Saxony Reborn From the Ashes of War

by Adriana Yampey, AFAR Ambassador

On Valentines Day 1945 British and American heavy bombers were dropping thousands of tons of high explosive bombs over Dresden, destroying 6.5 kilometers of the city center and killing an estimated 25,000 people.  It’s almost impossible to believe that such devastation took place. You would not know this when visiting the city today.

In early May I had the opportunity to travel to Saxony with Saxony Tourism and Avanti Destinations.

I admit I had preconceived ideas about Saxony. I knew much of the big cities, of Dresden and Leipzig, were destroyed in World War II followed by years behind the Iron Curtain, and imagined it undeveloped, grey and uninteresting.

But Saxony proved me wrong with its beauty, restored architecture, some in the same style they were before the war and a lot of them completely transformed in order to keep up with the times.

Seeing Dresden today makes it hard to believe such destruction ever happened.  The locals however do not want to forget; in many restaurants and pubs you will see haunting images of the past hanging on walls.

I arrived in Dresden, early morning and as soon as I reached the old center I fell in love. Spring is the perfect time to visit this city and Saxony in general. The fresh, and sweet smell of the lilac trees, and wisteria complement the city’s impressive architecture beautifully.

It’s so easy to loose yourself, and become a local, on the streets of Dresden. I walked for hours without knowing, and really not caring about time. Notable sights are the Church of Our Lady, the Dresden Cathedral, the The Fürstenzug or the Procession of Princes, made from 23.000 Meissen porcelain tiles, making it the largest porcelain artwork in the world. Apart from this was surprised to see just how visited Dresden is; large groups swarm all over the city led by knowledgeable guides.

Later I visited Görlitz and Meissen which are smaller towns in Saxony, untouched by the destruction of World War II.

I found Görlitz very charming, with narrow, cobblestone streets and stunning architecture. Most of the 3500 architectural monuments have been beautifully restored to look like in their glory days, making them a visual treat for visitors.

Meissen Porcelain

Meissen Porcelain

Meissen is the home of the oldest hard-paste porcelain factory in Europe. Again, the beauty of this little town mesmerized me. The visit to the porcelain factory was a real treat; there is incredible effort, love and dedication put into every porcelain piece that leaves the factory.

Vibrant Leipzig

Vibrant Leipzig

Leipzig was the last stop on the tour and quite possibly my favorite. A city that, much like Dresden, was heavily destroyed in World War II today is beaming with life. People everywhere, cafes with large open air terraces at every corner, full at all times, street performers, a buzzing nightlife and a flourishing art culture.

The adventurers out there will be impressed with Saxony for the large offer of outdoor activities. Rock climbing, kayaking, cycling, rides in hot air balloons, are only a few things on offer. The most impressive nature trip was to Bastei Bridge in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains of Germany.

Bastei has become the most popular day trip destination in Saxon Switzerland. From a height of 194m you can enjoy the picturesque panorama and view the miniature villages on the Elbe River.

Saxony showed me how wrong I was to have preconceived ideas on how a region should look like post war and Communism. It is a beautiful, vibrant and friendly part of Germany that must be explored.

 

Germany-based AFAR Magazine Ambassador Adriana Yampey, who has also lived in Romania, France, Italy, Belgium and the United States, dreams of seeing the world and documenting it through photos. 

Follow her travelers on Adriana’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can hear more about her journey to Saxony at AFAR.com.

 

Leipzig’s Art of the Future

by Kelley Ferro

Porsche? Nutcrackers? Harmonicas? Bach? I had no idea that Saxony, a free state in Germany, had so much going on! It wasn’t until my chat with Shireesh Sharma at the USTOA conference this past December that I realized the variety of types of art flourishing in a relatively small part of the world.

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

St Thomas Church, Leipzig

Saxony is a term often synonymous with Dresden, and after seeing this capital city, it makes total sense. Dresden, the home of a long line of royalty, hugs the Elbe River and boasts a majestic baroque skyline. However, Leipzig, the quieter sister of Dresden, captured me even more. Located on medieval trade routes in the time of the Roman Empire, Leipzig was a powerful city with renowned cultural importance back in the day. The home of Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn, Martin Luther, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (and the list goes on), Leipzig is more than familiar with the arts. This city was built upon it. Bach composed in St. Thomas Church in the city center, Goethe’s Faust 1 was inspired by the city’s historic wine bar Auerbachs Keller, and Mendelssohn performed at the Leipzig Gewandhaus Concert Hall. And today, this city still pulsates with artistic energy. My independent tour with Avanti Destinations brought us to this city to experience the younger side of Saxony…and I’m sure glad that they did. Just walking the streets, I could feel and hear the buzz. Galleries, art schools, street performers…the past, present and future of art all blended together.

Outdoor Cinema at the Spinnerei

Outdoor Cinema at the Spinnerei

To me, nothing exemplifies Leipzig’s place in art more than the Spinnerei, officially named Leipziger Baumwollspinnerai. This 1884 cotton mill was one of the largest in Europe, producing five million kilograms of yarn in a single day. To accommodate that level of production, the mill had to be large, and I mean LARGE. It’s hard to comprehend the scale until you see it yourself but I can understand why it was dubbed a “city within a city.”

The factory compound spans several blocks complete with brick warehouses that previously housed spinning rooms, production halls, worker housing, and even a fire brigade. Now, these same buildings sport cracked windows, graffiti walls and ivy covered entrances. Eerily quiet on a Friday morning, from the outside, Spinnerei could be confused with a forgotten factory but inside, the darkened hallways told a very different story.

Hallways leading to LIA

Hallways leading to LIA

“Most of the artists are sleeping,” Michael from the Information Office chuckled, as he led us inside one of the buildings.

After the Wall fell, Leipzig lost some of its former glory as an industry hub and places like the Spinnerei shut their doors. However, in 1994, the Spinnerei was reinvented. Local artists saw these massive, unoccupied spaces as the perfect location to set up shop, literally.

 Werkschau Gallery at the Spinnerei

Werkschau Gallery at the Spinnerei

More than 100 artists have since filtered in and set up studios in the past 20 years and now the buildings have a new purpose. They are home to working studios, indie cinemas, galleries, cafes, rental apartments and more. There’s a one-stop-shop art supply store so the artists have access to all the materials they need. Even an underground bar and weekend nightlife scene has sprung up through this new artist “city.”

Entrance to the Werkshau Gallery

Entrance to the Werkshau Gallery

With 11 galleries, artists are getting exposure and many are selling their works to the curious public. One gallery in particular, Werkshau, displayed just one piece of work contributed by every artist at the Spinnerei. One corner had a 20×20 foot oil painting, around the other bend was an alleyway with a projector screening a video montage that reminded me of The Ring (art is subjective right?). In the middle of the space, I found myself moved by three human figures with fox faces, carved out of wood. Still there were more portraits, photography and installations, some of which incorporated movement, sound and light. And all these were produced by current Spinnerei artists, who were likely creating somewhere in the Spinnerei at that very moment.

A Foxy Werkshau Exhibit

A Foxy Werkshau Exhibit

Michael took us up to LIA, an artist in residency program where young artists from all over the globe come to collaborate, learn and make art, all while living in their own studio. They sleep, create and exhibit all in the same place. Luckily, our interviewee was awake when we knocked on her studio/home.

Kylie Lefkowitz is a multi-media artist from New Jersey and she’d been living in this large one room studio for the past 4 months. Her bed was tucked off in the corner featuring a James Franco calendar, piles of clothes and scattered art supplies on the floor, not unlike a typical college dorm room.  The rest of the space was her exhibit…she was truly living her art. I liked how Kylie focused on words: messages, thoughts, musings and phrases that she expressed via all types of media. Each piece definitely made me think and feel.

Don’t’ feed the artists

Don’t’ feed the artists

We interviewed her as she swung on her hammock, telling us about living in Leipzig, being a part of LIA and calling this studio home – all with unbridled exuberance. We could have talked with her all day. Her candid stories were fascinating and it was through her that we realized just how impactful the Spinnerei really was and how it played a big role in Leipzig.

Some artists here use it as a workshop, a great studio space, she told us. The galleries draw large crowds, some of which are buyers. Other artists use the Spinnerei as a place to collaborate and be inspired. With so many artistic minds in one spot, it’s only natural for partnerships and co-working to take shape.

Walking out of her studio, down a hall that looked like it could be in a horror movie, I realized that so much of the charm of the Spinnerei was how it hasn’t been changed or commercialized. The rusty freight elevators creakily opened out onto dimly lit*, empty hallways. But behind the doors, around the corners, down the passageways were bright studios, natural light flooding in and art flooding out.

Not your average gallery

Not your average gallery

The Spinnerei hasn’t tried to cover or clean up it’s past. It embraces what it used to be; it preserves it and celebrates it. It allows art to spring up like weeds around the broken buildings, infusing them with new life. Yesterday’s artistic greats of Leipzig still hold the torch of some of the most monumental developments in the art and music world, but what is keeping Leipzig fresh, thought provoking and current, is what is happening at the Spinnerei.

This is a microcosm of what has happened in Saxony.  It is a rebirth, a new beginning.

Leipzig might be most famous for its artists of the past but it is the artists of today that are taking Leipzig’s art scene into the future.

Kylie in her studio (and awesome tank top)

Kylie in her studio (and awesome tank top)

Author’s Note: I later learned the “dimness” was because the Spinnerei is a GREEN facility.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Eating My Way Through Saxony

by Adriana Yampey, AFAR Ambassador

On my recent trip to Saxony, with Saxony Tourism and Avanti Destinations I was able to taste carefully prepared traditional German dishes with a Saxon twist. But beyond the great food, I loved the way many of the restaurants depict the region’s past and hold interesting stories, if you are willing to listen.

My first experience with Saxon food was the 1900 restaurant in Dresden. Decorated in 1930s memorabilia (to include a real size tramcar inside the restaurant) it offers delicious, and very sizable pork dishes and Saxon dumplings. Here I had the opportunity to sample quarkkäulchen, a type of potato and quark dumpling served with grated apples and cinnamon, an interesting and very delicious dessert.

Dining at Pulverturm

Dining at Pulverturm

Another must-try in Dresden is the restaurant Pulverturm. The former gunpowder tower has been restored and decorated in a way that takes you back to medieval times. With an open kitchen, you can see the suckling pig, roasting on a spit, as soon as you enter. Another sumptuous desert I sampled was eierschecke, a confectionary specialty of Saxony. One thing to not miss out on is the famous funnel drinking, called “Dresdner Trichtertrinken”. It’s a green liqueur called “Cosel tear” which people drink after the meal. Cosel was the mistress of Augustus the Strong, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony. The drink is supposed to represent her tears upon Augustus’ death.

Eating at Schiller Garten

Eating at Schiller Garten

No trip to Dresden is complete without a visit to Schiller Garten, dating from the end of the 17th century, and situated at the foot of the King Albert Bridge, on the shores of the Elbe River. For a few euros you can choose half a chicken with fries and a freshly baked pretzel, or a pork knuckle as big as your head, and wash it down with refreshing beer. Unfiltered and unpasteurized, it feels like each sip is a meal on the tongue. It is probably the most local thing you can do in Dresden.

St. Jonathan

St. Jonathan

While visiting Görlitz a great place to eat is St. Jonathan. The interior is cozy and romantic, with high ceilings and gothic arches. The managing director of the restaurant had a very small part, as the Chef, in the Oscar nominated movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, filmed on the streets of Görlitz. It was interesting to hear him speak about his experience although he and the rest of the town are used to big movies being filmed in Görlitz. Here I tried, for the first time, red beet soup and delicious steak tartar. Who knew I would ever enjoy raw beef?

Panorama Tower

Panorama Tower

I loved Leipzig for the relaxed atmosphere and diverse food scene. Panorama restaurant at the top of Panorama Tower was a special treat. It’s a fine dining restaurant that takes Saxon food to a new level of sophistication in a romantic setting, on top of the city.

Auerbachs Kellar

Auerbachs Kellar

A very interesting (and the second oldest restaurant) in Leipzig, is Auerbachs Keller, dating to at least the first half of the 15th century.

Saxon Potato Soup

Saxon Potato Soup

We had lunch in the Goethe Keller, probably the most famous guestroom in Germany, decorated with semicircular paintings depicting images from Faust. Painted by Andreas Bretschneide in 1625, they are among the most important urban and cultural history exhibits in Leipzig. Beside Goethe, Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner dined here. Be prepared to have huge meals of traditional Saxon food.  As a final Saxon treat try the potato soup with sausages served at many cafes in the center of Leipzig.

Lunch at Auerbachs Kellar

Lunch at Auerbachs Kellar

Reflecting on my trip, having made my taste buds happy with the many Saxon dishes, I will have to come back with family in tow.

Germany-based AFAR Magazine Ambassador Adriana Yampey, who has also lived in Romania, France, Italy, Belgium and the United States, dreams of seeing the world and documenting it through photos. 

Follow her travelers on Adriana’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. You can hear more about her journey to Saxony at AFAR.com.

Peru’s Sacred Valley

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

Peru is a beautiful country where the topography varies drastically. When I flew into mountainous Cusco from coastal Lima the beauty (but mainly the altitude) took my breath away! My tour group was to visit some of the popular towns and archeological sites in and around what is called the Sacred Valley, which runs from Machu Picchu to Urcos along the Urubamba River in the south-central region of Peru. This valley encompasses a large area so trying to pick a feasible number of destinations within the valley can be daunting. Luckily my tour group was led by USTOA tour operator member Travcoa and partner PromPeru who provided an incredible itinerary which included visits to the following: the ancient city of Cusco, the colonial settlement of Chinchero, the agricultural sites of Maras and Moray, the small yet busy Machu Picchu Pueblo, and of course Machu Picchu itself.

Perhaps the best place to start exploring the area around the Sacred Valley is from the once capital city of the Incas, Cusco. Cusco is a beautiful city wherein the locals have a strong link to their Inca ancestors as most structures are literally built on top of old Inca foundations. Central Cusco seems like a complex maze of streets and alleys but it is surprisingly easy to navigate on foot. The Plaza de Armas which is both scenic and centrally located makes for a great place to start exploring Cusco. One structure that shouldn’t be missed is the La Catedral (and attached Church of Jesus Maria). The ornate cathedral that was built in the 1500s’ is a great example of the Spanish religious influence in the region. Another thing you’ll notice that has Spanish influence is the Portal de Panes – a covered area of sidewalk surrounding the plaza, where there are numerous handicraft shops and relaxing cafes that offer views overlooking the plaza. It makes for an ideal place to sit and have a drink or to simply do some people watching.

From the Plaza de Armas, our group headed southeast towards a major Cusco attraction – the Q’orikancha complex, a large and breath-taking temple of worship, of great importance to the Inca. The ingenuity of the Inca is apparent at Q’orikancha as its’ geographic location within the Cusco Valley aligns with hundreds of sacred monuments, significant stones, natural springs and prehistoric quarries. What’s even more impressive is that during the summer solstice the suns’ rays only shine into a specific area of the temple where only the emperor was allowed to sit.

Driving through the Sacred Valley was incredible; the Andes provide a very dramatic backdrop and the random livestock make you feel miles from civilization. We made stops at the Moray agricultural and ceremonial tiered-ruins and at the breathtaking, centuries-old Salinas salt pans, but for me the most moving local experience was our stop at the Chinchero Weaving Cooperative. As we entered the collective I felt bombarded by color. There were around 25 women of varying ages, most working on some type of loom. The woman who greeted us also gave us a very engaging presentation that explained how these women create such stunning, intricate pieces. We learned how the alpaca and llama wool are turned into yarn, how the yarns are dyed, and how some of the looms operate. It was a thought-provoking presentation and the women working at the cooperative were so welcoming and kind. I later learned that Chinchero means “Village of the Rainbow,” a perfect name and quite befitting of my experience.

Our next stop was the town of Aguas Calientes, or what is now called Machu Picchu Pueblo. As I stepped off of the train in Aquas Calientes, I was immediately surprised by the change in climate; the chilly breezes vanished and made way for a mask of humid air and a continuous sequence of fog and cloud seemed to roll through the small town perched above the Rio Aquas Calientes. The town itself is rather small and can be explored on foot in a couple of hours. Judging by a conversation we had with locals, most people only spend one night in the town. It is a beautiful quaint town but when you’re standing in the shadow of a giant (Machu Picchu) it’s tough to truly shine as an attraction. Additionally, Machu Picchu Pueblo is a challenging place to get to but I think this only adds to the allure of Machu Picchu, making the feeling of seeing the monument all the more special.

On the day we were to visit Machu Picchu, the group awoke early and joined the queue for the buses that drive up to Machu Picchu around 5 am. With a bus full of almost palpable anxiety, we ascended for the next twenty minutes traversing one switch-back after another into a thick blanket of clouds. We arrived at the entrance and made our way over to what is known as the Viewing Platform. Despite some light rain and overcast skies, the ruins of Machu Picchu looked glorious. Our guides from PromPeru gave us a very informative tour and I learned a lot about the former residents of the Citadel. However, after hearing about Hiram Bingham and the 11-year-old boy who led him around the area that first time I had a hard time replacing that image in my head. We spent a few hours walking around, giving us time to see all angles of the complex. It is such an incredible place that moves everyone in a different way; a rare gem of magnificent ingenuity that truly is a wonder.

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. Hear more about his journey to Peru at AFAR.com.

The Hills Are Alive with the Sounds of the Inca

by Kelley Ferro

I remember those history classes back in high school where we memorized dominant civilizations that shaped the world as we know it. Even in textbooks, the Incan Empire was particularly impressive with their communal practices, integration of other people and their (mostly) peaceful expansions across Western South America. But it’s hard to really grasp the magnitude of an empire that spanned across multiple countries and was made up of millions of people, especially when all of it happened hundreds of years ago. On paper these things can feel inaccessible. But one way to understand history is by going to the source, and one visit to Peru is all it took for me to fully realize the history of the Incas and Peru’s heritage.

You just want to frolic through these fields, trust me.

You just want to frolic through these fields, trust me.

I arrived in balmy Lima on an April evening on tour with Travcoa, and was surprised by how much larger and more vibrant the city was, compared to what I had expected. Shoppers strutted along the streets lined with contemporary boutiques, children played in parks, friends sipped Pisco at cozy cafes and surfers tackled the Pacific break along the city’s expansive coastline. I wanted to live here!

Lima skyline from one of the tallest buildings in the city

Lima skyline from one of the tallest buildings in the city

This city was very much alive and much more modern than my Incan history lessons had led me to believe.

Though Lima balanced its youthful exuberance with iconic cathedrals, museums and tributes to its world famous past, it wasn’t until touchdown in Cusco that I really understood Peru’s backstory.

Incan Temple of the Sun converted into The Church of Santo Domingo by the Spaniards

Incan Temple of the Sun converted into The Church of Santo Domingo by the Spaniards

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire. The Temple of the Sun was where the Inca King addressed his people, adorned in all gold so his constituents could see his gleaming reflection from miles away. The temple was seized by the Spaniards, converted to a Spanish cathedral, and all traces of its Incan heritage were covered up. So much power, importance and strife were held inside these walls…walls that happened to be five feet from the doorstep of my hotel, the Palacio del Inka (which used to be an Incan Temple and later a Spanish Palace, naturally).

Filming inside the magnificent Temple of the Sun

Filming inside the magnificent Temple of the Sun

Here in Peru, history is not only something to be remembered, it’s also something you can still participate in today. You can touch the walls, and sleep in a former temple. Suddenly, the ancient past didn’t feel so ancient anymore.

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Outside of the charming city of Cusco, we explored the small towns scattered across the daunting Andes. Towns inhabited by local indigenous people, such as the Quechua, many whose families have lived there for generations and are descendants of the Inca. We stopped at a women’s weaving cooperative, the Center for Traditional Textiles, where I was able to talk to the Quechua women and interview their coordinator. I learned that in the past, the Quechua culture revolved around agriculture and the Quechua women did more of the handicrafts and managed home life for the family, while men labored in farming, a typical scenario of many worldwide cultures. Now, however, since the Western world is changing things in rural Peru, the Quechua are losing some of their traditional culture for more modern alternatives. The goal of this women’s weaving cooperative is to have elder women teach younger women the highly skilled art of weaving, something that has been a part of this culture and this land since Inca times.

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

Flora, the head of the Center for Traditional Textiles

A bonus was travelers like me got to stop by, watch them work, learn about their craft and take home a scarf or sweater, with proceeds going back to the women. This seemed to be a beautiful balance of providing financial empowerment for Quechua women, educating travelers about traditional customs and preserving the ancient culture.

Machu Picchu

Machu PicchuStaring at Machu Picchu, I had to close my eyes as a gust of smoke was blown over my face. As the Shaman recited something in a monotonous rhythmic tone, I felt a splash of some sort of herbal potion on my face. I was participating in a cleansing ritual, something the native Quechua Indians have performed for centuries. Willko Apaza, the resident shaman from a nearby village, came to meet with me and perform this ceremony at the Sanctuary Belmond Lodge, the only hotel located on Machu Picchu. It was quite a picturesque spot, a landing area with a background view of the Andean peaks. A blanket had been laid out with the various natural instruments that Willko used to invoke the spirits of Quechua beliefs. And I silently stood – arms and legs out in shape of a star – as Willko talked to the spirits and used ancient practices to help improve soul. Sure, this is a service that you pay for, much like a spa experience, but Willko was a real local, practicing revered Shaman and he performed the ritual with as much seriousness and dedication as his ancestors had done many times before. I was honored to be able to partake in such a significant part of the Quechua culture. Not only was I witnessing the past, I was able to be a part of it.

Machu Picchu’s Famously Well Crafted Walls

Machu Picchu’s Famously Well Crafted Walls

Of course, Machu Picchu is the highlight of Peru and a MAJOR reason why travelers visit this spectacular country. And after experiencing it at dawn, getting lost among the well-constructed village streets and breathing in the high Andean air of this unbelievably well preserved town, I could definitely see what all the fuss is about. Machu Picchu is very close to exactly what it was, when it was a thriving town 500 years ago. To see it in person, you half expect villagers to walk out of their homes, Incan farmers to be harvesting the terraced fields or maybe to witness the Incan leader addressing his village from one of the highest altars. It’s not just breathtaking views and Instagram fodder, Machu Picchu is still very real. Being here reminded me that the Inca were real, living people that had real joys and struggles in their lives, like you and I.

Peru taught me that the history may have happened hundreds of years ago but it can still be present today. And understanding what Peru is today is crucial in fully grasping the destination’s past. Not only seeing it, but experiencing that the past is what will carry it into the future.

Machu Picchu is even better in person.

Machu Picchu is even better in person.

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.

 

Lima Peru: The City of Kings

by Colin Roohan, AFAR Ambassador

My plane landed on a warm and humid evening, the ocean’s fog in combat with light, city-smog. I’ll admit I didn’t know much about Lima, but after a few days of guided, local experiences led by USTOA tour operator Travcoa, I fell in love with Lima’s charm. It’s an inviting city and one with ample signs of growth: western billboards line the streets, luxury automobiles cruise the streets and construction projects emerging EVERYWHERE. I found it to be an exciting city that is finding a fantastic balance between old-world charm and new-world comforts. It is a city of contrasts, inviting locals and there is so much to explore.

On our first day in Lima, we first started the day at the vibrant Mercado de Surquillo in south-central Lima.  As we entered we were stopped in our tracks by a plethora of unrecognizable fruits and with help from our local Prom Peru guide a vendor let us sample some: the custard apple, the yellow dragon fruit and the lucuma – with a texture akin to pumpkin but a flavor that resembled maple syrup! After our healthy fruit-filled tour of the market, we headed towards Señoria de Sulco in the Miraflores district of Lima where a cocktail and cooking demonstration awaited us. We were introduced to the head bartender who had the ingredients of Peru’s best known cocktail, the Pisco Sour, displayed in front of him. The bartender began to masterfully exhibit the process of making a Pisco Sour. Its ingredients are few: pisco (a grape derived alcohol), lime juice, simple syrup, egg white, and a drop of bitters. The result was a very refreshing cocktail that is reminiscent of a margarita. Following the Pisco Sour lesson, we moved downstairs to watch a ceviche demonstration. Ceviche with its unadulterated simplicity, has always been one of my favorite meals. The chef chose sole, a mild white fish, and after mixing in a few other ingredients had crafted a light dish bursting with citrus and seafood flavors, all with a subtle underlying heat. It was some of the freshest and most well prepared ceviche I have ever had.

Later that evening we headed to the Larco Museum for an extremely insightful guided tour of the museum’s thousands of well-preserved ceramics. The museum is roughly divided into three parts: the main museum with tidily displayed exhibits, the warehouse museum – a mind boggling labyrinth of ceramics, and the erotic art museum which houses an intriguing selection of Mochica inspired, sexually-fused pre-Inca artifacts.  The Larco Musuem is absolutely packed with what is the largest collection of Peruvian antiquities on the globe and is a destination that shouldn’t be overlooked.

The following morning our group toured the incredible San Francisco Church in central Lima. The church and attached convent grounds provide enough material for hours of exploring. As you enter the church’s grounds, you notice the stone façade towering over the entrance. On the day we visited a group of school children waited in line to tour the church while they whooped in glee as a group of pigeons confusingly flew laps in front of the church’s towers. Tucked away in the churches depths we were led through the catacombs which were only discovered in 1951. The eerie tour takes you through winding tunnels underneath the church where you can see the human remains of an estimated 70,000 thousand people – very spooky as many of the remains are arranged into patterns or designs. Despite the catacombs, the church is architecturally stunning and I recommend visiting earlier in the day when the grounds are still quiet and you can walk through the vaulted ceilings and columns undisturbed.

One of our final activities in Lima was a visit to Hacienda Mamacona, a family run hacienda that offers guests a rewarding look into Peruvian traditions and culture. Once we arrived at Hacienda Mamacona we were given a frosty Pisco Sour then led to our seats near the performance arena. The host formally welcomed everyone in attendance then we watched the “Dance of the Devils,” a Peruvian folklore dance where a group of masked performers engaged in funny and quirky pantomimes. Next, we were introduced to the unique and indigenous Peruvian Paso horse. Through a series of routines, the Paso horse displayed its’ prized gait – one that is so smooth riders often hold a glass of liquid which will not spill. After the horses paraded around the ring a few times, Peruvian folk dancers came out and graced the ring with their elegant costumes and even more elegant movements. Finally, in an incredible display of skill, the Paso Horse “danced” with a female folk dancer, and even though they weren’t hand-in-hand the horse’s ability to mirror the woman’s movements was astounding.

We left Lima for a short time only to return for one last day, and for me (and I believe the rest of the group) that wasn’t enough. I was impressed by the city and truly wanted to explore more; I felt as if I had only began to see what this city offered. Lima’s pulsating energy was irresistible and once you’ve experienced some of its hospitality and charisma you will definitely crave more!

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. Hear more about his journey to Peru at AFAR.com.

Cuba: Local Life, Art & Architecture

Cuba has been a forbidden fruit for Americans for years, and with the recent loosening of travel restrictions, demand for the predominately untouched island continues to soar. Join Kelley Ferro, travel expert, video journalist and contributor to Tripfilms.com, on her search to discover the real Cuba and experience the Cuban passion for life. With the help of USTOA Associate Member Cuba Travel Services, Kelley explored Havana, met local artists and students, savored fresh and local dishes, and drove around in a legendary 1950’s Thunderbird.

Enjoy the Art & Architecture in Cuba

Havana’s Old City Center is the most popular spot to visit for good reason. History is found around every corner from its capitol building and oldest churches to its picture perfect fortress. USTOA’s Associate Member Cuba Travel Services exposes travel expert and video journalist Kelley Ferro to Cuba’s vibrant art scene, rich history, and the ever-evolving architecture.

Traveling Back in Time: Artsy Havana Cuba

by Kelley Ferro

As many Americans have discovered, there are a slew of breath-taking islands in the Caribbean, making it a  tropical playground for US travelers for generations. But the closest and largest Caribbean island, located  only 90 miles from the US coast, has been the most inaccessible island…until now. This year is marking a big year of change for Cuba as restrictions for American travelers are loosening. Now Americans eager to experience a “new” island paradise, complete with historic cities, an artistic culture and 1950’s charm can actually travel to Cuba.  And tour operators, such as the members of USTOA, are making it possible. For me, and many others, this was the trip of a lifetime so without a pause, I was on a plane with USTOA, to explore this previously unattainable island nation.

Beautiful Architecture of Old Havana

Beautiful Architecture of Old Havana

With only 48 hours on my people-to-people visa,  I was eager to dive headfirst into the authentic, artsy side of Cuba. What I didn’t expect to find is that Cuba is like no other destination.. The “real side” of the country was right there, in your face, no searching required. Even what someone would expect to be “touristy” wasn’t at all, like the old-fashioned cars. From the window of my first ride into town, I watched the famous 1950s Studebakers, curvy Chevy’s and voluptuous Buicks zooming past, filled to the brim with locals simply going to and from their daily tasks. And yes, a lot of locals do smoke cigars right on the street. These weren’t tourist stunts; it was just real life in Cuba.

Street Art, Old Havana

Street Art, Old Havana

Our itinerary was centered on Havana, the largest city and epicenter of the country. Though it’s a large city, Havana’s romance bounces off the cobbled paths and down the narrow streets. Paintings are hung in the doorframes of tiny shops, which double as homes for the smiling shopkeepers. Artists display their collections in the tree-studded parks for browsing tourists. Galleries are nestled in every nook and around every corner, from modern paintings and life-size sculptures, to collectives with local artists doubled-over perfecting their canvases inside.

Daniel de La Regata, Local Architect

Daniel de La Regata, Local Architect

Daniel, a young local architect, gave us an architectural view of the old city on a walking tour. He pointed out the variety of artistic trends found in the building styles, from art deco to art nouveau, and colonial to classical. Havana wears its history on its walls and you find its pride in every stone, on every wall and in every brushstroke.

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Iconic Old Havana wasn’t the only area inspired by the arts. In nearby neighborhoods, there were young, vibrant art communities springing up. One in particular, the Fabrica de Arte Cubano, or F.A.C., is an invigorated gallery meets showroom, housed in a former olive oil factory. This converted space now displays the work of emerging Cuban artists in a fresh, new way. This is not your average gallery. From edgy photographs that will stop you in your tracks, to “found art” sculptures that you wish you could put on your wall at home, this is the new generation of artists and here they are celebrated. But F.A.C gets even better. This energetic space morphs from artist incubator by day to trendy club by night, with an outdoor bar, two stages, films, concerts and performances every weekend. This was one of the most cutting-edge artistic spaces that I’ve ever seen. Cuba surely is a place of contrasts.

Taxi Wall Sculpture at F.A.C.

Taxi Wall Sculpture at F.A.C.

We were invited to hang out with a well-known local artist, Lorenzo López, famous for large scale dramatic art installations, who welcomed us into his own home. Each doorknob, dish and side table of his home was on purpose, which could only be expected from one of Cuban’s burgeoning artists. He sees the world through art. He has already received international acclaim and accolades from many of his dramatic pieces, especially because each had a message. For me, the message of Cuba can be summed up by Lorenzo perfectly.

“Art here is very strong. It enriches Cuba in a very strong way… Cubans are very alive. Cuba is alive. It’s always alive.”

Artist Lorenzo Lopez in front of his art “Love Me, Love Me Not”

Artist Lorenzo Lopez in front of his art “Love Me, Love Me Not”

Whether you are walking along the Malėcon withsea spraying against the rocks and a saxophone player serenading you, or you are enjoying a sunset mojito at Hotel Nacional de Cuba under the swaying palm fronds, you are a part of the living art of Cuba. Every moment is full of life and when you are in it, you feel like it should be eternalized in a piece of art.

Cityscape from El Morro Fortress

Cityscape from El Morro Fortress

Classic Cars in Havana

Classic Cars in Havana

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.

 

 

 

 

 

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.