Prague, Czech Republic

August 15, 2015

A long time ago I lived here in Prague. I celebrated the turning of the millennium in Old Town Square in the heart of Prague; in all I spend 1-1/2 years here. Most importantly, my oldest son was born here. He has a Czech birth certificate, of which I can only decipher about 50%. He learned to walk on the uneven cobblestones of 700 year old squares. In a sense, this vacation was my son’s big “homecoming”; returning to the city of his birth for the first time in his memory.

Old Town Square

Old Town Square

Prague is a one of those eternally beautiful cities. The architecture of the town center has changed little since I lived here. Prague served as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire beginning in 1355, and later became tied to the Hapsburgs.

When I lived here I was newly married to my now ex-wife. Now, as I walked around Prague re-telling stories to my two sons; 16 and 14; all the memories were happy. Riding our bikes to a nearby Chateau, the bar across the street from our old apartment that sold beer for 15-cents, the walled gardens hidden behind storefronts. I enjoyed, again, struggling to put together enough Czech words to be (somewhat) understood.

While the main tourist areas; Wensenslaus Square, Old town Square, and Charles Bridge are more overrun than ever by tourists, we did find that stepping away from the main tourist thoroughfare revealed the delightful city that I remembered.

 


Strasbourg, France

August 11, 2015

My uncommon last name has always been difficult for people to pronounce. It’s hard to understand its origin in order to apply the proper linguistic rules. It comes from this region that switches back and forth between France and Germany, depending upon who won the last war. Finally after hundreds of years, my family name returns; if only for two days. Old town Strasbourg is charming and decidedly German.

However, the slightly newer areas have a feel and ambiance of Paris. It wasn’t until later in the day that we realized that we dressed as the French flag.

Of the sights to see, Strasbourg has an amazing cathedral. It is in the top 10 worldwide list of tallest cathedrals. It was so immense that it was not possible to take a complete photo, and my lens was zoomed out so far (to 18mm) that the curvature prevented me from making a collage.

Finally, we ate a traditional French dinner of. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a picture before we ate. Another highlight was the amazing French cheese we bought. While not as elaborate as a Parisian Fromagerie, it greatly surpasses even the finest cheese shop back home in New York. Just a common unpasteurized goats cheese is better than the finest cheese I have every bought in the US.


Grand Canyon, Arizona

April 11, 2015

Logistically tying together Bryce Canyon, Utah and the Grand Canyon’s southern rim into a single trip was a little challenging. It meant driving 5 hours through of some of this country’s most beautifully isolated landscape. We spent the night in Page, Arizona; the only real town for 100 miles in any direction. When I woke up the next morning, I realized that I was 5 miles away from a sight that I have wanted to see for more than 35 years. (click on the picture to see it full-screen)

Horseshoe Bend of Colorado River; just upstream from Grand Canyon

Horseshoe Bend of Colorado River; just upstream from Grand Canyon

Later that morning, we entered the Grand Canyon from the East and drove the 25 miles from the eastern entrance to Grand Canyon Village; stopping at the many view points along the canyon’s rim. The Grand Canyon is one of this countries most touristic parks with nearly 5 millions visitors per year. The crowds grew larger as we neared the village. Even though it is nowhere near peak season, walking along the rim trail I was overwhelmed by the crowds and tour groups. Yet with a little effort, I was able to escape the intense crowds. Hiking down into the canyon on the Kaibab trail to Ooh-Ahh point took just 1 hour. The switchbacks taking you off the rim are nerve-racking, and the views from Ooh-Ahh point are breathtaking.

Overall a smooth and wonderful trip.


Bryce Canyon, Utah

April 9, 2015

I have a mental list of places that I want to take my two sons. Despite that it is one of the lesser known National Parks, Bryce Canyon has always always been high on that list. I remember going when I was 13 years old with my parents; one of my best childhood vacations. For me, hiking amongst the Hoodoos turned out to be an unforgettable experience. I was happy to see that my own sons also enjoyed themselves.

From the rim of Bryce Canyon

From the rim of Bryce Canyon

We hiked down the steep switchbacks into the canyon and walked between the towering walls of red rock. We took the longest trail of 5-1/2 miles, and ended up vertically climbing half mile. It was an exhausting hike, but I am glad to have shared it with my sons.

The expansiveness of Bryce is hard to show without losing the uniqueness of its geological formations. This is truly like no other place on earth.

Bryce Canyon is only a 4-1/2 hour drive from Las Vegas. The challenge was combining it with visiting the Grand Canyon. But as often happens, that challenge meant we got to see one of the most picturesque points along the Colorado River (you have to check back in a few days to see, lol)


Tortuguero, Costa Rica

September 6, 2014

Anyone who knows me has heard my stories of this amazing place. I spend 5 months working as a research assistant for Sea Turtle Conservancy (formerly Caribbean Conversation Corporation), a biological field station that researches sea turtle nesting behavior. My job was to walk the beaches during the night in search of turtles building their nests. Once the turtles start to lay their eggs, they become almost impossible to frighten. I would count the eggs, measure their carapaces, and tag the turtle. This Field Station has been here for 50 years; one of the first such research stations. Because my background has always been in computers, seeing life’s wonders up close has always been one of my most magical memories.

Isolated shores of the Costa Rica's northern Caribbean

Isolated shores of the Costa Rica’s northern Caribbean

So after an absence of 17 years, I returned to the shores of Tortuguero; this time as a simple tourist. The little town has grown up quite a bit, and is now completely centered around catering to tourists. While seeing river life is interesting, tourists come for the opportunity to see sea turtles nest. Access to the beach in the nighttime is regulated (a good thing for the turtles), but I was lucky enough (more accurately I planned to come at the right time) to see the entire nesting process, watch her lay here 100-or-so eggs, tightly and carefully pack the sand around the eggs, and finally disguise her nest. The process is amazing.

One of the things that has protected Tortuguero from mass tourism is its remoteness. There are no roads, and everything has to come in by two-to-three hour riverboat. Of course, the riverboat ride through the jungle was amazing. But this type of “adventure” is not for everyone.

The above pictures are of the Biological Field station. I lived here for 5 months.  If anyone plans ever plans to go during turtle season (February to October), try to bring a care package for the research assistants. I brought a care package of 5 pounds of M&M’s and some peanut butter. They are mostly young 20-ish year olds, here for 3 to 6 months, and greatly appreciative of a taste of home.

And finally, a word or two about the meaning of the word Tortuguero. When I was here 17 years ago, I translated it to “Place of the turtles”. But I also know that the name can translate to “Turtle Hunter” (adding -er suffix would make it like “turtler”). Fortunately for the turtles, eco-tourism has made it more profitable for the locals to foster the culture as the “Place of the turtles” and, while it still exists, “Turtle Hunting” has been greatly reduced. A rare instance where tourism has helped preserve what makes this place so special; to remove a tragic, historical definition from the modern dictionary.


Rincon de la Vieja, Costa Rica

September 1, 2014

While It may not sound like much, I have spent 1% of my life in Costa Rica. This small Central American country is one of the most important places in my life, and I have not been back for 7 years. It is a place I never get tired of, and always find it wonderful to return. Even after 6 or 7 trips, I am still finding new and amazing places to visit. This trip I went to the jungle around the northern volcano of Rincon de la Vieja; northeast of the city of Liberia. Getting there meant a short but bone-jarring drive in an SUV (that was supposed to have 4WD, but didn’t).

Blue River gets its distinctive color from minerals

Blue River gets its distinctive color from minerals in the water

The area is filled with volcanic hot springs, and abundant wildlife. Thanks to its elevation it is mercifully mild, even though it is so geographically close to infernally hot Liberia. I saw monkeys and a flock of more than 20 toucans.

The area is filled with lots of activities. I rode horses to a nearby waterfall and went zip-lining 120 feet up in the canopy. While I am not generally afraid of heights, the craziness of the idea of zip lining definitely hit me full force. But after gaining a little bit of experience I felt like an expert after the 10th run.

I chose Rincon de la Vieja in part because I wanted to avoid the well beaten tourist path in Costa Rica, but it is also worth mentioning the Arenal volcano, which had been spewing lava daily for decades, has all but stopped. Also, I chose this more remote location because what was once a long trek through the cloud forest to get to the entrance to Monteverde, has now become built most of the way to the park. Rincon de la Vieja feels 10 times more remote.

 


Taxco, Mexico

September 13, 2013

Our final stop on our journey across Mexico’s colonial highlands brought us to Taxco (pronounced like ‘Tabasco’ without the ‘ba’), located on the side of a mountain between Mexico City and Acapulco. It’s whitewashed stone buildings, red-roves, nearly vertical streets and lively Zocalo (main square) made this a perfect place to relax and enjoy our last few days of summer vacation; before returning to work and school. Taxco is also a silver mining town, but on a smaller scale than Guanajuato. Taxco is also famous for its artisanry, turning the silver mined from underneath the mountain into beautiful silver jewelry, platters and religious crosses.

Here are a few other sites from around town.

Latin America’s largest caves, Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, are situated about 30 minutes from Taxco. We visited the caves on our way back to D.F. (Mexico City), because its most of the way down the mountain. The cave system is immense and impressive. We walked 2km into the caves, but they extend another 2km beyond that. At places the “rooms” (salon) are nearly 300 feet in height.


Mexico City

September 6, 2013

One of my main reasons to visit Mexico was to see Mexico City’s iconic Zocalo (main square), which I had only visited once for a few minutes about 15 years ago.  Zocolo is Latin America’s greatest main square, rivaling Red Square for its grandeur. However, once I got there I saw that for the past few weeks the Zocolo has been occupied (a la Occupy Wall Street) in protest. The Mexican President is trying to pass education and financial reforms.  Obviously, our little vacation took a back seat to the fundamental shifts in Mexican economy. So we stayed in the Zona Rosa, near the Angel, went to Six Flags Mexico, and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan (Third largest pyramids in the world).

Amazing View of Angel from our Hotel Room

Amazing View of Angel from our Hotel Room

The protesters had occupied the Zocolo, completely blocking every possible perspective to see its immensity. But we were still able to see a few of the Cathedrals.

By far the most amazing sight in Mexico City were the pyramids. I have seen many other pyramids (Including Tikal, Chichen Itza, Palenque and Copan), and these were definitely the largest. The pyramids tower over the site, and fortunately we are allowed to climb the largest; Pyramid of the Sun. I had always thought these pyramids were Aztec, based upon their geography, but the decline of this city around 500AD pre-dates the Aztecs by almost 1,000 years.

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Sun

Pyramid of the Mood

Pyramid of the Moon


San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

August 23, 2013

I first heard of San Miguel de Allende more than 20 years ago, but its legend goes back to the 1930’s as an artist colony and literary haven, like Hemingway’s and Fitzgerald’s Paris of the same era.  Luckily San Miguel has remained a loosely-kept secret, partially protected by its relative remoteness. It took me over 16 hours to get here, broken up into 6 distinct segments. Each segment becoming less and less comfortable; more and more rustic.

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But setting aside its gallery-filled, Bohemian roots, simply from a restful, touristic perspective, San Miguel continues to be one of Mexico’s greatest treasures. Its cobblestone streets, picturesque Cathedrals, colonial-ruins-turned-boutique-hotels, perfect 72-degree weather, and peaceful plazas filled with roving mariachis; make this the perfect first stop on my swing through the Mexican colonial highlands.

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The food has been amazing, although so far we’ve mostly eaten tacos; beef, pork, shrimp. My eldest son Matt loved the Churros we bought near one of the plazas, and after a bit of searching I found a nice panedaria with a huge variety of beautiful bread, about a 10 minute walk from the plaza principal. I still have not found Mexican Street Corn, though I saw a Mexican couple eating some. It can’t be too far.


Santo Domingo

August 15, 2013

Traveling to the Caribbean in summer is a crap shoot. Last year, I was caught by Hurricane Issac in Puerto Rico, but this summer in the Dominican Republic the weather was amazing every day. While most tourists skip the capitol city of Santo Domingo, it does offer a beautiful colonial center worthy of a few days. I stayed in a 16th century convent one block from the main pedestrian artery; Calle el Conde. Here are a few of the architectural highlights.

In many places the old city walls of Santo Domingo have been rebuilt using modern cement. Still, a lot of what remains in the Zona Colonial remains original. My first meal of Chivo en linea al fuego was on a beautiful colonial plaza; Plaza Colon. My second dinner was at Adrian Tropical. After reading rave reviews, I was a little disappointed with both the restaurant (for lack of authentic cuisine) and my dinner selection of Guinea Fowl. My dinner had too much sauce and not enough fowl. By the way, If you ever find yourself eating Guinea you should eat it with your fingers no matter how messy things get.

Those who know me know that I am never an alarmist, but I was pretty disappointed with the security situation of Boca Chica. First, the road into Boca Chica had a police roadblock (a la shakedown). And while the police eventually let me go sans bribe, they were still pleading how “thirsty” they were; meaning I was supposed to buy them something to drink.  Second, after stopping at the beach for about 5 minutes in a heavily populated area, some trim on my rental car disappeared in plain sight of dozens of people; an insurance headache more than anything.


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