The Most Complicated Tourist Attraction on Earth? – National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York City

We recently traveled back home to New York City for an overdue visit with family and friends. While we were there we made it a priority to visit the National September 11 Memorial & Museum. We lived just two blocks from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on the day of the terrorist attack and like millions of other New Yorkers, US citizens and people around the world, that day changed our lives forever (including inspiring our Trans-Americas Journey).

9-11 memorial One World Trade Tower - Freedom Tower

The Freedom Tower, the tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, soars above one of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City.

Is this the most complicated tourist attraction on earth?

After so many years of pushing and shoving to find the “right” way to memorialize Ground Zero and honor the victims. A staggering  5,201 submissions from architects and designers from 63 countries were submitted for the project and everyone, it seemed, had an opinion about what was appropriate for Ground Zero.

We wanted to see what had finally been created on hallowed ground where 2,753 people from around the world lost their lives during the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center on September 11.

September 11 Memorial Pool - South Tower 2

The National September 11 Memorial is made up of two reflecting pools created in the footprint of each of the Twin Towers.

The memorial portion of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum consists of two large, outdoor reflecting pools constructed in the exact footprint of each of the Twin Towers. Each square pool is recessed into the ground and has four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) tall waterfalls and a final waterfall in the center. The falling water was strangely peaceful as it rushed into the mysterious central space in a never-ending flow.

National 9-11 Memorial Museum

Each of the two reflecting pools at the National September 11 Memorial are recessed cubes with four walls of 30 foot (eight meter) waterfalls.

Both reflecting pools are ringed by a bronze border deeply inscribed with nearly 3,000 names including the 2,977 victims who died in the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the four hijacked planes on September 11 plus the victims of the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.

The city of New York expects the memorial and museum to be major tourist attractions. The memorial brochure is printed in eight different languages in an attempt to communicate with visitors from across the globe.

Survivor Tree withstood 9/11 attacks 9-11 Memorial

The so-called Survivor Tree at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City was salvaged from the wreckage of the Twin Towers and now flourishes as part of the outdoor memorial.

Family members of victims are encouraged to place a white rose in the name of their loved one, adding an element of softness and life to the memorial. Another unexpectedly moving part of the memorial, for us, was the so-called Survivor Tree. A mere eight foot stump when it was found in the wreckage of the Twin Towers, the pear tree was nursed back to life and has been re-planted in the midst of the memorial.

Controversial September 11 Museum

When we visited the memorial, the museum had not yet opened. Now that it is open to the public we think we’re glad we didn’t get the chance to visit it. While we understand the purpose of a September 11 Museum we don’t understand why it had to be constructed on the site itself. Though we had friends who should have been in the towers on September 11 but miraculously weren’t, we don’t personally know anyone who died in the terrorist attack. Still, putting a museum on a spot that represents he final resting place for so many seems unnecessarily close.

Also, the US$24 museum entrance fee (the outdoor memorial is free) feels slightly offensive, though we were happy to learn that every Tuesday night between 5 pm and 8 pm (last entrance at 7 pm) entry is free and, of course, family members of the victims and 9-11 rescue and recovery workers are always welcomed free of charge.

We’re not the only ones who have a sort of sick feeling about the museum and this piece written by the brother of a victim expresses those misgivings, as he tours the museum, very, very eloquently.

National 9-11 Memorial 75 West Street

The neon green line outlines the building we lived in on the day of the attacks on the World Trade Center just two blocks away.

The World Trade Center was our neighbor

We returned to New York in 1999 after a four year backpacking trip through South and Southeast Asia and we immediately moved downtown to the financial district. The area was being rejuvenated and rents were affordable. We found a great one bedroom apartment and settled in. Our most dynamic neighbor was the World Trade Center and for years the Twin Towers, just a few blocks away, factored into our view and our daily lives.

Our history with these buildings is complicated and visiting the National September 11 Memorial & Museum was both settling and unsettling. Here are some of our own memories.

World Trade center from New York Harbor

The World Trade Center in more peaceful days as seen from New York Harbor.

World Trade Center reflection

The Twin Towers were always most beautiful at night.

World Trade Center 11

Sparkling Twin Towers dominated the New York City skyline and the view from our apartment three blocks away.

First and second plane crash into WTC

On the morning of the attack Eric was on the roof of our apartment building taking photos of the chaos. These shots were taken minutes after each of the two planes impacted the towers.

WTC collapse aftermath on West Street

This is what our street looked like in the minutes between the collapse of the first tower and the collapse of the second tower. The awning on the right hand side of this photo that says “75 West” is the entrance to our building.

Landing gear of American Airlines #11 WTC North Tower

Landing gear from American Airlines flight #11, which crashed into the North Tower, landed near the entrance to our apartment building.

Moments before 2nd WTC tower collapsed

Seconds after this photo was taken the second tower collapsed.

WTC burning while evacuating to New Jersey

As Eric was evacuated across the Hudson River to New Jersey, lower Manhattan looked apocalyptic as the World Trade Center burned.

9 9-11-skyline-from-NJ

Lower Manhattan smouldered for days, a constant reminder of an attack we were all still trying to comprehend.

10 National-Guard-WTC-ruins-from-75-West-Street

The National Guard was called in to man the streets of lower Manhattan, much of it an FBI crime scene (including our apartment building, seen on the left), in the weeks after the terrorist attack on September 11.

Ground Zero from roof 75 West Street

The angular wreckage of the Twin Towers from the roof of our apartment building.

Ground Zero Cleanup - South Tower 2 Washington Street

It seemed like the rubble would never get cleared away from the site or from our minds. This shot was taken from the front of our apartment building looking two blocks down Washington Street.

Smoking Ground Zero Cleanup from roof 75 West St.

Still-smoking Ground Zero as seen from the roof of our apartment building.

Funeral FDNY 10 House Fireman - First at the Big One

One of the heartbreaking number of funerals held for firemen from the Ten House in our neighborhood who died trying to rescue people from the stricken towers. The prophetic banner on the back of this fire truck shows the slogan and emblem for the Ten House: a firefighter standing atop the burning Twin Towers with the words “First Due At The Big One”  written below.

Towers of Light 9/11 memorial

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Towers of Light

As people argued over the best plan for Ground Zero, Towers of Light kept the tragedy in our hearts and minds.

Find out more about how the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers of New York City’s World Trade Center inspired our Trans-Americas Journey

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Loving León – León, Nicaragua

There are only three cities in Nicaragua: Managua, the capital, is a chaotic, crumbling city with few reasons to linger (but if you must stay there, check out our travel guide to hotels in Managua first). Granada is gorgeous but it’s brimming with gringos. That leaves León. The second largest city in the country is hot (we’ve started saying “León hot” instead of “Africa hot”), has not experienced a sweeping Colonial beautification and much of the food leaves a lot to be desired. But what León lacks in obvious charms it makes up for in sheer authenticity which is why we were loving León.

Lion Leon Cathedral, Nicaragua

León is named after its Spanish counterpart city. As every Spanish 101 student knows, león means lion in Spanish.

First impressions of our favorite city in Nicaragua

Our first impression of León was the heat which somehow combines the searing, life-sucking dryness of the Sahara with the kind of humidity that means that every activity (including breathing) makes you break a sweat.

Our second impression of León, however, made us stick it out even in the thick of the pre-monsoon heat. While Managua and Granada both have disturbing, unavoidable and very stark divisions between the haves and the have-nots, in León that gulf seemed less pronounced. There was no gringo area. There were no gated communities. No one’s car or bike seemed that much nicer than the next person’s. Everything and everyone (for the most part) seemed to exist in the humble middle ground espoused by the country’s socialist government.

A large population of Nicaraguan college students and foreign aid workers and volunteers gives León a pleasant hopeful vibe as well. Though you wouldn’t know it to look at the sleepy city today, León was the on-and-off capital of Nicaragua until 1858 when Managua got the title once and for all.

Sandanista mural with Uncle Sam and Samoza

This street art in León shows revolutionary Augusto César Sandino with his foot on top of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle (left) and on top of Uncle Sam.

Where to sleep in León

León attracts far, far fewer visitors than it’s more popular sister, Granada. However, you won’t have the place to yourself.  Most of the travelers who spend time in León are backpackers and there are dozens of hostels in the city, some of them offering free bed bugs.

We got lucky and happened to see a flyer for Harvest House while checking out the bulletin board in the office of Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit tour company. We called the number on the flyer and set up a time to meet Harvest House creator and manager Jason Greene, a smart, surprisingly young man from North Carolina.

Jason proudly showed us around the sprawling home he rented and radically upgraded. It was spotlessly clean, brightly painted, comfortably furnished and had a huge shared kitchen. Rooms, which range from singles with shared bath to small private apartments, were irresistible (from US$15 per night or from US$150 per month) and we booked a double room with shared bath for a month, spending less and getting more than we would have in any hostal. Jason also runs Buena Vista Guest House in Matagalpa, which should be your address in that great town as well.

Where to eat in León

Though we had a kitchen in Harvest House we did eat some meals out in León. Your main choice is going to be fritanga from one of the dozens of women selling this ubiquitous dish from bare bones street stands. The meal involves some sort of grilled meat, a scoop of gallo pinto (rice and beans) and probably some grated cabbage salad. Fritanga is not gonna win any culinary awards but it will fill your belly and it’s cheap.

We wanted to kiss the French/Dutch owners at Pan y Paz French Bakery where we got delicious loaves almost daily. But the real food find was El Desayunazo which, as the name implies, rocks the breakfast menu. Portions are huge, there’s a wide selection of options (including an epic fruit salad and proper pancakes), the coffee is bottomless and price tags hover around the US$2 mark.

IMG_9724

La Merced Church in León.

What to do in León (besides sweat)

The main sight in León is the stately Cathedral of León. Completed in 1814, it was designed by a Guatemalan in a style that bridges Baroque and Neoclassical architecture with touches of Gothic and other styles thrown in as well. It was consecrated by Pope Pius IX in 1860.

Cathedral Leon, Nicaragua

The cathedral in León is one of thelargest in the Americas and is the final resting place for many, including Nicaraguan poet Rubén Dario.

It’s so well-built that the massive cathedral has withstood earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and worse. In 1824 cannons were installed on the cathedral’s roof when conservative forces laid seige to León, in 1979 the cathedral was used as a stronghold against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and the guerilla fighters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) also used the cathedral for military purposes.

Official guides (Spanish only) hang out inside the cathedral, which was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2011, to make sure you take in the most important aspects including the final resting place of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. Make your way to the roof to check out the fantastic views over the city and beyond to the volcanoes which ring it.

View of some of the many volcanoes that surround Leon

The streets of central León with the cathedral in the distance and the chain of volcanoes that ring the city beyond that.

Roof-Leon-Cathedral

You can visit the roof of the cathedral in León for a great perspective on the mixed architecture of the building and awesome views of the city and the volcanoes that ring it.

Leon Cathedral

One of the bell towers of the cathedral of León.

Nicaragua is not known for its museums, it’s true. However, León is home to the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian (free on Sunday for locals and foreigners) which is the best museum in Nicaragua and offers the most compelling collection of modern and religious art from Latin America that we’ve seen since Mexico City.

Ortiz Gurdian Museum Leon, Nicaragua

One of the may elegant Colonial era rooms that have been turned into treasure-filled galleries at the Centro de Arte Fundacion Ortiz-Gurdian in León.

The art is displayed in four adjacent restored Colonial homes which would be worth a visit in their own right even if every wall and courtyard wasn’t filled with art. Opened in 2000, profits from the foundation support a breast cancer awareness, screening and treatment center in Nicaragua.

As you’re wandering around between these sites be on the lookout for street murals including one commemorating the massacre of student protesters. Find relief from the heat by catching a cheap subtitled movie in the blissfully air conditioned movie theater.

Mural Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

A mural in León commemorating the July 23, 1959 massacre of student which occurred here at the hands of the military.

Parade Commemorating the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

College kids in León dressed up as soldiers as part of the annual re-enactment that commemorate the July 23, 1959 massacre of students in the city.

Mural of the Martyrs of July 23 1959 - Leon, Nicaragua

Another mural in León in memory of the student martyrs who were killed by the military on July 23, 1959.

And that’s just the beginning. For even more travel options (from volcano boarding to rum tours) check out this post about what to do around León.

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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.

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Superstars and Scene Stealing Students – 2013 Panama Jazz Festival, Panama City, Panama

10th annual Panama Jazz FestivalThe superstar-studded lineup for the live concerts capping off the week-long 10th annual Panama Jazz Festival, held this month in Panama City, was impressive. Jazz icon and 14 Grammy-award-winning pianist and composer Herbie Hancock. Two time Latin Grammy winning singer Susana Baca. Panamanian actor and musician Rubén Blades. Improvisational guitarist and Grammy nominee Bill Frisell. Miles Davis contemporary, multiple Grammy winner and revered composer and saxophonist Wayne Shorter along with his stellar quartet. Little did we know we would be blown away by some scene stealing students.

The Danilo Pérez Foundation

Acclaimed Panamanian jazz pianist Danilo Pérez had an idea. What if he could pass some of his skills on to Panamanian children? How would that change their lives? How would it change Panama?

Hard work and a cadre of partners who shared his vision resulted in the creation of the Fundacion Danilo Pérez (Danilo Pérez Foundation) in 2005 in a donated building In a quickly gentrifying neighborhood of Panama City called Casco Viejo on what is now the border between “new” Casco Viejo and the still downtrodden El Chorillo neighborhood. Here, a staff of teachers (many of them former foundation students) teach jazz to any child who wants to learn. And man do they learn. A dizzying number of foundation students go on to graduate from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston as well as other international music schools.

As if running the foundation and changing children’s lives with music isn’t enough, Pérez, a Fulbright Scholar, is also the founder and artistic director of the Panama Jazz Festival, the founder and artistic director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute at Berklee College of Music and is part of the Grammy winning Wayne Shorter Quartet. In November 2012 he was also named a UNESCO Artist for Peace

Danilo Perez on piano with Ruben Blades listening in during the closing concert of the Panama Jazz Festival

Danilo Pérez on piano with fellow Panamanian musician Rubén Blades.

A very, very hard act to follow

The Panama Jazz Festival week was filled with daytime workshops during which internationally acclaimed jazz musicians worked with Panamanian hopefuls and late night jam sessions during which an open stage policy encouraged creative collaboration.

It was fitting that the three night Jazz Festival concert series at Theater Anayansi, a well-attended highlight of the event, was kicked off by a group comprised of some of the foundation’s up and coming pint-sized stars. They not only opened the concert series, they blew the lid off of it.

The group of boys, dressed in tuxedos and struts, teased, toyed and tantalized their way through two songs, including the classic, Cantaloupe Island. Daring solos were performed. Brave musical chances were taken. Smiles were flashed. The audience was on their feet.

Jazz kids from Danilo Perez Foundation performing Jazz Fest

Danilo Pérez Foundation jazz students showed us all how it’s done during the opening night of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival concert series.

 

Kids from the Dailo Perez Foundation

Not too young for fame – Danilo Pérez Foundation jazz students after getting a standing ovation during their performance as the opening act of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival concert series.

Poor Herbie Hancock

Even a jazz legend like Hancock had to admit that the students were a hard act to follow but he took the stage anyway as the headliner of the night and did his own roof-blowing-off on the piano, including his own rendition of Cantaloupe Island (a song he composed). 

We loved it. But we also secretly wished the kids would come back out.

Herbie Hancock piano Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

 

Herbie Hancock piano 10th annual Panama Jazz festival

Jazz legend Herbie Hancock during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival. Isn’t that an awesome stage shirt?

Sleeping with the stars

The Hotel El Panama was the host hotel for the Panama Jazz Festival and despite written rules forbidding guests from “bringing in musicians” all of the festival’s big names were staying there. We were too and this meant we had the chance to get a picture of Eric with Herbie Hancock in the lobby.

Herbie Hancock at Hotel El Panama Jazz Fest

Eric with Herbie Hancock in the lobby of the El Panama hotel during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

We were also sitting at the table next to Susana Baca and her crew at breakfast one morning when they opened one of the local papers to discover a big spread on the singer including an enormous pull quote that read “Of course I’m a diva”. This inspired raucous laughter from the group.

A diva in action

We got the chance to see the diva in action during the concert the following night but first Bill Frisell and his band, including Jenny Scheinman on violin, Tony Scherr on bass, Greg Leisz on peddle steel and Kenny Wollesen on drums took the stage. This was familiar ground for us. We’ve seen Frisell perform several times and enjoyed other band members during performances in other groups when we were still living in New York City and seeing some of the best live music in the world. 

For this occasion the quintet hurtled into imaginative re-thinkings of Beatles and Jogn Lennon classics which were fresh and familiar at the same time. You can check out these reinterpretations on Frisell’s resent album, All we are saying…

Bill Frisell quintet performs Beatles & John Lenon All we are saying - Panama Jazz Festival

Inventive jazz guitarist Bill Frisell (far right) with is quintet during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Then it was diva time and Susana Baca took the stage barefoot and wearing a gently two-tone flowing dress clearly custom tailored to allow her to sweep and float across the stage. A large part of her considerable presence had nothing to do with her lauded voice. She tip-toed, she gestured, she smiled her whole-face smile.

Her voice–sometimes sounding like a one-woman version of the Buena Vista Social Club–was not always strong. Her presence, however, was. Did we mention that she is also the Minister of Culture in her native Peru?

Yeah. Diva.

Susana Baca Panama Jazz Festival

Two time Grammy winning Peruvian songstress Susana Baca and her group performing at the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

 

Susana Baca 10th annual Panama Jazz Festival

Though her voice has won her two Grammy Awards,  it was Susana Baca’s overall stage-presence that kept the audience mesmerized during her performance at the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

You can’t keep a good jazz man down

Unbeknownst to most concert goers, Wayne Shorter had been in the hospital during the 24 hours before he took the stage with the rest of his quartet: Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass, Brian Blade on drums.

Shorter’s performance was only fleetingly affected by the fact that he wasn’t feeling well and his set was punctuated with moments when he masterfully found exactly the right time and place to blow his horn as his band raged around him. Understatement at its finest.

The real fun was watching the grinning good time John and Brian were having as they riffed off each other and the crowd favorite was clearly hometown boy Pérez on piano.

Wayne Shorter Quartet Danilo Perez John Patitucci Brian Blade - Panama Jazz Festival

The Wayne Shorter Quartet with Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on upright bass and Brian Blade on drums backing up the jazz master.

 

Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci - Panama Jazz Festival

Wayne Shorter and John Patitucci jam it out during the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Panama Jazz Festival finale in the City of Knowledge 

The Panama Jazz Festival is traditionally capped off with a full afternoon and evening of free performances that bring together the musicians that have been featured during the previous week of music. In years past this popular free event had been held in a park in the Casco Viejo neighborhood but with gentrification projects tearing up the streets in that part of town and the number of festival growers swelling a new location had to be found this year.

The co-called “City of Knowledge” area of Panama City was chosen. This area, which was once part of the US-controlled Canal Zone, is now a sort of think tank managed by a non-profit organization committed to “exchange, growth, and innovation” in Panama.

Panama Jazz festival stage at City of Knowledge

The Panama Jazz Festival ended with a free outdoor concert which was held in the “City of Knowledge” this year.

A large grassy area within the City of Knowledge development proved the right spot for the finale, though we have to say that the much-anticipated performance by Rubén Blades (locals pronounced his last name “Blah – dess” by the way) was a snoozer anchored by a lethargic version of “Mack the Knife.” Where was the Latin Jazz and Afro Cuban music this former Panamanian tourism minister and Presidential candidate is also known for?

Ruben Blades singing Mack the Knife at Panama Jazz Festival

Panamanian actor, musician and one-time Presidential candidate Rubén Blades during the closing concert of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

Luckily, a slew of superstars, foundation professors, Pérez and many others returned to the stage for a jam-packed jam session with the Panama Jazz Festival Big Band for an appropriately raucous end to the event.

Sasana Baca closing concert of Panama Jazz Festival with Danilo Perez & the Panama Jazz festival Big Band

Danilo Pérez (left) directing traffic as Susana Baca spearheads a full stage of musical talent as part of the closing concert festivities of the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival.

 

Italian saxiphonist Marco Pignataro Managing Director of the Berklee Global Jazz Institute

Closing concert goodness as the 2013 Panama Jazz Festival comes to an end.

 

TIP

When you’re visiting the Casco Viejo neighborhood of Panama City stop by the Danilo Pérez Foundation and check out what they’re doing and make a donation if you can. If you’re lucky, some of their rockin’ students will be burning it up.

 

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17 Reasons NOT to Blow Off the Capital – San José, Costa Rica

San José, Costa Rica gets a bad rap. Sure, some of the capital city’s once-grand architecture has seen better days and the streets can get jammed up and there are still some seedy spots. But while most travelers land at San José’s airport and high tail it to the country’s beaches, jungles and volcanoes, we spent more than a month (off and on) in San José during the course of our five months in Costa Rica. The city grew on us and we ultimately found 17 reasons (from boutique hotels to roller derby girls to iconic ice cream) not to blow off the country’s largest city.

1. Egg nog ice cream – Okay, it wasn’t meant to taste like egg nog, but the frozen treat that’s been sold at La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora in San José’s 130 year old Central Market for more than 100 years nails it with nutmeg, cinnamon, clove and rich, custardy goodness. It’s even the same color as egg nog. Locals like it even more with (shrug) cubes of reg Jell-O in it.

La Sorbeteria de Lolo Mora - central Market, San Jose, Costa Rica

Delicious, custardy ice cream has been made and sold at this Central Market stand in San José, Costa Rica for more than 100 years.

2. Mouthwatering soup – In the Central Market annex, across the street from the main market building, wander around until you find a tiny eatery called Mariscos Poseidon. Sit down. Order the seafood soup (about US$2). You’re welcome.

Mariscos Posiden - San Jose, Costa Rica

We’ve got post fish soup smiles at Mariscos Poseidon in the Central Market annex in San José, Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of our friend Dos

3. Best bargain bed and breakfast - At US$30 for a clean and comfortable double room with a pristine shared bath, WiFi, cable TV, free parking and the largest, most varied and most deliciously fresh free breakfast buffet in Central America you simply can’t beat Hotel Aranjuez, about a 10 minute walk from the city center. It’s not the cheapest place to stay in San José but we believe it’s the best value for money. Reservations are a must.

4. Cool design on display – The Contemporary Art & Design Museum (Museo de Arte y Diseño Contemporáneo in Spanish) is located in a former distillery so it’s got the requisite hip warehouse vibe. Mixed media installations rotate regularly and the whole place feels a bit like a loft gallery in Brooklyn (US$3, free to all on Mondays).

5. Bikers on a mission – Roberto and Ayal started ChepeCletas (a combination of chepe, slang for downtown San José, and cleta which is Spanish for bike cleat) as a campaign to have fewer cars and more bikes in the city center. It quickly morphed into a crusade to reinvent and revitalize San José for locals and for travelers. ChepeCletas now offers tours of the city (day and night) on bikes or on foot. Tours are lead by locals with insights and personal history in the city. These “guides” share fascinating little-known facts and anecdotes that bring San José to life.

6. Great graffiti – Street artists in San José have taken graffiti to a new level and many walls around town are enlivened by a variety of styles. Like these:

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.

San Jose, Costa Rica street art grafitti

Great grafitti in San José, Costa Rica.

7. Italian hotel style – San José has hostels up the ying yang. It has international chain hotels. It even has interesting locally-owned B&Bs and business class hotels, including the Hotel Presidente. What’s been missing is a central, reasonably priced boutique hotel. That is until Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel opened in early 2012. Italian owned (and it shows), this former mansion is now a five room retreat featuring free European style breakfast on the patio. Check out our full review.

8. Roller derby girls – They go by the name Panties Dinamita (dynamite panties) and they entered the roller derby ring in early 2011 with all the usual trappings including tattoos, dyed hair and playfully bad attitudes. You’re welcome to watch practice sessions as well as scheduled battles against the two other roller derby teams in Costa Rica.

9. Site of the military’s last stand – Costa Rica hasn’t had a military since it was disbanded by President José María Hipólito Figueres Ferrer in 1948. The site where that historic proclamation was made, ironically a former military fort, is now the National Museum of Costa Rica (Museo Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish). It’s a great place to get a taste of everything from ancient art, to pre-Columbian gold (unless you’re a gold freak skip the Costa Rica Gold Museum which is just plain overwhelming and costs US$11 to get in to) to mysterious huge round stones to amazingly ornate matates (grinding stones) like we’ve never seen before. It’s all displayed in a peaceful setting which includes a huge butterfly enclosure (US$8).

National Museum of Costa Rica,  San Jose

The National Museum of Costa Rica in San José.

10. Culture on the cheap – The National Theater of Costa Rica (Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica in Spanish), in downtown San José, was modeled on the Paris Opera House and it’s an eye popper with sculptures, paintings and furnishings that seem straight out of, well, Paris. And that was the idea. Opened in 1897, the theater was built in grand style with money generated by a controversial tax on coffee. Initially, it was meant exclusively for Costa Rica’s elite. These days an excellent, one hour, info-filled guided tour is available (US$7 per person) and on most Tuesdays the theater hosts “Theater at Noon”–short performances by world-class performers for less than US$5. The theater lobby is also home to the best coffee shop in town and the best gift shop in town, full of quality Costa Rican made products including organic coffee from Finca Rosa Blanca and organic Sibu chocolate.

National Theater of Costa Rica,  San Jose Opera House

The National Theater of Costa Rica,opened in 1897, was modeled on the Paris Opera House.

National Theater of Costa Rica interior -  San Jose Opera House

Inside the opulent National Theater of Costa Rica in San José.

11. Sunday strolling – Every Sunday San Jose’s main drag, Paseo Colon which connects downtown with the city’s largest park (see below), is closed to traffic and turned into a pedestrian street which attracts families and couples. It’s a great idea and a relaxing way to mingle with city residents.

12. Free art in the park – The city’s first airport is now the huge and popular La Sabana Metropolitan Park (Parque Metropolitano La Sabana in Spanish). The former terminal is now the Costa Rica Art Museum (Museo de Arte Costarricense in Spanish). Rotating exhibits of modern art from local artists now fill the rooms instead of passengers and admission is always free.

Costa Rica Art Museum - San Jose

The Costa Rica Art Museum in San José puts on rotating exhibits showcasing Costa Rican artists’ work and admission is always free.

13. Happening eats – La Esquina Buenos Aires restaurant serves up fantastic beef (and pasta and fish), the most affordable glass of wine in the city ($5 for a massive pour of the restaurant’s house red or house white) and has knowledgeable and accommodating waiters. No wonder La Esquina is buzzing with locals and visitors mingling at the festive bar and lingering over tables most nights.

14. Chic shopping – eÑe boutique, right around the corner from Mansion del Parque Bolivar Hotel, is one of the chicest shops in San José (look for the very cool red neon Ñ in the window at 7th Avenue and 13th Street). Everything they sell is locally designed and made including cool tees, handmade leather bags, retro dresses, playful jewelry, stylish journals and notebooks and more.

15. Live music – Anyone who knows us knows that live music is one of the things we miss most from our former lives as New Yorkers. It’s been a struggle finding concerts, live music and music festivals since moving south of Mexico but in San José we were pleasantly surprised by the booming live music scene. We had a great time at the two day Festival Imperial featuring Bjork, Cypress Hill, Gogol Bordello, Moby, LMFAO, TV on the Radio and more and the city’s new National Stadium has already hosted concerts by Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Elton John, Shakira, Paul McCartney and Lady Gaga just to name a few. Coldplay is coming in 2013.

Bjork - Festival Imperial 2012, Costa Rica

Bjork doing her thing on Day 2 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.

Flaming Lips - Festival Imperial, Costa Rica

The Flaming Lips during Day 1 of Festival Imperial 2012 in San José, Costa Rica.

16. Presidential tree -  In 1963 US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree on the manicured grounds of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (also called Casa Amarilla). Sadly, it had to be cut down but you can still see the spot where it used to stand.

Casa Amarilla, Foreign Ministry - San Jose, Costa Rica

US President John F. Kennedy planted a ceiba tree in that corner of the grounds in front of the Foreign Ministry in San José, Costa Rica. Sadly, it had to be cut down.

17. The weather — At nearly 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) above sea level temps are more moderate in San José than in most other steamy places in the country. It was nice to break out the jeans.

In the burbs

San José sprawls a bit like Los Angeles does with self-contained mini-city suburbs all around the downtown area. If you’ve got your own wheels and want to experience the chic, modern suburbs of Escazu and Santa Ana we highly recommend Casa de Las Tias where flawless hosts Xavier and PIlar will get you settled into one of their seven homey rooms. Breakfast in their gorgeous garden (included) is NOT to be missed.  Or splash out at minimalist Casa Cristal, a romantic hideaway with expansive views down the valley to central San José.

Either way, eat at Da Marco Italian Restaurant in Santa Ana. When we asked the Italian owner of Mansion Parque del Bolivar Hotel where the best Italian food in Costa Rica was this is where he sent us and it did not disappoint. The chef, from Verona, turns out freshly baked focaccia and home made pasta (the seafood tagliatelle rocked when drizzled with house spiked chili oil), nine different types of risotto, fish dishes, meat dishes and more along with a wide-ranging wine list.

Coming in early 2013: 8ctavo Rooftop Restaurant & Lounge is being opened by our friends Mike and Jon on top of the new Sonesta Hotel & Casino in Escazu. We are so sorry we won’t be in town for that!

 

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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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Photo Essay: Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

The Golden Gate Bridge, which spans San Francisco Bay, turns 75 this year. This iconic bridge has inspired poets, film makers, photographers and musicians for decades with its signature color (drably called International Orange), its sweeping suspension design and its ever-changing wardrobe of fog and sun.

Golden gate bridge - Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Eric has photographed the heck out of the Golden Gate Bridge and the occasion of its 75th birthday seemed like the right time to share a few shots.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

The birthday of such a bridge inspired two very different brand new musical tributes. Mickey Hart, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee and former drummer for the Grateful Dead, composed a “musical soundscape based on the real sounds of the bridge.” 

Listen to a live recording of the Mickey Hart Band performing the composition at the Golden Gate Bridge 75th Birthday Celebration at Crissy Field:

Decades ago Hart tried to scale the bridge to record sounds made by the structure which he calls a “giant wind-harp.” He was promptly arrested. Twice. This time things went more smoothly and Hart and his team capture the sounds they were after. Hart performed his composition as part of the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday bash by playing a 27 foot stainless steel replica of the bridge which was built by engineers at San Francisco’s awesome Exploratorium

Golden Gate Bridge sunset

Golden Gate Bridge

Meanwhile, James Kellaris, a University of California marketing professor and “part-time” musician, won a contest put on by the San Francisco Mandolin Orchestra (who knew there was such a thing?) to compose a birthday song for the bridge.

He composed a mandolin ditty he calls “Chrysopylae Reflections,” referencing the Greek term “chrysopylae” which, according to Kellaris, means “golden gate.” Who are we to argue with a man with a mandolin?

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge Fog

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden gate Bridge panorama

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge - sunset

 

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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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Escaping San Pedro Sula – Cusuco National Park, Honduras

San Pedro Sula is not a pretty town. Nor is it cheap or attraction filled or, frankly, particularly safe. A Peace Corps worker was accidentally shot in the leg during a gun fight on a public bus in San Pedro Sula recently, precipitating a complete withdrawal of Peace Corps workers from Honduras (here’s more on the Peace Corps pullout).

San Pedro Sula is, however, where the country’s biggest international airport is located and it’s possible that you will find yourself in SPS (as everyone calls it) at least for a night. We actually spent time in SPS on two separate occasions and here’s what we learned.

Where to sleep (and not sleep) in San Pedro Sula

If you want a hotel near the airport it does not get any better than Banana Inn. Locally owned, this 16 room hotel is built in what was an administration building for the United Fruit Company (aka Chiquita Banana) from 1930 to 2003, hence the name. Rooms have A/C and there’s a pool (did we mention that it’s usually sizzling in SPS?). It’s also less than five minutes from the airport in a quiet town outside of the fray of SPS.

If you need or want to stay in town, do yourself a favor and skip Hostal Tamarindo. Everyone talks about Tamarindo as the cheap place in town but we spent a night there on a crappy mattress in a noisy, dirty, hot room with a small, dirty shared bathroom and even dirtier shared kitchen and paid $30 for the privilege. 

Since then, a much better option has emerged. Check out La Hamaca Hostal which was recently opened by our friend Juan Carlos Paz. It looks awesome with good mattresses, spotless facilities, a pool table, movie room, WiFi, an outdoor BBQ, stylish private rooms and dorms and, yes, hammocks. 

Juan Carlos Paz, Jungle Xpeditions - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Juan Carlos Paz, the brains and brawn behind Jungle Xpedition tour company and La Hamaca Hostal in Honduras. He swears he is not Amish.

 

Better yet, sleep in Cusuco National Park

And speaking of Juan Carlos, we highly recommend his SPS-based tour company too. He created Jungle Xpedition a few years ago, fueled by his remarkable energy and his passion for the natural areas in Honduras.

Jungle Xpedition runs trips and tours all over Honduras but we were interested in escaping SPS. Believe it or not, there’s a national park just outside SPS so we jumped into a vintage Land Rover with Juan Carlos and his friend Eduardo, who’s a biologist, and headed for the hills.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Heading to Cusuco National Park outside San Pedro Sula, Honduras in a vintage Land Rover driven by Juan Carlos Paz of Jungle Xpedition.

Heading to Cusuco national Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Just one of the views we were treated to as we drove up, up, up into Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Within a few minutes we’d left SPS far behind and began climbing slowly and steadily up an increasingly rough dirt road until we were engulfed in clouds and blessedly cooler temperatures. We stopped in a tiny village to pay a visit to Vilma who brewed us up some delicious locally grown coffee which she grinds with cinnamon and black pepper–perfect with her homemade corn cakes which were even more delicious than they sound.

Further up we reached the slightly larger village of Buenos Aires where a woman named Martina served us yet more coffee on an outdoor bench. Her dirt floor home was small and simple but her bench had a million dollar view of the hills and the clouds that call them home.

Lunch near Cusuco National Park - San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Now that’s what we call lunch, served by a lovely woman in a village near Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

View Cusuco National Park

This is why they call it a cloud forest.

All caffeined up, we hit the trial to Toucan Waterfall. After about an hour of walking over an undulating trail through hills planted with coffee (more caffeine!) we reached the four-tiered cascade and its inviting swimming hole. Back in Buenos Aires we feasted on fried chicken, red beans, scrambled eggs, homemade tortillas and vegetables at another woman’s house/restaurant before coaxing the Land Rover further uphill and through the actual entrance to Cusuco National Park.

Coffee field around Buenos Aires - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Coffee planted around the village of Buenos Aires in the hills above San Pedro Sula, Honduras.

Toucan Waterfall - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Toucan Waterfall in Cusuco National Park in Honduras.

Cusuco National Park sign, Honduras

Cusuco National Park in Honduras gets virtually no visitors.

There’s a large covered area full of picnic tables, a flat expanse perfect for tents and a very basic dorm with a small rudimentary kitchen and an outdoor cooking stove. We had the place to ourselves.

Visiting research teams studying the flora and fauna in the park (there’s a small lab/office for the students and scientists) are just about the only people who ever visit Cusuco  National Park which was established in 1959 and covers 90.5 square miles (234.4 square kilometers) of cloudforest, semi-arid pine forest and deciduous forest making it notable in both size and diversity.

Campground  - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

We had the whole place to ourselves when we visited Cusuco National Park above San Pedro Sula in Honduras.

Trail Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Exploring a trail through Cucuso National Park in Honduras.

Giant mushroom - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

This giant mushroom in Cusuco National Park also had a groovy shiny purple top.

Before dinner we all took a short night walk, then scarfed down the delicious homemade chilli that Juan Carlos brought up with him before hitting the hay. In the morning we warmed up some baleadas and enjoyed the national food of Honduras (a big flour tortilla filled with scrambled eggs and other goodies then folded in half and covered in butter) for breakfast before doing another short walk in the park over a trail that took us deep into lush rainforest that looked ripped from the pages of Lord of the Rings.

Cusuco means armadillo and we did, indeed, see one scurrying through the underbrush away from us during the night walk. Quetzal birds have been spotted in Cusuco National Park too, but not by us. 

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

The leg-span of this spindly spider in Cusuco National Park was at least six inches.

Spider - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

Another spider spotted in Cusuco National Park.

Stick Bug - Cusuco National Park, Honduras

A stick bug doesn’t blend in so when it’s not among sticks.

Juan Carlos, whose incongruous red hair and red beard make him look like an Amish man even though he’s 100% Honduran, isn’t satisfied with simply bringing people to this woefully under visited park. He also wants to improve the lives of the people living near the park and to do that he takes matters into his own hands, distributing clothing, bringing in doctors, even inspiring a tourist he’d brought up to Cusuco to provide the small sum that was needed to extend electrical lines to the upper reaches of Buenos Aires village.

Buenos Aires, Honduras

Karen and Martina who brewed up some tasty coffee for us in the village of Buenos Aires. No, Karen is not standing on a box.

This has made Juan Carlos something of a minor celebrity in the area and he’s greeted with smiles from everyone. After spending a couple of days with Juan Carlos its clear to us that he would make the perfect Tourism Minister for Honduras, only he’s probably too smart to take the job.

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So Much More Than Semana Santa – Antigua, Guatemala

This post is part 6 of 6 in the series Semana Santa in Antigua

A Semana Santa procession begins inside the Santuario del Apóstol San Felipe as the faithful carry a huge float (called an anda) over an elaborate temporary carpet (called an alfombra).

Antigua, Guatemala is best known as the town that hosts one of the world’s biggest and most colorful religious festivals. Holy week, or Semana Santa in Spanish, is celebrated with elaborately made and profoundly temporary street carpets called alfombras and lots of somber and elaborate processions in which hundreds of the devout carry enormous floats (called andas) through the cobble stone streets all in an effort recreate the persecution, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In a word, Semana Santa in Antigua is epic and you should experience it if you can. But there are other great reasons to visit Antigua. We were lucky enough to be part of the entire Semana Santa week in 2011 and even luckier (thanks Gene and Judy and Evelyn) to be able to explore Antigua above and beyond Semana Santa.

 

 

 

In the end, we spent more than 40 days in Antigua–more than almost any other destination on our Trans-Americas Journey so far. Here are our insider tips for having as good a time in this colonial gem of a town as we did.

Colonial streets of Antigua with Agua Volcano

Colonial architecture lines a cobblestone street in Antigua with the Agua Volcano–one of three that ring the city– in the distance. 

 

Must-sees in Antigua

There are at least a dozen churches in Antigua and at least half are in ruins thanks to the area’s seismic activity. We are not going to show you every single church in town. Suffice to say that each is unique and atmospheric, especially the ruined ones which have a sort of ancient Roman feel to them.

Santiago Cathedral is Antigua’s main church and it anchors the main square, Plaza Mayor.

Ruins of Santiago Cathedral - Antigua

These are the ruins of Antigua’s original Santiago Cathedral.

The ruins of Compania de Jesus in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of the Santa Teresa church in Antigua, Guatemala.

The ruins of San Jose church in Antigua, Guatemala.

There are at least twice as many Spanish schools in Antigua as there are churches. When we were in town Ana Díaz was just opening a brand new Spanish school called Antigua Plaza and she contacted us to see if we wanted to be among her first students. Nos dijo que si!

We spent every morning for the next week sitting at an antique wooden table in a lovely courtyard refreshing the Spanish we learned during lessons in Guadalajara and adding some new skills. It was fun and effective and we loved our teacher Brenda who was great at her job and gave us each adorable children’s notebooks. It’s also nice that Antigua Plaza has partnered with the serene Tabi House guesthouse so long-term students can get great accommodation too.

Santo Domingo El  Cerro Museum

One of the sculptures on display at Santo Domingo El Cerro, an art park, gallery complex and restraurant above Antigua, Guatemala.

The Casa Santo Domingo hotel owns a large chunk of land on a hill above Antigua which has been turned into an aviary, art galleries, sculpture garden and high-end restaurant (the prices were a lot more reasonable than we’d expected). They call it Santo Domingo del Cerro and it’s home to great art, great food, great views and it made a great place to go to do our Spanish homework. A totally free on demand shuttle runs between Casa Santo Domingo hotel and Santo Domingo del Cerro.

Arch of Santa Catalina - Antigua

The Arch of Santa Catalina serves as a gateway into Antigua, Guatemala.

View of Antigua and Agua Volcano from Cerro de la Cruz

Antigua, Guatemala and the Agua Volcano as seen from the Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint above town.

 

Hotel heaven in Antigua

There are more fantastic hotels in every price point in Antigua than in any other destination in Guatemala. We’re happy to recommend one fabulous splurge and a great economical value. Let’s start at the top.

Agua Volcano from Ponza Verde

The Agua Volcano as seen from on one of the serene patios at Meson Panza Verde boutique hotel in Antigua, Guatemala.

Stunning Meson Panza Verde, one of the first high end boutique hotels in Antigua, will celebrate its 25th anniversary this year. Just 12 rooms are arranged in a traditional, colonial-style, open courtyard building. Rooms are big and full of rich fabrics and lots of wood and tile all accented with an unexpected collection of art–both colonial and modern. You can feel, see and touch old Antigua and new Antigua everywhere.

Hotel San Jorge has large, spotless rooms from $50. They all have fireplaces and they’re all arranged around a meticuously maintined and super-serene garden. There’s also Wi-Fi and a secure parking lot but the best amenity is your host, owner Evelyn Herrera. She’s a bilingual fountain of knowledge and assistance. You could not be in better hands. During Semana Santa (book ahead!) she even invites guests to help her create a traditional alfombra out of flowers on the street in front of the hotel. We don’t know of any other hotel in Antigua, in any price point, that offers that.

Antigua Municipal building

Antigua’s municipal building off the main square called Plaza Mayor.

It has to be said that Hotel Casa Santo Domingo was a disappointment. Yes, the hotel is housed in a breathtaking reinvention of what was the church and convent of Santo Domingo and the Santo Tomas de Aquino College which date back to the late 1500s. Yes, the hotel lands on luxe travel magazines’ “best of” lists. However, it’s also true that the rooms we toured and stayed in were disturbingly motel-like (especially the bathrooms and the tattered soft goods) even though room rates start at $250 per night.

We can’t advise you to check into Casa Santo Domingo but you should definitely checkout the museums on the grounds of the hotel (free for guests, 40Q, or US$5, for non-guests). That one fee gets you into museums containing religious art, archaeolgoical pieces, a vast liturgical silver collection and a creepy crypt.There’s also a modern art gallery and a strangely-compelling Pharmacy Museum. A tour of the grounds is given on Saturdays and on Sundays mass is held at 10 am in the stately (but wall-free) remains of the on-site cathedral.

La Merced church - Antigua, Guatemala

La Merced church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Good eats (and drinks) in Antigua

Drinking Absenth at Bistro Cinq in Antigua Guatemala

Drinking absynthe at Bistro Cinq in Antigua, Guatemala.

Even in a town full of  inventive restaurants (you can get great local dishes, superb sushi, classic Italian and more), Bistro Cinq stands out. Created and helmed by Chef Robbin Haas, a Florida native who spends part of the year in Antigua, Bistro Cinq lures you in with a welcoming metal-topped bar that is more than fully stocked. We enjoyed Pig’s Nose scotch, great wine and sampled some of the 12 types of absynthes on hand, each prepared in the traditional way (flame, water, sugar). The menu (tuna tartare, duck pot stickers, real burgers, profiteroles) is written on a blackboard and each dish is expertly executed by local chef Mario Godinez.

 

 

There’s no shortage of bars and cafes in Antigua but there’s something different about La Esquina. Maybe it’s the bar made from old bus parts. Or the smell of tasty chicken on the grill. Or the tempting handcrafted leather goods and jewelry and housewares in the window of the adjacent boutique (all at great prices and 20% off if you pay in cash). Or the DJs and bands performing live in the open courtyard. Or the…oh, just go and see for yourself.

La Esquina restaurant in Antigua

La Esquina bar, restaurant, boutique. live music venue and generally cool place to hang out in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

La Fondita offers about a dozen different traditional dishes. Pick what you want (a standard plate with a meat dish, a veg dish, thick Guatemalan tortillas and other sides) and  enjoy in a lovely back courtyard. It’s certainly not the cheapest meal in town, but our lunch was delicious and it’s the best place we found to sample a lot of different dishes in one spot and the atmosphere can’t be beat.

La Fondita restaurant in Antigua

The mind-boggling selection at La Fondita restaurant in Antigua, Guatemala.

The cheapest wine so far during the Trans-Americas Journey was at the supermarkets in Antigua where entirely drinkable bottles (mostly from Chile) go for less than $5.

A few blocks from Antigua’s central market (bustling every day of the week) is a two level restaurant called Weiner where just a few bucks gets you a plate of authentic German schnitzel. Go for the pork. And be hungry. This thing is huge.

Just off the main plaza is a tiny ice cream store called Sobremesa Helados Exoticos which sells sublime scoops of rich, exotic, gourmet flavors like jasmine blackberry, apple chipoltle, ginger guava, triple chocolate and caramel sea salt praline. Rumor has it they’re up to 50 different flavors which rotate on and off the menu.

 

Random facts about Antigua

Antigua was founded by the Spaniards in the early 16th Century and became the first capital of all of Central America. The city’s full name is Santiago de Antigua, though no one uses that anymore.

A very early governor of Antigua was Doña Beatriz de la Cueva, one of the first women in the region (and the world, for that matter) to hold such a high office. Unfortunately, she didn’t hold office for long. Twenty four hours after taking power in 1541 Volcano Agua blew it’s top. She was eventually killed in the disaster.

There is a plaque honoring L. Ron Hubbard, author and founder of the Church of Scientology, in the main plaza in Antigua. No one we asked could tell us why.

Antigua was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.

Cobblestone streets are atmospheric but they’re a bitch to drive or walk on. Leave the heels at home and be prepared to marvel at the six-inchers women from Guatemala city (mostly) strut around in during weekend getaways to Antigua.

An ATM scam has been going on in Antigua for years. Particularly afflicted are the ATMs at the banks that ring the main square. Avoid using them if at all possible. We used an ATM in a supermarket away from the square on numerous occassions and had no problems. We did have problems with pickpockets. Eric caught a hand in his pocket (and not in a good way) before the thief had the chance to snatch anything but many other travelers are not so lucky. Be wary. Antigua’s success at attracting tourists and gringo residents has also attracted an influx of unsavory types form nearby Guatemala City and they’re anxious to take what they can. Remember to pack your common sense.

La Merced Convent - Antigua, Guatemala

The La Merced Convent in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

Day trips from Antigua

Edwin-boots

Don Roberto doing what he’s done all his life: made awesome (and SO affordable) handmade cowboy boots. 

 

Seven miles from Antigua you’ll find the small town of Ciudad Veijo. This is where Don Roberto and his son Edwin Castillo live and work. The Castillo family has been hand-crafting cowboy boots for generations and they now design and make a line called Botas Rango. Some regional shoe stores sell their boots but the only place to get the insider price (starting at just 325Q or US$42) is by visting their home/workshop. Call +51000603 or email botascastillo@hotmail (dot) com (Spanish only) to set up an appointment. Custom orders can be done if you give them enough time.

 

Antigua is ringed by three volcanoes. One of them, Pacaya Volcano, has been a regular erupter since 1965. That is until May of 2010 when it ceased all activity. For now. Bear that  fact in mind before you book a hiking and camping trip to Pacaya which many local tour agencies are still selling with no mention of the fact that the volcano is not currently putting on the show visitors walk all the way up there to see. Unless, of course, you just want to take a steep, long walk.  Luckily our friends over at 2 Backpackers have a great video of  the lava and smoke show Pacaya Volcano used to put on.

We highly recommend a day trip to Lake Amatitlan (about an hour away from Antigua) for a visit to the Santa Teresita Banos Termales & Kawilal Spa. The sprawling, sparkling clean facility has many beautifully tiled outdoor thermal pools of varying temperatures and offers a timed and guided circuit which includes a delicious natural fruit smoothie and time in a eucalyptus-infused private steam room. From about US$15 per person (more if you add on spa services or other extras) it’s a bargain. Just be aware that the best prices are online only so check the web site for specials and book before you arrive.

Antigua Los Remedios church ruins

The ruins of Los Remedios church in Antigua, Guatemala.

 

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