Posts from the ‘Museum’ category

The 7 Cultural Treasures of Asuncion, Paraguay

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Experience

It’s after midnight on Monday morning when the hotel car collects us from the airport, after the short flight from Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to today’s holiday destination, Asuncion Paraguay.

We’ve asked the driver to show us a flavour of the city, and he obliges by driving us past the Palacio de los López, the palace that serves as the Republic’s seat of government and home of the President. Lit up like this, we can see why the driver assures us it’s best seen at night.

The Palacio de los López at night, Asuncion Paraguay.

We can’t argue with the nighttime moment at the Palacio de los López. Photo by Marco Bogarin, CC License.

Our Monday morning proper starts with Terere. This is a cold version of the hot Mate drink – similar to tea, but with a distinctive herbal flavour. It’s also a communal activity; as we pass the cup around taking turns to refill and to drink from the metal bombilla straw, there are opportunities to reflect on the madness of the Rio Carnival weekend, and the much more peaceful days ahead of us in Paraguay.

We also make sure to dress lightly – this week will be cooler than last week here, but it’s still a sub-tropical summer and temperatures above 30°C (85°F) are expected.

Today sounds far more grand than it is full of effort. We have in mind a chance to see each of the 7 Cultural Treasures of Asuncion. These were chosen by popular vote in 2009, and we can’t argue with the selection.

Two of these won’t be part of today – the Palacio de los López we have already seen, and the striking Iglesia de la Santísima is actually located in the nearby town of Trinidad (no, the other one) – so we have to put that on tomorrow’s plans.

Our distinctive Hotel Guaraní against the Asuncion skyline. Paraguay's first 5 Star hotel, and a cultural heritage destination.

Our distinctive Hotel Guaraní against the Asuncion skyline. Photo by Loritoarai, CC License.

Next on the list is the easiest of the lot – we’re already staying here! The Guarani Esplendor Hotel completed construction in 1961 – had it merely been Paraguay’s first five star hotel, and so close to the government centre, that alone would have given it significance as the hotel chosen by foreign dignitaries.

Instead, it stepped beyond that function, creating an architectural form that symbolised the striking Brazilian school of that era (And is often mistakenly attributed to the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer). Interior refurbishments ensure five star has evolved with the times; respect has ensured the facade remains an icon of Ascuncion, Paraguay, and South America.

Panteón Nacional de los Héroes, Asuncion Paraguay.

Panteón Nacional de los Héroes. Photo by Lett, Licensed under CC License.

We walk down the main street Senora de la Asuncion, with parkland on both sides, until turning into the Panteón Nacional de los Héroes. Often compared to Les Invalides in Paris, France, the Panteon is much smaller but similar respectful monument to the national heroes of war and peace. The most notable grave is former Paraguayan President Francisco Solano López, who also led the country in the War of the Triple Alliance – when Paraguay found itself at war with Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay from 1864-70. The impact of that conflict, which devastated Paraguay and may have killed up to 90% of its adult male population, can still be felt in the landlocked country’s poor regional living standards.

The Teatro Municipal Ignacio A. Pane, in downtown Asuncion Paraguay.

The Teatro Municipal Ignacio A. Pane, in downtown Asuncion.

Further along Chile (that’s the street, not the country), the facade of the Teatro Municipal (city theatre) Ignacio A. Pane stands out as a contrast of its original 19th Century spanish mission design and a more modern glass portico. The interior similarly embodies this evolution, as we shall find out later tonight.

At the very top end of Asuncion we meet our next, fifth, cultural treasure the Museo del Cabildo. This building has a storied history, from an original Jesuit home to an 1870 extension and creation of the Legislative Palace after the disaster of the War of the Triple Alliance, to its current incarnation as a Museum of Paraguayan history. It’s worth noting across the Plaza the striking glass building – not yet a cultural treasure, this is the current home of Paraguay’s legislative body … and was financed by the government of Taiwan.

The Cabildo at night - when the museum is closed, but the culture is on display.

The Cabildo at night – when the museum is closed, but the culture is on display. Photo by Leandro, Licensed under CC License.

Our final Cultural Treasure for today, as we turn back toward our hotel, is the Catedral Metropolitana. Designed by a Uruguayan, and built between 1842 and 1849, stepping inside the Metropolitan Cathedral of Asuncion delivers the impact of Spanish Catholic colonialism with its independent evolution in South America over the past century and a half. When Pope John Paul II visited here in 1988 he would have sensed the sparseness in comparison to the Vatican’s cathedrals; he also would have witnessed as we do the devoutness of the parish – even on a Monday lunchtime the tourists only just outnumber the faithful, a reminder of how the strength of faith still impacts this country even as it diminishes in power across much of the western world.

The Catedral Metropolitana de Asunción, a reflection of modern South American faith.

The Catedral Metropolitana de Asunción, a reflection of modern South American faith. Photo by Gabriela Sanabria, Licensed under CC License.

Stepping back out into the midday heat, we are reminded of the siesta tradition that carries on here. Remarkably, this whole walk – five of the cultural treasures of Paraguay – is barely a one mile round trip from our hotel.

So for the afternoon, we part ways. Whether you call it a siesta – or a disco nap – enjoy.

And when you wake up, no doubt you will find some of our everydaydream group milling around the gorgeous hotel swimming pool.

A relaxing afternoon is followed by an easy walk back to the Teatro Municipal, for a 9pm “Concert of Dreams“. Immersing ourselves in the local musical culture is an opportunity, and there’s a certain passion to the music that can be lacking in the precision of big city orchestras. The atmosphere here is aided by the family feel, even at 9pm on a school night!

While the cultural treasures we have seen are all listed as buildings, the message from today is how much the city of Asuncion, Paraguay continues to live the culture they represent. These aren’t monuments to the past, they are spaces – palaces, museums, theatres, and churches – for today’s residents to connect the culture of their ancestors with the lifestyle of their children’s children.

Want to go? Need to know!

Here’s the full list of the Seven Treasures of Cultural Heritage material of Asunción, Paraguay

  • Palacio de los López (Presidential Palace)
  • Hotel Guaraní (Paraguay’s first 5-Star hotel)
  • Panteón Nacional de los Héroes (Memorial to the National Heroes)
  • Teatro Municipal Ignacio A. Pane (city Theatre)
  • Cabildo (former Parliament, now Museum)
  • Catedral Metropolitana de Asunción (city Cathedral)
  • Iglesia de la Santísima Trinidad (Jesuit Church complex in nearby Trinidad) – click here to read about our visit there

We enjoyed taking in a walking tour of Asuncion, and couldn’t argue with any of these cultural treasures. Have you been? Did you see other buildings that would make stronger cultural heritage material than the seven winners? Tell us in the comments below.

Houston, We Have No Problem

By Jacob Aldridge

Have you ever had one of those days when you feel like you spent the entire time travelling? And I’m not talking about a flight to Australia (where you actually spend so much time in a plane seat you start to think of the bathroom as ‘spacious’). These are the days when the car to the train to the airport to the other airport to then… well, you get the picture.

Our solution? Find ways to break up your journey and take in more of the experience! Today, for example, we’re rewarding our New Orleans Mardi Gras hangover with a two-flight trip south (Read on to discover how far south!). Why punish ourselves with all that, when we can cut it in half and also take in the space capital of the USA.

A day in Houston? We have no problem!

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That's guaranteed to win you some trivia night points.

Charles Conrad was the third man to walk on the moon, as the lead astronaut in Apollo 12. That’s guaranteed to win you some trivia night points. Photo by Paul Hudson, Licensed under CC License.

Today’s Experience

Our flight out is not so early. In fact, in New Orleans 9.20am in the morning is considered late the night before! And it means we arrive in Houston, Texas’s largest city, mid-morning – with plenty of time to take in the key things to do in Houston.

Anytime you drive down a road named “NASA Parkway”, you know there’s going to be something cool at the end of the street. And the Johnson Space Centre does not disappoint.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Now on display in the Johnson Space Centre, Houston Texas, where you can see astronauts train today.

This is the training rover used for the Apollo astronauts to practice in. Photo by Stuart Seegar, Licensed under CC License.

Could you see yourself visiting the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas? Where the Apollo astronauts who went to the moon trained.

Could you see yourself visiting the Space Centre in Houston? Photo by Amanderson2, Licensed under CC License.

While Cape Canaveral and the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida take a lot of the glory, Houston was actually the hub for managing the Apollo missions in the first days of space flight. This was where astronauts with ‘The Right Stuff’ were (and still are) trained; when Apollo 13 discovered something was wrong, their immediate response was “Houston, we have a problem”.

The NASA Tram Tour shows us the highlights of how today’s astronauts train for time on the International Space Station. There’s time to learn about the cutting edge robotics that mark current deep space research, and an opportunity to walk through the Apollo Mission Control Centre that guided one small step for a man, and one giant leap for mankind. Neil Armstrong may have famously flubbed that line – we find this tour to be flawless and utterly fascinating.


Caption: Although the video promo is a little 1980s!

But before there were astronauts in Texas, there were Cowboys – pioneers in a different way, in a lifestyle just as dangerous. The American Cowboy Museum is a ranch in sight of the city skyline, a seventh-generation home to this western tradition. But ditch those misconceptions about white dude ranches – here’s a real taste of just how multicultural the authentic wild west always was. The founder, Mollie Stevenson, and her mother were first living African Americans inducted into the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. And after taking in the American Cowboy Museum, we're all tempted to acquire ourselves some classic Houston, Texas cowboy boots.

EVERYTHING is bigger in Texas. Photo by Chris Doelle, Licensed under CC License.

If the Cowboy fashion style has grabbed your attention more than the lifestyle, check out Tejas Custom Boots over on Westheimer Road – if you’re going to get cowboy boots, may as well have them made by the people who make them for Governors and Presidents, right?

(Don’t sweat it – if you really want to run away from the Cowboy style, head to Hamilton Shirts on Richmond Ave for hand-cut, tailor-made shirts from a family that’s been doing this for 130 years.)

Our next stop is the Houston Zoo (conveniently located just out of the Houston CBD). Now after seeing Jaguars in the wild of Belize, and Kiwi birds up close in New Zealand, we’re not actually here for the animals. Oh no – we’re here for the artists.

Wait, what?! The animals ARE the artists?

OK – fake theatrics aside, because we organised this event several weeks ago. To raise funds for the Zoo’s conservation program, and to add variety to the animals’ lives, Houston Zoo works with a surprising number of different inhabitants to create unique masterpieces … and then sell them to the public. $250 may sound like a lot of money for an artist who has never been to art school, but how many of your friends have a work of art created by a White Faced Saki? (Actually, we chose animals your friends have actually heard of. A Jaguar for me, an elephant for Chris … how about you choose between the Orang-utan portrait and the Lioness landscape.)

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the Realism school. It's possible to purchase Animal artwork from the Houston Zoo in Texas, USA.

We never promised elephant paintings would represent the school of Realism. Photo by rwcox123, Licensed under CC License.

Feeling cultural, we head to Houston’s Montrose district. There are plenty of reasons on the ground to explore this neighbourhood, perhaps the most architecturally diverse in the city (it’s easier to tell between a bungalow and a condo when they’re side by side), and also for the variety of cuisine the groovy neighbourhood as to offer.

But mostly, we’re here for the sky not the ground. As dusk begins to settle on this famous aviation town, it becomes clear that Houston flight was not a man made invention. With a flutter then a whoosh and then the unbelievable darkness as day turns to night beneath their wings, a quarter of a million Mexican free-tail bats take to the sky. An epic spectacle, and a reminder of why man felt compelled to take the sky him (and her) self.

Turning day into night: The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Turning day into night on the Allen Street Parkway. Photo by Sirtrentalot, Licensed under CC License.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. The Mexican free-tail bats emerge from the Allen Street Parkway and Waugh Drive Bridge in Houston's Montrose District.

Come out, come out, wherever you are. Photo by Adam Baker, Licensed under CC License.

And take to the sky we now must. By breaking up our flight, we’ve created a day of natural wonder. And we now have an excuse to sleep on the plane.

See you tomorrow morning when we land in Rio de Janeiro…that’s right baby, New Orleans Mardi Gras was just a warm up for a weekend of Rio Carnival!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Spending some time in Houston? Then definitely make time for the Space Centre’s “Level 9” tour. This is limited to just 12 people per day, and is a 4-5 hours behind the scenes experience of the Centre including lunch inside the Astronauts cafeteria.
  • The Johnson Space Centre Houston is a working site – photo ID is required, and there are safety requirement (like closed-in shoes) that need to be followed.
  • If it’s Pigs in Space, not astronauts, that take your fancy – you need to head to Atlanta’s Centre for Puppetry Arts.
  • Due to demand, Houston Zoo’s animal art advises that paintings will take 4-6 weeks to create. And that’s fair enough – these are not commercial artists, they are artists of the purist sense.
  • The nightly bat display emerges from Montrose’s Waugh Drive Bridge (between Allen Parkway and Memorial Drive). Your best position for capturing the experience is securing a position on the platform just south of the bridge as the sunset takes hold.
  • Adam Baker, who took the second of those amazing bat photos, gives this warning: “I got a nice “present” on a brand new shirt while taking these photos. You might want to wear an old sweatshirt if you plan to check ’em out.” All we can say is, thank goodness cows don’t fly!

How do you make the most of layovers between flights? Have you ever had a great experience making the stopover longer? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Roadtrip: Nashville, Tennessee to Atlanta, Georgia

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Experience

Did you have that dream last night where Keith Urban and Elvis Presley announce their wedding? No? Just me?

Must have been something to do with yesterday’s musical road trip, and knowing that today would start with a Platinum tour of the Country Music Hall of Fame here in Nashville, Tennessee.

Wall of Gold Records at the Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Gold, Gold, Gold for Tennessee! Photo by Cliff 1066, CC License

Our driver Dan is beside himself with excitement. As a real country music fan, the celebrity audio guide… His tastes are more modern, but the rest of us with varying degrees of Country music appreciation still find plenty to enjoy – from the Patsy Cline exhibit to the RCA Studio guided tour where we are walked through the studio that birthed more than 1,000 top ten music hits (and around 150 recordings of the King himself).

Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville Tennessee

Classic exhibits inside the Hall of Fame. Photo by NOLA Agent, CC License

We’re on a road trip to Atlanta, which involves a whistle-stop lunch in Chattanooga, Tennessee – the halfway point of today’s drive. We follow the Tennessee River to 212 Market Restaurant, at the north end of a town made famous by Glenn Miller and his Orchestra singing “Chattanooga Choo Choo” in the 1940s.

After 21 years in business, these guys know how to make a sandwich – are you going to choose the Pecan chicken club or the Chattanooga cheesesteak wrap? Something to chew chew on while we head back to Interstate 24 overlooking the choo choo train tracks!

Atlanta is a city steeped in US history, from it’s importance during the US Civil War, to the Civil Rights movement a century later, and today’s corporate success as home to CNN, Coca-Cola and MailChimp (you may have heard of them?). It’s also the fourth Summer Olympic host city we’ve visited on our everydaydream holiday so far (Link to Destinations).

Centre for Puppetry Arts

Fun – and not just for children! Photo by Ayleen Gasper, CC License

Our first stop ignores all that – we’re here to have fun at the Centre for Puppetry Arts! Where was this place when I was planning my birthday party as a kid? We’re doing the Jim Henson: Life and Legacy tour, with all its background information on the man behind the Muppets and Fraggle Rock.

Jim Henson was there when Kermit the Frog cut the ribbon to open the centre in 1978. Since then they’ve been impressing adults and children alike – yes, in addition to children’s birthday parties they also host adults-only Puppetry Theatre! (No, not the adults only puppetry you’re thinking of!)

Which segment was The Muppet Show's best?

Pigs in Space – one of The Muppet Show’s funniest segments. Photo by Moria, CC License

From there it’s to the World of Coca-Cola, Atlanta’s most famous export (and, some say, the reason they were awarded the 1996 Olympic Games). Unless you’re a real Coke head, there’s a lot to learn here, and the immersive experience of the ‘Vault of the Secret Formula’ is part of the fun. The taste-testing, we concede, is not quite as impressive as the similar experience at the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.

Inside the World of Coca-Cola

Inside the World of Coca-Cola. Photo by Bob B. Brown, CC License

We part ways with Dan just outside the Martin Luther King Jr historic site, on Auburn Avenue. Roadtrips can’t help but bring people together, and we’ll miss him … His taste in music, on the other hand? We’re kinda glad to see that go.

Besides, we’ve got movie tickets tonight. While we’d never heard of the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival (“Atlanta’s largest film festival”), when we heard they were showing Lore (Australia’s official entry for this year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar) with a Q&A afterwards we jumped at the chance to grab tickets.

Music, Movies, and Coca-Cola – there’s a lot to love in the American South.

Wish you were where?

Of course, you are here with everydaydream holiday. Photo by Quinn Anya, CC License

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Want us to feature your town, or want to feature yourself as a local expert at your favourite tourist destination? Head over to our ‘Local guides’ page and tell us where you take your visitors when they’re in town.
  • The Platinum package to the Country Music Hall of Fame is only $33, and includes the guided tour. But book in advance as places are limited.
  • Atlanta is the fourth Summer Olympic Host City we’ve visited. Can you name the other three?
  • The United States of America are currently memorialising the sesquicentennial of the US Civil War (that’s the 150 year anniversary). We’ll be returning later in the year when the Battle of Gettysburg anniversary events connect with the Fourth of July celebrations.

So what are your favourite roadtrip songs? Share them with the world in the comments below or on our Facebook page.

Underwater Art Gallery Cancun

Bleary-eyed, shattered, and mostly numb, we stumble off the overnight bus we took to get from Belize to Cancun, Mexico. It was a long, cold, dull, sleep-deprivation-chamber-on-wheels, and we’re just done. First priority – sleep.

Cancun, we love your beautiful beaches, we want to explore your crystal clear cenotes, and we definitely want to party.

After we nap.

Today’s Itinerary

  • Catch up on some sleep at out luxury Cancun resort
  • Scuba dive an underwater art museum
  • Dive into Cancun’s nightlife

O blessed sleep, where art thou?

We arrive in Playa de Carmen somewhere around five in the morning. Fortunately, we’ve arranged for a local car to pick us up, because after crossing the border into Mexico at 11 PM and another unscheduled stop at midnight, coupled with bumpy roads and overly friendly passengers, we’re experiencing a coma of sorts.

Just picking up our luggage from underneath the bus takes a herculean effort, and where does this strap go? Do all these buckles have to be done up? Why am I sitting on the ground?

Helpfully, not all of us are completely catatonic and, although it’s a small miracle, soon we’re bundled into the car and pulling up into our resort.

In this state, it all seems like a bit of a dream. Everything is dark and quiet, and without paying too much attention we’re in a warm bed and fast asleep.

At midday, we awake to this.

White Sand Beach Cancun

White Sand Beach Cancun. Photo by adpowers, CC License

We must be dreaming

Several weeks ago, when it became clear just how painful the bus ride from Belize to Cancun was going to be, we elected to spend a couple of days in a resort recuperating (yes, it’s a hard life).

That decision has paid many dividends.

We decided to stay at the the Dreams Resort in Cancun, midway between Cancun and Playa de Carmen. Reluctantly opening the curtains, eyes shielded from the midday sun, we are greeted by vistas like this.

Beautiful white sand beaches stretch along the coast. There’s a pleasant ocean breeze coming in off the Gulf, and the lick of white racing up and down the line of the sand shows us where we should be – in the water.

And we’ve got something special planned.

There’s time for a quick brunch and then we’re in a taxi into Cancun, to arrive at the Scuba Cancun Dive Centre ( Blvd Kukulcan Km 5, Zona Hotelera, 77500, Cancún).

We’re going to get us some culture and visit an underwater art gallery.

An underwater art gallery, you say?

There are words in the English language that go together. ‘Bacon’ and ‘eggs’, ‘sea’ and ‘sand’, ‘endless’ and ‘vacation’ (well, those two should). Some words that don’t really belong together are ‘underwater’ and ‘art gallery’. Yet here we are.

This is an incredibly ambitious project with an interesting goal at heart – to drive people away from visiting coral reefs. With around 750,000 tourists visiting local coral reefs, as the artist explained in this National Geographic interview;

That puts a lot of pressure on the existing reefs…So part of this project is to actually discharge those people away from the natural reefs and bring them to an area of artificial reefs.

The project, which features statues made by Mexican artist Jason deCaires Taylor, began in 2009 and will ultimately ‘exhibit’ 400 sculptures.

Watching this video (embedded below), we can only feel how eerie this must have felt. Those statues, clean and solid, don’t belong there under the water.

They stand their, eyes closed, awaiting their fates? Contemplating the infinite? Praying for salvation?

Underwater Art Museum

Underwater Art Museum. Photo by Jason deCaires Taylor – visit www.jasondecairestaylor.com for more incredible pictures. Reproduced here with permission of the artist.

The contrast between the bright colours of the fish and natural coral formations oppose the grey, solid humanity that the statues convey. But over time, the power of nature to transform and adapt becomes apparent, as life, ever-growing, explores the surfaces made by man and makes them its own. The sculptures become a part of the reef, previously ravaged by storms, supporting life where previously there was none.

From Life to Art to Reef

Silent Evolution. Amazing photo series by Jason deCaires Taylor – visit www.jasondecairestaylor.com for more incredible pictures. Reproduced here with permission of the artist.

Around 30 feet underwater, we’re taken on a scuba tour of the underwater art gallery. Down on the ocean floor, amongst these people frozen in time, is a truly unforgettable experience.

Scuba Dive Tour of the Underwater Art Gallery

Caffeine up, people. It’s time to party.

The easiest thing to do right now would be fall asleep on the beach or to crawl back into the luxurious bed at our Cancun resort. We deserve it – that bus ride was pretty bad.

Photo by A. Strakey, Licensed under CC.

Photo by A. Strakey, Licensed under CC.

But buckle up people – grab your Red Bull, grab your double espresso, gulp down those No Doze – stay awake! For tonight – we party in Cancun.

Photo by cezzie901, Licensed under CC.

Coco Bongo – looks tame by day, but by night…Photo by cezzie901, Licensed under CC.

Frommer’s said “you have to experience it to believe it”

Coco Bongo Spiderman

Coco Bongo Spiderman. Photo by Abeeeer, CC License

As they said in ancient Rome – linea longa, bonum festum (don’t quote us on that).

With that principle in mind, Coco Bongo is the place to go if you want to experience the craziness and sheer audacity of the party scene in Cancun.

Frommer’s, in their review, said “you have to experience it to believe it”. A madcap remix of incoherent popular cliches like Austin Powers and Spiderman, combined with pyrotechnics, lightshows, smoke machines, and dancing everywhere possible – take their advice.

Photo by Vitor D'Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D’Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D'Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Vitor D’Agnoluzzo, Licensed under CC.

We’re still trying to wrap our head around it.

Coco Bongo Beetlejuice!

Coco Bongo Beetlejuice! Photo by Abeeeer, CC License

Waving the Flag in Belize City

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

There’s something special about starting a new day on island. Even when you know the plan is to head back to the mainland (and we have a mid-morning water taxi back to Belize City), it really does feel like you are completely separated from any worldly concerns you may have. Caye Caulker, off the cost of Belize, certainly feels that way.

Belize City boats

Lobster Boats in the harbour of Belize City. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

Our first destination after the water taxi delivers us to Belize City (and we walk across the manually controlled Swing Bridge) is the Museum of Belize, an opportunity to brush up on our history (not really) and see inside the former prison cells (really). The permanent exhibits here are a juxtaposition of the English colony (stamps and coins for example) and the much older indigenous history of the region (Maya Masterpieces is a must).

The history of Belize is emblazoned on their national flag, and the imagery there is so rich that their flag contains more colours than the flag of any other nation (12 in total, the next nearest is 9). And the flag forms a highlight in the Museum tour, where you can see a torn and dirty example that was found in the ruins of the World Trade Centre, after the attacks of September 11, 2001.

Unlike the neighbouring Guatemala which was properly settled by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th Century, Belize was controlled as a British Colony from 1862 to 1981; English remains the official language. So when someone in Guatemala says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect to see ruins and bungalows up to 400 years old (oh, and they’ll probably say “mirar los edificios coloniales”); when someone in Belize says “look at the Colonial buildings”, expect grand houses from the mid 1800s!

Government House Belize City

Government House, a Belize House of Culture. Photo by Roger4336, CC License

One such example is today’s Government House, originally built in 1815 and opened to the public as an event venue in 1998. There are art exhibits on display here, but our visit is from the outside and as an opportunity to feel some more of Central America’s varied history. Continuing the flag theme, it was here in 1981 that Belize’s national flag was official raised for the first time.

And take a look at the brick Cathedral of St John across the road – it’s the oldest Anglican Church in Central America. (Which, to be fair, is a bit like pointing out the oldest Mayan Temple in Great Britain.)

And then, surprise surprise, there’s another bus trip to enjoy! (Experience? Survive? If you missed our tips for long bus rides, you can read them here.) This one is not so bad, 3.5 hours from Belize City in the direction of Punta Gorda. We’re travelling with James Bus Lines – and while they’re excellent, we can’t say the same for the roads!

We’re delighted to be exiting the bus, and just in time to grab our tickets at the Maya Center adjacent to (well, a $US15 taxi ride from) the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin Wildlife Sanctuary

Welcome to Cockscombe Basin. Photo by ambertq, CC License

This sanctuary protects all five of Belize’s big cats: Jaguar, Puma, Ocelot, Jaguarundi, and Margay. While coming out here meant extra time in a bus, it was well worth it as we settle into our ‘White House’ accommodation within the Cockscomb Basin. There’s just enough time as the sun sets to cook our dinner in the kitchen provided, and base ourselves on the screened-in verandah to watch the evening wildlife emerge.

What is a jaguarundi?

What is a jaguarundi? This is a jaguarundi! Photo by Alena Houšková, CC License

What is a Margay cat?

What is a Margay? This is a Margay! Photo by Malene Thyssen, CC License

No Jaguars tonight – we might have to look further afield tomorrow.

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Water Taxis run regularly between Caye Caulker and Belize City.
  • Looking for a place to eat in Belize City? We could suggest one, but really you want to read this article from the fabulous San Pedro Scoop.
  • The Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary offers a range of places to sleep, depending on your travel preferences (flush toilet or pit latrine?) and the number of people you’re travelling with (we find dormitory bedding adds to a group holiday experience, and detracts from a couple’s romantic weekend in Belize!)

Does anybody think we spent too little time in Belize City? What are your tips for long bus rides? Share them with the world in the comments below.

Toasting Marshmallows Over Lava!

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

Our morning flight out of Mexico City is bound for Guatemala City, but it’s not the present day capital of Guatemala that brings us here. Instead we are bound one hour west of the capital by bus, to Antigua Guatemala. If Antigua to you means only the Caribbean Island of that name, you’re in for a fabulous culture shock as we explore a city that was created after a volcano, survived a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, and was ordered abandoned 240 years ago … but not everybody left.

The history of chocolate is almost as old as the history of Greece and, we have to say, far more digestible in a single afternoon. Central America is where it all began so our first stop in Antigua is the ‘Choco Museo‘. It was the Mayans who first cultivated cocoa in Guatemala, and the bitter drink was introduced to the world via the Spanish conquistadors. It was the later refinements (adding sugar, particularly, to take the edge of the bitter taste of natural cocoa) that give us the popular sweet that chocolate lovers today concur “makes the world go round”.

Chocolate Demonstration

Another chocolate making experience, in nearby Quetzaltenango. Photo by Patrick Hui, CC License

We’re not here for the museum (alone). We’ve actually booked ourselves in for a Truffle Making workshop. Here, the history and manufacturing process of chocolate come to life – it’s one of the few workshops we’ve done where you’re encouraged to get your hands dirty! A truffle, in chocolatier parlance, is ganache-filled, so after a short theory lesson we have an hour to each create our own ganache filling, build the chocolate exterior, and then fill our own samples. What is ganache? Delicious!

What is Ganache?

Ganache is the soft filling for truffles, and chocolate ganache is also a popular icing. Photo by Mama Pyjama, CC License.

The Museum itself takes about 30 minutes to tour – it’s insightful on its own, but even more fabulous when you know your own creation is currently being cooled ready to take away. Best of all – our next stop gives us every excuse to eat our truffles now, because we don’t want them to melt…

…on the hike to the top of an active volcano!

Climb Pacaya Volcano

Climbing Pacaya. Photo by Greg Willis, CC License

The Pacaya Volcano is the most visited volcano in the Americas, and when we say it’s active we’re not using weasley geological terms to sound cool. This baby blew its stack in 1965 and has been erupting continuously ever since. Since a 2010 eruption, rivers of lava have been visible to tourists who make the easy 1 hour climb to the peak.

Oh yeah – and it started ramping up again just 3 weeks ago!

The only way to see Pacaya without the crowds is to be there first thing in the morning. And what’s the best way to be there first thing? Camp on the volcano overnight, of course!

So in the late afternoon, we find ourselves on a bus with O.X. Outdoor Excursions. It’s hard to appreciate the Spanish colonial ruins of Antigua, when our nervous stomachs are rumbling just as much as the volcano we’re driving towards. The tourist police on board the bus are reassuring for a number of reasons, but we still have to ask … “How active is ‘Active’?”

Here’s the answer!

Pacaya Volcano Lava Flow.

Pacaya Lava Flow. Photo by Dany & Maryse, CC License

Volcanoes are Fun?

Volcanoes are Fun? Photo by Oisin Prendiville, CC License

Night falls on Pacaya

Night falls on Pacaya. Photo by Eric Menjivar, CC License

 

 

Somehow we don’t think it’s going to be too cold out here overnight. And we love that the O.X. guide brought along some marshmallows – best idea ever!

Marshmallows Toasting on Lava.

Marshmallows Toasting on Lava. Best idea ever. Photo by Beth and Anth, CC License

Now we wait for sunrise…

Want to go? Need to know!

  • We took the Turansa Shuttle Bus from Guatemala City airport out to Antigua, due to safety concerns that exist for the normal bus. While it costs 9 times as much, you’re still only paying $10-$12 for your safety – and we’ll have plenty of other local bus opportunities. You’ll have plenty of shuttle options – grab the first one you can, or book ahead.
  • Making truffles is just the start of a central American chocolate adventure. ChocoMuseo also offer plantation tours, if your chocolate passion runs to botany or agriculture; if you just love playing with chocolate then book yourself in for the three week course on chocolate sculpture making.
  • Antigua Guatemala is surrounded by volcanoes – Pacaya is the most visited because it’s easiest to access. The others are Volcan de Agua (‘Volcano of Water’, or Hunapu to the original inhabitants), the twin-peaks of Acatenango, and Volcan de Fuego (‘Volcano of Fire’ – we think a more appropriate name than Volcano of Water!).

OK – so we’ve been taking you on an everydaydream holiday for 10 countries now. Have you ever seen anything cooler than toasting marshmallows over a campfire made from lava? Can you even imagine anything cooler? Let us know in the comments below – and we’ll definitely go there!

Where We Met the Gods

By Chris K

Today’s Itinerary

  • arrive bright and early into Mexico City
  • take a tour to see the pyramids of Teotihuacan
  • chill out in the beautiful Museo Soumaya
  • tuckered out? Not yet – there’s tacos to be eaten
  • Stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

An overnight flight brings us all the way from the serene grace of Japan. Borrowing some of those zen meditation techniques we’re well rested and ready to dive into what Mexico City has to offer.

Located high above sea level, some visitors to Mexico City are said to have trouble breathing. All of our research is telling us the same – so much to do there will hardly be time to catch our breath!

From the huge variety of it’s cuisine, to cultural history, to the sheer scale of the city (think New York with more chaotic traffic), Mexico City is pulsing with life and great things to do.

The Road to the Gods

But today we’re studiously ignoring all of the interesting and exciting things to do in Mexico City proper (or Ciudad de México) and going on a little half day trip.

Mexico City takes its cultural influences from many different cultures but the oldest influence that remains visible is from the Aztecs, and we’re going to visit an ancient city started in around 100 BC.

Teotihuacan is just 50 kilometres from Mexico City and is serviced by many tour operators – but it is just as easy to get a bus, and much cheaper too. As an added positive, we won’t have to spend most of our day visiting tequila shops, which leaves some time in the afternoon for a visit to an impressive attraction.

We head down to the bus terminal called Autobuses del Norte Station and head to Gate 8. Buses leave every fifteen minutes or so and it will take us roughly an hour to get to our destination – that’s plenty of time to think ahead to the destinations that are coming up on our calendar, or just watch the landscape slide by as we head well out of Mexico City.

Where the Gods were Born

Photo by LM TP, Licensed under CC.

Photo by LM TP, Licensed under CC.

When all that is left of a culture are the monuments they made with backbreaking labour, a visit is full of wonder and awe mixed with a sense of loss. We have the relics, art, and architectural creations of these ancients but sometimes you’re compelled to wonder, at what cost to the ordinary people building these monuments. It’s important to appreciate what the legacy they have been left behind.

Teotihuacan covers some 80 kiliometres square, and in addition to being named a UNESCO World Heritage site, offers one of the most accessible locations for exploring the Aztec history.

According to Visit Mexico, there are several entrances and choosing the right one depends on how long you want to spend wandering this vast space.

For those with a full day, they recommend the first entrance. Those with less time can use the second or third entrances.

The road running through the center of Teotihuacan, charmingly named the Avenue of the Dead, is set slightly off alignment from North to South – some theories suggesting it represents a model of the solar system, others that it is there to align with the setting sun on a particular day of the year.

Photo by Owen Prior, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Owen Prior, Licensed under CC.

By the far the most impressive structure, and the one requiring the most energy to take advantage of, is the Pyramid of the Sun. At almost 60 metres high, it is quite a climb, particularly if Mexico is turning on the sunshine. But the view from the top is definitely worth it, as you turn to see the whole of Teotihuacan laid out before you.

Photo by José Luis Ruiz, Licensed under CC.

Photo by José Luis Ruiz, Licensed under CC.

Modern Monuments and Mexico Culture

From an ancient monument to a modern one – we’re heading back into town to discover what billionaires spend their dimes on.

We also ask the question – just what does a billionaire do in their spare time? When they just need to relax and unwind and not have to worry about all of those piles of money sitting around waiting to be spent?

They collect coins. Which maybe explains the billionaire thing.

Carlos Slim’s contribution to Mexico City is the incredibly beautiful museum, the Museo Soumaya. Named after his late wife, the musuem contains the largest collection of Auguste Rodin casts outside of France, and also houses his impressive coin collection – the ones he collected in his spare time.

Museo Soumaya - Reflected Glory?

Museo Soumaya – Photograph by eclecctica, CC License

Taco Time

We. Love. Tacos.

And to eat them in the place where they were invented is the perfect way to finish our first day in Mexico. For Taco recommendations, we look to Conde Nast Traveler.

Mexico City Tip

Use the Metro! It carries around 1.2 billion passengers a year and at 2-3 pesos for a ride, it the smartest way to avoid the grinding traffic on the roads.

Photo by Esparta Palma, Licensed under CC.

Photo by Esparta Palma, Licensed under CC.

What else chould we do in Mexico City? What’s your favourite taco place?

Give us your tips in the comments.

From Glico Neon to Geisha Style: The beautiful madness of Japan

By Jacob Aldridge

Today’s Itinerary

The hardest part about early morning international flights is often the cold, yet somehow just the thought of leaving Harbin makes us feel warmer. Our flight with China Southern (not heard of them? They’re actually the 4th largest airline in the world!) lands in Osaka, Japan just after midday.

Now, “lands in Osaka” is somewhat misleading – Kansai International Airport is actually an artificial island inside Osaka Bay. Completed in 1994, engineers excavated 21 million cubic metres (27 million cubic yards) of soil from three separate mountains to create this international hub. (And they did a fantastic job – it’s already survived an earthquake and a typhoon.)

Kansai International Airport, from the air!

Kansai International Airport, from the air! Photo by mrhayata, CC Licensed

Japan can be an overwhelming destination if you don’t come prepared. Thankfully, we’re under the watchful eye of Leah, a tours and activities expert for travel.com.au, and a former resident of this enticing archipelago. Minutes later, we on the airport train ‘Nankai Limited Express’ for the 45 minutes (7 stop) trip to Nipponbashi.

Better know by its local name ‘Den Den Town’, Nipponbashi is like 1980s Japan on steroids. Every electronic need you may have can be met here (and feel free to bargain with the vendors), and with districts shifting from gadgets to anime and eventually fashion, Den Den Town can be seen as a cultural immersion first and a shopping opportunity second.

Of course, Japan’s cultural heritage owes more to the samurai than to manga. Leah navigates us onto the subway for the six minute journey from Namba Station to Tanimachi (changing at Honmachi half way through). It’s Osaka, not Tokyo, so we don’t have to be squeezed into the carriages by guards.

We come back into daylight in the metaphorical shadow of Osaka Castle. From this location Hideyoshi Toyotomi unified Japan, but when the Shogunate later moved to Tokyo the region lost power – the original main tower was destroyed along with the Toyotomi family in the Summer War of Osaka in 1615. The current main tower may be twentieth century, but the artefacts and emotional history it displays are far older; so too are the immense gardens (106 Hectares / 250 acres of them) which boast cherry blossoms and 95 kinds of apricot flowers in the spring, while the highlight of our winter wander is the Great Stone Wall on the inner moat.

The brooding Osaka Castle

Osaka Castle and the Great Stone Wall. Photo by Joop Dorresteijn, CC Licensed.

Evening calls, so we head back to Dotonbori for food and neon wonderment. This is not Times Square or Piccadilly Circus, as the Glico Running Man (“a postwar symbol of Japan emerging as an economic power”, says Leah) indicates. We could walk for hours taking in the neon signs of Ebisubashi and the madness of Dotonbori Arcade, powered only by takoyaki octopus balls (or maybe a stop at one of the many izakaya, where good and drink are often served in equal quantities).

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba

Glico Running Man, Ebisuba. Photo by yeowatzup. CC License.

But our mind turns to Saturday. An hour east of Osaka by train, Nara is the cradle of Japanese civilisation and home to the UNESCO listed Todai-ji complex. We’ve seen some overwhelming temples on our everydaydream holiday so far – but nothing prepares us for the 500 tonne, 15 metre high ‘Big Buddha’.

Daibutsu, Naro

That is a big buddha. Photo by David Offf, CC License.

You can look closely and observe the combination of periods that make up the Daibutsu – a head from the Edo period, while the hands are much older, all housed in a 300 year old hall that until 1998 was the world’s largest wooden building. If you do observe changes forced by earthquakes and fires, then be mindful of this quote from the Buddha himself:

When I was a young man, near the beginning of my life, I looked around with true mindfulness and saw that all things are subject to decay. Thus all things are subject to death, sorrow and suffering. I became aware that I too was of the same nature, the nature of beginning and end.

Too much spirituality? Then go and enjoy watching the Sika Deer which freely roam the temple gardens, before we take another train journey north to Kyoto. Once here, we head for dinner in the Gion – Kyoto’s main restaurant, shopping … and geisha (geiko, in the local dialect) hub.

An authentic geisha experience is exclusive, no dream holiday or wallet size will gain you access to the Ichiriki Ochaya, for example. While a tourist geisha experience is now an option, the thought of paying a premium to eat and watch in a tourist trap is the antithesis of our everydaydream holiday. So instead, we wander down Shirakawa Canal, select a restaurant full of locals, and enjoy some genuine Japanese cuisine (while also keeping an eye on the street for any geisha who may walk past).

See a Geisha in Kyoto

Please – if you see a Geisha in Kyoto, be respectful. Photo by This Particular Greg, CC License

Sunday dawns with a promise of comfortable shoes and quality photo equipment. We head two stations back towards Nara for the amazing 4 kilometre (6 mile) meander around Fushimi Inari. The only photographic subject more Japanese than cherry blossom has to be the red gates, and today we will see hundreds of them – large and small, isolated, and built together to created shaded paths that lead to the various shrines on this site.

Red gate Fushimi Inari

One Red Gate. Photo by Daa Nell, CC License

Many red gates Fushimi Inari

MANY Red Gates! Photo by SteFou, CC License

What an amazing weekend in Japan … and we still have Monday to see more!

Want to go? Need to know!

  • Japan’s rail and subway infrastructure is superb – and clearly colour coded, even if you can’t read kanji or kana.
  • A quick rule of thumb – you can divide Yen by 100 (just remove the last two zeroes, so 3000 becomes 30) to give you an approximate amount in US Dollars. The exchange rate isn’t quite that bad (unless you buy currency at the airport!), but you try dividing everything by 89!
  • Shinto and Buddhism are the two most common religions in Japan, although (by western comparison) both are more ‘harmonious ways of living’ than an orthodox dogma.
  • Here’s a link to a collection of real Buddha quotes – but if you’re looking for laughs, go to the home page and explore their fake Buddha quotes!
  • Want a glimpse inside the madness of Osaka (and Leah)? Enjoy this personal video she took on her most recent trip to Japan (when she wasn’t dragging around hundreds of everydaydreamers).

Which part of Japan’s diverse culture interests you the most? What would you like us to do in Kyoto on Monday? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Inside Rome, the Vatican, and the Sistine Chapel

Today’s Itinerary

By Jacob Aldridge

Gianluca* is on time this morning! That’s a near-miracle of Italian train travel, which is fitting we we segue from Ancient Rome yesterday into ‘Religious Rome’ today – we have an 9.30am tour at the Vatican Museums, and a short walk through the older part of town with one stop en route.

Inside the Pantheon, Rome

The tight, circular interior of the Pantheon makes it a tough one to photograph

First stop is the Pantheon, as ancient as it religious. Strictly speaking it’s a Catholic Church (and free to go inside), but it was built by the ancients in 128AD as a temple to all gods (pan-theon). Raphael’s renaissance tomb is here, as is the more recent resting place of Vittorio Emanuele II and his son Umberto I. But most breathtaking is the large hole in the centre of the domed ceiling – ancient climate control at work, and surreal as we watch a light rain shower fall through the roof into the quiet space below.

Next we cross over the Tiber River, and into Vatican City – a sovereign country in its own right, though with a population of barely 800 and a 10:1 male:female ratio. The grandiose St Peter’s Square is calling us for an embrace, but for now we loop around to the right.

The Vatican Museum tour takes us through just some of the priceless art accumulated by the Catholic Church over the centuries – old masters, tapestries, and sculptures all feature, as does Pope Paul VI’s modern art collection that the Vatican guide and Gianluca both agree is ‘skippable’. The tour ends in theoretical silence inside the Sistine Chapel – when Cardinals meet here to elect a new Pope they probably make less noise than the whispering tourists here today! Interestingly, some people who have misheard the name try to find “the 16th Chapel”, wondering where the other fifteen must be hidden. The chapel is the pinnacle of Michelangelo’s career, despite his personal dislike for painting (which might explain why he painted himself as the flayed St Bartholomew in The Last Judgement fresco on the altar wall.)

Sistine Chapel Ceiling

Davidlohr Bueso’s photo of the Sistine Chapel ceiling – note how many of the figures, particularly the oracle Sibyl in the green, appear 3-Dimensional. CC License

Gianluca takes over again – most tourists spill out from the Sistine Chapel (an exit different to the entrance we used two hours ago) and head from here back to the main square, and the already hour-long queue to enter St Peter’s Basilica. Instead we turn to the right, and the much shorter queue to climb the cuppola (dome). With gelati as an excuse, we avoid the escalator and walk up the ramp, where we are suddenly greeted by the breathtaking spectacle up close inside St Peter’s Dome, the largest of its kind in the world.

Looking down over St Peter's Square

From outside the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica, over the Square below. On some days you can see tourists lined back into the Square waiting for entry.

Vatican Post Office

Posting a letter with a Vatican City stamp

On the external rooftop, with views over the private Vatican gardens, we take five minutes to grab some postcards – this is the only official Vatican post office, for those philatelist friends!

Inside St Peter's Basilica

As ornate as it is enormous, St Peter’s Basilica remains the largest Christian church in the world. Photo by Randy OHC, Licensed under Creative Commons

 

 

 

And then, just as we wonder whether the outside queue is really worth joining, the steps back down take us directly inside the Basilica. Michelangelo’s La Pieta is a must see (to the right inside the main door) but is just one altar in this glittering gold structure. We gawp just like medieval pilgrims must have done.

Seeking a late lunch (even by Roman standards), we avoid the tourist fare close to the Vatican and instead follow the river down to Piazza dell’Ara Coeli, where the pasta and red wine options are plentiful. Then, of course, it’s afternoon coffee time, and while there are cheaper cafes available Gianluca likes to take his guests to Caffe Barocco inside the Piazza Navona, where an espresso (definitely not a cappuccino after 10am!) combines with the many tourists milling around three recently restored fountains.

Piazza Navona

The Piazza Navona boasts a long, oval shape as a result of its original purpose as a Chariot race track

Our time in Rome is drawing to an end. As we head for the airport train and an evening flight to the Viennese Christmas Markets, Gianluca provides a final local’s tip: Fassi Gelati on via Principe Eugenio, near the train station. “Try the rice pudding gelati, and you’ll be happy,” are his final words.

The train line from Roma Termini to Fiumicino Airport is perhaps the most reliable in all Italy, and before we know it we’re checked in on our 8.15pm Air Berlin flight to Vienna. We land on time, and our car transfer is waiting to take us to our hotel in the centre of the old town. Tomorrow will be Vienna.

Thankfully, there’s a coin in a fountain ensuring that we’ll be back to Rome.

Want to Go? Need to Know…

    • Vatican Museum Tours cost €32 and are best booked in advance at mv.vatican.va/3_EN/pages/MV_Home.html
      (They are closed Sundays, except the last Sunday of the month which is free!)
    • Capuccinos really are a breakfast drink (and don’t come with chocolate on top!). This is a good thing
    • In warmer months, try a Caffe Freddo – usually an espresso poured directly over (or blended with) ice cubes
    • Booking is not really necessary on the airport train, but if you plan to use the left luggage service at Roma Termini give yourself time for the 30 minute queues
    • Stay up to date with a free subscription to our daily destinations email

 

What are your Rome tips? Be sure to share this page or add your comments below.