Chattanooga – a lovely surprise

Would you go to Chattanooga, Tennessee? Most people might not consider it. But that’s too bad, because it’s a beautiful city. I visited a few weeks ago awhile there was a deep fog descended on the whole city, it was really eerie but, in a way, mystical.

Back in the 1960s it was dubbed ‘the dirtiest city in America’ and it was shamed into cleaning up and revitalizing its downtown. When I saw it, I honestly couldn’t tell at all because it was really neat and in order. Even though the downtown was pretty empty, Chattanooga was making use of its space. The empty office buildings were hosts to local art installations, turning inactivity into opportunity.

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Art installation in downtown storefront window

Chattanooga has some very nice local spots. For southern food and barbeque, try Sugar’s Ribs downtown location. The chili, brisket, mac’n cheese, and grilled okra are all winners. Don’t forget my personal favorite…the sweet tea! Did I mention that there are unlimited refills?! This place is exactly where you want to go for local flavor, also because they frequently have live music.

Right across the street there’s an adorable cupcake shop called Cupcake Kitchen. They’ve got various interesting flavors such as key lime pie, red velvet, cookie dough, and s’mores (which I tried and it was delicious).

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Cupcake Kitchen selection

Across the Tennessee River from downtown there’s a really lively area filled with all kinds of interesting bars and restaurants. Along the river there’s Coolidge Park, a beautiful city park complete with carousel, greenery, riverboat, and awesome river views. From here you can walk onto the pedestrian-friendly Walnut Street Bridge for a scenic view of the park and downtown.

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel in Coolidge Park

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Carousel from atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

View of downtown atop the Walnut Street Bridge

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Riverboat on the Tennessee River

Other attractions include the Chattanooga aquarium (which is the largest freshwater aquarium in the world) and Ruby Falls, my personal favorite. Ruby Falls is located deep inside Lookout Mountain, aptly located in a mountain overlooking the city. Those who decide to go are awarded with scenic mountaintop views, an incline railway, hand-gliding, and the tallest underground waterfall in the world. Unfortunately it was too foggy to enjoy the scenic view, but Ruby Falls made up for it. To see it, you enter an elevator that takes you underground further than the height of the Empire State Building. After, you hike about 30 minutes to get to the falls. It’s incredible that it was discovered so many years ago without the technology we have today. On the way you pass dozens of bizarre stalagmite and stalactite formations, all with creative and humorous names. When you arrive at the falls, they light up with different colors to view in its splendor. You can just barely get the entire waterfall in a photo if you crotch down. Be sure to bring a jacket! It gets cold down there.

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Ruby Falls in all its beauty

Foggy scenic view

Foggy scenic view

“Cigar leaves” stalactite

Cave innards

Cave innards

Lastly, for a drink in a spooky vibe, much like from an episode of the Twilight Zone or Twin Peaks, choose Lamar’s. The setting is in a motel that seems abandoned from the outside. There are strange rules for conduct, a 25 year old age minimum, and some of the strangest service I’ve ever seen. A bonafide you-need-to-see-it-to-believe-it kind of experience. You pass through a dark hallway to get to the bar in the back, which has a creepy dimmed light, making for a supernatural vibe. The only things lit are a crest of arms illuminating behind the bar and a jukebox radiating blue and pink light. The crowd is mainly friendly older black gentlemen, which makes for a truly unique and local experience.

Bar and vibes in Lamar's

Bar and vibes in Lamar’s

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar's

Jukebox and vibes at Lamar’s

Have you been to Chattanooga? What were your impressions? Is there a small city that struck you as a lovely surprise?

Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

My apologies readers, I had a busy week of travel and didn’t have the chance to post. Two weekends ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Washington, D.C. to attend the cherry blossom festival for my first time.

Washington Monument and cherry blossoms

Washington Monument and cherry blossoms

It all started in 1912 when the mayor of Tokyo bestowed a gift of 3,000 cherry blossom trees to the city of Washington. The festival is famous nationwide, and I’ve wanted to go for years. On top of that, I happened to visit Macon, Georgia a few weeks previous which boasts the largest cherry blossom festival in the world, and they weren’t in bloom yet (even though it was projected to be), so it was that much more satisfying.

Enjoying the cherry blossoms

Enjoying the cherry blossoms

The festival takes place primarily around the edges of the famed Tidal Basin in the National Mall with excellent views of the Washington and Jefferson Memorials surrounded by radiant pink blossoms. Unfortunately, there are swarms of people so you can’t enjoy it peacefully. However, the weather was really nice so a stroll through the blossoms and the crowds around the Tidal Basin really is worth the visit.

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin

Cherry blossoms along the Tidal Basin

There are a lot of events that go on there including a kite festival, parade, paddle-boat rides, and evening lantern walks; making it fun for all visitors. When planning a visit it can be tricky, since it all depends on the warm weather for the blossoms to bloom. Since this was a rough winter in the northeast USA, they bloomed very late into the festival. This might have influenced the big crowd of people who came on the peak weekend I was there. Overall, it is an experience that everyone should try once, whether in Washington or elsewhere (I’ve got my eyes on you Korea and Japan).

Group shot

Group shot

My other passport

What’s an unpleasant but necessary last minute thing when planning certain international trips? Your vaccinations. Last year I went to the travel vaccination center in preparation for my trip to the Dominican Republic and Haiti. I got the Typhoid vaccine which is good for 3 years. I also got the Hepatitis A shot, which, if you get a booster shot after 6 months up until a year, I am now covered for life (I got mine yesterday). Now for any and all upcoming trips to Latin America, Asia, and Africa, I am one step closer to being prepared.

Passport & vaccine passport

Passport & vaccine passport

When traveling into the developing world, sometimes you need proof of certain vaccines even to get into the country. This can all be tracked by your very own vaccination passport. Getting shots is no one’s idea of a good time, but being prepared traveling into the developing world is very necessary for your health. Mosquitoes are the bane of the existence of many when it comes to nasty airborne disease. The other main concern of course is clean drinking water. To protect against these things be sure to research thoroughly which vaccines you need before entering a country. Also, make sure to do your research before you visit your physician to make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.

After a month in the island of Hispaniola, I was extremely grateful and humbled by the positive attitudes of many of the people who deal with hardship daily. You’ll never realize how much of a privilege clean drinking water is until you’re denied the option. More to come on this trip in a future post.

Have you gotten all your shots? Planning on a trip which requires one? Would love to hear from you!

Way uptown: the unknown part of Manhattan

I’m a New York native, which in NYC is hard to come by. I’m from a boring suburb on the Queens/Long Island border. What I find to be the best part about this city is that you can go to a wide variety of different neighborhoods depending on what you’re in the mood for in terms of vibe, food, nightlife, or anything really. You can go months exploring what the different areas have to offer.

An area of the city I enjoy but don’t visit enough is way uptown in Manhattan. Spanning the area of 155th to 220th street, you have the areas of Washington Heights and Inwood. Washington Heights hails the biggest Dominican population of the city, and also being the area with the highest foreign-born residents in all the five boroughs. Inwood is a much quieter area at Manhattan’s northern tip with a mixed Dominican and Irish population.

IMG_1837

Beautiful apartment building in Inwood

A trip all the way up the A or the 1 train rewards you with fine Dominican cuisine, world class museums, rowdy Dominican bars that party hard, tranquil nature, unbelievable views of the Hudson River, The Bronx, and New Jersey.

I visited The Cloisters a few weeks ago, which is a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art perched atop a hill with excellent views over the Hudson River. The museum is dedicated to medieval art and architecture, and it’s quite a collection. The admission is suggested, so you can give what you wish and there are also packages you can buy with tickets to the regular branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and other NYC attractions.

The Cloisters

The Cloisters

The Cloisters

The Cloisters

Afterwards, my companions and I had a nice feast at Dyckman Express Restaurant, a no-frills Dominican restaurant right off of the 1 train stop for Dyckman. Top-notch quality Caribbean food which is very fresh and the price is right. The cheese and crab mofongos are delicious and the perfect texture. For those you don’t know what mofongo is, it’s a Caribbean (mostly Puerto Rican) masterpiece of mashed plantains with spices and either a tomato or garlic sauce. The avocados, fried cheese, sweet plantains, cassava, fried, rice, and beans are also big winners. There are also plenty of other options on this street as well as further down Broadway in the 160s.

cheese mofongo & fried cheese

cheese mofongo & fried cheese

Finally, we strolled down Broadway uptown to Inwood Park, a magnificent park that shows the true diversity of New York City since it’s nature with a much quieter atmosphere than Central Park. The views from Inwood Park are not juxtaposed by tall skyscrapers, but rather a creek and a bridge that takes you from Manhattan to the Bronx. The only sound you’ll hear in certain parts of the park are the gentle glide of traffic over the bridge, and in other parts you can almost achieve perfect silence. Kind of eerie thinking you’re still in Manhattan. In fact, one of my best friend’s grandfather experimented with sustainable living off of nature in this very park and managed to do so for about 6 years without rejoining the rest of society. A true example that a New York City experience can be anything you choose.

Inwood Park

Spuyten Duyvil creek at Inwood Park

Other points of interest in the area include the oldest house in Manhattan, the only lighthouse on Manhattan isle, and a bar with a relaxing atmosphere on the river. The Morris-Jumel Mansion is open to visitors Tuesday-Sunday; it’s the oldest house in Manhattan on Jumel Terrace in between 160th and 162nd streets. I have yet to visit, but it’s on my list. Jeffrey’s Hook Lighthouse, aka the little red lighthouse, is in Fort Washington Park almost directly below the George Washington Bridge in the heights. It’s a nice, short hike down to the river to see the lighthouse, you can’t go inside but it’s a pretty sight when placed next to the bridge. Finally, go on a hot summer evening and enjoy the ambiance of La Marina, a bar and restaurant with outdoor seating with great views of the river and the George Washington Bridge in the distance. It is located at the west end of Dyckman Street on the Hudson River, drinks and hookahs are available.

Little red lighthouse under the bridge

Little red lighthouse under the bridge

Have you visited Inwood or Washington Heights? What did you like when you went?

New Year’s in Paris

I visited Paris for a couple of days and celebrated the New Year over there. What can be said that hasn’t already been said before? It’s a world renowned capital filled with culture and good food. A city of great beauty, great attractions, and of a majestic quality. There’s nothing like someone’s first trip to Paris. Except that this was my second trip so I got to enjoy it I feel in a bit of a more authentic way.

In my years of travel I’ve acquired a bit more connections so I had a free Parisian apartment to stay in this time, some friends who live there whose knowledge greatly matched any guidebook, and a better sense of travel than when I went there 3 years earlier. I had an even better time visiting Paris than my first, thanks to the company I was with.

Conciergerie


Arc du triomphe

But, I was there with 2 Paris virgins so of course I still went and saw many of the famous sights. Luckily, the Paris Museum really prevented me from breaking the bank. A 2-day pass only puts me back 42 Euro whereas one entrance alone could cost 18 Euro. And I say it’s nice to have your productive days crunched into a time frame, so that I could fully embrace wandering aimlessly for the rest of my time there. See, I’m a Libra, so balance is very important to me. Sure it’s great to see all the culturally acclaimed things in a city since history has endowed Paris with a lovely cornucopia of museums and sites, but what really interests me is what the city is really like.

Notre Dame

Well I’ll tell you…the city is its delicious food…and of course I don’t only mean French. Paris has absolutely delicious Lebanese, Ethiopian, Cambodian, and Chinese food..among many others I’m sure. What makes Paris great is that in terms of European cosmopolitan melting pots, it’s only rivaled by London. French colonialism has guaranteed a rich array of immigrants from every corner of the world to call this city their home. And although that causes problems to the French sensibility at times, that’s what makes France charming. It’s an very modern and culturally trendsetting country on one hand, and on the other it’s a country extremely steeped in its history and proud traditions of art, language, cuisine, and wine. France plays by its own rules and that’s what makes it an interesting place to visit, no matter how cliché visiting Paris can be.

Eiffel Tower

Been to Paris? What are your thoughts on what’s the best thing to see and do there?

My second home: Puerto Rico

I have the good fortune of visiting Puerto Rico very often and having a lot of connections there, after living there for a year. I’ll probably be posting about it a lot so that you can have the best trip on the island as possible (I’ve already hosted a bunch of friends while living there and helped others plan their trips there since). Here’s some myth-busting and an introduction about what you can expect in my second home, Puerto Rico.

I had the opportunity to live and work in Puerto Rico for a year, and it’s a place that is very special to me. I want people to enjoy Puerto Rico’s splendors, but I also think it’s important to bring awareness to the complex situation of this U.S. commonwealth.

A photography of Old San Juan.

The marvelous Old San Juan

Most people do not realize a few things about Puerto Rico:

  1. Puerto Ricans are US citizens.
  2. Its cosmopolitan capital, San Juan, is home to a mixture of Americans, Latinos, Europeans, Caribbean Islanders, and Asians.
  3. It is not a third world country, by any means.
  4. Puerto Ricans invented Spanglish.
  5. It has political parties with conflicting visions for the commonwealth’s future: some Puerto Ricans advocate for U.S. Statehood, some for independence from the U.S., and some would like Puerto Rico to remain exactly as it is.
A photograph of Cueva Ventana

Cueva Ventana

Puerto Rico is a true adventurer’s paradise, and a great first trip for people who want to explore more outside the continental U.S.A. It’s convenient, too! You don’t need a passport, the currency is the U.S. dollar, and Puerto Ricans typically speak a good mix of familiar English as well as Spanish. The people are beyond friendly, the weather is consistently great, and goods and services are inexpensive.

Puerto Rico is big enough to explore, but small enough that you can see it all in one visit. I’d recommend renting a car and driving through the countryside, where the real treasures await. Puerto Rico offers a diverse landscape, including: mountains, beaches, caves, rainforest, and desert. You can go zip-lining, check out some beautiful architecture, and sample the delectable foods and exciting nightlife.

Playa Flamenco, Culebra

I met so many people with different personalities, and from different walks of life. It’s a lot of diversity set in one small island. And everyone seems to live in relative harmony, it really feels like to be Puerto Rican is to have true brethren. Also, even though my Spanish was limited when I first arrived (and Puerto Rican Spanish isn’t the easiest to learn), I always felt welcome. Once I started making friends and my conversational Spanish improved, I really felt I had found my second home.

3El Yunque

El Yunque rainforest

San Juan gets many visitors from all over the world, and since it’s a small city, you always end up meeting a lot of new people. I’ve made great connections there with islanders and non-islanders alike. I also think that spending time in Puerto Rico provides a valuable lesson for a U.S. citizen, because it helps you to realize more fully how diverse your own country’s borders can be. The attitude change can especially be valuable for a New Yorker, since living in Puerto Rico forces you to learn how to slow down, relax, and appreciate what you have in the present. Aka acclimating and embracing island time, whether you like it or not (but how can you not like it?). Living there for only a year has profoundly affected how I view my life, now.

Here are some recommendations for your visit to Puerto Rico:

To eat:

  • Fefo’s or El Jibarito in Old San Juan for Puerto Rican food – try the mofongo/trifongo.
  • Tayzan in Condado for sushi and other Asian food – try the sweet plaintain sushi.
  • Café la Princesa in Old San Juan, for a nice date ambiance and a little bit of everything – try the seafood paella.
  • Piñones (in the beach area close to Isla Verde) for Puerto Rican food – my favorites are seafood alcapurrias and pizza empanadillas, among many others
  • Luquillo kiosks (in the beach area close to El Yunque) for Puerto Rican food – for even more seafood alcapurrias and pizza empanadillas (and many others)!

To drink:

  • Medalla – a brand of Puerto Rican beer (not the best, but classic to the island)
  • Chichaito – sweet shots of many flavors, which you can split with a group (available at 3 Cuernos bar in Old San Juan)
  • Acerola – a sweet cherry juice, special to Puerto Rico

Nightlife:

  • Club Brava in Isla Verde – for a night out on the club
  • La Taberna Lupulo – a bar with many microbrews and good mix of locals and tourists, in Old San Juan
  • Small Bar – the name says it all, in Condado
  • Circo – a gay club in Santurce

Sightseeing:

  • Cueva Ventana & Cueva del Indio – 2 caves to go hiking in, in Arecibo; beautiful and simple ways to enjoy nature, and just a quick 45 minute drive from San Juan
  • Bioluminescent Bay – I think the one in Vieques Island is much better, but the one in Fajardo is more accessible
  • Beaches – El Escambron in San Juan, La Montserrate in Luquillo, Crashboat in Aguadilla, Cerro Gordo in Vega Alta, Playa Sucia in Cabo Rojo, Playa Flamenco in Culebra, Sun Bay in Vieques, and Playa Escondida in Vieques
One of the many intimate natural escapes.

Waterfall in Maricao, Puerto Rico

Basically, a trip to Puerto Rico cannot disappoint. It’s a hospitable environment, with great weather, and with such a wide range of activities and adventures, there’s sure to be something for everyone. How could you go wrong?