Riga Latvia & Tallinn Estonia (August 2011)|
|After enjoying the sophisticated pleasures of Helsinki, the imposing majesty of St. Petersburg and the medieval beauty of Stockholm, how could Riga and Tallinn possibly compete? They do. And nearly outshine their more reknown neighbors.|
Riga is a beauty. Just a few steps inward from the Baltic Sea, Riga's medieval spires soar above the shores of the Daugava River. Its more recent neighborhoods spill eastward. The city is home to one of the largest collection of Art Nouveau-styled buildings in Europe. It is also has a surprisingly respectable National Art Museum and a movingly informative Latvian War Musuem.
Tallinn, at first, seems a little too well-preserved (a little "Disneyesque") and touristically accommodating ("well-worn, cruise ship port-of-call") to feel genuine. But how can Estonians be faulted for getting the "tourist thing" so right when they possess such an extraordinary medieval treasure.
But don't misunderstand: neither of these cities are simply outdoor medieval museums. They are both on the vanguard of our technological age. Estonia and Latvia are galloping forward - at an economic pace greater than many of their larger Baltic rivals. Their futures may become even more interesting than their pasts. Just maybe not as beautiful.
Morocco (April 2011)|
|How can you see the highlights of this country in only 10 days without renting a car or enduring a tour bus? And without breaking your travel budget? Simple. Go by train. It is one of Morocco's best kept travel secrets.|
Just step off your plane in Casablanca, descend a set of escalators (within the airport) and hop on a train. Easy. And you're on your way. The trains are clean, efficient and affordable.
From Casablanca's airport, we first traveled by train to Marrakesh - spent three nights - then headed off for a 2-night stay in Moulay Idriss/Volubilis (via the train to Meknes and a shared taxi to Moulay Idriss), then on to Fes (by train from Meknes) for three nights and finally our last day/night in Rabat (by train from Fes) before arriving in Casablanca(from Rabat by train) to catch our homeward-bound plane.
Add on side trips if you have more time; subtract a destination if time is tight. Either way, train travel in Morocco is a no-brainer. A winning strategy for newbies or veteran world wanderers.
Peru 2010 (August/September 2010)|
|Three weeks of travel in Peru - more off than on the Gringo Trail. Just the way we like it.|
We began by skimming along the Pacific coastline. Starting in the north - in Chiclayo and Trujillo - we worked our way south to Paracas and the Ballestas Islands. Then, weaving our way inland, we drifted into the oasis town of Huacachina before flying off to view the nearby Nasca Lines.
But the mountain towns were not to be neglected. The colonial towns of Cajamarca and Ayacucho were standouts. But Huaraz and Chavin - cradled by picture-postcard, mountain scenery - demanded bundles of days for high-altitude Andes exploration.
These desert and mountain regions of Peru should be on every independent travelers "must see" list - before the strangle of tourism takes hold. And it will. The archeological treasures of the north coast, the stunning desert vistas of Huacachina and the barren beauty of the Paracas coast are fated to emerge as world-class destinations. Trust us. Word is already out.
Guatemala Semana Santa 2010 (March/April 2010)|
|We kicked off our Guatemalan Easter Week in Santiago Atitlan, along the shores of Lake Atitlan. The town is also the home of the venerated statue of Maximon: an indigenous, fictional half-breed - part Judas, part Spanish conquistador. On the Monday evening following Palm Sunday, we watched - along with the the women and children of the village - the men wash Maximon's clothes in the lake's waters. |
After laundry night, we sped back to Antigua for the main attraction - one of the most lavish Holy Week celebrations in all of Central America. Each day during Semana Santa, procession participants - carrying giant apparitions of suffering Christs and weeping Marys - trudge for hours along the city's sawdust- and flower-carpeted streets. The Lenten activities culminate with the largest and most somber procession on Good Friday evening.
But for us, the high point (figuratively and literally) of the week was the long-anticipated hike up Pacaya Volcano. Pacaya is one of the few active volcanoes that can be climbed. It is a dangerous and potentially lethal ascent: fascinating, nightmarish - like walking over hell. And we have the melted shoes to prove it.
Nicaragua (April 2009)|
|The Spanish may have conquered it, the Somozas may have ruled it but its forty volcanoes continue to dominate it. Nicaragua is a marvelous Central American amalgam of natural wonders, colonial splendors and political survival.|
Skipping Managua entirely, we made a beeline for the colonial city of Leon. Catching the last few days of its Semana Santa (Holy Week) festivities, we often found ourselves ambushed by one of Leon's many neighborhood religious processions. But the highlight was watching the day-long creation of the Good Friday sawdust "carpets" (alfombras). Thoroughly capitvating. Heady political murals and dozens of colonial churches added to the conversation in this intellectually-charged, university town.
Granada, our next stop, is Nicaragua’s other, more restored colonial city. Yes, it is more "gringoized" than Leon but it is a beautiful, comfortable and convenient base for exploring nearby attractions. For example, from Granada, with Lake Nicaragua lapping at its shores, Isla Ometepe, the lake’s mythic twin volcano island, is an easy and essential excursion.
But the no trip would be complete without checking out conditions at Volcan Masaya. A night time tour is the most dramatic. Just remain calm and “duck and cover” under a nearby car if the volcano decides to spew a few rocks in your direction. Remember, you were warned.
Guatemala 2008 (August 2008)|
|Fourteen years and one civil war have passed since our first visit to Guatemala. |
Antigua is still one of the most beautiful towns in all of Latin America. Its magnificent volcano-ringed setting transforms even the most hapless of snapshots into one with National Geographic possibilities. McDonalds and tuk-tuks may have invaded the town but its earthquake-tossed colonial heart remains unscathed. Chichicastenango and the Highlands - the most traditional regions of the country - are still struggling to move forward while clutching the past. And Lake Atitlan. Ah, Lake Atitlan - where you could lose your entire vacation and not even care.
Guatemala's natural beauty continues to astonish. Its indigenous culture survives despite the inevitable encroachment of the 21st century. But in our minds, it will always be the most fascinating and diverse country in Central America.
Puebla & Veracruz States, Mexico 2008 (April 2008)|
|On this trip we purposely veered off the Mexican “gringo trail” to explore some of Mexico’s least visited but most worthwhile sights and cities. |
Landing in the small but friendly airport on the outskirts of Puebla, we spent our first two nights in the university town of Cholula. From there we journeyed (by public bus, always) to Xalapa before side-stepping over to the port city of Veracruz. We then hugged the Gulf coastline on our way to Papantla, tumbled through mountain shortcuts to the indigenous village of Cuetzalan and finally zig-zagged our way back to Puebla for a final night’s rest.
What were the highlights? The pure tourist in us reveled at wandering through Puebla’s bustling Sunday markets, then delighted in discovering an "untouristy" outdoor danzon performance at a plazuela in Veracruz. The amateur archeologist in us crooned while counting niches at El Tajin, then cursed while ducking through tunnels beneath the Gran Piramide of Cholula. But the traveler in us will never forget watching the waves of fog lap in and out of Cuetzalan’s main square each evening - confirming the town's appellation as a "pueblo magico".
If you can do without white-sand beaches, can speak a little Spanish and can endure some twisty mountain bus rides, this journey will reveal a side of Mexico that few North Americans see. Fascinating ruins, indigenous mountain towns and grand colonial cities await – and all amazingly without hordes of tourists.
Yangon, Myanmar (July 2007)|
|Yangon (formerly Rangoon), the capital of Myanmar (formerly Burma), appears to be crumbling before your eyes. Time stopped decades ago for this city of four million. It is the Havana of Southeast Asia.|
Thankfully, Yangon has at least one beautifully maintained structure - Shwedegon Pagoda - one of the most important and imposing Buddhist shrines in the world. Shwedagon is reason enough to linger.
Heat and humidity conspire to defeat even the most enthusiastic of tourists in Yangon. Yet, even as reservoirs of perspiration pool in your shoes, you can't help being drawn into the charms of this time-warped town.
Bagan, Myanmar (July 2007)|
|Bagan - Myanmar's premiere archeological destination - streams out over 25 square miles and contains an astonishing array of more than 2,000 temples.|
Not as well known as Cambodia's Angkor Wat but every bit as impressive. There is nothing like surveying the Bagan plain from a temple-top perch at twilight. Nothing. The setting sun plants chiaroscuristic kisses on all buildings within its reach. Beautiful and calming.
Unfortunately, Myanmar's military government is in the process of creating replicas of many of the temples atop unexcavated ruins. (Their idea of "restoration".) The result is a Disneyfication (pretty, but characterless) of these historic gems. Go before more irreparable damage is done.
Mandalay, Myanmar (July 2007)|
|Mandalay. To most Westerners, it is one of the most exotic-sounding cities in the Far East. Unfortunately, the only thing exotic about modern-day Mandalay is its name. |
Electricity works but only intermitently; cars exist but are as rare as a cool breeze; poverty looms large but crime is never a concern. Undeniably, Mandalay is a fascinating wreck of a city.
On a clear day, climb up temple-encrusted Mandalay Hill for panoramic area views. Then, take in an evening marionette performance or laugh your way through the non-stop political satire of a Moustache Brothers show.
Even better are the sites surrounding the city: the ancient cities of Ava and Mingun, the scenic U Bein's bridge or the Mahagandhayon Monastery where over 1,000 monks can be seen going through their daily rituals.
Inle Lake, Myanmar (July 2007)|
|Inle Lake - set among the picturesque Shan Hills - provided a wonderful respite from the hustle and heat of Mandalay and Yangon.|
Besides admiring the narrow (18 miles long, 5 miles wide) lake's blissful setting, most visitors come to witness the one-legged rowing style of the native fisherman or to drift through the dozens of canals threading Inle's ingeniously tethered floating gardens.
A day-long boat trip captures many of the lake's highlights but casual rambles to some of the nearby villages uncover the lake's real charms - its people.
Peninsular Malaysia (August 2007)|
|White sands, towering skyscapers, green tea-leaf carpeted hills and luminous fireflies. In ten days we sampled some of the amazing diversity of mainland Malaysia.|
Eight years and one currency crisis have passed since we last visited Malaysia. The country is charging into the 21st century. Kuala Lumpur is no longer a Singapore wannabe but a legitimate contender. Malaysia plans to be a major world economic force by 2020. It appears to be almost there...way ahead of schedule. Watch out.
El Calafate & Ushuaia, Argentina (August 2006)|
|After a brief night's rest in Buenos Aires, we headed down to Patagonia. Our first stop - El Calafate - the gateway town to Argentina's glacier region.|
For our trip to Perito Moreno glacier, the weather gods smiled upon us. Blue sky provided a stunning day-long backdrop for our glacial ogling.
The next day was spent trawling the waters of Lago Argentino. Our tour boat threaded the iceberg-laden lake - delivering us to the fronts of Upsala and Spegazzini glaciers.
Leaving the glaciers but not the ice, we flew down to Ushuaia - Argentina's southernmost city. A boat tour of the Beagle Channel is a must. And we couldn't pass up the chance to dog-sled our way through a Patagonian valley.
Although it was winter, it was not the frigid antarctic cold we had dreaded. We almost could have left our long underwear home. But I'm glad we didn't.
Easter Island (August 2006)|
|A visit to Easter Island is like visiting a dream. |
This Polynesian island is stranded in the Pacific Ocean about 2,600 miles off the Chilean coast. Until 1968, the only way to reach this island was to hitch a ride on a Chilean warship. (The ship brought provisions once a year.) Now, a 5 1/2-hour plane ride from mainland Chile will deposit you at the shores of this otherworldy outdoor museum.
We spent four days and four nights on the island. One day we hiked, two of the days we took guided tours and one day we just hung out. The weather was partly cloudy most of the time with highs in the upper 60’s (Fahrenheit)and low 70’s. Certainly not beach weather.
But you don't come to this island for the beaches. You make the pilgrimage to gawk at the over 600 “moais” – gigantic carved stone heads – scattered around this island. They eerily keep watch over the denuded island landscape. A surreal experience. Utterly dreamlike.
Santiago & Valparaiso, Chile (August 2006)|
|We squeezed a brief stay in Santiago between the Patagonian portion of our trip and our Easter Island sojourn. We left our stay in Vina del Mar/Valparaiso for the end our trip.|
Santiago, the capital of Chile, is a modern city with a modest amount of older, colonial buildings. The highlight of our stay was a lunch-time trip to the central fish market and a tour through the city's marvelous pre-Columbian museum.
Valparaiso is a hillside wonder hugging the mountainous Chilean Pacific coast. Century-old “ascensores” (cable cars) deliver you to tops of many of the city’s “cerros” (hills). From there you wander among the jumble of riotously colored buildings that cling to the city’s slopes.
It is hard to imagine that this country - less than 20 years ago - was in the grips of one of the continent’s most repressive dictatorships (Pinochet). Now it seems like a country of worker bees – the most North American of the South American countries we have visited.