Twenty years – to the day: July 8th if you’re curious. In 1992, it was the day I met “her” and also the day I had the foresight to ask her on a second date. Love at first sight. In 2012, it was the day that we began the trip of all trips to celebrate twenty years together. Our wedding anniversary is in December. What kind of crazy kids get married in Salt Lake City at a time when there’s three feet of snow on the ground? Hindsight says it was lovebirds that couldn’t wait to spend their first Christmas together. Some of those twenty years we’ve celebrated cozy at home; still others, a quick overnighter in town. Our tenth was a little more adventuresome with nine days in California’s Bay Area with San Francisco and Monterey getting the lion’s share of the trip. That fact, coupled with what materialized for twenty, has me excited about where to from here?

Affordable and comfortable JetBlue® http://www.jetblue.com flights from LAS (Vegas’ McCarran Airport) to JFK, then JFK to POP were just the beginning and get their “extra space” seats. I know, I know . . . where is POP? Unfortunately for me, this might be one of those secrets that won’t stay kept for long.
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Both lists, traditional and modern, show that the “silver anniversary” should be the 25th. However, the Caribbean’s “Silver Harbor” that is Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic http://www.puertoplata.com/ (airport code “POP”) is the island paradise where we spent our 20th. Again, foresight was in our favor as, on a tip, we found prices too good to turn down booking through www.cheapcaribbean.com to stay with the Lifestyles Resort http://www.lhvcresorts.com/ in Puerto Plata. Cheapcaribbean.com is worth pinning to your “look at everyday” list of websites; we have seen them offer this all inclusive trip as low as $15 per person per day. We weren’t quite that fortunate, but not far from it. If you’re going to be opportunist vacationers like we often are, find a few “tipsters” of your own. Acquaint yourself with someone you trust who might be an “early adopter” while you patiently wait in the wings to snatch last minute or killer deals. Our lead had been to this resort, had even taken some of the excursions we wanted to take and had returned with rave reviews. In fact, we even had a second witness come from another friend and then we followed a travel blog commentary for a few weeks before making our purchase.

“Tell It Only to Your Best Friends” is the motto of the Lifestyles Resorts and believe me friends, we found plenty worth telling. The killer deal we found was the same quality offering regardless of the price you ended up landing; prices likely fluctuate based on season, occupancy and travel provider. We “told it to our best of friends” and they joined us to celebrate their 20th as well. The deal delivered a Lifestyles exclusive, all-inclusive vacation which included such amenities as an exceptionally clean, tiled room (there are very few bugs in the DR – we never saw any in our room throughout the week) with daily turn down and mini-fridge service, an in-room safe for valuables, air conditioning (a must in the DR), a 47” screen TV with cable access, open and airy rooms all with a balcony view. All the aforementioned amenities come “stock” as part of the all-inclusive deal with any room ranging from the cheapest to their Presidential Suites. My bias could be in the fact that I speak Spanish, but we found that the staff members were almost always approachable, kind and helpful at every turn. Options for play are around every corner while there. A list of tomorrow’s resort activities was slid under your door nightly and there seemed to be something for everyone; beaches, dancing, parties, shows, poolside entertainment, shops and of course the food. Oh . . . the food. Upon arrival, guests are encouraged to book restaurants of choice due to resort scheduling and potentially busy dinner crowds. Those who don’t lock down a specific eatery are always welcomed at the buffet. We tried the buffet on our way to our first night’s reserved-restaurant meal and were pleasantly surprised with the variety and quality of food and drink. While I can’t comment on the variety day in and day out, never is a piña colada or banana mama any length away from your reach and the options seem limitless.

Much like we do, we encourage you to do it your own way . . . but here is how the week rolled out for us:
Pre-trip planning not only included our booking with cheapcaribbean.com but we also put a call in to them to ask about AC-DC power (they have US and Euro options), currency exchange suggestions and any other tidbits they might have for us. Their representative was both helpful and knowledgeable. Of course, reps can’t offer some of the tips that we were looking for. One such was how to find a cheaper taxi to and from the resort. We followed the advice of one heavily trafficked travel blog and went with a trusted local in Jesus Garcia at http://www.taxiaeropuertopop.com/; his price was less than half of the price of the shuttle – $50 per couple instead of $120. He was a kind soul who not only was honest but went the extra mile meeting us at the airport with a sign with our name on it and four cold sodas in hand. Jesus even stopped, at our request, on our way to the resort to allow us to change currency at the local “casa de cambio.”

The airport will offer to change your currency for a fee but don’t do it there. The resort will offer to change it for a lesser fee but only do it there if you can’t find a reputable ride to take you to the “casa de cambio.” We figure we saved $10 – $20 in the exchange – might not be worth the hassle if you don’t want to brave the city. Also prior to leaving we contacted an American friend living local in the DR who suggested we never venture out on public transportation. He said that for every story you hear about there being no issue, there are several more that ended in travelers being taken advantage of in one way or another. We did get that sense while there; stay with a trusted taxista. Our favorite while there was Rafael Eve. He was both the cheapest ride and the kindest man we met while in Puerto Plata. He can be reached via email prior to coming at edwardreynoso@yahoo.es or via phone at 829-599-9125. Note that 809 and 829 are Dominican Area Codes and international charges apply. In fact, part of the draw for us to go on this wonderful vacation was the fact that our phones would need to be turned off for the week to avoid roaming and data charges. While there, we found it prefect to check in with our kids via email or Skype® with free Wi-Fi available in VIP rooms or in certain spots in the resort.
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Our last pre-trip ritual is my personal favorite. As we always do when we travel together, Brandi and I left our wedding rings safely stored in SLC with intent on personally renewing our vows once we found new rings somewhere in along the way. Puerto Plata is along the amber coast of the DR and Larimar is their “official” stone. Three of those nouns made finding Brandi’s new ring a cinch: we needed it to be Silver (Plata), Amber and Larimar.

The vendors call it “happy hour” (see closest above.) It’s a double banded silver ring that is reversible with Larimar on one side and Amber on the other. After some haggling, Brandi’s only cost $17 . . . $25 was the going rate throughout the week. Mission accomplished. Vows renewed. Our 20th anniversary vacation a success. The “how to” details of that glorious vacation are as follows:
Our first day in the DR was, as is every “first” when traveling, eye-opening. Take in the surroundings and take pictures! We were fascinated by the many “motorconchos” or motorcycle taxis. At times we saw as many as four people riding one motorcycle. Another carried a mattress. One had a woman riding side-saddle. Nearly no one had helmets. Our driver said there are not many days that go by without seeing someone hurt on one of these cheap rides. Don’t take this mode of transportation anywhere while there as it is both unsafe and unreliable.

Upon arrival at the spacious Lifestyles Resort (through several gated and guarded areas) we were welcomed by breathtaking tropical beauty and a kind, efficient staff. Drinks and smiles abounded. Staffers were quick to arrange our shuttle to our room; take the shuttle wherever you go here . . . yes, it really is that big! Our concierge showed us to the room, answered our questions and described all amenities.

The Lifestyles Resort and Vacation Club http://www.lifestyleholidaysvc.com/ has a lock on some of the best resort locations in the DR both in Puerto Plata (north) and in Punta Cana (east).

This Austrian owned series of properties has made their go in the DR since 2002 and touts more than 14,000 members. This is a resort that is actively looking for “members” (affiliated with RCI) and as such, though certainly priced right, may not be the worry-free trip for every would-be traveler. We found that their sales reps were aggressive yet kind when rebuffed. Sales reps were easily identified in their white golf shirts and their usual question was “when did you arrive” or “did you just arrive yesterday”? Our answer that we had been there a few days would encourage them to move on. No need to ever tell them your room number and don’t be afraid to express your not wanting to buy or upgrade. However, for those looking for a membership, upgrades are immediate. Once upgraded, staff will move your belongings to the upgraded room and change your bracelet VIP status. Amenities for VIP members were considerably better including additional access to exclusive restaurants, beaches and clubs.

VIP rooms came with many upgrades including larger rooms with king-sized beds, spacious balconies, jetted tub, etc. We discussed the matter and determined that, upgrade or no, this resort was worth the money you would pay regardless of your decision to go cheap or go “big.” It wasn’t uncommon to find members there that were returning for their second or third time. This truly is a resort one would gladly return to again and again.

Our meals while there were exceptional. We made reservations early for our restaurants of choice. They have an option for all tastes. We tried the surf and turf at The Blue Lagoon, Indochine for Chinese, Trapiche for Mexican, Brazilian BBQ at Rodizio (it was there that we met a cute couple on their honeymoon) and “fine dining” or “French fusion” at Jazz. The latter two had a dress code for dining and seemed a little too “stuffy” yet we enjoyed all with positive results. By far, the two best options we found for dining while there were that of El Pilón (authentic Dominican) and the weekly VIP Welcome Party for all guests on the peninsula. El Pilón offered some of the best food I have ever eaten. A dense broth, meat soup called Sancocho (considered a Dominican national dish) was all I really needed. The snapper civiche’ and grilled skirt steak were amazing and worthy in their own right, but the Sancocho could have been appetizer, dinner and dessert! Our party also sampled fresh caught fish (rivaling the buttery, flaky grouper we had eaten the day prior), the pork chop, chicken and various sides all with delight.
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But again, it was the VIP Welcome Party that was most worth swooning over; it was unlike any extravaganza I have attended. The entire resort literally shuts down for this event – minus the buffet for those not wanting the throng of the crowds. Preparations begin at least a day in advance. I can’t imagine how this happens weekly! There must be thousands of chairs and hundreds of tables placed all along the peninsula the night before. Some of the cooking must have begun days prior as well. By party time the night of the celebration, a grand buffet was prepared with every avenue covered. Local fruits and vegetables, cheeses, breads, meats, seafood, pastas, salads, desserts, and drinks are all in abundance.

Dinner entertainment included clowns for the children, singers, dancers and a large multi-media music, light and fireworks show. This open air evening was a Dominican Thanksgiving to rival feast and festival anywhere . . . and it happens EVERY WEEK!
Perhaps the only thing better than the restaurants and parties were the quiet moments of peace on one of the several beach options while at Lifestyles. We strolled along the VIP and Harmony beaches. Each has hammocks, beach chairs and cabanas with “beach butlers” bringing snacks and drinks as you desire them. For VIP members, the offerings of Serenity Beach and, with a little planning and a 10-15 minute bus ride, Golden Sands Beach are not to be missed. Both offer the same amenities listed above and more. Serenity has Oh Crepes! which offers fruit, chocolate or meat crepes made to order. It was at Serenity that we found a favorite drink in their virgin “Lumumba.” These treats, coupled with our own variations of piña coladas and banana mamitas and snack foods galore, helped make our relaxing days on the beaches truly our Caribbean paradise. Golden Sands Beach is accessible via short transport to another nearby resort owned by Lifestyles and sits mid-way along the prettiest beach we saw while in the DR.
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We swam and snorkeled there with the some of the clearest views to be found on the north side of the island. Again, staffers were always on hand to bring towels, food and drink. We were there on a particularly hot day and enjoyed the “cool tubs” en route to the waterfront. Vendors were aplenty outside the resort’s roped off area and yet kept at bay for most of the day.
Other “must do” activities that made this trip so remarkable were the two biggest draws for this part of the DR: Ocean World and 27 Waterfalls. Ocean World http://www.oceanworld.net/ is without comparison. We took our children to Sea World in San Antonio this summer and enjoyed every minute. However, to come all the way to Puerto Plata only to make the mistake of missing Ocean World because “I have already been to Sea World” would be a sad mistake. We began with a few minutes in the exotic bird exhibit feeding the local love birds from our hands.
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Then, we were treated to shows that allowed us to be up close with sea-lions, sharks, tropical birds and dolphins. One of the benefits of being outside the U.S. is that regulations are different. Most of the shows had front row visitors dangling their feet in the same water in which the animals were performing!
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If that wasn’t enough, Ocean World offers every visitor a free snorkel experience (see above) in their Tropical Reef Aquarium or a free swim with their Bengal tigers; only a glass pane separates you from the tigers while swimming in the same pool! Of course there are a few “upgrades” available while there. You can swim or dive with dolphins, sting rays, and sharks all of which are “once in a lifetime” opportunities and at a very reasonable price. Though we did not make it there, on Thursday nights a small peek into Ocean World comes with your stay at Lifestyles. The resort will shuttle you over to Ocean World for a free Vegas-style show called “Bravissimo.”
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Finally, reserve a day for “Los 27 Charcos” http://www.27charcos.com or 27 Waterfalls.

Get in shape enough to climb a gradual to moderate ascent for 30-40 minutes. I did it in water socks – a mistake for sure, but possible. Take hard-soled shoes that can be submerged over and over. Maybe take a pair of shoes that you can leave in the DR. Whatever you do, don’t miss this excursion and if you are adventurous enough, book it on your own instead of through the resort or an outfitter. From the resort to the waterfalls with Rafael (see info above) it cost $70 round trip for four of us – $80 with Jesus. Once there, the guided trip to and from the 27th waterfall was only 500 pesos each – about $13 U.S. Less if you only go to the 17th or the 12th waterfall. We tipped each guide another $5 which made our total cost just under $70 per couple. Rafael waited under a shade tree for us the entire time we hiked the 3-4 hour round trip. The views were spectacular and nature-carved like none other we had ever seen.
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We jumped, we dove, and we slid down Swiss Family Robinson-like rock waterslides to the delight of all. Our guides Wellington and Nelson – names not particularly reminiscent of Cristobal Colon or “Christopher Columbus” who first discovered the DR – were both patient and friendly. Nelson was the 6th person in the DR to ask me if I liked baseball. Along with many others topics, we chatted the whole way often about the American pastime turned Dominican way of life! We took a water camera with us on this excursion – a must! Nelson carried the camera and was a fine photographer; he picked up on some scenes we would have missed and also caught all the planned shots with care. Tourism has only come to the waterfalls since 1994 and the word keeps spreading; get there before it becomes too commercial and makes its way on the map. Seasons change and bring different water levels and scenery so this might have to be a regular stop on subsequent visits.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and, while that may be true, the 20/20 foresight of marrying the girl of my dreams could only be improved upon by picking this tropical paradise to celebrate our 20 years of bliss together! The Silver Harbor that is Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic would be the ideal destination for any celebration. Warm, welcoming people. Golden sands. Peace and quiet. 4-5 star lodging and food. Affordable, fun unique excursions. All within a few hours from the U.S and well within your reach. Maybe you too ought to use 20/20 judgment and not to wait 20 years like we did!

I discovered the main dangers and annoyances of budget travel abroad are our crazy fellow backpackers and dolebludgers in the resort town of Motezuma, “costa Rica” (Costa Rica). But I became entranced with the art of Saul Bolanos shown throughout my humorous story.

In the back of a flatbed truck several other travelers and I bumped along, discussing the upcoming fiesta at an outdoor disco in a secret (no: discreet ) location. I heard a British-sounding accent coming from a guy with obvious red hair. Usually I was naturally suspicious of people with red hair, but since I had a nice buzz on, I decided to engage him in a light conversation.
“Hey, are you English?” The redhead said, “Yah, I’m from London, mate. I’m hiding out in Costa Rica because I just escaped from a mental asylum.”

Was he pulling my leg? Silence ensued, everyone deciding to keep their mouths zipped shut until we all arrived safely at the party and could move around freely. Finally there, the ginger-haired madman followed me around like Spam sticking to a Pam-sprayed pan.
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“May I buy you a drink?”
“No thanks, I know what it is like to be a poor traveler.”
“I SAID, MAY I BUY YOU A DRINK?!”
“Uh, I guess so, but I’m really not that thirsty.”
“You know when a man offers to buy you a drink you are supposed to accept it. It’s just not on, it’s just not on!”
We went to the bar, and I watched carefully as he ordered me a “cuba libre” (ron y coke), making sure he didn’t Rufi it.
“Thanks!” I exhaled.

Then as “Shakira” came on–(“I’m on tonight, my hips don’t lie. . .”)–I began to shake and shimmy, pretending I could dance, making an extreme break for it, losing myself in the crowd.
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When I tried to catch a gypsy cab (unlicensed drive), there the ginger-haired madman was again, looking really quite aggravated with me really. “Let’s go outside behind the disco, there is something I want to talk to you about.” “Uh later, gotta go,” I said, stuffing myself quickly into the unlicensed drive. We sped off down the dirt road, the Latin American driver grimacing like Chuck Heston in The Omega Man.

Now let me fast-forward a little:
The general consensus was: everyone seemed to have some gripe about the ginger-haired madman, a sizable crowd even accusing him of lifting their wallets or nicking their souvies. My only problem with this British devil was that I had an extreme fear of clowns sporting red hair, such as Caesar Romero as “The Joker,” Bozo, Rip Torn, Brian Adams, William Macy, and Carrot Top. In a way, I almost felt sorry for the poor blighter when he was kicked out of the hostel I was staying in, a Grimm nightmare of sweltering shack rooms and cots with stained mattresses, plus a padlock to help protect our gear from poachers.

Feeling relieved that the ginger-haired madman was at last gone for good, I hiked along the beach, carefully avoiding soiling my Rockports on huge piles of horse poo. Then I took the trial of the trail which led to an even better beach, absolutely empty. I plopped down in the sand and squinted at the hyperreal horizon through my trademark Olivers Peoples sunnies, then looked down the beach. Approaching quickly like a swelling pimple, the ginger-haired madman, muttering like a member of a lunatic fringe whose hair was on fire, seemingly, began barreling toward me at an impressive mph. Licketysplit, I got up and jogged over to the nearby waterfall, and hid among the rocks close to some topless babes, who both stuck out their tongues at me.

On their portable Grundig shortwave radio, “Ottmar Leibert,” the Austrian Flamenco guitarist came on. I would be safe here—for a while at least. I didn’t have red hair or anything crazy like that, man! and neither did I have ugly freckles nor acne scars. But I felt like a leprous Lazarus from “Star Trek” (original series) being chased down by his doppelganger, both negating each other into the astrophysical oblivion of an alternate universe. Which of course was all that Costa Rica was: a Paid Advertisement, a postcard-perfect paradox, a PC playground sandbox, and an eco tourismo trap in which to lay low. Also, here was the ideal idyll to set up an “Import-Export” business, an international euphemism for “chronic unemployment.” I felt like an icky “spider” (spy) spinning out Marquezian and Allendean Magic Realism dreams of American-style Montezuma’s Revenge!
In reverse.
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“Aha, Edwards!” The ginger-haired madman had spotted me. His matted Medusa-like red hair coiled in the sun like official fire hoses. I suddenly realized he might indeed be the Devil Himself. Or, at least, one of his minions. Maybe a Dane? Energetically, I took up jogging as an extreme spectator sport, aiming myself like “The Pathfinder” toward a sanctuary farther on in the rainforest, filled with familiar-seeming howler monkeys peeing on me, once again continuing my eternal scour for the world’s most perfect beach. . . .

John M. Edwards invades Islas Mujeres in search of copper-skinned beachcombers who shake like Shakira. A male intruder on the Island of Women, just off Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula at Playa del Carmen, he tries to pick up a dream dolphin instead!
Out the plane window, listening to the throb and hum of the supersonic jet-fuel-propulsioned twin engines, I descried a long strip of white sand dotted like a Monopoly board with boxy luxury resort hotels. Upon landing with a skid, a bump, and a halt, the step ladder was attached, and then we exited the plane while a dude resembling Bruce Chatwin, blond hair tucked under a fancy Panama Hat, said “Sorry” and gave me the thumbs-up.

“Cancun! Cancun! Cancun!” the unsavory taxi drivers unisoned until a portly pair of a man named Esteban, wearing a white undershirt singlet and sweating profusely beneath the Mayan-inflected sunshine, manhandled my Luggage (also the nickname of my galpal) like Cantinflas from Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days.

Arriving at the jetty near world-famous Playa del Carmen, we stepped into a pleasure craft and zoomed across the light waves. No Cozumel for us. Instead we landed at Mexico’s discreet “Islas Mujeres” (Island of Women), which sure did live up to its name.
Dumped outside a sleeping estab resembling a stuccoed Grateful Dead hotel, I noticed that the statuesque desk sergeant, tanned even in winter, was just a little bit of a knockout herself.
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We then slipped into our swimming cozzies and loaded our beach gear into our Jansport daypacks and meandered over to the beach almost at our doorstep—one of the nicest sandtraps in the Caribbean, with blue-green waters as clear as a sloe-gin fizz.

Here all the sunbathers were topless (including the lifeguardy beefcakes). Also, I swear I saw good travel writers Rolf Potts and Tony Horowitz (who resemble each other) lasciviously layering expensively imported Hawaiian Tropic ™ suncream on the backs of their harmless slags.
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I mentioned to a Hungarian backpacker, who resembled my high-school German friend Klaus Zieler, a mean soccer-ball kicker, that I vaguely knew Sarah Driver, who was the main squeeze of Magyar-American film director Jim Jarmusch (“Stranger Than Paradise”). He showed me an ancient dice game to improve my mathematical skills. Much later, expatriated in the Zocalo and under the shadow of a cathedral clock and clippety-cloppity burros loaded down with Mexican Indian blankets and tourist knickknacks, we tried authentic fried empanadas, which here are more like fluffy omellettes than flattened tortillas. Also herewith we met a strangely odd Canadian couple, one of whom resembled a Playboy model with plastic surgery; the other, a shrimpy “Tim” with a vaguely doofy smile like that of unfinished-novellette-writer David Van Vactor or world-famous novelist Ian McKewan.

Also much later in the day we peeled ourselves off of our sarongs and ambled over to the beach-front café, where we ordered egregiously bad Instant Nescafé ™, which along with Pringles, Bosco, and Instant Reincarnation Breakfast, is available in any Mexican bodega (family groc).
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No Mayan ruins here, except for an unimpressive few resembling worn-out dinosaur dentures, but this was surely a stronghold of Native American magic and supernatural delights. One night, for example, I was talking to the friendly Canuck, an expat “Import-Export” artist who showed me a neat alienesque trick. Maybe it was the Tequila talking or even the Mezcal refusing to wear off, but I imagined a delusion that the Canadian’s arm jumped out of its socket in an explosion of Silly String ™. Was this AmerIndian Mojo at work?

Idling again like sitting somnambulists at the beachside café, “Luggage” almost threw up when she drank a tepid glass full of Nescafé ™ swimming with coffee grinds. She jumped up to complain to the manager and get all of our money back. I got up to prevent her from causing an international incident, involving taking me into a back room for a life-threatening drubbing, all because boyfriends usually bear the brunt of disputes over la quenta.

Anyway, according to Skindiver (a mag I’ve never seen), the beach here was top ten. And I could see why, with all the beautiful copper-colored buttocks moving with desire under the spiked Mexican sun. Little Sally Rides ready to drop out of the Nasa Space Program and put out.
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Out the plane window, listening to the throb and hum of the supersonic jet-fuel-propulsioned twin engines, I said “Hasta Luega” to the strip of white blow-like sand cut by an Amex Centurion Card ™.

With my too-tan flaky portrait pokerfaced into a birdy grimace in the reflecting opaque window, I felt a little like a downward-dog impostor and grinning sun god–one mugging for the invisible cameras hidden in the reading lights, with a copy of Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan (1843), by John Lloyd Stephans, cracked open on my lapster. . . .

Of course, the highlight of my trip was the clandestine daytrip to see the molten “Little Astronaut,” discreetly hidden in one of the Mayan ziggurats and curled into foetal position in fear of crashlanding.

I am a hiker. But at home, no one uses a machete to blaze the trail prior to walking on it as did Souza, our Amazon guide, creating a path in the overgrown rainforest step by step. Slicing, swatting, swooping, chopping, no branch, bush, vine or twig was safe. The hike was one of four daily activities during our 8-day adventure exploring Amazonia. Calling the Tucano, a 16-passenger river yacht home, we traveled over 200 miles along the River Negro where the only other waterborne human we saw was the rare fisherman in a dugout canoe. For our daily excursions, we clamored aboard a small power launch which took us hiking, bird-watching, and village hopping, and on night-time outings that dramatized the allure of the river not experienced in any other way. But more on that later.

Souza demanded quiet during our launch rides, using all of his senses to read the forest, listening for the breaking of a branch or a flutter through the trees, sniffing for animal odors, scanning leaves above and below for motion, or the water for ripples… and alerting us at every junction of what he has discovered. On our own, we would have heard, felt and discerned nothing. Souza’s most amazing talent was his ability to identify the multitudes of birds traversing the river and forest, many of whose calls he could replicate precisely. What to us was a dot on a limb was declared a green ibis. Then a snow egret, crane hawk, red-breasted blackbird, jacana, snail kite — so many I just stopped taking notes. So confidently did he identify the inhabitants, we would have believed: “That’s a green-tongued, red-beaked ibirus with one brown eye and a pimple on his right cheek…

He could imitate more birds than the most gifted comedian can impersonate movie stars. He carried on such intimate conversations that halfway through a lengthy discussion with a blackish gray antshrike, I think they became engaged. Then Souza, fickle male that he is, romanced a colorful azure blue-beaked Trogan perched upon a dead branch high in a tree. Birds have a surprising preference for dead tree parts. As one of my travel companions observed, “If you don’t like birds, you might as well take the next flight home.”

Back to Machete Man. Our forest walks also were a time for observation, not conversation. On a stop to view teca ants swarming over the bark, Souza wiped his hand across it, proceeding then to rub the ants over his forearms. Instant mosquito repellant — handy tool in the Amazon. At one point, I looked down and saw a long brown twig draping a log. Souza saw a snake. I looked again and still saw a twig, albeit one that now had an eye. I stepped more gingerly
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We learned of the many medications the forest supplies to the natives; of vines for baskets and brooms; bark for strong rope; plants providing poison for arrows. As we heeded orders to be quiet, the dried leaves below screamed in protest at being trampled, the buzz of the horsefly the most persistent sound.

And then there are the leaf cutter ants! A long assembly line of tiny leaves paraded up a hill, as organized as a marching band. A closer look revealed leaf cutter ants to be the burly carriers. Hard to believe something so fragile can carry so large and unwieldy a load as much as half a mile to its colony.

Surprised at how much he learned about himself on the trip, Ritesh Beriwal, a 23-year-old worn-out Wall Street trainee, noted: “I didn’t realize how interested I’d be in the little things, like how insects such as the leaf-carrying ants build homes. Before it was just an ant; now it’s an ant with an entire life and work history.”

Each day brought new revelations and insight into our surroundings whether on land or water. Our visits to several villages only reinforced that impression. Commonalities among villages: a dance hall where residents party once a month; a soccer field where youth exercise once a day; a school room where students of all grades learn; a clinic that caters to the medical needs of the community, 2-3 requisite churches where parishioners of different persuasions pray — and a generator. And that’s about it. But the differences are notable as well.

I found the contrast particularly interesting between one village of no more than 30 families producing one farm product and a larger “company” town in which thrives an asphalt industry. In the larger village, there is a convenience store, a small café, a bakery. Each hut has its own outhouse and there are several satellite dishes throughout the community. The entire economy of the farm community revolves around manioc — a product made from grain that is the mainstay of the Amazonian diet. “If there is no manioc on the table, there is no meal,” explains Souza. There are no stores in the village, no satellite dishes, and there are no outhouses. Using the woods that border their village as their toilet, it was clearly the largest bathroom facility I had ever seen. On the other hand, the men don’t have to worry about remembering to put the seat down.

Although every day was an adventure, nothing compared with the nighttime jaunts. Our post-dinner sojourns, beginning around 8 p.m., pitched Souza and his searchlight against the dark horizon, scanning shoreline and trees desperately searching for something to entertain his charges. An all-pervasive quiet loomed, yet everything, including the sounds, seemed magnified: dolphins snorting, fish jumping, caimans slithering, monkeys howling — all vying for attention. Eventually the flashlight, seemingly darting randomly above, below and beyond the trees, alighted (so to speak) on a caiman in the brush, his whole snout protruding for a moment before slinking away. Or perhaps instead the light reflected off a kingfisher’s eyes, temporarily blinding him so that we could drift in almost close enough to touch. Then for an encore, we watched a spider grab a dragonfly from a crack in a tree directly in front of us — and diligently devour it. Did I mention it was pitch black?

Once again, the refrain in my head: “How does Souza do that?” Either he has a seventh sense about the animals, or the Amazon Tourist Board set them up ahead of time. Whereas during the day, the trills, tweets and twerps of the birds dominate the landscape, at night it’s the croaks, caws and throaty outpourings of the frogs and caimans. In between our first launch at 6 a.m to our final return sometime after 9, we pretty much spend the rest of the time eating. The native foods, beautifully prepared and presented, are a surprise this far from civilization.
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As much as that is a typical day, so are the exceptions. One particular day we got to sleep in until 6, still early enough to watch the sun pull itself over the forest, and late enough to feel the already oppressive heat seep into my lightweight, washable. anti-bug-treated blouse (though overall, the weather was much more comfortable than anticipated). We were going fishing. I sat with my Tom Sawyer fishing pole thinking the Amazon’s a long way from the Mississippi. I attached the chunks of beef to the end of the line thinking this was strange bait until I remembered our prey. Watching Souza rattle the water with his pole, I remembered that being quiet was the order of the day on most fishing sojourns. Still, I followed his lead — make the quarry think there’s a wounded fish thrashing about — and within a minute I knew I had snagged the big prize: at the end of my line was the famed carnivorous predator — a 6” piranha.
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Souza held it up to a tree and used it like a scissors to cut a branch in two. Just looking at its imposing teeth, we knew it came by its reputation honestly. Still, piranhas get a bad rep. The truth is unless they’re starving or you’re bleeding we’re really not in their food chain. Nonetheless, the fried piranhas we had that night as appetizers were scrumptious, their tiny bones crunchy and the meat flaky, proving the wise adage that more people eat piranhas than piranhas eat people — at least in Amazonia.
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When I was invited to spend six days in Colombia (Republic of Colombia) the only thing I knew about the country (not my college and graduate school, spelled with a U) was the long ago violence of Pablo Escobar and the Cali & Medellin drug cartels as well as the more recent Secret Service hooker scandal at the World Economic Summit of the Americas in Cartagena. Locating Colombia on a map I noted Panama on the Northwest, Venezuela and Brazil on the East, the Pacific Ocean on the West, Ecuador and Peru on the South and the Caribbean Sea bordering it on the North. Because it is located on both the Caribbean and the Pacific (and close to the equator), the weather does not change that much during the summer and winter seasons, as it does in Argentina, Chile and Brazil. My non-stop Avianca flight was only six hours long. This was less time in the air than a trip to California and since it was only one hour behind New York there was no jet lag.

A few facts: Colombia is the second largest Spanish speaking population in the world (Mexico is #1). There are over 1,865 bird life species, 50,000 species of flora and 54.4 million acres of wetlands and deserts. Besides coffee there are flowers, emeralds, coal, oil, coconuts, plantains, yucca and tropical fruits grown and exported. Along the Pacific Coast there are lentils, rice and fish and in the Andean region red meat, potatoes, beans and corn are produced. Cartagena is cruise ship central and between October and May more than 169 arrive. 27% of the total visitors to Colombia are from North America, with 20% from the US. In 2011 there were 1.6 million foreign visitors. 95% of the population call themselves Christians. Well known Colombian include: pop singer Shakira, actors John Leguizamo and Sofia Vergara and baseball players Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera.
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The Spanish arrived in 1499 for a period of colonization and conquest and created New Granada, which included what is now Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Panama and part of Brazil. Its capitol was Bogotá. In 1819 the area became independent of Spain but Venezuela and Ecuador seceded and the Republic of New Granada now included only Colombia and Panama. In 1886 the Republic of Colombia was declared with Panama seceding in 1903. Colombia was the first constitutional government in South America and was a founder of the Organization of American States. In 1921 the United States paid Colombia $25 million, seven years after the Panama Canal was completed as compensation for their control of the canal. Colombia uses the Constitution of 1991 to govern as a democratic republic, with executive, legislative and judicial branches.
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Colombia is very ethnically diverse with original native inhabitants, Spanish colonists, Africans brought as slaves, and immigrants from Europe and the Middle East. The majority of the urban centers are located in the highlands of the Andes Mountains, along with Amazon rainforests as well as Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. There are more than 15 islands (between continental and oceanic) that belong to Colombia. Bogotá at 8,500 feet is the highest city of its size in the world.

Since the 1960s, government forces, left-wing insurgents (FARC) and right-wing paramilitaries (AVC) have been engaged in the continent’s longest-running armed conflict. The cocaine trade, with the Cali and Medellin cartels and the well-known and feared Pablo Escobar, escalated the violence in the 1980s. The violence has decreased dramatically with the homicide rate halved in the early 21stCentury. However, Colombia is still the world’s largest cocaine producer. At no time did I feel threatened or in any danger, especially with the large presence of armed police and private security. I was reminded of the US during prohibition and the presence of Al Capone and the “mafia.”

My home for two nights in the capital city of Bogotá (7.88 million- Colombia- 46.37 million) was the Avia 93, a boutique 40-room hotel in the 93 area, known for clubs and restaurants. At an altitude of 8,500 feet Bogotá is surrounded by the Andes Mountains and has chilly mornings and evenings, with an average temperature during my stay of 66F. The day we arrived was a holiday, and I walked to the nearby park where they had children’s programming on a giant screen. Dinner was at the hotel’s restaurant- El Cielo that was named as one the top 10 restaurants in Latin America. Here I also met my fellow writers. We were a total of ten, from NYC, LA, New Mexico, South Carolina and Colorado. We were split into two groups, each doing the same itinerary, but in a different order. For future trips I might suggest that Proexport, the tourism, foreign investment and export promotion agency keep the writers together, especially with such a small group of ten.
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We started our tour of Bogota with a stroll through La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood located in the downtown area. The architecture combined Spanish Colonial and Baroque styles. It is home to many museums and universities. We spent an hour at the Museo de Oro and could easily have spent several hours more. The Gold Museum is the largest in the world and displays an extraordinary collection of pre-Colombian gold works. Lunch at Chibchombia began a trend of hurry up and waits. I only had a pleasant experience at three meals. It should not take an hour after ordering to receive our food, especially since we had so much to see and the restaurants knew we were journalists.
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We approached La Casa de Narino (El Palacio) in La Candelaria, which was the official home and workplace of the President of Colombia, as well as the offices of the executive branch, who should be arriving at the same time but Juan Manuel Santos Calderon, the President. A young soldier (compulsory military service) who spent his youth in Florida and spoke perfect English was our guide through El Palacio. He explained that the democratically elected President could serve a maximum of two four-year terms. We had to surrender our cameras as well as our wallets and purses so there are no photos of the building.

A real treat was a coffee seminar (this is Colombia), cupping and tasting at E&D Café. The owner Jaime Duque ran through the five coffees, which were not identified, very much like a wine tasting. My favorite turned out to be Sierra Nevada and each of us was given samples of our favorite coffee. Dinner was at Andres DC, a tree level extravaganza with music and spectacular wall posters and paraphernalia. If only the food had been average. It felt like watching Spider-Man: The Musical. One cannot hum the scenery.

The next morning we transferred to the airport for our one-hour flight to Cartagena (de Indias) and our home for two nights at Charleston Santa Teresa, located inside the walled city. In the 17th Century the hotel had been a Carmelite convent. I have been to other walled cities such as Dubrovnik (Croatia), Toledo (Spain), Rhodes (Greece), Bouges (Spain), Québec City (Quebec), San Gimignano (Italy) and the Great Wall (China), but this was the most impressive of them all. We walked through many streets (our van could not get through several of them) and later on would bike and use a horse-drawn carriage to see the streets again. The 17th Century walls were part of the “old city” and there was the new city that reminded me of Miami Beach. Our hotel had 89 rooms, a fitness center and rooftop pool. Lunch was at La Cocina de Pepina.

We had a two-hour movie bike tour conducted by the son of the founder of the Cartagena Film Festival- Geraldo Nieta. We began at Teatro Adolfo Mejia, then to Baluarte San Ignacio, Baluarte San Francis, Plaza de la Proclamacion, Plaza de la Aduana, Palacio la Inquisicion and ending at Plaza de Bolivar. We ended up on top of the wall that ran throughout the old city–a great experience. A short horse-drawn carriage ride brought us to San Pedro Restaurant, one of the gastronomic highlights of the trip.

The next day we toured through the 17th-century Castilla de San Felipe de Barajas, undoubtedly the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. There was a short show where our group participated. After the tour we had a cooking class and another great meal at Don Juan Restaurant, with the owner/chef- Juan Felipe Camacho. We were taken 1/2 hour outside Cartagena to the Hotel Karmairi & Spa where we swam, had a massage and generally relaxed. After a change of clothes we had a private catamaran tour of the bay aboard the 64-foot Mexicat. It dropped us off for dinner at Club de Pesca. If only it had kept going. Once again, the setting on the bay was better than the food.
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After checkout we were transferred by boat for the two-hour trip from the Bodeguita Dock (cost is $80 roundtrip) to the 45-room Punta Faro Hotel on La Isla Mucura. The island has 25 acres with the hotel covering 11 acres. La Isla Mucura is part of the 11 islands of the San Bernardo Archipelago as well as the Natural Corals of the Rosario National Park. We toured the hotel, nearly islands, including Santa Cruz del Isloti. The Guinness Book of Records shows the island as the most densely populated island in the world- 1,200 people in 0.0003 square miles. All our meals were buffet style served outside. The next day we snorkeled, swam, had a massage and soaked up the tropical sun. I felt so relaxed I did not use my knee braces the whole time I was on the island.
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As an aside I tasted several Colombian products that are imported into the US by Shaw Ross Importers- Ron Viejo de Caldas 8-year-old Grand Reserve, aged in used Bourbon barrels- $20 retail (my favorite). Also the 3 year old- $12. Shaw Ross also imports Aguardiente Cristal- $12 and the Aguardiente Cristal Sin Azucar- $12. Cristal is the native drink in Colombia and is the largest selling Aguardiente in the US. It is an anise-flavored spirit made from sugar cane and spring water. I tried at every restaurant & retail shop to find a Colombian wine to taste but had no luck.

It was back to the Hotel Charleston Santa Teresa for overnight. Some of the writers left for the airport, a few early the next day. My flight was 8PM so I had almost the whole day to use the rooftop pool, read and write this article. Unfortunately, dinner the night before departure was at the Bazurto Social Club. The highlight was a dance lesson; the lowlight was the food. I had a rumbling stomach for two days after that meal. I suppose if I were 25, instead of 76 I wouldn’t have cared. I did end the trip on a high note as lunch was at Juan del Mat Restaurant for the three New York bound journalists. More swimming and off to the Big Apple.

Every summer during the rainy season in the Sierra Norte of Oaxaca, southern Mexico, both tourists and Oaxacan residents alike gather for a weekend of food, hiking, discovery and related activities with an emphasis on ecotourism. Their common goal is to hunt for, celebrate and learn more about wild mushrooms (hongos silvestres) in a magical setting – the pristine, ecologically protected forests of tall conifers, brilliant wildflowers and majestic agave in and around the town of Cuahimoloyas.
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The 11th annual Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres (regional wild mushroom fair) was held August 6th & 7th, 2011, in San Antonio Cuajimoloyas. The festival, organized by the municipality with support from a Oaxacan ecotourism agency and mycological groups, has always had four interrelated foci within the context of attaining its broad objective – ensuring the highest level of enjoyment and satisfaction for all participants:
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Food: Activity from dawn to dusk indulges in every shape, size and color of edible hongo silvestre, prepared using a multitude of cooking techniques, focused upon discovering new recipes centering on how to best incorporate a variety of distinct wild and cultivated mushrooms into Mexican cuisine with an emphasis on Oaxacan culinary tradition – hongos in traditional moles, empanadas and quesadillas–foil wrapped with other succulent fresh ingredients, herbs and spices; stir fried with potatoes and chorizo; marinated as a preserve.

· Scientific Inquiry: Brief seminars by local and invited experts, mycologists teaching cultivation, identify and distinguish edible, poisonous, and of course hallucinogenic mushrooms of the species imbibed by both Alice and the followers of Mexico’s famed María Sabina. Fact, lore, and artistic representations of hongos silvestres dating to pre – Hispanic times are explored.

· Ecotourism: Participants can also take part in hiking through the cloud forests of Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte with a guide trained in identifying scores of different varieties of mushroom, the object being to gather the broadest diversity and rarest specimens; staying overnight in log cabins, each equipped with hot water, comfy beds and a firewood fueled hearth can also be experienced.
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Financial Support for the Local Economy: The event is organized so that reasonably priced weekend and day passes guarantee healthy attendance and thus a significant economic boon for the municipality as well as a Sunday marketplace providing villagers with an opportunity to sell their local handicrafts, organic produce, prepared foods and freshly cooked full meals of which mushrooms naturally steal the spotlight across the board.

The weekend exalted the mushroom to a Mexican foodstuff worthy of celebrity status, while at the same time supported Oaxaca’s growing Sierra Norte ecotourism industry. Pomp and ceremony combined with uncharacteristic (for Oaxaca) organization.

Participants arrived in Cuahimoloyas from Oaxaca by bus (two hours) and car (one hour) Saturday morning. The center of activity was the municipal offices and large courtyard for registration and ticket purchase, in the case of those who had not already done so in Oaxaca.

Groups of ten visitors plus a guide headed out for the mushroom hunt. Those with greater stamina elected the most arduous trek. That involved more hiking and climbing than walking to outlying areas with a greater abundance and variety of hongos. Wild mushrooms ranging from pinhead to almost watermelon size were sought out and gingerly picked from under and alongside beds of pine needles, fallen tree branches, agave leaves and cow dung.

By late afternoon the groups of hunters, each with their wicker baskets bountifully filled with mushrooms, gathered back at a makeshift outdoor mess hall, the scene reminiscent of that in a western movie with ranchers returning to camp at the end of a cattle drive. First, a well-earned comida of choice mushroom dishes as well as more typical Oaxacan fixins such as refried beans, grilled meats, steamed tamales and of course tortillas and tlayudas took place.
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Each team then displayed the fruits of its labor on long picnic benches, some arranging their mushrooms according to species, others electing a more artistic arrangement. The toadstool judges tallied the numbers. The winning team had collected 254 different types of wild mushroom. Another team took away the prize for best hongo silvestre. While a spectacular specimen of renowned red, white flecked Amanita muscaria competed, there were no second or third places of honor. Its picker nevertheless paraded it around the compound with motherly pride.

Drivers caravanned each mushroom enthusiast in open backed diesel trucks back to the starting area where once again everyone was divided up: those who would be returning to Oaxaca and overnighters heading for cabins. Some cabins were in Cuahimoloyas a short walk away, while others were in nearby villages such as La Nevería and Benito Juárez or out in the woods further removed from the Sierra Norte towns.
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For those staying on, dusk had arrived, so the evening was spent first getting settled, with warming fireplace ablaze, then relaxing in the cabins recounting the day; some quietly partied with snacks and wine, beer or mezcal, others turning in early.

Arriving back at fair headquarters next morning, stalls were being set up with produce and crafts as well as eateries for a mushroom breakfast. Sunday morning was reminiscent of a typical weekend day at a rural Canadian or American farmers’ market. The afternoon consisted of a series of optional seminars lead by the mycologists. Interspersed between the seminars participants indulged in snacking, examining the large indoor display of recently retrieved then labeled regional mushrooms, and all this was followed by more food – another full comida highlighted by mushroom dishes.

Most of those who had come from Oaxaca for only the final day’s activities had arrived by noon, in time for lunch. The comida was once again self serve, everyone seated along large tables extending the length of a nondescript building, chatting with friends as well as with strangers. After all, hiking and hunting for hongos silvestres in Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte, indulging in down home Mexican food as never experienced before, and supporting regional ecotourism were more than sufficient a tie to bind.

Day Two concluded with a traditional Oaxacan Guelaguetza with all its glory, pageantry and giving. Some visitors stayed to its conclusion and continued sampling foods, buying mushrooms and chatting; others, mostly those who had already seen many a Guelaguetza, left mid – performance to return home to Oaxaca; while many supporters of Oaxaca’s ecotourism industry, mainly tourists, stayed in Cuahimoloyas for a day or two longer – more hiking and hunting, mushroom indulging and soaking up Oaxaca’s Sierra Norte. It’s hard to bid farewell to a weekend of exceptional Oaxacan food, entertainment and hospitality, especially after experiencing its Feria Regional de Hongos Silvestres.

The last 18 miles of the road leading to the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica, full of ruts and potholes by design, takes over an hour and a half to navigate. The locals like it that way. And they choose not to fix it because it would be too easy then for tourists to visit. That may not sound all that hospitable, but it illustrates the emphasis Costa Ricans place on conservation. And the Cloud Forest, which I visited recently as part of an Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Costa Rica, is indeed an ecological marvel worth saving — and seeing. But you have to really want to go there!
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So what exactly is a cloud forest? Well, contrary to popular thinking, it is not where all your technological apps are stored. It is, instead, a rare kind of rain forest where plants actually grow ON TOP of trees. The technical explanation is that “the combination of altitude, humidity and irregular topography creates a unique environmental situation where the clouds remain low for most of the year, preventing the advent of sun, locking in moisture, and creating an atmosphere where plant activity is so high that they actually cover the trees.” The non-technical explanation? Lots of clouds and rain result in every inch of the trees from bark to branch to be covered by things green and growing. These epiphytes, as the plants which grow on trees are called, cover every branch and limb, creating a dense wonderland of greenery. Fifty percent of all the vegetation in the cloud forest lives on the tops of trees.

Now I’ve been in many a rain forest before but never one so overwhelmingly green and lush, a blanket of emerald and jade and olive and lime, unrelenting and opaque. There are no empty branches, tree trunks or ground area so that the immersion in this sea of green is utterly complete. Each branch, bush, leaf is so unique in its color, design, texture, size, shape and sheen as to resemble more an art form than a mere fragment of foliage, in which Ellen Kaiden of Sarasota, Florida, the artist in the group, claimed to detect different emotions. “I was overwhelmed by the life force of the Costa Rican Cloud Forest. We were privileged guests in an alternative universe of the canopy. It was pure magic,” she noted.
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Although our guide, Andres Herrera González, spent three hours discussing the ecological and biological implications of every plant, I was perfectly content to just let myself be absorbed into the visual immensity of my green-laden surroundings. Equally important to the expansive plant life is the multiplicity of animal life living among it. This enormously rich ecosystem supports 7% of the world’s plant and animal diversity in only 0.1% of the earth’s surface. It’s an amazing place but was only one of several rain and tropical forests, as well as beaches, villages and farms, we visited as part of OAT’s 12-day Costa Rican adventure.

And as important as the actual itinerary may be, what sets OAT apart from many other tour companies is its emphasis on Learning and Discovery, a part of the OAT philosophy that the company takes very seriously. And with a guide like Andres, a mere botanist with two Master’s degrees in ecotourism and sustainability, it was hard not to be learning all the time. Woven into the formal activities are opportunities to learn about the people, explore local markets and towns and participate in cultural exchanges.
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But what happens outside that itinerary is equally interesting. The rides from place to place can be long but not boring. Perhaps you stop for lunch and get as dessert an unexpected exhibition of resident show horses belonging to the owner of the restaurant. A bathroom break brings a surprise demonstration of sugar cane extraction in an old mill. The fact that they mixed the resulting samples with local Costa Rican rum made the experience all the more special. Add to that a photo op of a volcano in which our eagle-eyed leader spotted a sloth in a nearby tree or a random opportunity to milk a cow at a local farm and the stops not included on the itinerary compete with those which are for excitement. And the time actually in the bus is consumed with lectures on history, geology, culture, political corruption and other controversial topics all surrounding the Costa Rican experience.
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Meanwhile, back at the Cloud Forest, there was quite a bit of local color to break up the monotony of greenness. Time was spent seeking out – and reveling in — the unusual Resplendant Quetzel, a large rare and beautiful brightly colored bird that is as elusive in Costa Rica as the kiwi is in New Zealand. Traversing a series of hanging bridges provided a birds-eye view of the forest very different than that from the ground. Zip-lining across the tops of multiple trees ensured an experience in which the adrenaline rush clearly topped environmental appreciation — at least for the moment, and a visit to a hummingbird sanctuary where hundreds of the colorful little guys flapped their little wings with impossible-to-measure speed entranced tourists who desperately tried to capture them on camera and cell phone.
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A meeting with Martha Campbell, the daughter of one of the original Quaker settlers of Monteverde in 1951, provided some historical context to the Cloud Forest community, which at that time had no plumbing, no electricity, no phone service and very few people. Though the community survived by cattle ranching initially, eventually the Quaker community discovered that a far greater good — as well as more money — could be accomplished thru conservation and the expanded tourism trade that followed.

Still she somewhat bemoans the large influx of tourists of the past two decades: “I wish there would be less development. Sure there are more job opportunities, but also more cars, maybe more crime and I just miss the simple life we used to have.” I would hazard a guess that the road leading to the Monteverde Cloud Forest isn’t going to be fixed anytime soon…
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I tried my hand at milking a cow!

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A great deal of time is spent on the tour with necks craned treeward seeking out the rare Replendant Quetzel, a couple of toucans, a 2- or 3-toed sloth perhaps, or a group of howler monkeys swinging among the branches.

Kids. Whether you have them, have one on the way, or are simply young at heart, you’ll go loco for Dreams Tulum Resort & Spa. Squeals of delight pervade the family-friendly property, a sprawling all-inclusive resort with a private beach hugging the Caribbean Sea.

This wasn’t our first trip to the strikingly beautiful – and incredibly friendly – Riviera Maya. But what set this visit apart was the discovery that this area is not only a romantic retreat and a party haven for singles and couples alike, but it also provides an ideal setting for families, especially when your vantage point is Dreams Tulum.
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The resort offers a wealth of luxury accommodations set amid manicured gardens, sensuous spa services, seven international restaurants serving gourmet fare, six lounges offering unlimited premium brand beverages, and a lively events calendar with more than enough varied activities to fill your days, nights and memories. With impeccable quality and services, it’s no wonder that Dreams Tulum earned the Elite Recognition Award by Preferred Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.
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Here’s what’s not immediately clear….of its 431 rooms, the resort boasts 180 that connect. A huge convenience for parents traveling with kids. More obvious is the Mayan-themed Explorer’s Club, as much a treat for grownups as for their children, ages 3 – 12.

Parents can truly relax during spa treatments and other adult activities, knowing their kids are safely ensconced in a wonderful world of tribal adventure, enjoying supervised activities based around nature, science, exploration and creative arts. There’s a playground, splash fountain, climbing wall, game room, big screen movies under the stars, a weekly camp-out and more.
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One of the resort’s key features is its proximity to the area’s renowned archaeological sites and natural wonders. Tulum held a mystical power over the ancient Mayan civilization, which built its world famous pyramids here. Hire a guide for insights into the culture. You’ll witness first-hand the remains of mansions and temples and glean why they go hand-in-hand. Our guide explained, “The higher you are in society, the closer you are to the temple and therefore the closer you are to God.” You’ll also learn about how and why human sacrifices occurred: morbid, perhaps, by American standards, but sacred to the people of this land. Be on the lookout for animals great and small: monkeys, deer, raccoons, and the ubiquitous iguana, sure to steal your creature-loving heart.

 

 

A River Runs Through It

A most extraordinary natural occurrence here is the cenotes (pronounced Say-NOTE-Ayes), refreshingly cool underground rivers. These wells, found in the jungles of the Yucatan Peninsula, are filled with turquoise and green crystalline waters that attract snorkelers and divers from around the world. Adventure-seekers will thrill to ziplining through the jungles with a jolting cenote-dunk finale.
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At Xcaret (pronounced Esh-Car-ET), you can get up close and personal with colorful native birds, butterflies, jaguars, monkeys, bulls, and curious animals whose Mexican name has no American counterpart. Don’t miss the horse show, which, according to the narrator, “…demonstrates the cheerfulness and risky temperament of our people.” Shows are non-stop at this magical eco-park, but the most magnificent in all of Mexico is Xcaret’s “Mexico Espectacular” – a larger-than-life extravaganza with fire-throwing, flying men, music and pageantry in a heart-pounding, emotional portrayal of the traditions, history, diversity and mysticism of Mexico.

As a consequence of the innovative thinking of Kurt Schwitters, Pablo Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Robert Rauschenberg and others, the 20th century bore witness to the concept of found object as visual art becoming a mainstream European and American medium of artistic expression. In the southern Mexico state of Oaxaca, itself known for quality, cutting edge art, found object has received attention over the past 20 years. Take for example the masterful works of Damien Flores, the collages produced by Rodolfo Morales during the final years of his life, and young Mixteco artist Manuel Reyes’ use of archaeological pieces as well as local sands and soils as aids in expressing the strong sense of indigeneity he seeks to impart through his art.

Oaxaca’s 16 native cultures, the diversity of its landscapes and climatic regions, and its rich human history beginning with pre-Hispanic times, continuing through the era of the Conquest, to ongoing 21st century human struggles, provide a diverse, ultra – rich proving ground. Within it, visiting and resident artists, tourists with a bent towards antiques and collectibles, and both expat and native born Oaxacans who are inclined to think out-of-the-box, can readily encounter found objects to incorporate into their aesthetic lives.
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Contemporary Manifestations of Found Object as Visual Art

A found object within the context of visual art may be defined as the artistic use of an object, man – made or otherwise, which has not been created for a predominantly artistic purpose. It can be a toaster, a shoe, a car part, a beaded jacket, a newspaper, a simple tool or a farm implement, a leaf or stone, a wrestler’s mask, a clump of clay, or a Coke bottle – empty or full. One can designate three broad categories of found objecst which are then transformed into the realm of art:

An object encountered by chance or sought out by design, for the purpose of using it essentially “as found,” to enhance the aesthetic environment of a home, an office, a store or other workplace environment, or a landscape. Of course it can be a featured artwork in an exposition (i.e. Duchamp’s seminal display of a ceramic urinal in 1917) which eventually finds its way into one of the three foregoing contextual environments or as a permanent gallery exhibit.

An object or objects encountered by chance or sought out by design and incorporated into a traditional piece of art such as an oil or watercolor for the purpose of enhancing its overall aesthetics, or the imagery its author seeks to impart, or both (i.e. Manuel Reyes’ use of potsherds). Objects are usually sought out by design for the purpose of employing them to create a specific art form, which may or may not include a utilitarian function (i.e. rusted horse shoes made into a wine rack or polished old metal car parts fashioned into a twirling ballerina).
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Found Objects in Oaxaca for the Expat Resident and Tourist Alike

Artists resident in Oaxaca should have no difficulty advancing the breadth and quality of their works within the realm of the last two categories noted above. They already have a trained eye and a mind yearning to continually grow in different directions with a view to keeping the art fresh, both on a personal level and for their benefit of public consumption. It’s the availability of the broadest selection of Oaxacan material culture, objects which can be used “as found,” which should attract the attention of non – artist expat residents and tourists alike. The case can be made within the following parameters:

1. Middle and upper classes have an eye for a different and often broader continuum of objects which they deem aesthetically pleasing, than working and lower classes.
2. There is a much larger per capita middle and upper class in the United States and Canada, than in Oaxaca, of which a significant segment of the former is inclined to visit Oaxaca.
3. It’s relatively difficult for members of those same two classes in Oaxaca, having grown up surrounded by and conditioned to ignore much of their day – to – day material culture (indigenous or otherwise), to appreciate its aesthetic value; they are accordingly less interested in its acquisition.
4. Based on the foregoing, relative to the American and Canadian phenomenon over the past 50+ years, found objects in Oaxaca have only to a minor extent become deemed collectibles.
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The Transformation from Found Object to Collectible

When an object becomes a collectible, its acquisition price tends to increase exponentially. The first time an American saw a discarded or stored away pine foundry form, he probably picked it up for free or at a nominal charge (perhaps its value as firewood). After he took it home and then cleaned and oiled it and put it on the wall in his den, he began using the found object as art; a piece of wood used to fabricate industrial metal, now adorning an upscale contemporary household.

Foundry forms became collectibles, offered for sale in antique stores and interior design galleries. Much in the same vein, old working wooden duck decoys have been transformed from utilitarian hunting paraphernalia into thousand dollar (and indeed much more) adornments of fireplace mantels; and wooden tongue and groove Canadian Butter and Southern Comfort boxes initially used to transport product from manufacturer to market have become aesthetically pleasing receptacles to store kindling for those fireplaces.

These days one rarely picks up a foundry form, a decoy or an old wooden advertising box “for a song” because each has been transformed into a class of collectible. In Canada and the United States, and it is suggested throughout most of the Western World, a solitary found object as visual art is virtually non – existent outside of the context of being offered for sale as art, folk art or otherwise for interior design purposes. On the other hand, objects found for the purpose of either incorporating them into a traditional art form (newspaper comic clippings, potsherds, shoe laces) or fabricating a piece of art using only that class
of object (the car part ballerina), will be easily encountered for generations to come, bought outright based on non – aesthetic value, scrounged on the street, or found in a junk yard and purchased by the pound.
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Found Objects in Oaxaca Still in Abundance for Aficionados of Art & Aesthetics

Insofar as Oaxaca remains a developing state, with a middle / upper class contingent as previously described (small, generally unconditioned to appreciate a certain level of aesthetics), its realm of collectibles has not reached the level one encounters in the Western World or even within the Mexico City environs. This provides interesting buying opportunities for visitors to Oaxaca.

Although in each of the three or four downtown Oaxaca antique stores one does encounter found objects, these particular objets d’art have been transformed into collectibles over the past few decades and in some cases merely years (stone metates or grinding stones, well worn ritual masks, pine votive candle holders, chango mezcalero clay painted mezcal bottles, etc.). However, by getting out of the city and knocking on villagers’ doors and even simply walking along dusty roads, visitors can still stumble upon a treasure trove of found objects which when brought home to be givien proper placement and juxtaposition are easily transformed into visual art.
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Of course residents of Oaxaca are not restricted in the size or weight of what they choose to transform, nor by customs and immigration rules. Hence, one might find in their homes, now as art, an old rusted iron plough adorning a well landscaped garden or a pine mule saddle, riddled with tiny holes evidencing a period of insect infestation, now gracing an interior wall of a new home, draped with colored twine and worn leather parts, all as originally found in a farmer’s shed.

Indeed the traveler on a brief visit to Oaxaca can also return home with a bounty of found object art. The big old rusty plough and the well worn wooden saddle are found objects which today complement the aesthetics of this writer’s Oaxacan home.

Opportunities abound to find smaller found objects, manageable for export, to transform into art, simply by exploring villages in the state’s central valleys. Examples? Just keep a keen eye and remember to think out-of-the-box.