Toronto

IMG_5977I had a lovely trip to Toronto over the weekend.  If you are planning on going to Toronto anytime in the next month, I highly recommend the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the Art Museum of Ontario.  The entire museum is stellar, and well worth the steep admission fee.

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I also visited Casa Loma, a short drive or subway ride from the city center.  The building itself is massive, but I wasn’t too inspired by the interior.  There are certainly nice elements in the decor, but nothing I plan on remembering well.

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The views from the Casa Loma tower, though, are wonderful, and the gardens are very nice too.

IMG_5980I would suggest finding some good food at the Kensington Market area, where there are plenty of coffee shops, bars, cafes, and open air food stalls.

The area certainly tries to be counter-culture, but it seems everybody (tourists included) mosey around to find good eats.

I ended up enjoying the ethnic neighborhoods more.  Chinatown, Little Italy, and Little Portugal were some areas I visited.  Little Portugal is mostly residential, and ended up being my favorite.  Lots of little gardens, interesting houses, Portuguese bakeries, and it is fun to hear many speak the language.

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Previously while in Toronto, I focused on the harbor area visiting sites like the CN Tower, attending a Blue Jays game, and walking around Centre Island.

I’m already looking forward to another trip to this city to explore additional areas.

(Photos: taken in Toronto)

Mexico City

I had free miles to use and will be taking a very affordable trip to Mexico City in September.  I’ll only have a couple days there, but it will be my second time visiting.  It’s a fabulous city, full of friendly people, amazing art, fascinating history, and colorful markets with delicious and cheap food.

IMG_4936Last time, I took a daytrip to Teotihuacan and climbed the temples.

IMG_4913This time, I may try to visit a nearby city like Puebla.  Puebla is famous for its cuisine.

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But, I still have a great deal to see in Mexico City, including more Diego Rivera murals.

IMG_4897I’m looking forward to it!

 

(Photos by me)

Granada and Masaya

 

(Ruben y el Mundo, YouTube video), photos are mine

I did a daytrip to Granada, a beautiful city that is extremely walkable.  Very colorful homes, gorgeous churches (six that I visited), a lovely central park, and a quick twenty minute walk to Lake Nicaragua.  There is a large market too, but note that it caters to locals so many vegetables are whole, uncooked, and unwashed.  There are few souvenirs.  That’s one of the things I loved most about Nicaragua – everyone speaks Spanish to you, there are no name brand stores or fast food joints, and all the food is Nicaraguan – don’t expect a sushi restaurant or even a Mexican night of tacos.  I did pass one Irish pub, so I guess Guinness is universal.

Food here is cheaper than at Laguna de Apoyo.  I got an extremely filling meal of rice and beans, fried egg and cheese, plantains,  and fresh juice for $3.

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I recommend climbing La Merced church tower.  Lovely views, and a nice breeze which is comforting when it is so hot and humid.  I found some museums, but ended up wandering the city streets instead as it was a lovely day.  There is a chocolate museum for you chocolate lovers.  There is also a cigar factory where you can roll your own cigar and meet the resident parrot, but obviously people smoke cigars there so if you are sensitive to smoke like I am, steer clear.

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Lake Nicaragua is nice, but Laguna de Apoyo is far cleaner if you are wanting to swim.

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My daytrip on my second day was to Laguna de Masaya and the Masaya volcano.  I highly recommend it.  Masaya has a nice folk art museum for less than $1 admission.  It has a great market with hammocks, wood crafts, ceramics, etc.  Bargaining is a must, and you must do it in Spanish.  I found that even with poor Spanish, I got prices down 25% easily.

I walked to Malecon, a nice park with a walkway along Laguna de Masaya with great views and shade.

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I took a taxi for $3 to the volcano.  I then bargained for the driver to stay with me and take me back to Laguna de Apoyo.  People are so friendly and kind in Nicaragua.  He was eager to be my unofficial guide, telling me about the volcano and recent eruptions.  He pointed out various rock formations.  I understood about 75% of his quick Spanish, but he was happy to rephrase things.  Note that you must sign in at the volcano and you get a quick safety lesson.  You have five minutes (up to 15 depending on the wind and activity level of the volcano on the day you go) to be close to the crater.  I had five minutes to grab some pictures and stare in wonder.  There is a night option too – if you want to see glowing lava.  Admission in the day was about $3.

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I also recommend stopping in Catarina for El Mirador, a high viewpoint of Laguna de Apoyo.

I highly recommend Nicaragua.  I felt completely safe, found it to be very affordable, loved exploring the culture and sights, and the nature is amazing.  It remains a little off the typical tourist track, so definitely consider it if you want to dive into the Hispanic culture.

 

 

 

Laguna de Apoyo

(YouTube, Pitahaya Property Group)

I am back from my two day whirlwind in Nicaragua.  I chose to stay lakeside at Laguna de Apoyo.  This property group’s video gives you a nice bird’s eye view of the beautiful natural surroundings. Note that it also shows Lake Nicaragua (the shots with the city), which is a half hour away.

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Speaking of bird’s eye views, there were a lot of birds – every morning before dawn it was as if you were in the middle of a huge brass band playing extra loudly.  Add in monkey howls, and you don’t need an alarm clock.  But, thankfully, the cacophony allowed me to get up before sunrise and watch a breathtaking show as the sun slowly rose over the water.

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The lake does not allow any motors, so it is clean and perfect for swimming, kayaking, and paddle boarding.  Rentals are available, with life jackets for $10 (USD) for an hour.  I just swam, and the water is 82 degrees.  The water is clear – you can see the rocky bottom as you wade out.  It gets very deep very quickly.  There have been recent drownings, so wear your life jacket if you go far out.  There are waves.  The lake was a volcanic crater.

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There are numerous restaurants and hotels lakeside, but no massive developments that disturb the views and nature.  The cheapest hostels are about $15 USD a night and the most expensive resort is about $80 a night.  The cheapest restaurants are about $5 for dinner, and the most expensive (if you ordered a fish dinner) would be about $20.  Here is my typical dinner: bean soup, plaintains, passion fruit juice for about $7, tip included.

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Yes, Nicaragua is super affordable!

Laguna de Apoyo is one hour from the capital Managua and its airport.  The easiest way to arrive is by taxi, which costs about $15-$25 depending on the time of day and your bargaining skills.  Laguna de Apoyo is located 25 minutes from the Masaya volcano and 25 minutes from Granada. There are bus services, but they are a good walk from the lake and run at very specific times so you can’t be as flexible in your schedule.  But, buses are very cheap.  They are colorfully painted school buses.

If you like nightlife, there is none except for listening to chirping.  It gets very dark, as there is little development on the lake, and all restaurants close and have lights out by 10pm.  The stars are lovely, however.  I went to bed by 10pm as I got up at 5:15am to monkey watch.   It was a perfect place for me to stay, but if you like lots of activity, do the Laguna as a daytrip.

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Photos: my iPod photos

 

 

 

Nicaragua

I will be taking a very short trip to Nicaragua.  With only two days, I will be busy trying to see as much as the city of Granada as possible and enjoying some time in nature.

Columbus explored the land in 1502, but the first Spanish settlement was founded in 1524.  Granada is the oldest European city in the Americas.

Most of Nicaraguans are Mestizos, a mixed Spanish-indigenous background.

Nicaragua became independent in 1838.  The first years were rough, with civil war between the two main cities: Leon and Granada.  Today, the capital city is Managua.

The USA became quite involved in Nicaraguan politics in the 20th century.  From having the Marines occupy the country to supporting dictatorships to the horrid Iran-Contra Affair, the US-Nicaragua relationship has been fraught with tension.

Although now technically a democracy, President Ortega changed the constitution to run for a third term, and his rule has been certainly controversial.  One major debate is the idea of a Nicaraguan Canal, with support from the Chinese.  Supporters believe it would boost the economy enormously, and as evidence cite how Panama is the wealthiest country in Central America.   Those opposed fear environmental destruction, loss of indigenous culture, opportunities for mass corruption and foreign influence.

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Photo:  of Granada, by Elemaki , Wikipedia, free distribution

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PETA and banning elephant rides

Vantage Travel will no longer offer elephant rides on their travel itineraries.  From the Boston Herald:

“Vantage is joining the 5 million members of PETA in the noble cause of stopping the abuse and exploitation of elephants by eliminating elephant rides and elephant shows from our itineraries,” spokeswoman Kristen Caldon said.

In the past few years, PETA has been educating travel companies on the abusive practices behind elephant tourist rides.  Most of elephants are chained when not being used.  They are often trained by harsh measures, including chain whips.

Other companies agreeing to stop elephant rides include Collette Vacations, Costco Travel, Tauck, and Trip Advisor.

I don’t always agree with PETA’s methods, but I am pleased they have raised awareness on this issue and have gotten positive results.

photo: taken in Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park

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Predator Hunts approved

Back on February 19, I had a post about a Congressional bill to remove protections for Alaska’s wildlife on National Refuges.  I am very sorry to say that the bill passed the Senate this week, a vote on party lines.

Predator hunts (such as on wolves and bears) will be permitted.  Cruel methods like gassing dens is even permissible.

From the Alaska Dispatch News:

“At the heart of the disagreement between state and federal wildlife managers is what each group thinks should guide its purpose. The federal government has argued that the goal on refuges and in parks should be biodiversity. The state Board of Game has an interest in ensuring maximum sustained populations for hunting.”

In my opinion, the Alaska Board of Game is mistaken.  By killing predators, thus increasing populations of prey like elk, they are throwing nature out of balance.  For the long term health of their land, that is a bad recipe.

Unfortunately, short term profit is too often valued over long term benefit.  Hunting is a major tourist economy in Alaska.  Yet, the beauty of biodiversity and vast natural spaces would make Alaska a special place for generations to come.

Excessive oil drilling and lopsided hunting policies are clearly unwise for the long term health of Alaska and our planet.

IMG_1640Photo: taken at my zoo