St. Kitts: Not a Stereotypical Caribbean Island

Imagine the stereotypical Caribbean island: palm trees swaying in the wind, long white beaches with gentle waves washing ashore, waiters carrying piña coladas…

This is not Saint Kitts. Or, well, I’m sure all of these can be found at Saint Kitts too, but there’s so much more to this island. At first, we were reminded of a past trip to Gambia, and not just because of the ebony skin of locals. The goats that seem to be grazing on every field and inbetween houses, most of the cars at least 15 years old, houses in need of paint and maybe a new roof… but unlike in Gambia, here people didn’t constantly try to sell us something or “help” us. Instead, the islanders seemed genuinely friendly and our day on the island was stress-free.

St. Kitts

Celebrity Equinox in Basseterre port

Our ship had anchored at Basseterre, the capital of Saint Kitts, while we still slept. When we got out, multiple shore excursions were hustling around the pier at the same time, but we managed to find our contacts at St. Kitts Scenic Railway and get on a minibus. On the way to the depot, the driver showed us important sights around town: there’s the pharmacy, there’s an auto repair shop, that’s an empty commercial space if you’d like to start a business here, there’s a construction site where they’re building a business center. The latter was funded by the Citizenship by Investment program, which is meant for rich people to get St. Kitt’s tax status – there’s no income tax – and passport that allows visa-free travel to the EU.

St. Kitts Scenic Railway

St. Kitts

The train had an air-conditioned carriage, but we climbed to the upper deck to enjoy the views, as did everyone else on board. The wheels of the train screeched ear-piercingly as the locomotive slowly started us off on our journey. The morning was cloudy and slightly rainy, and that combined with wind from the movement of the train made me pull on a cardigan.

The views were at first a bit desolate, industrial backyards and abandoned cars. The guide started off on her narrative, pointing out a local landfill. Ocean was constantly on our right side, deep blue and rough, and the volcano rose on our left with its peaks enveloped by clouds. Only later we’d start to see villages, gardens and islanders running errands.

St. Kitts Scenic Railway

St. Kitts

Would you like some piña colada?  the train waitress asked us as the guide continued with excellent and detailed explanations of local culture and history. Everything here seemed to revolve around sugar. English and French farmers built sugar cane plantations here in the 17th century, and as the plantations grew so did the island’s slave population. For the next 400 years, sugar was a key export of the island, basis for the whole economy, until last century arrived and it was no longer profitable, what with descendants of the slaves now demanding fair pay. At some point, the plantation owners left the island and government took over, trying to keep the economy running, but in 2005, they had to admit defeat. Sugar cane production was stopped and thousands were left unemployed.

St. Kitts

Sugar Cake of St. Kitts
Sugar cake, a Kittisian dessert, was served on the way. Tastes like sugar!

St. Kitts

It turned out we also had sugar to thank for our train ride. The tracks had been laid down to more efficiently transport sugar cane around the island, and only when the sugar industry had slowed down had tourists started using them for sightseeing. Now, we had the pleasure to take it easy on the train, listening to traditional Kittisian songs by the train choir, and take in the views as we sped past villages, fields, and schools where children rushed to windows to wave to us.

St. Kitts

St. Kitts
The wide and short black tower used to be a windmill for a sugar plantation. We saw many of these windmills on our way, all in ruins.

St. Kitts Scenic Railway

Tracks don’t circle the whole island anymore, so after a couple hours of leisurely riding the train we were transferred back to mini buses. The same friendly and enthusiastic driver took care of us, talking about the island for the whole 45 minutes it took to get back to Basseterre and showing us sights on the way: a tree that had served as a border marker between French and English settlers, a home belonging to one of the government’s ministers (with a couple goats in the yard), a cemetery where US president Thomas Jefferson’s (purported, not proven) grandfather Samuel Jefferson was buried, and a river by which the Europeans back in the days slaughtered the island’s thousands of natives, and that flowed red for two days after the massacre.

St. Kitts

St. Kitts

Back in Basseterre, we were feeling tired from the early wakeup. Our breakfast had been heavy enough that we weren’t hungry yet, but we figured we could use some ice tea and a quiet place to chill for a while. This we found at The Gallery Cafe (10 North Independence Square, Basseterre), just a couple blocks from the port, although in Basseterre, everything seemed to be just a couple blocks from everywhere. In the courtyard, there were only us two – and a small lizard, a dog and a green vervet monkey looking for something to eat.

The Gallery Cafe

Green vervet monkeys were brought to Saint Kitts by the French, who intended them as pets. As you might guess from history, the “pets” were soon running wild around the island and thrived in its friendly environment. Now there are apparently as many monkeys on the island as people, and the islanders’ reactions towards them seemed to vary from nonchalant to irritated. Although many regard the monkeys as a nuisance, we couldn’t help but marvel at the creature that was sitting just a couple feet from us.

Green Monkey of St Kitts

Downtown Basseterre with The Circus, a sure spot to find a taxi.

We still had one sight left that we wanted to see: Brimstone Hill Fortress. This 17th century military fortress the largest in East Caribbean and a UNESCO world heritage site, and we’d only caught a glimpse of it so far on our way from the train. Based on that, we knew it’d be a 25-30 minute ride one-way, and it would only be three hours until our ship was leaving.

I’d harbored hopes we could get to the fortress via public transportation, but that seemed to not be an option. Our only reliable means of transport would be a taxi, which had a flat fee of $50 for the trip plus an hour’s wait. If we’d left in the morning, we could have probably gotten other tourists to split the cost with us, but at this point, we knew we’d be the only ones. Iiro suggested we’d just leave it.

No way! If we’d come this far – and we might not come again – then I sure wouldn’t leave a UNESCO site out of my collection.

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Afterwards Iiro admitted that the trip was worth the money and time. Brimstone Hill had magnificent views over the island and out to sea. No wonder the English had chosen this spot to build their fortress against the French: a black streaked lava mount with sides so steep that the trip up through the narrow turns was nerve wracking.

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

The fortress was either well preserved or well restored – probably both – and its exhibitions further brought the island’s history to life. One interesting detail was the British West India Regiment, which only enlisted black soldiers. Many of them were recruited from the ranks of slaves, which was a good deal for the men, as the life of a soldier was far easier than the life of a slave.

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

What did I think of Saint Kitts at the end of the day? Out of the Caribbean islands we visited, Saint Kitts seemed the poorest and at the same time most expensive. In GDP rankings, the country does rank better than some other island nations of the region, so our perception might be due to widespread corruption that several islanders we met were complaining about.

Saint Kitts is not the stereotypical Caribbean island, and maybe that is a reason to visit it. Even though Saint Kitts isn’t as developed from a tourist’s point of view as Barbados or Sint Maarten, people are friendly, we were treated well, and crime or tourist scams seemed nonexistent. I wouldn’t recommend it to a backpacker because of the prices, and someone looking for pure resort life might want to choose a more developed destination, but if you’re looking for “authentic” Caribbean, you might just find it here.

First and foremost Saint Kitts needs you and other tourists to get its economy back on its feet.

Brimstone Fortress, UNESCO world heritage site

Thanks to St. Kitts Scenic Railway for inviting us on the train ride. Cruise companies offer the train as a shore excursion, and hotel guests can contact the company through its website for reservations.

Mesa Verde National Park: Cliff Houses and Canyons

Mesa Verden National Park is located in South-West Colorado near the border of New Mexico. It’s the only national park in the United States designated to protect works of humans instead of Mother Nature, and it’s also an UNESCO world heritage site. If you’re roadtripping in the area, there’s no excuse to pass by these magnificent American Indian ruins that the Ancestral Pueblo people inhabited centuries ago. You could easily spend a couple of days exploring the park – we spent a full 24 hours there – but even a short visit is worth it, as long as you take a little time to plan it.

First: Visitor Center & which tour to take?

It’s always a good idea to start off a national park visit by stopping at the Visitor Center – and especially so at Mesa Verde. This is because Mesa Verde Visitor Center sells tickets to the ranger-led cliff house tours, and this should be the highlight of your trip. You can purchase tickets for the tours up to two days in advance, so if you’re arriving to the area already the night before, it makes sense to drop by the Visitor Center to get tickets fo the next day’s tour. Alternatively, you can purchase tour tickets from Colorado Welcome Center in the town of Cortez.

By the time we arrived at around noon, the two most popular tours had already almost sold out for the day. We managed to snatch tickets for the Balcony House Tour at 4.30 pm (first available slot) and left Cliff Palace Tour for the next morning. These basic tours are $4 per person and can be only bought in person. Specialty tours are sold also at, which I recommend to check out well in advance. I would have personally wanted to visit Cliff Palace at sunset for a special photography tour, but it had already sold out a month before!

Mesa Verde National Park Ranger
Tours are led by national park rangers, whose uniforms include a rain cover for their hat. Nice!

Balcony House Tour

Balcony House is the more challenging of the two basic tours: you’ll have to climb several ladders as well as crawl through a narrow corridor that gave me the jitters beforehand. In the end, though, it was my favorite of the two thanks to its active hands-on nature – or rather, hands-off, touching the ruins is not allowed! There are replicas of the ladders and corridor at the Visitor Center, so you can decide for yourself whether the tour’s the right fit for you. The ladders were exactly the same as on the tour, but the corridor was far more accommodating on the tour, which was VERY nice.

Ladders, Balcony House, Mesa Verde
The ladders were so wide they could be climbed in pairs.
Route to Balcony House, Mesa Verde
The views are excellent, if you can spare to look around
Climbing the ladders, Balcony House, Mesa Verde
It didn’t even cross my mind that climbing ladders could be hard, but some of the visitors really had trouble coordinating their limbs. I guess they haven’t been jumping from ladders as kids!
Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Hundreds of years old walls are not made for leaning, so Iiro kept his hands up in the air.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Ancestral pueblo apartment building: two doors, and the upstairs unit has a nice balcony.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde, narrow corridor
The tour requires you to crawl through a tiny house, no way around this. In the end, it was much easier than I had thought, because there’s a wider space in the middle that eliminated my claustrophobia.
Balcony House, Mesa Verde, narrow corridor
A little narrow at the shoulders. Guessing the Ancestral Pueblo weren’t too sturdy.

Balcony House has around forty rooms, which makes it average in terms of size for Mesa Verde cliff houses. The ranger on the tour told us tales of Mesa Verde history, pointed out details in Balcony House (murals, kivas), and explained in detail the art of dendrochronology, also known as tree-ring dating, which helped the scientists place the cliff houses on a timeline. With the lack of written history from the Ancestral Pueblo people, anthropologists have resorted to studying their descendants, the Pueblo and the Hopi people, to make educated guesses on centuries-old traditions, and the ranger went on to explain a bit about the rites of passage of the Pueblo.

Mesa Verde Mano & Metate
Dried corn kernels are ground with a round stone called mano on top of a stone slab called metate.

Corn was and still is a staple in the Pueblo diet. It’s a hard day’s work grinding dried corn, and this work is traditionally done by the women. The Hopi Indians’ female rite of passage centered on this practice: girls are locked in small groups in a dark room to grind corn four days in a row. Talking, sleeping and food breaks are allowed, but light is not, and no outsider can lay their eyes on the girls. After four days, the older women wash the girls’ hairs ceremoniously and style them on two buns above their ears, after which the girls can enter the society as women of marrying age. To me, the buns hold an odd resemblance…

Two peas in a pod: princess Leia and a Hopi girl
Two peas in a pod: princess Leia and a Hopi girl
Climbing out of Balcony House, Mesa Verde
Towards the end of the tour there was a spot where I felt it was better not to look down. Overall, however, can’t say my claustro- and acrophobias did not bother me.

Cliff Palace Tour

Cliff Palace was the administrative center of Mesa Verde: 150 rooms, 23 ceremonial kivas, but only around a hundred residents. Not that administrative centers tend to have that many residents… In any case, it’s the largest cliff dwelling in Mesa Verde, and the route is easier than the one to Balcony House with only a couple short ladders and no standing on high cliffs.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace
Ranger, leading a moment of silence

Our Cliff Palace Tour really brought out the differences between rangers. The ranger at Balcony House was informative, shooting out facts one after another with so many details you had to keep focused constantly on the talk. The Cliff Palace ranger, on the other hand, let the sights speak for themselves, kept moments of silence to “enjoy the views” and philosophically pondered the Ancestral Pueblo way of life. I’m guessing this was due to the fact that the Balcony House ranger was working her 10th summer at Mesa Verde, wheres the Cliff Palace ranger had just started.

Mesa Verde Cliff Palace
Cliff Palace is impressive already from the lookout point, but if you’ve got the time, I sincerely recommend taking a closer look.

Spruce Tree House

If you don’t have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House. In fact, even if you do have time to attend the tours, go see Spruce Tree House anyway: Mesa Verde isn’t Mesa Verde with a Spruce Tree House visit. It’s the only cliff dwelling in the area, where you don’t have to take a tour to get up close, and you even have a chance to climb down a restored kiva.

Mesa Verde - Spruce Tree House
Spruce Tree House from above. The route down isn’t long.

Spruce Tree House, Mesa Verde

We also thought about hiking Petroglyph Point Trail (4km) that leaves from close to Spruce Tree House, but the rainy weather made us think again. Instead, we popped by Chapin Mesa Archelogical Museum, which I don’t recommend if you’re short on time: you’re here to look at the buildings, not at stuff in vitrines.

Mesa Top Loop

This one-way road can take anywhere from half an hour to two, depending on how much you stop to take a look around. As wannabe-archaeologists, we stopped everywhere we could to marvel at the more-than-millennia-old dwellings, the oldest in the area, which would have looked like holes in the ground without the interpretive signs. This is a good tour to do on a rainy day, since most of the sights are indoors or at least under cover. If you go here, pick up a guide leaflet from the Visitor Center for $0.50.

If you’re too busy to stop everywhere, at least stop at the lookout at Sun Point View, where you have a great view of several cliff dwellings at once.

Mesa Verde pit houses and villages
A couple thousand years old pit house. How did they not die of carbon monoxide poisoning?

Far View Village Pueblos

Just when we thought we had already seen everything, here comes Far View. This is the place for Mesa Verde’s largest mesa top ruins, whole village pueblos right next to each other, and many of them were only abandoned at the same time as the cliff dwellings. At this point, we were already a little tired of all the ruins and in a hurry to make it to the next stop on our trip, but we stopped briefly enough to figure out that if we ever come here again, the short walking trail here is a must-do. Highly recommended you leave some time for this.

Mesa Verde Far View Sites
Even a thousand years ago they knew how to decorate their walls

Mesa Verde Far View Sites

Best Views: Park Point Overlook

Although Mesa Verde is known for its historical significance, you can’t ignore the nature and the strikingly beautiful mesas. The best place to take these in is Park Point Overlook, the highest point in the park, with 360-degree views to every direction. Because of this, the park’s fire ranger station is situated here, and during dry season there’s a 24/7 guard here to watch out for wildfires. Several large wildfires have scorched the area in the past couple of decades, and long-ago burned trees line the roads.

Mesa Verde Landscape
View to the South toward the mesa tops
Mesa Verde Mountains
View to the East, where rain was approaching
Eat: Far View Terrace in the park is a good cafeteria-style lunch restaurant with a selection of burgers, hot dogs, and… navajo tacos! Try these out if you haven’t. Spruce Tree Terrace probably has the same selection, but the views aren’t as good.

Sleep: We slept at the Morefield Campground inside the park, where we had reserved a spot – a good choice, because thanks to Memorial Day weekend, the “almost never full” campground was indeed full. Even with the reservation, you’ll need to pick out the spot by yourself in a first-come-first-serve style, so go early if you have a strong preference for it. The campground has decent free showers, and the General Store stocks firewood, food, and other essentials.

The night before we stayed an hour’s drive away at Purgatory Ski Resort’s Village Condos, a real steal outside the high winter season: an excellent studio with a fireplace and a kitchenette cost only $70 a night. Highly recommended if you’re passing by.