Doing Nothing, Seeing Everything – Mompox, Colombia

In this age of travel itineraries packed to the gills with “experiential” and “immersive” experiences it’s easy to return home exhausted but still somehow lacking any real insight into the destination you visited. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (referred to simply as Mompox or Mompos) is the perfect place to remember the joy and value of doing nothing as a way of seeing everything and letting the culture, history and idiosyncracies of a place sink in naturally.

Diving into the Magdelena Ricver - Mompox, Colombia

Kids enjoying the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

“You don’t travel in space in Mompox, you travel in time.”

A local Momposian shared those romantic words with us and they turned out to be true. Founded by the Spanish in 1540 in the middle of the mighty Magdalena River, Mompox became an important port town and way station for traders in the 17th-19th centuries. Mompox flourished. And then the river silted up. However, the town didn’t shrivel up and die when river trade stopped. It simply took a nap.

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La Iglesia San Agustin in Mompox, Colombia was built in 1606 and is part of the Colonial heritage and architecture that have made Mompox a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mompox stirred a bit in the 1990s when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical economic importance, remarkably unchanged Colonial center and collection of churches. The pace in town, which is also part of Colombia’s exclusive Pueblos Patrimonios group, is still best described as sleepy though it’s never boring thanks to a long list of local quirks and characters.

Mompox, Colombia UNESCO World Heritage site

The center of Mompox is filled with intact Colonial streets like this one.

Quirks and characters in Mompox

The blindingly white Mompox cemetery is located right in the center of town and is worth a roam around. You can’t miss the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato (The Cat). As the nickname would imply, he loved cats and after his death his family kept a fresh supply of cat food at his grave. There are now more than 45 cats living in the cemetery.

Mompox cemetery

The cemetery in Mompox is home to the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato and more than 40 cats who continue to be fed by El Gato’s relatives.

The Hospital San Juan de Dios is said to be the oldest hospital in the Americas still operating in its original location. Swing by City Hall where the Act of Independence from Spain was signed in 1810, making Mompox the first Colombian city to declare freedom from Spain.

Built in 1660, the beautifully restored Municipal Palace, aka Cloister of San Carlos, was the site of the first secondary school in Mompox. In 1809 the Universal School of Saint Peter the Apostle was founded on the site which is said to be the first university established in the Caribbean.

Cloister of San Carlos - Mompox, Colombia

The beautifully restored Cloister of San Carlos is on the site of the first university in the Caribbean.

All of that sight-seeing is best done in the mornings or evenings as mid day temperatures soar in Mompox. The good news is that the streets are remarkably car-free (in part because of how hard it is to reach Mompox, more on that later). If it weren’t for a proliferation of small motorcycles, there would be more donkeys pulling carts than motorized vehicles in Mompox.

slow paced Mompox, Colombia

Donkeys are still a common sight in the streets of Mompox, Colombia.

Liberator and Latin hero Simón Bolívar first arrived in Mompox in 1812 when he recruited hundreds of local men to join him on his triumphant march to Caracas. Bolívar subsequently returned to Mompox many more times as he traveled up and down the Magdalena, spawning a local version of the “George Washington slept here” legend.

Piedra de Bolivar - Mompox, Colombia

Piedra de Bolivar records the eight visits that Simón Bolívar made to Mompox between 1812 and 1830.

Always a political town, residents reacted to decades of tensions between Colombia’s rich Conservative Party and the poor Liberal Party in a unique way. The two parties were established in 1849. The Liberal party ruled between 1861 and 1885 and established separation of church and state. In 1885 the elite Conservative Party took power and re-established the influence of the church in Colombian politics. That, in part, lead to the “War of 1,000 Days” which raged between the two partied from 1899 to 1903. More than 120,000 Colombian died.

In Mompox, these political tensions became so fierce that town was literally divided in two with proponents of the Conservative Party living on one side of town and proponents of the Liberal Party living on the other.

Those divisions have eased, though political opinions remain strong, and Mompox today seems tranquil and united, as we saw when we stumbled upon a group of Momposians practicing a traditional dance in Plaza Concepcion. Check out our video, below.

Modern Mompox is a pleasing version of Southern US bayou country as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, who was inspired by his time in Mompox. His wife was born near here and a movie version of his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold was shot in Mompox. But that’s not surprising. In Mompox time doesn’t seem to have simply stood still, it seems to have gone backward in a feat worthy of the “magical realism” the author helped to perfect. Learn more about exploring Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia, including Mompox, in the piece we did for the Biography channel’s website.

Magdelena River Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture on the riverfront of the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotels in Mompox

The town’s existing selection of budget to mid-range family-run guest houses, which seem to outnumber actual visitors, has been augmented in post UNESCO status times by more polished (but still under US$100) offerings. The pioneer is La Casa Amarilla which is run by British expat and journalist Richard McColl and his Colombian wife Alba. The hotel is homey and fully appointed and has an enviable location on the riverfront right next to La Iglesia Santa Barbara. Guest benefit from the owners’ local knowledge.

Iglesia Santa Barbara - Mompox, Colombia

La Iglesia Santa Barbara, built in 1630,  is right on the recently-restored waterfront and right next to La Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Richard was the only gringo in Mompox until the recent arrival of a second one who opened an Italian restaurant near the hotel and planted a nine foot tall fork in the ground in front of it.

Two boutique hotels have also recently opened in Mompox. Portales de la Marquesa opened in 2013 after a 14 month renovation of a house that dates back to 1735.  Located on the riverfront, the hotel is now a chic haven with air conditioning, WiFi, fine art, original tile floors, a small pool and a lush central courtyard. You can rent individual rooms or the whole property.

 Portales de la Marqueza Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

The enormous suite at Portales de la Marqueza boutique hotel in a restored Colonial building in Mompox, Colombia.

Bioma Boutique Hotel opened in 2011 after a year of sometimes controversial renovations which included a fair amount of demolition and hand washing the original terracotta roof tiles. New ironwork was all produced locally and the view from the roof deck is amazing. Don’t miss the small niche to the left of the front door, a remnant of the days when the building was used as a movie theater and tickets were sold through the niche.

Bioma Boutique Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

A guest room at Bioma Boutique Hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.

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A view of Mompox rooftops from the roof deck a the Bioma Boutique Hotel.

Eating and drinking in Mompox

Head for the square in front of the Santo Domingo Church and look for the cooks and waiters wearing shirts that say Asadero Donde Chepa. Here you’ll eat the best US$4 steak you’ll ever have along with homemade chimichurri and fantastic hot sauce.

Asadero Donde Chepa - Mompox, Colombia

Head to Asadero Donde Chepa in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mompox for tasty grilled meat meals at economical prices.

Then head to Plaza Concepcion and Cafe Ti where you can claim a rocking chair out front, enjoy a cold beer and watch local boys play chess on fold-up mats as bats swoop overhead and the Magdalena slowly meanders by. Look for the saxaphone on the wall outside the front door and look forward to hearing New Orleans style jazz and ragtime as you enjoy the breeze.

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Locals play chess on fold out boards in front of Casa Ti on Plaza Concepcion in Mompox, Colombia.

A great economical lunch can be had at Comedor Costeña where around US$4 gets you a full plate of meat, salad, rice and a cold beverage right next to the river.

Things to do in Mompox

If you insist on “doing something” in Mompox you can visit the Museo de Arte Religioso (about US$2) for a guided tour of religious paintings and statues, silver pieces and portraits of Bolívar. The Casa de Cultura (about US$1) can also be visited. Keep your eyes open for original frescoes peeking through some walls. Just be aware that you may have to wake somebody up to let you.

Local crafts include delicate filigree jewelery and brutally sweet fruit wine but that’s about the extent of your shopping options.

You can also book a river trip on the Magdalena or to small islands within the sprawling, Mississippi-like flow.

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

The end of another lazy day in Mompox, Colombia as the sunset lights up the sky behind La Iglesia Concepcion.

Getting to Mompox

Getting to Mompox is tricky because the town sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains. However, reaching Mompox has gotten easier since we were there.

When we made the trip from Aracataca it took seven hours of driving including more than 40 miles (65 km) over rough unpaved road and a “ferry” over the Magdalena River itself which consisted of three pontoons tied together with a platform on top for people and vehicles.

Our heavy truck made the whole contraption groan and pitch as we pulled on along with seven motorcycles and about a dozen people. Check it out in our video, below.

Our truck got stuck getting off the ferry on the other side of the river when a rear tire pushed the ferry backward, trapping the tire between the ferry ramp and the riverbank. It took four men to push us out in four-wheel drive. After another 20 miles (32 km) of bad road we finally reached Mompox.

Travel tip: If the route you choose takes you past a town called La Gloria make time for a brief visit because this is the birthplace of the Biblioburro, a mobile lending library on the back of a donkey.  We regret not stopping.

The trip to Mompox has recently gotten much easier. The route from Aracataca is now entirely paved and a new eight mile (12 km) long bridge is scheduled to open in December 2015 which will ease access even more. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.

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The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, New UNESCO World Heritage Site

Everyone remembers The Alamo, but UNESCO wants us to remember far more than that. This year UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on The Alamo and San Antonio Missions in Texas, honoring this collection of five missions, which were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century, as “an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”

The Alamo and San Antonio Missions

The Alamo is most famous as the site where Mexican fighters trounced the “Texican” army (yes, that was the real name), a defeat which created the rallying cry “remember The Alamo” and inspired others to battle the Mexicans and ultimately take huge tracts of land for the US. But The Alamo is also a mission which is located in the center of modern-day San Antonio. The San Antonio Missions are scattered around the surrounding area. Here’s a look at The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the US.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo, aka the Alamo Mission.

Mission Espalda - San Antonio Missions

Mission Espalda, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Concepcion - San Antonio Missions

Mission Concepcion, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission San Jose - San Antonio Missions

Mission San Jose, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Espalda bells - San Antonio Missions

The bell tower at Mission Espalda.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo Mission at night.

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Our Second Favorite City – Granada, Nicaragua

Nicaragua is not known for preserving the past. Granada, with its Colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, is a rare exception to this rule. It’s often called Nicaragua’s most beautiful city and when we traveled there we found a real looker of a city with a stunning boutique hotel bargain, great locals and a pleasant slow, steamy pace. However, Granada ended up being our second favorite city in Nicaragua.

View of Colonia Granada, Nicaragua and Lake Nicaragua

A birds’ eye view of Colonial Granada, Nicaragua.

Colorful colonial houses - Granada, Nicaragua

The Colonial architecture of Granada, Nicaragua, like this typical house, is in various stages of restoration.

Old Granada

Granada was founded by the Spanish in 1524 which makes it, according to some, the first European city on mainland Latin America. The settlement was named after Granada, Spain and the Spanish used it as a more southerly seat of power in conjunction with Antigua, Guatemala.

Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

The main cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua is called the Antiguo Convento San Francisco and it was built in 1592.

In addition to Spanish conquistadors, Granada has been invaded by the English, the French, the Dutch and a whole bunch of pirates including Henry Morgan. The most bizarre interloper, however, came from the United States.

Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

Iglesia La Merced, built in 1534, in Granada, Nicaragua.

Wacky William Walker

If he were alive today, William Walker would probably have been a member of the Tea Party. Back in the mid 1800s he had to settle for the Filibusters (aka Freebooters) who thought it was perfectly reasonable to just rock on up to a foreign country, establish an English speaking colony and then pretty much take over.

Oddly enough, that cockamamie tactic worked and Walker was actually President of Nicaragua for a year (albeit a spectacularly unpopular one). A fighting force cobbled together from the armies of various Central American countries finally kicked the Filibusterers (is that a word?) out of Nicaragua. In a final act of contrition they set fire to Granada as they fled.

Learn more about this Walker character in the 1987 movie Walker starring Ed Harris.

San Francisco Church Museum - Granada, Nicaragua

The San Francisco Church museum in Granada, Nicaragua has a large collection of indigenous artifacts and modern art.

It’s a wonder any of the Colonial architecture survived, but some did including the lovely yellow main cathedral and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco which was built in 1592 by Franciscan monks and is now home to indigenous sculpture, pottery and modern paintings (US$2). Iglesia La Merced is even older, built in 1534. Climb the narrow, curving staircase to the roof (US$1) for fantastic views over the clay tiled roofs of the surrounding Colonial structures.

Merced Cathedral - Granada, Nicaragua

A cupola view from the roof of the Merced Cathedral in Granada, Nicaragua.

View from Iglesia Merced - Granada, Nicaragua

A view over Granada, Nicaragua from the bell tower of the Iglesia La Merced which was built in 1534.

For some really, really old bits and pieces of Granada visit Mi Museo (free) where Peter Kolind, owner of the nearby Hotel La Bocona, has filled a gorgeously restored Colonial home with thousands of pre-Colombian artifacts. Mr. Kolind has found and purchased so many bits and pieces (more than 7,000 at last count) of the past that the entire exhibit changes every three months.

Colonial Granada, Nicaragua

A cross in front of the Antiguo Convento San Francisco in Granada, Nicaragua.

New Granada

Granada’s Colonial bones have been getting a slow but steady spruce up thanks to the city’s latest invaders: retired (or semi-retired) foreigners. Lots and lots of them. At times it feels like Granada is content to have sold its soul to foreigners looking for a place where their retirement funds go further. If a few travelers stop by that’s just gravy.

Cale de Calzada bars - Granada, Nicaragua

The pedestrian-only Calle de Calzada where expats, locals and travelers mix in Granada, Nicaragua.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on Calle de Calzada, a pedestrian-only street that breaks away off the main plaza. The promenade and the surrounding blocks are lined with foreigners enjoy foreigner stuff: bars (including the mandatory Irish bar), cafes, a few souvenir shops, a fabulous home made gelato shop and some noted restaurants including meat-centric El Zaguan (Nicaragua is famous for its beef) which was recommended to us by Chef Ben Slow who operates one of our favorite eateries in all of Nicaragua, Cafe Campestre on Ometepe Island.

Centralito Bar - Granada, Nicaragua

Centralito is one of the more modest, traditional bars (and therefore our favorite) on Granda’s Calle de Calzada.

Because so many foreigners (both expats and visitors) spend so much time in this area there are also a lot of begging children. We were glad to see business owners and locals making the point that child beggars are a new phenomenon (remember, Nicaragua is a socialist country) and most of the kids are not homeless or starving. They’ve simply learned that getting a handout is easier than going to school or getting a job. Don’t perpetrate the cycle.

Marimba Band - Granada, Nicaragua

A roving marimba band plays for tips on the Calle de Calzada in Granada, Nicaragua.

A much more welcome new addition to Granada is a small but growing crop of remarkably polished and shockingly affordable boutique hotels in addition to the city’s existing grungy hostels and slightly slumping, fairly uninspired Colonial style hotels.

pool Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

The courtyard pool at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

The best of the bunch is Los Patios Hotel where less than US$100 per night gets you stunning Scandanavia-meets-Spanish-Colonial style, a perfectly serene atmosphere and a gourmet breakfast. More reasons to book are in our full review of Los Patios Hotel.

Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Stark design and Colonial touches, like replicas of original tile, mix at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Boutique Hotel Los Patios - Granada, Nicaragua

Your gourmet breakfast is served here at Hotel Los Patios in Granada, Nicaragua.

Another stylish and even more affordable choice is  Hotel Con Corazon. Run by a foundation, 100% of profits from the hotel are used to help local kids finish school. There are 15 rooms around a central courtyard that has a pool and breezy patios. Room rates, starting at around US$60, include Wi-Fi and breakfast. The feel-good factor is free.

Horse Carriages - Granada, Nicaragua

We urge you to think twice or even three times before patronizing any of the horse drawn carriages on offer in Granada.

Momentary rant: You can’t swing a dead cat in Granada without hitting a horse pulling a tourist buggy. There have been allegations of mistreatment of these horses in recent years and despite a handful of improvements you may still want to think twice about promoting the practice of paying a man enough to (hopefully) feed and care for himself and his family but not his horse so you can be clippity-clopped around a city you should be seeing on foot anyway. If you ask us, this goes for any destination still offering horse-drawn carriage rides including New York City.

View from Merced Church - Granada, Nicaragua

The view from Iglesia La Merced in Granada, Nicaragua.

Our Granada

The pros in Granada far outweighed any cons so we decided to stay a while and rented an apartment for a month. Though the influx of gringos is pushing real estate prices higher and higher we found a dark, breezeless furnished studio apartment with a grungy bathroom and a small bat problem for US$350 per month including water, cable and Wi-Fi through GPS Properties.

GPS apartment rental Granada, Nicaragua

Our lovely apartment for a month in Granada, Nicaragua.

 The very best part of this apartment was the quite street it was on, home to Nicaraguans and gringos. Every evening as the (scorching) sun went down our neighbors would drag big wooden rocking chairs out onto the sidewalk or street in front of their doors to catch the breeze and the latest gossip.

This evening ritual is also a chance for everyone to check on everyone else. Nowhere else in Central America did we feel this ownership of a neighborhood by its residents and we think that pride and responsibility is part of the reason Nicaragua is the safest country in the region–far safer than murder-plagued Honduras and reliably safer than Panama and Costa Rica too, according to The Economist magazine. Shenanigans simply aren’t tolerated.

Our other favorite thing about being in this apartment for a month was the fruit lady. Every morning she’d roam the ‘hood toting a four foot (1.5 meter) wide rattan basket full of fresh fruit. We still have no idea how she lifted the thing full of watermelons and papayas and pineapples and we were tempted to buy more than we needed just to lighten her load.

She quickly learned to pause in front of our door and call out “amiga” and we quickly learned to buy all of our fruit from her. If she didn’t have something that we wanted during her morning rounds she would return with it, or send her daughter, later in the day. The fruit was delicious and dirt cheap and her smile was always free.

Because the apartment did not come with any parking facility we arranged to leave our truck in a filthy lot adjacent to a nearby fire department. In a shocking insight into modern socialist Nicaragua, which is the poorest country in Central America, our US$20 per month parking fee meant the firemen had some money to put gas in the fire engine’s tank.

Read about our #1 favorite city in Nicaragua

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Relics, Eruptions and Mysterious Mounds – Around Cartago, Costa Rica

The small city of Cartago, less than 30 miles (48 kilometers) from San Jose, was established by the Spanish in 1563. For the next 200 years or so it served as the very first capital of Costa Rica until Irazú Volcano erupted and destroyed most of the city. What remained was ultimately wiped out by two massive earthquakes. Cartago was eventually rebuilt though, sadly, not in its original Colonial style. It’s now a base for travel to nearby Irazú and Turrialba volcanoes as well as the Guayabo archaeological site.

Ruins St Bartholomew church Cartago

Earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have demolished the small city of Cartago, Costa Rica more than once. All that remains of the St. Bartholomew Church are these atmospheric walls.

Cartago’s Our Lady of the Angels Basilica (Basílica de Nuestra Señora de los Ángeles in Spanish) retains some Colonial architecture mixed with 19th century Byzantine style and various other types of architecture that were employed during numerous reconstructions of the church which has been repeatedly damaged by eruptions and earthquakes. The result is a kind of religious M.C. Escher effect.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles Cartago

Our Lady of the Angels Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica houses La Negrita, a religious icon said to be capable of performing healing miracles.

The miracle of the black Madonna

The basilica was built because of La Negrita (the Black Madonna), a small, dark stone figure said to have been discovered by a local indigenous girl in 1635. When she tried to take the figure with her it repeatedly found its way back to where it was found so they built the basilica on the spot. You can see La Negrita on a gold platform near the main altar of the basilica.

La Negrita Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles

The interior of Our Lady of the Angles Basilica in Cartago, Costa Rica is an architectural mish-mash that looks a bit like an M.C. Escher drawing.

In 1824 La Negrita was declared Costa Rica’s patron Virgin and people still travel to the basilica seeking her healing powers. A museum in the crypt below the church is filled with votives (or milagros in Spanish) which are tiny charm-like representations of ailments (hearts, legs, etc) left by those seeking La Negrita‘s help.

Basilica de Nuestra Senora de los Angeles interior

Every August pilgrims flock to Our Lady of the Angels Basilica, the most important religious site in Costa Rica.

Some consider the basilica to be the most important religious site in Costa Rica and thousands of the faithful make a pilgrimage here every August.

In Cartago we stayed at Casa Mora, a comfortable, spotless and homey B&B in what used to be the Mora family’s home. A prime example of city rebuilding done in the ’70s, Casa Mora’s wacky entryway fountain, split level design, beaded curtains and orange/brown/yellow color scheme had us thinking Brady Bunch, not Mora family.

A volcano comes (back) to life

Turrialba Volcano seen from Irazu volcano

Smoke puffs out of the recently-revived Turriabla Volcano in the distance, as seen from one of the craters of Costa Rica’s Irazú Volcano which is also active.

In January of 2010, the centerpiece of Turrialba Volcano National Park, showed signs of life after a 140 year nap. This 10,958 foot (3,340 meter) volcano has been rumbling, spewing and erupting off and on ever since creating two new vents and prompting some evacuations.

The road up to Turrialba Volcano National Park and the crater rim is hellish so we skipped it and headed to nearby Irazúu Volcano National Park (US$10 per person), just 10 miles (16 kilometers) from Cartago, instead.

We arrived at the parking lot and the start of the short trail around Irazú’s craters at 9 am and were rewarded for our efforts with clear skies and fantastic views of Turrialba in the near distance. Plumes of smoke were clearly wafting into the air out of Turrialba’s crater.

crater Irazu Volcano

A small lake in one of the craters of Irazú Volcano in Costa Rica as seen from a trail in Irazú Volcano National Park.

Irazú is also an active volcano and some experts theorize that the renewed activity of Turrialba could spark more action at Irazú too. Not for nothing, we were asked to back into a parking space to ensure a speedy get away should Irazú try any funny business.

Irazu Volcano National Park Costa Rica

On a very, very clear day you can see the both the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans from Irazú Volcano National Park in Costa Rica.

The mysterious mounds of Guayabo

One of the best places to take in Turrialba Volcano is from Guayabo de Turrialba National Monument (US$10 per person) on the volcano’s southern slope. Guayaba is the only pre-Colombian site in Costa Rica and dates back 2,500 years. It’s not a Mayan site, so don’t expect soaring temples.

Overview Guayabo ruins Costa Rica

Mysterious mounds and circles are a distinguishing feature of Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument, the only pre-Colombian archaeological site in Costa Rica.

What’s been excavated at Guayaba includes intricately carved stones, an even more intricate water management system and a series of odd mounds which can be easily toured in 45 minutes via a gentle trail.

 Guayabo archaeological site Costa Rica

Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument is one of the few archaeological sites in Costa Rica and the only one that dates back to pre-Colombian times.

Rock carving Guayabo archaeological site

Carved rocks, an impressive water management system and odd mounds in the ground are hallmarks of the Guayaba de Turrialba National Monument in Costa Rica.

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Not So Scary – San Salvador, El Salvador

You will be warned not to stop in San Salvador. These warnings will come from Salvadorans. You will be tempted to heed them. After all, the capital of El Salvador does have a growing problem with gang violence. Newspapers sometimes refer to the victims as “the new disappeared” in an eery, fear-inducing flashback to the country’s not so distant civil war. Some areas of the sprawling city really are seriously sketch to travel through (looking at you, Soyopango area), but we stopped in San Salvador anyway. And we stayed. And we found that the city is really not so scary.Here’s what else we found.

The most jaw-dropping church in Latin America (so far)

We’ve seen hundreds of churches during our Trans-Americas Journey but the most memorable and unusual one so far is in the middle of San Salvador. The irreverent, controversial, absolutely compelling Church of the Rosary (Iglesia el Rosario) was created in 1971 by artist and architect Rubén Martinez who tweaked everything you normally associate with a Catholic church in Latin America.

 Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Artist and architect Rubén Martinez tweaked the standard elements of a Catholic church when he created Iglesia el Rosario, the Church of the Rosary, which is the most surprising Catholic church we’ve seen during the Trans-Americas Journey (so far).   

The exterior looks like a derelict airplane hangar. The cross looks like a rudimentary ship mast. Inside there are no pillars or columns. Stained glass windows have been created by randomly imbedding hunks of colored glass into the curved, bare concrete walls and ceiling. The stark, simple altar is on the same level as the pews.

Exterior Iglesia de Rosario - San Salvador, El Salvador

Yes, this is a church and the inside of Iglesia el Rosario is even more unexpected and compelling.

To the right of the altar is an area that houses the remains of brother Nicolas Vicente, and Manuel Aguilar (heroes of El Salvadoran independence) and representations of the stations of the cross. So often melodramatic and predictable, the stations of the cross in the Iglesia de Rosario are depicted in thoroughly modern, enticingly abstract sculptures created by Martinez in carved stone, wrought iron and re-bar. If you see just one thing in the capital of El Salvador it should be this church.

Stations of the Cross sculpture, Iglesia de Rosario

This is one of the stations of the cross inside Iglesia el Rosario in San Salvador.

Sculpture by Rubén Martinez in Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

Rubén Martinez, the creator of Iglesia el Rosario, is also a renowned sculptor. This piece is in the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) in San Salvador.

Just a few blocks from Iglesia el Rosario is the Metropolitan Cathedral which was recently rebuilt then renovated. Honestly, it looks like a mash-up of church and the conference room in a Marriott hotel and is weirdly modern and bland inside.

Metropolitan Cathedral - San Salvador

The modern Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

The cathedral is home to a (well) hidden site, however. Go to the right side of the cathedral and walk into an unmarked door. Go down a flight of stairs and you will find yourself in the final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero. The priest’s assassination by death squads in 1980 tilted El Salvador into civil war and the sanctuary around his tomb is a serene, reverential area that’s been set aside for personal reflection. Do not miss it.

Tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero

The final resting place of Archbishop Oscar Romero underneath the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador.

 

One of the best  boutique hotels in Central American

Opened in 2011, Casa ILB is a minimalist, elegant and (for now) shocking affordable winner of a boutique hotel with rates from US$110 double including a lovely breakfast buffet. Check out our full review of Casa ILB for iTraveliShop. Another reason to check in to Casa ILB? Il Buon Gustaio, the iconic restaurant adjacent to the hotel which the owner has run for more than 10 years using family recipes to create authentic Italian dishes from scratch. The handwritten menu is extensive and traditional. Your fellow diners will likely include ambassadors, socialites and heads of industry.

Speaking of food, not far from Casa ILB, in the same swanky neighborhood, is Restaurante Citron. Opened in 2006, this hip/chic restaurant is helmed by chef Eduardo Harth a Salvadoran who was raised and trained in the US where he was sous chef at the award-winning Grapeseed Bistro in Bethesda, Maryland. Then he decided it was time to bring his talents home.

Now chef Harth prepares daring dishes in a house that’s been converted into a restaurant. He bakes his own bread, makes his own cheese, kills his own farmed venison and changes the menu more or less monthly. We loved the rich/sweet/salty house-cured duck prosciutto with maple syrup, venison loin so tender we didn’t need a knife and giant squid on a bed of grilled asparagus and radicchio with a complex sour orange and cinnamon glaze. Eat at the bar in front of the small, open kitchen and you get a free show with your meal.

When it was time to leave Casa ILB we embarked on the hunt for our more normal level of accommodation. We found Villa Florencia. At US$13 a night for a clean double room with a fan, private bathroom and WiFi plus secure, enclosed parking big enough for our truck we were sold. The only bummer is that Villa Florencia is located in the depressing, neglected downtown area. While not exactly unsafe, downtown is certainly not interesting unless you’re into dirty streets and decaying buildings.

Decaying buildings - San Salvador, El Salvador

Sadly neglected buildings in downtown San Salvador.

 

Some very moving monuments

El Salvador was in a bloody civil war from 1980 to 1992, the second longest civil war in Central American history. During that time at least 75,000 people died and many, many more “disappeared” and pre-war massacres killed many, many more. The war may be over, but the remembering is not.

Revolutionary mural - San Salvador, El Salvador

El Salvador’s civil war is commemorated in many ways.

Monuments large and small commemorating the war and the fallen can be found all over El Salvador. The capital has the most moving places to visit which mark the start of the war and it’s aftermath.

The situation between the military backed Salvadoran government and the country’s poor was already bad by March 24, 1980, the day Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down by government death squads while performing mass. His assassination, proceeded by the Archbishop’s request that US President Jimmy Carter stop backing the Salvadoran military and a call for members of the military to defy their orders and stop massacring villagers, tilted the country into outright civil war.

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital (Hospital la Divinia Providencia), where this tireless defender of the rights of the common man was killed with a single shot to the heart while standing at the pulpit, is surprisingly modern and bright and serene. It’s still in use.

Church at Divine Providence Hospital where Romero assisinated

The chapel at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador where death squads murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero during mass, plunging the country into full civil war.

Much more intimate and moving was a visit to the humble house near the chapel where the Archbishop was living at the time of his death. His beloved Toyota Corona is in the carport (the owner’s manual is also proudly displayed). His monogrammed towels are hung neatly in the bathroom, as if he’s due back soon. His typewriter, used to compose sermons, is on his desk. His passport and a collection of oddly hippie-ish rings are on a table.  His blood stained vestments are in a glass case.

Mural - Divine Providence Hospital where Romero was assissinated

A mural at Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador honoring Archbishop Oscar Romero who spent his last days living and working here until death squads killed him in 1980.

Many horrific things happened between the day the Archbishop died and the day the peace accords were signed in 1992. While the country struggles to come to terms with the atrocities of war a monument to those who died has been created.

The Monument to Memory and Truth (Monumento a la Memoria y la Verdad) in Cuscatlán Park is reminiscent of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Completed in 2003, this 300 foot long (85 meter) black granite wall has been engraved with the names of nearly 30,000 people who died or disappeared–less than 1/2 of the estimated total body count.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The wall is also engraved with the town names in which massacres took place leading up to and during the civil war. There are so many of them that they had to be organized by year. Some village names turn up more than once. The wall does not include the 30,000 plus Salvadorans killed during genocide that took place in the country in the 1930s, but sometimes it takes baby steps to get to the truth. It’s a start.

Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador

The Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador is a massive wall of black granite inscribed with the names of just a portion of the tens of thousands who were killed or “disappeared” during El Salvador’s 12 year civil war.

The park is a calm, relatively green oasis in the middle of San Salvador, an appropriate place to visit and reflect on what happened in El Salvador and continues to happen around the world today.

Part of the Monument to Peace and Truth - San Salvador, El Salvador

The people hold up a picture of Archbishop Oscar Romero on a portion of the Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador.

Monument to the Revolution - Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE)

This massive mosaic in front of the Museo de Arte de El Salvador (MARTE) is called Monument to the Revolution.

 

A delicious battle of the pupusas

Take a palm-full of masa (corn or rice paste), form it into a ball, spoon in a dollop of filling, then flatten it and grill it on a hot griddle and you’ve got yourself a pupusa, the national dish of El Salvador. Pupusas are usually filled with chicharon (fried pork), beans, cheese, loroco (the flower bud of a vine which tastes like asparagus and is said to be an aphrodisiac) or a shredded squash called ayote or any combination of those ingredients. But there are creative alternatives if you know where to look.

Though pupusas are available everywhere in El Salvador, perhaps the best place to sample them is a neighborhood of San Salvador called Antigua Cuscatlán. Salvadorans come from miles around to feast on pupusas here and everyone seems to have a favorite pupuseria among the dozens or so that have set up shop in this part of town.

Papusas at Pupuseria La Unica - Antigua Cuscatlán, El Salvador

Making our favorite pupusas at La Unica pupuseria in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

In our humble opinion the best made, best priced examples of this ubiquitous food are found at a pupuseria called La Unica, a large, bustling, bright little eatery which hunkers down behind the church in the square in Antigua Cuscatlán. Many swear by a nearby much fancier pupuseria that is certainly the place to go if you want ingredients that go beyond the usual suspects (like jalapeños and mozzarella cheese). They’ll even give you a knife and fork (!?!?) to eat your gourmet pupusa with. However, we’re traditionalist who prefer the classic ingredients and like eating with our hands.

An eco hotel worth the name

We’d gone to Antigua Cuscatlán to check out an eco hotel called Arbol de Fuego. The hotel has implemented all the usual eco measures including long life bulbs and “please re-use your towels” signs. But this homey, tranquil boutique guesthouse has also adopted a ton of other initiatives like low-flow showers (using a simple adaptions dreamed up by her handyman), a greenhouse created for drying laundry which is washed using EPA approved detergents, all appliances are unplugged when not in use and all garbage is sorted so that local collectors can pick up pre-sorted bags to recycle without the indignity of digging through the hotel’s garbage looking for tin cans or glass bottles. The result of many small, smart steps has been an epic reduction in energy use, water consumption and pollution.

The owner, a passionately green woman named Carolina, has kept meticulous records of the profitable side effects her eco efforts. Her success has been so big and so well documented that Carolina is now helping other small hotels in El Salvador take the environmental plunge. BONUS: Hotel Arbol de Fuego is within walking distance of all those pupuserieas.

One regret: we never made it to a coffee shop called Viva Espresso to sample coffee made by Alejandro Mendez, the 2011 World Barista Champion.

 

Guadalupe church - San Salvador, El Salvador

The Guadalupe church in the Antigua Cuscatlán area of San Salvador.

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Doin’ Time in Tegus – Tegucigalpa, Honduras

You wouldn’t automatically put most Central American capital cities (BelmopanGuatemala City, San Salvador, Managua, etc.) on the top of your travel to-do list but they do have their charms, you just usually need some local help to uncover them. For example, we didn’t have high hopes for Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, but then we found a great burger, a really good museum or two, a nice little hotel and more with a some help from our local friend Edo.

Tugucigalpa (just Tegus to some) has been the capital of Honduras since 1880. In 1921 Tegus was also the capital of the Republic of Central America, created by mashing together Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. You can imagine how well that worked out.

Cathedral - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras was completed in 1782.

Cathedral altar - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

The ornate altar in the Cathedral in central Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

The city started life as a mining town and has never quite shed those down and dirty roots. The city now suffers from Los Angeles-like sprawl, creeping and oozing over a vast area (we got horribly lost coming into town). Buildings decay, cars honk and belch and people continue to migrate to this city that seems supremely ill-prepared to take them in.

Still, thanks to Edo’s insider suggestions, we found some eating, sleeping and touring highlights in Tegus. Now you can too.

Lempira statue - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A statue of legendary Lencan leader Chief Lempira in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Someone stuck flyers calling for worker' rights on his chest.

 

A perfectly respectable burger

In-N-Out has nothing to worry about, but the burgers we had with Edo at an outdoor institution called Bigos were more than respectable. We ordered at a window (80L or about US$4 for a big burger and 24L or about US$1.25 for a beer), then ate on plastic picnic tables in the midst of a parking lot. Not classy, but we liked the vaguely ’50s drive-in vibe and the grilled burger was not puny and came on a good bun with a pile of tasty fries.

More than 40 embassies and consulates currently exist in Tegucigalpa which means food from around the world is available, some of it world-class. Edo was dying ot take us to a place called Había Una Vez. The owners are French and Peruvian and so is the food. He loves the bar as well. Sadly, Habia Una Vez was closed every time we stopped by.

Edo also told us there’s even a place in Tegus which sells local microbrewery beer. It’s called Joe’s Sports Bar but it’s weirdly and inconveniently located by the airport so we never got there either.

We did grab a bite at Asados El Gordo, an Argentinian steak house that Edo recommended. We weren’t hungry enough for a steak but we really enjoyed their filling and relatively cheap empanadas.

Food fights

Tegus is also full of international fast food chains (not that that’s where you want to eat) and their presence has inspired some very interesting controversy. When we were in town McDonald’s and KFC were the target of angry graffiti accusing the chains of tax evasion.

McDonalds & KFC wanted for tax ivasion - Nicaragua

This spray painted protest on a wall in Tegucigalpa accuses McDonald's and KFC of tax evasion. Occupy Nicaragua!

We also came across a business called DK’d Donuts complete with pink and brown colors and a distinctly Dunkin’ Donuts script. The story we heard is that the owner of DK’d got screwed out of his Dunkin’ Donuts franchise in Tegus and opened DK’d instead.

DK'D donuts - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

If it looks like Dunkin' Donuts, smells like Dunkin' Donuts and tastes like Dunkin' Donuts...

Copan stelae -  National Art Gallery, Tegucigalpa, Honduras

A stelae from the Copán archaeological site displayed in the National Art Gallery in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Despite it’s vaguely disturbing name, the relatively new Museum for National Identity (Museo para la Identidad Nacional in Spanish) provided a comprehensive, if a bit overwhelming, collection of Honduras’ greatest hits. From pre-Columbian times to a virtual theater experience of the country’s world-famous Copán archaeological site to the present day it’s all here under one roof (though don’t be fooled–nothing compares to actually visiting the Copán site). Worth the 60L (US$3) admission price.

The National Art Gallery (Galeria Nacional de Atre in Spanish) charged a more reasonable 30L (US$1.50) and delivered ancient art and petroglyphs but we enjoyed the modern art (all by Honduran artists) the most. The building it’s in is beautiful as well.

The National Museum of History and Anthropology Villa Roy (Museo Nacional de Historia y Antrhopologia Villa Roy in Spanish ), in a mansion that was the home of ex Honduran President Julio Lozano, also sounded interesting but it was closed to do water damage when we were in Tegus.

For culture of a different kind, Edo recommends Café Paradiso, a bohemian coffee house in the center of Tegus where you can watch independent films or find poets reading their work.

Iglesia Los Dolores - Tegucigalpa, Honduras

Carvings on the front of Iglesia Los Dolores in Tegucigalpa represent scenes from the Passion of the Christ.

 

A homey haven

With all those embassies, consulates and expats around Tegus is full of international business-class hotels (Intercontinental, Marriott, et al). But we wanted to see what an ambitious, locally owned hotel was all about. Portal del Angel, which was just about the first boutique hotel in Tegucigalpa when it opened ten years ago, hosted us while we were in town. While their website may oversell the “boutique hotel” part of this establishment, which is showing signs of wear and tear which the owners are slowly addressing, the hotel is in a quiet neighborhood and was a calm haven.

Day trips

A short trip northeast of Tegus takes you to Santa Lucía and Valle de Angeles,  two towns known for offering great Honduran food and well-made handicrafts at reasonable price–in other words, eating and shopping. Edo says not to miss the tea house in front of the church in Santa Lucia.

Edo also urged us to visit La Tigra National Park (Parque Nacional La Tigra in Spanish), the first national park in Honduras. The park is famous for its cloud forest, but the US$10 per person entry fee kept us away.

 

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