CALIFORNIA OR … DENMARK?

United States are so big and variegated, you sure already know. Few years ago someone told us about Solvang, a small town in California, Santa Barbara County, really particular. Why? Because in this tiny pretty town you seem to be teleported in a Denmark village.

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Solvang means “sunny field” in danish. The city infact was founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who traveled west to establish a Danish colony far from the midwestern winters. The city is home to a number of bakeries, restaurants, and merchants offering a taste of Denmark in California. The architecture of many of the façades and buildings reflects traditional Danish style. There is also a copy of the famous Little Mermaid statue from Copenaghen.

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History tells us that, between 1850 and 1930, a considerable number of Danes left Denmark, which was suffering from poor economic prospects. According to some estimates, as many as one in ten Danes emigrated during this period, mostly to the United States. The most popular destinations for Danish settlers were States like Utah, Illinois, Nebraska, and South Dakota.

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And now, let me tell you why you should visit it, maybe in a couple of hours, like we did. It’s true that it’s not a main attraction, but it’s funny to suddenly feel the sensation of not being in California anymore.
The architectures will surprise you: there are several windmills that have been converted into small businesses on many street corners. If you look carefully, there are storks perched above several buildings. Horse drawn carriages are a common sight in its streets. Businesses are linked close together and have wood trim on the facades, that are often in the form of a pattern, usually crisscrossed. This gives the city more character.

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If you want to taste something different, pastry shops and bakeries will be your main attraction: you’ll be pleased to find lots of Danish cookies and pastries to taste. If you love chocolate, you’ll find as well great shops: maybe a little pricey, but it’s normal for a touristic place, after all.

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WEST COAST PARKS: GRAND CANYON NATIONAL PARK

Have you ever been to West Coast? Did you ever made one of that famous exciting road trip across the neverending american desert roads? I can say: Yes, I did! And to me, this was a really special trip. And the first time i saw the vastness of Grand Canyon, I was simply… speechless. I just can’t describe the sensations of immensity and freedom that permeate you in front of such beautiful sight. After years, I look at the pictures I took back then, and  every time I’m still astonished. ‘Cause Nature always knows how to surprise us, with its suave majesty. Mother Nature makes ourselves well aware about how small we’re in this world. She always teaches us to be thankful for all the marvels that await us just around the corner.

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“The Grand Canyon fills me with awe. It is beyond comparison – beyond description; absolutely unparalleled through-out the wide world… Let this great wonder of nature remain as it now is. Do nothing to mar its grandeur, sublimity and loveliness. You cannot improve on it. But what you can do is to keep it for your children, your children’s children, and all who come after you, as the one great sight which every American should see.”

Theodore Roosevelt

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NATURE WONDERS: CENOTES

Hello folks!Are you doing well? Today I want to show you some of the cenotes we visited this summer in México. “What are cenotes?” you may say. I discovered myself that a “cenote” is a natural pit, or sinkhole, resulting from the collapse of porous limestone bedrock that exposes groundwater underneath. Especially associated with the Yucatàn Peninsula, cenotes were sometimes used by the ancient Maya for sacrificial offerings. The term derives from a word used by the Yucatec Maya – ts’onot – to refer to any location with accessible groundwater.
While the best-known cenotes are large open water pools measuring tens of meters in diameter – such as those at Chichen Itza in Mexico – the greatest number of cenotes are smaller sheltered sites, hidden in the jungle.

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DSC00712Cenote Tamcach-Ha – Cobà

Most cave cenotes have fresh water that has been meticulously filtered by the earth, making them so clear and pure that you can see straight through: you’ll be surprised about how many small black fish inhabit the plant life below. Open-air cenotes also have clear water. The Mayans revered cenotes because they were a water source in dry times; the name “cenote” means “sacred well”. Mayans settled villages around these spiritual wells and believed that they were a portal to speak with the Gods. Today you can still see why cenotes held the Mayans in awe. Swimming in the waters feels like stepping into prehistory, where giant tropical trees, mangroves and vines form wild walls leading up to shafts of sunlight seeping in through the open ceiling.

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DSC00860Temozón – Cenote Hubiku

Cenotes may be fully collapsed creating an open water pool, or partially collapsed with some portion of a rock overhanging above the water. The stereotypical cenotes often resemble small circular ponds, measuring some tens of meters in diameter with sheer drops of several meters from the edges. Some of them are easy to access, with stairs leading down to the water, and others are a bit more tricky: however, we had to take care when descending to a cenote because the ground was a bit slippery. After seing this, I can say one more time that Nature has boundless creativity, that always leave me speechless.

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DSC00824Laguna Bacalar – Cenote Azul

WORLD’S WONDERS: CHICHEN ITZA

Hello! How are you doing? Finally I’m ready to go on showing you another step of our tour of Yucatan Peninsula. We finally reach one of the most famous Mayan archeological site, and you sure will recognized it trought this photo.

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Chichen Itza – which means “at the mouth of the well of Itza“-, is the 2nd most visited archeological site of México today. The Kukulkan Pyramid in Chichen-Itza, known as “El Castillo”, is one of the new seven wonders of the world elected in 2007. It is exactly 24 meters high considering the upper platform. Apart from the Kukulkan Pyramid, in Chichen Itza there many other archaeological spots to visit, all carrying traces of Mayan Culture.

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Kukulkan Pyramid was built for astronomical purposes. There is a well-known event regarding this monument: during the vernal equinox (March 20) and the autumnal equinox (September 21) at about 3pm, the sunlight bathes the western balustrade of the pyramid’s main stairway. This causes 7 isosceles triangles to form imitating the body of a snake – roughly 37 yards long – that creeps downwards until it joins the huge snake’s head carved in stone at the bottom of the stairway. Mexican researchers call it “the symbolic descent of Kukulkan” (it means the feathered serpent), and believe it could have been connected with agricultural fecundity rituals.

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The Mayans were great sportsmen and build huge ballcourts to play all their games. The Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza is 225 feet wide and 545 feet long overall. It has no discontinuity between the walls and it’s totally open to the blue sky. Each end of the field present a stairway to the temple area. Between the two extremities there is a terrific acoustics: a whisper can be heard clearly enough at the other end -500 feet far away- and through the length of the court.

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The sound waves are unaffected by wind direction or time of the day. In 1931 Leopold Stokowski spent 4 days at this site to determine the acoustic basics that could be applied to theaters for an open-air concert he was designing. Stokowski failed to learn the secret. Even today it has not yet been explained.
It’s easy to imagine a Mayan King sitting here presiding over the games. Legends say that the winning captain would present his own head to the losing captain, who decapitates him. While this may seem a very strange reward, the Mayans considered this to be as the ultimate honor.
Infact in this way, the winning captain reached directly heavens, instead of going through the 13 high steps that the Mayan’s believed they had to go through in order to reach peaceful heaven.

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Continuing the exploration of the site, you’ll quick arrive to the “Cenote Sagrado” (Sacred Cenote): it was a place of pilgrimage for ancient Maya people. Archaeological investigations state that thousands of objects have been removed from the bottom of the Sacred Cenote, including material such as shell, gold, jade, wood, obsidian, cloth, as well as skeletons of men and children. – remember that cenotes were the connection between the real world and the spiritual one –
The Yucatan Peninsula is a limestone plain, with no rivers. The region is pockmarked with natural waterhole (cenotes) which expose the water table to the surface. One of the most impressive is the Sacred Cenote, which was special to the people for its social and religious significance. Sometimes the sacrifice of human life was part of the offerings made to the Rain God Chaac, but it was not as common as imagined.

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The second main building, right after Kukulkan Pyramid, is the “Templo de los Guerreros “(Temple of the Warriors), one of the most impressive structures in Chichen Itza. The temple consists of four platforms, flanked on the south and west sides by 200 round and square columns. Each side of each column has a carved depiction of a Toltec warrior. These columns once were painted, and some of the pigment is still faintly visible today.

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There are also several rows of columns that fill the colonnades on the south of the temple, prompting the name of “Plaza of a Thousand Columns”. The columns at one time supported what was believed to be a thatched roof. A single, wide staircase climbs up the front face of the temple and at the top sits a Chac Mool. Behind Chac Mool there are two carved pillars representing Kukulcan serpent heads with their mouths open and their stone bodies shooting skyward to support the lintels that formed the entrance to what once was a covered structure. These twin carvings are typical of the Toltec influence on the Maya and almost identical designs of Kukulcan can be found at the portico to the upper temple of El Castillo and also in the Upper Temple of the Jaguar, overlooking the Great Ball Court.

to be continued..

TULUM AND COBÀ

Hello! Let’s continue our itinerary paying a one day visit to Tulum and Cobà Mayan ruins. This is a classic excursion, so, it’s possible that there will be lot of people visiting in the same time as you. I must say that just entering the archeological sites is exciting, ’cause the ruins are both just in the middle of the jungle.

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Tulum is one of the most important archeological site, and the only one located on the ocean. It is one of the earliest settlement in Mexico, offering a place of worship and solitude for the Mayan Kings. Its tropical beach is the main attraction of this picturesque, small ruins on the shore of the Caribbean Sea. To avoid the crowds, it’s best to visit the ruins early in the morning before the buses arrive, or later in the afternoon.

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With an estimated population of 1,000 to 1,600 inhabitants, Tulum is the location of a Pre-Columbian Maya walled city, serving as major port for Cobà. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited and built by the Maya. From numerous depictions in murals and other works around the site, Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of the Diving or Descending god. 

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Even when crowded, it’s not hard to imagine the city of thousand years ago, thanks to the well-preserved buildings of the site. Today, the buildings and the surroundings are the iguanas’ home: they will appear in many places during your visit, and you could even touch them. (i did, they’re peacefull and “used” to tourists, don’t worry!)

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Tulum has the typical architecture of Mayan sites on the east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula. This architecture is recognized by a staircase running around the base of the building, which sits on a low substructure. The doorways of this type are usually narrow, with columns used as pillar if the building is big enough. In the inside there are usually two sets of molding near the ceiling. You could clearly see in some parts that Maya used to colour walls with red or light-blue painting. Researchers could suppose that rooms in the main buildings usually contained one or two small windows with an altar at the back wall. This type of architecture resembles what can be found in the nearby site of Chichen Itza, just on a much smaller scale.

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Cobà ruins too surely worth a visit: it’s another large ruined city of the Pre-Colombian Maya civilization. The buildings aren’t in as pristine shape as the Tulum Ruins, however their feature is “El Castillo” the tallest pyramid of all the Mayan ruins that juts up above the treetops in the jungle.

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Climbing the Castillo is a “must do” of the excursion, and the sight from the top is spectacular. (the last photo in this article is the view from the top of the pyramid – exciting, isn’t it?) We explored the ruins by walk, but you could also rent a bike, just go to the rental place inside the ruins, at the entrance. Coba is only a 30 minutes drive west of tulum, always following the main road. In Cobà you could also admire the area where took place the “juego de la pelota” (Ball game), a small one compared to that of Chichen Itza.

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to be continued..

CITIES OF THE WORLD: MÉRIDA

Hello folks! Let’s continue our trip through Yucatan: today we’ll discover the capital city, Mérida, in the north of the Peninsula. I must say that in Mérida I enjoyed myself really much: this city is just an explosion of colours, a bit “messy” in some parts; a lot chaotic: but these are all its charming points.

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First of all, the car trip: we arrived in Mérida from Playa del Carmen, about four hours drive. You have always to follow the highway (you have to pay twice for toll road) till you reach Mérida suburbs: then, you always go straight following the brown signs for the ancient city center. The city was founded by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1540s on top of an old Maya city called T’ho, infact it’s not rare to see here and there bits of ancient Maya stonework reused in Spanish Colonial era buildings in the old part of town.

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The main square of Mérida, called Zócalo, presents some interesting historical buildings, like the cathedral, the Governor’s Palace, and the palatial home of the family of Conquistador leader Montejo – on the south side of the Zócalo -. The cathedral of San Ildefonso was the first cathedral to be finished on the American mainland, and the only one  to be entirely built during the 16th century. It is a unique monument with clear antecedents in Andalucia.

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Don’t miss the chance to visit the Governor’s Palace, where it’s free to go inside and upstairs to see the beautiful murals depicting local history.
Orientate yourself may be difficult only at the beginning. The streets in most of the parts of interest to visitors are in a rough grid with numbers for street names. Even numbered streets run from north to south, with the numbers increasing as you go further west; odd numbered streets run from east to west, with the numbers increasing as you go further south.

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This makes it easy to tell how many blocks away from something you are (just remember to divide by two when counting blocks in the same direction). Addresses are commonly given as either intersections of two streets, or stated as on a street between two cross streets. For orientation in the old part of town, remember the Cathedral and Zocalo are at the corner of 60 and 61.
If you’re staying in the older central part of town, many attractions, restaurants, etc. are within walking distance for those who don’t much mind walking in the tropical climate. Buses and taxis are numerous and reasonably priced.

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Always in this part of the town, don’t miss the chance to visit the fruits market and walk through the market streets: initially I’ve been a bit dazed by the noise and the confusion, but the sight of all the people and the colours all around made me feel immediately amused and happy to be there.

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to be continued..

CANCÚN AND ISLA MUJERES

Hello! It’s a pleasure for me to start today our beautiful trip with a quick focus on the area: this is a map of the places visited, most of all by car, and a pair of these by organized trip. (only Chichén Itza and Tulum, where you required a expert guide the most)

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México will surprise you in many ways. It’s a great mix of history and outstanding nature, culture and popular belief: this is the Yucatan Peninsula. (actually composed by other states, like Quintana Roo and Campeche, as you can see)
We start our tour from Cancùn, located on the north-east coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo. As you well known, it’s a renowned tourist destination in México. There are two possible translations of Cancún, based on the Mayan pronunciation kaan kun. The first translation is “nest of snakes.” The second version – less accepted – is “place of the gold snake”.
When development started in 1970, Isla Cancún had only three residents, caretakers of the coconut plantation of Don José de Jesús Lima Gutiérrez, who lived on Isla Mujeres, and there were only 117 people living in nearby Puerto Juarez, a fishing village and military base. The mass tourism project began in 1974.

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You sure saw beautiful images of the beaches in Cancun: no surprise that they’re actually part of the world’s second-longest coral reef. Indeed the Zona Hotelera of the city, has a particular disposition, on sand strips which run out into the Caribbean Sea. However, if you don’t like touristic places full of resorts, Cancun will not affect you. You sure will remember instead the thousand colours of the sea. (enough, isn’t it? below: Playa Delphines)

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If you’re interested, in the area there are also some archeological minor pre-columbian Maya ruins, El Rey and El Meco. Out of the hotel area, Cancun is similar to many others village in the nearby.

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If you have the possibility, i suggest to dedicate a day to Isla Mujeres, 30 minutes boat from Cancun. There are several points where you could buy the tickets and enter the harbour. I must say that initially I was a bit “disappointed” because the island, especially during week-end, it’s really crowded by tourist and also by mexicans on summer holidays.

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However, the caribbean gaudy, colourful atmosphere of the streets will conquer you: you could also take a tour of the island with a golf cart. The city center is great for souvenir shopping.

Tips for this one day trip:

– you may be prepared about the ferry-boat timetable, but often times are subject to change without prior notice. (we had our ride suddenly suppress, and we had to wait 30-40 minutes for the next one: after all, you’re in México, rhythm is slow and peaceful.)
– if you’re in Isla Mujeres by chance on Sunday, on the main beaches you could observe how mexican families enjoy their free time: they rush to the beaches with huge food containers, they sit down under the palm trees and they get ready for a neverending Sunday lunch (from 13.00 p.m. till 18.00 p.m. and over: so, basically they have an all-day meal: quite challenging, isn’t it?)

POSTCARDS FROM ALL OVER THE WORLD: MEXICO

Hello! How are you doing? I’m just back from a wonderful trip through Yucatan and Quintana Roo: in these days, I’m just trying to recollecting feelings, photos, emotion. My perceptions are still a bit “confused”, so I leave you some words and images which totally match with my first impressions.

“Maybe I’m doing better than I think, and maybe one day Mexico will be like a second home to me.”
(Nancy Hartwell)

 “Forse me la sto cavando meglio di quanto non creda, e forse un giorno il Messico mi parrà una seconda patria. “

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