Saturday, March 26, 2011


Ah, Paris!  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways!  One, two three, four…there are too many to name!  In my three days in Paris I did and saw many of the typical “touristy” sites but I also took the time to explore the many neighborhoods/districts, or arrondisements, of Paris by foot and by bike.  I strolled along the Seine taking in the sights of the Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame and more.  What a beautiful city!  I took a walking tour through the right bank of Paris, visiting some of the wealthiest parts of the city.  I dined at an outdoor cafĂ©, people-watched and spoke more French than I knew I could!  My absolute favorite part of Paris was everyday around 5pm when the streets were filled with people on their way home from work, and nearly everyone you saw had a loaf of freshly baked French bread in their hands having just picked it up at the bakery. 

One of my favorite things that I did while in Paris was the picnic that I had in the Jardin de Luxemborg.  I took a seat just in front of the railing overlooking the giant pond/fountain.  The park was filled with tourists taking in the sights, Parisians on their lunch break, students on field trips and kids running toy ships across the pond.  It was so warm sitting in the sun that I had to take off my layers and was still baking in the heat!  So lovely!
I, of course, visited the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre.  I’m glad I visited the Eiffel Tower when I did because the day after I was there a bomb threat was called in and a suspicious package was found at the base of the Tower, it was evacuated and shut down for two hours.  I would not have wanted to have been the first one back up the Tower!  But when I went everything was fine, the day was gorgeous and you could see for miles!  I opted for the walk-up option rather than taking the elevator and I walked up to the 1st platform and eventually to the 2nd platform, which is probably about half way up the Tower.  I was perfectly happy there and did not see the need to go all the way to the top.  The views were amazing and kept getting better as I rounded each corner.  My favorite view was looking out over the Seine that ran as far as the eye could see.  The sun was glistening off the water and the buildings were reflecting into the river.  Gorgeous! As I walked away from the park I couldn’t help but keep turning around, each time surprised by the sheer size and magnitude of this amazing structure that was hovering over the city.   At the Louvre I saw the essentials, the Venus de Milo and the Monna Lisa, and reached my art museum threshold shortly thereafter and left.  The sheer size of the Louvre is incredible.  There are 450,000 pieces of art displayed in 30 miles of halls.  If you were to spend 1 minute on each piece of art you would spend something like 1 year of your life, no eating or sleeping, at the Louvre.  Amazing!  The buildings just go on and on and on, which is in and of itself pretty neat.

I went to the funniest, and only, show in Paris in English.  It was a one-man show called How to Become Parisian in One Hour.  The show started late, of course – Parisian time!  He made fun of Americans and Parisians while taking us through 8 ways to act Parisian instead of American.  So funny!
The most romantic thing I saw in Paris was a fence on the bridge crossing the river which has become known as the Love Lock bridge.  The mesh fence is filled with padlocks, some decorated and some not, that are inscribed with two lovers names who have sealed their love and thrown the key into the Seine.    
The biggest shock to me was being met at the train station, and at the Eiffel Tower, and at the Louvre, and many other places by militia in camouflage and berets carrying machine guns with their fingers dangerously close to the trigger.  That’s a little different than my usual day-to-day!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Munich, Salzburg and Zurich

There’s a big difference between VACATIONING and TRAVELING.  My dad pointed this out as I told him I had a bit of a bout with boredom going from amazing fun and adventure on the beach and in the rainforest to visiting another city.  Not that I’m not having a great time and loving every minute because I am, and really, who am I to talk??  I had a beer and a large pretzel in Germany, an apple streudel and a bratwurst in Austria and fondue in Switzerland.  I soaked up as much as I could of these places in my limited time there.

I had been to Munich, Germany, Salzburg, Austria and Zurich, Switzerland before, but I was 10 years old and don’t remember much.  I think Munich was my favorite of the three as there was so much to see and do.  I watched the Glockenspiel’s performance at 11am - the giant clock tower’s clock starts chiming and playing a little tune as painted characters dance around to commemorate the celebration that the plague was over in 1517 and then the painted characters have a jousting match.  The chiming was tuned out however by the Italian soccer fans that filled Marienplatz, drunkenly chanting about their team.

No trip to Munich is complete without a visit to the famous Hofbrauhaus!  An interesting tidbit about those traditional German leather pants with the flap in the front - that derived from the olden days when men would be drinking at the Hobrauhaus, where they didn’t have a bathroom, and when they needed to relieve themselves they would do it right there while still sitting at the table.  At the end of the evening they would hose down the place with water washing away the day’s urine and beer.  Imagine the stench!  Yeech!  I visited the Vikrualienmarket which is filled with booths of people selling food, crafts, flowers and more.  They have a seating area outside of one of the booths that is filled with people sitting shoulder to shoulder with a liter of beer in front of each one of them.
I wandered over to the English Gardens which is a huge park, similar in size to Central Park in NYC, complete with a river running all the way through.  There were people everywhere enjoying the 60 degree sunny day, playing Frisbee, riding a bike, reading a book, or just laying out soaking up the sun and ALL of them were drinking beer.  This really is a beer city!  There’s even a part of the river where a natural wave is created and there are surfers, yes surfers in the middle of Germany, hanging ten. 
I visited the Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany, not because it’s a fun tourist activity, but because I felt I had to.  The tour I took was chilling, leaving me sickened and depressed as I learned of the torture and psychological warfare that was inflicted on thousands of innocent people.   
 Salzburg was beautiful!  It was cool and rainy the entire time I was there but it was still beautiful.  I can only imagine what it would look like with the sun shining down on it!  I climbed up to the Hohensalzburg Fortress which is the highest point of the city.  This fortress, built in the Middle Ages, is now a complex of 55 connected buildings which are old and mysterious looking.  There are 3 museums, a short film about its history, various rooms that appear as they did in the Middle Ages, and various gift shops included in it.  When I went out on one of the verandas overlooking a part of town I hadn’t seen yet, I couldn’t help buy say out loud, “Wow!”  The scene was breathtaking with a combination of beautiful buildings, pastel colors, open grassy areas, old homes, mountains partially covered by low hanging clouds.  It was so pretty!  I wondered what the story is of this one farm house that is set on a plot of land with two long criss-crossing sidewalks.  It has a fence of trees around it and has one car parked out front.  Looks perfect to me!  The next day I went on The Sound of Music tour for which all external scenes were shot here in 1964.  Throughout the 4 hour tour we visited the terrace where the Von Trapp children met the new baroness; where the baroness tried to play ball with the children; where the children were confronted by the captain after coming back from “picking berries”; where the captain and Maria dance and fall in love; and the boat scene where Maria and all the children fall out of the boat.  We saw the gazebo where Liesel and Rolf sang “16 Going on 17” and where Maria and the captains first kiss was.  We went to Mirabell Gardens where Maria and children sang “Do Re Mi”, the pathway where Maria sang “I Have Confidence” and the mountains where Maria sang “The Hills Are Alive” and where the family escaped to Switzerland (which doesn’t really lead to Switzerland, by the way).  All the while we sang along to The Sound of Music soundtrack.  It may have been a little corny but it was fun!  In the afternoon I took a tour back into the Germany to explore the Bavarian mountains and a giant salt mine. 
My last stop was in Zurich, which sits just north of Lake Zurich, a stunning lake with water so clean you could drink it.  I found a nicely landscaped path that ran along much of the edge of the lake where I took a long, leisurely stroll as the sun set.  The Old Town is filled with historic churches with large clock towers, cobblestone streets and cozy little shops.  They have an extensive cable car tram system which is the only type of transportation allowed on some streets.  The river Limmat runs through town, splitting it into The Right Bank (Old Town) and The Left Bank, and ending up in Lake Zurich.  The quays along the river are some of the most beautiful anywhere! 
I love Europe’s train system that took me from Munich to Salzburg to Zurich and will take me to all my other destinations in Europe.  My trip from Salzburg to Zurich was especially nice as the 2nd class seat I sat in was as nice as a 1st class airplane seat.  Towards the end of the trip an announcement came on in German it went on for about 3 minutes, and expecting an equivalent announcement in English I was surprised when the conductor simply said in English, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Zurich is next.”  The tour I took at the salt mines in Salzburg was given in German but had a recorded English audio guide.  There were a number of times when the Germans would laugh and laugh at something that was said and I waited and waited and waited to hear the same joke in my headset but it never came.  I guess it pays to learn the language!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Me Encanta Costa Rica!

If I knew I’d love Costa Rica so much I’d have gone there a long time ago.  I discovered that I’m a bit of a passive thrill seeker.  No bungee jumping or skydiving, but I did partake in a number of other equally exciting activities!  I decided that I wasn’t going to let fear of the unknown get the best of me and let my fear of heights or pure adrenaline pumping activities keep me down.  Adventure, here I come!
The first day we hiked down, down, down and down some more to the base of a beautiful waterfall.  I went swimming in the water around the base of the waterfall, unable to actually swim under it because the force of the waterfall pushed you back.  The water was pretty cold, but the experience was worth it.  After the dip in the water we climbed up, up, up and up some more to the parking lot.  I didn’t know it at this point yet, but we’d be doing hiking of this magnitude about once a day.  Man, I was worn out already!

La Fortuna is famous for the Arenal Volcano which is still active but not dangerous (at least not right now).  The volcano sits majestically above the town, one side of which is lush and green and the other side of which is rocky and ashy from the nearly daily eruptions.  Years ago its eruptions were much more predictable occurring everyday like clockwork. 
We took a hike through the rainforest with a fabulous guide who knew, I think, everything there was to know about the rainforest.  Costa Rica has made their main industry ecotourism and 25% of the rainforest is protected.  Years ago they turned a lot of the land into farmland until the government implemented its ecotourism laws.  The farmland was left alone and because the climate is so tropical within 25 years a whole new rainforest appeared on its own.  They call this a new growth or second growth rainforest.  There are so many seeds transported by animals and the environment is so fruitful that it reproduces on its own.  There is also a daily competition for survival among the plants in the rainforest.  Only 5% of the natural light reaches the rainforest floor so plants actually grow on top of another one to try to get that precious sun in a survival of the fittest.  Who knew that plants, plants, were capable of behaving in this way!
In the evening we went to the Baldi Hot Springs, an amazing place that has pools ranging from 93 to 152 degrees.  I have never in my life felt so blissfully peaceful as I did when I was laying in the reclining chair as the warm water washed over me as it tumbled down from a waterfall.  I stood under a waterfall enjoying nature’s massage.  They had some amazing water slides I couldn’t get enough of.  I felt like a kid running to the top of the water slide again and again as soon as I hit the bottom!
The first of the adventure activities was canyoneering, which is probably one of the coolest things I have ever done!  I essentially rappelled down waterfalls hanging from nothing but a rope.  This was combined with bouts of hiking through creeks, tight spaces, and wet, rocky areas in between.  At one point we had to jump into a cold pool of water, completely submerging ourselves, which explains the look on my face in the picture below. 
The goal of the guides was to make sure that everyone got wet, so any opportunity for them to have us go under water or through waterfalls they made sure we did it.  And if we didn’t get wet on our own they were not above filling their helmets or gloves with water and dumping it on you!  The longest of the waterfalls I rappelled down was 220 feet, which was essentially a free fall.  It’s a terrifying moment when the guides hook you up and tell you to lean back and there’s nothing but a rope supporting you.  I love the picture below because it’s the moment where I was literally putting my life in the guide’s hands as I leaned back over nothing but air and he held the other end of the rope in place.

The second adventure activity of the day was white water rafting!  I can’t think of many things more exciting than this!  My favorite moment was when we went over an especially big rapid and I went airborne, held in only by my feet which were tightly tucked into the foot holds.   
There are so many activities that you can’t stop at just one and it becomes like an addiction wanting to do everything!   There were five of us who did the maximum number of activities available in one day, bouncing around from cloud forest walk to ziplining to ATVing to nighttime jungle hike!  In the morning we took a guided tour in Santa Elena Nature Preserve, which was gorgeous.  Next up was ziplining, which was amazing!  After experiencing canyoneering I was no longer scared to do ziplining, or at least I believed that until I was up on the platform being hooked up to  the line.  But as soon as I was set free on that first line I was hooked!  There were 13 lines in total, varying in length, height and speed but all took me soaring over the trees with the wind blowing in my hair!  What a rush!  There was a guide on the platform that you were flying into that was supposed to tell you to brake, but they never did so you ended up braking at the last second on your own only because you’re about 5 feet away from crashing into a tree at 45 mph.  This can be pretty scary as you can see from the picture below.  The last line was my favorite - it was ¾ of a mile long, was so fast, and I didn’t think it was ever going to end.  
Next up was ATVing which took some getting used to.  I was certain I was going to fall over from side to side and quickly learned that it was important NOT to stick your leg out to the side to steady yourself if you thought you were going to fall.  I got the hang of it pretty soon and was soon zooming up and down the gravel roads, through the hills and the forest.  
The night hike through the forest was not quite as thrilling but was accentuated by the sighting of a kingjou (looks like a cross between a squirrel and a monkey) directly above our heads followed immediately by screams of, “It’s pooping!” and everyone running for cover. 
We crossed a river one day that was filled with crocodiles!!  I was in heaven!  In case you haven’t been able to tell from my previous entries I LOVE crocodiles.  I don’t really know why because they should be feared, but you know, different strokes for different folks.  There were probably about 30 and were everywhere you looked!  We continued on to Manuel Antonio where we went to the most gorgeous beach I think I have ever been to.  The jungle went right up onto the beach, monkeys swung around from tree to tree, the water was calm and warm and amazing!
My last adventure activity was surfing!!   When you’re practicing on the beach surfing seems so easy, but in reality it’s really hard, especially if you’re tall because you have to keep your center of gravity so low.  I prefer to do things my own way sometimes and got up all the way on my left leg and up only on my knee on my right.  My guide laughed and said I developed a new way of surfing!  I actually got all the way up once!  I also got smacked in the head a time or two with my surfboard and got tumbled around under water as the waves grew with high tide.  What a blast!!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Machu Picchu & The Amazon

Machu Picchu!  How does one describe the wonder that is Machu Picchu?  I think it’s nearly impossible to capture the full experience through words alone, but I’ll try.  I had always heard of Machu Picchu but didn’t really know what or where it was, and then learned a little more when my cousin went there a few years ago, but I still had no idea what to expect.  And because I had no expectations, it made it even more remarkable! 
We hiked up to Machu Picchu and were met at the top by llamas.  It appeared that they had been planted there to make the visit more authentic, but they were just wandering around their home territory.  We arrived so early in the morning that there was still a thick fog hanging over most of Machu Picchu itself and the surrounding mountains. 
While we waited for the fog to clear we headed towards The Inca Bridge on a very narrow pathway with a steep drop off on one side.  The Inca Bridge itself is closed to the public due, I’m sure, to the safety risk.  The views from here were incredible with the mountainsides and trees partially visible amidst the clouds.  The mountainside across the way looked as though it had been sliced down the middle to show its vertical streaks that ran tan, brown, gray and white.  

By the time we returned to the entrance gate for our guided tour the fog had lifted and Machu Picchu was visible in all its glory!  The site itself was breathtaking!  And huge!  The village, I guess you would call it, was such a vast expanse that it was difficult to take it all in at once.  Take what you see on the postcards of Machu Picchu, multiply that by about 5, throw in some gorgeous mountains, valleys and rivers below and then you can come close to imagining what Machu Picchu is like!  Every angle provides more amazing views.   2011 marks 100 years since it was discovered by Hiram Bringham.  When he found it it was covered by trees and vegetation so thick that it’s surprising they found it.  It’s held up surprisingly well given that thousands of people tromp all over it day after day.  One day, however, it will be closed to the public and will only be visible from above via plane or helicopter.  It’s sad, but necessary to preserve this wonderful place.  The Incas really had it figured out here, way up high on the top of a mountain complete with three sections – residential, urban and agricultural. 

I had the opportunity to hike up Wayna Picchu, the huge mountain that is seen behind Machu Picchu, and was going to until the guide told us that it was a 70 degree incline and steps all the way!  We opted instead for the hike up to the Sun Gate which was at a 30 degree incline and was mostly flat pathways.  The Sun Gate is the first point at which you would see Machu Picchu had you been hiking the Inca Trail.  Imagine after 4 days of hiking how amazing it must be to reach that point and see this other world.  We hiked up the path, stopping a couple of times along the way to catch our breath.  The hike was challenging yet invigorating and provided gorgeous views at the same time.  At one point on the trail I encountered a llama just grazing along the side of the path.  It was clear that this was his mountain and if he wanted to make any sudden moves I had better get out of his way, and unfortunately the only way out of his way would have been off the side of the mountain.  Luckily he didn’t move as I passed him!  Finally at the top I looked down on Machu Picchu to take in the enormity of it all at once.  Wow!
There is an intricate system to the Inca world that shows where they had villages.  There was not an Incan Kingdom or Empire; it was actually more of a democracy, similar to the United States.  In the region that we’re in Ollantaytambo, Pisac and Machu Picchu are three of the four villages that exist.  They know from studying their history that there is a fourth village relatively close to these three which they’re in the process of trying to discover.  So interesting!
The Amazon!  How does one describe the wonder of The Amazon?  Due to fog, a closed airport and a cancelled flight we got to the Amazon a day later than was scheduled and only got to spend less than one day there.  I could have easily stayed for a week or maybe longer.  We arrived in Puerto Maldonado and took a bus to the river where we boarded a long, skinny covered boat that was close to the water level.  The wide river was a muddy brown color and very calm on the surface but you could tell that there was a strong current underneath.  I imagined myself on a nature show on the Discovery channel as we peacefully floated up the river.  I actually thought of none other than the late great Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter, trolling these waters for crocs!  There were turtles sunning themselves on a log while a butterfly sat perched on their backs.  Seven macaws – yes macaws - flew by.   It was amazing to see birds with such vibrant colors as those set against the backdrop of a bright blue sky out in the wild.  Up on the banks of the river we saw a capybara which is the largest rodent in the world and looks like a cross between a rat, mole and guinea pig and is about the size of a full size pig.
Our lodge was deep in the heart of the jungle in a rustic, gorgeous setting!  Our guide, Julian, took us on a hike through the jungle that was one of the single most awesome things I’ve done.  The paths were muddy (Remember  the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off where Ed Rooney is snooping around the outside of Ferris’ house and he steps in the mud and loses his shoe and then pulls it out of the mud? It looks exactly like that!), the trees were lush and green and the sounds were incredible.  I saw red howler monkeys swinging from tree to tree, toucans perched high above us, a very large hairy black tarantula, a parade of carrier ants proudly carrying large pieces of leaves and many other insects.  

We climbed a 120 foot high tower that took us up above the highest of the trees.  As we approached the top the tower began to sway a bit but was much steadier on the top platform which was pretty small for 9 of us!  We watched as the sun set in a beautifully colored sky.  As far as you could see were trees, a few sticking up taller than the others, and I could see the river far off in the distance.   Gorgeous!  Stunning!  Unbelievable!  As I descended the tower a monarch butterfly flew in and out of the tower and fluttered around enough to make me think I could capture it in a photograph but it eluded me.  Back at the lodge after our hike that stretched into the night I looked up at the sky and was in awe of the spectacularly star-filled sky.  It looked like one of those paintings of a starry night that you don’t think could possibly be real because there’s just too much going on.  It is in fact real, and it exists in Peru!
In the evening I relaxed in my hammock in my room listening to the symphony of frogs, monkeys, wild pigs, birds and crickets while writing in my journal about the day’s events by candlelight.  Pure heaven!  My room was open on one side to the jungle and the doorway was also open to the elements covered only by overlapping canvas sheets.  In the corridor leading up to my room was a staircase down to the jungle floor, practically welcoming jaguars, pumas and anything else into my room!  I did have a visitor around 2:30am.  I heard chirping and scurrying and I shot up in bed and flashed my torch in the corner just in time to see a big ol’ nasty rat crawl through a hole in the wall and jump down onto my daypack.  I scared it away, but it returned a few minutes later as if to say “This is MY jungle and I will go where I please!”  Around 3am it started raining and there is nothing better than the sound of rain in the jungle combined with the animal noises.  What serenity!  We ended our trip with a 5:30am hike through even more of the jungle.  I love it!

(More Amazon pics coming soon - technical difficulties!)