Author: Michael Kardos

Cartagena, Colombia’s Most Caribbean City

Thanks to an insatiable lust for gold by the Spanish Crown, a prime location along Colombia’s northeast coast, and a shameful distinction as one of Spain’s slave trading centers, Cartagena might never have risen to prominence as an important New World city. But those factors, along with the aspirations of ambitious men, enabled Cartagena to grow and prosper. Today they are ingredients that make up a recipe for a vibrant history and lifestyle of a beautiful city on the bay.

As far back as 4000 BC, the region that today comprises Cartagena was inhabited by a group of pre-Columbian tribes who were likely attracted to the region based on the warm climate and abundance of game and seafood. Spanish conquistadors were drawn to the area because of gold that the tribes crafted into jewelry and art. One of them would go on to establish Cartagena. read more

Medellin Magic: People, Parks, Art, Markets and Food

It’s always exciting to discover and new city, and with Medellin, you’re also likely to fall in love. Forget the clichés you might have heard about Colombia’s second largest city – gone are the days of a crime-ridden haven run by drug lords.

As recently as the 1990s Medellin was considered the most dangerous city in the world. But as Paisas – those who live in Medellin (population 2.4 million) and the surrounding area – are quick to point out, dark days are giving way to a modern metropolis where tourists are welcome. As recent visitor I felt safe in Medellin. (Tip: Colombians pronounce the city’s name as med-uh-JEEN.) read more

Amazon Jungle Canopy Walkway – Strolling Between Heaven and Earth

When flying overhead, the Amazon jungle looks impenetrable. Gaze upwards from the jungle floor and the light and sky are nearly obscured. But at the interstitial between top and bottom one gets a perspective of the vibrancy and vitality of the Amazon River jungle. It’s a place to see both the trees and the forest.

For arboreal lovers, ambling along the top of a forest is a true delight. The longest canopy walkway in South America, which is also one of the longest in the world, is located in Peru’s Amazon jungle. The walkway is owned and maintained by Explorama Lodges, which for more than 50 years has been providing a place for visitors to spend time in the Amazon jungle. Their expert guides escort guests on hikes, excursions and even piranha fishing trips, in addition to a trip to their canopy walkway. read more

Yagua, Namesake of the Amazon

As time marches on some people get left behind. The Yagua, today a diaspora of fewer than 6,000 people scattered in small and remote villages along the Amazon River in Peru and Colombia, are an example of how “progress” can ravage a culture unprepared to deal with a changing world.

Yet the Yagua have a distinguished heritage and remain proud. The Amazon River was so named because early Spanish conquerors mistook the Yagua men, who wear a type of grass skirt, as women, and named the region “Amazon” after the legendary female warriors who were bitter enemies of the ancient Greeks. read more

The World’s Biggest River

Compared to every other one of the world’s great rivers, the Amazon is by far the biggest. However it’s measured, by the amount of water, size of its drainage basin, or total length, no other river comes close.

Yes, some argue the Nile River is a bit longer in total length, but that fact too is in dispute. The Amazon River, with an average discharge of 55-million gallons per second, releases more water than the next seven-largest rivers in the world combined. The Amazon River discharges approximately 20 percent of the world’s total fresh water. The Amazon basin, at more than 2.7 million square miles, is nearly twice the size of the world’s second largest river (by water discharged), Africa’s Congo River basin. And the Amazon’s mouth stretches over 40 miles and pushes freshwater more over 100 miles into the Atlantic Ocean. To date, no bridge has been built across any portion of the Amazon River. read more

The Floating Islands Where the Uros Live on Lake Titicaca

For thousands of years the Uros people have proven to be survivors. When faced with adversity this ancient peace-loving civilization in southern Peru adapts.

When the Incas were ascendant 1,500 years ago it could have been life or death for the Uros. Their choices were stark: be subsumed by the Incas, fight and face extinction, flee the rich bounty of Lake Titicaca, or perhaps come up with another answer. Their ingenious solution – build floating islands using the plentiful totora reeds of the lake – became the answer that has defined a way of life for centuries. Their mastery of the water kept the land-based Incas at bay. read more

Machu Picchu, Most Famous City of the Inca Empire

Travelers keep a list, if not on paper then in their heads of the places they would love to see. Some destinations are decided early on and for others it’s a notion that comes along later. No doubt virtually every list includes a stop at Machu Picchu, where upwards of a million people a year visit one of Mesoamerica’s greatest places.

Researchers say it took nearly 100 years to build and it was in use for only about that long before it was abandoned and lost to obscurity for 400 years more. But in 1911, when American archeologist Hiram Bingham stumbled upon Machu Picchu, about 45 miles northwest of Cusco, Peru, he reintroduced to the world a magical place that grows increasingly popular with tourists from all over the globe. read more

Peru’s Ancient Salt Works — Maras

Salt is both simple and complex. An ionic compound of sodium and chloride, it is easy to produce. Salt’s complexity arises from its importance to civilizations, its value and role in human health, and food preservation. Societies prospered and failed because of it, and wars were fought over who would control the salt. Today it is a commodity easily and cheaply obtained.

Our value as human beings has been compared to salt. Someone highly regarded is said to be “worth their weight in salt” and someone of integrity is considered a “salt of the earth.” The all-important word, “salary” comes from the word salt. read more

A Man A Plan A Canal Panama

The above title is a palindrome and also sums up a collective ambition to construct one of the world’s great engineering marvels that immediately became an indispensible asset to the global economy.

Today, the Panama Canal is a thriving and efficient method to move ships, cargo, and people between the two largest oceans on the planet. Yet, for hundreds of years a canal across the Isthmus of Panama was a pipe dream. But before the first ship steamed through in 1914, the massive project would claim more than 30,000 lives, advance the fields of engineering and manufacturing, cause a mighty nation to teeter on the edge of bankruptcy, reshape the geopolitical map of the world and fulfill the grand ambitions of an American president. read more

The Canals of Xochimilco

Mexico City offers plenty for both locals and visitors to enjoy but perhaps one of the more distinctive experiences would be time spent at Xochimilco where, for hundreds of years, 110 miles of canals that separate floating islands is an enchanting place where people grow flowers, food, and sustain their families.

Today, this UNESCO World Heritage Site (designated in 1987) is still a popular destination for Mexicans, and an intriguing stop for international visitors. The best way to experience Xochimilco (zo-shi-mil-koh) is by floating along in flat-bottomed boats called “trajinera” that silently glide atop the water powered only by expert operators who propel them with long wooden poles. read more

Teotihuacan – Greatness, and Mesoamerican Mystery

Any number of markers can attest to a civilization’s preeminence. Art, mathematics, science, law, politics and architecture are just a few examples. Some of the greatest architecture to be found in ancient Mesoamerica is a complex of temples and buildings called Teotihuacan, about 30 miles northeast of Mexico City.

But for all of Teotihuacan’s greatness the most basic question may never be answered – who built it? And also, what happened to the people who lived at Teotihuacan?

Scholars speculate as to who constructed the complex that includes the Pyramid of the Sun, Pyramid of the Moon and the Temple of the Plumed Serpent (Temple of Quetzalcoatl). Some believe Teotihuacan was a multi-ethnic site and others believe elements of the region’s Totonac, Otomi or Nahua peoples are responsible. At its height upwards of 125,000 lived, worked, played, and worshiped their gods within the area’s boundaries. Aztecs, who arrived in the area approximately 1,000 years after it was built, bestowed the site with the name Teotihuacan, “the place where gods were created.” read more

Casa Azul – Frida Kahlo’s Home For Life

Frida Kahlo created art at a price paid dearly. “Tortured artist” understates the pain she endured much of her life, pain both physical and emotional. But it was in the cauldron of conflict where she produced some of her greatest work. And while she lived in many places in Mexico City and around the world, the idyllic home known as the Blue House – Casa Azul – was a touchstone throughout her life.

To better understand Frida Kahlo, it helps to know something of her father, Guillermo Kahlo. The two shared a number of traits. Both had complicated lives, suffered serious injuries in their youth, were introspective and moody, and both had a keen artistic eye and aesthetic, among other things. read more

Two Brothers, Singular Visions – The Artists Marin

If only one word in the English language described the work of artist brothers Javier and Jorge Marin, it would be audacious. Their larger-than-life sculptures are bold, daring, brave, fearless, original, and without restriction or attachment. When you take in their art with your eyes, you see it with your body, feel it in your soul and you keep turning it over and over in your mind.

Even a jaded “lover” of art will stop in their tracks when first seeing a piece by either one of these artists, because the viewer is compelled to look and stare, as if seeing great art for the first time. To be clear, while they are colleagues, the brothers work independently, do not collaborate and do not show their work together. Even though there is a kinship of style in some of their work, each is a distinctive artist by himself. read more

Something Old, Something New, Everything to Do in Mexico City

Mexico City is rightfully touted as one of the “hot” destinations for world travelers. Just a few reasons include her sheer size, rich history, respect as a food scene, lively arts, urban vibrancy, a genuine cosmopolitan identity and compelling architecture in a city with great weather that is easier to get around than you might think.

Recognized as an “alpha” global city, and currently the 19th largest city in the world with a population of just under nine million (the surrounding area more than doubles that number) Mexico City is increasingly viewed as a nexus for business, culture and arts. read more

Dia de los Muertos – Death’s Joyful Mourning

One thing that makes Mexico unique among nations of the world is how the people there deal with the subject of death. Like all cultures, Mexicans mourn the passing of a family member or loved one, but in Mexico they do not fear death, they laugh at it.

Death is such a part of life that Mexicans give their children skeleton toys and little coffins to play with. And every year from October 31st to November 2nd they celebrate death as part of the great cycle that brings those they love into the world and ultimately takes them away. read more

Monte Albán, the Most Famous Zapotec Temple

Mexico has a long history and diverse population, stretching back thousands of years that include more than 60 indigenous cultures. One of the largest of those groups, Zapotecs, concentrated in the southern state of Oaxaca. The most famous remnant of their glory days – and surely the most breathtaking – is Monte Albán, a sprawling complex just a few miles outside the city of Oaxaca.

But Monte Albán is a mystery in a number of respects. Located 1,200 feet above the valley floor, it is a huge place, encompassing approximately 45 acres. At its height scientists estimate as many as 17,000 to 25,000 people inhabited the area. But the site has no rivers or discernable supplies of fresh water where the structures were built. In fact, some of the stones used to construct the buildings had to be hauled up from the valley by humans, since neither the wheel nor draft animals were available to the Zapotecs. It is surmised the site was chosen for defensive attributes (walls built for defense are along the north and west sides of Monte Albán). read more

Mitla – Zapotec Center of Religion

What makes Mitla an important archaeological site is not its size or the number of people who lived there, but because it was the main religious center for the Zapotecs who built it and also because of the fretwork of geometric patterns carved into the stone walls of the buildings that are found nowhere else in Mexico.

Oaxaca, Mexico, for all its beauty, is a somewhat out-of-the-way locale. But for Zapotecs, who began their ascendance some 2,500 years ago, the Central Valleys of Oaxaca were an ideal place to call home. Unlike some of the better-known civilizations in Mexico, Central and South America, Zapotecs were not as concerned with making war as they were with making deals – as in trade – a tradition that continues to this day. read more

El Tule, One of the Largest Trees in the World

Scientific surveys have recently estimated as many as three trillion trees grow all over the world. But out of that mind-boggling number, only a handful of specimens are majestic enough to be considered iconic. The tree with the largest trunk girth on earth, El Arbol del Tule, grows in a church courtyard in the small village of Santa Maria del Tule in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Certainly there are taller trees, ones with a larger volumes of wood, and others thought to be older, but none has the immense girth of El Tule (too-lay), which is estimated to have a circumference of more than 160 feet and a diameter of more than 38 feet. Scientists and arborists who have studied El Tule estimate it to be between 1,200 and 1,600 years old. read more

Mezcal, Made Well in Oaxaca, Mexico

Once upon a time, mezcal had a bad rap. Not good enough to include in a margarita, it was once viewed as a cheap, shabby, rotgut cousin of tequila where shots were pounded down and fights broke out over who got to eat the worm (larvae, actually).

But in the past decade or two the spirit is enjoying a well-deserved renaissance. Gulping and quaffing is now sipping and savoring, as aficionados discern the subtle smokiness of a spirit that has been crafted for centuries. Just to confuse things a bit, all tequila, because it is agave based, is a mezcal, though mezcal is not tequila. Got that? read more

The Rugs of Teotitlan de Valle–Woven Beauty

The hand weavings of the Zapotecs who live in the small village of Teotitlan de Valle, a short drive east of Oaxaca in the southern Mexican state of the same name, draw upon centuries of experience, combined with an inspiring sense of design, and a scientist’s knowledge of chemistry, result in some of the finest wool rugs in the world.

Since before the time of Montezuma, Zapotecs in Oaxaca have been weaving trade and tribute goods, primarily from cotton. When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived to plunder the land and force the indigenous people to submit to Catholicism, sheep were introduced, providing weavers with wool to work with. read more

San Miguel de Allende Hosts Great Parades

To calculate how much a city might love a parade, take the population, divide by the number of parades and finally, factor in the total number of parade participants. By those measures San Miguel de Allende may well be one of the most parade-loving towns in the world.

Parades here are punctuated with fireworks, elaborate costumes and dancing that would make celebrations in New York City, New Orleans or Pasadena, CA envious. And during some of San Miguel’s parades, hundreds of horses gather from miles around to be part of the festivities. read more

La Otra Cara de Mexico Unmasks Culture, History, and Passion

Putting on a mask to hide one’s face is universal and part of a folkway that stretches back as far as 40,000 years. Mexico has a rich tradition of masking and for more than 25 years Bill LeVasseur has been roaming all over Mexico collecting masks that became a museum in 2006 in San Miguel de Allende.

“La Otra Cara de Mexico” (The Other Face of Mexico) is more than a collection of masks on walls. This is a carefully curated museum, organized by categories, with detailed explanations that tell the story behind the types of masks and how they are used. History and culture buffs get a close look into this distinctive element of village celebrations while at the same time having a highly enjoyable learning experience. read more

El Charco del Ingenio – Mexico’s Flora at Its Finest

As quick as it takes to blink, the discerning eye instantly knows that any beautiful thing is always more than a single ingredient. In the case of El Charco del Ingenio, San Miguel de Allende’s botanical showcase, a confluence of location, terrain, design, and determination result in a conservatory that may be one of the finest public gardens in Mexico.

Cactus is tough. But the succulent family is actually fragile, and in too many instances, a great number of the cactus species in Mexico are endangered due to factors both natural and human. El Charco is dedicated to saving, protecting and propagating Mexico’s wild cactus specimens. read more

Archaeologists Dig Cañada de la Virgen

A short distance southwest from San Miguel de Allende puts you at Cañada de la Virgen, one of Mexico’s most recently excavated pyramids, near the northern edge of Mesoamerican pyramids, and surrounded by private land in an out-of-the-way location that reduces visitor traffic and greatly enhances the guest experience.

Pyramids are some of the oldest buildings on earth and throughout Mexico, Central and South America they were built and revered by Olmecs, Mayans, Incas, Aztecs, Toltecs, and others. The form and size of pyramids are generally simple to construct and they provide a vantage to survey the surrounding lands and study the heavens. read more

The Many Doors of San Miguel de Allende

By some estimates, upwards of 2,000 doors are along the streets of El Centro in San Miguel de Allende. No matter the number, each door is different, many are distinctive and some qualify as unique. But mostly, each door is an opaque veil hiding behind it a story all its own.

In a real sense, a door stands as a sentry at a portal, a delineation between one state and another; outside versus inside, old to new, greeting or farewell, something lost to something newly gained. Every human emotion and activity has taken place in that thin space between then and now where a single step can change everything. read more