Tips for Driving in Mexico

Duke and I just finished a 6 week road trip. A month of that was driving through Mexico. We drove down the gulf coast to the Yucatan then through Oaxaca and Mexico City and back north crossing  into the U.S. at Nogales.

Map-Mexico

Here are a few things we learned about driving in Mexico

  • Topes!  The thing that you notice immediately when you start driving in Mexico are the topes. Topes are everywhere.  A tope is a speed bump. They can be big or enormous or occasionally small. Duke did all the driving on the trip. Although he always slowed down to a crawl to go over the topes we must have scraped the bottom of the car at least once a day. Sometimes on the smaller roads vendors will build topes on the road themselves so that drivers will have to slow down to look at what they are selling.

 

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  • Maps  If you are going to drive in Mexico you have to get the Guia Roji Mexicoan Atlas. I can't recommend it highly enough. The maps are up to date, accurate and easy to read. I love this atlas!

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  •  Motels – For most of our trip we looked for a place to stay when we arrived in the town where we wanted to spend the night. Early in the trip we were looking for lodging and saw a place that looked secure – It had high walls and garages – and it looked clean and new, We pulled in and immediately did a U-turn when we saw the sign with room rates by the hour! In the following g days we pulled into motels in other towns. One even had a drive through check in with a drawer to put your money in so you never saw the clerk. They all had walls and garages or curtains across the parking spots, and hourly rates!

Towards the end of our trip Duke asked one of the teachers at our language school about motels in Mexico. He found out that motel has a different meaning in Mexico than it does in the U.S. In Mexico motels are for private assignations. If you are on a road trip like we were you probably don't want to stay in a Mexican motel!

We often saw motels with romantic names but my favorite motel name was Motel Dix 🙂

  • Cuotas and Libres -In general the Mexican roads we drove on were good. Often there are two routes shown on signs. For example a road sign might point to Oaxaca Libre and in a different direction to Oaxaca Cuota.  The Cuota roads are toll roads. They are fairly expensive but usually they are much better roads than the free (Libre) roads. Although this was not always the case. A few times, especially around Vera Cruz the toll roads were terrible. We also traveled on some great free roads. On one libre road we did have a detour around some construction that was actually through a lake!

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  • Driving after Dark in Mexico is probably a bad idea. We made a point of never driving after dark in Mexico. While this is probably a good safety precaution a very good reason to not drive after dark is that hazards are often poorly marked, A hazard could be a big tope that you don't want to hit at speed  or it could be a big rock in the road. On one Cuota in the mountains we came around a corner and there was an enormous bolder at least 15 feet in diameter right in the middle of the road. It may have come down on the road very recently but there were no warnings. I can't imagine trying to avoid it on a unlit road. Hazards aren't usually that bed but roads are often poorly lit and you can come upon construction, an animal or a slow moving vehicle very fast,

 

  • No deja piedras sobre pavemiente – This sign was a very common sign on many roads. It translates "Don't leave Rocks on the Pavement".  It seemed  like a very odd message for a sign. Duke had to explain it to me.  Frequently when a car breaks down people will put rocks in the road to warn oncoming traffic that the car is in the road. In the U.S. we would be more likely to use flares or cones for the same purpose. The sign is instructing the driver to remove the rocks when the broken down vehicle is moved.

 There are lots of other tips for driving in Mexico. They include things like buying insurance and getting your permit to bring your car in but you can find that information in lots of places. The information above is just some of the odd stuff that I never found explained any where else. If you have questions about our experience. Please leave a comment.

Mazatlan, Alamos and San Carlos

Friday morning we drove to Mazatlan. Duke had booked a room on Priceline for two nights. It turned out to be a beautiful resort on the beach north of Mazatlan. When we checked in we agreed to be signed up for the Saturday morning time share presentation. For attending we would get $150 in food credit at the resort.

We went for a swim in one of their pools and then drove down into Mazatlan where we found a restaurant on the beach and had shrimp and fish for dinner.

It rained all day Saturday which was kind of nice because it was still warm but the lack of sun made it not too hot. Our time share sales pitch turned out to be really interesting. Our sales guy was originally from Minnesota,but has lived in Mexico for seventeen years. He wasn't too high pressure and we learned a lot. He said because so many Americans are afraid to travel to Mexico they are selling and marketing more to Mexicans. We had a tour and a great breakfast. It is a beautiful property.

After the sales pitch we spent the rest of the afternoon relaxing on the veranda reading and enjoying the stunning view.

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 From Mazatlan we drove to Alamos. We visited Alamos on our trip in 2007. It is a wonderful old colonial mining town. It is very small and fun to explore. We wanted to stay where we stayed in 2007 but it is now a private residence. Instead we found a wonderful eco lodge El Pedregal run by an American couple who moved to Alamos almost 20 years ago. We had our own quiet little cabin and the best bed we had on the whole trip.

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We explored Alamos Saturday afternoon. Sunday morning we had a great breakfast at El Padregal and a fascinating talk with Dave and Jennifer, the owners. They lead tours and built El Pedregal a few years ago. the state department travel warnings have really hurt their business and make no sense to them. I think a bird tour with them would be a lot of fun.

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Monday morning after a wonderful breakfast on the porch at El Pedregal we headed north again to San Carlos on the Sea of Cortez. We've been here before too. After checking in to our Best Western we explored the coast a bit and had a great shrimp dinner. This morning, Tuesday we are leaving for Tucson and the end of our Mexican adventure. It has been wonderful.

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Teotihuacan, Queretaro, and Tequila

As we were leaving Mexico City on Tuesday morning the valet who brought our car up from the Sheraton's garage told us that on Tuesdays cars with license plates ending in 7 or 8 are not allowed to circulate in the city. We thought about our options and decided to make a run for it. Luckily traffic was light leaving the city and we made it out without being stopped by the police!

We drove to Teotihuacan which is only 50 kilometers northeast of the city.Teotihuacan was Mexico's biggest ancient city. They think it had 125,000 people at its height between 250 and 600 AD.

Teotihuacan has two very large pyramids that you see from a long way away as you approach the site. The biggest, the pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. Only the largest pyrmid in Egypt and one other pyramid in Mexico are bigger.

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The site is 20 square kilometers. We walked up the mile long Avenue of the Dead and climbed the Pyramid of the Sun which is 230 feet tall. I was huffing and puffing when I got to the top but the view was worth it!

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From Teotihuacan we drove to Queretaro to spend the night. A lot of important events in Mexican
history happened in Queretaro. It is a really pretty colonial city that is a Unesco World Heritage Site. We walked around the historic center, went to the art museum which is in a beautiful former Monastery and sampled the gorditas for which Queretaro is famous.

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Wednesday morning we drove from Queretaro through Guadalajara to Tequila. We thought that getting through Guadalajara might be difficult because of traffic on the city streets but it was a surprisingly quick drive on good roads. We arrived in Tequila and checked into the same hotel on the town square that we stayed in four and a half years ago when we were in Mexico. We have a room overlooking the square. This is the view from our room.

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We really enjoyed the Mundo Cuervo tour last time so we took it again. It was interesting to taste the roasted agave that is squeezed to get the juice. We also got a lesson on how to taste and evaluate tequila and a margarita at the end of the tour. I didn't realize that Cuervo means crow. They have a crow named Jose in a big cage in one courtyard and a statue of a crow in the entry courtyard. This is a picture of the agave pinas as they are delivered to the distillery.

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Today we awoke with a thirst for more tequila so we went exploring. There are many working distilleries in Teqilla and the ruins of many more. We went on the 1:00 tour of the Perseveranda Distillery which makes Sousa Taquila. It was a very interesting tour. Our guide was great. We sampled some more tequila and a different mixed drink with tejin on the rim of the glass.

While we were sitting on the porch of the Hacienda were the founder used to live, sipping and chatting with our bartender, it started to rain very hard. We had to stay at the bar and continue to evaluate and help with some quality control of the various tequilas produced at Souza. When we finally left (it took some time to find the exit) it had ceased raining, but the streets had turned into rivers. We made it back to our hotel and took a siesta, as is the custom here.

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For supper we had tacos from a stand in front of the market, we had tacos of tripe, beef, tongue, chorizo, and pork. Dinner came to a total of $2.95 for the two of us. Later we shared an ear of roasted corn from a stand in the plaza.

Mexico City

On our way from Oaxaca to Mexico City we spent Friday night in a nice old hotel in the center of the town of Tehuacan. Tehuacan is famous for its mineral water. On Saturday we toured the underground springs at the Pinafiel plant that are the source of the mineral water. It was a fascinating tour.

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This is our hotel in Tehuacan. You can see the door of our room on the right.

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Our tour guide for the underground springs was very eager to practice her English and we were the only ones on the tour.

We arrived in Mexico City mid afternoon and checked into a great Sheraton Hotel next to the American Embassy. We walked down to the historic center of Mexico City, the Zocalo. Mexico City has an amazing energy, some beautiful wide avenues, and some car free narrower streets. The crowds on the way to the Zocalo on Saturday night were enormous.

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Sunday morning when we left the hotel we discovered that all the roads were closed and the Mexico City Marathon was ready to start. We had great fun watching the runners and walking towards the Chapultepec Park where many of the museums are located. Because there were no cars we could walk down the middle of the road.

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Our first stop was the Museo Nacional de Antropologia. What a wonderful museum. In my experience it is one of the best I have ever visited. We spent several hours there and didn't see everything. One of the highlights was the Sun stone which was found underneath Mexico City's Zocalo in 1790.

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Our second stop was the Museo Nacional de Historia. it is a castle like building sitting on a hill overlooking the city. At one point it was the home of Mexico's president. The museum and building were great but perhaps the best part was the orchestra and choir putting on a concert on the top level.

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Next We stopped at the Museum of Modern Art and then went back to the hotel for a rest. For dinner we went to a Mariachi restaurant and had a great time.

On Mondays the museums in Mexico City are closed so today we visited several markets,the Monumento a la Revolucion,the cathedral, a 137 year old candy store and the Departmentof Education which has 120 Diego Rivera Murals. For dinner we had steaks at an Argentinian Restaurant.

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Our stay in Mexico City was great. It is a beautiful city. The parts that I saw were very clean. All the people were friendly and it had a real energy. I'd love to go back some day. .

Oaxaca

 
We arrived in Oaxaca on Saturday night the 20th of August. We stayed in the new annex to the wonderful B&B The Bugambillas. The annex has four guest rooms, a very nice sitting area and kitchen, and a patio and roof top deck. The staff call it El Secreto.  think we were the first people to sleep in our room. It was one of the nicest places we have stayed on this trip.

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On Sunday we explored Oaxaca and then on Monday morning we started taking Spanish lessons at a school called Oaxaca Spanish Magic. Monday through Friday we had  four hours of lessons each day. Duke was in a class with one other student and I had a teacher to myself. I couldn't believe how intense it was to speak and listen to Spanish exclusively for four hours a day. I even discovered that this kind of extreme brain exercise can actually give you a headache! Monday afternoon we moved out of the Bugambilla and into a home stay which was cheap but turned out to be a disappointment. Never the less the school and the Spanish lessons were wonderful. I had a great teacher and I think I made great progress on my Spanish.

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Tuesday afternoon we went to two artisan towns south of Oaxaca. One of the towns specialised in black pottery and the other one specialised in colorful carved wooden creatures called alebrijes. It was fun to explore the countryside and we bought some souvenirs in both places.

Wednesday afternoon we visited the Museo de las Culturas de Oaxaca. It was a marvelously interesting museum with exhibits about the history of Oaxaca up to the present. The best part of the museum was the wonderful building in which it is located, a beautiful former monastery. later we had dinner in a restaurant over looking the Zocalo and had fun watching a band and dancers.

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Thursday afternoon we invited two other women from our classes to join us when we explored a couple more towns north east of Oaxaca. one of the women was from France and the other one was from St Paul Minnesota. We all had a great time. We went to see a giant tree in front of a church in El Tule and a little bit farther out of town we visited Teotitlan del Valle. We stopped at one workshop and had lunch in their empty restaurant and then the owner showed us how they make the yarn and dye it. He showed us how all of the colors are made from natural products like bugs, indigo, bark, and other plants. Then he showed us how the yarn is spun and how the rugs are made. The whole process was fascinating. After getting back to Oaxaca we sat in the Zocalo and listened to the municipal band.

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Oaxaca also has wonderful chocolate which I sampled a couple of times.

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Friday after class we headed out of Oaxaca. It is a great town and I would love to visit it again.

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  Friday night we spent the night in Tehucan.

Palenque, Tuxtla Gutiérrez and Oaxaca – Friday and Saturday August 19 and 20

We spent Thursday night in Palenque in a very nice hotel, The Hotel Chablis. After a beer on our patio overlooking the jungle we had dinner in an open air restaurant next door and had the best meal so far. I had soup and a garlic rubbed grilled fish and Duke had a mixed grill. I can't remember the Spanish name for it but it included some wonderful steak and plantains. After dinner we went for a walk. Duke thought about climbing these vines.

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The ruins at Panenque are just a few miles south of the town  where the mountains start to rise from the plains of the Yucatan peninsula. The mountain jungle setting made them very different from all the other ruins that we have seen. We were there fairly early which was good because it was already hot. We climbed around and enjoyed ourselves. I was especially impressed with the magnitude of Palenque.

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The museum at Palenque had things found at the site. I liked this timeless Mom.

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Driving south from Palenque into the mountains the roads became very windy. There was no way we could be in a hurry. We stopped first at the Misol-Ha Waterfall. It was very high and beautiful. We hiked up behind it

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Next we stopped at the Aqua Azul waterfall. it is very different. Duke was here many years ago and there were only a couple of people and no vendors. When we were at the falls there were a lot of people and many many vendors.

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We also stopped to buy some shirts from a road side vendor. The children were fascinated.

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We spent Friday night in Tuxtla Gutiérrez. It is a big town. We walked around the square, had a good dinner and got on the road early to drive to Oaxaca. The drive to Oaxaca was long. Some of it was on very good toll roads and some of it was on very windy mountain roads. We did stop and buy some Mezcal along the way.

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Wednesday and Thursday August17 and 18 – Coba, Laguna Bacalar and Palenque

From Tulum we drove down the eastern side of the Yucatan Peninsula and then across the base of the peninsula. But before we headed south from Tulum we went inland to see the ruins at Coba. Coba was very different than the other ruins we have seen because it is all in jungle. We had to walk quite a distance between the various ruins at the site.The paths are old Mayan stone highways.

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The town that is now the ruin at Coba had around 40,000 people living in it at its peak between 800 and 1100 AD.

We saw the ball court.

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And we saw several other impressive structures. But the most awe inspiring was the pyramid. It is 42 meters high and is the second highest pyramid in the Yucatan peninsula. We climbed it. The view from the top was of endless jungle.

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On the road back to Tulum from Coba we stopped at a road side stand and bought a cold coconut. The vendor opened it. We drank the coconut juice and then the meat. We added salt, chili powder and lime to the meat. It was really good.

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We spent Wednesday night at Laguna Bacular on the second biggest lake in Mexico. We ate dinner in a little restaurant on the square and walked around the fort that the Spanish built for protection from British pirates. We were only a few miles from Belize.

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From Laguna Bacalar we drove to Palenque almost 300 miles on some not very good roads. Palenque is right at the edge of the mountains.It also has  big Mayan ruin. it is amazing how many ruins there are. we only scratched the surface. And we visited five. I'll talk about our visit to the Palenque ruins in my next post.

 

Monday and Tuesday August 15 and 16 2011 – Cancun and the Mexican Rivieria

While we were in Cancun staying at our friend's house we did laundry and got food from the grocery store for our meals. It was a nice break in our travels.

I didn't realize that Cancun is a recently created city. In the 1970s Mexico decided to create the resort of Cancun. Pretty much everything we saw in Cancun, all the roads, restaurants and over the top resorts, is no more than 40 years old.

We drove through the hotel zone which is a 10 or so mile long strip of land with very impressive resort hotels. We parked near the Ritz Carleton and walked through it down to the beach. Later we went swimming near there. The beaches are sparkling white and the water is a stunning azure blue. This picture was taken a little farther down the road at an overlook point by the public beach..

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While we were in Cancun we also spent and hour checking out the gambling at the Dubai Palace. They had an electronic black jack table with no cards but with a dealer. It is the first one like it I have ever seen. We lost a bit but it was still interesting and fun to play someplace new.

We left Cancun Tuesday morning. Tuesday night we stayed in Tulum about 80 miles south of Cancun on the Mexican Riviera. On the drive from Cancun we saw lots and lots of very fancy resorts. We stayed at a hotel called Green Tulum. We had a second floor cabana room that felt like we were in a tree house.

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 In the afternoon we explored the ruins at Tulum. It was a walled city that was thriving when the Spaniards first sailed along this cost. The ruins overlooking the white sand beach and sparkling blue water are stunningly beautiful.

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After a dinner of fish tacos in an outside restaurant we watched the moon rise over the Caribbean.

From Tulum we head south almost to Belize.

 

Sunday August 14, 2011 – Merida to Cancun

From Merida we headed east to Cancun. After almost always going south in Mexico it is a bit of challenge to orient oneself to driving east to west.

Sunday our big stop of the day was Chichen Itza. Chichen Itza is on the cover of both of our Yucatan guide books and is the most visited of all Mayan sites.

There was never a single monolithic Mayan empire. Instead thee were independent city states in an almost constant state of shifting alliances. This reminds me of the city states of Italy.

The classic Maya era is considered 250 AD to 900 AD. Chichen Itza is the one city in the post classic Maya era (900 Ad – 1500 AD) to surpass the glory of the classic era.

In contrast to Edzna which we visited on Saturday, Chichen Itza had a lot of visitors when we were there. Partly because it was a Sunday and partly because Chichen Itza is at he top of everyones must see list.

Chichen Itzu is impressive. As you walk in the first thing you see is El Castillo. It is huge!

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As we wandered around the site which covers a lot of ground it started to rain. It rained hard for about 15 minutes. This actually felt really good. The cool rain was a nice change from the heat and humidity.

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We continued to explore and bought a few souvenirs.

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Back at the car we changed into dry clothes. One really nice thing about southern Mexico so far has been how many butterflies (mariposas) we see. They are ubiquitous out in the countryside.

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In Cancun we are staying at our friends' house. Unfortunately they are on vacation back in the U.S. right now so we don't get to see them.

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When we got here we went out to the store and bought food for dinner and breakfast. It is great to be able to do laundry and just relax. We are at about the half way point for distance on our trip.

Here Duke is eating a Pitaya or Dragon Fruit. It was good.

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Saturday August 13 – Campeche to Merida

Saturday we drove from Campeche to Merida in the state of Yucatan. Along the way we stopped to visit our first Mayan ruin and to do some shopping.

The Mayan ruins at Edzna are mainly from building done between 600 and 900 AD. Edzna was at the height of its power from around 250 BC to 150 AD. As we were entering the site we saw this sign. I thought the alien bit was entertaining.

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We had the site almost to ourselves. The size and complexity of the ruins is really impressive. I know next to nothing about Mayan history and seeing Edzna made me want to learn more.

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Our second stop of th day was Becal. Becal is a town of 6,400 people and is the center of the Yucatan panama hat trade. According to Lonely Planet about one third of the adult population make their livings weaving hats. The hats vary in price based on the fineness of the fibers used and the tightness of the weave. We saw hats priced well over $100.

A bike taxi showed us one of the back yard caves where the hats are woven from the fibers of the huano palm tree. The cave was about the size of a small room and we entered it using narrow stairs in the shop owner's yard. The hats are woven in the caves because the humidity keeps the fibers pliable.

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The hat remains very pliable. It can be crushed and will go back into shape very easily. Duke did some bargaining and bought a hat for about $27.

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In Merida we stayed at the Gran Hotel which was opened in 1901. The hotel was indeed grand. I suspect that much of our room was original. Although it was a bit worn it was still good.

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When we left Marida on Sunday morning most of the streets around our hotel and the main square were closed to traffic. There were lots of people strolling, bike riding and out enjoying the day.

If you would like to see all of my picture they are on Flickr here. If you have questions or if there are other things about our trip you would like to know please leave a comment or send me an email.