Rome After Hours: Piazza di San Giovanni

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Palazzo Laterano, the official residence of the Popes until 1870.

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Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, built in the 4th century and famous for its relics of Christ’s cross

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A view of Piazza di San Giovanni and the Lateran Obelisk

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Lateran Obelisk (Obelisk of Tuthmosis III), tallest surviving obelisk in the world at 32.18 metres (105.5 feet). Weights about 230 tons.

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Latin inscription tells how the obelisk was dragged in pieces from the Circus Maximus by Sixtux V.

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Hieroglyphs tell how the obelisk was quarried in Aswan during reign of Tuthmosis III. It was the only single obelisk (obelisks were usually made in pairs) ever erected at the Karnak Temple.

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Enjoying our first Italian gelato.

Animal Exploitation

We have really enjoyed our daily walks along 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. While we don’t partake in the shopping or restaurants it has been a great street for the Younger Fives to let off some steam. Since 5th Avenue is a pedestrian only street, the kids can go wild and run to their hearts’ content. However, each one of our trips along 5th Avenue has come with a dose of sadness and anger as we see wild animals being exploited.

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One of the major tourist attractions in this part of Mexico is captive dolphin experiences. There are multiple businesses along the Mayan Riviera that allow tourists to swim with captive dolphins. These dolphins have been taken from the wild, separated from their pods, and often severely mistreated in the process. Once in captivity they are kept in very small cages and pools, were they are forced to interact with humans on a daily basis. Here are a few quick facts that highlight the miserable conditions that dolphins face in captivity.

  • Captive dolphins have very little space to swim. A wild dolphin may swim up to 40 miles in one day. Once in captivity they no longer have this freedom.
  • The dolphins’ natural sonar is very sensitive and all the noise that they are subjected to in captivity (pool filters, noisy crowds, etc.) is very hurtful to them.
  • The act of being captured causes enormous stress to the dolphin, which weakens their immune system and leaves them susceptible to diseases.
  • Dolphins in captivity don’t perform tricks or interact with humans because they want to; instead they are trained to do these tasks using food as a reward.
  • The process of capturing dolphins is a very brutal and violent event in which an entire pod is surrounded and beaten. Only the youngest and most fit are taken into captivity while the rest are slaughtered for their meat.

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Each day as we walked down 5th Avenue we were approached by multiple people trying to sell us tickets to a captive dolphin experience. At almost every block there is a ticket salesman or woman waiting to entice tourists into swimming with dolphins. While these people are just trying to make a living, it was very hard for the Younger Fives not to scream at them about the horrors of keeping dolphins in captivity. We tried to explain to the kids that the people that really need to be educated about this horrible process are the tourists. Our family was really inspired by The Family Adventure Projecta traveling family who visited Taiji, Japan, which is infamous for its cove where many dolphins are captured and killed.

Five Ball had the hardest time understanding why people would cage dolphins.

Five Ball had the hardest time understanding why people would cage dolphins.

You might have heard of the documentary The Covewhich won several awards for its coverage of dolphin hunting and capture practices in Japan. While in Taiji The Family Adventure Project watched this eye opening documentary and decided to take action to raise awareness about the horrors of capturing and killing dolphins. We were inspired by what they did and decided that here in the Mayan Riviera tourists needed to be made aware of how captive dolphins are treated. We decided that we could do the most good by letting people know the truth about dolphins in captivity through our blog and TripAdvisor recommendations. While it is still hard for us all to walk down the street and be silent towards the horrible practice of these “dolphin experiences” we feel like in some small way we are doing our part.

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Sadly, dolphins aren’t the only wild animals being exploited in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Along 5th Avenue you will find several adults with monkeys, lemurs and humongous snakes. These people will approach tourists asking them if they want their picture taken with the animal. They will then charge money for the picture thereby making this a very successful street business. Sadly these animals have been taken from the wild at a very young age and are kept in an unnatural state just to make money for their captors. Every tourist that stops to have their picture taken is contributing to the suffering and capture of these wild animals.

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In our travels we have been very fortunate to experience animals in the wild, including the national parks of the United States and the coast lines of Mexico. However, in every case we understood that there is a barrier between humans and the animals. They need to stay in their habitat, and we need to do our best to leave them undisturbed. We have been fortunate enough to be in the ocean several times in Mexico and the United States when a pod of dolphins swims by. It is an amazing feeling to watch them jump the waves and hear them chattering. However, these dolphins don’t swim up and let you grab their dorsal fins or do fancy tricks. They are wild animals with their own lives to lead. When you see a dolphin jumping through hoops or kissing kids you need to realize that they have been forced into these actions. We hope that other travelers will come to the Mayan Riviera and experience its beauty. However, please make sure that you do so in a way without exploiting animals. As the kids always say, “That could just as easily be a human in that cage or someone’s cute toddler on that leash”.

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Please do your part to keep dolphins wild!

Younger Fives Present a Halloween Goodie Bag: UNICEF Comic, Travel Interview, and Slideshow

A note from Five of Hearts about the comic: I wanted to make this comic because I wanted to spread the word about trick-or-treating for UNICEF. It was a lot of fun. Storyboard That was a great tool and really helped. And I am looking forward to making more comics to teach people about other things. We have created an online Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF page, and we hope you can help us support UNICEF!
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UNICEF Part 1

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UNICEF Part 2

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An Interview with the Younger Fives about Halloween, Poverty, and UNICEF

What is your favorite part of trick-or-treating on the fly?
High Five: I like having glow stick lights, all of the colors.
Five Ball: Well… I actually I jest like spending the time together and having fun.
Five of Hearts: I really like how each Halloween we are in a different place so we have new opportunity’s each Halloween.

When did you first notice that some kids have a lot and other kids have very little?
High Five: I saw kids who wanted to wash our Mazda 5.
Five Ball: La Paz. I saw kids washing cars.
Five of Hearts: In San Cristobal de las Casas I saw instead of kids playing kids were working. That is what really made me realize what poverty is.

How does seeing kids with very little make you feel?
High Five: Sad because they don’t do their school.
Five Ball: Sad because they don’t have a home.
Five of Hearts: It makes me feel very sad. And makes me want to do something to help them.

Why do you think UNICEF is important?
High Five: UNICEF helps kids have water, medicine, and food.
Five Ball:UNICEF helps kids.
Five of Hearts:Because UNICEF helps people have a better life.

 

The Fives’ Look at Halloweens Past

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Out and About on 5th Avenue: A Post in Pictures

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Playa del Carmen is famous for its shops and restaurants on 5th Avenue (Avenida 5 or Quinta Avenida). For us, it is the perfect place for an evening stroll on this pedestrian-only thoroughfare. While not quite the same as a nice hike through a forest or up a mountain, there is always something to see and do while ambling down 5th Ave.

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An Adventure Underwater

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With it being over 2 years since we last put on a snorkel (in the Florida Keys), the timing seemed right to turn our attention underwater yet again. Just offshore from the eastern Mexican coast is one of the largest coral reefs in the world, so there is no shortage of places to explore. However, we knew that fighting waves or strong ocean currents would not give the kids a good experience out in the water. Five Spice did some research and found an ideal place to snorkel as a family: Akumal Bay, a sheltered cove about 40 km south of our rental in Playa del Carmen.

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In addition to calm waters, the bay is also known for its sea turtles. Akumal, which means “Place of the Turtle” in Mayan, provides the sandy beaches sea turtles use for their nests and also plenty of sea grass just offshore to provide the turtles with food. Tens of thousands of loggerhead and green turtles hatch from the sandy nests each year here. The conservation and monitoring program is run by Centro Ecológico Akumal, a nonprofit whose headquarters is just steps from the water.

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Knowing that the turtles are closer to shore in the early morning, we set the alarm for 5:30 A.M. to start our adventure at Akumal. We were all a bit bleary-eyed as we made our way to the colectivo stand to catch a passenger van from Playa del Carmen to Akumal, but the anticipation carried us forward one step at a time. We soon settled into the van, and after about a 30 minute ride we arrived at the stop for Akumal Beach right along the main highway.

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DSC05366-picsayFrom the side of the highway, we made use of the elevated walkway over the traffic and headed toward the beach. We had heard it was kind of a long walk, but we didn’t find it bad at all. There was a pedestrian sidewalk (much of it paved) heading from the highway and into the little community that has sprung up close to the beach. From there we went under the arch and followed the sidewalk to the beach.

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We arrived around 7:30, about a half hour before the dive shops open for gear rentals, but this was a wonderful time to explore the surroundings. The beach was practically deserted, and we enjoyed learning about the reef ecosystem and sea turtles through the informative displays in the Centro Ecológico Akumal building.

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When 8:00 arrived, we were the first ones in line to rent snorkel gear. The anticipation was running high, and soon Five Spice, Five of Hearts, and Five Ball ventured out into the roped-off area to take a peek underwater. They didn’t have far to go before they spotted their first group of turtles eating sea grass below. The turtles are fascinating to watch. They usually have an entourage of fish accompanying them and cleaning bacteria off their shells, and it is intriguing to watch them come to the surface, take several deep breaths, and then plunge underwater. In addition to the turtles, there were a large variety of colorful fish in some of the small stands of coral reef close to shore. The reef is larger and more intact a little further out, but the diving area off of the beach, with its proximity to shore and relatively easy swimming, made it the ideal place for us to experience the turtles and the reef.

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As the morning progressed, so did the number of visitors. The small beach and water were feeling quite crowded by about 10:30, and after a final snorkel and swim along the beach, we rinsed off and walked back to catch the colectivo back to Playa del Carmen. The only drama on the return trip was a thunderstorm that crossed our path, combined with the fact that the driver was going a bit too fast for comfort. Walking back to our rental from the center of town, we found a watery obstacle course as many of the streets were flooded knee-deep with rain. We took our time to slowly pick our path home, making use of a few impromptu bridges along the way. It’s times like these that we wouldn’t mind having a shell of our own and being able to just go with the flow :)

 

Fives’ Facts about Akumal Beach
*Transportation:
There are several options for getting to Akumal Beach. From Playa del Carmen or Tulum, you can catch buses or colectivos heading between the two endpoints of the route, and either will drop you off on the side of the highway at the road to Akumal Beach. Be sure to ask for Akumal Beach and not the town of Akumal. The cost of the bus and colectivo are about the same. The colectivos run about every 10-15 minutes from 5:00 A.M. to 10:00 P.M. and have no set schedule, which was more appealing for us. The cost from Playa del Carmen was 35 pesos per seat used in the van, one-way. The colectivo stand is located at Calle 2 Norte between Av. 15 and 20, which is 2 blocks north of 5th Ave. Taxis are also available, but run a minimum of 600 pesos one way.
*When to Visit:
The dive shops open every day of the year at 8:00 A.M. and close at 5:00 P.M. We found arriving before 8:00 was ideal, as the beach was practically deserted. Getting out into the water right at 8:00 gave us about 2 hours to explore before big tours and crowds arrived.
* Renting Gear: There are several options on the beach for renting both snorkel and scuba equipment, and they all seemed about the same to us. We went with the Akumal Dive Shop, the original shop on the beach. The combination of snorkel set (mask and breathing tube) and life jacket (mandatory) was $12 USD per person, and kids and adults are the same price. Flippers and other gear are extra. We decided to snorkel in shifts, so we only rented three sets of gear instead of five. There are definitely places in Playa del Carmen that rent gear for cheaper, but we didn’t want the hassle of lugging everything around with us all day.
* Turtles:
You are most likely to see loggerhead and green turtles out in the waters of Akumal. They are about the same in size (1.2 meters) and weight (100-200 kg), but the loggerhead turtles feed on shellfish (crabs and snails) while the green turtles feed on sea grass. We saw at least a dozen green turtles during our morning in the water, and they were a blast to watch!
* The Reef:
The Mesoamerican Reef (extending  700 miles from the tip of the Yucatan down through the Honduran Bay Islands) is the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere. The reef is home to 60 types of coral, 500 species of fish, and 5 species of marine turtles. One of the biggest threats comes from tourism and the staggering number of people who visit the reef (ourselves included). There did not seem be to any efforts to limit the daily number of visitors, as we have seen in other places. At very least, be sure not to touch or step on the reef and wear reef-safe sunscreen (if it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef).