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May 2007

Venezuela-Land of Passion

12

May

Venezuela, like all of South America, has seen its fair share of ups and downs, but history and politics aside, Venezuela and its capital Caracas, still remain great tourist destinations for those seeking something a little off the beaten path, a little more rugged, and a little more lively.Caracas (population around 5 million) on first sight is an architecturally uninspiring, sprawling urban center with looming concrete buildings built during the 70s dominating the landscape. Still, once in the grip of the city, visitors will find examples of colonial architecture mixed with a growing modern influence. Caracas has a well-known—and well-deserved—reputation as being dirty, but it is the people themselves that give the city its life and energy. Full of life, smiles, and a passion for good times, Caraquenos possess a warmth and friendliness that is not often found in large cities such as this. Another reputation that Caracas has is for having a high crime rate, and this too is a well-deserved reputation. Even in the nicer neighborhoods, locals use much care at night when leaving the house after 9 PM. Taxis are the safest means of transportation, although during the day, the subway is a cheap, clean, and efficient means of navigating the city. For the tourist, Caracas presents a variety of cultural experiences for all visitors. Not to be missed are:

  • Iglesia de San Francisco—the beautiful 16th century church where Simon Bolivar anointed himself “The Liberator” from the Spanish, and later held his funeral. Probably the best monument to colonial architecture in the city.
  • Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Caracas—Caracas’ modern art museum, boasting works from such masters as Bacon, Picasso, Miro, and many Venezuelan contemporary masters as well. Perhaps the best modern art museum in South America.
  • Parque Los Caobos-a beautiful old park featuring huge trees planted to celebrate Venezuela’s independence, and a large working fountain help to transport visitors back to the Colonial years.

Visitors to Venezuela should not spend all their time merely in Caracas. . .not when the country offers so many other amazing opportunities to explore the beauty and friendliness of this land.

Isla Margarita is another destination worth checking out. Located just a short plane ride, or longer ferry trip away, the island Venezuelans call “the pearl of the Caribbean” feels light years away from the hustle and bustle of the capital. White sandy beaches and small fishing villages mix with sparkling hotels, casinos, and enough restaurants, nightlife, and opportunities for relaxation or adventure to satisfy any traveler.

Angel Falls is another sight that should be on any traveler’s must-see list. Located in Venezuela’s Parque Nacional Canaima—a protected area the size of Belgium—visitors will find the world’s tallest waterfall. Named for a U.S. pilot who discovered it, Angel Falls sends a vast torrent of water down 2,647 feet, or more than twice the height of the Empire State building. Seeing the falls, though, requires some effort. Although it is possible to charter a plane or helicopter and see it from the air, those wishing a closer experience must have an adventurous spirit. Due to the remote location, travelers must hire a guide and a 4X4 vehicle to make the 3-4 day trip which includes stops at villages and many different points to witness this majestic natural formation.

Venezuela is certainly an “off the beaten path” destination, but contains such variety that any traveler should find something of interest. Beneath its grimy exterior, Caracas is a sophisticated city boasting world-class arts and shopping, as well as restaurants and nighttime diversions aplenty. For nature lovers, or those looking for a more relaxing experience, Venezuela is a natural beauty with a landscape that is second to none. Finally, the people themselves are the real reason to visit this dynamic land. Able to smile and always ready to make a friend, Venezuelans are open, amiable, and visitor will find themselves infected with the festive spirit that is Venezuela.


Argentina-South America’s Best Bargain

11

May

Since the Argentine Financial Crisis that started the new century, Argentina has found itself as the hottest new tourist destination in South America, and is now one of the biggest travel bargains in, not only South America, but the world. That’s what happens when your currency gets devalued, and overnight a hotel room that once cost $100US now costs $35. It’s safe to say that Argentina wasn’t on too many people’s travel radar in the 90s, when a vacation there cost as much as one to New York, London, Sydney, or Paris. Not to mention that Argentina and its capital, Buenos Aires, were not nearly as developed as first world capital cities, but still cost the same! However, times have certainly changed.

These days, Buenos Aires is the South American destination for hipsters, backpackers, businessmen, and students of everything from art to economy, who go there to see what all the talk is about…an in Buenos Aires, there is plenty of talk! No one talks as much (or as loudly) as the Argentines. Fueled by strong espressos (or, cortados, when they are taken with a dollop of steamed milk) and wines from the Andes, the Argentines are nothing if not loquacious. All day and night, the bars and cafes are full of people smoking and drinking coffee and talking about everything from the IMF to the Rolling Stones. Certainly, Buenos Aires has all the Romance and style that anyone could want. Although it is dirty and loud, Buenos Aires provides a great setting and can make almost anyone feel like writing a novel, making a documentary, or setting up a photo shoot in any restaurant and street corner. Indeed, the sense of style is so pervasive, that one sometimes wonders if there is any substance to go along with it. Certainly, if one knows where to look, there is.

The barrios of San Telmo and Palermo are the two mas movidos (with the most life, or movement) but are vastly different in appearance and demographics. Palermo is made up of two parts, Palermo and Palermo Viejo. Palermo is the Manhattan of Buenos Aires, and home to the cities main shopping, eating, and nightlife. Palermo Viejo, is a smaller neighborhood, that features small plazas, cafes, and art galleries, all set along cobblestone streets, with tree-lined streets. San Telmo is located closer to the center of the city, and is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. Home to tango schools, the country’s only film school, and numerous antique shops, markets, cafes, and street performers, San Telmo offers visitors a bohemian lifestyle, set among some of the most charming architecture in the city.

Portenos (Buenos Aires residents) are a nocturnal species, and for the visitor, the lifestyle of the city can come as quite a shock. It is not uncommon for residents to eat dinner at 10 PM (or later) and then have drinks at a bar, before heading out to a dance club (boliche) at around 2 AM! Also not uncommon is for this behavior to be done 3-4 nights a week! One wonders where they find time to work.

Certainly any trip to Argentina will include at least one stop in Buenos Aires, but there are loads of other places to see in the world’s 8th largest country. Patagonia is a wilderness the size of France with a population density of roughly 2 people per square kilometer. Patagonia features an array of geological sights, such as glaciers, lakes, mountains, and wild, desolate land. The unique and beautiful towns of Neuquen, San Martin, and Chubut province lie in Patagonia, and are scenic wonders.

To the west of Buenos Aires is the Argentina wine country, which includes the cities of Mendoza and Cordoba. These cities are vastly different from the hustle and bustle of Buenos Aires, and boast some of the best universities in Argentina, as well as a wonderful mix of colonial and modern architecture, all set up against a backdrop of the Andes. Recently, Cordoba has been growing into something of the IT capital of South America, as many high-tech companies are moving in. Also this part of the country provides a traveler with the means to visit Argentina’s vineyards and bodegas. Situated in a perfect location for growing grapes and other agricultural produce, the weather is almost always mild and sunny in this region.

People who enjoy shopping will love Argentina. From high quality leather goods, to wine and handicrafts, Buenos Aires and Argentina have top notch malls, stores, and markets to attract and fulfill almost everyone’s shopping needs.

Although prices are still low in Buenos Aires (it is one of, if not the, cheapest developed capital cities in the world now) they are slowly rising—especially for tourists. Inflation continues to choke the economy, and although the government has paid off its foreign debts, the economy has still failed to achieve the rapid growth found in the neighboring countries of Chile and Peru. Petty crime is still a problem (President Bush’s daughters were the victims of purse snatching in San Telmo, even with the Secret Service watching), but there is little violent crime.


Thailand-Home of Sun and Smiles

02

May

Thailand is located in a cultural turning point; it lays in the center of Southeast Asia, and is neighbours with countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, as well as others. The full name of Thailand is “Prathet Thai” which means ‘Land of the Free’ when translated literally. Thailand has four basic natural regions; in Northern Thailand, are lush forests, and majestic mountains. In Southern Thailand visitors will find the beautiful beaches, and islands along the coast. There are also the seemingly neverending rice fields, located in Thailand’s Central Plains, and the agricultural economy, located in the farmlands of the Northeastern Plateau. Thailand is a kingdom; led by His Majesty King Rama IX, and is composed over seventy-six different provinces, all with their own unique histories, and social structures.

There are a diverse number of attractions in Thailand, available for the palate of any tourists taste, such as eco-tourism, wildlife expeditions, historical and educational points of interest, and many more.

  • Go exploring in the caves of Thailand, located in the West, South and North of the country, where you’ll discover sleeping bats, intricate tiny scared houses for Buddha, and underground worlds of delight.
  • Whitewater rafting is a thrilling adventure for couples or families; there’s also the more relaxed rides, bamboo rafting in the North of the country.
  • The wildlife in Thailand is just as diverse as its people and culture; wildlife viewing is another popular activity, in Thailand’s various wildlife preserves, and national parks; there are even elephant tours and trekking for the whole family.
  • There are coastal and sea tours available for those who want to travel over the water in style and leisure, as well as fishing, and watersports as well.
  • Tourists who want to explore the array of culture delights and traditions all over the country can visit the enormous metropolis of Bangkok, the colorful cultures of the North, the fascinating traditions of the Hilltribes, and the floating markets, and canals on the river.

The cuisine found in Thailand is a cultural blend of both Western and Eastern foods; the five main tastes in Thai foods are sweet, sour, spicy, salty, and occasionally bitter. Some of the other major influences also come from neighbouring countries, such as Laos, Malaysia, and China. As a matter of fact, many of the dishes found in Thailand are actually just natively influenced Chinese food. Thai food is popular all over the world, in the United States, Australia, and all over Europe as well. There are several popular dishes, such as “rad na” which is wide noodles, with different meats, or seafoods, or “pad thai” which is rice noodles, cooked with lime juice, sugar or other ingredients, and egg, while also including meats, or tofu. Sticky rice, called “kao niao” is used in a variety of desserts, along with coconut milk, or bananas.

There are several options for transportation while traveling through Thailand; when in large cities, traveling by bicycle, scooter, can be faster, or even on foot; or, if you don’t mind a more leisurely trip, or the traffic, you can travel by bus or taxi. Traveling through the countryside can be done by car, or by rail, and for those who plan to do a little island hopping while on the coast, can also use ferries for transport. Finding accommodation is easy in Thailand as well to fit any budget; from luxury hotel suites, and spa resorts, to more modest coastal cottages, or bed and breakfast establishments in the country.