give a rueful chuckle. So true! How often  we have high expectations of a travel experience that arise from photos that we’ve seen or descriptions we’ve read, without reflecting that the photo may well have been staged or the description may be omitting some important elements. And yet, it’s only natural to look forward to the exciting travel experiences we plan, sometimes for months or even years.

We travelled to Costa Rica a few years back with the express goal of seeing birds. Bryn was very into birding by then and he was making a documentary film about Costa Rica and its relationship with nature. A prime target was the resplendent quetzal, a magnificent bird with iridescent plumage and metre-long trailing tail feathers. The guide told us that our best chance would be to stake out a wild avocado tree that was in fruit, as the quetzals love to eat the tiny avocados. We would need to be in place around dawn, as the birds might arrive to feed any time thereafter.

The guide woke us at some ungodly hour and we drove in darkness into the valley through a thick layer of mist. The tree we were targeting was in a farmer’s field and he had given us permission to climb up the hillside through his cow pasture to where the tree perched on a high knoll. After navigating an extremely steep, slippery, muddy path, we settled in to wait for the birds. It felt like a classic birding expedition: the semi-darkness of sunrise, a remote location, peaceful silence, and that buzz of excitement as you anticipate the arrival of your quarry.

Then the tour bus pulled in. A horde of people tramped into “our” field. People carried small children or dragged them by the hand. They set up folding chairs and scopes. More groups arrived, each with their own guide. They blundered around in their neon-coloured rain slickers, talking loudly, some eating breakfast on the go.

We were gobsmacked. This was not at all what we had expected. But, of course, if we had thought about it, we would have realized that there were likely many other people who wanted to see the elusive bird, there were many other guides, and it would be their business to know this particular tree had ripening fruit and might attract the quetzals.

No birds showed up, whether because of the bustle of dozens of tourists milling around the tree I’ll never know. Luckily, we did see the quetzal later in the day, at a different location, thanks to our excellent guide. But that morning was definitely a letdown.

How can we avoid falling into the trap of disappointed expectations when we travel?

Well, we might try changing our expectations or changing our experience. For example, we might:

  • Try not to have expectations. Do research, choose destinations or experiences, and then try to let go of expectations. Instead, be in the moment. When we travelled to the Yucatan, I really wanted to see Chichen Itza, the famous Mayan site, because I had studied it in university. However, I dialed back my expectations after researching the site and realizing it would be extremely hot, unpleasantly commercialized, and very crowded. Accordingly, I tried to focus on enjoying what I could at the site rather than bemoaning the lack of tranquillity and opportunities for quiet contemplation.
  • Be realistic about expectations. Take a peek at the stats of how many people visit that place. About 30,000 visitors gawk at the Mona Lisa every day and if you’re hoping for a lengthy, private tete-a-tete with her, you’re bound to be disappointed.
  • Re-examine expectations. What is it about this place or activity that is really important to you? If being solitary or having majestic silence at a site that sees tens of thousands of visitors every year is the experience you seek, that is probably not realistic. But if you can adjust your expectations to “I will be there, I will be fully engaged, I will simply experience this to the best of my abilities, no matter what the circumstances,” you may still be able to find meaning in it. In Nova Scotia, I thought that taking a day cruise on the famous Bluenose II would be fun. But somehow, the reality just didn’t live up to the romantic notions in my head. Still, I reminded myself, I was on the sea on a beautiful ship, the wind in my face, and I had a stunning view of Lunenburg. I looked around and noted all the lovely details of the ship, the polished wood, the gleaming brass, the white canvas sails against the sky. I let go of my unrealistic expectations and relaxed into the cruise for what it actually was.
Across the river from Chenonceau.
  • Change the experience by finding a new approach. The Château de Chenonceau is the second-most-visited chateau in France, receiving around 800,000 visitors yearly. Not much chance of a unique or personal experience. However, in seeking places we could walk the dog we were caring for, we discovered a wooded path that runs along the other side of the river from Chenonceau. We rambled through the forest with just ourselves and the dog, coming upon perfect views of the chateau and its reflection in the still water.
  • Alternatively, choose a different experience that isn’t on such a well-beaten path. Mona is great and she’s certainly famous, but there are 35,000 works of art in the Louvre, many of them—IMHO—more interesting than Leo’s lady. Pick any one of them instead of Mona and you won’t have to line up for an hour to get a brief glimpse.

Finally, one of the best ways to beat the expectations trap is to remain open to and ready to embrace places/experiences that we haven’t planned or built expectations around. On a steaming hot day in Panama, we drove over the central mountain range to visit the Caribbean side of the country. After a few hours, we pulled off the highway onto a rocky, bumpy little track to check out a farmer’s field for birds. Not only did we photograph some interesting species, but we discovered that the track led down to a gorgeous swimming spot in the river, overhung with tall, leafy trees. The water was cool, green, and transparent and we were the only people there. Resistance is futile and I was soon paddling around, luxuriating in this totally unexpected delight. No expectations, yet it was an experience I will never forget.

Have you had a travel experience that did not live up to your expectations? Or have you found your own way around the expectations trap? Share in a comment!

Knot Spots: Update on Vigia Chico Road for Birders

Spotted: Quintana Roo, Mexico

Although it’s now 20 years old, Steve Howell’s Where to Watch Birds in Mexico is still the go-to guide for travelling birders in that country, but with the information that dated, readers need to take it with a grain of salt and a spirit of adventure.

Setting out to find the well-known Vigia Chico road that Howell profiles in his book, we consulted a more recent online source for updates and managed to find the location. The paved road goes a bit farther now, but it still turns into rutted hardpan/mud pretty quickly.

We didn’t see a lot of birds, but I put that down to arriving mid-morning.

However, two things birders should note about this famous spot:

1. The road is nearly impassable to regular cars with normal clearance. There are almost continuous deep gullies and holes with large rocks sticking up. We bottomed out over and over until we gave up at around km 4. So either bring a high-clearance vehicle or plan to walk.

2. I was standing at roadside, camera in hand, when a local came chugging up on a motorcycle. I called out Buenos dios as I do to everyone who passes, but instead of answering with a smile and going on, he stopped and approached us.

He let out a torrent of Spanish, from which I gathered he was saying photography on the road was prohibited. But somehow, if I paid a “fee” I could take my photos.

Knowing it is a public road, but not wanting to argue, I just said, Photographs are prohibited? Okay, no photographs. And I put my camera away. Of course, I got another flood of Spanish explaining about the fee, but I simply stuck to I understand, no photographs.

After seeing we were not going to pay, he climbed on his bike and roared away.

So I just wanted to warn other birders that this con artist has gotten wise to birders who want to use that road.

I’d also be very curious to know if anyone else has run into this?

Calidris Reads: Mexico

Reading and traveling are two of my favorite things, so it’s a joy to combine the two. Aside from being a voracious reader of travel guides, I also love to read novels written by authors from places that I visit, or set in those countries. In Calidris Reads, I will briefly introduce you to these books and provide my personal rating from 1 to 5 knots (Terrible to Must-read).

The Hummingbird’s Daughter

Luis Alberto Urrea

Read for: Mexico

First sentence: “On the cool October morning when Cayetana Chavez brought her baby to light, it was the start of that season in Sinaloa when the humid torments of summer finally gave way to breezes and falling leaves, and small red birds skittered through the corrals, and the dogs grew new coats.”

As I prepared for my trip to Mexico, I was having difficulty finding an appropriate book to take along. Curiously, it seemed that every book I considered—mostly gleaned from “best Mexican authors” or “best novels set in Mexico” lists—included the word devastating in its description, as in: “A devastating accounting of many people through several generations dying in variously cruel and graphic ways,” or “A multilayered tale that sweeps to a terrifying and devastating conclusion.”

Somehow, devastating is not the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of books to read on the beach, in the airplane, or beside a pool while sipping “piñadas” (non-alcoholic piña coladas).

Fortunately, I finally came across the name of Luis Alberto Urrea and from there, found my way to The Hummingbird’s Daughter.

Based around the true-life story of Urrea’s relative, the woman known as Santa Teresita or The Saint of Cabora, the book is beautifully written, with the kind of language that makes you stop in awe and go back to reread passages. I also appreciated the complexity of the characters, who are much more than cardboard representations of morality/sin/good/bad. Although the novel isn’t set in the parts of Mexico where we were travelling (Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Campeche, and Chiapas), the fascinating mix of Christianity and traditional indigenous beliefs that underpins the story seems to be pan-Mexican.

History, geography, culture, and a good story all contribute to making The Hummingbird’s Daughter a perfect travel read. I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, Queen of America, set in Arizona, when I travel to that state in a few months.

5 knots Highly recommended

PS As we motored across the Yucatan, I was bemused to note the name of Urrea on a variety of products, including a bathroom sink. No idea if the company is related to Urrea the author or St Teresita.

Valladolid on Parade

Colourful ladies parading along the colonial streets of Valladolid. Photo by Marian Buechert.

Revolution Day is when Mexicans celebrate the beginning of their revolution in 1910, and in the city of Valladolid, the occasion is marked by a popular parade through the colonial streets. Valladolid has a particularly close connection with the start of the Mexican Revolution, as described in this Yucatan Today article:

“On June 4…the insurrection began which attacked the town of Valladolid, Yucatán. The insurgents’ army was made up of laborers from the neighboring haciendas….The federal government retaliated by sending a battalion of 600 soldiers….After three assaults by the federal troops, dozens of bodies of the revolutionaries and soldiers remained scattered through the streets of Valladolid, in the first tragic episode of what would…become the beginning of a new era for Mexico.”

Since we were in the area close to the date and I was eager to see the celebration, we duly strolled out from our hotel in the cool early morning to take up a position along the route. We were pretty well the only non-locals in attendance. The parade was not well publicized to outsiders and even our helpful hotel manager downplayed it as “just a local event.” “Mainly school kids,” he said.

Perfect, I thought. There’s nothing more fun to watch than young folks on show. Whether they react to the spotlight with eye-rolling  and goofiness or a serious sense of responsibility, it all makes for good entertainment.

I wasn’t disappointed. The ages of the youngsters ranged from primary school to university, and they included tumblers, dancers, musicians, rope twirlers, and flag wavers, as well as many, many lovely girls done up in regional costumes with artfully crafted hair and make-up, who looked hot and stressed until they saw my camera and then broke into radiant smiles as they posed. I found the children dressed up as revolutionary heroes particularly hilarious and poignant, with their gigantic fake moustaches falling off and their toy guns clutched to their chests.

The last hour of the parade consisted solely of hundreds upon hundreds of medical students from various disciplines—presumably from a local specialized post-secondary institution—marching in perfect step. I wondered how Canadian student doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, paramedics, dentists, hygienists, etc would respond if they were asked to turn up for marching practice just to prepare for a holiday parade. Somehow, I don’t think it would fly.

As I watched them troop past in their work garb, it occurred to me that possibly many of them were the first in their families to achieve post-secondary status and that there were likely a lot of proud parents in the crowd overjoyed to see their son or daughter with such a secure and prestigious future assured. Maybe that was the point of them marching: they represent the hope of the community as it moves forward into a high-tech, white-collar world.

There was a small military presence, with a guard marching before and after the main parade and a few military vehicles on display, but their best contribution consisted of army athletes demonstrating various sports, including jumping through hoops. Strange but interesting.

My only disappointment was the lack of horses. I waited through the entire three hours, saying “There has to be horses! How can you have a parade without horses?!” Sadly, the horses—only about six of them—came at the very end, just before the final military escort. I thought it was a striking difference between this Mexican event and the equine parade we attended in Costa Rica a few years ago (see “Heaven for Horse Lovers”), where they featured nothing but hundreds of horses for four hours.

On the up side, we once again experienced the unexpected kindness of strangers when we were standing streetside waiting for the parade. Many of the residents had come out from their homes to watch (the parade, not us), bringing chairs with them so they could settle in for the long haul. One lady saw us standing and went back inside for two more chairs to offer to us. Gracias, señora, for your very thoughtful and friendly act.

 

 

 

 

Yucatan Birds and Builders

Rancho Encantado.

I’ve never been to Mexico, which seems amazing to me, considering how far I’ve travelled around the world. But lovely Mexico—just a relatively short trip away—just never made it to the top of my A list. I’m not sure why.

Earlier this year, however, I finally started putting two and two and two together and realized that Mexico’s Yucatan is not only accessible, but allows me to combine several of my interests in one trip. Birds, of course (578 species, including 7 endemics), but also pre-Columbian architecture (over 4,400 Mayan sites alone; phew!), local culture, road tripping, and swimming. Add to that cheap flights via the uber-popular beach town of Cancun and reasonably good infrastructure throughout the region and you have a pretty attractive package.

We’ll spend our first few days on the laid-back, hopefully sargassum-free beaches of Isla Mujeres doing absolutely nothing. A ferry ride back to the mainland to pick up our rental car and we’ll head down the coast to the region of Tulum, where we’ll have a couple of nights at La Selva Mariposa. The attraction here is the natural rock swimming pools on the property. We have a couple of birding sites planned plus the possibility of a visit to the Tulum or Muyil sites, but I suspect those pools will lure us into spending time at the bed and breakfast.

We then head northwest to Valladolid, which we’ll use as a base to explore the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Chichen Itza and enjoy the festivities surrounding Revolution Day. Our accommodations here will be Casa Hamaca. Driving north, we’ll visit the ruins at Ek Balam en route to the north coast of the Yucatan peninsula. We’ll stay one night in Rio Lagartos and take a dawn birding tour via boat with Ria Maya Birding Lodge. Apparently, flamingos congregate in this area and I hope to get photos of the pink waders.

The colonial capital city of Merida will be our home for six nights, staying at the Hotel Luz en Yucatan. I’m looking forward to exploring what sounds like a charming city with tons of culture and entertainment, much of it free. If the city pales, we can always take a trip north to a beach or find a local cenote.

Back on the road to ruin(s), we’ll drive south to Uxmal (another UNESCO World Heritage Site). As with most of the Mayan sites, there should be decent birding on the site in addition to the ruins. We’ll sleep at the appropriately named Flycatcher Inn.

I was keen to visit the port of Campeche (one more UNESCO World Heritage Site) on the Yucatan west coast and walk the old city walls that were built to keep out pirates, so we’ve booked a couple of nights at the Casa Mazejuwi. We may also take in the nearby Mayan site at Edzna.

Next, we’ll take a long plunge south with a 5.5 hour drive to complete our “grand slam” of World Heritage Sites with Palenque. Here, we’ve opted for an Airbnb room at Villas Adriana. If time permits, we’ll check out Cascada de las Golondrinas, a pair of nearby waterfalls that look enticing. The jungle surrounding Palenque should yield some different birds, as this will be the southernmost point of our journey.

Back up north in the little town of Xpujil, we’ll stay in the Chicanna Ecovillage Resort while we explore the area around Calakmul (you guessed it, another UNESCO Site). One of the more intriguing attractions is the famed bat cave, where every evening millions of bats fly out for their evening feed.

We then finish up our loop through the Yucatan with a couple of lazy days at the Rancho Encantado on Bacalar Lake (yup, the website photos got me on this one), and a final night within easy drive of the Cancun airport at Jolie Jungle (despite the obviously fake Photoshopped shots on their website).

That’s a lot of ground to cover, but we have several weeks and plan to drive no more than 4 hours per day on most days. With this basic structure in place, I can relax and enjoy each day as it comes, knowing exactly where we will lay our heads each night.

Hmm…why does this shot seem Photoshopped to me?