Churches in Oaxaca are like Starbucks in Seattle. There’s one on every corner. I spotted six while sipping a smoky tasting mezcal margarita on a rooftop bar overlooking Templo de Santo Domingo Guzman. Each church has its own unique color scheme, adding to the overall charm of Oaxaca. We found Oaxaca to have a mellow vibe with sweet, helpful people even though it’s a city of over 300,000 souls.
Oaxaca is famous for several things including cheese, chocolate, mezcal and seven different moles. The most complex mole is negro mole with up to 27 ingredients and takes half a day or more to make a batch.
A half hour bus ride for 80 pesos ($4 US) takes you to Monte Alban. A World Heritage site that was the capital of the Zapotec civilization where you can walk among pyramids, tombs, temples and ball courts over 2,500 years old.
Another fun day adventure was taking a colectivo out to a mezcal farm for 80 pesos ($4 US). It was a 45 minute drive out to the semi-desert country. We had to pass through a Covid checkpoint where our temperature was taken, we had to get out of the car and the car handles were sprayed with disinfectant and our hands were cleaned with sanitizer.
At the mezcal farm we learned there are hundreds of types of agave but mezcal is typically made from 12 varieties. You can buy a bottle made from a single varietal or blends, similar to wine. Tequila is made from one type of agave only, the Weber Blue agave. For mezcal it takes 7 to 15 years depending on the species for the plant to mature and form a pina at the heart. The pina is charred then chopped up and crushed by a stone wheel pulled by a horse to create a mash. We tasted this mash and it was sweet, similar to sugar cane.
Then the mash was cooked in copper kettles over a wood fire to distill it, then distilled a second time. The mezcal can be consumed in one month or aged up to 4 years. After our tour we had the pleasure of tasting at least a dozen single plant and blended mezcals.
After our stay in Oaxaca city we rented a car and drove the gnarly twisting road towards the coast and our destination of Mazunte. Half way to the coast we stopped and spent the night in San Jose del Pacifico at 8,000 feet and saw this gorgeous sunset! That night we enjoyed a wood fire in a private cabin while dreaming of the beach…..our next destination.
Morning breaks with a cacophony of sound. Flocks of green parrots screech as they fly from tree to tree. Roosters compete for loudest morning greeting. Chachalaca birds cackle and a small dog barks. The Sonic propane truck plays its cheery song. Quietly the air conditioner hums beneath it all at a comfortable 22′ C. I open my eyes to see the burnt orange tiles of the arched ceiling above me. Some of the bricks are crumbling from water damage and little piles of dust have accumulated on the floor in the night. Turning my head I see the lavender sky brightening to light blue through the shaggy palapa roof of our rooftop penthouse airbnb. Soon the clanging and banging sounds of construction will begin next door with the tinny sounds of Mexican radio filtered throughout. Good morning Sayulita!
Our research told us that Sayulita would be a more subdued version of itself due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. We arrived on August 31st and even though there is evidence of disease prevention in town the beach and streets are buzzing with activity. Restaurant employees are wearing masks, as well as hotel staff and store employees. Some tourists are wearing masks but the majority are not. There are square matts at entrances to wipe your feet on with I’m assuming antibacterial liquid and many places have hand sanitizer on tables and at entrances. Some restaurants are checking temperatures before allowing patrons to enter.
Besides that life is ‘normal’ here. There are tables with umbrellas in the sand. Surfers in the water. Vendors selling hats, dresses, sunglasses, toys, sculptures, jewelry, cuban cigars, massages and hair braiding. We got a couple one hour massages for $20 US that were excellent. The sun is hot, humidity high and water is warm. Bath tub warm but I really enjoy it. I can stay in for a long time just bobbing up and down watching the pelicans and frigates fly over head and crash into the water to catch fish. It’s very soothing to let my gaze wander over the brightly colored umbrellas dotting the dark sand with the palapa roofed restaurants and hotels behind them. Colorful spanish styled villas with arched windows climb the surrounding hills.
At the south end of the beach the fishing boats lay in the sand. It’s fun to watch the gulls, frigates and blackbirds swoop down to snatch up discarded fish carcasses in a churning circle that almost seems choreographed. The fishermen use their trucks to pull the boats to the waters edge as well as pull them out.
Playa los Muertos is a smaller beach just a short walk south of Sayulita. You can either walk around the rocky point or take the road that first winds around some fancy rental homes and then through a colorful cemetery.
A longer hike (about 30-40 minutes) up some hills and through the jungle takes you to secluded Playa Carricitos. With hardly another soul in sight this beach is a quiet get away from the main Sayulita Beach. Along the way you’ll see skinks on the ground, parrots in the trees, and hear hundreds of tropical birds that are hidden in the deep foliage. Palm trees, strangler figs, tamarind and the giant parota tree are just a few of the species competing for sunlight.
Downtown is hopping at night with drum circles and fire dancers in the streets, break dancers in the square, and the general hub bub of tourists driving golf carts and children and dogs running about.
We enjoyed a relaxing two weeks in this bohemian surf town with not much to do but surf, drink, shop and eat. The nightlife was entertaining, but we really enjoyed sitting in our patio furniture and listening to everything going on in town. There was modern DJ music, Mexican music, families singing, drum circles drumming, lightning flashing and occasionally….thunder booming. We’ll be back!
Our first view of Luxor was from above from a hot air balloon. We woke before dawn, were shuttled ashore from our ship and then took a short van ride to the area where dozens of hot air balloons were in different stages of filling up and lifting into the dark morning sky. The roar of flames greeted us as the van door slid open and our pupils dilated at the sight of giant rainbow colored canvases laying in prone position with jets of flame shooting into them like angry dragons defending their loot. The noise was deafening and it was a bit chaotic as we were led to our balloon that had a multi-basket which fit 32 people!
It was very peaceful once we were airborne. Soon the sun crested the horizon and light illuminated the land below with its distinct line between lush green farmland and the tan sandy desert of the Valley of Kings and Valley of the Queens.
After our thrilling ride we returned to our ship for breakfast followed by a trip to Luxor Museum (with some mummies!) and then the grand Luxor Temple.
The next day was full of famous stops as we visited The Valley of the Kings and The Valley of the Queens. The hieroglyphs inside The Valley of the Kings were the best preserved we had seen. The astonishing colors have remained for 3,400 years!!!
If you want to see King Tut’s tomb it’s a small extra fee which I felt was well worth it. TRAVEL TIP: there is no photography in some of the tombs except for cell phones. Hence my somewhat blurry photos taken inside. Throughout the tour there was sometimes a fee (up to $20 US, depending on the site) to bring in professional cameras.
The next day we visited Karnak Temple which is the biggest temple in the world and took about 1,800 years to build. It’s actually closer to a small city with temples, sanctuaries, chapels and other buildings. It was humbling to walk through the famous Hypostyle Hall with it’s 134 columns in 16 rows, covering 50,000 square feet.
Here’s a picture of how the ships on the Nile tie up to each other over night. We would actually walk through the lobbies of other ships to get to the shore.
We had an excellent time in Luxor and were a little sad to say goodbye to our ship early the next morning for a flight back to Cairo.
Watching the palm trees in their dreamy dance along the banks of the Nile, I wave at a small boat carrying two Egyptians and a cargo of reeds. The sky is periwinkle, the Nile is aegean blue. The panoramic window in my cabin shows a gentle, ancient story as we pass by donkeys pulling carts, cows grazing on tiny islands and the dusty Sahara rising up as a backdrop. As you may or may not know, my parents generously give us the gift of travel and this year we ended our personal Latin American trip when we flew from Rio to Cairo to meet up with the family. Now we began “Egypt and The Eternal Nile” tour with MIT Alumni Travel and Odysseys Unlimited.
The Giza Plateau with it’s three famous pyramids was our first stop. We had the amazing opportunity to climb inside The Great Pyramid of Cheops which looms overhead at over 450 feet tall. This ascent was steep, tight, dark and humid. It’s one way in and out with a few stairs but mostly a wooden ramp with metal rungs. You must bend at the waist, ducking your head as you squat-climb upwards towards the tomb room where you can finally uncurl and stand up. The openings are tight and barely fit two people as you must pass people coming down. I admit to feeling a bit claustrophobic at one point as my crouched posture breathed in the musty hot air that we all were sharing and I had a brief thought of how quickly coronavirus could spread in such conditions.
At the top of the climb and a final duck into the large chamber my fears evaporated as I stared in awe at the black sarcophagus. The room was about 20 feet wide by 40 feet long. A sheet of paper wouldn’t fit between the seams of the colossal stones that made up the walls, ceiling and floor. I slid my hand inside the smooth open sarcophagus and tried to feel the 4,500 years that had passed since its maker’s hands had polished it.
The next adventure was riding a camel to the third pyramid of Mekrenas. Probably the most exciting part of any camel ride is getting on and getting off. Camels are tall and they kneel down with their front legs first followed by the back legs. The rider climbs aboard the wooden saddle and grabs the horn with both hands as the camel lurches up, back legs first. If you’re not holding on you could pitch off over its head!
Next up was an early flight to Aswan followed by 3 1/2 hours across the Sahara on a bus to board our first ship. We would stay on the Omar el Khayam for 3 days as we cruised Lake Nasser and saw numerous temples. The amazing temple of Abu Simbel which was built for Ramses II portrays him as a God and provides evidence when the sun rises on his statue (along with 3 other gods) twice a year on Feb 22 and Oct 22. The temple was built so that the sun rays pass along the corridor and land on the 3 Holy of Holies (Ra, Ramses II and Amun). The 4th god in this room, Ptah, is the god of fertility and darkness, who works at night, so he remains in shadow.
We enjoyed many forays to visit temples along the shore of Lake Nasser including the Valley of the Lions, which is 3,150 years old.
After three days of cruising Lake Nasser we disembarked in Aswan where the Aswan High Dam is located that created Lake Nasser by damming up the Nile. One of the fascinating consequences of this dam was the international collaboration that happened to preserve the temples and tombs that would have been submerged by the rising water levels.
After visiting more temples we embarked on the next ship of our journey that would take us up the Nile. To begin this part of our journey we enjoyed an adventurous sail on a traditional Egyptian Felucca. The adventurous part was in the beginning when our boat was trapped against the shore and played bumper boats with all the other boats including the aft end of our ship. The captains didn’t seem to care who crashed into what, and we all agreed that the techniques for getting the boats moved were the same techniques used for driving cars in Cairo.
That evening our ship The Amwaj passed through the Esna lock. Our ship waited about 15 minutes in the lock as the water drained out of the lock and we were bombarded by hawkers both on the concrete lock and in tiny boats. They threw up items like scarfs and galabeyas in plastic bags for us to buy. Sometimes the bags even landed in the pool on the ship! Once a price was agreed upon they sent another plastic bag up and we placed the payment inside and threw it back. It was quite hilarious with all the shouting and bag tossing.
Good night and good bye Lake Nasser! Up next: Luxor, Valley of the Kings and King Tut!
We decided to stay in the town of Foz do Iguazu in order to have more restaurant choices. However, the airport, Iguazu Falls Park, and the Argentina border are all at least a 30 minute (very hot and humid, sometimes super crowded) bus ride away from the town. Travel Tip: pay the extra money to stay at a hotel or resort with its own restaurant closer to the park. It’s worth it in time, headache and hassle and Foz do Iguazu doesn’t have much character.
Brazil side of Iguazu Falls: great for pictures of The Devil’s Throat, smaller than Argentina side, there’s a boat ride to the bottom of the falls for additional price. Be prepared for stairs, humidity and getting wet from mist. We spent 4 hours and felt like we saw it all (minus the boat ride).
There are lots of coati (similar to a racoon) who aren’t shy, as well as tropical birds and reptiles in the jungle as you make your way through this incredibly beautiful part of the world.
The next morning we took a cab directly from our hotel in Brazil across the border into Argentina and to our hostel in Puerto Iguazu. After dropping off our backpacks the cab took us to the park. The whole trip cost $30 US and took about an hour and a half. The timing depends on how long the line is crossing the border. At the end of the day it was an easy bus ride from the park back to the town center of Puerto Iguazu.
Argentina side: if you can, plan for most of a day to see this much more extensive park. There’s a train that stops at the two biggest trails for waterfalls (ticket included with price of admission), optional boat trips to the bottom of the falls and another trip along the river, and more extensive trails. You’ll see the top of The Devil’s Throat as well as many other waterfalls along well marked trails.
We spent six hours at the park without doing any boat rides and just seeing the major sights. While most of the trails are flat, some do have stairs. We got a little wet from mist and there are freshwater showers at a couple spots where you can get drenched if you want. I wore a bathing suit under a sundress and got my hair wet as a natural air conditioner.
We were very glad to have the chance to see both sides of these breathtaking falls. This should be on everyone’s Bucket List!
An hour cab ride from the Bogota airport brought us to Hotel Casona Usaquen, our new home for the next 4 days. We decided to begin with a futbol match in the big stadium. The home team was Santa Fe, so we got in line and bought some red colored fan gear. Travel Tip: get your tickets ahead of time in team stores or some grocery stores throughout the city (ask your hotel front desk). Because we were being spontaneous we ended up in line for over an hour as fans joined their buddies in line ahead of us and the line barely moved.
A highlight for me was visiting the Museo del Oro and learning about the history and symbolism of the pieces in the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world.
The Candelaria neighborhood had beautiful churches, some great examples of street art and lots of university students drinking chicha. A woman of advanced years convinced us to sit at her little cafe under a tree laden with red flowers and buzzing with hummingbirds. She brought out her family recipe chicha and after determining we were married she performed a wedding ritual and blessing on us. Then she poured the fermented corn concoction into cups made from a seed shell. We closed our eyes, held the brew under our tongue for a moment, swished the liquid around our mouth, swallowed and waited for a vision. I had one, but it’s a secret ?.
We took a side trip an hour bus ride away from Bogota to the Salt Cathedral in the quieter city of Zipaquira. It’s a Roman Catholic church built in a salt mine, with huge caverns, shopping, movie theater, and light shows.
The Bogota Botanical Garden was a peaceful escape from the big city on our last day in Colombia. They have a place you can safely leave your bags, so we visited during the afternoon on our way to the airport. We were sad to leave this beautiful and welcoming country but also excited for our next adventure in Brazil!
Lovely, quiet, quaint Jardin (Har-deen). Hardly another tourist to be seen. As soon as we stepped of the bus we felt like we were in an authentic Colombian village from the past.
The main square is full of rose gardens, locals in white cowboy hats, and pigeons playing in the fountain. There are also tons of colorful wooden tables with chairs all made from painted cowhide (by town decree, no metal or plastic is allowed).
There’s impressive bird watching to be had at Parque Natural Jardín de Rocas, just 4 blocks from the town center. For only $3 US each you can watch the dramatically squawking Cock of the Rock birds as they come home to roost. I also caught a glimpse of the blue Motmot with it’s unique tail. Plan accordingly because it’s only open from 3 to 6 PM.
To get a fine view of town from above you can take the rickety La Garrucha cable car across a gorge and up the mountain into the coffee and banana plantations. Then take a quiet 2 mile walk back to town passing a river and waterfalls with nice swimming holes.
The weekend was spectacular with the cowboys prancing their show horses up and down the cobblestone streets and riding up to one of the many bars around the square where a barman comes out with a tray of shots and passes them out. They don’t even get off their horses!
With all those horses around we decided to take a ride ourselves. The lady who runs the Fami Hotel La Posada where we stayed made a phone call and half an hour later a young man walked up to the table where we were enjoying a cerveza with 3 horses in tow. We saddled up and for $14 US each we had a three hour ride through the gorgeous countryside, stopping at a waterfall and even a coffee farm for a fabulous cup of Joe.
And now, Ian’s Take:
As I mentioned before, Colombians love music. And even in this quaint rural town of Jardin things get cranking come nightfall. The four sides of the town square contain about 20 bars which are all playing their own choice of music. The music starts at about 10 in the morning which is a tolerable mix of latin ballads from decades past. But as evening approaches, the music gets louder with more bass. Some of these bars even turn on some spinny light contraptions to give out a disco party vibe.
The rest of the bars seem to enjoy some darker ambiance. And by darker ambiance I mean lights out, no candles. They are full of people sitting at tables full of beer bottles (they don’t seem to like to remove the empties) and at first glance the bar looks closed until your eyes adjust and your ears realize they are blaring music as well. So as the night goes on, each bar slowly turns up their favorite latin boom boom music to drown out the neighbors boom boom music as in some competition to have the best and loudest boom boom music. So loud this becomes that you notice that the loudest bar has now driven all their patrons down the street and is now empty. But hey, I guess they win. Well time to put in some earplugs and head out for a cerveza. Ciao!
The rock! I was afraid to climb the rock when I heard it was hundreds of steps straight up. At elevation around 7,000 feet. I don’t like stairs. Turns out it’s 705 to the very tippy top, 659 to a beer/food/ bathroom break. But, we made it in 20 minutes. Without throwing up. And the 360 degree view? WORTH IT!!
After catching our breath at the top of piedra del peñol and enjoying a cerveza while trying to keep our jaws from completely dropping off from the incredible views, we climbed down and caught a tuk tuk into town for $4 US.
Guatape is postcard perfect at every corner. Each section of buildings has its own bas-relief theme along the bottom. These range from simple geometric designs to 3-D sculptures of provential life.
The place we stayed at was amazing. Homemade bread, homemade arepas, homemade jam. The organic eggs are from mountain wandering chickens. The chocolate in the hot chocolate is from a farm right around the corner. Free kayaks to use, a hot tub and sauna. No wonder they have the highest booking.com rating!
Even though we splurged on our room ($55 US per night) we found that Guatape was more affordable than Medellin. For example a glass of wine in Medellin was between $4 – $5 US, but only $1.75 in Guatape.
Getting to Guatape from the Poblado neighborhood in Medellin: take the metro to the Caribe station. Walk over the sky bridge to the giant bus station. Go to Window 14 to purchase tickets. It’s a 2 hour bus ride for $4.50 US each. Comfy, reclining seats and with the window open it was nice and cool as you go up in elevation. And the view of the countryside is worth the trip itself!
And now, Ian’s Take: I like beer. I like beer a lot. I noticed that in recent years while travelling abroad that the craft beer scene has hit the world. Sort of. Being from the U.S. and with the addition of imports from Europe, we are spoiled with hundreds of breweries with thousands of varietals. So of course I want try what the rest of the world has to offer. Or at least I did. Let’s just say that some of the world has a long way to go.
I keep trying these cerveza artisionals that are a bit lacking in either correct ingredients or know how. Let’s say I have stopped trying. A lot of these ‘artisional’ beers remind of some of my own home brewed attempts. I have had some decent batches, however most of them I choked down while gagging due to the fact I just spent $50 in ingredients and waited 2 months. I have tried some IPA’s that hadn’t met a hop if it bit em in the arse and had red ales that you could pour on your pancakes. Sorry Colombia. What Colombia does right is make some great tasting lagers or light ales. Let’s say the equivalent of a PBR, Bud, or Corona. And my go to favorite is the Michelada.
A very simple drink. Squeeze a lime or sour orange into a glass with salted rim and pour in your beer of choice served on the side. So refreshing! I can drink em all day. On a side note, I have had a couple nice micros in Japan. So if any of you have tried some quality craft brews abroad, please share. Until next time, bottoms up! And salud!
Medellin was the murder capital of the world when Pablo Escobar was making billions with his drug cartel. Comuna 13, a neighborhood of Medellin, was one of the most dangerous areas of that time. Now it’s a reformed tourist destination full of graffiti art, street performers and tourists following guides explaining the history of its reformation.
The streets are situated on the steep mountainsides that circle Medellin. There are outside escalators to help you make it up to the many levels of street art. Plenty of t-shirt and hat vendors, beer, wine and michelada stands, small eateries and art galleries are sprinkled between the graffiti to help you spend a couple hours shopping and taking pictures.
The Metrocable is a 15 minute cable car ride that is FREE with your metro ticket. You’ll find the entrance at the same metro stop as Comune 13, so might as well take a ride.
Stolling through downtown Medellin is a great way to spend an afternoon. The metro system is cheap, clean and easy to use. We got off at Parque Berrio, saw lots of churches, palaces, artwork, and plazas and got back on the metro at San Antonio.
We thoroughly enjoyed our stay in Medellin. People were polite, helpful and friendly. There were plenty of quality international restaurant options in the Poblado neighbourhood where our hostel was located. We felt like four days was a good amount of time to spend in this vibrant, hip city.
Travel Tip: there are LOTS of neighborhoods that make up Medellin. When looking for a place to stay we recommend Poblado which was about a 10 minute metro ride from downtown.
Next up, the beautiful town of Guatape and climbing the 659 steps of Piedra del Penol!
Feeling as lazy as the leaves that drift, sail, meander through the humid sunshine into the cerulean pool. A young lady tries her skills on the purple silk ribbons hanging from the giant tree covered in moss and bromeliads. Laughing, she falls into the pool with a splash. Hung over tattooed guests share their nightly escapades at the bar in quiet conversations. Tropical birds chirp, warble and gibber in the dense foliage. We’ve made it to Minca.
Yes, we’re surrounded by coffee and chocolate plantations with sweeping mountain views but who can resist playing on a swing or relaxing in a giant net over the river?
We forced ourselves to climb out of the hammocks and rent a scooter to explore. The tropical canopy above is full of exotic birds and we stopped often on The Big Loop Tour to search for them. The Big Loop is an all day route that takes you to Pozo Azul waterfalls, Los Pinos viewpoint, coffee and chocolate tours, and Marinka waterfalls.
Travel Tip: the roads around Minca are rough and more like hiking trails than roads. Luckily Ian has lots of practice from our travels so although some areas were hair raising we didn’t crash. Most tourists either hire motorcycle taxis or hike this area.
Travel Tip: Minca is lush, dense, tropical. BRING BUG SPRAY.
And now, Ian’s Take:
Aaahh, the bliss of travel. The wind in your hair on the fast boat to las playas. Dipping in the pool of an exotic waterfall. Or trying tantalizing new foods as you watch the sun sink in the sky. But it’s not perfect bliss. In the last 48 hours I had serious food poisoning, gotten eaten alive by bugs, and white knuckled our way through a 4 hour dirt track on a tiny scooter. So three lessons I knew previously but just got reminded of.
#1 When traveling, try and eat at busy restaurants. The food is fresh with the constant turnover and obviously tasty. In my case we did eat at a busy restaurant. Ocean did not share much of my food so she was ok. Bad luck of the draw for me though.
#2 I heard there might be some bitey bugs here in Minca. Now we don’t like to wear bug spray unless necessary. We arrived at Rio Elemento Eco-hostel and after check in, went to check out the pool, river, and giant hammocks. Meanwhile tiny gnats unknowingly bit us to pieces in like 20 minutes. You can’t feel the bite but 12 hours later you’re like a cat in heat rubbing your body against any stationary object while trying to avoid straight up digging your own claws into your flesh. I could barely sleep. Douse yourself in bug spray. Cuz ya gonna get bit!
#3 Get the better bike. After my sleepless night with food poisoning, I felt barely well enough try the 4 hour loop around Minca on motorbike. Now I have ridden manual motorcycles all over SE Asia but due to my shakey condition and since it had been a couple years, I wanted a mindless automatic scooter. They said we could do the loop ‘no problemo’. Now imagine two grown people riding a miniature horse up a cliff. No suspension with wheels the size of dinner plates. I spent the next 4 hours trying not to kill us. Next time man up and get the motorcycle. Even though the last 48 hours have been sleepless and a little hellish, the exotic foods, majestic waterfalls, and wind in my hair make it all worth it. Bring on the next round! Ciao!