It’s no accident that the Amazon is called mighty. The second-longest river in the world, it flows north and east 4,345 miles from its source high up in the Peruvian Andes, through Peru and Brazil, to its mouth on the Atlantic Ocean. On the way, the Amazon also cuts through a small section of Bolivia. The watershed around it includes the largest tropical rainforest in the world, and a variety of indigenous tribes.
Manaus is the center for Amazon travel in Brazil, with flights coming from Miami, Rio de Janeiro and Europe. A number of the cruise lines departing from Florida to South America, travel from the mouth of the river to Manaus on large, mainstream cruise ships. Along the way, they offer shore excursions into the tributaries. There are also a number of smaller riverboat cruises up the River Negro from Manaus.
Smaller river cruises ply the Amazon in Peru, exploring the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve. Iquitos, 600 miles northeast of Lima (a 90-minute flight), is the central city for the Peruvian rainforest. (For more on both stretches, read Amazon River Cruise Basics).
The sheer breadth of the river can be the allure in Brazil, especially for those who favor large cruise ships. However, the 1,000-mile stretch of the Amazon from its mouth to Manaus is a heavily populated commercial waterway with many other vessels and a number of sizable ports. Its width can range from one to six miles during low water season, and rise to 30 miles in wet season.
Peru has the advantage of many narrower rivers where one can get up close with the birds, mammals and plants in the rich preserves. In fact, on the tranquil Peruvian riverboats — quite small compared to the cruise ships — you are actually in the rainforest for four to 10 days. Also, it’s possible to combine the trip with time in Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley, Lake Titicaca and Cuzco, as they are a short hop by air.
In both countries, you’ll find excursions that help you make the most of your front seat to rainforest flora and fauna.
At Erg Chebbi, an outpost in southeastern Morocco, we experienced nomad life for several days. When we arrived, we rode camels across top of the dunes in the Sahara Desert. When I looked into the distance I saw the extraordinary tan sand, and the pink and blue reflections of the sun on the foothills of the snow capped Atlas Mountains. Except in epic movies, we had not seen such surreal landscapes.
Our three day, two night stay in the dunes at Erg Chebbi in southeastern Morocco, was the most provocative segment of an 18 day trip. While riding camels across the desert and sleeping in tents, we felt drawn into the endless flow of time and the simplicity of life. Yet there were signs that younger generation is slowly moving into a 21st century, and our stay tied together observations in other areas of the country. Before reaching Erg Chebbi, we spent two weeks making a counter clockwise trip from Casablana, to Rabat, Fez, and Marrakech, the imperial cities with their huge markets, and south through the Atlas Mountains. As we moved from one section of the country to another, we saw many partially abandoned 17th century casbahs (castle like apartments of adobe and straw), where nomads settle into apartments when they no longer live in tents. Often, structures built in the same style of architecture, but with new materials, stood nearby; those buildings were the next step up from the old casbahs. However, consciousness of their nomadic tradition is apparent, no matter what the socioeconomic level. Moroccans introduce themselves by name, and then quickly say the tribe of their ancestors.
We visited nomads in their tents. When we came to Ahmaa’s tent, I bent way down to get in through the open tent flap, walked hunched over to sit on the corner of a blanket, and hand gestured to the nomad woman that I, too, was a knitter. I wanted to make a connection with her. Ahmaa sat cross legged, with huge wooden needles, and surrounded by piles of grayish brown yarn. After four or five more of us were sitting on the blanket, she began to demonstrate carding. She grabbed handfuls of goat and camel hair, placed the wool on a large square with spikes, pulled on it, and then began spinning out the yarn. When she handed the carder and yarn to me, I tried it, and failed. We both giggled. Ahmaa then knit while her fourteen year old daughter served us mint tea, the favorite drink of Moroccans.
I keep thinking of Ahmah, who sat in her tent showing us how she carded, wound, and knit a combination of camel and goat’s wool to mend the holes in her tent. Her fourteen year old daughter, who served the tea, insisted that she will not be building her own tent, as has been the tradition for women. She will most likely marry a man with an apartment in one of the old casbahs that are a step up from nomad life. The widowed Ahmah, who looks to be around forty, but does not know her true age, has seven children, 5 dromedaries (one-humped camels), and 8 goats. One of her sons herds. Another has gone off to work at a hotel in a city. Another was our cook at Erg Chebbi. Morocco is changing fast. Get there before the nomads vanish. We took the trip with Overseas Adventure Travel http://www.oattravel.com, a company that arranges visits with locals.
Ever had the urge to absorb yourself in a writer’s home so much that you’d not only visit, but also sleep there, hoping that some latent muses might emerge from the pillow? A small number of houses where writers have lived and worked are now offering accommodations. Abbotsford, in the Scottish Highlands, where Sir Walter Scott wrote his Waverly novels, has a Hope Lodge Wing, meticulously decorated in the style of the 1800s. The onsite restaurant, Ochiltree, is named after a beggar in one of Scott’s novels. Best of all are the views of the Scottish Highlands all around.
Southwest in Cornwall, The Lodge, the former gardener’s cottage at Agatha Christie’s summer house, has been restored by the National Trust as a three bedroom holiday cottage. Visit the nearby Smuggler’s Museum to get the flavor of the area in the 1700s.
In Swansea, Wales, Dylan Thomas’s Birthplace and Home has been restored just as it was in 1914 when the family moved in. The owner will cook a meal using some of his mother’s favorite recipes if you book a room, and you can have tea in the parlor which is the setting for A Child’s Christmas in Wales. We stayed there for two nights while traveling with friends, and had a Welsh dinner complete with cockle shells. While our friends got dibs on the prized birthplace room that looked over the street, we got his parent’s bedroom to the back, and were able to look down over the peaked rooftops to the sea–a scene that was so much a part of his poetry.
Lady Gregory, a founder of Dublin’s Abbey Theater, entertained many of Ireland’s writers at Mount Vernon, Country Clare, her small summer villa: A.E. (George William) Russell, John Millington Synge, and G
eorge Bernard Shaw among them. The house has furniture, paintings, and chimney pieces by famous English designer Augustus John. Nearby, The Burren, a fourteen by fourteen mile area of karst limestone is popular for hiking. Flowers grow through the rocks and are fed by underground springs.
If you’re going to Peru to visit Macchu Picchu, or Cuzco, or to catch a plane to Iquitos, the center for travel in the rain forest, don’t ignore Lima, the largest city in Peru, which spreads out over several valleys, and has a population of 10 million. Before the trip we had a list of twenty places we wanted to visit in four days. After we arrived, we realized that we’d have to pare down the list.
Lima had many distinct neighborhoods: Central Lima, the historic district; Miraflores, the hotel and restaurant district; Barranco, the bohemian section, to name a few.
Here are some highlights. We stayed at the Tierra Viva Miraflores, a lovely, small hotel on Bolivar Street where the staff was extremely helpful any time we had a question. They arranged taxis, called restaurants–most within a few blocks–to see if there were openings, and were quick to do computer research on places we wanted to visit. Don’t miss eating at Punto Azul, the homey cafe with freshly made Peruvian/International food right around the corner. We felt safe walking around Miraflores day and night. One mistake we made: we did not book restaurants recommended by friends ahead of time, and when we arrived they did not have places open. If you go, check for recommended Lima restaurants–Miraflores is the restaurant area–on Trip Advisor, and book several weeks before the trip. We still had many good meals, however.
We’d been advised to book a guide to take us around the city, but at the last minute decided to wing it and take taxis–comparatively inexpensive in Peru– from our hotel to different districts. That proved to be a good decision, though a native guide may have helped us delve more into the Peruvian culture.
Huaco Pucllana is a ruin right within the city–a huge pyramid made of platforms. Huaca is the word for shrine, and Pucllana is a Quechua word for place where human sacrifices were performed, It was used by both the Wari and Lima residents from 200 A.D to 700 A.D. An ongoing excavation, it has cemeteries, and places where human sacrifices were offered to the gods. The small museum has ceramics, mummies, and textiles on display, and a restaurant with very good Peruvian dishes overlooks the site. We ate there after the tour and took photos from our table.
After touring the buildings on Plaza Mayor, the main square of the historic district, we visited the Casa Aliaga, the oldest house in Peru, and owned by the same family for over 400 years. It’s located at Jr. de la Unión 224, right off the main square, and across from the Presidential Palace (see photo of entrance to the left, and interior courtyard below). It was well worth the effort to find it: Casa Aliaga, is a beautiful example of Spanish Colonial architecture.
Don’t miss the Larco Museum of pre-Columbian art, an 18th century building erected over a 7th century pyramid. In addition to being famous for its erotic pottery, it has a large section of gold and silver jewelry. Reproductions are sold in the elegant museum shop. Plan to eat at the excellent outdoor restaurant.
From a monastery roof in Monserrat, forty-one miles Northwest of Barcelona, I angled my path to get a shot of the wide clay path that led to a ravine between two mountains and then disappeared in the direction of Santiago de Compostela.
My husband anad I were following the Northern Route by bus rather than foot on Go Ahead’s “Barcelona and Northern Spain” trip. No worries about following trails in the woods, blisters, backaches from carrying heavy packs, not to mention bedbugs at way stations where we would spread out our sleeping bags for the night. Though we often rent a car on European trips, it was freeing not to worry about finding the correct parking places in cities, paying high insurance rates, or navigating hairpin turns in blinding rainstorms. Traveling along the northern Spain coast from Barcelona to Santiago de Compostela on the northwest corner had been a wish list trip for a long time, and the Go Ahead trip seemed perfect to replace a March trip to Egypt which had been cancelled. After narrowing down the choice to two tour companies which offered similar routes, GoAhead and Insight Vacations, we found that GoAhead had the advantage of actually visiting the inside of the Guggenheim Bilbao Museum rather than viewing it from the outside, and flying rather than taking the bus from Santiago de Compostela to Madrid at the end.
In twelve actual traveling days, we touched glass ball that covers the much worn fingers of the Black Virgin of Monserrat, walked down the route of the bulls, which was also a pilgrim route, in Pomplona, wandered up and down the cobblestone streets in the Renaissance town of Santillana del Mar, surrounded by horse farms and mountains. The pilgrimage church there was Romanesque style, and had not been rebuilt as a Gothic cathedral or embellished with bright gold baroque in the 17th and 18th centuries, as many of the other medieval churches had. In small cities such as Oviedo and Lugo, with its intact Roman walls, we went through cathedrals with the traditional pilgrimage architecture. Visitors would come in on one side and walk down behind the alter where they would pay their respects to the relics, and then walk out the other side. During the Middle Ages, visitors who’d come a long way would sometimes sleep in the clerestory, or clear story, a level high up and surrounded by windows that would let light in.
Once we reached the main square of Santiago de Compostela, we were in the midst of modern day pilgrims ranging from teens to seventy somethings: hikers from Italy, France, and other locations with gear on their backs, some in the latest athletic gear, others in simpler garb, some in groups with the same color. One on a bike was holding out his passport like book and asking another where the compostela or certificate office was still open. He had his book stamped at many locations on the way and could finally get a certificate. Fortuitously, we arrived in Santiago just as the Good Friday Procession was beginning. Residents were buying palm leaves and olive branches from purveyors on the streets that led to the cathedral square. Shortly before noon, priests in white and priests in black carried high gold crosses. Men from the Order of St. James, men covered from head to toe in olive green garb, their peaked hats with eye slits, went before a carriage carrying a large red box, followed by locals, old and young, with olive and palm branches in their hands. Would we have been able to capture the high spots of the ten days on our own? Probably not as well.
In the fields at Runnymede, the sight of ambulances, police cars, and men in white coats kept us tense for a while until we found out we had just passed a film shoot for “Midsomer Night’s Murder,” the British detective thriller. Further on at the quintessentially medieval manor Dorney Court, the setting for Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” “The Other Boleyn Girl,” and the soon to be released Invisible Woman. An “A “was carved into the side of the chapel, indicating that the Saxons had settle here in the 8th century. At Hampton Court, where we docked and slept on the first night, our captain took us through the rooms that Henry VIII would have known. We were on a week-long cruise on the hotel barge “Magna Carta,” and these were some of the visits we made as we meandered from Hampton Court to Henley. Morning, noon, and night there was a blend of intrigue, quiet contemplation of nature, and glimpses of small village life. Not to mention the elegant meals and views from the barge, actually a small hotel. From the beginning we were drawn into a tranquil world with songbirds chirping overhead, swans and ducks sliding along beside us. The boat seemed to slide across the water, and it rose and fell effortlessly when we went through the locks. See more about the Magna Carta trip on http://www.gobarging.com
Discover Walking Tours, a tip supported company, offers three options: 1) Gaudi buidlings in Eixample; 2) Ramblas and the Gothic area; 3) and Picasso’s Barcelona in The Born, the medieval section. During our March trip to Barcelona we took all three, and found they were a great orientation to the city. The guides were knowledgeable and entertaining, and it was fun to converse with other travelers.
On our first day we took the Gaudi Tour in the Eixample section. Eixample was built in the second half of the 18th century, when the city needed to expand north to accommodate an influx of people coming from small villages. Our guide met us at Batllo, Gaudi’s flamboyant house on Passeig de Gracia, one of the major avenues running north and south. Batllo is bedecked with jewels, actually shards of stone from ceramic factories in the surrounding mountains, has window panes in the shape of bones, and an embellished dragon, who’s been killed by St. George, lying on the roof. Our guide explained that the site had been owned by the Guelles, one of the prosperous families at the turn of the century. She explained how Gaudi embellished houses that were the plainer, more typical style. Had we passed by on our own we would not have noticed those outside details, nor would we have gotten tips on images to look for when we returned for a visit on our own. Casa Medea next door had almond shaped windows; its owner, a chocolate maker, was was aptly nicknamed “Mr. Almond.”
As we wove around the back of Battlo and crossed back to La Pedrera, another Gaudi House on Passeig de Gracia, we learned more about the architecture of the city, the differences between Spanish and Catalan languages, and the corners with prominent beer and wine bars. Pedrera had balconies like waterways flowing into the rocks, and chimneys like masked men (see picture at upper left). At the Diagonal Zero subway stop our guide pointed north and told us not to miss Guelle Park with its mosaic terraces and the Gaudi Museum. We went down under, got on the train, and exited at the next stop: Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s phantasmagorical cathedral that may be finished within the next twenty years. At the end of the tour, we could walk east to the water, walk west to Passiag de Gracia, or north to Guelle Park. The map was making sense now.
The Ramblas and Gothic area and the Picasso Walk through The Born were equally informative and fun. We may not have found the Museum of the City, the ancient Roman city of Bacino, which is located under the main cathedral, had it not been for the walks. It’s by far one of the best archaeological museums I’ve ever been to http://barcelona.de/en/barcelona-museum-city-history.htmlThe Picasso Walk which turns out to be an excellent way to explore The Born, the medieval section area east of the pedestrian walkway Las Ramblas.
www.discoverwalks.com/barcelona–walking-tours/is run by Andrea Albert, a Barcelona native who knows the streets and sites intimately. Andrea and the other guides speak English fluently.