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Polaroid of the Week

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

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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

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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

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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

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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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Polaroid Of The Week: Colonial Beauty in Cuenca, Ecuador

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polaroid of the week ecuador cuenca

When my mosquito bite count reached one hundred and my laptop’s cooling fan started making noises as if it was trying to tell me ‘I can’t deal with this heat anymore‘, I decided that it was time to get away from the beaches for a while and give both my laptop and my itching limbs a break. The beach had been nice, but I needed to get somewhere high enough for the mosquitoes to not get there. And so I headed to Cuenca, at 8,370 ft (2,550 meters) too high for mosquitoes to continue to feast on me and cool enough for my laptop not to overheat.

Cuenca is a popular expat destination, with 5,000 mainly North American expats living there, and it is easy to see why. Life in Cuenca is pleasant, cheap and tranquil. Mountains surround the city, and you can walk everywhere in the center. Cuenca has 52 churches and the best preserved colonial architecture in Ecuador, so much so that UNESCO declared the city center a World Heritage site. It was a city that I liked immediately – the first time I had this feeling during my time in Ecuador!

Without many ‘must see’ landmarks, I adapted to Cuenca’s slow pace and got into a nice routine of a daily morning run along the river, followed by a tasty breakfast in one of the coffee shops in the city center. I’d work for a few hours on my laptop and then head out and just wander the streets, curious to see what I’d find. I stumbled upon gorgeous colonial buildings, quaint plazas and plenty of good restaurants. After eating mostly Ecuadorian food for the past few weeks, I was delighted to find Thai, Indian, Middle Eastern and tasty Italian food, including pizza (and I am a hard-to-please pizza snob!).

The only mistake I made? I waited too long to do a couple of things I had on my to-do-list, most importantly climbing the bell towers of the impressive Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción, Cuenca’s main church, built in 1887, whose domes of sky-blue Czech tile (pictured in the Polaroid) are visible from almost anywhere in town, and where the view from the top over the city is supposed to be fantastic. Instead of heading up there on a sunny day, I felt lazy and decided to ‘do it later’ – only that the blue skies never returned. Instead, I experienced a couple of rainy and grey days, making it also not worth it to go to ‘Turi’, Cuenca’s best viewpoint, to get a view over all the city’s red-tiled roofs.

However, I was still enjoying my time here, even though I didn’t make it to all the places the guide books recommended. Instead, I experienced Cuenca like a local, with a nice routine, slowing down my travels, and appreciating the laid-back atmosphere, before my action-packed next stop, where many adventure activities would await: Baños, aptly nicknamed Ecuador’s adventure capital.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Beach sunset in Montañita, Ecuador

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polaroid of the week ecuador montanita
After my week in hot and sticky Guayaquil I couldn’t wait to get to the beach for a fresh ocean breeze. I had heard great things about Montañita, a small village on the Santa Elena Peninsula on Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. Montañita is the country’s number one surf spot, and, as I learned when I arrived there, a prime party destination for people from all over South America. Think South America’s answer to Ibiza, only with less mega clubs, but with loud music right on the beach instead, blasting from several discos right along the shore.

The problem with that? I was just not in the mood for a mega party, and I had also been warned about walking around town at night by myself. A couple of backpacking girls from Argentina were brutally murdered in Montañita less than a year ago, and I didn’t get a good vibe from the village. The beach was okay, but nothing special, and the waves were so insanely high that there was a red flag on the beach every day, warning people that the surf was intense and the current was strong.

I ended up preferring the two beaches south and north of Montañita – Olon to the north was much more charming, with seemingly nicer accommodation and cuter restaurants, plus several appealing beach bars and less tourists. Manglaralto to the south seemed like it lacked foreign tourists entirely – or at least I never saw any when I ventured down there.

What all three villages have in common: the amazing sunset spectacle the sky put on for us every single night. I made sure not to miss a single one – Pacific sunsets never disappoint.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Taking In The Views Over Guayaquil, Ecuador

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polaroid of the week ecuador guayaquil

After cruising around the Galapagos Islands, I was in urgent need of a break to catch up on work projects and to deal with the hundreds of emails that had piled up in my inbox while I was on the boat (I get so many emails these days, I can barely handle the volume anymore!). I decided to stay in Guayaquil, the city where I’d flown to the Galapagos from, which happens to be Ecuador’s largest city, and one of the largest sea ports in all of South America. Beyond that, there’s not all that much to do and see for tourists though. A newly revamped river walk, the Malecon 2000, made for a great running track in the mornings, and for some good entertainment in the evenings (people watching, and an IMAX cinema that showed LaLa Land).

Just north of the Malecon sits Las Peñas, the city’s oldest neighborhood, where colorful little houses are built into the side of a hill, Cerro Santa Ana. The neighborhood used to be a slum, but a regeneration project transformed it into the tourist attraction that it is today. 432 stairs lead up to the top of the hill, each one numbered, so that with each step, you are painfully reminded you how many more stairs you still have to climb. Once you reach the top, however, you are rewarded with spectacular 360° views over Guayaquil and the wide Guayas River. There is also a little chapel on the top of Cerro Santa Ana, and a lighthouse which you can climb for even better views (including the chapel – see Polaroid). The brightly painted houses, little plazas with palm trees, and alleyways where cats were lounging in the sun and laundry was drying in the air made this my favorite part of the city – I even made my way up these cruel stairs twice, despite the relentless heat. That heat was what eventually made decide on my next stop: the beaches along the Pacific Coast, about 2.5 hours west of Guayaquil, seemed like a perfect place to escape the heat of the city for a while.

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Polaroid Of the Week: Cruising Around The Galapagos Islands

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polaroid of the week ecuador galapagos

This week I went on a trip of a lifetime: a 4-day cruise around the Galapagos Islands. This archipelago  of 20 islands, 42 islets, and over 250 rocks in the ocean, a 2-hour flight of the coast off mainland Ecuador, is a nature and wildlife lover’s paradise! For four days, we cruised around some of the islands, with frequent snorkeling stops and island explorations. The boat would anchor in the ocean, and our dinghies would bring us to the shore. With the exception of one island, Santa Cruz, we never encountered any other people, it always felt like we were the only ones out there. Even when the boat was cruising in between islands, we often didn’t see another boat for hours.

The snorkeling stops were my favorite part – we swam with penguins, sharks, rays, seals and turtles. Something I never tire of! On land, we watched Giant Tortoises mating, eating and just being, we watched sea lions take over the ports of the two towns we stopped in, and we watched hundreds of colorful Sally Lightfoot Crabs crawling around the rocks near the shore. I photographed iguanas, blue-footed boobies and other birds, I got up for a sunrise snorkeling session near a rock in the middle of the ocean which was a popular spot with hammerhead sharks, and I sunbathed on a dreamy, secluded, tropical beach.

It truly was a dream trip for all the experiences I had – but then there was also the boat I was on, which was a big part of it, considering that’s where we spent the majority of our time. Aptly named ‘Majestic’, it was a gorgeous 16-passenger yacht with a beautiful sun deck and a Jacuzzi. Our crew spoiled us with tasty buffet meals and snacks every time we came back from an excursion, definitely exceeding my expectations in terms of food and service. I couldn’t have been happier about doing this trip with Galapagos Luxury Charters, who put together personalized, all-inclusive cruises around the islands.

I can’t wait to share all the photos (well, maybe not all of them, considering I took well over 800) and stories of my Galapagos trip with you – I have yet to look at all the footage I took with my underwater camera but I will start sharing it shortly on my social media channels, so make sure to follow me on Instagram and Facebook for a first peek.

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Polaroid Of The Week: Quito’s Stunning Basílica del Voto Nacional

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polaroid of the week ecuador quito

I’m back in South America! And it strangely feels like I’ve never left, even though it’s been nearly eleven months since I said goodbye to Colombia. But considering I was in Mexico until mid-April and then again a whole month in November, it shouldn’t be too surprising that everything feels strangely familiar.

The Latin America traffic craze, the bustling markets and town squares, the noise (horns, speakers, megaphones), the street food vendors everywhere.

There were a few things though that made Quito, my first stop in Ecuador, feel different: 1) there are many women in traditional native dress, with long skirts and braids, hats and colorful shawls, which remind me a lot of the native dress in Bolivia.

And 2) The altitude! Quito is the second highest city in the world (only La Paz sits higher), and with an altitude of just over 9,200 feet I definitely felt the affects of it. I don’t think I’ve been to a place that high since traveling around Bolivia three years ago.

I’ll leave my thoughts on Quito for a separate article, but let’s just say I didn’t really connect with the city. That doesn’t mean I had a bad time here, but I didn’t see anything truly amazing and didn’t feel like I needed to spend more time here than the 4 days I had in Quito. I wandered the streets of the historic Old Town (a UNESCO World Heritage site), I visited several of Quito’s stunning churches including the Basilica of the National Vow, pictured, which is he largest neo-Gothic basilica in the Americas. I went to the new part of town (where I had an amazing Ecuadorian hot cocoa!), I went to the city’s biggest park and roamed the central market, and while all of that was nice, it just didn’t feel very special. Maybe it was the chilly weather (temperatures in Quito are in the 60s year-round) and the fact that it rained every day (thankfully not all day), Quito just didn’t wow me. I will be back in Quito at some point to use it as a base while taking a couple of excursions (I am planning to take a mountain bike tour of Cotopaxi and to visit the famous Otavalo market) – maybe I’ll warm up to Ecuador’s capital then.

Next stop: The Galápagos Islands!

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