Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Mesa Verde, Colorado

Cliff Palace
We just got back from an amazing trip to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado.  I got a minor degree in Anthropology when I went to university, so visiting a place so rich in cultural, history, and ancient sites is a dream come true for me.  It did not disappoint!  Here are some tips before you go.

1.  When finding some place to stay check your options.  I like to go to tripadvisor.com and find out what places are rated.  You should decide if you want to camp in the park or stay in the park.  When travelling with a family I found trying to find a place that will accommodate a family difficult.  Unless you are in the park, be aware that getting to the park and through the park takes up to an hour and a half.  Even in the park it takes awhile to get from one area to another area, about 1/2 an hour to 45 minutes between the visitor's center and other main areas of the park.  There is rotating road construction as well as slow cars that travel at speeds of 25 miles an hour on a 45 mile per hour road.  Can be frustrating if you are in a hurry (of course I had all the time in the world).   You can camp in the park which will cost about $30 a night, and that is not including the entrance fee into the park.

We decided to stay at White Eagle Inn and Lodge, http://www.whiteeagleinncortez.com/ . It was only about 10 miles from the entrance of the park.  I found this place well priced, well maintained, they didn't hesitate when I said I had 4 kids, and you can't beat their customer service.  It is family owned and run and you can tell they care about it!  It is an older style motel that has a charm about it.  The pool is not filled, but they do have a miniature golf course that my kids loved.

2.  Tours:

Tower House

  • There are tours that you should book months in advance that take you to areas of the park that most people do not get to see.  They rotate these areas to lessen the impact on the ruins, and these tours can only be reserved online at http://www.recreation.gov/tourList.do?contractCode=NRSO&parkId=72397  Some of these are appropriate for children, some are not. 

  • The tours offered at the park on a regular basis are the Long House, Balcony House, and Cliff Palace.  The only place to buy tickets for these tours is at the Visitor's center, and you should get there as early as possible to buy your tickets.  We were there at 10:30am, and the line was out the door and down the sidewalk.  By the time we got to the counter the only tour we could get for the day was Long House, but we were able to buy tickets for the next day for Cliff Palace and Balcony House.  So if you want to get more accomplished on your first day I would recommend getting to the visitor's center when it opens!  
Ladders going into the Long House
  • The tours offered through the visitor center are not for little kids who are carried, but you can put them in a backpack.  

At Balcony House they will need to get out of the backpack and crawl through a tunnel.  Just remember BACKPACK, they won't let you carry your children up and down ladders, your hands must be free to do so.

There are 2 main areas of the Park, Wetherill Mesa and the area out by the Chapin Archealogical Museum, the Visitor's Center is in the middle of these two areas.  I would choose to do one area one day and the other area the other day.

Wetherill Mesa

The Long House

  • Make sure you buy your tickets for the Long House tour at the visitor's center, before heading out to Wetherill Mesa!  

  • The tram ride takes you on a loop, you do not need a ticket for this.  You can get off and on at different viewpoints and see ancient Puebloan villages.

  • The Step House, a self-guided tour through a cliff dwelling, there is a Ranger there if you have any questions.  The Step House closes at 4:30pm, so if you have a 3:00pm ticket for the Long House, go to the Step House first!  Or you will miss it!

Altogether it took us about 4 1/2 hours to complete Wetherill Mesa.  There is  flushing toilets, water, and a small Ranger station Kiosk area where you can ask questions.  I was told by a Native American that the water there is some of the best in the world.  It is purified naturally, after that I appreciated it even more!

Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum

Spruce Tree House
Near the Chapin Mesa Archeological Museum there are 2 loops, the Mesa Top Loop and the Cliff Palace Loop.  Right by the Museum is the path to go to the Spruce Tree House.  It is beautiful going down to the Spruce Tree House, lots of shade.  I guess this is called the Tree House because it was found by someone who was climbing down a tree, and you can tell how it was hidden in the trees for so long when you are there.  There is an intact Kiva in the Tree House that you can climb down into.  That was the only Kiva we were allowed into, so I would go.  It gives a different perspective of this room used for religious and educational purposes.  

Inside of a Kiva

Also near the museum is flushing toilets, a little cafe, and water to fill up water bottles.  I would recommend the cafe, especially the peanut butter brownies!

Mesa Top Loop

This loop is a car loop, you drive to various viewpoints, and in a rush you can stop and see things in about 1/2 an hour, but I would suggest to linger a bit longer at each viewpoint!   You can see the Tower House, pithouses and villages, sun palace, and there is a Sun point view that you can see several cliff dwellings in one spot.  

Cliff Palace Loop and Cliff Palace

Cliff Palace 
Cliff Palace is on this loop, you go here to go on your tour, again this ticket has to be bought at the visitor's center, buy it before you go.  The Cliff Palace is big, and when the Ranger asked our first impressions of the Cliff Palace people were saying things like, "Amazing, Respect for those who built it, Impressive..."  My personal thoughts were sadness and I chose not to volunteer my answer.  I was so sad that this amazing place was so pilfered through, that there were no laws to protect it after it was found, and that so much of what it could have been has been lost and sold to the highest bidder.  It is still an amazing place to visit, there is very good display of art, and so much is still intact.

We did see evidence of this palace falling into decay and I'm afraid that it will not look the same for my children's children.  This is a Kiva they are trying to brace, it is no longer round, it is D shaped and slowly falling into the canyon.

One of the original handholds used to climb up and
down the cliffs to enter Cliff Palace
The way we climb out of Cliff Palace

Balcony House

We were not going to go to the Balcony House as a group, my husband and I had decided to split up and go separately.  We had looked at the description and it said that each person had to be able to climb a ladder by themselves, as we have a 1 year old this seemed like it would not work.  At the visitor's center they talked us all into going, they saw we had a backpack for our baby and told us we could use this at the Balcony House.  They also did not charge us for the baby for any of our tours.  So we bought the tickets and chose to go altogether.

We went to Cliff Palace and directly to Balcony House after.  We arrived to hear the Ranger guide describing the Balcony House tour very scary like, "if anyone of you is being talked into this tour and your gut is telling you not to go, follow your gut."  I thought he was being a bit melodramatic, but then I realized, after the tour, he was spot on!  

Ladder going into Balcony House

To go into the Balcony House you have to climb a tall ladder, it is double wide and you can go up 2 at a time.  This ladder was put in by the park for a convenience to people going on the tour.  I didn't look down and I was okay, baby on my back and all.  

Inside Balcony House

climbing through Balcony House
We went into Balcony House, and the coolest part of this tour is that you are going through THEIR doors, you are going through this house, not just on the outskirts, THROUGH it!  It is amazing.  You go up a rock wall, and get to see a bit more into their lives.

Did I mention at the beginning that I'm afraid of heights AND a bit claustrophobic???  The part I was dreading the most was the tunnel.  They had a wooden tunnel at the visitor's center that you can try out and see if you fit, I didn't even try it, I was scared I would freak out.  BUT, I really wanted to go on this tour and thought I could do it.  Thankfully this was not as bad as I feared, it opened up in the middle of the tunnel, so much so that my kids stood up and walked to the end of the tunnel.  So this was not so bad.  

And then, after making it through the tunnel, I looked up, all I saw was ladder, cliff, ladder, people climbing on top of the cliff.  My heart froze.  My legs started shaking and I thought I was going to cry.  We had to take my baby off so he could crawl through the tunnel, he would not have fit on my back.  

So I started putting the backpack on my back, we put the baby in, and I started climbing.  I knew I had to get to the top, so I just put one foot over the other and tried to not look down.  I made it up the first ladder and was on the "steps" on the cliff when I looked back to see if my husband was behind me.  That was a huge mistake!  At this point if I had not had a baby on my back, I think I would have started screaming, until someone came and rescued me.  But I did have a baby on my back, and I turned back around, shaking and kept climbing.  I made it to the top and had to sit down, because I really thought I was going to pass out.  It is the scariest thing I can remember myself doing.  I know there are people who are not afraid of heights, and that is amazing, but I am, and after this experience I found myself waking up at night in a panic because I was dreaming of being back on that cliff.  In all reality, that was the only way in and out of Balcony House for the people who built it, and those with children and babies had to do just as I did, so I guess I got a unique experience.  There is also a chain fence around the cliff while you are climbing that assists you.  All in all, I do NOT regret going, it was my favorite tour, I would highly recommend it, and although it gave me nightmares, I think I would do it again.  

No one knows why the Puebloan people built these cliff dwellings, there are various theories.  One we heard over and over again was that times were tough when they built these.  Twenty miles away were examples of war.  There is evidence of severe drought and other hardships.  The balcony house is built for defense.  One theory is that the cliff dwellings were built for the politically elite.  After seeing what I saw and experiencing these dwellings, I disagree with the theories that these were built for the elite.  There were very nice dwellings on top of the cliffs, no scary hand holds or steps leading to death if you slipped.  My personal theory is that these were built in case something happened.  Sort of like a fallout shelter, a place they could survive with natural springs, and food storage, where they could last for some time.  I just cannot imagine the elite of their society choosing to climb in and out of these dwellings everyday!  

Altogether the area near the Museum, The Spruce Tree House, the Cliff Palace Loop and the Mesa Top Loop took us about 6 hours to go everywhere, but admittedly we rushed some areas.  I would say that you need at least 2 days to see Mesa Verde National Park!  

One thing I noticed on this trip was that we were often the only Americans looking at the sites, other than the Rangers.  I would like to encourage all Americans to go here and see this before it decays further!  I was in places where no one was speaking English and I have to wonder if we truly appreciate these sites!

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Cologne, Germany


We decided for our last day in Germany to go to Cologne.  We promised our children a tour of a chocolate factory and my husband wanted to see the famous Cathedral, or Dom.  It was a wonderful way to finish our stay in Germany, and it made us want to go back to Germany and see more.

We were worried that we would not be able to find the Dom as we were heading there by train, and sometimes travelling by public transport can be confusing and time consuming.  We had no worries though, as we stepped out of the train station we found that we were standing practically on the steps leading up to the Cathedral!.

 Even our children were impressed by the Dom!

We really should not have worried about finding the cathedral, we could see it from wherever we were.  The Dom in Cologne was my husband's favorite cathedral that we saw on this trip to Europe.  He liked it more than the famous Notre Dame.  The details on the outside and inside were breathtaking.

We went to a tourist information desk to find how to get to the Lindt chocolate factory and received excellent directions from the person working there.  I was often amazed at how well people could speak English and so grateful they were so patient with us, who did not speak German, at least not very well.

On the way to the chocolate factory we walked along the river, enjoyed the antics of youth, listened to some local musicians, and enjoyed our walk.  We learned by this time in our trip to look around us as we were walking, not just think of walking as a means to get to our destination, but part of our sightseeing as well.  It was really beautiful there.  We found the signs that were posted helpful and made getting around the city easier for pedestrians.

The Lindt Chocolate factory was so much fun, and more than I realized it would be.  We walked through a tropical room that had cocoa growing, we were able to see them make chocolate, and at the end we were able to buy the most delicious truffles that still make my mouth water when I think about them.  So worth the 1.5 euros each that we paid!  I only wish I had bought more when I had the chance!  We went to the chocolate factory for our kids, but as adults it was worth it!

At the chocolate factory I asked in German where the WC (Water Closet/toilet/bathroom) was  and got a proper response in German.  I guess my German had improved by this point in our trip.

After the chocolate factory we went to a food vendor and bought some sausages.  My favorite was the kraukauer currywurst!  Yummy!

We reserved a seat on the ICE train, the fastest train belonging to the Deutsche Bahn.  It was fun to watch the speeds that the train was travelling, and it took us to Brussels in only about 5 hours from Cologne.