Monday, June 11, 2018

Playing the tourist in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic (2018)

Bávaro Beach in the Punta Cana tourism area

My wife and I had wanted to visit Punta Cana for years and finally had our opportunity in May 2018. We found a great deal at the all-inclusive Iberostar resort in the Bávaro Beach area, comprised of three hotels: Bávaro Suites, Iberostar Punta Cana and Iberostar Dominicana. We stayed at the Bávaro Suites area but could use the facilities at the other two hotels. As it turned out, we liked the Bávaro Suites just fine and had a nice-sized room close to the pool area.

This hotel complex is geared to serving huge crowds, and many of the guests hailed from Europe and South America as well as the US (Germans and Argentinians were especially there in good number), so Americans don't dominate there the way they sometimes do at other resorts. Food was plentiful and varied; not everything was a hit in my estimation but there was so much to choose from that it was inevitable to find plenty to one's liking. The service was very good overall. The Dominicans that we encountered on our trip struck me as friendly and exuberant, accommodating and easy to chat with.

I observed that items were pricey, and outside of the normal run of tourist activities, there was not much of interest close by unless you didn't mind being on a long guided tour to Isla Saona, Altos de Chavón or Santo Domingo which would have eaten up most of the day. Any impulses I might have had to stray from the resort or the shopping areas in Punta Cana were tempered by the distances, the cost of hiring a taxi, and the intense heat. Things for sale were mostly the souvenirs that everyone is accustomed to buying, save some local crafts. The best way to catch the local flavor was by buying food, no pun intended. A free shuttle can pick you up at the hotel at certain times of the day to be taken to a small shopping mall called the San Juan Plaza Shopping Center. We did find a few souvenirs there but we especially liked finding Dominican specialties in the supermarket.

Accurately or not, I generally gauge the pride or the knowledge that the local hospitality industry has in the regional culture by the amount of cultural items that are available at the airport. It was impossible to find so much as a guidebook there, and in that respect the area did not compare as well to Cancún, which was built in the middle of a number of culturally significant centers, such as the Mayan ruins at Tulum. My recollection was that the taxis to go into town were not as expensive in Cancún as they were in Punta Cana.

For me, the negatives were minor because the amenities and the friendliness of our hosts made the trip more than worthwhile. After noticing how difficult it would be to go off the beaten path in a way that I would have normally liked, I decided that for this trip, I would not engage in that pursuit and play the tourist on this trip - just this once.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A quick business trip to Bogotá, Colombia (2018)

Part of the "welcoming committee" at Andrés DC Restaurant in Bogotá

In 38 years of traveling to Colombia, I had never taken a strictly business trip there, but an opportunity arose this year (2018) as I was hired by a consultant to do research on pharmaceutical manufacturing. (I have probably not mentioned here that I have worked in the pharmaceutical industry in one capacity or another for over 30 years, and now I do consulting independently under the name TrainReach Consulting, LLC ( One occasion to learn more about the manufacturing and distribution side of the industry came at the GS1 Healthcare Conference in Bogotá, Colombia in April. The timing was wonderful, and aside from the informative topics on the use of barcodes in healthcare, our hosts made every effort to expose us to Colombian culture. The attendees came from several areas of healthcare, from Pharma companies to hospitals and pharmacies, and from every inhabited continent except Africa, which would have its own convention in May.

There were two instances where the culture was celebrated: first, with a reception at the hotel featuring a band that played music from the Barranquilla carnival; and second, a dinner at one of the Andrés chain of restaurants that have become so popular. The first of these was Andrés Carne de Res in the nearby town of Cota, which became popular not only for its food, especially the steak (hence the name "Carne de Res"), but also for its quirky design and a plethora of touches, with a Disney-like precision but definitely Colombian style. There is jovial entertainment or interaction of one form or another almost constantly, and you see it from the time you walk in the door, such as in the photo above from when we arrived.

While we were there, I had the chance to chat with a gentleman from Belgium who was visiting Colombia for the first time, and as he was not going to be able to do any additional touring in the country, I shared with him what I knew and tried to give him some perspective. I've learned that one has to be really careful sharing anything that is negative, because of the danger of possibly reinforcing stereotypes. Of course, there were plenty of positive things to share, such as Colombia's incredible biodiversity and cultural diversity, and he could see the legendary Colombian hospitality for himself.

The weekend gave me the chance to relax in Bogotá before returning home. The week had already been packed!

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Valle de Tenza in Colombia

The plaza in Guateque

I have traveled to Colombia over a 37-year period and recall seeing many buses indicating that they were traveling to the Valle de Tenza in the province of Boyacá, about a three-hour ride from Bogotá, toward the northeast. Foreign tourists did not appear to visit the region with any regularity, as most of them go to the colonial-style town of Villa de Leyva, also in Boyacá but in a different direction.

The town of Somondoco as seen from Guateque

In December 2015 I made my first trip to the area, visiting the towns of Guateque and Tenza. One can not help but be impressed by the immense mountains and gorges that mark the route once one turns off the main road to Tunja and heads east. After the considerable twists and turns, I stopped in Guateque, the first major town in the valley on our route. Guateque has a temperate climate, warmer than Bogotá and the towns immediately to the north of the city. While in Guateque, I met with a professor named Luis Carlos Uscátegui who was in the area doing research and supporting an artisans' cooperative that specialized in basket weaving. He suggested that I visit Tenza, and I hailed a taxi to take me there. I didn't have a lot of time to spend in Tenza, but it was well worth it: the town was beautiful and quiet. I had some time to meet a gentleman named Marco Antonio Roa, who was the director of folk dance groups in the town.

One of the quiet streets in Tenza

In April 2017 I returned to the valley. This time I passed Guateque and kept going to a town named Garagoa which was a little farther down the route. There were even more landscapes that awaited, and I was taking every photo I could with my iPhone while the bus bounced over the bumps in the road. My time was limited in Garagoa, so I focused on the church, which did not disappoint with its beautiful interior and many statues that were lovingly preserved. The local people were very friendly, and eager to chat with me about American politics.

Valle de Tenza still has more that awaits my discovery, as there are several other towns in the area with their own views and enchantment.

Interior of the church in Garagoa

Friday, August 18, 2017

Expanding focus of blog to include all travel - a selection of photos

I have decided to expand the focus of my blog to include all of my travel, though there will still be plenty of content related to Latin America. I have already been sharing information on all my travel experiences on my Facebook page, @mikeespositotravelblog. The blog's url will remain the same even with the change in focus. 

Below are a few sample photos from different trips, some local, and others more distant.

Ecuadorian tall ship in Baltimore's Inner Harbor, 2012
Dolphin at the exact top of its jump at the National Aquarium in Baltimore
A scene in Antwerp, Belgium
Autumn in Valley Forge National Historical Park with a covered bridge in the background
Horse and carriage in Villa de Leyva, a town in Colombia famous for its colonial architecture. I thought it amusing that the driver was on his cell phone
One of my favorite photos: a garden in Anapoima, Colombia featuring a colorful heliconia (Hanging Lobster Claw)

Monument to Irish immigrants to Philadelphia
Philadelphia Zoo, the oldest zoo in the United States, with some of its favorite inhabitants, the giraffes
Taller Puertorriqueño (Puerto Rican Workshop), an arts organization in Philadelphia founded in 1974

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

A Visit to Riviera Maya in Mexico

A scene from Secrets Silversands Riviera Cancun

We couldn't believe our good fortune! My wife and I won three free nights in an all-inclusive at Secrets Silversands Riviera Cancun on the Riviera Maya, in a contest sponsored by the Travel and Adventure Show in Philadelphia in March 2016. We selected November as the time to go, late enough to avoid most of hurricane season and the increased rain, but before the airfares would go up around Thanksgiving.

A few quick facts about the area: Riviera Maya is a more recently developed resort area to the south of Cancun, which stretches to Playa del Carmen and the park X-Caret, and further south to the ruins of Tulum. You would still fly into Cancun International Airport and pay for a shuttle to take you to your hotel. As there is no other significant development in the area aside from the beachfront hotels or the town of Playa del Carmen, the only practical ways to access Cancun or other parts of the region from a Riviera Maya resort are via taxi or a guided tour.

Our having only three nights meant that we decided not to go to Chichén Itzá, Tulum, or any other long guided tour, so as to be able to make the most out of our all-inclusive resort. The staff at Secrets Silversands Riviera Cancun is exceptionally friendly and helpful, and the food nothing short of spectacular.

We realized when we arrived that the temperature of the pool and the sea in general was colder than we had envisioned. It may have been due to the time of year, which featured some cool breezes, or it also could have had to do with the area's latitude. It is farther north in the Caribbean region than Punta Cana, Jamaica, Puerto Rico or the islands of the Lesser Antilles (such as St. Martin). People who have gone to Cancun and Riviera Maya at different times of the year may have had different experiences than ours.

The beach immediately adjacent to the resort was convenient for having drinks delivered to you, and ideal for sunning./We noticed that the water was full of seaweed and not quite as appealing, which led us to look for another beach to visit. Our first thought was a place called Playa Maroma in between our resort and Playa del Carmen. Playa Maroma has beautiful, powdery sand, but the same issues with the water existed, making it more appealing for water sports or swimming with dolphins in a pool next to the beach than simply going into the sea to swim.

We quickly left Playa Maroma and headed via taxi and ferry to Isla Mujeres, where we spent an afternoon. There we found the beach we were looking for: beautiful, with calm waters ideal for floating or swimming, but it wasn't the famed Playa Norte that is talked about so much. The beach we found is a three-block walk from the ferry terminal and is called Playa Centro. I noticed that the beach at Playa Centro was wider than Playa Norte and the water was calmer, at least where I could observe. Playa Norte is good if you book a hotel on that beach and can just take a few steps from your room to go into the water, but for our purposes Playa Centro was ideal.

Playa Centro, one of the beaches on Isla Mujeres
Obviously, if we had had more time we would have explored more of the area, but for a short, relaxing vacation, we were more than satisfied with our experience. Our goal is to return for a longer stay and visit the ruins and other attractions there.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

A Brief Visit to San Antonio del Táchira, a border town in Venezuela (2014)

The church in San Antonio del Táchira, Venezuela
I traveled to the border town of Cúcuta in July of 2014 and saw how available a side trip to Venezuela would be, especially to the border town of San Antonio del Táchira, in the state of Táchira in the western part of the country. Venezuela has received a lot of attention lately because of its turbulent political and economic situation. (Note: Shortly after I made this trip, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro closed the border crossing, and the situation fluctuates frequently, so check your country's travel advisories before making any attempts to cross.) If it hadn't been for the fact that my sister-in-law and her family were traveling with me, I may not have attempted it.

As with many border crossings, there is a lot of activity between both countries. The Simón Bolívar Bridge crosses the narrow Táchira River between Cúcuta and San Antonio. The two sides are very similar culturally, and both countries legitimately claim Bolívar as their hero. Bolívar was born in Caracas, but also liberated Colombia and was the first President of the liberated nation "La Gran Colombia" which included Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Venezuela and Ecuador separated from Colombia in 1830, and Panama declared its independence from Colombia in 1903.

I was aware that a brief half-day stop in a border town did not constitute a proper introduction to Venezuela, but we were told that San Cristóbal, a nearby city that used to be a favorite destination of Colombians before visas to go beyond San Antonio became a problem, was also rife with demonstrations and not safe to visit. Still, I was determined to make the most of my brief visit and learn as much about Venezuela as I could while I was there.

Once you pass the border crossing, the town resembles a typical Colombian town with its plaza and buildings. The difference lies in the multitude of monuments to late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. I also perceived a certain tension that didn't exist in Colombia, and had the feeling that I was being watched, which may or may not have been my imagination, as my sister-in-law prepared me for the trip with a series of do's and don'ts and I was a little more vigilant that I would have been normally. Fortunately, we spent our morning there without incident, and even made some friends at the local library. My primary takeaway was that the culture of the state of Táchira was very similar to that of the Colombian Andes, but certainly not identical and worth studying further. Also, I found the border town to be a gold mine of information on Venezuela, mostly geared toward primary and secondary school students, but still satisfying my curiosity.

In part because of my strong interest in returning to Venezuela when conditions permit, I watch the situation closely and am saddened by the plight of Venezuelans trying to survive in that turbulent political climate. Hopefully the country will straighten out its affairs in the very near future for the benefit of all Venezuelans.

Friday, April 15, 2016

My son David's wedding in Mazatlán, Mexico (2013)

Our family had the unique opportunity of participating in a "destination wedding" in December 2013 when our son David and his wife Wendy, who live in the Philadelphia area, decided to have a Catholic ceremony in Mazatlán, Mexico, a seaside resort to the north of Puerto Vallarta. Wendy is a native of Culiacán, a few hours' drive from Mazatlán. 

We were delighted to be able to meet Wendy's extended family and friends and enjoy the surroundings. There was time especially for us men, who were not involved in the planning, to relax at the resort. At that time of year, Mazatlán has a wonderful climate: warm but dry, in contrast to its very hot summers. The water temperature in December is a little cold, but the resort where we stayed, El Cid Marina, had a heated pool. The resort is popular with Americans, Canadians, and Europeans as well, and some retirees call it home at least part of the year, so you will most likely run into English speakers. The beach area is filled with modern hotels, as can be expected, but there are parts of the city that do not look Americanized at all, so you can experience the best of both worlds.

The night before the wedding, Wendy's family invited us to the restaurant "Pedro y Lola" which faces the city's plaza. As it was during Christmas season, the plaza was abuzz with activity and adorned with plenty of lights. Musicians came to our table to play both Latin and American favorites. Mazatlán is well known for its seafood and we had plenty of opportunities to sample it during our stay: a breaded fillet that I ate at Pedro y Lola, shellfish, ceviche, and fish tacos, to name a few. 

Pedro & Lola Restaurant facing the plaza in Mazatlán

After our enjoyable evening, we eagerly anticipated the following day's wedding ceremony. The church where the Catholic ceremony was called San Judas Tadeo (St. Jude Thaddeus) and was a great place to start our day. The church faces a small plaza with plenty of trees. David and Wendy looked great, her family and friends were obviously enthusiastic, and the church had a nice floral arrangement in front of the altar and a large picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the wall to the left of the crucifix.

David and Wendy at their church ceremony
Mexican law requires a civil ceremony in addition to the religious ceremony, so when we went to the Hotel Emporio, the location of both the ceremony and the reception afterwards, we saw that a nice kiosk was set up near the beach for the civil ceremony. At about the same time, there was an outdoor reception on a second-floor patio at another part of the hotel, and I heard the Luis Miguel song "Delirio" playing, which was a perfect complement to the pretty beachside setting. After the ceremony, there were lots of pictures taken on the beach by the photographers hired for the occasion as the sun was beginning to set.

The happy couple poses with their parents
The reception, which was held in a room on the first floor, opened up to a spectacular evening view of the sea while we enjoyed the food and drink, with a mariachi band to start with, followed by a dance band featuring a nice mix of Latin music.

Pictures on the beach

The day after, we were invited to a nearby, picturesque town called El Quelite, a name derived from the Nahuatl language that refers to a class of edible plants common to Mexico. At El Quelite we ate lunch at a popular restaurant called "El Mesón de los Laureanos." The word Mesón refers to a type of restaurant with a traditional look, while Laureano is a family name. After we finished, but before returning to Mazatlán, we were able to stop into the church across the street to view their beautiful Nativity scene.

The Nativity scene in the church at El Quelite

With a little free time, I walked through downtown Mazatlán to see the historic buildings. It was December 31, which happened to be the date that new mayors in Mexico are sworn in. When I arrived at the plaza, a party celebrating the inauguration of the city's new mayor took place. The mayor understandably had bodyguards, but the festivities were open to the public and I had the chance to sip some punch and listen to a band playing for the occasion.

As we were flying out early the next day, our New Year's Eve celebrations were focused on having dinner at the hotel. (There was a New Year's Eve party at the hotel that we could have attended, but we thought it pricey.) For us, it was the perfect way to cap off an experience that remains etched in our memory. I would definitely enjoy going back to Mazatlán if the occasion presented itself.