Cinque Terre, Italy

August 21, 2016

An Italian vacation can easily be filled with many amazing cities, but I was also sure to stop by a few small towns. Cinque Terre, which translates to Five Lands, is group of five coastal towns that are connected by rail (and pathways) along the northern coastline between Genoa and Pisa. Each town has it’s own character, but the common theme is that all the towns are very picturesque (and very crowded at this time of year). My favorite was the adorable town of Vernazza.

The largest and most crowded was Monterosso al Mare. It offered a lot more places to visit and services, along with a sandy beach (a rare thing in Europe).

Riomaggiore is one of the smallest, and has a very small harbor. The town extends upward into the hills. The train station was carved out of rock and is underground, connected to the town by a long tunnel.

We walked from town to town along the pathways. At times, the trails included some very steep climbs. For those who are not up to the challenge, there is a train, but the views were spectacular and worth the effort. Our trip to Cinque terre would have been incomplete without the trails.


Milan, Italy

August 13, 2016

After more than 5 years, I have been taking the summer off for a bit of traveling and to lose a little weight (17 pounds down, 3 more to go). I just got back from a wonderful vacation to Italy and Croatia. Our flight arrived into Milan, which was a beautiful blend of old and new. Milan is the fashion capital of Italy, and the heart of that fashion is the high-end Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

The heart of Milan is its beautiful Piazza del Duomo, which has the main cathedral of Milan as well as the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Sforza Castle is a castle dates from the 15th century, and has a museums of art by Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangel.

 


Cartagena, Colombia

January 26, 2016

In stark contrast to the humble colonial cities in the mountains, 500-year-old Cartagena has a rich political history and was a critically important port. It was responsible for sending silver and gold back to Spain; and for many years it was also a slave port.  Today, Cartagena is the brightest and most vibrant of the Colombian cities that I have visited (notably lacking both Cali and Medellin).

Iglesia de San Pedro Claver

Iglesia de San Pedro Claver

For me, Cartagena has everything that I love in a historic city; old city walls, a castle on the hill, a lovely city center. But what sets it apart from other cities is the lively Caribbean vibe. It is extremely energetic, and becomes even more lively after the sun goes down. The party-like atmosphere feels a little like New Orleans.

The first time I even thought about visiting Colombia came 30 years ago in the movie, “Romancing the Stone.” Later I realized that it wasn’t even filmed in Colombia. In 1997, Cartagena was the place in Colombia I ever set foot. It has changed a lot, cleaned itself up, and has become one of the premier destinations in Colombia.

 

The huge fortress; Castillo San Filipe; overlooks the walled city of Cartagena. It is an impressive fort, and it’s unique shape made it extremely difficult to single out one battery for attack without controlling the entire system of defense.


Santa Marta, Colombia

January 24, 2016

If you are looking for fun in the sun in Colombia, Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast is for you. No matter what you are looking for in a beach; it is here. More or less, there are two kinds of beaches. First, wide, white sand beaches filled with hotels and people. Usually, these well-developed beaches are where people go who like to see, and to be seen. This the Rodadero Beach.

The second kind of beach is more elusive; private, remote, difficult to find and inconvenient to visit. But the second type is also here; very near to Santa Marta; Tayrona National Park. The park is 50 years old and is the area traditional inhabited by the Tairona tribe; who were wiped out after rebelling against Spanish-rule in the late 1500’s.  There are three entrances into Tayrona National Park; two of which are highly regulated and are difficult to visit. (1) The furthest entrance; requires taking a series of buses and hiking/horses for 2 hours. I went here many years ago; and it is the best option if you want to camp on a spectacular beach. (2) The second entrance takes you to Playa Cristal (Crystal Beach). This requires waking up in the middle of the night to wait in line at the entrance; because only 300 people are admitted into the park. In off season, you can get boat from Taganga. (3) The third entrance in unregulated and takes you to Playa Concha, which is a well developed beach very similar to Rodedero. Very crowded, but still very beautiful.

Much of Colombia’s Caribbean coast is dominated by the Rio Magdelena; comparable to the Mississippi River; which empties is muddied waters into the sea; clouding the Caribbean’s famous turquoise waters. While the waters of Santa Marta are only slightly clearer than Cartegena, the geography of the Eastward coastline provides just enough shelter to keep the pristine clear.

Lastly, the part of Tayrona that I have still not been able to visit is the Lost City; Ciudad Perdida. It is a 45km, 5-to-6-day hike through steamy jungle. It’s similar in distance to Peru’s more famous Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. Though the ruins are of a much smaller scale than Machu Picchu, I will hopefully be able to visit someday soon.

 


Villa de Leyva, Colombia

January 22, 2016

After a frantic pace running around Bogota, I really loved my days in quiet, colonial Villa de Leyva. The town was founded in 1572. Obviously I am pre-disposed to love quiet, colonial towns; see here, here, here, here, here  and here for example. Colonial architecture in Latin America comes in a few different forms and flavors. Perhaps Colombia’s most famous colonial city; Cartagena is bright and colorful. By contrast, Villa de Leyva is simple, white masonry structures.

A view of Plaza Mayor

A view of Plaza Mayor

My favorite thing about Villa de Leyva is that it gave me a chance to relax; to simply hang-around the Plaza Mayor. Colombian claim that Villa de Leyva has the largest cobbled square in South America. While I am not sure if that is true, the Plaza is very impressive.

But the one thing that the Plaza Mayor is lacking is shade; the midday sun so near to the equator is intense, even as the air temperatures are pleasant. Perhaps for this reason, the quiet Villa de Leyva springs to life after the sun goes down. There are three times as many people out and about in the evening.

I was planning to visit some local hot springs, but the drought has caused them to close. So instead of relaxing in hot springs, I went on a bit of adventure. I jumped off a cliff (zip lining), reppelled down the face of a waterfall, and went caving (spelunking). Much more of an adrenaline rush than hot springs.


Zipaquirá, Colombia

January 18, 2016

My trip to Colombia felt like a whirlwind, each day was filled to the maximum with exploration and adventure. One of my most memorable visits was a day-trip just outside of Bogata to the small town of Zipaquirá. The town is one of Colombia’s oldest; dating back to the Spanish conquest around 1600. The center has lovely main square, with a colonial-era cathedral and filled with traditional buildings.

Cathedral in Zipaquirá

Cathedral in Zipaquirá

I was in Colombia for nearly 2 weeks, at it took me my entire stay to finally figure out how to pronounce Zipaquirá. Everyday I would try to pronounce it; and every day my Colombian hosts would gently laugh at my mispronunciation. Finally just as I was preparing to return home, I became accustomed to the uniqueness of Colombian names.

The highlight of my trip to Zipaquirá was my visit to the Salt Cathedral. 660-feet below the earth’s surface is a massive cathedral built within a salt mine (main cathedral can seat 8,000 people). It has a series of 14 chapels as you make your way deeper and deeper underground, until you finally reach the huge main cathedral. While the mine dates back to pre-colombian times; the cathedral was built in phases mostly beginning in the early part of the last century.


Bogota, Colombia

January 16, 2016

There is a common misconception of people who have never visited Colombia that it is one of the most dangerous places in the world; fueled by Tom Clancy novels and images of Pablo Escobar. Regardless of how true those images may have been in the past, today’s Colombia is a place of incredible beauty and sincere friendliness. The country was filled with hustle and bustle, but even in the main tourist areas, I heard only Spanish. The country feels genuine; not spoiled by foreign tourism.

started in 1807 during Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá was begun under Spanish rule and completed after independence in 1823

Primatial Cathedral of Bogotá was begun under Spanish rule and completed after independence in 1823

The main tourist areas of Candelaria and Monserrate are beautiful and filled with Colombians enjoying themselves. The center is extremely colorful, and filled with far more museums and restaurants than I had time to visit. I would have especially liked to visit the National Museum, Gold Museum, and the Gabriel Garcia Marquez cultural center (one of the principal reasons I learned Spanish was to read “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in Spanish).

One of Bogota’s most beautiful sights is the panoramic view of the city from the heights of Montserrate. While I would have liked to try the foot path, the elevation gain of over 1,560-feet (500m) is formidable. I chose the teleferico (gondola), especially because I had not yet acclimatized to the 10,000-foot elevation.

It was my birthday, and we celebrated with a wonderful lunch/dinner in the restaurant at the top of the mountain. Our waiter suggested taking this photo of everybody admiring the view; and later we joked that it was a trick and that he would run away with the camera while our backs were turned. But our waiter was right; it is one of my favorite photos of the entire trip.

I would recommend going up in the late afternoon, so that you can see the view both in the daytime and nighttime. The view from Monserrate in the nighttime is spectacular; and the lines to go up in the nighttime are usually double, triple or quadruple the length. The mountain was all dressed up for the holidays and was especially colorful.

The next day we went hiking in the Natural Park of Chicaque, about 30 minutes outside of Bogota. It was a full-day hike. While the first half of the day was all down hill, the afternoon was extremely strenuous as we climbed the nearly 2000-feet back to the canyon’s rim.

 

 


Kruger National Park, South Africa

October 3, 2015

It’s been a month since we got back from our vacation, and it has taken a while to assemble this post. Of course, the main reason we came to South Africa was to go on safari; to see rare and exotic animals that you can only see here in Africa. We spent a week inside Kruger and were not disappointed, seeing all of the Big 5. Giraffe, elephant, zebra, buffalo and hippopotamus. We even saw the rarest of all; African Wild Dog.

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We saw many, many elephant. There is currently an overpopulation of elephant in Kruger.

Leopards are elusive and usually spend their days sleeping in trees. We were lucky to have seen three.

We were very lucky and saw over 20 Rhinoceros; including one while we were on a bush hike (with armed rangers).

Even in my previous trip to Africa, I had never see Cheetah in the wild. We saw 5 cheetah; including two that walked just a few feet from our cars. It’s all just dumb luck; being in the right place at the right time.

Kruger National Park is about the size of New Jersey, but when you consider the adjoined parks and private game reserves the actual size doubles. What is different about Kruger than other places in Africa is that you can go on safari on your own; without guides and in your own vehicle (with just your family members). There is a common misconception that people think they should go with a guide because they know where the animals are. While guides are good at spotting animals in the distance, the excitement comes from seeing animals close up.  The truth is that it’s all just plain luck; there is no secret spot where certain animals spend their day. Every day we went out we never knew what we would see; but we always saw something new.

It wasn’t until about 3 days into the park that we saw zebra.

Hyena are nocturnal. So we had to wake up at 5AM to see them as they walked back to their dens. We saw 3 over the course of our week inside the park.

I didn’t realize ostrich were from Africa; until of coarse we saw some.

Buffalo are part of the Big 5; and often travel in huge herds.

Here are some of the miscellaneous animals we also saw.

What is unique about Kruger is that the network of dirt roads allows you to safari on your own.


Blyde River Canyon, South Africa

September 3, 2015
Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Allegedly the third biggest canyon in the world

Our first stop in South Africa was in the north-east where the Great Escarpment drops away into the Lowveld; forming the third largest canyon in the world (according to the South Africans, behind the 4,400 feet drop of the Grand Canyon, and Fish River Canyon). The Canyon’s impressive drop of 2,400 feet happens quickly; one minute we are at river level then a few miles down the road the river lies far below.

The Great Escarpment is where Madagascar and Antarctica broke away from Africa about 200 million years ago. Another famous feature is God’s Window; just south of Blyde River Canyon, along the same panoramic route. If anyone remembers the 80’s comedy “The Gods Must Be Crazy”; this is where the story’s hero comes to throw the Coke bottle off the end of the world.

There are many waterfalls and other geological features in the area. We visited Sudwala caves; while not the biggest caves we’ve seen; they claim to be the oldest; forming over the course of 240 million years. They have been habited by our ancestors for about 1.8 million years.

We drove the Panoramic route in one day; from Sabie in the south to Hoedspruit in the north.  We ended up sleeping in the Bushriver Lodge, which turned out to be my favorite hotel in Africa. We were able to walk freely in their game reserve (no big cats or elephants), and enjoyed the beautiful deck overlooking the Oilifants river (we saw crocs, but no hippos).

TRAVEL WARNING WITH MINORS: Unfortunately, South Africa has very recently (June 2015) changed the rules when traveling with minors under 18 years old. You are required to travel with original, unabridged birth certificate. Because I am divorced the rules also require me to travel with the a court order proving that I have full custody (Because I only have shared custody, Immigration was not supposed to let me travel). And because my custody order is part of my divorce decree; the new rules require me to travel with a complete inventory of all my assets and accounts. These new laws seem like the were drafted by kidnappers and extortionist.


Ezulwini Valley, Swaziland

August 30, 2015

Sandwiched between South Africa and Mozambique is the tiny kingdom of Swaziland. We chose to visit Swaziland because it is much smaller and more traditional than their larger neighbors. We felt very welcomed as individuals. We stayed in the Ezulwini Valley (“Valley of Heaven”) which was peaceful and an important part of Swazi culture.

Wildebeast in the Millwane Game Reserve

Wildebeest in the Millwane Game Reserve

Towering over the heart of the Ezulwini valley is Execution Rock. While no longer in use, it was a constant reminder to be on your best behavior. At the foot of Execution Rock is the Mantenga Cultural Village, which showcases the historical cultural of the nomadic Swazi people. It is made up of a traditional village made of sticks and reeds.

There was also a wonderful Dance presentation featuring traditional Africa drums and dance. It was spectacular, and even my two teenage boys love it.

We also visited the Millwane Game Reserve, which is unique because it allowed us to walk freely among the, without the fear of large predators (except for Crocodile). We did little stumble onto a large Nile Crocodile, but fortunately there were a few small trees between us.

Overall, our visit to Swaziland was a beautiful transition between the European and African portions of our vacation. It is much slower paced than it’s dominant neighbor to the West.


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