Monday, February 28, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: The Eiffel Tower on a Rainy November Night, Paris, France

I had only a few days to visit Paris in November 2004 so, despite the grey, rainy weather, I tried to make the most of it. This wasn't my first trip to Paris; far from it, but it's one of those cities that you can keep exploring for years. Paris always reminds me of a grandmother's many-tiered jewel box that's kept in the attic; everytime you venture a trip to look into it, you find another undiscovered gem.

This particular night, it had been raining hard and when it finally stopped for a few minutes, I wandered out to walk along the rain-slicked streets, almost devoid of other pedestrians. When I saw the lighted Eiffel Tower, I stopped to take a photo and just as I snapped, the tower's laser-like white beacon suddenly swung through the fog, momentarily illuminating the night sky. It was one of those solitary moments of serendipity that keeps you coming back to Paris. The city has a vibrancy, sophistication and simplicity that doesn't exist in combination anywhere else in the world.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Hot Air Balloon, Seattle, Washington, USA

The neighborhood of Woodinville, an eastside suburb of Seattle, Washington, is one of the prettiest places in the area, home to wineries such as Columbia and Chateau Ste. Michelle, with its adjacent vineyards and beautifully landscaped grounds, the Red Hook Brewery, and (when the weather is good) an excellent view of volcanic Mount Rainier. I'd often watched a group of brightly colored hot air balloons float peacefully over the landscape at dawn and sunset. One warm Sunday evening in August 2002, two friends and I decided to try it for ourselves and took a hot air balloon ride with Over the Rainbow Balloon Flights over the lush, green fields and vineyards to experience the sweeping views of a part of the city not many tourists visit.

I took this photo from inside the balloon while it was still on the ground being filled with hot air. The flame ignites only periodically, so I was lucky to have snapped it at just the right moment. The day was perfectly clear and as we rose in the balloon, we could see the double summit of ghostly Mount Rainier in the distance which appeared to be floating above the ground on a bluish grey cloud. As the balloon drifted over the Sammamish Valley, we spotted the bright blue peacocks strutting around the grounds of Chateau Ste. Michelle, the vast farmlands, the Space Needle in downtown Seattle and breathtaking views of Mount Baker, Lake Union, Lake Washington and Puget Sound. Landing sites are unpredictable when riding in hot air balloons and we ended up touching down softly on a soccer pitch right in the middle of a high school match!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Butterflies Drinking, Bonito, Brazil

This photo was taken in May 2010 by Luis after we spent the day snorkeling down the crystal clear Rio Plata (Silver River) in Bonito, Brazil, located in the southeastern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. The river is shallow with a steady current so that snorkelers can float or swim down the river without much effort and with schools of fish swimming beside them. The water is so clear and so filled with colorful fish and plants, that it is like swimming in a very long aquarium with a terrarium overhead. If you lift your head above the waterline, you can see carniverous and other exotic plants of the forest and watch the macaques, toucans and macaws dropping seeds or fruit into the water to try and catch the fish.

After four hours of snorkeling the length of the river, we scrambled out of the water onto a rocky ledge that was covered with dozens of pale green butterflies that appeared to be drinking from the pools of water created by the cracks in the rock. They didn't seem to be disturbed  at all by our presence and just kept right on with their daily butterfly acitivites.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Five Great Free Things to Do in New York City

Gapstow Bridge and The Pond at Central Park (photo by Luis Bastardo)

New York City is known as being one of the most expensive cities in the world, but even if you are on a bare-bones budget, there are still many things that you can do for free.

1) Visit Central Park on a Sunday: one of the best and most diverse free shows in the city, Central Park is always filled with interesting sights and activities, but no more so than on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Aside from the numerous gardens and trails (the Conservatory Garden, the bridle paths and reservoir, the Shakespeare Garden and many others), the park is filled with picnickers, community baseball games, boaters, skateboarders, cyclists, hikers, jugglers, hip-hop dancers, poets, musicians, artists and magicians. There is something to do or watch in almost every part in the park. Bird and wildlife watchers will be amazed at the number of animals that make Central Park their home. People-watching is also fascinating on Sundays; colorful characters and celebrities abound.  
2) Take the Staten Island Ferry: twenty million people a year commute between Manhattan and Staten Island on the Staten Island Ferry, but it is also an excellent way to take a boat tour of New York City for free. The views of Lower Manhattan, the city bridges and New York Harbor are spectacular. The five mile boat ride is 25 minutes long and, as a bonus, when you arrive on Staten Island, you can walk for hours in the many parks and nature reserves covering the island. The ferry leaves regularly from the Whitehall Terminal (South Ferry) in Manhattan and arrives at the St. George Terminal in Staten Island. Visit the excellent Staten Island Ferry website for schedules, history, anecdotes and general information.

Interior of the Guggenheim Museum (photo by Luis Bastardo)

3) Visit the Museums on Free Days: the entrance fees to many museums in New York are more reasonably priced than most people realize and sometimes free. Almost all museums have a weekly or monthly free period to allow visitors of all financial means to experience the art and cultural life of the city. The Guggenheim, for example, has a "pay what you wish" admission period on Saturdays from 5:45 p.m. until closing and the Whitney Museum's period is from 5:00 pm-9:00 pm on Fridays. Check the "Admission" or "Hours" link on each museum's website for times. Exceptions are museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The American Museum of Natural History, because (unknown to many visitors) the high entrance fee to these museums is actually a suggested donation only and visitors may pay what they wish according to what they can afford. 

4) Walk/Bike/Rollerblade the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway: active New Yorkers and anyone who wants to escape the busy intersections of Manhattan frequent the Manhattan Waterfront Greenway, a 32-mile biking and hiking trail that almost completely encircles the island. In most parts, the path is divided into bike and walking lanes and is completely separate from automobile traffic, making it a safer alternative than trying to negotiate the busy streets. It is a fantastic way to see the city, with views of the water, parks and cityscapes. The three main sections are the Hudson River, the East River and the Harlem River Greenways. The paths are mostly flat, but incline slightly toward the north of the city.

The Brooklyn Bridge from Brooklyn Bridge Park (photo by Luis Bastardo)

5) Walk Across the Brooklyn Bridge: another great way to get panoramic views of the city and to visit one of the oldest suspension bridges in the United States is to cross the Brooklyn Bridge on foot from Manhattan into the chic Brooklyn neighborhood of DUMBO. The bridge, completed in 1883, connects the borough of Manhattan to the borough of Brooklyn and can be easily walked in under 30 minutes (although many people take much longer so that they can enjoy the views and take photographs). The bridge's pedestrian walkway and bike lanes are on separate level than automobile traffic for safety reasons, but walkers must still take care not to wander into the paths of cyclists, many of whom travel at high speeds. When arriving in DUMBO, be sure to visit the Brooklyn Bridge Park and to wander through the cobblestoned streets of the neighborhood to visit the fashionable shops, cafes and restaurants. You may be lucky enough to come across a model shoot or film production, which are increasingly common in this up and coming area.     

Travel Photo of the Day: The Blue Lagoon, Grindavík, Iceland

The Blue Lagoon is the most visited place in Iceland for good reason. It is a geothermal spa located in the middle of a lava field near Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, about 24 miles from the capital city of Reykjavík. The water temperature is a comfortable 37–39 °C (98–102 °F) and the six million liters of geothermal seawater are loaded with minerals such as silica which purportedely help to improve skin, muscle and bone ailments. Because the lagoon is visited by so many people each year, hygiene codes are strictly enforced, including mandatory showering before and after entering the thermal waters, although common bacteria cannot thrive in the ecosystem.

We visited in August 2003, and after checking into our hotel, headed immediately for the lagoon. It was a weekday, so it wasn't too crowded and the warm, steamy mineral waters were just what we needed to recuperate after an overnight flight. There are vats of white silica mud throughout the area, to use as a face masque or to alleviate muscle aches. The Blue Lagoon also offers standard spa services such as massages and facials, but it is just as wonderful to simply spend a day sitting in the comforting waters, feeling the fresh breezes blowing on your face and looking out over the aqua-colored waters, incredible black lava moonscape and steaming geothermal vents.  

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: The Golden Pavilion (Kinkakuji), Kyoto, Japan

While visiting Kyoto, Japan in December 2003, so many people talked about how gorgeous the Golden Pavilion was, I had to take a side trip to see it. They were right, it is spectacular. Kinkakuji, as it is known in Japanese, is a brilliant, shining example of the extravagance of the Kitayama culture: the top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf and each floor represents a different architectural style: the first floor is built in the style of the imperial aristocracy, the second in the style of the warrior aristocrats and the third in traditional Chinese style. It is currently used as a Zen Buddhist temple, but was originally built as a weekend villa for a powerful 13th century Japanese politician. The original building has been burned down and rebuilt in an exact copy twice.

This photo was taken on a cloudy day, just as the sun was breaking through the clouds. The small covered extension on the side is a fishing deck. The temple sits on the edge of Mirror Pond (Kyōko-chi) situated in a lush Japanese-style strolling garden, which is intended to demonstrate the harmonial balance between heaven and earth. Every tree, flower, scultpture and rock is there by design and signifies something in the Zen philosophy. For example, the four stones forming a straight line in the pond near the pavilion are intended to represent sailboats anchored at night, bound for the Isle of Eternal Life.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Incahuasi Island on the Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

This photo was taken in October 2006 on a trip to the vast salt flats of Uyuni, Bolivia, from the top of a cactus island known as Incahuasi Island. In Spanish, the flats are known as Salar de Uyuni, and stretch for 4,086 square miles or 10,582 square kilometers, making them the world's largest. The flats are quite high, at an almost 12,000 foot elevation and were formed from the residue of ancient lakes. The salt lies in a hard crust about 3 feet or 1 meter thick over a huge pool of lithium-rich brine. Aside from the blinding white beauty of the snow-like salt cover, the area is home to such diverse wildlife as wild foxes known as culpeos, pink flamingos, Andean geese, and the Bolivian vizcacha, a rodent that is sort of a cross between a rabbit and a chinchilla. The area is also rich with smoking volcanoes, inverted wind-shaped alien-looking rock formations, steaming thermal baths and multi-colored lakes. In the distance of the photo, you can see a lone 4x4 jeep motoring across the flats, the only practical form of transportation for this remote area.      

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Women at the Taj Mahal Mosque, Agra, India

While I was staying in New Delhi, India in November 2005, a couple of friends and I decided to take a day trip to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal. A UNESCO Heritage Site, the contruction of the building was started in 1632 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to build a tomb for his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal who died in childbirth at a young age. The site also incudes several other tombs and outlying buildings, inculding the Taj Mahal mosque known as a masjid where this photo was taken. The women were a group of friends enjoying a day out and their laughter and the colorful silks of their saris were in sharp contrast to the somber surroundings, the brilliant white of the Taj Mahal itself and the muted reds of the mosque.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: The Undulating Bridge, Punta del Este, Uruguay

In March 2010, Luis and I spent a few days in the resort town of Punta del Este, Uruguay. Uruguay is known as the Switzerland of South America and Punta del Este, the St. Tropez. It was a splurge because it is the playground of the rich and famous and enormously expensive, but we had wanted to see what all the excitement was about. We rented a car and set off to explore the area. Although most people stay close to the beaches, restaurants and nightclubs, we decided to venture furthur afield and ended up seeing some amazing sights such as the quirky Casa Pueblo, a bizarrely designed complex/museum dedicated to the artist Carlos Paez-Vilaró, the Museo del Mar (Sea Museum) with its gigantic cement shark in front and this undulating bridge in the Barra de Maldonado.

The bridge was designed in 1965 and slowly gained fame for its unusual form. To drive over the bridge (slowly!) is unsettling because of the limited view of the road ahead of you and the steepness of the inclines. It's a bit like driving on rollercoaster tracks. I'm not sure how many people have toppled off, but it's definitely a good idea to cross it in daylight and fully sober.     

Travel Photo of the Day: Human Rights March, La Paz, Bolivia

This photo was taken in October 2007 in the capital city of La Paz, Bolivia, on the day of a Human Rights March. Marchers were protesting the lack of human rights and safety, low wages, violence and political corruption in the country. We hadn't realized that the march was scheduled for that day and found ourselves caught up in the rush of the crowd. Luis took this photo as we were marching toward Plaza Murillo to protest in front of the National Congress of Bolivia building. Although the speeches by human rights leaders were fiery and passionate, the crowd remained calm and focused on its purpose.    

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Tepui, Canaima National Park, Venezuela

Luis and I visited the UNESCO Heritage Site of Canaima National Park in Venezuela twice: once in the wet season and once in the dry. The experience was very different each time: the numerous waterfalls of the park were fuller and more impressive in the wet season, but we were drenched due to the near constant rainfall. The park is home to the tallest waterfall in the world, Angel Falls (Salto Angel), but the park itself is filled with amazing topography like the towering flat-top mountains known by their indiginous name tepuis (tepuys). The tepuis are so isolated that many host species of wildlife and plants that evolved separately from other areas and are still found nowhere else on earth. This photo was taken during a four-day trip as we were traveling by canoe down one of the many rivers from one camp to another. It's hard to capture the majesty of the landscape in a photo; coming around a bend in the river and suddenly catching sight of these stone giants momentarily takes your breath away.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Evening in Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Although it appears as if this photo was taken in China or Japan, it was actually snapped at dusk in May 2005 at Tivoli Gardens, the famous amusement park located in the heart of Copenhagen, Denmark. The pagoda is a popular Chinese restaurant and in the evenings, along with the rest of the buildings in the park, it is illuminated with thousands of colored lights. The park is especially beautiful at night when the buildings and rides are lit up, glowing Chinese lanterns hang from the trees, rainbow-colored floodlights showcase the fountains, gardens and ponds and a nightly show of glowing gigantic puppets on stilts parades around the grounds. Tivoli Garden alone boasts 120,000 twinkling lights around the trees, bushes and flower beds.

The park was opened in 1943 and is the second oldest operating park in the world and the most popular park in Scandinavia. The park should seem familiar; it was the model for Disneyworld and Disneyland. After Walt Disney and his wife visited the park several times in the 1950s, Disney was so enamored and inspired by the park's atmosphere of happiness and joy that he reportedly told his wife, "Now this is what an amusement place should be!"

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Bethesda Fountain Bubble Man, Central Park, New York City, USA

When Luis and I visited the U.S. in October 2009, New York City was our first stop. I lived in Manhattan for many years and it has always seemed like my true home, so I wanted to show Luis not just the tourist sites, but the real life and soul of the city, its people. Nowhere in the city is more alive than Central Park, especially on a Sunday when the park is filled with visitors and performers. At Bethesda Fountain, near the Boathouse, we came upon dancers, musicians, jugglers, acrobats and one man creating gigantic soap bubbles to the unbridled delight of the children (and the adults!) I was trying to capture the huge size of the bubbles, but the best part of the photo turned out to be the expressions of pure joy on the children's faces.

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Sandbar, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

I took this photo of a sandbar while snorkeling on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia in January 2004. The contrast between the brilliant white sand of the beach and the deep turquoise of the ocean was startling. The sand bars serve as resting places for seabirds and snorkelers alike. The reef, one of the seven natural wonders of the world, is comprised of over 3000 individual reef systems and coral cays. It is the largest reef system in the world,  stretching over 2,600 kilometers (1,600 miles) and is more than 344,400 square kilometres (133,000 square miles) in total size.

The reef is home to some of the largest marine life populations in the world: 30 species of whales, porpoises and dolphins; 500 species of algae; 200 species of birds; 6 species of sea turtles; 14 species of sea snakes; 1,500 species of fish; 5,000 species of mollusks; 400 species of coral; 500 species of seaweed.  

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Lago Grey, Torres del Paine, Chile

Torres del Paine National Park in the southern Patagonian region of Chile is one of the most amazing places on earth. The park's almost 600,000 acres of breathtaking glaciers, mountains, lakes, forests, meadows and wooded trails are home to guanacos (a cousin of the llama), Andean condors, grey and red foxes and pumas. Luis took this photo of Lago Grey (Grey Lake) and the surrounding vista a couple of hours after we arrived in the park, early January 2011. The weather changed suddenly and a few minutes later, the entire scene was shrouded in fog and clouds.   

Monday, February 14, 2011

Curanto: The Traditional Shellfish Dish of the Islands of Chiloé, Chile

Sim at a dockside restaurant on Chiloé Island, Chile ready to dig into a steaming plate of curanto and a cool bottle of Chilean Sauvignon Blanc (photo by Luis Bastardo)

For the uninitiated, Chile is one of the bright, rising stars of the South American countries. Its up and coming economy is stable yet steadily growing, supported by strong agricultural and mining industries, namely copper, iron, beans, sweet potatoes, beets, wheat and my personal favorites, wine and seafood. The Chilean wine business has exploded in the last 15 years and the country's wines continue to exceed all expectations. At the 2004 Berlin Wine Tasting Competition, Chilean wines took first and second place in a blind taste test; in the 2005 tasting, they took five of the top seven places. Most prevalent are the outstanding yet reasonably priced Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, which pair perfectly with delicious Chilean seafood. 

A typical curanto: mussels, clams, fish, potatoes, sausages and chapalele (photo bu Luis Bastardo)  

There is an extensive fish and shellfish farming culture in Chile, so fresh seafood is widely available and generally inexpensive. Most regions have a typical seafood or shellfish dish; on the islands of Chiloé, it is curanto, a type of shellfish bake that also includes fish, sausage, potatoes and a type of doughy potato bread called chapalele. The meal is usually accompanied by a bowl of broth for dipping or sipping and a bottle of chilled Chilean white wine. it is similar to a New England clam bake in that it is traditionally prepared in a hole in the ground near or on the beach, over stones heated by a bonfire, each layer of seafood, meat and vegetables separated by the gigantic leaves of a local edible plant known locally as nalca or Chilean Rhubarb, then all is covered by a top layer of sod and earth. Today it is more practically prepared at home in a pressure cooker or on a grill.      

Luis trying out the local freshly-shucked oysters on Chiloé (photo by Simone Cannon)

Some food historians date the origin of curanto to between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago when indigenous groups such as the Mapuche inhabited the islands. The word "curanto" derives from the Mapuche word "kurantu" meaning “stony ground”. The original ingredients probably also variously included snails, scallops, abalone, razor clams, pudú ( a type of small deer), nutria (a medium sized rodent), pork, lamb, sea birds, sea lions and other marine life, depending on availability and season. The curanto was normally reserved for feasts or celebrations and while waiting for the meal to cook, guests danced a folk dance called the seguidilla, accompanied by harps and guitars. The usual beverages served were aguardiente (Spanish for "firewater" because of its extremely high alcoholic content, between 20%-60%) and chicha, a fermented drink made from maize (corn), apple or manioc. Today, the accompanying beverage is much more likely to be a crisp Chilean white wine.

Preparing curanto the traditional way (photo courtesy of

Travel Photo of the Day: Early Morning Ferries on Puget Sound, Seattle, USA

It was Luis's first trip to the U.S. in the fall and winter of 2009 (not counting his childhood trip to Disneyworld) and we landed in Seattle in December, right before Christmas, one of the drearier times of year in the city. We were behind schedule on our itinerary; my goal had been to show Luis one of my favorite places in the U.S. much earlier in the year when there are sunny skies and green parks and gardens, but by the time we got there, all had turned rainy, grey and dreary. While sitting over steaming bowls of clam chowder at a cafe in Pike's Place Market with Luis and a good friend, watching ferries silently glide across Puget Sound in the morning light, I realized that the greyness and stillness had its own kind of beauty.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Two Baby Peruvians, Colca Canyon, Peru

On a beautifully clear, sunny September day in 2006 while visiting Peru, we headed to the Colca Canyon in search of one of the largest birds in the world, the Andean Condor. On the way through the canyon, our minibus stopped at a mountainside textile market where two tiny Peruvians were helping their family sell handmade blankets, hats and scarves to visitors. The air is so thin at that altitude and the light so white that the brilliant colors of the traditional Peruvian designs were almost blinding.   

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Horses and Hikers Resting on the Inca Trail, Peru

In September 2006, Luis and I walked the spectacular Inca Trail to the ancient city of Machu Picchu high in the Andes mountains of Peru. There are several trails; the one we hiked is higher and longer than the traditional trail and took us five days to complete. Horses carried our belongings for the first three days, but on the fourth and fifth days, the terrain was too steep and rocky for the horses, so we had to carry our own backpacks. I snapped this photo of the breathtaking view on the second day while the horses and our fellow hikers were resting on the trail.   

Friday, February 11, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Sleeping Swan, Buenos Aires, Argentina

Luis shot this lovely photo of a sleeping swan in June 2010 when we visited the impressive Temaikén Zoo in Escobar, in the province of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Although June is a winter month in the southern hemisphere, we were there on an unusually warm day and many of the animals were taking their afternoon siestas. The clean, expansive and well-maintained zoo is a wonderful place to spend the day and escape from the busy city.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Sunset in The Pantanal, Brazil

This shot was snapped at sunset, May 2010, as were crossing the sprawling nature reserve of Brazil known as The Pantanal in a jeep, trying to spot birds and animals. Although less known than the Amazonian basin of Brazil, it is no less spectacular, up to 75,000 square miles of pristine wilderness and home to 3,500 plant species,  1000 bird species, 400 fish species, 300 mammalian species, 480 reptile species and over 9000 different subspecies of invertebrates.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Young Monks Resting At Angkor Wat, Cambodia

While exploring the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, Cambodia in January 2003, three young monks in saffron robes who were taking a break from their studies asked me to take their picture and I was happy to oblige. The contrast between their youth and their brightly colored garments and the ancient grey stone ruins was startling. Most young Buddhist men enter the monkhood at the age of 13 for a short period of time (usually less than a year) to study the Buddhist five basic precepts: abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication and generally, to receive instruction on how to live a moral life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Giant Sequoia, Sequoia National Park, USA

This photo of a Giant Sequoia tree was taken in December 2009, right after the first snowfall in Sequoia National Park, California. There was almost nobody else in the park at that time, and it felt like we were alone in a peaceful, glittering white winter wonderland.  We crunched through the pristine snow to stare up in awe at the gigantic trees and crystal blue sky. Sequoias are some of the largest and oldest trees on earth, with the largest tree, The General Sherman, at 52,508 cubic feet (1,486.9 m3) and the oldest known tree at 3,500 years of age.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Great Wall of China, Simatai, China

This photo of a section of the Great Wall of China from the window of a turret, was taken in December 2003 at Simatai, 120 kilometers (about 75 miles) from Beijing. At the time, this was one of the best preserved and least visited parts of the Great Wall, but has since fallen into disrepair from a combination of lack of maintenance, harsh weather conditions and tourist traffic. Simatai was one of the best places to avoid the crowds and to get the most authentic view of the pre-tourist wall, but was closed in June 2010 by the Chinese government for major renovations which the government estimates will be completed in three years.    

Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands), Argentina: UNESCO World Heritage Site

A heavily painted section of Cueva de Las Manos, with 10,000 year old cave art (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

Arriving in the sleepy town of Perito Moreno, in the Santa Cruz region of Argentina early in the morning after a long overnight bus trip, we wondered if we had made a mistake. The town has very few attractions (not to be confused with the stunning Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park near El Calafate) and not much selection in the way of lodging, the cheapest costing US$60 a night and having very little to recommend it other than a roof and walls. When we stopped by the hotel to ask about availability, the owner was luckily absent and the guests told us in no uncertain terms to run for the hills. We finally found a semi-reasonable place down the street, settled in and went off in search of transportation to our real destination, the famed Cueva de Las Manos (Cave of the Hands) in Río Pinturas. The caves, which are actually easily-viewed recesses in a small canyon, were inscribed in 1999 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the "exceptional assemblage of cave art, executed between 13,000 and 9,500 years ago". 

A section of the caves showing birds and animals as well as hands (photo by Luis Bastardo) 

We booked an afternoon trip to the caves through a local travel agency (it's best to view the paintings either in the early morning or late afternoon) and set off the next day in a mini-bus for the two-hour rocky trip across unpaved roads to the entrance of the cave site. The site includes a visitor center with a small, but interesting Centro de Interpretacion (Center of Interpretation) which explains the history and the meaning of the different representations. The caves are located at the bottom of a canyon in a beautiful, well-maintained preserved area, with a river, lush stands of trees, wild herbs and flowers and naturally colored pink, red and orange rock. The majority of paintings are outlines of human hands, although there are also numerous renderings of animals such as guanacos (a cousin of the llama), birds, humanoid shapes and hunting scenes. The paintings were probably created by spraying powdered mineral tints mixed with an unknown binder directly from the mouth; iron oxides created red and purple tints, kaolin created white, natrojarosite created yellow and manganese oxide was used for black. According to the UNESCO website, "archaeological investigations have shown that the site was last inhabited around AD 700 by the possible ancestors of the first Tehuelche people of Patagonia. The Cueva is considered by the international scientific community to be one of the most important sites of the earliest hunter-gatherer groups in South America."

Along the trail of the canyon of Cueva de Las Manos (photo by Luis Bastardo)  

The paintings are incredibly well-preserved and vary in age, some newer art being superimposed over older paintings, probably put there by each succeeding generation. According to UNESCO, "The favourable conditions (very low humidity, no water infiltration, stable rock strata) at the rock shelter have ensured that the state of conservation of all but the most exposed paintings is excellent." Cueva de las Manos is one of numerous important prehistoric cave-painting sites located all over the world, the most famous probably being the 17,300 year old paintings in Lascaux, France and the 30,000 year old  cave art at the Bhimbetka rock shelters in Madhya Pradesh, India, but the Argentine site, although less ancient, is one of the best preserved and most accessible. The site must be visited with a guide (vandalism has been a problem in recent years), but it is possible to hike and explore the lovely canyon as we did, spending several hours walking, wading through the cold waters of the canyon river, climbing up the rock faces and enjoying the tranquil setting as the sun set, turning the canyon into even deeper shades of rose and amber
The canyon floor covered in sand, trees and a flowing (cold!) river (photo by Luis Bastardo)


Sunday, February 6, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Moon and Boat on the Chilean Fjords, Chile

This shot was taken just before midnight, January 10, 2011 while we were cruising north on a cargo ship through the Chilean Fjords from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt. The small crescent moon, the light night sky and the lone boat with its single white light really demonstrate the solitude of the fjords.    

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Horses Grazing on the West Coast of Iceland

This photo was taken at a small farm on the Western coast of Iceland near Ólafsvík, August 2003. Horses are everywhere in Iceland and there is even a special breed known as the Icelandic Horse, specially bred to be long-lived and hardy in order to survive the harsh Icelandic winters and geological conditions.  

Friday, February 4, 2011

Travel Photo of the Day: Monarch Butterfly, Jujuy, Argentina

This photo was taken in June 2009 during a visit to the north of Argentina, in the province of Jujuy (pronounced hoo-hooey). It's a fairly arid area but there are also lovely garden spots filled with flowering trees, bushes, and of course, monarch butterflies.