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Day 380-383, 26-29 July: The Northern Highway and shady Belize City, into Belize!

October 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Belize, Central America, Trip reports

Hello BelizeAfter crossing the bridge that separated Mexico from Belize, we still had to do some formalities. I could just ride my bike into the office and get a free stamp, valid for 4 weeks, but Ivana had to pay.

Sometimes being an Argentine helps dodging costs: for some unknown reason she does not have to pay for visa for for example turkey & India, whereas I do. But in order to enter Belize, she needed to pay B$100, 100 Belize Dollars, equalling USD $50! It must have something to do with the old ties to the Argentine archenemies, the Brits (Islas Malvinas, anyone?).

Fellow BikeTraveller, BelizeWe also had to state where we wanted to exit Belize, which we had not expected. As there are only 3 options and we did not want to exit the way we just came in, we had to choose between the land border close to Tikal, Guatemala and the Southern sea-port of Punta Gorda. We opted for the latter and so the basics of our time and route through Belize were fixed more than we would have liked to: maximum 4 weeks, in through the North, out through the South.

Fishermen in Corozal, BelizeWe continued on a flat road through muggy mosquito-filled fields and even met another cyclist headed North, who showed us his bike with mono-wheel trailer. he said it was very strong, but while demonstrating how to get on the bike, it came off, which did not seem too secure to us..

Ivana on pier, Corozal, BelizeSome miles later, we rolled through neatly trimmed lawns –seems the Brits left another legacy here- topped with old and worn houses into the fisherman’s town of Corozal. We liked the relaxed and friendly place, enjoyed some nice hand-made ice-cream and went to look for a cheap place to stay.

The cheapest rooms were in this non-touristic town where still more than B$25, which was more than our daily budget. We started to believe the scary stories of costly Belize that other travellers had told us.

Sea Breeze Hotel, Corozal, BelizeFinally we came upon a nice classic-looking hotel, named the sea-breeze hotel. We asked owner Gwynn if we could camp in his yard but he insisted we camp within the gate and under shelter of his sea-view bar instead. A while later he even offered us to stay for free in the spare room that was normally used by the cook, thanks Gwynn!

Later it turned out that it was not only the most economical place in town (B$40 or USD $20 for a room which could fit 3 or even 4 persons), but also most recommended by Lonely Planet and we planned to come back later with my sister.

Some more pix of Corozal:

Corozal, BelizeCorozal cultural and visitor centre, BelizeOld house, Corozal, BelizePalm trees, Corozal, Belize

Day 381: 27th July 2009, Corozal – Carmelita, 60km

Local girl with pet rat, BelizeThere are only 3 real roads in Belize, aptly named: The Northern Highway, The Western Highway and the southern Highway, all ending/starting in centrally located Belize City. Even so, there was almost no traffic on the Northern Highway that we were on, and we followed the gentle lines of the landscape without much bother of diesel-powered machines.

Waiting at the pepsi bus stop, Belize (2)It was becoming a bit of a game to guess what language the people spoke and understood.

Though the official language is English, a large part of the population (the Maya) still only speaks Spanish and the ones that do speak English (mostly the dark-skinned Creole and Garifuni population) have their own pidgin variation of it, which would pass no teacher’s test.

Old house, Northern Highway, BelizeThen there are the Mennonites, who speak their own tongue (with elements of German as well as Dutch) and are important part of the population as they create about 45% of the nation’s food supply; dressed as if they were starring in the video clip of Weird Al’s Amish Paradise or stepping out of a 16th Century Dutch master’s painting.

We found that bananas were still affordable here (8 for a B$) and discovered a new treat: ideals. Frozen bags of hyper-sweet lemonade in different flavours, well worth the 25cts the small shops charged.

Some Mayan kids at the ideal shop, enjoying their own goods as much as we did:

Young salesman, Northern Highway, BelizeKids, Northern Highway, BelizeKids, Northern Highway, Belize (2)Ivana  and kids, Northern Highway, Belize Young cyclist, Northern Highway, BelizeKid, Northern Highway, Belize (5)

Belize hospitality

Hot on the Northern Highway, BelizeWe passed around the larger city of Orange Walk and ended our day in a small town of Carmelita. The shops and restaurants were closed, save one, but the 2 dark-skinned guys were so unfriendly that we rather went hungry than giving them business. When asking for a place to camp, a nice young guy named Junior insisted we would join him to his family’s house, and thus we went.

We cooked our emergency spaghettis and pitched our tent inside a small building next to their home, to ward off the hordes of mosquitoes. The night was incredibly hot and we did not sleep much. Outside one of the poor dogs was doing a constant and sad ‘silly walk’ as a result of a wrongfully executed injection.

Old house, Northern Highway, Belize (2)The chip-sealed road did not change much all the way into Belize City. We passed some small towns, old houses that were mostly looking like they could collapse any day, while the lawns were trimmed neatly as for a garden contest. It was a strange mix of poverty and a spacious country.

We were surprised that though Belize offers all kinds of fruit and food possible, none of it is being sold on the side of the road, as happens everywhere in Mexico.

The shops –and many restaurants- in the towns are mostly Chinese owned; the tasty pupusas on the streets are made and sold by Salvadorians, the handicrafts by Guatemalans, the food produced by the Mennonites and the ‘eco-resorts’ owned by imported Europeans and US-Americans. The ‘Belizeans’ seem to prefer to just swing around in their hammocks instead.

None of the rich mix of fruits and vegetables that is still somehow produced in Belize seem to make it to the local shops though and the restaurants mainly serve a variation (‘fry’ chicken, ‘fry’ beef or ‘fry’ fish) of ‘Rice & beans’.

Laundry day, Northern Highway, BelizeIvana, Northern Highway, BelizeRemote parking Courtesy Shuttle, Belize Fabulus barbershop, Northern Highway, Belize

Belize City, not so relaxed

We were warned that though most of Belize country is quite relaxed, Belize City is where all the criminals of the country seem to congregate. Though it was not as bad as foretold, it was definitely annoying to walk and cycle in a city that will turn everybody into a racist within moments.

All the shops seem to be owned by Chinese who try to make an honest living and are generally friendly. Dangerous downtown Belize CityThe streets in front of the shops are filled with young black males though, many of them either stoned or drunk (this is during day time) and most (!) of them trying to take my sunglasses, bicycle, money and whatever they could get their hands and eyes on. At least they did not use any violence, but simply ‘asked’ for it.

Hey man, lemme try those shades man’, while already reaching with both hands for my sunglasses which I was, well, wearing.

Gimme that bike man, it looks expensive my friend’, ‘Gimme some money man..’; ‘MMhheuuyww, yyeahh, hhmm?’ and similar Creole expressions.

Others tried to touch/grasp/take us and the few things we were carrying without saying much, which is just as annoying.

We were staying with a friendly CouchSurfing host named Jorge, a dermatologist, originally from Nicaragua. He took us to a nice area of town in the evening, but the moment we got our of our car, we were immediately approached and harassed by yet another ‘relaxed’ dude and apparently this was ‘normal’.

When walking back to his house the next night we felt not just annoyed, but threatened when two young guys on bicycles circled around us and then tried to block our way on the sidewalk without saying anything. Fortunately we were already in front of Jorge’s house by then, and could slip through his front gate without confronting them.

All in all, nothing bad actually happened, while we walked and cycled around town several times, so I guess you could say that it is a ‘safe’ city. But the general atmosphere is negative and threatening and too many young black males seem to live of ‘being relaxed’ and are trying to make easy money.

At least we did not encounter any violence as was reported in the local newspapers, where armed robberies, rapes and muggings were daily stories even in a small city like this (with only about 70,000 people living there). Maybe it was not me who was being racist, but the ‘homeless people themselves are’, as the great Chris Rock once pointed out in yet another inventive display of his inverted logic, ‘as somehow there are no Chinese or Gay homeless people’…

It was time to pick up my sister and nice from the airport as they were going to stay 2 weeks with us. Let’s see if the rest of the country would be friendlier than this seedy city.

Day 368-375, 15-21 Jul 09: Mums in Mexico pt.3: Isla Mujeres

October 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Mexico, North America, Trip reports, Yucatan Peninsula

The Island of Women

Las Chicas, Isla MujeresThe ‘Isla Mujeres’, the Island of Women, could have been named after the wives of the pirates that frequented the seas and left their women on this safe island, or after the Mayan Goddess Ixchel, who has been worshipped here.

Mother and daughter, Isla MujeresNowadays, it can refer to the ladies living or the many visiting here, coming from nearby Cancun or from all over the world. so what is there to do on Isla Mujeres? Not much and that is exactly the point.

mother and daughter, Isla Mujeres (2)Not the busy smelly traffic of downtown Cancun, not the mega-clubs, drunk teenagers and inflated prices of the Zona Hotelera. Not even the mega cruise-ships that frequent Isla Cozumel stop on the 8km (5mi) long island that is in places only 100m wide and never wider than 1km (0.6mi).

Mother and child, Isla MujeresThere are enough souvenir shops to keep you busy for several hours, you can rent a golf-cart to see the Southern part of the Island, but most people just come for the beach. Isla’s North beach (actually starting at the North-West) has white sands (crushed coral) with warm and clear green/blue waters.

Nothing more and nothing less. As long as you are staying in Isla Mujeres Town, you can do everything on foot and if you are very active, you can see all the streets in one day, leaving the rest of your stay to relax!

Young girl, Isla Mujeres (2)As we were still on a tight budget, but did not want to camp, I had come into contact with Gladys Galdamez from www.islabudgetrentals.com.

She had some more affordable options, but as they were still too much for us, I proposed to take some photos for her websites and house in exchange for housing and she accepted. So below are a lot of photos, some of which will also be found on her website :)

Life on the beach on Isla Mujeres

Pictures say more than words:

Cristi and Mutti, North Beach, Isla MujeresNorth Beach, Isla Mujeres (2) Sunset on Isla MujeresLighthouse, Isla Mujeres Sunset on Isla Mujeres (3)Sunset on Isla Mujeres (2)

Ivana with starfish (3)Ivana with starfish (2)North Beach, Isla Mujeres (3)North Beach, Isla Mujeres (4)Chairs at North Beach, Isla Mujeres North Beach, Isla Mujeres (6)Coold Corona, Isla Mujeres

Running around the Isla with Hector & Veronica

As Isla is only a 20 minute boat ride away from Downtown Cancun, we had invited Hector & Veronica to come over to join us. They joined us on the beach for a while and then did their evening training on the island, one running while the other cycled and coached. I joined them on their other bicycle which was also a good excuse to see more of the Southern part of the island.

Here you go:

Boat and ruins, Isla MujeresColonia la Guadalupana, Isla MujeresSouth East beach, Isla MujeresPalms on Isla MujeresDriftwood tricyle, Isla MujeresOld Lighthouse, Isla Mujeres (2)

South Point, Isla Mujeres (2)Veronika and Hector, Isla Mujeres (2)Thunderclouds above Cancun (3)

A taste of downtown Isla Mujeres

House decoration, Isla MujeresIsla Mujeres town is nothing more than a few streets, several restaurants and shops. One supermarket, a Central Plaza with a church and a basketball field complete the town.

You can board for snorkelling tours, eat ice-cream, pancakes, hummus, pizza or tacos and tortas on the main square. Salesmen will try to sell traditional and less-traditional clothes and handicrafts, while tourists zoom past on the rented golf carts.

In the evening the streets are sparsely lit, the restaurants open and you might hear some nice live music from some of the older inhabitants of Isla Mujeres, a welcome change from the Mariachi-hell (pep-peppe-pep-pep!) of the rest of tourist-Mexico.

Isla Mujeres clothesDowntown Isla MujeresWelcome on Isla MujeresIsla Mujeres clothesFamily motor, Isla MujeresFresh drinks on Isla MujeresLocal handicrafts, Isla MujeresWatching basketbal, Isla MujeresStreet musician, Isla MujeresBasket seller, Isla Mujeres

More life on a beach

Pina Colada moms, Isla MujeresWe spent most of our time on the beach. The mums were enjoying the sea and the two for one cocktail promotions (every hour on the beach is happy).

Though I like to swim, I get restless after an hour or so, unlike Ivana, who is perfectly happy floating on her newly-found air-mattress for several hours at a time.

Fortunately our room (my office) all the way on the other side of town was only 10 minutes walking away and there was always an excuse to take another photo.

Here are some:

Beach chairs and Palapas, Isla MujeresFisherman's boats on beach, Isla MujeresBeach chairs and Palapas, Isla Mujeres (2)Cristi and Ivana floating, Isla Mujeres (2)Mutti swimming, Isla MujeresIvana on ISla MujeresBeachrunner, Isla MujeresIvana floating, Isla Mujeres (4)

Old Isla Mujeres & Miss Abuelita

Miss Abuelita 2009, Isla MujeresThere is not much left of the old fisherman town, where people enjoyed their turtle soup. even though it is low key, tourism had changed everything. Still there are a few original houses to be found, preserved in bright paint.

We were on the island for a festival in honour of one of the popular tourist attractions and endangered species that lives close to the island: the whale shark, a friendly whale-sized shark.

On the last evening the main attraction was presented: the election of Miss Abuelita, roughly translatable as Miss Granny :)

5 local ladies showed their local dress, evening gowns and their views of life in a heated battle. The jury had a hard time…

Old house on Isla Mujeres (2)Old house on Isla MujeresOld house on Isla Mujeres (3) Juarez Street, Isla Mujeres (3)

Birthday in Cancun and goodbye to the mums…

Tortas at Plaza Palapas, Cancun (3)

Tortas at Plaza Palapas, Cancun (2)It was time to head back to the mainland, as both the mums would fly out to Argentina/Netherlands early the next morning.

We invited Hector & Veronica for some tortas on the Palapas Square and started packing.

My mum had brought great new tiny summer sleeping bags from Carinthia. All our winter gear, including our warm Carinthia sleeping bags and down jackets, gloves, boots and several smaller pieces were going with Ivana’s mum to Argentina. We were planning to see them again somewhere around Peru.

Birthday in Hostel Quetzal, Cancun It was 20th of July, meaning that it would be my birthday at midnight. we had bought some cakes and some booze and had hired one of the friends of the Quetzal Hostel to mix up some mean mojitos and Pina Coladas to go along with it. It was a nice goodbye to our mums, who had flown halfway across the globe to see us.

We had seen and done a lot in the past 3 weeks. It had not always been easy, we are so used to our own way of life and our mums are not :)

Also many times it was clear that the cultural differences between the Dutch and Argentinean way of life that had taken Ivana and me more than 3 years to -partly- overcome were very strong between our mums, sometimes leading to stress. But over all it was great to be able to share a part of our adventure and the wonderful world we live on with them and it was sad to say goodbye.

We actually had another vacation ahead of us as my sister and niece were going to land in Belize City in about 8 days to stay with us for 2 weeks. As it was over 500km from Cancun, it was time to pack the bikes again!

1000 Americans: Cook Amberina, Cancun

October 1, 2009 by  
Filed under 1000 Americans

Amberina, Cancun

Amberina is a cook and saleswoman at the Palapas Square in downtown Cancun to tourists and locals alike. She makes about 15 different tortas: sandwiches, filled with meat and/or vegetables and some avocado, you can then add more veggies or spicy sauces to your liking.

The daily menu, which does not seem to vary in weeks, includes a refreshing drink, together it costs 20 pesos, about USD $1,50 for a nice lunch.

Day 361-367, 7-14 Jul 09: Mums in Mexico pt.2: Playa, more ruins & Isla Cozumel

September 28, 2009 by  
Filed under Mexico, North America, Trip reports, Yucatan Peninsula

As mentioned in the previous post, we have parked our bikes for a few weeks as both our mums are visiting us on the Yucatan Peninsula. After the ruins of Chichen Itza & Ek Balam, it is now time for the beach!

Playa del Carmen, overcrowded and overrated

Street/Nightlife in Playa del CarmenDon’t go to Cancun, move to Playa de Carmen!”, was the advice of friends, websites and guidebooks. “More European, more relaxed, less commerce and more affordable than Cancun.”, were the reasons given.

Fruit vendor, Playa Del CarmenWe arrived in our rental car and first could not park anywhere to find a hostel.

Finally we found a spot, only to find much more expensive hotels than in downtown Cancun. Once we found a decent room (3 beds, Ivana & I can share), we checked out the main street. It was filled to the top with souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants and hundreds of semi-relaxed tourists, many of them, yes, European. Large clubs and uber-cool lounge bars were promoted, while Guatemalan art was being sold for western art gallery prices.

Fruit vendors, Playa Del CarmenFinally we discovered some real food for almost downtown Cancun prices, sold on the streets close to the Central Plaza. Great juice and tortas, the Mexican sandwiches with a choice of meat and/or vegetables and different types of very spicy and tasty sauces.

Playa del Carmen from the ferryJust a bit ahead were the local fruit ladies selling nice big bags of mixed cut fruits for less than half of the price of a glass of water in a restaurant of the main street.

The beach is very nice at Playa and the water is green-blue as in the brochures, but it’s like that all along the Costa Maya.

The girls were happy with the sea and sand, but I rather wanted to use the last day we had a car to see one more ancient Maya City and took off alone.

More ruins, Coba solo

Coba wildlifeCoba has the same charm that Ek Balam has and that Chichen Itza is lacking: the ‘Indiana Jones’ sense that you are discovering the ancient hidden cities yourself while strolling through the lush Jungle.

The structures of Coba are not as neatly organised and lined up as in Chichen Itza. From the first group, which contains the large ‘Templo de las Iglesias’, the temple of the Churches, it is more than a kilometre walk through the jungle if you want to see some of the other big ones.

Wish Willy in Coba forest (2)Several dozen sacbe’s, ancient Mayan road crossed the surrounding jungle to get to Coba, an important hub in times gone by. Only a few percent of the estimated 6500 (!) structures of Coba have been excavated, and many of these not even fully and the jungle has remained intact, which is good news for the many different animals living there.

Coba Jungle from the CastilloIt is hot in Coba, even in the shade of the trees and for those who do not want to walk the sacbe’s there are many eco-taxis handy: bicycles & rickshaws!

The largest Maya structure (of the entire Peninsula) is called Nohoch Mul, better known as the Great Pyramid and its eroded steps leading to the 42m (140ft) high top can fortunately still be climbed. Castillo in CobaA thick rope is attached to help the brave people down that made it up and realized that it was quite high and the steps narrow and down-sloping :)

There will be several persons on the Pyramid, but the views are great: jungle as far as the eye can see. The sweet views are spiced with the knowledge of the thousands of hidden treasures still to be found.

Tulum: busy ruins and empty beach

Tulum Beach near the ruinsI was just too late to make a quick visit to the most popular Maya ruins: Tulum. As it is close to Cancun and Playa de Carmen, and the site is open and compact, bus loads of tourists come here every day.

Tulum Beach near the ruins (2)I saw a huge line of them coming out of the exit and caught a glimpse of the famous Castillo, with its postcard location on the edge of the sea. I was not allowed in, but used my time to view some nearby rough beaches, totally deserted.

It was time to return to Playa de Carmen and head over to our next destination: an island!

Isla Cozumel, CouchSurfing and anniversary on the divers and cruise-ship paradise

Ivana on Cozumel beachOne part of our way of travelling that we wanted to share with our mums was the use of the CouchSurfing and WarmShowers network, where travellers host other travellers. We managed to find a great host on the Island of Cozumel, that agreed to host all 4 of us.

Griet in Sea, CozumelIvan not only provided us with a great place to sleep, but also gave us a quick tour of the rough east side of the diver’s paradise, with some great swimming beaches and blowholes. The next day he took Ivana, Cristi and myself for a nice little snorkel tour, while my mum relaxed in a hammock near a pool. Life should not get much harder than this :)

It was wonderful to have such a perfect example of a great CouchSurfing host to demonstrate to our mums a taste of the hospitality we have encountered all over Mexico, USA and Canada, made possible by the technology and the mentality of our generation, but which has spread far beyond that.

Ivan, CozumelCozumel Beach

Cristi and the blowhole, CozumelMutti and the blowhole, CozumelIvana and the blowhole, Cozumel

Cozumel is a popular stop for huge cruise-ships and we saw many pass during the few days we were there. But to see further than the shopping tours along the silver-shops and the basic restaurants, you need to spend some days there.

For example it gives you the chance to see the local Sunday dance on the main square, where the local couples dress up and play to the music of a live band, while the sun sets behind a blue and purple sky.

Sunday dance at Cozumel main squareToma la Buena, CozumelCozumel from the ferryCristi in Playa del Carmen

Next and final part of the Mother-ship series coming up: An Island of Women!

Stay tuned, it will be up and running soon as long as the Internet gods are willing :)

Day 354-360, 30Jun-6Jul 09: Mums in Mexico pt.1: Ruins & Cenotes!

September 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Mexico, North America, Trip reports, Yucatan Peninsula

Photos: relaxing in Cancun

We started our holiday with a few days in a Hostel and some visits to the beach as well as the nice local park. The park is not visited much, but is basically a part of original jungle in the middle of the city. It has some great trails, a turtle pond, many lizards walking around and we even saw a snake.

Ivana and Cristi, CancunIvana inspecting a palapa, CancunMutti at the beach, CancunMutti and Cristi, Cancun

Off to the Maya Ruins: Chichen Itza!

Of course you cannot visit Central America without visiting at least some of the ancient Maya cities. Cancun is quite close to Chichen Itza, maybe the most famous city of them all, especially after a huge marketing campaign managed to get it entered as one of the new 7 wonders of the world.

We had rented a cheap car for a week, so we could tour around for a while, leaving the beaches for later. Our mums experienced a hint of our way of life when we told them that they could only take 1/3 of their luggage –as more did not fit in the tiny car- and that they would see the rest only in a week :)

dinner in PisteThere is a wonderful new highway from Cancun to Chichen Itza, but we only found out why it was so deserted (we saw 2 cars in 200km), when we needed to pay over USD 20 in toll fees, close to the exit. Now we understand why Francisco and the other truckers all choose the ‘Libre’ road instead.

The mums got another taste of our trip when we booked them in a small but cheap guesthouse, with 3 beds in a dusty and very hot room in Piste, the town next to the old Maya City. We had arrived in the afternoon, so we had time to have some dinner and go to Chichen Itza for the evening show. Chichen Itza, El Castillo at nightMost people do not see this as they come on day trips from Cancun & Merida, but every evening the main structures are illuminated at sunset, while a set of voices tell about the history and legends of Chichen Itza.

The Spanish whispering was a bit too much for me, but it was nice to sit in the fresh breeze while the most famous main structure, the temple of Kukulkan, better known as ‘El Castillo’ -the castle- turned form green to purple.

Here is a photo impression (click to enlarge, more photos in the photo section here).

Chichen Itza, El CastilloMutti and local lady, Chichen Itza Skull carvings, Chichen ItzaCarvings, Chichen Itza Chichen Itza, El Castillo (2)Chichen Itza, Jaguar statueChichen Itza, near the  ballcourt (2)Chichen Itza, Serpent'shead of El Castillo Chichen ItzaPablito and Pedrito, Chichen Itza

Souvenirs & Cenotes

Of course the place is stuffed with souvenirs and other semi-local handicrafts. The sacbe number 1, the ancient Mayan road, leading to the ‘cenote’ was lined with vendors. The Yucatan peninsula is lined with Cenotes, which can be anything from a large pond to a huge underground cave filled with water. The soft limestone base of the peninsula combined with tropical rainfall had created these holes and many of them were either sacred or at least an important water source.

The cenote at Chichen Itza was found to contain several artefacts and bones, it was clearly used as a sacrificial place. Some more pix :) :

Souvenirs at Chichen Itzasouvenirs at Chichen Itza (2)The sacred Cenote, Chichen Itza souvenirs at Chichen Itza (3) Chichen Itza (2)souvenirs at Chichen Itza (4)Us in Chichen Itza, with El CastilloCichen Itza, mutti and El Castillo (3)

Swimming in the Cenotes

Cenote near Dzitnup (2)Cristi and Ivana in CenoteCristi in Cenote near Dzitnup (2)Not all cenotes are closed to the public. In fact there is a large tourism sector focused on either swimming in them or even exploring them while diving, as many are connected by underground rivers. We stuck to swimming in a couple, with the first one being close to the  town of Dzitnup.

The cenote is inside a huge a cave, but it had a hole on top where sunlight shines through. next to the hole grows a tree and it roots come all the way down to the water, a magic place for sure..

Jungle ruins: Ek Balam

Christi and Harry, Ek BalamThe ruins of Chichen Itza are the most famous, but its popularity has caused some downsides. You can no longer climb on El Castillo as a tourist had fallen to her death a few years ago and the sheer number of visitors can cause irreplaceable dame to the structure.

Also most of the other structures are off-limits now, meaning you can only see them from a (short) distance.

Ek Balam ruins (17)Therefore it was nice to visit a much ‘newer’ site, Ek Balam. Largely unknown for mass tourism, but with some impressive structures, of which the 2nd and 3rd largest are still unexcavated and buried by the force of nature.

The highest structure, known as the Acropolis, can be climbed on its narrow and sloping steps, offering great views over the site and the surrounding jungle.

Somehow, it felt more ‘real’ being here compared to Chichen Itza. An impression:

Ek Balam ruins (7)Pedrito and Pablito at Ek Balam (2)Ek Balam ruins (14)Christi and Griet in Ek BalamEk Balam ruins (10)Ek Balam ruins (2)Ek Balam ruins (16)Ivana at Ek Balam ruins (4)

X’Canche & Genesis: Swimming and relaxing in Ek Balam

X'Canche cenote, Ek Balam (4)The hard life, Ek BalamEk Balam had one bonus: it has an open Cenote (meaning open to the public, you still have to pay an entrance fee) a 15 minute walk from the ruins.

This one was open, but also had many roots growing into it, as well as many fishes and plant and we enjoyed the cooling water as well as the collection of free hammocks nearby.

We had spent a few days in the wonderful Genesis Resort in the nearby village of Ek Balam, run by Lee Christie. A nice oasis in the dry surroundings, it had a great swimming pool and evens some bike for rent. In exchange for a discount on the price of the room, we cleaned and fixed the bikes, so that they were safe again :)

Genesis Retreat, Ek Balam (4)Genesis Retreat, Ek Balam (3)

On the road again

Pizza near Ek BalamAfter a huge pizza in a nearby village, and some clothes testing for Pablito and Pedrito, it was time to hit the road again. Not to the ruins and beaches of Coba & Tulum as planned, but back to Cancun, this time on the libre road. Ivana had to undergo a second part of a dental treatment, as part of her tooth had broken off the day our mums arrived.

Pedro and Pablito go mariachi, ValladolidIt was fixed ok, but the next problem was that both Cristi as well as myself developed a rash on our legs and arms, there must have been something in the Cenote water, though Ivana had no problems.

It was time to hit the other famous parts of the Yucatan Peninsula: the beaches!

Day 336-338, 12-14 June. An impression of beautiful Puebla.

September 18, 2009 by  
Filed under Central Mexico, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

Street scene in PueblaIt was less than 10km from Cholula to Puebla and the cities are basically connected. With 1.5 million people the city is huge (3rd largest of the country), but the historic centre has remained largely intact and is very attractive.

We had been invited by CouchSurfing host Hiram and his family, who own and run a very popular Mexican restaurant together. Still he had time to do a quick city tour with us and gave us a lot of tips of where to go while he was at work.

Gilded ceilings in Puebla churchOne impressive place he pointed out is the fully gilded Rosary Chapel of the Templo de Santo Domingo, which is so shiny, you almost need sunglasses.

Puebla churchThe zocalo or main square is the courtyard of the huge Cathedral, with Mexico’s highest towers. Rich people see it regularly as it appears on the 500 pesos note (about USD$ 40, more value than most Mexicans see in one bank note).

But maybe the best part of Puebla is just strolling around the centre, through colourful streets lined with colonial houses, with patios and balconies.

Tourists and locals are enjoying themselves everywhere on the terraces and restaurants and in the many shops lining the streets.

Puebla streetIvana in PueblaHaving fun at the Puebla fairChillin' in Puebla

Fiesta

Puebla has always been a Catholic stronghold and this has resulted in many religious celebrations, many of which have the benefit that a lively street market will take place, just a few blocks away from the zocalo.

We enjoyed the different foods for sale, the fair rides for kids, the artesanias, the music and the general positive atmosphere. Had I said before that everybody should visit Mexico? Just in case I’ll do it now: do not let biased political media scare you away from a wealth of culture, nature, gastronomy and friendliness, visit Mexico.

There, I said it.

Now, I invite you to take a look at some impressions of the market and the city. (Click for a larger version, these and more photos of Puebla are also in the photo section here).

Puebla fair and fountainChalupas at Puebla streetmarketIvana in Puebla (2)Chocolate milk in PueblaMole at street market, Puebla

Puebla comedorMini muertesLocal art, PueblaClassic dolls, Puebla Chalupas at Puebla streetmarket (3)Corn special, Puebla

Mexican treats in El Balcon

We arrived back late at ‘El Balcon’, the restaurant of Hiram’s family. Late at night it was still completely packed and several people were waiting outside. No, it is not (yet) in the Lonely Planet as it is (just) 7 blocks away from the centre, but the locals clearly know where to go. Even when they changed locations a while ago, the clients followed for the clear and honest food.

Us in El Balcon, PueblaMenu of El Balcon, Puebla

Itza from PueblaHiram also took us up the Cerro de Guadeloupe, which is not only the place where the French were defeated on 5th may 1862 (hence all the street names all over Mexico named 5 de Mayo), but on clear days you can also see the silhouette of Izta, the mountain known as the sleeping woman.

He introduced us to his friend and fellow CouchSurfer Leandro. We did not have time to visit his place, but had some good discussions about life and saw some more hidden gems of the city together.

Hiram’s parents were worried about our trip and hugged us close and shed some tears when praying for our safe journey. We are not religious ourselves, but the care and love of people that were strangers 3 days before keeps on surprising and warming us. So maybe the prayers do help as we will take care, so we can meet more great people like them and maybe one day return the favour.

Back on the road again..

Fortunately we found the way around the steep hill when we left Puebla, sooner than we would have liked. If we’d hurry, we would maybe have time for one more activity before we really had to get to Cancun.

Our mums were already getting very worried that there would be nobody to pick them up when arriving in 2 weeks. But before we would leave the Mexican highlands to get back down to sea-level, there was one place far from it that I wanted to visit…

More soon :)

1000 Americans: Hiram in El Balcon, Puebla, Mexico

September 18, 2009 by  
Filed under 1000 Americans

Hiram, Puebla

Hiram manages the family restaurant, together with his brothers, parents and uncle. ‘El Balcon’ is widely known by the local customers and they line up every weekend, not minding a long wait to be seated.

Hiram also plays guitar in his church and loves to travel, having backpacked through Europe with his friend Leandro. He is a wonderful CouchSurfing host as well :)

Day 332-335: 8-11 June: Mexico City-Cholula, canals, interviews, city and volcanoes

September 16, 2009 by  
Filed under Central Mexico, Mexico, North America, Trip reports

Cycling through the outskirts of Metepec was still ok, but when we reached the main road from Toluca to Mexico, we had to use all senses we had to stay alive. We stopped at a gas station 20km out of town, as it was no use to try to cycle into the city any farther. There was a big climb ahead, the toll roads was completely full with cars and the free road even fuller, but then with trucks as well, neither having a decent shoulder for cycling.

We got a ride from a nice guy who worked for a TV station in the city. He took us over the high pass and down to one of the biggest cities in the world: depending on your definition, around 20 million people live in the valley!

Street Interview in Mexico DFHe dropped us off at his office, conveniently situated near the ‘periferico’, the huge highway, circling all around the centre of Mexico City. We were on our way to Ulises, yet another CouchSurfing host. According to the map, it was only about 10km to his house.

The periferico was the logical and fastest way, but filled with fast traffic as well, which we were not. Luckily, there was another road right beside it, with traffic lights and less hurry. As we still had some leftover free miles, we made it to Ulises’ area quickly, only interrupted by a taxi strike that had blocked some roads. Just after passing the blocked area, a TV reporter on a motorcycle did a quick interview with us, right on the street, not sure if it made it to the evening news.

We made it safely to Ulises’ house, but could have had some serious trouble as several metal drain covers were missing on the road, exposing holes without visible bottom, and 60cm/2ft across.

Ulises and his family welcomed us with open arms and treated us to some more Mexican dishes. Forget about Taco Bell, if you love real food (duh), you need to visit Mexico sometimes, as every region has its own different tasty specialties.

UNAM lunch with UlysesUlises is studying engineering, specializing in the movements of the earth underneath the large buildings in the historic centre. he could as well been a professional guide if he wanted, as he shared his encyclopaedic knowledge about the culture and history of the City.

It was a shame that we had to rush, as there are many things to see in the city, that actually consists of many smaller towns and neighbourhoods, all absorbed into the giant metropolis, but with their own character and attractions.

Cleaning nopales in XochimilcoWe ate a great and cheap lunch at the huge UNAM University complex, actually a city in itself, where the future of Mexico is being shaped. In the afternoon we visited the market and historic centre of Xochimilco, in the South part of the city.

Ivana took a quick lesson how to prepare the nopales, the flat cactus leaves that is a popular vegetable. We relaxed and took a Gondola tour through the ancient canals that are still open and of course enjoyed more paletas and drank a ‘pulque, the ancient fermented drink that is still popular.

Ivana in Xochimilco (3)For about USD $10 you get a private boat for an hour, complete with a gondolier slowly pushing the boat through canals lined with nice houses & lush green trees.

It was low season and not busy, but besides a few other boats with tourists, there are usually also boats selling food, drinks and souvenirs, and even some Mariachi boats with a complete orchestra that will play a song for a small charge. There are party boats where the youth come to drink and dance and complete families have reunions and a good and relaxed time, while floating slowly on the ancient waters.

You would have no idea that you are in one of the largest cities in the world, that was completely shut down a few weeks before because of fear for the ‘swineflu’.

Boat dock in XochimilcoUs in Xochimilco Ulises in XochimilcoKids in Xochimilco

Life in the city

There are enough sights, museums and monuments to keep you busy for weeks, if not months in Mexico City. The centre is well-known, the main square (where photographer Spencer Tunick once captured a record 18,000 nude people, a shock to the Catholic country) with the nearby ruins, government buildings, huge flag and the grand cathedral. As we had little time to do the city justice, we opted to see some of the lesser known pretty places where people actually live and work. There are parks, a small Chinatown, many big office buildings and all kinds of museums and interesting buildings.

We walked and rode the bus and the infamous subway between all of them and noticed that:

  • nobody was wearing the mouth covers we saw in the news, just some people serving in restaurants &
  • we did not get robbed, pick pocketed, kidnapped or molested once, how weird is that!

Cathedral in Mexico DF Street corner in mexico DF

In the evening we visited some older towns that had been swallowed by the city. Friendly Tlalpan was as quiet as any small country town and beautiful Coyoacan should be one of the Pueblos Magicos, as pretty and relaxed as it is. Nope, again, no robberies and the air was clean.

10th June 2009: Interview and into thin air!

Interview at Ulises' place for AtractorThe next morning we were interviewed by some nice guys, for a new online magazine, called Atractor; the interview can be seen online here.

We had told Ulises that we wanted to see the Paso de Cortez, the famous mountain pass between the mountains Izta & Popo, where Cortez made his way to the valley. Ulises advised against cycling out of the city and as he loved the place, he offered to bring us there with his small car. Roadside handmade ice, Mexico DF

After lunch (Chicken with green mole!) we loaded our bikes on the bike rack, just fit all the bags inside and headed out the city. We stopped at one of the many handmade ice-cream stalls and continued up and over several nice little towns, situated on grassy fields.

The actual road up to the pass was steep, but paved and even though it rained, we slowly rose above most of the clouds, feeling happy we were not cycling/pushing our bikes through the rainy forest. The pass and a visitor centre are at about 3500m/12,000ft altitude, but the huts and camping spaces are higher.

We continued on a slippery and rocky unpaved road and made it all the way up to a large hut. It seemed deserted, but after knocking repeatedly, the guardian Miguel opened up and let us in. We had brought our tent, but for a few pesos, we could stay in the cozy hut, so we opted for that instead, enjoying the sunset behind Popocatepetl (‘Popo’), with 5452m/18,000ft the 2nd highest mountain of Mexico.

Miguel enjoys living between the mountains and had taken thousands of pictures of the mountains and the wildlife on it and showed us many great ones on his laptop, while we ate some snacks together for dinner.

Popo, the warrior and Izta, the sleeping woman

Popo can no longer be climbed, as it is still very active and the constant fumes are lethal. Popocatepetl means ‘smoking mountain’ and only 4 years ago a large eruption shot 5km into the air keeping 30 million people that will be impacted by a larger blast awake…

Iztacihuatl (‘Izta’) on the North side of the pass and with 5220m only a few hundred meters lower, is dormant and still climbable, though the glaciers are shrinking. We did not have any glacier gear so just stuck to enjoying the magnificent mountains from the pass.

Iztaccíhuatl, the sleeping ladyPopocatepetl (2)

There are a lot of variations on the legend of Popo & Izta. Basically warrior Popo was in love with Izta, but was told by her parents that she had died when he was in battle. Izta was told the same about Popo and died of grief. Popo returned to find his loved one dead and laid her on the land, while resting sadly besides her.

This is why Iztacihuatl is known as ‘The Sleeping Lady’, as on clear days after snow, the mountain scarily resembles a woman lying down on her back, with the classic Volcanoe-shaped Popo at her feet. The several summits are known as the Knees, the Head and the breast.

The next morning we woke up early to see the sunrise with Miguel. It was cloudy, but far away we could see the perfect shape of the summit of Pico de Orizaba, the highest mountain of Mexico (and 3rd of North America, after Denali & Mount Logan). As to salute the sun, Popo shot a small eruption into the multicoloured sky.

We love seeing the cities and how the people live in faraway countries, but natural shows like these always impress more than anything else…

Popocatepetl (3)
Pico de Orizaba from Paso de Cortes at sunrise

Itza, the sleeping lady (2)Eruption on Popocatepetl

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To protect the bike as well as the car, we mountain-biked down to the pass while Ulises drove the car with the luggage down. We loaded our bikes up at the pass and said our goodbyes and thank-you’s to Ulises who had helped us out so much.

Us at the Paso de Cortez, with Popo

The east side of the Paso de Cortez is unpaved but the first few kilometres the smooth volcanic road was gentle enough. However, once we entered the forest again the road became horrible, slowing us down to protect the bikes, luggage and our spines. Big rocks were on the road and it was impossible to go fast, even though it was so steep we had to brake constantly. This lasted an hour or so, and if you ever are thinking about it: do NOT try to cycle up this side unless you are a professional mountainbiker without luggage…

We had lost a lot of altitude, but luckily there were a few free miles left when we hit the pavement and we zoomed through the fields towards Cholula. Usually we aim for the church if we want a place to have lunch as usually the Catholics have claimed the best and culturally richest parts of all Latin cities and normally the places are very beautiful.

In Cholula we had to search a bit for the pretty zocalo as Conquistador Cortes had almost 40 churches built after taking the city, but we ended up in the park, eating and relaxing from the downhill, only disturbed by a series of processions that came with terrible music and loud bomba’s, very noisy explosives shot into the air.

We had aimed to get to Puebla but stayed in Cholula that night with another CouchSurfer that offered a last-minute couch. We almost passed the giant Piramida Tepanapa, unnoticed as it is so big and covered with grass, that it looks like a huge hill. As often, there is a Catholic Church built on top, but they also might not have known that there was the largest pyramid on earth underneath.

Cholula is nowadays connected with Puebla, but in order to see more of the latter, we decided to move to Puebla, to see the often acclaimed city with our own eyes… We still had to rush, but my feet had started itching when I had seen the highest mountain in Mexico from afar… Would there maybe be time to… ? Tune back in to WorldOnaBike next time :)

Kowalski! Status report!

  • Our bikes survived the downhill, though Ivana got a flat tire on the sharp rocks there.
  • Knees and back are ok, but we are getting a bit nervous as we have to be in Cancun within 2 weeks…
  • Total km cycled (excluding rides): 10,370 (about 6500 miles)
  • More pictures of Xochimilco and Popocatepetl can be found on the picture page: http://harry.biketravellers.com/photos . as always, larger versions of the images appear automagically when clicking on the small versions (when reading this on http://WorldOnaBike.com). Try it!

Day 325-331, 1-7 June 2009: highland magic in Morelia

September 14, 2009 by  
Filed under Central Mexico, Mexico, North America, Tips & Tricks, Trip reports

Toll road booth - Caseta de QuotaWe were dropped off in the morning at our favourite pick-up spot: the tollbooth of the quota. For once we were not the only persons there without a car, as a demonstration of angry teachers was about to commence.

teacher's demonstration against high toll feesThe toll roads in Mexico are very expensive, most truck drivers and definitely the underpaid teachers cannot afford to use them, so they were going to occupy the booths and let everybody go free as a protest.

Unfortunately the guy that Ivana asked to give us a ride to Morelia had already paid. When he stopped to load our bikes in the back of the truck, he noticed the few dozen of people waiting and carefully asked ‘How many people need a ride again?’ :)

Old centre of MoreliaWe had not expected to get to Morelia so soon, but it was nice to have some time to cycle through the old city. Morelia is one of the reasons people should visit Mexico: it has a wonderful historic centre, full of culture and with loads of buildings that are older than anything in the US. The university city is full of young people and there are plenty nice places to eat, drink or party if needed.

Sweet MoreliaWe had been invited by our new CouchSurfing friend Monica to stay with her family, we were already the 3rd cycling couple they had hosted. Monica and her family took great care of us and we stayed much longer than planned. We still had a deadline to meet, but the generosity of Monica, her mother Yolanda, father Juan and brother Juan Pablo kept us relaxed.

Cobble stones in MoreliaYolanda is not just a great conversationalist with a lot of knowledge about history, culture and politics, but also a great cook. She surprised us every day with new local dishes, made with fresh and tasty natural ingredients only.

A welcome relief from the fast-food stores that are popping up everywhere in Mexico and from the pre-processed chemical packages that are sold as ‘food’ in the many small supermarkets. She even gives free classes about nutrition in schools and every meal was a feast.

We got to rest and recover from the hot Mexican coast My cut healed well and left only a small scar in the shape of a ‘7’, which is actually pretty cool :)

YolandaJuan

Patzcuaro, the magic town

When we mentioned that we would have to leave soon, they said that we could not go without seeing Patzcuaro, and they took us to this historic town between Uruapan & Morelia: one of the few dozen ‘Pueblos Magicos’, a list of less than 30 ‘magical cities’ of Mexico. Places that give you that special feeling…

We enjoyed the lake, ate real quesadillas on the market, had handmade ice-cream at the main square and admired the historic buildings and culture. Many local artists are producing and selling their artesanias on the streets and in little shops around town.
PatzcuaroMonica in Patzcuaro

Fat little ceramic Mexicans in PatzcuaroPatzcuaro from the Mirador

Embroidery in PatzcuaroPatio in Patzcuaro

Mame fruits

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As in more historic places in Mexico it is illegal to have big loud advertising in the centre. All shops have the same colours and use the same fonts to advertise their name outside, which secures a wonderful low-key relaxed feeling.

So even though Burger King might have infiltrated in the main square commercial zone, you won’t know it is there until you are almost inside. But why eat there anyway, when there are delicious huge quesedillas for USD$0,50 and tons of unknown but cheap and tasty fruits instead?

Patzcuaro streetsQuesedillas at the Gordita de gris, Patzcuaro (2)

Goodbye to Morelia

Couchsurfing meeting in MoreliaMonica had already taken us a few times to some nice dinners and walks in the historic centre of Morelia and even organised a CouchSurfing meeting for us. Monicas family in Morelia

It was hard to say goodbye to this generous family, as many times before we felt we had taken more than we could give in return. We felt privileged to be a part of the family for while and to see yet another side of the diverse Mexican culture.

Back on the road again, heading for DF. Paletas & hills.

If you are in another country and you are heading for ‘Mexico’, you are heading for the country. Once you are there and you are still heading for ‘Mexico’, everybody knows you are going to the capital with the same name. I must admit that I knew nothing much more about Mexico City than that it is one of the largest cities in the world, with accompanying pollution and crimes. Recently, it was known as the ‘Swine flu capital’, though all news sources in Mexico report that the flu originated in the US, so who should you believe?

Anyway, as we always like to see things for ourselves rather than trusting media copycats, we decided that we should at least try to visit the Capital.

Monica & Yolanda guided us out of Morelia and pointed us to the new toll road. Unfortunately the arrogant boss of the accompanying complex would not let us cycle, nor leave us waiting for a ride. All the guards said that once the chief would be away, we would be fine. In the end we managed to ask for a ride and get our bikes loaded on a truck while the driver was paying his toll.

Climbing the hills in the highlandsThe car dropped us off at Zinepecuaro, where we enjoyed the first of many ‘paletas’, locally made ice-lollies made with big chunks of pure fruit, like Guanabana, coconut, pineapple or my favourite, mango with chile: cold, sweet and spicy!

A steep road headed up to the main toll road between Guadelajara & Mexico city. The toll booth attendant did not even see us when we sneaked past. We could try to catch a ride here, but decided that we try some highland cycling instead. We regretted that soon as the next 15km was constant and very steep uphill. Mexican Highlands

Even though we were at about 2400m/8000ft, it was hot and we had run out of water on the long climb. At the summit we got a bag full of sweet strawberries from a street vendor, which we enjoyed between the pine forests of the highlands.

After an initial downhill there was another smaller hill to climb but then we could enjoy our well-earned ‘free miles’, all the way down to the city of Maravatio. We cycled into town and saw the sign of the Cruz Roja, the red Cross.

If you are ever cycling in a town and have no idea where to stay safely and cheaply, here are some recommended choices, in no particular order, but generally valid all over the world:

  • The fire station (Bomberos in Latin America). They usually have nothing much to do and enjoy the company, usually have some extra rooms or at least a safe place to camp
  • The Red Cross: same as the Bomberos, + benefit of providing medical help if needed
  • The Police: even though sometimes they have a bad name, generally speaking it is a lot safer to stay between police men than between the thieves they are trying to catch :)

Red Cross friendsWe got some water from the friendly nurses at the Cruz Roja and cooked our spaghetti outside the main entrance. Just after had put up our tent, the team leader cam out and offered us to stay inside instead and use the WiFi as well, which was of course gladly accepted.

It was nice to see young (most were between 16 & 20) volunteers, trying to help out in the community, while being educated.

The following day we still had some free miles saved and the kilometres passed quickly through gentle hills and green fields passing over small towns.

Souvenirshop and KowalskiRandom Mexican village

It was still a long way to the City and so we stopped at the next tollbooth, where we got a ride fairly quickly. Fortunately we passed the busy madness of Toluca city, and got dropped off right in Metepec, where Monica’s aunt & uncle live.

When we cycled to the charming main square to call them for directions, a group of young cyclists came up and started asking questions about our trip. They were really interested and also used the opportunity to practice their English. They guided us through the small streets, stopping cars to let us pass easily and even called Monica’s family when needed. It was great to have such a young and enthusiastic cycling escort!

We were received with open arms by Laura & Roberto and their son Beto in their house outside of town. To the west we could see the impressive massif of Volcan de Toluca, to the east were the high mountains separating us from one of the largest urban zones in the world, currently feared by the world because of some strange virus… Mexico City, here we come!

Day 106–123, 25 Oct–12 Nov 2008: Hikes, Halloween & Hope in Seattle

November 13, 2008 by  
Filed under North America, Trip reports, USA, Washington

First of all: did you know that if you click on the images in the posts, that a larger version will appear on top of the page, all automagically? try it, it is quite cool (pictures need some time to load as they are now 1000pixels wide!).

We had planned to stay maybe a week in Seattle, but it turned out we would stay for 2.5 weeks… Seattle is mostly known for Grunge, Microsoft, Boeing & coffee and it generally considered a nice place to live. I hade been working for a small company in Bothell, close to Seattle, about 8 years ago and had been in the area a few times. The great thing is that the city is huge, but spread out over several peninsulas and islands and that the mountains and nature are never far away…

It was great to see Andy again, after meeting in Uganda and Amsterdam before. He was very busy filming a documentary, connected to the upcoming elections, but still he took us out to see some live music and we went for a great hike up Mt Pilchuk. Not a difficult climb -though it was quite icy & slippery near the top-, but very rewarding, with nice views over the  Cascade mountains. It is wonderful to live so close to the nature and especially snow-capped mountains, something I miss in Amsterdam.

On our way out we stopped for a beer in a typical loggers bar. Neither the beer, nor the people and especially the decoration wasn’t very tasteful :)

Time flies when you’re having pain..

The days went passed quickly. We had a lot of rain, but also some nicer days. We walked around the neighbourhoods and went for some short rides. Only once we went out for a real ride; even though there are some biketrails, you really have to look for them and most are not so scenic, mostly just designated parts of the road.

We had been travelling in fall colours since the Yukon, 3000km north, and Seattle was no different. The shots that make up this image were shot in just one street, close to Andy’s place.

My back was starting to hurt again and as my diclophenac pills were finished and I could not get more without a prescription, I switched to an Ibuprofen-rich diet… Read more

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