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Aug
07

A Weekend In Mexico City

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tim in mexico cityTravel Weekly selected me along with 24 other agents for a weekend “familiarization (fam)” trip to Mexico City . I had been to Mexico many times before – each visit was at a coastal destination (Cozumel, Cancun, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, Acapulco, etc). On this trip I learned that Mexico City has its own treasures – you don’t have to go to a beach to enjoy Mexico!

My anticipation grew in chatting with a honeymoon couple as I was waiting in line at the United Airlines counter to change my flight arrangements. “Mexico City is one of my favorite cities in the World,” said the young bride. “You’ll have a wonderful time.” The United agent at the gate did a great job in finding me alternate flights, and soon I was on my way. Over my four day trip (Thursday night through Sunday afternoon) I experienced a sampling of the best Mexico City has to offer:

Activities

The highlight of my trip was a hot air balloon ride over the Teotihuacán Pyramids just north of the city. I describe this amazing experience in detail in my earlier blog post.

tim at the pyramidsLater that day our travel agent group were escorted by our guide Jacob to see the pyramids close up. I was familiar with the Kukulkan Pyramid at Chichen Itza and the Tulum ruins elsewhere in Mexico, but somehow in my many years of schooling I missed the fact that Mexico City had ancient Mayan pyramids nearby, too. I learned that the massive Pyramid of the Sun at this site is the third largest ancient pyramid in the World!

pyramid steps

We were given the opportunity to climb the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon with our guide. I made the first climb to a ceremonial platform for a better view (about 48 steps). The climb was very steep, as the above picture show, and I wondered how the ancient Mayans were able to traverse these structures (the Mayans were short – males averaged 5’2″ tall). My knee started to act up so I skipped climbing the taller two pyramids – the more hearty in our group did make the climb to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun (over 240 steps)

I found the whole Teotihuacán Pyramid complex fascinating – a glimpse into a great civilization of the past.

ballet

My second favorite activity of the weekend was a visit to the Palacio De Bellas Artes (Palace of Fine Arts) theatre to see the Ballet Folklorico. Now going to a ballet on a Sunday is not the norm for me (you will more likely find me watching NFL football or Major League baseball back home on a typical Sunday). But I enjoyed this performance very much – a shining example of Mexican culture. The dancers and musicians were highly skilled in a two hour show – with a variety of traditional Mexican dance and music. This is a must see during any visit to Mexico City.

museum

If you like museums, Mexico City is the place to be! We could have spent weeks exploring the 150+ museums in the city. For our short weekend trip we only had time to visit one – the Museo Frida Kahlo – displaying the work of this well known Mexican self-portrait artist. On a return trip to Mexico City I for sure will allow for more museum time (others in our group visited an Archaeology museum on their free time with good reports).

shoppingart

On Saturday morning we visited the Saturday Bazaar and Art Fair in the San Angel area. Here local vendors were selling their wares. I have visited open air markets in other parts of the World and I thought this one was one of the best. The vendors called out to us as we passed by but they weren’t overly aggressive. Many in our group bought local crafts and artwork here.

These are just a few of the activities you can experience on a trip to Mexico City. There’s more than enough to fill your days.

Restaurants

villa maria

We were treated to some wonderful restaurants during our trip. My favorite was the Villa Maria restaurant. Outside the restaurant was posted a review by New York Times critic William Grimes:

“You think you love Mexican food? You ain’t seen nothin! There is a mexican restaurant by the name of Villa Maria. It not only serves the best and most outrageous mexican food in the world but it also happens to be quite inexpensive. They feature live mariachi music. We guarantee you’ll have lots of fun.”

Mr Grimes was right! I found the food to be superb and the mariachi singers were excellent.

drink

“I don’t often drink margaritas, but when I do I like them big.”

Villa Maria featured the largest margarita I have had anywhere (and it was quite good!)

danceThe women I dined with were charmed by the lead mariachi singer, Sergio, who took turns dancing with some in our group.

cave

cave2My other favorite place we dined at was “La Gruta” near the Teotihuacán Pyramids. This restaurant, open only for lunch, is located in a cave! I enjoyed the unusual setting and the food here.

We had a number of good breakfasts, lunches, and dinners at different restaurants throughout the city. A visit to Mexico City is sure to satisfy your palette!

Hotels

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View out of my window at the Presidente InterContinental Hotel

Our base hotel for our 4 day trip was the Presidente InterContinental Hotel. I enjoyed my stay here very much. My room was large with a good sized shower and a great view (above).

jwm

pool at jw marriott mexico city

workout room at the st regis, mexico city

workout room at the st regis, mexico city

We toured a number of other hotels in the area, including the JW Marriott and St Regis. I recommend any of these for an enjoyable and comfortable Mexico City getaway.

city viewThe young bride I talked to at the airport was right – Mexico City is a wonderful place to visit. So many people when they consider traveling to Mexico think only of the beach destinations (which are delightful places to visit in their own right). Mexico City is equally marvelous with a plethora of activities, restaurants, and more to explore. I hope to return to Mexico City for a longer stay next time.

 

 

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Tim before his ride

“Me??? In a hot air balloon???” I’m not sure about this!” I said to myself when I was given the opportunity to experience my first hot air balloon ride ever above the Teotihuacán Pyramids just north of Mexico City.

air adventures

As a child I always had a fear of heights. In my years as a travel agent I had pretty much conquered those jitters, in doing high flying activities such as ziplining on a cruise shore excursion or soaring over the Misty Fjords, Alaska in a small plane. “You were nervous before at great heights and you survived,” I told myself. “Hot air ballooning? No sweat!”

jacob

Our bus picked us up at 5:30 am for the hour long ride to the balloon launching field. It was eerily quiet as we rode through the streets of Mexico City in what seemed like the middle of the night. I could sense a tension among the other travel agents with me. “Don’t do it, Mom!” said the woman next to me in relaying a conversation she had with her daughter the night before. It was to be her first hot air balloon ride, too. Our guide Jacob filled us in on what we were about to experience at the Teotihuacán Pyramids. Suddenly the bus stopped. The air conditioning had stopped working. “I hope the bus company isn’t maintaining the balloons, too,” I thought.

flat

After a short delay to fix the air conditioning, we were on our way. Soon we arrived at the open field where the balloons would be launched. We were all given release forms to sign. “Surely this is safe,” I told myself, putting out of my mind the hot air ballooning accident I had read about two weeks earlier.

rollcall

“Tim Larison! Tim Larison!” yelled the woman in a heavy Spanish accent. “That’s me! I’m first. I hope I’m not on the test balloon!”

passengers

Tensions eased as we saw the brilliantly colored balloons unfurl before our eyes. “We can do this!”

basket

Eight of us were instructed to climb into the balloon basket. The hardest part was getting in and getting out! But we helped each other and no one was left behind – soon we were standing up, all snug 4 to a side in our balloon basket.

roman

Our pilot Roman expertly filled our balloon with hot air as we slowly rose off the ground. Roman didn’t say much but we were ok with that – we preferred he concentrate on his job! We could feel the heat as Roman turned up the gas to fill up the balloon. The warmth of the flame felt good on this cool, crisp Mexico morning.

balloon1

Any worries I had quickly melted away as I was awestruck with the beauty of the sunrise, the landscape below, and the colorful balloons all around. It was an amazing sight!

balloon2

We flew over the ancient Mayan Pyramid of the Moon and Pyramid of the Sun. I marveled at the ancient technology (around 100 AD) that built these behemoth structures. We were to get a closeup view of the Pyramids in a hike later in the day – the most impressive views, though, were from the air.

balloon3

We flew close, but never too close, to the other balloons around us. We could hear roosters crowing below welcoming the morning sun. It was a very peaceful and beautiful setting as we stayed in the air for almost an hour.

balloon4

selfie

By now I was feeling relaxed and confident, enough to take this mid-air selfie!

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At the end of our exhilarating hour ride we touched down softly in an open field.

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crew2

The crew quickly deflated our big balloon, stuffed it into a bag, loaded it along with our basket on a trailer and off they went. Ballooning is a very portable business!

certificate

We were each given a certificate to commemorate our memorable ballooning adventure. Thanks to the staff of Travel Weekly and the Mexican Tourism Board for giving me and my travel agent group an experience I will long remember. Like with my past aerial adventures the hesitant anticipation of the event made the outcome even more satisfying when it was all done. I had conquered my fear! That’s one reason I like my work. Whether it be a physical challenge, like high flying over ancient pyramids in a small basket, or an emotional one, like immersing yourself in a foreign culture for the first time, travel has a way of stretching you beyond your limits.

If you would like a life expanding travel experience, whether it be hot air ballooning over the Teotihuacán Pyramids or something else, contact us. We can make it happen.

Coming soon: more from my weekend in Mexico City – it was an amazing place to visit.

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dealey plazaI finally got to see it.  Last month I took the picture at the left of Dealey Plaza, the site of the Kennedy assassination 50 years ago today.  Though I was only seven years old when JFK was killed, I have had a fascination with the event over the years.  I remember staying up late on a school night in 1975, as a college freshman, to watch the first public showing of the famous Zapruder film on Geraldo Riveria’s late night ABC show.  “Surely there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy!” I thought at the time as the Zapruder film showed the fatal head shot appearing to come from the front, and not from the Texas School Book Depository where Lee Harvey Oswald was perched on the 6th floor.  In the 90’s I read a number of books about the assassination, and even gave a speech giving details of various conspiracy theories to my Toastmaster club.

In 2000 I did a 180 degree turn – changing my opinion to believe Lee Harvey Oswald did act alone to kill JFK.  Arguments by former Charles Manson prosecuter Vincent Bugliosi, and by author Gerald Posner, who both wrote books filled with evidence pointing to Oswald as the lone killer, were very convincing. Standing at Dealey Plaza on a cool Saturday morning last month showed me that Oswald could have easily fired the shots.  The whole area is smaller when you see it in person than it appears on film.  Two “x’s” still mark the pavement noting the location of the presidential limo when Kennedy was hit.  I could only imagine the horror of the bystanders that day as they witnessed the shooting first hand – the limo was only a few feet away.

I haven’t thought much about the Kennedy assassination in recent years, but the 50 year anniversary of the tragedy this week has renewed my interest.  I have watched various documentaries in the past week from different viewpoints, ranging from a theory that a Secret Service agent accidentally fired the fatal shot, to the anti-conspiracy shows again showing Oswald was the lone gunman.  My current opinion is that Oswald was definitely involved and fired shots, but that there was more to the assassination than that.  Could Oswald’s ties to some questionable characters point to a conspiracy?  Perhaps.

Today I think it is time to put all the speculation about the Kennedy assassination behind us.  We’ll never know the full truth.  Instead I prefer to focus on what an inspiration JFK was to the country.  Yes, he had his flaws (don’t we all), but he had an amazing ability to inspire audiences with his speeches.  One of the best JFK documentaries I’ve seen in the past week focused on his final hours in Texas.  In interviews with people he met on his Texas trip I got a better picture of Kennedy the person, and his charismatic wife Jackie, and the effect they had on people.  I prefer to see footage of JFK’s memorable speeches rather than endless replays of the fatal assassination head shot.  In watching those speeches John F Kennedy is still an inspiration to us today, 50 years after his death.

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We heard a flapping noise outside our stateroom early in the morning – what could it be?

swanwindow

Swans!

swanclose

We were so close we could touch them!

hike1a

After a hearty breakfast we went on a four hour tour of Germany’s Black Forest.  We enjoyed a hike in the mountains.

hike2

Though the temperatures were cold  it felt good to hike in nature after seeing castles and cathedrals on other days of our trip.

cuckoo

At the end of our hike we returned to a small shopping area featuring this huge cuckoo clock.  The intricate workings of the clock were fascinating to see.

guide

In the afternoon we took another tour – this one on world war II action in the Black Forest area.  Our guide was extremely knowledgeable in telling us the military history of the area.  The story of Audie Murphy was featured – we saw the spot where Murphy fought off a German battalion for 90 minutes single-handedly.

country

The Allies victory at the Colmar Pocket was a key turning point in the war.  As we stood on a mountain top near a French military cemetary our guide pointed out the military maneuvers of the day and how the Nazis were forced out of this region.

We had a memorable river cruise overall, and this last day in the Black Forest was one of the highlights!

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annemist

It was a cold, misty morning as we arrived in Kehl, Germany.  We were soon on a tour bus to Stasbourg, France – a short distance away on the other side of the Rhine River.

guide

Our Viking tour guide took us on a two hour walking tour of this old city – founded by the Romans in 12 B.C.  We noticed immediately the architectural style was French, not German.  Stasbourg is a center for European politics – home to the European Council and European Parliament.

church1

Dominating the city center was the huge Notre Dame Cathedral.  This gothic structure dates back to 1176 and took over 300 years to build.  On a trip where we have seen many churches, Notre Dame was one of the most impressive.  At 466 feet high it was the tallest building in the Christian world from the 15th through 19th century (only the Great Pyramid in Egypt was higher).

church2

The inside of the cathedral was impressive.  Our guide said one of the stain glass windows here dated back to the 13th century.  Other stain glass windows, added in the 16th century, displayed scenes from the Gospels.  In that era many peasants could not read or write, so the display of Jesus’ life through stain glass pictures was a way of getting the Bible’s message to the poor.

clock

The church’s intricate clock dates back to the 1800’s.  We watched characters move on the clock on the half hour.  We just missed the main attraction – a procession of 18 inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles which occurs once at midday while a life-size cock crows thrice.

timanneship

We returned to Germany and our ship docked on the Rhine in the early afternoon.  The weather had cleared up by then.  Anne took a pleasant walk along the riverfront in the late afternoon while I took a midday nap.

Tomorrow we sail to the Black Forest region of Germany, our last full day of the cruise.

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sunrise

I opened our stateroom window to see this sunrise over the Rhine River.  We were ready for another day of seeing castles, German towns, and cathedrals!

timannecastle

Most of the day we were in Heidelberg.  Here we are shown in front of the old castle, “considered the most magnificent castle ruin in Germany” according to our guide.

guide

Our Viking guide, a graduate student at a local university, was excellent in telling us the history of the castle.  It took over 400 years to build and shows a mix of Gothic and Renaissance styles.

winebottle

Back in the castle’s heyday this barrel held 58,000 gallons of wine.

heid

The views from the castle of the city of Heidelberg below were also spectacular.

pizza

After touring the castle we explored the city of Heidelberg on our own for two hours.  Perhaps time for a German lunch?  Nahh, we are not big fans of German cuisine.  Instead we found a little Italian cafe and split a delicious Margherita pizza.

church

We returned to our river boat in the mid afternoon and resumed sailing down the Rhine.  We arrived at Speyer, Germany shortly before dinner.  We took a 40 minute stroll to the town’s square where we saw this magnificent cathedral – one of the largest we’ve seen on this trip.

Tomorrow we take a detour and venture into France for a visit to Strasbourg.

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Today we visited one of the best preserved fortresses overlooking the Rhine – Marksburg Castle.

timcastle

The castle, high on a hill, is over 700 years old.  Its location made it difficult for attackers to reach it over the years, hence it had far less damage than other Rhine castles.

guide2Viking River Cruises arranged for an excellent guide to show us around the castle in a one hour tour.  We walked over cobblestone paths and climbed steep stairways during the presentation.

arms

A display of medieval armament in one of the castle’s many rooms was interesting.

view

viewtimanne

The view from the Marksburg Castle was equally spectacular.  We saw our Viking Forseti ship sail by far below – we met up with the ship by bus down river after the tour.

rhinecruise

In the afternoon we sailed down the Rhine with amazing scenery all around us.  We came upon castle after castle as our ship’s program director explained the historical significance of each fortress.

anneconga

In the evening we were treated to a concert by local musicians.  Anne was surprisingly pulled from the audience for the finale to lead a conga line.  She was a good sport about it and led a group of our fellow travelers around the ship’s lounge.  No conga for me – I stayed on the outside taking pictures of the festivities!

Tomorrow we are off to Heidelberg and another day of touring.

 

 

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Oct
28

Rhine River Cruise Day 3 (Cologne)

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Our river cruise brought us to Cologne this morning – Germany’s fourth largest city.

cologneriv

As we approached Cologne the massive cathedral dominated the skyline.

breakfast

Before venturing out into the city we had breakfast in our ship’s dining room.  We try to get a window table each time.  The food at all meals has been excellent!

guide

Our German tour guide led us on a two hour walking tour of Cologne – a city originally founded by the Romans 2000 years ago.  We learned that 90% of Cologne was destroyed by allied bombs in World War II.  Most of the old buildings we saw were reconstructions built after the war.

cathtimanne

The highlight of our walking tour was a visit to the Cologne Cathedral – the largest Gothic church in Germany and tallest Roman Catholic cathedral in the world.  The church took 600 years to build dating back to 1248.

cathinside

The cathedral was just as impressive on the inside.  While the church was bombed during the war some of the original sections were undamaged.  Services are still held here – we exited the church before the 12 noon gathering.

We are skipping the optional tour Viking is offering, a night time walking tour of Cologne’s beer halls, instead preferring to remain onboard for another delicious dinner, a lecture on the European Union, and a concert of classic German music.  Our ship remains docked until 11 pm, when we set sail for Koblenz, Germany.

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wmtimanne

It was a cold, windy morning in Holland where we visited Kinderdijk and its windmills.

guide

Our Dutch guide Margriet led us on a two hour tour.  We learned of the inner workings of windmills.  Most of the windmills we saw this day dated back to the 1700’s.  We went inside one windmill surprised to find it once was a family home.

wmanne2

wmtim

The series of windmills dotting the Holland countryside was impressive!

timboat

We got a better look at our Viking river cruise ship from the outside.  Our stateroom is on the lower deck near the aft.

I wore my University of Colorado jacket.  One woman came up to me and said, “Go Buffs!”  She was a CU grad who attended many football games from the late 60’s to the mid 90’s before moving to Arizona.

anneboat

wmanne

We returned to the ship shortly before lunch and resumed our journey down the Rhine.  We visited the top observation deck for the first time.  Though cold we enjoyed watching the sights go by as we sailed by farms, small towns, and under bridges.captain

The captain, at age 26 the youngest in the Viking fleet, explained to us the operation of the “wheelhouse” on the top deck.  Our Viking Forseti ship, only six months old, had all the latest technology to make this a safe and smooth trip.

Tomorrow we visit a much bigger city on the Rhine – Cologne, Germany.

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We arrived in Holland early Saturday morning on our overnight ferry from Harwich, UK.  We forgot to account for the one hour time difference (Holland is one hour ahead of London) but fortunately we awoke earlier than planned so it wasn’t a problem.  We exited the ferry, boarded a train to Rotterdam adjacent to the Ferry terminal, and then switched to another train to Amsterdam.

annetrain

The train to Amsterdam was packed, as passengers stood shoulder to shoulder.  We found seats near an exit and hoped everything would work out as we took the one hour ride from Rotterdam.

anneship

Not to worry as we were soon sipping champagne in the lounge of our river cruise ship – the beautiful Viking Forseti.  Different than the many ocean cruises we have sailed on, the Forseti accomodated 190 passengers (much smaller than the ocean ships that hold up to 6,000).  We were able to board immediately and we were told by the staff “we’ll find you when your room is ready”.  That would never happen on an ocean cruise!  The smaller size of a river cruise boat allows for a more personalized experience with the crew and other passengers.

roomview

The view from our stateroom is wonderful!  We overlooked the Amsterdam harbor this day, and we look forward to the scenery we’ll encounter as we sail down the Rhine the next 7 days.

amsguid

One benefit of a river cruise, compared to most ocean cruises, is that on a river cruise many shore excursions are included in the price!  We took a hour and a half walking tour through the heart of Amsterdam with this guide.  It was very interesting as he told us about the history and current life of the city.

amsterdam

The canals of Amsterdam reminded us of our visit to Venice a few years ago.  We were here only a few hours, so we’ll save some of the attractions for a future visit (like the Anne Frank house and Van Gogh museum).

Tonight we set sail down the Rhine to Kinderdijk, described as “one of the most picturesque and iconic sights in all of Holland” in the Viking cruise newsletter.  Stay tuned for our pictures, which are sure to feature many windmills!

 

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