Looking for suggestions of what to do in Cartagena

I’m coming up on nearly three weeks in Colombia as I write this. Thanks to booking.com, we found a solid hotel in Cartagena with a real bed (y’all know what three weeks in hostels can do to your vertebrae) and some killer AC (because the only thing hotter than Cartagena might be Venus).

Colombia has been a beautiful country, and when I have a real computer again, I can’t wait to write all about it. It’s an interesting balance of future and past mixing in the present—the landscape is pockmarked with the trauma of a fifty-year-long armed conflict, but revitalization, rebirth, and creativity are everywhere.

It’s a little disconcerting to hear the word “marica” so much. I’ve also probably eaten double my weight in arepas, and I keep trying ice cream in the vain hope of being pleasantly surprised (sorry, Colombia—you do so many things well, but ice cream isn’t one of them).

After hitting Bogotá, the coffee zone, Medellín, Santa Marta, and San Andrés, we’re left with just a few days in Cartagena. Have you been? What should we not miss?

(Also: our hotel—Casa Ébano 967—has warm water! No more cold showers for the first time in weeks!)


Mexico—and why you need to go

Hay cosas que sentimos en la piel, otras que vemos con los ojos, otras que nomás nos laten en el corazón. —Carlos Fuentes

Mariachis, elotes, cerros, colores. Mexico has it all, and although the current political climate in the United States is committing a grave error by stereotyping our neighbors to the South, you and I don’t have to.

I wanted to go to Mexico for a really long time, but I put it off so my husband and I could make the trip together—I mean, it is his birthplace, after all. The wait was arduous but well-rewarded.

I spent my time in Jalisco, Michoacan, and Guanajuato. My journey there was a bit unique, since I was meeting my in-laws for the first time and I can’t concoct Mexican in-laws for you/fix you up with a Mexican, but I can give you some of the highlights of why you need to go (fair warning: Cancún does not appear on this list).

First of all, the food is fantastic. I think that goes without saying, but it is so good that I will say it anyway. Yes, having three hundred little tacos at midnight is the bomb, and I would never knock the taco, but it goes so much further. Enchiladas, tortas ahogadas (the staple of Guadalajara), tinga, elotes, garbanzos, churros, and a thousand kinds of aguas frescas (jamaica is my personal favorite). I think I ate my weight in tortillas, and I had enough paletas and nieves to supply a small town.

Second, the whole area is shatteringly beautiful. I went during the dry season, and on long road trips—like the pilgramage we made to the shrine of la Virgen de San Juan de los Lagos—rolls of the earth and the tangles of blistered nopales went on forever. The city of Guanajuato looks like it fell into a pool of all the colors in the world (see post’s featured photo), and Jalisco’s maguey fields are blue and unending. Plus the sunsets are like . . . unreal.

Third, the music. I say this with a grain of salt, because banda is not my jam (just no), but something about an open and free-flowing musical culture is just generally soul-nourishing. Whether you’re listening to the mariachi groups competing for attention in San Miguel de Allende or a trío of musicians bringing down the house in Guadalajara, music is a big deal in Mexico, and it’s good—even when you’re being woken up at seven in the morning by “Adiós, Amor” booming from a tricked-out sound system after you’ve already heard that song six hundred times. Music makes people lighter.

How to not love Mexico? The dogs at night, the roosters in the morning, the cities where extreme poverty and extreme wealth do a strange dance, the variants of Spanish that rise and fall like singing. I think it’s particularly important to get to know our neighbors now, and you can look at the atrocities going on in Washington, D.C. for two seconds to figure out why (I fielded so many questions about “Trompas” that I can’t even tell you, and there is no good answer to any of them).

And of course I have to talk about the people, the people who made me feel for every second that I was at home. I was brought into people’s kitchens and living rooms and backyards, fed and hugged and loved immensely. I had a lot of long conversations about things like politics and sexism, and I like to think we all learned from each other.

For about three weeks, I spent a lot of my time in rural Mexico, in a thumbprint-sized rancho with less than a thousand people. There is something about this part of the country—the cows rambling in the shade, the women walking from house to house with umbrellas to protect themselves from the sun, the young people in the plaza after dark, the altars to la Virgen set up on the hills with candy, prayer cards, and photos of loved ones left behind as offerings—that is both comforting and timeless, something that feels like one long exhale.

I look forward to going back and exploring more of the country. From the stomping grounds I was able to cover this time, here are some places that you just can’t miss:

  1. Guadalajara (Jalisco): The colonial district of Guadalajara is beautiful, and includes many must-sees like its cathedral, which dates back to 1541. Of course, the enormous city has a million other things to do—including book stores, coffee shops, and fabulous shoe shopping, due to a strong local shoe industry.
  2. Tonalá (district of Guadalajara, Jalisco): The districts of Tonalá and Tlaquepaque are the shopping meccas of the city for artisan goods. So many beautiful things—blown glass, handmade furniture, paintings, and more. I bought some beautiful glass pieces for $10. Also, if you can make it on a Thursday, you’ll be able to go to the “tianguis,” or the flea market, where you’ll find 50x more of everything.
  3. Arrandas (Jalisco): This town of about 47,000 people is set squarely in tequila country, and in particular, it’s home to Cazadores—one of the most recognized brands of tequila in the world.
  4. La Piedad (Michoacán): La Piedad’s plaza is gorgeous, and its main cathedral is super impressive. Its streets are winding and charming, and play host to a lot of shopping.
  5. El Cerro del Cubilete (Guanajuato): I’d never heard of this place and I don’t understand why. Located near Silao, it’s a 8,000+ ft. mountain in the middle of rolling farmland, and if you can make it to the top, the indescribable views knock the air out of you.  It’s home to the geographic center of Mexico and topped by a church and statue of Christ that commemorate the slaughter of Christians and the destruction of the first statue during the Guerra de los Cristeros.
  6. La Ciudad de Guanajuato (Guanajuato): Guanajuato gave me #earthfever. The city is plastered by so many colors it’s almost obscenely beautiful, and has a thousand gorgeous cafés, restaurants, hotels, and shops. You can visit the Callejón del Beso (Kiss Alley, so-named because the upper-story balconies are close enough for neighboring lovers to embrace) or, if you’re slightly more morbid, el Museo de las Momias (Mummy Museum).
  7. San Miguel de Allende (Guanajuato): The darling of ex-pats everywhere, especially the U.S. ones. San Miguel is a well-preserved Spanish Baroque city that levels up on charm by light years. The neo-Baroque cathedral looks like it stepped out of Barcelona, the plazas are filled with mariachi bands, women selling paper flowers, and kids cracking confetti-filled eggs on their heads. Just be warned: there are a lot of ex-pats here, which affects things like prices and overall vibe.

I also toured a slaughterhouse (not recommended), an agave sweetener factory (recommended), went to birthday parties, rode on a motorcycle, and observed an exercise class for seniors, including one very motivated priest. I’ll be returning for the New Year, and I can’t wait to report back on what a Mexican New Year’s Eve looks like. ¡Hasta pronto!

Why I travel

There is a part of me, and it’s not a small part, that’s afraid of heat death—you know, the possible fate of the universe in which thermodynamic energy diminishes so much that life is no longer possible. Sometimes, I think it could happen in my head.

Diminishing heat, diminishing energy, diminishing movement, diminishing life.

Staying in one place for too long feeds my monster of entropy. Or atrophy. Kind of like a sore—an abscess—that forms on a sedentary body.

I read somewhere that the quarter-life crisis is caused by a sudden transition from living in the future to living in the here-and-now. Like we’re cruising along a highway with our eyes fixed on distant lights when all it once—out of nowhere—we slam into the concrete of the moment. The desperate quietness of daily routine. And the drunken midnight of what-could-be turns into that sober morning of what-is-right-now.

That analysis resonated with me, but I also reject it (Walt: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes”). Because I think, at its core, asserting that we no longer live in the future kills our right to dream. What are people, anyway, without dreams?

Just a heap of chemical and biological processes.

No, thank you.

Sometimes, when I’m in a car and driving through a torrential storm or on a plane for ten hours straight with a stranger’s baby spitting up in my lap, my happiness is so great that it leaves me breathless. I actually have to close my eyes against the violence of my emotion.

Do you know what I’m talking about? Have you ever felt so tied to the earth, so connected to its strings and its people and the rock of its eons-long heartbeat, that you know—know with a knowing more physical than philosophical—that you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be at that exact second?

Happiness. A trainwreck of happiness concentrated on one pinprick of the universe.

I don’t want to overromanticize “travel.” I don’t want to put an Instagram filter on it or hashtag it or even blog it, really. What I want to talk about is that happiness—that second. That moment of unending yes.

So I’ll probably continue my quarter-life crisis of false starts and panicked stops, throwing the breaks on just because only one road, that particular road of placidity, terrifies me.

No, getting up and moving is not romantic. It’s not a love story at all. It’s something like fear and fascination. The power and the glory.

This is no epic. This is my acknowledgement of  heat death, the unavoidable cooling of all that is and will be, the frantic gesture of life.


Discount travel: How do you save money?

I was driving through my dad’s sleepy town — the town where I spent my formative high school years — about a week ago, when I noticed a little white building tucked away on the side of a one-lane road. That building had been there ever since my family moved in a decade ago, but I’ve never really given it much attention. Last week, I finally realized what it was: a travel agency. Yes, a brick-and-mortar place where you go (in person) to talk to someone else (also in person) and pay him or her to plan your trip for you — your plane tickets, your tour times, your hotel stays . . . all in person.

To me, this is a foreign and exotic concept. As a digital native, I’d sooner find my own deals than pay someone else to do it, and I definitely prefer the (perhaps imagined) flexibility that comes with making my own plans.

But the more I thought about it, the more it maybe-kinda-sorta made sense. Perhaps it isn’t an awful idea to pay someone to do that web hunting for you, someone who knows the best vendors and who can get fantastic deals (often because they buy in bulk), someone who knows the best spots in the best areas to visit. Especially if you haven’t gone abroad very often.

I think, for now, I’ll stick with my own planning. But I’m curious: have any of you ever used a travel agent? Do people still do that anymore? If you have, was it a good or bad experience?

I was also thinking about how I actually go about booking all my trips. I usually do some kind of marathon Internet surfing, hitting a million sites and doing price comparisons. I have a few favorites: statravel and studentuniverse for super cheap airline tickets, hostelworld for hostels (obviously), airbnb for other lodging.

Honestly, though, I want to know what your favorites are. I don’t like the idea that I could be missing out on awesomely cheap travel because I’m not familiar with all the ins and outs of the online travel scene.

What websites are your go-tos for sweet travel deals? Do you have any that you avoid?

Lonely Planet’s “Best in Travel in 2016”

Hey guys!

Earlier today, Lonely Planet released its list of the best places to travel in 2016. It’s interactive and awesome and you must check it out.

Need a little tease? Allow me to unwrap LP’s top ten countries to visit in the coming year:

  1. Botswana
  2. Japan
  3. USA (our National Park Service turns 100 next year, whoooo!)
  4. Palau
  5. Latvia
  6. Australia
  7. Poland
  8. Uruguay
  9. Greenland
  10. Fiji

Nice geographical representation, LP. A little Asia, some North America, a dash of South America, a smudge of Eastern Europe, a bit of whatever Greenland is, a double serving of Oceania, and Africa leading the pack!

Keep trekking through the list to see Lonely Planet’s top cities and regions for 2016, each equipped with a detailed “tell me more” bubble to help you plan your dream trip(s).

Thanks, LP. You’re the best.

What do you think of Lonely Planet’s list? Anything you’d like to add? Anything surprise you?

What are your travel plans for 2016? For me, I’m thinking maybe I’ll go to Greenland — finally nail out that geography!