Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 13, 2015

Modern Pest

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Once you’ve got the eye-candy attractions of Buda under your belt, it’s time to venture across the Danube to the far more urban and bustling city of Pest.

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One of the first things you notice about Pest is how relaxed it is, compared with other European cities. Its atmosphere is at times beach-like!

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Pest is where you can find the city’s bustling pedestrian promenades.

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And if by any chance you’ve had your fill of medieval architecture, Pest offers an array of styles and a level of a grandeur to match almost any city on earth!

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I’m pleased to report that, culturally, Budapest has pretty much joined the ranks of Western European cities at this point.

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In fact, this food truck festival felt eerily similar to one in Atlanta! Except we normally lack the fabulous bluntness of a “Meat & Sauce Sandwich”. Although that’s normally exactly what I want in a sandwich.

But even though Hungary now feels like it has joined the ranks of forward-thinking, Western European countries, signs of its troubled past abound.

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This monument, for instance, commemorates the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Nowadays a footnote in most Cold War studies, the Revolution, which failed to pry the country free of the Soviet Union’s influence, underscores how Hungary was never a an ideal satellite to the USSR. In the Revolution, the people rose up against the USSR, culminating in the country formally withdrawing from the Warsaw Pact, causing the Prime Minister to be put to death.

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Images of communist Hungary are adorably related through the Miniversium. This scale model shows a children’s summer camp, where they were indoctrinated from a young age.

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It also depicts one of the early breaks in the Iron Curtain, as the Soviet Union’s power was beginning to wane.

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This is but a side-theme of the Miniverse, which is largely a startlingly accurate scale model of several European cities, and model railroader’s dream!

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Resistance to both fascism and communism is now part of Hungary’s identity. This museum, for instance, commemorates Budapest’s suffering under both forms of government.

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Budapest’s large Jewish population was devastated by the Holocaust, similar to what occurred in many other European cities; however, in Budapest the process happened later. The closing-off of the Jewish Ghetto and forcible deportation of the Jewish population did not occur until late 1944, well after cities like Warsaw and Prague, and those across Germany, had their Jewish populations obliterated.

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Because the Soviet forces liberated Budapest’s Jews well before they were completely deported, the community is still a strong force in Budapest today. Most notably in Budapest’s synagogue, which is the largest in Europe.

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How much victimhood Hungary should feel over the Nazi era is the subject of some debate, apparently. Although the Terror Museum and the government depict the Nazi era as a period of control by outsiders, this monument symbolizing Nazi Germany’s dominance over Hungary has sparked a backlash. The protests point out that Hungary was among the earliest countries to adopt discriminatory policies towards its Jewish population, and the reason a significant Jewish population remains is because Hungary voluntarily followed along with the Axis powers, and thus avoided the horror associated with a Nazi invasion and direct control until very late in the war.

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But the city’s tragic history is getting less and less apparent over time–hidden by a relaxed culture, gorgeous parks and architecture, and a cosmopolitan sentiment. Modern Budapest is firmly focused on the future.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | June 12, 2015

Buda, on the West Bank of the Danube

My 2015 adventure: Eastern Europe. The starting point, Budapest. Or, specifically, Buda, the western side of the Danube River (and bearing virtually no resemblance to that Montenegrin party hotspot Budva Caroline and I plodded through five years ago).

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Buda is the hillier, less urban side of the Danube, which separates what once were two distinct towns.

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Unlike busy Pest, Buda is the side with fairytale European streets…

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…and the shimmering palace atop the mountain.

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The Gothic Cathedral truly is something to behold.

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Fisherman’s Bastion, a particularly ornate stretch of the old city’s walls, so-named because it was defended by the local fishermen.

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Nowadays its towers provide the backdrop for many scenic photographs…

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…and what must be one of the more picturesque cafes on the continent!

Buda, to be honest, wasn’t my favorite side of the river, with its throngs of tourists and what felt like a pretty vanilla atmosphere.

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But it definitely excels in one area: views across the river to Pest.

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For one, it’s got a great view of what most be one of the coolest-looking Capitol buildings anywhere.

b_bastionviewFrom the mountain above or the river below, it is an amazing backdrop to any picture!

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One of the more striking memorials I’ve seen, of a teenaged fighter in the 1956 uprisings against the communist government. The government waited until his 18th birthday to put him to his death.

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To get an even more amazing view of the city, take trail up to the Citadela.

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Castle Hill from the trail.

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The lumbering Citadela was built in the mid-1800s by the Austrian rulers. It was seen by locals more as a mechanism to control the population than to defend the city from outsiders. Without a clear military purpose, it fell into a state of disuse and flux in the 20th century, and was used for all manner of purposes: as lower-income housing, as a Nazi fortification, and as a Soviet control center.

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Now it serves mainly as a monument and scenic overlook.

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And the complete view, with Buda on the left and Pest on the right!

Posted by: Caroline | June 10, 2015

The Return to Samana

Haiti is a gem well worth the travel difficulties, but after our time there, Las Terrenas was welcome relaxation. Even though the pristine beach is its main draw, the town itself is charming, complete with puzzling architecture…

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… aptly named restaurants…

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… and my favorite beach cafe. Caffeine is essential after those strenuous days lounging on the sand. It can really wear a person out.

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The cafes that line the beach were perfect breezy hangouts for enjoying the World Cup matches (and a fresh mojito or two). The fact that Las Terrenas attracts people from all over the globe meant someone in the cafe was deeply invested in each and every game.

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(I have to confess I was a little more invested in the beach!)

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In all of our international travel exploits, Alex and I had yet to rent a car. Up until this point, it had forced us to get creative with public transportation and our own two feet, but we also thought: maybe it’s limiting us. We wanted to do some true exploration on our own, so we rented this off-brand beauty from an agency in town. They needed to keep Alex’s passport, and our flight was the next day, so it was essential that we return the car by closing time that evening. It was early morning and we had until 6pm, so we figured this was totally reasonable for a short hour or so drive to the guidebook-recommended Playa Rincon.

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It was refreshing to be able to pull over and take pictures wherever we wanted rather than quickly snap blurry shots out of shoddy speeding minivans. The drive featured plenty of gorgeous vistas…

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… and plenty of stress. Which of our adventures could be complete without a police run-in? We were stopped (very predictably so in a rental car on this touristy trail) and of course asked for Alex’s passport. Remember where that is? Back at the rental car agency? As the police officer tallied up what an enormous fee this would be, we realized that the small amount of cash we had brought–both for safety and because we didn’t want to have a large amount that we needed to exchange before leaving the next day–was about to evaporate. No lobster lunch for us.

So I did what I had to do. I started to cry.

Nothing makes a police officer, especially in such a macho culture, more perturbed than seeing a woman cry. The fine quickly dwindled and we were on our way to beautiful Playa Rincon.

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This beachside restaurant served up fresh lobster with coconut bread. And thanks to a quick stop at an ATM after our tiny police fine ate into our day’s budget, we were able to actually purchase a meal!

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When boatloads of other tourists began showing up, we decided that 20 people on this idyllic, secluded beach were far too many. We hopped in our rickety SUV to head back up the beach path a few hundred yards in search of a more private spot.

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Yes, that’s more like it! Until a kid on a motorbike drives up and says our “secret” spot is actually frequented by drug mules and that we should get out of their ASAP. Ok, kid, you had me at “drug mules.” I leapt back into the car, Alex cranked the engine, and …

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Oh. We parked on sand.

It was a moment where I really wished I had paid more attention to those ridiculous how-to survival guides. I am sure “how to rescue your sand-stranded car while next to a drug trafficking forest” is a chapter that I skipped over with little thought to how it could ever pertain to me.

We tried hard to unwedge this car. We tried various combinations of pushing, giving it a little gas, trying to get traction with palm fronds, but nothing worked. At this point, I’m mainly terrified of someone jumping out of the bushes to attempt to rob us, realizing we have nothing of value, and killing us just out of frustration about their wasted time. Even if they do let us go, we have no car anymore, and we certainly won’t make it to the rental car agency to get Alex’s passport back. We also don’t have any money to pay anyone to help us. (Welcome to the inner workings of my mind while terrified).

We decide the safest thing to do is for both of us to run back to the beach village and try to get some of the boat drivers–who brought those boatloads of tourists we so hated a half hour ago but who I would have cheerfully tolerated now if given the chance!–to help extricate this car.

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I stayed behind at a restaurant while Alex and five or six strong and eager Dominican guys rode off on motorbikes. Minutes later (though still long enough for me to dream up even more chilling scenarios), the SUV and all invested parties returned safely. We bought some beers for the guys as a thank you, and I lounged on the beach until my heart rate returned to normal.

So maybe the DR is not always more relaxing than Haiti…

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | November 28, 2014

The Journey to Las Terrenas

After about a week in Haiti, Caroline and I had sadly had about enough. Port-au-Prince borders on intolerable for tourist purposes (we knew this at the outset), but even Jacmel wasn’t without its problems. Decent restaurants were difficult to come by, my leg was reeling from a second-degree burn, and the new mosquito-borne disease called Chikungunya, which was sweeping Haiti at the time, caused us to worry even more about mosquitos than we did in Africa. Couple this with the fact that transport really is a horror–our next destination, called Ile-a-Vache, required a harrowing, multi-part journey–and we decided a change of pace in the Dominican Republic would be welcome.

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Our first step? A taxi ride through PaP’s chaotic streets. By this point, we had made friends with one of a handful of people who runs a basic taxi service in PaP, and had him take us to the bus station. He knew all the back streets, meaning he knew just how much to flirt with the outskirts of PaP’s frenetic Marche de Fer (Iron Market) in order to dodge the gridlock on the main roads.

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Oops! One false turn and we encountered a downed power line. The road was barricades with large stones, but our fearless cabbie determined the car was small enough to eke under the (presumably active) lines, and, after some arguing with passersby, moved the stones and proceeded through.

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A street scene in Haiti’s endless outskirts. Roads turn to dirt, the air is thick with dust, and walled compounds of one sort of another are all you encounter as you get further and further away from the center.

We wound up at Capital Coach Line, a Haitian-run bus company that departs from right next to the US Embassy. (Capital is a fierce competitor to the Domincan-run Caribe Tours, which is based out of Petionville.) And thus, for the next couple hours, we said a long goodbye to Haiti from the seat of a luxury coach.

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And a memorable goodbye Haiti offers, indeed. This is the border point of the main road between PaP and Santo Domingo–a road crudely carved out of the bluffs tumbling into a blue-green, brackish lake called Étang Saumâtre (literally, “brackish pond”). This is one of the most bizarre places I have ever seen.

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Since it lacks a year-round outflow, the lake’s level rises and falls based on rain levels. Trees and even houses are submerged.

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Taptap after taptap (and the occasional converted school bus) ply this route, filled with Haitians going to and from the DR and the markets clinging to its border, looking for work and trading goods, all in this intolerable environment of dust, sun, and parched heat. That the lake is undrinkable, saline water is a bit of environmental cruelty.

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This whole scene made us endlessly thankful to be in our air-conditioned coach, although more than a time or two I studied the emergency escape mechanism in the roof of the bus as we cheated over to the bitter edge of the road to pass vehicles that were slow or broken down.

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Fast forward about an hour and we were cruising through the rather dreamlike landscape of the DR.

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We stopped over in gritty Santo Domingo, a bastion of modernity and order in comparison with PaP.

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Per tradition, we stayed in the Zona Colonial, and were able to get an update on the district from our visit a couple years ago.

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I’m glad to say things have broadly improved for the DR’s oft-maligned capital. New shops and cafes abound, and corners that were once dark and blighted are now well-lit and lined with shops.

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In the spirit of improvement, the old patchwork of asphalt streets is being ripped up and replaced with cobblestones, with proper sidewalks and adequate traffic calming.

With all of these changes, I’m glad to report that the Zona Colonial is inching towards being an attractive tourist district.

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And, after just a couple more hours on the bus, we arrived at our destination: gorgeous Las Terrenas.

Posted by: Caroline | November 3, 2014

Beautiful Bassin Bleu

Bassin Bleu is Jacmel’s scenic draw, ultimately worth the frightening mototaxi journey–though I was not too happy about taking one, despite what this picture may indicate. My smile is because I was currently not ON the death machine.

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My fears were unfortunately somewhat justified; as Alex hopped off his mototaxi, his leg grazed that scalding hot muffler. The drivers attempted to pour steaming, dirty motor oil on it (I intercepted with a bottle of cool water); the tourist office staff just pulled up their pants legs and showed off their own mototaxi scars, or as they are affectionally known, “Haitian tattoos.” Alex was able to gracefully handle the rest of our Bassin Bleu experience, but when we returned to Jacmel, we were in for an equally as thrilling adventure: a visit to a clinic, where burns are handled a bit differently than we were accustomed to. Spoiler alert: it involves a scalpel.

Let’s move on to more palatable things, shall we? Like this beautiful view of the first pool!

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But the reason tourists make the trek to Bassin Bleu is for the third pool.

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The guides, after helping you down a slippery vertical rock (there are ropes to aid in the descent as well), even take pictures while you swim!

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After that refreshing dip, it was time for the hair-raising journey back. As afraid as I was on our uphill journey before, I at least stayed on the mototaxi. When one of our mototaxis had a flat tire on the way back, I gladly took the opportunity to insist on walking down some of the steepest sections of the road.

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If there’s a warning about the angle of incline, rest assured I will not traverse it on a tiny bike.

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The walk, besides feeling like the safer option, also gave us the chance to savor the views…

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.. and I’ll never turn down a good goat photo opportunity.

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Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 10, 2014

The Hotel Florita: The Coolest Hotel We’ve Ever Stayed In

It’s time to depart momentarily from our usual programming and do something we’ve never done on Cape to Milan: I’m going to a whole post to gushing over a hotel. After all, most of our traffic is random people from all over the world googling the places we’ve been, presumably often in search of travel advice, and it would be folly to stay anywhere in Jacmel besides this place.

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Well, it’s time to proclaim a superlative, in our travels to 30-odd countries to date: the Hotel Florita in Jacmel is the coolest place we’ve ever stayed. We’ve stayed in some pretty cool places before (and the Hotel Oloffson in PaP is up there, too), but this one takes the cake.

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The building is a 19th-century mansion smack in the center of the historic district.

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The various buildings making up the old estate have been sparingly modified into rooms, set around a breathtaking courtyard filled with hanging flowers.

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The barely-touched interior, dotted liberally with traditional and contemporary Haitian art.

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Every inch of the hotel is picturesque and full of character.

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Flowers everywhere!

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Caroline out on one of the balconies.

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The hotel bar, filled with industrial artifacts that found their way to Jacmel at one time or another.

If you go to Jacmel, and want to stay downtown instead at of one of the beaches east of town, then you simply must stay here. Sure, it lacks air conditioning–the ductwork and ventilation needed to install it would be a major alteration–but that’s just part of the experience. If definitely enhanced our time in Jacmel and Haiti.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 6, 2014

Jacmel: New Orleans in the Caribbean

Judging from the post about Port-au-Prince, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Haiti’s no place for enjoying character-soaked streets and eye-catching architecture, unless hastily-built cinder block walls strike your fancy.

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Well, Jacmel, a historical coffee trading port on the southern coast, offers a completely different vibe.

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Of course, if you want to enjoy Jacmel, first you’ve gotta get there. Which means a visit to Port-au-Prince’s bus station.

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Honestly, it’s not really all that bad of a place. Just make sure to ask your moto taxi to take you to the exact bus you need to be on, ask about five people to make sure you’re getting on the right/best bus, and get ready to pay double the local price to sit up in the front seat (and make sure to pay the chauffeur directly). Our view out the front of the bus, as we endured long-winded arguments between our bus driver and a host of other people, which seemed to involve us. (Maybe the middleman wanted too big of a cut for our fare? Maybe the middleman didn’t fleece us quite enough? Tough to say.)

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An overloaded taptap on the way our of PaP.

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After an hour or so of sitting and waiting, and a good 45 minutes grinding our way through the potholed suburbs of PaP, we were finally out on the open road.

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Haiti is a lot of things, but it’s definitely NOT spacious. Every inch of land, pavement, bus seat, and storage area is accounted for and used as intensively as imaginable.

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Boxes vs pipes: a race.

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The road eventually turns up into high mountains, and offers spectacular scenery.

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Thank goodness there was scenery, because it sure took a heck of a long time to get to Jacmel. From when we left our hotel in PaP to when we arrived in Jacmel, we were looking at well over 3 hours. This isn’t some crazy distance, either: if Port-au-Prince were Atlanta, Jacmel would be a suburb. It’s 25 miles as the crow flies, downtown-to-downtown. Granted, there’s a lot of winding around in the mountains between the two places, but still…

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Finally, the road sunk down to the coast and we reached the (considerably more sedate) bus station in Jacmel. Not much of a bus station, hoestly–all it really offers is taptaps to and from PaP, the looming capital.

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Worth the journey. Jacmel is awesome.

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Most notably, Jacmel offers an impressive historic district, which, with a little TLC, could rival some of the famous colonial cities throughout Latin America, except with a New Orleans style…

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…and mystifying culture to boot.

The city is famous for its carnival, which occurs a week earlier than the rest of the country’s carnival in order to allow a massive crowd to descend on town from PaP for the party. Descriptions of the experience are so insane that I’m tempted to book a trip to Haiti next February!

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On top of all that, Jacmel has got a pleasant waterfront that’s super accessible–just a few blocks from the center of town. Something of rarity among fragile, colonial cities, which are usually tucked safely inland or have grown awkwardly into major trading ports.

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No, Jacmel’s beach is black-sand and definitely not swimmable, but the waterfront makes a great place to while away time, thanks largely to a major promenade project that established a seawall and expansive walkways (a rarity in this crowded country!).

My only complaint was the lack of any vendors, which deprived us of one of our favorite things about Labadie village a couple years prior (so close, but yet so incredibly far away, on the north coast of the country, 100-odd miles away). The guidebook talked about a beachside cluster of food and drink vendors, which we couldn’t seem to find.

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On the last night there we finally found them. Apparently they were relocated by the beachfront improvement project to the block closest to the polluted river, in an area with a lot more trash and grit. You can see the cleanliness and order of the beachfront area on the left compared with the barren lot set aside for vendors, where we didn’t feel entirely comfortable relaxing into the evening. I’d encourage whoever manages the beachfront to license some food and drink vendors right on the beach–something the Dominican Republic has a lot of success doing. Gringos (or blancs, as the case may be) love that kind of stuff.

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Jacmel’s market, a steel, Belgian-imported affair from the 1800s, in full use.

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The market streets have lots of historic interest to them, but are a lot more trying to tour than the less hectic areas closer to the beach.

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Caroline’s favorite bar resto in town–La Belle Esther–where we had some nice banter with locals. It’s a block north of the main crossroads in town, and far enough from the water that no one expects to find a foreigner there.

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And they happen to serve Haitian dishes more involved than fried chicken with rice and beans–a big plus!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | August 4, 2014

Port-au-Prince: A Tourist’s Perspective

The drama of entering Haiti aside, Caroline and I spent a few nights as tourists in as unlikely a place as any: Port-au-Prince.

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The focus of Port-au-Prince’s modern tourism industry, to the extent there is one, is an area called Champs de Mars (or “Chanmas“, as it’s called in Creole).

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The area is a leafy cluster of parks right downtown, interspersed with monuments and points of interest. This half-finished landmark was erected by the deposed Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former populist president, to celebrate Haiti’s bicentennial. Closed permanently and fenced off–nothing to see here.

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The site of the former presidential palace, an iconic bleach-white building famously destroyed by the earthquake and subsequently cleared away. Nothing to see save for an opaque fence and manned guard posts, which serve to discourage lingering.

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The Constitution Monument, with a bit of the life of the park on display. Food and drink vendors everywhere, with tons of people milling about in all the open spaces.

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My favorite part of the park was this art installation–the crass irony of the t-shirts caused us to do a legit double-take. The art worked, in other words. In a country so well-known for its traditional and folk art, Port-au-Prince is home to a starkly different dynamic if you’re willing to look for it: thought-provoking if sometimes tongue-in-cheek installations and murals created by a restless and forward-thinking urban youth. Stumbling upon this sort of thing is an occasional delight of being in PaP.

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Due north of Champ-de-Mars is PaP’s oldest neighborhood: Bel-Air. An important historic district and center of Vodou spirituality, we treaded lightly. The area was a no-go zone back during the lawless instability of 2006 and again in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, and is only recently safe for visitors–safe in the relative, uncertain sense that things in PaP are safe at all.

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We wandered the streets a bit looking for the supposedly-picturesque ruins of PaP’s old cathedral–also destroyed by the 2010 quake–and eventually gave up. We could see the ruins from afar, but would have to navigate a maze of corrugated tin barriers to get a better look. It didn’t seem prudent to explore further. We instead hopped on a moto taxi to take us away.

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The entrance to PaP’s main cemetery, purportedly a distinctive, mysterious, and moving place. We didn’t get to find out for ourselves: entrance to the cemetery was quoted at 500 Gourdes (about $11) per person by the guards. A ludicrous amount by any standard to enter a cemetery, especially which the guidebook said was free of charge. And we had Haitians we knew and trusted negotiating this for us in Creole–we wouldn’t even have been able to get this far using just English. I sincerely hope that Haiti’s tourism ministry looks into this nonsense; the cemetery should be one of the city’s prime surviving tourist attractions–a place unique of the world for its cultural interest and Vodou traditions–and essentially closing it off from foreigners for the gain of a few guards is travesty. So I regret I have no pictures of the inside of the cemetery to share.

So far, you might be noticing that basically every tourist attraction we went to was a disappointment. Unfortunately, we found this is largely the case in PaP. Tourist accessibility requires precious investment and, perhaps rightly, has fallen low on the priority list at present.

So what about the less formal tourist attractions in the city? After all, this is Cape to Milan’s bread and butter: finding the small, rewarding nuggets that speak to a place’s history and culture.

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We were pleased to find that PaP does better in this regard. One crowd-pleasing example: gingerbread architecture.

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This whimsical, Seuss-like style of construction was pioneered in PaP, and remains on display in several neighborhoods. Granted, these houses are woven coarsely into the frenetic urban fabric of modern PaP, meaning that viewing them from the sidewalk is a best-case scenario. Still cool.

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New overpowering old.

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Despite the difficulty of actually seeing these houses up close, it’s surreal to see their richly-detailed towers sticking up out of the haphazard jumble of concrete and steel that typifies PaP.

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A tourist attraction in itself, if you’re ever in PaP, you should stay nowhere besides the iconic Hotel Oloffson, a gingerbread masterpiece. As this writeup in The Economist suggests, the hotel is many things, among them the setting of a notable book (Graham Greene’s The Comedians) and the weekly venue for a genre-defining and sometimes politically-acerbic band (RAM) that incorporates Vodou heavily into its music and has been subject to political bans over the years. It has accommodated guests such as Mick Jagger and Jackie Kennedy. It’s also the ongoing labor of love of a famous Haitian-American who is (1) lead singer for the aforementioned band, (2) a Vodou Priest, and (3) cousin of the current president of Haiti. The personal details of his life are the subject of constant wonder and intrigue among locals, and it just so happens that he wanders the bar and lobby regularly throughout the day–you’ll most likely come across him should you choose to stay here.

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The place is steeped in Caribbean kitsch, with endless character.

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An old advertisement for the place.

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This back room is where the Thursday night RAM performances occur to this day.

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Caroline happy to be taking a break from the chaotic streets!

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Meanwhile, back on the chaotic streets, some low-to-the-ground commerce. I loved the shoelaces!

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We went to Haiti during the buildup to the World Cup. Brazil is supposed to be the most soccer-obsessed place on the planet, but Haiti’s surely not far behind. Almost every moto taxi was adorned with a flag of the driver’s favorite team (typically Brazil, Germany, or Argentina). This chalkboard, among the forlorn sprawl of development on the highway out of town, advertises matches for customers to watch for a modest fee (2 Haitian dollars, or about 25 cents).

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The most colorful public transport in the world!

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Lionel Messi is something of a deity here.

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An art deco theater, looking totally out of context.

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Caroline and I even got to meet up with our friend Markenley, who came down from Cap Haitien! He and his cousin Sarah showed us around town one afternoon, which was super helpful.

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We all took in a sunset soccer match together.

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We took a day trip to nearby Petionville. Step one: jam into a taptap with 40-odd other souls.

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Petionville is a suburb of PaP where the wealthy live and the NGO crowd hangs out. It’s thought to be safer, cleaner, and less crowded than PaP proper. You can judge for yourself, but I personally wasn’t that impressed with Petionville.

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Petionville basically just looks like a normal part of a normal Latin American city. The market’s a bit nicer, the streetscapes and sidewalks are a bit nicer, and a better range of businesses is on offer. But I personally wouldn’t bend over backwards to stay there for a short trip. It’s only 5 miles away from downtown, but takes a good 30 minutes to make the journey. More in traffic.

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The pharmacy in PV where I bought some Chloroquine tablets on the cheap. It’s definitely way easier to stumble upon useful businesses here than it is downtown.

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Caroline struggling to keep up with the openings and closings of restaurants. The Brazilian joint we had picked out (the green building on the left) turned out to be closed.

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No problem–some good Jamaican food was right down the street!

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PV’s main park.

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If I were actually living in PaP, I might choose PV over downtown…and I have a well-documented love for downtowns everywhere. But an American-style spin and yoga combo class is just something you’d never, ever seen in downtown PaP. Of course, you’ll be forced to pay the full brunt of American prices for these luxuries, but that’s just part of the deal living in Haiti.

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What? A Malian Consulate??

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A touch of historic architecture in PV.

Our goal was to continue up in to the mountains and enjoy some nice, cool air and Caribbean forts, but it was getting late on a Sunday afternoon and the transport was difficult. Oh well…maybe next time!

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | July 30, 2014

The Plunge into Port-au-Prince

Border crossings always have an adventurous feel about them–the romance and intrigue of passing from one set of laws and culture into another. But a handful of time’s we’ve traversed borders that feel not so much like a crossing, but a plunge. Going from the order and calm of Malawi into post-collapse Zimbabwe certainly felt like one; the short bus trip from sedate Macedonia to shambolic Kosovo was another.

For our latest trip, we had about the biggest plunge a three hour nonstop flight from Atlanta could possibly entail: Port-au-Prince.

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The contrast between the comfortable, quiet, spacious life in the US and the crammed, noisy, and often trying streets of Port-au-Prince is as stark as it gets.

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Street life in PaP, with a well-intentioned but apparently ignored pedestrian overpass. Sorry, that’s just not how Haiti rolls.

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We were met on arrival by our guesthouse and promptly whisked up the (steep!) hills south of town into one of PaP’s wealthy neighborhoods, called Pacot.

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Pacot isn’t quite as wealthy or famous as Petionville, which lies further east and higher up the mountain, but it offers a leafy, historic quality, a laid-back feel, and the ability to walk downtown–for the adventurous.

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On the subject of walking around, we quickly confronted the question of safety. That ever-pressing issue in places like Haiti or a dozen other countries we’ve visited. Is Port-au-Prince safe?

Honestly, I really don’t know if there’s a simple answer to that question. Judging by homicide rate–the usual measuring stick of crime and danger–Haiti is “safer” than Georgia. But amidst the grinding poverty, patchy police presence, and legacy of powerful chimeres–politically-motivated street gangs–it would be reasonable to ask how in the world could Port-au-Prince possibly be safe?

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First, the bad. Locals constantly warn that this or that is safe or unsafe, to guard your belongings, and so forth. For instance, in Bel-Air, a dicey but historic area, a warning might go, “You’ll be fine as long as you don’t go north or west of the cathedral.” Not the most reassuring sort of advice when you’re wandering around a congested labyrinth of a city. Worse, while Caroline and I were sitting at a sidewalk cafe not far from where the above picture was taken (Avenue Lamartiniere, for those on Google Earth), we saw a motorcyclist speeding along firing a pistol into the sky, as he was being pursued by the National Police. It was one of the more outlandish things we’ve ever seen anywhere, just a few hours after touching down in the country!

But still, I wouldn’t write off safety in PaP entirely. One place we stayed was a guesthouse high up on the hills south of town. We actually walked from this guesthouse all the way to the center of the city–a couple miles through a variety of neighborhoods–several times. In Brazil, this would be unthinkable. We probably logged 10 miles on foot in PaP, all told, and were never threatened in any real way. I’d rank Brazil, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, among other countries, as more dangerous than this.

No, we actually didn’t feel incredibly threatened in any physical way once we got used to the place. But there were two major hazards that left me cringing: open sewer grates and moto taxis.

Open sewers are everywhere. The are generally two-foot square holes in the sidewalk with missing grates, maybe 5 to 10 feet deep and full of trash and sewage at best, chunks of concrete and discarded razor wire at worst. If falling in one of these simply ruined your day, you’d have to count yourself as extremely lucky. There are generally a couple of these on every block. You’ve gotta look down when you walk (I stupidly started walking once without looking down and stubbed my sandaled toe on the bottom of on old, broken off signpost. Ouch.)

Moto taxis are a graver concern. They zip through traffic all over town and have terrible accidents regularly. Each one has an ultra-hot muffler, unprotected and burning instantly any skin that touches it (more on this later, unfortunately). Worst of all, “regular” taxis–automobiles–largely don’t exist. There just isn’t much of a market for them in the traffic-choked city.

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PaP’s hillsides are a checkerboard of wealthy enclaves and crowded, desperate slums. No matter where you are, slums are never far.

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The streets of Pacot are similar to rich areas in many other developing countries–houses ranging from comfortable to ostentatious fortified from the dangers of the outside with high, ugly walls.

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Sadly, in PaP, another dynamic is clearly at play: the January 2010 earthquake which ravaged the city. Rich and poor, hillside and lowland, it didn’t matter: the earthquake was completely devastating, and left a quarter million people dead. It’s offensive (not to mention pointless) to fixate on the disaster with which PaP has become synonymous, but it also cannot be ignored: the map of PaP was literally redrawn by the quake, and many landmarks and important buildings are lost and, hopefully, rebuilt elsewhere. This picture would have been of a large house pre-quake; the only evidence left of the house is its swimming pool.

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Earthquake damage remains ubiquitous. Many buildings remain hybrids of damaged and undamaged areas, and have found a new, improvised existence post-quake.

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Indeed, general poverty is also extreme–at a level we’ve not witnessed anywhere. I don’t want to fixate on this particular aspect of Haiti in general and PaP specifically, so this is the one picture I’ll show like this. But, fellow travelers, I would caution anyone planning on visiting Haiti that you’re in for an intense journey, despite how straightforward things may sound on paper, and I offer this picture just to illustrate the types of conditions you’ll come across regularly in the course of your travels. I would probably plan as little time as possible in PaP: both Cap Haitien and Jacmel are far more approachable Haitian cities. Sadly, PaP cannot be considered a tourist destination at this point in time. (I made the same recommendation about Managua a couple years ago, but we’re talking about a horse of a different color here.)

Nonetheless, this is Cape to Milan, and we go to the most unconventional places this planet has to offer and attempt to find the tourist value in them. So we spent a few nights in PaP and got to know the place. It was often adventurous, uncomfortable, and confusing. Always a bit dangerous. But and extremely memorable and, at times, pretty fun.

Stay tuned for the touristy stuff.

Posted by: Alex MacGregor | May 6, 2014

More Mexico City: Condesa y Castillo de Chapultepec

Last time I went to Mexico City, I talked about the postcard tourist attractions of the Centro Historico and the Pyramids of Teotihuacan. But the world’s great tourist cities don’t just have a few big-time attractions. What sets apart the likes of London, Paris, Cape Town, and Istanbul from the rest is that you’ve got days worth of interesting and cool stuff to do. So, is Mexico City up to snuff?

I sure think so.

This particular visit I stayed southeast of Centro, in a trendy neighborhood called La Condesa.

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This part of town is definitely a whole lot more laid back and pleasant than Centro.

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Although many foreigners (not entirely unfairly) pin Mexico City as a gritty, dirty sort of place, Condesa bucks the trend. Its streets are tree-lined, with lots of pleasant art-deco architecture. For visitors wary of visiting a developing-world megacity, La Condesa would be a great place to end up.

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Neat!

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“Ephemeral Art: Designer Chocolate”

This stuff would be daringly high-end in Atlanta, no doubt, especially sporting some sort of fascinating reflective black wall for a facade.

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There’s a hint of California here as well, with “Eco-Bicis” ready for rent…

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…and a thriving trade in dog-walking services. When dogs get tired they ride in little plastic crates, evidently.

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And, winning the creativity category hands-down is this loosely but distinctly tooth-shaped dentist.

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By now you’re probably thinking this isn’t Mexico at all. But don’t worry; there are little taco stands and produce carts scattered about, too. Lots of streets look just like this.

Condesa clearly trades more on its general atmosphere instead of sporting big tourist attractions, but on the neighborhood’s northern edge is a big exception: Parque de Chapultepec.

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Wandering around the park on a sunny spring day is a joy.

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Locals coo over bushy-tailed squirrels.

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The big drawcard of the park: the Castillo de Chapultepec. If you still don’t believe me that Mexico City is a totally worthy tourist destination that is criminally under-visited by Americans, here’s yet another point against you.

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Set atop a substantial rise, this building is of comparable national symbolism in the minds of Mexicans as the White House is for Americans.

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First off, it’s a legit castle, used in past wars and everything. During the Mexican American War, six children fought to the death defending the fortress from the Americans. The “Niños Héroes” are honored in this monument, overlooked by the castle above.

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The building served many purposes over its 250-odd year existence. It was a palace, then abandoned, then fortified and made into a military school, then an observatory, then a presidential residence, and now it’s a museum. Which is really cool because you can now explore the entire thing. It was during the spell as a military school that the Mexican-American War occurred and the castle was stormed; the Niños Héroes were students here.

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Stunning visuals throughout.

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The watch tower in the middle of the second-floor garden.

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The building is richly detailed.

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Perhaps most impressive were these stained-glass windows. Incredible.

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Pretty unreal baroque carriage. It looks so delicate!

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Amazing workmanship and detail.

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The room of state gifts was fascinating. Treasures given to Mexico from the likes of Russia and China, back in the day. A bit surreal, even.

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This being Mexico, state treasures aren’t the only surreal thing on display. This chilling mural, atop on the of the castle’s stately staircases, honors the Niños Héroes.

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Arte.

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Other displays cover traditional Mexican culture, which is also always alluring. Gotta love this devil figurine.

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Being set atop one of the highest hills in central Mexico City (although nothing compared to the 17,000′ volcanoes outside of town!), you get some awesome views, too. This is looking northeast towards Polanco, the rich district of central Mexico City.

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But this is the real winner: a view straight down Avenida Reforma back towards Centro!

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