Category Archives: Getting Lost In…
(photo by Noah Bleicher) Oh, Medellín! With your daily rainstorms, fruit markets, $4 lunches, mobile phone girls, salsa tunes and Botero art that decorates the city the way Gaudi decorates Barcelona, it was not hard to love Medellín- pronounced “Med-i-shjeen”. We spent three days there during the first half of our Thanksgiving week trip to Colombia with our friends Noah and Marcela, who own and operate Su Casa Colombia, a tour guide/B&B business in the city.
Medellín was once ruled in fear by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord. After his death, the Colombian government made great strides to sweep up the mess left behind and to give Medellín a second chance. In the past 20 years, Medellín has risen to become Colombia’s Second City and encouraging its residents to come out of hiding and enjoy its parks, museums, gardens, cafes, restaurants and shopping districts. Medellín still bears the reputation for crime, but on the contrary, we felt very safe. In addition, there are barely any other tourists – so get in before anyone else does. Like any city, visitors should be aware of their surroundings, don’t buy drugs from strangers, and don’t head into the poorer districts.
Stay: We stayed at Su Casa Colombia, which was Marcela’s grandparents’ home and where Marcela’s mother was raised. This typical middle-upper-class home has two levels with an open courtyard with hammocks, crisp white bedding, bright balconies where you are woken by fruit peddlers singing their songs of avocado, a pool table and a fun Colombian ring-toss game called Sapo. Noah puts together an excellent Colombian breakfast (or a regular American breakfast, since they are Americans) and organizes very full and fun itineraries to take you around town.
See: Fernando Botero’s art is the real gem of Medellín. This artist of oversized, overweight, expressionless characters creates a fun, round and humorous take on life, even the really serious ones. You can view his bronze sculptures at Palacio Municipal (including the Bird of Peace which, ironically, was damaged by a guerrilla bomb), Parque Berrio, and at the Museo de Antioquia which also has his paintings and drawings. We got an excellent walk-through from Marcela, who is an art expert and artist herself, and pointed out details we would never have noticed.
See also: A country of 98 percent Catholics, you can bet they have some interesting churches as well. The Catedral Metropolitana is made of 1.2 million bricks and is quite possibly the only brick cathedral you’ll ever encounter. The Basilica de la Candelaria, situated in Parque Berrio, is also another interesting design in black-and-white. There’s also the pretend church at Pueblito Paisa, a reconstructed mini-village of a typical Antioquian settlement atop a hill with sweeping views of Medellín. The other two percent may find spiritual peace at the Jardín Botánico’s orchid display, an architectural beauty in itself (right).
Ride: the Metrocable gondolas, which every city should implement to bypass traffic and provide birdseye views above. Medellín’s metro is the first for Colombia, too, and a very clean and impressive mode of transport about town. Otherwise, take a cab to your destinations – they’re incredibly inexpensive by American and European standards.
Dance: Participate in one of the free rumba classes in the Unidad Deportiva Atanasio Girardot plaza. This is one of the city’s ways of encouraging the community to embrace its parks. Or else try your steps at Eslabon Prendido (Calle 53 # 42- 55) downtown where live salsa music is played Tuesday nights. (If you don’t know what you’re doing, just move your legs around very quickly and try to look sassy).
Daytrip: El Peñón is a giant black monolith, which Noah believes to be an asteroid, but the ticket seller says is a result of plate techtonics. It is about two hours outside the city by bus. Catch a bus from the bus station (buses leave every half hour, ask the bus counter which one goes to El Peñón at Guatapé). More than 600 steps lead to the top for breathtaking views of the winding reservoir below. Afterwards, take a colorful tuk-tuk to Guatapé for lunch and to see one of the most charming towns on the planet. Every house is required to be painted colorfully, and entire streets are coordinated.
Eat: En Casa de Oliva’s owner went around all of Colombia researching recipes and regional cooking to create her carefully planned menu. Carrera 43D #10-72 Poblado (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also check out the fruit markets, where you can sample fruits that don’t exist back home. Our favorite is the granadilla which we affectionately called “booger fruit”, because its insides resemble, well, a pomegranate. Another option is to stand around an empanada stand and eat to your heart’s content, then pay for the number of empanadas consumed.
Pack: Raingear, like a jacket, umbrella and preferably some kind of waterproof shoe. Plastic bags are good to cover up camera equipment.
Zebras outside the Serengeti entrance
There’s nothing quite as exotic as a safari, and even though there are about as many safari operators and companies as impalas out on the land, you’ll never grow tired of watching lions chomp noisily away on a baby gazelle, or the giraffes languidly wandering across the plains, or the zebras standing in striped formation facing off predators, or a vulture circling overhead waiting for the next meal to fall down dead.
In Tanzania, the national parks in the northern part (Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, Lake Manyara, stretch for miles and kilometers into Kenya’s Masai Mara park (which is also enjoyable but only a quarter of the space that the Serengeti sees). Depending on the season, which is changing thanks to global warming, Masai Mara sometimes gets more wildebeast traffic than the Serengeti, which doesn’t mean you still can’t get your fair share of other wildlife sightings on the Tanzanian side.
Here’s a Q&A format for How To Safari.
Q: Safaris are expensive. How can I rent a car and find my way around?
A: I thought about this, but decided it was easier to drop the $700 per person (which was the lowest price we found anywhere) than risk getting run over by a herd of buffalo. You’ll have to deal with a lot of paperwork, and finding your way around in Swahili, and what to do if your tire pops (which seemed to happen to every other Land Rover) or your car overheats and dies in the middle of the Serengeti. I would not really recommend it.
However, if you must, there is someone who has written a book about it.
Q: What should I expect for overnight accommodations?
A: There are a huge range of accommodations, from luxury hotels to basic tents. You can also stay in a luxury tent, complete with electricity and down pillows, too, but still feel like you’re “camping” (if you want to fool yourself like that). We camped in a basic, non-luxury tent for two nights and one night in a lodge. You will camp at a campsite in lion territory, and you can hear hyenas howling all night. There are other groups camping in the same place, and the lions won’t come near until everyone has gone into their tents. Once everyone is asleep, however, you will be warned by your guide to stay in the tent all night and to make sure you pee before going to bed. You’ll also have access to showers and all that. The other option is a basic lodge, which is a clean one-star room. Ours had an ensuite bathroom and clean sheets and was enough for our purposes. Whether you have warm water really depends on how much money you’re paying.
Q: What comes in a safari package?
A: All safari packages arrange for vehicle, driver, cook, accommodations and meals. Most will provide camping gear if camping, but you should double check. Most will also provide water. We had to rent sleeping bags, but they picked them up for us.
Q: What should I wear?
A: You do not need to wear “safari gear” because you’ll just be sitting (or standing) around in a Land Rover all day. I love the desert-collection everyone was donning as if they were going hunting (hiking boots for no hiking, khaki cargo pants, khaki top, khaki cargo vest, khaki hat). The biggest worry is dust. You’ll be coated in plenty of it and breathing much of it in. Hats tend to blow off during the car ride. I would wear what’s comfortable and easy to hand-wash and dry (like a woven shirt rather than a knit), avoid white, wear sneakers so your toes don’t get really brown, have a sweatshirt for evening (or a fleece, except it will get a lot of dust embedded in it), and a bandana to cover your nose and mouth. Sunglasses also help keep dust out of your eyes.
Q: What equipment should I bring?
A: A good camera with a super zoom, preferably an SLR (I had 300mm and sometimes that wasn’t even enough! But don’t go changing your lenses mid-way or you’ll just keep inviting dust into your camera.) And binoculars! We had small ones for sports or the opera which sufficed. Lastly, a flashlight is very important unless you like blindly finding your way around the night in lion territory. I personally love the headlamp, so you can be hands-free.
Q: What’s a good number of days for a safari?
A: That depends on your budget, how much time you have, and how patient you are. For me, four days was plenty. I got my lion’s share (pun intended) of animals and was very happy. After a while, you stop asking your driver to pause for the zebras and giraffes because you’ve been there, done that. Some people will go for 10 days or longer, but they’ll return to the same sites to watch the same animals throughout the day, which is also an interesting study – a day in the life of a lion, or of a warthog, for example. You’ll also have more chance to view other animals.
Q: How do you choose a safari company?
A: There are so many safari companies and in the end, we all ended up at the same lodges/ campsites and saw the same animals. I heard some only permit a certain amount of miles, and others rely on the two-way radio to hear about animals. I personally do not have a problem with the two-way radio: you’re there to see exciting animals like lions, why not drive to where they are? The lions don’t care if you’re watching. In the end, you’ll get to go home having seen the Big Five while the others who were anti-touristy missed out.
You can cut down the price of your safari if you can find extra people to join in your vehicle. The only way to really do this ahead of time is to search travel forums, such as on Frommers or Lonely Planet.
Q: What company did you go with? Do you recommend it?
A: We were recommended an individual named Pasian Peter, who seems to run his own company purely through word of mouth. He ended up being almost $200 less than all other budget safaris, and our guide Louis was really knowledgeable, friendly, and wanted to make sure we were happy and saw everything we were hoping to see. He would stop whenever we requested, and would drive extra if we wanted. Our cook made very big and delicious meals, and they pitched our tents, cleaned them, gave us snacks for the road, and bought us sodas and drinks. He does not have a Web site, but simply e-mail him and tell him you were sent on a recommendation. He will give you details and then you will wire a deposit. The rest you pay in cash, and I highly recommend bringing American dollars because the largest Tanzanian bill available is 10,000 shillings = $7. Pasian Peter (email@example.com).
Q: Maasai tour: worth it or not?
A: Eh… we spent a week in a Maasai village beforehand as volunteers so we didn’t feel the need to visit the village where they were all fully dressed in ceremonial wear just to entertain tourists. But, it could be interesting to stop in, as long as you’re aware you’re being entertained and this is not how they normally spend their days. Or, perhaps they do spend their days just singing and dancing for tourists.
If you have any other questions, always, feel free to send me an email!
Two friends of mine are headed on a wee vacation to O’Land o’ Ireland, home of the pint, Angela’s Ashes, Celtics, Aran sweaters and shamrocks. I was lucky (Irish luck?) enough to have taken a similar vacation a few years ago with a friend of mine, over St. Patrick’s Day, partially-paid by my company. She and I rented a giant Ford Galaxy that seated eight, since it was the only rental car available with automatic transmission, and we set off from Kinsale (photo, below) north to Galway (photo right). In this entry, I will create a Do and Don’t separation for Ireland.
DO realize that this trip is usually best taken with a significant other, due to its country cuteness, cozy bed & breakfasts and tranquilizing scenery. DO realize that if you’re not traveling with a significant other and you’re both under 50 years old, you may get bored quickly. Keep driving along.
DO rent an automatic transmission car, unless you are ambidextrous and can drive stick-shift with your opposite hand (unless you’re English or Japanese, in which please drive as you ordinarily do). Remember that the Irish are one of the cultures who drive on the left.
DO buy at least one Aran sweater.
DO visit the Ring of Kerry and Dingle Peninsula. Do drive it yourself so you can decide your schedule and whether you want to get off or stay on the road. Don’t bother with the bus tours which will just tell you “here is something pretty – now get off and take a picture of it” unless you plan to be drunk at lunch and can’t continue to drive.
DO admire the scenery at Dingle: as I wrote in an email to a friend, “one point there was nothing but waves thrashing in slow-motion against black rocks in the blue-purple, almost amethyst, ocean, and then if you look to the right was a continuum of green hills dotted with puffy white sheep that looked like clouds.” (I was inspired by all the literature in Ireland. I don’t ordinarily write such florally emails to my friends).
DO note the wealth of literary types and writers from Ireland, and visit the Literary Museum in Listowel. It only takes an hour and pays tribute to the various famous Irish writers.
DO drive through the Burren (limestone-covered hills) to Galway.
DO hop the ferry over to Aran Islands and rent bikes to cycle around.
DO visit the Blarney Castle (photo, above). In the interest of H1N1, DO NOT kiss the Blarney Stone. You will not get bad luck (but you might get the flu).
DO check out the city of Cork which has lots of interesting restaurants (including some very tasty Indian food) and shops.
DO keep in mind that “Mna” means “women” and “Fir” means “men” when trying to choose a restroom in Gaelic.
DO try to squeeze in a quick train trip to Dublin. A lot of people skip this because they want to just focus on the western part of Ireland. The western part, to re-emphasize, is kind of slow if you’re a faster-paced and young traveler. Dublin is the main city in Ireland and would be a good complement to the rest of the country. I hear the literary tour is worth it.
below: house on Aran Islands.
Now that I’ve been snowbound at home here in Baltimore for six days straight, the only activity outside the house I’ve had is shoveling snow, eating burgers and going to hot yoga. Though I love snow, I really do, and I love having days off from work (thank you, federal government), I think the hot yoga is leaving me a little dehydrated and perhaps hallucinating of warmer places. After listening to yoga instructors pretend to speak Hindi and be Indian because they can hold themselves upside down on two pinkies, I’ve decided to transport myself to the birthplace of hippiedom, the grand poomba of American yogism, and the great center of full-moon parties: Goa, India.
My first experience with Goa started with my best friend, Karen. She has dark hair and very tan skin. Her mother, equally tan and dark-maned, speaks with an exotic accent and if you ask Karen about her background, she’ll tell you she’s Canadian (which does not explain anything you’re looking for). One day I pressed her about the un-Canadian features in her family, and she told me her mother’s side was Portugese. But then her mother made a lot of tasty Indian food and left it in Karen’s freezer, because apparently her Indian grandmother made these dishes. And then I was reading my Frommers’ Guide to India and learned about how the Portugese settled in Goa, and I looked up and said “Karen… are you Goan?“
Yes, so Karen is part-Goan. She says it’s complicated to explain her whole background, so she just says Portugese. And that’s the quick history of Goa: Portugese missionaries came down to convert the Indians into Catholics and build churches and breed generations of exotic-looking people. Then around the 1960’s, another exotic-looking group of people descended upon the beaches of Goa and gave it the reputation it has today – a nirvana for flower children, floursack pant-wearing stoner hippies who dred their hair and party every night, full moon or not.
Whether you’re a modern-day hippie (i.e. one with a lot of financial independence so you can spend your time backpacking around the world without a care and buy all sorts of drugs. Oh, and the hemp clothes sold at the local markets are targeted exactly for people like you, so please support the local economy and buy them) or a traveling business school student like I was, Goa is a vacation spot for all. Some highlights:
Beaches. There are many. We rented a scooter and scooted along the coast to explore; many had shack-like hotels and restaurants right on the beach. The Baga-to-Calangute area north of Panjim is a ridiculously touristy section that, even if you’re not totally looking for Nirvana, takes away from any restful experience you might have been hoping for. Skip ahead towards the beaches north of that, and the farther north you go, the more rustic and secluded it will become.
Where to stay. In high season, it’s advisable to make a reservation, but if you’re okay with abandoning your original plan and checking out other places, you can. Many beaches come with little huts for very little. We stayed in Anjuna in some $6/day hotel on the beach (I can’t remember the name now but I would not really recommend it) that gave us our own little one-room, two-bed house with one bedsheet each but a full bathroom, even if it came with a frog and a giant cockroach. Though the room did not give me much sleep, the beachview balcony and menu of Indian-or-Chinese food did.
Old Goa. For some history and culture, check out Old Goa inland. It’s muggier and hot, but you can find refuge inside a cool stone church, which was my theory on how the Portugese managed to convert so many Indians (“we offer you our Lord and air conditioning”). Old Goa is a World Heritage site and a good walking tour of old churches and conversion sites from the 1500’s. In the Basilica of Bom, you can view the preserved body of Saint Francis Xavier, the patron saint of Goa.
Shopping. The Global Village market in Anjuna on Wednesdays sells great souvenirs and take-home items, but be warned that many of the same items (claimed to be hand-made in Goa) can be found in other markets around India and even in markets in Europe and South America. Haggle hard. Be aware of extremely aggressive women and young girls who will grab you and force you to look at their items for sale, though it’s okay to say no and walk away after looking at them.
Activities. People-watching is especially fun, from the man-in-tatters doing exercises on the beach to the European tourists who think they’ve turned Indian. Cow-watching is just as fun – they enjoy the beach as much as tourists do. If you must, there are yoga centers around the area, but don’t be surprised if classes cost the same as they do back home and are run by blond women from London or California. Eat delicious seafood in banana leaves and drink fruity lassi (shakes); be aware that during full moon parties, the “Magic lassi” contains items that are not necessarily yogurt and fruit. Full moon parties occur all the time on Anjuna, with drugged-out European backpackers swinging their dreds and braided hair to rave music all night long.
Really, there is nothing quite like touching down in 75-degree weather when the rest of the country is experiencing a cold spell, even in Miami (24 degrees?!). And after staring down from your plane window at miles and miles of white squares across the whole country, it’s no wonder that southern California has its share of tanned airheads – no cold front to bring them back down to earth, even for a short winter.
Not that I’m complaining, as we were thrilled to arrive even into a 50-degree evening into LAX. We took our rental car down the next day to San Diego to visit my friend Josh, who recently moved near La Jolla (the posh part of town). San Diego is an incredibly beachy town, and the residents move there to surf and play beach volleyball, or because they’re stationed at Camp Pendleton, or because they are doing their residency at UCSD medical school. But visitors come for more than just the beach. Because I haven’t frequented San Diego enough, there’s always something new to see or do in this beautiful weather and town to make a daytrip worthwhile.
Sea World/ San Diego Zoo/ Wild Animal Park. These are San Diego’s staples (next to the beach), good ways to pass an entire day and spend $70 in one place, especially if you have little ones. Sea World is even more interesting just because it has aquatic creatures and you’re near the ocean, so if you’ve never been, it may be worth the visit. Kiddos 3-9 are only $59! The Zoo costs less – $37 for adults, $27 for kids 3-11, and you can get a $70 pass to both Zoo and Wild Animal Park ($50 for kids) or even a combination Zoo-Wild-Sea for $121 ($99). The Wild Animal Park allows you to wander among the animals and pet giraffes who roam freely, while the zoo houses the famous and adorable pandas.
Torrey Pines State Reserve. For some easy and incredibly scenic hikes along the cliffs above the ocean (beware of crashing cliffs!), head to Torrey Pines State Park. Dramatic cliffs, caves and erosion that makes it look like Bryce Canyon line this coastal area, where softball-sized seaweed and smooth rocks dot the beach. The beach is also packed down enough for runners to have a long length of running course. It’s $10 to park inside, but if you park your car in the lot right outside the entrance, you can walk on in for free.
Watching harbor seals on the beach. At Casa Beach in La Jolla, many friendly seals ork their way onto the sandy shores to tan in the sunshine. This area can be roped off in winter when the pups are born, but still visible.
Gas Lamp Quarter. Now here is a wonderful example of a city really pushing its revitalization efforts (San Antonio’s Riverwalk; Culver City, Calif; downtown St. Louis, Missouri). Fortunately, it’s a little less Disney-like than what some other cities have done. A walkable, slightly touristy, slightly trendy historic neighborhood lets you park your car and roam through the restaurants, bars and shopping scene. There are plenty of fine dining options, but I’d like to plug Acqua Al 2 (322 5th Ave, 619-230-0382) which is famous for its blueberry steak. I have actually only been to its other location in Florence, Italy, and if the food is anything as phenomenal as it was there, then you’re in for a tremendous culinary experience.
Las Americas outlet shopping. It’s home to all your favorite outlet stores, and includes one of few Neiman Marcus Last Call outlets (anyone want a pair of Jimmy Choo for $100?). But what’s mostly fun about this place is its proximity to the Mexican border, where you can see the Mexican flag waving large and proud on the other side.
Wavehouse. Okay, so the ocean is right across the street, but there’s the Wavehouse at Belmont Park in Mission Beach, featuring the Flow Rider. It’s a wave machine on which you ride either a boogie board or a little skateboard without wheels. There’s also an outdoor bar and dining scene surrounding the Flow Riders, and occasional concerts and parties. I’ve experienced riding one during my days as editor of Aquatics International, and was pretty terrible at it. While you’ll probably wipe out endless times before you get the hang of it, it sure beats riding that rickety wooden roller coaster next door which left me bruised and very sore.
Only until a year ago did I even hear of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. And it’s still under debate whether it’s a series of islands or a peninsula and an island; nevertheless, it is basically a very skinny strip of land where, at some points, you can stand at the middle of a residential hill and view the ocean on one side, the sound on the other.
The Outer Banks are flanked by beaches on both sides and crashing waves, with enormous houses wrapped in wood shingles and wearing outdoor decks like inner tubes, where the upstairs is downstairs and the downstairs is upstairs and about five or more families can all stay together under one roof. We were fortunate to get my friend Sara’s family’s vacation property in the northern town of Duck, and they have a pool and hot tub, and two decks, and ocean views, and a hammock, and a giant picture window on the main floor with a shipswatch corner, and all the wonderful things that should be found within a dreamy vacation house. We added our bikes and Mother Nature added some excellent autumn sunshine to round it all out. If you plan on a similar trip, you should do the same.
Eat. We went looking for coffee at Cravings (1209 Duck Road) in Duck and found some delicious fried fish and southern BBQ sandwiches instead. I had the crabcake sandwich. We also dined out at The Blue Point Bar & Grill (1240 Duck Road), which was like a 50’s diner with views and upscale food. I tried the trout on a bed of sweet potatoes. It was delicious. The day before our half-marathon, my friend Jen found herself drinking beers and eating buckets of peel-and-eat shrimp at the Sugar Shack (7640 S Virginia Dare Trail) in Nags Head.
Sites. I admit, I never really quite understood what a “dune” was and finally discovered it for the first time. A dune is like a mountain of sand that stretches like a desert, but isn’t as dry, but is just as impressive. Jockey’s Ridge State Park gives you a really great idea of what being stranded in a desert would be like, except it’s more like a giant beach with the ocean far away. People brought kites and snowboards – yes, snowboards, and boogie boards – to go riding down the hills of sand (people with bloody sand burns were spotted, too). Sunset is an impressive time of day to see the dunes. The Wright Brothers National Memorial pays tribute to the nation’s “first in flight” – also North Carolina’s state motto, which has brought controversy with Ohio, where the Wright Brothers’ bike shop was located and where the airplane was built, making Ohio the “Birthplace of aviation”. If history interests you, you can also check out some stuff in Roanoke and learn about Virginia Dare, the first English person to be born in America, as well as the Lost Colony, which apparently (I never knew this before) was a settlement where all the people left and nobody knew where they went. To this day, they still haunt the island. Actually I don’t know if that last part is true, but there is an outdoor theater musical going on in the Outer Banks re-enacting the Lost Colony.
Play. Biking along route 12’s bike path is another great way to check out the sites and get some leisurely exercise. The road is fairly flat and easy, unless the winds off the ocean work against you. If you’re a runner, as a very large number of us were this particular weekend for the marathon and half-marathon race, it’s a lovely course for that as well. Of course, playing on the beach is one of the main reasons people come here in summer, and even in autumn it’s still wonderful. Jon attempted an ocean swim which lasted all of one minute, and we gathered numerous seashells with my niece and tried to identify them against a guide to local seashells we found in Sara’s house.
Shop. Outer Banks has your fair share of kitschy vacation souvenir and swimsuit shops, but there are a few gems around. Island Bookstore is a favorite of Sara’s, but I didn’t get to stop in. Knitting Addiction in Kitty Hawk was recommended to me by a fellow writer/ knitter who understands the horrific habit of dropping many bills on irresistable colors, textures and varieties of yarn so fortunately for me, I had arrived by bike and with no wallet. There’s also some outlet shopping further south.
Of course, there’s always just sitting on the deck with a cold cocktail or beer in hand and watching the ocean waves roll for hours on end. What’s the rush? It’s the south, after all. And it’s the Outer Banks. Aaaah.