If you enjoy hiking and love animals, Cuenca, Ecuador, has the perfect place for you. It’s the Amaru Bioparque. You can spend hours there, working your way up and down the side of a mountain as you visit hundreds of species of animals.
Steve and I were delighted with Amaru Bioparque when we visited Cuenca in 2019. We spent a total of eight hours there over two days. We have many fond memories of our ten months in Latin America, and this was among our favorites. You can read about them in Our Top 10 Latin American Travel Experiences.
What is Amaru Bioparque?
It is a sanctuary for animals that have been rescued and, despite rehabilitation, cannot be returned to the wild. At Amaru, these animals can live out their lives in a natural environment.
Amaru receives about 450 animals every year. They come from illegal hunting, illegal trafficking of species, seizures by the National Police, and donations by civilians. The large number of animals received at Amaru is because it is the only wildlife clinic in the south of the country.
From the Amaru Bioparque website:
“We are an environmental zoological organization that offers a unique experience with the animals and plants that are a part of Ecuador´s natural and cultural richness. We promote and run education, communication, recreation, and research programs to foster the conservation of Ecuador’s biodiversity.”
The setting is rustic. You will hike over 2 km of dirt paths carved into the side of a mountain as you learn about the animals and their habitats. You will traverse hills and less-than-ideal steps cut into the dirt. Sturdy shoes are a must.
There are many signs throughout the park with information about the animals and their native environments. When we visited, most of the signs were in Spanish, but a few had English translations. The lack of English wasn’t a problem. We could understand quite a bit, and when we couldn’t, we used Google Translate.
Arriving at Amaru
Amaru is located about 5 miles (7 km) from the historic center of Cuenca. It is easy to get to the park via car or taxi. The round trip cost for taxis was US$12.00 in 2019. When you are finished with your visit, the ticket booth attendant can arrange a taxi for you.
You can also get near the park by bus, but you will have quite an uphill walk before you reach the entrance. I recommend a taxi over a bus.
You will probably want to take a few minutes to enjoy the views of the city as you enter the park.
When you arrive, you should receive a map. Pay attention to it. It shows the path through the park. On our first visit, Steve and I failed to do this. After about an hour and a half, we looked at the map and realized that we were only a quarter of the way through. Since it was late afternoon by that time, we backtracked our way to the entrance.
We returned two weeks later so we could see the rest of the park. Now older and wiser, we arrived early in the morning and paid more attention to the map.
You cannot take food, pets, or large bags into the park. I was allowed to take my backpack because it was small, but it had to be inspected first. There is a place about halfway along the trail where you can buy drinks and snacks. There are some restrooms as well.
Some of the Animals You Will See
One of the first animals you will encounter is the Andean or Spectacled Bear. The six Andean Bears that currently live in Amaru have a habitat that is greater than 37,000 sq. ft. (3,500 sq. meters). They are solitary animals. We only saw one each time we visited.
White Capuchin Monkey
You can see these adorable monkeys (the park has four) traveling through wire tubes set among the trees. There is no guarantee you won’t get an unwanted shower.
Delightful squirrel monkeys roam free in the park. As you might expect, they love to hang around the restaurant area, but I didn’t see them bothering anyone.
The park has five capybaras, the largest rodent in the world. I always love seeing them.
This cuchucho is a native to Lain America and is not threatened.
This little cutie is a Latin American native and the smallest feline in Ecuador.
As we worked our way through the park, we saw many familiar animals and many we had never heard of. But the most unexpected was the African Lion. After all, this is a park dedicated to preserving Ecuadorian biodiversity.
It turns out that Amaru currently has nine African Lions. Here is the story of two of them.
Birds of the Tropical Aviary
The tropical aviary was a delight, with colorful, inquisitive birds everywhere. The birds are free within the aviary, and it was fun to watch the White-Throated Toucan hop along a fence.
He may not be pretty, but this native of the Andes provides a useful service as a scavenger. The Andean Condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world. His wingspan can reach over 10 ft (3.3 m). The condor is the national bird of Ecuador and even graces its flag. Amaru has two Andean Condors, a male and a female.
This bird of prey is a native of Ecuador and lives in parts of the Andes Mountains.
African Clawed Frog or Ghost Frog
These are natives of Africa who were brought to Ecuador as pets. I loved watching them float gracefully, as you can see in this video:
These bullfrogs are native to North America and are an invasive species in Ecuador.
Emerald Tree Boa
Snakes aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but this boa is non-poisonous and looks pretty chill.
I hope you enjoyed meeting just a few of the many species of animals that call Amaru Bioparque home.
The Amaru Bioparque website has a lot of information about the animals in its care. The site has an option for English, but it didn’t work on all the pages. I found it best to Google “Amaru Bioparque” and choose “Translate This Page” so you get every page in English.
As of this writing, the park appears to be open. It is open every day except Christmas day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. As always, you should verify this information before visiting.
A visit to Amaru is a real bargain. It costs US$ 6.00 for an adult. There are discounts for people under 18 and over 65. The U.S. dollar is the official currency of Ecuador.
In addition to sturdy shoes or boots, be sure to have sunblock and a hat or umbrella (it is Ecuador, after all).
The park is not wheelchair accessible or stroller friendly.
It is best to avoid visiting for a few days after a heavy rain. The paths can become slippery.
The Amaru website suggests you allow 2 hours for your visit. Other articles recommend 4-6 hours. I don’t think 2 hours is anywhere near long enough. We visited twice and spent a total of 8 hours.
The website lists several educational demonstrations that take place on weekends and holidays. I cannot comment on them since both our visits were on weekdays. Also, I would assume that the demonstrations are in Spanish.
A Volunteer Opportunity
If Amaru is your type of place, you may want to look into volunteering there. They require a minimum two-week commitment. Wouldn’t that be a fulfilling experience? You can find information about volunteering on the website under Support Us.
Have you been to Amaru Bioparque? We’d love to hear what you thought about it in the comments below.
In June 2019, we were planning our next stop after Quito, Ecuador, when a new name came up. Cuenca. We had never heard of it. We decided to give it a try because some of the places we have enjoyed the most are the ones we had never heard of. We are glad we did.
After spending four weeks in Quito, Cuenca was a relaxing change. It is far less crowded, with about 330,000 people compared to 1.6 million in Quito. It has a lot of traffic, but not nearly as much as Quito, and the pollution is not as bad, although the older blue buses spew a considerable amount of black exhaust.
Over four weeks, we fell in love with the architecture, history, and natural beauty of Cuenca. Below are twelve things you can do in Cuenca that will hopefully make you fall in love with the charming city.
A Little About Cuenca
*Cuenca is Ecuador’s third-largest city after Guayaquil and the capital of Quito. *The official name of the city is Santa Ana de los Cuatro Ríos de Cuenca. Cuatros Rios translates to four rivers. A nod to the fact that the city has four rivers. *Cuenca is 292 miles (470 km) south of the capital of Quito. *You can fly there from Quito inexpensively in less than one hour (we paid $US50 per person in 2019). *Like Quito, Cuenca is nestled in the Andes Mountains and may require time to acclimate to the altitude of 8,400 feet (2,560 meters) if you are coming from a much lower elevation. *The U.S. dollar is the official currency of Ecuador and has been since 2000. It is so nice not to have to worry about exchange rates or getting local currency. *Very few of the people we met spoke English, but everyone was patient as we translated. *Cuenca is a walkable city, and taxis are abundant and affordable. *Cuenca is not far from the equator, so the temperatures don’t vary much throughout the year. Daily highs average 72 degrees Fahrenheit (22 degrees Celsius). Daily lows average 51 degrees Fahrenheit (~10 degrees Celsius). *Apartments generally don’t have heat. We ended up buying a small space heater. *There is also a small city in Spain named Cuenca.
Note: All money is in USD.
1. Hike Through Amaru Biopark
Amaru Biopark is much more than a zoo. This attraction is full of animals that have been rescued and, despite rehabilitation, cannot be returned to the wild.
You will hike over 2 km of dirt paths while learning about these animals. Be warned that the park is on the side of a mountain. You have to traverse hills and less-than-ideal steps cut into the dirt. Sturdy shoes are a must.
You should receive a map as you enter the park. Pay attention to it. It shows the path through the park. On our first visit, Steve and I failed to do this. After an hour and a half, we looked at the map and realized that we were only a quarter of the way through. Since it was late afternoon by that time, we backtracked our way to the entrance. We returned another day, and between our two visits we spent a total of eight hours in the park. There is so much to see.
Here are just a few of the many animals we enjoyed:
In addition to the Capuchin Monkeys frolicking above you, Squirrel Monkeys roam free in the park.
At the edge of the old town, you will see two large grey, modern-looking buildings. One is the Banco Central Del Ecuador, and the other is the Museo Pumapungo (boy, is that fun to say).
Museo Pumapungo consists of a new and beautiful building filled with artifacts and displays highlighting Ecuador’s geographic regions. There are several things to see behind the museum, too, including the ruins of an Incan military post, a small botanical garden, and a bird rescue center.
Beware, there is no photography allowed in the museum. When we visited, most of the plaques were only in Spanish. Even though we have a translator on our phones, we did not feel comfortable using it since it would have looked like we were taking pictures.
For our second visit, we hired a guide (independent of the museum) who explained what we were looking at. We learned a lot in that two hours, and it was well worth the $35. It was interesting that the one section that was in English was about the indigenous Shuar and their head-shrinking practices and beliefs.
The ruins were underwhelming since, in the past, they were cannibalized by locals who took the stones to use as building material. But don’t skip this part. In addition to the botanical garden and aviary, on most days there is a herd of llamas lazily eating the grass. They are used to being photographed by the visitors.
Did you know that despite their name, Panama hats are not from Panama? They are from Ecuador. And Cuenca is one of the largest producers.
You can learn a lot about the history and production of Panama hats during a tour of the Homer Ortega Hat Factory.
And yes, I know, learning about hat making isn’t high on your bucket list. But the tour was interesting, and they have a killer showroom where you can pick out your very own Panama hat.
Panama Hat Fast Facts
*The hats are made of a straw called toquilla. *The process of making the hats is on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List. *The name “Panama hat” came about because Americans traveling through the Panama Canal to California during the Gold Rush often wore them. *It was reinforced when President Teddy Roosevelt posed at the Panama Canal in 1906 while wearing one of the hats. *The quality and price of a hat depend on the fineness of the weave and the intricacy of the pattern. *The finest hats can take up to eight months to weave.
4. Marvel at the New Cathedral (Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception)
You can spot the three blue and white domes of the New Cathedral from many places in the city. The cathedral’s formal name is the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción). It is referred to as the New Cathedral because it is only a little over a century old. Construction on it began in 1885 and was completed in 1967.
This is one of the largest cathedrals in Latin America, but it doesn’t have any bells. That is because there were supposed to be two towers on the cathedral. Because of structural issues, it was determined that the building could not support these towers, so they were never built. You can take the spiral stairs up to the roof for a small fee.
5. Stroll Along the Tomebamba River (Rio Tomebamba)
I’ll be the first to admit when I read a travel blog, and it says “stroll through (insert area here)” or “relax at (insert name of café here),” it feels like a cop-out.
However, I will make an exception for the pedestrian path that runs along the Tomebamba River in Cuenca. It holds a special place in my heart because we walked part of it many times to get from our apartment near Museo Pumapungo to the old town.
The section we walked starts on the north side of the river bank west of Av. Huayna-Capac. If you continue, you will eventually see stairways leading to a higher level. Take one of these to reach the Historic Center.
There are many other places you can stroll along the river, including in Paradise Park (El Paraíso Park), and there are three other rivers to explore as well.
There seem to be two choices for dining out in Cuenca. You can go the inexpensive route, a small plain restaurant with traditional food at unbelievably low prices. Breakfast with juice and coffee is $2.50. Lunches are priced as low as $3.50 for soup, main dish, and drink. You will not get much ambiance at these restaurants. The second option is to go to a restaurant with ambiance. These cost more but are still reasonable by U.S. standards.
We visited one restaurant that stood head and shoulders above the rest:
On our second to last night in Cuenca, we wanted to try somewhere new. We decided on Capitan, which was listed as the 5th best restaurant in Cuenca on Trip Advisor (and is #3 as of this writing).
We were underwhelmed when we arrived. The restaurant had four tables and could seat 16 people total. We considered looking for something else, but we were hungry, so we decided to stay.
And we were glad we did. This was one of the best meals we had during the three months we spent in Ecuador. It started with soft, aromatic garlic bread with an incredible garlicky mayo-like spread that I could have eaten for hours.
Next was a delectable shrimp ceviche, followed by sea bass (with crab meat for Steve, spinach for me). Add a Coke and three small glasses of wine, and the total with tip was $74.
This meal was so enjoyable that we had an encore the next night. I wish we had discovered this gem at the beginning of our stay.
As good as the food is, it was not the best thing about this restaurant. The chef, who I also believe is the owner, was very welcoming and accommodating. He translated the menu for us and checked with us throughout our meal. You don’t usually see that in Latin America or Europe.
Capitan is at Tomás Ordóñez 6-76. The restaurant is small, so it is best to make reservations.
This restaurant also served fabulous ceviche along with other tasty dishes loaded with meat and vegetables. While the experience wasn’t as memorable as at Capitan, this is also an excellent place for a more upscale meal. It is along the Rio Tomebamba, not far from the Iglesias Santa Maria Del Vergel.
The cost for this visit was $60. We visited again with two friends from Korea. The total for four of us was only $80.
D’Galia is at Av 12 de Abril 1-23 y Las Herrerías.
I had read about Fondue Garden somewhere and thought it would be a nice change of pace. And it was. We enjoyed a few meals there, including cheese fondue and chocolate fondue.
When we arrived the first time, we were greeted by Bonnie, a co-owner from the U.K. She made us feel very welcome, and it was nice to hear some proper English.
The restaurant has a second-floor patio that overlooks the Rio Tomebamba and the bridge named Puente Juana de Oro.
Fondue Garden is more moderately priced than Capitan or D’Galia. Our lunch with beverages and a tip was $35.
It is located at Paseo 3 de Noviembre y Escalinatas.
Now that I’ve shared six things that made us fall in love with Cuenca and made your mouth water, here are six more things to do in and around the city.
7. Take a Hop-On-Hop-Off Tour (or Two)
We used City Tours. This company has two hop-on-hop-off tours, North of Cuenca and South of Cuenca. They did a much better job than some of the hop-on tours we’ve had. You can board the buses a Parque Calderon and buy your ticket onboard.
The Homero Panama Hats tour was part of this. I doubt we would have gone to a hat factory otherwise.
8. Enjoy Parque Calderon
This is not a large area, but it can be a great place to rest and grab some yummies.
9. Take a Trip to Cajas National Park (Parque Nacional Cajas)
We hired a guide I found on Trip Advisor to show us around. Be warned, if you go to the higher altitude areas it will be cold.
In the fall of 2019, we spent eight weeks in Buenos Aires. The original plan was to spend four weeks but we liked it so much we decided to stay longer. The positive side of not planning too far in advance.
In a previous article titled “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires” I talked about 10 things that we really enjoyed during our visit. But my list was longer than 10 things, so here are 10 more things to love about Buenos Aires.
Is this the most beautiful bookstore in the world? Many people think so. It was built in 1919 during a prosperous time for Buenos Aires.
The building was first used as a theater for tango performances. Later it was a cinema. Then it fell into disrepair but was saved from the risk of demolition when it was reincarnated as a book store in 2000.
The first part of the name is from a national bookstore chain. The second part refers to the building whose original name was Teatro Gran Splendid.
In addition to basking in the splendor, you can enjoy refreshments in the cafe. You might even be lucky enough to be there while a pianist is playing. You can also relax in a comfy chair in one of the theater boxes.
The store is located at Avenida Santa Fe 1860 in the Barrio Norte section of the city in the Recoleta district.
Cafe Tortoni is the most famous historical cafe in Buenos Aires. It has been in operation for more than 160 years. Once a meeting place for the artistic and the elite, it is now a mecca for tourists.
There is often a line outside even though there are tables available inside. You can go there to see a tango show or stop in for a bite to eat. Either way, be sure to check out the huge Tiffany glass ceiling along with the other elegant decor.
Cafe Tortoni was founded by a French immigrant named Touan. He modeled it after his favorite cafe in Paris by the same name. Cafe Tortoni opened in 1858 and has been at its current location since 1880.
Cafe Tortoni is one of many historic cafes (bares notables) in Buenos Aires. They are protected by law, but I was unable to find out anything specific about the law. Check out this article published by The Guardian in 2018 to learn more about bares notables.
Cafe Tortoni is located at Avenida de Mayo 825 between the National Congress Building and the presidential palace (Casa Rosada).
Chacarita Cemetery (Cemeterio de la Chacarita) is a lesser know and less-visited cemetery than Recoleta. It was founded in 1871 as a place to bury victims of a yellow fever epidemic.
When it was founded it covered only 12 acres (5 hectares). Today it covers 230 acres ( 93 hectares). It takes up almost half of the territory in the Chacarita barrio where it is located.
Chacarita is more than 16 times the size of Recoleta This means you will not find the crowds here that you will most likely encounter in Recoleta. You can learn more about Recoleta in “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires.”
In Chacarita you will find many beautiful tombs and fascinating catacombs. You will also see some sad situations.
Do be careful if you visit this cemetery. We were cautioned more than once to stay aware of our surroundings while we were there because its seclusion increases the risk of theft. Even so, we did not feel unsafe. Here is an interesting article by Will Byers about Chacarita.
Chacarita is located in the Chacarita district. The main entrance is on Avenida Guzman.
I wasn’t too excited about visiting a museum of decorative arts, but I am glad we did. If you enjoy being surrounded by beauty be sure to check out the National Museum of Decorative Arts (Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo).
This neo-classical home was designed by French architect Rene Sergent. It was built with materials imported from Europe. Design began in 1911 but the home wasn’t completed until 1917 because of delays caused by WWI.
It was the home of the Matias Errazúriz and Josefina de Alvear. After they moved in, the couple filled the home with a wide variety of fine art and exquisite decorative pieces. The rooms are decorated in different period styles.
Mr. Errazúriz bequeathed the home and its contents to the Argentine government upon his wife’s death in 1935.
Throughout this museum, you will see wonderful examples of European and Oriental furniture and art. The best way to enjoy this museum is on a tour. They are available in English at set times. We had a guide to ourselves which made for a very informative tour.
This museum is at Avenida del Libertador 1902 in the Recoleta district.
This National Museum of Fine Arts (Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes) is worthwhile for any art lover. In it, you can enjoy international art from the Middle Ages through the 20th century. It has 3 floors and 30 exhibition rooms. Because of its size, we broke it down into two visits.
This museum is also located in the Recoleta neighborhood at Avenida del Libertador 1473. It is within walking distance to Recoleta Cemetery.
Whatever you do, don’t make the same mistake we did. This spectacular 100-year-old building was right around the corner from our apartment and we had no idea how special it is. Just one more reason to go back!
The building was designed by Mario Palanti for Luis Barolo who made his fortune in knitted fabrics. The building is based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Its 22 stories are divided into hell, purgatory, and heaven. Be sure to arrange for a tour to learn all about it.
Theater Colon is one of the top opera houses in the world with some of the best acoustics. You can enjoy this opulent theater by taking in a show or taking a tour. Tours are offered in English and Spanish.
The theater was closed for refurbishing from 2006-2010. The results are as spectacular as you would expect.
During our tour, our guide pointed out something I had never heard of, widow boxes. These are seating areas on either side of the theater that are covered with screens. This allowed women who were in mourning to attend a show without being seen in public.
The Theater is located at Cerrito 628 in the Microcentro district.
In my post “10 Things to Love About Buenos Aires” I talked about the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo. They are a group of women whose adult children were disappeared by the Argentine government from 1976-1983 during the Dirty War.
You can learn more about this dark period of Argentine history by visiting the ESMA Memory Site Museum (Museo Sitio de Memoria ESMA). Photos and stories of the disappeared and survivors help keep the memory of this time alive.
Prisoners who were pregnant were allowed to give birth but their babies were usually given to families who supported the government. Then the women were killed. There is a movement to locate the people born in the detention camps.
These words in the museum translate to “How was it possible that children were born in this place?”
This is not a stand-alone museum, but a complex of buildings. We did not allow enough time for our visit. Please don’t make the same mistake.
The museum is at Avenida del Libertador 8151
9. Steak and Malbec
Argentina is famous for its beef. It is lean, flavorful, and nutritious. There are several reasons beef from Argentina is so good:
The cattle are grass-fed, which leads to higher omega 3 fatty acid content. This means less risk of high cholesterol and heart disease.
Because the cattle eat a healthy diet there is less need for antibiotics and growth hormones.
The steak is slow-cooked on a parrilla (a grill heated with wood or coal)
You can learn more about why Argentine beef is the gold standard in this article.
This article explains the use of a parrilla and the concept of the asado.
In Buenos Aires, you can partake of the best cuts of beef for a very reasonable price. One of our favorite restaurants was La Cabrera. To make your visit even better check out their early bird special (don’t worry, it starts at 6:30 p.m.).
You might want to pair that delectable steak with a glass or two of dry, red malbec wine. Even though malbec grapes originated in France, Argentina currently produces 75% of the world’s malbec wine. The grapes are grown in the Province of Mendoza in western Argentina.
10. The Neighborhoods
There are 48 official neighborhoods in Buenos Aires, so if you find yourself getting confused don’t feel too bad. As you would expect, we spent most of our time in those that have the most to offer tourists. Here are the six you are most likely to visit as a tourist.
This is the largest neighborhood in the city and has been divided into Palermo Soho and Palermo Hollywood along with other smaller sections. This is the area we stayed in for our first four weeks and it worked out well.
Words like trendy, chic, and nightlife are currently associated with this area. There are plenty of restaurants and shops and it is easy to walk around.
This is the greenest area of the city. This is where you will find Tres de Febrero Park, Jardin Botanico Carlos Thays, and the Japanese Gardens. There are also many peaceful, tree-lined streets.
I had a little confusion here. The area we stayed in during our second four weeks was usually referred to as Congreso due to the proximity of the National Congress Building. A prime example of the use of informal names for neighborhoods.
This area had a completely different feel from Palermo. For one thing, we didn’t see a lot of dogs, and very little of their leavings.
This is the political center of the country. Both the National Congress building and the Presidential Palace are within walking distance.
There are also a lot of Subte (Metro) stations here, and taxis are plentiful.
This affluent and elegant neighborhood is adjacent to Palermo and it really walks the Parisian walk. You will find one stately building after another. This area also houses the famous Recoleta Cemetery and the Museum of Fine Arts, as well as several other museums.
Described as a “brightly painted ghetto” by Culture Trip, this working-class neighborhood is considered a must-see for any tourist. Football fans can visit the La Bombonera stadium in this neighborhood. The area is also popular for street art.
Considered to be the most authentic of neighborhoods San Telmo is well-known for its street market. It is also a good place for antiquing.
This neighborhood is considered safe during the day, but visitors are cautioned to be careful at night.
This is the upscale, modern part of the city. If you are looking for a change of pace from the traditional Buenos Aires vibe, check out this area.
A port was built here at the end of the 19th century but had a very short life. Within fifteen years it was virtually obsolete.
The area spent most of the 1900s in neglect. Efforts to revitalize the area were started in the 1990s. Now you will find high rises, high-end hotels and restaurants, and warehouses-turned-apartments.
In this area, you can also visit the Buenos Aires Ecological Reserve, 865 acres of low land on the Rio de la Plata. It is a great place for a nature walk or a bike ride.
These are just ten of what we feel were the best parts of our time in Buenos Aires. Of course, there are many other ways to enjoy this very vibrant and cosmopolitan city. No matter what you look for when you travel, you are sure to find it here.
Dates: August 15, 2019 to October 10, 2019 Number of days: 56 Total cost for 2: $7,200 Cost per day for 2: $129
It was love at first sight. Within a day or two of arriving in Buenos Aires, we knew we wanted to stay longer than the four weeks we had planned. We ended up staying for eight weeks and we still didn’t want to leave.
These are many reasons we fell in love with this amazing city and we think you will love it too. Here are 10 things to love about Buenos Aires:
1. It’s Paris Without the Price Tag
Buenos Aires is sometimes referred to as theParis of South America. Granted, there is no Eiffel Tower, no Louvre, and everyone speaks Spanish. But the city, with its turn of the century architecture, has the ability to make you think you are in the city of lights.
Buenos Aires is full of wide boulevards, stately buildings, and massive monuments. Several times I had to remind myself that I wasn’t in Paris. I wasn’t even in Europe.
From the 1880s through the 1920s Buenos Aires was one of the richest, fastest-growing cities in the world and this is reflected in the magnificent architecture. Many neoclassical, art nouveau, and art deco masterpieces grace this city.
Click to view five more examples of beautiful Buenos Aires architecture:
Buenos Aires is teeming with excellent restaurants (steak and malbec anyone?) and we enjoyed many of them. These are three that we really loved:
This restaurant has it all. Great food, great service, great atmosphere. Even better, they offer an early bird special that can’t be beat. Meals served between 6:30 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. get a 30% discount. This is on everything including drinks!
The rule is you must wait outside until 6:30. No reservations are taken for this time so you stand in line. Not to worry, it was a short line. And you must finish your meal by 8:00 so they can prepare for the 8:30 seating. The service is excellent so finishing in this time frame is no problem.
We visited this restaurant three times during our stay. And if we ever return to Buenos Aires it is one of the first places we will go.
On our first, visit I ordered the small tenderloin and an avocado, palm, and tomato salad. Imagine my surprise when two good-sized tenderloins and a huge salad were placed in front of me. I had enough left over for a second meal the next day. The glass of wine I ordered, listed as a cup on the menu, was actually a small bottle.
They also have killer desserts and everyone leaves with a lollipop from the lollipop tree:
In addition to the great food, we had a wonderful waiter. His name was Hugo Victor. He was our waiter for all three visits. On our last visit, we shared handshakes and hugs.
Another good choice for steak is Chiquilin Restaurant in the San Nicolas neighborhood. The food and service were both wonderful.
Our superb meal for two with bread, main dishes, and drinks for two was $40 UDS.
Clark’s Steak House
We stumbled upon this restaurant after a visit to the Recoleta Cemetery. It didn’t look like much from the outside but turned out to be a great experience.
They have a fun decor, a variety of side dishes, and a wine named after me:
Steaks, side dishes, wine, and coffee for two for only $30 USD.
Continuing with food, we love a good Sunday brunch buffet, but they can be hard to find in some cities. Our research led us to the El Mercado Restaurant in the Faena Hotel.
This hotel is in the Puerto Madero section of the city. If you take a taxi be sure to tell the driver you are going to the Faena Hotel. The first time we visited this restaurant we asked the driver to take us to El Mercado and were delivered to an actual market. We then had to catch a second taxi to get to the hotel.
Brunch is served in the hotel’s El Mercado restaurant every Sunday. You can choose to eat inside in a large room that looks like your rich great aunt’s parlor with lots of dark wood and cabinets filled with antiques or on the peaceful and elegant brick patio. And make sure to leave room for their amazing desserts.
You have two choices in food as well. You can have the buffet with meats, cheeses, salads, side dishes, desserts, and wine. Or you can add barbecue to your meals. We opted for the buffet without the barbecue and there was more than enough to chose from. At $75 USD for two the brunch was expensive compared to other meals we had, but well worth it.
Note: I checked the hotel website in January 2022, and they are not currently offering brunch, perhaps because of the pandemic. Hopefully, it will be back soon.
Be sure to check out the rest of this five-star hotel. The decor is over-the-top elegant.
4. The Dedication of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo
Before we visited Argentina I was unaware of the horrific terrorism that occurred there just 40 years ago. In 1976 Argentina’s government was overthrown by right-wing forces with U.S. support. Jorge Rafael Videla became president and not long after that Congress was disbanded.
The biggest legacy of this regime was the Dirty War. From 1976 – 1983 tens of thousands of people who were considered a threat to the regime were imprisoned, tortured, and often killed. It is estimated that 30,000 people disappeared during this time. They were often sedated, put on a plane, and dumped into the Rio de la Plata on routine death flights. One “secret” detention camp shared quarters with the Naval School of Mechanics which continued to operate as if nothing evil was going on within its walls.
Beginning in 1977 several mothers of the disappeared formed a group that to this day holds weekly marches in the Plaza de Mayo. They march in front of the presidential palace demanding to know what happened to their children, who were usually young adults when they disappeared. They are also working to make sure that all those responsible for this atrocity are held accountable.
When the group started it was illegal for more than three or four people to gather in public, so they marched around the plaza two-by-two. Pairs of stencils of white headscarves in the plaza commemorate the early marches.
There are only a few Mothers alive today. They still show up every Thursday afternoon at 3:30 wearing white headscarves that represent diapers.
You can learn more about The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in this article published by The Guardian.
There is no shortage of parks and gardens in Buenos Aires. One of our favorites was the Japanese Gardens.
This 5-acre garden is in the Palermo neighborhood surrounded by the bustling city. If you have trouble finding the entrance don’t give up. This oasis within the bustling city is truly a delight for the senses.
Tres de Febrero Park and Rosedal
Another enchanting place to spend some time in the Palermo neighborhood is the Tres de Febrero Park (also known as the Bosques de Palermo). We visited this 988-acre park on a Saturday and it was bursting with activity including skaters, bikers, and walkers like us. There were small children learning to ride bikes and people dancing in a fitness class. There were also people paddle boating in the small lake:
From my point of view, the best part was Rosedal. This expansive rose garden is part of the Tres de Febrero Park. Unfortunately, there weren’t any roses blooming during our visit, but I can imagine how glorious it must be when they are in bloom.
Jardin Botánico Carlos Thays
This rather small botanical garden (18 acres) in the Palermo neighborhood is a delightful way to put a little green in your day.
The park is named for French architect and landscape designer Carlos Thays who designed these gardens. He and his family lived in the mansion that is now used as the main building in the gardens.
Many abandoned cats roam the garden grounds. When efforts to stem the rate of abandonment failed a group of volunteers took over the feeding, neutering, and placement of the cats. Although we saw several cats in the gardens, none of them would pose for a photo.
The featured image in this article is of the greenhouse that is in the gardens.
Iguazu Falls is the largest waterfall in the world and is shared by Argentina and Brazil. Each country has developed a national park around its portion of the falls.
From Buenos Aires, it is a short flight of less than two hours to get to Puerto Iguazu, Argentina and the Argentinian side of the falls. It is then no big deal to cross the border into Brazil to see the rest of the falls.
Of course, you could also fly to Foz do Iguazu, Brazil, but at the time we booked our flights that was a much more expensive option. Our round trip flights cost just under $200 each.
Another option is a bus ride of about 18 hours. Some of the buses offer partially or fully reclining beds.
Having grown up very close to Niagara Falls we debated whether or not to take this side trip from Buenos Aires. After reading online reviews we decided it was worth a shot. This side trip was the most expensive we have ever taken at $1,200 for three days, but we are glad we visited.
The day we spent visiting the Argentina side of the falls involved a lot of walking on very long trails. We visited in early October and it was a very hot 97 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, the humidity was low so it didn’t seem to bother us as much as most of the visitors. Thirty years in Florida’s hot, humid climate had acclimated us.
We spent another day viewing the falls from the Brazilian side. This park is more compact than the Argentinian one, which made the trails more crowded. This also made for a shorter visit so we had time to visit Parque Das Aves where we met this funky fellow:
We highly recommend the fabulous Iguazu Jungle Lodge. We thoroughly enjoyed our three-night stay. Our room was beautiful and spotless, the scenery is sublime, and our meals at their restaurant we fantastic. Because of the weakness of the Argentina Peso we had a four-star experience with a two-star price tag. With a three-night stay costing only $260 USD.
If you are a dog lover I suggest you spend some time in the Palermo neighborhood. This area seems to have an extremely large number of dogs and dog walking is a popular job. It is not unusual to see groups of 5, 10, or even 15 dogs being walked or tied to a pole or fence while the walker picks up and drops off his charges.
Just be careful where you walk. While most people pick up after their dogs, some do not. And the strays, who are harmless, also leave a mess behind.
As we have traveled around we have been amazed at how well behaved dogs in many parts of the word are. It is not uncommon to see a dog walking with his owner, without a leash, and ignoring other people and pets.
Many of them have been trained to cross the street. This dog walked ahead of his master, reached the street, and sat down without any prompting:
One of the things we love most about traveling is experiencing cultural differences. Sometimes they may cause an inconvenience like the time we were detained for sixteen hours because of a protest that shut down a major highway in Peru. Even so, it is these events that round out our travel experience. It isn’t all good food and gorgeous buildings.
We were in Buenos Aires in the weeks leading up to a highly contested presidential election. Our first experience with protests there was when we moved from the Palermo neighborhood to the Congresso neighborhood. We spent our second four weeks in an apartment across from the National Congress building.
As the taxi drove us towards our new apartment the roads became more and more clogged until we couldn’t go any further. At that point, we were advised to walk to our destination. Only one problem. We didn’t know how to get there.
Long story short, protesters were blocking the roads so our host and his wife met us so they could help us carry our luggage to the apartment.
All of the protests we saw were peaceful. They sometimes seemed more like a block party on steroids. Vendors set up food carts and parents entertained small children on the sidelines.
These protests continued on a daily basis throughout the remainder of our stay.
One word of caution: Avoid walking through a large group. As we tried to work our way through a large crowd some people behind us started pushing. We made it through alright, but in hindsight, we should have walked around the protest area.
These are just 10 of the many highlights of our time in Buenos Aires. There are many other ways to enjoy this vibrant and cosmopolitan city. No matter what you look for when you travel, you are sure to find it here.
Dates: August 15, 2019 to October 10, 2019 Number of days: 56 Total cost for 2: $7,200 Cost per day for 2: $129
Buenos Aires was just one of the cities we visited during the ten months we spent in Latin America in 2019. To learn about some of the other places we visited be sure to check out “Our Top 10 Latin American Travel Experiences.”
2. Spending Three Days in Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica
We took the bus from the capital of San Jose to the Caribbean coast. When we arrived in Puerto Viejo our first thought was “where the heck are we?” This place looked kind of rough. The name translates into “old port”, so that should have been a clue.
It didn’t take us long to see the charm. By the afternoon we were in love. The beach is just yards away from a wooded hiking area where you can see wild howler monkeys and sloths.
Many restaurants line the beach and embody the phrase “pura vida” (pure life).
We enjoyed a visit to the Jaguar Rescue Center. The name is misleading because they rescue and rehabilitate many species. We learned that many sloths are injured or killed when they chew through electric wires.
The sloth above, who lives at the center, was just hanging around in the open.
Puerto Viejo is the most laid back place I have ever been and I hope to visit it again someday.
This is the only tourist attraction to make my top ten. I am not a big fan of Pre-Colombian history, so I questioned whether it would be worth the hassle and cost to get there.
It definitely was. There is something magical about this place.
It is not quick or easy to get to Machu Picchu. You have two choices, hike for about four days (definitely not for the couch potato) or make your way to the town of Cusco, Peru then take a train to Machu Picchu Town (or Aguas Calientes).
If you chose to get there through Cusco you need to become acclimated to the altitude to avoid altitude sickness, which I was surprised to find out can be deadly. While Machu Picchu is only 8,000 feet (2,400 m) above sea level, Cusco sits at 11,200 feet (3,400 m) above sea level.
The train ride to Machu Picchu Town from Cusco takes a little over three hours and passes through the Sacred Valley of the Incas where you will be dazzled by one breathtaking view after another.
“All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware” Martin Buber
How true this quote so often proves to be. While in Cordoba, Argentina we decided to take a side trip to a German-inspired hamlet called La Cumbrecita.
The day started out foggy but turned out to be sunny and temperate.
We spent some time playing fetch with this sweetheart in the Rio del Medio.
We loved spending time climbing (carefully) on the rocks in the river.
The reward for hiking down a rocky trail.
We saw people every now and then but were often alone on the trails. It was so peaceful and picturesque. It reminded me of how we would spend hours in parks or on nature trails when we were young. Time spent in nature can make you feel like you don’t have a care in the world.
Imagine a hiking trail, a zoo, and a conservation organization in one. That is Amaru Biopark.
This park is built on a hillside and houses animals who have been rescued but cannot be returned to the wild. Because of its location, you will get quite a workout as you make your way through the park.
You will see so many beautiful animals, including African lions, which really made me scratch my head.
I would have loved to hear these animal’s stories, but I didn’t see any programs like that when we were there.
Squirrel monkeys roam free in the park.
The aviary lets you get up close to many beautiful birds.
If you go, don’t make the same mistake we did. Our first visit was in the afternoon. We were slowly working our way around and thoroughly enjoying the animals when we looked at the map and realized that in several hours we hadn’t even reached the halfway point.
We backtracked so we could get out of the park before dark and returned earlier on another day so we could enjoy all it had to offer.
You can get some amazing views of the city from the entrance to the park.
You can learn more about this park and our visit in “The Amazing Amaru Biopark.” We highly recommend you explore it when you visit Cuenca.
District 13 (Comuna 13 in Spanish) is a poor neighborhood in the foothills of the Andes that less than 20 years ago was the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world.
Many people associate the violence in Medellin with Pablo Escobar’s drug empire, but guerrilla and paramilitary groups were also causing problems.
In 2002 the government initiative called Operation Orion freed the district from the scourge.
While it is still poor, it is now a popular tourist stop due to an abundance of street art like this colorful lizard:
There are many small, tourist oriented businesses and young people form dance troupes to earn cash.
A series of escalators carry people up the mountainside. At every step, you are greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
At first, Steve was a little apprehensive because of the area’s past reputation. He kept his camera in its case for a while. Then he slowly started taking pictures but would quickly put the camera away after each picture.
At one point I turned around to look for him and he was surrounded by several children and was sharing his pictures with some local children.
Seeing the positive changes to this once forsaken neighborhood impacted me in a way that very few of our travel experiences have.
This memory is not a typical travel memory. We love to explore cemeteries for the history and art. Early in our travels, we went to Montmartre Cemetery in Paris and it was so compelling that it ruined us for other cemeteries.
That doesn’t mean we’ve stopped visiting them, but we haven’t found another one that comes close to Montmartre.
So we approached this visit as something to do. What a shock. This cemetery is in bad repair and you can see below:
As we continued exploring we were shocked to see open crypts with either cloth bags or exposed bones. Perhaps the saddest and most bizarre sight was a tomb with a skeleton lying on top.
Even with the disrepair, there was beauty to be found.
Many years ago I read about a family with young children who visited the Grand Canyon. The mother was a little dismayed when they returned home and all the kids could talk about were the ants they had seen in the hotel parking lot.
Thinking about this I realized that it is sometimes the little things, things that you can’t anticipate and could happen anywhere, that stay foremost in our minds after a trip.
I have started to refer to these as “ant stories” and here are two of my favorites from 2019:
9. Come In and See My Cat
One day Steve and I went to the neighborhood of Getsemani in Cartegena, Colombia. This neighborhood was once plagued with drugs, prostitution, and violence. It is now a safe, authentic neighborhood that attracts many tourists, often looking for street art.
While I was taking these pictures a local man heard Steve admiring a cat outside his door, and invited him in to meet his cat (below).
10. Maybe Later
In several touristy areas, we have been annoyed by people who stand in front of restaurants and try to get you to go inside. They are referred to as bringers.
Even when you say “no, gracias” or indicate that you just ate they won’t leave you alone.
It took a while but we finally discovered the magic words that make them happy and gives us some peace.
While walking through Machu Picchu Town we were being bothered as usual. When we said no to one bringer he said: “maybe later”. We replied, “maybe later”. He broke into a huge smile.
We looked at each other with glee. We had found the magic words. We would never be driven crazy by bringers again!
That’s Not All Folks!
I hope you enjoyed this look back at our ten months in Latin America. These memories and many others have enriched our lives beyond our expectations.
Are you looking for a city that will leave you impressed and inspired? Look no further than Medellin, Colombia.
Yes, that Medellin. The city named the most dangerous in the world in 1988 by Time Magazine.
The city that spawned Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.
The city that remained dangerous even after the death of Escobar in 1993 due to the presence of guerrilla and paramilitary groups.
In 2002 a government military initiative called Operation Orion successfully removed the left-wing rebels. This did not mean that Medellin was trouble-free, but it was a step towards the safe, progressive, cosmopolitan city it is today.
We visited this phoenix of a city in November 2019 and fell in love with it. Maybe you will too.
Here are 10 things to love about Medellin:
1. The Art of Fernando Botero
You have most likely seen some works by Fernando Botero featuring voluminous people and animals. The painter and sculptor was born in Medellin in 1932. Many of his works can be seen in the city.
Plaza Botero in the center of the city boasts 23 of his larger-than-life sculptures.
And if that isn’t enough Botero for you, you can see dozens of his paintings at the Antioquia Museum, which overlooks Plaza Botero.
But the city isn’t done with Botero yet. Head over to nearby Plaza San Antonio to see the Botero Birds.
The first bird was severely damaged in 1995 during a bombing the killed 30 people and injured hundreds. The guerrilla group FARC claimed responsibility saying the bombing was meant to send a message to Botero’s son, who was the Defense Minister.
As the cleanup progressed, the mayor demanded the ruined statue be discarded. The elder Botero heard this and immediately called the mayor. He insisted that the statue remain as a reminder of the bombing and a memorial to the victims. He promised to donate an identical statue.
When a city is referred to as thecity of eternal spring you can expect pleasant weather. And that is what you will get.
Medellin is just over 400 miles north of the Equator and 4,900 feet above sea level. Because of this, the daily temperature averages 72.5 degrees Fahrenheit throughout the year.
Be warned, Medellin does get a fair number of rainy days. The two rainy seasons are April-May and September–November. During this time, you can expect rain for at least 21 days per month.
But do not despair. The rain tends to be in the form of short showers. We visited in November and had afternoon showers on many days. We simply planned our excursions for the morning and early afternoon and made sure we had our rain jackets with us.
You can thank the rain for a city full of lush and vibrant vegetation. That was a nice change from the parched ground we saw all around us during our previous stay in Cordoba, Argentina.
Parque Explora – This is an aquarium (the largest freshwater aquarium in South America), a vivarium, a planetarium, and an interactive science museum all in one. We spent hours playing with all the activities and only stopped when we got too hungry to continue. Luckily there are several tasty and economical places to eat right on site.
El Castillo – Is it a castle, a home, or a museum? It’s all three.
El Castillo was built in 1930 in the Medieval Gothic style for physician Jose Tobon. In 1943 it became the family home for Diego Echavarria Misas, his wife Benedikta (Dita), and their only child Isolda. In 1967 Diego and Dita lost their daughter to Guillain-Barre Syndrome. You can see some of the drawings she did as a child in her bedroom.
The couple faced more misfortune when Diego was kidnapped by Pablo Escobar in 1971. Some accounts claim that the family paid the requested ransom, while others say that Diego had instructed his wife not to pay ransom if he were ever kidnapped. Either way, Diego was killed. Dita decided to return to her native Germany and donated the house to the city of Medellin.
The house is a treasure trove of the family’s belongings, and the gardens are lovely. This is a must-do for anyone who loves beautiful homes and grounds.
Santa Fe Zoo – We had a great day exploring the Santa Fe Zoo. This zoo is not too big, and it’s easy to find your way around. The grounds are full of lush vegetation, and the animal enclosures are in pretty good shape.
The squirrel is an Andean Squirrel. Similar to the Eastern Grey Squirrel but with a distinct reddish tint to its fur.
The Scarlett Macaw is also known as the flag macaw in Colombia because its colors are the same as the Colombian flag.
Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden – You can find this garden right across the street from Parque Explora. Since we were there in November, there weren’t too many plants blooming, but we did have a pleasant walk along the various paths. Admission is free.
A restaurant called In Situ is located within the garden grounds. The food and service were excellent, and they had the most beautiful menu I have ever seen. It was like a book with a gorgeous photo of one of the dishes on each page. I would recommend this restaurant even if you don’t intend to visit the garden.
It’s hard to imagine a better walking tour than the two we had in Cordoba just a month before. But our tour with Real City Tours was the absolute best one we’ve had so far.
Our guide Edgar told memorable stories and talked openly about the city’s troubled past. He also spoke passionately about the city’s commitment to democratic architecture and the belief that you should give the best to those who need it the most.
We didn’t have a dog accompanying us on this tour as we did in Cordoba. However, we did have several locals stop to talk to our group. One man even ended up in our group picture.
Imagine walking through what was less than 20 years ago the most dangerous neighborhood in one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Now imagine that this neighborhood is thriving. That is the story of District 13 (locally known as Comuna 13).
This poor neighborhood in the foothills of the Andes is a popular tourist stop due to an abundance of street art.
Young people form dance troupes to earn cash.
A series of escalators carry people up the mountainside. At every step, you are greeted with smiles and warm hellos.
There are many tours to District 13. We opted for a private tour with a taxi driver we had gotten to know.
At first, Steve was a little apprehensive because of the area’s past reputation. It did not take long for us to feel very safe and welcome here.
One thing that is credited with advancing Medellin is the metro system. It not only provides much-needed transportation for the city’s 3.7 million inhabitants and 550,000 visitors annually, but it has also changed the lives of the poor who live on the mountainside by cutting hours off their commuting times.
Cable cars that are part of the metro system take riders up the steep mountainside in Districts 1 and 2.
Unlike many cities, the residents of Medellin respect their metro system, which is clean and graffiti-free.
Even with this system, the roads are jam-packed. Motorcyclists weave their way through traffic with no regard for traffic laws or safety. However, without the Metro and the motorcyclists, I can’t imagine how any traffic would move through the city.
A two-hour bus ride will get you to the town of Guatape, dubbed the most colorful town in the world because all of its buildings are decorated with colorful bas-reliefs called zocalo.
There isn’t very much to do in town after you’ve checked out the buildings and perhaps taken a boat tour. But a short drive will get you to El Penol.
El Penol is a 720-foot tall rock surrounded by water and small islands. The view at the bottom of the rock is amazing, but if you climb the 740 steps to the top, you will be rewarded with even more breathtaking views.
The climb isn’t bad. There are markers every 25 steps so you can see your progress.
In both Medellin and Cartegena, which we visited earlier in the year, we found that we enjoyed the food immensely. It didn’t matter if it was traditional or not, it was always tasty, and the ingredients were high quality.
Exceptions to this are patacones and arepas. Patacones are deep-fried squashed plantains, and arepas are patties made from cornmeal. We did not develop a liking for either of these. The other food that never excited our taste buds was the ubiquitous white cheese that accompanied many meals. I have never tasted such a bland cheese and hope never to again. I don’t like to waste food, but this remained untouched on our plates every time.
That being said, I would be hard-pressed to think of a bad meal we had in Medellin.
During our 10 months in Latin America, we have been impressed with the friendliness and helpfulness of the residents but the people in Medellin take this to a new level.
Perhaps it is because the city is out of the grips of the terrorists who held it hostage for far too long. Perhaps it is the positive changes including vastly improved transportation and the growth of the city. Perhaps it is pride in being able to share their city with tourists who have deemed it a worthy destination.
Whatever the reason(s), we found that people were not only willing to help, they went out of their way to look out for the tourists. They would not only give you directions, but they would also walk you to where you were headed. If a beggar were bothering you, they would chase him away.
We have enjoyed most of the cities we’ve visited, but we were possibly saddest to leave the impressive and welcoming new Medellin. I believe that it was the impact of the changes that have taken place in recent years that made Medellin special to us.
I hope you will consider visiting Medellin and that you will leave with as many fond memories as we did.
Dates: November 11 – December 5, 2020 Days: 28 Total cost for 2: $4,000 Cost per day for 2: $143
October 2019 found us in Cordoba, Argentina’s second-largest city. We had just spent two months in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital and most populous city. It was our favorite Latin American city so far. We wondered how Cordoba would compare.
Cordoba didn’t steal our hearts the way Buenos Aires did. Even so, we had some good experiences and an awesome side trip to two little Alpine inspired villages. More on that later.
Our Favorite Thing in Cordoba
One of the coolest places in the city is the Sacred Heart Church of the Capuchin Fathers (pictured above at dusk).
We visited La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona last year and often feel that it ruined us for other churches. However, the Capuchino Church delighted us for hours. In addition to the beautiful pastel colors and a multitude of statues, there are gargoyles and numerous animals.
Tours of the church including the tower are available in Spanish and English. I highly recommend that you take one for a chance to see more of this beautiful church up close.
When we first arrived in Cordoba and I heard the name Capuchin Church I thought it had something to do with monkeys. This fountain right across the street definitely had something to do with that. It turns out that the Capuchins are an order of friars that are an offshoot of the Franciscans.
Here is a cool video of the church by Lucas Nobile.
For more information about the Capuchin Church see this article by Albom Adventures.
Walking Tours and Bus Tour
When we arrive in a new city we like to take a hop-on-hop-off bus tour to get the lay of the land. We also like to take a free walking tour to learn some basic history and hopefully hear some good stories. Cordoba was no different.
What was different was the extremes in the quality of the tours. We took two walking tours with La Docta Tours. These were the best free tours we have ever had. The guides were very knowledgeable and spoke excellent English.
If you are not familiar with the concept of a free tour, you take the tour and pay what you think it was worth at the end. Not really free, but they are usually very well done.
The afternoon tour had a little something extra. A dog named Negro joined us. According to our guide, he roams the city during the day and returns to his home each night. He is well known throughout Cordoba and loves strolling along with the afternoon tour. He even stayed with Steve and me while we ate dinner.
As good as the walking tour was, that’s how bad the hop-on-hop-off tour was. As usual, we were given earbuds so we could tune into the English version of the tour. However, the bus played the Spanish version over speakers so it was very hard to hear the explanations coming through the earbuds. Annoying music filled the downtime. We do not recommend this tour.
We had high hopes when we headed to Cordoba’s largest park, Sarmiento Park. They didn’t last long. The park has so much potential but is in disrepair.
Despite this, the park was busy on the spring-like day we visited. There is a multitude of restaurants in the park for you to choose from.
Our favorite part of the park was the Super Park. This small amusement park was full of mostly happy kids and tired parents the day we visited. Well worth a visit of the young or the young at heart.
What Are Those?
Not far from Sarmiento Park you will find a park full of large, colorful rings. This is Plaza del Bicentenario. It celebrates the country’s 200 year anniversary which occurred in 2010.
There are 201 rings in the park, one for each year and one that represents the future. Each ring has a date and an engraving of a notable event from that year.
This is certainly an eye-catching park. You can have fun photographing the rings from different angles.
Some Really Good Eats
Be warned: the vast majority of restaurants close for several hours in the late afternoon and don’t open for dinner until 8 or 9 p.m. Since we like to eat dinner around 6 o’clock we visited several restaurants for lunch instead.
Our three favorites were:
The Pastrami Bar – This casual restaurant is located in the bohemian neighborhood of Guemes. It has a charming outdoor area and tasty down to earth food including, surprise, surprise, a wide variety of pastrami sandwiches.
There is a chance you won’t be able to eat at this restaurant in the near future. According to our waitress, they will be closing because of the high cost of rent.
The reason I’m including it here is to share this with you:
This lovable cat lives at the restaurant. Don’t worry, if they close she has a home to go to. And maybe they will find a way to stay open.
Sibaris – this classy place in the Hotel Windsor is not far from Plaza San Martin, the main square.
Not only was the food amazing, but you are served a small taste of an appetizer and one of dessert free with your meal.
El Celta – this restaurant specializes in fish and seafood but has plenty of other choices. It is quite a few blocks north of Plaza San Martin, but within walking distance, if you love traveling on foot as we do.
We enjoyed these restaurants so much we visited each of them twice. In each case, the staff was wonderfully welcoming and often spoke English.
During our stay in Cordoba, we decided to visit the Calamuchita Valley, particularly the alpine-inspired villages of La Cumbrecita and Villa General Belgrano.
Our experiences in these two villages were quite different from each other, but both were wonderful.
La Cumbrecita is very small. Its population is less than 200 people! It is also a pedestrian town. Visitors are not allowed to drive in the town. Not to worry though. It is small enough to walk everywhere.
Knowing how small it was we only planned to stay for two nights which gave us one full day in town. We spent that entire day exploring the countryside. There are numerous paths just minutes from the center of town that will lead you to memorable views.
You need to take two buses to get to La Cumbrecita. The first stops in Villa General Belgrano. The total travel time is about three hours plus time spent between buses at the Villa General Belgrano station.
We traveled with Buses LEP and Pajaro Blanco. The buses were very clean and comfortable.
Once you arrive at La Cumbrecita you will be only a few minutes’ walk from the center of town. Our hotel, Hotel Las Cascadas, was just a four-minute walk from the bus station. Reservations at this hotel include half board. The food was very good and we were called to dinner by the ringing of a cowbell.
From Nature to Luxury
The second part of our side trip was spent at the Chamonix Posada and Spa in Villa General Belgrano. Our room was spacious and clean. The staff was very friendly and helpful. The restaurant serves three meals a day with a wide variety of very good food.
Since it was too cold to use the outdoor pool I spent many hours relaxing in the indoor pool. I usually avoid indoor pools because I find them to be dismal and cold. The indoor pool at Chamonix was warm and the room was full of light.
This is also a good place to indulge in spa treatments. They are much less expensive than in the U.S. An hour-long massage is $20 U.S.
Our Take On Cordoba
Cordoba is a compact and very walkable city. Like all the places we have visited in Latin America, the locals are friendly and helpful.
We spent four weeks in Cordoba minus five days for our side trip. Two weeks would have been enough since there is a limited amount for tourists to do.
However, if we hadn’t visited Cordoba we would have never experienced La Cumbrecita. In fact, we wouldn’t even know it exists.
All in all, we are glad we made Cordoba a stop on our itinerary.
Dates: October 10 – November 11, 2019 Days: 28 Total cost for 2: $3,100 Cost per day for 2: $111
As we left the breathtaking oasis of Huacachina, Peru to head to Arequipa, we had no idea that we would be stranded on the road for 16 hours.
Are We There Yet?
Our tour bus was making good time through southern Peru on our sixteen and a half hour overnight trip from Huacachina to Arequipa. The bus stopped at 5:30 am and we were all awakened. We thought we were at our destination. We soon found out that we were still one hour away, and that most likely that hour would become many.
What The Heck Is Going On?
The reason for the delay was a strike by the residents of La Joya and other towns in the Tambo Valley in southern Peru. The residents were protesting the granting of a construction permit by the Peruvian government to the Southern Copper Corporation for their proposed Tia Maria copper mine. The protesters are concerned about the mines effects on the environment and the agriculture of the area. You can read more about the issues here.
Unfortunately, they decided the best way to make their point was to block roads into and out of towns along the Pan-American Highway. Large rocks and small boulders were strewn across the roads for many miles. Hundreds upon hundreds of protesters lined the roads, making the option to remove the obstacles unwise.
We heard that the protests could last for up to 72 hours and that most of the local businesses were remaining closed in support of the protesters. We wondered where we would get food and water.
We Have Priorities People!
But there was a bigger problem. There was a restroom on our luxurious double-decker bus, but it was only to be used for urine. Where would we go if Mother Nature had other ideas? We looked around. There was a sign that said “bano”. This is Spanish for what we needed most. Several of us walked over and encountered a young woman who indicated that she would open up for us. Part of her business was providing a public restroom for 1 peso (about 30 cents U.S.). The other part was a restaurant. Eww. Especially since there wasn’t a sink between the restaurant and the toilet.
This is where it gets interesting. She opened the half-sized door that is so common in Latin America and led us in. The dark, narrow hallway led to a very primitive toilet. A young woman ahead of me was the first to enter and quickly announced that it was just a “hole in the ground”. Actually, it was more than that but very little more. There was no seat and or flushing mechanism. Once you were finished you had to get a bucket of water from a huge barrel and hopefully flush what you had produced.
That poor woman used three buckets of water then gave up, apologizing to her friend who was next in line. By the time it was my turn I learned a valuable skill. You must thrust the water into the toilet if you hope to force anything down. I am happy to report that I perfected my technique that day.
And Now We Wait
The rest of the day was not nearly as eventful as our early morning experience. We read and dozed on the bus, walked the streets aimlessly, and kept our ears open for news, any news. Our tour company arranged for a large restaurant in town to provide lunch for all of us. This was no mean feat since virtually every business remained closed throughout the day.
On The Road Again
After fourteen frustrating hours, the roads were clear enough for trucks and buses to pass. However, they had to go slowly to avoid the remaining rocks and small boulders still left in the road. We arrived in Arequipa sixteen hours behind schedule. Most importantly we never felt like we were in danger and we did eventually arrive at our destination.
When you set out on the road you know things like this will happen. If you are fortunate they will happen infrequently and will not prove to be dangerous or costly.
We are very fortunate that our travel plans allow a lot of flexibility. Many of the people on the bus had planned to ride straight through to Cusco, an additional twelve-hour drive, to start their Machu Picchu adventures. Because of the delay, many of them missed out on pre-planned and often quite expensive activities.
It appears as if the protests had the desired effect. Here is an article about the status of the mine permit as of July 25, 2019.
Happy traveling, Linda
Featured image by Ronaldo Oliveira on Unsplash.com
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Have you dreamed of visiting the Galápagos Islands? I certainly did. It was right at the top of my bucket list. Then in the spring of 2019, Steve and I spent four weeks as land-based visitors to these famed islands.
This was one of our most anticipated and expensive trips to date. We had some memorable adventures, but overall, our Galapagos Islands trip did not live up to our expectations. We found ourselves counting the days until we flew back to Quito.
In this post, I will share what we loved and didn’t love and illustrate what life is like in the largest town, Puerto Ayora. Hopefully, it will help you decide if a land-based Galapagos trip is right for you.
A Little Background
Do you know there are two ways to visit the Galapagos Islands, ship-based and land-based?
Ship-based tourism is tightly controlled by the government and was steady at about 73,000 visitors per year when we visited.
Land-based tourism is not controlled and had grown to over 200,000 visitors per year by 2019.
Since Galapagos cruises are notoriously expensive, and we would be there for four weeks, we chose to be land-based.
I had never given any thought to the fact that there are towns in the Galapagos, let alone seen a picture of one. We arrived in Puerto Ayora with no idea of what to expect.
From our home base in Puerto Ayora, we were able to enjoy many of the wonders the islands have to offer. These are just a few of our memorable experiences:
Walking down secluded paths flanked by large lava rocks and cacti to arrive at nearly deserted postcard-perfect beaches with few people but plenty of marine iguanas and sea lions.
Riding electric scooters to El Chato Giant Tortoise Reserve to see some Galapagos Tortoises. The coolest thing about them is that each has a unique look on its wrinkled old tortoise face.
Seeing blue-footed boobies perched on a cliff and later sharing the waters of the Pacific Ocean with them. Their numbers had been declining but are now on the rise. This article from the Galapagos Conservancy, Inc. explains the reasons.
Watching the pelicans and frigate birds looking for handouts at the fish market. The pelicans waited patiently for scraps. The birds took every opportunity to dive down and peck at unattended fish.
Heading into the highlands (again by electric scooter) to discover a privately owned lava tunnel. We explored the one-kilometer-long tunnel, climbing over piles of rocks that had fallen from the walls and ceiling.
We then headed further down the road to a corny little family-owned attraction that featured an edge-of-the-world swing, a petting zoo, and a working sugar cane press powered by a donkey. I don’t remember the name of this place, and I haven’t had any luck finding it on the internet. If you are interested in visiting it while on Santa Cruz, I’m sure some local folks could steer you in the right direction.
The Positive Side of Puerto Ayora
The people were friendly and accommodating. As long as we had smiles on our faces, we were greeted with numerous “buenos dias”, “holas”, and even a few “hellos” while walking down the street.
The town is small enough that you can walk anywhere. If you don’t want to walk, a taxi costs only $1.50 anywhere in town.
Laundry services called lavanderias will wash, dry, and fold your clothes for peanuts. Seriously, we spent $8 a week to have clothing for the two of us laundered. This and the taxis are about the only bargains you’ll find.
There is a well-maintained bike path that travels the main road out of town to the highlands town of Santa Rosa, 13 miles (21 km) away. This is where the tortoise reserve is.
Despite the high price tag associated with a Galapagos trip, this is a poor area. Buildings alternate from being well-kept to ramshackle, often on the same street.
Many of the sidewalks and streets are dangerously uneven. It is not unusual to have to avoid holes a few feet deep.
Air conditioning is a luxury. We were lucky to have it in our bedroom. Not even stores, restaurants, or gyms are air-conditioned.
While the beaches and natural sights we visited were pristine, Puerto Ayora was not.
The word that kept coming to our mind was squalor. We realize this comes from our experiences as middle-class Americans, and in the context of Puerto Ayora, this is normal. Nonetheless, it was a sharp contrast to the image we had of the Galapagos.
Another thing that surprised us was the strong smell of car exhaust on the main streets. Even though the traffic was light compared to most towns, there was a constant parade of white pickup trucks, the local taxis, circling the town. Much of the time, most of them were empty. Great if you needed a taxi, but not so great for the environment.
An Internet search will lead you to many articles outlining the pluses (financial) and the minuses (environmental impact) in the growth of land-based tourism. The area, like many, is struggling to find the sweet spot of tourism.
In 2017, Fodors published this article telling people not to go to the Galapagos in 2018. I am not sure if seeing this article or others like it would have led us to make different plans, but I would like to think it would have.
This New York Times article from June of 2018 asks if land-based tourism is threatening the islands.
My advice is to do what we failed to do. Find out as much as possible about the islands and the type of trip you plan to take. We fell for the romantic idea of the islands but got a lot of unromantic reality.
This trip taught us something about ourselves. We are city folks who love being where there is action. We want to be near art, parks, and museums. We want the services we have grown accustomed to nearby. A day trip here and there to a wild area satisfies our nature yearnings.
Toward the end of our trip, we had run out of things to do and were counting the days until we headed back to the mainland.
I am glad we got to visit one of the places that has called to me for so long. However, if Steve and I had been more aware of the impact of land tourism and what life is like in the towns, we either would not have gone or would have taken a shorter trip.
Dates: April 25 – May 23, 2019 Days: 28 Total cost for 2: $5,500 Cost per day for 2: $196
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