Xunantunich Belize

Day Trips from San Ignacio Belize: Exploring the Ancient Maya Ruins at Xunantunich

Resting majestically atop a plateau overlooking the Mopan River and the Guatemalan countryside of Western Belize lies Xunantunich, one of the largest ancient Maya cities ever built. These impressive yet mysterious ruins were lost for centuries until discovered in 1890 by a local villager who mistakenly thought he had seen a ghost of a maiden giving Xunantunich its infamous name which translates into “Stone Maiden”. Built in the 7th century, these incredible ruins feature some of the most stunning hieroglyphics and friezes in ancient Maya culture as well as intricately carved stellas, 25 temples and well-preserved palaces.

Today Xunantunich is Belize’s most visited site, and the surrounding area of the Cayo District has become one of the most popular destinations in mainland Belize known for its multitude of Maya sites as well as its incredible caves, waterfalls, rivers and lush jungles. There are tons of adventure activities to be found which include hiking, kayaking, swimming, canoeing, zip-lining and of course exploring the incredible cave systems. You can easily spend a few days here with the highlight of your visit being a trip to Xunantunich.

Exploring Xunatunich

The Maya empire evolved around 2000 BC and thrived until their decline in 1500 AD. The highest point and power of Maya Civilization was known as the Classic Period from 250 AD  – 900 AD.  It was during this time that the political system changed into a Theocratic system where rulers represented the Gods to the lower class people on earth. Knowledge was power and since low-class people had no education, they believed whole-heartedly in their rulers. The Classic Period was a flourishing period of massive growth and the building of the incredible temples, pyramids and cities that are left behind today.

Xunantunich may have been occupied as early as 1000 BC but it was little more than a village. The large architecture that we see today began to be built in the 7th century AD. An estimated 7,000-10,000 people lived at Xunantunich during its peak and the city was quite possibly politically aligned with neighboring Naranjo just 9 miles west in Guatemala. In 1000 AD Xunantunich was abandoned right around the time that many other large Maya cities were being dismantled as the Maya civilization was falling apart.

Xunantunich is unique because it is the oldest continuously excavated Maya site in the country. The ruins were first explored in the 1892 by Dr. Thomas Gann, a doctor from Britain. Gann returned a second time in 1924, unearthing many Maya treasures which have tragically been lost or given away to private collectors. There has been continuous excavations and restorations since 1990 by the University Of California (ULA) under the direction of Dr. Richard Leventhal. These excavations continue to bring new discoveries and treasures helping historians and archeologists piece together the ancient Maya past.

One of the biggest and most impressive Maya buildings ever found was discovered in Xunantunich. Known as “El Castillo” (The Castle), it is covered in elaborately carved friezes, and remains the second-tallest tallest man-made structures in Belize. One of the figures carved on El Castillo is a three-dimensional seated person which is rumored to be the “stone maiden” that the villager saw when he stumbled upon the site. 

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San Antonio Women's Cooperative Belize

Empowering Maya Women at the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative in Belize

I woke up to the singsong sound of birds as the sun burst through the drapes, casting a zigzag of light across my room. After two carefree days at the Black Orchid Resort near the tiny village of Burrell Boom in Belize, I’d finally been brought back to life with a newfound energy that had long disappeared. I jumped out of bed, excited for the day ahead as we were heading to San Ignacio, the heart and soul of the Cayo District in Western Belize where we’d be swallowed into a world of thick, lush jungle, mysterious caves and extraordinary Maya ruins. But first, we were making a stop in the village of San Antonio, home of the largest Maya community in all of Belize.  In San Antonio, we would learn about an exciting initiative helping to empower local Maya women called the San Antonio Women’s Cooperative supported by our tour company G Adventures and their nonprofit partner Planeterra.

As out group gathered into the van, I sat up front next to the driver so I could learn more about the four different ethnic groups in Belize. Our driver Carlos was Mestizo (a mix of Spanish and Indigenous decent) which is the largest ethnic group in Belize making up approximately 34% of the population. After Mestizo, the next largest group is Creole followed by Maya and Garifuna. The Creole and Garifuna population both are descendants of African Slaves whereas the Maya population is centered within the tropical lowlands of Central America. Over time, the Maya spread out into parts of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Belize. The Maya make up about 11% of the population in Belize and there are three different linguistic groups: The Yucatec Maya who came from Mexico and live in the north, the Mopan Maya who live in the Southern Toledo district, and the Kekchi Maya who live in Western Belize.

Nestled in a verdant valley, about a 20-minute drive from the twin towns of San Ignacio and Santa Elena in the heart of the Cayo District of Belize lies the village of San Antonio. Populated by primarily Yucatec Mayas, the village is known for its beauty and art, and has a strong farming and agricultural heritage. When we arrived at the co-op, the first thing I noticed was the beauty and lushness of San Antonio. We were surrounded by tropical trees and flowering shrubs. It was no surprise that the Yucatec Mayas chose to settle in San Antonio for its fertile land. Agriculture is king in San Antonio yet it has its downfalls especially for the women who have large families and don’t have the means to earn an income outside of farming.

The San Antonio Women’s Cooperative was founded in 2001 to help promote and conserve Maya heritage, culture and tradition within the community and provide women with an alternative, sustainable income outside of farming. Since most Maya families have on average seven children and education is not free in Belize, girls are often the ones left behind and have few options besides raising a family. Poverty is a big issue and finding employment (especially without an education) in a small village is challenging. The San Antonio Women’s Co-op offers education in traditional pottery making, embroidery, cooking and serving guests through sustainable tourism as a means to preserve their culture and make a living. Today, there are 25 women in the co-op and they are working to encourage youth to participate as well.

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Is Instagram Changing the Way We Travel and See the World?

We’ve all seen it. You arrive at the Taj Mahal or the Louvre, filled with pure anticipation to see a world-famous landmark for the first time. Yet when you finally reach the perfect spot for your long-awaited view you get hit in the head with a selfie stick. As you inch your way into the mass of fellow tourists, craning your neck to get a peek, you are rudely shoved aside by an Instagram wannabe star who elbows you in the ribs to get their winning shot. Disheartened, you step aside being engulfed in the swarm of people beside you.

Welcome to the distorted world of social media, a world filled with Instagram influencers who are literally falling to their death to get that perfect shot or buying their followers, comments and likes on some underground website to reach their dreams of becoming a wealthy, world-famous star.

Sound familiar?

Sadly it does. In a world where social media has the ability to make a nobody suddenly rich and famous or even a  7 year old child bringing in $22 million on YouTube reviewing toys, it seems like everyone wants a piece of the pie these days.

But the obsession with social media comes with a huge price. Not only to our sanity but to the way we view and see the world. Here are some of the problems we face and how we can survive online without jeopardizing our soul.

Contributing to Overtourism

One downfall of social media is its influence on overtourism in already popular, ecologically or culturally sensitive places around the world. Think about Iceland, Machu Pichu, Angkor Wat and beaches in Southeast Asia filled with trash and being trampled almost to death, and it is heartbreaking. Even once far-flung destinations such as Myanmar and Palawan in the Philippines have become Instagram sweethearts  with millions of pretty posts. The world is your oyster and up for grabs for anyone with a cellphone and a social media account. However, the surge in tourism for that instagram-worthy photo of that popular place does not come without a price.

A recent article in AFAR states:  Social media is increasingly taking its toll on some of the world’s most photogenic locations, with growing numbers of Instagram-inspired travelers causing concerns about site crowding and conservation. Recently, hugely popular destinations have implemented new rules aimed at combatting overtourism. Just this year, Machu Picchu introduced a stricter ticketing system and Venice announced a visitor tax. Now, an extremely recognizable natural landmark in the United States has joined the expanding list. For the first time ever, travelers must pay an entrance fee to visit Horseshoe Bend, a regularly photographed spot in Arizona’s Glen Canyon National Recreation Area where the Colorado River takes a dramatic U-shaped turn.

Esteemed travel bloggers such as The Expert Vagabond also question Instagram and Social Media’s role in hurting travel. In his thought-provoking piece, Matt states that “Instagram has become a publicly accessible bucket-list of places you NEED to visit, fueling a FOMO (fear of missing out) attitude. We’re trying too hard to impress everyone with our list”. I couldn’t agree more.

Isn’t it wonderful to have a view like this all to yourself? Photo credit: Pexels

CULTURE
Above Safaris

Earth Day Travel Guide: Top Tours that Help Protect Wildlife Around the World

On April 22nd, the 49th annual Earth Day is being celebrated around the world. This year’s theme – to protect the Earth’s endangered and threatened species – could not be more important. The world is facing unprecedented climate change and a mass extinction of many of the amazing species of plants and wildlife that make our planet so incredibly unique. Unlike the extinction of the dinosaurs 60 million years ago, the devastating changes to our planet are driven by us. As concerns grow, there is still hope that we can fight climate change and reverse the mess we’ve made of our planet. As travelers, we have a choice on how we spend our money and we can make a difference by supporting travel organizations that help protect the environment and its wildlife.

In honor of Earth Day’s Protect Our Species campaign and as a member of Impact Travel Alliance (the world’s largest community for impact-focused travelers and travel professionals), I am highlighting some of the amazing tour operators working to help travelers responsibly visit and protect wildlife around the world.

“Seeing wildlife in their natural habitat can become some of our most vivid travel memories. I was deeply impacted by a trip to Uganda where I watched gorillas go about their daily lives in the Bwindi National Park and I bonded deeply with elephants while interacting with them at a conservation park in Thailand,” said Kelley Louise, Impact Travel Alliance founder and executive director. “It’s important to take the time to research and book wildlife tours that put the animals and their environment first.” As an avid traveler and nature lover, I could not agree more. Whatever we can do as travelers to make a difference is better than not doing anything at all. By choosing to travel with an ethical organization, we are making a big difference in hope that these incredible animals will be around for future generations.

Photo credit Playa Viva and Dave Krugman

Leatherback Sea Turtles on the shore of Playa Viva, Mexico. Photo credit Playa Viva and Dave Krugman

Here is a list of sustainable tours that help travelers see and protect Earth’s wildlife:

Atlas Obscura

Atlas Obscura’s mission is to inspire wonder and curiosity about the incredible world we all share by offering unique trips, sharing stories, holding events and fostering a global community to create a comprehensive database of the world’s most wondrous places and foods.

Atlas Obscura offers some pretty fabulous trips such as tracking wild bumblebees in the wild with expert biologists. Travel to Sequoia National Park with Atlas Obscura and expert biologists to track, conduct research on and help protect wild bumblebee populations and explore this peaceful landscape. You will learn firsthand about the plight of the humble bumblebee while also supporting them.

Atlas Obscura

Giant sequoia grove near auburn california trees, nature landscapes. Photo credit: Atlas Obscura

Playa Viva

Playa Viva is a unique yoga retreat destination where you will enjoy the rugged, unspoiled beauty of Mexico in the guilt-free luxury of an environmentally conscious resort. Become immersed in nature, volunteer in the turtle sanctuary, give back to the local community, engage in a workshop, or just relax completely.

Stay in Playa Viva’s sustainable hotel in Mexico and participate in the Playa Viva Turtle Sanctuary’s efforts to protect leatherback sea turtle eggs from predators.

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Conservation/Environment Global Issues Sustainable Travel Organizations TRAVEL RESOURCES
Mask Temple Lamanai Belize

A Visit to the Lamanai Ruins of Belize

One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.

Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.

Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.

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Jökulsárlón Northern Lights. Photo credit: Tom Archer

Discovering Iceland with Hidden Iceland’s Small Sustainable Tours

There is perhaps no other more mystifying place on earth than Iceland. Known as “the Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland is home to extreme geological contrasts being blessed with some of the largest glaciers in Europe and also some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Iceland’s extreme beauty has captured the world’s attention making this small Nordic country one of the hottest tourist destinations in the the world. Many travel companies have opened up shop to support the growing tourism industry especially in a sustainable, responsible way. Hidden Iceland is one small tour company that is breaking the way in sustainable travel.

I went to Iceland in the summer of 2008 filled with anticipation. I had heard so much about Iceland’s stunning natural beauty of rushing waterfalls, massive blue icebergs, and her expansive, mysterious landscape. I wanted to see for myself if this magical place was real and within the first day I fell in love with her mystical power and beauty. While there were tourists around most of the sights during my visit, it wasn’t as popular ten years ago as it is today. Over the past few years, tourism has exploded which of course has its pros and cons. Per the Icelandic Tourist Board, “The total foreign overnight visitors to Iceland was around 2.2 million in 2017, a 24.2% increase from 2016, when foreign visitors numbered around 1.8 million”. With Iceland’s small population of approximately 338,000 this surge in popularity has not come without its price and there have been lots of people wondering how to travel to Iceland sustainably and protect its unique culture and environment.

One way you can travel responsibly is by choosing a sustainable tour company that offers off the beaten path tours to lesser visited areas, employs local guides and also takes care of the environment and culture. Hidden Iceland is a boutique travel company that focuses on immersive experiences with passionate guides in remote settings such as glaciers, volcanoes, Northern Light spots and ice caves.  Hidden Iceland is also a Certified Climate Neutral Partner offsetting their carbon emissions, and also maintains a strict sustainability policy of offering only small guided group tours. They are currently ranked number 3 in all of Iceland on TripAdvisor out of 386 tour outfitters (with all five star ratings!), and their unique approach to combining personalised service, expert knowledge and a love of all things Iceland is what makes them stand out as one of the best.

Sólheimajökull Blue Ice.

Sólheimajökull Blue Ice. South Coast. Photo credit: Norris Niman/Hidden Iceland

I had the opportunity to learn more about Hidden Iceland from Ryan Connolly, one of the co-founders and here is what he has to say about what makes their trips unique.  

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Xunantunich Belize

Top Things to Do in Belize in a Week

On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.

After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.

After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world.  I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.

Belize Barrier Reef

Setting sail on a catamaran to Belize’s Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef

Snorkeling with sea turtles, nurse sharks and rays is a highlight of any trip to Belize. Photo Credit: Anda De Wata Tours, Belize

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Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

Best Hikes in Tucson: Hiking the Ventana Canyon Trailhead to Maiden Pools

For the past 25 years, I’ve been a regular visitor to Tucson and have fallen in love with her laid back, Southwestern disposition and charm. Tucson has become like a second home to me and there is no place I’d rather be in Tucson than on a hike in the desert or mountains. One of my all time favorite hikes in Tucson is along the Ventana Canyon Trailhead up to Maiden Pools. Located adjacent to Loews Ventana Canyon resort in the Santa Catalina mountains and less than five minutes from my parents’ home, this 4.7 mile hike up the canyon is one of Tucson’s finest.

Known for its spectacular beauty and magnificent views, the hike to Maiden Pools is a moderate two and a half hour hike depending on speed and stops. If you really want a challenge, you can continue on to “The Window” or “Ventana” in Spanish which the canyon is named after. This 12.8 mile rugged hike is quite challenging and takes pretty much the entire day. The majority of hikers opt for the hike to Maiden Pools where you can stop for a lovely picnic lunch and even dip your toes in the water if you like.

The hike

The Ventana Canyon Trailhead is located just to the west of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. There is a parking lot right next to the trailhead for hikers. When you enter the resort, follow the signs which will lead you to the left side of the resort and the parking lot is just past the employee parking lot.

As you leave the parking lot and follow the trail you are inside the property of Ventana Canyon Resort. The walk brings you around some of Ventana’s rental condos and past the old Flying V Ranch who owns a chance of acres adjacent to the resort and trail.

After about twenty minutes, you reach a walk-through fence where you enter the National Forest boundary and begin the true trail. You can see the stunning steep cliffs of Ventana Canyon rise above you from below in the desert landscape where you are surrounded by cactus and majestic hovering saguaro.

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

The fence that is the boundary of the National Forest

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

Adventure Travel Arizona North America TRAVEL TRAVEL BY REGION Trekking/Hiking United States
Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Travel Guide: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Tucson

Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest.  With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.

I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.

Why Tucson?

Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.

There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week especially if you time your visit right with the weather.

Best Time of Year to Visit

Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.

Top Five Things to Do

There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.

Take a Hike

Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  The best hikes to do:   Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).

If you go: The Visitor Center is open 8-4:30 pm daily and the cost to park is $5 per vehicle. Location:  5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750. To learn more visit US Forest Service website for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

If you really want a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Tucson’s highest peak, Mount Wrightson but be prepared as this is a 5-6 hour challenging hike to almost 10,000 feet.

 

Hike to Seven Falls, Tucson, Arizona

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Old Baldy Trail Mount Wrightson

On Top of Tucson’s Highest Peak: Hike to Mount Wrightson

Hands down, one of the greatest hikes in Tucson is to the top of Mount Wrightson. Located about 40 miles south of the city in the lush Coronado National Forest of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mount Wrightson and lesser known neighbor Mount Ian comprise the backdrop of any picture taken in Tucson. At 9,456 feet, Mount Wrightson is Tucson’s tallest peak (Mount Ian is slightly smaller at 9,146 feet) and the views along the way and at the top are quite impressive. Where else in Tucson can you pass through four different ecological zones ranging from the last remains of the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa pines and finally the majestic Douglas Firs. In a little over five hours, you can have it all and get a challenging hike too.

I first hiked Mount Wrightson over twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in Tucson. It was in my early hiking years and at the time I found the hike pretty darn challenging. I remember when I reached the top, I realized that it was the highest mountain I’d ever climbed. I’d done a lot of hiking growing up in Minnesota and had even hiked in the Alps but I had never hiked over 9,000 feet before. I’d only skied at that elevation. Being on top of Mount Wrightson felt like being on top of the world. It was exhilarating and set in motion a strong desire to keep climbing.

Five years later, I made another attempt to summit Mount Wrightson but physically it was not meant to be. I was three months pregnant with my son and the morning sickness made the hike impossible. I only got to the first saddle at 7,100 feet. That was in November 2003 and it took another 15 years for me to finally get the opportunity to attempt the hike again.

Ventana Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

At the top of Ventana Trailhead overlooking Tucson and a view of Mount Wrightson and Mount Ian far off in the horizon. January 2019. 

Why go

Reaching Tucson’s highest peak is always an accomplishment and the hike itself is truly quite stunning, affording sensational views all the way into Mexico and beyond as well as getting a feel for Arizona’s incredible ecological diversity. Of course there are plenty of stunning hikes to do in the desert surrounding Tucson yet a climb to the top of Mount Wrightson is truly special and unique. If you are lucky you may also even see wildlife that only lives in higher elevations like the Whitetail and Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Black Bear, Coati or even a fox. Plus what is not to love about a nice, demanding leg burning hike.

The Hike

There are two trails to choose from to reach the top of Mount Wrightson (or Mount Ian if you prefer to climb that peak). For those who want to get there faster and have a more challenging hike, follow the Old Baldy Trail, a ten-mile hike through the forest with switchbacks weaving you up to the top. If you want an easier, less trafficked yet longer hike you can follow the 13.1 mile Super Trail (Also known as the Loop Trail). I prefer the Old Baldy Trail.

Both hikes begin right next to the parking lot at the Madera Canyon Trailhead located at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. The 11-mile drive into Madera Canyon is quite spectacular in itself as you leave behind the dusty desert landscape of cactus and mesquite trees and enter the lush Coronado National Forest composed of Evergreen Oaks, Arizona Sycamores, Fremont Cottonwoods and Alligator Junipers.

Along the way are tiny cabins and a few B&Bs where birders from around the world come to spend a night or two. With over 250 species of birds identified in the area, Madera Canyon is one of the most renowned birding destinations in the United States and it is evident by the number of birders walking around with their binoculars, sun hats and enormous cameras.

The start of both trailheads is at 5,450 feet and by this time you have already left behind the desert landscape that surrounds Tucson and have entered the Coronado National Forest lush with a wide variety of trees. The start of the Old Baldy trailhead is wide and a bit rocky until you reach the woods and the first of many switchbacks winding you up to the Josephine Saddle.

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Laguna Chocuaco, Rancho Quemado, Osa Península, Costa Rica

Sustainable Travel Guide: What to Do in the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Gently pushing off the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica lies the beautifully pristine Osa Peninsula, a magical paradise of untouched primitive rain forests, deserted beaches and rural communities relatively hidden to mainstream tourism. Known for its conservation efforts and robust ecotourism industry, the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet with over 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity in less than one millionth of the Earth’s surface area.

With utterly jaw-dropping beauty, immense expanses of virgin rainforest and parts of lush green jungle that literally look like it is dropping into the celestial blue sea, the Osa Peninsula is my favorite part of Costa Rica. What I love best about the Osa Peninsula is it is still a bit of an undiscovered jewel. Despite a handful of small towns sprinkled throughout the peninsula, the majority of the Osa is uninhabited and undeveloped. Even the airports are simply plain old landing strips in the middle of a field or jungle. Its lack of development and its immense bounty of undisturbed nature and wildlife make it the ideal part of Costa Rica to experience pura vida, the pure life.

Why go

While many travelers chose to visit the more popular parts of Costa Rica such as the endless beaches of the Guanacaste, the precious yet touristy Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific Coast or the cloud forests or Arenal volcano of the Northern Zone, a visit to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula will be sure to be an experience not like any other.

Where else can you be rewarded with the opportunity to immerse yourself with the local life, culture and extraordinary nature in one of the most magical, biodiverse places on earth? The pure remoteness of the Osa Peninsula works to keep the hordes of tourists away which is an added bonus. If you want the pure, real deal then go to the Osa Peninsula. It is sadly the last frontier of Costa Rica and hopefully it will stay that way.

Some of the unique things you can do in the Osa Peninsula include bathing in jungle swimming holes and waterfalls, birdwatching in a private lagoon, spending a night in a locally run guesthouse that is only reachable by foot, eating home-cooked Tico cuisine, all while supporting the local community. A highlight of any visit to the Osa Peninsula includes a day or more at the Corcovado National Park where you can see scarlet macaws, monkeys, sloths, tapirs and for those lucky few, an endangered jaguar. You can also spend a day dolphin and whale watching or diving and snorkeling off Isla de Caño or go for a sunset horseback ride on the rarely visited Playa San Josecito. The options are endless and after few days in the Osa Peninsula you will be wishing you had more.

The Osa Peninsula is idea for nature lovers, adventure lovers, families and couples, and especially those who are interested in supporting sustainable tourism. However, be prepared. The Osa Peninsula is still like the Outback and getting there and around requires a test of patience and some white-knuckle driving. Many places are only reachable on foot, on ATV or by boat. For those who love adventure, this is the place for you!

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

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How HANDS in Nepal is Working to Provide Education and Hope in the Most Remote Villages of the Himalayas

In 2010, I went on a life-changing trip to Nepal with my father to hike the Annapurna trek in the Himalayas. Despite having traveled quite a bit, there was something truly magical and mind-blowing about Nepal. I had never experienced anything quite like it before. The chaotic mix of utter poverty and lack of infrastructure juxtaposed against the beauty of the Himalayas, the people and the culture truly touched my soul.

As we trekked through one beautiful remote village after another, I began to wonder how could it be that in this tiny, mountainous country where over 80% of its people live in remote villages like the ones we’d seen, that many people have little or no access to education. I learned that only half of Nepalese women over age 15 know how to read and write and many people are barely making ends meet to survive.

I’d always taken education for granted and it stunned me to realize that so many people in Nepal and around the world didn’t even have the choice to go to school. I also took safe drinking water, proper sanitation, electricity, health care, a warm stable home and access to medical care and employment for granted as well. I had been living in a bubble, and from that point on was determined to change my life and figure out a way to give back, and thankfully I did.

As a stay-at-home mother of two young children, my trip to Nepal reawakened a strong desire to become a writer and do good. I returned home and immediately started my travel and social good blog, Thirdeyemom, and also began building my work as a humanitarian by raising money and telling the stories of the progress being made by amazing non-profit and social good enterprises around the world.

As we were leaving Nepal, Rajan Simkahada, the owner of Earthbound Expeditions, our trekking company, gave me his card and mentioned some of the social work he was involved with in Nepal.  On the back of the card was HANDS in Nepal, a small grassroots, non-profit organization based in California working to bring education to women and children in remote, rural areas of the Himalayas.  As soon as I got home, I contacted them. I worked with the founder Danny’s mother, Jan Sprague, for almost a year helping raise money for HANDS in Nepal by selling beautiful, homemade Nepali goods that Jan purchased in Nepal and sent to me. It was a wonderful way to give back and in the end I knew that every sale helped improve the lives of both the women who made the blankets and scarves and the villagers supported by HANDS in Nepal.

Over the following eight years, I kept the promise I made to myself and have continued writing and doing good, raising awareness of such issues as women and girls empowerment, global health, poverty and education. I’ve featured many different non-profit organizations and social enterprises on the blog however I had lost touch with Nepal. A few weeks ago, I serendipitously reconnected with Jan Sprague, now the Director of HANDS in Nepal and it felt like fate. HANDS in Nepal is still working hard to promote education and reduce poverty in the remote Himalayan villages and has began many new projects. Since Nepal will forever be within my heart, I wanted to do an update on the incredible work being done by HANDS in Nepal. I know Nepal is calling me to come back for a visit and I hope too soon.

Interview with Jan Sprague, Director of HANDS in Nepal

HANDS in Nepal

HANDS in Nepal Director Jan Sprague inspecting the building of Learning Center #2 in the Astam Village area of Nepal

How did Hands in Nepal get started?

At the age of 20, my son Danny went on his own to Kathmandu after reading about an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home that needed volunteers. He lived with the lady who ran the orphanage for the first month and then moved in with a Tibetan family to study Tibetan Buddhism. He walked to the orphanage each day from his Tibetan house. While working at the orphanage, he met Rajan Simkahada, and they became good friends. Rajan told Danny the “real” Nepal was up in the villages, and he would never see or learn about Nepal if he didn’t go up to the villages. So he went up to the village where Rajan grew up and was blown away by the poverty, the lack of roads, old, ruined school building, and the poor condition of homes. Rajan told Danny how kids up in villages have to walk great distances to attend a school and he asked Danny if he would build a school in his village, Dharka.

HANDS in Nepal

Danny Chaffin started HANDS in Nepal after volunteering at an orphanage called Buddhist Child Home in Kathmandu, Nepal.

HANDS in Nepal

Danny discovered many children in Nepal work on the streets or beg because of a lack of schools in the villages.

Most of Nepalese live in extremely remote, hard to reach areas.  Rajan’s village Dharka is located in the Ganesh Himalayas, an area like many that most people have never heard of. Dharka is reached by first taking a bus from Kathmandu to Dhading Besi, then a bush taxi to where the road ends, then you hike about 5-6 hours up a mountain to the village. This is common for many villages in Nepal which demonstrates the immense challenge in development areas such as education, water and sanitation, health and more. Danny was blown away by his experience in Nepal, and it forever changed the trajectory of his life.

After returning to the US to start college at Naropa University, a private Buddhist University in Boulder, Colorado, Danny did all he could to save up money and return to Nepal to help build the school. The two of us returned the following summer and began figuring out a plan for how we would build their first school in Rajan’s village, Dharka. It would have to be through the creation of a non-profit. We returned home to the US, filed papers for a 501(c)(3) for the start of a non-profit. Hands in Nepal was officially founded in 2007 and the school in Dharka was completed in 2008 and a second school called Shree Ganesh Primary School was opened in 2009.

 

HANDS in Nepal

Danny founded the first school in Dharka, Dhading Besi, in the Ganesh Himalayas, one of the more remote and poorest areas of Nepal.

Child Labor, Marriage, Education and Survival Global Issues Global Non-Profit Organizations and Social Good Enterprises Poverty SOCIAL GOOD Women and Girls