Posts Tagged ‘World Heritage Site’

Colonia del Sacramento is a small picturesque city with a population of approximately 22,000. The historic quarter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the layout feels less formal than many of the places I’ve been.  This former Portuguese smuggler’s port was founded in 1680.

There’s not a lot to do here but it’s a great place to relax. The people are very friendly. The historic quarter has a gate and drawbridge at what was the entrance to the old walled city. The cobblestone streets are extremely cobbled! Many of the old building facades along Calle de los Suspiros – Street of the Sighs – are colourfully withered. Other streets are also lovely. The trees and plants add a striking and vibrant contrast. As in Cuba, there are a lot of old cars.

Colonia is a popular getaway destination and, while some travellers just come for the day, I stayed a few days.  With each day you notice more, whether it is the direction you walk up or down a street in, or the time of day and how the light plays on the buildings. The sunsets seemed different each night and, until now, I hadn’t realized I missed waterfronts. I checked out the various small museums – being a former potter I enjoyed the tile museum. The Municipal Museum has a dinosaur bone collection and taxidermy room with many birds, butterflies and insects. I enjoyed the food and wine in the many restaurants and cafes, as well as passing around the yerba mate and an asado at the hostel, explored the shops, strolled the waterfront and checked out Plaza de Toros, a former bull ring, in nearby Real de San Carlos.

Photo courtesy of Richard Abernethy

To get here, I took the Buquebus, a large ferry, across the Rio de la Plata from Buenos Aires. This was on my way back from Puerto Iguazu. Unfortunately, my camera died the first evening here.

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(Late March 2009)

I can hear it long before I see it! The roar of the Devil’s Throat, “Garganta del Diablo”, pulls me towards it like a magnet. The sight and sound of the cascading water and the feel of its spray is euphoric! As the quote attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt goes, “Poor Niagara!”

Before actually hearing or seeing the falls I boarded the park’s Rainforest Ecological Train, which stops near the Devil’s Throat trail entrance and the Upper and Lower trails. With my hamstring injury walking is still slow and painful and I am very happy about the train.

I soon spot a coatimundi. The park is full of these large racoon-like animals but I don’t see another one. I do see hundreds of butterflies! Apparently, they are attracted to sweat and urine. I also encounter several Plush-crested Jays along the catwalk trail to Garganta del Diablo.

Devil’s Throat is a u-shaped cataract, 82m high, 150m wide, 700m long and it marks the border between Argentina and Brazil. It is the largest of the falls but the real magic comes from taking it all in. It is one of the world’s most spectacular waterfall systems.

There are actually 275 falls along 2.7 km of the Iguazú River. Iguazú Falls has an average annual flow of 1,746 cubic metres per second (m3/s) and a peak flow of about 40 ha. Situated amid the incredible beauty and vastness of the rainforest, Iguazú National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Centre.

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(Late March 2009)

San Ignacio Miní is one of the best preserved Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. At its apex in the 18th century San Ignacio was home to about 4,000 Guaraní natives.

I had boarded a bus in Buenos Aires the previous night and now, around 8 am, the bus came to stop and one of the drivers informed me that this was San Ignacio. From the side of the bus I was sitting on I couldn`t see a town but once it pulled away I saw the tourist office directly on the other side of the highway. I stored my backpacks at the office, got directions and headed into town in the direction of the ruins.

There is a small and informative museum at the entrance to the site. I’m here before any tours arrive and it’s quiet. I can hear many birds and see a few walking amid the grounds. I have another of those breathtaking moments as I encounter the red sandstone of the primary settlement and I marvel at how nature is reclaiming the housing ruins.

In the early 17th century the Jesuits began establishing missions, or “reductions“, and ran them for the next 150 years. They built 30 missions in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Each mission was run by at least two priests and included a church, hospital, school, craft workshops, housing and irrigated agricultural and pasture land. All the residents worked the communal land and children received educational training starting at the age of seven. A native language dictionary was created and the Guaraní became the first literate culture in South America. The Guaraní were trained in many crafts and became highly skilled musicians and artisans with a distinctive architectural and sculptural style referred to as Guaraní-Baroque. Art and music were used in their conversion; however, unlike other reductions, the Jesuits did not force the population to adopt European customs. The missions were autonomous, economically successful and provided protection from slave hunters. In 1767 the Jesuits were expelled and the missions fell into ruin. San Ignacio was rediscovered in 1897.

I’m glad I made this stop and by early afternoon I`m standing by the side of highway again waiting for a bus to continue my journey on to Puerto Iguazú.

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Potosi is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a population of approximately 146,000. At 4060 metres above sea level, it is also the world’s highest city. The colonial architecture and narrow streets appeal to my sense of exploration. I make a point of taking my altitude pills.

I arrived in early March, in the rain, and, at this altitude, it is the coolest place I’ve stayed in South America. Days are comfortable, about 12 degrees Celsius, and it feels warmer if you can situate yourself in the glow of the sun, but the nights are cold! This is the warm season.

During its heyday Potosi was the richest city in Latin America – on par with London and Paris. “Vale un Potosi” was a common expression for that wealth. That former wealth has a dark side. The silver from Cerra Rico financed the Spanish economy for two centuries and the mines meant death for millions of Indigenous and African slaves.

There are still 286 mines in operation, which operate as a co-operative. The conditions are primitive and it’s an extremely unhealthy work environment. I booked a tour of the mine. We stopped, first, to pick up protective clothing and, then, to visit the miners’ market where we picked up gifts – coca leaves, 96% alcohol, cigarettes and dynamite. We descended into the mine shaft. Cerra Rico is dark, wet, muddy and claustrophobic. The tour involves climbing, scrambling, crouching and much slipping. Not everyone was willing to continue. It was a fascinating and shocking experience. However, it is not one I would ever want to repeat. Orphan children, as young as six, work part-time in the mines as assistants.  

Another very interesting place is the excellent Casa Real de la Moneda museum. The silver from Cerra Rico was once minted here.  I was surprised to hear that the Canadian twoonie ($2 coin) is minted in Bolivia!

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Sucre is a beautiful city! The historic centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the square is surrounded by whitewashed buildings. It’s a small university city, with a population of approximately 215,000. It’s also the judicial capital of Bolivia and home to many law offices.

I had read that this is an excellent place to take Spanish lessons and I head over to Fox Academy to arrange for more lessons. It’s now been almost two months since taking classes in Guanajuato and I’m eager for more. Fox is a private non-profit school that is recommended by Volunteer South America. I also highly recommend them, particularly my instructor, Lourdes.

I arrive a couple days before the start of carnival and it seems like a quiet city.  Festivals have a way of loosening things up and Carnival is no exception! The streets fill with people and merriment. For about a week, the city is alive with music, parading, and water balloons.  At first it’s just the local youth having fun water bombing each other; but, as the week progresses just about everyone becomes a participant and target of the water celebrations. I can’t get more than a few steps from my hotel without a relentless soaking!  Fortunately, it’s a very warm week and everyone is in good spirits.
Carnival is associated with the growing season. On the final day, as I make my way to class, I notice quite a few people burning incense. Lourdes says it’s the most important day of the festival. It’s a much quieter day, although the festivities start up again later in the afternoon.

This is a great city to just hang out in but I do visit the Casa de Libertad, where the Declaration of Independence is on hand – the most important place in Bolivia. I also check out the museo enthografica – it has an interesting mask collection, and I take a day trip tour to Tarabuco, an indigenous market town about 65 km away. I even ride the Dino Truck to Parque Cretacico.

The dinosaur footprints are on a vertical section of mountain at a cement quarry; although, as the park interpreter explains, when the dinosaurs left these prints the ground was flat and Sucre was a lake. The Nazca tectonic plate is responsible for the formation of the Andes mountain range.

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 (January 2009)

Quito is approximately 2800 metres above sea level and even though the altitude isn’t that much higher than Mexico I felt it right away. The historic part of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I stayed at a popular hostel in Old Town with great views and food. As usual, I roamed around and explored the area on foot. I was very conscious of being stared at! The city does draw international tourists and the country is touted as a great outdoor and adventure destination, but, I suppose, solitary middle-aged female foreigners are not yet the norm.

My wanderings took me through the Old Town highlights such as Plaza de la Independencia, Plaza San Francisco and museum, Santo Domingo and the very ornate church of the Compania de Jesus. I passed through Parque la Alameda, sort of the divider between old and new town, a couple of times, it’s a nice peaceful green space with an observatory. I visited the excellent Casa de la Cultura anthropology museum in New Town and I took the teleferico up to the top of Pichincha Volanco. The view over Quito at 4100 metres above sea level is incredible!

I opted to do the really touristy thing and visit the equatorial monument. Mitad del Mundo is about 20 kms from Quito and I decided to go by public transit. After flagging down about half a dozen or so buses, none of which would get me to the part of the city where I thought I had to go to get a connecting bus, I took a cab to the intersection mentioned in my book. The Mitad del Mundo monument and equatorial line are actually about 163 metres off the true centre. The small solar museum beside the complex is interesting – they’ve developed a world map showing all the constellations according to the “true” rotation around the sun.

Quito from atop Pichincha Volcano

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(December 2008)

I love Oaxaca! Unlike the highter altitude location of Guanajuato, it’s very hot here, sweltering actually. On the way here I was awed by my first ever sighting of a volcano and sensed the shift from North American to Central American Mexico. After a late night arrival I spent the first day walking and sitting and drinking (water) and walking and people-watching and walking some more. The Zocalo is quite large, lit for the season and filled with tourists, locals, and vendors. Oaxaca is reknowned for its food and crafts and neither disappoint.

The city has a population of approximately 200,000 and is a big tourist draw. Vendors, including children, actively try to sell their wares, even while you’re seated at one of the many outdoor patio restaurants. Beggars, mostly women with children, are stationed along the main streets. I’m still touched by the soft-spoken little boy who ran after me and asked for my almost empty bottle of water.

The historic centre and ruins at Monte Albán have been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.  Monte Albán is situated in the mountains and the setting is spectacular! It’s an ancient Zapotec captital and during its peak, around 500 BC, it had a population of around 25,000.  Eventually, it was overtaken by the Mixtecs. According to our guide, it was destroyed by nature. Apparently, the Zapotecs and Mixtecs were frequently at war. The Aztecs expanded into the Oaxaca region but this was short-lived and ended with the Spanish conquest.

I spent the following day in town and wandered through the cultural museum. I was impressed by the Day of the Dead artwork on display. The artist’s graphic skill and the subject mattter were striking. Mexico has produced many highly talented artists. 

New Year’s Eve, I ventured out on yet another tour. This time it was to the Mitla ruins. Mitla is a small Zapotec site with a unique and intricate stone mosiac fretwork. It is not as old as Monte Alban; however, the town has been continuously inhabited. Apparently, the Spanish had the site destroyed due to its religious and political significance.

The tour also included a visit to the Tule tree, a small tequila factory and a Zapotec weaving community. The Tule tree is a Montezuma Cypress. It’s the widest tree in the world but not the oldest – there are older trees in California, Africa, and Japan (7,000 years old). The weaving village is a successful Zapotec project where members of the community help each other with building their homes and getting established.

New Year’s day caught me off-guard – unlike Christmas, most businesses were closed! Perhaps I shouldn’t put things off. I was looking forward to indulging in a hot chocolate at one of the specialty cafes I had spotted on my first day of wandering. Guess it will have to wait for a return visit. Maybe, then, I’ll be adventurous enough to try the grasshoppers!

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(December 2008)

Guanajuato is a prosperous city of approximately 90,000 people. It’s wealth is derived from the silver mines in and near the city and for about 250 years it produced a significant percentage of the world’s silver.  There is no shortage of cultural attractions; however, its “jewel” is the subterranean tunnels once used for flood control and now for traffic. Colourful houses are built up the hills and the winding streets, callejones, some very narrow, can be a challenge to your sense of direction and your knees. The city is truly enchanting and many a tourist passes through!

Guanajuato is a popular place to study Spanish and I had arranged for a three-week immersion program and homestay. The family that hosted me run a bakery and catering business and I enjoyed the fresh baked morning pastries. They live in a lovely large house. The property is gated and the windows barred. There’s something a little unsettling about the security measures; but, it is a safe city with a very strong police presence. Even at night, I felt safe walking up the deserted road to the house.

The Academia Falcon grounds are quite lovely and I do love a school with courtyards! I started with four daily classes and most seemed a bit beyond the introductory courses I had taken at home. Most of my fellow students were from the U.S., my age and older and staying anywhere from a few weeks to a year to however long it takes. There were also people from Japan, younger, and a woman from France. Even though English is an international language not everyone speaks it and the Japanese students and myself had to use Spanish to communicate with one another.

The second and third weeks I added a cooking class to my schedule – chilaquiles, mole poblano, pozole verde, flan de queso, enchiladas mineras, cochinita pibil, an amazing hot chocolate, a Jamaican flower petal drink – all incredibly delicious. The cooking classes were without a doubt my favourite classes! Although, my favourite homework assignment was to describe an object without saying what it was and my shoe was ideal for some creative energy.

I spent much of my spare time hanging around centro. There are several squares and ample places to enjoy a good cup of coffee, bottle of beer (Bohemian obscura), meal or dessert (ah, tres leches). During my walks about town I visited most of the attractions – Alhondiga de Granaditas – at one time a prison where the heads of the four martyrs of the War of Independence were displayed in cages as a warning to the citizens, and now an excellent museum and gallery, – Museo de las Momias, Casa de Diego Riveria (GTO is his hometown), Museo de Don Quixote, the Pepilia monument and the breathtaking view from this mirador, the infamous Callejon de Besa (kissing balcony), the Pastita area (Carlos, one of the instructors, suggested it along with great places to eat), and a small museum where Manuel, the gardener, allowed me to visit after hours, provided a delightful tour of the garden, and even gave me a Christmas gift. I also joined in and followed the musical callejoneadas (strolling minstrels), walked around the damns at Presa de la Olla, and walked up to the church amidst the large crowds for the Festival of the Virgin de Guadaloupe . On the final night, at the suggestion of Connie and Roger, a group of us from the school took a tour of the city – the perspective from a vehicle is quite different and I realized there was much I hadn’t previously seen.

San Miguel

Being a tourist, I also went on a day excursion to Dolores Hildago and San Miguel de Allende. I was the only English speaker on the bus and one family more or less adopted me for the day – they were concerned about my travelling alone. In Dolores Hildago we visited the home and museum of Miguel Hildago, the father of Mexican independence, other buildings of interest, and sampled the tequila ice-cream. San Miguel is a beautiful town but the American influence is very apparent. 

My three weeks in Guanajuato was an interesting experience. I really like the city with its off-grid colourful buildings, warm, wonderful inhabitants, and great food and culture. The historic town and the mines are a UNESCO World Heritage site.  

Note: During my pre-trip research I came across a great travel tip – pack duct tape and wrap it around a pen. I only had to use it once – during a violent windstorm – and was very glad I had it. I wouldn’t have been able to keep the windows closed without it. It will always be a part of any future travels.

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(December 2008)

I awake early on the morning of December 4th. The subway isn’t operating yet and it’s dark and cold as I get into the cab. It’s a quiet, peaceful drive to Kipling station where I catch the express bus to the airport. I am running a little behind schedule and when I see that there isn’t anyone in line at the check-in counter I’m not sure whether to be worried or not. It’s alright, I still have time, but, I drop my documents all over the floor. Relief, I have time for a coffee in the lounge. It’s the start of a whirlwind day.

Huge, vibrant, pulsating and slightly overwhelming! My month in Mexico begins here right in the heart of D.F. one of the world’s most populous metropolitans with an estimated 22 million inhabitants. From the moment I slipped into the authorized cab I was in awe. It was early afternoon, the sun was beating through the smog, and I was amazed by the shear volume of traffic, impressed with the somewhat organic nature of its flow, and stunned by the vendors incredulously selling snacks, refreshments and miscellaneous wares right there, in the lanes, in that mass of cars, trucks and buses.

I checked into a beautiful hostel in Centro Historico and climbed the four flights of stairs to my second floor dormitory. After chatting with a dorm-mate I ventured out for a stroll. Guidebooks and Alvaro, a very helpful resident who I had previously corresponded with on CouchSurfing, provided plenty of suggestions of what to see. I do enjoy visiting cultural and historical attractions but I also like the sense of place I get by walking around and people-watching. The Zocalo is the world’s second largest public square and the ideal place to start.

It is the holiday season and Mexico City’s Zocalo is a focal point for the season. Despite the warm weather there is a large skating rink and many short-sleeved residents are enjoying the challenge of being on ice-skates. Others are experiencing the thrill of the snow-tubing slides and checking out the igloos. As I walk around taking in the people, amusements, architecture, and space, I stumble upon Templo Mayor and purchase a ticket to get a closer look at the excavation.

Gone is the noise and frenzy of the main square. My mind is contemplative as I wander through the site. The temple of Tenochtitlan was once home to a powerful Aztec culture. It’s impressive. Actually, I’m fascinated by the layers of culture and history – sculpted symbolism and architectural remnants of an ancient state, a beautiful Spanish colonial historic district, and a blend of contemporary cultures with striking contrasts between the haves and have-nots – all here in this spectacular, polluted, earthquake-prone, sinking city centre.

I went back to the square later that evening. I had read warnings that this city is dangerous, i.e., 60 kidnappings a day, but I felt safe. The Zocalo and nearby streets were overflowing with people – families, friends, lovers, performers, artisans, tourists, and police. A magnificent Christmas tree, lighting displays, and the vitality of the crowd were all so enticing. I was glad I had decided to stay in this part of the city. However, after a refreshing pineapple and orange juice earlier in the afternoon I now felt I was doing a disservice to myself and the culture with my 7-11 dinner of a hot-dog and coffee.

Day two found me on the Touribus. It’s an excellent service – 21 stops and you can get on and off all day! I did not get off though – not my intended plan – the city is so large, and I decided it would serve as an orientation and overview. Back on foot, I explored more of the historical district. Architecture, sculpture, mesmerizing murals, the Almeda, Spanish conversation with a couple schoolgirls, a tortilla and cerveza at an outdoor cafe made all the more pleasant by a talented classical musician, and another evening strolling about the Zocalo happening upon various groups performing ritualistic dances.

The third day I went to the Aztec pyramids at Teotihuacan.  The site is awesome, the sun is hotter, and it’s full of tourists! I stood on top of the Temple of the Moon and tried to imagine life in the former society. While anthropology sheds much light, the reality is that time presents an impenetrable barrier. I didn’t make it to the top of the Temple of the Sun – I was worried about how I would get down. I wondered if the Aztecs, too, experienced vertigo.

Later that night, while I was sitting in the hostel entrance, a young man entered and very politely explained that he was a craftsperson from the north but hadn’t sold enough today to pay for his room. He was now trying to earn the money by selling lollipops for a peso a piece. One peso is worth so very, very little.

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