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.

Explore Taiwan Like a Local

Travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, Kelley Ferro picked Taiwan for her first trip to Asia. The island nation has so much to offer; from the energy of the big city to the serenity of postcard-worthy beaches. Explore Taiwan alongside Ferro as she tours its vibrant landscape, culture, history and food with USTOA member Ritz Tours.

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

Taiwan’s Culture

Tropical Countryside

Taiwan’s Cultural Food

Ritual Ceremony

Taiwan’s Street Markets

Cycling Croatia

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

VBT guides are always willing to dish out a little encouragement

As I slowly crawl up another incline on my bicycle I check my mirror to see a pack of septuagenarians inching closer and closer. In an instant, the ringing of passing bells mutes the sound of my bike chain. One-by-one the group passes me, most of whom have roughly 40 years on me, and I’m the one out of breath! I could justify my sluggish performance on my recent spike in olive oil and truffle consumption on a recent tour of Istria and Split, but no one likes excuses. Inspired by the cycling of others in my group, I take a deep breath, gear-up and spin my legs a little faster. Not long after, I reach the peak feeling satisfied by the sweeping views of the Adriatic Sea and by my ability to keep on pushing. I’m in Croatia, on the island of Brac, on a cycling tour with USTOA tour operator and member, VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations which will take me through the islands of Brac and Hvar in the Croatian region of Dalmatia.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

Our cycling group walking into Postira.

The tour started in the town of Split, where I was to meet up with the rest of the tour group before we all ferried to the island of Brac. Upon meeting the group and guides I was growing increasingly more excited. I had never been on an “active” tour before, so meeting everyone and hearing their enthusiasm for cycling, and other cycling trips they had taken in the past was very motivational. With all the continued introductions and chatter the ferry trip went by rather quickly and soon we were at our first destination on Brac, the village of Postira. Postira is a quiet village meant for R&R, and the only thing more eye-catching than the boat filled harbor was the dramatic mountain filled landscapes. One of our guides, Lada, walked us into the village and familiarized us with some of the necessary landmarks before leading us to our hotel.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

Our guide Lada orienting the group within Postira.

After checking in, the group met for a safety and bike fitting session before a short warm-ride to give us a taste of the island. I’m very glad that there aren’t many cars driving on the island of Brac because the sight of farmers harvesting their wine grapes made focusing on the road extremely difficult. Everyone returned from the warm-up ride, and while the group readied themselves for the welcoming dinner that evening, our two guides worked out any kinks people had with their bicycle configurations. Later, the group strolled along the harbor as the sun light waned in the distance. We were led to a family-run restaurant, with smells of garlic and savory spices wafting out, and were greeted with chilled shots of small-batch brandies. Inside we sat down by candle light, the dining hall buzzed with sounds of laughter and conversation. That was until the hostess brought out the main courses, three types of peka cooked proteins. Peka is a method of cooking popular in Dalmatia in which a protein is stewed in a vessel similar to a Dutch oven (just shallower) with sauce, various spices and vegetables. The dish is covered with a metal lid and then fire embers are placed on top. I selected the octopus peka and when I took my first bite I was amazed by the texture as it was akin to the texture of chicken.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

Beef, fish and octopus being prepared peka style.

I woke up the next morning ready for a day full of cycling. We began at a slow pace through winding pastoral roads that led us by fields of fig and olive trees. We were headed to the town of Pucisca with an arduous climb in our way. Just as I thought about motioning for the VBT van to give me a lift, I caught a glimpse of the patchwork white and terracotta buildings of Pucisca. Suddenly, the lactic acid burn in my muscles was an afterthought. Pucisca is a gorgeous seaside village that wraps around the teal Adriatic Sea. Pucisca’s most unique attraction is its stonecutter’s school, where the main material worked on is limestone which the island is famous for. The quality of limestone from Brac Island is actually so good that it was exported to the United States to be used in parts of the White House in Washington, D.C. The stonecutting school looked exactly like the images I had conjured up in my head: huge chunks of stone everywhere, piles of rock shavings and T-squares. What was most impressive to me is that the students use all manually powered tools like they would have centuries ago.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

Touring the stonecutter’s school in Pucisca.

On our last day on Brac, the group’s hard work was rewarded with a trip to the famous Zlatni Rat, or Golden Horn beach in Bol, on the southern coast of Brac. The weather was perfect, as it was sunny but not hot, and despite the water being a little chilly it seemed to remedy everyone’s cycling aches and pains. What makes the beaches on this island unique is that instead of sand, the beach is a mixture of varying sizes of pebbles. I found the best way to enjoy them was to lay down on the smaller ones near the water’s edge and the rocks provided an acupressure release of sorts. This, in combination with the lapping waves, almost lulled me asleep until I heard someone murmur the magic word…cappuccino. After a relaxing light lunch in Bol we all boarded a small chartered ferry for our second stop of the biking tour, the island of Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

The VBT group ferrying from Brac to Hvar.

We arrived in Hvar Town (the island’s capital), where our hotel was located, in late afternoon. The cafes lining the harbor were starting to fill up with patrons and the smells of coffee brewing and wine aerating began to fill the air. At sunset everyone met in our hotel’s courtyard so that we could all walk together to an intimate cooking lesson at a nearby chef’s home. Chef Ante Vucetic, our host, was incredible. When we arrived, he invited us into his garden for a small tour—tasting this plant and smelling that fruit along the way. We passed several jars of small-batch, flavored brandy on our way back to the dining area where there were some of those brandies chilled and waiting for us. Our dining table was in view of Ante’s outdoor kitchen and as he explained his cooking philosophy he also explained what he would be preparing for us: a starter of a tomato based stew-like dish called salsa (pronounced shalsha), and a delicious grilled tuna steak rubbed with olive and spices accompanied by some lightly mashed potatoes and buttered green peas. The flavors were nice and simple, but the quality of the ingredients really made these dishes shine. On top of these dishes I use a liberal amount of some of the best salt I have ever had, which Ante had gathered from rocks lining the sea…impeccable flavor. The meal was one of my most memorable highlights and Ante made our evening incredibly special.

The tour of Croatia was coming to an end, but I still had one more day of cycling ahead of me. The main destination for the day was the Stari Grad, a quiet village on the northern side of Hvar. But before that, the planned route would have the group cycling around the town of Brusje. Despite the intense sun, the sea breeze traveling over the island kept everyone cool. The terrain looked a little different on this part of the island, as it resembled arid desert and was less wooded— apparently perfect for growing lavender. As I made my way up the last portion of the hill I spotted the rest of the group on the side of the road interacting with a woman selling lavender products. Some were buying cycling jerseys decorated with lavender and some smelled the different essential oils on display. The group pressed on toward Stari Grad, a tranquil destination that is very small and easy to navigate on foot. I spent my time wandering the cobblestone back alleys and peaking my head into boutiques and artisan shops. I stopped at one of the many small bakeries and had a lunch which consisted of a jam filled pastry and milk, and if I wouldn’t have had to bike back home I can assure you I would have had another round.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

VBT members taking in another beautiful view.

That evening everyone met near the Hvar Town harbor for a farewell dinner and as we sat dining on fresh seafood and delicious Croatian wine we listened to the sounds of the peaceful Adriatic. I had been biking for roughly a week straight but I didn’t feel sore at all, I was actually thinking about how I would miss my bicycle, and the daily route reviews with our guides. Being with a group of people all driven to complete a physical challenge was something I missed. The comradery I felt on this trip was incredible and it will be a feeling that I carry with me for some time to come.

Colin Roohan is a travel photographer interested in documenting experiences with culture and life. In addition to his work with AFAR, Colin has been published in Travel + Leisure, The Royal Geographical Society’s Hidden Journeys, and Groove  Magazine, amongst others. In addition to journalistic pursuits, Colin captures portraits and documents events around Southern California.