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We saw many pelicans

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Merida has many interesting street signs

waterBEACH, BIRDS, AND BYGONE CITY

If you don’t fancy the crowds along the Maya Riviera, on the Caribbean coast south of Cancun, Mexico, a great alternative is to use Merida as a base. This pretty Colonial city on the northwest of the Yucatan Peninsula is within easy distance of many famous Mayan sites (Chichen Itza and the Puuc Route, with Uxmal), the northern biosphere, and good sand beaches.

On this daytrip, we went to Progresso for the beach, the sea, and the sun; to Uaymintun

beach

Progresso beach

for the lagoon and flamingo viewing; to Xtambo for a Mayan ruin and more flamingoes. We returned to Merida on side roads, passing through typical small Yucatecan villages.

We decided on this as an alternative to flamingo viewing at the Celestun Park to the west. On a previous visit to Celestun we felt concerned at how the tourist boats on the estuary are disturbing the birds, especially the flamingoes. Another plus—this way is free.

We drove north out of Merida on Paseo Montejo, noting the richer colonial side of the city, with wide streets, mansions and shopping complexes, and even a Sams Club!

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Part of the lagoon—if you look closely there are a few flamingoes there

Progresso, Merida’s port, is about a 30-minute drive, past a huge abandonned henequin factory (which produced ropes, mats etc), evidence of the previous wealth from this crop; and Dzibilchaltun, another ruined Mayan city with an excellent museum of Mayan history. It’s a worthwhile stop if you’re interested in the Maya. The site also has the famous House of the Seven Dolls, and an interesting cenote (steep-sided natural well.)

Progresso has progressed, compared to our visit four years before. Parking is plentiful along the esplanade, rebuilt after the hurricane a few years ago. All the usual tourist facilities line the esplanade, in a scaled-down version compared to the Caribbean coast, and we found it much more pleasant. A wide sand beach, with beach chairs, palapa huts, and beach restaurants, looks out over the calm blue water, tiny waves lapping.

After a swim, and lunch at one of the beach restaurants, we headed out east along the

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Beautiful birds

coastal road, palm trees on one side, stubby salt-flats bush on the other. There’s a string of development in the narrow strip between the sea and the biosphere, mostly brightly-painted houses, some holiday flats and hotels.

We followed the coastal road to Uaymintun, a small village with a tall wooden lookout tower over the lagoon; a great way to see part of the lagoon and biosphere preserve and do bird-watching, especially with binoculars. (The lookout tower is free, but you can rent binoculars there). The biosphere extends for hundreds of kilometers: lagoons, shallow lakes and waterways with small islands and mud flats. Scores of flamingoes were walking in the shallow water, many still bright pink even though this wasn’t nesting season. We saw many other birds too, including pelicans.

A few miles further on, the sign for Xtambo ruins is on the right. The drive is along a miles-long causeway over the lagoon with views of an amazing number of birds, especially flamingoes. The road is not busy, so stopping is easy. What a marvelous place for viewing and photographing birds in their natural environment: pelicans, oyster catchers, sandpipers, cormorants, white herons, blue herons, turkey buzzards.

ruins

Xtambo

Xtambo ruins are just off to the right after the lagoon, along a narrow dirt road between tall grasses and stubby trees, swampy areas just to the side. The name means “place of the crocodile”, and we could easily imagine there might be a crocodile in there somewhere!

These Maya ruins are bigger than we expected, and much still remains to be excavated. It was a salt distribution center, reaching its peak around 600AD. The bases of two large structures are in a clearing before the main ruins: the low Pyramid of the Cross, and other buildings around a courtyard. All are grey stone, with little visible ornamentation now other than some stone masks. Xtambo was important as the port for Izamal, a bigger town inland, which was far away for people in those days. We’d known that the Maya traded, but did they travel by sea?

There were no other visitors, so we rambled happily around at will. The structures are not

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A mix of Mayan and Catholic beliefs

remarkable, compared to Chichen Itza, for example, but it’s an interesting little site. Of note is the small Catholic Chapel of the Virgin at the base of the temple, built 50-plus years ago after the Virgin of X’Cambo appeared here, showing us that old and new beliefs can co-exist. The view out is to scrubby palm trees and swamp, rather than jungle, but it’s completely isolated, giving us a real feel for what it must have been like thirteen centuries ago.

On smaller roads south back to Merida, prolific vines are creeping over almost everything, and the jungle encroaches on both sides of the road. It’s not hard to see how they could ‘eat up’ the area again. We passed through a number of villages, all arranged around a central square. This can be hazardous driving. Topes (speed bumps) slowed us down, but people walk along the road, or ride bikes, or pull carts loaded with firewood. Children play in the unpaved streets lined with banana trees, and animals wander at will. Huts with thatched roofs, or low houses with tin roofs and faded, chipped paint, are in dusty yards, with washing draped on fences, pigs tethered to small papaya trees, mangy dogs prowling under acacia trees, and a group of kids playing in the dirt, their noses running.

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Scrubby jungle around Xtambo

This is local life, as it really is, not a sanitized version for tourist viewing. We felt privileged to see this natural version of life in rural Yucatan.

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Merida’s cathedral—one of the oldest in the Americas

PRACTICAL INFORMATION—MERIDA:

Given the sometimes-poor state of the roads, this is more than enough in one day. Start early, especially if you want lots of swimming time. There are gas stations in Progresso, but not on the smaller roads.

Picking up a rental car at Merida airport is very easy. The airport has a Tourist Information desk and an ATM for cash. The best Tourist Information Office is on Calle 60 in town, on the edge of Parque de la Maternidad, two blocks north of the main square (see below). General information at www.travelyucatan.com/merida_mexico.php

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Balloon sellers are popular on the main square

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Traditional Yucatecan dancing

DSCF0045.JPGPlaza de la Independencia, the center of downtown Merida, is a green oasis. On Sundays, the streets around it are closed, so everyone can enjoy the bustling Sunday market, and free music concerts and traditional Yucatecan dancing. Don’t miss the huge cathedral, and the Governor’s Palace, with a series of enormous, strikingly colorful, abstract murals by Fernando Castro Pacheco of Merida, depicting the history of the Yucatan.

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Part of the colorful Merida market

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Many tasty tropical fruits

The Anthropological and Historical Museum on Paseo Montejo has an excellent, although small, collection of ancient Mayan artifacts.

Around the main plaza, and Park Hidalgo—another square one block north—are many restaurants, food stalls, bars, and coffee shops (most with internet connections).

Merida has many hotels in all price ranges. Two of our favorites (with swimming pools, and parking facilities offered) are Hotel Dolores Alba, with rooms arranged around the courtyard of a restored colonial house

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Imagine a hotel in a lovely old Colonial building

(www.doloresalba.com); and Gran Hotel, a grand 100-year-old Italianate building on Park Hidalgo. Tel: +52 999-924-7730, fax +52 999-924-7622, www.granhoteldemerida.com.mx

Friends stayed at Hotel Colonial and were very satisfied, www.hotelcolonial.com.mx (in Spanish)

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Variety of chile peppers

 

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general

prairiesign

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July 2016: MEADOWBROOK PARK in Urbana

The Landscape as it used to be in Illinois. Remember, Illinois’ nick-name (one of them) is the Prairie State, as hundreds of years ago much of the state was covered in tall-grass prairie.

We are lucky, as in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, there are many wonderful parks, but in our opinion this is Number #1.

Meadowbrook Park is a 130-acre park with a difference, beloved by the locals, including us! It has the usual facilities, like picnic areas and a large field for ball play. But, the kids’ play structures are different to usual playgrounds—super-sized, and made of wood.

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PA291402.JPGMore unusual are the large area of Restored Prairie, and the Wandell Sculpture Garden, a series of large-scale outdoor sculptures that line the three miles of walking trails and fit beautifully into their outdoor setting. The trails wander through and around a broad swathe of re-created tallgrass prairie, and organic and wildflower gardens, plus a large herb garden, and community garden plots. Each sculpture has a plaque with its name and the name of the sculptor, and it’s a lot of fun to wander along the paths and stop to admire the sculptures—some colorful, some whimsical, all interesting. The Celia and Willet Wandell Sculpture Garden opened in 1998, made possible by the Wandell family and donations from area businesses and local supporters. Some of the sculptures are owned by Urbana Park District as part of the permanent collection, and some are on a two-year loan from the artists.

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See the butterfly on the coneflower

Meadowbrook Park is lovely at any time of the year, but is really gorgeous now, at the height of summer. Tall, bright green grasses cover the fields across to the trees ringing the area. But the dominant color is not just green. Colorful wild flowers, massed, swaying slightly in the breeze, attract bees and birds. We watched a redwing blackbird perch atop a tall stalk with huge yellow flowers, nearby a small sparrow chirped on a bush with some other yellow flowers, a hummingbird hovered, and butterflies fluttered. White Queen Anne’s Lace, aptly named, polka-dots the green, along with pinkish Echinacea, bright blue cornflowers, and masses of purple and yellow, daisy-like wild flowers.

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Queen Anne’s Lace

deer

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See the tiny hummingbird 

Sometimes you can hear a Chinese pheasant calling and watch for the deer, which are usually here, munching calmly, unworried by humans. A small brook runs through parts of the park and at times there have been beavers who’ve made a dam there.

If this kind of vegetation covered these prairies in days gone by, before the settlers came in and cleared it for farmland, the sight must have been truly awesome.

walking

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P7210043.JPGPeople come to walk, to run, to roller-blade or ride bicylces. They walk dogs and push strollers and near the pavilions people can picnic.

Whenever we walk, other runners, walkers, cyclists and dog-walkers pass us. Everyone smiles and greets us, the spirit seems relaxed and friendly. We are soothed by the beauty and perfection of this piece of Nature we are privileged to share.

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Park entrance

Park entrance

Blue Spring Run

Blue Spring Run

Two manatees come up for air

Two manatees come up for air

A Manatee Hot Tub, and place of shade, peace, reflections

Blue Spring State Park in central Florida is Florida’s premiere manatee refuge.

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Spot the manatees swimming over there

This wonderful little park (2,643 acres) is an easy drive north from Orlando and a must-see in the winter months if you want to find out about endangered West Indian manatees. It’s the winter home to more than 200 manatees, as these creatures swim up the St. John’s River and into the Blue Spring Run. Why they do this is because the water that bubbles up from underground into the end of the small stream (the Blue Spring Run) is warm (72-73F). This makes the Run warm and a welcome respite from the colder waters of the river. In addition, the Run is roped off and during the winter months no boats, canoes, or swimmers are allowed in, so it’s very safe for the manatees.

It’s a pretty place, as the waters of the spring are bright blue-green, with Sabal palms and huge trees—many live oaks dripping with swathes of Spanish moss—lining both sides. The park has constructed a boardwalk along the Run all the way to the end where the spring bubbles up, and along the way there are look-out platforms over the water where visitors can stand and look down on the manatees.

We went last Friday on a cool day (for Florida) and apparently the park rangers had spotted 233 manatees that day. We could believe it, as we saw more of these giant gentle creatures than we’ve ever seen on previous visits. They swim in herds, and some herds were very close that day. One came right under the viewing platform and we were only a few feet above them so we could see very clearly the injuries and scars that some of them have from boating accidents.

Manatees swim around the spring bubbling up

Manatees swim around the spring bubbling up

We felt very privileged to watch these large grey animals swimming, foraging for sea grass along the bottom of the shallow spring, rolling over, flipping their tails and frolicking. They come up for air every few minutes, snorting noisily and you can see their sweet faces and whiskers. One was cleaning and licking another’s back. We could also see fish cleaning the manatees’ backs.

Swimming around the spring entrance

Swimming around the spring entrance

The highlight of a visit here is the manatees, but there is much other wildlife. Fish jump, and plop down with a splash, white egrets and grey herons swoop, turtles swim lazily in clear blue-green water. Note the black gar fish with their big snouts, blue herons, small white herons, scrub jays with their loud call. Anhingas flap their wings to dry and squabble over space on one of the poles dividing the spring and the river. An alligator lies sunning itself on the opposite bank.

Strolling along the boardwalk

Strolling along the boardwalk

We felt very fortunate being able to visit the park. It’s a peaceful place, even with people. It’s a pretty place, with its clear blue-green water, and lush foliage. It’s a hopeful place—as we see these endangered creatures come to the safe haven, their endearing, almost dog-like faces popping up for air; and as we see the reactions of the visitors, especially young people, who hopefully will be concerned enough, stimulated enough to continue to help in the future.

There are information boards telling about the manatees, also the story and history of the park (from the indigenous Indians, through early settlers who came by steamer on the river, to later settlers who came by train). We also visited Thursby House by the car park, now a small museum. It was on Thursby Landing on the St Johns River in the days of steam ships.

Gentle giants

Gentle giants

Blue Spring Run---note the viewing platform

Blue Spring Run—note the viewing platform

PRACTICAL INFORMATION:

*The park’s about an hour north of Orlando, close to the small old town of Orange City.

*You can go north on SR 417, the Seminole Expressway (toll), which goes over Lake Jesup with many ospreys perched on the lamp-posts, most with a fish in their mouth. SR 417 ends at I-4, so go east on I-4 to exit 114 and follow signs about 5 miles to Orange City Historic District (established 1882) and the park.

*Or, just go east on I-4.

See how close they are to the viewing platform

See how close they are to the viewing platform

*$6 per car entrance

*Tel: 386-775-3663

* http://www.floridastateparks.org/bluespring/

*When the manatees are there (usually mid-Nov to March) the park can get very crowded, especially on weekends and holidays, and park rangers will sometimes turn away cars if there are too many people. So, try to arrive before 10am or else at about 4pm —it closes at 5:30pm and times are strictly enforced.

*You can also camp there, or stay in cabins, which would be fun for anyone with extra time.

Light snacks at the cafe

Light snacks at the cafe

Trail sign

Trail sign

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The typical vegetation in Florida is very different to what we knew as kids growing up in Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and to what we now have in Illinois, in mid-Western USA. So, we are always interested when we go on walks in central Florida to discover what grows naturally here.

Exploring around the Orlando area—at Blue Spring State Park, or in Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, in the local Econ River Wilderness Area, or at the Harry P Leu Gardens in the city suburbs—two features of the vegetation stand out for us and seem to epitomize the landscape here: the Spanish moss that is draped from almost every tree, like unkempt grey beards or tangled hair, but in a most charming way; and the Saw Palmettos, with their bright-green, fan-shaped leaves, that can glisten almost luminously in the sunshine.

Palmetto

Florida has many varieties of palms, which are tropical evergreen trees and shrubs. Extremely common is the Saw Palmetto, also known as Silver Saw Palmetto or Scrub Palm. It is native to Florida but grows all over southeastern USA.

Commonly found in pine flatwoods, saw palmettos grow in dense thickets, usually creeping low against the ground. Each clump in the thicket has about 20-25 large fan-shaped leaves that are 1-3 feet wide and 3-6 feet tall and have saw-like spines along the edges. Small white flowers are followed by fruits, which become black as they ripen and are eaten by many kinds of wildlife. The berries are also used for medicinal purposes, especially helping to treat some prostate and urinary problems.

Spanish Moss is a flowering plant that grows on larger trees, commonly the Southern Live Oak or Bald Cypress, throughout the southeastern USA. But it has also spread to Argentina, Hawaii, and Australia, among others. An interesting thing about Spanish moss is that it’s not a moss at all. It’s a member of the bromeliad or pineapple family—yes, pineapple!—, and is an epiphyte, or air plant. It uses trees only for support, getting its nourishment from air, sun and rain. It starts out as a small clump that does, in fact, look like a small pineapple plant, and on our last walk our mission was to find examples of the tiny budding plants.

The grey stems are covered with scaly, grey-green leaves, and the small greenish flowers are rarely seen. The distinctive grey-greenish tangle hangs from tree limbs, and even wires and poles, undulating in the wind. The seeds have tiny parachutes that carry them from tree to tree and sometimes the moss can get so thick that it creates a canopy between trees or poles.

The other interesting thing about Spanish moss is that it is not from Spain. There are many stories about Spanish moss—about the supposed origin of the name, what it is used for, and why it has ‘spooky’ connections. A very nice site to visit is here:

http://www.squidoo.com/spanishmoss

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