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January 2007

San Miguel – Sophisticated Small-Town Mexico



Eleven months out of the year, San Miguel de Allende is a quiet and calm–yet uniquely sophisticated—small town located in the high desert three hours north of Mexico City. The other month—September—is so frenetic and crazy that you will swear you’ve stepped into a mad, Mexican version of Mardi Gras. You see, San Miguel isn’t your typical small-town Mexico, even though it looks the part from the outside.

The town is named after two important figures: San Miguel, the monk who founded the town in 1542, and General Ignacio Allende, one of the key leaders of Mexican independence from Spain. For years, San Miguel was nothing more than a stop over for travelers headed to and from the silver mines of Zacatecas, but it always lie in the hotbed of Mexican intellectualism—the state of Guanajuato. Though it was home to independent thinkers, artists, writers, and wealthy citizens from Mexico City, San Miguel found itself fading away in the early 1900s. As is the case with many dying neighborhoods and towns, the artists were responsible for bringing the town back to life.

In the 1930s two important events took place. The Bellas Artes art school was founded, and an American artist and teacher, Sterling Dickinson, moved there. Dickinson spent his time teaching children and serving the community by assisting with many public works. Today, his name is found all over town, while the Bellas Artes school draws students from all over the world.

The American invasion began in earnest following World War II, when G.I.s discovered (partly through the efforts of Dickinson) not only the town and its many art schools, but also that their education grants would go much further. Soon the word was out, and the 60s brought such characters as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters, Jack Kerouac, Neil Cassidy, Alan Ginsburg, among others. And the visitors keep on coming. In addition to the numerous retirees that call the town home, students still come for summer courses, and even Hollywood has recently gotten into the act. Numerous music videos have been shot in San Miguel, along with the recent hits, The Mexican, starring Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, and Once Upon a Time in Mexico, with Johnny Depp and Antonio Banderas.

The town center of San Miguel is a Mexican national historic monument, and features the Parroquia, the famous pink, Gaudi-inspired church that dominates the plaza and the downtown area. Laws are in place to keep out too much commercialism, and you won’t find too many American chain restaurants. If you’re looking for quality Mexican home cooking, though, San Miguel offers a wide variety of cuisine—from tacos on the street, to five-star restaurants to satisfy even the most demanding palate.

Much has changed recently. Today, land and property prices are booming, and San Miguel boasts some of the more pricey real estate in Mexico. Visitors wishing to spend time in this charming town, can find hotels to fit any budget. If you are planning on a long-term stay, furnished houses and apartments are available for affordable rates. For as little as $400/month, one can find fully furnished and remodeled old houses with gardens, cable, internet, and all the amenities of home. The internet is full of offerings, but they are usually much higher than what one can find asking around on the streets and tiendas. Local expats will tell you—the best way to find bargain housing is by asking in the neighborhood shops.

But back to September…

If a month-long, wild party is what you are looking for, then September is the month to be in San Miguel. This month is the month for Mexican Independence, and since General Allende is from here, the celebration goes on and on. The town begins filling up at the beginning of the month and by the time the 16th (Independence Day) rolls around, the party is in full swing with up to 200,000 in the small town. On the 23rd, is the Pamplonada, or Sanmiguelada—the annual running of the bulls, in which, like its famous cousin in Spain, thousands take to the streets to celebrate and chase the bulls in a dangerous, yet popular, festival. If you are thinking about going in September, you must book reservations far in advance. The towns population triples or even quadruples in this month, and people can be seen sleeping in their cars, tents, alleyways, and anywhere else due to the overflow of visitors.

Prague – Renaissance Underway



Since the collapse of communism in 1989, Prague has consistently found itself among the top 10 most visited cities in Europe. Known for its beautiful and charming old buildings and alleyways, as well as its reputation as a haven for intellectuals and artists, Prague remains one of the most popular-and affordable-destinations in Europe. From the romance of the Charles bridge, to Prague Castle (the largest castle in Europe), to restaurants, bookstores, antique shops, and roaming jazz bands, the sights and activities have been drawing tourists in droves, and the flood of visitors isn’t likely to subside any time soon.

Prague has a laundry list of world class attractions including classical music, art galleries, castles, museums, churches, all in as stunning and gorgeous a setting as a traveler can find anywhere. For history junkies, Prague offers enough interesting delights to keep anyone busy for weeks, months, even years studying and visiting its beautifully persevered old buildings. Though World War II was most unkind to the Czechs, it did spare Prague from bombings, and the buildings in the city remain totally intact.

The Czechs are a fiercely independent people, but the fact that the Czech Republic is a small country, historically and geographically positioned between larger empires, independence for the Czechs has never been assured. Beginning with the Habsburgs and the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages, then concluding in the 20th century with the rule of the Germans and Soviets, the Czechs have had to fight for their freedom, independence, and identity. Stifled for much of the past century, the recent renaissance of Prague and the Czech Republic has helped usher in boom times.

Prague has joined the European Union in many aspects, but has yet to accept the Euro currency as its own. The prices, while double or triple what they were in the early 90s, are still very low for European standards, making Prague a bargain, even nearly 18 years after becoming a free market.

Many Americans immigrated to Prague in the early 90s: some drawn by tales of $50 a month apartments and real Bohemian life, others by the idea of investment opportunities. Perhaps they were greeted in the train station by someone offering a bare-bones apartment or extra bedroom with sporadic telephone service and little or no hot water. Five star accommodations were non-existent. Whatever the reasons, the Prague that these early visitors found is not the same as the Prague that exists today.

The days of the $50 a month apartment are gone, but the quality of housing has improved dramatically. Now, the same studio apartment that cost $50 a decade ago can be found for around $400, but is likely to include satellite TV, DSL internet, and stylish, modern furniture. Many Americans who went to Prague in the early 90s hoping to take advantage of cheap rents and were shocked at the lack of services and amenities offered then, would be amazed at the modernization and improvements that have occurred in the past decade. A quick search on the internet will yield endless possibilities for affordable housing.

Under communism, the Czech traditions of coffee, beer, cigarettes, and café conversation were severely stifled (well, more the conversation than the others), but today Czechs are more than happy to sit, smoke, drink, and discuss politics, music, art, cinema, and current events with their visitors from different parts of the world. Some studies say that the Czechs consume more alcohol per capita than any other country…and it’s not hard to believe. Beer is incredibly cheap, and some of, if not, the best in the world. Budvar, Pilsner Urquell, and Velvet are some of the more popular and delicious brands.

Older Pragers greet the future and the changes underway with a mix of awe and scorn. Having lived through so many changes and travails, their reservations are quite understandable. The young Czechs, however, embrace the present and future with open minds and arms. Hope is in the air, and Prague will continue with its timeless traditions, even though the future is quickly becoming now.

Costa Rica-The Place to Be in Central America



Costa Rica is a Central American country that is rich in beaches, as its name implies, as well as people who are called “ticos.” This Spanish speaking country has so much to offer travelers from jungles and volcanoes to beaches and hot water springs. Whatever adventure you are looking for you can surely make it a reality in Costa Rica.

San Jose, The Capital
San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica and while it is a big city you will enjoy the friendliness of the people. Gringos visiting will be welcomed as tourism is a big part of the country’s economy and overall the city, despite crowded, is safe. Most all travelers will arrive in San Jose and from there can choose other destinations within the country. But the beauty of San Jose should not be overlooked. There are all the traditional big city things to do like shop, visit museums, and eat in restaurants. But, there are also other activities like the theatre, butterfly parks, and bus tours to enjoy.

Manuel Antonio
Costa Rica means rich coast and when you visit some of the amazing beaches the name of the country is truly fitting. One of the best beaches to visit is Manuel Antonio. This is also a national park where you can walk up and down the mountain trails looking at monkeys, snakes, sloths, butterflies, iguanas, and any other animal that might show its face. There are multilingual tour guides for hire outside the gate or you can tour the park on your own. The paths lead through the mountains as well as down to the beaches. The beaches of Manual Antonio are glorious, clean, and complemented by cliffs and large boulders that meet the sea.

Tabacon Resort
Located in Arenal, Costa Rica, the Tabacon Resort is a must see. You can stay in the resort or else you can just visit the hot springs. It’s one thing to read about but an entirely different thing to experience. It’s like a large well manicured garden with lots of different waterfalls, hot springs, pools, and other water features. As you experience the different hot springs you will notice some are scorching hot while others are quite cool. All of them are heated by the nearby volcano. If you want a visual experience like no other as well as a relaxing soak in a variety of different hot springs then Tabacon Resort is a must see.

The Jungle
Costa Rica offers tourists jungle adventures as well. One of the coolest of all is to take a zip line through the jungle canopy. You zoom from one tower to the next via zip lines and get a view of all kinds of wildlife and foliage not to mention the jungle from above. A tour of the jungle on foot is also a lot of fun and educational, but don’t forget the guide to show you all the wildlife you might be missing without a trained eye.

Midday Showers

If you travel to Costa Rica don’t get upset if it rains every day because it more than likely will, especially during June and July. The good news is the afternoon showers don’t last very long and then the sun comes back out to make for a glorious day.

Pura Vida
In Costa Rica you will hear the ticos saying “pura vida” frequently in their conversations, even when it doesn’t seem to fit. This simply means “pure life” and it is what Costa Rica is all about. So, if you want an amazing vacation that capitalizes on the pure life and a whole lot of fun then Costa Rica is a must visit!

Ecuador-A Beautiful Country in the Andes



Many individuals talk about how beautiful South America is and that is the truth. However, countries like Brazil and Argentina are talked about more than some of the other countries like Ecuador. Ecuador, although smaller than Brazil and Argentina, is perhaps even more beautiful than both these countries combined. This Andean country borders Colombia and Peru as well as the Pacific Ocean and has three considerably different climates despite being small in landmass.

Few people would ever imagine that Ecuador has such diversity and to visit is simply amazing. You can have practically three vacations in one all in the same country. The jungle, mountains, and coast are all represented in this small country and each area offers different opportunities for travelers.

The Amazon
For example, visit the Amazon jungle of Ecuador and sleep in a tree house, take a ferry down the Amazon River, engage in an adventure in the heart of the jungle, and view the wildlife and plants that are indigenous to the area.

The Sierra
In the sierra the Andes mountains grace the earth and provide a beautiful setting for several cities, most specifically the capital of Quito. There are several volcanoes in this region as well that spout ashes and smoke every once in a while. A recent volcanic explosion in the tourist town of Baños covered the land with ashes, but this is not a common occurrence and it is safe to travel here. The tourist town of Baños is still an incredible place to visit for its hot water springs and waterfalls.

Otavalo is yet another tourist town in the sierra that is known for its artisans. A traveler can pick up all kinds of handmade goods like sweaters, gloves, bags, hats, as well as hand painted landscapes, silver jewelry, wood carvings, and much more. Haggling with the vendors can be fun and result in even cheaper prices than those already offered.

The capital of Quito is always busy and has a diverse population. Visitors can check out historic buildings and the famous El Panasillo, which is a huge angel monument towering over the city. Another place to visit in Quito is La Mitad del Mundo, which means the middle of the world. Here visitors can stand in both hemispheres simultaneously with the equator marked by a yellow line. Museums, restaurants, malls, parks, soccer games, concerts, and bull fights are just some of the other must see activities in Quito.

The Coast
Making your way to the coast you will feel a major change in climate. The cool nights and warm days of Quito and the hot, humid jungle are exchanged for sunny days with high temperatures. The breeze coming off the ocean helps tourists feel more comfortable, though. Guayaquil is the biggest coastal city and the principal port for the country. Salinas is another coastal tourist town that has the country’s most beautiful beaches and is dotted with high rise condos. Those looking for beautiful beaches yet a smaller town with a more laid back atmosphere should check out Bahia de Caraquez, Montañita, or Canoa.

And if mainland Ecuador doesn’t offer enough diversity for you then you can always head to the country’s Galapagos Islands that are a couple hundred miles off the coast. Flights and cruises are both available to reach the islands.

Ecuador offers tourists everything they could ever imagine and it is amazingly affordable as well. Those who speak Spanish will especially enjoy a vacation in this Andean country while those who don’t will find many Ecuadorians speak some English in the big cities and are always willing to help out. There are plenty of Spanish language schools throughout the country that can give a crash course to help you better understand your vacation.

If you are considering a vacation in South America you should definitely put Ecuador on the list of possibilities. It is beautiful, safe, diverse, affordable, and very friendly to tourists.