If you haven’t already done so, I suggest starting with part one of this blog post series, about our times in the jungles outside of Palenque, where we saw some of the ruins of the ancient Mayan city in the same state in which they were originally found… It’s ok, you can go and read it now, I’ll wait right here for you.
Are you back? Perfect! Then I shall continue with us crossing a small stream out of the jungle, bidding ‘arrivederci’ to our Italian speaking guide, and entering into the main archeological site of Palenque, the part where many of the buildings have been more or less uncovered.
In my first blog post about our trip to Mexico I talked about Teotihuacan, and it is interesting to contrast these two amazing cities for a moment. While we felt the heat of the sun in both, the site of Palenque, surrounded by jungle, about 500 feet above sea level, felt a world away from the desert ruins at over 7,000 feet which we had seen at Teotihuacan.
While the view from the top of the ‘Pyramid of the Moon’ at Teotihuacan opened out, seeing all of the remaining ruins and stretching out across roads and modern buildings, when you look out from the top of the ‘Temple of the Cross’ in Palenque it is a more restricted and isolated view. You can see a number of buildings and some open space, but on all sides this disappears into jungle, and you can’t see roads or modern buildings.
There are a number of features which make Palenque unique, however, and the two which I found perhaps most interesting were the tombs of two men, whose deaths were separated by nearly thirteen centuries!
The first, inside the grand ‘Pyramid of Inscriptions’ belongs to Kʼinich Janaab Pakal, a ruler of Palenque who had died in 683. His tomb was not actually discovered until well into the excavations at the site, when an archaeologist named Alberto Ruz Lhuillier noticed that a stone inside the pyramid actually had holes in it, which were plugged with other stones.
Ruz Lhuillier realised that these holes would have been used to lower the large stone into place – suggesting that it was some form of doorway. Moving the stone uncovered the entrance to a stairway, covered in rubble.
The rubble took four years to clear out, until in 1952 Alberto Ruz Lhuillier finally found out just how special his find was as he entered the tomb of Pakal, still intact with statues and, wearing a mask made of jade, the skeleton of Pakal himself.
Facing the entrance to the pyramid of inscriptions is a far smaller tomb, but one which is incredibly poignant. For here is the last resting place of Alberto Ruz Lhuillier himself, after the Mexican Government gave special permission for him to be laid to rest among the ruins he had worked so hard to reveal to the world. To see that the archaeological study of the site has now become part of the history and structure of the site itself is a real connection between the days of Pakal and the modern era!
For anyone who hasn’t heard of the Fairy Chimneys, a brief explanation might be necessary. Millions of years ago there was a long series of volcanic eruptions. The volcanic ash which fell as a result hardened into multiple layers of rock, geologically known as tuff. Over a long period of time, wind, water and ice whittled away at the tuff, but in areas where a harder rock layer rested atop the softer layer of tuff, the erosion couldn’t reach the tuff beneath – and so the fairy chimneys or ‘castles’ as the locals refer to them were created.
There are numerous valleys in the area, each with distinctive rock formations of different shapes, sizes and colours. We wanted to see all of these valleys, and so my aim was to view them and their famous Fairy Chimneys from above, from a hot air balloon.
Cappadocia is also world famous for flying hot air balloons. The amazing, otherworldly landscape combined with good weather conditions makes it the perfect place for people to fly in a balloon and also makes the hot air balloon the best way to see the landscape.
Our arrival in Cappadocia was actually after dark after a full day of aeroplanes and we had arranged the hot air balloon ride for our first morning in Turkey, just in case our flight was cancelled- we wanted time to try again on another morning if necessary, meaning that before our flight we hadn’t seen anything of the landscape yet.
We had booked our flight in advance, with Butterfly Balloons, and their van collected us from our hotel at 5:50am. We enjoyed a small buffet breakfast at their office to start and then still in darkness we were driven to the balloon inflation site.
A row of about five massive balloons, each in varying stages of inflation, their blasts of fire providing the only illumination. I must admit, the sight was both impressive and a little intimidating. While I’m not really afraid of heights, I have a healthy fear of landing unexpectedly from a great height. In other words, going splat!
I wasn’t sure what to expect from a ride in a hot air balloon aside from the gorgeous view. It didn’t exactly help matters when, upon climbing up and into the balloon’s basket, the first thing they do is demonstrate the ‘brace position’ we all had to master before taking off, just in case we landed badly!
I didn’t really expect a rough ride and yet I was still surprised by how smoothly we just drifted up into the air, the earth dropping effortlessly away beneath us. Flying in a hot air balloon isn’t so much flying as it is floating. That’s certainly how it felt to me at least.
The wind didn’t even so much as ruffle my hair. I imagine that if I could have felt the wind, that would class as too strong for the balloons to fly. This is why all balloons fly so early in the morning, calmer weather before the sun rises and starts to heat things up.
The small towns below, such as Göreme, fit into the natural shape of the land. Little pockets of light nestled into the valleys in an otherwise dark landscape.
As the sunrise approached and the sky started to turn a more agreeable blue, the view opened up around us!
It was so surreal and peaceful up there, gazing at the incredible valleys below, it was actually a bit of a shock each time our pilot ignited the flames and with a noisy gust of fire our balloon rose higher.
As well as admiring the fairy chimneys and the beauty of the land below, the spectacle of all the other balloons, about 130 of them, rising into the skies all around us was fantastic, with our flight lasting an hour and twenty minutes and reaching a maximum height of 6,800 feet.
At one point, a lady in the basket next to ours asked where our landing area was. Our pilot waved his arm vaguely encompassing all the land below and said ‘’there.’’ He went on to explain ‘’I control how high we go but the wind controls where we land’’.
An incredible way to travel, but the harder job belonged to the driver below who had to chase us with his car and trailer bed. They are well practised in this, however, and as our balloon gently descended, the driver arranged his trailer perfectly, our basket gracefully landed upon it with barely a discernible bump.
Our flight had finished but the fun wasn’t quite over yet- the Butterfly Balloons team pulled our balloon down to the ground with ropes while the passengers clambered out of the baskets. We then all proceeded to shuffle along our partially deflated balloon, releasing the warm air from within and drawing it completely down to the ground. It felt almost ceremonious. Especially when the champagne corks popped and we were all sprinkled with bubbly, before enjoying a glass and a slice of cake before being driven back to our hotel – just in time for breakfast!
What an incredible way to start the first day of our newest adventure!
I can distinctly remember being in my childhood home and sitting down to watch a film with my father and older brother one evening – we’re going back nearly thirty years here. We’d watched all of the James Bond films to date (an era pre-Brosnan, let alone Daniel Craig), and I had enjoyed them, but they were never to be one of my favourites when it came to films.
That night we were going to watch a film called ‘Raiders of The Lost Ark’, which was apparently the first film featuring a character named ‘Indiana Jones’. I didn’t know it at the time, but sitting down to watch that film was going to be a life changing experience, and one which gave me a dream in life, one that would take nearly three decades, and Felicity, to fulfil!
As soon as the opening shot appeared of a mysterious figure in a fedora in a South American jungle, I was hooked on the idea of adventure. As his story unfolded over three films (the fourth would not come out until much, much later in my life of course) I watched a world of history, adventure and travel unfold before me. The only other film that reaches these heights in this way for me (and is, arguably, a better film), is ‘The Mummy’ with Brendan Fraser – which I won’t go too deeply in to at this point or Felicity will bring up the fact that I will watch anything with Rachel Weisz in it. That film, released when I was fourteen felt like part of the storytelling journey that had begun for me with ‘Raiders’, an adventure story which continued to inspire me.
It was these films that started me on my interest in history, and sparked the beginning of my history shows. They were also part of the reason why I leapt at the chance in 2007 to head over to Italy, where I would spend most of seven years travelling around the country performing. The first time I went to Venice in 2008, travelling overnight on a train from Turin to get there, it was Indiana Jones visiting the city in ‘The Last Crusade’ which had inspired my journey.
That, however, is the past and a world of fiction. This blog is about our adventures in the real world!
When we sat down to plan our honeymoon, we decided on Mexico because it was a country where Felicity could visit the whales of Magdalena Bay, and I could visit some jungle ruins. My imagination conjured up that opening scene of ‘Raiders Of The Lost Ark’ from a faraway childhood memory, and that was what I was hoping for (hence Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty as the title of our video!).
You may have already read about our first ruin in Teotihuacan in an earlier post, and at some point I will get around to writing about El Tajin and Uxmal. All of these were incredible sites in their own ways, and it felt through those three as though we were edging ever closer to my ‘real jungle ruin’, but each one of them just missed it.
Then we arrived at the Mayan city of Palenque.
As we pulled up in the car-park, intending to head straight into the main site to see the ruins as they have been uncovered, we met the gentleman in the photo above, Marco. He introduced himself as a guide, and offered us a guided tour into the jungles outside of the main site. He was friendly and not pushy, and after he had explained what he could offer, he left us alone to discuss it.
It was only a short discussion – we were very keen to experience something a bit different, and the price was very fair – and so we set off with him out into the jungles. A few minutes in we discovered what could have been a minor problem – in the form of a slight language barrier. Luckily we discovered the problem and the solution at the same moment.
As we first made our way into the jungle we were introducing ourselves, and in some way a mention of Italy or Italian made me mention that I speak the language. At this point in time Marco seemed to relax and, switching to Italian, explained that he was fluent in Italian while his English was basic. In Italian we could relax, chat and ask questions, and suddenly I became Felicity’s translator for the tour. It was strange to be in Mexico speaking a foreign language, but one that was so familiar to me, having been struggling thus far with what wouldn’t even pass for ‘schoolboy Spanish’.
There is a lot of mystery about the Ancient Mayan people, and one mystery involves why there was a mass departure from their large cities. In Palenque, however, their reasons for leaving were probably as simple, and recognisable to us, as climate change.
This jungle, Marco informed us, had been cut back as the people expanded their city from its origins around 266BCE. This led to climate change, and the area became a desert, without enough rainfall to grow crops and feed the ever increasing population, until the city was finally abandoned some time during the 9th Century CE. After the people were forced away by this lack of water, however, the jungle began to take back control and spread back over the ruins until they were once again engulfed the city, and water returned to the area, where now a small river runs through the jungle, and a host of wildlife has returned including monkeys – which are beautiful to see, but don’t stand beneath them in case they need a ‘bathroom break’.
Out here in the jungle, as well as watching out for monkeys, we were seeing the ruins as they had first been found. We were pleased to hear that, with all the wildlife in the jungle, that the trees are now protected. What has been uncovered of the ruins (which, we were informed, is a mere 5% of the whole city) are now preserved as an archaeological zone, while everything left in the jungle remains overgrown.
Nearly every step you took you could see, buried beneath hundreds of years of tree growth, remains of Mayan houses, temples, and other buildings. We were off the beaten track – literally, a lot of the time – and when we paused we could hear nothing but the sounds of the jungle – monkeys in the trees, a river flowing and birds singing. There was no sign that we were within a mile of ‘civilisation’, and all of a sudden we were living a dream. We were in a jungle, finding ruins everywhere – and even making our way through some of the ruins – and I was having the type of adventure which I had only imagined while watching Indiana Jones. All that was missing was a bullwhip (although I did buy a couple of these to add to my show kit while we were on Isla Mujeres later in our journey).
In my next blog post I will delve deeper into the site itself, and its discovery. This post, however, is about achieving a childhood dream. I must note, I also watched Tarzan as a boy, and Palenque did give he a chance to play at being Tarzan – but for that, you’ll have to watch the video HERE!
The Isle of Man has beautiful countryside, picturesque beaches and plenty of historic castles and railways – but Greg can talk about some of those at a later date! Today I’m writing about wildlife… again.
On the Isle of Man’s most southern point, close to the Calf of Man Island, is a small section of water and a rocky islet which is populated year round by seals, and our trip to the Isle of Man took place in October 2019, which coincided with grey seal mating season (September- December).
The grey seal is the more common of the two species of seal found in Manx waters (they also get small numbers of common seals), and as around half of the global population of grey seals are found around the British coast, it should have been no surprise that we saw plenty in a place which is famous for them.
Grey seals’ hands and feet are formed into webbed flippers. They use their strong rear flippers to propel themselves through the water, while using their tail to steer. They have powerful shoulders which enable them to haul themselves onto steep and slippery rocks, which we witnessed during our visit (and which you can watch out for towards the end of our video, ‘The Isle of Man – Railways, Castles and Seals‘).
Their adorable faces look almost comical or cartoonish with their big, dark eyes which while good for seeing in dark, murky water, it is in fact their very discreet but highly sensitive ears which are most important to the seals for catching their dinner.
Their scientific name, Halichoerus grypus adds to their comical effect as it derives from the Greek for ‘hook-nosed sea pig’. It doesn’t exactly paint a flattering picture for what I consider to be an adorable creature.
The Sound has a fantastic view, not just of the seals but also looking out over the Calf of Man island, and its cafe with its famous wall of panoramic viewing windows, serving warm, tasty, vegetarian-friendly food options… it was too good a place for us to only visit it once. I would have happily visited every day to watch the seals. As it was I think we visited on at least three of our five available days on the Isle of Man.
The Isle of Man is not just a hot spot for seals – during warmer months you can also see basking sharks, whales and dolphins in the surrounding waters. There are also plenty of coastal birds and one of my favourites, the puffin, can be found on the Calf of Man during the right season.
Apparently in the north of the Isle of Man they even have wild wallabies though you have to be very lucky to spot them!
For anyone that likes beautiful, coastal, rugged, countryside views and adorable wildlife (plus tasty food of course), The Sound and its cafe will not disappoint.
When I first heard of the underground cave cities in Turkey, I was fascinated by the idea that there was a whole city built by ancient people and designed to house thousands under the ground in times of war. When I then discovered that there is not just one of these, but thirty-six different underground cities across the region (though there are links between some of them), I wanted to get over to Turkey to see them at some point.
It was as Felicity and I were trying to decide on our next adventure, following our Honeymoon adventure in Mexico (you can watch the documentary, ‘Mexico: Mayan Mystery and Marine Majesty’ which we filmed on that trip HERE), that Felicity mentioned that she had wanted to take a hot air balloon over the ‘Fairy Chimneys’ of Cappadocia. We had a quick look, and were pleased to find that in a country of over three-hundred thousand square miles, the two things we had first on our list were within thirty miles of each other – and from there our latest travel adventure documentary, ‘Turkey – Fairy Chimneys and Underground Cities’ was born (you can watch it HERE).
Of all of the underground cities the two which compete for the claim of ‘largest’ are Derinkuyu, which is the deepest, and Kaymakli, which is the widest. We decided we wanted to visit both of these, and a third, smaller city named Özkonak.
We had a very different experience visiting each of the three, and it is an order which I would definitely recommend – and a way of visiting similar styles of historical places generally.
Before visiting the first city, we, by which I mean Felicity, of course, had done some research. This gave us a basic idea of the types of things which we could expect to find in the underground cities on our arrival, and it meant that as we descended into Derinkuyu Underground City we were explorers. For the first part we had the tunnels to ourselves, and we were trying to piece together what different holes and areas might have been used for. Even when we started to bump into tour groups coming through, we managed to avoid them enough as we worked together to come up with theories. Some of these were correct – we managed to correctly identify hitching points and eating troughs in the ‘stalls’ – but with others we were wrong. For example, what looked to me to be a big mill-wheel for grinding grain turned out to be a large stone door (although we did find they had smaller mill-wheels, so I wasn’t too far off). We got to have our adventure, and really explore a place which was entirely new to us.
When we arrived at the second of the cities on our list, Kaymakli, we took up the offer of a guided tour from one of the official guides at the site. From here we could learn a little more about the history of the cities, and in particular he could show us how to ‘read’ the cities, and show us what we had got right and wrong with our own interpretations of what we saw. This was a crucial second step to having a fully rounded experience in the underground cities – we had wanted to explore ourselves, but now to reflect on what we had seen in the first city using the information we had received from the guide (who built both on years of archaeological work, and a youth spent sneaking into the tunnels to explore himself) deepened the experience.
By the time we got to our third city, therefore, we were ready to explore on our own once again, but this time armed with a lot more practical knowledge about what we were looking at.
This idea of taking a three step approach to a new experience – investigating on your own, then gaining knowledge from an expert, then applying that knowledge, is (in my opinion at least) a great way to experience a lot of new things.
I would certainly recommend it as a way to visit the underground cities of Cappadocia. If you suffer from claustrophobia, approach with caution, and try to avoid times when crowds will be busiest, but if you can handle being in the cave systems, it is well worth it!
I’ve always loved animals of all shapes and sizes, I find the majority of them both beautiful and fascinating.
I’ve also always been somewhat obsessed with the sea.
It makes a sort of sense therefore that some of my favourite creatures live within the oceans. I could talk all day about sharks, but that’s more an appreciation of their evolutionary perfection. When I talk about cetaceans however, it hits a strong emotional note within me. Everything about them intrigues me.
Like most things living in the sea, there is an air of mystery around whales that draws a person like me in. The more I learn of them, the more my level of intrigue and appreciation grows. It is for this reason that visiting the grey whales of Magdalena Bay in Mexico had been on my ‘bucket list’ for well over ten years.
The grey whales of Magdalena Bay were once known as ‘Devil Fish’, due to the fact that when they were hunted there in large numbers, they didn’t go without a fight. The grey whales grow to about 40-50 feet, and while the famous blue whale tops that with its whopping 80-90 feet, the grey whale is still in the top ten biggest animals on Earth. So it is more than capable of putting up a good fight if it is hunted.
The species can also live for up to seventy years, so some are old enough to remember the whaling. Now that the whales in Magdalena Bay are no longer being hunted, they have stopped fighting humans and instead curiously approach the boats that once hunted them. They have grown so accustomed to the tourist filled boats that on occasion they even surface beside them for a cuddle.
Another aspect that some members of the cetacean family have which fascinates me are spindle neurons (this is where Greg often jokingly rolls his eyes as he knows I can go on for far too long when on this topic).
Put very simply, spindle neurons are a type of brain cell found in highly intelligent species. Humans, great apes, elephants and some cetaceans have them. They are linked to intelligence, communication, emotions, empathy, memory and that thing which gives us a sense of self. I personally believe they play a part in giving humanity our better qualities.
Research has shown that those species of whales which have these cells have up to three times the amount of any other creature on the planet. So much so that orca actually have a section of brain linked to emotion that other creatures just don’t have. I also believe it is thanks to these cells that whales such as humpbacks display a high level of altruism, not just towards their own kind but any creature they perceive to be in need of help.
That’s where I will stop on that particular topic for now, this being a travel blog rather than a marine enthusiast blog. But hopefully this will help explain why Mexico was such a big thing on my ‘bucket list’.
Magdalena Bay Whales are a family run company. They own a small B&B on the mainland as well as a campsite on Magdalena Bay Island. They have a small team of captains and small fleet of boats allowing them to take whale seekers out on the water to get close to the grey whales – or rather, to allow the whales to get close to us.
Greg and I opted to camp for a few nights on the island as it gets you closer to the regulated whale watching areas.
This amused Greg greatly, as I had never actually been camping. While the camp and our yurt were well maintained (the camp comprised of two yurts and maybe ten tents, an open restaurant/ palapa with fresh supplies brought over from the mainland and two toilets sharing one sink). Our ‘private bathroom’ consisted of an emergency ‘middle-of-the-night-wee’ chemical toilet and ten-litres of water each per day in a solar bag to shower with, hung at chest level. A bit of a surprise to a novice camper like me!
All I can say is that the hospitality of everyone that worked for the company made up for the lack of bathroom facilities, as did watching dolphins play in the bay as we sat beside our yurt on a quiet island, with humming birds feeding from the plants beside us. One day I want to return there and do it all again!
Each day started with a freshly made breakfast and then our captain took us out for six hours of whale watching. It was fantastic. We watched as many a whale dived, giving that classic view of their fluke. Some whales swam along beside and beneath our boat, so majestic for such a large animal. We even had the chance to watch a large group of whales ‘spy hopping’ (they rise vertically from the water, sometimes rotating as they do so, to get a good look above water. I like to think that they enjoyed watching us even half as much as I enjoyed watching them), but the unexpected appearance of a lone humpback (the wrong time of year for them to ordinarily be in the area) that happened to breach in their unique way, at exactly the moment that Greg and I were looking in the right place at the right time… that was pretty breathtaking. It was our last morning on the water and such an incredible treat.
The whole experience was unforgettable and I highly recommend it for anyone that admires whales.
On our arrival in Mexico in early 2019, we landed in Mexico City after nightfall. After a slightly hair-raising drive out of the city in the dark, having to compete with unknown roads, a very different driving style, and wild dogs randomly appearing on the roads as we drove about thirty miles northeast, we found ourselves in a hotel a few hundred yards from the ruins of Teotihuacan – although in the dark we didn’t see them that night.
The following morning we set off for the site, and having paid our entrance fee we made two very good choices – an early arrival, and entering to park behind the Pyramid of the Sun rather than around at the main entrance to the site. This meant initially avoiding all of the stalls selling souvenirs, and meant that the famous Pyramid of the Sun was the first sight we saw on arrival, and also the first building we arrived at, allowing us to climb it before it got too busy later in the day.
The Pyramid of the Sun was built around 200CE, a couple of centuries before Teotihuacan reached its peak, and several centuries before the whole city was abandoned between about 600CE and 750CE. Why, exactly, the city was abandoned is still a matter for debate – as many public buildings were burned around the year 600, some claim it was an uprising against the rulers from within the city, while others theorise that an outside invasion began the downfall. Either way, people seem to have slowly drifted away from the city to leave it empty by 750.
As you climb up the Pyramid of the Sun, you feel the effort that must have gone into building that single temple, let along the entire city. The structure itself stands at two hundred and sixteen feet, roughly half the height of the Great Pyramid at Giza, but you are starting your climb at an altitude of a little over seven thousand feet. Having landed only the night before, and having travelled from just above sea level in our home on the Isle of Wight, we found our hearts racing by the time we reached the top – something to bear in mind if you make a visit to the site.
After the Pyramid of the Sun, we climbed its sister temple, the Pyramid of the Moon. For me, this was a better view than from the top of the taller pyramid. The Pyramid of the Moon is a little over half the height of the Pyramid of the Sun, but stands at the end of the Street of the Dead, and so from the top you look down across the whole site in a single view. It was here that I found myself musing not about the end, but rather about the origins of the city.
When the Aztecs first rediscovered the city in the fifteenth century they named it Teotihuacan, meaning ‘the place where the gods were born’. Looking out across the site it is easy to understand why the Aztecs would have thought that. Trying to imagine the people of 300BCE starting a city here, and all of these structures being built by people by the fifth century really took some effort. Especially as we know so little about the people that built it, including who they were.
It was once thought that the Toltec people had built the city, but as they only came to prominence in around 900CE, nearly two hundred years after Teotihuacan’s decline, this theory is now generally considered to be incorrect. Other people look to the Totonac tribe, or even unnamed people who had fled to the area after a natural disaster and built the city up from humble beginnings.
Whoever built it, and for whatever reason it was abandoned, the site today stands as one of the best historical sites of its type that I have ever visited, and I would strongly advise that if you are heading to Mexico at any point in the future, this is definitely a site that you should be planning to visit!
My name is Greg – magician, juggler, entertainer and travel documentary maker – and this is my blog! The main focus of this blog will be travel, history and magic, but do expect other topics to crop up as we go along.
Along with my wife (who for reasons of our work at Steampunk events and a series of Steampunk inspired audio-books I tend to refer to as Lady Felicity), we began this year launching a new adventure in our lives – the creation of travel adventure documentaries taking us around the world to share the sights, history, and wildlife in as many countries as possible!
It all began this January, when we set off to Mexico on our honeymoon. We decided on this as our destination because it combined Lady Felicity’s love of marine wildlife, and her dream to travel to Magdalena Bay in the Baja California of Mexico, where at the right time of year you can take a boat out to see grey whales in the wild, with my desire to see ancient ruins in the jungles, and basically to be Indiana Jones (without the tomb-raiding aspects of his stories!).
From swimming with the whale sharks in La Paz (pictured below) to exploring ruins such as El Tajin (pictured above) we travelled all over in an attempt to see as much wildlife and history as we could fit in to a month.
About halfway through the month it occurred to me just how amazing the footage we were filming was, and just what a great experience it would be to share with the world, and with my background in video making and entertainment, we decided that we could create a travel documentary.
So our adventures began! In this blog I will be delving a little deeper into the history and stories behind some of the places which we have visited on our travels, a chance to provide more information than we could in our videos.