Mesilla, New Mexico: Discovering A Different Side Of The Southwest

mesilla
Alex Briseño, Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to El Paso on short notice for a magazine assignment. I found it enjoyable, but on my final day, I was itching to get out of the city limits and explore before my evening flight. Every local I talked to gave me the same response: go for a scenic drive out to Mesilla.

Located just 44 miles northwest of El Paso on the fringes of Las Cruces, Mesilla is a historic village established in 1848. Perhaps best known as the location for Billy the Kid’s trial, Mesilla has also played an integral role in the development of the Southwest, in part because it was along the Butterfield Stagecoach Line. I’m obsessed with all things New Mexico, but despite numerous visits to the northern part of the state, I’d never been south of Albuquerque. I was an easy sell.

The drive to Mesilla presents a dramatic contrast in topography. About 30 miles past the arid plains and stark Franklin Mountain range of El Paso, the Rio Grande grows from a trickle to substantial enough to support lush vegetation. I’d never seen a pecan tree before, and suddenly I was passing thousands of acres of them, in all their towering, leafy glory (after Texas, this region – Dona Ana County – is the nation’s largest producer). There were fields of onions and chiles (Mesilla is just 42 miles away from Hatch), and vast dairy farms. As a former ranch kid, I instantly felt at home.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Cisco Photography

As you enter Mesilla off of Highway 10 West, there are indications you’re approaching someplace special. Walk a couple of blocks down to the historic Plaza, and it’s impossible not to be charmed. Despite the inevitable souvenir shops, of which there are only a few, a number of buildings are on the historic register. The vibe isn’t one of touristy kitsch, but rather, small-town Southwest. There are coffee houses, cafes, boutiques, antique stores, galleries, wine tasting rooms and museums. A chocolate shop sells small bags of dipped pecans, while Solamente!, a specialty food boutique, offers tastes of the region in the form of green chile-spiked pecan brittle and salsas.

I whiled away a few hours by strolling the Plaza and talking to the handful of vendors who sell their wares from tables around its perimeter. This is the place to buy a bag of pecans and homemade bizcochos (buttery little cookies), or a pair of earrings. The Basilica of San Albino dominates the north end of the Plaza, and is open to visitors from 1 to 3 p.m. daily, except on Sundays. Afterward, I sipped an icy horchata and read on the shady patio of a coffee house. It’s unthinkable (to me, at least) to be in New Mexico and not eat. The region’s most famous restaurant, La Posta, is around the corner from the Plaza. This stunning 19th-century compound was once part of the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, but today it’s better known for its green chile enchiladas and signature Tostada Compuesta.

mesilla, new mexico
Courtesy of Ken Stinnet

Before heading to the airport, I drove the few miles down a back road to Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park. Unfortunately, it was still closed for the season, but the drive meanders past pecan orchards, crumbling adobe homesteads and tranquil farmhouses. Horses graze in verdant pasture, and fields of onion with their flowering lavender heads intersperse the orchards. It’s lovely, and a side of New Mexico I’ve never seen, used as I am to the dramatic ochre landscape, canyons and severe mesas of the north.

At the end of a business trip, I’m often content to just get to the airport early, and spend the time people watching and reading. My jaunt to Mesilla was a reminder that sometimes it’s worth the extra effort to hit the road instead.

5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Bad Trip: How To Annoy Your Tour Guide

donkeyWe’ve all been there. Maybe we’ve been one. The person on a guided tour or trip who’s a complete, utter, pain in the ass.

Perhaps it’s unintentional. Maybe it’s due to deep-seated issues that would cause empathy in another situation. Or just possibly, it’s because the person in question gets off on being a jerk. Does it matter? Whether they provide unwitting entertainment or seething aggravation, that person manages to disrupt others’ enjoyment of the experience. The person who really suffers, however, is the guide.

I’ve had good guides, bad guides, guides who should be nominated for sainthood, but regardless of their skill, they have a difficult job. It’s not easy to wrangle any combination of clueless, headstrong, enthusiastic and grumpy tourists, and get them to points A, B and C on schedule – ideally with an unfailingly polite attitude and unwavering smile on your face. It’s a gift, being a guide possessed of technical, personal and mental skills.

Even those who love to travel solo occasionally require the services of a guide. Thirteen years as a travel journalist has given me a lot of material (in part because my favorite thing to ask guides for are bad client stories).

As a holiday gift, I’m providing a list on how to annoy your guide. Follow it, and I promise you’ll always be remembered – just not fondly.

Wear inappropriate clothing/shoes
I had an absolutely priceless two days in the Atacama Desert last year with two middle-aged Chilean couples. Read: they were such drunken louts, it was painful for the rest of us to keep our mouths shut. My favorite experience with them was on a late-afternoon hike of the stunning Kari Gorge.

The key word here is “hike.” To which one of them, a spoiled Santiaguino physician’s wife, wore staggeringly high boots with a narrow wedge heel. She was also completely shit-faced, so when she wasn’t face-planting on the rocky floor of the gorge, she was screaming at her worthless husband to help her climb up the craggier parts of the trail. The rest of our small group finally broke down and pitied her as we summited a steep, mile-long sand dune. She was openly weeping at that point, clutching her chest in panic (a chain-smoker, she thought she was having a heart attack; ironically, her cardiologist husband was the least concerned of all of us).

Because we had to spend so much time waiting for her, we nearly missed the highlight of the excursion, which was watching the sunset from atop a cliff. By not bothering to check what kind of outing she was taking, she kept the rest of us at her mercy, tested our guide’s patience, and subjected us to her marital issues. Um, awkward.whiningOverstate your abilities
Along the same lines, this woman wasn’t fit enough to master a climb up a flight of stairs. It’s not just inconsiderate to fail to accurately access your physical abilities; it can be deadly. At best, it will ensure you and your guide (who will have no choice but to coddle and devote extra time to you) have a miserable time; at worst, you may well end up having that coronary in a sand dune. Don’t be that person.

Bring your bad attitude with you
True story from a sea-kayaking/orca-watching trip I took last summer. We were on the northern tip of San Juan Island, just miles off of Vancouver Island (i.e. Canada). Our guide pointed out this interesting fact to us, which elicited the following response from the one unfriendly person in our group. She was a taciturn woman in her 30s, a self-professed “bird-lady” who owned 12 parrots.

Annoying Client: I made a promise to myself to never leave this country for any reason, whatsoever.

Hapless Guide: That’s an interesting promise. Why?

AC: Because I believe in America. I don’t ever want to support another country’s economy. Why should I? I even go out of my way to buy products made here.

HG: Aah….hmmmm. Okaaay.

I’m not sure what I love most about this incident: that this woman knowingly took a trip to the Canadian border, or that she supports exotic bird smuggling from foreign countries.

Be late/unprepared
A great way to piss off your guide, and everyone else in your group. Also helpful in ensuring you won’t get your money’s worth from your trip or tour, since the schedule will be compromised. This one’s a winner!

Whine
Because nothing is better for group morale than someone who complains about everything.

Engage in excessive PDA with your significant other
It may start off as amusing for your guide and fellow travelers. Trust me, by trip’s end, they’ll be ready to kill you. Get a room.
camping
Don’t pitch in
Hey, Princess. I know you paid a chunk of change for this (fill in the blank: raft trip/backpacking trip/guest ranch stay). So did everyone else. But your guide and support staff are working their fingers to the bone for very little pay because they love what they do. You know what else they love? Guests or clients who make even the smallest effort to help them out. Ask where you should stash your gear, collect firewood, help chop vegetables or cook dinner (right). Not only will you gain their respect and gratitude, you may even enjoy yourself.

Be high-maintenance
It’s not all about you. You have a pretty good idea of what you’re getting into when you sign up.

Forget to mention your “dietary restrictions”/preferences
Travel companies are savvy enough these days to always include a section for this on their registration forms; I’m not talking about legitimate food allergies or intolerances. But please be honest, not ridiculous, and if you don’t like what’s being served, be polite about it – especially if you’re in a foreign country.

Refuse to interact with your group
I can be a bit of an introvert, so I get how hard it can be to socialize with a group when you’re just not feeling it. But guides tend to stress about the lone client, and feel pressure to ensure they’re having a good time. If you really don’t feel like socializing, assure your guide that you’re just shy, but having a great time. Otherwise, I really recommend faking it till you make it. Once I come out of my shell, I’m usually grateful, because I end up meeting fantastic people who make my experience that much more interesting.

[Photo credits: donkey, Flickr user jaxxon; sign, Flickr user frotzed2; cooking, Laurel Miller]

Presidential Road Trips You Can Take This Weekend

road trips

Road trips taken over the weekend can get us away from our normal routine and surroundings without a lot of planning or cost involved. Some people would like to get away from election season ads on television, websites, newspapers and magazines. Others are really into the process of selecting the next president of the United States and look for ways to feed their addiction. Here are some easy fixes for travelers who just can’t get enough of the election year hoopla.

Stop by any 7-11 store and cast your vote by simply buying a drink to participate in their 7-Election. A blue or red cup choice counts as your vote for either candidate and can contribute to a historically precise way of predicting the election outcome.

2004, the 7-Election predicted Bush would defeat Kerry 51 to 49 percent.
Actual vote: Bush 50.7 percent, Kerry 48.3 percent.

2008, the 7-Election Obama would defeat McCain 52 to 46

2012 election running totals are posted on the 7-11 website.

The Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in Little Rock, Arkansas, features exhibits, special events, and educational programs. Like other presidential libraries and museums, replicas of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room are a highlight of a day-trip visit.

Permanent exhibits utilize documents, photographs, videos and interactive stations. The National Archives has information on all the presidential libraries, mostly located east of the Rocky Mountains.

The Sixth Floor Museum At Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas, formerly known as the Texas School Book Depository has a permanent exhibit featuring films, photographs and artifacts that chronicle President John F. Kennedy’s life, death and legacy.

Another exhibit in Dealey Plaza, has been designated as a national landmark. The grassy knoll of Dealey Plaza is a small, sloping hill inside the plaza that became infamous following the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

The birthplace of President Grover Cleveland in Caldwell, New Jersey, has historical significance dating back to 1881 when Cleveland was running for governor of New York. Like other presidential birthplaces, the Grover Cleveland site preserves artifacts from Cleveland’s early years including his cradle and original family portraits.

Even those with no plans to travel (except out of the United States if their candidate does not win) have some help. JetBlue’s Election Protection will fly about 1,000 disappointed voters out of the country (and back) the day after the election.

“We decided to give people a chance to follow through on their claim to skip town if their candidate comes up short,” Marty St. George, senior VP of Marketing for JetBlue said in a Time report.

Still, if a road trip this weekend is in your plans, here are some tips for making it a great one.



[Photo Credit: 7-eleven]

Getting Out Of Quito, Ecuador: Day, Weekend And Weeklong Excursions

mindo While Quito, Ecuador, offers many opportunities for Inca history, diverse architecture and trendy restaurants, my favorite part about visiting this busy city was its side trips. In less than three hours you can be hiking through waterfall-filled forests, climbing one of the world’s tallest volcanoes, browsing an important cultural market and even standing in the actual middle of the world. If you have more time, you can do majestic lagoon hikes, immerse yourself in adventure sports or visit one of the most ecologically diverse destinations in the world. When taking a trip to Quito, I would recommend incorporating the following trips into your itinerary:

Day Trips

Mindo

Mindo is the exact opposite of Quito. While Ecuador’s capital is fast-paced, Mindo is a relaxing nature destination where you can immerse yourself in the outdoors and forget about the world. You can catch a bus from Quito’s Terminal Terrestre Norte, La Ofelia, which takes about 80 minutes. Tickets are $2.50 each way, although you can’t buy your return ticket until you get to the destination. Purchase it immediately upon arrival, as buses tend to get crowded.

If you want to immerse yourself in the area’s famous cloud forest, visit the Waterfall Sanctuary and Tarabita. For $5 including the tarabita (cable car), you’ll be granted a bird’s-eye view from above the trees and access to a picturesque hike through seven different waterfalls. For a bit more adventure, you can also zip-line your way through the cloud forest, with the highest cable being over 1,300 feet. At Mariposas de Mindo, you can interact with 1,200 butterflies while feeding them banana. What’s interesting about this place is you’ll see myriad different pupae, which have camouflaging properties depending on where the butterfly would live. Some look like leaves, sticks, stones and even shiny pieces of metal that I first thought were earrings. While all these activities are worthwhile, the most popular reason people visit Mindo is the superb bird watching. There are many places you can go for this; however, I highly recommend El Descanso. It costs $2, and no matter what time you visit you’ll be able to see a variety of bird species like hummingbirds, toucans, parrots and Golden-Headed Quetzals.volcan cotopaxi Cotopaxi Volcano

Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, Cotopaxi Volcano is the second most popular adventure destination in Ecuador. The volcano is 19,347 feet in altitude, and is a perfect, snow-capped cone that makes for great climbing. It is also sacred, as the volcano was once worshipped by Ecuador’s ancient civilizations, who believed Cotopaxi had the power to bring rain and a successful harvest. Cotopaxi Volcano is located in Cotopaxi Volcano National Park, the second largest national park and the second most visited after the Galapagos Islands. Here you’ll find numerous lagoons, lookout points, other volcanoes, Inca sites and even a museum. Many companies offer one-day tours, like CotopaxiTours.com, which mixes hiking and 4×4 driving to get to the top, and Gray Line Ecuador, which allows you to explore the Cotopaxi Volcano National Park. You can get to the volcano from Quito without a tour, although you will need to combine bus transport with taxis that could become pricey.

middle of the world Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World)

Ecuador gets its name for its proximity to the equator, so it’s not surprising this is also where you’ll find the center of the Earth. Located about an hour and a half outside Quito, the Mitad del Mundo was discovered by French scientists in the early 1900s. When visiting the site, which is also a park, you’ll see statues of these hardworking men, as well as a monument and line marking the 0′-0′-0′ latitude (shown right). Be aware, however, that since the invention of GPS, it has been discovered the real middle of the world exists about 800 feet away from this line.

The Coriolis Effect, the apparent deflection of winds, oceans, airplanes and anything else that moves freely across the Earth’s surface, occurs due to the rotation of the Earth on its axis. An example many people use for a visual is a sink draining; in the northern hemisphere the water will turn counter-clockwise, while in the southern hemisphere it will turn clockwise. On the equator, the effects of this law are almost completely vertical. Many visitors like to test this out by doing various tricks. The most popular ones are balancing an egg on a nail and draining water in a moveable sink. It’s pretty amazing, but you can witness the water drain straight down on the equator, counter-clockwise on the northern side of the equator and clockwise on the southern side.

Along with the monument, there are shops, restaurants, gardens and a museum. When I went, I took a group tour with Gray Line Ecuador; however, a public bus is your cheapest option.

otavalo market Otavalo Market

Possibly the most famous market in Ecuador, locals come from miles and miles away to sell their handicrafts. Located less than two hours north of Quito, you can take a bus for about $2 from Terminal Carcelen, or opt for a group tour to have a more educational experience. The market is busiest on Saturdays, although it is open everyday. You’ll browse numerous vibrantly colored stalls, perusing scarves, hats, clothing, jewelry, instruments, blankets, masks, socks, handbags and more. Remember to bring your best bartering skills, as the first price the sellers give you is almost always above what they’re willing to sell for.

On the way to the market, there are various stops you can make along the Pan-American Highway. The first is the village of Calderon, a small parish of Quito. In the past, women would honor their dead husbands by being buried alive with them. Luckily, the ritual has changed, and today they commemorate their dead annually on November 2, The Day of the Dead. On this holiday, indigenous people visit the cemetery to have colada morada, a red drink, which represents blood, and wawa de pan, a girl-shaped bread, with their deceased loved ones. You can see wawa de pan being made at special shops and see how the people make a living turning it into a handicraft. The bread is coated in glue, giving it a clay-like texture, and creating masapan. Locals use the mixt
ure to create all types of figures to sell, and it is a local specialty of the area.

The other stop is at a big green building that appears to be an informal rest stop labeled “Mira Lage Parador Turistico.” In this small village complex, you can visit Odaly’s and see authentic Panama hats being made. Make sure to also spend some time in the green building sampling a typical snack, fresh cow cheese and dulce de leche on a crispy biscuit. In the backyard where the bathroom is, you’ll be given excellent views of Sambo Lake, Imbabura Volcano and the surrounding mountains.

A Long Weekend

banos Baños

Located about three and a half hours south of Quito, Baños is the perfect adventure destination for the budget traveler. Here you’ll be able to bungee jump, zip-line, hike, cycle a waterfall route, white water raft, canyon, climb volcanoes and take trips into the Amazon Jungle, all usually for under $50. For example, my companion and I took a trip into the Amazon Jungle for two full days, with it costing $35 per day including all meals, water and accommodation. Moreover, you can rent a bike for a full day for $5, go white water rafting or canyoning for $30 and bungee jumping for $15. Along with cheap adventure, the town is also home to two relaxing hot springs. At night, you can choose between local eateries serving three course meals of local food for $1 or more touristy fare like the popular Casa Hood. It’s also a great place to try traditional guinea pig, or cuy, for a decent price on the street, as it is usually expensive to order in restaurants.

hiking ecuador Latacunga

Located about an hour and half south of Quito, Latacunga offers worthwhile experiences for any traveler. First, they have an excellent outdoor market and eateries where you can sample delicious local food. Moreover, they have an interesting cultural museum, Casa de la Cultura, where you’ll see festival masks, pottery, weavings, artifacts and more. Beautiful churches and picturesque parks give the city a charming ambiance.

The main reason people visit Latacunga is to do the Quilotoa Loop. The journey is done via a mixture of taking buses and hiking. It’s educational and enjoyable, as you pass through indigenous villages like Zumbahua, Quilotoa, Chugchilan and a crater lake, Laguna Quilotoa. The great thing about this loop isn’t just the scenery, but also the fact you’ll have many opporuntities to interact with indigenous locals. Because transportation is infrequent and unreliable, you may end up hiking for long stretches of the loop. To start the journey, take a bus from Latacunga to Zumbahua, where you’ll walk to Quilotoa to see the impressive and serene crater lake. Afterwards, you will begin heading down the crater rim and hike five hours to Chungchilan, where you’ll find a plethora of accommodation options for the night. The next morning, you’ll begin making your way for five hours to Isinlivi while seeing rivers, eculyptus groves, wooden bridges and white cliffs along the way. Once you reach Isinlivi, you can choose between staying at Hostal Llullu Llama or a locally run hospedaje. The next day’s trek will take you about three and half hours as you make your way to Sigchos, where you can catch a bus back to Latacunga around 2:30 p.m. The entire hike will take you through beautiful nature, wildlife, rural landscapes and local farms, giving you a close look at the many faces of Ecuadorian culture. For detailed track notes, click here.

A Week Or More

galapagos islands The Galapagos Islands

A visit to the Galapagos Islands is something everyone should do once in their lifetime. The destination is truly unique, with myriad endemic species, unique lava caves, crater lakes, warm crystal waters and wildlife everywhere you turn.

While many people assume you need to be rich to be able to visit the Galapagos Islands, this simply isn’t true. When I backpacked through South America for three months, I ended my trip on these islands, sticking to a strict budget while still enjoying the pleasures of the national park. The expensive part is getting to the island, which includes the $100 national park fee and the $500 round trip flight from Quito. However, once you pay this it is possible to explore the Galapagos Islands on a budget. First of all, budget hotels exist offering single rooms for as low as $15 a night.

Additionally, there are various free activities to do on the islands, like hiking, visiting animal preserves and relaxing and enjoying wildlife on the beach. Even the tours are reasonably priced. For example, I went on a snorkeling and diving tour of Isla Lobos, León Dormido/Kicker Rock and Puerto Grande. The group got the chance to swim with sharks and sea lions as well as take in beautiful scenery and wildlife while learning about the ecology of the area. For snorkelers the tour was $50, while divers paid $120, both including lunch. Moreover, a tour of the highlands of San Cristobal, including El Ceibo, a 300-year-old treehouse and bar, El Junco, a crater lake in a volcano, La Lobaria, a white beach littered with sea lions, Puerto Chino, a soft-sand beach with crystal clear water and the Jacinto Gordillo Breeding Center of Giant Tortoises was $35 including lunch. If you’re looking to do a cruise and are a bit flexible with the dates, fly into Baltra Airport and head over to Puerto Ayora to see what last minute deals they can give you. Usually, you can get more than half off the advertised price by booking this way.