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Polaroid of the Week

Polaroid Of The Week: A Beautiful Manhattan Sunset

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week usa new york city sunset

Another busy week is coming to an end! This week, I’ve had the pleasure to add ‘serious’ room hunting to my to-do-list (as opposed to ‘casual’ room hunting the week before).

Had I not challenged myself to daily runs this month, I don’t think I’d seen much of the city in the past seven days, but these four miles a day allowed me to remember that I am in my favorite city in the world. I deliberately chose scenic running routes this week to remind me in what a stunning city I live: Bridge runs over the Brooklyn Bridge and the Manhattan Bridge, the Prospect Park loop, and runs through some of my favorite picturesque neighborhoods, like Fort Greene and Bed-Stuy, with their beautiful brownstones. I had to pinch myself sometimes, thinking to myself ‘I can’t believe I am living here now‘, and indulged in reading a few of my first posts about my love for New York, and how I’d been trying to figure out to spend more time here ever since my first full summer in 2014. First my extended visa, now permanent residency.. sometimes I still can’t believe that this is really happening. I’ll be reminiscing some more about how I got here in my Life Lately round-up.

Even though I didn’t get around to enjoying New York as much as I’d like to, I still managed to fit in some socializing with  drinks and dinners in eateries I’ve had on my ‘To Try’ list for a while, such as Puerto Viejo in Crown Heights (amazing Dominican food, and a surprisingly large range of vegan options), the vegetarian restaurant Buddha Bodai in Chinatown, Queens Comfort in Astoria for brunch, and my best new find for cocktails: Boudoir in Brooklyn Heights, a bar with a hidden downstairs area, speakeasy-style.

Oh and – the room hunting? Successful. With only one day left before having to leave my current place, I found something. To say the room hunt was stressful would be an understatement, but I’ll be moving to one of my favorite neighborhoods next week – stay tuned!

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Polaroid Of The Week: Cherry Blossom Carpet in New York City

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week new york brooklyn cherry blossoms

It feels like I haven’t sat still for a minute since returning to New York. From day 1, I’ve been dealing with immigration matters, setting myself up as a ‘legal resident’, which includes things like getting a bank account, insurance and figure out how to file taxes. Then there’s the issue of finding an apartment and a part time job, which – much to my surprise – happened faster than excepted! While I’m still officially homeless (no worries though, I don’t have to sleep on a bench in Central Park), I’ve started working, and I was lucky enough to find a job that offers me more than just part time work. Income that I need for a number of things, but I’ll get into that in more detail in my May round-up next week. Between the new job and my freelance writing work I’ve been struggling to keep the blog up and running, as you may have noticed, but I hope I’ll find a way to combine those three things when things in my new job have calmed down a little.

Luckily, I was able to enjoy a little bit of New York’s gorgeous spring weather before I started my crazy 70-hour work week, and one sunny morning my friend Kristin and I met up for a little photo shoot in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, one of my favorite green oases here in New York. We caught the tail end of the cherry blossom season and the fallen blossoms turned the ground into one massive cherry blossom carpet. Even though I didn’t have much time to enjoy New York so far, I’ve made sure to diversify my daily runs as much as possible, which means I’ve got to see spring flowers and cherry blossoms all over the city, from Randall Island and Governors Island in the East River to Central Park and Prospect Park as well as bridge runs over the Manhattan and the Brooklyn Bridge.

I hope next month I’ll be able to enjoy the city a bit more, and be able to fit in a trip to the beach!

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Polaroid Of The Week: Soaking Up Cuban Life In Trinidad

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week cuba trinidad

The true showstopper in Cuba for me wasn’t Havana, but Trinidad, a city founded by the Spanish that dates back to 1514 and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

I wasn’t sure if it’d be worth the long drive to get there – the city is located pretty much in the middle of the island, halfway between Havana in the north and Santiago in the far south; around 6 hours on a bus from Havana. But I am so glad that we decided to add it to our itinerary, despite the distance from Havana and Viñales, our first two stops.

Trinidad looked like it hadn’t changed much since the Spanish founded it in the 16th century – colonial houses line cobblestone streets, there are several Spanish-colonial churches and neatly arranged plazas, and horse carts outnumber cars. When people say that a trip to Havana feels like a trip back to the 1950s (because of all the American vintage cars from that time), it’s safe to say that a trip to Trinidad feels like a trip back to the 16th century.

In Trinidad, we got to really soak up Cuban life. With four nights here, we had plenty of time to experience Cuban culture, watch people dance salsa in the town square and in the bars every night, watch locals meet for a chat or a glass of rum in one of the benches that lined all the plazas, and artists draw paintings in the many galleries.

Every time we wandered around town we found a new street that was oozing with character, another crumbling church, another shop that looked more like a museum than a store, with items written on a chalk board and old-fashioned scales on the counter. The rolling hills surrounding the town and the nearby ocean (the popular beach Playa Ancon is only eight miles from Trinidad) only add to the attraction of this picturesque little town. Trust me: Trinidad is not to be missed on a trip to Cuba!

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Polaroid Of The Week: A Picture-Perfect Caribbean Beach in Cuba

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week cuba cayo jutias

Even though Cuba is a Caribbean island, whenever I thought of Cuba, a Caribbean vacation was not what I had in mind. Instead, I pictured Spanish-colonial colorful towns, lush green tobacco fields and the crumbling facades of Havana’s grand buildings. What I wasn’t thinking of were turquoise, crystal clear waters and pristine beaches fringed by palm trees. But of course, there are lots of exactly those in Cuba, and I am glad that I got to include a couple of them into my packed Cuba itinerary.

The first beach we went to, Cayo Jutias, happened to be a beach that is one of Cuba’s most stunning beaches (nearby Cayo Levisa on a tiny island off of the coast is supposedly the absolute best beach in Cuba. And yes, every beach we saw afterwards looked just.. uh.. nice.. in comparison (but those were still Caribbean beaches..!). Cayo Jutias doesn’t have any hotels, only a couple of restaurants. Other than that, it is just miles and miles of untouched, picture-perfect beach. And the best thing? Since Cayo Jutias is fairly difficult to get to – located on the northern tip of the island, a bumpy 75-minute ride on a pothole-filled country road from the small town of Viñales – there aren’t many tourists there.

As we walked further away from the restaurants – not before trying a Coco Loco, a fresh coconut to which rum and honey are added – we encountered less and less people, and found a large stretch of beach that we had all to ourselves. Parts of the beach aren’t fringed by palm trees but by a mangrove forest, which makes for an interesting backdrop and some lovely photo opps (see some of the pics in my April round-up). After a few days of city life in Havana and exploring the countryside around Viñales, I couldn’t have asked for a better beach getaway than Cayo Jutias…

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Classic Cuba Shot

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week cuba havana

I have so many thoughts and emotions about my Cuba trip, I am still processing everything I’ve seen and experienced on this spellbinding little island. Visiting Cuba turned out more challenging as I thought it would be, but it was so worth it. I have yet to go through the thousands of photos I took and sort my thoughts, but I’ll be sharing a number of Cuba articles shortly.

For now, let’s just say that Cuba isn’t like any other country I’ve ever visited, and yet, it felt strangely familiar. Why is that, you wonder? I grew up in East Germany, a Communist country, just like Cuba still is. In fact, Cuba was one of our socialist allies, and while with the collapse of the Communist bloc, life for me and 16 million other East Germans took a huge turn (for the better), Cubans still live so many aspects of the life that I remember from my childhood. Before this little teaser for my upcoming Cuba content becomes too much of a ramble (I’ll be talking about this ‘walk down memory lane’, which this trip inadvertently turned into for me, in an upcoming article) – for now I just want to say that I was fascinated by the spirit of the Cuban people, the lust for life, their ability to find joy in the little things, and about seeing how life spills out into the streets everywhere. I found especially Havana captivating, with its grand buildings, some of which were crumbling while others were already being renovated, showing off a fresh layer of paint and repaired facades, a visible sign of the changes that Cuba is seeing with the ease of the trade embargo of the US. And then there were of course the hundreds of American vintage cars cruising around Havana, just waiting for you to take that classic Cuba shot.

I’ve already gotten a bunch of questions about my trip, especially on Snapchat where I’ve been sharing some of the clips I took in Cuba (where I was completely offline, by the way!). Tune in for a Cuba Q&A on Snapchat this Sunday (30 April) – my user name is mariposa2711.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Bacalar, Mexico’s Lagoon Of Seven Colors

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico bacalar lagoon

Have you ever heard of the Lagoon of Seven Colors? This lagoon in the far southern Yucatán peninsula, close to the border with Belize, isn’t on the main tourist trail in this popular area because it is quite a drive from Playa del Carmen or even Tulum, which are very much the center of the Yucatan’s tourist trail.

I wouldn’t have known about Bacalar had I not lived in a small fishing village not far from there for a couple of months in 2012. Back then, I had to pass through Bacalar on my way to Chetumal, the border town with Belize, every time I went for a big grocery shopping.

I have to admit though that, since I was living right on the Caribbean, I never made an effort to truly explore Bacalar and the beaches of this marvelous lagoon, which is the second largest lake in all of Mexico. Having my own private beach with ocean views that offered similarly mesmerizing shades of blue, I never felt the need to spend much time in Bacalar.

Luckily, this oversight has finally been rectified. I was not only completely smitten by the lagoon with its beautiful blue-ish tones, which result from the varying amounts of sand on the bottom of the lake, but also by the little town itself. Small Mexican restaurants blend in effortlessly with hipster L.A. style gallery /cafes and fancy lagoon-side eateries where you can swing in hammocks right at the shore. Because the lagoon is such a unique feature, Bacalar was rewarded the ‘Pueblo Magico‘ status, making it one of Mexico’s famous ‘magic villages’, of which there are now 111.

There is only one small free public access to the lagoon, but we found two good beaches that are well worth paying for (one of them was only $0.50, the other one around $1.10 – so those were almost free, too!). One was a bigger camping area right in the center of town which had a long pier into the lake and a couple of man-made wooden islands to sunbathe on. The other one was a smaller camping area outside of town where you have some swings right in the water! This is where I took the above picture of what might be the most scenic tent I’ve ever seen.

Admittedly, I am not a big fan of camping, but this tent, in its glorious location, would convince even me to spend the night!

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Polaroid of the week: Street art in Cali, Colombia

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week colombia cali

The place I was most excited to visit in Colombia after Las Lajas sanctuary was Cali, Colombia’s third largest city and the salsa capital of the world. Last year, when I traveled through Colombia for nine weeks, I always saw myself stopping in Cali for a week or two to take salsa lessons – it’s almost a compulsory ritual for solo female travelers in Colombia it seems. You go to Cali and learn how to salsa. But then I flew to Mexico on a whim and never made it to Cali.

My excitement about visiting Cali faded quickly, however, when I read the following section in Wikitravel’s Stay Safe section:

2016: Drive by robberies are frequent. A group of two or three motorcycles will pick a random passerby and surround her, pointing a gun at her and quickly emptying her pockets. The whole thing takes less than a minute. Apart from taking a taxi everywhere, there’s not much you can do about it, because they operate at daytime and even in “safe” neighborhoods too. Apart from common sense(which will minimize but *NOT* eliminate the risk of being robbed), empty your wallet of any unnecessary debit/credit cards, carry a photocopy of your passport instead of the original (If you have an ID card that can be easily replaced, it’s even better), don’t carry a lot of money. If you have an expensive phone, you might want to carry a cheap phone while in Cali. You could wear pants with hidden pockets, because the objective of this crime is to make a quick getaway, not to take a lot of stuff. That said, realize most tourists in Cali don’t get robbed.

Yikes.

I was a bit freaked out, to be honest, and even cut my trip short, instead adding another stop to my tour of southern Colombia. I’d stop not only in Popayan but also in the small town of Pasto.

By the time I finally got to Cali, I had built up this image in my head of the city being a dangerous, gang-infested place where I’d get robbed for sure. Instead, I found a city I instantly liked, and which I didn’t find scary at all.

I went for runs along the beautiful river walk, I wandered around the downtown area, climbed to the top of Acueducto Park Hill for lovely views over Cali, I enjoyed strolls through Simon Bolivar Park while munching on fresh pineapple (for $0.17 a piece I developed an addiction quickly!), and I admired the colonial buildings as well as the awesome street art in the San Antonio neighborhood.

Speaking of street art – somehow nobody ever talks about Cali’s awesome street art scene. I’ve read several articles and blog posts on Cali that talked about the city’s churches and a cat sculpture park and salsa bars and museums, but no mention of the street art.

Hence I was surprised by the amount of street art I saw all over town – but what a pleasant surprise! I loved the colorful murals and graffiti and couldn’t stop snapping away with my phone. The one thing I didn’t dare bring along on my wanderings around town after reading that little paragraph on Wikitravel, was my dSLR camera. I never felt unsafe taking my iPhone out until I was stopped by a local who told me I shouldn’t be walking around with my phone out, but always hiding it.

Luckily, I never found myself in a situation that had me fear for my safety though. Instead, I had a lovely time in Cali. Next time, I’ll come back with more time and will stay long enough to learn salsa.

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Polaroid of the week: Izamal, Mexico’s Yellow City

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week mexico izamal

I still can’t believe I’m in Mexico!

This sudden change of travel plans has made me very happy though – I just love this country. This is the third time in the span of a year that I find myself in Mexico – and none of the three trips had been on my agenda originally. However, all three of them turned out to be amazing, including this one, which happens to be another road trip around the Yucatán.

While last year’s road trip was a bit rushed, at only eight days, this time around my friend and I have two entire weeks, which is enough time for a circle around the entire Yucatán peninsula, including some spots I’ve never made it to.

One of those places is Izamal, which is, along with my beloved Valladolid, one of two ‘Pueblos Magicos’, or magic villages on the Yucatán. It’s easy to see why Izamal was declared a ‘magical village’ – a place declared by the Mexican Secretariat of Tourism to be a village that offers visitors a “magical” experience – by reason of their natural beauty, cultural riches, or historical relevance.

And it is easily one of the most beautiful Mexican villages I’ve ever seen. All the buildings are yellow!

I could have spent days wandering the streets photographing the beautiful yellow buildings, the only thing that made it hard to stay outside for long periods of time were the defeatingly hot temperatures of 100°F (38°C).

A remarkable Franciscan convent marks the center of town and is bordered by two town squares, and only a few blocks from here there are several Mayan temples right in the heart of town. These remains of ancient Mayan temples give the town a second nickname: City Of Hills. In fact, the convent was built right on top of a Mayan temple.

I’ve never been to a town where Mayan ruins blend right in with the colonial architecture – a fascinating contrast.

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Stunning Las Lajas Sanctuary, Colombia

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week colombia las lajas

There are landmarks and monuments that you see a picture of and you just think: ‘Wow! This place looks amazing! I want to go there one day.‘ I feel that way every time I see a picture of the pyramids in Egypt, the Taj Mahal, the rice terraces in Bali, but also lesser known places like the ‘Swing at the end of the World‘ (where I made it to last month). And Las Lajas. You might not have heard of Las Lajas, but maybe you’ve seen a picture?

The first time I saw a photo of it was many years ago, before I even started my round-the-world trip in 2010. When my partner and I decided to make our way south from Mexico all the way to Argentina, I put Las Lajas on the itinerary. I didn’t even know where exactly it was, I only knew that it was in Colombia.

And then we stopped our travels south in Panama, made a detour to Europe instead of continuing on to Colombia (back then, we needed a change of scenery after nine months in Latin America).

When we returned to Latin America a couple of years later, we started in Argentina and wanted to work our way up to Colombia. We only ever made it to Peru (and then this happened). It was like I wasn’t supposed to see Las Lajas.

But last year, I finally made it to Colombia. I was finally going to visit Las Lajas! When I mapped out my trip, however, I saw where Las Lajas was located: all the way in the south of Colombia, close to the Ecuadorian border. I’d only make it there if I was going to Ecuador, which was something I’d contemplated, but eventually I ran out of time to visit both countries. Was I ever going to see Las Lajas?

Well, the Polaroid already gave it away, I guess. Yes, I finally made it to Las Lajas! I decided to add a whirlwind tour of Southern Colombia to my Ecuador trip, crossing the border overland. The town of Ipiales was my first stop in Colombia, and from there, it is only a short 15-minute drive to Las Lajas.

The church is built into a canyon, right over the Guáitara River, and the name actually refers to the rock that it is built into (laja is the Spanish word for this kind of sedimentary rock that’s found in this canyon). The entrance of the church, built in Gothic Revival style, is reached via a 160 feet (50 meters) high bridge over the river, and the height from the bottom of the canyon to the top of the church is exactly 100 meters (330 feet). It is a spectacular sight.

What makes Las Lajas special for Catholic pilgrims from all over Colombia and beyond is the story of how it came into existence in this rather odd location: In 1754, a woman and her deaf-mute baby daughter were caught in a storm in this canyon, and saw a cave they could find shelter in. Inside the cave, the little girl pointed at a silhouette illuminated by lightning – an apparition of the Virgin Mary – exclaiming “The woman is calling me!”. All of a sudden, the girl was able to speak. It is believed that the virgin cured her and caused people to start heading to the site as news about this miracle began to spread across the region.

A shrine was built, which eventually was replaced by a larger shrine, which then resulted in the construction of a church in the beginning of the 20th century in that very spot. It took several decades to finish the church that you can visit today. In 1952, Las Lajas received canonical coronation from the Vatican and it was made a minor basilica in 1994. In 2007, Las Lajas was declared on of the ‘Seven Wonders’ of Colombia.

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Polaroid Of The Week: The Swing At The End Of The World

Polaroid of the week

polaroid of the week ecuador Baños end of the world swingBaños is known as Ecuador’s adventure capital, and I knew there were a bunch of activities I could do here that would give me a nice adrenaline rush – rafting, paragliding, mountain biking, zip lining and canyoning, to name just a few.

The one attraction that gave me sweaty palms though? The infamous ‘swing at the end of the world;, where you dangle from a tree house over a cliff, high up in the mountains over Baños. It’s one of those places that you see a picture of and know you have to go there. Or is that just me?

For years, this was one of the only places I knew about in Ecuador. I knew about the Galápagos Islands, I knew about Quito, and the Swing At The End Of The World.

Since this was the thing I was most excited about doing in Baños, it was where I was headed to first. Initially I attempted hiking up the mountain, but when, after walking for an hour, I still hadn’t even made it to the bottom of the mountain on top of which the swing sits, I changed my mind and took a Chiva instead, a truck that’s converted into a tourist shuttle with benches in the back.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure if I’d actually swing on the swing or just take some photos, because I have a terrible fear of heights. But eventually I decided that I’d regret not doing it, and chances that I’ll ever return to Baños are pretty slim.

And so I got in line for about half an hour for two minutes of swinging over the cliff.. and I am happy to report that I lived to tell the tale.

I continued my adventurous week in Baños with a mountain bike tour along the popular waterfall route and two firsts for me: rafting and canyoning. How did that go? I’ll share my experiences in a detailed article on Baños soon… stay tuned!

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