Saturday, September 16, 2017

Spotlight: Costa Rica - Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal

Spotlight: Arenal Volcano National Park was created in 1991. Volcan Arenal is an active stratovolcano located about 90 kilometers from San Jose. Arenal is 1,633 meters (5,358 ft.) tall with a crater measuring 140 meters (460 ft.) across. After hundreds of years of dormancy, Arenal unexpectedly exploded in 1968, destroying the village of Tabacon. It has lain dormant since 2010. Within the park's boundaries lies an extinct volcano known as Cerro Chato.
     Lake Arenal lies just west of Volcan Arenal. Measuring 85 sq. kilometers, and with a depth of 30-60 meters it is currently the largest lake in Costa Rica. The eastern edge of the lake contains a hydroelectric dam, helping produce clean energy. The dam was constructed in 1979, and initially produced about 70% of the country's electricity (currently about 17%). When the lake was expanded due to the dam, the town of Arenal was located to higher ground. The old town, along with the town of Tronadora, now lie at the bottom of the lake. Two species of fish dwell in the lake - the Machaca and Rainbow Bass.

Location: Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal is located in the Alajuela Province northwest of San Jose, Costa Rica.

Cost: $15 entrance fee per person

Time: The park is open from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm daily. There are plenty of activities to fill 2 full days here.

Description: Hiking around the volcano, visitors can observe the different varieties of plants and animals that live in this tropical rain forest. About 131 species of mammals (including jaguars, monkeys, sloths and tapirs), 135 species of reptiles (including the fer-de-lance and iguanas) and 300 species of birds (including the quetzal and the toucan) live in the National Park boundaries. If you prefer not to hike, there are also many cycling and horse trails.

     Lago Arenal is a popular location for water sports. Some of the more popular ones are kayaking, stand-up paddling, windsurfing, kite surfing and wakeboarding. 

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - There is no camping in the park, but there are several hotels outside the park boundaries and in the nearby city of La Fortuna.
- Hiking to the top of Cerro Chato is strenuous and takes about two hours. There is a beautiful lake inside the crater.
- Temperatures usually range from 70-85 degrees.
- The rainy season in Costa Rica is from May-November. Although it is cool hiking through the rain forest in the rain, most visitors come during the dry season (mid-November - April). During the rainy season, it usually is sunny during the morning, rains for a couple of hours in the afternoon, and then is nice again. Make sure you pack rain gear even if it doesn't look like it will rain.

Nearby: La Fortuna Waterfall, Baldi Hot Springs Resort, Bosque Eterno de los Ninos, Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Spotlight: Costa Rica - San Jose

Spotlight: San Jose is the capital of Costa Rica, and with more than 333,000 inhabitants, its largest city. The metropolitan area includes over 2 million inhabitants. The city was founded in 1738 and named for Joseph of Nazereth. Following Mexico's victory in its War for Independence, Guatemala declared independence for all of Central America on 15 September 1821. Over the next several years, the future of Costa Rica was hotly disputed among Costa Ricans. Two major groups emerged. The Imperialists were in favor of joining the Mexican Empire and were based in the capital city of Cartago. The Republicans, who desired complete independence, rallied together in San Jose. A civil war was fought between these two factions, culminating in the Battle of Ochomogo, which was one by the Republicans. As a result, San Jose was named the new capital of an independent Costa Rica on 16 May 1823. Today, it has become a major tourist destination due to its ecological friendly laws and its reputation as one of the safest destinations in Latin America.

Location: The Plaza de la Cultura is located on Avenida Central in San Jose, between Calle 1 and Calle 5. The Parque Nacional is located between Avenida 1 y Avenida 3 at Calle 15. The Mercado Central is located in the city block between Avenida Central and Avenida 1 with Calle 8 and Calle 6.

Cost: The Museo del Oro costs $11/adult, $8/student; a guided tour of the Teatro Nacional runs about $1; The Parque Nacional - free; The Mercado Central - free

Time: You can spend several days exploring the many interesting venues located within the city of San Jose. The Museo del Oro Precolombino is open from 9:15 am - 5 pm. The Teatro Nacional is open from 9am-5pm daily. The Mercado Central is open from dawn to sunset daily - closed on Sundays.

Description: The Plaza de la Cultura is located near the heart of San Jose. Underneath the plaza are a couple of museums including the famed Museo de Oro. The museum has an impressive collection of over 1,600 gold pieces from the Pre-Columbian period and dating back to 500 AD. The collection includes animal figurines, jewelry, amulets and El Guerrero - a life-sized warrior decked out with gold ornaments. The museum also includes a number of non-gold items, such as jugs, pots and corn grinding stones. The Numismatics Museum contains examples of Costa Rican currency over the years including the first coin ever minted in Costa Rica - a Media Escudo dating from 1825.
gold jaguar

El Guerrero
Pre-Columbian gold-smiths

Corn metates
     Above ground, visitors can visit the famous Teatro Nacional. The inspiration for a National Theater came after a North American performer rebuffed Presidente Rodriguez Zeledon's invitation to come perform in Costa Rica saying that the country didn't have a proper venue for her to perform in. Construction started in 1891 and was first opened to the public in 1897. According to local legend, once the theater was completed the performer offered to perform there but was rebuffed by the president who claimed she wasn't famous enough to perform in Costa Rica's elegant Teatro Nacional. The Theater is home to the National Symphonic Orchestra and features other performing arts with multiple performances every week.

Plaza de la Cultura

Teatro Nacional

Foyer of the Teatro Nacional
     The Parque Nacional isn't a national park in the popular sense of the word. Instead, it is a park honoring important historical figures from Costa Rica and Latin America. The Monumento Nacional represents Central America's triumph over North American William Walker and his foreign troops who attempted to take control of Central America from 1855-1857. Five of the figures represent the 5 Central American countries to fought the invaders, the sixth figure is William Walker, representing the invaders. The final figure is a dead soldier honoring those who died in the conflict. Other monuments honor other historical figures including Miguel Hidalgo of Mexico, Jose Marti of Cuba and Andres Bello of Venezuela among others.
Monumento Nacional

     The Mercado Central is an enclosed market place with over 200 stalls that sell everything from food to clothing to handicrafts. Although geared toward locals, it does have a wide selection of souvenirs. You can find almost anything among the vast maze of aisles and stalls that fill an entire city block.

Rating: Plaza de la Cultura - 4 1/2 stars; Parque Nacional - 3 1/2 stars; Mercado Central - 3 1/2 stars

Things You Should Know: - The Museo del Oro is part of the Museos del Banco Central, which includes the Numismatics Museum, which features all the currency used over Costa Rica's history from the colonial period to the present.
The first coin minted in Costa Rica
- You can walk into the foyer of the Teatro Nacional, but you'll have to go on a tour to see the rest of the theater.
- Costa Rica has the lowest violent crime rate in Latin America, but foreigners are often the target of non-violent crime such as pick-pockets, especially in crowded places such as the Mercado Central.

Nearby: Other attractions include: The National Museum of Costa Rica, the Museo de los Ninos, the Parque Zoologico Simon Bolivar, the Parque Metropolitano La Sabana

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Travel Tip #56 - Dealing with Jet Lag

     If you've never experienced jet lag, then you probably haven't traveled very far. Although it is associated with changing multiple time zones, that isn't the only factor. Part of it comes from just traveling for long periods of time. If you are like me, you can't sleep for an extended period of time while traveling - especially when cramped into a seat on a plane with no room to stretch out your legs. If I could afford to travel first class, it might be different, but as it is, I usually sleep in 10-15 minute increments on planes before I'm jostled, woken by an announcement, or have to adjust my position because I have a crick in my neck or a cramp in my leg. By the time I arrive at my destination, I need a nap - and I never take naps. For this reason, traveling a couple of hours east is nice because when it's time for bed, I can go right to sleep.
     The difficulty comes when you travel west, or to another hemisphere. I'm sure I experienced jet lag when I went to Chile, but since I was also dealing with culture shock and a language barrier, it isn't something that sticks out. The first time I recognized the symptoms of jet lag was when we went to Hawaii. Hawaii was four hours behind Utah, so we were exhausted by the time 6:00 rolled around. We went to a movie with my aunt and uncle, and I could barely keep my eyes open. The next morning we woke up at about 4:00 am, so we went out to see the sunrise. It was awesome, but the that evening we were tired again and went to bed early. It took several days to finally get fully acclimated. 
     When I went to Europe, the effects were even more pronounced. However, I was better prepared to deal with it. I was with a group each time, and the group leaders had dealt with jet lagged tourists often enough to know what type of activities would keep us up and moving. They also made us stay awake until the locals were getting ready to hit the sack. It meant a really exhausting first day, but by the next day we were rested and ready to go. That is the key, get on track with the local time your first day there. It will be tough getting through that first day, but it will be worth it.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Spotlight: Rome - Trevi Fountain

Spotlight: The world-famous Trevi Fountain was designed by Italian architect Nicola Salvi. Ironically, when Pope Clement XII organized a competition in 1730 to choose an architect to design a new fountain, Salvi lost to Alessandro Galilei. However, Salvi won the commission following a public outcry that a Florentine had won. Work began in 1732, but Salvi died before it was completed in 1762 by Pietro Bracci. Bracci made several changes, including featuring his statue Oceanus "God of all Water" in the central niche. Measuring 26.3 meters tall and 49.2 meters wide, it is the largest Baroque fountain in Rome. The fountain is located at the junction of three streets and the end of the modern Acqua Vergine - one of the aqueducts that supplies Rome with fresh water. The Acqua Vergine replaced the ancient Aqua Virgo, which served ancient Rome since 19 BC.

Location: Trevi Fountain is located in downtown Rome in the Piazza di Trevi.

Cost: free

Time: Since it is in an open air piazza, the fountain is never closed unless under repairs. It is a quick stop, so plan on spending 15 minutes - 1 hour, depending on if you feel like shopping among the various souvenir stands or shops in the area.

Description: Trevi Fountain is the most famous fountain in Rome. It is made of Travertine stone, quarried near Tivoli. The fountain went through extensive restoration from June 2014-November 2015, which included the installation of 100 LED lights to make it more visible at night.
     Oceanus, God of all Water, is featured in the center niche. Flanking him are Abundance, spilling water from her urn, and Salubrity, who holds a cup from which a snake drinks.

     One of the main traditions at Trevi Fountain is throwing a coin over your shoulder into the fountain - popularized by the movie Three Coins in the Fountain. Supposedly, doing so guarantees that you will return to Rome someday. A second coin will bring you love, and a third will guarantee you a wedding. An estimated 3,000 euros are thrown into the fountain daily. It is illegal to take coins from the fountain, and the money is used by the charitable organization Caritas to fund supermarket vouchers for needy Romans.

     Also facing the Piazza di Trevi is a quaint church called Santi Vincenzo e Anastasio a Fontana. Since we were right there, and had some time, we stepped inside. Even though it isn't near as famous as dozens of other churches in the area, its architecture and artwork were impressive. It is definitely worth a look.

Rating: 3 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - Trevi Fountain has appeared in numerous films including: La Dolce Vita, Three Coins in the Fountain, Roman Holiday and the Lizzie McGuire movie.

Nearby:  Giardini del Quirinali, Palazzo Colonna, Fiumi Fountain, Spanish Steps

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Spotlight: Rome - Basilica Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri

Spotlight: The Basilica of Saint Mary of the Angels and the Martyrs is a church that was built within the ruins of the Roman Baths of Diocletian. It is located in the Piazza della Repubblica. On 27 July 1561, Pope Pius IV ordered that a church be built in honor of the Virgin and all the angels and martyrs. The impetus for the order was a vision that a Sicilian monk experienced with the ruins of the Baths regarding the Angelic Princes - martyrs who were supposedly Christian slave laborers who had worked on the Baths. The Diocletian Baths were Ancient Rome's largest bath complex, covering 13 hectares and able to accommodate 3,000 guests.

     Michelangelo was the original architect whose plan was used to build the church within the ruins of the Baths. Michelangelo designed the interior after the pattern of a Greek cross, using a dominant transept with chapels at either end, but died before the project was completed. Looking at the church from the outside, one would never guess that it was a church, since the 16th century exterior was torn down in the early 1900's to expose the original exterior of the Baths. Additional construction was made under the guidance of Luigi Vanvitelli.

     Pope Clement XI hired astronomer and mathematician Francesco Bianchini to create a meridian line within the church. The line's threefold purpose was to: 1) Check the accuracy of the newly adopted Gregorian Calendar; 2) To accurately predict the date of Easter; and 3) To give Rome greater prestige. The church was chosen as the official church of the Kingdom of Italy (1870-1946).

Location:The Basilica is located in the Piazza della Repubblica, 00185, Rome, Italy

Cost: Free

Time: It is open from 7:00 am - 7:30 pm; it will take about an hour to explore

Description: The church is filled with works of art from many of Europe's famous artists - paintings, statues, architecture, etc. It is also home to the tombs of several famous individuals including: artist Carlo Maratta, Cardinal Francesco Alciati, sculptor Pietro Tenerani, and Presidente Vittorio Emmanuele Orlando (known as President of the Victory in WWI) among others.
John the Baptist
     The Magdalene Chapel is the church's baptistery. The altarpiece depicts the post-Resurrection meeting between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. A student of Bernini, Giovanni Battista Rossi, is credited with creating the holy water font in the shape of an angel.
     The Transept contains 16 pillars - half of which were preserved from the original Baths, and the other half are copies. It houses 8 large paintings that were brought over from St. Peter's Basilica. Here you can see the Meridian Line which runs along the meridian line that passes through Rome at latitude 15*. At true noon (12:15; 1:15 during daylight savings) the sun casts its light on the line through a hole cut into the wall.

      The Chapel of St. Bruno was built for the 1700 Jubilee and is dominated by an altarpiece featuring The Apparition of the Virgin Mary to Saint Bruno. On the left hand side of the chapel is the Organ of Saint Mary of the Angels. It was given to Pope John Paul II by the people of Rome in commemoration of the Great Jubilee of 2000. It was built by Barthèlèmy Formentelli and is used both at Mass and seasonal concerts. To hear the organ being played, come to the Basilica on Saturdays at 6:00 pm, or Sundays at 10:30 am, noon or 6:00 pm.

     Other chapels in the church include the Chapel of St. Peter, the Chapel of Blessed Niccolo Albergati, the Chapel of St. Hyacinth, the Chapel of the Crucifix, the Chapel of Relics and the Chapel of the Savior, which is the oldest chapel in the church. The altarpiece depicts The Incarnation of Jesus and The Adoration of the Seven Angels. It is surrounded by 24 smaller paintings, attributed to Hendrik van der Brock, depicting scenes from the life of Christ.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - The Roman National Museum of the Diocletian Baths is adjacent to the church.
- There is a courtyard with some statues at one end of the church. There is also a small museum with a timeline of the church as well as various artifacts.

Nearby: Museo Nazionale Romano: Terme di Diocleziano, Chiesa di Santa Maria della Vittoria, Sant'Andrea al Quirinali, Piazza Barberini, Basilica Papale di Santa Maria Maggiore

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Travel Tip #55 - Don't Miss out on "Once in a Lifetime" Opportunities

     When I went to Rome last year, I was with a travel group. There were a couple of times in which we were given free time to do what we wanted. Since we were right next to the Castel Sant'Angelo, I wanted to check it out. I had made a couple of friends, and we headed over to see it. However, they didn't want to pay the ten euros to go inside, so we just walked around it. We also walked down next to the Tiber River and around a couple of plazas, which were nice; but the whole time I was wishing I had just gone in by myself. Who knows if I'll ever go to Rome again. If I do, I'll be sure to go inside; but in the meantime, I'm regretting the fact that I didn't take advantage of a possible "once in a lifetime" opportunity.

Castel Sant'Angelo
     So the next time you are out traveling and you are faced with a decision, ask yourself, "Will I ever get the chance to do this again?" Another question you might ask is, "If I don't do this, will I regret it?" If the reason for not doing it is because it was a little more expensive than you had hoped, go ahead and do it. When you are on a "once in a lifetime" adventure, you don't want to have any regrets.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Spotlight: San Diego - SeaWorld

Spotlight: SeaWorld was founded in 1964 as a marine zoological park. It gradually developed into a full blown amusement park complete with rides and shows. Its success spawned three other SeaWorld parks over the next 25 years. Today, SeaWorld San Diego is owned by the City of San Diego and operated by SeaWorld Entertainment. Adjacent to the park is the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, whose objective is to research marine biology to educate the public on protecting marine life.

Location: SeaWorld is located at 500 Sea World Drive in San Diego, CA.

Cost: Although more expensive at the gate, you can purchase tickets online for 59.99

Time: Although the schedule changes seasonally based on holidays, weekends, etc., the park is usually open from 10:00 am-10:00 pm during the summer and 10:00-5:00 during the school year.

Description: SeaWorld is an amusement park with an aquatic theme. All the attractions can be divided up into three major categories: rides, shows, and animals. The rides range from little kid rides such as Elmo's Flying Fish to roller coasters like Journey to Atlantis. You can cool off on Shipwreck Rapids or get a great view of San Diego and the sea at the top of Skytower. The most unique ride is probably Wild Arctic, where you explore the arctic aboard a jet-helicopter simulator.
Shipwreck Rapids

Getting ready to ride Manta
     SeaWorld is probably best known for its shows. Although often controversial, the various killer whale shows featuring Shamu have traditionally been the most popular. New laws and public backlash spurred by animal rights propaganda such as the film Blackfish have prompted various changes. The shows in which orcas and humans interact with each other in the tank were banned after the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. The new orca show, Orca Encounter, focuses more on education rather than entertainment. Other shows feature dolphins, sea lions, circus performers, Elmo and friends and other sea creatures.

     In addition to rides and shows, SeaWorld is also an impressive aquarium in its own right. In addition to orcas, dolphins and sea lions, visitors can get close views of beluga whales, turtles, sharks, polar bears, penguins and any number of fish and sea creatures. There are both touch pools (where you can even pet sting rays) and traditional tanks, depending on the animals inside.

Beluga whale
Rating: 4 1/2 stars (out of 5)

Things You Should Know: - SeaWorld is one of the attractions included in San Diego's Go Card.
- Wear something that you don't mind getting wet, because chances are you will to one degree or another. Of course, you can avoid getting wet based on where you sit during shows or which rides you go on.
- SeaWorld hosts several seasonal events, such as this summer's Electric Ocean, the Halloween Spooktacular, and the annual Christmas celebration.

- There are a variety of restaurants around the park. You can buy food as you go, or purchase an all-day dining deal (35.99/adult 10+) that allows you to get up to one entree, one side or dessert, and one drink each hour.
- SeaWorld has additional parks in Orlando, FL and San Antonio, TX.
- SeaWorld also owns and operates a water park called Aquatica San Diego. It is actually located in Chula Vista (22 miles away) and features 22 slides.

Nearby: Fiesta Island Park, Tecolote Canyon Natural Park, Old Town San Diego SHP, Balboa Park