Category Archives: Latin America

Culinary Tour Company Offers Small-Group Travel

Traveling foodies and food-loving travelers, this one’s for you.

I hear and read about a lot of tour companies, but one captured my attention, both because of the clever name and because the subject interests me. Pack A Fork! Unique Cultural & Culinary Adventures is a small group tour company offering guests international tours that are about learning, discovery and immersive experiences. It describes its offerings like this:

Tours are focused on the history and culture of a region as well as its culinary scene. Guests can count on must-see main sites as well as unique experiences/off-the-beaten path. Guests meet locals, learn about the foods and wines of the region, participate in hands-on cooking classes, take hikes with picnics and taste local foods they may never try on their own. Guides are committed to exceeding each guest’s expectations.  

All tours are small with a maximum of 15 guests + guides. Included are all accommodations, private transportation, select gourmet meals, winery tours and food tastings, museum or site-guided tours, marketplace tours, culinary experiences and more. Free time is built in to every tour offering guests opportunities to relax or go out on their own. Tours are open to men, women, solo travelers and couples. 

Upcoming itineraries are to Peru, Spain/Portugal and Tuscany.

Cuba Getting First Five-Star Hotel

Kempinski to open Havana property.

If you are one who is planning to visit Cuba “before it changes,” you’d better hurry. Even with diplomatic normalization, American companies are not permitted to build in Cuba yet, so the Swiss hotel firm, Kempinski, will be the first with a five-star property in the island nation’s capital. The will reportedly be Cuba’s first true five-star hotel, described as “one of the country’s first significant steps into the modern Western world. ”

The hotel will be housed within the historic Manzana de Gómez building, a grandiose five-story structure dating to 1890. It was Cuba’s first European-style shopping and business center with more than 500 stores, business offices, law firms and notaries. It is located at the heart of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), that portion of Cuba’s capital city that was founded in 1519 and is now a a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Flanked by Bacardi rum’s art deco bell tower and the National Museum of Fine Arts, Manzana de Gómez is part of the city’s lifeblood. It overlooks the Capitol, the Great Theater of Havana and El Floridita, the infamous fish restaurant and cocktail bar that Ernest Hemingway frequented.

Exterior restored to five-star elegance.

Hotel guests can easily walk to Old Havana’s main interconnecting artery Calle Obispo (which is packed with art galleries, shops and music bars). The monumental Castillo del Morro lighthouse, which has guarded the entrance to Havana Bay since 1589, is a 10-minute drive.

Rooms are planned to exude contemporary elegance in tropical white.

The press release about the hotel raves that “inside the restored neoclassical building, Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski Manzana La Habana will offer 246 rooms and suites. Ranging in size from about 430 to 1,615 square feet, each offers a crisp contemporary white color palette with vaulted ceilings, large French windows, and fun pops of bright colors that feel inherently Cuban. Amenities include an approximately 10,765-square-foot Swiss Resense spa, three restaurants, a lobby bar, a rooftop terrace with a swimming pool, and free internet in every room—which is huge considering Cuba is one of the least digitally connected countries in the world. Naturally, there is also an in-house cigar lounge.”

The hotel appears to be targeting a late 2017 opening.

A Flight to Remember: Snake Falls from the Overhead

Slithery stowaway on Aeromexico flight.

aeromexico-logoA 5-foot serpent recently descended from the overhead compartment during Aeromexico Flight 230 from Torreon to Mexico City and slithered down the side of the plane before falling onto (hopefully unoccupied) seats.

Chron.com image.
Chron.com image.

According to Mexican newspaper El Debate, “flight attendants quickly notified the pilot who immediately began organizing an emergency landing,” adding that…

“A professor at Universidad Politécnica de la Región Laguna, a university in Coahuila, Mexico, captured video of the incident.

He Tweeted in Spanish: ‘The flying snake. A unique experience on a flight from Torreon, Mexico, flight 231 of Aeromexico. That being so … priority landing.’ He later added that Mexico City’s animal control division boarded the plane to secure the ‘unexpected traveler.'”

The airline reportedly is are working to determine how the snake found its way into the cabin in the first place, and how a similar incident can be prevented in the future. I certainly hope so

Travel News from South Am-AIR-ica

Antarctic Airways trip offerings + new merged carrier.

AntarcticAirways-logoI learned a lot at last week’s media luncheon focusing on travels in Chile — nothing more interesting than Antarctic Airways. I didn’t know anything about this airline, even though it’s been around in one fashion of another for 35 years. Still, now that I do know, I find it exciting. From a base in Punta Arenas on the tip of the South American continent it flies to King George Island on the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

The flight takes roughly two hours, which makes it possible to take a day trip with five hours on the White Continent, as well as an overnight trip or 6-day trip that includes the King George Island  overnight. What it excludes, happily for most people, is a two-day crossing of the wickedly rough Drake Passage. King George Island is far enough south so that visitors see lots of penguins, icebergs, seals and seabirds, as well as visits to Villa Estrellas, a year-round civilian settlement. Overnights are at a comfortable “ice camp” on Collins Glacier.

LATAM-logoWhen I checked my E-mail after lunch, I found a message announcing the merger of LAN and TAM into LATAM Airways, a combination that creates South America’s largest air route system. It flies to and within Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia,  Ecuador and Peru. US gateways are Los Angeles, Miami, Orlando, New York and Washington, DC. Once again, I wish Denver were on the list.

Marvelous Memoir of Extended Honeymoon

Newlyweds’ epic adventures chronicled in new book.

CrocodleLove-coverI met Josh Berman at some writers’ event a number of years ago. We went through the usual “what do you write about?”, “where are you from?”, “where do you live?” pleasantries. I learned that he had written a couple of guidebooks to Nicaragua and Belize, that he was wrapping a up a gig as a book editor and, most interestingly, that he and his wife Sutay had traveled around the world for something like two years under the auspices of the Peace Corps and American Jewish World Service. He was planning to write a book about their adventures and experiences.

Then came a few gigs as a fixer for Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain filming in Nicaragua, a book about the Maya calendar that “predicted” the end of the world in 2012 and a transition to teaching Spanish — and he and Sutay, a nurse, childbirth educator and doula, had three little girls. Hop ahead to the end of 2014, when the book came out. It is called Crocodile Love: Travel Tales from an Extended Honeymoon, and it is a very good and lively read about the couple’s experiences in Asia and Africa.

Highlights include Sutay’s unique family legacy in Pakistan that opened many strange and unexpected doors, experiencing the world’s great religions through a traveler’s lens, three months of volunteering on a tea plantation in India, two months with the Planned Parenthood Association of Ghana and most poignantly, their unannounced arrival in the mud-hut Gambian village where Sutay had lived as a Peace Corps Volunteer ten years earlier.

I couldn’t wait to read it, so I wove it into the busy holiday period, but it is also the kind of book I like to read when traveling.  The short chapters are further divided into sections, which means it is easy to start, put down and restart without losing the thread. The inspiration for the unusual title doesn’t come until the end, and it’s worth waiting for. I hope you read the book, so I won’t spoil it for you.

Ocean Conservancy Plea to Cruise Lines

A change in course can protect whale sharks.

OceanConservancy-logoWe all get lots of solicitations on behalf of good causes. A recent one from The Ocean Conservancy tugged at my heart and is relevant to cruise aficionados, especially those who travel on Royal Caribbean or Carnival ships along the Mexican coast. Here it is:

The largest fish in the ocean is one of the most majestic, too: the whale shark. These gentle giants are also in danger.

Right now, there’s a very simple way to protect them, and you can help. Off the coast of Mexico, thousands of whale sharks gather to feed and mate every year. Unfortunately, there are two cruise ship companies whose cruises currently travel through this important area where whale sharks congregate in large numbers and swim slowly at the surface of the water.

The beauty of this area is bringing more and more visitors each year, and unfortunately, they are having some negative effects on the whale sharks. There is an easy step to be taken in protecting whale sharks in this region, and we hope you’ll take just a moment to let Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises know how important it is to you that they adjust their course by 7 miles to protect these magnificent animals.

Whale sharks can reach over 40 feet in length, and they swim slowly while close to the surface with their mouths open to eat their staple food source, plankton. This makes them particularly vulnerable to ship strikes, which is why it’s so important to adjust cruise ship routes to protect them.

Ships are currently required by Mexican law to go at least 3 miles east of Isla Contoy, but just 4 additional miles would keep the ships from passing through this critical whale shark area and prevent possible negative interactions with these incredible creatures.

Just 7 miles can save whale sharks. Please encourage Carnival and Royal Caribbean to help make a difference for whale sharks.

JetBlue to Offer JFK-Havana Service

FlagWeekly flights to start this summer.

I recently returned from Cuba, flying a Sun Country charter between Miami and Havana. Charter flights are something of a sham to get around the shrinking prohibitions against American travel to Cuba. Here’s another crack in the travel restrictions, and it’s great news. JetBlue has announced that it is inaugurating scheduled service between New York and Havana beginning on July 3. The new flight will be between New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and Havana’s Jose Marti International Airport, departing New York each Friday at 12 noon and returning from Havana to at 4:30 p.m. Reservations need to be made through Cuba Travel Service. Back in the charter camp, Island Tours is offering itineraries from Miami, Tampa and starting in July, from Baltimore-Washington International Airport.

First look at Cuba from the air.
First look at Cuba from the air.

This big break for independent travelers comes soon after Airbnb announced that it is now booking accommodations in Cuba. It started last month listing “only” about 1,000 properties, mostly in picturesque Old Havana. Budget-wise and people-to-people-wise, a stay in somebody’s home costs less than a hotel and also directly promotes travel in a way that that “won’t pave over Cuba’s unique character, forged by decades of isolation from its northern neighbor,” said Nathan Blecharczyk, Airbnb cofounder and chief technology officer. Challenging Internet access and a separate tourist currency (the CUC) do not appear to be great hurdles to booking or staying.

He added that “the idea here is to support growth in travel that isn’t disruptive, that actually celebrates and preserves Cuba as a distinct destination. The Airbnb style of travel was already thriving.” Even before Airbnb appeared on the scene, the concept of staying in a casa particular was entrenched, and “Room for Rent” signs appear on many an Old Havana building.

New Inkaterra Property in the Sacred Valley

Luxury + commitment to preserving and rescuing Peru’s geography, nature, customs and cultures.

Inkaterra-logoWhen I was in Peru recently with the Society of American Travel Writers Freelance Council, we made a brief detour to visit a new boutique lodging property, the lovely and luxurious Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, in the Sacred Valley of the Incas between Cusco and Machu Picchu. Our group witnessed a shamanic ceremony, but I neither understood the symbolism of the solemn ritual nor prosaically, did I have a clear idea of when it was supposed to open. Now it has.

Shaman ceremony to inaugurate the new Hacienda Urubamba.
Shaman ceremony to inaugurate the new Hacienda Urubamba.

Set deep in the countryside up a dusty road (at least it was when I visited), it is set on about 100 acres overlooking a vast panorama of the Sacred Valley. The Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba opens with 12 rooms, including a three-room “Owners Suite,” all featuring views of the valley and surrounding mountains. Guests experience the expansiveness of open space, serenity and relaxing solitude.  At approximately 9,515 feet in elevation, the property offers some of the  best climate in the Cusco region. This summer (which might be next winter in the Northern Hemisphere), 24 stand-alone luxury casitas will be unveiled, set among the property’s native pepper trees, high grass, cactus and wildflowers.

The grand entrance to the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba.
The grand entrance to the Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba.

With architecture and interiors inspired by the area’s cultural history, the contemporary hacienda-style hotel was designed by Denise Guislain-Koechlin, the talented wife of Inkaterra founder and CEO, Jose Koechlin. She was in charge of the hotel’s layout, surrounding gardens and all interior décor, which includes custom-made furniture and the use of rare pre-Columbian textiles that adorn the property’s high walls. The property, which is in an agricultural area, features a 10-acre organic plantation, where guests are welcome to pick their own produce.  Crops include red, black and brown quinoa, artichokes, a unique Urubamba giant corn, purple corn, colored potatoes, lima beans, onions, beans and broccoli. Traditional medicinal and culinary herbs are also farmed and include lemon balm, rosemary, sage, green grass, mint, chamomile, cilantro and anise, among others. All crops are completely “carbon-free” — that is, farmed with traditional hand tools and oxen as was done centuries ago.

Organic farming at the hacienda includes traditional agricultural methods.
Organic farming at the hacienda includes traditional agricultural methods.

Continue reading New Inkaterra Property in the Sacred Valley

Gran Hotel Bolivar’s Great Value in Lima

Terrific location, elegant architecture and down-to-earth prices. GranHotelBolivar-logo

The Gran Hotel Bolivar, located on Lima’s gorgeous Plaza San Martín, was very grand when it opened in the 1920s and was the social center of Peru’s capital. It faded and was even closed for a number of years, but it reopened with a bit less luster, to be sure, but with that enviable location, affordable prices and what I’m told are some of the city’s best Pisco Sours in the bar. The lobby is sparsely furnished these days, but the leaded glass dome is in place, recalling the original grandeur.  I didn’t stay there. I didn’t see any rooms. But I did wander around the main floor and think how fortunate it is that this landmark hotel has been preserved and is welcoming guests.

Glass and international flags above the main entrance.
Glass canopy and international flags above the main entrance.
Magnificent leaded glass dome.
Magnificent leaded glass dome.

Continue reading Gran Hotel Bolivar’s Great Value in Lima

Book Recommendation for Peru

Adams followed Bingham’s footsteps to Machu Picchu and wrote about it.

MacchuPichu-coverMark Adams is a non-fiction travel and adventure writer and editor. He got it in his head and his heart to follow the route that Hiram Bingham — thought by many to be the model for Indiana Jones — took to discover the great Inca site of Machu Picchu. When Bingham undertook to find the lost city, or at least a lost city, roughly century earlier, he did a lot of reading and research and enlisted the services of an Aussie-born guide and Inca expert named John Leivers. He also has a lot of Indiana Jones in him.

Turn Right at Machu Picchu is the travel book that Adams about this epic trek. He writes with insights, information, humor and the right amount of self-effacement to make the reader — well, a reader like me — briefly and fleetingly think, “I could do that.” Or at least, “I could have done that when I was much younger.” Truth of the matter is that even the tourist version of Peru’s Inca Trail would bee though for me now. I did hike a section of Ecuador’s Inca Trail between Achupallas and Ingprirca some years ago. It was remote and exhilarating — and uncrowded.

I am leaving for Peru on Tuesday, but there will be no trekking. This trip, an adjunct to the Society of American Travel Writers’ Freelance Council meeting, will be by plane, train and bus. No step-by-step journey as undertaken by Bingham in the early 20th century and by Adams and Leivers. Still, I had to read the book to walk with them vicariously. And I enjoyed the book — a lot.