Meramec Caverns: The Coolest Attraction On Route 66


If you want to beat the heat this summer, there’s no better way to do that than to explore a cool and beautiful cave.

Missouri is one of the best states to see them. A combination of lots of limestone and plenty of water has honeycombed the state with some 6,000 caves, from tiny little crawl spaces to grand and glorious show caves. One of the most popular is Meramec Caverns in Stanton, Missouri, on Route 66.

Like many caves, it was first used by Native Americans. In the 18th century, French explorers mined the cave for saltpeter, an ingredient used in making gunpowder. Saltpeter Cave, as it was then known, became tactically important in the Civil War. Union troops were stationed there mining the saltpeter until 1864, when Confederate guerrillas attacked them, drove them off, and destroyed the works.

The cave didn’t become a public attraction until the 1890s, when dances were held in the main gallery, appropriately called “The Ballroom.” Showman Lester Dill bought it in 1933, renamed it Meramec Caverns after the nearby river, and opened it to the public. He systematically explored the cave and discovered several impressive chambers. Soon people were flocking to see the stalactites and stalagmites, and beautiful stone drapery that looks like giant curtains. The action of the water depositing minerals on the walls had created amazing shapes and contours on every spot.

%Gallery-158676%Dill decided to create some clever advertising by linking the cave to Jesse James. He claimed it was one of his gang’s hideouts, although James scholars dispute this. The Jesse James/Meramec Caverns legend got a shot in the arm when the public became aware of a man claiming to be the real Jesse James, still alive and spinning a tale about how he faked his own death. Actually this old coot was named J. Frank Dalton and had one time passed himself off as Billy the Kid.

Local booster Rudy Turilli brought “Jesse” to Meramec Caverns to celebrate his 103rd birthday on September 5, 1950. This brought in a huge amount of publicity and Turilli offered $10,000 to anyone who could prove he didn’t have the real Jesse James. The James family took him to court and won. Turilli never paid the $10,000.

The tour and the nearby Jesse James Wax Museum explain this conspiracy theory in detail. The whole experience is fun and a bit cheesy, having the roadside appeal of The Thing? and South of the Border. There’s no denying the natural beauty of the cave itself, and beyond the showbusiness aspect of the place that’s its real appeal.

While you’re in Stanton also check out the Riverside Reptile Ranch to meet all sorts of creepy creatures, and take a ride on the Caveman Zipline.

Video: The Prehistoric Cave Art Of Cantabria, Spain


One of the advantages of living in Europe is that you can visit lots of historic sites with your kids. This fosters an interest in the past, reduces museum fatigue and is a great way to learn together.

I live in Cantabria, on the north coast of Spain, a region filled with historic sites from Napoleonic forts to preserved Roman towns. Cantabria is most famous for the prehistoric cave art in ten caves that have been given UNESCO World Heritage status. From about 17,000 to 11,000 years ago, people decorated Cantabria’s many caves with pictures of bison, horses and other animals. They often used the natural contours of the rock to give the animals a three-dimensional look. In addition to the animals, there are strange patterns of lines and dots. Archaeologists have spent generations arguing over what these mean, but of course we’ll never know for sure.

My son is going on a school trip this week to Cantabria’s most famous cave, Altamira, and he’s looking forward to visiting a place that Dad has never seen. Yes, my 6-year-old is already competing with me for travel stories! And now he’s reminding me that I haven’t been to the Madrid train museum either. OK, kid, you win.

For more on the Paleolithic cave art of Cantabria, check out this video by Turismo Cantabria, which only has 267 views on YouTube. Sounds to me like Turismo Cantabria need to do more marketing. This is a great part of Spain for hikes, beaches and food, and makes a great alternative to the usual tourist circuit.

Exploring the underground caves of Rio Secreto in Mexico

rio secreto Río Secreto is a surreal and unique natural reserve near Playa del Carmen, Mexico, that was opened to the public in December of 2007. Visitors to the site are able to hike and swim through the azure waters of a 1969-foot long river that sits inside underground caves. Inside these caves, you will find thousands of impressive stalactites and stalagmites, and once below the Earth’s surface, the world goes silent allowing you to truly enjoy the dramatic scenery in peace.

What’s really great about Río Secreto, aside from being an exotic destination, is the fact that the 100% Mexican-based organization’s mission is based around eco-tourism. In fact, right on their website it says, “All of us involved in Río Secreto passionately support and promote sustainability and social responsibility. Although our company is still very young, we are working to create a culture of environmental awareness and socio-economic responsibility that goes beyond the borders of Río Secreto. Our goal is to share our message and inspire our collaborators, visitors and society at large.”

Tours run daily at 9AM, 11AM, 1PM, and 2PM, and last 3 1/2 hours. The price for adults is $69 while tickets for children 4-11 years of age cost $34.50. To book a tour, click here. For a better idea of what to expect, check out the gallery below.

%Gallery-143183%

Adventure Vacation Guide 2012: Belize

Belize is the only country in Central America with English as the official language. The small country, measuring 180 miles long and 68 miles wide, is a popular vacation destination for tourists whose native language is English. But Belize is good for much more than just lounging in white sand while watching the shimmering teal waves roll in and out while drinks, ordered in English, are replenished. Behind the luxurious resorts and relaxing vacation packages, Belize is an adventure destination.

With the lowest population density in Central America and, simultaneously, the highest growth rate in the region, 2012 is the year to visit Belize–it’s still spacious and remote in most places, but it doesn’t appear as though this quality will serve Belize permanently. People everywhere are beginning to now catch onto what natives have always known–Belize is not only gorgeous, rich in history, and filled with Mayan cultural treasures, but the small country packs in a big punch with adventure and thrill-seekers. Inexpensive and lush, the untainted waters and landscapes await you.Explore Belizean caves littered with Mayan ruins. The ATM Cave, near the city of San Ignacio, boasts still-in-tact skeletons and pieces of once-blood-holding pottery from Mayan sacrifices; these were offerings to the gods during times of desperate drought. But there’s a catch to seeing something as rare as these remnants–you have to get to them first. Getting through ATM cave is no easy feat. You must first hike through thick rainforest terrain for an hour before facing the cave’s entrance, which is a waterway. The only way in, and out, is to swim through the chilly water in the pitch-black, damp cave with your headlamp serving as your only guiding light. After you’ve made it in and out of the water portions of the cave, relatively challenging climbs and tight squeezes await you as you journey through this spooky cavern.

Zip-line through the forests surrounding this cave and many others while you’re inland. Stop to observe wild jaguars if you can while in the Jaguar Paw area. While at Jaguar Paw, take the opportunity to go for a tubing trip through a cave. Hike through thick and challenging terrain and cool off via waterfall rappelling. Scuba dive down into the famous-for-a-reason Great Blue Hole, a submarine sinkhole that measures 984 feet across and 407 feet deep. Widely regarded as one of the best diving spots in the world, the aerial shots of this gaping Caribbean hole will make your heart skip a beat (just Google it). If diving is too much of a commitment for you, spend your time a bit more leisurely and follow a shining school of fish while snorkeling. Weave around the shoreline and throughout the inland rivers by kayak or go kayak sailing into the rising sun. Spend your time doing daily yoga at one of the country’s yoga retreats or yoga-friendly resorts, fully immersed in a tranquil environment, or test your boundaries with a sky diving, parasailing, base-jumping, or bungee jumping excursion.

Whether your on a shoestring budget or looking to spend your hard-earned money on all of the finest adventures Belize has to offer, you’ll find a sweat-inducing, adrenaline-spiking experience in Belize that suits your wallet and lifestyle. With a landscape like the Belize landscape, adventure waits outside your door with free admission to the mountains and beaches. And with organized companies like the ones you can find in Belize with minimal research, sky’s the limit for your guided adventure in this small, but incredibly rich, Caribbean country.

[flickr image via jayhem]

Two day hikes in the mountains of Cantabria, Spain

Cantabria
As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’ve moved from Madrid to Santander, in Cantabria in northern Spain. This region is part of what’s often called Green Spain, made up of the four northern regions of Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria, and the Basque Country. I’m loving life by the sea and I’ve been busy exploring Cantabria’s countryside, which offers some of the best hikes in Spain. Green and mountainous, northern Spain is unlike most people’s popular conception of the country.

I discovered a local hiking group via a Couchsurfing friend. We go every other Sunday and the group also acts as an intercambio, or language exchange, which are very popular all over Spain. It’s a good way to practice your Spanish, French, German, English, Italian, or Portuguese. There’s also an Irish guy who insists on speaking to me in Gaelic because of my name. If he keeps it up I’m going to start speaking to him in Amharic.

My first hike with them was through the Reserva del Saja, a reserve in the cordillera Cantábrica. This is one a popular destination for hikers from Santander and is only about 40 minutes by car. The hike starts at Bárcena Mayor, a cluster of stone houses nestled in the woods by a mountain stream.

%Gallery-140381%From there we hiked along a dirt track through woods bright with fall colors. An amateur mycologist kept heading into the woods in search of mushrooms and soon had a sackful. Like in other parts of the world, some mushrooms in Spain are toxic and you shouldn’t pick mushrooms unless you know what you’re doing. He showed us one particularly nasty variety that will give you permanent liver damage if you eat it. After a long walk we humped over a steep ridge and on the other side saw a large pool fed by a couple of waterfalls. This made a peaceful stop for lunch.

When hiking with Spaniards, be prepared for their later eating hours. Our lunch stop was at about 2PM and some people commented that we were stopping too early. Another culture shock came when I brought out my practical wilderness lunch of a sandwich, chocolate bar, fruit, and water. Many of my hiking companions busted out elaborately prepared meals, fine cheese, even bottles of wine. The Spanish know how to live well, and don’t see why they should stop doing so simply because they’re miles from the nearest paved road.

My second hike through the cordillera Cantábrica was from the town of Ampuero, about half an hour’s drive from Santander. This is in the Ason-Aguera region. Our goal was to climb Mount Yelso, also also known as Mojon Alto, to see a prehistoric menhir, or standing stone. This mysterious ancient stone stands in a prominent location from which you can see the surrounding countryside as far as the sea.

Of course getting there was half the fun. The fall colors are wonderful in Cantabria at this time of year. We tramped through a forest past a mysterious cave entrance and a sinkhole hinting at another cave. This is one of the best regions for caving in Europe and in future posts I’ll be sharing my experiences under Cantabria. Some of these caves have prehistoric paintings dating back 10,000 years or more. Others go down more than a kilometer and if you want to see the whole thing you have to pitch camp and sleep underground. Cavers from other parts of Europe have been known to move here just so they can be closer to the amazing caving opportunities.

At times the forest opened up and we passed green fields where cows, horses, sheep, and goats grazed. We enjoyed sweeping views of the mountains all around and the play of light and shadow over the landscape as the shadows of the clouds passed overhead. The weather can be unpredictable in this part of the world so Cantabrians are in the habit of enjoying the outdoors any time the weather is favorable.

The hike ended, and all hikes should, with a trip to a local tavern before the short drive home.

If you’re passing through Santander, feel free to look me up (just Google me) and with enough prior notice I’d be happy to introduce you to the group and see that you have a fun hike in the mountains of Cantabria.