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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Central Am / Caribbean

Topolobampo, Mexico

Karyn Planett

To-po-lo-bam-po. Sounds like a Richie Valens’ hit from 1958? Well, it’s not. Nor is it Rick Bayless’ famous Chicago eatery. It is, in fact, the small but lively Mexican port town tucked up into the convoluted shoreline of the state of Sinaloa lapped by the tepid waters of the Gulf of California. Her six thousand, give or take, inhabitants savor warm summer sun, fish fresh from the sea, and an easy lifestyle that drops their blood pressure several points.

So Why Are We Here?

Well, most everyone comes to Topolobampo to journey inland to Copper Canyon. In Spanish, it’s called, “Barranca del Cobre” and isn’t really just one canyon but a series of 20 carved by the powerful forces of time and six mighty rivers. Some travelers note the similarity to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and they are right. But proud locals point out that the entire region measures seven times greater than that of the Grand Canyon, so it is whopping big. Even UNESCO identified it as one of their coveted World Heritage Sites, which brings us to the subject of “ChePe” -- not to be confused with that Hollywood personality who keeps wiggling, saying “Koochi Koochi.”

The Train That Could

“ChePe” is short for the “Chihuahua al Pacifico Railroad.” It, however, is not short. It runs 400 miles from Chihuahua to Los Mochis smack through Copper Canyon. Even jaded travelers exclaim that this tops the list of America’s most spectacular railroad stretches as well as one of the world’s top ten in the same category.

The entire route traverses more than three-dozen bridges, some 86 tunnels, endless canyons and grab-the-camera-honey vistas. All this was the hair-brain idea of some curious folks from New Harmony, Indiana known as the Utopia Socialist Colony. Their leader Albert Kinsey Owen was bent, so to speak, on creating a utopian socialist community and convinced General Manuel Gonzales, Mexico’s President in 1880, that he needed the railroad to achieve this goal. Well, that all went by the wayside because the task was far too daunting. So, it was not until 1961 that the final stake was driven into the track signaling the train was now ready to leave the station.

The Tarahumara

If you know America’s indigenous peoples, then you’re well aware of the Tarahumara. Also called Raramuri (the two names are somewhat interchangeable), they’re found scattered about Mexico’s northern region. Long before the Spaniards arrived to search for gold and silver, the Tarahumara were widespread. As conditions worsened for them under Spanish rule in the 16th century, they took refuge in Copper Canyon for the rugged landscape offered them shelter. Even today, many still live in caves, beneath rock outcroppings on cliffs, or in modest yet more modern cabins.

These settlements were and are separated by inhospitable terrain. So, long before cell phones and texting, the only way villagers could communicate with the outside world was by messenger. These darn fast, healthy specimen could literally run for days and it was not uncommon for one such “foot runner” to cover as much as 435 miles in one go. That’s about 16.5 marathons AT ONCE !! Barefoot !! Before Gatorade !! Well, they did carbo-load with lots of corn beer and sometimes kick a ball along for enjoyment so it wasn’t all that bad. The scary part, however, was dodging Mexican wolves and cougars that prowled about in the dark even though Raramuri hunted their prey by chasing them till exhaustion.

Some experts believe the word “Raramuri” actually means “those who run fast.” Think Macy’s the day after Thanksgiving. Other experts explain these runners honed their skills not by clomping along in sneakers like us but rather by using something called a “toe strike” (not gout, silly) that’s easier on the muscles and joints and lets the runner keep on going long after we week-end jocks would be calling a taxi.

Even today many of the 60,000 Raramuri still practice traditional customs by donning colorful clothing, herding livestock from pasture to pasture, cooking familiar dishes like beans and corn, practicing their traditional animism religion mixed with Christianity, and speaking the Tarahumara dialect of their forefathers along with Spanish.

The Original Z

An option for those unable to travel the ChePe Railroad (we call the ChePe Choo Choo) is Zorro. Yes, remember “the mark of the Z”? Supposedly, that was the signature of Don Diego de la Vega reputed to be the true Zorro. A visit to his 1880s mansion Hotel Posado del Hidalgo in the town of El Fuente will fill in the blanks of this gentleman’s history. Learn the identity of the man behind the black mask and really tight pants who sought to right all wrongs, make women swoon, and slice away at gnarly villains. 

Puerto Limón, Costa Rica

Karyn Planett

Caribbean Costa Rica

“Costa Rica is considered unique in Central America; prosperity has made it dull … What is remarkable is its secularity. I was not prepared for this … The Cost Rican’s dislike of dictators had made him intolerant of priests. Luck and ingenuity had made the country prosperous, and it was small and self-contained enough to remain so.” –Paul Theroux, The Old Patagonian Express, 1979.

Well, in addition to luck and ingenuity, the people of Costa Rica are blessed with a country that is flanked by both the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. In addition, there are some very productive commodities that find their way from Costa Rica to nations around the world, but more on that later. Just for now, let’s look at just one page of history about the port we’re soon to visit.

Columbus Slept Here

With a history dating back some 500 years, you knew Christopher Columbus had to stop on by. It’s claimed by historians that, yes, the Great Navigator made landfall in what’s now Costa Rica and he was the first European to do so. That was on September 18th, 1502. Local Carib Indians, donning their golden jewelry, greeted Columbus and his men by paddling out to their anchored vessel. Subsequent to this time, the name “Costa Rica” was born in honor of the golden bands adorning the Indians’ ears and noses. The translation means, of course, Rich Coast.

The indigenous people never numbered more than a few hundred thousand. Then, with the Spanish introduction of certain diseases such as smallpox, the population was nearly wiped out. True to practice, the Spaniards introduced slaves from Africa. According to authorities, there are approximately 70,000 descendants from these slaves living in Costa Rica today. On the other hand, a mere 1% can trace their heritage to the indigenous people. Virtually everyone else is identified as “white” and the descendants of the Spanish settlers who are called Ticos.

“What’s A Sloth, Mommy?”

“Well, Bree, it’s rather like a …, hmm, well sort of a …., hmm. Ask your father.” Little Bree dashes off to Dadipedia who himself is stumped by the question. In order to avoid like embarrassment, just continue reading. A sloth is a sort of monkey-looking, slow-as-molasses hairball that hangs upside all day for some unknown reason. And, he lives in Costa Rica as well as other Central and South American jungles. But here’s an interesting fact. His metabolism is so slow it can take up to 30 days for him to simply digest his dinner of, what, leaves. It screams Metamucil. You’d think he’d be getting enough roughage with his vegetarian diet. Sloths also have weird hair that’s grooved so water is directed away from his furry body. The strangest thing of all, though, is that they’re so slow moving that an algae grows in their groovy fur to further enhance their camouflage. You actually could probably say that moss does grow on their backsides. Isn’t that odd?

More Of Mother Nature’s Curiosities

Toucans. Costa Rica has toucans. They’re the ones that look like you could change a tire with their beaks, or bills as they prefer to call them. Some bills can reach more than seven inches in length. Evidently it’s pretty popular with the ladies. A toucan’s call sounds just like a frog so if you think you hear a frog, look up and maybe you’ll see a toucan.   

Costa Rica is also home to scarlet macaws. They’re supersized parrots, in fact the world’s largest measuring a whopping 33 inches beak to tail. You should not try to measure one because they’re beaks are so strong they can crack a hard nut.

And, then, there’s the howler monkey. He’s the New World’s biggest monkey. These fellows are so loud, hence the name, that when they give it a good go they can be heard three miles away. Thankfully they have prehensile tail that allows them to hang around because they prefer staying in the treetops and come down from their perch quite rarely. They live in “troops” so keep an eye and ear open for a troop of howlers. They sound like a car with bad breaks in a sandstorm.

Where to find some of these creatures? Well, if you’re lucky you might see a sloth up a tree in town. They’re hard to spot because of their algae camo get-up.

A Page From The History Books

At one time, coffee was an important product grown in Costa Rica. It developed as a major export with shipments headed toward Europe. The problem was the port for Europe was on the Pacific Ocean and the coffee was grown in the Central Plateau. Oxcarts were used to transport the aromatic beans. But, a decision was made to develop a port on the Atlantic coast, for obvious reasons, and that required a pool of laborers. The government engaged Minor C. Keith, an America entrepreneur, to build the railroad to Limón, thus the Caribbean. This railroad was finished in 1890 and the labor pool was comprised of Chinese, Jamaicans, Italians, and prisoners from the US.

Well, now you can write your own chapter in your personal history book after your visit to Costa Rica and Puerto Limón. Give it a go.

Puerto Chiapas, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Mi Café, Su Café

“In Seattle you haven't had enough coffee until you can thread a sewing machine while it's running.” --Jeff Bezos

For caffeine addicts, this port of call will amount to a pilgrimage. Of the world’s premier coffees, Mexican Arabica is considered among the elite beans. And you are now at its source. The state of Chiapas exists almost exclusively for the cultivation, harvesting and exporting of this glorious nectar of the Starbucks generation. Most of the modern history of Chiapas revolves around the politics of coffee. And, as with so many of the world’s most desirable commodities, that history is written with heroism and hard work, mayhem even murder. A handful have prospered while others have suffered, and only recently has the coffee wealth begun to bring a better life to the very people on whose backs the industry has been built.

“I believe humans get a lot done, not because we're smart, but because we have thumbs so we can make coffee.” –Flash Rosenberg

Chiapas is the most southern of the 31 states of Mexico. To the east is Guatemala, to the south the Pacific Ocean. The lowland areas have a climate supporting what used to be a massive rainforest, most of which has given way to agricultural development. In the uplands between parallel mountain ranges, temperate, foggy conditions have resulted in “cloud forests” like those of the protected El Triunfo Biosphere, and an ideal climate for the plantations that produce what are arguably Mexico’s finest coffee beans.

The history of this region is not unlike the rest of Mexico and Central America. There is evidence of civilization dating from 1400 BC with the city of Palenque being founded by the Mayans around 600 BC. The Spanish arrived in the early 16th century and Chiapas was actually administered as part of the Kingdom of Guatemala. When Mexico and Central America divided during the 19th century, the state of Chiapas was eventually annexed by Mexico.

“If it weren't for the coffee, I'd have no identifiable personality whatsoever.”--David Letterman

The gleaming new port of Chiapas, inaugurated in 2005 by former President Vincente Fox, belies the fact that much of the state is populated by hard working, rural farmers. About one quarter are of Mayan decent. In 1994, a political activist group known as the Zapatistas began setting up autonomous municipalities dedicated to the rights of these largely disenfranchised communities. A number of them now support agricultural cooperatives that allow small coffee growers to compete with the larger plantations, many of which are owned by the descendents of European families. Naturally, this movement has created some friction with the central government but remains dedicated to achieving its goals through political means.

“I bought a decaffeinated coffee table, you can’t even see the difference.” --Author Unknown

Tapachula is the municipality that encompasses the suburb of Puerto Chiapas. Because of the thriving coffee and banana trade, the city has the highest GDP per capita in Mexico, which puts it in sharp contrast to the rest of the state. During the coffee boom, a number of German families migrated to the area and assembled large plantations known as “fincas”. Hamburgo, Bremen and Germania are still in the hands of those dedicated, extended families.

Railroad construction brought Latin America’s first Asian immigrants to Tapachula so the Japanese and Chinese have left their mark on the architecture as well as the cuisine. Surprisingly, you may find it easier to get good miso soup or Kung Pao Chicken than a tasty burrito.

Modern migration has written a sadder tale as Tapachula is a point from which many undocumented people from Central America begin their long and dangerous trek north. A walk through Tapachula will feature the colonial-era Temple of San Agustin, the Archaeological Museum, the nearby pyramids of Izapa, and a number of German houses and haciendas.

“In America you can buy bucket-sized cups of coffee in any flavour you like other than coffee-flavour.” –Author Unknown

The kind people of Chiapas will make you feel very welcome. Their new port has provided them with a window to the outside world that had not previously existed. For the first time, tourism and tourists have easy access to their region of Mexico, which in many ways is the last to play a role in a modern economy beyond simply providing agricultural commodities. The influence of European families over the last century and a half has made for a population curious to learn more of a world from which they have been largely isolated. Doesn’t this sound like a stimulating topic to explore over a nice cup of coffee?

Progreso, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Gateway To The Yucatan

Someone named Garcilasso de la Vega explained the origin of the name Yucatan to those who happened to stumble across his obscure writings. In 1625, long before, he wrote on this topic in his work, Purchas his Pilgrimes. This was also before Spellcheck.

“Yucatan received the name from … the first discoverers asking the place, the Indian answering tectetan, tectetan, that is, I understand you not, which they understood of the proper appellation, and corruptly called the place Yucatan.”

In all fairness, and with all due respect, Yucatecan / Mayan words are right proper tongue twisters, suitable for any Scrabble or spelling bee finalist. But tackle them we must, and why not start with Chicxulub.

Death To The Dinosaurs

Virgil L. Sharpton of Houston’s Lunar and Planetary Institute identifies for us exactly how the entire population of dinosaurs died some 65 million years ago, give or take. A giant asteroid or comet, identified by Luis Alvarez in 1980, smacked into Earth almost where you’re standing at this very moment. Don’t look up! Luis along with his son Walter postulated that this rocketing rock left a 200-300-kilometer-wide crater that now lies buried under 1100 meters of limestone. And, the Alvarezes were convinced that this event caused the mass extinction of the dinosaurs as well as more than 70% of all life on earth. Thankfully, Crystal’s chefs were left unscathed. Oh, to tie this all together, note that the underground divot became known as Chicxulub. Say that three times!

Sights, Sounds, and Spicy Foods

That was then, this is now. You’ve come to Progreso for its archaeological wonders, a flashback look at Mexico Past, or perhaps a grilled Gulf of Mexico lobster.

Archaeological wonders abound beginning with Chichen-Itza, the jewel in the proverbial Mayan crown. In truth a fusion of Toltec and Mayan mastery, Chichen-Itza’s centerpiece is El Castillo pyramid. Its quartet of staircases, each counting 91 steps, plus the platform above, equals the exact number of days in one year. Each façade features 52 panels indicating something known as the “52-year cosmic cycle” used to calculate the beginning and end of time. It’s a complicated mathematical theory that your guide can explain in detail but suffice to say, according to the Mayan people, the Great Cycle of the Long Count will run out in 2011. And, who knows what that means? Chichen-Itza’s other highlights include the Observatory, lovingly referred to as “The Snail”, and the Ball Court where the vanquished lost their heads.

Dzibilchaltun (dZeeble-TOON) is one of America’s oldest continuously occupied settlements with more than 8,000 structures. Like Chichen-Itza, it draws throngs of visitors for the spring equinox and also features an important freshwater pool known as a cenote. Worshippers tossed offerings into the sweet waters including sacrificed humans.

Izamal, founded in the 5th century by a Mayan priest, was once a prestigious Mayan place of worship. Sadly, the Spanish destroyed many of the important structures by tearing down existing temples then reusing the stones for the massive Convento de San Antonio de Padua.

Whether you’re a history buff, an architecture aficionado or someone on a spiritual pilgrimage, the Mayans left a full menu of sites behind for your sampling.

Progreso and Nearby Merida

The port city of Progreso evolved quite differently from its mainland counterparts. Like other Yucatecan outposts, it was square in the sites of Mother Spain rather than the colonial powers that focused instead on the bulk of Mexico’s interior. Spain ruled over the Yucatan with a heavy hand often at the expense of the local indigenous people. Pirates, too, caused much suffering. Then religious factions locked horns with the civil authority and, generally, a bad time was had by all. Mexico gained its independence from Spain in 1821. The people of the Yucatan attempted to separate from the rest of Mexico, which then led to the War of the Casts in 1847. The indians were given arms and they succeeded in driving out the federal troops in certain areas. Government forces re-armed and, within six years, the indian population declined by half.

With the political climate cooled down, the landowners set about amassing fortunes from something known as henequen. This local fibrous plant provided the raw materials used in the production of rope. Merida became known as the “Paris of the New World” with more millionaires per capita than any other city in all of Mexico. Glorious estates were erected, impressive cathedrals and monasteries were built, and fine buildings were constructed to house the civil authority. Plaza de la Independencia’s zocalo was the scene of much fanfare as dignitaries came and went, the wealthy standing by their side. Because of all these niceties, Merida is known even today as the White City. A carriage, or calesas, ride around town, especially down Paseo de Montejo, will give testimony to the above.

During the 1950s, the Meridanos learned to escape the summer heat by retreated to their new beach houses in Progreso. Today, this city remains a magnet for sun worshippers who stroll the Malecon promenade and others who sit under a shady palapa umbrella in their guayabera shirts and Panama hats or swing on the afternoon breeze in a locally woven hammock. A typical conchinita pibil meal or queso relleno is the only thing a cool breeze can’t help. Yucatecan habanero chilies are said to be the hottest in the world. It’s best to leave this statement left unchallenged.

Panama Hats

Karyn Planett

Chic Chapeaux

We’re going to play a little game.

But, you absolutely mustn’t cheat by secretly scanning the following paragraphs for the answer to this compelling bit of trivia. And, please don’t shout out your response (should you know it) in case others around you are puzzled by this wee bit of trifle.

Ready? Here’s the riddle. Where do Panama hats come from? Surprise, Surprise, Surprise! If you guessed Panama — you’re wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. That, of course, was the obvious answer and one a silly contestant on Jeopardy might blab out (followed by endless heaps of humiliation from friends and family back home). You, the learned traveler, however should know (and maybe you do already) that Panama hats come from…Ecuador.

Makes no sense, I know. But a good story goes along with this whole tale, and it follows.

Sombrero de Paja Toquilla

That’s the official name for this handsome headgear. “Paja” is the type of straw woven to create this hat. “Toquilla” is what the Spanish conquistadors labeled this head-covering. Initially, the shape was a bit different with a flared “wing” rather than the trim brim as we know it today.

Examples of this hat were introduced into the U.S. just before the start of the 19th century. Some marketing genius convinced unsuspecting buyers that these hats actually grew on trees and were bleached white by the tropical sun.

Within a half-century, bustling Ecuadorian shops produced more than 200,000 hats for export. By 1950, some five million made their way from Ecuador to fashion capitals around the world. (Sadly, that number has declined steeply today as less expensive hats from Asia have flooded the marketplace.)

Even France’s King Napoleon III took a fancy to this decorative accessory when he caught glimpse of it at Paris’ 1855 World Exposition. Little did he and his fashion-mimicking followers realize that this fashion accouterment was nothing more than something to keep the burning sun out of the eyes of sweaty field hands toiling back in its homeland — Ecuador. In fact, these hats also served as, can you imagine, alligator bait! Unsuspecting beasts were distracted by a floating hat, while its cagey owner lurked underwater waiting to kill his prey.

What’s In A Name?

Well, you can’t blame the early prospectors who, either did or didn’t make their fortunes in the California gold mines. On their way back to their home states of the eastern U.S., these miners often traveled via the Isthmus of Panama. Saw the hat. Liked how it protected them from the sun. Called them “Panama hats.” Bought a few. Took them home. Legions of other men followed to work on the Panama Canal. Did the same. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The “Who’s Who” list of Panama hat aficionados includes everyone from British royalty to authors such as Mark Twain and Tom Wolfe. Yet it was Teddy Roosevelt who sealed this hat’s fashion fate by sporting a “Panama” following his journey to oversee the building of the Panama Canal.* American men, wanting to pump up their manly image, followed in T.R.’s booted footsteps and this hat became all the rage in America. Perhaps you even owned one.

There’s Nothing Like Quality

The toquilla bush (also called “jipijapa” – pronounced “hippy-hoppa”) is the source of this hat’s main ingredient. When the bush has grown for approximately three years, its long stalks are stripped to reveal superfine threadlike fibers within. For the next several days, these fibers are boiled and dried, boiled and dried, boiled and dried until they’re sufficiently strong for the weavers.

Conditions must be perfect for these weavers — not too hot for the fibers will break; not too moist for the weavers won’t be able to get a tight weave. Therefore, you’ll discover that most of the work is done by, sadly, women and children under overcast skies, the cool of dawn and dusk, or even under a moonlit sky.

Makers of the “Superfinos” boast that these hats are woven so tightly that, not only can they hold water, they can pass easily through a man’s wedding band. (Why would you want to do either?) Today, Monticristi and Jipijapa are Ecuador’s leading centers for hat production.

So, why not pick up one of these handsome devils, ease it onto your head at a rakish angle, then stroll lazily about the deck in your finest white linens. You must admit, it is a fine fashion statement.

*This 1906 trip was the first time an American president traveled outside the U.S. My, how times have changed.

Panama City, Panama

Karyn Planett

Smack In The Crosshairs of Commerce

Big time. You’ve got skyscrapers punctuating the skyline like towering glass and steel pickets in an architect’s fence. There are banks bigger than big and corporate headquarters for leaders of industry, communication, transportation, technology and the like. There’s a stock exchange where heavy hitters play with high stakes causing rhythms of economic ripples to sweep right the way around the world. And you’ve got a menu of upscale services to cater to the wants, wishes, whims and whatnot of a vibrant local and expat community. The sweet smell of success wafts in daily on the damp breezes blowing from the surrounding tropical rainforest. It’s all right here in Panama City, here where the big boys and girls, fat cats and kittens come to play.

But it’s always been that way.

Spain Liked It

So much so that in 1519, Pedro Arias de Avila planted his nation’s flag claiming it as Spain’s first true community on the American Pacific Rim. Within a dozen years, his men attacked the all-powerful Incan people in Peru paving the way for proper plundering, as some would have it, of the vast wealth of silver and of gold all bound for the coffers of home.

The crumbling remains of Panama Past can be seen in “Old Panama”, also known as Panama Viejo. A World Heritage Site today, it is in ruins thanks to a colorful character known as Admiral Sir Henry Morgan. A privateer by trade, he either torched or was there when the torching began in 1671. The facts are debated, but he definitely had his eye on what was considered the wealthiest city in all New Spain. For the record, Morgan and his band of merry looters evidently missed out on the really big bootie, so to speak, because it had already been secreted away to a ship bobbing happily along offshore.

Weary residents who survived the privateer’s wrath abandoned the ruins of Panama’s first city and built a new one, today called Casco Viejo.

Also Known As El Casco Antiguo

Newish, really. It harks back to the 17th century and is undergoing a gentrification face-lift. A fresh coat of paint here, some toney eateries there, galleries featuring installation art, and pretty people rambling about. A walk along the vaulted promenade known as Las Bovedas is a must in this Spanish colonial city covering 38 blocks (called manzanas). So, too, the defiant remains of the church and convent of Santo Domingo still standing despite fire and quakes and time. The plazas offer fine people watching whether it’s in Plaza Bolivar, named for the famous liberator, or Plaza de Francia. The latter features a monument that whispers of the silent suffering, even death, faced by canal workers felled by malaria, yellow fever. It pays tribute to the 22,000 engineers and laborers who died constructing the canal.

Plaza de la Independencia is known as the Plaza de la Catedral, as well, as its centerpiece is the Metropolitan Cathedral. 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of the nation’s separation from Columbia, which took place in Plaza Municipal. In this exact location, in 1821, formal procedures for Panama’s independence from Spain occurred.  

Fast Forward To Today

Casting off the shroud of historic Panama, the spotlight shines brightly on the glitzy glamour of modern Panama City. Considered the Third Panama City, she resembles nothing of her former self. It’s here where designers showcase their latest collections, where celebrated chefs whip up their finest foams and froths, and business lunches last long into the steamy night. It’s like Miami Beach, only further south.

Not far away is that which put Panama City on the map. The Panama Canal. Visitors can’t escape the lure of this folly, this visionary’s dream, this world wonder, this scratch in the earth that shaved months off a mariner’s journey. They want to see for themselves the path between the seas that altered the course of commerce forever. And they can from the Miraflores Locks Observation Center or a sail on Gatun Lake. They’ll learn of the plans to expand the operation with the construction of a pair of new locks, one on the Atlantic and one on the Pacific. In addition, existing channels in Gatun Lake will be deepened and widened and the Culebra Cut will be deepened, as well. All that means more commerce, more business, more business people, more services, and a lot more buzz about this city that’s been dubbed the Dubai of the Americas.

Never mind. Just munch on a Panamanian favorite known as bollo. It’s a delightful bit of soft corn wrapped up in cornhusks. Then support the Kuna Indians by purchasing one of their vividly embroidered pieces called molas or beaded winnis that decorate their calves and wrists. After all, they were among the original traders in Panama along with six other indigenous tribes. But that’s another story.

La Paz, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Baja’s Hot Spot

“Good-bye -- if you hear of my being stood up against a Mexican wall and shot to rags, please know that I think that a pretty good way to depart this life. It beats old age, disease, or falling down the cellar steps. To be a Gringo in Mexico – ah, that is euthanasia!”

So penned Ambrose Bierce in a letter dated October 1, 1913. Rather dramatic, this, but I suppose Mr. Bierce drove home his point especially the part about the cellar stairs. Never mind. It’s great to escape to this bit of Baja by the sea especially if you want to breathe in the clean, fresh air and feel absolutely alive. Comfortable temperatures, low humidity, and gentle breezes complete this south-of-the-border tableau. Note for the record that, along with the western shores of Chile and Africa, Baja boasts some of the world’s clearest skies. For that exact reason the national observatory was plunked down on this pencil-thin peninsula so stargazers can stare transfixed at the black, night sky.

Landscapes And Seascapes

Eons before there were dune buggies, micro-thongs or jet skis, the thousand-mile-long Baja Peninsula was nothing more than the western shores of mainland Mexico. Approximately 20 million years ago this narrow spit of land, twice the length of Florida, slowly inched its way across the Golfo de California, made possible by the seismic antics of the San Andreas Fault. Today, the Gulf of California is home to sport fish, gray whales, and pleasure crafts. In the beginning, it was not so wild and crazy.

There were some 40,000 indigenous people scraping out an existence when the Spaniards dropped anchor in 1535 and waded ashore led by Hernan Cortez. The first permanent settlement was not established in La Paz until 1811. Cortez’ countrymen set about developing the area while converting the indigenous people to Christianity. Ultimately, there were only 500 of the original inhabitants who survived. Though they died off in vast numbers, their 400 cave paintings, some dating back 1,000 years, thankfully survived.

City Of Peace. City Of Pearls.

La Paz does mean “peace” in Spanish. But, this seaside resort is more commonly called “the city of pearls.” With more than one-quarter of a million people, La Paz is Baja’s second largest city and capital of Baja California Sur (south). It’s found just a stone’s throw from the tropic of Cancer.

And though the waters off La Paz are some 10,000 feet deep, the shallow beds of oysters producing pearls put the city on the map and in the crosshairs of the Spanish. Cortes admired the black pearls he discovered here in the 16th century, naming one of the offshore islands “Isla de perlas.” Today it is called Espiritu Santo Island instead. Sadly, a disease wiped out the oyster population and the oyster death knell was heard far and wide.

Instead of oysters, today the limelight shines on the sea lions, hammerhead sharks, dolphins and tropical fish such as parrotfish and angelfish that delight snorkelers and scuba divers alike. The local colony of sea lions is Baja’s largest. In total, there are some 3,000 species of marine fauna lurking in the ice-blue seas. But the granddaddy of them all is the gray whale that migrates nearly 6,000 miles here from Alaska’s Bering Sea. Why? To breed and spawn in the tepid Baja shallows. Some 30 years ago, their breeding habitat was declared off limits to whalers who had hunted these 50-foot-long leviathans to near extinction, a practice set in place in the 1850s by Captain Charles M. Scammon from Maine. Today, they enjoy their time here from approximately December to May. These immense creatures then swim north again, as they have since time began, on the longest migration undertaken by any mammal on earth. The nearby whale sanctuary is known as Magdalena Bay.

Siesta Or Shopping? What to do.

Tough choice, this. You can while away the afternoon strolling along the Malecon waterfront in search of the perfect fried calamari and chilled cerveza. Or, you can make the 90-minute pilgrimage to Todos Santos to lounge about the hotel supposedly made famous by the Eagles in their hit song “Hotel California.” Hum as you go. Oh, and while you’re there discover why this enclave tucked into the Sierra de la Laguna hilltops is known as an artisan’s hideaway. Weavers produce wonders from hand-spun and hand-dyed wool, while potters create vases and tableware they then hand paint. Armed with enough souvenirs to satisfy everyone back home, you’ll soon see the sun set religiously into the background. A peaceful calm will be the legacy of your visit to La Paz. You’ll know what it’s like to be a Gringo in Mexico.

Gulfo do Papagayo, Costa Rica

Karyn Planett

Sounds like a little ditty we learned in school, but no! It’s not. It’s the Spanish word for “parrot.” Well, at least the “pa-pa-ga-yo” part is. And, “Gulfo do Papagayo” is, yes, the “Gulf of the Parrot”. But, as any tourism rep will tell you, this pretty little town is also known as the “Gulf of Sunsets”, “The Gulf of Beaches”, and “The Gulf of Relaxation.” So, take your pick. What’s it gonna be for your day in the sun?

Oh, for the record, “papagayo” also means “red fish full of venomous prickles, a large kite, or a bedpan”. Just thought you should know.

So Where Are We?

Costa Rica. The Rich Coast. Go north to Nicaragua, southeast to Panama, west to fabulous beaches with clear waters perfect for a swim. Golfo do Papagayo is only 10.7 degrees north of the Equator so there’s a lazy, no-wild-swings-in-temperature pace to the day. In fact, it rarely dips below 82 degrees or soars above 90. All this sealed the decision by the Costa Rican government to earmark Gulfo do Papagayo the ideal spot for tourism in 1974. But development projects were a bit too ambitious to be sustained by a fragile ecological environment so plans were put on the back burner until 1997. With a more viable plan in place and full government approval, construction began in earnest without compromising the setting.

What’s There To See?

Lots. Guanacaste Province is a nature-lover’s delight. Palo Verde National Park is 45,000 acres big, draped along the banks of the Tempisque River. With a puzzle of microhabitats, including everything from harsh salt ponds to swampy mangrove waters, it’s ideal for migrating waterfowl as well as those who refuse to leave. In fact, 300 plus bird species have been spotted in the park by avid birders and rangers. They claim there are more waterfowl and shorebirds here than in any other place in Central America with everything from ducks and storks to the more exotic toucans and parrots, even scarlet macaws.

They’re not the only creatures calling Palo Verde home. There are also some monkeys including the white-face and the howler, plus armadillos and something called a coatimundi that looks like a raccoon with a long tail and lots of little ones. Oh, do try not to disturb the American crocodiles inhabiting the park. You probably won’t trip over them because they can grow to a length of 15 feet! But, for a little bit of comfort, just know their diet is mainly wee frogs, unsuspecting crabs, and already-dead animals. They’re best seen from a riverboat anyway.

And, speaking of enjoying the Costa Rican waters, you can actually float along the Corobici River, go river rafting if you’re so inclined, jet ski along the beach, sail on catamaran at sunset, or get your block and tackle ready for some challenging deep-sea fishing. These waters are known for their Pacific sailfish, marlin, and other game fish like wahoo and dorado.

If you want to simply sail above all this, strap yourself to the Witches Rock zip line and whizz right past. However, leave time to learn about William Walker, the North American fellow who invaded Costa Rica in 1856. The “President of the Republic of Nicaragua” at that time, Walker and his band of private military boys were sent packing back to Nicaragua by a group of locals not wanting to succumb to his bravado. Walker was ultimately executed in 1860. Do read his fascinating story.

Peaceful Times

Gulfo do Papagayo today is home to waterfront resorts that welcome guests for frosty beverages with paper umbrellas and a day at their pools. Simply pick one that suits your fancy and permits day visitors. But if it’s history and sightseeing you seek, visit the colonial town of Liberia. Modest by most standards, it’s rather formidable for Costa Rica. Just about 500 feet above sea level, Liberia enjoys a drier climate than other parts of the country. In fact, it is often so dry winds bring with them a fine layer of dust. Some claim that’s why Liberia is called the “White City.” Most acknowledge, however, it’s due to the whitewashed buildings that can be blinding on a hot summer day. That’s all due to the bahareque clay.

Dating back to 1769, Liberia is home today to approximately 30,000 residents and is the provincial capital. Occasionally, a mounted horseman will ride through town en route to one of the surrounding estancias to work cattle or visit other caballeros. He’ll simply add interest to your photos of this tile-roofed colonial town that is quintessentially Costa Rican.

Finally, as the sun sinks toward the horizon, sample some comida tipica including coffee-wood roasted pork, shrimp or lobster, a beef stew called olla de carne, sopa negra black bean soup, or corn stew known as guiso de maiz. Finish with horchata, a spicy beverage Ticos enjoy made of cinnamon and roasted ground rice.

Ensenada, Mexico

Karyn Planett

Mexico Welcomes

Draped along Baja California’s warm Pacific shores, a mere sixty miles south of the U.S. border, is the bustling seaport of Ensenada. Long a favorite of vacationing Americans, they followed in the sandy footsteps of other discoverers and adventurers who traversed this 800-mile long peninsula that parts the waters of the Pacific Ocean from the Sea of Cortez, also known as the Gulf of California.

All this began in 1535 when Spanish Conquistador Hernando Cortez first visited the Baja Peninsula, lured there by legends of beautiful women who lazed away their days fishing for pearls. What Cortez discovered instead was a barren landscape inhabited by primitive Indians such as the Cochimies, Guaycuras, Peridues, Paipai and Kumiai. Today's explorers, however, find everything in Baja from fast-paced cities teeming with travelers to remote outposts as desolate as the outback. And, yes, the beautiful women are really there, as promised, wearing pearls and Gucci and Prada and Polo.

Ensenada’s natural harbor was named San Mateo, after Saint Matthew, by Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. But it was Sebastian Vizcaino, sailing under the Spanish flag, who renamed it Bahia de Todos Santos, a tribute to all saints. Ensenada served as a safe haven for early seagoing vessels including galleons heavily laden with the spoils of conquest. Whaling ships also anchored in the bay while en route to the Hawaiian Islands. Devout missionaries followed to cultivate crops and Christianity. Then gold was discovered in nearby Real de Castillo opening the floodgates to rancheros and miners, making Ensenada a fledgling pioneer settlement.

Today, local people welcome you to join in their stroll along the malecon boardwalk beside one of Mexico's prettiest bays that’s ringed by white-sand beaches. They’ll recommend a visit to the Riviera del Pacifico Cultural Center. It’s said that Al Capone’s money allegedly financed this venture that was managed by the famous boxer Jack Dempsey in the 1930s. It’s on Boulevard Costero and was frequented by a long list of luminaries during the heyday including, according to sources, Dolores del Rio, Myrna Loy, Lana Turner, Ali Khan and Johnny Weissmuller.

Spicy Seafood

Ensenada is famous for its seafood. Meandering down the sleepy streets, you can indulge in an earthen bowl of cebiche (seh-bee-chay)… raw fish that has been marinated in limejuice, tomatoes, chilies, and spices. Shrimps, scallops, octopus or crabmeat can be substituted for the traditional mackerel. Another local taste treat that tempts everyone is a "bean cone." It resembles an ice cream cone but is, instead, a crisp tortilla filled with a scoop of refried beans, shredded jack cheese, green and red salsas, then sprinkled with some freshly chopped coriander leaves. If it’s a proper fish dinner you want, remember the nearby waters are home to some of the most beautiful giant white sea bass, swordfish, albacore, and yellowtail. And don’t forget the famous fish taco!

Margaritas are a hometown favorite but there are also some famous local wineries producing wine from vines that have clung to the sunny slopes surrounding Ensenada for years. Casa Pedro Domecq Winery, one of the area’s most famous, offers a variety of prize-winning vintages. With a toast to this charming city, it's time to dig into some of that local cuisine.

Handcrafted Treasures

Whether you're a veteran shopper or one who souvenir hunts more casually, you'll be tempted by Ensenada's handicrafts. Items are still lovingly crafted and decorated by hand, many in small family-run workshops where the skill is passed from one generation to the next.

Local specialties include hand-painted pottery and ceramics by resident artists. Mexican silver is always a good buy and is usually quite lovely. Whether made into jewelry such as bracelets, earrings, and rings, or household items like candlesticks, vases, and bowls, the prices are often quite reasonable. Leather goods, including huarache sandals, are also a great buy though the quality can vary substantially. Embroidered cotton blouses are colorful souvenirs and typical of the region. Other bargains include coffee-flavored Kahlua, a Mexican liqueur. No matter what it is that catches your eye, you simply must have a memento from your time ashore in Baja California's port city of Ensenada.

Costa Maya, Mexico

Karyn Planett

What To Do? What To Do?

That’s a tough one. Your options on this glorious day are to: (1) channel Indiana Jones as you clamber about ancient Mayan ruins; (2) discover this planned destination with its full complement of activities and distractions to fill your time ashore; or (3) do absolutely “nothing” the entire afternoon at the ship’s pool as a smiling steward serves up frothy something-or-other’s. What to do? Oh, what to do?

Let’s Discover The Basics

Costa Maya is found in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo (QR to those in the know), one of the nation’s 32 states. The area’s unique name is derived from Andrés Quintana Roo, one of the Mexican Republic’s celebrated patriots who played a critical role in the War of Independence from Spain in 1810. It’s Mexico’s only state flanking the Caribbean and sits astride one of the Yucatan Peninsula’s once practically-deserted stretches. As part of the “Maya Coast”, development since approximately 1955, it has been undertaken under the watchful eye of the Mexican government. They were intent on protecting the ecology as well as the archaeology.

So, now, you’re here. Others will be, as well, because Costa Maya claims to be the very first Caribbean port developed with only cruise ship passengers in mind. Period. That’s the claim. And the Mexican government has allocated significant resources for the infrastructure of this vibrant tourism destination with all the luscious offerings .. beaches, boutiques, folklorico shows, cantinas, mariachis, margaritas and the promise of adventures beyond.

With vine-draped Mayan ruins, important archaeological sites, and the world’s second largest coral reef system nearby, what’s not to like? The underwaterworld is quite content here. In fact, some 500 different fish species and approximately 60 varieties of coral call the Meso-American reef home.

These clear waters and calm seas offered earlier people a simpler but very good life as fishermen. Though those days are a fading memory, you can still get a hint of their lifestyle in the village of Mahahual, no longer the simple sleepy little village it once was but now a destination ready to welcome visitors.

Carved In Stone and Stucco

The Mayan people still exist here and are eager to introduce you to their traditional ways, their cuisine including buried earth-cooked chicken, and their music with emphasis on flutes, whistles, rattles, and drums. They’ll also boast about their ancestors who carved vibrant cities from the steaming jungles, cities that flourished for centuries.

Dzinbanche is one such city, an imposing remnant from the past. This ancient Mayan community, whose name translates to “writing on wood”, is worthy of a visit for it’s believed it was once the capital of the Kan (“Snake”) Dynasty. You were wrong if you guessed Dzinbanche is the newest, hottest designer coming out of all Asia. You were right if you guessed it was the Kan capital in the 5th and 6th centuries. Designed in the “Peten” architectural style, it features something called the Temple of the Captives and the Temple of the Owl. Among its many important structures is the most powerful pyramid of all, the Cormoranes Pyramid. Experts believe this was Sky Witness’s funerary pyramid. He was one of the Kan Dynasty’s kings.  

Kohunlich is another important archaeological site, lined with 40-foot-tall cohune palm trees for which it was named. These majestic palms provided ample shade from the burning sun for residents and travelers alike. The former resided here from 200 BC until 600 AD. The latter were those who passed through on the well-worn trade route. Mayans traded their fabrics, jade and obsidian objects, salt and shells. All the while everyone was under the watchful eye of Kinich Ahau, the sun god, whose 10-foot-tall mask is one of the most important artifacts among so many. Important, too, is the Ball Court home to the Mesoamerican ballgame that dates back centuries. A brutal sport, this, it resembled a gladiator version of racquetball, played against long stone walls, occasionally with some sort of human sacrifice as part of the half-time entertainment. Today’s gentler version, more like volleyball, is called ulama and is played even by children.

Back At The Beach

The biggest game here is bargaining. English is spoken everywhere though some visitors are surprised to discover the local people still speak the Mayan language. Perhaps you’ll find a colorful poolside cover-up or some hand-tooled cowboy boots. The local people are masters at their crafts, be it silver jewelry or hand-thrown pottery including the Mayan whistles already mentioned. There are jade carvings, hand-woven huipils (those beautifully-embroidered white blouses), and thatch handbags.

As the sun arcs slowly overhead and you grow weary from the day’s running about, sink low into a colorful string hammock swinging between two shady trees and enjoy a time-honored tradition, the afternoon siesta. Now that is the right answer to the question, what to do, what to do?

Fernando Botero

Karyn Planett

Colombia’s Famous Artist

“Man needs spiritual expression and nourishing… even in the prehistoric era, people would scrawl pictures of bison on the walls of caves.”

So said Fernando Botero whose paintings aren’t scrawled on the walls of dank, dark caves but instead hang in the properly-lighted galleries of world-renowned museums and private collections all around the world.  His distinctive statues grace other galleries, plazas, and parks from one country to the next. These iconic pieces of art have a completely unique style that is immediately recognizable for its “smooth inflated shapes” and distorted scale.  This is a theme that has been present throughout Botero’s creative life and this talent has served him well making him one of the most important artists of our time.

Early Life

It was in the Colombian city of Medellin that Fernando Botero came into this world on April 19, 1932, his full name being Fernando Botero Angulo. When still only a child he showed his artistic gift, even submitting illustrations to El Colombiano, the Medellin newspaper. This was an important first step because his earnings gave him the funds to finance his art studies.  Initially Botero had dreamed of becoming a matador and was beginning formal training before switching his interest to art.

At age 16, he enjoyed the first exhibition of his work.  Prior to his 20th birthday, Botero relocated to Bogotá where he gained notoriety with his first one-man show that was proudly displayed at the Leo Matiz Gallery.  Shortly thereafter, the artist won Second Prize at Bogota’s National Salon. His inspiration, it’s claimed, came from Spanish colonial art as well as pre-Colombian works.  Their distinctive looks gave him the artistic fodder, the inspiration, for his own work.  So, too, Diego Rivera’s murals with their political themes. He was the Mexican painter and muralist whose art depicted his nation’s native and working class peoples. In addition to Diego Rivera, Botero drew inspiration from the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez and Spanish romantic painter and printmaker Francisco de Goya.

Botero visited the European continent with the purpose of viewing the Old Masters’ works displayed in museums in France, Spain, and Italy. He soon began his studies in earnest at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid as well as the Academy of San Marcos in Florence.  Per the Encyclopedia Britannica, during his schooling in Madrid, Botero copied paintings that were displayed in the famous Prado Museum as a way to earn his livelihood.

Then, at the age of 24, the artist presented his subject’s first inflated profile to the world.  It was entitled Still Life With Mandolin.  Not long after, he furthered his reputation as an important artist by winning top honors at Bogota’s National Salon, the coveted prize that had eluded him a few years earlier.

An International Journey

Not yet in his 30s, Botero moved to New York. The artist enjoyed excellent reviews there while not experiencing the same acceptance in other major art markets. Within one year, his painting entitled Mona Lisa, Age Twelve was purchased by New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Botero’s style evolved further during his time in New York where he introduced a much smoother texture to his images.  After a dozen or so years, the artist was drawn back to the European continent where he settled in Paris. He passed the time studying the masters on view at the Louvre. At this point in his life he continued his painting but started creating sculptures adding this three-dimension format to his repertoire.  Many of those pieces were presented to a larger audience worldwide as open-air exhibits. The artist continued to expand on his themes of a political nature with many important representations of high-ranking people in power.

Assessment and Accolades

Art historians suggest Botero’s fleshy, rotund figures speak to the artist’s particular interest in Latin-American folk art. As well, they point to the rather bold colors and flat representation in his paintings that also seemed to have drawn inspiration from folk art. They suggest that, ultimately, Botero introduced a level of political satire into his paintings with images of important figures as he saw them.

This very handsome, silver-hair man is considered to be one of Latin America’s most admired artists with his style called “Boterism.” There are several books outlining the life and success of Fernando Botero as well as two films, Botero: Four Seasons and The Rotund World of Fernando Botero. In 2012, Fernando Botero was the proud recipient of the International Sculpture Center’s Lifetime Achievement in Contemporary Sculpture award.

Fernando Botero is quoted as saying; “An artist is attracted to certain kinds of form without knowing why.  You adopt a position intuitively; only later do you attempt to rationalize or even justify it.”

As you stroll the streets of Colombian cities, you’ll pass many shops selling reproductions of Botero’s famous pieces.  If you speak to one of the locals you’ll discover that many citizens, as well as art historians worldwide, consider Fernando Botero to be the most Colombian of all Colombian artists.  His presence across the land would suggest that is true.


Karyn Planett

The Big Cigar

Where oh where would we be without the stogie? Could Churchill have won the Battle of Britain without the stub of a Perfecto clenched between his teeth? Could Clint Eastwood have stared down the bad guys in all those spaghetti westerns without his ever-present Corona? Could Fidel have ruled Cuba for fifty years without a Presidente to punctuate his most revolutionary pronouncements?

On the evening of February 6, 1962, President John F. Kennedy ordered his faithful press secretary, Pierre Salinger, to find him twelve hundred H. Upmann Petit Coronas, JFK’s favorite Cuban import. When Salinger arrived the next morning with the haul, Kennedy signed the Executive Order putting into effect the trade embargo on Cuban products that lasts to this day—an embargo that prohibits US residents from importing Cuban cigars, but not from enjoying their classic flavor and aroma outside US borders.

Cigar Origins

There is evidence that the indigenous people of Central America and the Caribbean used tobacco in cigar form for smoking from as early as the 10th century. In 1492, a couple of Columbus’ crewmen became the first Europeans to try a puff when they happened upon it in San Salvador. After settling in Cuba, they took up the practice with abandon. In no time at all, tobacco smoking became the rage in the European courts and one of the world’s lasting symbols of luxurious consumption became the perfect companion to port, sherry, and cognac.

Though Kennedy’s embargo effectively killed off Cuba’s best market, they have never lost their place as the preeminent producer. Other countries like Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua have managed to impress the experts, but none have the cachet of a hand-rolled parejo from Cuba. The prestige of a box labeled totalmente a mano (totally by hand) still commands the greatest respect among connoisseurs.

Cigar Making

Hand rolling is the last step in a complex and highly refined process that requires human attention throughout. The curing process, lasting from 25 to 45 days, reduces the sugar and water content and determines the color of the leaf. During fermentation, the leaf slowly dies while being constantly monitored to prevent rotting and disintegration. This is the stage that determines flavor, aroma, and burning characteristics. During aging, the leaves are kept moistened and inspected constantly until delivered for production.

In Cuba, cigar rollers are called torcedores and now many are women. Their skills are acknowledged as those of fine artists and they are highly respected in Cuban society. The chaveta, a crescent shaped knife, is used to cut and shape the leaves according to each one’s use as wrapper or filler. While they work, the rollers are “entertained” by a lector who reads to the workers in order to break up the tedium of their job. An experienced roller can finish hundreds of cigars a day (and probably more if the stories are particularly exciting). Some reports credit the Montecristo brand name to one of the stories favored by the torcedores. Anyway, at this point the cigars are dried on wooden forms and can be laid down for years of additional aging if kept at the right level of temperature and humidity (70 degrees and 70% respectively).

Cigars are categorized by ring gauge (diameter in 64ths) and length. A Cuban Robusto always has a ring gauge of 50 and a length of four inches. The outer wrapper determines much of the cigar’s flavor and is designated in eight categories from the lightest (Double Claro) to the darkest (Oscuro). The lighter colors tend to be dryer, the darker ones sweeter. If all the tobacco in a cigar is from the same country it is called puro.

Cigar Lore

The language of cigars is like the language of fine wines. Quality smokes can have a mild, medium or full-bodied flavor catering to the preference of the smoker. Descriptives such as spicy, peppery, green, earthy, woodsy, nutty, creamy, chewy and leathery are all used with abandon, and each flavor is further affected by production techniques and aging.

Perhaps the most coveted of all Cuban cigars are those carrying the Cohiba brand. Fidel himself gave birth to the brand when he noticed the particularly pleasing aroma wafting from the cigars smoked by one of his bodyguards. On learning they were hand rolled for private clients by a friend, Castro set this friend up with a team of five rollers in a former diplomatic mansion then had cigars made for his own personal use or to give as gifts to foreign dignitaries. He released his personal cigars as a premium brand in 1982 and they soon became one of the most sought after in the world. The original factory is now staffed entirely by women torcedoras.

As we sail by this mysterious, embargoed neighbor called Cuba, and if the island happens to be upwind, take a stroll on deck and see if you can detect an earthy, chewy or leathery aroma borne along on the sea breeze. Then ask yourself, “where do you suppose the phrase ‘close but no cigar’ comes from?”

Grand Turk

Karyn Planett

The Island, Not Gamal

Most chronic Caribbean visitors extol the virtues of their favorite hide-away.  Their undiscovered spot in the predictable sun that suits their particular fancy -- be it a shopper’s paradise, an eco-wonderworld, or simply a spit of powdery sand where one might lay his body down.  Grand Turk is such a spot, especially for those on the trail of whopping big rays and a kaleidoscope of undersea creatures.  Think beach beach beach and you’ve come to the right spot.  In fact, there are 230 miles of white, sandy beaches so you surely won’t be jammed cheek to jowl with a guy in pink Speedos from Poughkeepsie.

The Particulars

Grand Turk is but one of the 30 islands covering 166 square miles that make up the group known as the Turks and Caicos Islands.  All the amenities and the fewer than 20,000 inhabitants are clustered on the eight islands of the group that are inhabited.  The whole lot is found due east from Cuba and just north of Hispaniola (that island of Haiti / Dominican Republic fame), and 575 miles southeast of Miami.  

Grand Turk, home to 3,720 “Belongers” as the islanders like to be called, is east of the Caicos Islands just across a body of water known as the Turks Island Passage.  Yachties and sportsfishermen are quite familiar with this destination.

Since the year 1766, these islands have been under British rule, officially becoming a crown colony in 1973.  Today, she’s known as a “British overseas territory.”  Her flag sports the British Blue Ensign with the colony’s arms, or shield, shown on the “fly.”  This yellow shield features three images – a Turk’s Head cactus, unique to the islands; a spiny lobster representing an important island industry; and a queen conch shell that served as a form of currency long, long ago.

The main languages of the islands are English and French Creole.  The majority of the local people practice Christianity.  And, though the bulk of the landscape is flat with a type of scrubby vegetation covering the local limestone, there are also patches of swamps and marshes.  The land itself is not terribly fertile though heartier crops such as beans, citrus, and cassava are cultivated.  The economic base for this small island nation is a combination of tourism and fishing with the offer of offshore financial services for those in need of such things.

One Of The Top Five!

Grand Turk made the cut.  It has been declared by that tight-knit group of those in the know as one of the top five dive sites in the Caribbean Atlantic… and that’s saying something.  So, what’s so great about these waters, you ask.  In a word, the reef (OK, two words).  The local maze of coral reefs form the third largest barrier reef in the world.  One portion, appropriately called “The Wall”, drops off a whopping 7,000 feet down.  For divers and snorkelers alike, this is Heaven, Nirvana, you name it.  And for those who don’t want to get their hair wet, some of the waters between the reefs and the shore (a mere 50 yards or so) are only waist deep allowing you to bend over with a mask and take it a colorful sampling of what the others might see.  And what might they see?

Rays.  Stingrays, to be exact.  They’re the headliners for the underwater odyssey, so have your waterproof cameras at the ready.  You might need photographic proof for your doubting friends back home.

A Stroll In Town

Salt water not your cup of tea?  Never mind.  There’s an easy stroll in store for you.  Cockburn Town is the administrative capital as well as the cultural and historical center of the islands.  Some historians will speculate that Columbus even set foot here while discovering the New World in 1492.  As you wander, you’ll note the Bermudian and Colonial architecture representative of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Be sure to include Duke Street and Front Street for they feature structures from the “salt era.”  Ask a local to point you toward the Lighthouse, Fire Hill, or Hawks Nest Anchorage, all local points of interest.   
    And birders might like to catch a glimpse of one of the many ospreys that call this island home.  Those interested in a sampling of local fare might order up a plate of sizzling fresh fish served with rice and peas, a local favorite.  Well, all too soon it’ll be time to make your way back to the ship and cast the lines from Grand Turk Island.