A Travellerspoint blog

Of Temples and Towering Trees

Exploring Kandy and the surrounding area

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Kandy's Temple of the Tooth is Sri Lanka's holiest place

The number one sight to see in Kandy is the Temple of the Tooth. So, it was first on my list of things to do on my second day of sightseeing in Sri Lanka. I took a tuk-tuk down from my hilltop hotel, stopping off at an ATM for more cash. Overnight, I'd heard rain battering my balcony, and the view had been cloudy when I awoke. As I walked towards Sri Lanka’s holiest sight, blue skies began to peek through the gray clouds. Why is it called the Temple of the Tooth? The Buddhists believe that an inner chamber of the temple houses a tooth from Buddha himself.

Throngs of worshippers jam the Temple of the Tooth daily to lay offerings before Buddha's tooth

Crowds of worshippers jam the sprawling temple, with 90% of them funneling up the steps, through a fresco-decorated passageway, turning left at the Hall of Drummers, who hammer out a celebratory rhythm, and then squeezing toe-to-toe up a staircase. The fervent worshippers mix with uneasy tourists, pushing their way through the line to deposit their offering of lotus flowers in front of the gilded doors leading to the casket containing the tooth. The actual tooth is displayed only at certain times, when the sweaty mob scene is multiplied several times over.

The lower level of the Temple of the Tooth

There are plenty of other rooms to explore after squeezing past the temple’s main sight. There are a couple museums, an open air wooden audience hall, and even a shrine to the elephant who carried the tooth in the religious processions for 50 years before dying of old age. Crowds surged and thinned out during my visit, which ended somewhat maddeningly with a wandering quest for the unmarked exit. I had to work my way back to where I started to pick up my hiking sandals. The entire temple is considered sacred, so I hobbled through it barefoot the whole time.

The towering Cabbage Palm Trees at the Royal Gardens

After a refreshing iced tea in a cafe, I hopped in another tuk-tuk to Kandy’s train station to buy tickets for train rides later in the trip. Maddeningly, the observation car and first class were sold out on the date 5 days away. And the final train ride (the day I leave) they couldn't sell me, they said. I purchased second class tickets for the one and hoped for the best. My tuk-tuk driver had waited for me and presented me with a program for the rest of the day. It sounded good, the price at $12 for a full day was worth it, plus I really hadn't planned for anything else.

If you're carrying a bag of fruit, beware of these guys!

The first stop was a hike through the Royal Botanical Gardens. Most of the trees, flowers, and bushes were well labeled. The grounds were sprawling and attractively laid out. My favorite part were the kingly rows of palm trees - both Palmyra Palms and towering Cabbage Palms. There were monkeys here and there, too. I shouted a warning to Kate when one snatched a bag of fruit from another visitor and darted up a tree. I'd seen monkeys at the temple earlier, and would continue to see them in Sri Lanka. It is definitely a good idea to keep your distance from the viscous little buggers!

Gadaladeniya Temple - my first stop on Three Temples Loop

Next up was the three temple loop, all built during the 1300s. The first was Gadaladeniya — Sri Lanka’s largest granite temple. The caretaker took some time to describe the carvings and frescoes I would see. He is an artist, as well, and has been drawing and sketching the temple’s features for more than a decade. The first building had four small niches that you could duck down to enter, facing a statue of Buddha and gorgeous wall frescoes. The larger building had mythical animals carved along the stairway entrance. Two main pillars supported the entranceway, one carved by a master from India and the other by his Sri Lankan student. It was a quiet complex next to the teeming throngs of the Temple of the Tooth.

The carved entranceway to Gadaladeniya Temple

The next temple, Lankatilaka, was bigger, but undergoing some renovation and reconstruction. It's exterior was painted brightly white, so it looks newer, even though it is more than 700 years old. Inside, a Buddhist monk was holding a class for a group of visiting school kids and their parents. An electric light flickered with an almost strobe light effect, illuminating the leering demons and creatures carved into the walls with an eerie glow. The colors were muted by time, but must have been vibrant when freshly painted. Parts of the temple were closed off due to reconstruction, unfortunately.

The images carved into the temple walls of Lankatilaka

The final temple was known for its elaborately carved wooden pillars along its elevated open air, drumming platform. Figures of animals, mythical beasts, wrestlers, warriors, and floral designs covered each of their four rectangular faces. Upon arriving at the temple, I had breezed right past them, going straight to the small, and less impressive shrine inside the temple. It was only after circling the somewhat ramshackle building, wondering what the big fuss was, that I read a sign which talked about the carvings. Once I noticed them, Embekke Devale proved much more interesting.

The carved wooden pillars of Embekke Devale

By the time the three temple loop was completed, I was a little ways south of Kandy. That meant diving back into the maelstrom of city traffic. If I thought yesterday's taxi driver was aggressive, my tuk-tuk driver had him beat easily. If I had 100 rupees every time he weaved into oncoming traffic to get around a bus or car, I could have paid for the trip! I had forgotten to take a card with the hotel’s phone number, so it was a bit of an adventure navigating my tuk-tuk driver back home. He knew the general area of the road it was on, and eventually I spotted it looming on a hill above us.

Closeup of one of the carved pillars, showing wrestlers

The evening ended with my final night of spectacular hilltop views, for tomorrow I was off to Sigiriya and new adventures!
A graceful walkway lined with plants at the Royal Botanical Gardens

Posted by world_wide_mike 00:28 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Sri Lankan Journey Begins at an Elephant's Pace

Serendipity in Kandy Hill Country

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My new friend in Sri Lanka - as long as I keep feeding him yummy fruits

NEW! Watch these youtube videos of Pennewala Elephant Orphanage

Mud Bath at Pennewala

Playful Tussle in the River

I don't want to think about how long it took to get here. I began travel on a Tuesday morning in Ohio, and here it was Saturday morning in Sri Lanka before I awoke to my first real day of sightseeing. I had planned on taking the train from Negombo, a beach town not far from the airport, to Kandy, in Sri Lanka’s hill country. However, the observation car and all assigned seats for first and second class were completely booked up all day. This seems to be a flaw in Sri Lanka’s supposedly comfortable train system: very difficult to book tickets in advance, and all seats sold out by the time your travel date arrives.

Negombo's canal, built in colonial days, connecting it to the capital, Colombo

Serendipity is a frequent travel acquaintance, though. My hotel arranged a shared taxi with another traveler in a similar situation. The driver was awesome, and was happy to stop whenever I wanted to take pictures, plus suggested more stops. Negombo is a mostly Christian town in a Buddhist majority country. The driver stopped at the town’s main church, where a colorful, Sri Lankan wedding happened to be taking place. As we continued out of town, he suggested we stop at the Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage, which proved to be the highlight of the day and a very cool experience.

Pinnewala Elephant Orphanage takes care of a herd of elephants rescued from the wild

This organization rescues elephants orphaned in the wild and raises and cares for them on their property. We pulled up just in time to catch the milk feeding of the baby elephants. They were adorable, as you can imagine. Next, I got a chance to feed an adult elephant (healthy fruit, of course!). The driver was acting as our tour guide, too, and showed us where the bulk of Pinnewala’s herd was taking a mud bath prior to be walked down to the river for their daily bathing and swim. He showed us to the best spot to photograph them crossing the road, and zipped us aside afterwards to a cafe which has an amazing balcony view of the elephants bathing in the river. One older elephant repeatedly sprawled out on his side, floating in the river. Others tussled or played with each other, while still others used their trunks to shower themselves. It was obvious the herd was having a wonderful time. This was doubtless the highlight of their day, as it was mine.

Why did the elephant cross the road? To get to his favorite time of the day - his bath in the local river

Next, we stopped off at a few scenic overlooks and then wound our way into Kandy, the island’s second largest city. Sri Lankan traffic is torturous, and any trip by car or tuk-tuk involves lots of time stalled in traffic as drivers aggressively attempt to slip into the oncoming traffic lane to edge their way past others. Motorbikes are the worst offenders, tuk-tuks (think three wheeled, souped up golf carts with gas engines) second worst, and cars third. I witnessed numerous motorbikes deftly miss being pancaked by oncoming trucks and buses by milliseconds time and again. Sri Lankan's are not big on waiting in line, as I would come to find out. The competitive, speedway traffic is simply a manifestation of this disdain for — as their British former colonial rulers would say — queuing.

It was fun to watch the elephants wallowing in the water, just like humans, enjoying themselves

My hotel is a fairly new one in town and is aptly called The View 360. Most taxi or tuk-tuk drivers don't know where it is, which caused some anxious moments trying to navigate there over the course of my stay. It sits high atop a hill overlooking Kandy with amazing, as advertised, 360 degree views. Looking out on Sri Lankan hill country all around, I could imagine hoe awesome it would be to just sit out on my balcony and take in the view. Or to relax in the infinity pool while enjoying the panorama. There was even a work out room with inspiring views!

The amazing view from the penthouse workout room...which I did not use, ahem!

It had taken awhile to get started, but once here, my vacation in Sri Lanka was off to a great start!

Hill country around Kandy, Sri Lanka

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:45 Archived in Sri Lanka Comments (0)

Many Movements on a Moving Day

Day of Remembrance demonstration a lesson in Argentine politics

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A TV crew films the protest on my last day in Buenos Aires

I woke up today with no planned sights to see. I had not done much research before arriving here, true. However, it was also because I'd pretty much gone through the list of things I wanted to see. Stepping out onto the street, I was amazed to see it empty. On weekdays, the street outside my centrally located hotel was usually bustling. Then, I remembered that Florencia had said Friday was a national holiday. Those last museums I was thinking of visiting to fill my day would likely be closed. Now what, I thought?

The protestors carried signs demonizing their opponents or lauding their own cause

I began with a stroll down Calle Florida, Buenos Aires' pedestrian street, heading downtown. Nearly every store was closed, so it was not the lively experience it probably is most often. On one corner, I passed up a group of about a dozen people with identically colored shirts who had banners furled on the ground next to them. Some were tapping away on drums and they seemed excited. Was there to be another demonstration, today? As I neared Plaza de Mayo, it became obvious the answer was yes. I passed more and more groups, many larger. And the sound of drumming intensified as I got closer to the central square.

A kaleidoscope of colors and banners thronged the streets as a broad spectrum of parties protested

Once I turned onto Avenida de Mayo, it became obvious this would be a big event. Banners and posters were strung everywhere. Food vendors were grilling up piles of sausages and other meat in preparation for hungry crowds. Even souvenir sellers were staking out a patch of sidewalk with a blanket, spreading their wares. Granted, some had a political theme, with tshirts proclaiming, "Yo No lol VOTE" or other obviously political sayings. Some were printed withthe features of the famous guerrilla, Che Guerva.

It was the street vendors, setting up to grill out and sell food to the people, that made me decide this demonstration would be safe

My normal instinct when traveling abroad is to avoid political demonstrations like the plague. You never know when they may get out of hand, invite a heavy-handed government response, or if a crowd will decide to vent their fury on a handy representative of American foreign or economic policy. However, a couple things made me feel this was safe. Number one, they'd had a big demonstration a couple days ago and it was peaceful, with no violent government response. Second, the sheer number of vendors set up to service (and make money off of) the crowds. When the sausage seller feels safe enough to set up his grill and fry up a mountain of meat, then my guess is lawlessness is not about to break out.

It certainly was a rainbow of many parties that joined together that day to protest

More groups began to arrive, stopping and lining up about three blocks away from the plaza. They raised their banners high, and began to drum, blow on brass instruments, sing, dance, and have a great time. Each new group that arrived had matching tshirts and a recognizable color theme. I could translate some of their banners. I saw the group demonstrating for more rights for gay and transgender people in purple. There was a communist faction in red, holding aloft images of Che or the hammer and sickle. Most groups demanded justice for the political prisoners of the past. The riot of colors each noisily cheering their cause was amazing.

Used to shouting and ill will between parties, I was shocked by the congenial and jovial nature of the crowds

I noticed another thing -- there appeared to be no ill will between these various groups. They appeared united in one thing: letting their voices be heard. Hugs were more present than any signs of disagreement. No group jockeyed for position to displace another. It was great to see each group in their colors, and try to translate their signs so I could decipher their political message, while watching them entertain themselves by dancing and singing. Police were scattered here and there and seemed to be only observing. There were no dark looks or officers in riot gear. Everyone seemed agreed on this "Day of Remembrance for Truth and Justice" (as it was officially called) taking place peacefully. In the center of the plaza, a stage was set up blaring rock music in Spanish. All of the government buildings were placarded with their posters, and the air was festive -- not angry.

One party chose the blue and white of the Argentine flag to symbolize themselves

I bought an Argentine flag pin for my world map back home from one vendor. I succumbed to the wonderful aroma of the sausage grillers, and enjoyed some excellent street food. And then I threw myself into observing and photographing this example of South American democracy in action. As I watched the ordinary citizens in their groups enjoy themselves, hug each other, and coexist alongside other political factions, I couldn't help but compare this experience to U.S. democracy. Here, there are a myriad of groups, parties, and movements. Back home, we have two main political parties who become more divided by the day. When we have a demonstration, riot police show up to keep the counter-demonstrators separate. Epithets are hurled, violence breaks out, and there are signs only of disunity. All of my life I have felt fortunate to live in a country without the Parliamentarian factionalism. You see nations struggle to put together coalition governments, only to watch them crumble at the first crisis. As our two-party system in the U.S. becomes more and more polarized, and conservatives and liberals find little common ground, are we truly lucky to have this system?

Signs asked people to remember the victims who were persecuted and killed by the previous dictatorship

Today was a day to wonder "what if?" What if we lived in a country not dominated by only two parties? What if we had a Christian Democrat party, a Liberal-Socialist party, a stronger Green Party, more organized and less angry Libretarians? What if these parties had to get along to govern -- to form a majority -- instead of our minority party obstructionism? Food for thought. I have often said that the best thing that could happen to America is to get rid of ALL political parties, that way, people -- especially our elected officials -- vote their conscience rather than what their party tells them to do. As I strolled along the snaking columns of demonstrators, photographing each colorful new group and wondering where they fit into the political spectrum, I heartily enjoyed this experience of witnessing Argentina's democracy in action. This was far better and showed me more of the soul of the people than an art or history museum could ever have.

A news photographer stakes out a place to take pictures from atop a van blasting rock music to the crowds

The final group I witnessed was a fitting climax to the afternoon. They were all women dressed in purple, from very young to very old. They carried brooms and were called, I believe, the Mothers of May. What immediately struck you was the towering mannequin of an elderly lady, and smaller (but still more than man-sized) figure of a young man. They were enthusiastically dancing in circles around and in front of the mother figure. As they danced, they swept the ground furiously with their brooms. The joy on their faces was evident. When their song ended, they formed a circle around the mother. The women and girls faced outward, tapped their chest twice and repeated a phrase in Spanish. They locked eyes with the crowd, staring into ours intently, repeating the phrase. Even though I could not understand what they were saying, I could tell it was an emotional moment.

The most emotional moment of the protests when the huge mannequin of an old lady searches for and finds her missing son

Later, I asked someone, and they explained that the group represents those mothers who lost husbands or sons to the political prisons. They were demanding the return of their loved ones from police custody, and justice for those lost. It was the most powerful moment of a moving day. I plan to ask Florencia and Pablo more about this tomorrow, on my last day. Although I had awoken that morning unsure what I would do on my final, full day in Buenos Aires, I felt thankful for having glimpsed this side of life in Argentina.

I normally don't recommend sightseeing trips to political demonstrations, but this one in Buenos Aires was a blessing to witness

Posted by world_wide_mike 15:35 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

The Past Lives on in Tigre Delta

Boat cruise along the Rio de la Plate's Delta

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Boats line the waterfront along the Tigre Delta just outside of Buenos Aires

So if you think you are going on a nature excursion when you sign up for the Tigre Delta boat tour, you might be disappointed. Now instead, if you go simply to see some interesting sights, and a slice then of life worlds apart from downtown Buenos Aires, you will likely enjoy your time. You see almost no wildlife -- at least nonhuman species. However, you see quite a few counterculture types that have kicked back along the delta and carved out a relaxed, interesting lifestyle.

All types of boats ply the Tigre Delta, taking tourists on one or two hour tours

Whatever you do, though, do NOT sign up for this as an official, guided tour. Make all the arrangements on your own. Show up anytime at the Retiro Train Station in B.A., and buy your return ticket to Tigre (a comfortable hour away) for less than $2. Trains leave every 15 minutes or so. Then select your boat company by walking down to the waterfront -- or visiting the Tourist Information Office just past McDonalds, like I did. Sooooo much cheaper, and more accurately priced. Some tour companies will say they will pick you up at your hotel and you'll end up with half of your time spent in minivans picking up other guests from other hotels scattered throughout the city. Trust me. You can handle doing this one on your own.

A colonial church in the Retiro neighborhood, where visitors can sign up for their delta cruise

I booked the two hour tour rather than the one hour version simply because this was the main reason I was in town. Plus, the catamarans had an open upper deck rather than a sealed, one deck with no opening windows that I saw in other boats. I spent my entire time on the upper deck, feeling the nice breeze and experiencing it all first hand, rather than in air conditioning behind a window.

It is not all gloss and gleam in Tigre, you see poverty, dilapidated ships, and ordinary life

The first part of the cruise is interesting because you see how dilapidated so much of this riverfront can be. There were numerous rusting ship frames and half-sunken vessels lining the waterways out of town. There is money here in Tigre, yes, but it is not evenly distributed. There are obviously poor people, or those who are living hand-to-mouth to get by. And there are wealthy, too, with their immaculate houses along the water, with pools, private beach, elevated dock, and more. In essence, this two hour cruise is a contrast in socio-economic groups that have chosen to congregate in the delta. I saw pieced-together wrecks like something out of a Mad Max movie, and I saw gorgeous, weekend getaways for the super-elite.

Many rich families have bought and renovated homes along the delta complete with their own fancy docks

Most of the two dozen or so passengers rode on the upper deck, too, enjoying the fresh air, as well. That included the Argentine couple with the newborn and toddler who took turns shrieking throughout our cruise. But hey, anybody who decides to take their child on a hot, two hour ride that they obviously are too young to enjoy has that right! Forget the kids -- it is all about you! So, as you sit there, smoking, the cigarette fumes bathing your children's faces, no one will think the worse of you. Not even me.

And then there are the not-so-rich who live along the Tigre Delta

About an hour and a half into the cruise, I saw my first rain drops of the trip. It never broke out into the thunderstorms that were predicted, but it drizzled steadily for the last half hour. Once the cruise ended, I took that as a cue to hit up the Naval museum while the weather was not cooperating. Compared to the other, relatively tiny, historical museums I'd visit in Argentina, this one was positively sprawling. The beginning part had lots of large models of various ships from human naval history. It continued by focusing on Argentine history, and its navy. There were interesting exhibits on the Falklands War (or Malvinas, as Argentinians call the islands) with Great Britain.

Passenger watch the delta scenery drift slowly by as we cruise along

For me, the coolest part were both the models and the actual weapons and vehicles. Not only did they have a massive collection of anti-aircraft guns, they had torpedoes, machine guns, and even actual aircraft from naval aviation history. Many of these were exhibited outside in the garden annex. While walking around them, I heard the sound of a jeep being revved next door at a garage. Looking at the undercarriage I could see underneath the exhibits, I wondered aloud if it was a U.S.Army "Willey" keep. Sure enough, it was! It was cool to see this living relic of WW II in person. The same was true for all of the other exhibits in the museum. In fact, it was an interesting day overall -- whether seeing relics of the past or how people lived today in the delta of the Rio de la Plata. Just don't pay someone else to take you -- remember to do this one on your own!

The Naval Museum also has aircraft, jeeps, and more inside its sprawling hangars

Posted by world_wide_mike 19:38 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Art Taking the High Road, and Low Road

Teatro Colon and La Bocca

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The exterior of Buenos Aires' ornate, gilded Teatro Colon - home to symphonies and operas

The day I arrived, I'd made a short stop at Buenos Aires' world famous Teatro Colon. Known throughout the world for its acoustics and gorgeous interior, I planned to come back for one of their English language tours. The overcast morning was starting to show signs of sun when I arrived in time for the 11 am tour. There were about two dozen people in the group, and everyone was polite and well mannered. Out tour guide was a young, Argentine lady who was charming and honest. She talked about the problems they had building the theater, its mishmash of styles, and how it's acoustics were poor when it opened. She kept us moving without being demanding, and politely ignored it when we wandered a bit off to take photos.

Huge, gleaming chandeliers light up the interior of the Teatro Colon

The theater was built in the late 1800s in a mix of Italian and French styles. The statues, gold leaf paint, columns, and other classical decoration were stunning. The glass windows with their colorful, floral decorations were beautiful. Our guide pointed out the columns decorated with stucco to look like marble and the parts that were genuine marble. She explained the purpose of each of the chambers, and brought to life what attending the theater as a social event would be like back then.

The stained glass domes of Teatro Colon ablaze with color on a sunny day

When we moved into the theater itself, she pointed out each area and level of balcony, and explained what its purpose was back then and now. It was interesting to hear about how each social class had their own area, and how in some levels men were even segregated from women because the seating was too close together. She pointed out the Presidential box, as well as that of the mayor. My favorite story was about the secret area at the top of the ceiling, next to the great bronze lamp fixture. There was a tiny area where musicians or other performers could hide to create special effects like thunder coming from above, or angels or birds singing. The acoustics were indeed perfect -- it was voted #1 in the world awhile back -- as she barely had to raise her voice and all of us could hear clearly.

A shady street in Buenos Aires' La Bocca neighborhood, famous for its garish, colorful decorations

I was glad I visited, and it was worth the $16 or so that I paid. The guide also told us about practices that people can buy tickets for, if they can't afford the actual performances. I probably won't do that, but others may be interested. I have to admit that I'm not a fan of either the symphony, theater plays, and definitely NOT opera! Still, it is a beautiful building and deserves its acclaim.

The colors of the buildings are almost Caribbean in their bright, contrasting tones

Next was a subway ride to the stop closest to the La Bocca (which was still almost a mile from the part of the neighborhood I was heading). I probably should have taken a taxi, but I figured I would see more walking. As it turned out, I took a taxi back, but for different reasons! La Bocca is where many European -- especially Italian -- immigrants first settled. Bocca means mouth, which stands for the river mouth where many of the port facilities were located.

Colorfully-painted carvings decorate the walls, depicting traditional life in the La Bocca neighborhood

The homes in La Bocca are garishly painted in a wide variety of colors. The story is that they used the paint from ships, thus the non-matching colors. They also moved several families into the sprawling mansions that had been abandoned by the wealthy during the yellow fever epidemic. Nowadays, many of these century-old buildings have been haphazardly repaired with corrugated steel, wood, or whatever materials were on hand. They are still brightly colored. What's more, murals and carvings decorate the walls depicting families, ordinary people, tango dancers, and more. These are brought into 3-D by larger than life statues of Argentinians such as Pope Francis, soccer star Maradonna, and caricatures of everyday life in La Bocca along the streets or projecting from facades of buildings.

Larger than life statues greet visitors from balconies and streets

It is a bit touristy, of course. You can tell that by the touts trying to talk you into their cafe (with musical performance or tango dancing). Also, every other building appears to be a souvenir shop or gift store. It is a colorful visit, though. I stopped to photograph buildings repeatedly, and enjoyed the artistic effort taken by the residents to make their surroundings beautiful. I saw more than one house being spruced up with a fresh coat of paint. Of course, the residents are no longer limited to the paint they can scrounge from incoming ships. They use the full pallet -- so I saw lavender walls, bright green, yellows, and more.

Shops line the streets and second stories of this popular tourist stop in Buenos Aires

After lunch, I took taxi back because of the demonstration going on downtown (where my subway route would have to pass through). On the walk to La Bocca from the subway, I'd seen hundreds of demonstrators carrying signs and chanting slogans marching down one of the main thoroughfares. At lunch, I saw television coverage showing thousands packing the Plaza Mayor, where I'd done my sightseeing on Saturday when I arrived. That explained why all the subway cars had been packed going towards downtown! I never did find out what the demonstration was about. Maybe I'll ask Florencia when we meet later this week.

Visitors seek out the shade of trees as they wander this colorful neighborhood

It had been good, art-filled day. The first part had been high brow art, and the second definitely low brow. Both had been beautiful, though, in their own way.

A demonstration appeared to be under way of some sort, as a long line of protestors carrying signs surged along a bridge in Buenos Aires

Posted by world_wide_mike 14:56 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Uruguay For One Day

Trip across Rio De La Plata to Colonia

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A day trip to Uruguay...why not? It was only a ferry ride away!

Okay, I admit one of the primary attractions of the day trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay, was the fact it would be yet another country I've visited. Guidebooks praised it as a cobblestoned gem, and UNESCO had named it a World Heritage site. So, I wasn't being totally cheesy in going for country #85! Plus, it meant a boat trip across the famous Rio de la Plata that separates the two countries (and incidentally, is near where the British finally cornered and sank the German battle cruiser, the Bismarck).

The modern fast ferry boat that take visitors from Buenos Aires to Colonia

I was in Buenos Aires for just over a week, and looking for interesting sights to fill my schedule, so I booked a one day return on the Buquebus -- which is a fast ship making the crossing in about an hour. I left on the 9 am departure, scheduling the 7:45 pm return. Colonia is a former Portuguese colony town that is a popular weekend or day trip for Portenos (as residents of Buenos Aires are called). It has a number of tiny museums, but the main attraction is the historic Old Quarter. I am a sucker for historic towns -- the more atmospheric, the better.

Cobble stone streets and colonial era homes are part of the atmosphere of formerly Portuguese Colonia

Some guidebooks recommend an overnight to truly experience the town. After spending a day there, I would say that is a mistake. My ship docked at shortly after 10 am, giving me a good 8+ hours to see Colonia's sights. That is way, way more than enough, in my opinion. In fact, around 4 pm, I began to wonder if there was an earlier departure I could change my ticket to, possibly. There was. At 4 pm - so much for that idea!

View of the streets of Colonia, with its flower-bedecked homes, from the top of the lighthouse

I had seen pretty much all of the Old Quarter's sights by then. I had climbed the lighthouse for a view of the town bathed in the late morning sun. I had threaded my way through all of its streets, stopping at each numbered spot on the map the tourist information agency had given me. I had seen all four of the museums that were open on a Tuesday -- several were closed. I had taken pictures of the historic buildings, some framed by bright bougainvillea. I had enjoyed a lunch in a streetside cafe, and dozed on a bench by the shore, as the afternoon sun made my eyelids heavy.

Beaches are not necessarily a draw in Colonia, but this looked very pleasant

Whenever I encounter this feeling of "Is this it?", I begin to wonder if I am the victim of my own experience. I know I am comparing Colonia in my mind to, say, last Spring Break's destination of Dubrovnik. Or the walled town of Obidos, Portugal, or Segovia, Spain, or Assisi, Italy. But is it fair to every new destination to judge it by the standards of all the other historic towns I've visited? Colonia definitely pales in comparison to those sights. I worry about this feeling. Will it crop up more and more as I've visited a higher percentage of sights around the world?

Rose colored walls on a colonial era home in Colonia

I noticed that Colonia has more than its share of dogs wandering its cobblestoned streets. Most of them seemed to spend the day napping in the sun. I managed to befriend one at lunch. They were well behaved, and did not beg for food like most dogs in the U.S. would have. Most seemed indifferent to visitors, and would only come to be petted with coaxing. If I needed a relaxing day after the hectic 2-3 weeks at school, leading up to spring break, I received it today.

Great views of Colonia can be seen from atop the Lighthouse

Eventually, it was time to walk back to the port and check in for the ride back to Buenos Aires. The customs officials for Argentina and Uruguay sit side by side. Crossing this border is a breeze, and took less time than the last time I drove from Canada into the U.S. Was Colonia the highlight of my spring break? No. Was it an interesting way to spend the day -- and a simple way to chalk up country #85? Absolutely! So, I recommend it if you have an extra day to spend while in Buenos Aires -- or need to rack up another country!

Beautiful blue tiles are a trademark of colonial Portuguese architecture

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:15 Archived in Uruguay Comments (0)

Admiring the Houses of the Dead

Wandering the La Recoleta Cemetery

sunny 77 °F

Wandering La Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires is an atmospheric way to spend a couple hours

I had read that the La Recoleta Cemetery was an atmospheric place to wander on your visit to Buenos Aires, so that was the destination for Day 3. Another short subway ride and a nice walk led to its gates. Even though there were a few tour buses parked outside, the vastness of the cemetery swallows up visitors. It seems most groups make a beeline for the family tomb of Evita Peron, so I set off in the opposite direction. There is no way to check out every single tomb, so I would wander the aisles making my way through each area, hoping to spot the most interesting ones.

Looking more like a cathedral than mausoleum, many Argentine families have constructed elaborate tombs

The mausoleums that the Argentine families have constructed here range from simple to massive and elaborate. Some are done in a Graeco-Roman style, others in 18th or 19th century fashion. Statues of angels, soldiers, and the deceased look out serenely over the packed rows. One even showed a naked Classical Greek man wrestling a female centaur. I would be VERY interested to hear the story behind that symbolism! Some statues feature family members somberly mourning the departed. Others have beautiful stained glass windows that burst into color in the bright sunlight.

Many statues decorate the tombs in La Recoleta, including this one of a soldier

The really cool part of exploring La Recoleta Cemetery is the sheer variety of mausoleums. You thread your way through row after row, investigating spires, statues, or the tops of tombs that caught your eye. There are more than 6,000 of them, and many contain Argentina's formerly rich and famous. Hundreds have been declared historic monuments. It reminded me a lot of a cemetery I visited in Ukraine, Lychakivske, in Lviv. However, that one had more of an outdoor feel. With all the stone and marble and paved walkways, this had a very "city" feel to it.

Some mausoleums feature tiny chapels with stained glass windows

After more than two hours of prowling the cemetery, my feet and back had enough. It was time for a break, and the brewpub just outside the entrance sounded perfect. I learned later that evening from an Argentine friend, Florencia, that microbreweries are becoming quite the craze of late. Refreshed, I headed out again to check out a church that overlooked the cemetery. The Basilica del Pilar was first built in the 1700s, and you can tour its whitewashed interior. Gregoria's chant wafted through the stone interior, and numerous signs explained the relics and artifacts along the walls. Disappointingly, there was no place to get a good picture of its tiled belltower, which I'd seen while touring the cemetery.

Angels are popular decorations in this city of the dead inside Bueons Aires

A final stop was the 66-foot tall aluminum Floralis Generica. It is a giant flower whose petals used to open and close every day. Now, apparently , it is stuck in the open position. Its brightly reflective surface brought to mind Chicago's "bean." It was another gorgeous, sunny day, and the sun shone off its metal surface. As it was heading on to late afternoon, it was time to go back before rush hour jammed the subway cars. Once in my hotel room, I downloaded my pictures onto my iPad, picked out my favorites, then took a quick nap.

This Italian restaurant was a great spot to rejuvenate for lunch after wandering the Cemetery

I ended the evening meeting Florencia and her husband. They were great hosts, and we swapped travel stories and they told me more about life in Argentina. Both are well travelled, and Florencia has lived in the U.S. and even Syria, years ago. We'd met years ago through an online travel forum, Travelpunk, but had never met in person before. She'd been ribbing me for years about not visiting Argentina. I had a great time chatting with her and Pablo. I think getting to know locals on a visit to a new country provides a new depth and dimension to learning about a place. It was great to get to know both them and Argentina more.

Floralis Generica is a giant aluminum flower whose petals used to open and close each day

Posted by world_wide_mike 09:15 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Feeling Like an Antique After Shopping Day

Exploring the San Telmo Market

sunny 78 °F

The beginning of the Sunday Antique Market in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina

All the guidebooks recommended visiting the Sunday Antique Market in San Telmo, a gentrified neighborhood with interesting architecture and quaint cobblestoned streets. Since this was the only Sunday of my visit, it was off to San Telmo via Buenos Aires' "Subte", or metro. The subway was easy to navigate, and stacked up well against other world metro systems I've taken (except for Singapore, which is almost obsessive-compulsive about its cleanliness and comfort). A half-mile walk from the metro station led to the main drag of San Telmo, Defensa, which was bustling with crowds in the late morning sun.

Crowds throng the cobble stoned streets of San Telmo for Sunday's market

Some vendors had their wares set up on various sizes and shapes of tables, while others on blankets on the ground. The variety of items for sale ran the gamut from clothing, antiques, pottery, music, books, and interesting gifts. My favorite were the two vendors I saw that had taken various coins from around the world and converted them to interesting pendants. They cut out the background of the coin, leaving the face, animal, or whatever the raised surface was inside the ring of the coin's rim. I would have bought one but I rarely wear jewelry. The crowds grew steadily as morning turned to noon and then afternoon.

A church in the San Telmo neighborhood gleams in another day's perfect sunshine

One break from shopping was the National History Museum. It focused mostly on the colonial past, but had some displays on the various aspects indigenous cultures of Argentina. All signs and placards were in Spanish and there was no English language literature to go with it. On the positive side, the museum was free because it was National Culture Day, I overhearid another visitor say. There were various weapons and uniforms used by soldiers and leaders. There was even another grenadier uniformed in 19th century costume with drawn sword guarding a display. All in all, though, the museum was unsatisfying for this history buff. Perhaps if I'd been able to read the signs and descriptions I would have enjoyed it more.

Bolos - a traditional South American weapon - in the National History Museum

There were two more interesting sounding museums in the area, so I dove back into the surging crowd shopping at the market. The tables filled with wares ran for nearly a dozen city blocks. Off to the side, covered markets and indoor antique markets tempted shoppers off the main drag. The array of things offered for sale was bewildering. A WW I gas mask? Figureheads from wooden sailing vessels? More weapons and knives and odds and ends than you would think possible crammed table after table.

Want to buy a dragon? That, and many other oddities are available on the market tables in San Telmo

Despite backtracking twice, I could not find the second museum, and the third ended up being closed. After hours of walking on irregular cobble stones, my feet were aching. I could feels myself tottering a bit as I walked, and I began to feel like one of the antiques lining the store windows behind the market tables. A cold drink and a place to stretch out my legs sounded too good. I decided to stop at a cafe on the way back to the Subte, but on the route I chose everything was shuttered and closed, it being Sunday. It wasn't until I returned to the neighborhood of my hotel that I finally found one open. By then, I was exhausted, and as it turned out, done for the day. It was nearly 4 pm when I collapsed on the bed of my hotel room. An hour-plus nap was obviously in order, as I was out shortly after I took off my shoes. I woke up later and had an awesome pizza dinner, but Sunday -- shopping day in Buenos Aires-- turned out to be a relatively light one as far as sightseeing went.

The San Telmo market seen through the window of one of the shops along the crowded street

Posted by world_wide_mike 17:22 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Bueno Day in Buenos Aires

Sunny and warm greeting in Argentina

sunny 75 °F

A view of Buenos Aires, Argentina's, skyscrapers through the park on a sunny spring day

As I stepped out of the car ar John Glenn Airport in Columbus, a cold, wintry rain sent its icy tentacles down my neck. Remind me never to confidently sneer that we are done with Winter. Ever. However, when I landed in Buenos Aires 15 hours later, I discovered where the sun had been hiding since teasing us with a mild winter early. Setting out from my hotel in Centro district, the warm sun bathed refreshed me with its golden light. I had slept more than I expected on the plane last night, but was still a little groggy. The brilliant blue, cloudless sky helped wake me up, too.

Colonial architecture in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina

I ducked inside the Teatro Colon, but decided to save touring its lavish interior for a day when it wasn't so gorgeous out. Instead, I worked my way steadily downtown, drawn downhill towards the waterfront. The Obelisk was a quick photo stop, then a short walk later, I arrived at Plaza Mayor. This is Centro's main square, and a festival was in full swing with a choir serenading a bustling crowd and teams of traditionally garbed dancer performing. I watched a few teams perform, then circled the area, taking pictures of its historic buildings gleaming in the sunlight.

Casa Rosata - the Presidential Palace in downtown Buenos Aires

Dancers performing in the square near the Presidential Palace

I was disappointed I couldn't visit the Casa Rosata -- the centuries old Presidential Palace. This pastel pink building is where the President works, where Evita Peron addressed adoring crowds from the balcony, and where Madonna belted out her rendition of Argentina's famous First Lady. The tours were booked solid for the week, unfortunately. I compensated by taking a leisurely circuit of the classical, columned National Cathedral. Gold and stained glass shone in the afternoon sunlight. One interesting touch were the two Grenadiers in 1800s, Napoleonic-style uniforms guarding the tomb of one of Argentina's beloved generals. Drawn swords and martial attire usually aren't found in Catholic Churches!

The interior of Buenos Aires' National Cathedral

Nest up was the Casa Rosata Musuem. There are lots of pictures of Plaza Mayor through the years, as well as Presidential relics through the years. Everything was in Spanish, but it seemed to do a relatively honest job of portraying Argentina's less-than-democratic past as it was. The displays were not thrilling, but it was a fee museum, and a change of pace from walking around downtown. The funniest part was what the ladies working there were most enthusiastic about -- a bizarre, nude mural in a small building constructed inside the museum for it. Apparently it is the first mural ever painted in the country. We had to put cloth boots on over our shoes and then entered a small antechamber where the enthusiastic tour guide rambled on in Spanish for more than 20 minutes about it. She knew I did not speak Spanish, but I had to sit there and endure her lecture for me and the dozen other people. I fought doIng off several times, then chuckled when I thought, "It took the dude less time to paint it than it is for her to explain it!" Once permitted in the mural room, I shook my head and left with a few minutes. Sorry, I am not a fan of modern nude art with distorted female body parts overwhelming a painting. I'd rather look at street graffiti than this overrated crap...ha,ha!

A historic 1890s Naval frigate moored in downtown Buenos Aires

From there, I worked my way down to the seaside. There us a bird sanctuary on an island protecting the waterfront. The shore facing the city looks more like a marsh than a coastal scene, and egrets and parrots flapped above or in its waters. I sat, drank a cold soft drink, and caught up on some email and Facebook, enjoying the feels of the 70+ degree heat and the sun warming my back. On the way back, I stopped by and explored an 1890s era frigate docked along the waterfront. It was cool to see that transition period from sailpower to electric and steam. Then, it was back to my hotel. It had been a good first day. Dinner a bit later was an amazing finish, too - incredible Italian food, with great bread and olive oil beforehand. I had followed my typical plan after an over-night, overseas flight. Do outdoor stuff. Minimize or cut out any museum visits. And Argentina had cooperated, giving me sunny, blue skies and warm weather to welcome me.

Stylish bridge in downtown Buenos Aires, Argentina

Posted by world_wide_mike 18:31 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Rain Out in Palawan

Charms of Philippine island washed out by typhoon

storm 81 °F

Sun sets over El Nido Bay in Palawan, Philippines

So, here it was, an island of natural beauty and stunning seascapes. After the urban ugliness of Manila, I was really looking forward to this part of the trip. My AirSwift flight on a 40-seat propeller plane went smoothly. The tiny airline flies three times a day to El Nido, the town in the Bacuit Archipelago where I'd be staying. After a puzzling pause upon arrival, a fleet of tricycles arrived to pick up the passengers and distribute them to various hotels. A tricycle is a motorbike with a two wheeled, covered sidecar seating 2-3 people. It is the taxi of El Nido. The road was dirt -- well, mud, actually -- with a large number of standing puddles my driver had to slow down to splash through or detour around.

Colorfully painted boats line the beach in Palawan

That should have been my first clue as to what awaited me on my four nights on Palawan. In one word: rain. To give it a name, Typhoon Butchoy was currently cruising past the north end of the Philippines, pulling in torrential thunderstorms and scattering them in an arc across the country. My first brush with Butchoy was the previous afternoon when I went walking, then wading, in Manila. My second brush was on the tricycle ride to my hotel, when a driving rain partially soaked me despite pulling out my ran jacket and cowering behind it. After transferring from one tricycle to my hotel's private one in town, I arrived after about 30 minutes at the Golden Monkey Inn -- a small resort located a mile from or so out of town on a similarly muddy, rutted road.

An outrigger, one of the boats that usually take visitors to sights around Palawan, sits anchored and empty during the typhoon

I had reserved a Seaview Suite, and my private balcony did indeed look out on a lovely view of El Nido's bay. The next day, I discovered it looked out upon the construction of a new hotel building going on about 15 yards beneath me. The sounds of hammering, sawing, and pounding nails into the tin roofs killed any relaxation I might have felt looking out at rain falling upon the jungle and sea. My island tour of various scenic spots had been cancelled for the day due to the typhoon's after effects. The rain hammered down every hour or so from the relentless gray skies. I retreated inside to read some, but what's the point of visiting an idyllic, tropical location if you're going to spend it in your air conditioned hotel room? Eventually, the rains let up enough for me to explore the resort a little. I noticed the beachfront cabins that I thought I had rented were unoccupied. In fact, other than me, the entire resort was empty of guests. The staff let me switch to one of the cabins, which were identical in amenities, but a tad smaller. The construction was going on behind me, now, and my balcony looked out directly onto the ocean with nothing intervening. Even more gorgeous...well, except for the gray skies and driving rain every couple hours!

View from the private balcony of my beachfront cabin

Eventually, the rain seemed to let up enough for me to take a chance and explore along the ocean front a little. I ended up walking all the way into town along the rocks and beach. It was a much better and more scenic walk than yesterday's plod along the muddy, jungle path. I was able to take some really nice photos of the sun peaking out and shining upon the water. The tide was out, and locals were wading ankle deep more than a hundred yards from the shoreline, foraging among the tide pools. Once in town, I confirmed my reservation for the island tour -- what I was hoping wold be the highlight of the trip -- had been pushed back till tomorrow. El Nido has a definite backpacker vibe, with most of the visitors in their 20s or 30s. Families are sprinkled in here and there, too. It seemed about half Asian and half Western visitors, with the locals nearly outnumbered by the travelers.

Although I did not see the sun much in Palawan, here it strikes a fierce glare from the water

The beach is lined with restaurants and bars advertising happy hour, many with rooms for rent, as well. Reggae blared out of more than one bar, and there was a lot of San Miguel (Philippine's national brewery) being consumed. I had dinner, and of course, just as I began the walk back to my resort, the rains came down again. It was too dark for walking amidst the rocks of the shoreline, so I squished along on the muddy jungle path again, illuminating my way with the flashlight app on my phone. My reasons for staying outside of town were looking less and less sound, now, especially in the rainy season. Internet is weak to nonexistent on Palawan, so I couldn't upload photos or update my blog -- my usual evening activities when I travel. As I climbed into bed, the rains came down harder and the wind began to howl. I immediately noticed one huge difference between the suite (which was in a multistory building) and the cabin (which had its own tin roof). The cacophony of rain, branches, and coconuts hammering on the roof made it difficult to fall asleep. It was a new experience, for sure, but one that made a light sleeper like me wake up numerous times during the night.

A kayak's eye view of the colorful buildings lining the shore in Palawan

Checking with the tour company the next morning, the island hopping tour was canceled yet again. So, what to do today? While the thunderstorms lashed the island, I read some. After a few hours, the weather broke a little. I could use the 3G on my Philippine SIM card intermittently. The forecast was for three hours of clouds before the next aquatic lashing by Typhoon Butchoy. My guidebook recommended Las Cabanas Beach, a short 15-minute tricycle ride from El Nido. It was a good choice, and the sun actually came out for a bit while I was there. The beach had too many huge rocks mixed in here and there for me to really spend a lot of time wading in the water. Plus the waves churned up the seaweed and floor to make the water more muddy-colored than crystal blue. However, the jungle-clad slopes all around, the palm trees leaning over the beach, and the sound of the surf was just what my spirits needed. I craved a burger at a tiki bar overlooking the beach, but the wait was long, and the skies began to darken as it neared the three hour window between thunderstorms. I decided to postpone it for an early dinner in town, and beat the rush the ensuing rain would likely bring for the waiting tricycles. It was a good call. About halfway back into town, the wind picked up, locals began to scurry, and finally the skies opened up and whipped bucket loads of rain. I found a second story restaurant overlooking the street, and watched locals, travelers, and traffic dodge the rain beneath me. This was definitely not the nature I'd come to Palawan to admire. But as I fell asleep that night listening to what sounded like a hurricane roaring, it was impressive nonetheless.

Las Cabanas Beach during a rare moment of sunshine

My last morning began as the other three, with news that the Coast Guard had again cancelled the island tours for today. So, it was official. I would not see the beauty of the Bacuit Archipelago, and I'd spent my airfare and hotel money to see an extremely watered down version of Palawan's sights. So, what to do on my final full day? I chose to rent a kayak from my resort. My guidebook said that many travelers paddle across the bay to the giant green hump of Cadlao Island on their own. I asked, and they said it was an hour's paddle. If I were an experienced kayaker, or had the company of others or guides, I might have risked it. However, the idea of getting halfway across and having a storm blow in was too scary for me. My friend Keith would probably have done it, but despite my boldness in exploring countries off the beaten path of most travelers, I am too cautious at heart. I'm not an adrenaline junkie. I'm also flat-out terrified of sharks. And I'd probably have a heart attack if I was out on the open water and saw a fin slicing the water. So, instead I paddled along the coastline for about an hour and a half -- never more than about 100 yards offshore. It was a scenic vantage point, and I'm glad I did it. The only sea life I saw were a half dozen flying fish startled by my paddling. The skies remained overcast, and no gray clouds threatened. My butt soaked, my back and arms a bit sore, I happily pulled into my hotel and surrendered the kayak, vest, and paddle.

Worldwidemike takes to the sea and is NOT eaten by sharks!

The rest of the afternoon was spent wandering El Nido, enjoying some San Miguel's, and waiting for the Altrove -- the best meal on Palawan to open up at 5 pm. In retrospect, I would discourage anyone from visiting Palawan during its rainy season. You essentially miss the whole reason for coming. It would be like visiting Vatican City when St. Peter's was closed. Come during its dry season or don't come at all. I spent a lot of time in my hotel room in Palawan -- more than I ever had on previous vacations. I wanted a vacation amidst nature's beauty, not a "stay-cation" reading books in a hotel room. Typhoon Butchoy saw that I spent more time with my feet propped up on the balcony than hiking, swimming, or snorkeling in a tropical paradise.

A man wades out into the still water in this moody shot -- one of my favorites from Palawan

Posted by world_wide_mike 13:03 Archived in Philippines Comments (0)

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