Cartagena de Indias’ Vibrant and Exciting Nightlife

As a country known for its dancing, it’s at night when Colombia really starts to heat up. USTOA tour operator member, Avanti Destinations shows travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro around Cartagena de Indias’ vibrant and exciting nightlife – complete with a personal salsa lesson.

For more up close and personal looks at the people and experiences of Cartagena de Indias, check out these specialized videos from Kelley on foodshopping and day trips.

The Beat Goes On in Cartagena

by Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

I could feel bass beat reverberate through my body and waft through the neighborhood as I stepped out of the car and walked through the open door twinkling with Christmas lights.  The beat seemed to be as powerful as the hug I received when entering the Perez-Cuesta family home in the suburbs of Cartagena, Colombia.  It was a welcome like no other for my first night in Colombia.  I was expecting a handshake and I received a powerful, emotional hug – one that in my culture is normally reserved for close family or friends.  I quickly learned being hugged with gusto was a normal greeting in Cartagena, as each of the four daughters came and did the same thing as they seemed to burst with excitement about the evening.

Upon arrival in Cartagena, my first exposure to the local culture was to actually set foot in a local’s house and be treated to one of the most genuine and heartwarming nights I can remember in my travels.  As Ruth, the mother, was busy cooking dinner the daughters entertained us showing us the small but lovely three bedroom home and answering my many questions about life in Cartagena.  More family members and neighbors seemed to pour in like a moth to the flame.  I was struck by the affection of the entire extended family and random neighbors, all hugging and greeting as if they hadn’t seen each other for ages.

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The Perez-Cuesta family + cousins + neighbors + me = a bundle of energy!

The plantanos were frying as we shared beers in the living room, but all the while I was aware of the music in the background.  The whole neighborhood had their doors and windows open and everyone seemed to be living to the beat. Thinking about all the times I wanted to scream at my neighbors for playing music too loud in their apartment, I asked if any of the neighbors ever complained about the music in the neighborhood.  They looked at me surprised as if they didn’t even hear the music outside, and they had suddenly become aware of it now.  “No, everyone loves the music” Ruth answered slightly confused at why I would even ask the question.

Cartagena, Colombia is a symphony of sound more than any place I’ve ever been.  The constant drumbeat seems to be the heartbeat of the city.  Musical scenes play out on every corner of Old Town, Getsemani, and even little beach towns like Manzanillo.  Everywhere I went people were laughing and moving to the beat.  Giant speakers in public were the norm as people spilled out of establishments and into the streets of Cartagena at all hours of the day.  This music was the canvas to their overall bubbly free-flowing personalities.  This was a culture with gusto and energy, they lived outwardly and because of that, I immediately loved Colombia.

As I walked around the Old City, I watched a waitress move her hips to the beat and pump her arms up in the air for a moment as if everything else around her has disappeared.  The barefoot man in Bazurto market walking among a dozen big pots of oil with furious flames lapping up beneath them plops whole fish in the hot oil in perfect beat to the music.  As he moves on to the next big pot he shuffles his feet as if he’s salsa dancing with a ghost and then plops in another fish.  All the while with a big smile on his face doing what seems to me to be one of the hottest, hardest, and thankless jobs I’ve seen. I round a corner in the Getsemani neighborhood and find a crowd around three men playing music.  One has an accordion, one has an old pail for a drum, and one has what resembles a cheese grater; together they make beautiful high-energy music.  The crowd of locals moves to the beat and claps along.  All I could do was stop and smile at this scene of pure music joy.

Music and smiles found all over the streets

Music and smiles found all over the streets

I needed to find a way to get more involved; I was tired of being on the outside of this music looking in.  I wanted to feel the music like the locals, and Eduardo, my Avanti Destinations’ assigned guide, suggest I take a private salsa lesson in the Old City.  It was a hot steamy night as I walked up the stairs into the dance studio and startled the tall man lounging on a metal chair.  He didn’t speak English, but that was ok as all I had to do was follow his lead.  He turned on the overhead fans, looked at me, smiled, and a barrage of Spanish started flowing.  I just smiled and followed his steps.

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

Learning the 1, 2, 3, tap of the Salsa!

I learned different salsa steps including the Colombian and Cuban versions which seemed to me to have subtle variations, but to the locals it was very clear delineations.  My hips seemed to loosen up as the music got louder and finally after following his every movement in front of the class he took my hand and we danced together.  I could hear the crowd outside starting to rev up for the night and I bid my instructor adios and went out to test out my newly learned skills.

Now I’m really dancing!

Now I’m really dancing!

Upon the recommendation of Eduardo, I found just what I was looking for at Donde Fidel’s Salsa bar.  As I rounded the corner near Plaza de la Coches you could hear the music.  It was as if the Pied Piper were luring in the dancers around the Old City late into the night as the restaurants closed.  I followed the music to the corner and found a lively colorful scene with women moving their hips like I never knew was possible.  That certainly wasn’t covered in my beginning salsa class; those were advanced movements for sure! But the Colombians made it look so easy and carefree, like they came out of the womb moving their hips and feet in a rhythmic fashion.  But after a lifetime of music, of course dancing would come as naturally as walking to them.

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

Looking in on Fidel’s Salsa Bar – a mix of people and music

I sat at the bar content to watch the sites of young, old, tourist, and locals all intermix in salsa beat.  There was no real dance floor, but no one cared, whatever space was available was used.  People bumped into each other and no one minded, as eternal smiles seemed to be on their faces.  It took exactly two songs before I was beckoned to join.  I knew the locals wouldn’t let people sit around for long and just be a voyeur.

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Locals feeling the beat at Fidel’s in the Old City Cartagena

Soon someone had my hand and I was hip to hip with strangers, smiling, laughing and moving to the beat produced by the giant sound system behind the bar. Instead of being on the outside, I was on the inside now, my inhibitions slipping away with each step.  After the set of songs, I gave my new dancing partner a powerful, emotional hug like Ruth gave me when I arrived in Cartagena.  I didn’t even care that he was a stranger, it just felt right – now I really was a part of Colombia.

 

 

 

Explore Cartagena de Indias, Colombia

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia is an extraordinary seaside city where modern and age-old cultures blend together, radiating a vibrant energy that is transparent in the people, food, art, and culture. Join travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com Kelley Ferro as she journeys through Cartagena meeting locals, learning to dance salsa, and much more with USTOA member Avanti Destinations.

Ready to see more? Watch the videos below or read Kelley’s latest blog post to experience the incredible food, nightlife, culture and people of Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.

Custom Day Trips

Experience the Nightlife of Cartagena

Tasting the Food of Cartagena

Cartagena’s Top Shopping Locations

My Colombian Family

Including an interview with Wendy, my Colombian “sister”

by Kelley Ferro

Not everyone would be comfortable opening up their home, their family and themselves to complete strangers–particularly strangers from a different continent without any knowledge of their language. But the Perez-Cuesta family didn’t hesitate to invite our Travel Together group to their home on our very first night in Colombia. Justin, my cameraman, Sherry, our AFAR writer, and I were welcomed into their family with open arms.

The full Perez-Cuesta Family + Cousin Melissa

The full Perez-Cuesta Family + Cousin Melissa

Avanti Destinations arranged for our guide and driver to pick us up from our sophisticated colonial hotel in Cartagena’s old city, Hotel Santa Clara. I’d only been in this country a few hours and I already had seen part of the old city and now, the bustling surrounding neighborhoods, streets packed with people shopping as if it was the Colombian equivalent of “Black Friday.”

Our car pulled down some quieter, residential streets and turned on a street that was simply alight with Christmas decorations. Lucky for us we had arrived the day before the Feast of the Immaculate Conception–the festival of lights and city-wide kick- off to the Christmas season. It was a wonderfully festive time to see the city and it seemed that every home in Cartagena was bursting with the Christmas spirit.

The well decorated home

The well decorated home

Scanning the street, there was one home that stuck out in particular. The strands of lights were blinking rapidly, the music spilling out of the open door and the laughing voices of people inside carried to our car. To my delight, this was where we were heading–the six-person Perez Cuesta family was inside, expecting us for dinner–and we quickly found that out when they started waving from the windows.

In the doorway, I was greeted by a bevy of beautiful girls, all hugs and kisses and “Buenos Tardes”–the biggest hug of all coming from Mama Ruth Cuesta, one of the warmest people that I’ve ever met without a word of common language. The three of us American amigos cozied up in the living room, surrounded by mama and her four daughters, Wendy, Deymi, Leidy and Yurani, and cousin Melissa.

Carlos & his daughters

Carlos & his daughters

Hanging out before dinner

Hanging out before dinner

Their home had framed photos on every surface showing grandma and grandpa, school graduations and proms, and prime placement was given to the large, twinkling Christmas tree. Perched on couches, steps and the floor, all the girls showered us with questions, their English noticeably good, and they showed us photos on their phones and giggled bashfully at their English. The daughters translated any especially amusing parts for mama, who was laughing along anyway.

Carlos, the patriarch, came in from work, all smiles and warmth, just like the rest of his family. He gave us each big hugs after he too was showered by kisses from his daughters. It was an overwhelming and heartwarming scene.

I was able to communicate my questions about their daily life, school, jobs, and boyfriends–finding we had a lot in common. I’ve said this before, but when you travel you just find that people are more alike than they are different.

Daughters, cousin & our guide, Eduardo

Daughters, cousin & our guide, Eduardo

One exchange that I will never forget was our comparison of Christmas Eve traditions. They asked what my family did on Christmas Eve and I said that we have a fondue dinner, some champagne and we watch a Christmas movie. This sent the girls into hysterics:

”A Christmas movie?! On Christmas, you watch a movie with your family? Haha! Why?”

I love Christmas movies and thought that was a fairly common occurrence on Christmas Eve…

“Well, what do you do?” I asked.

“We dance!” Said the sisters in unison and they got up and started dancing, Mama looking on in approval.

Okay Cartagena, you win. Now that I think about it, I guess it is a little lame to sit silently in the dark, watching a movie you’ve seen a hundred times, with family that you don’t see often,  when you actually could be dancing! That is Cartagena to me in a nutshell: every moment seized, and there’s always a reason to be dancing.

One of the sisters asked if I wanted to see the upstairs, so I got a tour of their parents’ room, and all the sisters’ rooms. I was impressed that three girls split two rooms and two beds.  This was yet another uncommon occurrence in the USA–sisters sharing anything let alone a bed. With a family this close, they didn’t need any more space.

Mama called out for dinner and I found myself in the kitchen watching the housekeeper prepare “platanos.” She would smash each banana disk with a wooden tool, then fry them twice, filling a plate of our soon-to-be appetizer. Just the process looked fun so she let me jump in, laughing when I over-squished my plantain. We ate these double fried “platanos” with a dollop of suaro, or sour cream, and wow, they were devilishly good. I could hear the housekeeper still laughing about my squishing from the kitchen.

She made a great Marisco...

She made a great Marisco…

...and taught me how to make Platanos

…and taught me how to make Platanos

The dinner table was filled, arm to arm, and more plastic chairs were brought in from outside to accommodate the ever increasing number of guests. Cousins walked over from across the street, Wendy’s boyfriend stopped by, our driver came in, and we were joined by the local Cartagena tourism guide–our table was bursting with people. They must have smelled the Marisco, or seafood stew, that had been bubbling all day. Throughout dinner, the conversation never ceased and between bites I learned about Wendy’s job, her sister’s favorite spots to go out,  where to shop and what the locals were getting up to this holiday weekend.

Fish, Coconut Rice and Marisco

Fish, Coconut Rice and Marisco

After dinner we went back to the couch for some sweets– they introduced me to a local favorite dessert: squeaky cheese paired a cube of guava paste–a salty/sweet combo served on toothpick bite. We continued our chats about Hollywood, fashion, travel, weddings–we were able to communicate beautifully without having the same native language.

Bocadillo de Guayaba (or guava paste)

Bocadillo de Guayaba (or guava paste)

By the end of the night, I felt like I was part of the Perez Cuesta family and I just wanted to hang out with them for the rest of our stay! And though it’s hard to believe they’d want to do that, they definitely made me feel like they did. Waving goodbye and thanking them profusely for their generosity, time and genuine warmth, I felt that my American heart had grown three sizes but still it was nowhere as nearly large as a Colombian’s.  <3

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That was my side of the evening, but I truly wondered if the Perez-Cuesta girls and their mom and dad had as much of an impactful night as I did. Well, I’ve kept in touch with one of the daughters, Wendy, via Instagram, and I reached out to her to have her weigh in on her perspective of the night.

Kelley Ferro: What was your reaction to having American guests come visit your house?

Wendy Cuesta: Well, having people from the United States at our home was great, not just because we have fun but because we can actually show something different from what the TV and internet says about people in our country.

KF: How did your family decide what to make for dinner?

WC: If I can be honest… “our family” doesn’t decide what to make for dinner… our mom does! She is actually a great cook because she loves to do it! And in the Caribbean, seafood is of course the main dish… so is not really hard to decide what to serve.

KF: What was your favorite parts of the night?

WC: Well, my father loved the part when everyone just relaxes and start laughing at his jokes, which translated by me may not be as funny. My mom loves it when our guests tell her how much they love her cooking or compliments her daughters, but I think she enjoys the whole process since shopping for food until we say goodbye. I think for me and my sisters, having pictures taken was so much fun, and talking to you about personal lives, like your wedding or my sister’s job. It felt like we were having friends visiting that we hadn’t seen in years… not strangers at all.

KF: What did you learn about Americans from all of us?

WC: I learned that when you are open minded, life is just more fun. You all seemed so happy to be with us and having a ‘different night’ from usual tourism or traditional jobs, that it makes people wonder if maybe we are not being too close to possibilities or too shy to others.

KF: What did you like telling us about Colombia?

WC: I’m not exactly sure if we actually taught you anything… but I think we all loved the fact that you could see us as a family, as a real non-acting family. We love each other so much and are very close, and sadly I think is something parents and children are missing out these days, so I guess I’m just grateful for the beautiful family I have, that even though not all of us speak English, we manage to communicate altogether with you and have a great evening. And that’s actually what happens to us in daily life: we may not understand everything about each other, but we always figure things out, and I think that’s unique and precious.

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I couldn’t agree more. Special thanks to the Perez-Cuesta Family for setting the tone for our entire experience in Cartagena and to Avanti Destinations for making the experience possible.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

 

 

Bazurto Market to Table

by Sherry Ott, AFAR Ambassador

The ground was soft and wet with little puddles of muddy water mixed with fish guts, scales, blood and who knows what else.  This wasn’t a good day to be wearing flip-flops.  All of my senses were on high alert while traversing Bazurto Market. It was sensory overload and I felt like a kid in a candy store – bursting with excitement and attention deficit disorder every place I looked.  However, instead of being excited about pixie sticks and gumballs, in a twisted way I was excited about piles of intestines and pig heads.  It was a serious market, the kind where you get a glimpse into local food, eating culture, work habits, and traditions in an extremely ‘Bourdain Parts Unknown’ sort of way.  This is the stuff that’s normally kept far away from most American’s eyesight, the stuff that happens before that lovely piece of prime rib or fish fillet ends up behind the glass in the grocery market case.  And I absolutely loved it.

Crashing through the din of background salsa music was a loud pounding noise.  I panned around until I found the source; a middle age woman with a hair bonnet had her arm raised in the air holding a wooden club ready for her downward motion.  Bam! The club slams down onto the top of a knife driving it into the belly of a large fish.  This motion was repeated over and over until the fish was scored into 1 inch strips.  She suddenly put down the club and reached her arm, plastered in fish scales, across her body and grabbed a ½ bottle of open beer.  In one swift fluid motion she picked up the beer and chugged the remainder of the bottle slamming the empty down on the table with the same force she used with the wooden club.  She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, picked up her instruments again and moved on to the next fish.

Fish Monger in Bazurto Market

Fish Monger in Bazurto Market

I stood there speechless and giddy.  This was the real Cartagena in front of me.

When I told Ruth, a local friend, that we were going to Bazurto Market she was immediately worried.  She went through all of the normal warnings; watch out for pick pockets, don’t flash around your camera or cell phone, and be careful.  However, I knew what this really meant was the market was a place where few tourists go, which actually made me more excited than fearful.  I wasn’t too worried as we were going with locals, our guide Eduardo as well as Chef Javier as part of an experience offered by Avanti Destinations.

Bazurto Market 8

Chef Javier led us through the market greeting and hugging old friends, inspecting vegetables, talking to vendors, and pointing out various items that were new to us.  The market was partially outdoor and partially enclosed.  It was a maze of little alleys and tables.  As you walked around and observed the people working there, you could tell the relationships ran deep.  Vendors joked among their neighbors, and it was often a family affair as kids helped their fathers butcher and sell.

We started in the fish areas, but then moved further back into the main part of the market where the meat butchers were located.  Men with giant bellies and even bigger smiles were outfitted in plastic aprons covered in blood, happily carving away on big wooden stumps.   Warning: this section of the market isn’t for everyone but if you decide to wander through be prepared to see extremely raw visuals of animal parts. It was super to have Eduardo and Chef Javier with us to answer the inevitable questions of, “What is THAT? And what is it used for?”  We learned of soups, and various other dishes I had never heard of before, nor did I know if I’d be brave enough to try them myself.

Bazurto Market 3

Next we found ourselves in the vegetable section of the market.  You could tell the avocados were in season as there were carts and carts of them in various sizes.   Chef Javier sorted through the stack to find the perfect one for our ceviche he was planning for us.  After all of this walking around I was starting to get hungry.

Luckily for my stomach we finished up in the prepared food section of the market where large metal pots balanced on stands precariously filled to the brim with soup, rice, and seafood.  Tables lined with newspaper had stacks of freshly fried fish on them.   Eduardo saw me looking inquisitively at the various fried foods and soon he was handing me a piece of oily newspaper with a freshly fried ball of something, a lime wedge, and cooked yucca. I eagerly bit into the fried food.  It was salty and crispy and had a fishy taste – delicious.  However I decided it best I inquire about what I was eating once I was actually done eating it.  I had spent too much time in the market that morning seeing every (and I mean every) part of an animal that I decided sometimes it’s best to not know what you are eating.

Prepared Food in the Market

Prepared Food in the Market

Mystery fried food

Mystery fried food

We left the sounds of the market behind and headed out of town towards the tiny beach community of Manzanillo.  Perched right on the beach is Khosamui Hotel, where Chef Javier works his seafood culinary magic.  The vibe was completely different from the bustling market. A big open-air lobby was filled with colorful flowers and throw pillows. The upstairs patio overlooked the beach and came with a fabulous and constant sea breeze to gently rock your hammock back and forth; providing the perfect place for a lazy nap while lunch was prepared.

Kohsamui Hotel – a perfect place to relax

Kohsamui Hotel – a perfect place to relax

I was awoken from my nap with the sounds of salsa music and someone offering me a cold beer.  Eduardo beckoned me downstairs where lunch was ready.  Chef Javier paraded out fresh colorful plates of seafood.  It was hard to reconcile that these lovely culinary creations came from the gritty market environment we were in a few hours ago.  Proving that it’s not how it starts, but how it ends on your plate that is important.   Some tourists might think the Bazurto market is a bit too much local insight, but it’s real, and it’s where the food in Cartagena comes from.   I adored my opportunity to see past the tourist veneer; it may not be pretty, but it’s a real local experience.

Lobster Ceviche

Lobster Ceviche

And if you don’t think you can take the ‘real-ness’ of it, then no problem, simply enjoy what’s on your plate.  Sometimes it’s easier to just enjoy the food and not know all the gory details.

Oh yes, and the fried food Eduardo gave me to try in the market?  Well, I learned later it was fish testicles.  Details, details.

 

 

 

Explore Manitoba with Tauck

Churchill, Manitoba is known as the “polar bear capital of the world” where adventurous travelers can get up close and personal with these majestic beasts as they migrate to the Hudson Bay in search of food for the winter ahead. From Winnipeg to Churchill, explore Manitoba alongside travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com Kelley Ferro as she interacts with polar bears, goes dog sledding, tries the local specialties and more during a once-in-a-lifetime journey with USTOA member Tauck.

Ready to see more? Watch the videos below to experience the incredible culture, wildlife, people and food of Manitoba.

Animals of Manitoba

Luxury on the Tundra

The Locals of Manitoba

Manitoba Guides

Tasting the Foods of Manitoba

Explore Croatia Like a Local

Croatia offers jaw dropping landscape, picturesque towns, incredible local food and a living history that’s felt throughout. Explore Croatia with travel expert and video journalist Kelley Ferro as she cycles through this dynamic country with USTOA member, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations.

Ready to explore more? Watch the videos below to experience the incredible culture, landscape and food of Croatia.

Food of Croatia

Local Products in Croatia

The Locals of Croatia

Explore Croatia

Being Active in Croatia

My Week as an Arctic Explorer

by Kelley Ferro

Rarely do you set out on a trip and truly feel like an explorer, but I felt like a modern day Magellan when I embarked on my Polar Bear Adventure in Manitoba. This aptly named small group journey with Tauck was indeed the quintessential adventure. Our frontier was Churchill and our prize was sighting the largest land carnivore, the polar bear. However, I didn’t realize that my discoveries on this adventure were not going to be limited to these white, graceful bears. There was a whole lot more to discover in this tiny, remarkable town located of on the edge of the Arctic.

Arriving in Churchill

Just getting up to Churchill was an adventure of sorts. Our group met in the capital city of Winnipeg, which I had previously considered quite far north in Canada. We then flew in a private charter,1,000 miles more North. I was glued to the window as the landscape changed underneath me, going from dense, dark forest to icy, white tundra.

Greeted by one of the famed polar bears

Stepping out of the plane onto the tarmac in a blustery snowstorm seemed fitting for a town that has one of the longest winters in the world. Churchill is only accessible by a long train journey or by plane–no roads drive in here– and there’s something exhilarating about being so far away. We were among the few tourists in this 800 person town, and though our lodgings were quite luxurious at the Lazy Bear Lodge, I felt like we were brave travelers, here to explore this remote land and bring back stories of the famed polar bears.

Selfie inside the warm Arctic Crawler

We were barely in Churchill for 24 hours before I was literally eye to eye with a polar bear. Of course, I had the protection of being inside my warm Arctic Crawler, a well-equipped bus with a woodstove, food and heat. But he and I had a staring contest through the open window. I could feel his breath and see each individual whisker on his nose as he poked it in our buggy.

We saw nine polar bears that day, two of which took a liking to us and spent 30 minutes just circling our crawler, standing up on their hind legs to give us a good look and putting their fluffy paws on the outer viewing platform. If our goal on the Live Like a Local video shoots is to meet the locals, I don’t think I could have gotten to know the local Churchill polar bears any more closely!

Looking out on the tundra, I could see how polar bears could call this home, but I wondered how could people actually live here?! Lucky for us, Tauck gave us the opportunity to find those answers. We had nightly seminars, wildlife films and intimate meetings with many local figureheads of Churchill and members of native tribes. We had the chance to talk with the true lifeblood of this remote community.

Though the polar bears left a particular impression on me, there was another local that I found to be even more interesting. Her name is Myrtle deMeulles and she’s a member of the Métis tribe, one of the Aboriginal peoples of this region, whose ancestry is traced back to a mix of First Nations and European descent. Her first language was Cree and she grew up on the trap line, one of 12 children of a fur trapper. She is a piece of living history, candidly and eagerly sharing her culture, one that I knew so little about.

Myrtle deMeulles is a member of the Métis tribe, one of the Aboriginal peoples of the region.

What struck me most was she talked about growing up in Churchill, working as a dishwasher down the street, being picked on by her brothers and having her first crush. Though some of her life’s narrative had been so foreign to me, I had heard versions of these stories many times before. Even here in the Arctic, she experienced the same trials and tribulations of growing up and finding her place in the world. And she certainly has. She’s dedicated her life to preserving her culture through storytelling, caribou fur tufting and by making herself available to visitors like me. Looking her in the eyes, I really understood her life and her people. It made me realize that even though I thought Churchill was so far away, the world is really much smaller than it seemed. I still have glorious tales of spotting polar bears, but the most meaningful discoveries to me, were learning from cultural ambassadors like Myrtle.

Myrtle deMeulles is a member of the Métis tribe, one of the Aboriginal peoples of the region.

Kelley Ferro is a travel expert & video journalist living in NYC. She films her show, Get Lost, around the world–hopping on a plane at least twice a month She is also the executive producer for Tripfilms.com. For more on her travels, follow Kelley’s Facebook page.

An Experience in the Polar Bear Capitol of the World

by Ashley Castle, AFAR Ambassador

I arrived to Manitoba, Canada, for my polar bear expedition with Tauck, and within my first thirty minutes at the Inn at the Forks in Winnipeg, I knew that I was not only in another country: I had entered another world.  Words like Inuit, mushing, ptarmigan, grouse, dainty and Inukshuk were mingled into my conversation with a young woman named Dene who welcomed me from Travel Manitoba, and I tried to decipher with context clues what these words actually meant.

Our group hopped a chartered flight the next morning to Churchill, the polar bear capitol of the world.  Churchill is accessible only by plane or train, but plane is definitely the way to go: it’s a forty hour train ride from Winnipeg, due to environment factors and land conditions.  We arrived to the warm Lazy Bear Lodge, our outpost over the next few days as we explored this remote Canadian town and searched for its most famous inhabitants.

 

The Lazy Bear Lodge

The Lazy Bear Lodge

I felt very far from New York City

I felt very far from New York City

The culture of Churchill is a microcosm of Manitoba, as its year-round inhabitants have had to become resourceful and inventive in order to live here with its harsh weather conditions.

There is an open-car-door policy in this town: everyone is required to leave the doors of their cars unlocked, in the case that a resident is walking around and gets approached by a bear.  Colin, our local guide for the trip, as well as Dale, our Tauck guide and also a Canadian, explained the protocol to us: “If you’re walking around and you see a polar bear, just jump into the closest vehicle and start honking the horn to scare it off– or at least, to notify people close by of the situation.”  This was definitely a different kind of street awareness from what I deal with in New York City.

 A majestic polar bear, spotted on our Tauck expedition.

A majestic polar bear, spotted on our Tauck expedition.

In this place, polar bears are equally feared and respected.  All Churchillians, as they fondly call themselves, know that the bears ruled this land way before they ever got here, and every effort is made to keep humans and bears living in harmony with one another.  There is a polar bear alert team that stands watch on the town’s borders in the effort to minimize any bear-to-human contact.  If that contact cannot be diverted and a bear engages in behaviors like coming in to town, attempting to break into homes or if it does anything that could potentially threaten the safety of Churchill’s residents, it is deemed a “bad bear” and put into “bear jail.”  Formally known as the Polar Bear Holding Facility (but called bear jail by all of the locals), this is a holding facility for up to eight “inmates” who are detained and then released out on to the Bay as soon as the ice forms.  The polar bear is the only bear that will actually stalk people and is extremely stealthy; people have learned to adapt, but a great reverence for nature is at the forefront of life in Churchill.

The Polar Bear Holding Facility.  Humans cannot enter, as the goal is to keep the bears from becoming desensitized to human interaction.

The Polar Bear Holding Facility. Humans cannot enter, as the goal is to keep the bears from becoming desensitized to human interaction.

The people here have all adjusted to a different way of life: the shipping season is incredibly short, as summer just lasts for a few months.  A ship isn’t insured if it is in these arctic waters past October 31st, so in Churchill, Christmas in July really does exist.  If you have ordered something at any point in the year and are waiting for it to come via ship (as most heavy items do for the sake of cost), it comes in July.  Everyone in the town goes down to the docks and there is a huge celebration– that t.v. or snowmobile you ordered six months ago, has finally arrived.

Life in Churchill at Dave Daley’s Wapusk Adventures, where you can discover the culture of dogsledding and experience it for yourself.

Life in Churchill at Dave Daley’s Wapusk Adventures, where you can discover the culture of dogsledding and experience it for yourself.

Tauck seeks to make every experience incredibly special, with unique and customized glimpses into a place and its culture.  One evening, we went to meet a Maite woman in her seventies named Myrtle, who uses storytelling to conserve her culture.  She has built a museum in Churchill full of personal and familial belongings, a museum that she has gifted to the city with the hopes that it will carry on the the legacy of her life and her people, long after she is gone.

Learning from Myrtle, a native Maite storyteller.

Learning from Myrtle, a native Maite storyteller.

We gather around as Myrtle tells stories of her childhood, of styling her hair with bear grease and of what it was like growing up as a trapper’s daughter.  “Nobody wants a skinny woman,” she says.  “The worst thing about a skinny woman is she wasn’t that cuddly.  The men went for the biggest, hottest woman they could find to keep them warm in the winter.”

She continued on and had us all laughing and wide-eyed about her life here, and how it could be so incredibly different from our own– and even from the lives of people in her same country.  Anything or anyone below Churchill is referred to as the “south” or as “southerners,” and  rightfully so: only true people of the north have been able to adapt and carve out a life here over the past several thousand years.

Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures.

Dogsledding with Wapusk Adventures.

We returned back to the Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe, and I ordered a bison steak, mashed potatoes and some steaming hot tomato soup.  I figured I needed to put a little more meat on my bones– to keep me warm, and because skinny women don’t belong in these parts.  With a full belly and a happy heart that evening, I drifted off to sleep.

The delicious food served at the Lazy Bear Cafe.

The delicious food served at the Lazy Bear Cafe.

For highlights from Ashley Castle’s tour through Manitoba, please click here.

Ashley Castle is a writer and blogger with a focus on experiential, transformational travel. She traveled to Manitoba to engage with locals – and local wildlife – with USTOA Active Member Tauck in November and captured her experiences here on the USTOA blog as well as AFAR.com,  and her own Facebook , Twitter and Instagram accounts.

 

Touring Manitoba with Tauck

by Ashley Castle, AFAR Ambassador

I had never heard of Churchill, Canada.  I must have somehow glossed over my northern neighbor’s most central province in my junior high World Geography class, as well as on the wall-sized map that hangs over my camel colored sofa in my New York City apartment.  Although I had only been to Canada once, to its capital city of Toronto, the turquoise waters of Banff and Lake Louise, the modern and much talked-about hub of Vancouver, B.C. and the slopes of Whistler all ranked high on my “to travel to” list.  But Manitoba?  Any idea of this place was as unfamiliar to me as Tajikistan– even more so, as I had previously heard of Tajikistan.

The town of Churchill)

The town of Churchill)

Churchill, a town that claims 923 residents, but from what locals say only actually has about 600-700, is the polar bear capital of the world and is located in northern Manitoba.  It hugs the Hudson Bay and is a place where the First Nation people of Canada, the Inuit, Cree and Maite, have been for thousands of years.  They were a nomadic people for centuries, living off the land and hunting moose and caribou, and had found a way to make it in winter’s harsh conditions.  Yet, they never settled in this particular area that is now deemed Churchill, because they knew it wasn’t their land: it was the land of the Western Bay polar bear, who comes to this area every year in the months of October and November and waits for the sea ice to form on the Hudson Bay, in anticipation of their yearly migration northward to hunt for ring seals.  Canada established the town of Churchill right on the Bay, which served as an integral port for the fur trade of the early 17th century, as well as a military base during World War II and beyond.

On board my inaugural Tauck expedition, our group landed in Churchill and headed to the Lazy Bear Lodge, a cozy log cabin hand-built, owned and cheerfully operated by Wally Daudrich, his wife and his five children.  I stepped inside the Lazy Bear, and it felt like Christmas and coming home.  Filled with twinkling lights, candles and warm, crackling fires, the Lazy Bear Lodge and Cafe was our picturesque launching point for the week.

The Lazy Bear Lodge Exterior.

The Lazy Bear Lodge Exterior.

Inside the comfortable Lazy Bear Café.

Inside the comfortable Lazy Bear Café.

The following morning, I bundled up in what must have been seven layers of clothing and headed out to the old school bus to meet our guide, Colin.  A true outdoorsman, from a small town in Saskatchewan and only in Churchill seasonally for the polar bears in October-November and the beluga whales in the summer, he is who you would hope to have at the helm of your polar bear expedition.  Colin teaches arctic survival courses and donned only a t-shirt with the face of a voracious and stoic polar bear on its front and back, with a light jacket.  We were ready to go.

Headed out on our first day in search of the bears.

Headed out on our first day in search of the bears.

After a briefing on polar bears and how to stay alive if we happened to be cruising around Churchill on foot– which, at 38 degrees below Fahrenheit with the windchill factor, I found that to be a highly unlikely personal scenario– we set off along the Hudson Bay until we reached our crawler.  These Lazy Bear Lodge crawlers are specially built to navigate the arctic tundra terrain: massive, slick, snow-covered boulders, ice patches and brisk icy streams.  It looked like a mobile home on monster truck snow tires, perched high enough in the air to keep its inhabitants warm, dry, and from becoming a hungry polar bear’s lunch.

Every person or couple had their own window seat, and our Tauck guide, Dale, handed out binoculars and prepped us all with the realization that we may, or may not, see polar bears.  Tauck has recently partnered with the BBC to create some incredible content– footage, Dale reminds us, that takes wildlife photographers months to collect.  Her message was essentially this: although it is inspiring to know what these polar bears look like in such close proximity, this may not be your personal experience.  Right.  But of course, I was hoping to get face-to-face with a bear.  Everyone was.  It was the dream we all had when we booked this once-in-a-lifetime trip, and it was why we were all sitting bundled so tightly in these below freezing temps, looking like five-year-old children who had been over dressed by their mothers to go outside and build a snowman.

Dale, our upbeat and fearless Tauck expedition leader.

Dale, our upbeat and fearless Tauck expedition leader.

Within the first five minutes, we spot our first bear.  It’s lounging leisurely on some rocks in the far distance.  To the naked eye, it looks like a yellowish blob; the bears have been land-bound since the ice melted around June, which means that they’re not the pure white color they will be after they take a swim.  It also means they haven’t eaten in four months and are incredibly hungry.  If I had my last meal four months ago, I’d be hanging out on the banks of the Hudson Bay and waiting for the ice to form, too.  I looked down at my black ski pants and coat– might a bear mistake me for a land seal?  I hoped not.

Our first bear sighting.

Our first bear sighting.

The bear stretches, and through my binoculars I can see that it gives a big, unamused yawn, stands up and goes behind some rocks, out of our sight.  It apparently was not in the mood to be seen.  But, we had spotted our first bear, albeit from a distance, within the first 30 minutes of the day.  Things were looking up.

We continued on our trek, and Colin, our local guide, as well as Dale, also a native Canadian, educate us about the bears, their habits, and about this land.  I am so fascinated by how much I didn’t know about a place that is relatively, all things considered, close to where I call home.

Everyone braced for a bear sighting.

Everyone braced for a bear sighting.

The morning passes quickly and we all wait in anticipation to see our next bear.  After all, we now know that they’re out there.  We sit on the edge of our crawler seats, gazing out the windows to see some tone-on-tone movement of the off-white bears against the glittering white snow.  It’s lunchtime, and something about the cold seems to make you extra hungry.   Hearty sandwiches and chili come to our rescue, and we all take a slight break to relish in our hot meal.  My attention is completely and temporarily diverted and is focused solely on my steaming chili, when someone yells out, “bear!!!”  In an effort to not spill my lunch, I scramble to the window and see this majestic creature walking towards us, intentionally and stealthily.  I think he smelled the chili, too.  I discarded my lunch like last year’s fashion and quickly grabbed my camera.  He continued towards us and within minutes, was only feet away.

The bear behind the crawler in front of us, headed our way .

The bear behind the crawler in front of us, headed our way.

This polar bear was just a few feet from us, looking up at us as we looked back at him.

This polar bear was just a few feet from us, looking up at us as we looked back at him.

The crawler has a back porch kind-of feature, with a metal grate beneath your feet and a surrounding wall that is tall enough to keep the bears from being able to jump on in and have your for their meal, with a side of chili.  I ran outside as he headed towards the back, and we all grew still with the bear right below us.  His breathing was heavy and I could hear his low growl.  I squatted down and came within inches of his face.  We were eye-to-eye, and in that moment I had to remember who I was dealing with.  This polar bear didn’t want a Coca Cola, no matter how lovable he looked.  He came out from under the grate and rose up on hind legs, placing his paws on the ledge.  We all gasped and took a step back.  We were so close, that I could see the details of his claws and the light shining through the ice on his fur.  After a few heavy breaths, he lowered back down, and once he concluded he wasn’t getting chili or Tauck guests for lunch, he lumbered away and crossed a frozen lake, the arctic sun guiding his way.

We all squealed like school kids.  We had literally gotten to come head-to-head with a polar bear in his natural environment, and that’s what this journey was all about: creating an experience that would serve as a vivid memory etched in all of our hearts, for the rest of our lives.

For highlights from Ashley Castle’s tour through Manitoba, please click here.

Ashley Castle is a writer and blogger with a focus on experiential, transformational travel. She traveled to Manitoba to engage with locals – and local wildlife – with USTOA Active Member Tauck in November and captured her experiences here on the USTOA blog as well as AFAR.com,  and her own Facebook , Twitter and Instagram accounts.