- Japan’s Top World Heritage Sites
- Hakone Best Overnight Excursion from Tokyo
- Places to Visit Between Tokyo and Kyoto
- Branson is Great for Families
- Mexico’s Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende
- In Kentucky, It’s all About Horses and Bourbon
- Buenos Aires Loves its Dogs
- Japanese Tea Ceremony Soothes the Soul
- Legs Inn a Must for its quirky architecture, Polish food and Lake Michigan Views
- Why I Live in Lawrence KS
- Pisac’s Market More than I Bargained for
- Machu Picchu Better than Imagined
- Ise-Shima Famous for Japan’s Most Revered Shrine and Female Divers
- Beyond Tokyo and Kyoto
- John Lennon in Karuizawa
- Hong Kong’s Victoria Peak Always a Draw
- Hiraizumi 12th-century Buddhist Utopia in Japan
- Kume & Kobe Refound
- Two New Tokyo Hotels, Worlds Apart
- Memories of Isla Amantani, Peru
Category Archives: Central/South America
It seems like many Americans go to Mexico to party on its beaches, which is reason enough to head somewhere else. I’m drawn to Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, two colonial towns in central Mexico that are quite possibly the most beautiful in the country. They owe their wealth in architecture and art to silver, mined in surrounding hills beginning in the 16th century by the Spanish. Churches, pastel-colored mansions, grand plazas, cobbled streets and even universities are proof of their affluent past, but it’s the vibe on the streets that captures my attention.
Both Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende, only an hour or so apart, have striking similarities. They are about the same size, with urban populations of about 80,000 and students making up as much as a fourth of the total. And both are beguilingly attractive, which, coupled with their history, earns them status as UNESCO World Heritage sites. They are walking towns, making it easy to become intimately acquainted.
I consider myself a rather lazy dog owner, because all I have to do when business calls is let Greta out my back door to my fenced-in yard. The park is a short block away. No elevators, no long walks through city streets to a spot of green. But that doesn’t stop the porteños of Buenos Aires. Oh, no. Buenos Aires loves its dogs. In fact, it may have more dogs per capita than any other city in Latin America.
Palermo, perhaps because of its many parks and the fact that the neighborhood is quickly becoming super trendy, has more than its fair share of dogs. It’s quite a sight to see professional dog walkers, with six or more canines under their charge walking in complete synchronicity. But what would you expect in the country of tango? There are dogs on balconies, there are dogs barking at night. Shops and restaurants place water bowls outside for their furry friends. I’ve seen hooks beside doors so owners can park their pooches while they shop inside. Even market vendors have gotten into the game, offering dog vests, leashes and all the accoutrements a dog might need.
But not my little Greta. She won’t be wearing a fur-lined jacket or a jewel-encrusted collar any time soon. And unlike those many dog owners in Buenos Aires, I actually clean up after my dog on our daily walk.
One of my favorite things to do in any city or village is to visit the local market, whether it’s a wet market in Hong Kong or the Feria de Mataderos in Buenos Aires. In Peru, I was most taken with Pisac’s Market in the Sacred Valley. We got rooms in a hostal right on the main square (named, as always, Plaza des Armas), with windows providing colorful views. But although Sunday is Pisac’s most famous market day, attracting busloads of tourists, my two sons and I missed it. On the other hand, if we hadn’t gotten sick, we wouldn’t have stayed five nights. I’ve never observed the workings of a market this close for this many days. I didn’t buy much, but Pisac’s Market offered more than I bargained for.
Machu Picchu is probably on every traveler’s bucket list, and with good reason. Built by the Incas around 1450, abandoned about 100 years later, and brought to the world’s attention in 1911 by American explorer Hiram Bingham, Machu Picchu is quite simply an architectural masterpiece. Although there are many traces of the Incas remaining in Peru, none offer such breathtakingly irrefutable proof of their brilliancy. For that and many reasons, I found Machu Picchu remarkably better than imagined.
It’s been many years since I spent a month in Peru with my two sons and my sister Kristin’s family, so Memories of Isla Amantani, Peru, is lifted word-for-word from my journal. The island lies in Lake Titicaca, the highest fresh-water lake in the world, and is one of my favorite places in the country. I’ve kept a journal since I was 12. Sometimes I wonder whether I, like seemingly everyone else these days, should write a memoir.
From Puno on the way to Cusco, July 17, 2008
“If this is impossible to read, it’s because we’re on the bus from hell. The seats are broken, there are no seatbelts, the suspension is shot, and we have 7 hours ahead of us. We opted for the local direct bus rather than the tourist bus that made stops along the way because the tourist bus cost $45 per person including admissions and the local bus cost about $8.
We spent the past 4 days on islands on Lake Titicaca, Isla Amantani and Isla Tequile.
Both had red, rocky terrain that rose steeply from the shore, with stone or sand footpaths linking adobe houses schools, the market, tiny stores selling candy, drinks, eggs and central plaza. There was no running water, and everyone hauled water from open wells up the steep slopes. Toilets were outhouses, holes in the ground, though where we stayed toilets had been installed over holes in the ground but you still flushed them by pouring in water. Cooking was done with a propane stove or over a fire. Electricity was limited or nonexistent.
On the way to the islands we stopped at the so-called “Floating Islands,” where communities lived on matted reeds in reed houses. They originally moved to the reeds to escape fiercer people, and there are still families who live isolated just as they have always done, but the families we visited were there purely for us. Being an architect, Kristin found it fascinating, and I was glad they were able to make some money from tourists.
Then it was on to Amantani, the more primitive of the two islands. We stayed with a woman who went by Gladys and her 9-year-0ld daughter. Our 2 rooms were simple, built specifically for tourists, with beds and a table, a wood-plank floor, and candles for lighting. Gladys made us soup for dinner, trout the second night, pancakes for breakfast….
I liked watching the village life, the people were all shyly friendly and greeted with an “Hola” or “Buenas tardes.” They wore traditional dress, the women in full colorful skirts and embroidered black shawls. The children played with balls, tops, marbles. I don’t think people bathed much–why would they, with no bathrooms, no running water, and no hot water. Even we didn’t bathe for 4 days.
Life on Amantani was about the things you had to do daily to survive–haul water, cook meals, herd sheep, gather eggs from chickens, wash clothes by hand and hang them in the sun to dry, weave or knit clothing (which, amazingly, they didn’t try to sell to tourists; in fact, there were no goods produced for tourists). In a way, it was like camping, busy but so much less stressful or busy than our technical lives. And although our stay seemed primitive, and not hygienically clean, we met a couple who had it far worse. The old woman they stayed with (all accommodations on the islands are homestays) kept 7 guinea pigs in her kitchen [guinea pigs are a delicacy in Peru], along with cats, and there was feces on the floor and flies everywhere.
Tequile was more heavily touristed, mainly by day trippers. There was a communal store selling handwoven or hand-knitted hats, gloves and shirts. We hiked, first to a school where a teacher invited us to visit and classroom and then to stone ruins dating from 100 B.C. The ruins were magical, neglected and empty. Peru, perhaps, has so many ruins, something 2,100 years old isn’t special.”
Baracoa was established in 1511 as Spain’s first settlement in Cuba, but then it languished in obscurity for the next several centuries, isolated and reachable only on foot or by boat. Located on Cuba’s far eastern coast, it became accessible only in the 1960s, when a winding road that threads over mountains and through woods finally made its way here. Tourists, of course, soon followed, prompting many families to open rooms in their homes as casa particulars (the Cuban version of a B&B) to accommodate them. With its brightly-colored buildings, laid-back street life and lack of fancy hotels and pretension or even any tourist sights, it’s the kind of seaside village that would be overrun by backpackers if it were located, say, in Thailand. Still, it gets its fair share of young travelers in peak season, which normally begins in November. After Hurricane Matthew plowed through this week, however, there’s a lot to be done cleaning up debris and repairing roofs and walls. Some families lost their homes entirely. Unlike in Haiti, however, people had time and the means to evacuate, so that not a single life was lost.
I went to Baracoa as an antidote to the big cities of Havana and Santiago and to picture-perfect, tourist-mobbed Trinidad. Of those four cities, Baracoa was my favorite. I loved spending time in the town’s shady plazas, where townspeople gathered and visited and from which I could observe the steady parade of pedestrians, children in school uniform, motorcycles, bici-taxis (pedicabs) and horse-drawn carriages. There were very few cars and even fewer taxis. One of the things I love most about travel is seeing how other people live and–if, by some miracle–partaking in it; Baracoa, like most villages, is a fast-track to observing and participating in daily life.
Most Baracoan homes are one- and two-story, lining both sides of dusty streets and with doors and windows flung open wide to catch any breeze. Most have backyard courtyards and rooftops for hanging laundry, growing produce or hanging out. From the roof of my casa particular, I could look out over the neighborhood and watch barefoot teenagers playing soccer in the street, dogs slinking down alleys, boys tending pet pigeons kept in rooftop cages, horses pulling carts full of fruit to sell, and buff young men working out in a courtyard makeshift gym.
On Sunday, my travel companion and I hired a taxi, an orange-colored 1952 Chevrolet that was a far cry from the polished classics cruising for tourists in Havana, to take us to Managua Beach about 10 miles west of town. But first, of course, we dropped off his sister at Duaba Rio, on the riverbank where her friends were gathering for a party; they insisted we later join them. After continuing on the bumpiest and most bone-rattling one-hour ride of my life to Managua Beach, we swam a little, read a little and ate lunch at a table brought down to the beach just for us. But what I most wanted was to join that party. Our taxi driver, whom we’d hired for the day, found a roadside restaurant where we bought beer and rum (we didn’t want to show up empty-handed) and drove us back to the river, where we were met by about 20 people in full swing of having fun, including children of all ages, young couples and an older woman who was a mother, aunt or grandmother to most of them. There was a big pot of stew, beer aplenty and pulsating music blaring from a boombox. Soon everyone was dancing, including us, though we looked ridiculously inept compared to the Cubans, who can make dance look like a close approximation to vertical sex.
After the taxi driver drove us back to our casa particular, we asked him to wait while we retrieved from our room a coloring book for his niece, eye shadow for his sister and Ibuprofen for his aunt, whose feet were terribly swollen from diabetes. People in Cuba make out with only the basics, and when they don’t have the basics they improvise (the owner of our casa particular cut aluminum strips from a beer can to repair the stripped threads of our shower’s faucet). Life is hard, and it seems like everyone we met wants more. But though Cubans are very poor, they’re all in it together.
So though I worry how the Baracoans are faring after Hurricane Matthew leveled more than a few buildings and made the road leading to town impassable, I also know that strong family ties and ingenuity will help get them through. They’re used to being separate and doing things for themselves; Baracoa’s history and vibe makes it different from every other place in Cuba. That river party reminded me that you don’t have to have money to enjoy life with people you love or to show generosity with strangers. When it comes right down to it, it’s the vision of life most of us strive for.
Colonia del Sacramento is one of those small towns with such a photogenic historic center and a welcoming, laid-back atmosphere, you feel instantly at home. Soon you find yourself imagining living there.
With a history stretching back more than 330 years and a well-preserved Barrio Histórico that’s been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1995, Colonia owes its existence to its strategic location on the Uruguayan side of the wide Río de la Plata. Just a 75-minute ferry ride from Argentina’s Buenos Aires or a two-hour bus ride from Uruguay’s capital of Montevideo, the tidy town is an obvious top choice for a side trip from either capital. With its ancient architecture and right mix of museums, artisan shops, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, the town makes for a stress-free day or two of relaxation and exploration.
Although many travelers make the trip to Colonia just for the day, my travel companion and I opted to spend the night, which allowed time to walk virtually every cobbled street of the historic district, visit several museums and kick back at outdoor cafes and restaurants, giving us a more intimate connection to the city. If we had had more time, two nights would have been even better.
History of Colonia del Sacramento
Portuguese founded Nova Colonia do Santisimo Sacramento in 1680, at a tip of a small peninsula on the opposite side of the Río de la Plata from Buenos Aires, which had been founded a century earlier by the Spanish. This did not sit well with the Spaniards, who promptly attacked the new settlement and threw the Portuguese out. Although a treaty signed in Lisbon restored the town to Portugal shortly thereafter, Colonia’s turbulent beginnings were just a shadow of more to come.
During the War of Spanish Succession in 1704-05, Colonia was attacked again by the Spanish and razed to the ground. It was returned to the Portuguese yet again in 1715, when it grew to more than 1,000 inhabitants and became a thriving commercial center. But a tug of war over Colonia continued over the next century, when it changed hands another seven times, mostly between Portugal and Spain but falling also to Brazil from 1822 to 1828, after which it became part of Uruguay.
Unsurprisingly, war and time destroyed some of Colonia’s earliest structures, including most of its fortifications and some houses. But otherwise the historic district remains remarkably intact, surrounded on three sides by the river and made up mostly of modest one-story buildings that reflect a fusion of Portuguese and Spanish colonial styles and are strung together along narrow cobblestone streets that spill open onto plazas rooted in the town’s founding. One of the most delightful things about Colonia is that you can walk virtually everywhere.
Impressions of Barrio Histórico
It was a slightly cool, sun-drenched winter’s afternoon when we arrived in Colonia’s historic district, which lent brilliance to the deep-blue sky, gaily painted homes and huge bougainvillea bursting forth in colors of fuchsia and deep orange. Narrow cobblestone lanes, which follow the contours of the land, are in some cases so ancient, uneven and roughly hewn that some of them are almost impossible to walk upon with any sense of decorum.
Nonetheless, we made our way to the wide Plaza de Armas Manual Lobo, shaded by
sycamores and anchored by the Basilica del Santisimo Sacramento, first erected when the town was founded but restored in the mid-1800s after being destroyed by lightning. Without any plan or direction, we wandered down lanes leading to the river, through a square noisy with brightly colored parakeets chirping from palm trees, and to the old wharf, where young locals meet to talk and share yerba mate tea in traditional cups. We saw dogs sleeping in shadows, gathering on grassy patches for play and socialization, and hanging out at open-air cafes hoping for a handout, making me envious of their carefree lifestyle.
It wasn’t long until we discovered the old city gate and Colonia’s most famous landmark, a lighthouse erected in 1857. To get the lay of the land, we climbed the many circular stairs to the lighthouse top, where we were rewarded with views over the old town, church spires and the never-ending Río de la Plata. At the base of the lighthouse are the ruins of the Convento de San Franciso, destroyed by fire in 1704. World travelers turned artisans, some with dreadlocks and tattoos, laid out their wares on tables beside the convent ruins; from one of them I bought a bracelet fashioned from black and neon-green fishing line. The smell of pot wafted faintly through the air. If I were a young traveler peddling wares, this would be as fine a spot as any for settling in while contemplating my next move.
There’s a definite hip vibe to old Colonia, from art galleries tucked away in courtyards to restaurants inhabiting rustic buildings and serving innovative cuisine, but one of the things I found most captivating about the old town were the many old vehicles left standing on its cobbled streets or plazas, as though they were conceptual pieces of art. We saw old VW bugs, a Chevrolet Bel Aire, jeeps, old Ford trucks and more, making the old picturesque town even more picturesquely old fashioned.
“Oh, my father put his old car out on the street,” a shopkeeper said ruefully when I remarked about the abundance of old cars. “I told him he shouldn’t do it, but now there are even more cars. People keep adding to them.”
Personally, I think the vintage cars are a nice touch, as though the streets of Colonia are awaiting a film crew or simply never caught up to the 21st century. In any case, they’re much more interesting than those huge painted cows, bears and other city mascots so popular around the world.
Surprising for a town this size but not considering its long history, Colonia has more than its fair share of museums relating to its architecture and past. Most comprehensive is the Municipal Museum, housed in an attractive stone building first erected in 1795 and rebuilt by the Spanish in 1835. Displays relate the town’s many wars between the Portuguese and Spanish, along with local archaeological, geological, religious and cultural artifacts. Colonial-era furniture, dinosaur fossils, military costumes and an array of mounted local birds and other animals are spread throughout several floors.
We also toured Nacarello’s House, dating from 1790 and simplistic with its couple of small rooms and Portuguese furnishings of the time. Other museums include the Portuguese Museum in an 18th-century stone building and with an impressive display of maps; a Spanish Museum, first constructed in 1720 and rebuilt in 1840; and the Indigenous Museum with items belonging to the Charrua and other indigenous tribes of the area. An 1880 rambling building that variously housed a glue and soap factory, a laundry for wool, and a tannery is now the Centro Cultural Bastion del Carmen, with art exhibits, musical and theatrical events and good views of sunsets from its park-like grounds.
But while Colonia del Sacramento is largely a sleepy little town when not bombarded by tourists, the bird that woke me up during the night seemed to be single-handedly trying to rouse everyone to action. Its call was the same as I’d heard in Buenos Aires, so when I visited the Municipal Museum and wondered which of the many birds in the natural history display might be the culprit, I mimicked the sound for the bemused women at the admission desk.
“Whoo Whoo! Whoo Whoo!” I gave it my best shot.
“It’s an owl,” they agreed.
I conceded that that’s what it sounded like, but in the middle of Buenos Aires? What struck me was that the hoot of the Colonia owl differed slightly from its counterpart in Buenos Aires, which puzzled me until a fanatic birder I know confirmed that birds can acquire different accents according to where they live. But of course! The Colonia owl sounded gentler, less strident than the owl over in Buenos Aires, as though it, too, knew it had a good thing going.
[For a slightly longer version of this article, see my published feature in gonomad.com.
There are some places that no matter how long you stay, it’s never long enough. And so I daydream about Patagonia’s Andean lakes region, which straddles both sides of the Chilean and Argentinean border and is blessed with 5,000-foot peaks, dozens of lakes, snow-capped volcanoes and rushing streams and waterfalls. While the lakes region is hardly undiscovered, it remains widely unknown.
Tourism came to the area 100 years ago, promoted by a Swiss man who touted it for its combination overland/boat trip between Chile and Argentina. Today, you can take a series of bus and boat rides from Puerto Varas in Chile to Bariloche in Argentina, on a circuit known as the Cruce de Lagos (Lakes Crossing). Most people do the trip in two days, with an overnight stay at Puella, which offers horseback riding, fly fishing, kayaking, ziplines and trekking. Although it’s a year-round destination, peak season is during Chile’s summer (December-February), when there’s daylight from 5:30am to 10:30pm. But probably the prettiest months are in autumn (April and May).
It’s a magical landscape, which ranges from dense forests rising from sparkling lakes to emerald-green verdant pastures dotted with grazing cattle and sheep and alpine-style farmhouses. A temperate rainforest, the region receives lots of rain, with about 160 rainy days and 125 inches of rainfall a year. That translates into a lush countryside that’s tropical with ferns and bamboo but also alpine, almost like it’s a Swiss-Olympic Peninsula-Hawaiian hybrid.
But it’s the sky’s remarkable clarity I remember most. On days when the sky is clear, it’s so blue it seems digitally enhanced. And on cloudless nights, the stars are so many and so distinct they take your breath away.
I’ve seen numerous waterfalls, but nothing prepared me for Iguazu Falls. In fact, I was totally blown away. Describing the experience doesn’t come close to conveying what it was like to actually be there.
Iguazu Falls isn’t just one waterfall but rather a series of many spanning about 1.6 miles, so huge and overpowering that gazing at them made me feel as insignificant as when I look upon the stars. The Iguazu River, which flows about 820 miles mostly through Brazil before hooking up with the Parana River, flows over numerous falls–about 275 of them, some as high as 240 feet. Iguazu gets its name, in fact, comes from the Guarani native language meaning “great waters.” That seems like an understatement.
The most magnificent viewpoint is via a relaxing open-car train ride and then a series of catwalks to Devil’s Throat, where you can peer over a massive U-shaped cascade that roars with fury and shoots up so much white mist that you can’t see the bottom of the abyss, though the mist is a great canvas for many colorful rainbows. Certainly nature at its most glorious and a reminder of how powerful nature can be.
No wonder Iguazu Falls is a World Heritage Site. For a more detailed explanation of my trip and impressions of Iguazu National Park, see my article, A Detour to the Jaw-Dropping Iguazu Falls, published in goNOMAD Travel.
My first inkling that Buenos Aires would be a friendly sort of place came while I was still in Dallas, waiting for my connecting flight. A man sitting next to me struck up a conversation, and when he discovered it was my first trip to his hometown he started listing all the places I had to see. He then interrupted an Argentinian couple sitting across from us to ask them their recommendations. Soon they were all discussing the highlights of Buenos Aires. I felt welcome before even stepping foot in Argentina.
And so it was throughout my week’s stay. Taxi drivers were talkative and animated, especially upon discovering that my travel companion spoke fluent Spanish; it was the first place I’ve ever visited where taxi drivers shook our hands at the end of the ride.
Buenos Aires has a population of about 2.89 million, yet the people I met were considerate and happy to help wayward visitors find their way. Porteños (as residents of Buenos Aires are called) patiently and politely wait in queues, whether it’s for a taxi, the bus or the checkout line at the store. They apologize if they accidentally bump into you, even on crowded streets, which caught me by surprise after the bodily assault that happens in Hong Kong. Store clerks are friendly and unruffled even if you try on ten shirts and end up buying nothing, as though that were the most normal thing in the world. Restaurants let you sit for as long as you like. In the subway I saw younger people proffer their seats to the elderly.
Certainly the laid-back demeanor of its people is one reason Buenos Aires is easy to love, but I also admire the stately central district full of portly buildings and wide avenues that remind me of Madrid. Palermo is clearly the most hip neighborhood, with sidewalk cafes, clothing boutiques selling funky fashions, lively bars, plazas with weekend markets and cool restaurants offering waffles, Mexican fare and the ubiquitous steaks and pasta. Trees everywhere give the city a soft edge to its jumble of architecture, especially the shaggy sycamores that stretch past balconied apartments toward the sky. Where else might you hear an owl hooting every night, right in the middle of a metropolis?
In a week I think I saw pretty much everything you could possibly hope to see, including the contemporary Museum of Latin American Art of Buenos Art, the botanical and Japanese gardens, the rather sterile Puerto Madero with its modern architecture and restored brick warehouses filled with restaurants, and La Boca district with its artisan street stalls, colorfully painted storefronts and tango dancers.
Among my favorite places was the Recoleta Cemetery, one of the most impressive I’ve ever seen. More than 4,000 vaults topped with imposing mausoleums and memorials crowd a labyrinth of tiny streets. Many presidents and other important Argentinians are buried
here, including Eva Peron, whose mausoleum is adorned with flowers left by adoring fans and plaques put up by various organizations. Many of the mausoleums have glass doors showing photos of the deceased, urns for the cremated and caskets. But others are decrepit and unkempt, lined with decaying coffins and woven throughout with cobwebs. I noticed that many mausoleums have stairways leading below ground, but it wasn’t until I found one with its glass doors and windows missing that I could peer into the crypt and discern rows of old wooden coffins stacked on shelves and descending into the dark bowels of the earth. Every vault has a story, but it was a sobering reminder that even the moneyed who could afford to be buried here are edging ever closer toward oblivion.
Of course I visited markets, always my favorite thing to do in any city, including the never-ending Sunday market of San Telmo with its crafts, clothing and antiques and the weekend markets in Palermo’s Plaza Cortazar and Plaza Viejo Palermo. But my favorite was the Feria de Mataderos, a festive affair held astoundingly every single Sunday with a market selling folk crafts and local foods, gauchos with their horses, a musty but interesting gaucho museum and, best of all, a stage with folk singers and dancers; even the audience joined in traditional dances. It was very much a family affair and worth the hour’s bus ride to reach it.
Among many observations from my week of walking the streets of Buenos Aires is that Porteños love their dogs, but they don’t like cleaning up after them. The tiled sidewalks are also minefields because of crumbling or missing pieces, inexplicable deep holes and buckling surfaces due to all those sycamores.
Argentinian bidets are sadistic, at least the ones I encountered, shooting straight up and with no discernible way to control temperature or pressure. The overriding women’s fashion is leggings, regardless of whether it’s a teenager or grandmother, and the very popular platform shoes make traversing the sidewalks even more of a hazard. It’s not a look I’m likely to adopt any time soon, but there are many other aspects of life in Buenos Aires that make me wish I were a porteña. A bonus: my Spanish also improved.