The Best-Preserved Colonial Town on the Equator

 

Thanks to jrubenek for the photo

We took a few weeks off from the blog posts at TripTuner because we were doing some late summer traveling ourselves, but are now ready and raring to highlight more of the great destinations found on our site. Columbus Day is just a few weeks away, so now’s the time to start planning your trip. In honor of Columbus’ arrival to the new world, we thought we would highlight a destination in Latin America. This week’s locale is one of the most beautiful capital cities in the Spanish-speaking world: Quito, Ecuador.

Folded between green pleats of rolling hills and the Pinchincha volcano, Quito’s setting is spectacular. Terraced plots on the hillside are decorative mosaics above the shiny metropolis. The whitewashed buildings and colonial masterpieces of Old Town give way to expansive parks and modern edifices as you move up the valley. It really is quite staggering to find such natural beauty in a metropolis of about 2.5 million people.

My husband Bryan and I spent weeks on end in Quito while we were researching a guidebook on Ecuador. The town has it all – intriguing museums, excellent hotels, superior shopping opportunities, and unique colonial architecture. You might even find a Columbus Day (know in Ecuador as “Día de la Raza,” or “Day of the People”) parade while you’re there.

Here are some of my highlights of the city:

Old Town – Quito Antigua
There may be a higher concentration of colonial churches and religious art in Quito’s downtown than anywhere else in the world. That, and the fact that many of the buildings have been maintained in the colonial style, led UNESCO to name the entire area a World Heritage Site. I won’t go into detail about all there is to see downtown, but will simply call out some of my favorites. The tranquil Independence Plaza, with its spotless, manicured lawns, is a must-visit. Closed to traffic on two sides, it’s one of the mellower spots downtown. The soaring Gothic and Baroque-influenced Metropolitan Cathedral, one of the oldest in South America, sits on one edge of the plaza, while the Government Palace is on another. Also worth a visit is the San Francisco Monastery – take a look up to the choir area to notice the elaborate Moorish-style ceiling and large organ. The organ, capable of playing over 5000 notes, is only played once a year because the intricate wooden ceiling is made without nails or glue. Should one piece of wood be vibrated loose, the whole thing will fall.

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Supping Your Way through Seattle

 

Thanks to Acradenia for the photo.

TripTuner reached a key company milestone last week when we exhibited at our first trade show in Seattle. What a wonderful place to “have” to visit when most of the country is breaking heat records. We were greeted with perfect 75 degree and sunny weather — just what Seattle’s Convention & Visitors Bureau ordered. We were so taken by our visit that we have decided to feature the city as this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday locale.

We were in town for the Destination Marketing Association International’s 2012 annual convention. Although the convention kept us busy most of the day and into the night, we still managed to delve into some of the city’s flourishing food scene. You might want to check out some of these spots the next time you are planning a trip to the Emerald City.

The event’s opening night celebration took place on the waterfront at Bell Harbor. Located just up the waterfront from foodie Mecca Pike Place Market, Bell Harbor offers stunning views of Elliott Bay, the Olympic Mountains, and the Seattle Skyline. Against this backdrop we were treated to some of the state’s top culinary and viticultural delights. Here are a few standouts:

Dusted Valley Vintners
This Walla Walla winery was the most memorable for us among the many excellent options at the event. The Syrah was smooth and flavorful with a silky finish and the Rosé was perfect for a warm Seattle evening — very similar to a Côtes de Provence. As the Dusted Valley owners say, “The first two glasses are for your health, the second two are for ours.” Let’s just say that the owners should be feeling pretty healthy these days. (Although the winery is located in eastern Washington, they do have a tasting room about 30 minutes northeast of downtown Seattle that would be worth a visit.)

El Gaucho
After treating our palates to an array of fine cheeses and slurping away at the oyster bar, we were looking for something a little more substantive. The tender and juicy steak from Seattle’s El Gaucho fit the bill. Serving 28-day dry-aged Niman Ranch Angus Beef, El Gaucho prepares its steaks on a one-of-a-kind charcoal grill in an open-exhibition style kitchen. Whatever the process, the outcome is pure delicioso. We were tempted to stop by their downtown Seattle restaurant another evening to sit outside on the waterfront deck and take advantage of the perfect weather, but simply ran out of time.

Theo Chocolate
This swoon-inducing chocolate is made by the first organic, fair trade, bean-to-bar chocolate factory in the United States. Theo’s growers earn a living wage, the factory is powered by green energy sources, and packing and printing methods are sustainable. Most importantly however, the chocolate is divine. The factory, located on Phinney Avenue in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood, is open for public tours daily. In addition to learning all about how chocolate is made, you get plenty of tasting opportunities.
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My Sedona: Playing Hooky on the Rocks

Thanks to bill85704 for the photo

Sometimes trip ideas come to you in the blink of an eye. One minute you are sitting at your computer wishing you were outside and an hour later you’re in a car driving through a stunning red rock canyon.

Nothing says summer like blowing off responsibilities and heading outdoors for some fun in the sun. I was hard at work yesterday when my daughter asked if we could go to swimming. Like Tom Sawyer ditching piano lessons to go to go for a dip with Huck, I decided that a morning of swimming holes and natural water slides in Sedona, Arizona would be just the ticket for both of us – and luckily we didn’t have an Aunt Polly to answer to after visiting this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination.

Sedona, about two hours north of Phoenix and 45 minutes south of Flagstaff, is justifiably famous for the magnificent red buttes that ring the town. The year-round mild climate and surreal, cosmically-imbued formations attract travelers to Sedona like the healing magnets found in the town’s many New Age stores. Less well known are the waters that run through the area which have played their part in carving the majestic slabs. Oak Creek, slicing its way south from the Colorado Plateau near Flagstaff, has sculpted many world-class swimming holes in this spectacular natural setting. Here are some of our favorites:

Slide Rock State Park 
Named by Life Magazine as one of America’s ten most beautiful swimming holes, Slide Rock is the gold (or should I say “red”?) standard for fun in the creek. Located on an old farmstead and apple orchard along the creek, the park offers natural water slides, picnic areas, and cliff jumping. Extremely popular in the summer, the park’s parking lot limits how many people are allowed in the water. As soon as it fills up, no more visitors are let in until somebody leaves. My daughter and I hustle down the canyon and make it just in time, as the lot closed three cars after us. Whew.

We walk through the orchard to get down to the water’s edge. Stunning red rocks, worn smooth by the flow of water, have created natural water slides. Although the air is warm, the water is bracing, making for a refreshing contrast. We start on the lower, tamer set of slides and then work our way up to the larger and faster shoots. S is now old enough to also enjoy hurling herself off the 20-foot ledges down into the water – something that I love to do but that scares me when she does it.
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A Local’s Tour of Summertime Austin

Thanks to TimothyJ for the photo.

No matter how far removed from school we are, by the time June rolls around many of us still yearn for a few months of freewheeling childlike fun. I still long for the summers I spent growing up in Austin, Texas. It provides all you’d expect of an epic summer experience, so please join me for a local’s tour featuring a few personal highlights in this week’s installment of #WhereToGoWednesday.

Austin deserves all the press and praise it gets for its world-famous music scene and the innate coolness that comes from being a high-tech hub, but there is far more to do than simply club hop and shop for skinny jeans in the heart of Texas. Here are a few tips for spending some summer vacation time in the town that we’d all like to keep weird.

On a Lake
Austin is an anomaly to people who think of the Lone Star state as one vast expanse of flat, dry land. Hilly and green, it’s blessed with a string of lakes that course through town, and on the water is the place to be during the summer. I spent every weekend on a boat as a kid, and even more time when I could finally drive the boat to waterski and hang out lakeside with friends. You should, too! Rent a boat on Lake Travis, a paddleboard on Lake Austin, or a canoe on Lake Bird Lake right in downtown.

In a Texas-Sized Pool
Speaking of water, the most famous pool in Austin is also one of its most refreshing. Barton Springs Pool, located within the downtown area’s 358-acre Zilker Park, is one of the city’s most famous landmarks and because it’s spring fed, stays a refreshing 68 degrees year round. Drawing an eclectic crowd, Barton Springs is almost as good for people watching as it is for swimming. Topless sunbathing is legal and although not as popular as it was in the psychedelic 70s, it’s still practiced by some visitors. Part of the pool has been left as natural limestone, so you can spot fish and sea plants while you swim laps in three acres of water.
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Adventure Travel Within Reach, Baja-Style

Thanks to Bryan Estep for the photo taken at Villa del Palmar

I LOVE outdoor adventure travel. But logistics can be a pain. If I am planning a trip with limited vacation time, and just getting to the activity from my hotel is going to take longer than the activity itself, I’ll bag the whole deal. On the other hand, some of my favorite trip activities — like hiking, kayaking, and scuba diving –generally involve advanced coordination and transport time. (Sigh). What’s a girl to do? Well, you can travel to Loreto, Mexico – this week’s #WhereToGoWednesday destination. You can fly directly there in under two hours from Los Angeles, and once you’ve arrived, Loreto provides some of the most accessible adventure travel options anywhere.

Last week my husband Bryan and I stole away to Loreto for the long Memorial Day weekend. Loreto is a picturesque colonial town tucked between the rugged Sierra Gigante Mountains and the placid, cobalt Sea of Cortez, about two-thirds of the way down Mexico’s Baja Peninsula. Although the town itself is quite appealing — with a well-preserved, centuries-old Jesuit mission and leafy square — the Bay of Loreto National Marine Park is the real draw.

Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, the marine park covers over 500,000 acres and includes a number of uninhabited islands easily reachable from shore. It’s North America’s version of the Galapagos Islands, with some 695 plant species, 891 fish species, and 39% of the world’s total species of marine mammals. This makes it a Mecca for ocean activities like scuba diving, kayaking, and sport-fishing. The calm waters of the Sea of Cortez are the perfect place to paddle around to quiet, isolated beaches. But what amazed us was how easy it was to experience these off-shore delights.

Our resort, Villa del Palmar, is perfectly situated south of town and directly in front of the islands of Loreto. Sitting on our balcony the first morning, we were transfixed by expansive views that included layers of corduroy mountains, a calm, blue bay with a few anchored sloops, and multiple craggy desert (and deserted) islands just off shore. We couldn’t wait to get out there — and luckily, we didn’t have to. After a quick stop by the activities desk, we walked down to the beach where we were outfitting with snorkeling gear and a two-person kayak. Total time investment—about ten minutes. How easy was that?

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A Contrarian’s Summer Travel Options

Call me contrarian, but I often find myself planning trips when others don’t want to go.  Instead of visiting destinations during the crowded high season, I try to hit them when they actually need travelers.  Of course, given the realities of the typical work or school schedule, it can be hard to time an off-peak trip.  But for those who seek it out, lower prices and a less hectic experience is their reward.  So as the masses rush to the beach this summer, I’ll be whizzing by them in the opposite lane on my way to the mountains – they’re this week’s theme for #WhereToGoWednesday.

Maybe it’s the fact that it was 102 degrees in Phoenix today, but I couldn’t help but play around on the TripTuner sliders and daydream about escaping my puddle of sweat. Just the act of moving the slider all the way from Bikini to Parka made my office feel ten degrees cooler. Moving the next one from Beach to Mountain had me envisioning snow-capped peaks and lush wildflowers instead of the sizzling heat waves I could see through my window. Here were two of my top matches:

Thanks to katalicia1 for the photo

Vail, Colorado
Vail is known as a prime winter destination, with 5,300 hundred acres of skiing and boarding terrain and a sophisticated infrastructure of hotels, restaurants, and shopping to support all that schussing. It used to be that ski mountains put all of their eggs into the winter basket, but recently resorts have started catering to summer crowds as well to help that infrastructure make it through the rest of the year. Vail is no exception.

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TripTuner’s New Contributing Editor

We interrupt our regularly scheduled #WheretoGoWednesday blog post to introduce the newest member of the TripTuner team. Becky Youman is joining us as both a Contributing Editor and our newly-minted Social Media Sensei. We’ll let her take the rest of the introduction from here…

Every time I plan a trip I feel the excitement and anticipation of new discovery, but at the same time I sometimes experience slight paralysis when considering the deluge of information and opinions about potential destinations. That is why I so appreciate the elegance of TripTuner. All I have to do is adjust the sliders and instantly I’ve got personalized recommendations. How cool is that?

Having played around with TripTuner for the last few months, I can say that its guidance is right on the mark. When, for example, Torres del Paine comes up as one of my top Mountain Adventure locales, I can vouch that it’s a majestic nature-lovers playground. Having co-written a guidebook on Chile and spent a couple of years traveling the country, I can go even further to say that Torres del Paine is one of my all time favorite outdoor adventure spots — I have seen flocks of wild parakeets soaring over massive glaciers, shared pisco with travelers from around the world, and felt the accomplishment of completing the physically-challenging circuito around the park. That gives me great confidence that Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, another of TripTuner’s suggested destinations for me, should be at the top of my list.

While I certainly love the outdoors, I am not all nature all the time. This girl also jones for some urban escapes. Having belted out horribly off-tune songs in a karaoke booth in Hong Kong and watched the sunrise after a night of tapas and Cava in Barcelona — two of my TripTuner recommended cities — I can’t wait to visit some of the others that come up when I adjust the sliders.
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Where to Go: Grand Canyon, Arizona

Grand Canyon photo by Becky Youman

Looks like people have been trip planning closer to home, with American’s own stunning and majestic Grand Canyon grabbing the spotlight as this week’s #WheretoGoWednesday most popular destination.

Visit the canyon and you’ll experience the wonder created not only by the national icon’s magnificent beauty, by also by the sheer scale of its vastness. Layer upon layer of pink, red, and orange cliffs and hoodoos extend for hundreds of miles — doing proper justice to the marvels of nature.

There are almost as many way to enjoy the canyon as there are stratum in Grand Canyon National Park’s 1.2 million acres. Active visitors can choose from hiking to the bottom of the canyon for a cabin stay at Phantom Ranch, bicycling along the abyss on the South Rim’s Hermit Road, strolling through piñon and ponderosa pine along the Rim Trail, or going for the ultimate bragging rights with a one-day, rim-to-rim trek. Those looking for a more relaxing stay can watch condors soar over the chasm from a rocking chair on the patio of the lodge at the North Rim, listen to the roar of the Colorado River’s Granite Rapid from the Pima Point Overlook, or get their own bird’s eye view of the park from the vantage point of a plane or helicopter.
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Off The Beaten Path: Trekking Mount Kelimutu

mount kelimutu volcanic lake, Indonesia

Surreal volcanic lake atop Mt. Kelimutu - photo by Rosino

It’s Indonesia back-to-back for #wheretogowednesday as this week we’re highlighting the remote, colorful volcanic lakes atop Mt. Kelimutu on the island of Flores.  To give you a little taste, here’s a travel tale from a memorable hiking experience there…

It’s 3:30am–time to catch a truck ride up the 8-mile kilometer path to Keli Mutu, a unique cluster of volcanic lakes just outside Moni village, on Indonesia’s island of Flores.  A few groggy trekkers join my wife Ingrid and I for the chilly ride up in an open sided wooden stake truck.  During 45 minutes of slow curve climbing and just-in-time downshifts, stars give way to nascent orange sunlight and purple clouds.

We crawl out of the crate-like truck and hike to a perch above 3 volcanic lakes, each nestled within a blasted-out crater, colored by the chemical composition du jour.  The closest was a pale aqua blue green, like a tub of molten Crest toothpaste.  Next to it, over a razor thin ridge, lies an oval shaped dark green-brown pool of what looks like 10-W-40 motor oil.  Behind our viewing peak, a rich charcoal-black lake sits inside a tree-lined crater bowl.

An entrepreneuring villager sells hot tea on our viewing peak, the perfect complement to a mountaintop sunrise.  By 6:00 am, we’re bathed in sunlight.  In the distance, misty ocean surf rolls in.  Closing my eyes, I listen to the breeze as it envelops me, etching the scenery forever in my mind.
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