As the longest continuously-inhabited city in South America, Cuzco’s ability to uniquely blend the past with the present throughout every aspect of the city should impress any curious traveler.
Located more than 11,000 feet above sea level, high in the Andes, this vivacious city was once the center of the vast Inca Empire in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Beautifully detailed Incan stonework still accent the town’s facade, and many of the buildings standing today were constructed upon the foundations of older Incan structures. Intermixed are colonial touches brought over from the Spanish conquistadors that arrived in 1533, and more recently, the influx of modern tourism has inserted new influences from all over the world.
The Plaza de Armas has always been the center of city life. The square, framed by gorgeous colonial arcades, points to the area’s main architectural attraction: the cathedral. Red-and-white striped Peruvian flags line the streets dispersed amongst the rainbow-colored banners of Tahuantinsuyo (the Incan Empire) celebrating the collaboration of cultures that have made the city what it is today.
Throughout the town you can find a variety of restaurants, goods, local art, and entertainment. As with any major tourist destination, there are posh restaurants and up-scale hotels targeting the luxury traveller, but for those more interested in embracing the history of the area and culture of the peoples, there’s so much to explore. Spanning the walls of city, you’ll find intricate murals painted by local artists. You’ll see and smell bundles of dried peppers and garlic hanging from exposed beams. Small markets offer everything from freshly cut meats to local concoctions promising to cure everything from diabetes to gout.
You’ll also see a glimpse into the realities of the poorer population, as young children offer shoeshines in exchange for a few cents, and women serve up fried guinea pig on a stick.
As with most areas in the Andes, you cannot forget to mention the ubiquity of the coca leaf. Clear plastic bags filled with green leaves are bought and sold candidly, and you’ll regularly see men walking down the streets gnawing away at a bundle of it in their mouths. (It’s said to help with altitude sickness, and most hotels offer a tea made from the leaves because of this.)
The biggest draw for many people coming to Cuzco isn’t the city at all but the infamous Incan structure of Machu Picchu. Built in the mid 15th century, more than 850,000 tourists now visit annually. To visit, passengers hop aboard the Belmond Hiram Bingham train for a windy 68 miles through the Sacred Valley, passing through rolling plains, rivers, and Mount Veronica, before coming upon a jungle-like scenery with clouds blanketing the sky.
The legacy of the Maya Empire resonates throughout Central America. Once extending across present day Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, southern Mexico, and western Honduras, the Mayans virtually disappeared by A.D. 900. Even today, scholars continue to debate over what caused the decline, citing circumstances as disparate as water loss and earthquakes to diseases and invasions from outside conquerers.
This once great Pre-Columbian civilization demonstrated a great degree of prowess in agriculture, pottery, hieroglyphics, calendaring, and mathematics, but what the Mayans may be most remembered for today is their awe-inspiring ruins.
To this day, tourist and locals alike flock to these ruins to connect with one of the most impressive and mysterious civilizations on our planets history. Here are five (but certainly not all!) of the most impressive.
Tucked away in the jungles of present day Campeche, Calakmul is one of the largest Mayan cities ever uncovered. With over 6,500 ancient structures identified within, Calakmul’s 55 meter (180 foot) high pyramid is by far the tallest and most well-known. The Mayan people often built upon existing temples in order to achieve their highest structures. Calakmul is a great example of this practice.
Located in present day Chiapas, Mexico, Palenque might be smaller than some of its neighboring Mayan cities, but the craftsmanship of the architecture and sculptures is unrivaled. One notable site is the Temple of Inscriptions, which is the only Mesoamerican pyramid built to serve as a funerary monument.
Aside from being the tallest structure in Uxmal at 115 ft, the Pyramid of the Magician is one of the best preserved Pre-Columbian sites in Mexico. What sets this pyramid apart are the oval layers of structure. Most Mayan pyramids are comprised of mostly rectangular or square layers. While the name Uxmal may mean “built three times” in Mayan, this pyramid appears to have been built in five phases, starting from the sixth century continuing periodically through the 10th century.
Perhaps one of the most recognizable temples of the Maya Empire is located at the Chichen Itza site. Nicknames El Castillo, this temple had astronomical significance to the Mayan people. The four faces of the pyramid each have a stairway with 91 steps. Including the shared step at the top, this adds up to 365—the number of days in a year.
Between ca. 200 to 900 AD, Tikal was the largest Mayan city with an estimated population between 100,000 and 200,000 inhabitants. Situated in modern day Guatemala, Tikal contains 6 large temple pyramids, restored buildings scattered throughout the area, and many more hidden within the jungle. The largest structure is the Temple-pyramid IV. At roughly 72 meters (230 feet) high, the top of this temple offers one of the most beautiful panoramic views in the world.
While there are still so many other Mayan ruins to visit, an avid traveller can’t go wrong with any one of these five. You may not be able to visit all in one trip, but picking one as your central place of exploration and then mapping out nearby structures will prove to be an enlightening and humbling travel experience.
The United States has two coasts full of gorgeous beaches, but it’s hard to rival those found in California. Whether you’re looking to swim, surf, sunbath, play volleyball, birdwatch, shop, or all of the above, California has everything you need to enjoy the perfect beach day.
With it’s 1,264 mile coastline, it can be difficult to know where to start, but here is a list of my favorites.
1. El Matador State Beach, Malibu
Around the world, Malibu is known for its luxurious hotels and real estate, its high-end shopping, and its beautiful landscapes. It’s beaches also don’t disappoint. Perhaps one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, El Matador State Beach features rugged cliffs cut apart by steep dirt trails that lead to the shore. Explore the hidden sea caves and stay until the late afternoon to view one of the most mesmerizing sunsets in the world.
2. Pfeiffer Beach, Big Sur
Big Sur has been featured in songs by The Beach Boys, Bobby Darrin, Alanis Morisette, The Thrills, and more. Jack Kerouac wrote a novel titled by it. Big Sur epitomizes what real California beach living means for many of it’s residents, but somehow it has remained somewhat under the radar to visitors. Maybe that’s what gives Big Sur’s its charm: when you visit, you rarely feel suffocated by tourists. It’s a beach anyone can feel an home at.
3. Thousand Steps Beach, Laguna Beach
Thousand Steps Beach is best known for its “private” aqua tide pools and sea cave exploring. It gets its name from the staircase that leads down (and back up!) to the beach. You can regularly catch talented groups of surfers catching waves further out to sea.
4. Santa Monica Beach & Pier, Santa Monica
When people picture Los Angeles life, the Santa Monica Pier is an iconic piece of imagery associated with it. This highly-popular destination see’s millions of tourists every year. For boardwalk-style fun, pearly white sand, and palm trees as far as the eyes can see, this is the beach you want. The pier is famous for it’s roller coaster, especially when it lights up at night.
5. Coronado Beach, Coronado, San Diego
Coronado Beach and the famous Hotel del Coronado has some of the softest sand you’ll ever touch. The water is perfect for surfers and swimmers alike. Crowned by hotels Victorian architecture, it’s understandable why it has been named both a National and California Historic Landmark. If you’re coming to San Diego, a stop by “The Del” is a must.
6. Santa Cruz Beach & Boardwalk, Santa Cruz
Santa Cruz’s historic boardwalk was established in 1865, and today is still one of the most well-known seaside amusement parks in California. Enjoy rollercoasters, haunted houses, and carnival games as you sample funnel cake, candy apples, or even clam chowder if you visit during the annual Santa Cruz Clam Chowder Cook-off. There are usually plenty of survers lining the oceans horizon and plenty of beachgoers simply enjoying the sun.
7. Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel by-the-Sea
Point Lobos is one of the most beautiful hiking destinations in the state. You’ll be blown away at the vivid colors that decorate every leaf, branch, and trail that you walk through. Small coves line the coast line, and you’ll be able to spot tons of hidden wildlife as you move through the area. The water can be cold and isn’t the best for swimming, but the sites truly cannot be rivaled.
8. Baker Beach, San Francisco
If you wanted an iconic glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge, it doesn’t get much more picturesque than Baker Beach. There’s also a lovely trail along the cliffs connecting to the beach, perfect for a sunset stroll.
9. Limantour Beach, Point Reyes Station
The tiny town of Point Reyes Station only holds a population of less than 900 and lies within the greater Point Reyes National Seashore made up of a dozen gorgeous beaches. Limantour beach is where you’ll want to go for the best hiking trails and wildlife. Along the beach you’ll regularly find 100’s of species of birds, seals, ducks, and even whales along the shoreline. Because of it’s beauty and wildlife, it’s also an important nature preserve, so it’s protected by the U.S. National Park Service.
10. Venice Beach, Venice, Los Angeles
You can’t have a list about California beaches without including Venice Beach. The world-famous promenade is lined with bohemian shops, tattoo parlors, and arts and crafts make by local artists. All walks of life come together for food, sun, beach activities, and even some body building at Muscle Beach. This is a great location for people watching, as you’ll see street entertainers with all kinds of unique talents parading for tourists every day of the week.
Traveling to Cuba is nothing new for those of us from Switzerland, but American’s are pretty excited to finally be able to visit thanks to the recent diplomatic relations that have been restored. U.S. domestic carriers can now enter what was previously considered blocked airspace and enter into business relationships with Cuban airlines. This is an addition to the month-old announcement that nonstop commercial flights will be restored between Cuba and the United States. As these two countries continue to expand their relationship, here’s a list of things you should know before making your way to the island of Cuba:
How can you fly to Cuba now?
It looks like U.S. airlines are on track to begin offering regularly scheduled flights to Cuba in the next several months. The additional new rules will make it easier for U.S. airlines to partner with Cuban airlines. Once the Cuban government approves, commercial flights will eliminate the need for expensive charter flights.
Can any U.S. citizen visit Cuba now?
U.S. citizens can only travel to Cuba as long as the trip qualifies under one of the 12 purposes of travel including visiting close relatives, enrolling in academic programs that offer school credit, working on professional research, journalistic and religious activities, and participating in public performances or sports competitions. One newly developed allowance is that people can now visit Cuba to organize a professional event or competition instead of actually having to wait for the event to take place. Travelers can also go to shoot film and television projects, record music, and create any sort of art as long as they can prove they have experience in the relevant field.
Therefore, regular tourism remains off limits for U.S. citizens. Travelers are required to document the purpose of their trip, they must organize a full-time schedule of their activities while in Cuba, and they must keep travel receipts for five years after they return.
Who keeps track of what you do in Cuba?
Senior officials at the departments of Treasury and Commerce confirm that the Cuban government takes the traveling restrictions very seriously. Technically, if a traveler signs an affidavit saying he/she is going to Cuba for a specific purpose but in fact spends his/her time at the beach, said traveler would be breaking the law.
Where do you stay?
Because Cuba has a shortage of high-end hotels, bed-and-breakfasts tend to be the way to go. These usually entail making contact with Cuban families and having access to good meals. These kinds of bed-and-breakfasts are called “casas particulares” in Cuba. They are very popular in Havana, Trinidad, Viñales, and Cienfuegos. You can usually book a stay in a casa particular though a travel agency.
Can you use credit cards?
A.T.M.s are very limited in Cuba, and many businesses don’t have the ability to take credit card payments. Cash is usually the way to go. Also, British pounds or euros can offer a better exchange rate in Cuba than the U.S. dollar.
What can U.S. citizens bring back from Cuba?
U.S. citizens are allowed to bring up to $400 in souvenirs with a limit of $100 in cigars.
So you still can’t travel like a normal tourist, yet, but at least the relationship is warming a bit after decades of diplomatic distance. Hopefully as the relationship improves, so will American’s ability to travel to and from Cuba more freely, so they can truly explore all the amazing food, culture, and beautiful scenery Cuba has to offer.
Madrid is not only the capital of Spain, but it is also one of the most elegant cities you will ever travel to. Filled with beautiful boulevards, expansive parks, one of a kind art, and plenty of history, Madrid is on all lists of top cities worth visiting.
Considering Spain’s bountiful tourist attractions, Madrid will most likely not be your only stop on your journey through the Spanish lands. Therefore, if you have a limited amount of time to visit Madrid, here’s a guide of things you cannot miss out on:
Your first stop, and a lengthy one for that matter, will be at Madrid’s Golden Triangle of Art. The triangle is composed of the top three museums in the city: Museo del Prado, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza.
Known for its ample European collection ranging from the 12th century to the 19th century, Museo del Prado is Madrid’s main Spanish national art museum.
On the other hand, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía is more focused on Spanish 20th century impressionist and expressionist art. It includes collections renown artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí. The Reina Sofía’s Museum’s most prized possession is considered to be Picasso’s famous painting referencing the Spanish Civil War, titled “Guernica.”
The third museum which comprises the Golden Art Triangle is the The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum. This museum composed of the second largest private art collection in the world, after the British Art Collection. The museum does a great job at filling in the historical gaps between the art collections found in Museo del Prado and Reina Sofía.
Once you’ve you’ve completed your journey through years and years of well-preserved art, it’s time to go down a different historic lane – visit Madrid’s Royal Palace and Armory. You will learn about all kinds of remarkable historical anecdotes that took place within the walls of the palace and the armory through generations and generations of the Royal Family.
Another historic landmark you should not miss is Plaza Mayor. This central plaza was built during Philip III’s reign, and the Puerta del Sol is the central point in the plaza where numerous Spanish roads connect; it was also one of the original gates to the city of Madrid in the 15th century.
To finish off your historic day, take a nighttime city bus tour and enjoy other city landmarks that will be beautifully illuminated. Monuments and palaces will take on a new dimension and you will learn all the fun facts behind every architectural piece of work.
By the time you finish up your strolls through museums and historic landmarks, you should take a break. Visit the beautifully groomed Parque El Retiro. It’s one of Madrid’s largest parks, and inside you find a crystal palace, a lake where you can rent a boat and row around, and a aromatic rose garden that will certainly take your breath away.
Regardless of what you ultimately decide to do and see in Madrid, one thing you must not pass on is the incredible cuisine. Don’t be afraid to take the Metro and visit barrios like La Latina, Chueca, or even the San Miguel Market in Plaza Mayor and bask in some delicious tapas, local beer and Spanish wine. With a belly full of Spanish flavors you will not regret your time spent in Madrid.