Argentina


Iguazu Falls--The Devil's Throat
Iguazu Falls, located on the borders of Argentina and Brazil, is considered by many to be the most impressive set of waterfalls in the world.  Meaning “Big Water” in the language of the Guarani people native to this area, Iguazu consists of over 275 falls along 1.67 miles of the Iguazu River, most of which are over 200 feet high.  When Eleanor Roosevelt first viewed the falls, she exclaimed, “Poor Niagara!”

After an hour and a half flight from Buenos Aires, we arrived in the small town of Puerto Iguazu, which is located in Argentina but is only a short walk across a river to Foz de Iguazu in Brazil and Ciudad del Este in Paraguay, two cities renown for some shady smuggling operations.  If you’re in the market for some stolen electronics, illegal drugs or perhaps a mugging, these towns would be a good place to visit.
Iguazu Falls--Lower Circuit
The next morning, we arrived at the Iguaza National Park in Argentina.  The park consists of several walking trails allowing different views of the multiple falls.  Fortunately and randomly, we chose to walk along the Upper Circuit and Lower Circuit trails first, leaving the “Devil’s Throat” for last.1
Iguazu Falls--Upper Circuit (note the mist rising from the falls)
The Upper Circuit walks along the top of some of the falls allowing close-up views of the water as it plummets to the bottom.  The Lower Circuit eventually brings you to the river at the bottom of the falls, where you can cross via boat to San Martin Island, a small island surrounded by waterfalls.  After visiting the island, our adventurous spirit took over, and we signed up for a short, 12-minute boat ride that provides up close and personal views of the falls.  The boat literally shuttles you directly UNDER a couple of waterfalls, completely soaking everything and everybody in the boat – luckily, dry bags were provided for our cameras!
Iguazu Falls--Lower Circuit
Wet and cold, we boarded a small train that chugs its way for a couple of miles to the rear of the park.  After a 10-minute walk across a pedestrian bridge over the Iguazu River, we arrived at the Devil’s Throat.  While our visit to Iguazu at that point had been impressive and worth the visit, it had not yet blown us away.  As we neared these last set of falls, our opinion began to change.

The Devil’s Throat, or Garganta del Diablo in Spanish, is a U-shaped cliff that stretches 490 feet wide and 2,300 feet long and marks the border between Argentina and Brazil.2  As the Iguazu River calmly makes its way to the cliff, it’s hard to believe that such peaceful water will soon turn into the most turbulent and violent falls in the world.  The sound of the falls is deafening, as millions of gallons of water simultaneously explode over the cliff.  Iguazu Falls without the Devil’s Throat is an amazing sight, but these last set of falls make this natural wonder one of the most impressive on the globe.

  1. For future visitors to Iguazu, we HIGHLY recommend saving the Devil’s Throat for last. []
  2. Many people recommend staying a second day in Iguazu and visiting the Brazilian side of the falls for a different and equally impressive view.  For Americans, you MAY need a Brazilian visa to do this, although some say that you are allowed into Brazil for the day without a visa if you’re just visiting the falls.  We didn’t have a visa (which is currently around $130!) and decided not to test the border crossing. []

Puerto Madero
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: To us, Buenos Aires feels a lot like home.  It’s not just that we rented an apartment, though that has certainly helped.  It’s also that Buenos Aires often seems to us like a combination of some of the best parts of a few of the American cities that we love so much.  One of the only differences between the Soho in Buenos Aires and the one in NYC is that BAers don’t capitalize the H in their version.  But the Argentine neighborhood has the same expensive boutiques and trendy cafes, the same small dogs and the same well-dressed women as its northern cousin.  Like Baltimore, Buenos Aires recently refurbished the area around its harbor, adding lots of loft apartments and upscale restaurants.  Puerto Madero now feels a lot like Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.  And, like so many American cities, Buenos Aires is dotted with green spaces, public squares and world-class museums, our favorite of which was the MALBA, BA’s modern art museum. 
Gravesites in the Recoleta Cemetary
Buenos Aires also has a flavor all its own.  Locals and tourists alike visit the Museo Eva Peron, a museum created to “spread the life, work and ideology” of Eva Duarte de Peron (known to most as, simply, “Evita”).  Argentina’s most beloved first lady, Evita was only 33 years old when she died of cancer in 1952.  In the Recoleta Cemetery, groups of schoolchildren pause in front of Evita’s grave before continuing on to inspect the luxurious burial sites of the rest of the city’s richest and most powerful.  And, of course, tango is everywhere.  It’s at the Sunday street fair in San Telmo, where dancers perform alongside craft booths and empanada vendors.  It’s danced for tourists at fancy hotels and by locals in late-night clubs. 
on the streets of Palermo
Walking the streets of Buenos Aires, taking in the familiar and the novel, it’s easy to forget about Argentina’s very messy, very recent history.  Some of the most dramatic moments in Argentine history began after military man Juan Domingo Peron, Evita’s husband, won the presidency in 1946 and then again in 1952.  Worshipped by some and loathed by others, he used his power to raise wages and pensions, to improve working conditions and to guarantee job security. He also expanded the country’s bureaucracy and splurged on unsustainable public works projects that squandered Argentina’s post-World War II surpluses.  After being overthrown in 1955, the widower retreated to Spain, where he eventually married an exotic dancer.  Dictators ruled Argentina in the years that followed Juan Peron’s departure, punctuated by periods of civilian rule and a particularly ridiculous time that saw the exotic dancer herself ascend to the presidency.  Not surprisingly, the dancer was ultimately overthrown, after which the military took over and Argentina’s political situation took a turn for the worse. 
Plaza de Mayo - main square in Buenos Aires
In 1976, a three-man junta imposed ferocious military discipline on the country in a “Dirty War” ostensibly undertaken to oust corrupt politicians and to prevent guerilla activity.  Instead, the repression struck mostly the general population, ultimately resulting in the deaths of as many as 30,000 Argentineans.  Most of the victims, who were largely trade-unionists, students and activists, simply “disappeared,” never to be seen again.  The silent marches of some of their mothers in BA’s Plaza de Mayo became a well-known image of Argentine suffering during those times.  (In fact, both Sting and Bono have written songs about the plight of these Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo.)
Scenes from the Sunday market in San Telmo
What’s more, in 2002, in the midst of a country-wide economic crisis, the Argentine peso lost almost 75% of its value virtually overnight. All those with money in the bank saw their savings evaporate before their eyes.  The economy sunk into a Great Depression-like stagnation; unemployment and homelessness rose and strikes and picket lines became a popular way for Argentineans to express their frustrations with their government’s shortfalls.

Today, however, Argentina’s economy is on the rise and, from what we could tell, people here in Buenos Aires feel good about their future and proud of their world-class city.  Maybe, once in awhile, they feel like saying to the rest of the world, “Don’t cry for us… We’re Argentina.”  (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)

If you’re a fan of the major American sports (baseball, basketball, American football and hockey), traveling overseas will wake you up to a hard reality – with very few exceptions, our sports are irrelevant in the rest of the world.  No one cares.  Outside the Super Bowl, the World Series and perhaps the NBA playoffs, it is virtually impossible to view an American sporting event once you leave US soil.  Instead, the global sport of choice is soccer (known to the rest of the world as football or futbol).  Find a TV in virtually any corner of the globe and most likely it’s tuned into a soccer match.  This fact is especially true in Argentina.
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After consulting a travel guide to Buenos Aires, I learned of the huge importance and virtual legend of the Boca Juniors, a soccer team in the La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.  Besides having an outstanding record in South American soccer leagues and tournaments, the Boca Juniors are notorious for having quite possibly the most passionate – some would say “maniacal” – fans in the world.  When I asked a few of my soccer aficionado friends back home if they’d heard of Boca Juniors, the response was basically, “Yes, you idiot!”  It was as if I had asked them which baseball team plays at Yankee Stadium.
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Shanna, a soccer player and a fan of the game, and I1 decided we had to see a game.  When we asked a few people how to get tickets, their only advice was to go online and buy tickets from a tourist agency.  The agencies would obtain the tickets at an inflated price, pick you up from your hotel/apartment, have a guide with you during the game and whisk you home as soon as the game was over.  We immediately rejected this notion, preferring to seek out the authentic experience.  This proved quite difficult.

Even though the Boca Juniors have a well-organized and in-depth website, there is inexplicably zero information regarding the schedule of the games or how to obtain tickets. We next used our research skills and spent hours (literally, hours) searching for information online and attempting calls to the Boca Juniors office (no one ever answered!).  The only information we received was from tourists who had the same problem and eventually gave up and went with the tourist agency.  Several comments we found online also noted that it could be dangerous to go to the stadium alone since La Boca is a “working-class” neighborhood that is unsafe at night.  If you know me or Shanna at all, you know that these comments sealed it – we were going to get tickets on our own at all costs!
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On a Tuesday night, Boca was scheduled to play Maraceibo (a Venezualan team) as part of the qualification round for the Copa Libertadores (Liberators Cup), a tournament that is basically the World Cup for South America.  In order to make it to the next round (the round of 16), Boca – the winner of the 2007 Copa Libertadores – had to win AND score five goals.  It was a huge game since failing to make it to the next round would be a massive disappointment.  Intent on obtaining tickets to the game, we finally resolved to just go to the stadium and see if we could buy them.  After a 20-minute taxi ride, we pulled up to the ticket office and spotted a line that almost brought tears to our eyes.  We were, however, not deterred; two hours later, tickets for the next night’s game were in hand.  After securing the coveted tickets, we were able to explore the neighborhood of La Boca, which is famous for its colorful buildings.
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We arrived at La Bombonera (meaning, for reasons we don’t understand, “chocolate box”), the affectionate nickname of Boca’s stadium, at 8 pm, about an hour before the start of the game.  La Bombonera is a huge chunk of carved concrete painted blue and yellow, and other than a few vendors of nuts and Argentine versions of hot dogs and hamburgers, it offers nothing to the fan other than a view of the game below.  There are no pre-game buffets on the club level, no plush skyboxes for entertaining corporate clients and no giant tv screens where the fans can watch highlights or commercials during game breaks (in fact, we didn’t even see a scoreboard in the stadium; it is assumed that you are keeping up with every second of the game).  Boca fans come solely to root for their favorite team.  We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

The 50,000-plus capacity stadium was completely filled, other than a small section reserved for fans of the opponent.  Very few opposing fans seem to make it to La Bombonera, with safety a relevant issue.  The opponent’s section is surrounded by high chain-linked fences and guarded by dozens of armed police.  The risk is so severe that the Boca fans are required to remain in the stadium until 15 minutes after the completion of the game, enabling the opposing fans to exit the stadium and quickly flee from the area!
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As the Boca players entered the field, hysteria ensued.  The fans threw uncountable reams of paper into the air, filling the sky and eventually covering a good portion of the field.  Seconds later, hundreds of fireworks were fired towards the field from the section of the stadium directly behind one of the goals.  The firework of choice for the Boca supporters reminded me of the Roman Candles I used2in the Annual July 4th Firecracker War in my neighborhood, where we attempted direct hits on the other misguided youth who lived nearby (Wait, did I just admit that?  Sorry, Mom!).  Expecting the volley of fire to last for a brief moment, we watched in amazement as shots were fired for several minutes, filling the stadium and our lungs with smoke.
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Knowing they needed to score five goals, the players attacked aggressively and scored two goals fairly quickly.  The fans were ecstatic and confident.  However, as halftime passed with no additional goals, the tone of the cheers went from enthusiastic to nervous.  The team needed three more goals to reach their goal.  About this time, we learned a vital fact about the game.  There was another way for La Boca to advance to the next round – if the game being played simultaneously between a Mexican team and a Chilean team ended in a tie, then La Boca only needed to score three goals, not five.  As the game neared the end, the third goal was scored by Boca as we learned that the other game was in a tie and almost over.  The crowd went nuts.  As time expired in the Boca game with a 3-0 victory, it was confirmed that the other game had ended in a tie and that La Boca would miraculously advance.  I can’t describe in words the excitement of the crowds.

In my life, I’ve been lucky to attend games at some of the greatest venues in all of sports, from Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium to Tennessee’s Neyland Stadium to Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.  Compared to the La Bombonera, however, these prior experiences seem tame.  The Boca fans sang, cheered and yelled non-stop the entire game; the sound was deafening.  At halftime, no one left their seat since they would have missed a stanza of the La Boca fight song.  At the end of the game and after their mandatory 15-minute waiting period (to allow the opposing fans to flee, as discussed above), the fans continued their singing while slowly exiting the stadium.  Rarely, if ever, have I seen such passion in such mass quantities.  I left that stadium as a Boca fan, and I’m pretty sure I’ll be one forever.

  1. I actually played soccer for one year as a kid.  During that season, our team never lost…and never won!  We tied every single game, with all but two of our games ending at 0 – 0.  The other two ended at 1 – 1.  As a fairly competitive kid, these results – combined with a statement by the father of one of my friends that soccer was a sport for sissies – cursed my otherwise promising soccer career. []
  2. I also used bottle rockets.  We would typically shoot these from a PVC pipe; however, the accuracy of a bottle rocket is quite limited. []

home_sweet_buenos
Just under two weeks ago, we arrived in Buenos Aires and, rather than checking into yet another hotel, we headed home.   We’d heard that apartment rentals are really common among visitors who come to this amazing city for more than a couple of days, and so, a few weeks ago, we started browsing some of this area’s many apartment-rental websites.  In no time at all, I’d found the apartment version of my Mr. Right.  Its name was 2698 Libertador, and it had not only a gourmet kitchen but a washing machine; not only a comfy-looking couch but a DVD player.   I started daydreaming about all of the meals we were going to cook, all of the cable TV we were going to watch and, yes, even all of the laundry we were going to do.
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I understand that what I just wrote sounds really, really lame.  I mean, Derek and I are living the dream, right?  We’re supposed to be out experiencing the world, not at home separating our lights from our darks.  But there you have it.  After eight months on the road, everything in our backpacks (not to mention the backpacks themselves) needed to be washed, and we desperately needed to sleep in the same bed for more than a few nights in a row.   It was time to take a break.
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After almost two weeks here, we’ve really settled in.  We got a Blockbuster membership.  (Incidentally, at the only Blockbuster I’ve ever known to sell olives alongide the popcorn… It gave me a little insight into the Argentine palate!)  We joined a gym.1  Hugo, our doorman, recognizes us now.  We acquired a favorite grocery store and, within it, a favorite cashier.  (She’s the one who doesn’t cringe at my very weak attempts at Spanish.)  I went running enough times that I no longer get lost upon walking out of the door.  In truth, we kind of feel like we’ve moved to a Spanish-speaking version of NYC’s Upper East Side.  Our new ‘hood is all nannies and dogwalkers and ladies who lunch.  Stepping out of our apartment, we can walk to boutiques, art galleries and trendy cafes in less than five minutes. 

We were technically supposed to move out a few days ago, but neither of us could bear the thought of leaving just yet.  And so here we are.  It’s Saturday night and, while we were supposed to head to a tango bar to watch the city’s best dancers as they tango the night away, I’d say there’s fairly good chance we’ll stay in tonight.  Just because we can. 

  1. A funny note about the gym–it runs on Buenos Aires time, i.e., about 3 hours later than what we were used to at home.  This means that most restaurants here don’t open until 8:30 p.m., and they fill up far later than that.  We got seated for dinner last night at 12:15 a.m., and the place was still packed when we left.  The doors of some bars stay locked until at least 2:00 a.m.  And, where classes at the Nashville YMCA start around 5:30 a.m., the ones at the Buenos Aires Well Club don’t kick off until 8:00 a.m.  I guess that means no one’s at their desks by 8:30/9:00! []

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After a 6 hour bus ride in the snow across the border with Chile, we arrived in El Calafate, Argentina.  Until a few years ago, El Calafate had a population of less than 5,000 but has undergone a massive boom due to tourism, dramatically increasing the town’s population.  The primary, and perhaps sole, reason for this increase is El Calafate’s close proximity to Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, a large national park hosting several glaciers including the magnificent Perito Moreno Glacier.
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We stayed at a popular hostel located on top of a large hill outside of El Calafate that provides a dramatic view of the sunset over the area’s lakes and mountains.  We spent our first day in El Calafate lazing around the town and visiting some of its numerous shops and restaurants.  (One of the lessons we’ve learned about long-term travel during our time on the road is that building a day of rest into our schedules after a few days in a row of seeing the sights really helps us to appreciate all of the amazing things we’re encountering.  Without a break once in awhile, it all starts to run together.)  The next day we signed up for a mini-trekking glacier tour.
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We arrived at the Perito Moreno Glacier after an hour and a half bus ride from El Calafate.  The glacier is renowned for its massive size (around 150 feet high, 2 or 3 miles wide and over 20 miles long!), its beauty, its state of equilibrium1and – most importantly – its easy access.  We’ve seen a few other glaciers in the previous two weeks, but these viewings required long hikes or rather expensive boat rides in remote areas.  To view the Perito Moreno Glacier, you simply need to board a bus.
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After our arrival and a short, but choppy, boat ride across a lake, we were quickly strapping crampons to our shoes (after our volcano-climbing experience, we’ve become quite adept at using crampons).  Led by two guides (one of which showed off by climbing up one of the ice walls), we hiked on the glacier, carefully dodging crevasses and unstable ice.

The remainder of our time in the park was spent viewing the glacier, listening to the cracking of the ice and being fortunate enough to see huge chunks of the glacier come crashing down into the adjacent lake on their way to becoming blue icebergs (Science lesson of the day: Glacial ice looks blue due to its extreme density – the ice is packed so hard that it absorbs every other color of the spectrum except blue – so blue is what you see!).  From the viewing platforms on a clear day (which we had), you can literally see miles of the glacier in front of you – surely one of the most dramatic sites on the planet.

  1. As world temperatures have risen in recent years, most glaciers are receding.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of the few glaciers that is in equilibrium.  On an approximately 4 year cycle, the glacier recedes for a couple of years and then advances the next two. []

Before we arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, I knew only that it was the southernmost city on earth–literally, the end of the world–and that Argentine prisoners had once been sent there to maintain Argentina’s hold on the land (presumably because no one else was willing to go).  The place didn’t sound particularly promising…
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But the town has come a long way since the prison was established in 1896.  More than 100 years later, it’s transformed into both a place where Argentinians move to raise their families1 and a destination that is fairly popular among tourists. Travelers who come to Ushuaia (most of whom are either backpackers or soon-to-be passengers on one of the cruise ships that docks in the local marina) will find plenty to keep them busy and well fed for a few days.  A quick culinary note: Ushuaia is famous for its king crab, or “centolla.”  Those who know me well are aware of my desperate love for crab.  It’s hard to adequately describe the happiness I felt upon being presented with a heaping plate of the stuff, steamed and already shelled.
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Just five minutes outside the city waits Glaciar Martial, which is essentially a moderately sized, glacier-topped mountain with a sometimes-functional chairlift.  (It’s used for skiing during the winter.)  On the day that we chose to climb it, the chairlift was out of commission.  (Unlike when we climbed Volcano Villaricca, however, the malfunction didn’t launch us into despair… It simply meant a brief extension of a pleasantly steep hike.)  The climb itself was spectacular, in part because it allowed for stunning views of the mountain-flanked Beagle Channel that improved with every upward step.  The thing that really amazed us about the hike, though, was that it was just one of many options located within a few minutes of Ushuaia.  The proprietor of our hotel described it to us as “ok.”  Ok?? If this hike were located anywhere in the U.S., we’re certain that–with its fantastic views of mountains, water and a glacier alike–it’d be one of the best around.
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Given Ushuaia’s former status as a penal colony, we felt it necessary to pay a visit to the place where some 600 unfortunate souls found themselves incarcerated.  Now titled the “maritime museum,” the prison houses everything from balsa wood models of ships to department store dummies dressed as prisoners to two art galleries, one with a nautical theme, the other best described us “the paintings that likely hung in your hair salon at some point in the early 90s.”  (Think lots of teal and turquoise…)  Some of the cells are open to tourists; they provide a glimpse of just how cold and lonely it must have been to be imprisoned at the end of the world.

  1. Two decades ago, it had the highest population growth rate in the world! []
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On the 8-hour bus ride from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina, you climb steep roads twisting their way across the Andes Mountains before emptying you into the heart of the wine region of Argentina.  Shortly after crossing the high-elevation border into Argentina, we spotted a snow-covered peak that our bus driver identified as Aconcagua – the tallest mountain you’ve probably never heard of.  Measuring 22,841 feet, it takes the honor as the highest mountain in the world outside of Asia, bigger than Mt. McKinley (20,320 feet) and Kilimanjaro (19,340 feet) but well short of Mt. Everest (29,028 feet).

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A couple of hours after descending from the Andes, we arrived in the provincial capitol of Mendoza.  Within a few miles of the city, there are dozens of vineyards producing wines that regularly receive international acclaim.  As this recognition continues to increase, so do the town’s visitors.  While we missed Mendoza’s annual wine festival by a week, we met several travelers who had come to Mendoza just to sample the local grape juice.  We did our part by visiting a few wineries, including a half-day tour through nearby vineyards and an olive oil producer via bicycle, rented (along with a map) from a well-named company called Bikes and Wines.

Walking through Mendoza at virtually any time of day or night, you will find the city’s residents wandering the streets, filling the tree-lined plazas scattered around the town and eating and drinking wine at the sidewalk cafes that are too numerous to count.  I’d heard that Argentineans like to eat dinner late, but I never truly understood that until our first night in Mendoza.

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With my parents – who met us for a few days in Mendoza before catching a cruise circling Chile and Argentina1 – we set off to sample grilled meat (an Argentina specialty) at 9:30 pm.  As we entered the restaurant, we noticed we were the only diners, making us nervous that we were eating at an establishment recently receiving a bad review by the local health department.  Our fears were soon allayed when we looked around at 10:00 pm and every table was full.  This phenomenon continued for our remaining days in Mendoza, as diners seemingly hid in their homes until they were allowed to exit around 10 or 10:30 pm.  As we walked back to our hotel after 11 pm each night, virtually every restaurant we passed was completely packed.

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During our few days in Mendoza, we assimilated to the Mendozan way of life quite easily, sleeping to 10 am, drinking coffee until 11 am, eating lunch around 2 pm and starting to think about which sidewalk cafe we should dine at somewhere around 10 pm.  On our last day with my parents, we sat down for lunch at a cafe around 1:30 in the afternoon and didn’t leave until almost 6 pm, having an extended lunch and playing heated card games while fueling our systems with coffee and light conversation – the kind of day where you do virtually nothing memorable but know that you’ll never forget.

While the city of Mendoza isn’t remarkably beautiful (you have to drive a few miles out of the city to the surrounding vineyards for that), its pace of life is.  Coming from work- and money-obsessed America where taking vacations and slowing things down is considered a character flaw in many circles, you can’t help but think that the Mendozans have figured some things out that we Americans are unfortunately decades (if not centuries) from discovering.

  1. Many people have asked me how I got the travel bug.  The easy answer is, “from my parents.”  Growing up, we traveled the States every year seeking out new destinations in our pop-up camper, from which many of my greatest memories were produced.  Once my sister and I started traveling internationally, my parents quickly followed…with a vengeance.  In the past 15 years, my Mom and Dad – who both grew up on farms in rural Tennessee – have seen over 30 countries and keep adding destinations to their must-see lists.  They are just one example of the many people I’ve met who started traveling internationally later in life; it goes to show you that it’s never too late to see the world! []