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Big sky country

New Mexico day thirteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Farewell to Cimarron

Breakfast at the St James Hotel was disappointing after the previous evening’s good dinner – a buffet with weak coffee, over-chilled fruit salad, over-cooked eggs, but partly relieved by good crispy bacon and hot salsa. But on the whole we had loved our stay here and were pleased we’d come a little off the beaten path to include it on our itinerary.

Having been defeated by the rain the previous afternoon, which made it hard to take photos, we took some time this morning to do a little more exploration of old Cimarron. We had a short stroll down the lane opposite the hotel which took us past the Colfax County Courthouse, which dates back to 1872 when Cimarron became the county seat (taking over that role from already declining Elizabethtown). The town only retained that role for ten years, so this building too has seen a number of uses – drafting office, school, residence and now Masonic Lodge, although interestingly the relatively new sign on its wall would indicate that some trials are still held here.

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Old Grist Mill, and courthouse parking sign

Carrying on along the lane we came to the old mill, known as the Aztec Grist Mill although our walking tour leaflet gave no explanation for that name. It was built in 1860 to provide wheat and corn flour for local residents and soldiers. In 1861, 1500 members of the Ute and Jicarilla Apache tribes were moved on to reservation land here and the Indian Agency previously located in Taos moved to Cimarron. The mill was put into service dispensing blankets, meat, flour, grain and other rations to Indians and local citizens. By 1864 it was producing 44 barrels of flour a day. The leaflet went on to explain:

‘However, the 1867 gold rush on Baldy led to a large influx of people and the treatment of Indians suffered. Maxwell's sale of the Grant to an English company in 1870 further aggravated the problem. Troubles came to a head in 1875 when a small skirmish occurred between the Indian Agent and a band of rowdy Indians. Shots were exchanged as agency employees quickly ducked inside the Mill. The Indian Agent and several Indians were wounded and the one Indian arrested was later killed in a scuffle in the town jail. Government troops quickly defused the situation but in 1876 the Cimarron agency was closed and the Indians moved onto reservations in northwestern New Mexico and Colorado.’

You can visit the mill to see inside and learn about its workings – but only from May to September, so we were just too late in the year to be able to do so.

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The Immaculate Conception Church

Further down the lane is the Immaculate Conception Church, which was built in 1864 as a gift to the community from Lucien and Luz Maxwell in memory of their deceased children. It was enlarged in 1909 and a new bell and bell tower added the following year. We didn’t go into the church however, as by this time the morning was wearing on and we had a long drive planned for that day. It was time to leave Cimarron ...

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On Highway 64

One of the things I love most about the US Southwest are the wide open spaces and the huge blue (mostly) skies that arch above them. The landscape to the east of Cimarron epitomises this kind of landscape and was a joy to drive through. When we headed north-east from town on the morning after our stay we drove for miles on Highway 64, rarely passing another car. To some this landscape might appear flat and featureless, but we love it, and we had to stop a couple of times just to take it all in, and to take the inevitable photos. A few wispy clouds added interest to our images, as did the distant mountains to the south and east. If you too love ‘Big Sky Country’, this north-east corner of New Mexico makes for a great contrast to the rest of the state and is well worth the detour to get here, especially as relatively few other travellers make the effort to do so.

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Big sky country

We reach I25 a few miles south of Raton. And south was our intended ultimate direction of travel for today, but first we had a detour to make, so instead we turned north on the Interstate and then east again on Highway 87. We had a volcano to visit.

Capulin Volcano National Monument

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Distant view of Capulin

North eastern New Mexico is relatively flat compared with much of the rest of the state – indeed, here you are on the edge of the Great Plains. So the scattering of volcanic mountains across the landscape here is all the more striking. If you approach Capulin from the south west, as we did, you will have descended from the New Mexican Rockies onto this flat plain, thinking maybe that you have left mountain grandeur behind you. Then on the horizon a number of hazy conical shapes appear, of which the most classically volcanic in outline is Capulin itself.

Capulin is an extinct cinder cone volcano, and if you were asked to draw a volcano, this is the exact shape you would probably draw – a perfect cone with an indentation at the top. It rises abruptly from the surrounding grasslands to a height of 8,182 feet above sea level. The rim of the crater is about a mile in circumference and the crater itself about 400 feet deep. Scattered over the plain at its feet are the signs of its past activity, with the dark scars of its lava flows interrupting the soft greens of the grassy plains.

There is a two mile road up to the top. The National Parks Service leaflet which we were given on paying our entrance fee warned about the challenging nature of the drive to the summit, and our Moon Handbook said that this was ‘only for steely drivers’. Well, maybe this has something to do with the different nature of driving on the largely straight, open roads of the US, in contrast to the winding country lanes that English drivers often have to negotiate, but we just didn’t get that ‘steely drivers’ thing! OK, you have to be a bit careful – stick to the posted speed limit, don’t stop other than in designated pull-outs, and of course keep your eyes on the road (Chris as driver had to wait until we reached the top before admiring the scenery!). But it’s all pretty much common sense, it would be a shame if the warnings put anyone off driving up and missing out on these fantastic views.

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View from parking lot at the top of the drive

Relatively few visitors to the state come here it seems; there were only two other cars in the parking lot at the top and we met only a handful of other people on the rim trail. But they should! I found this a scenic counter-balance to the busier parts of the state which gave us a strong sense of the wide open spaces that still occupy vast swathes of the United States. On a clear day (and there are plenty of those in New Mexico) you can apparently see about 8,000 square miles of volcanic field from here, and beyond to the west lie the Rockies. Today, with a little haze, we couldn’t see quite as far but it was still an amazing view!

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Views from Capulin Volcano Rim Trai

There are a number of trails of varying difficulty that you can do at Capulin. We chose the Rim Trail, described as moderately difficult due to its steep climbs and descents. This is approximately a mile long and as the name suggests follows the rim of the crater itself. It is paved, but does indeed climb and dip quite a bit, including a few steps in places, so it isn’t suitable for wheelchairs or pushchairs, and you need to be fairly able-bodied. The altitude also makes it a little harder going perhaps, but anyone of reasonable fitness will cope fine with this walk, and the views amply repay any effort required.

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The crater's rim

Along the path a series of information boards explain the geology of the surrounding Raton-Clayton Volcanic Field, as well as some of the wildlife (flora and fauna) that can be found here. Unfortunately a couple of these signs were a little worn so we couldn’t take in all the facts, but we learned a fair bit from them nevertheless.

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The lava field at the foot of the volcano

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On the Rim Trail

Returning to I25 we headed south, on one of the longest legs of this road trip, and also the longest stretch of interstate driving that we had planned. Our usual preference is for the slower roads, with more stopping opportunities, but this was not only the only logical route through this part of the state but also enabled us to cover a bit more ground to reach our destination for the night. But we nevertheless took the chance to stop off at one sight en route.

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Driving south on I25

Fort Union

Fort Union lies about twenty miles north of the town where we were to spend the night, Las Vegas (the New Mexico town of that name, not the more famous one in Nevada!), and was closely linked to the development and prosperity of the town. Built to protect travellers on the Santa Fe Trail from Indian raids, it also served as a major supply depot for Union troops during the Civil War.

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Fort Union

The first fort here was built in 1851 from wood, and a second ten years later – a massive earth fortification. The present ruins are of the third fort, built in 1862 of adobe brick on top of stone foundations. It would have been an impressive structure that greeted travellers on the Santa Fe Trail, but when the Trail was replaced by the coming of the railroad, trade declined and the need for the fort with it. Fort Union closed in 1891 and was abandoned. The buildings gradually fell into ruin, until it was established as a National Monument in 1956 and efforts started to preserve what remained.

When we visited the place was almost deserted and perhaps no wonder – there was a cold wind blowing across the plains and it was spitting with rain. Determined to see at least a bit of what had brought us here we paid the $3 per person entry and had a look around the displays in the Visitor Centre. These include displays on what life was life for soldiers and civilians stationed at the fort, and a number of artefacts from when it was at the height of its activity.

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Replica covered wagon

Outside you can do a 1.6 mile self-guided interpretive trail or a shorter .5 mile one. We set off on the latter but in the end opted for just a quick look at a few things that especially caught our eye and were in the immediate vicinity – a replica covered wagon, the ruined hospital looking stark against the threatening sky, the traces of the old wagon ruts still visible in the grassland.

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Hospital ruins, and replica tents

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Wagon ruts on the Santa Fe Trail

One thing the bleak weather did give us was a strong appreciation of how life must have been for those stationed here. The climate can be harsh and unforgiving – extremes of temperature (which according to the park website can vary within 50 degrees Fahrenheit within a 24-hour period), summer storms and winter blizzards.

Las Vegas

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Bridge Street, Las Vegas

Leaving the chill of Fort Union behind us we continued to Las Vegas. When I first planned our route through New Mexico a friend who had lived in the area (the one who recommended the excellent Shed restaurant in Santa Fe) had questioned my inclusion of this town, which is nothing like its more famous namesake in Nevada. In her view it had no real sights to offer and was rather too seedy and run-down to be worth a visit. I ignored her however, and was right to do so!

Unlike its glitzy namesake this Las Vegas is an appealing mix of slightly down-at-heel with trying-hard-to-revive. We loved the photogenic old buildings of the Historic Bridge Street District, and the sleepy Plaza.

Plaza Hotel, Las Vegas

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The Plaza Hotel

But our first action on arriving was to check into our pre-booked accommodation in the grand old Plaza Hotel. If like us you prefer to stay near the centre of any town you visit, able to walk to the restaurants and bars, there is really only one choice in Las Vegas NM, and that is the historic Plaza Hotel. It dominates the north-west corner of the town’s large plaza, and its sensitively restored Victorian public spaces and rooms are a delight to visit – the more so because the less fashionable nature of Las Vegas as a destination makes them very affordable when compared to pricey Santa Fe or Taos.

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In the hotel lobby

The main hotel building was built and opened in 1882. For a while it was the place to stay, but soon after it was built the focus of the town moved a mile to the west, away from the original Spanish colonial plaza to the area around the new railway station. Eventually the hotel declined, as did the large store next door, Charles Ilfield’s ‘Great Emporium’, which at one point was the biggest department store in the Southwest,. The hotel was restored in 1882, and in 2009 the owners bought up the neighbouring emporium and converted it too into part of the hotel, linked internally. Our room was in this part, but the sympathetic conversion made it hard to see the difference apart from the change in floor levels of the corridor as you move between one part and the other.

But we didn’t linger in the room, keen to get out and see a bit of the town in what remained of the afternoon, starting in the Plaza.

Exploring Las Vegas

After seeing the plazas of Old Town Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos (among others) on our drive through New Mexico, the one here in Las Vegas came as something of a surprise. Like the others it is a legacy of Spanish colonisation, but it has retained fewer adobe buildings and has less of the Spanish air to it. Instead it feels a little like a small Victorian park, surrounded by buildings that are still historic but dating mostly from the more recent past.

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Adobe building on the Plaza

The plaza began, as was the custom for Spanish settlers, with the construction of a number of small homes around an open space that could be defended easily from attack. When the Santa Fe Trail route was established, locals were quick to encourage passing merchants to overnight here, and the resulting trade led to the city’s expansion. Over time many of the houses surrounding the plaza were converted into stores, or even totally demolished and shops built in their place. The area became the lively hub of the city, and was witness to several historical events. For instance, a plaque in the park commemorates the day in August 1846 when General Kearney stood on top of a building here and claimed the territory for the United States (sorry, no photo – I didn’t take one when we first set out on our explorations, and it was raining too hard by the time we came back to the park after our walk and a coffee!)

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Another view of the Plaza Hotel

When the railroad came to Las Vegas it arrived a mile to the east, and a new town grew up there. West Las Vegas remained as a bit of a backwater, but still thriving enough for a while for new businesses such as the Plaza Hotel and Ilfield’s Emporium to be established. But when the main railroad line was diverted south of here both parts of the city suffered, and for a while the buildings around the plaza, as elsewhere in the city, fell into decline.

In recent years the city has enjoyed something of a resurgence, and here in the plaza area this is exemplified (and was in part triggered) by the restoration of the Plaza Hotel. But there are several other buildings of note around the perimeter, with a few still retaining the old adobe (albeit now mostly covered with stucco) while the majority are Victorian in appearance.

From the Plaza we walked east along Bridge Street. When the ‘new’ East Las Vegas, triggered by the coming of the railroad, sprung up a mile to the east of the Plaza, it and West Las Vegas remained two separate towns until as recently as 1970. For years the area between them, now filled by Bridge Street and its offshoots, was semi-rural, used by settlers to grow crops. But as East Las Vegas expanded it stretched out towards its neighbour and Bridge Street was born. Lined with commercial buildings in a wide range of architectural styles, it is today a slightly kitsch (to my eyes) mix of the seedy, the small-town Americana, and the sympathetically restored.

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Italianate building on Bridge Street

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On Bridge Street

The whole area has now been declared an Historic District by the city council, and over 90 buildings in and around it are listed on national, state or local registers of historic buildings. Some of the most notable, according to the sign we saw, include the Italianate Stern & Nahm Store (1883-1886) and the ‘World’s Fair Classic’ style Romero Hose and Fire Company building (1909). But we enjoyed just as much the less remarkable buildings and the general sense of a town that is lived-in rather than on show – a great antidote to the sometimes too-studied artiness of Santa Fe or even Taos.

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Street photography on Bridge Street

But we looked in vain for a good cup of coffee on Bridge Street – a woman in the only café that was open told us that their espresso machine was broken. So we were very happy on returning to the Plaza to find that Tapetes de Luna, a weaving and textile arts co-operative on its north-east corner, had a coffee bar where we got an excellent mocha, and also enjoyed browsing the crafts on sale and seeing the old looms in use there.

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Tapetes de Lana

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Coffee table, Tapetes de Lana

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Loom in Tapetes de Luna

Unfortunately this establishment seems to have since closed down, although the Travellers’ Café which has replaced it looks equally welcoming.
Reflecting the city’s sudden boom many of these buildings were quickly thrown up, constructed of inexpensive materials. When the city declined, so did they. But perhaps ironically, the city’s economic decline during the mid 20th century helped in the preservation of these unique historic buildings as there were no funds for restoration during a period when such tasks were approached with much less sensitivity than is the case nowadays.

After our coffee we had a quick look inside a couple of the other places on the Plaza. On its north side we especially enjoyed the works on display at Zocalo Gallery (212 Plaza), another co-operative but this time featuring painters, potters, jewellery makers and more – and this one appears still to be in the same spot and thriving (see http://elzocalogallery.com/).

By now though the rain we had first encountered at Fort Union had returned, so we went back to the hotel to relax in our cosy room and take advantage of the free wifi there.

Landmark Grill at the Plaza

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Chris with his chicken enchiladas
(red chilli)

We had planned to try one of the local Mexican restaurants in downtown Las Vegas that were recommended in our Moon Handbook, but that evening there was heavy rain and we decided to eat in the Plaza Hotel’s Landmark Grill instead (nowadays known as the Range Café). From the name we feared it might be a bit posh and expensive, but it proved to be excellent value and very welcoming. We were glad to have ended up eating there. And from the snatches of conversation overheard at other tables, and the mix of customers (young couples, local families, older travellers), it was clear that for lots of people the Landmark Grill was a favourite place to eat in Las Vegas.

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My chicken enchiladas
(green chilli)

Our friendly waiter brought us a basket of complimentary bread with oil and balsamic vinegar for dipping, which I always love. Although clearly inexperienced and young (so young that he was not allowed to serve us our beers but had to ask the senior waitress to take our drinks order instead!), he made a real effort to ensure we enjoyed our meal.

From the varied menu we both chose chicken enchiladas – I with green chilli and Chris with red. We also shared a house salad, which had a nice mix of leaves and a good blue cheese dressing.

Byron T's Saloon

After our tasty meal in the Landmark Grill we decided to check out the bar across the lobby, Byron T’s Saloon. This is named after a former owner of the hotel, and former town mayor, Byron T Mills, who it is claimed still haunts the hotel – or rather, one of its rooms, 301.

We were quite surprised to find that this is much more of a local bar than we would expect a hotel one to be, and all the better for it. Whereas in our hotel in Grants we had found ourselves to be the only drinkers in the bar (!), here we found a buzzing lively atmosphere that was much more to our liking.

We secured seats at one end of the bar, and ordered our drinks – a very good margarita for me, and a bottle of Dos Equis for Chris. The drinkers around us were clearly locals, and were enjoying ribbing the barmaid, who was giving as good as she got. We got talking to the guy sitting next to us at the bar, who then introduced us to a couple of his drinking companions, including his son who was (unusually for an American) a big rugby fan. We spent a very pleasant hour or so chatting to them, and naturally ordered a second round of drinks. I think the barmaid’s hand slipped while mixing my margarita as it was even stronger than the first, and I have to confess to a bit of a hangover the next morning – but well worth it for such a fun evening! Unfortunately though, the friendly conversation, or possibly the alcohol, seem to have diverted me from my usual habit of taking photos of absolutely everything for Virtual Tourist, so I have none of the bar at all!

Posted by ToonSarah 09:31 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture road_trip restaurant volcanoes history hotel weather new_mexico street_photography Comments (6)

Snow in the desert?

New Mexico day sixteen


View New Mexico road trip 2011 on ToonSarah's travel map.

White Sands National Monument

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Early morning shadows on the White Sands

It was the White Sands in part at least that brought us to New Mexico, and they did not disappoint. After seeing the wonderful photos taken here by a Virtual Tourist friend, Richie, I was really keen to see these scenes for myself, and that was one of the triggers for planning a holiday in this incredible state.

As we were staying in Alamogordo rather than in the park itself (where the only accommodation option is back-country camping), we made an early start that day, skipping breakfast in favour of juice and muffins which we had stocked up on the previous day ready to picnic later in the park.

We were at the gates soon after the 7.00 am opening time. I knew that the best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but for non-campers like ourselves arriving at opening time is the next best option. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

We paid the $3 per person fee at the gates, skipping the visitor centre which was still closed at that time (and which in any case was much less of a priority for us than seeing the actual dunes), and entered the park. At first the landscape was much like that of the rest of this part of New Mexico, flat scrubland. But we could see the white dunes ahead of us as we drove and were soon among them.

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Driving through White Sands National Monument

Imagine a desert with dunes that stretch to the horizon, dotted with a few hardy plants and baking under a hot sun. Now imagine that the sand in this desert is not yellow, but as white as snow, and you will have some idea of what it is like here.

But despite the name, this is not sand! The white crystals are in fact gypsum, and in this part of New Mexico the dunes cover 275 square miles of desert creating the world's largest gypsum dunefield. Not all of this though is part of the National Monument, as much of it is off-limits on the White Sands Missile Range – these wide open spaces are ideal for such activities it seems. But thankfully the National Monument does preserve a large portion of the dunefield and makes it accessible for us all to enjoy.

Interdune Boardwalk

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View from the Interdune Boardwalk

Our first stop, which I had planned carefully in advance, was at the Interdune Boardwalk. This offers a short easy walk with interpretive boards describing the plant life on the dunes etc. It was just right for a pre-breakfast stroll and got us in among the dunes while the light was still good.

The Interdune Boardwalk is an easy elevated trail of about 600 metres (there and back). It led us through a fragile interdune area to a scenic view at the top of a dune. Interdune areas are where all plant life in the dunefield starts. The interpretive boards here described the various plants that manage to grow in this harsh environment and also explained how they get their first footholds and gradually colonise the desert. It was an interesting introduction to this fascinating environment, and the plants themselves made interesting subjects for photography, although because of them the area lacks the other-worldliness of the deeper reaches of the park.

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Plant life near the Interdune Boardwalk

Back at the car we ate our simple breakfast picnic and then it was time to explore further. There are no restrictions on where you can walk here, as long as you pull off the road when you stop, so having found the Interdunes Walk just a little busier than we had expected at that early hour, we stopped again just a short distance up the road and scrambled up a small dune to get an overview of the scene around us.

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Panorama by the road side

Only a few yards from the road we found ourselves alone, and it wasn’t difficult to imagine how it might feel to be lost in this wilderness, or how the desert would have looked in the days before any roads were laid through it or visitor facilities provided. I also got some of my most striking photos here, proving that it is well worth taking the time and trouble to get just a little off the beaten path if at all possible.

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Lone grasses

Alkali Flat Trail

We then followed the road to the far end of the loop drive. There were several marked picnic areas here with grills, tables and seats, and these slightly surreal-looking space-age shelters to provide protection from the harsh midday sun in summer. It was still fairly early in the morning and the place was pretty deserted. I am sure it gets busier later, especially at the height of the season, but we rather enjoyed having it to ourselves as the shelters made great subjects for some rather different White Sands photos. At that time of day in October we didn’t really need their protection, but it was a fun place to relax for a short while and refresh ourselves with a drink, and we were also glad of the (primitive) restrooms provided here.

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Picnic shelters

Then we set out on our walk. The Alkali Flat Trail is the only trail of any real length in the park, at 4.6 miles round trip. This trail should not be undertaken without proper preparation, as there is no shade in this harsh environment, and walking on these shifting sands is not always easy.

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Trail marker

But even if you don’t feel you can walk the full length (and we didn’t), just ten minutes’ walk along here was enough to get us into a different world – the crowds were left behind and we had the dunes to ourselves.

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Panoramas of the Alkali Flat Trail

There are far fewer plants here, and the landscape is even more strange and striking. The Alkali Flat itself lies at the end of the trail. This is the dry lakebed of Lake Otero, a lake that filled the bottom of the Tularosa Basin during the last ice age and covered 1,600 square miles. We didn’t make it that far, but nevertheless the trail gave us plenty of opportunities, as the park brochure had suggested it would, to enjoy the spectacular scenery.

And despite the fact that sun had climbed a little higher by the time we got here (about 9.30 I think), the photo opportunities were still excellent. The white sand stretches for miles, and beyond the dunes we could just see the mauve-grey hues of the Organ Mountains, which we were to pass later in the day on our way to Los Cruces.

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Lone plant on Alkali Flat

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On the Alkali Flat Trail
- Organ Mountains on the horizon

After about half an hour or so of exploring and photography we made our way back to the parking lot. By now it was mid-morning, and we were surprised to see how much fuller the parking area had become. A large coach had just drawn up, disgorging its passengers, and most of them looked as if they would be content to admire the dunes from just where they stood – certainly few of them had the footwear for hiking on soft shifting sands. For them the White Sands would be all about the views to be had from the road-side, which thankfully are pretty great. But I was amazed that some of them did set off on the trail despite being dressed very inappropriately – I even saw one woman in high-heeled sandals! I suspect she didn’t get far, though we didn’t stick around to see

There were also quite a few family groups arriving and setting up for a day on the sands, just as if they were on a beach with deck-chairs to sit on and children playing in the sand! – although with no cooling water in which to take a dip, and no shelter (in this part of the park) from the sun’s heat, this would not be my idea of fun even in relatively cool October!

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Family enjoying the dunes

Visitor Centre

When we had arrived the Visitor Centre was as I mentioned still shut. Besides, we were too keen to get to the sands themselves to stop here even if it had been open. But we did stop on our way out, to use the rest-rooms, see the displays and check out the shopping opportunities.

The exhibition area wasn’t very extensive but I was interested in the information about how these gypsum dunes formed and developed, the wildlife that (perhaps surprisingly) thrives in this harsh environment, and also about man’s interaction with these wide open spaces, including the space programme and other scientific use, not all of it necessarily to be commended; the Trinity Site where the first nuclear device was detonated in July 1945 is now part of the White Sands Missile Range.

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White Sands plant life

I was also impressed by the shopping here – there were plenty of high quality gifts and souvenirs including Native American crafts, jewellery, and very good photos of the dunes. We didn’t buy any of the latter as we had been so busy taking our own! But I was pleased with the delicately painted Christmas tree ornaments that I bought as presents for family. We also got some cold drinks and snacks to enjoy at the picnic tables outside before heading south to Las Cruces.

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Footprint in the sand

Before leaving the subject of the White Sands altogether I want to share some thoughts about photography here that I first pulled together for Virtual Tourist, which I hope will be helpful if any of my readers get to visit this amazing place. This place is truly a photographer’s paradise – but also a photographer’s great challenge. The best photos are to be had around dawn and dusk, but if, like us, you don’t want to camp out, you will want to make an early start to be here when the gates open at 7.00. At that time, especially by October when we visited, the sun is still low enough to cast interesting shadows among the dunes, and not so bright that it washes everything out in the harsh white glare.

So you’re here at the right time. What next? Well, firstly if you want the dunes to look as white in your pictures as they do in real life, disable auto-exposure on your camera if you can, or over-ride it to over-expose slightly. This is just like photographing snow, and left to itself your camera will adjust to darken the scene, making the sand look more light grey than white. Of course if you are lucky enough to be there so early or late that the dunes are reflecting a sunrise or sunset, this doesn’t apply – the last thing you will want is white!

Next, look for something to break up all that whiteness. It could be an interesting plant, a footprint as in my photo, or simply the patterns made by the ripples in the sand. I made a point of taking a mix of images – some of the details, some of the wide open spaces. I also enjoyed using the panorama facility on my camera as it seemed the ideal way to capture the scale of this vast dune field.

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Exploring the White Sands

Lastly, don’t forget the human aspect. Seeing how people interact with the dunes adds a different element to the story your pictures tell, and as always in landscape photography, people give the viewer a good sense of scale. That small black mark near the top of the dune in my photo above is Chris!

Nearing journey's end

Leaving the White Sands behind us we drove southwest across the flat plain, with the ridge of the Organ Mountains ahead of us. These mountains derived their name, Sierra de los Organos, from the early Spanish settlers, for whom the pinnacles resembled the pipes of the great organs in the cathedrals of Europe. Today they are a National Monument, with a visitor centre and marked trails to explore, but we were coming to the end of our New Mexican adventure and still had a bit further to drive before spending our last night right in the south of the state, handy for tomorrow’s flight home.

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The Organ Mountains near Las Cruces

Mesilla

Our last night in New Mexico was spent right in the south of the state, in Mesilla. Mesilla is really a suburb of Las Cruces, but with a very separate identity and character. Its cluster of streets are arranged in a grid patter around the central Plaza and lined with buildings that date back to the colonial Spanish era. Of all the southern New Mexico towns we visited, it was the one that came closest to the historical identity of more northern Santa Fe and Taos, albeit much smaller. It made a lovely base for our last few hours in the state.

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Hanging out in Mesilla!

Mesilla was founded in the mid 19th century and for a part of its history lay in a sort of no man’s land between Mexico and the United States. But in 1854 the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location on the cross-roads of two stagecoach routes. But the town chose not to have the railroad routed through the community, so it went ‘next-door’ to Las Cruces instead. The result was major growth for that city, while Mesilla remained small and retained much of its charm and character.

Today Mesilla is a little pocket of colonial Spain on the outskirts of more modern Las Cruces. There are only a few ‘sights’ (an attractive church, a small museum). Rather, it is a place to wander around and seek the serendipity of a pretty building here, an interesting shop there ...

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Emilia's

We arrived too early to check in to our hotel, but not too early for lunch! So we parked near the plaza and went in search of somewhere to eat. There are a number of good restaurants in the historical buildings in and around the Plaza, but some only seemed to offer more substantial meals than we like at this time of day. But Emilia’s (now renamed as Café Don Felix) looked promising, with several salads and sandwiches on the menu. There were also tables available in the pretty little paved area at the front, and the chance to have lunch outside on our last day sealed the deal!

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Avocado & Swiss sandwich

Our friendly waiter brought chips and salsa to accompany our fruit juices – so much for the light meal! Chris had ordered a salad with chicken and bacon (which was good), while I had the avocado and Swiss cheese sandwich which came with a small side salad. I found my sandwich a little dull (too much lettuce, too little cheese and avocado) but the blue cheese dressing that came with my salad was excellent and also served to brighten up the sandwich.

Mesilla’s Plaza

After lunch we explored the plaza and surrounding streets of the Historic District. At the time Mesilla was founded, the population of the town was concentrated around the Plaza for defence against Apache Raiders who were a constant threat to the settlement. In November 1854 the Plaza was the site for a major historical event, when the Gadsden Purchase declared the town officially part of the United States. As Mesilla was the most important community in this parcel, the treaty was consummated by the raising of the American flag on the town plaza on November 16, 1854. With increased stability came increased trade, and Mesilla found itself in a prime location. It became an important stop on two stagecoach, mail and trade routes – the El Camino Real, from Chihuahua to Santa Fe, and the Butterfield stage route, from San Antonio to San Diego.

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Gazebo in the Plaza

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Paper flowers on the gazebo

Thanks to its major role in the history of the state and of the US, the Mesilla Plaza was declared a New Mexico state monument on September 10th 1957. It was listed on the National Register in January 1982, as a National Historic landmark, and the entire Historic district added in February 1985.

The Plaza and the gazebo at its centre were refurbished in 1978 to suit the growing status of the town as a tourist destination. It is the focal point for any celebration in the town such as Cinco de Mayo and Dia de Los Muertos. It is also home to a Farmers Market on Thursdays and Sundays, but we were only here on a Friday-Saturday so missed that.

However we did come across a couple of local musicians playing very enthusiastically by the gazebo – we weren’t sure if they were there officially to entertain the tourists or were busking. I was also not quite sure of the reason for the paper flowers which decorated part of the gazebo; maybe they are always there, or maybe they were left over from some special celebration? Either way, they were rather pretty!

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Musicians on the Plaza

Basilica of San Albino

The north side of the Plaza is dominated by the Basilica of San Albino. The first church in the town had been a small log and mud construction on the south side, but when the town was transferred from Mexico to the United States as part of the Gadsden Purchase, it began to grow, and a new church was needed. This church was built in adobe in 1855, but soon acquired a more European style, thanks no doubt to the influence of Bishop Lamy who was so averse to adobe architecture, as I explained in my blog entry about Santa Fe: Fanta Se.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The church was completely rebuilt in its present form in 1906 and dedicated in 1908. It did however keep its old bells, cast in the latter half of the 19th century. These include two, named Sagrado Corazon de Jesus and Maria Albina, which were cast in 1886 and the largest of them all, Campana Grande, cast a year later. The church’s website says that, ‘In keeping with Catholic tradition the bells, including Sagrado Corazon de Jesus, were christened and given godparents to care for them’. I have never heard of that tradition elsewhere, but it sounds a lovely one.

In November 2008 the church was granted minor basilica status by the Vatican, an event commemorated by a plaque on the wall outside.

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The Basilica of San Albino

The basilica was advertised as being open from 1.00-3.00 pm daily, but unfortunately was closed when I tried to get in – a shame, as it appears to have some lovely stained glass windows. It was also hard to get a good photo of the church as it faces south and there were cars parked immediately in front of it.

Historic district

Strolling the streets around the Plaza is the number one activity here. Many of the adobe buildings built during the colonial era remain today, and most have been converted into interesting shops, galleries and restaurants, but the district retains a lot of its character and although popular with tourists seemed to us much less busy than somewhat similar (though larger) Santa Fe and Taos.

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Shop sign, Mesilla

We browsed a few of the shops, even though we really had bought enough by this point of the trip! There was some interesting folk art in one, work by more contemporary artists in another. In Scentchips (now closed down) you could mix your own combination of scented wax chips to use as potpourri or in a burner; the owner was most informative and even gave me a small free sample!

We also rather enjoyed the Billy the Kid Gift Shop on the south east corner of the Plaza. Although we found the items on sale to be not really to our taste, the building itself is worth seeing. It was the former capitol of Arizona and New Mexico and later became the courthouse in which Billy the Kid was sentenced to hang. It still has the old viga ceilings and original 18 inch adobe walls.

We got a free leaflet here which detailed the Kid’s connections to Mesilla. This was to be the last of our several encounters with him on this trip; one on which he had seemed to be with us for much of our journey through the state where he grew up, lived his short and ignominious life, and was shot.

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Mesilla building details

Our last night in New Mexico

We had hoped to be able to stay in one of the few bed and breakfast places in the heart of old Mesilla, but one was fully booked by the time we came to make arrangements and the other very expensive. The Meson de Mesilla seemed from my research to be the next best option, and I think that proved to be the case, being a smallish hotel within walking distance of the Plaza, so that we could leave the car behind and both enjoy a few drinks on our final evening. But this hotel seems to have gone through some upheavals since our visit, to say the least!

At the time of our stay I wrote the following in my Virtual Tourist review:

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The Meson de Mesilla

It would be churlish to complain about the comfortable stay we had here, were it not for the exaggerated claims made by the hotel itself on its website. This is not a ‘boutique hotel’, nor is it any sort of bed and breakfast, let alone the ‘finest Bed and Breakfast in Mesilla’ – breakfast is not even included in the room rates. What it is, in fact, is simply a mid-range mid-priced hotel with some nice design features in its rather small bedrooms.

I had read some reviews that referred to the smallness of the rooms, and as it was our last night and I knew we would want to unpack and repack, difficult in a small space, I chose to pay extra for the middle of three room options, the Veranda Queen room. But it was still definitely on the small side. The queen bed was very comfortable, though bizarrely high from the floor. The bathroom was stylish and had lovely thick towels, but there were few toiletries provided, such as one would have expected from a real boutique hotel. We had a small TV, but no fridge or mini-bar.

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Our room and bathroom


That was in 2011. In 2014 Gordon Ramsey featured the hotel, which was struggling by then, in his ‘Hotel Hell’ TV series (see https://www.realitytvrevisited.com/2014/08/season-2-meson-de-mesilla.html). From what I can read in some rather conflicting reports, the owner appears to have accepted some of his changes and reversed others, and more recently has refurbished again and brought in someone else to run the restaurant, to largely positive reviews. Maybe the Meson de Mesilla has life in it yet! And as I said, its location certainly suited us, giving us an easy stroll back to the Plaza for our last night out in the state.

Peppers

We were keen to find somewhere nice in Mesilla for our final meal of the trip, and at first tried La Posta which got good reviews. But not only would we have had to wait for a table, we were also put off by the rather over-touristy, over-gimicky décor, and I objected to the caged birds in the entrance area (cruel and unnecessary – what’s New Mexican about macaws?) So we looked elsewhere. The equally-historic Double Eagle seemed to be more expensive and fancier than we usually look for in a holiday meal (special occasions excepted) but then I remembered reading that it had a cheaper more informal section, so we went to check that out. The menu for this part, Peppers, wasn’t posted outside but as soon as we went in and asked to see it, our decision was made – and what a good one it turned out to be!

Peppers may be the cheaper end of the Double Eagle, but we wouldn’t have known it to look at it. The tables were set out in an atrium area with lush plants and plenty of dark wood, in keeping with the décor elsewhere in the building. The rather small but very attractive bar opened off one side and was lively with drinkers, while the restaurant area was busy enough with both locals and tourists to make us feel comfortable but not crowded. Our waiter was friendly (and patience personified with the moaning group on the next-door table, who twice changed their order while claiming it was his error!)

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In Peppers

The menu was extensive, and while the steaks were perhaps a little pricey, the rest lived up to the ‘good value’ billing. Starters were a New Mexican take on tapas, and a selection of these would have made a great lunch. But we decided sharing just one would be enough, given the usual size of portions around here. So we opted for the ‘Green Chile Cheese Wontons with Pineapple-Jalapeno Salsa’ which were delicious, especially the unusual but very successful salsa. My only complaint was that there were five of them – either four or six would have made sharing easier! We also had a complimentary serving of chips and salsa, as we had had almost everywhere we had been, and the salsa was great too.

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Carne Asada Tacos

For my main course I chose the Carne Asada Tacos. The beef was excellent – very juicy and with a good amount of spicy heat. There were so many accompaniments that when I later wrote my VT review I had to cut and paste from the menu on the website:
‘Grilled, marinated and seasoned beef morsels with sweet onions, three soft corn tortillas, guacamole, pico de gallo, shredded lettuce, tomato and crumbles of Chihuahua style queso fresco cheese. Choice of black beans or refried.’

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Traditional margarita

Chris meanwhile opted for the simple Old-fashioned Burger, which he also enjoyed. He had a couple of beers – one with the meal and one for desert. I did likewise but with margaritas! My first choice was the house margarita, which was fine but nothing special. For my second I took our waiter’s advice and ordered a ‘Traditional’. He was right – it was well worth the extra $1 it cost, as it was stronger, made with freshly-squeezed lime juice, and was strained into a martini glass rather than being served on the rocks, meaning that it retained its full flavour right to the last drop!

Our total bill although not cheap, was, we felt, a very good price to pay for a delicious meal in a lovely historic setting and with attentive service. A great way to round off our trip!

Time to go home

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Chris plus muffin plus coffee

The Meson de Mesilla, despite calling itself a ‘bed and breakfast’ in some of its publicity, charged extra for breakfast in its restaurant. Besides, when travelling in the US I am always on the lookout for a good cup of coffee, especially at this time of day, and that isn’t always the case with restaurant breakfasts. I had spotted The Bean in our Moon New Mexico Handbook and was pleased to see that it was just down the road from the hotel.

It sounded like just our sort of place, and it proved to be exactly that – warm (it was a chilly morning), friendly and inviting, with excellent coffee and great baked goods. They roast and grind their own beans too, so there was a wonderful smell lingering about the place. And on a Saturday morning it was very busy with a steady stream of locals – some getting take-out but many obviously using it as their regular Saturday morning hang-out.

The building that houses the Bean is an old gas station. It wasn’t fancy but it was nicely decorated with modern art and had lots of character. There was a small dining area in front of the service counter, where we managed to get a good table, and a larger one to the side, which seemed to us to have a bit less cosy an atmosphere. There were also a few tables outside, but it was a very chilly October morning – Mesilla is quite high above sea level, so nights are pretty nippy here by this time in the year!

We enjoyed our good mugs of coffee and large muffins, and would have loved to have lingered over a second cup but sadly we had a plane to catch ...

So we drove the short distance south back over the border into Texas and to the airport in El Paso. We handed in the hire car that had served us so well, checked in and were soon on our way – firstly on a domestic flight to Charlotte NC and then across the Atlantic to London Heathrow.

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Our plane at El Paso Airport

It was at Heathrow that things got, briefly, ‘interesting’. We stood at the luggage carousel watching all the bags from our flight arrive and be taken by their owners. As time passed I began to get that feeling, familiar I’m sure to all regular flyers, that ours were not going to appear. This had happened many times before (and has happened many times since), and the cases had always turned up, but not today. Luggage stopped coming down the chute, we waited in case there were more bags to come and gradually realised that this time our luck had run out. I went to the desk to report the bags’ non-arrival, handed over the necessary ID slips, and a helpful lady looked them up on her computer, quickly identifying the problem. There had been two flights leaving El Paso around the same time, both connecting with a London flight – one via Charlotte, and another via LA. It seemed that while we had flown on the first of these our bags might have been on the second. I was a bit taken aback at this information, as I’ve always understood that planes won’t take off carrying luggage that isn’t clearly the possession of someone on board. The lady at the desk confirmed this and said it was quite likely that our bags had been taken off the flight before it took off from LA, but if we cared to wait that flight was due to land in less than an hour and we could at least see if the bags came with it before filing a missing baggage report.

Although tired from our overnight journey we decided to do this and sure enough an hour later there were our suitcases, tumbling out of the chute onto the carousel with all the other bags from LA. We weren’t sure whether to be relieved to see them or disconcerted to learn that sometimes planes do take off with unaccompanied luggage in their holds. But relief won the day and we headed off home on the Tube, bags in hand. It had been a fantastic trip and a few worries over delayed baggage weren’t going to change that!

Posted by ToonSarah 01:05 Archived in USA Tagged landscapes food architecture desert road_trip history church square shopping restaurants photography national_park new_mexico Comments (11)

Farewell to Cuenca

Ecuador day ten


View Ecuador & Galapagos 2012 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Museo de Las Conceptas

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On our last morning in Cuenca we had plenty of time before our drive to Guayaquil to do a bit more sightseeing, so we headed for a museum not far from our hotel which we hadn’t had time for the previous day, the Museo de Las Conceptas. This is located in the former infirmary of the convent of Las Conceptas, the oldest religious cloister in Cuenca, built only two years after the Spanish founded the city. The building was restored in 1980 and provides an attractive setting for this interesting collection. Even if you’re not especially interested in religious art a visit here gives you an opportunity to see inside one of Cuenca’s loveliest old buildings.

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Little statue

The collection is spread over a series of rooms opening off the cloisters, on two levels, and the rooms are numbered – visitors are asked to follow the numbers, and not to take photos of any of the art in the rooms, although pictures taken out in the open, of the cloister itself, are permitted. I bent the rules a little and took one photo of a small statue in a niche on an outside staircase.

A couple of the rooms contain one big piece (the pride of the collection appeared to be a beautiful altar in the small central chapel of the old infirmary) while others are themed, e.g. statues of the Holy Family, nativities, crucifixes or saints. I found this more interesting than a purely historical arrangement as you could see how the ways of representing a particular scene or individual changed over time (the collection covers the period from the 17th – 19th centuries).

As well as the religious art, there are rooms containing various items brought to the convent by the nuns as part of their dowries – some mere trinkets, brought by those from poor families, and some rather beautiful – ornaments, religious figures and china, for instance. A few rooms towards the end of the series have been used to recreate a typical nun’s cell and show what the kitchen would have looked like, and there are displays about life in the convent, with photos of nuns carrying out their daily chores. The embroidery of priests’ robes was a particular skill cultivated by the nuns here and there are some examples on display.

In addition to the exhibition rooms you can see the courtyard that was used by the nuns as an outdoor kitchen, with the old oven still in place, and the “indoor cemetery” with the walls lined with rows of (empty) cubby holes for burials. We spent much longer here than we had expected, as there was so much to see and the building itself so lovely!

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The Museo de Las Conceptas

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Eiskaffee

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When we left the museum, coffee called. I usually like to eat and drink mainly local treats when travelling, but I can’t resist a good cup of coffee, so the presence in Cuenca of a supposedly Viennese-style coffee-house was enough to tempt me to break that admittedly very flexible rule! When we got to the Café Austria I felt that it was in practice more like a French bistro in style than an Austrian coffee-house, but it was no less pleasant for that, and the coffee was as good as I’d hoped.

This is the sort of place you can sit over a drink or a snack for a while. The décor is pleasant, there are newspapers to read from around the world, and free wifi. I have read mixed reviews of the food (though people around us were tucking into late breakfasts very happily) but the coffee is widely praised and with good reason. I really enjoyed my Eiskaffee and Chris his cappuccino, and we thought the prices were reasonable. The service was perhaps a little slow, but this probably isn’t somewhere you would come if in a hurry.

Although we had spent a fair amount of time in and around the Parque Calderón over the previous few days, we hadn’t got around to visiting the city’s old cathedral, which stands on the east side of the square facing its replacement. So we settled on that as our final “sight” in Cuenca.

Iglesia del Sagrario

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This is the city’s original cathedral, built in 1557 using stones from the ruins of nearby Inca Tomebamba, and restored in both 19th and 20th centuries. It was the main focus for worship in the city for the Spanish during colonial times and became a cathedral in 1787.

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It is no longer consecrated as a place of worship however, having been superseded by the newer Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, built in 1880 when this one became too small to hold the city’s entire population, and is now a museum of religious art and a venue for occasional concerts.

Visiting here I got a strong sense of it being neither one thing nor another – neither church nor museum. It retains so much of its ecclesiastical structure and features that you are left in doubt as to its original purpose, but has an emptiness of soul that is no less obvious than its lack of pews for being invisible. But that is not to say that it is not worth seeing. It is an impressive building, and it is hard to imagine that it was ever considered too small, as its present day emptiness makes it seem vast. There are three naves with central altar, in front which are life-size statues of Jesus and apostles arranged as if at the Last Supper.

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To either side of the naves are chapels with some beautiful altarpieces, religious statuary, and in one some wonderful illuminated manuscripts. Labelling though is all in Spanish so I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at – but it was still mostly very lovely. The ceiling of the main structure is also noteworthy, ornamented with paintings of flowers and leaves as well as religious symbols and saints.

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In the Iglesia del Sagrario

We were charged just $1 to go in although signs said $2 for foreigners – we didn’t question the unexpected discount, naturally, but I wondered afterwards whether it was a special price for the Independence holiday (surely we can’t have been taken for locals?!). The ticket seller told us we could take photos if we didn’t use flash, so I did, despite the several signs inside indicating otherwise. Most people in fact were doing so, and many of them even using flash.

By now it was time for lunch and it made sense to have this near our hotel as we would need to be back there soon afterwards for our transfer to Guayaquil. So we headed back to the Coffee Tree café where we had enjoyed breakfast on our first morning. Given that it was the Saturday of the holiday weekend we were very lucky to again get an outside table and enjoy the buzz on the street and the live music playing nearby. I enjoyed a spinach and cheese crepe and a fresh passionfruit juice, and Chris had the “pitta Arabe” topped with chicken, olives, peppers and cheese. A tasty finale to our wonderful few days in Cuenca!

Journey to Guayaquil

We had originally planned to fly from Cuenca to Guayaquil and to connect there with our flight to the Galápagos. But when Tame altered their schedules we had to change our plans to include an overnight stay in the city, meaning an afternoon departure from Cuenca. We were sorry to have leave early a city we had quickly grown to love, but we would have been even more sorry to miss that flight to the Galápagos! And the bonus was the journey there by car rather than plane – how much better to be driven through the countryside than fly over it! And what wonderful countryside ...

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On the road to Guayquil

We started our journey a little late, as our driver got caught up in the festivities marking Cuenca’s anniversary weekend, and also had to park some distance from our hotel for the same reason – there was a fun run going on outside. We drove out of the city through a western suburb where we were told a lot of expat Americans have settled – so much so that locals call it “little America”! We were soon in El Cajas National Park, an incredibly scenic if rather bleak area, with a large number of lakes set in a rather stark landscape of paramo, and rocky outcrops. Cajas means boxes in Spanish, and one explanation that is given for the name of the park is that it refers to this distinctive landscape, sometimes called knob and kettle geomorphology, where the outcrops alternate with lakes. Another possible explanation for the name is linked to the Quichua word "cassa" meaning "gateway to the snowy mountains”. The highest point in the park is Cerro Arquitectos, at 4,450 metres, although the highest point on the road was just over 4,000 metres. We only stopped briefly for photos but if you have more time there are lots of hiking routes. It would make a wonderful day out from Cuenca.

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In Cajas National Park

A striking feature of the road from Cuenca to Guayaquil is the dramatic change in height along a relatively short stretch of road. Cuenca lies at around 2,500 metres above sea level, while Guayaquil, being on the coast, is naturally at sea level. This is a considerable drop in just a couple of hours, and it leads to some very varied landscapes and a mini-lesson in climatic zones. When we left the national park, we were on the western fringes of the Andes, and below us was cloud forest. At this height we could look down onto the clouds that filled all the valleys, almost as if they were flooded. We stopped again for photos, and to use the toilet at a little snack bar.

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Looking down at the cloud forest

Then we plunged down into the clouds! The road twisted and turned, and the landscape around us (or what we could see of it – we were now in a thick fog) became lush with plants and trees, their branches dripping in the damp air. Every now and then the cloud would break and we would see that we were still pretty high – and hope that our driver knew the road as well as he seemed to, since there was quite a drop on one side!

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Cloud forest scenery

After a while we emerged fully from the cloud, dropping down below it to reach the plains. The mountains we had left so recently were totally invisible as the thick blanket hid them from view. And again the landscape changed, now becoming intensely arable in nature. We drove between fields of bananas, sugar-cane and rice paddies. In the small villages stalls were piled high with fruits and dusk was falling (it was now about 6.00 pm). Local people were riding their bikes, stopping to chat to friends, buy a few provisions for the evening meal or have a beer at a roadside bar. The air was warm and had that unmistakable tropical dampness. It was such a different world to highland Cuenca, yet only three hours away!

By the time we reached the outskirts of Guayaquil it was dark. Although not the capital, this is the largest city in the country and it was a bit of a culture shock – neon lights shone above US-style shopping malls that lined the road as we approached, and the traffic was heavy. By the time we reached our hotel in the centre we had been driving for about 3.5 hours and plans to do a little sightseeing while searching for dinner were abandoned in favour of a quiet night in the hotel. The sights of Guayaquil would have to wait for another visit!

The Grand Hotel

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In the hotel grounds

When a night in Guayaquil became unavoidably added to our itinerary Surtrek reserved a room for us at the Grand Hotel. This is as the name suggests a large hotel, very well located near the city’s cathedral – so near in fact that the wall of the apse forms the outer wall of the hotel’s small pool area (which is also watched over by a colourful giant sculpture of an iguana).

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Our bedroom

The lobby here sets the tone for the hotel – large, bustling, and rather lacking in character. You could be anywhere in the world. But that’s not a criticism – Guayaquil is a very different city from, say, Quito or Cuenca, and it’s not surprising to find a more international style of hotel perhaps (though I’m sure there are places with character to be found as well). As we were only here one night it suited us just fine, and we had a comfortable night’s sleep in our large room, with its queen-size bed, lots of storage and some comfortable seats. There was a TV too, and the bathroom was also a generous size with a tub / shower combination, hairdryer and plenty of towels. Everything we needed for a quiet night before the big Galápagos adventure would begin the next day!

There are two places to eat in the hotel, the smart 1822 Restaurant and the more casual La Pepa de Oro coffee shop. We had decided to eat in the former but when we went to check it out it was deserted so we opted for the friendly buzz in the coffee shop. We had expected that this might have a limited dinner-time menu but in fact there was plenty to choose from.

Our waitress was, to be polite, not “in the first flush of youth” and seemed to find managing the orders a bit of a challenge but she was so eager to please and agreeable that we didn’t mind. Unfortunately though the food was a little disappointing, but served in very generous portions. We shared empanadas to start with but these were not as good as those we’d had elsewhere, lacking flavour and being a little greasy. My main course of fajitas suffered from the same problem, although Chris’s club sandwich was better. We were too full for dessert, so finished the evening in the hotel’s cosy bar instead, which had a very good selection of drinks at reasonable prices.

Tomorrow our Galápagos adventure would begin …

Posted by ToonSarah 05:41 Archived in Ecuador Tagged landscapes churches art road_trip museum cathedral national_park cuenca guayquil Comments (8)

A full and fabulous day!

Japan day five


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Making the most of the Hakone Free Pass

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At Owakudani Hot Springs

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Our bedroom

I slept well on my futon in the Fuji-Hakone Guesthouse – a little to my surprise as I had expected the floor to seem hard. Most of us were up early, eager to see what Hakone had to offer and with most of the group opting to join Andrew on a full day out in the region. The shared bathroom facilities meant a bit of polite juggling but we were all soon at breakfast which was served in the adjacent house just a few steps away. Although this is a traditional guest-house, the breakfast was Western in style, with fresh fruit (pineapple and banana), bread for toasting with a selection of jams, yoghurt, cereals, tea, coffee and orange juice.

The plan for the day was to make the most of our Hakone Free Pass and, guided by Andrew, take in some of the major sights using a variety of means of transport. The element that could not be planned was to see Mount Fuji. Fujiyama is a fickle lady and too often shrouded in cloud, but today the sun was shining and we hoped for the best!

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On the funicular
from Gora to Sounzan

We took the bus from Sengokuhara to the small town of Gora, where we changed to the funicular to Sounzan. Confusingly the Japanese call this a cable car, and what I would call a cable car they term a ‘ropeway’! But whatever you call it, this is a useful little service that links Gora, one of the main transport hubs in Hakone, with Sounzan where you can catch the ropeway / cable car proper to Owakudani and onwards to Lake Ashi.

The journey from Gora to Sounzan only took us about ten minutes, with brief stops at a number of stations – one serving a hotel while others seemed to be used by a few locals and walkers.

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Funicular from Gora to Sounzan

In Sounzan we changed to the rope way. This is a cable car system that links Gora to some of the main sights of the region, including Owakudani Hot Springs and Togendai on Lake Ashi. I love travelling in cable cars but a few of our group were less enthusiastic, especially one who had a fear of heights. We were able to reassure her, and all piled into a car for the eight minute ride up the mountain.

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On the way up to Owakudani

There were some lovely views as we went (though there would be better ones still on the way down, as you will see) and we were soon alighting at Owakudani. Here we found ourselves in a rather incongruous modern building with shops and cafės, but a quick look outside the picture window showed us a very different scene.

Owakudani

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Owakudani Hot Springs

Beyond the modern cable car station we were in a landscape that seemed to be from another world. The earth is steaming; this is truly the ‘Great Boiling Valley’ that the name, Owakudani, declares it to be. It also lives up to a previous name, O-jigoku, meaning Great Hell.

We started to climb the path towards the hot springs, but before reaching them we were stopped in our tracks by another sight. There is no more recognised symbol of Japan than Mount Fuji, and every visitor to the country hopes to see this iconic volcano, so perfectly conical in shape, just as a child would draw one. But the weather in this region (indeed in most of Japan) is not especially reliable, and on many days Fuji is shrouded in cloud. For several days before our visit here the talk in our group often turned to this topic - would we see Fuji? And now, suddenly, there she was – completely clear and also, unusually, devoid of snow. Andrew was very surprised by this latter sight as he had never before seen Fuji snow-free.

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First view of Mount Fuji

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Mount Fuji from the path to the hot springs

Andrew promised us an even better view later in the day, when we would, he said, be able to photograph the volcano with Lake Ashi and one of its red torii gates in the foreground. But as I have said, Fuji is elusive and does not reveal herself willingly. By the time we were to reach this spot, however, the clouds would have descended and Fujiyama be hidden from view. But no matter – we had seen what all visitors dream of seeing, a dream that only some are able to realise.

I am getting ahead of myself. For now, after taking loads of photos of the mountain, we continued up the path. As we climbed the steam rose and swirled around us, and there was a strong smell of sulphur in the air.

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Owakudani Hot Springs

The trail leads up and loops around several of the pools, but there are many more on the hillside above. This eerie landscape was created when Mount Kamiyama erupted around 3,000 years ago. Standing here you are in fact in its crater – no wonder the ground hisses and boils beneath your feet. As a visitor to Japan you will have been aware that it is a seismologically active country, with earthquakes a fact of life; here you can really appreciate what that means.

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Kuro-tamago: black eggs

At the point where the path divides to make a loop around the geysers there is a small hut and in one of the hot pools nearby a man was boiling eggs. Eating one of these eggs is said to add seven years to your life! They look black but are just ordinary chicken eggs – the shell turns black due to being boiled in the hot sulphur spring. You can buy them in bags of five but it isn’t advised to eat more than two, however desperate you are for those extra years! However one guy in our group ate three and didn’t seem to suffer any ill effects, although whether he was successful in adding 21 years to his life remains to be seen!

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The egg man

Once you can get over the blackness of the shell I found these really don’t taste much different to regularly boiled eggs. The bags have sachets of salt in them if you want to add it, but the eggs seemed to me to be already a little salty from the chemicals in the water. If you really don’t fancy the eggs, or want something sweet to take the taste away afterwards, the hut also sells chocolate-covered almonds – presumably because their pale interior and dark coating mimic the eggs.

After walking the loop path round the springs it was time to head back to the cable car station and continue on our journey. Rather than return to Sonzan we continued in the same direction along the rope way, with our car ascending further before dropping down to Lake Ashi. Andrew warned us to have our cameras ready as the descent started and we soon saw why, as again we saw Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. Drifting almost silently above the mountains with that distant view of Fuji is something I’ll remember for a long while.

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Descending from Owakudani on the cable car

Cruise on a pirate ship!

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Pirate ship on Lake Ashi

The cable car took us to Togendai on the lake shore, and here we changed to yet another form of transport, the most unusual of them all. When I heard we were to travel on a pirate ship I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I don’t think it was this! The ships are really just regular lake boats ‘in disguise’, with masts added, and with sails and even ropes moulded from plastic. The pirates are equally artificial, being just models (I think I had expected that the crew would be dressed up!) Apparently the ships are modelled on medieval sailing vessels, but once on board they are fairly indistinguishable from any modern boat.

Nevertheless this was a fun ride and the scenery around Lake Ashi is wonderful. We got one more view of Mount Fuji from here, while around the shore are wooded mountains and some brightly coloured torii. On our busy day this was a relaxing and scenic way to travel.

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Pirate ship and torii on Lake Ashi

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Pirate ship with Mount Fuji behind

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Lakeside hotel and pirate ship

This beautiful lake, also known as Ashinoko, lies about 720 metres above sea level and has an area of seven square kilometres, making it the largest lake in this area. It is a crater lake lying along the southwest wall of the caldera of Mount Hakone and was formed after the volcano's last eruption 3,000 years ago.

This is the place to come for views of Japan’s most famous mountain, although by the time we were crossing the lake on our ‘pirate ship’ the clouds were just starting to creep in, and were soon to cover her completely and hide her from view.

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Lake Ashi

The name 'Ashinoko' means lake of reeds (ashi is reed and ko means lake). According to legend Lake Ashi is home to a nine-headed dragon, and to appease this it is presented with an offering of traditional red rice at the Hakone Shrine Lake Ashi Festival on July 31st each year. But no dragon made an appearance to disrupt our journey, which was pleasant but uneventful.

Hakone-Machi

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Soba noodles, Meihika

We got off the boat in Hakone-Machi, a small town on the shore with several hotels and restaurants catering to visitors. Andrew recommended one of the restaurants, Meihika, so most of us went there together for lunch. There was a good selection of dishes and the menu was thankfully in English and with illustrations. Many of the dishes were noodle ones and I chose one of these – soba noodles in a soup with seaweed. Chris had the curry rice, a popular Japanese take on that Indian staple with a simple curry sauce over the rice. Both were tasty, though my soup was so generous a portion that I didn't finish it. Another dish that proved popular with our group included the raw tuna with rice. The service was friendly and when we paid at the till on leaving we were all given a small gift of an origami fish to thank us for our custom.

Hakone secret boxes

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Craftsman making secret boxes

After lunch Andrew suggested that we visit a shop where a craftsman would demonstrate how Hakone’s famous secret boxes are made. As we approached the shop and entered I was anticipating the all too common ‘quick demo then hard sell to the gullible tourists’ that we have experienced in some other places, but this was much more than that – we saw a real craftsman at work.

The traditional craft of the Himitsu-Bako, or Secret Box, is over 100 years old. The boxes are made in various complexities, and require a precise series of small moves to open them. The difficulty of opening a box goes up as the number of sliding panels involved increases. They must be manipulated in the correct sequence, and there can be as few as two moves needed, or (so I have read) as many as 1,500! But most usual are boxes ranging from five to around 60 moves. The number of moves is one factor in determining the price; the size and (most important) quality of craftsmanship are the others.

However, the craftsman we met is not a maker of secret boxes, yet his work is just as skilful, just as traditional and an important element in the intrigue of a secret box. Many of these are covered in intricate inlaid patterns that mask the secret panels that are the key to eventually opening the box. The technique used to make these patterns is known as Yosegi Zaiku and it originated in the late Edo Period. The Hakone Mountains are noted for their great variety of trees and the local craftsmen make the most of the various natural colours of woods to create these intricate designs. The one we met also made beautiful marquetry pictures known as Japanese inlay work or Zougan, but it was the Yosegi Zaiku techniques that he demonstrated to us. The patterns are created by assembling together thin sticks of wood in different colours and then shaving very thin layers off the assembly across the grain to reveal the design. By using the wide variety of tree species and colours available here, he can create complex and surprisingly vivid designs. The thin layers can be applied not only to the secret boxes but to many other items, from coasters to furniture.

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The sheets of shaved wood patterns

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Tools of the secret box trade

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Our little secret box

As we watched the demonstration the man shaved off and passed round a number of strips, enough for us each to have one as a souvenir. He also showed us how the secret boxes worked. There was absolutely no pressure to buy, but of course we were all intrigued by the boxes and we all browsed around the shop, with several of us succumbing to temptation, including us – we bought a small seven move box for which we paid about 1,500¥ (just over £9 or $14). It still sits on a shelf in our front room but unfortunately I have lost the slip of paper illustrating the moves, or possibly (and stupidly) left it inside the box when I last opened it. Either way, for now the box is sealed to me as I can’t get past the second move!

Hakone Checkpoint

Leaving the secret box shop we walked along the street to this reconstruction of a checkpoint on the Tokaido Way, the old highway which linked Tokyo with Kyoto during the feudal Edo Period. This was the most important of the highways, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. At intervals there were checkpoints like this one, known as sekisho, where travellers had to show the permits that were necessary to allow them to travel the route.

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Entrance to Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The sekisho had two main purposes: to control ‘incoming guns and outgoing women’, i.e. to prevent weapons from being brought into Edo and to prevent the wives and children of feudal lords from fleeing from Edo. At Hakone the second purpose is thought to have been by far the more significant. I found this dramatic story on a website which brings to life the harsh reality of the purpose of the checkpoints:

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In the officers' quarters

In February of 1702, a young girl was captured by authorities in the mountain area behind the Hakone Check Point (barrier station). She didn’t have legal permission to pass through the gate and so she tried to secretly cut across the mountain. After being detained in prison for about two months she was executed, and her head put on display in public. The poor girl’s name was Otama. She had wanted to go back to her parents’ home in Izu, leaving her place of employment in Edo without permission. If she had finished her apprenticeship, she could have gotten a legal pass. But she hated working there and ran away. She was accused of breaking through the barrier – a very serious felony at that time.

The checkpoints were removed soon after the Meiji Restoration, which saw the end of the feudal period. But in recent years this one has been restored exactly as it would have been, thanks to the discovery of some old records which showed every detail of the buildings here. This has the somewhat disconcerting effect of the various structures looking incongruously new. But a visit is worthwhile as the work has been very carefully done and the role of the checkpoint cleverly brought to life. We visited the reconstructed officers’ quarters and the much less spacious ones allocated to the lower ranks. Shadowy grey figures have been used effectively to show the activity that would have taken place in each part of the buildings – sleeping, cooking, checking permits and even inspecting the long hair of female travellers for hidden weapons. Apparently researchers were not able to discover enough details about the colour or design of their clothing, so the models were created like this, but I also found it rather evocative – almost as of the ghosts of the past officials still linger here.

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Checking papers

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Officers

In the open area between the two sets of quarters the tools used to catch criminals (those trying to evade the checkpoint by passing around it) are displayed, and they look pretty effective. I didn’t take a photo but you can see one on the website – nasty!

After visiting these quarters we climbed a hill to the lookout tower. It was a bit of an effort on rather large steps, but we were rewarded with a good view of Lake Ashi (but not Mount Fuji). From here the soldiers would keep watch over the lake as it was prohibited to cross it my ship and thus evade the checkpoints. We also went in the small museum which has displays about the checkpoint and about the Tokaido, but unfortunately no English signage whatsoever, so many of these were lost on me. I did however find the video of the restoration work quite interesting.

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View from the lookout point - Hakone Tokaido Checkpoint

The Tokaido Way

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Path through the cedars on the Tokaido Way

Just north of the checkpoint we were able to walk along a short stretch of the Tokaido Way. This was the most important of the Five Routes or highways during the Edo period, and connected Edo (modern-day Tokyo) to Kyoto. Tokaido means East Sea Road – this was a coastal route along the sea coast of eastern Honshū (there was also a less well-travelled inland route).

The name lives on today in the Shinkansen (bullet train) line linking Tokyo with Kyoto and Osaka, and the highway itself can still be found in a few places. Here in Hakone-Machi the path runs for about 500 metres, to Moto-Hakone, the next settlement on the lake. The path (which was an easy walk but a little muddy in places) lies between rows of ancient cedar trees, some as much as 400 years old. They were planted by the Edo government to provide travellers with shelter from winter snow and summer heat, and approximately 420 of them remain to this day. The trees reach up to 30 metres high, and some have a girth of over four metres. Walking here you are following the route taken centuries before by travellers to Edo. Most would have been on foot, as we were, though some higher-class people would have been able to afford to travel in a kago, a form of litter or sedan chair carried by a team of men.

At one point on the path you can apparently get the classic view of Mount Fuji, with the red of the Hakone shrine in the foreground, Lake Ashi beyond, and the mountain rising majestically above them both. I say ‘apparently’ because, having been blessed with great good fortune earlier and some fantastic views of Fujiyama, by now our luck had turned and she was hidden in the clouds. But we had nothing to complain of, and did not. We knew that many come here to Hakone and never see her at all, so we were all simply grateful that we had been honoured.

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Torii seen from the path

At the end of this stretch of path we walked down to the boat landing in Moto-Hakone. There we caught another pirate boat back to Togendai where we caught a bus to Sengokuhara and to our guest-house there.

Koto music and kimonos

When we got back to the guest-house our hostess there announced that she had been able to arrange a treat for us. She had invited a local woman, a retired teacher who has been playing the koto for a number of years, to give us a demonstration. This is a traditional stringed instrument, played horizontally on the floor. The 13 strings sit on moveable bridges which can be adjusted to change the pitch.

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The musician

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Koto detail

The musician had set up a small area in the lounge with a screen as backdrop and fabrics to create a sort of stage. She started by explaining something about the instrument and the different styles of playing, both traditional and more modern – she herself plays in a traditional style. She then told us the story of the song she would perform – a cheery piece about a general who kills a young boy fighting on the opposing side despite realising how much he reminds him of his own son, and afterwards feels such remorse that he renounces warfare and becomes a monk. Then she played and sang.

I think you maybe need to have grown up listening to traditional Japanese music, or to have had your ear trained over many years, as to most of us it seemed very strange, even discordant. If you want to hear what I mean, check out my short video. It certainly didn't have the haunting quality of the koto music we had heard a few days previously at the Edo-Tokyo Museum -maybe that was the more modern style, although that seems unlikely in a museum devoted to history.

But the performance was certainly interesting, and the musician couldn't have been more charming. As well as singing and playing for us she had brought gifts for each of us of origami figures, little dolls which she asked that we take with us on our journey and remember her as we travelled. I have carried mine ever since in my travel wallet!

She also brought some kimonos and with the help of the guest house owner and one of the staff offered to dress a few of us up in them so we could find out for ourselves what it was like to wear one. I volunteered and loved the experience of wearing such a beautiful garment, though it was a revelation to see how much binding, padding and clipping goes into the dressing process.

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Group photo, with some of us dressed up

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Zen garden, Hoshino An

After the performance it was time for dinner. There were no restaurants within an easy walk of the guest-house so as on the previous evening we all agreed to Andrew’s suggestion that we go with him to one of his favourites, this time Hoshino An, some way out of Sengokuhara. Because of this isolation the restaurant arranges pick-ups from local hotels if pre-booked, so we piled into the cars that had come to collect us and set off.

The setting of the restaurant was lovely, with a pretty Zen garden. We ate in the first floor area, where the seating was that perfect compromise between traditional and modern – low tables but with a well for your feet so no need to sit cross-legged.

There was an English menu, with photos. Most of the dishes came as part of a set meal with soup, pickles and an oddly salty egg custard dessert. The soup was a DIY affair; we were all brought a bowl with a few small mushrooms and spring onions, and a larger one over a flame with steaming miso soup. We waited till this was hot enough, then ladled it into the bowl of vegetables and tucked in!

The main course dish I chose was of salmon with steamed rice, while Chris had a similar one but with chicken. Also in the dish were a few vegetables - carrot, peas, radish, and a large tasty mushroom. I rather enjoyed my salmon dish though some of our group who aren't keen on fish were a little disconcerted to find that even the non-fish dishes tasted fishy (we think because the rice here may be cooked in fish stock). And as mentioned, the dessert was weird!

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DIY soup and chopsticks, Hoshino An

Still, all in all this was a good experience. The service was friendly, the beer cold and the meal tasty enough and reasonable value. Afterwards it was all back to the guest-house and over the road to stock up on evening treats (plum wine in my case!) at Lawson’s before relaxing in the cosy lounge and later in the outdoor onsen, as on the previous evening.

It had been a long but fabulous day!

Posted by ToonSarah 07:10 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains lakes boats restaurant japan history hot_springs cable_car funicular crafts hakone Comments (4)

In the Japanese Alps

Japan day twelve


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Kamikochi

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Japanese tourists in Kamikochi

Kamikochi is a high plateau, surrounded by mountains, through which the Azusa River flows. It is part of the Chubu-Sangaku National Park and, because of the climate, only open to visitors from around mid April to mid November each year. When we visited in mid October the foliage was beautifully tinted with reds, golds and greens and the park, always popular with Japanese visitors, was busy even in the rain. And in the rain is how, for the most part, we saw it!

We had been enjoying great weather on our trip through Japan, but in Kamikochi our luck finally ran out. Rain is not at all unusual here, but we got more than just rain – we got one of Japan's autumnal typhoons!

Travelling to Kamikochi

But I am running ahead of myself – first, we had to get here from Takayama where we had spent the previous two days. We had arrived there by train but when we left a few days later it was by bus. The bus station is just next to and north of the train station and has a small waiting area with the ubiquitous vending machines – very useful for stocking up on provisions for the journey or an extra morning coffee. There’s plenty of seating and you can take advantage of free wifi if you’re going to be here any length of time.

Our bus arrived exactly on schedule to take us from Takayama to Hirayu, the first leg of our two bus journey. These are just local buses, not designed for tourists on lengthy visits to Japan, so we had used the excellent Japan Rail luggage forwarding service to send most of our luggage to Tokyo, where we were heading after Kamikochi, and took only small overnight bags on this trip. The buses were quite full, and we were very glad we didn’t have more bags to accommodate.

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Seen from the bus

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Kamikochi traffic jam

The journey to Hirayu took about an hour. There we changed buses, with a wait of about 15 minutes, for one bound for Kamikochi. No private vehicles are allowed beyond the entrance to the long Kappa tunnel that leads to Kamikochi; the only access is by bus or taxi and when you get on the road you see why. It is very narrow and winding and even with those restrictions in place seems to struggle to cope with the traffic. We were stuck for a while behind a bus that was manoeuvring inexpertly to allow another coming in the opposite direction to pass.

The views throughout our journey from Takayama were great, but on this last stretch spectacular – despite (or arguably because of) the very low cloud and rain. I was glad I had secured a window seat and could capture these first impressions of the Japanese Alps with my camera.

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Nearing Kamikochi

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Rainy Kamikochi from the bus

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Soba in hot soup

The bus deposited us at the terminal near the centre of the park, Kappa-bashi. Although it was a bit early for lunch Andrew suggested that we ate in the restaurant there (above the gift shop) as we wouldn’t be able to get anything at the hotel at this time. The wet weather had, it seemed, prompted everyone to have a similar idea, as although the restaurant here is large we had to wait a while for a table and our group broke into twos and fours to secure spaces.

Once seated we enjoyed our warming meal. visit I had soba noodles in a hot soup, which was described as being with ‘edible' (thankfully!) plants, and Chris the katsu (pork cutlet).

Kappa-bashi Bridge

After lunch we regrouped and headed for our hotel. This was right by the river on the far side of, and just a few metres from, the Kappa-bashi Bridge. This wooden suspension bridge is 36.6 metres long and just over three metres wide. It is something of a symbol for Kamikochi and is also the busiest point in the park as almost everyone crosses it at some point in their visit. By the way, bashi means bridge, but most English translations add the tautological 'bridge' to the name.

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Kappa-bashi in the rain

The bridge is named for a mythical creature, the Kappa, a name meaning ‘river child’. The Kappa is a trickster, as found in many mythologies, but a pretty malevolent one. They are said to lure people into the water to drown, to kidnap children and even to drink the blood of their victims in order to capture their soul. Even today you may see a sign warning of the presence of a Kappa by some bodies of water in more remote Japanese towns and villages. According to Wikipedia:

‘Kappa have been used to warn children of the dangers lurking in rivers and lakes, as kappa have been often said to try to lure people to water and pull them in.

‘Kappa legends are said to be based on the Japanese giant salamander or hanzaki, an aggressive salamander that grabs its prey with its powerful jaws. Other theories suggest they are based on historical sightings of the now extinct Japanese river otter as seen from a distance, otters have been known to stand upright and a drunk, frightened or hallucinating person may think they are seeing a humanoid entity and not a wild animal.

‘The kappa is typically depicted as roughly humanoid in form and about the size of a child. Its scaly reptilian skin ranges in colour from green to yellow or blue.'

The bridge is surrounded by a number of mountains including Nishihotakadake, Okuhotakadake and Myojindake, which are all over 3,000 metres above sea level. But on this first afternoon in the park mountain views were in short supply, so we simply crossed the bridge and made the short walk to the hotel, Nishi-itoya Sanso, a good-sized guesthouse with traditional Japanese accommodation.

Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Exterior of Nishi-itoya Sanso - our room is bottom right

Our ground floor room here was probably the largest we had during our trip to Japan. We had a wash basin, but other facilities were communal - toilets in the corridor nearby, and a public onsen (separate men's and women's) on the second floor.

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Our room at Nishi-itoya Sanso

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Yukuta set

Sleeping is traditional style, on futons, which the staff laid out for us each evening while we were at dinner. But a welcome Western touch was the provision of a small table and chairs in the window alcove, from where we had a good view of the surrounding trees and a footpath traversed not only by human visitors to the park but also occasionally by the resident macaques!

Once we’d settled in we went for a walk in the immediate area, and despite the rain enjoyed taking photos of the trees, with the autumn leaves just turning, and the low clouds drifting through the wooded hillsides.

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Kamikochi in the rain

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Autumn colours

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Rainy day details

But having been warned not to be out after mid afternoon because of the approaching typhoon, we quite soon returned to our room to enjoy the views of the rather damp trees and equally damp passing macaques.

The macaques of Kamikochi

One of the delights of a visit to Kamikochi is the opportunity to observe the resident macaques, who are not too timid to venture into the ‘populated’ area around the hotels. From our limited two days’ experience, it seemed they would put in an experience mid to late afternoon, with a troop making its way along the path in front of our hotel and others taking a short cut across the staff car park behind. It was so much fun to observe their antics, especially those with little babies in tow or (very cute) riding on their backs.

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Bedraggled macaque with baby

The Japanese macaque is the most northerly-living primate (apart from humans, obviously!) and is sometimes called the ‘snow monkey’ because it is happy to live even where snow regularly covers the ground in winter. But you’re unlikely to get the opportunity to see it in the snow in Kamikochi because the park is closed during the winter months. However, we found that soggy-furred monkeys are almost as cute as snow-covered ones!

The macaques have a distinctive red face which makes them look permanently a little cross. They have thick brown or greyish fur which grows thicker in cold weather. They live in large groups or troops with males, females and infants all living, feeding and travelling together. The babies spend their first four weeks hanging from their mother’s belly before being transferred to her back where they spend most of their first year.

The macaques move quite quickly (or at least, they do when it rains) so you need to have your camera at the ready. I have a lot of very blurred photos to show for my efforts, and more than a few of bushes where, a fraction of a second before I pressed the shutter, a monkey was passing! The photo above was my only successful effort on this first afternoon, although I was to do better the following day.

After a relaxing couple of hours watching their antics, reading and catching up on my journal notes, it was time for dinner, which Andrew had promised us would be quite an experience – and it was!

A Japanese feast

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Table set for dinner

Stays at Nishi-itoya are on a half board basis and the dinners served are amazing, classic Japanese feasts, with multiple courses (albeit all served at once in the Japanese way). The table as we walked in to our group's private dining room on the first evening had us all gasping, and even so this was only part of our meal, as various hot items were added soon after we took our seats.

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An individual place-setting

Even with a printed menu sheet in English, some of the items remained hard to identify, and some of us found some of them a little hard to stomach, but really there was nothing here to deter anyone other than the ultra-squeamish (no odd parts of animals or insects, for instance!) and most of us sampled most things, though the non-fish eaters struggled a little at times. But everyone, whether they cleared their plates or simply grazed, found this an experience to remember.

The menu on that first night was (taken verbatim from the printed sheet provided):

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Walnut tofu

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Assorted samplers

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Grilled char

Appetiser: walnut tofu

Assorted samplers
~ burdock rolled with sea bream
~ boiled prawn
~ chestnut
~ cheese with citron

Sashimi: local salmon and char

Grilled char with salt

Sweet bun of lily root

Roast beef and salad

Fried salmon with eggplant
Fried potato with shrimp

Clear soup with mushroom paste

Rice with vegetable pickles

Fruit [grapes]

Wow! Of course, some dishes appealed to each of us more than others. My own favourites were the walnut tofu (I normally don't much care for tofu but this was a revelation), the sashimi and the fried potato with shrimp - a sort of Japanese fishcake. I also rather liked the lily root bun, which had the texture of mashed potato and a fairly mild flavour. The char was good too, though I found it a challenge to eat with chopsticks! Chris is not a big fan of fish so I traded some of my beef (which was his favourite) for his sashimi, and I noticed that around the table others were engaged in similar negotiations – one of the advantages of eating with a group ;)

After dinner we sat in the coffee shop for a while with Andrew and another couple from the group, Sue and Jim from Australia, with whom we were becoming friendly. We could buy sake here, tea and coffee, water and beer, although as the coffee shop closes at 21.00 we didn’t stay up late but headed back to our room to snuggle down in our futons and hope for better weather tomorrow.

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Andrew, Jim and Sue in the coffee shop

Posted by ToonSarah 10:05 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains trees monkeys food rain japan weather national_park kamikochi Comments (7)

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