You know that feeling of sadness that sets in when you know your vacation time in an incredible locale is about to end?
You know that feeling of sadness that sets in when you know your vacation time in an incredible locale is about to end?
Yeah, that mixed bag of feelings where you’re kind of ready to get home to your own bed, but you also can’t fathom leaving behind your days of happy wandering. I really wasn’t ready to leave Lisbon. I liked this city even more than I anticipated I would.
Determined to spend every moment I could out in the city on my last day, my friend and I headed out to check out a couple of things left on our Lisbon list (and to eat at Time Out Market one more time).
I’d read very mixed reviews of the Elevador Santa Justa. It’s a bit like the Pyramid in front of the Louvre. Some people adore it; some people despise it. The lift was opened in 1902 and was originally named Elevador do Carmo (you’ll see why in just a bit). In truth, I find the Santa Justa Lift to be a bit of an eyesore…but, it really is the most convenient way to get from the Baixa to the Barrio Alto, unless you really like walking uphill.
You can use your city travel passes or Lisboa Card to take the elevator up and down. It works like the rest of the transport in Lisbon, simply swipe your card in front of the scan pads located at the entrance of the lift.
After standing in line for about 15 minutes, we were ushered into the lift. If you’re thinking the Santa Justa Elevator looks a bit like the Eiffel
Tower, you aren’t wrong. Raul Mesnier de Ponsard was a big fan of Gustave Eiffel and used his tower as inspiration. The elevator stands only about 150 feet tall, but you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views at the top. (On a quirky note: 20 people can ride up in the elevator, but only 15 people at a time can come down. Expect a bit of a wait.)
At the top of the Santa Justa was one of the sites I had been waiting to see, the ruins of the Carmo Church and Convent. Perhaps the most spectacular site I saw in Lisbon – and I saw lots of spectacular sites – the ruins of this Gothic church are a cannot miss, in my opinion.
The Carmo church, built between 1389 and 1423, was THE church in Lisbon until the devastating earthquake that changed Lisbon completely struck on November 1, 1755. Attempts at restoration were eventually abandoned and the ruins were left to grace the Lisbon skyline.
The magnitude 9 earthquake rocked the city of Lisbon, brought this church to rubble and destroyed the 5,000 some books that it housed.
Carmo Ruins and Museum
Carmo Ruins and Museum
Angel on a tomb
The remains of the altar now house a small but fantastic museum and visitors are free to take their time marveling at what remains of the Gothic structure. I spent hours looking up at the striking arches, imagining what this church looked like in its glory days.
I have so many photos of these arches. Every angle brought a new gorgeous view. (I’ve posted some of them in the slideshow below).
I visited two other churches on my last day. I walked right up on Igreja da Madalena, the Church of Mary Magdalene, on my way to the Lisbon Cathedral. This little church was a lovely surprise and is actually on the historic register. Like many places in Lisbon, the church today is a product of several reconstructions. Incredibly ornate, it’s worth a stop.
Ornate detail of Igreja da Madalena
Igreja da Madalena
Altar in Igreja da Madalena
Just up the hill, you will find the Lisbon Cathedral. The Sé de Lisboa as you’ll hear it called (its official name is Santa Maria Maior) is a Romanesque structure that dates from the 12th Century. You can enter the church at no charge. Pay a small fee to see the cloisters and the church’s treasury which houses jewels and artifacts from its history.
Our last official tourist duty in Lisbon was to hop aboard one of the trams that shuttles you around the hilly city side. The tram stop for the famous Line 28 is just outside the Cathedral.
Hop aboard the yellow car and ride the loop to enjoy Lisbon’s neighborhoods without the leg workout.
If you’re looking for a day trip from your vacation base in Lisbon, I’d like to tell you about two easy options that are only approximately 30 minutes away from the city: Cascais and Sintra.
Using Lisbon’s excellent public transportation system, hop on the subway at the nearest Metro station, ride to a stop where you can connect with the commuter train system, the comboios, and you can easily and comfortably make your way to Cascais and Sintra like I did. You can also use your Viva Viagem or Lisboa Card on the commuter rails (in addition to the subway and city buses, etc.)
Located on the Atlantic coast, Cascais,a quaint seaside town and former fishing village, offers visitors stunning views, plenty of shopping, good restaurants, and lovely beaches (which in truth are better enjoyed in the summer than in November). The streets are packed with the adorable and colorful buildings and the tiled sidewalks I’ve come to love in Portugal.
Tiled walkways of Cascais
Quaint walkways in Cascais
Sculpture in Cascais
Abandoned church in Cascais
Main square in Cascais
Neighborhoods of Cascais
Front and center in Cascais is La Cidadela, a 15th Century fortress that was built to protect against invaders from neighboring Spain. The fortress now houses an exclusive hotel, bars and restaurants and several shops but still has its lovely view over the Atlantic and the mouth of the Tejo River.
Perfectly walkable is the Parque Marechal Carmona in the historic center of Cascais. The grounds are lovely and it’s a great way to spend an afternoon. During my visit, it was also full of birds: peacocks and chickens are everywhere.
Casa Santa Maria, or the House of St. Mary, was built by an Irishman, Jorge O’Neill, who made a fortune in tobacco. The home conveys a sense of luxury and is full of those gorgeous Portugese azulejos. The home, built in 1902 was gifted by Mr. O’Neill to his daughter as a wedding gift. The house has changed hands a few times since then and owners have added their personal touches. Check out the amazing view from the dining room.
Casa Santa Maria
Cat at Casa Santa Maria
Casa Santa Maria
Azulejos at Casa Santa Maria
Ornate ceiling at Casa Santa Maria
Just next door is the Santa Marta Lighthouse. Built in 1868, the lighthouse stands over what was a 17th Century fort. There are some interactive exhibits here and you can climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse for a spectacular view.
Santa Marta Lighthouse
Stairs inside the Santa Marta Lighthouse
If you got your fill of ocean views in Cascais, visiting the hilly Sintra is another good day trip from Lisbon.
Sintra is filled with quirky mansions of grand design and is located up in the hills of the Serra de Sintra. The climate here can be quite a bit cooler than Lisbon, which is precisely why the well-to-do built their summer homes here. If you’re visiting during cooler months, be sure to pack a coat (and maybe even gloves and a hat).
I dramatically underestimated (a) how hilly Sintra is and (b) how many castles you could visit in a day. If I had my trip to do over again, I’d actually plan to spend a couple of nights in Sintra to really maximize what I got to see. That said, here’s how my day trip to Sintra actually went.
If you all remember from my previous posts, I was actually sick during my trip to Portugal. But, medicated with some amazing cough medicine and decongestants, I decided that I could make the trip to Sintra after all. I’m normally a planner, but being under the weather, I decided that I could just wing my day. Maybe not the best plan.
Upon arrival by train in Sintra, you’ll head out of the station and find several different options for touring the town. Now, you can walk Sintra, but it is incredibly hilly and you may not want to exert that kind of effort. There are lots of hop-on/hop-off bus tour options that drive you from castle to castle. You can hire a tuk-tuk. Or you can choose to rent an electric car.
We wandered in to the Go2Cintra electric car rental and rented an electric car (read: golf cart with cover) to hit the hills and castles of Sintra. Because I was hopped up on cold medicine, we decided my friend would drive.
Electric car rental in Sintra
Electric car rental in Sintra
The concept of these electric rental cars goes like this: rent the little car with your driver’s license and credit card. Have the agent help you add the What’s App messaging app and a Google Maps route to your phone. Head out and enjoy seeing all the castles in Sintra. (Side note: there is no way to experience all of the castles in Sintra in a single day. Cannot be done.)
Tiny electric car rented and me crammed in the back seat, we hit the hillsides of Sintra. Driving with actual cars in a glorified golf cart was interesting, especially around blind corners. Mindful that our golf cart had little acceleration and limited speed, I think we did ok. We were enjoying the scenery, making our way to the first castle, when we passed the parking for said castle and couldn’t figure out how or where to turn around to go back. No problem, we thought. We did find parking for castle two, but decided upon arrival that we’d rather save our time for a couple of other stops. We hopped back in our tiny car and headed back out on the roads and that’s when things got…interesting.
What the agent at the car rental neglected to tell us is that Google Maps can – and does – reroute you from your planned route when it thinks it knows better than you about where you are supposed to be going. Let’s just say, we were enjoying some of the off tour sites in Sintra when we got a phone call from the Go2Cintra office inquiring about our location. (Oh yeah, the office does track you via GPS, which is a good thing). After a brief call with the office, we were rerouted. At this point, we’d missed half of the castles, but what are you gonna do?
From the regular neighborhoods of everyday Sintra, we made our way to the coast and Cabo da Roca. This is the westernmost point in mainland Europe. It was cold. It was windy. And the view was totally worth it.
Ocean views from Cabo da Roca
Cabo da Roca
View from Cabo da Roca
Windblown and back in the car, we headed back into the hills for our first real stop: Convento dos Capuchos. CLOSED. This quiet, Franciscan monastery is definitely at the top of my list for my next trip to Sintra. As is the Quinta da Regaleira, which we also missed.
Batting a thousand for castle stops, we finally made it to admire the outside of the Castelo dos Mouros, the ruins of a 9th Century Moorish Castle. This castle was restored in the 19th Century by King Ferdinand II and is worth a look.
Taking its place in the Portugese hillsides, it’s hard to miss the multicolored Pena Palace. I’m calling this palace the Frankenstein palace as it is a grand building that contains every architectural style you possibly think of. It’s both enchanting and odd all at the same time.
The castle is built over the foundation of a Middle Ages chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary. According to legend, she appeared at the site and thus, a chapel was built in her honor. A monastery soon followed and it stood for years until being damaged by lightning and fires. It, eventually, succumbed to the power of the great earthquake that shook the greater Lisbon area in 1755.
In 1838, King Ferdinand II set his sights upon the ruins in Sintra and transformed them into the royal family’s summer home. The castle stayed in royal hands and had its last royal visitor when Portugal’s Queen Amélia, the last Portugese queen, spent her last night in Portugal here before being exiled.
We spent hours wandering the lush grounds. Gorgeous and green, there are chalets, ponds, and benches everywhere. Our last stop of the day was worth a somewhat frustrating experience of missing places we really wanted to see.
If you are able, I’d highly recommend the hike up to the Cruz Alta, the highest cross in Sintra. The cross sits atop the highest point of the Serra de Sintra. The walk up the hillside renders spectacular views and shouldn’t be missed.
Day two in Lisbon I started to feel unwell. (Catch day one here). You know, just that typical congested head, coughing kind of cold virus that everyone succumbs to in the fall and winter. Not one to miss out on sightseeing, I headed out anyway.
Today’s plan was literally to get lost wandering the Alfama district. The Alfama is a maze of tiny little streets dotted with adorable homes covered in azulejos. Tiny shops and restaurants are tucked into every corner and each time you take a turn, you feel compelled to take a photo of the cutest street you’ve ever seen.
The Alfama is very hilly and you’ll get a killer leg workout in. After hopping off the Metro, I started my ascent. The Panteao Nacional or National Pantheon was first up on my list. If you’ve got a Lisboa Card, you can scan your card to get in.
You can see the massive white dome of the Pantheon from almost anywhere in the Alfama. The church itself wasn’t inaugurated until 1966 after a series of troubles in construction. Inside you’ll be blown away by the use of different stone. The church is laid out not in a typical Latin cross formation ,but in a Greek cross floor plan.
Also worth seeing here are the six cenotaphs of some of Portugal’s most notable sons and daughters and the pipe organ which was moved from the Lisbon Cathedral, the Sé, in the 1940s.
You can get a stunning view of the district from atop the Pantheon dome’s terrace.
From atop the Pantheon I could see the towers of what turned out to be the São Vicente da Fora. The monastery was founded in 1147 and was dedicated to Lisbon’s patron saint, Saint Vincent. The structure now houses a museum.
Entrance into the church is free but there is an entrance fee of 10€ for the museum. The contents are well worth the price as it contains several luxe pieces from the Catholic church as well as a close look at the architecture and tiles of the building.
Azulejo mosaics are prevalent in the cloisters. The bright blue and white tiles are in surprisingly good shape given the age of this structure. The details in each azulejo panel are fantastic.
Down a corridor, you’ll also be able to view the old monks’ refectory. The refectory became the pantheon for the Braganza family, the last rulers of Portugal. The highlight of the pantheon is a breathtaking sculpture at the tomb of King Carlos and Prince Luis Filipe, his heir. Father and son were assassinated in 1908.
And, as with many of Lisbon’s monuments, don’t miss the spectacular city views from the top.
After visiting both churches, I spend some more time wandering the streets of the Alfama and discover the most adorable cafe tucked away. You won’t really know about the shops or restaurants in the Alfama until you are literally upon them.
Rendevous was perfect for a snack of Portugal’s best meats and cheese and a glass of green wine. The Trip Advisor reviews tell you all you need to know about this charming restaurant. The food and service were excellent. And we finished the meal with our first shot of ghinja, a sour cherry liqueur served in a chocolate shot glass. Nothing wrong with that. You’ll find ghinja all over Lisbon. A shot is about 1€.
We wandered more of the Alfama and of course, had another pastel de nata, this time at Santo António bakery near the Castel de São Jorge. (We missed the last admission to the Moorish castle by about 10 minutes).
At this point in the day, I’m feeling worse, so I pop into a pharmacy. Pharmacies in Lisbon are in every neighborhood and are almost like urgent care centers. I talked with a very kind pharmacist who spoke brilliant English. (I found that most people in Lisbon spoke perfect English. They were also very patient as I mangled Portugese in an attempt to learn a bit. If you can read French or Spanish, you’ll be able to read Portugese pretty well, but Portugese does not sound anything like its Romance language cousins for the most part.) After describing my symptoms, the pharmacist whipped up two prescriptions for me. (No antibiotics without a doctor’s prescription). Back at the hotel, a take out meal of Ramen soup was on order.
Day three in Lisbon was a short one. My friend left her room early and headed out to see the Castel de São Jorge while I slept off my latest dose of cough syrup. Around noon, I took the subway back to the historic center to meet my friend. We hopped back on the tram heading to Belém.
First stop, lunch at Time Out Market. The Time Out Market is part traditional market with florists, fruits and vegetables stands, butchers and seafood vendors, but the other half is an extraordinary food hall featuring the city of Lisbon’s best dishes and drinks.
A curated food market, Time Out Market allows visitors to taste the dishes from Lisbon’s most amazing restaurants all in one sitting. Simply order what you like from a mini-restaurant (or two, or three, or ten) and sit with your friends and new acquaintances at long open seating style tables.
It’s a fantastic place to try the food that makes Lisbon what it is. We sampled everything from croquettes with goat cheese and carmelized onion to famous Portugese bacalhau à brás to garlic butter shrimp to steak sandwiches to chicken samosas. Wash it all down with a glass of wine, beer or a cocktail. Everything is amazingly delicious. If it isn’t, it’s not allowed in the Time Out Market. (We ate here several times).
Stop two, check out the Torre de Belém. Not far from the other monuments, the Belém Tower was built from 1514-1520 as part of a defense system in the Tagus River. This is another UNESCO heritage site and is a stunning medieval tower standing tall in the water. After its days defending the city, the tower became a lighthouse and even a customs center. In the tower, you can climb up the tower to view the inside, including a chapel and a gargoyle in the shape of a rhinoceros. (The first rhino set foot in Portugal in 1513.) A fee is required to enter the tower itself; or you can view the outside for free. (Note that this monument, and many of Lisbon’s monuments, are closed on Mondays).
Day four is completely lost to much needed sleep, medication and more Ramen. Several doses of cough medicine and hours of sleep later, I head out to visit Cascais and Sintra.
Paris, you’ll always be my favorite European city, but (cover your ears), Lisbon comes in a very close second.
Paris, you’ll always be my favorite European city, but (cover your ears), Lisbon comes in a very close second.
After a canceled trip a few years ago, I finally made it to Lisbon and it was everything that I’d hoped it would be. More, actually. I was a little bit worried that I’d built Lisbon up in my mind so much that I might be let down when I arrived. I’ve been thinking on Lisbon for at least three years…
So, when November came around, it was time to go. I like to travel internationally in November. It’s usually less crowded (read fewer lines at restaurants, museums) and you can get pretty good deals on flights and hotels. If you don’t mind the typical fall drizzle and cooler temperatures, I find November a great month to hop across the pond.
I found the best airfare through Seattle. A bit odd for a European fare, but in any case, I booked a ticket from Seattle through London Heathrow and then into Lisbon on British Airways for about $750. Two flights from Albuquerque to Seattle, a night at a SEATAC hotel and I was on my way – finally. (If you’re into multiple layovers, you could find airfare for $480).
I hadn’t flown British Airways before and it was fine. Nine hours in a smaller than anticipated plane, the legroom was less than I expected in my economy seat, but the flying experience to Lisbon went just fine.
I assume I don’t even have to tell you by now, but I stayed, on points collected from work travels, at the Doubletree Fontana Park in Lisbon. A quick cab ride from the airport, the hotel gets a lot of knocks on TripAdvisor for its decor and room size. The decor was a bit funky (black walls, black carpet, very industrial), but the building had been an iron factory and the staff here is fantastic. The reviews on room size, I assume, come from people that have never stayed in a hotel in Europe. If you’re expecting a grande suite, I suppose you’ll be disappointed. But in reality, the hotel was safe, clean and comfortable.
The hotel was about a 30 minute walk from the historic sites of Lisbon. I like to walk so this was just fine by me. It was also about a 3 minute walk to the nearest Metro station which quickly, cheaply and easily takes you where you want to go. The public transportation in Lisbon is fantastic. More about that later.
Day one in Lisbon:
Opting to walk from my hotel that first day down to historic Lisbon and in particular the Praça do Comércio, I kept mentioning to my friend how much the Avenida da Liberdade reminded me of Paris. (And in truth, maybe that’s why I loved Lisbon in part). As we learned more about the history of the city, there was something to my Parisian feeling. Lisbon is an old city (you can still see a Roman aqueduct here), but in 1755 the city was almost completely destroyed by a major earthquake and subsequent fires and a tsunami. The Marquis of Pombal, or Marques de Pombal, set out to redesign the city of Lisbon. (He’s kind of a big deal in Lisbon for obvious reasons. You’ll see his name and likeness all over. He even has his on Metro stop). The rebuild of the city of Lisbon is pretty interesting for several scientific reasons, but that large street in Lisbon reminded me of Paris for a reason. It was modeled after the Champs Elysées.
Avenida da Liberdade is a major thoroughfare and it’s lined with shops, restaurants,
sidewalk cafes, and outdoor markets. The sidewalks of Lisbon are gorgeous. Now that’s a weird thing to mention, right? Not after you realize that the sidewalks are made of stunning tile mosaics. You’re literally walking on art. I stopped to take photos of the sidewalks a lot. The tile work on the sidewalks and in the plazas is amazing. Nowhere more so than in the Praça do Rossio (formally the Praça Dom Pedro IV) where the tile looks like waves. Located in the Baixa, or downtown area, the plaza is a stunning place to sit and people watch or enjoy a pastry.
A note on the tiles before I get back to the pastries. The tile mosaics, while gorgeous, are uneven and when it rains, are very slick. Here I make my first recommendation to those of you going to Portugal. Wear good shoes. Wear shoes with good tread and good foot and ankle support. Leave your fancy heels and cute flats for another trip. I saw tons of women wearing combat boots, which are back in fashion, and are most probably the best shoe you could wear on these uneven and slippery walks. A good pair of trainers/sneakers/trail shoes, boots or flats with good tread work too. (American sportswear was seen all over the city. Maybe just avoid the all white sneaker trend that screams American on vacation).
Back to the important stuff. The Praça do Rossio was where I ate my first pastel de nata. I ate a large quantity of pastéis de nata while in Lisbon and you should, too. They are delicious. A warm custard tart in the flakiest of crusts, you can find these little gems all over the city. They cost about 1€ and you will see them everywhere. I tried these tarts at pretty much every bakery I passed by and still ended up losing five pounds on vacation due to all the walking you can do in Lisbon. Eat up!
As we wandered further into the historic city, past shops, restaurants, and street performers, we made our way to the Praça do Comércio or Commerce Square on the Tagus River, the square is incredibly beautiful. Pre-earthquake, it was the site of the royal palace. After its remodel, the square had a new importance in housing sites of goverment and economy. The square today also has a beautiful view of the river, several museums and restaurants, sculpture and an open space where you can take in street performers. Strangely, my first day there, a man was dressed up as a polar bear.
While at the square, I popped into the Lisboa Story Center, once of several tourist information spots throughout the city where you can purchase a Lisboa Card. I mentioned that the public transportation in Lisbon is easy to use and you can buy a Viva Viagem card to use for public transportation alone. (The card can be purchased at public transport stations and contains a chip that you scan when you hop on the subway, bus, tram or commuter trains and ferries. You can continue to load money onto the card.) The Lisboa Card contains the benefits of the Viva Viagem card plus gets you free or reduced admission into many of the museums and tourist destinations in Lisbon. The card can be purchased in one, two or three day increments. It becomes active the first time you scan it.
If you are planning to visit any of the sites and if you are planning to use public transporation to get there, the Lisboa Card was a great value for me. Public transport is equipped with scanners. You simply tap your card against the scanner, wait for it to register green and hop on. Subway, trams, buses, commuter trains and ferries – all included. Tourist destinations and museums that grant free admission with a Lisboa Card have a similar scan station at the entrance. Simply scan your card and off you go. A three day card was about $50.
After a quick bite to eat on the square and a quick trip to find a bathroom, we decided to hop the tram to Belém to see the sites. (Plan ahead. There are not a ton of public toilets in Lisbon. Restaurants and museums have them for paying customers and you’ll see them designated as WC).
Belém is about 15 minutes by crowded tram or bus from the Praça do Comércio. You’ll make several stops along the route and the route is crowded as there are many sites popular with visitors to see in Belém. Mind your bags and wallets. Pickpockets frequent the heavily crowded spots. In general, I found Lisbon to be very safe but, as with traveling anywhere, you want to be aware of your surroundings.
On the way to Belém, at the Cais do Sodré stop, you will pass the Time Out Market, a truly amazing food hall. More about that in my next post, but if you’re planning a visit to Lisbon, keep that on your radar.
Our first stop in Belém was the beautiful Igreja de Santa Maria de Belém and the UNESCO heritage site of Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. The Church, Igreja, can be visited for free by visitors. It features soaring ceilings that look like webs and the tombs of explorer, Vasco da Gama, and poet, Luís de Camões. There is no fee, but the number of visitors allowed into the church at one time is monitored. We waited in a short line for about 10 minutes before being allowed in. There is a small fee to visit the sacristy of the church which included a number of beautiful paintings and was well worth it.
Just next door, is the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos or the Monastery of the Hieronymites. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most visually stunning places I’ve had fortune to visit. The monastery sits at the entrance of the harbor of Lisbon on the Tagus River and was built in the 15th Century. The legacy of exploration and religion are intricately tied together in Lisbon. This site was commissioned by King Manuel I and was donated to the monks. In turn, the monks prayed for the King and the seafaring explorers leaving the shores of Portugal.
Structurally the monastery is just gorgeous. It’s an ornate web of arches in stunning white stone carved in the Manueline style. I spent more than 2 hours here and couldn’t stop taking photographs. Every angle was extraordinary. I couldn’t stop looking at this beautiful place.
There is a fee to visit the monastery. If you purchased a Lisboa Card, your entrance is included. Simply follow the signs for Lisboa Card and scan your card at the designated station.
If you’re up to it, you can make a short walk across a highway to the Tagus River shore to see another stunning monument, the Padrão dos Descobrimentos. The monument celebrates the Portugese explorers from the 15th and 16th Centuries. We forget, but Portugal really led the way in seafaring exploration. The original monument, erected for the Worlds Fair was established in 1940 but was eventually taken down. The current monument, built out of limestone, was constructed in the 1960s. Yhe massive monument pays homage to Portugal’s great explorers. There is no charge to view the monument. You can pay a nominal fee to climb up inside it. I didn’t climb, but my friend did and reported back that it wasn’t really worth her entrance fee.
After touring the monuments, I walked back into Belém to grab a pastel de nata at at Pastéis de Belém. The bakery began making the pastries in 1837 using the ancient recipe from the monks down the road at the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos. There is usually a healthy line for a pastry to go, but the staff has the ordering and delivering of pastéis down to a science and you’ll be in and out in no time. You can also queue up in the left hand entrance if you’d rather enjoy your pastry sitting down with a cup of coffee.
On the walk back to the bus stop, I began what is now an obsession with the Portugese tiles that cover many of the older homes in Lisbon: azulejos. These colorful tiles come in so many patterns it’s hard to believe and they render a sense of charm to the Lisbon city streets. I’ve got more photos of azulejos than I do of anything else in Lisbon.
Interested in climbing ancient pyramids? How about learning more about human sacrifice? You can do both at the UNESCO heritage site of Teotihuacán.
Interested in climbing ancient pyramids? How about learning more about human sacrifice? You can do both at the UNESCO heritage site of Teotihuacán.
Located approximately 25 miles northeast of Mexico City, the ancient city of Teotihuacán is definitely worth a visit. This amazing anthropological site can be accessed by bus (buses leave Mexico City about every 30 minutes or so from Terminal del Norte) or you can do as I did and hire a driver. For about $50 US per person, my friend and I hired a
guide to pick us up at the hotel, drive us out to Teotihuacán and drop us back into Mexico City – very convenient and a lot less crowded and hot than a bus. Your hotel concierge can help you arrange this service.
Headed out on the highway north, you get another look at just how populous and crowded Mexico City really is. Hillside after hillside of colorful houses stacked side by side line the roadway. Once you get out of the city traffic, the drive to Teotihuacán is a pleasant one. It can take approximately 90 minutes to get there – mostly due to the traffic in Mexico City itself. We left our hotel early, approximately 7:30 AM, for our trek to the pyramids. Upon arrival, I was glad we chose a morning (rather than afternoon trip). Mornings are cooler and less crowded. Temperatures at Teotihuacán were in the low 80s during our visit in March and the sun is unrelenting at the site. Very little shade is to be found so make like a tourist and pack a sun hat and/or parasol to shield you from the sun. The elevation in Mexico is higher than you might imagine so make sure you’re getting enough water (restrooms are available towards the entrance gates at Teotihuacán).
You’ll find three entrance gates into the site. The first gate allows you to walk the Avenue of the Dead and explore la Ciudadela, the second gate is closest to the largest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, and gate number three enters the site closer to the smaller of the two pyramids, the Pyramid of the Moon. It is absolutely possible to walk the entire site, but you can also ask your driver to drop you at any of the three gates. With limited time, we opted to be dropped off at the Pyramid of the Sun and picked up at the Pyramid of the Moon.
You will need to purchase a ticket to enter the Teotihuacán. This can be done at any of the gates and the cost in March of 2018 was 70 pesos for an adult visitor. Shops and vendors selling everything from water and snacks to hats to obsidian fetishes line the walkways. Vendors will try their best to get you to buy something and it’s normal for you to bargain a little to get the best deal.
Once inside the complex at Teotihuacán, I was amazed at how large the square was. Numerous ruins have been excavated and are on display for you to view up close. Carefully preserved and brightly colored murals are also on display in a museum on site. Anthropologists and historians are not quite sure who built Teotihuacán or what its original name was. Teotihuacán was the name given to the site by the Aztecs and the city was already in ruin upon their arrival. The city was probably established around the year 100 BC and had started its decline around 600 AD. This means that the city was up and running during the time of the Mayan empire and in fact, Mayan texts show reference to the city of Teotihuacán.
While you are here and if you are able, I would highly recommend climbing one of the pyramids. (If you have more time and money, take a hot air balloon ride over the site). Both the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon were probably used as some type of religious and/or sacrificial site. There is a lot of interest in the Pyramid of the Moon by researchers because of its strategic place at the end of the Avenue of the Dead. I
suspect at some point, for preservation purposes, climbing the pyramids will no longer be allowed as pieces of the stairs are already beginning to break off, but today it is expected that you will climb up one or, if you are superhuman, both pyramids. You get to put your feet on history, literally, and the view of the archeological site from atop the pyramid is pretty spectacular. Be warned that these pyramids are large. The Pyramid of the Sun is the third largest pyramid in the world. The stairs are very steep and in some places very narrow. The steps are not all consistent in size either. I’m fairly tall and long legged and there were a few stairs that were a challenge for me. (But, just when you think about stopping you see a woman twice your age and half your height making it up….) There are ropes on some of the steeper parts of the pyramid that you can hold while climbing. Because of the uneven nature of the ground here, I’d recommend you wear a sturdy pair of sneakers or trail shoes.
After climbing our way up the Pyramid of the Sun, I began thinking about a few things. 1. I need to get back to my workouts. 2. The people of Teotihuacán were in damn good shape. 3. The view is spectacular. 4. I probably just walked over the bones of people that were sacrificed to the gods.
That’s right, the builders of Teotihuacán worshipped many gods and from all accounts had rituals that involved human sacrifice – including, on occasion, children whose bones were said to be scattered at the corners of the pyramids. It’s kinda disturbing and it’s kinda fascinating, these human sacrificial rituals. I’ve read that many times those that were sacrificed were warriors from enemy tribes, but sometimes someone from your village was chosen as a sacrifice. Depending upon what each god required in the form of sacrifice you might be decapitated, have your beating heart pulled out of your chest or just be struck over the head. I’m currently looking for a good book to read to learn more about human sacrifice in these tribes.
The history of the Central and South American tribes is captivating and is worth more than the passing mention it gets in history classes. People living in the Americas before the reign of the European conquerors were part of large and complex societies with far more development in math, science, farming and warfare than we tend to think. If you’re looking for a good book, I’d highly recommend 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus.
While Teotihuacán seemed by all means to be a vibrant city with estimates of 125,000 inhabitants (making it the 6th largest city in the world during its time), the city suffered some decline and the inhabitants eventually left. Drought and ecological decline resulting in malnutrition of the population may have played a part, but there is also archeological evidence that a fire was systematically set in the city – set intentionally to the places that housed the upper class citizens.
At this point in the day, my quadriceps are burning and both my friend and I are ready for a snack. Our driver, Mario, takes us down the road to a restaurant and tequila distillery called Mi Mexico Lindo. Here we enjoyed a nice plate of tacos and a taste of the house sweet, almond flavored tequila. (It’s five o’clock somewhere!) . After you enjoy a meal, if you are so inclined, you can tour the facilities and taste the liquors made from the agave plant: tequila, mezcal, and a special little fermented drink that’s been around for hundreds of years: pulque.
After your visit to Teotihuacán, make some time in Mexico City to follow up with a visit to the Museo Nacional de Antropolgía. This enormous museum has a world class collection of artifacts from pre-Hispanic Mexico. Organized in 12 ground level halls, you can get much more insight on the indigenous peoples of of Mexico, including the Aztecs. You can buy tickets ahead of time on the museum’s website or purchase at the museum. Note that there is a separate ticket line for tourists, especially on Sundays when the museum is free to Mexican residents.
If you’ve been contemplating a trip to Mexico City….Go! It’s a wonderful city with friendly people, great food, charming neighborhoods, and amazing museums.
Who would have thought that I’d end up loving a place I was so hesitant to visit?
You hear things about Mexico: drug cartels, corrupt government and police force, the time your cousin was escorted around the city in an armored car while on a business trip- and you think, these things are not a ringing endorsement for Mexico. But when your friend tells you about a long weekend trip to Mexico City, you think: why not? And then you start reading up and you realize that Mexico City, with over 150 museums, art, culture, and tacos galore, sounds like an interesting vacation spot indeed. And it is.
Mexico City, home to some 22 million people (with another 6 million daily commuters, I am told), is the largest city in the Americas and it’s probably not the place you think it is. For all of my hesitancy around scheduling a trip to this giant metropolis, I can’t wait to get back.
One of the joys of traveling to Central America is the ease in getting there. My flight from Houston, Texas to Mexico City was only 90 minutes. And, to sweeten the pot, Mexico City is currently on the same time as my home. (Mexico City does observe Daylight Savings Time, but they don’t spring forward until April 1st). After reading about what a nightmare baggage claim can be in the Aeropuerto Internacional Benito Juárez, I decided to carry on. Armed with my Samsonite under the seat carry-on suitcase and my Baggallini purse, I deplaned in Mexico City after an uneventful flight. The only real excitement was the two Mexican gentlemen seated next to me, politely stifling chuckles while I sat, nose pressed against the window and mouth wide open at the sheer size of the city. When you go, you’ll get it. Once you descend through the haze (there is a pollution problem in a city this size), you’ll see what looks like a never ending city. It simply sprawls on forever. I’ve been to some big cities: Paris, London, Los Angeles….and these all pale in comparison. I was also mesmerized by the vibrant pops of purple that I could see from the air. These turned out to be my newest obsession, the jacaranda tree.
A few points to note if you are planning a trip to Mexico. US and Canadian citizens need a Passport to visit for up to 180 days. No Visa is needed unless you plan to stay longer. If you’re flying in from elsewhere, check to see what documentation is needed. On the flight, you’ll be asked to complete an Immigration Form for entrance into the country. This form is not unlike immigration forms I’ve filled out for other trips, except that you will be asked to retain one portion of your form. It will be collected when you exit the country and it you don’t have it to hand in, you’ll be assessed a fine of 42 Mexican Pesos.
You’ll also want to exchange some money. Several places in Mexico City did accept credit cards, but I found that the city operates on more of a cash basis than I anticipated. You can exchange money at the airport (the exchange rate is great for those of you coming from the USA – about $16.80 Mexican to ever $1 US Dollar) or you can easily access a cajero automático, ATM, while out and about. US Dollars were accepted some places but not with the frequency of a coastal resort town.
A note about plumbing: you cannot flush your toilet tissue in Mexico City. The plumbing cannot handle it. This isn’t uncommon in many areas of the world: Greece, parts of Italy, other countries in Central and South America. (I wrote about it when I went to Ecuador.) You’ll find a small wastebasket next to the toilet. Simply deposit your used tissue there and proceed with your day. In some of the more rural stops, you may find that there is no toilet tissue or that you’ll be asked to purchase tissue for your visit. Tuck a small pack of tissues or a tiny roll of Charmin To Go in your purse for these occasions.
The city of Mexico City is made up of 16 burroughs and has everything you’d expect to see in a bustling metropolis. While I felt completely safe during my visit, there are a few precautions to take here, as you would in any city of size.
Don’t take an unauthorized taxi. Make sure that you are registering a ride with an authorized and marked taxi cab. Criminals posing as taxi cab drivers is a thing here so do your due diligence and take a cab that is authorized or have your hotel arrange for a cab for you.
Uber is a great way to get around the city. We used Uber almost exclusively for our trip and had a great experience. Simply fire up your Uber app and order a ride just like you do at home.
Mexico City does have a subway and it’s rumored to be pretty convenient and fast. Be alert and mind your bags and wallets. As our hotel concierge noted, most of the crime in the tourist heavy parts of Mexico City is pick-pocketing.
Police presence is everywhere in Mexico City. From traffic cops to riot police, you will see law enforcement on the streets.
and the building and terrace are lovely. It’s also right in the middle of the busy historic center of the city which means you’re within walking distance of some of the main tourist sites: Zócalo, the National Palace, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the Palace of Fine Arts.
We arrived late on a Friday afternoon and opted to spend our first evening getting to know our neighborhood with a stroll to the Zócalo (formally La Plaza de la Constitución), about a 2 block walk from our hotel. Take care in crossing the streets in Mexico City! Traffic is insane – both pedestrian and vehicular. There are crosswalks, but they are not always respected. The Zócalo is a large plaza that serves as a gathering site for the city’s many festivals, religious events and concerts. It’s one of the largest squares in the world and it is the largest square in the Western Hemisphere. (Get used to me saying that, by the way. Everything in Mexico City is the largest, oldest and most visited in the Western Hemisphere). Mexico City has an interesting Aztec tradition and the Zócalo is built right over one of the main ceremonial centers in the ancient Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
From the plaza you’ll be able access many shops and restaurants. You’ll also get a great look at the Palacio National, the seat of the federal executive in Mexico City. The National Palace has also been here since Aztec times and materials from Moctezuma II’s palace were used in crafting the building you see here today. Go inside to see Diego Rivera murals. (You can see more Rivera works in the Public Education building. Simply show an ID and let the guard know you’re there to see the murals).
used in the construction of the early cathedral. At least the Spaniards recycled when conquering the native peoples? The Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven (that’s a mouthful) was built in sections between 1573 and 1813 and is, are you ready, the oldest and largest Catholic cathedral in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also incredibly beautiful and a great place to check out several different styles of architecture at once, including the Churrigueresque style front entrance. Please note, this is an active cathedral as it is the seat of the Archdiocese of Mexico City. Mass goes on quite frequently. Please be respectful of the barriers put up so that those attending mass are not disturbed. You’ll also want to ensure that you are somewhat covered up for a visit here – that means no shorts and no bare shoulders (I always tuck a large scarf into my bag for this reason).
Mexico City style note: you will not see many shorts in Mexico City at all. Even though the weather can get warm here (up to 85 degrees F), you will see people a bit more covered up. Jeans are very popular and you’ll typically see longer sleeved tops and layers. Skirts and dresses are commonly seen as well. You’ll be fine here with a selection of pants or jeans (even cropped pants, ladies) or skirts with a few tops and a couple of cardigans or scarves. Bring sensible walking shoes. Mexico City’s streets are old and in some areas uneven cobblestone. My final style note is to avoid wearing white athletic shoes…nothing screams American tourist more loudly than this.
A quick walk from the Cathedral and we ended up at our dinner destination for our first evening. The restaurant was not our intended destination, but after a long and mixed up conversation with the concierge, we ended up at La Casa de los Azulejos, an 18th Century tiled palace that was built by the Count del Valle de Orizaba. The gorgeous home, tiled in the traditional blue and white tiles of the Mexican state of Puebla, is now home to Sanborns. Sanborns is a drug store chain that you’ll find in Mexico, Panama and El Salvador. It was opened by two California brothers who moved to Mexico and it featured the first soda fountain in the country. During the Mexican Revolution, Sanborns became a meeting place for the troops of Emiliano Zapato. Today, you’ll come to appreciate Sanborns as a department store with a consistent restaurant and clean bathrooms.
From the Casa de los Azulejos, it’s a short walk and an a harrowing street crossing to get to the Palacio de Bellas Artes or the Fine Arts Palace. This building was begun in 1905 and finished in 1930 in the Art Deco style. The building features murals by artist Diego Rivera, a stained glass curtain by Tiffany & Co. and it’s sinking. All of Mexico City is actually sinking and you’ll see evidence of it around town. From cracked foundations to added stairs to monuments, the city is fighting a never ending battle….all because Mexico City and its ancestor, Tenochtitlan, were built in a lake bed. You can catch performances here from Ballet Folklórico de México, but the building itself is best viewed from across the street at the Sears. I kid you not. The Sears department store, which very much looks like a grand department store from the golden days, has a coffee shop on the 9th floor with a fantastic view, I am told, of the Palace. Go early. The coffee shop is tiny and there will be a wait – we didn’t get there in time.
On day two of our trip to Mexico, we visited the Pyramids at Teotihuacán in the morning and then returned to the neighborhood of Coyoacán in southern Mexico City. Coyoacán is a Nahuatl word meaning the place of the coyotes. Built upon a pre-Hispanic village of the Tepanec people it is now a Bohemian neighborhood with lots of restaurants, colorful squares, restaurants, and museums. One of the highlights here is the Frida Kahlo museum: Casa Azul.
The Blue House was Kahlo’s childhood home and it is the home where she died. It was donated as a museum in 1958 and houses several of her works. I can appreciate the work of Frida Kahlo, though I wouldn’t want it hanging on my wall. Frida’s life was both interesting and tragic and that is reflected in her works. As a child, she accompanied her epileptic father, a photographer, perhaps instilling a love for art. After a horrible bus accident, she was bed ridden, eventually forced to wear a leather corset and sit in a wheelchair to offset the medical issues from the accident. Kahlo married muralist, Diego Rivera, and by all means it was a stormy relationship with affairs on both sides. One of the rumored affairs for Frida was Marxist revolutionary, Leon Trotsky. (He’s got a museum here, too). The grounds and gardens are gorgeous and are worth a visit even if you’re not a Frida fan.
This museum is very popular. Book your tickets online before you go so that you can wait in the shorter line. If you want to take photos inside the museum, you will need to purchase an additional photography pass in order to do so. Your entrance here also gets you into the Diego Rivera house and museum, Anahuacalli.
After museum going, we were hungry and we stumbled into a bakery called Pan de Gabriel. We visited a bit with the man manning the register, who explained to us that the bakery was a vegan bakery. Not at all what I’d expect in Mexico City. Everything in the bakery was made without gluten, sugar, dairy or eggs and it was still delicious! After a chat with the bakers, who were thrilled that we were giving Mexico City a chance and that we loved it, and a visit with a couple from New York, we were off on another Uber ride back to the historic center for dinner.
Dinner at El Huequito Bolivar is soooo worth it. Mexico City is know for its tacos and this taqueria specializes in tacos al pastor. For those of you not in the taco know, tacos al pastor feature spit-grilled pork mixed with fruit and – most traditionally pineapple – and chile. El Huequito marinates its pork in their specialty orange salsa and it’s delicious. Be careful of the salsa. On this trip to Mexico I tasted three salsas hot enough to kill me and I’m used to eating spicy food! Enjoy some tacos and a refreshing bottled coke, margarita or beer here. (You know not to drink the tap water in Mexico, right? Not to worry – refreshments, including safe to drink bottled water are easy to find).
After dinner, my friend and I were both craving a sweet so we wandered back towards our hotel to a bakery we had seen before: Pasteleria Ideal. Let me just interject here that Mexico City knows how to do baked goods better than any place else I’ve ever been – and that includes Paris where pastries are serious business. Residents of Mexico City love pan dulces or sweet breads and nowhere was that more apparent than in this bakery on a Saturday night. The place was packed! Upon venturing inside, we see a veritable smorgasbord of pastries laid out on a series of tables in the back of the bakery. People grabbed restaurant serving-sized trays and a set of tongs and began piling the baked goods high! When you had what you wanted, you proceeded to a station where your goodies were wrapped and weighed. Take your receipt to the counter to pay and off you go with pounds of delicious sweets. I’m not sure if this is a weekly indulgence for most in Mexico City, but I’m thankful that we’d been walking enough to have a pastry.
Day 3. Tired feet after two days of walking and climbing pyramids, we decided to take advantage of something that was suggested to us: The Turibus. The Turibus is just what it sounds like: a double decker tour bus cruising the streets of Mexico City and it’s a great option for safely seeing the sights. For approximately $9 USD, you can ride the Turibus and its five circuits from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM to see the sights and to hop off at any of the sights you want to explore more. With unlimited hop on/hop off rights and a gorgeous day, it seemed like a good way to see a bit more of the city while giving our feet a rest. Buy tickets at the major Turibus stops (like the Zócalo) or buy them right on the bus. Simply show your wristband the next time you want to hop on a Turibus. The buses also have Wifi and recorded information about the sights. Listen over the speaker in Spanish or plug in a set of headphones to listen in other languages.
We hopped off at the Angel of Independence, a beautiful monument to independence on Paseo de la Reforma that was built in 1910 to commemorate the centennial of Mexico’s War for Independence. The sinking sculpture, more steps have been added to the base, is a sculpture featuring the four bronze figures of law, justice, war and peace, as well as Nike, the Greek goddess of victory. It’s also a gathering place for the many walkers, roller bladers and cyclists out on a Sunday morning when Paseo de la Reforma closes down. Several people were out enjoying the weather and a few were out peacefully protesting the concerns they had about the Mexican government.
After a stop at the world renowned Anthropology Museum, we walked over to Chapultepec Park, the largest city park in Latin America and one of the largest in the Western Hemisphere. Bosque de Chapultepec is the green space in Mexico City and it is enormous (think Central Park in NYC). The park houses several museums, the zoo, the botanic gardens, and a lake among other things. We took a stroll through the park that sees more than 250,000 visitors per day. The park has been inhabited since pre-Columbian times and is a great place to spend an afternoon. Stop for a paleta or refresco at one of the many vendor stands and enjoy performance art, a paddle boat ride on the lake, or some time at the zoo.
A ride back to the hotel on the Turibus and a quick dinner and I can’t believe my time in Mexico City has already come to an end. Allot yourself plenty of time to get back to the airport. Depending upon traffic, it may take anywhere from 30-60 minutes. Check-in and security at the airport were surprisingly easy.
¡Adiós, Ciudad de México!
If you’ve been contemplating a trip to Mexico City….Go! It’s a wonderful city with friendly people, great food, charming neighborhoods, and amazing museums.
“Imagine a man without lungs. Imagine Earth without Amazon Rainforest.” ~Vinita Kinra
After a blissful week in the Galapagos Islands, a change of scenery (and temperature) was in order. My friend and I decided to extend our stay in Ecuador with a 3-day excursion through the Andes Mountains, into the Cloud Forest, and ultimately arriving at the rainforest in the Napo River Valley.
We hired a tour guide in Quito to drive us, but you could, of course, rent a car and drive yourself. After leaving Quito, already at 9,000 feet in elevation, you begin a steady climb into the Andes and the highway quickly becomes a two-lane road – in need of major repairs in some areas. The road is insanely busy and filled with trucks, motorcycles, cars, pedestrians and sometimes, men on horseback. A few minutes into the drive, I began seriously contemplating covering my eyes for the rest of the journey. Driving in the Andes is not for the faint of heart. (Or for nervous people. Or for control freaks.) Driving between a truck and a bike in the same lane while trying to avoid a stretch of road that has crumbled completely down a cliffside? Yep. Watching for and swerving around stray dogs, cows, and birds? Yep. Passing multiple cars on double blind turns? Yep. That’s a regular thing. After it happens 10 times or so, you decide you can look out from behind your fingers (you know, the ones covering your eyes) and glance out the window hoping to catch a glimpse of the incredibly shy spectacle bear. (We didn’t).
You do really want to look out the window. The Andes are beautiful and the climate changes dramatically in a short amount of time. Rising up over the city of Quito, the landscape becomes greener and greener. Mountains rise sky high out of the Earth. (The average elevation in the Andes is 13,000 feet with some peaks rising over 22,000 feet.)
There are several quaint villages along the route and we stopped in the adorable village of Papallacta which boasts a world class hot springs. (As anyone who knows me knows, hot springs are on Heather’s top ten list of things to enjoy in life). There is a lodge at Papallacta and I could have easily spent a week in this charming spot relaxing and contemplating life while I munched on a bag of chifles (plantain chips). There are pools of varying heat for soaking and relaxing. And, one odd pool that is a short rectangle with stairs entering the pool from one side and another set of stairs immediately exiting the pool on the other side. (What?!) That pool is filled with Napo River water and it’s, ummm, brisk. (Read: freezing). You enter the pool via the first set of stairs, and exit via the second set. In the time it takes you to enter and exit the pool, you’ve lost all feeling in your extremities. From there, in order to improve circulation, you sit your butt back down in some hot water. Aaaahhhh, now that’s more like it.
Papallacta is in what Ecuadorians call the Cloud Forest. It’s a beautiful, lush landscape so called because the altitude and humidity cause a perpetual layer of clouds to hang just above the forest. The climate is much cooler here and after cooking in my own skin while in the Galapagos (worth it!), the Cloud Forest was a nice change of pace.
As you continue your descent into the valley, there are a number of resort towns each with their own claim to fame: adventure sports (think white water rafting), rock climbing, bird watching, etc. We made a detour into the Guango Lodge, well known for its bird watching and famous for its hummingbirds. It’s a quaint little place and well worth the $5 admission fee to catch a glimpse of these sweet little birds in varying sizes and colors.
By the end of the day, we had made our way into the valley and were ready to head to our hotel for the evening, La Casa del Suizo. The hotel is stunning and sits overlooking the Napo River. You must canoe to the hotel. I know, some of you just panicked. These are motorized canoes, captained by someone hired by the hotel. After a short ride down the Napo River, you’ll arrive at the hotel and climb the one million stairs required to get to the registration desk. (Ok, it’s really only about 100 stairs, but it feels like a million after you’ve climbed them for the fourth time).
The hotel was truly amazing. It makes you feel as if you’re living in a tree house. It boasts comfortable, clean rooms with amazing river views. There was no air conditioning here but large screened in windows that allowed for a nice airflow. Our first night here, we heard something that sounded a lot like a duck except that the noise kept up into the night. Not a bird, then; birds typically nest in the evenings. I asked our guide about it the next day. Our conversation went something like this:
Me: “Can I ask you a question about this noise we heard last night?”
Guide: “Of course. What did it sound like?”
Me: “It sounded like a duck, but the noise continued all night long.”
Guide: “Oh, those are toads.”
Me: “Oh, toads! Are they big ones?”
Guide: (spreads her hands apart to basketball width) “No, they’re small.”
Gah! If small toads in the rainforest are basketball sized, I have no earthly desire to run into a “large” rainforest toad.
Lodges in the area are able to book several different activities for you. We took advantage of a canoe ride to an animal rescue center where we got to see many of the native species. The rescue center seeks to rehabilitate and re-release the animals, but some will live their lives in this volunteer run center mostly because of their exposure to humans in the illegal pet trade. The center was opened by a German family and in addition to caring for the animals, they have opened a school for local children. We also took a hike in the rainforest with a guide from the Quechua tribe. The Quechua were among the first native peoples to be conquered by the Inca and they’ve been in the Amazonian basin hundreds of years. A hike from the river up into the rainforest, which lies at the edge of the Andes, is quite steep…the equivalent of 70 flights of city stairs, according to my Fitbit. (As if I needed more stairs after hauling myself up and down at the hotel.)
You quickly forget about your burning quadriceps though. Plants and flowers so green and beautiful, giant trees, and howler, squirrel and wooly monkeys in the wild. After getting hot and sweaty – again – we tubed down the Napo River enjoying the cool water. In the afternoon, we visited a Quechua village. I learned to use a traditional blow dart gun. The gun is 9-feet long and I was not sure I’d land a dart anywhere close to the monkey decoy hanging from the tree, but I got him squarely, on my first try…right in the monkey balls.
Our days in the rainforest were not terribly hot; however, they were humid. Luckily for us a dip in the beautiful lodge pool was an option. While enjoying the cool water one afternoon, we encountered another tribe of people known simply as ‘Mericans. Settle in, because I’m going to share with you a cautionary tale.
One of the best things you can to do be an understanding, global citizen, in my opinion, is to travel and to be open to new experiences and to people that differ from you in the hopes of expanding your world view. Some Americans traveling abroad give the rest of us a bad rap and I’m going to outline why just below:
‘Mericans changed their departing flight to Ft. Lauderdale to avoid Miami because there were “too many Spanish speaking people in Miami.” (I’m really not sure who they thought they’d encounter in Ecuador).
‘Mericans thought it “weird” that we’d hired a guide in Quito and allowed her to drive us into the rainforest. Nope. Ecuador has professional people and our guide was amazing.
In the midst of an amazing buffet full of local and international foods, ‘Mericans complained that this was the only resort where you’d “lose weight because the food was so bad.” (I guess, if you think garlic shrimp, beef tenderloin, curry chicken, plantains, and fresh fruit is bad).
And, ‘Mericans miss their junk food. “I mean, you can’t even get Cool Ranch Doritos or Diet Dr. Pepper here.”
Be American. Be proud to be an American, but don’t assume that different is bad. Don’t assume that people living in other countries don’t deserve your consideration or your respect. Open your mind (and your mouth) to try new experiences (and eat new food).
And while Columbus didn’t actually make it to the islands named for him, you can. Traveling to Ecuador is more affordable than you might think – especially if you can haul yourself to the East Coast to grab a great deal. The best fares to Ecuador depart from New York’s JFK airport or from Miami. You’ll fly into Ecuador’s capital, Quito. Flights from Miami to Quito are approximately 4 hours long and (bonus!) Miami and Quito are on the same time…negating all of those nasty jet lag symptoms I get when flying to Europe.
As a nature and animal lover, the Galapagos has long been on my travel bucket list, so when a friend of mine called last year to inquire if I’d like to join her on a 9-day trip to Ecuador and the Islands in February, I said (screamed) yes immediately!
After spending an interesting day in Key West, FL, we packed our bags, grabbed our snorkel gear and hopped on our flight to Quito. (If you don’t know, interesting is a Midwesterner’s way of saying weird.)
All traffic to the Galapagos Islands must arrive by air to Baltra Island – site of the airport and not much else. Upon landing in Baltra, I decided it looks very much like Tucson, Arizona to me – except that it’s much more humid. (More about the stifling humidity later).
Before navigating your way through Customs, where you’ll present your passport and declaration form, you need to purchase a Tourist Control Card ($10) and a Galapagos Islands National Park Pass ($100). (PS: Ecuador’s currency is the American dollar. An economic crisis in the early 2000s prompted Ecuador to abandon its own currency and make a deal with the good ol’ US of A to begin using ours). The tourist card and parks pass are required for entry into the islands. If you are part of a tour group, as we were, your tour company has most likely made arrangements for these two items. Customs agents will search your bags looking for organic items that can damage the ecosystem in the Galapagos.
The Galapagos Islands consist of 13 major islands, 6 minor islands, and a whole lotta rocks. You’ll need to arrange for transportation on land and on water and this is easily done. We visited 4 islands: Baltra, Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera. From the airport at Baltra, we hopped on a short (and, I mean short) ferry ride over to Santa Cruz Island. I think we were in the water all of 5 minutes.
I was excited about Santa Cruz because it’s the home of the Giant Tortoise. Seeing these gentle giants was on the top of my list. Having had a couple of rough years in which I questioned pretty much every decision I’d made both personally and professionally, I was seeking a wise tortoise (they can live more than 150 years!) to deliver to me some kind of intrinsic truth or message from the universe. As directed by a close friend, I set out to find the wisest tortoise: “The one wearing the monocle,” she said. If you’re like me, seeking messages from wise tortoises, you may be disappointed. Giant Tortoises are, it seems, more interested in eating grass and farting in mud puddles than talking to humans looking for divine guidance. But, in all honesty, they’re still amazing. It’s a wonderful experience to watch these old creatures.
At this point I should point out a few things: The Galapagos Islands are beautiful. Green. Vibrant. Lush. And HOT. There is a price to pay for all of this gorgeous vegetation and it’s called humidity. Temperatures in the Galapagos in February range from 75-86 degrees F. (If you need Celsius temperatures, you’re gonna have to Google.) You think, well those temperatures sound delightful! I can’t wait to escape the cold in (insert your cold city here). I’ll remind you that you are going to add two things to your 80 degree day: 100% humidity and intense equatorial sun.
You are going to sweat. A lot. You are going to sweat a lot. Do not bother bringing hair products or make-up. Really. Don’t do it. You’re going to sweat it all off in a matter of moments. I gave up trying to look presentable about 5 minutes into this vacation. What you are going to need is deodorant (lots of it!) and sunscreen (even more than you think you need).
You’re also going to be tempted to touch the tortoises….you’ll in fact be tempted to touch all the critters you see in the islands, but you cannot. You must maintain a respectful distance of 2 meters (about 6 feet for my fellow Americans) from the animals. Don’t worry, you’re still close enough to view these animals in all their glory and to get incredible photos.
Santa Cruz will be your first opportunity to meet two unique kinds of locals: the sea lion and the marine iguana. Sea lions are not seals, nor are they walruses (an excited woman at the airport told us she had seen walruses. Nope.). The sea lions and marine iguanas are plentiful on Santa Cruz, Isabela, and Tintorera islands. Animals in the Galapagos are largely unafraid of people because there are no land predators. The sea lions are usually very vocal in letting you know when they plan to make their way up stairs or onto a pier. Females and pups are pretty easy going, but the males can be aggressive, so be aware. Marine iguanas are maybe the coolest animal I’ve seen. They look like miniature, black Godzillas with strange turned in feet, but they can swim like nobody’s business and dive underwater to eat algae.
There are plenty of opportunities to hike, swim, and kayak on Santa Cruz Island, including activities along the gorgeous white sands of Tortuga Bay. Tortuga Bay boasts a lovely, calm and shallow swim beach about 50 meters off the end of the trail. Just know, that the trail, from park entrance to the ocean, is about a 45 minute walk and it can be very hot. (It was so hot on the day we attempted this walk that our entire tour group almost revolted).
When you’re ready to do a bit more exploring, you can easily arrange boat transportation from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It works a little bit like this: you take a water taxi out of the crowded port, a speed boat pulls up next to your taxi, you crawl off one boat and onto the other. A 2-hour ride brings you to Isabela where you’ll do the speed boat/water taxi shuffle one more time. Isabela felt more “Galapagos” to me and was much less populated by human standards. There are some great opportunities to swim and snorkel off of Isabela and you may well find yourself in the water with sea lions, iguanas, penguins, rays, sharks, sea turtles, pelicans, and the comical blue footed booby.
We snorkeled and swam every day. Beware the sun! Now that you’re on the water, you’re getting the heat, the sun and the reflection of the sun off the water. You are going to get sunburned. If you’re of the fairer skinned persuasion, like me, you are going to get downright crispy without major intervention. So please, do yourself a favor: take sunscreen and lots of it, take a giant beach hat (who cares if you look ridiculous?!), and take some long sleeved t-shirts to swim and snorkel in. Despite my best efforts, I still ended up with a sunburn, negating all the work my esthetician had been doing to even out my existing freckles and sunspots (sorry, Sandra). If I had it to do over, I’d invest in some gauzy pants and long-sleeved shirts to remain both covered and cool. And aloe. Damn it, I’d bring lots of aloe.
Let’s talk about bugs, baby. Ok, so tourism in Ecuador is down because of the concern around the Zika Virus. In reality, Ecuador has only had a couple of confirmed cases of Zika and they have been on the coast of the mainland. There are mosquitoes, of course, but the largest bug problem I encountered in the Islands was horse flies. Horse flies bite and it hurts. So, take some insect repellent with you. (Shameless plug for my favorite: Sawyer Insect Repellent).
And what about the accommodations?! Hotels, you’ll find, are basic, but nice and clean. I was elated to find air conditioning units in both my room in Santa Cruz and in Isabela. You may find refrigerators in some rooms and an occasional tv (but you won’t need that.) Surprisingly, you’ll also find Wifi at most hotels. Given your location on the globe, connections may be spotty, at best, but we could get a signal long enough to post to our various social media sites. Hot water was also intermittent – but not to worry, with the heat, you’ll find yourself craving cold showers like a crazy person.
Here are two things you need to know. 1. You cannot drink the tap water in Ecuador. You shouldn’t even use it to brush your teeth. You’ll find bottled water or a pitcher of purified water in your hotel room. You would also do well to take a reusable bottle with you, as most hotels, bars, and restaurants in the Galapagos will happily refill it for you with purified water. 2. You cannot flush toilet tissue. I know, I know, it sounds so gross to those of us living in first world countries, but it’s really not the end of the world. Bathrooms are all stocked with toilet tissue and a small trashcan next to the toilet where you’ll toss the tissue after doing your business. Note that in some public restrooms, the toilet tissue is on the wall before you go into your stall.
This trip was a once in a lifetime experience. If you get the opportunity to go to the Galapagos Islands – – – DO IT! Before you go falling in love with the Islands, there are only two ways to be a resident of the Galapagos: (a) be born there or (b) marry a Galapagueño. (I attempted to marry my friend off to our tour guide to no avail. Sigh. Guess I’ll be paying for my room again next time.)
The Galapagos Islands are an incredible place to be. I am eager to return. I got hot, I got sweaty, I got in ocean water (which has its own funky smell) and I enjoyed every single second of it. To the good people of Ecuador: Thank You! And if I smelled remotely like my dirty laundry, I apologize.