Posts Tagged With: jungle

Midas Resort – BELIZE!

Some resort destinations just have that perfect touch.  I had the pleasure to experience this recently, as I filmed a promo piece for Midas Resort, located in Belize’s fascinating jungle interior in the town of San Ignacio. Any trip to Belize MUST include a journey into the Cayo District, which is the country’s most prominent nature, eco-adventure and Mayan history region. The exploration opportunities here are endless…just like the tropical serenade of the native green parrots who frequent the resort grounds. Next time you’re in Belize, be sure to pack some nature-trekking gear along with your swimsuit, crack an ice-cold Belikin and come see what the “Midas Touch” is all about!


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La Selva Maya – Petén, Guatemala

Tikal(Tikal – 2015)

So here I was, in the jungle of Petén, Guatemala just a few short weeks ago. I made my way up the zigzagging wooden staircase that ascends to the top of Temple IV in the mighty ruins of Tikal. Far less neck-slapping of mosquitos this time around. A dry, sunny April day made for an incredible contrast to my last experience in this mystical world of wonder, which saw me slipping around the ruins wearing a bright yellow rain slicker that made me look like a greased up banana with legs…hairy legs, even less flattering to the locals (perhaps not to the howler monkeys). I had made this trek and climb before, about 7 years ago. Same green bag, different shoes and camera. You always know you’re in a special place when, even though you’ve been there before, it feels like a unique experience the second time around, one that has your eyeballs peeled away in total awe of your surroundings, with an equal or greater impression felt than that of your first visit.

The jungle is raw, alive…constantly whispering its stories of the past though ancient structures and their decipherable remains. It breathes a silent air and echos a mystical tune as you stand above a canopy of endless green and inhale sweeping views of this storied land that has harbored centuries of warriors, kings, slaves, innovation, peace & prosperity, death & destruction. La Selva Maya – The Mayan Jungle. It’s still there…with the same sun casting its rays upon it daily, whether dampened or glowing. Oh, the stories it could tell…

Tikal, Guatemala(A floating mist blankets the jungle on my first visit to Tikal back in 2008)

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Humbled in the Jungle – Calakmul, Mexico

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What is it about trekking through the jungle that sends omenously cool vibrations sprinting down my spinal column? It’s wild, unpredictable, mysterious – kind of like walking into a strip club in Vegas on your 21st birthday – it’s just an exhilarating (and intimidating) place to be. So when I heard about this massive ancient Mayan site embedded in the remotest of remote  jungles near the southern end of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make the trip down to check out the remains of what was once among the most influential sites in the history of the Mayan Empire:  Calakmul.

From what I understood, it was a bit of an effort to get there. There’s only 1 hotel within a 60km radius and if you Google “Calakmul” on a map you end up with a location marker that lands in the middle of absolute nowhere within a huge Biosphere Reserve just north of the Guatemalan border, several hours away from anything remotely familiar to the average Mexico traveler. This is the beauty of traveling to places like this. Only the adventurous few will make the effort, so the experience will feel unique and untainted and you’ll never have to worry about crowds, traffic jams or crying toddlers in strollers begging for ice cream while you pass through the turnstile. (No, I’m not a big fan of Disneyland, you guessed correctly.) An exit south off of highway 186, which slices horizontally through the state of Campeche, took me on a long, lonely road flanked by endless miles of a subtropical forest that has seen only the most intrepid of travelers pass through its sequestered corridor.

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After a lengthy drive deep into the jungle, with every revolving digit of the odometer reminding you that you are advancing one frame further from civilization, I arrived at the Calakmul visitor’s center/museum. Plenty to see there while killing time, but my eagerness to explore had ignited my appetite so I grabbed some Doritos and an empanada and then hopped in a van with a few other travelers to make our way down another long (dirt) road, which really reassured me of the remoteness of this ancient wonder. Upon arrival to the ruins site, I performed my typical jungle-trekking ritual of mosquito repellent-bathing, calf-stretching and a second round of mosquito repellent-bathing. There was a lovely scenic walking path leading to the actual ruins, passing through an expanding canopy of dense forest with filtered sunbeams penetrating the jungle roof like a laser light show transmitted from heaven. The environment here is raw, stimulating, overwhelming to the senses…it kind of reminds me of walking through the olive & pickle market in Spain back in the day. The deeper I get into it, the more I start salivating. I finally arrive to the actual ruins and am immediately thrown into the set of Apocalypto (“please don’t let me run into a black jaguar on its lunch break”, was my first thought). The ruins were imposingly present throughout the area and seemed in a very natural state. I climbed to the top of the first structure I saw. The view (and the 60+  steps) took my breath away.

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Standing above the jungle canopy atop the remains of an ancient structure of a kingdom that once rivaled Tikal as one of the grandest and most powerful cities of the Mayan world will quickly halt your mind into “pause” mode – and then force you to reflect on the former reality and historical scope of your surroundings. This was the land of rulers and kings…the turf of brave and brutal warriors and conquerors (and angry little monkeys, but we’ll get to that). The view of adjacent temples popping up through the blanket of vegetation in the distance is one that your brain will quickly file into the category of “Holy Shit – Awesome!”. Several large structures were scattered throughout the area, and if each one could speak I’m sure it would have countless tales spanning centuries of discovery, war, peace, famine and wonder. (That, or it would tell me to “clean your shoes before walking on my face, jerk!”) The surrounding jungle sprawls out endlessly in all directions, and the louring echo of howler monkeys adds an eerie soundtrack to the surreal scene that quietly envelopes you. When you sit there and think about the history that a place like this has written in its fraction of existence on Earth, and the countless lives that lived and were lost here, you are humbled…and you are also reminded of your very fortunate place in the annals of time. We live in a time where science answers many of the natural wonders that the original inhabitants of this land would never understand…a time where technology allows us to connect with and discover the farthest corners of the globe…a time where you won’t get sacrificed for being on the losing side in a game of kickball. As I explored Calakmul, I remained humbly cognizant of its historical significance. I walked among symbols of great power and strolled through ancient hallways of artistry and wonder.

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Now let’s get to these monkeys that were ready to engage with me in a full-on turf war. What began as a cordial initial encounter, with the natural underpinnings of curiosity, quickly turned into a Clint Eastwood “Get off my lawn” scenario where the native tree-dwellers began to express to me just how peeved they were with my presence in their “jungle hood”. I hadn’t been briefed on the hospitality of the local monkey community before entering the area, therefore I just continued to go about my business, observe them, photograph them and proudly reinforce to them (by standing my ground) that there wasn’t gonna be any Planet Of The Apes-inspired ego flung in my direction. What WAS flung in my direction, however, was a tree branch straight towards my head by one of the two feisty little hairy bastards that I was shooting in the trees above, followed by some maniacal gestures of chest-beating and flashing of the teeth (those teeth are no joke!). This isn’t how I typically like to be received into a new place. The capuchins in Costa Rica posed for my camera like girls auditioning for a Lowrider magazine cover on Instagram. There was no “Welcome” mat on these two monkeys’ front porch. They began shaking the tree branches and beating on their chests like little King Kong wannabies. Oh, hell no. It was getting serious now. I was dealing with some bonafide bullies. As soon as that tree branch came flying towards my head, I was reminded of my surroundings in this “wild” and “unpredictable” jungle environment. This isn’t like being at the zoo where you’re able to laugh and make faces at an animal and feel safe from retaliation due to the security provided by the double-paned glass or steel cage that lies between you and the animal. This was the wild wild west of Mexican jungles – untamed and virtually unexplored – and these monkeys were the last holdouts of their village who weren’t gonna backdown from any foreign “bandits” armed with cameras and binoculars. I must admit, the intimidation tactics did work. (Again, those teeth are no joke!) I didn’t stick around too much longer to find out of they were bluffing. I wasn’t in the mood for a face full of poo that day, or a couple of jungle hoodlums trying to bully me for my bananas. Their aggressive behavior was enough for me to wrap up my photo shoot and quickly move along. Monkeys 1 – Gringo 0.

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The fact that you can visit one of the world’s most fascinating remnants of ancient times and experience the full ambience of the natural world that surrounds it makes Calakmul a “must-see” destination on anyone’s Mexico travel list. Here, you can enjoy Mayan ruins that rival all of the grandeur and scale of the ruins of Chichen-Itza, but in a much more exotic and remote (and far less manicured) environment. You’ll also escape the crowds of day-trippers and local vendors trying to negotiate the “good price for you” sale of painted jaguar masks and plastic pyramid paper weights. If Chichen-Itza is Starbucks, then Calakmul is your out-of-the-way coffee shop reserved for enjoying an authentic blend in a quiet environment. Calakmul offers its visitors a chance to enjoy some seriously impressive ruins and experience the environment the way the ancient Maya saw it – in a natural state, remotely enclosed by the very jungle that witnessed its rise and fall. If you’re lucky, you’ll have a close encounter with the modern-day native inhabitants of this exotic land…the wildlife. There is an abundance. Just watch your back. As soon as a tree branch comes flying towards your head it might be your cue to continue your tour and move on to the next structure. As I was reminded, it’s best to never outstay your welcome in the wild…a lesson I also learned in the chaotic urban jungle of Mardi Gras in New Orleans back in 1996, but that’s a story for another day.

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Puerto Rico – Isla Del Encanto – waterfalls

As promised, I must honor my word and bring you the best of the best from last month’s Puerto Rico adventure! I found so much beauty and diversity all throughout the island, I don’t really know where to start. So I’ll just spin the jog wheel on the mouse and see where the cursor lands. (Spinning…done) This secluded waterfall (near the town of San Sebastián) was found as a result of Doing Your Homework Before You Travel. It’s a bit of an effort to get here, but that’s the whole idea, verdad? I mean, yeah…you can take the easier roads to some of the more accessible falls right off the highway (à la Maui’s Road to Hana, where you don’t even have to leave your vehicle…but good luck getting a decent photo without navigating your lens through the human traffic jam)…or you can get your numb-from-the-car-ride buttocks off the path, trek through a Jurassic Park-like environment, get some mud on the shoes, donate to the local mosquito blood drive and reward yourself with a spectacular slice of nature that can be quietly enjoyed in the company of a very few other lucky travelers, or even alone, if you time it right. The falls were pristine and the dip in the natural pool was a (testicle-shrinkingly) perfect way to spend the afternoon. Did I mention the water was cold?

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Familiar paths, familiar faces…

On my first trip to Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula in 2011, the one thing I was most fascinated to learn about and photograph was the lifestyle of the modern Maya people. After all, it is among the most mysterious and renowned cultures to ever make it into the history books. If I were gonna travel here, I was gonna be sure to experience some true modern-day Mayan flavor…and not let the movie Apocalypto haunt me with images of black jaguars and savage natives chasing me through the jungle. I also had to find out about all of this “end of the world” ballyhoo. So, I set out to explore some villages in the Mayan heartland to meet the locals and take some “authentic” photos of life beyond the tourist decoys, sunburned drunks and tequila-soiled beach bars of Cancun and the Riviera. Not that I have anything against sunburned drunks, I’ve been one on several occasions. But I have matured as a traveler, far beyond my port-crashing Navy days of old, and my mission for this particular visit was to ensure that the best “shots” I would get during the trip would be the ones produced by the camera, not by Pedro the bartender.

Yucatan road

During my 2 weeks there in 2011, I visited a dozen or so villages and met some of the nicest and most generous people that you can imagine. I would speak with them, accept an invite into their homes (have a few beers at some, play with the kids at others) and learn a little about who they are and what life is like there. It was exactly what I had been looking for. This was the “real life” that most travelers never get a chance to see. Of course, before I would bid farewell to each of my new friends I met on that trip, I had to work my camera into the game. I would kindly ask for a photo as a keepsake for my travel archives and would be pleasantly, and sometimes shyly, granted permission every time. Luckily, the Maya are nothing like those stuck-up broads at the Playboy convention who demand $15 per photo.

So, on my return trip to the Yucatán this past April with my girlfriend, I thought it would be really cool to visit my village friends once again and present them with a copy of their photo. It was the sort of project I had wanted to do for a long time, but was just waiting for the right opportunity. I whipped up about 14 prints, ironed out my maps and made my way back through the same village route that I had traveled back in 2011, on a mission to find each of my photo subjects where I had originally met them. How would they react? I had no idea, but would soon find out. Senor Jose My first stop was the village of Nuevo Durango, 6th house on the left. I had met Señor Jose here a year and a half earlier. Señor Jose will always represent my introduction to the world of the modern Maya, as he was the first person I met in my travels there. I remember first seeing his innocent, puppy dog eyes and smiling face as I entered the village. It struck me as an irresistible opportunity to get a nice portrait of a local Maya man in his traditional home. I knew I had to stop and say hello. In that initial encounter, I introduced myself to him and commented that I liked his house. Next thing you know, he invited me in and showed me the inside of his rustic, one room “palapa” hut. This was my first time inside a Mayan dwelling. It was awesome to see. The simple life is truly defined here…hammock for a bed, a weathered wingback chair, basic cooking and eating utensils, an old television, mini-fridge, and plenty of tools for collecting food and cultivating the land. He spoke of his life there and gave me some delicious guava fruit from a tree in front of his house. I asked for a photo, and he agreed. After getting a great portrait, I said goodbye and I left feeling like I’d just had the coolest experience I would probably end up having on the entire trip…first village, first stop, first encounter. Upon arrival this second time around, I was eager to reconnect with Señor Jose . Unfortunately, he wasn’t home when we arrived, but his son who lived across the street told me he was around town and didn’t know when he would return. His son was probably wondering if I was a government liaison looking to bring his father in for questioning or something. I explained how I knew his father and showed him another portrait of a gentleman I had met in one of the fields on the outskirts of the same town. I asked the son if he knew where the other guy lived. He responded, in Spanish, “Yes, that’s Don Siviliano. He lives 3 houses down.” Luckily for me, the average village only has about 200 people or so. A local directory service probably isn’t in high demand when you can just stop and show someone a photo of who you’re looking for. 🙂 So, I decided to go knock on Mr. Siviliano’s door while I waited for Señor Jose. My girlfriend and I approached the house and saw a man lying undisturbed on a hammock inside. I walked up to the door and greeted him. I immediately recognized the face as Mr. Siviliano’s. He appeared to be dressed more in “vacation mode” than when I first met him working in the corn fields under the harsh mid-day sun in 2011. His flowing silver hair was naturally impressive, as its shorter version had been tucked under a hat when I last saw him. I asked “Do you remember me?” He grinned instantly, nodded, and was sort of speechless with surprise, as you can imagine. I mean, how often do foreigners show up to your door with a photo of you that they took on a previous trip to your country? I’m guessing never. I imagine it doesn’t happen in the remote villages of Mexico much either. After his initial bewilderment settled, he thanked me for the photo with a humble grin and asked me, “How much do I owe you?”. My girl and I melted from his warmth (in addition to the blistering heat of Mexico’s interior) and explained to him that it was a gift. I told him that he looked thinner and younger and he responded with a chuckle and a “muchas gracias”. The universal compliment, works every time. :] After a brief conversation and “catch up” session, he graciously posed for an updated portrait, thanked us and wished us well in our travels. That was something out of the “super cool” book right there. I knew right then I was really gonna enjoy this journey. Don Siviliano-smaller Don Siviliano-2 After visiting Mr. Siviliano, we decided to drive through the village hoping to spot Señor Jose. I handed my girlfriend his photo and directed her to “look out for this guy”. We saw an old man approaching us on a bicycle cart (typically used by locals to haul wood, food, or building materials). With an exuberant tone, I said “This could be him, it looks like him.”. As he got closer, sure enough, we confirmed his identity and were both elated with excitement to find the first friend I had ever made in the Mayan world. I stopped the car, showed him his picture and he immediately displayed that infectious smile and made the instant connection with the same amount of enthusiasm as Mr. Siviliano. We decided to meet back at his home to reminisce a bit. Señor Jose is one of the most endearing people you will ever meet. He opened his doors to us and welcomed us inside to chat and escape the heat. The inside of his home seemed like nothing had moved since I first saw it almost 2 years ago, almost like some sort of exhibit. He seemed really pleased with the photo and the efforts we made to visit him. He just kept thanking us and giving us hugs of gratitude. He shared his story with us that his wife had died 25 years ago and that he’s lived by himself ever since. He is a genuine, hard-working man who seems to endure with the guidance of the blissful memories of his past. I really enjoyed visiting with Señor Jose. I politely set him up for his “2013 portrait”, he posed graciously and he hugged us each once again as we made our way onward to our next destination. I hope to reunite with Mr. Siviliano and Señor Jose again someday. Maybe I’ll bring my DJ gear along and we can throw a block party. Senor Jose-2 smallest Senor Jose-3 The next stop on my quest was in the village of Tres Reyes. I had met a family there with whom I had spent the most time on my previous trip. A few new roads in town threw my bearings and memory off as to the exact location of their home, but a nice local villager pointed us in the right direction upon seeing the photo of the family. This was the home of Doña Dora. This was a really interesting visit, because when I said goodbye to them last time, I mentioned that I’d like to return sometime and they gave me a phone number and said that I should call them if I ever came back so they could prepare a nice meal and provide accommodation. I view that as friendly dialogue, sort of a general and casual invitation, not really expected to be acted upon literally. So, I didn’t call. Just showed up. I guess I like the element of surprise. In hindsight, a deliciously prepared home-cooked meal would have really hit the spot upon arriving the second time around. The family was really surprised to see me walking up to the house, unannounced, with some photos and a few toys for the kids, as they would let me know: “Wow, you should have called us, we wanted to cook you a nice meal! We were waiting for your call last year but never heard from you.” They really wanted to show off their cooking skills apparently! Tres Reyes-3 This family is sweeter than Mayan Chocolate Cream Pie. (The Mayans did cultivate the first known cocoa plantations ya know.) Visiting with them and seeing their home is how I would describe the typical Mayan family living in the 21st century. There are 5 kids and 3 adults, all living under one roof constructed of palm fronds layered over a frame of vertical wood beams supported by a concrete foundation. The doorways seem designed with the height of a Smurf in mind, which is always fun for my 6’1” skeletal frame. The home is divided in two, separating the living space from the kitchen space. All you’ll find inside are the bare necessities to get by. There’s some hammocks, cooking utensils, pots and pans over an open fire pit, a wooden table, buckets for storage and carrying water, farming equipment, and some scattered clothing and toys for the kids. They raise pigs, chickens and turkeys for food and commerce and access water from a well behind the home. When you talk with them, you would think they live the most comfortable lifestyle in all of the Peninsula. They all smile from ear to ear, and seem generous beyond words. It was a real treat to see how a family of 8 can live a happy and self-sustaining life with the absolute minimum of resources and amenities. I actually had 4 photos to give to them, as the kids were so adorable to shoot that last time around. They delightedly posed for a few new photos, showed us around the house and reinforced their invitation for next time with an updated phone number. Believe me, I will be redeeming that invite for some Mayan home cookin’ next time ’round! Tres Reyes-1 Tres Reyes-2 Tres Reyes-4 Tres Reyes-5 I had several more stops and photos to hand out in the remaining days of the trip. To my delight, I would find everyone I was looking for in a handful of villages scattered throughout the area. From the cute kid who had painted his face like a Mayan warrior to the lady who crafted beautiful hammocks in her front yard…they were all just there, not waiting for me to come by, obviously, but it had almost seemed that way. They all expressed the same sense of shyness, gratitude, surprise and openness to being photographed once again. There was one lady, however, who wasn’t quite ready to have her new photo taken upon my arrival and request at an early hour of the morning. Though she did ask me if I could come back in an hour so she could put some makeup on, lol. Women will be women no matter where you go! She did clean up pretty nice, I won’t lie. Then there was another old lady I was looking for who I had met in an outdoors market, but the market was closed upon arriving the second time. I was about to throw in the towel on that one until I got up off the stool for the 12th round and I decided to ask a few ladies that were sitting next to my rental car watching a soccer game if they happened to recognize the woman in the photo. When you get a response from a random bystander of “That is my mom!”, that’s when you know this was all meant to be. 🙂 She asked her young daughter to take me to find “grandma”, who was not too far from where I had photographed her the first time. Grandma was wearing a similar traditional Mayan dress as she was in my original image, so I knew it would be a great photo to show the “then and now”. Her friends giggled as I set her up for a photo, and she maintained her composure while I snapped a few images and thanked her for being such a wonderful model.

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After finding “grandma”, there was only 1 portrait left to deliver. I knew finding my last photo subject would be a little tricky, as I had met him at a roadside fruit stand on the side of a highway about 3 hours south. Luckily, I was able to narrow it down to about a 25-30 mile stretch. Keeping my eyes peeled among the dozens of roadside fruit vendors, I eventually recognized the stand where I had found the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat, but it was an empty stand. My technique of asking around to locate someone hadn’t failed me yet, so I gave it another shot. The vendor across the street confirmed the identity and location of my photo subject, saying he would probably show up in about an hour. My thoughts: “Hmmmm…an hour…man I’d love to hang out and present him with his photo…but I have a long drive back and a full day of snorkeling and beach bumming lined up…what if an hour turns to 2 hours??…time stands still for everyone in this part of the world…who knows when he’ll show up…but it’s my favorite photo of them all…he’ll be thrilled to see me…I really want a new photo of the guy…Caribbean is calling my name…hungry girlfriend in the car…damn it’s hot out here!…agghhhhh…ceviche and cold beer with my feet in the sand…uh…SOLD!” I’m a sucker for ceviche and cold beer! So, here is the photo of the man with the blue shirt and smartly-styled straw hat…left exactly where I found him, with a little note tacked behind. I would have loved to see his face when he arrived to find a mysteriously placed 8×10 portrait of himself waiting for him at his workplace later that day. I imagine his smile would stretch even further than it had in the picture. Maybe I’ll have another opportunity to find out from him someday. Like I said…it was all meant to be. 😉 Blue shirt man

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Monkeying around in the jungle


These spider monkeys at the Calakmul ruins of Mexico seemed friendly in my initial encounter with them.  So, naturally, I busted out my Nikon and started shooting away.  Good idea?  Well, their demeanor changed immediately as they began to show their teeth, beat on their chests and violently shake the tree branches in an attempt to scare me off.  Why the hostility?  Perhaps they felt I would publish the photos illegally in Monkey Spunk magazine?  Was I wearing the wrong monkey gang colors?  Maybe they were Canon users?  Whatever the case, animals in the wild are just that…wild and unpredictable.  This was their turf and they weren’t gonna let some Yankee with a cool telephoto lens come into their jungle hood and start firing off shots like a paparazzi on the Red Bull tour.  They let me know my limits…and like anywhere you travel to, you have to respect the locals and their level of comfort, especially when a camera is pointed at them.  Actually, it took a thrown tree branch at my head (yes, they are mean little bastards) to finally get me to back up and wrap up this photo session.  Here’s a pic of our initial encounter…and another soon after I started shooting them.

Once the photo session began (those aren’t smiles either)…

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