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We cantered along the ancient Inca trade routes with vistas stretching to eternity. While descending on a narrow track into the less-traveled Zuleta Valley, the sky darkened. A mist hit us and a few drops fell on my cheeks. Instead of the threatened downpour, the sun burst through the gray curtain sending shafts of light upon the golden fields and a broad-banded rainbow arced over the pastoral valley.
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This romp with a band of nine merry women began in Quito, the gateway to outdoor adventures in Ecuador. It is good to take a day to adjust to the altitude (9,300 ft.) and rest before joining Sally on the ride between restored 17th century Colonial haciendas that climaxes on the wild slopes of Cotapaxi (19,350 ft.) volcano. While in Quito, I arranged for a guide to explore Old Town, a recently restored UNESCO world heritage site, and to take the cable car up to 13,000 feet overlooking the expanse of Ecuador’s second largest city nestled between towering snow-capped volcanoes.

Sally picked me up at the Hotel Sierra Madre, a comfortable safe haven with a helpful English-speaking staff near the new town center. The first stop on the journey with Sally is the Otavalo Valley, one of the last strongholds for indigenous people who share their wares in the largest outdoor marketplace in South America. The scent of roasting pig and exotic spices floats on the air. Colorful ponchos and scarves of the villagers famous for their weaving lift on a light breeze like flags. I purchased hand-carved gourds at bargain prices as gifts to take home.
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Our first night was spent at Hacienda Pinsaqui, a gracious oasis with all the trappings of the Spanish aristocracy who ruled here with an iron fist for 300 years (1542 to 1822). Delightful gardens surround the haciendas that are decorated with massive carved wood furnishings and murals and tapestries reminiscent of glamorous days gone by. After a dinner of local specialties, a serenade beside a warming fire by Andean musicians, and an early turn-in, I was ready to ride.
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We trotted in the crisp morning air on cobblestone streets through villages. Shouts of ”hola” came from smiling children waving to us from rooftops of adobe abodes. Once upon the flanks of the mountains overlooking the valley we were greeted by Santiago, dressed in a royal red poncho and riding his prized pony. He led us to his modest Tuscan-yellow home where his wife awaited us with tasty treats from their garden. He then took us on a ride even higher through billowing grasses to the primary forest above his ranch. Riding through a tunnel of mountain bamboo listening to the clip of dive-bombing hummers gave me a sense of what it was like here before hundreds of years of cultivation changed the look of the arid landscape.
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Today the flanks of the volcanoes, held sacred to the Incas who ruled here for 100 years before the Spanish conquest, are a colorful tapestry of purple, gold, and green plots. Mama Cotacachi reigns to the west of Otavalo Valley while Taita Imbabura dominates the east. Incas sacrificed maidens to the mountain gods to bring rain and keep the valley fertile. Today, a few drops of trago, a fierce liquor, sprinkled on the ground will do. We passed cattle, pigs, and goats staked to graze along the trails that locals traverse daily to tend their crops on tiny inherited plots.

Spirits soared as I galloped through undulating fields of shimmering wheat beneath a brilliant sun in the highlands of the Northern Andes. The sound of my steady mount’s hoofs upon the grassy lane and the brisk wind cooling my cheeks were all I thought of as I followed Sally Vergette’s lead across the top of the world.

The Colonial hacienda ride is for intermediate riders who can handle mounts at all gaits, but Sally has more relaxed, shorter rides on horses suitable for children and inexperienced riders in this region. She keeps a constant vigil on her rides, checking tack often and making sure that horse and rider is a good match. After twenty years in South America, Sally learned the language, the ways of the people, and earned the respect of local horsemen who also act as guides. This is a rare and wonderful way to explore Ecuador; it gets you into the countryside and gives you a chance to meet the people who call it home.

To learn more about Sally Vergette and the rides she offers in Ecuador, Chili, Brazil, and Uruguay please refer to our interview in my September post and go to www.RideAndes.com.

From our itinerary we had no idea this would be a FULL day of travel! We flew about five hours from Santiago Airport to Punta Arenas, stopping briefly at Puerto Montt, which had the gorgeous backdrop of the Andes Mountains, two of which looked like Mt. Fuji and Mt. Ranier from our plane. We wish our tour had allowed time here in the Lake District of Chile.
We thought it would be a short drive to Puerto Natales. (We had not been able to find either on a map before we left home.) The transfer service who met us drove us to a tiny bus station near gorgeous manicured trees in a small park. We boarded a modern bus, which was comfortable, and we passed along the Straits of Magellan as we left Punta Arenas. This turned out to be a five hour journey through the sheep country near the bottom of the world. There were many views of Andes Mountains and small lakes, where we saw the native rhea (small ostrich) and wild pink and red flamingos in the background. This early December day was a bit misty and dreary. We arrived in late afternoon in Puerto Natales, which is on the Carreterra Austral, a long bay and natural inland harbor extending from the Pacific Ocean.
Our itinerary said it would be a short walk to our Hotel Erratick Rock 2, but we insisted on taxis for the several blocks because we all had lots of luggage. This place was like a log cabin with about 9 rooms around a grassy backyard. Each of the small rooms was comfortable and basic and very clean with modern private bathrooms, but we were told (throughout Patagonia) no paper in the toilets…only in the trashcans provided. We walked through the small town to the recommended restaurant Afrigonia. We were all in high spirits when we found the casual but elegant restaurant and had really delicious and unique dinners with excellent wines. We walked back about a half mile in the drizzle, stopping to shop at a really great curio shop of local items.
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Our Hostelaria included breakfast the next morning and it was like being in someone’s home and we could order eggs or eat cold array. Several backpackers were fixing their own in the open little kitchen. We had all slept well and were eager for our 10 hour bus tour of Torres de Paine National Park of Chile. The weather started misty but grew brighter as we rode through gorgeous lake and mountain scenery. We passed a cattle round-up with huasos on horseback and dogs herding the vacas off the road. At one point we stopped to take pictures of the large herd of wild guanacos, the native llamas which are brown and white.
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Here at the foothills and also high peaks of the Andes, the jagged rocks were softened by a covering of short, yellow-green, scraggly grass and sage/sorrel-like short shrubs where often we saw sheep grazing Our first stop en route to Torres de Paine was Mylodon Cave, which was discovered in 1895 and has become a protected historical site, important for its archeology and paleontology. Scientists have studied the geology here to learn that massive submarine avalanches started these hills while a glacial lake formed the caves eons ago. The remains of enormous herbivore animals found here from 14,500 years ago were similar to sloth, horse, and guanaco (llama). These were preyed upon by saber-toothed tiger, Patagonian panther and bear, all huge animals compared to their relatives today, and finally disappeared 10,000 years ago when climate change was a huge factor. The cave also revealed that nomadic human inhabitants lived here 11,000 years ago, perfectly adapted to the climate of Patagonia.
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Mylodon Cave Trail also introduced us to the native trees and flowers of Patagonia. We learned about the lenga, nirres, and coihue of Magellan forests around us and the flowering shrubs calafate, and lenadura. We saw lovely yellow capachito (lady’s slipper), pink chilco and tiny white orchids. Many birds, grey fox, and large skunks also live here, as well as pumas. The long views in Ultima Eperanza reveal the paths of the glaciers, lakes, and ice of the gorgeous snow-capped Andes in the distance.
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During our all day tour we stopped at lakes, a rushing waterfall, and enjoyed a long walk to see the icebergs of the Grey Glacier, which was around a bend and too far away for us to see. We wished for time to take the boat there. The icebergs were huge and the deep blue color, which indicates thousands of years of compressed snows. We had a delicious grilled buffet in the Parrilla Pehoe Restaurant within Torres de Paine National Parque, where we saw many birds including colorful large scavengers. Torres de Paine was exquisite and the long day of site seeing was over too soon.
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The Hotel Torres de Paine van picked us up after the tour van left us at Latuna Marga in the middle of nowhere, which was the typical pickup point for all tourists staying in the park, but we were happy to see the van arrive. Everything in Patagonia is very punctual. The hotel was fabulous! We were all delighted to stay two nights to hike and take photos of the gorgeous scenery. It was very, very windy but we had lovely sunshine and beautiful blue skies. Pollution is nil, so everything is brilliantly clear.
Our evening meal was casual in the lovely lodge dining room where an enormous and elegant buffet was served. No matter where we eat, dinner seems to be about $30 with wine and dessert, coffee, and cocktails. Although I’m sure the water and raw salads are safe all over Chile, we had been warned to prevent problems by drinking bottled water and eating no raw vegetables. Water was about $3 a small bottle, equal to beer or wine. Prices were the same throughout Patagonia. The next day we had a leisurely late breakfast in another huge buffet in the lovely dining room, I never knew there could be so many delicious breakfast selections. We saw the eco-tourist accommodations in geo-domed tent-like yerts just down the hill from the hotel and were so very glad to be in the luxury of this hotel.
http://www.allsouthernchile.com/pan-american-highway-in-patagonia.html http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g297400-d1650862-Reviews-Afrigonia-Puerto_Natales_Magallanes_Region.html
http://www.interpatagonia.com/paseos/cueva_milodon/index_i.html
http://www.torres-del-paine.org/

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“The Earth has music, for those who listen” – William Shakespeare

I leaned back on the comfy seat of a canoe shared with five other travelers in the magical maze of canals at Sacha Lodge in the Ecuadorian Amazon basin and watched a troop of squirrel monkeys overhead. With death-defying leaps they sprang from branch to branch forming a super highway through the tropical foliage. Bets were taken on who would become the first to have a monkey land on their head as the creatures peered at us with the comical faces of a curious child. After four days of total immersion in the rain forests surrounding the lodge, I felt I was a part of the scene.
This adventure begins in Coca, a gritty oil town where the Coca and Napo rivers collide and proceed to the mighty Amazon River. A motorized canoe awaited us on the banks of the Napo, the main artery in the region. On the way to the lodge about three hours downstream, we passed barges carrying heavy equipment to oil depots and locals in canoes fishing as they have done for thousands of years. Children waved to us as we passed remote villages tucked in the impenetrable sea of green foliage. We hiked on a boardwalk through a flooded forest to Pilchicocha Lake, aka the Black Lagoon, where canoes and guides were waiting. After a serene glide over the lake lined with rhododendron leaves as big as elephant ears and reeds where Caiman (a member of the alligator family) lurk, we arrived at the miracle of Sacha Lodge.
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Nestled in a 5,000-acre preserve, this Robinson Crusoe fantasy made from local wood covered in a shaggy palm roof and staffed by 65 indigenous workers, is totally self-sufficient. The lounge upstairs overlooking the lagoon is cooled by most-welcome fans after a session of hiking in equatorial heat. Raised walkways lead to spacious rooms with open beam, wood floors, and inviting hammocks on the deck. There is nothing but a screen between you and the wild mish-mash of jungle trees and plants that are home to millions of thrumming insects, barking tree frogs, clicking cicadas, and the sharp whistles of birds that make up the chorus that intensifies as night draws nigh.
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An early rise increases your chances of spotting some of the 600 species of birds counted at the lodge as well as other wildlife. Forest walks are the classroom for naturalist guides who point out medicinal properties in plants and how they were used by “the people.” They explain the symbiotic relationships between plants and insects that have evolved over the ages. Our guide carried an iPod downloaded with calls to attract the mot mots, toucans, and many more birds, while he talked to other creatures in their language trying to draw them near.
“Friends, look at this mandible ant,” our guide Marco said as he pointed to a stream of insects on the jungle floor. “He can be used to suture wounds. Just let him clamp the wound with his mandible and then pinch off his head.”
“Friends, you see the kapok tree? This one is centuries old. He is the tallest tree of the jungle. If he were to be cut down it would take hundred year for the forest floor to recover. His canopy provides shade for the plants below. Competition for light and nutrients is fierce in the rain forest.”
Like Jack on the beanstalk, we climbed up a giant wooden stairwell wrapping the kapok tree. A drenching rain set in before we reached a viewing platform above the protective canopy. We stood atop what must be the 9th wonder of the world with our heads tucked into the hood of our ponchos waiting for the weather to change. Soon, blue skies opened over the platinum Napo River. Pink flamingo hues softened gray layers of clouds. Shafts of light streamed down upon the primal forest and mist began to rise from the verdant green canopy of the forest below. Orange, crimson, and yellow blooms that rest on the crown of trees brightened the scene. Birds begin to stir once again. A flock of toucans flew swiftly by and the droplet song of the industrious weaver bird was heard. The sun set with a tender sigh in soft pastels as we left our perch and canoed home through the tranquil channels to the lodge and another fabulous meal.
Healthful salads of shredded cabbages, carrot, tree tomatoes, and avocado served with a tangy lime dressing were just a few of the choices. Entrees include tender beef in a peppercorn sauce, chicken, pork and tilapia fish prepared with a unique seasoning known only to our native chef. Wonderful desserts like strawberry mousse, caramel flan, exotic fruits, and walnut cakes were served buffet style in the lodge.
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On our night canoe, the heavens opened wide with a neon crescent moon hanging in a crackling sky. Marco pointed out different constellations with his powerful green laser. The glide around the lake in splendid silence looking up to the southern sky listening to the serenade of the cicadas and frogs is a treasured memory.
Thankfully there are no radios or televisions, no boom boxes, no leaf blowers or car alarms at Sacha. The promise is that the lodge will build more exciting features like the longest (1,000 ft.) and highest (120 ft.) canopy walk unique to Ecuador, the Kapok Tower, and trails that enable people to experience the forests in an intimate way. They will not, however, add to the 26 private rooms ensconced in green. This spectacular eco-lodge exists because of the dream of Arnold Ammeter, more commonly known as Benny. He purchased the land surrounding the black water lagoon in 1991 and began construction of the now famous lodge. It will remain a very special place if it is protected from encroachment of oil companies that cut roads into the forest creating access for poachers and inevitable spills that threaten the entire Amazon basin. www.sachalodge.com

 

IF YOU GO: Cafe Cultura, a boutique hotel in Quito situated walking distance to a farmers market and art in the park, is a perfect place to rest from a long flight. A charming restaurant with tasty selections, a welcoming study, and gracious hosts make this a comfortable safe haven. The staff arranged for an English-speaking guide who took me on a tour of Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, which recently received a 250-million-dollar facelift. They also made arrangements for the driver waiting for me at the new Quito Airport.
www.cafecultura.com

We have wanted to see the bottom of the world for years, and we almost went as travel writers six years ago when we had the possibility of traveling on a cargo ship from South Africa in two of the twelve tourist spots they allowed. At that we wanted to go also to Antarctica so that we could say we had been on every continent. But in the meanwhile we read several horror stories of the dreadful difficulties for ships and planes making that treacherous crossing. We changed our wishes when one friend who went there said, “It’s only ice and penguins.” So we decided on Patagonia only.

Bill studied several expensive tour itineraries and then contacted Say Hueque Tour Company ( http://sayhueque.com/) in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and asked them to plan an economical trip for us to see the best highlights of Patagonia. We received the planned itinerary and made our plane reservations. We couldn’t find out much about Patagonia, and we later learned that it is because the area has featured commercial tourism only in the last 15 to 20 years.

December 5, 2013, finally arrived. I had not liked the idea of driving 350 miles to Houston to catch a plane instead of flying out of Dallas, which Bill arranged in February because it was the best price and schedule, but how very fortuitous that was became on December 5 a terrible ice storm hit Dallas and Paris, Texas, where we live, and made national news. We could not have gotten out of either place. The airport was closed and the storm was disastrous; however, we did not find out until we had already flown four and a half hours to Panama City and then seven and a half more hours to Santiago, Chile, arriving at midnight there (three hours later than Texas.)

We were met by a van with a nice driver who knew no English. We had requested to stay in places in which we would mix with local tourists instead of American or luxury hotels. Our language challenge began…We quickly dug our college Spanish out of the recesses of our brains! We checked in to the Monte Carlo in Santiago and fell quickly asleep. Our rooms were quite unique and the elevator tiny, reception area and bar plain, but adequate, except all the showers left much to be desired.
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After a good night’s sleep we had our first Chilean breakfast buffet in the hotel and found a large array of good foods included in the modest price of the room. We set out to explore the city park just across the street and the historical central square of the city and appreciated how well located our hotel is. I was looking up as I walked through the city streets and suddenly, painfully fell literally on my face after banging both knees on a two-foot high large pole in the center of the sidewalk. It hurt a lot and many men rushed to help me up. I inwardly was afraid I could not do the hiking we planned. After assuring all that I was fine we walked on, settling on a bar, Rez, for a sandwich lunch.
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The waitresses, whom we nick-named “butter-butts,” had the legendary, dream girls of South America figures and were barely covered top and bottom! We enjoyed our first of MANY ham and cheese ( jamon y queso) experiences! Everyone raved about Chilean beer.

We then had a guided walking tour of the Constitution Square and government buildings. We walked past the Presidential Palace called “La Moneda.” We climbed hundreds of stairs to see the oldest cathedral, Santa Lucia, built on the site where original Mapucho Indians gave birth. (How did women in labor get to the blessed, sacred hilltop? We barely made it! ) The hilltop offered great views of the city of seven million people. The park is a historic monument and many city people enjoy outdoors in this lovely setting.
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We had a LONG ride in heavy traffic to the “market,” which turned out to be a factory tour. Bill and I at first were furious and felt we might be conned daily with factory tours (like in India.) But when we arrived there we were very glad to be introduced to the local lapis and copper items were beautiful, and we girls each happily bought precious souvenirs. We were introduced to pisco sours, the typical Chilean drink, and we all wanted more! Tired, we had delicious dinner in our Hotel Monte Carlo at the little bar restaurant, Cosa Nostra, and had our first Chilean stew, which we found delicious. Many of the hotels and small inns have a fixed menu dinner for nominal prices, and we took advantage of each of these since it prevented taxi service and late nights. Dinner hour begins at 8 P.M. in Chile, and after long days of sight-seeing we always prefer early sleep.
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We only had one full day in Santiago but were impressed with the beauty and cleanliness everywhere. All the locals made us feel welcome, and there were not armed soldiers on the streets, as in so many other Latin countries. Instead we saw mounted police on horseback, and they were very friendly. New ones were being commissioned in a large ceremony in front of the majestic Santiago Cathedral. When we commented on this we were told, “We don’t fear terrorism since we don’t sell arms or start wars.” Wow! There was almost no air pollution and we were happy to have beautiful, sunny weather about 90 degrees…their summer. Crime is very low there and we always felt safe.

The Mexican Mayan Riviera (South Cancun) is, in short, a public relation dream of a name. First and foremost, let’s get the geography lesson out of the way; Quintana Roo is a state in Southeastern Mexico on the eastern part of the Yucatan Peninsula with a population of 1.3 million. The Caribbean Sea is to the east and the nation of Belize is to the south. If the name Quintana Roo is not familiar, look at some of the cities contained within the state; Cancun (800,000), Playa del Carmen and the island of Cozumel enhanced further by the Mayan Ruins at Tulum, Oxtankah, Coba and Kohunich among others.

In the late 1960’s the Mexican government built the city of Cancun from a small fishing village to attract more American tourists to the area. In 2012 there were over 1.6 million visitors from the US. The hotel zone spans approximately 16 miles with more than 34,000 rooms in Cancun and 40,000 in the Riviera Maya (the largest number in Mexico). There are condos and resorts facing the Caribbean, plus over 2,000 stores. On the island side is Laguna Nichupte with marinas, restaurants, shopping malls, two golf courses (there are 13 in the Cancun/Riviera Maya area) and a few islands. There is only one road so you can’t get lost. Forty minutes southbound and you are at the airport, which is the second busiest in Mexico (after Mexico City). The “Party Zone” is halfway between the Hotel Zone and downtown and is filled with nightclubs and discos.

Leaving New York City in mid-March for 80-degree weather was a tough choice when I was invited to the 2nd Annual Cancun-Riviera Maya Wine & Food Festival. Founder & CEO David Amar explained the difference between this four-day celebration and other food and wine festivals: “We donate a portion of the receipts to Cancun’s City of Joy which houses, under one roof, children living in extreme poverty, the elderly living alone, a hospice for the terminally ill and women victims of domestic violence.”

The festival alternates its events between the two areas in their name. Even though I was staying in Cancun at the Fiesta Americana Coral Beach Resort & Spa all the events this year took place in the Riviera Maya area, less than an hour’s drive from Cancun. During the four days there was a delicious array of gourmet foods, interactive wine & spirit seminars, late night parties and entertaining cooking demos.
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The Thursday opening event was a press conference for guests of honor chefs Massimo Bottura & Enrique Olvera. Chef Massimo’s restaurant Osteria Francescam was ranked #5 in the world, has 3 Michelin Stars and is located in Modena, Italy. Chef Olvera’s restaurant Pujol is in Mexico City and was ranked #36. There was a Star Chef Networking luncheon that was by invitation only. Typical dishes of Quintana Roo were prepared and cooked by women chefs. This was followed by a discussion on the future of cuisine. There were afternoon wine tastings on both Thursday and Friday showcasing European and American wines. They took place at the Karima El Dorado Royale Hotel and cost $50 each. That evening at the Paradisus Playa del Carmen Hotel I spent a few hours at the Taste of the New World ($250) where 20 Star Chefs from the Americas exhibited their signature dishes alongside top wines, all in a beachfront location. I ran into New York friends Drew Nieporant (Corton/ Nobu) and Mark Ladner, the executive chef of Del Posto.
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Each day Friday–Sunday in the late morning there were cooking demonstrations ($60 each) at the Karisma El Dorado Royale Hotel. Even as the chefs gave out insider tips and culinary advice I did note a sense of friendly competition amongst them. Saturday & Sunday afternoon at the Grand Coral Riviera Maya Hotel the American Express Gourmet Tasting Village took place. For $100 one could sample tapas and desserts from 20 restaurants located in Cancun & Riviera Maya, along with jazz and wine. Friday evening at Hotel Grand Velas there was a tribute dinner ($350) for Chef Massimo Bottura where three top Italian chefs from the United States and two sous-chefs from Massimo’s own restaurant Osteria La Francescana produced a five-course dinner paired with wines selected by MW/MS Doug Frost. Saturday evening at Restaurant Passion at the Paradisus Playa del Carmen Hotel Chef Martin Berasategui and Master of Wine/Master Sommelier Doug Frost held an invitation only dinner.
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The closing event of the festival took place Sunday evening at Paradisus Playa del Carmen. This beachfront dinner ($150) featured music, fireworks and entertainment as Italy meets Mexico. The ingredients were all Mexican and top chefs from both Mexico and Italy prepared the food.

 

 

Total attendance for the 4-day festival was about 5,000 for the 25 events. Next year the event switches back to Cancun.
For More Information-
www.crmfest.com
www.cancun.travel

A recent visit to Puebla, Mexico, an hour plus drive outside of Mexico City, is like a box of chocolates: sweet and surprising. This World Heritage City has enumerable churches that are historic and awe-inspiring. Many have plaques in English near their entrance to explain their history and architecture. This is vital to the non-Spanish speaking Americans, who are many that make the tour pilgrimage to the most elaborate structures. Many churches banish interior photography (even no flash) for the threat of theft. I was told that some of its artifacts are valuable to collectors who get photos of what’s available and then employ thieves to harvest the antiques. I wonder how this is possible as there are so many plain clothes security guards, which leads one to believe such theft is an inside job.5501ac800
None the less the interior décor can be over the top in baroque opulence where the mixing of Spanish and Mexican iconography is over powering. This is exemplified in the Santa Maria Tonantzintla Temple, where the indigenous pre Hispanic “Tonanzin” ( or Our Dear Mother) gets adapted into the veneration of the Virgin Mary. It’s a common religious practice to adapt local indigenous peoples already established religion into the converted Catholic beliefs, making the transition easier. The baroque talavera tile work of the Temple of San Francisco Acatepec is a favorite among tourists, as the exterior façade is designed to mimic a grand altar piece.
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While you can occasionally find crafts people working near a tourist site, as I did with a man who makes pictures from colored hay, a downtown bizarre has many touristy items, not all made in Mexico however. Upon exiting the Moorish style bizarre on my impromptu stroll, I found a most reverent and unassuming ancient church on a quiet street. Inside were bouquets of cut white gladiolas and the fragrance was a pleasant breath in a congested city. It’s almost as if you can’t help but stumble over all the churches of Puebla.
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Walking in to the Library with its thousands of vintage collections, again where photography is not allowed, you might think it only an academic visit. The surprise is waking through the buildings central courtyard on your way to the second floor collection, we found a community exhibition of Tahitian dancers. You never know what you are going to get on a walking tour.
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At a reception in the courtyard of the upscale Intercontinental Hotel, we were privilege to an exhibition of classic Mexican wresters where the show is not unnecessarily in their acrobatic exploits but more for the show of costumes and masks. Another example of the surprises held in Puebla is the upscale and elegant restaurant at La Purificadora, where sections of an old convent are incorporated into the renovated and sleek architecture. An elegant cocktail venue and modern hotel with an entrance on a quite street, near a congested intersection is an unexpected and another pleasing Puebla venue.
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The local La Quinta Inn is an appropriate and convenient business oasis. Besides
its convenience to a major thoroughfare and restaurant, bar and swimming pool it has a lovely high rise view of one of Puebla’s embracing volcanoes, as seen in this articles title photography. Puebla is full of surprises, which might include a demonstration of native folk dances at the Cultural Center.
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While the city of San Salvador offers sights of historical significance, the country side is where the real El Salvador flourishes. The country is known for its cultivation of fine coffee, its prolific number of volcanoes, and now a beach side eco oasis that can rival any in the world. Getting out of the city with Salvadorean Tours as your guide, you will most likely be taken via the Route of Flowers to the eastern section of this small country. Here in several villages you will see the local art displayed on low rise buildings in the traditional bright Central American colors depicting people and places of the local venue. A short stop in each town will give you a sense of place and ease with the countryside. Salvadorean Tours may even have special shopping experiences designed into your tour, to enable you to pick up some indigenous crafts. We asked our guide Eduardo for a local shop for our souvenir needs, and he supplied directions with no problem.

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We spent the night in the small town of Ahuachapan at the low slung hacienda of Hotel La Casa de Mamapan, which is in a colonial building. The interior offered a variety of rooms with baths, and common meeting places, often with an open air screened roof and decorated with a plethora of antiques. It’s next to the large Asuncion Church and across from the La Concordia Park complete with clock towered bandstand. The proprietors were very accommodating but spoke no English, a common occurrence in El Salvador.

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Our stop in Ahuachapan (Place of Oak Houses – founded in the 5th century and today an important coffee producing area) was accented with a meal at the original Pupuseria Olguita, where we ate the finger food of Pupusas. Pupusas are a fluffy-like tortilla filled with a variety of fillings of your choice, from mushrooms, cheeses, garlic, vegetables and such. The freshness of the grilled tortilla-like bread added to its appeal. Pupusas are the food of the people. This particular establishment is one of the original in the area.

Coffee is grown on many of the hillsides you will pass on your way to the El Carmen Estates with its El Salvador Hotel and Coffee Resort. Here you will find the labor intensive and long process of washing, drying, extracting, sorting and aging the coffee beans for optimum quality. Coffee beans grown at the highest of elevations are said to be better in quality, so the volcanic hills of El Salvador provide an ideal venue. Away from the warehouses and processing buildings is a small but attractive set of accommodations for rent. I’d say you can’t get a fresher cup of morning coffee than here at the El Carmen Estate.

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Along your tours you will pass or drive up near the top of a number of Volcanoes, many dormant for decades and even one, Izalco, which puffs out its tiny share of steam. What makes this volcano even more appealing is that you can drive up to a common parking area and peer down on it from a wooden observation stand, a great safe distance away, but with a spectacular view. For the hearty there is a hiking trail up the side of the adjacent Santa Ana volcano you drove up, which gives you another special view. For the truly outdoor adventurous there are many hiking trails up the sides of dormant volcanos across the county. This area is also the locale for the Volcanic Lake “Coatepeque” a beautiful water filled dormant volcano, where shore side you can dine, swim or take a boat excursion.

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The best surprise is the pacific coast retreat of La Cocotera, located on the southwestern most part of El Salvador. Here you are treated to accommodations of thatched elegance, accentuated by posts of farmed teak, amid a grove of mature coconut palms. A small true Eco lodge, it has only 3 two storied casitas, positioned apart from each other, with a maximum total lodge accommodation of 18, if every bed is filled. As part of its eco heritage only 11 palm trees were downed for the lodge’s construction and each of those were replaced on the property with ten each in new plantings. Several other floral varieties are constantly being planted. This shows the concern for El Salvador’s future.

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The décor and appointments of each apartment hosts an outdoor lounge, wide expansive doors (which have screened shutters for privacy) that open up to expanses of palms, water and groomed sand. The room has a separate toilet, a separate lavatory and storage, and a separate rain head shower. The water is solar heated and each apartment has its own water supply. You’d think the water might not be hot enough for your liking, but it can be scalding, so be careful. Yes, it may take several minutes for it to arrive at your room, but such is eco lodge luxury.

Of course the king size bed, or double beds, are the quality you could expect at the best 4 start hotel, as is the housekeeping staff who knows just when to service your room so as not to inconvenience you. I heartily recommend the second story apartments with an expansive view of either facing the calm estuary and distant volcanoes or, my favorite, the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. The gentle rustling of the forest of palm fronds and the somewhat white nose of the surf, provides the serenity that is so often missing in resorts.

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And as this was not enough, the eco lodge is a nesting ground and releasing area for the endangered Olive Ridley turtle. In fact during the dry season they may have a supply of small turtles ready for your releasing into the surf on their ten year journey at sea before returning to La Cocotera to lay offspring. This along with their long term Scarlet Macaw program, gourmet breakfast lunch and dinner, a fully stocked and manned cocktail bar, economical rates, a video library, salt water pool, and the most spectacular sunsets on a most gentle slanting beach, is completed with all the palm atmosphere you could ever hope for. I mentioned to the congenial manager, Ricardo that I thought this was heaven. He replied, “Yes, and I am San Pedro.” (Meaning he was Saint Peter, the guardian of heaven.) And I agreed.

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My son and I recently took a trip to Costa Rica. This trip to Costa Rica took a lot of planning by my son. We visited three cities in one week, traveling by bus! Getting off the plane in San Jose was like being slapped in the face by all our senses. The traffic, sounds, and smells were all overpowering. We were able to meet up with two of our Tico friends very quickly. That was a miracle due to the crowd. They were able to secure us a place in a hostel in San Jose. The Pangea Hostel was a very pleasant experience. It had an internet café with a beautiful view of the mountains from the outside terrace. It was a perfect place for a delightful breakfast.

After a short visit with locals, Eduardo and Jose, we headed south to Rio Claro De Golfito which is close to Panama. This is a beautiful banana area, but not necessarily a tourist destination. The U.S. Coast Guard and Navy pass through there due to the deep gulf. While there we visited a pastor friend, Don Santiago. He showed us a wonderful time and he was able to find us a small cabin to stay in for a reasonable price.

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Tamarindo was our next and main destination, so we hopped on a bus from Rio Claro De Golfito for a long crazy ride up north.  Tamarindo is known for the beach and surf. We met with friends from the church Capilla del Calvario en Villarreal, near Tamarindo. Tamarindo is a tourist town. When you shop in the stores, you will meet folks from around the world. It is truly a haven for world travelers.

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The beach (playa) was our favorite place. Eddie and his friends added to the experience, when they put together a sunset bond-fire on the beach, where we sang worship songs and prayed. In Tamarindo we also took in the local bull riding festival. Later on, my son and a backpacker from Canada were able to play a soccer match with the local Ticos. This was a nice touch for the end of our journey.

A few things to know: You should have a knowledge of the language; Ticos use Colonials in place of the dollar. You can safely eat and drink in Costa Rica. The taxies and buses will run on time and will get you anywhere you wish to go. Close your eyes during the bus ride! Take your time and enjoy your stay because Costa Rica is a true paradise. Pura vida!

Traveling overseas is always a real travel adventure. Traveling to an unknown country overseas with a turbulent past is truly a real adventure. It’s always nice to have someone in that country looking after you whom you can go to, should things go off track. I recommend Salvadorean Tours with its manager Rodrigo Moreno to plan and execute a pleasurable travel adventure with few bumps in the road. As you know travel anywhere has its risks. If you wanted to be completely safe, you would stay at home and hope nothing happened. But in travel, more times than not, especially using a travel supplier and common sense, you are safeand well cared for.
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El Salvador is remembered for its turbulent civil war of the 1980s, and when you travel there you will be told of its effect on the country. But with the 1992 peace accord, El Salvador is building a bright future. A small country in size, on the Pacific coast bordered by Honduras and Guatemala, the natural landscape is dotted by many volcanoes, now mostly dormant, which is a reminder of its geological birth. Viewed today as tourist attractions, they can even be seen surrounding the Capitol of San Salvador, and from your hotel room at La Mirador, a good home base for your exploration of the city via the sights arranged by Salvadorean tours.
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You will certainly want to have a walking tour of downtown. Stop in for a brief visit to the crypt of the Metropolitan Cathedral of San Salvador where you can pay your respects to the revered Catholic priest, Oscar Romero’s impressive resting place. The interior of the cathedral with its stain glass is a testament to the traditional strength of Catholicism in the country.
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For a modern worship venue a few blocks away is the Church of the Rosary with its inventive use of glass and concrete, along with sculptures and stations of the cross, in a more contemporary style, often made from left over metal from the church’s construction. From the outside it appears to be a dark and heavy structure but inside the symbolic gradation of light and the column free expanse is imaginative.

If you have our tour guide, Eduardo, you can’t help but see and be affected by his enthusiasm for his country and what it has to offer. To ease us into our first day we had an enjoyable lunch and cocktail at the Bennigans in the World Trade complex, accentuated by a spectacular panoramic view of the city. The attentive bar tender and the large portions were greatly appreciated.
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In the evening we were treated to the upscale and trendy Mai Thai Restaurant in the multiplex mall, where owner Jamie gave us examples of his bartenders art and dexterity before tasting plates of a variety of his specialties. Next door is a contemporary nightclub/disco with a popular late night crowd.

For a more relaxed and organic entertainment venue, Rodrigo took us to the nearby town of Santa Tecla, where a main street is closed to traffic in the evening and the patrons of clubs and restaurants spill out into the night. This is an example of the community saying, “build it, ~ or provide it ~ and they will come.” They upgraded the street and buildings for seven blocks, and entrepreneurs and merchants moved in, and it’s now the place to be. Wished we could have stayed longer.
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Before venturing out into the countryside, the real Salvadorian attraction, a quick visit to the Archeological Museum will give you a basic history of the country, and a walk through the Museum of Art gives insight into the contemporary mindset. The two museums are within walking distance along a very busy thoroughfare. From your hotel you can often take taxis almost anywhere in the city with a fare of $6.00. It’s good to note here, that the U.S. Dollar is the currency used in El Salvador and the electric current is 110 with familiar pug-in outlet configurations. These are comforts that make Salvador convenient for US travelers. You won’t find many English speaking people, other than at your hotel or your tour guide, but with a piece of paper of the address of where you want to go, taxis are no problem. It’s good to ask the price before departing.
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On one of my solo taxi excursions I had to see the 1950s mansion, around which the modern Centro Commercial Galerias Mall was built. Because of its turbulent geological past, few very old structures survive – so this midcentury architectural conservation is a rarity. The multi-storied mall, complete with foodcourt and cinemas, is host to a variety of department stores and upscale boutiques. There is even a Starbucks on the top floor of the mansion.
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Preservation of the distant past is accomplished at the archeological site known as “Joya de Ceren,” which is a World Heritage Site, preserving the earliest structures of El Salvador’s ancestors. It’s called the “Pompeii of America.” Here also is a convenient small outdoor curio shop, where I found a modern clay figurine reminiscent of the ancient ones found in the archeological museum.