Friday, August 24, 2007

Puerto Rico: Culebra, Flamenco Beach, 2007

This has to be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. Pictures don't do it justice. Flamenco Beach in Culebra is a huge arc featuring white sand and blue water, and the occasional sea turtle nest (see picture).

Culebra is a small island off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. It and its sister island of Vieques are often called the Spanish Virgin Islands. Each one is considered a municipality of Puerto Rico, in addition to the other 76 municipalities on the main island. You can get there either on a small plane from San Juan or by ferry from the town of Fajardo. Part of Culebra, once a practice ground for the US Navy during World War II, is a wildlife preserve.

The island is known for its mosquitoes and doesn't have luxury accommodations, so many people decide to go there for the day taking the ferry from Fajardo. If you still want to stay there, you can get accommodations at the Flamenco Beach Villas on the less crowded end of the beach. There are less expensive accommodations in the main town of Dewey, though I heard complaints from one group that their air conditioning wasn't working.

Culebra tends to be crowded on weekends, so I've read, though I didn't encounter large crowds on the Sunday that I traveled there. Bathing on Flamenco Beach definitely is worth it, mosquitoes and all.

See my webpage on Puerto Rico at

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Mexico: Vacation caused by an earthquake, 1979

My very first trip overseas was to Mexico City in 1979 in my junior year in college. I was into the semester for two months and one morning at 5:15 I was awakened with a sense that the room was rocking back and forth. We all went to the doorway, which is supposedly the safest place to be during the earthquake. The building rocked for about 30 seconds and then stopped. There was no major damage to the house but the electricity went out. About 15 minutes later some of our classmates stopped by our house and told us that something had happened to the university. We walked there with them and saw that much of the university's buildings had collapsed. Luckily, there were no casualties.

The immediate result was that there were no classes for a week, and as there was no electricity and later no running water in the house, we decided that the best plan was to leave the city and take advantage of the time off. We took a bus to Acapulco (a six-hour ride) and spent three days there. One of our Mexican roommates was from Acapulco and his father owned a small guest house near the beach. They gave us a 60% discount on our rooms! They also had a nice pool, and I remember being really amused because there was a TV on near the pool and they were showing the TV show "Fantasy Island" with Ricardo Montalban's voice dubbed in Spanish!

Our next stop was up the coast to Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa. Both of these destinations have enclosed bays and great swimming. I haven't been back, so I imagine that these sites look completely different now (Ixtapa at the time was only a strip of hotels). One event in particular still jumps out at me. While walking down one of the streets in Zihuatanejo, we saw two American tourists, a mother and her son (about 10 years old at the time?) trying to hire a taxi. The kid said to his mother that the taxi was supposed to have two drivers (why I have absolutely no idea), and the mother then said to the taxi driver, "Dos drivers." It makes me laugh not only because the woman expected the driver to understand what she meant, but also because on my next trip overseas, this time to Bogota, Colombia in 1980, we were told never to go into a taxi with two people in it, that it most likely had an extra person in it to rob the unwary passenger.

During the overnight bus trip back to Mexico City, I woke up to see the two volcanoes, Ixtaccihuatl and Popocatepetl, as the sun was coming up. There were clouds that looked like spirals and because of the sunrise the sky was red, pink and a host of other colors. It looked like a scene from some remote Shangri-La paradise. It was a shame I didn't have a camera because it was one of the most incredible sights I've ever seen.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Spain: Bullring in Ronda, 2006

This bull statue stands at the entrance to the bullring in the town of Ronda, which is regarded as the birthplace of modern bullfighting. The ring also includes a small museum with information about the development of the sport.
Bullfights take place during certain seasons depending on the location, and when I visited in late April, there were no scheduled bullfights here, as the most important events at that time were taking place in Seville. That meant that people were free to walk around the bullring, and it was inevitable that some of the visitors played matadors and bulls in the center of the ring.

If you walk along the outer ring behind the wall, you can see the places designated for the matadors, the picadors, the banderilleros, the press, and certain dignitaries. The tourists with the red shirts in the photo were part of a group from Germany.

See my webpage on Spain at

Caribbean: Saba, Netherlands Antilles, 2002

These are some of the 1,064 stone steps that lead to the top of Mt. Scenery, the tallest mountain in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands. The mountain is on the island of Saba, part of the Dutch Windward Islands, which includes St. Maarten and Statia (aka St. Eustatius).

Mt. Scenery is about 3,000 feet high and towers above the small town of Windwardside, which is small and picturesque. I started my walk at 5:15 AM just as the sun was coming up and arrived at the top beside the radio tower around 7:00 AM. The top was covered in clouds, as it often is, and the highlight of the trip is not so much the occasional view but rather the rich plant life of the cloud forest. I was back down at the starting point at about 9 AM.

Saba is unique among Caribbean islands. It is small - only 5 square miles - but is like a large rock protruding out of the water, so much so that it does not have any beaches, with the exception of a beach in Well's Bay that is submerged most of the year. It is a favorite spot for divers, who enjoy exploring the marine life around the island.

You can get to Saba by plane or ferry. The plane ride is 15 minutes from St. Maarten and the runway is one of the shortest in the world at 1200 feet, on the only flat part of the island. The pilots are skilled in landing there and when I flew there the pilot only used half of the runway - you feel like you're in a cross between a plane and a helicopter. The ferry ride is longer - over an hour - and the crossing tends to be rough. If you don't mind either of these trips, you'll find that Saba is a quiet, relaxing place and an antidote to the hectic pace of the modern world.

Visit my webpage on the Caribbean at

Colombia: Spanish Signs in Bogota, 2007

Spanish classes are very helpful in learning to converse and ask for basics when you travel to a Spanish-speaking country. There are certain words, though, that still surprise the visitor. For example, this photo, taken in front of an apartment complex, has a sign that delicately dances around a common problem by reading "Please pick up the needs of your pet."

Here's another: At first glance, it might seem strange for an apartment building to advertise a "shut" until you figure out that they mean a "chute" (and it's pronounced correctly as well) to dispose of your trash.

Another sign I wasn't able to photograph said "Respect the..." followed by a picture of a zebra. As it turns out, in Bogota zebra doesn't only mean a striped animal that you see at the zoo; it also is used to mean "crosswalk" for pedestrians. (In the US we have that sign that reads "Don't Block the Box" which, unless you can figure out that it also refers to crosswalks, could be equally confusing for non-English speakers. The sign is usually accompanied by a drawing but it's not necessarily clear at first glance what it's referring to.)

Monday, August 6, 2007

Colombia: Reservoir in the Highlands near Bogota, 2006

People who are not familiar with the mountains in Colombia will often assume, when I tell them that I'm traveling to Bogota, that the weather will be hot. As I mentioned in an earlier blog, the temperatures usually are in the upper 60s during the day and go down to the 40s at night. Outside of the city, you can go into highlands (I would guess about 1000 feet above Bogota's elevation of 8500 feet above sea level) where the temperatures are even cooler. The area around this reservoir didn't seem to be much above 50 degrees, with a cloud cover that made it feel cooler still, and a cold wind blowing constantly. This is great weather for the growing of potatoes, a staple in the Colombian diet.

Visit my webpage on Colombia at

Friday, August 3, 2007

Colombia: Providencia, a quiet Caribbean island, 2000

Colombia has two islands that are on the western side of the Caribbean, about 150 miles from the coast of Nicaragua: San Andres and Providencia. San Andres is a relatively flat coral island and a well-known tourist destination. Providencia is less visited and quieter, probably in part due to the fact that the airport can only handle prop planes and does not (or did not at the time) have lights for night landings. This is the first island I visited that was out of the way of most of the familiar stops. In Providencia I found people to be exceptionally friendly, and the atmosphere relaxing in the extreme. As with all out-of-the-way places, the more people discover it, the less chance it has to hang on to its pristine character. Hopefully, Providencia will continue to be a place that does not imitate the frenzied pace of much of the world.

Visit my webpage on Colombia at

Thursday, August 2, 2007

Puerto Rico: The Panoramic Route, 2007

In February 2007 I took my rental car and drove on some of Puerto Rico's twisting mountain roads. There are some areas along the Luis Muñoz Marín panoramic route that crosses the island from east to west where you can see both the Atlantic and Caribbean coasts, as well as some of the island's tallest mountain peaks.

This view faces the city of Ponce to the south and the Caribbean Sea in the distance. I met a Puerto Rican family who was taking in the same views, and they told me that relatively few Puerto Ricans visit this area compared to the populated coast.

See my webpage on Puerto Rico at