The Unchanged Cabo Sunsets

Ringing in the new year where the desert meets the sea.

At 23:35, we retrieved the bubbles, a couple of red solo cups and rushed for the beach.

The local kids were already sitting on the sand, lit by their parked car’s beam lights, looking like a 1980s MTV video. 

Live music from the nearby clubs disrupted an almost spiritual vibe: the beachgoers looked into the sky with anticipation—like someone who waits for the passing of a comet.

We realized we’d forgotten the grapes. I felt liberated. The last couple of years taught us how naive end-of-year wishes could be.

Still, I felt cautious joy when the countdown began: 3, 2…1! All the fireworks in the world shot into the sky, and suddenly it was daytime on Palmilla Bay.

We’d arrived four days earlier, after a gelid New York City Christmas. The JFK-San Jose del Cabo flight took us from -10F to 80F in just over six hours, and it felt like a miracle.

Feeling the sand between our toes, sipping that glorious first margarita, hiking to the Big Cross: Cabo’s always been about holiday traditions for over a decade.

And, during that time, we’ve also seen the town change.

Lola, who came thirty years ago, has witnessed an even more profound transformation. Back then, there were only two shacky hotels and a landing strip. Lola loved it so much that she never returned to her native Yucatan. 

To those who came before her, she was that annoying newcomer. A decade ago, it was her turn to frown upon us. It goes on and on.

Lola worries about reckless drivers along The Corridor, the same road where the many resorts built in recent years have progressively blocked the sea view. 

We loved admiring the water back when we drove to and from San Jose’s Art Thursdays to check out works from local artists and sip free gallery wine. 

Those days you still could see Steven Spielberg speeding down the road in a golf cart, Enrique Iglesias donning a poncho in 80-degree weather, and Leonardo DiCaprio denying he was Leonardo DiCaprio in Agua Bar.

That was well before COVID, which feels like a lifetime ago. Once American politics spilled onto the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula, it was not rare to spot drunken, sunburnt tourists decrying “plandemic” and “stolen election.”

There goes the neighborhood.

Luckily, Cabo’s natural beauty remains as mesmerizing as the first time Steinbeck and Ricketts sailed past El Arco and spotted whales and dolphins in the open ocean.

I felt the same exhilaration on New Year’s Day as that first boat ride from about eight years ago. This time, we anchored in Chileno Bay and jumped into the crystal-clear waters for a swim.

The captain tossed us snorkeling goggles, so we could see the colorful fish blissfully swimming amongst us. On the way back, the crew made us fajitas, which we wolfed down with some deliciously cold Pacificos

A massive seal, unbothered by the many vessels, including a couple of titanic cruise ships, goofily swam by as we approached the marina.

We reached the hotel in time to experience the first sunset of the year. The timeless yellow and orange hues colored the Sea of Cortez like thousands of years hadn’t passed, and the Spanish conquistador—the first annoying newcomer of them all—didn’t dare to rename it. 

The Marvelous Kaleidoscope That Is Mexico

A glorious ancient past sprinkled with an explosion of colors, sounds and flavors.

Mexico is awesome.

One of the six cradles of civilization, its ancient culture and vast territory went from conquerors to conquered to a tumultuous independent period marked by foreign invasions and subsequent internal political upheaval.

As the world’s second and fourth country in ecosystems and biodiversity, it boasts over 200 thousand different species of flora and fauna. It’s also the world’s 13th largest country and the 10th most populous.

Its culture is vibrant and complex, strongly identified with its pre-Hispanic past and the period of colonial rule. More contemporary influences from places as far as Asia and the Middle East make Mexico a kaleidoscope of stories, colors, sounds and flavors with a global appeal.

On top of that, it’s the country with the most UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the hemisphere.

Soumaya Museum, Mexico City

Mexico City

My familiarity with Mexico started at 3 with “El Chavo del Ocho” (“The Kid from number Eight”), my, Spain’s and the whole continent’s (including Portuguese-speaking Brazil) favorite TV show.

Like the rest of Latin America, I grew up with Mexican pop stars, variety shows and telenovelas. On Mother’s Day, Mariachi bands were a fixture. Mexican accent and expressions were as familiar as Venezuelan or Colombian ones. When I visited Mexico for the first time, I felt right at home.

However, for North Americans used to Cinco de Mayo stereotypes, a first visit to the megalopolis of Mexico City could be such a cultural shock.

The world’s sixth-largest metropolitan area and the second-most densely populated in the Western Hemisphere, its political, economic and cultural activity could make London and New York feel small. Vibrantly entertaining, English, Chinese, Arab, Russian and many other languages are heard in its world-class museums, restaurants and nightclubs.

Museo Mural Diego Rivera, Mexico City

Founded by indigenous people, Mexico City is the oldest capital in the Americas. The ancient Mesoamerican city of Teotihuacan is just about 25 miles to the northeast. Site of many of the most architecturally-significant pyramids, it’s here where you can see the Pyramid of the Moon and the Pyramid of the Sun.

No visit to CDMX is complete without experiencing some of its magnificent museums. My favorites: Museo Nacional de Antropología (where you can see the Aztec Sun Stone), Soumaya MuseumMuseo JumexFrida Kahlo Museum (located in “La Casa Azul,” where she was born, grew up and died) and Museo Mural Diego Rivera.

Tulum, Riviera Maya

Riviera Maya

The Riviera Maya is probably the only place where you can enjoy warm, crystal clear waters and turn to spot an ancient ruin behind you. The eastern portion of the Yucatán Peninsula is formerly known as “The Cancun-Tulum Corridor,” and it includes the cities of Playa del Carmen and Puerto Morelos.

Famous for its all-inclusive resorts, charming boutique hotels and water sports, I recommend checking out the cenotes (natural sinkholes used as water suppliers by the ancient Mayans) and the archeological sites of Coba.

Coba, Riviera Maya

Aside from their achievements in astronomy, what’s most impressive about the Mayans is that they built temples, palaces, pyramids and observatories without metal tools.

Los Cabos, Baja California Sur

Los Cabos

The desert meets the sea at the southern tip of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula in an area known as Los Cabos, which includes the twin towns of San Jose del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas.

Though the region was underdeveloped until relatively recently, it has a rich history dating to colonial times. Hernan Cortez named the sea after him (Sea of Cortez) in the mid-1500s. Moreover, its remoteness lent it to being a pirate hideout, most notably for the English explorer Sir Francis Drake.

Hotel Viceroy Los Cabos

Pioneered by Las Ventanas al Paraiso and The One and Only Palmilla, Los Cabos is home to the world’s best hotels, including Viceroy Los Cabos and its flagship restaurant Nido (nest), with aesthetics inspired by the 1951 John Steinbeck’s book “The Log from the Sea of Cortez.” 

Cabo sunset

Steinbeck and his expedition companion, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, must’ve been as inspired as contemporary visitors by the famous Cabo sunsets.

The spectacle is one of the highlights of this part of the world, and many hotels and restaurants offer coveted tables from which to enjoy them.

Perhaps, it was one of the sunsets which prompted one of my favorite quotes from the book, dealing—both literally and figuratively—with journeys:

It would be good to live in a perpetual state of leave-taking, never to go nor to stay, but to remain suspended in that golden emotion of love and longing; to be loved without satiety

John Steinbeck


It’s Colombia, Not Columbia (Part II)

We found El Dorado in Bogotá.

Part I

We had found El Dorado.

The legend of a hidden golden city that drove Conquistadores to madness lives on in Bogotá.

First, in El Dorado International Airport. The world-class hub processes the most cargo and the third number of passengers in the entire Latin American continent.

That was the first clue that we were in a Big Apple.

Amazingly, this town of almost 8 million souls sits at 8,660 feet above sea level, making it the third-highest capital in South America and the world, after Quito and La Paz.

Restaurant Castanyoles at Four Seasons Hotel Casa Medina

We stayed at the Hotel Casa Medina in Chapinero. The building, dating from 1946, has lovely beamed ceilings, hand-carved antique wooden furnishings and columns rescued from a Colonial Spanish convent.

It also houses the Spanish Mediterranean-style restaurant Castanyoles with its signature greenhouse atrium and lovely tapas.

Bogotá, Colombia

After the food, it was time for sightseeing. Plaza de Bolívar, or Bolívar Square. Bogotá’s central plaza, where the Palace of Justice and other historical buildings are located, was only a 25-minute walk from the hotel. 

We endeavored the journey earnestly without accounting for the town’s altitude, which after 10 minutes or so, resulted in sudden light-headedness and dehydration due to a decrease in oxygen levels.

This megalopolis lacks a metro or subway, although they have a bus rapid transit system (TransMilenio). Taxis are cheap but hard to come by. When we finally hopped on one, we experienced Bogotá’s infamous heavy traffic.

Primary Cathedral of Bogotá at Plaza de Bolívar

Plaza de Bolívar has been the historical site of many political and social demonstrations, including the 1948 destruction of the adjacent Palace of Justice during the infamous social unrest known as El Bogotazo

In 1985, it was under siege by the guerrilla group M-19, which stormed the building and took 300 hostages demanding a trial against President Belisario Betancur.

Palace of Justice, Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

The battered building sits on the north side of the plaza. To the west: Palacio Liévano (City Hall). To the south: the Capitolio Nacional.

They surround a statue of Simón Bolívar, made by Italian architect Pietro Tenerani and installed in 1847.

Filled with artisans, street vendors and performers, Plaza de Bolívar is also where I saw a llama for the first time.

Llama at Plaza de Bolívar, Bogotá

We stopped by El Chato, a contemporary bistro that offers the best local dishes skillfully crafted by chef Álvaro Clavijo with techniques he learned in New York, Paris and Copenhagen. 

The gourmet-style grandma’s consomé, gambas and ceviche curado were most memorable.

Museo Nacional, Bogotá

Another unmissable spot: El Museo Nacional. The biggest and oldest museum in Colombia served as a prison until 1946.

And it shows: its fortress-type structure, built in stone and brick, includes a wall facade, arches, domes and columns.

Museo Nacional, Bogotá

Restored in 1975, the 100+ former prison cells held many political prisoners.

They now exhibit over 20 thousand art pieces, from archeology samples to colonial iconography to 20th-century indigenous and Afro-Colombian art.

Quinta de Bolívar, Bogotá

On the skirts of mount Monserrate rests the Quinta de Bolívar, a colonial house where the Libertador lived briefly after the war of independence.

Initially built in the 17th century as the country home of Spanish merchant Antonio Portocarreño, the house fell in hard times after the owner’s death. The newly independent government bought it and restored it in the 1820s.

Since then, it’s been a brewery, tannery, and girls’ school. In 1919, the Colombian Historical Society bought it.

Today, it exhibits various artifacts that belonged to El Libertador—including the bed he used shortly before his 1830 death in the Colombian coastal town of Santa Marta.

“Muisca Golden Raft,” Museo del Oro, Bogotá

And finally, the myth of El Dorado materialized in front of our eyes at Museo del Oro.

Averaging half a million visitors a year, the museum displays a collection of over 50 thousand pre-Columbian gold artifacts and other precious metals.

The main piece, the famous Muisca golden raft, depicts the ceremony of inauguration of the Muisca chief, who covered his body with gold dust and jumped into the lake along with gold and emeralds as an offering to the gods.

It is believed to be the basis of the famous myth.

Museo del Oro, Bogotá

In pre-Columbian America, gold was seen as spiritual instead of merely a material signifier of wealth. 

The sacred material was a means of ongoing connection with the mystical world (particularly the sun), as demonstrated by the appreciation of its reflective properties and the ancient custom of leaving objects outside to “recharge” their generative power. 

So, El Dorado might mean different things to different people. For me, it meant digging deeper into my parents’ land and learning about its long road to peace and redemption.

I also realize that history isn’t linear and that the pockets of progress and stability are fragile and prone to be disrupted by the next gold rush.

It’s Colombia, Not Columbia (Part I)

The second most biodiverse country in the world has come a long way since the days of Pablo Escobar.

What an “Encanto,” indeed.

Historically overlooked following the 1960s-1990s violence, Colombia has become a bonafide global destination because of its biodiversity, rich cultural heritage, and increasing development.

Medellin skyline

Also known as “The City of the Eternal Spring,” Medellin it’s Colombia’s second-largest town after its capital Bogotá.

Sitting in the Aburrá Valley, 151 miles north of the Coffee Axis, the city has won numerous accolades as one of the world’s most innovative and sustainable by organizations like the Urban Land Institute, the World Urban Forum and Harvard University.

“Pablo Escobar Dead” by Fernando Botero at Museo de Antionquia

Paisas, who suffered the drug cartel’s car-bombings of the 80s and 90s, are proud of this turnaround.

It is most evident at Museo de Antioquia, in the Old Quarter located in the center of Medellin on the Botero Plaza.

First established in 1881, its current incarnation began when world-renowned figurative painter and sculptor Fernando Botero made the first donations of his works to his hometown museum.

“Caballo” by Fernando Botero at The Botero Square, outside of the Museo de Antioquia

Botero continued donating his works through the late 20th century. In 2004, he gifted 23 of his large-scale bronze sculptures, previously housed in New York, Madrid and Paris museums.

The project is consistent with “Museo 360,” the institution’s mission of “recognizing the reality of the city, instead of hiding it.”

Works like “Pablo Escobar Dead” by Botero and one of my favorites, “Escopetarra” by César Lopez, are evidence of this new philosophy.

This AK 47-turned-guitar nicely sums up Colombians’ ongoing commitment to fostering peace through cultural expressions like music.

It doesn’t escape me that the artwork in question would also be apt for the United States of America.

“Escopetarra” by César Lopez and Luthier Alberto Paredes

Comuna 13 is another testament to Medellín’s positive change.

Considered the epicenter of the Pablo Escobar’s narco-violence, this sizeable urban enclave was a former stronghold for guerrillas and gangs.

It also served as a traffic route, and its youth were used as sicarios by the Cartel de Medellín.

You wouldn’t dare come anywhere near it.

Comuna 13

Fast-forward a couple of decades, and Comuna 13 is one of the city’s main touristic attractions. 

Locals serve as free guides (tipping is strongly encouraged) and tell you the neighborhood’s remarkable story of redemption. 

They also entertain you with street art, live music and dance performances and delicious authentic food cooked in their homes.

As they’ll tell you, the miracle had a controversial start when, in 2002, President Alvaro Uribe launched Operation Orion.

The raid resulted in arbitrary detentions and disappearances where innocents were killed and wounded. 

The military offensive was followed by a robust redeveloping program, identified by the outdoor escaleras eléctricas, which connected the priorly isolated neighborhood to the city below and ushered in an era of community and cultural improvements.

Although change has been dramatic, and this and many other parts of the city are safer than they used to be, I still advise common sense and caution when visiting.

Piedra del Peñol, Guatapé, Antioquia

I highly recommend setting aside a day to visit the town of Guatapé, 49 miles north of Medellin. La Piedra del Peñol, the Peñol Guatapé Reservoir and the iconic zócalos are its most popular attractions.

Standing 676 feet, the 65 million-year-old granitic Rock is climbable through 708 steps that form a staircase built on the side.

At the summit, and after a shrine to the Virgin Mary located halfway, there’s a three-story viewpoint tower complete with a seating area and a convenience store. 

Storytime: The bordering towns of Guatapé and El Peñol had long disputed ownership of The Rock. The rivalry led residents of Guatapé to try to paint the town’s name on the rock in giant letters. When the other team noticed, they gathered to stop it. The unfinished graffiti is still visible as the large letters “G” and “U” on the western side.

The view from the summit includes the man-made Peñol-Guatapé Reservoir, a popular water-sports center among kayakers and water skiers.

View from the Piedra del Peñol summit

The most surprising fact about Guatapé is that it replaces what once was the agricultural town purposely flooded in the 1970s to create the reservoir that generates 30% of Colombia’s power.

In that sense, Calle del Recuerdo is a nostalgic replica of the underwater town (the iconic church cross rising out of the water is all that remains visible from the old city). 

The street is famous for the zocalos (painted panels on the houses). These decorations identify the type of building (a store, a shop) or its inhabitants’ beliefs. 

Street coffee vendor by one of the businesses and its zocalos

You may be wondering whether we ate at all on this trip. The answer is yes, in the world’s best restaurant: mom’s kitchen.

My folks were two of millions of Colombians who emigrated to neighboring Venezuela to escape violence and seek the best opportunities to start and raise a family.

Culturally similar (they were the same country back in the 1800s: La Gran Colombia), Venezuela and Colombia have always had a bit of an opposed dynamic.

About seven years ago, when once-promising Venezuela’s fortunes diminished, my family returned to their country of origin for a kind of enforced retirement.

Mom’s arepa. Is it Colombian or Venezuelan?

Time to bid Medellin farewell (for now). Bogota, here we come!

Part II

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