My “Oh” my, the places we’ve seen. As we hand out the Geography Awards, we encourage one and all to use Google Maps to locate the whereabouts of our favorite cities and towns. As for me, I have a feeling our frequent map-checking will add to my abilities in the Geography section of Trivial Pursuit. The truth is, Geography is the only part of that game I am good at . . . that is, if you discount the odd question regarding home run hitters in Japanese baseball. There’s a hidden pun here, can you find it?
Most Livable City
This award almost went to La Paz, Bolivia, if not for the intense body-pummeling effects of the city’s obscenely high altitude. But another Bolivian city—Sucre—happily takes its rightful place as the place we would be most comfortable living in. In fact, we spent the better part of a month living there, taking Spanish classes, enjoying the culture, shopping at the market every day, cooking or eating out, hanging out with friends, and doing normal, everyday stuff. So, we feel pretty confident that when we say Sucre is the most livable city, the honor is well-deserved. Sure, the pollution and traffic are a little much at times, but what major city doesn’t have those problems? And yes, I wouldn’t mind a few more museums, but the fact is that Sucre has a lot to offer. There’s a world-renowned opera house, a fountain light show, plenty of stores and flea markets to shop in if that’s your game, and lots and lots of parks to relax in to escape the day’s heat. Its Central Mercado received our prestigious Best Market Award (there are other open-air food markets in Sucre that are much larger but slightly more frenetic) and the fruits and vegetables (and olives!) sold there are of the highest, freshest quality. The weather is sublime (warm in the day, cool breeze at night, barely any rain) and it’s easy to get around on foot or by taking one of the various collectivos that speed around town. Finally, the affordable, super-safe, and family-oriented Sucre is a beauty to behold. Cobblestone streets, pristine white buildings, regal vistas, and fairly clean as Bolivian cities go. What more can you ask for?
Winner: Sucre, Bolivia
Best Cultural Scene
This is a tough award to hand out, seeing that we didn’t go to either the Argentine or Chilean capital cities and were only in Bogota for a four-hour flight layover. The capital tends to be the cultural center of most Latin American countries, with some exceptions here and there. Among the cities we actually did make it to, we were tempted to go with Lima as our Cultural Scene Award-winner. However, taking stock of all things, we have decided to give the award to Valparaiso, Chile. This city by the sea is much smaller than the sprawling capitals mentioned above. The smaller size and lower cost of living in Valpo has helped create an atmosphere conducive to collaborative projects. Indeed, there are lots of art, theater, and music collectives in Valparaiso. Unlike in the aforementioned Latin American capitals or a city such as New York, there are not many wealthy patrons or artistic endowments to lend material support to Valparaiso’s art scene. As a result, a wonderfully non-commercial, DIY scene rules the day. We learned a lot about Valpo, both during our stay and after we left, thanks to a chance-encounter many miles down the road in Patagonia with a guy active in the film scene there. If you can figure out a way to support yourself, it seems like a great city to set up shop and devote yourself to whatever crazy idea you’ve been considering.
Winner: Valparaiso, Chile
Favorite Town or Village
I am not exaggerating when I say that part of my heart is still in Salento. More than in any other town, village, or city we visited, Salento’s townspeople are the warmest and most helpful folks we had the pleasure of getting to know in the nearly three weeks we spent there over two separate visits. Everyone—and I mean everyone—looks you in the eye and says hello on the street. The restaurants, from the higher-end Italian restaurant at the edge of town (serving a mean eggplant parmesan and a rare bottle of Argentine Torrontes) to the budget-traveler’s jam-packed hotspot (serving a fully-packed plate of fish, salad, patacones, rice, veggies, and plantains), to the ever-present food stalls in the town square, are always enjoyable—and affordable. Plus, the town is storybook quaint, with its cobblestone streets, brightly-colored trims and doorways, porch-swings and flourishing plants hanging from most of the two-story buildings’ rafters. Walking around town at night is safe (in fact, some people keep their unbarred windows open at night), and there’s even a bit of nightlife to be had (the Tejo court and Speakeasy, a new bar owned by an Australian expat, were two of our favorite haunts).In short, if you’re traveling through Colombia and want to spend a few weeks in a friendly, mellow town with a vibe similar to what you might find in, say, Vermont, forget the popular tourist-trap beach towns of Santa Marta and Taganga, and come on down to coffee-country. Salento is where it’s at.
Winner: Salento, Colombia
Runner-Up: El Bolson, Argentina
City That Deserves More Credit
Have we told you how much we hate guidebooks? They plant an idea in people’s heads, sending herds of “Lonely Douchers” running fervently away from or towards a given destination. The writing is lazy, the research is garbage, and, worst of all, the longer-form entries are rarely updated. For reasons that are beyond us, crime-plagued, generally unappealing cities such as Quito are highlighted as great destinations while other cities get the shaft. Which city do we feel deserves more credit? Lima, Peru. Yeah, there may not be a clearly delineated tourist district to check out, but there is much to see. Lima may have some public-safety issues, but in our experience, it did not seem so bad and, certainly, was no worse than any other big city. During the last few years, the city has opened a new Metro system of dedicated bus lanes and underground tunnels which works fantastically well. Of course, the guidebooks take forever to update their content (even online) so the reputation remains that you can’t get anywhere because of the traffic. (False! The system is easy, very clean, and safe.) The food in Lima is outstanding and it is considered the best place in the country to try all of coastal Peru’s seafood-based cuisine, like the wonderful varieties of ceviche. As detailed in our post, there is a great art scene as well. We wish we could have gone to more galleries and museums, but alas, our visit coincided with the national election, which is a mandatory holiday. We’re not saying Lima doesn’t have problems, but, in our humble opinion, it deserves to be considered alongside the other great cities of Latin America as a leading cultural center and a fun place to be.
Winner: Lima, Peru
Most Interesting Guided Visit
This award goes to the most interesting day-trip guided by a host or organized tour. We’ve done a whole lot of coffee tours over the course of our trip and, certainly, our first experience at Café Munaipata deserves special merit. From chocolate to cigars, wine to panama hats, we’ve seen a lot of cool stuff. As it turns out, the winner of our award is not involved in the tourism business and generally doesn’t receive many visitors to his outpost in the Bolivian Yungas. Ruben Castillo, technical-support provider for FECAFEB, was kind enough to have us along with him for a day of making the rounds in the hills outside Caranavi. I wrote about this experience last May just after we visited and hope someday to be able to return the favor should Ruben ever make it to the States.
Winner: Ruben Castillo, FECAFEB (Caranavi, Bolivia)
Most Heavily Misguided Visit
For a supposed eco-touristic paradise where visitors can learn about fruit-farming, we certainly didn’t feel the love. We’ve slammed the Bospas Fruit Farm enough on this blog, but how about one more time for good measure. Our three-hour trip to the olive factory wasn’t too hot either . . . seeing that we drove all the way out there and didn’t even get to go on a tour. Why? Because they don’t give olive-factory tours. Grrreat.
Losers: Bospas Fruit Farm (El Limonal, Ecuador)
Runner-Up: The “Tour” of the Olive Factory (Aimogosta, Argentina)