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.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

One of My Favorite CDs: Danzas Puertorriqueñas, Rafael Hernández - Orchestra and Arrangements

Danzas Puertorriqueñas - Rafael Hernández - Orquesta y Arreglos (Disco Hit - DHCD-9173)

Songs (all instrumental):

Luz María, Dos Estrellas, Mi Estrella, Quejas del Alma, Mi Perla, Sin Ti...Jamás, Perla del Caribe, Llévame al Cine Mamá, María Lina, La Bella Margot, Máscaras Alegres, Lluvia de Perlas

Years ago, I ordered a cassette from the Isla catalog, which featured products representing Puerto Rico. Up to that point, I had a hard time finding any recordings of Puerto Rican danzas that featured an orchestra as opposed to folk instruments such as the cuatro. I liked the danza performed on the cuatro, of course, but I wanted to hear a recording that reflected the intent of danzas to be performed at formal soirée dance settings. I found a cassette of danzas by the late Puerto Rican composer Rafael Hernández in the catalog and ordered it. When I received it, I realized that I was sent a cassette that wasn't the same one showing in the catalog. Still, I put it on and to my absolute delight, I fell in love with it from the very beginning. The music and arrangements reveal their origins in what sounds like the late 1950s or early 1960s and are played with an infectious energy and a slightly faster tempo than other danzas that I had heard.

Out of all of these, the only song that is slightly lacking for me is Sin Ti...Jamás because there is, for me at least, a tension between the rhythm and the melody that doesn't feel resolved. The others are sheer delights, with Luz María, Dos Estrellas, Perla del Caribe, Llévame al Cine Mamá, and Máscaras Alegres standing out as my favorites. 

After wearing out the cassette, I had to purchase the music on CD, which of course I did not regret for one minute. This is an album that has given me hour upon hour of listening pleasure.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Overview of travels and encounters with Latin culture

Since I last posted in March 2015, it has been a whirlwind year in many respects. I am finally getting myself in a position to resume writing here. I hope to become more consistent in my writing from now on, but in between posts you can also visit my Facebook page Mike Esposito's Travel Blog or my Twitter account @meesposito for photos and quick tidbits of information.

On the Facebook page I'll also include trips that are not within the realm of Latin America and the Caribbean, and in particular those that can easily be done from my home town of Philadelphia. (I especially enjoy going to Lancaster County and visiting the Amish.) Here is a quick photo summary of trips I've made recently, along with some encounters with Latin culture closer to home.

Crafts store in Tenza, Colombia

One of the many Nativity scenes on display in Colombia

Aztec dancers at Mexican Independence Day Festival in Philadelphia

Mexican mariachi at Cinco de Mayo Festival in Kennett Square, PA

One of the many unique decorative touches you will find at Andrés Carne de Res Restaurant in Chía, Colombia

Monday, March 9, 2015

What I learned about Miami on a short trip

Enjoying Cuban coffee at La Carreta restaurant on the Calle Ocho

There were many highlights to a short trip that my wife and I took to Miami Beach last year, which coincided with Spring Break. I will mention just a few casual observations I made based on our experiences there.

The Art Deco district in South Beach was fun, and definitely worth the price tag of reserving a room in that area. We stayed at the Park Central Hotel, which was right in the center of the area of South Beach we wanted to visit and even had its own small pool, which some of the other Art Deco hotels didn't have. We had continental breakfast at their adjoining sidewalk cafe and could order eggs if we wanted to pay a little extra.I could float in the water at South Beach. Normally I can't find water calm enough to float in except in an enclosed bay or where there is a coral reef offshore.

The local advice is if you move to Miami to work, never live more than five miles away from your place of work, because traffic is so congested. The roads don't seem to be enough to handle all the volume, though for ourselves as visitors, nothing we experienced seemed unusually difficult.

The party animals are kept corralled. The police on South Beach kept watch over the Spring Break kids partying in a cluster on the beach, jumping up and down as if part of some ritual, and collectively making a noise that sounded like a beehive.

We liked the selection of Latin food that was available in Miami, especially La Carreta restaurant on the Calle Ocho. The restaurant has expanded to other locales as well, but it felt especially enjoyable to be sampling Cuban food in that location, and especially the Cuban coffee called "cortadito" served with milk.

The threat of hurricanes always looms in the background. In fact, we saw a TV commercial there that proclaimed, "In South Florida, the question is not if, but when," and smart homeowners will have hurricane shutters and other precautions worked out in case one hits. Still, Miami has been fortunate not to have had a serious hurricane in the past ten years or so, and hopefully it will remain that way. Its residents seem, by and large, willing to exchange the risk for the opportunity to enjoy the mix of American and Latin in a warm, inviting atmosphere.

Antique car parked in front of the Park Central Hotel, an Art Deco hotel in South Beach

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Latin and Caribbean recordings map on Google Maps / Mapa de grabaciones latinoamericanas y caribeñas en Google Maps

For years I had wanted to write a book compiling what I had researched regarding world music, especially Latin and Caribbean music, but with a recent upgrade of Google Maps, I found a better solution: post the information regarding recordings and styles of music on a map, according to their location. This will continue to be updated as I learn more on the subject, but I believe that it finally has enough information to share with all of you. The link to the map is listed below. 

Por muchos años tuve el deseo de escribir un libro compilando lo que había investigado acerca de la música mundial, especialmente latinoamericana y caribeña, pero con una mejora reciente de Google Maps, encontré una mejor solución: poner la información acerca de grabaciones y estilos de música en un mapa, según su localidad. Seguiré ampliando el mapa mientras aprendo más sobre el tema, pero tiene suficientes datos para poderlo compartir con todos ustedes. El enlace al mapa se encuentra abajo.