La Guajira, Colombia



La Guajira, the desert peninsula that separates Colombia from Venezuela, juts boldly into the Caribbean, forming the northernmost tip of South America.  It is barren and immense, almost entirely devoid of cities or roads, trees or wildlife.  Its only inhabitants, the indigenous Wayuu people, live simply and quietly, sleeping in hammocks and surviving on fish and goats.

La Guajira had long intrigued me and, when I finally visited this past month, I discovered a hauntingly beautiful land of vast parched plains, undulating sand dunes and a wailing wind.  Occasionally, life appeared, a shock of color amidst a monotone desert landscape. Wayuu women with sunbaked skin in billowing red dresses.  A colony of pink flamingos in a bay of verdant islands.  A dazzling green sea.

Beyond its eerie charms, La Guajira contained an ever-present sadness.  A steady trickle of trash littered its arid plains like a metallic weed.  Stunted dehydrated children, as young as three or four, set up road blocks with flimsy strings to demand water from passing jeeps carrying tourists.  The only dwellings, feeble wooden shacks snarled by cacti, quivered in the face of violent sea winds.  Cries of desperation in a remote peninsula long forgotten by the Colombian government and neglected by its own authorities.


















The Amazing Hospitality of the Iranian People


I had heard Iranians would be hospitable. Every account I read online by travelers who had been to Iran raved about their warmth and humility. My guidebook spoke glowingly of their generosity and advised that I pack a suitcase of gifts to repay their acts of kindness. Still, I could have never imagined just how magnificently hospitable they would be.

During our two-week trip, Jorge and I visited four major cities– Tehran, Shiraz, Yazd and Isfahan—and a sprinkling of smaller towns and villages. In nearly every place we visited, we would meet at least one Iranian, by chance– on the street, at a gas station, on a plane—who after a brief conversation, would insist on taking charge of us during our entire stay in that city, no matter the inconvenience.

The Iranians we met would treat us to lunch at their favorite restaurants. They would usher us through the labyrinth of dank corridors at their local bazaars and bargain hard for us when we spotted an item we liked. They would invite us to their homes to meet their families, shower us with candies and compliments, and beseech us to spend the night. Twice our hosts missed work on our behalf. Many others dropped their plans– from one moment to the next—to wander with us around their cities. And no Iranian we met—no matter his age or background– ever let us pay for anything.

Here are the stories of a few of the Iranians we met:

Ali and Najme


Before I even met Ali, I was bowled over by his hospitality. A mutual friend introduced us over Facebook. We had hoped Ali, who lived in Tehran, might offer some advice for our upcoming trip to Iran. Instead, without the slightest hesitation, he insisted that we stay with him for as many nights as we liked in the Tehran apartment he shares with his wife, Najme.

When Ali detected a conflict with this plan—he and Najme would be returning from a two-week road trip the same evening we were scheduled to land in Tehran– he convinced an ex-coworker of Najme’s to host us in her home for that night instead. Then, in a last-minute, unexpected turn of events, we were bumped from our flight to Tehran and switched to another that would arrive 12 hours later, at just past 2:00 in the morning.

Not wishing to disturb anyone at that hour, especially on a weeknight, we resolved to stay in a hotel for our first night. But Ali would not hear of it. When I called to inform him about the delay, only hours before we were scheduled to land in Tehran, he was adamant that we not stay in a hotel and instead take a taxi from the airport straight to his apartment.   He and Najme would be returning from their road trip that same evening at midnight—perfect timing to receive us in their home in the early morning hours.


Sheepishly, we arrived at Ali’s doorstep at 4:00 a.m. and were greeted by Ali himself, a tall, grinning man in silk pajamas who hauled our luggage to the spare room in his apartment. The next morning, I awoke to muffled voices and the shuffling of feet outside of our bedroom door. I looked at my watch and saw it was already 10:30 a.m. Startled by the late hour and certain that our hosts should probably be at work, I sprung from my cot.

In the kitchen, I discovered Ali and Najme busily preparing our breakfast—an aromatic spread of fresh flatbread, tomatoes, cucumbers, salty cheeses, sesame paste and date syrup and pistachio, rose and quince jams. In a corner, a gleaming stovetop samovar piped cheerily as it brewed our tea.

I thanked my hosts profusely for their kindness and then asked with alarm, “Don’t you have to go to work?”

They smiled graciously and brushed aside my question. “It’s nothing if we miss work for a day.”

Rather than go to work, Ali and Najme devoted the remainder of that day to meeting our every need– helping us locate a store that would sell us a SIM card for our cell phone (and then refusing to let us pay for it), feeding us a savory lamb stew and slew of sweets from their road trip to southern Iran, lending me clothing that would conform to the Islamic dress code, and answering my many questions about life in Iran.  It made no difference to them that we had never met before or that– until the previous day– they had not known we would be staying with them.

We parted ways later that day at the airport counter for our flight to Shiraz, teary-eyed and sentimental to be leaving our new friends so soon. Upon our return to Tehran, at the end of our trip, we spent three more wonderful days with Ali and Najme—this time, exploring their favorite haunts in Tehran, sampling the infinite delicacies that can be made from a pomegranate, meeting Najme’s family— and continued to be astonished by their boundless generosity.



On our flight to Shiraz, we met Amin, a timid stranger in a rumpled suit, who glanced at us furtively from the window seat next to Jorge, before summoning the courage to speak to us. “Excuse me,” he ventured. “Do you have a place to stay in Shiraz?”

Jorge and I looked at each other with amusement. On our previous flight, from Istanbul to Tehran, our seatmate, Robby, had made the same inquiry, and then tried to persuade us to stay in his spacious Tehran apartment, rather than with Ali and Najme.

However, Amin had a different plan in mind. Once he heard we had already booked a hotel, he did not press the matter any further. Rather, he gently interrogated us about what we would like to see and do while we were in Shiraz, and then announced:

“Tomorrow, I will pick you up from your hotel and treat you to lunch at my favorite restaurant. Then, I will take you on a tour of the city.” Beaming, he handed me his card for his wallpaper business and instructed us to call him as soon as we had returned from our morning tour of Persepolis.

“That’s so kind of you, but don’t you have to go to work?” I asked, startled by the proposal.

“It’s no problem if I miss one day,” he said, reassuringly.

For the next two days, Amin dropped all of his obligations. Each morning, he picked us up from our hotel in a large silver SUV and drove us all over Shiraz, unveiling its palaces, gardens and the tombs of its great poets. As promised, he treated us to lunch at his favorite restaurant, a dark, cavernous establishment where we lounged on cushions on a raised platform layered with luxurious rugs. Amin ordered every typical Shirazi dish on the menu— slow-cooked lamb, tender eggplant smeared with tomatoes and lentils, buttery rice with a crispy golden crust— and then refused to touch any of it, insisting instead that we eat it all ourselves.

When he came down with a severe migraine headache, he left us only temporarily, placing us in the care of his niece, Mahsa, a tourism student with excellent English. Later that night, Amin called to report he was feeling better and available to show us Shiraz’s monuments at night, if we would like. No matter that it was already well past 10:00 p.m. and that he planned to rise early the next day to show us more sites.

During our final morning, Amin introduced us to the city’s ancient bazaar, a labyrinth of passageways and caravanserais brimming with spices, jewelry and rugs. In a courtyard rimmed by jewelry stalls, I spotted a bracelet I adored—a thick silver band embedded with red and turquoise stones. Amin, sensing my interest, asked for the price and then argued ferociously with the jewelry seller until he had agreed to lower it by half. Today, that bracelet is my favorite souvenir from Iran. Every time I see it, I think with gratitude of Amin and all that he did for us.



We met Mahla at twilight at a lone desert gas station, the midpoint on our bus journey from Shiraz to the oasis city of Yazd. As Jorge and I descended from the bus groggily in search of food, I scanned the crowd for someone who might speak English. Among the chador-clad mothers and grandmothers who hobbled off the bus, their husbands and children hanging closely by their sides, I spotted an elegant young woman, impeccably dressed in a formfitting manteau with flower trim and matching blue headscarf.

“Excuse me,” I called, rushing towards her. “Do you speak English?”

“Yes,” she said, turning to me with an attentive smile.

“Ah, great,” I continued, relieved. “My husband and I are going to buy food, but we are worried the bus might leave without us. Did the driver say how long we would be here for?”

She looked at me quizzically, having understood the first part, but not the second. “You want to eat? The food here is not good. I will go with you.”

Grateful for her assistance, even if she had not answered my question, I asked for her name.


Mahla led us to an empty diner to the right of the convenience store, where two men looking bored out of their minds stared vacantly at a TV screen. In a firm but polite tone, she informed them that we wished to order. Startled, they handed her a menu, which she scrutinized with a pained expression until she had selected a kebab dish that she deemed to be acceptable. As we waited for our food, Mahla told us she was a law student at Shiraz University on her way to Yazd to surprise her mother for Mother’s Day. She gave us her phone number and promised to take care of us during our visit to Yazd.

Though Mahla was only 21—over a decade younger than us– she exhibited an air of composure beyond her years. Upon our arrival in Yazd, she located a taxi for us and bargained skillfully with the driver until he agreed to lower his rate.   The following day, she whisked us to a large, airy restaurant trickling with fountains, ordered for all of us and then discretely paid the bill, despite our efforts to persuade her to allow us to treat her instead. Later, she accompanied us to the best shops for buying Yazd’s famed sweets and termehs (silky, intricately embroidered fabrics used as table runners and cushion covers), counseling us at every turn with her expert judgment.


That evening, we met Mahla’s family, after Mahla’s mother—delighted to hear of us—invited us to their apartment in a squat three-story building near the city center. We were greeted effusively by Mahla’s parents and two brothers, especially her mother, a tiny, jovial woman, who hugged and kissed me excitedly before ushering us to a spacious living room, richly decorated with wall-to-wall Persian carpets and ornate cushions. There, we were treated to endless rounds of sweets, fruit, nuts and tea, while we chatted and laughed and took selfies together.

We closed the evening with a midnight dinner served on a lustrous red cloth on the carpet and, when it was time for us to leave, Mahla’s mother begged us to spend us the night.  Touched by yet another remarkable gesture of generosity, we declined regretfully, but promised to return some day.  We left their home amazed once again by the extraordinary hospitality of the Iranian people.



We met Ehsan unexpectedly, amidst the crumbling mud brick fortresses and wind towers of the ancient desert city of Nain. We had been searching aimlessly for a rooftop from which to appreciate Nain’s domed mosques, which loomed all around yet were invisible within the maze of arcaded corridors and connecting courtyards that comprised the city’s street level. I had hoped a local might guide us to such a rooftop, but the chador-wrapped women and brooding men I passed on the street shook their heads apologetically when I approached to ask if they spoke English.

Crossing an empty courtyard, we noticed a white car swoop into a parking spot only a few feet from where we stood. A clean-cut man with curly hair and a crisply ironed shirt emerged quickly. He was about to hurry towards one of the nearby alleys, when he suddenly turned and flashed us a radiant smile. I smiled back. Seizing the opportunity, I asked in English whether he knew of a rooftop from which I could photograph the city.

“Hmmmm,” he said slowly, pondering my question. “No, I don’t.” Then, he paused. “Do you have a leader?”

We shook our heads, indicating we did not. “Leader,” as we had learned from other Iranians, meant “tour guide.”

He hesitated, glancing uncertainly in the direction of the alley where he had originally been headed. Then– apparently resolving that his errand could wait— he turned towards us brightly.

“Come with me,” he said. “I will take you on a tour.”


And, with that, we climbed into the white car and our new friend—Ehsan—drove us all over Nain and the surrounding villages, introducing us to its many castles and mosques and even to a cave to meet a famous rug-maker.  At dusk, Ehsan excused himself temporarily to pick up his wife and two year-old daughter and then returned for us, taking us to the family’s garden house, where they grew pomegranates and raised goats.

If he was supposed to be elsewhere, he never admitted it.  Like so many of the Iranians we met, Ehsan had brushed aside his own plans, from one moment to the next, to show us his city and yet never made us feel we had caused him any inconvenience.  For that, and for all of their generous acts, we will be forever grateful– and in awe– of our Iranian friends.  Iranians are without a doubt the kindest and most hospitable people I have ever met.

Iran: Police State?


I never thought that Iran would be dangerous in the way others assume it to be. That is, I knew that, unlike other countries in the Middle East, it is plagued neither by civil war, sectarian violence nor terrorism.   However, I did imagine it to be a police state where any slight misstep could have drastic consequences.

I had read about Iran’s dreaded morality police. I pictured them stalking the streets, ready to pounce any woman revealing too much skin or couple holding hands. In a country that forbids so many mundane acts—from using Facebook to touching someone of the opposite sex—I feared I might unintentionally break a law and incite the ire of the authorities. Only I—a dual citizen of the U.S. and Uruguay traveling on a Uruguayan passport—would likely wind up, like the American hikersin prison on charges of espionage.

To protect myself, I resolved to be as vigilant as possible. I had a seamstress make me several loose tunic-style shirts—known in Iran as manteaus—that would comply with the Islamic dress code. I rehearsed wearing a headscarf so that it covered every wisp of hair and inch of skin below my chin. I warned friends I would not be using Facebook or updating my blog during my trip so as not to access any websites blocked by the government. I promised myself I would refuse any illegal beverages and dodge any questions about my political views.

I also decided it would be prudent not to advertise my U.S. citizenship, especially while traveling on a different passport. When I contacted Iranians through the website Couchsurfing, as a way to meet people once I arrived, I made only indirect references to my nationality, saying I lived in Colombia, but had grown up in the U.S. One Couchsurfer, ecstatic to hear I had any link to the U.S., begged me to bring him an American flag in my suitcase. Horrified, I shunned his request and worried he might be a spy for the Iranian government.


Reality set in once I arrived in Tehran. As I walked off the plane with my headscarf snugly wound around my hair, I caught sight of the snaking line of foreign tourists at the first immigration checkpoint. Nausea overcame me as I pictured the interrogation to which I might soon be subjected.

Trembling, I joined the line and watched with surprise as each foreigner passed mechanically through without any unusual questioning. When it was my turn, the immigration officer, jaded and sweaty, only looked up at me for a moment, apparently amused to discover a passport he had never before seen. He chuckled to himself and let me pass.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

Only then did I become aware of the Iranian women gliding through the second immigration line. A few hobbled by in full-body black chadors secured by a wad of fabric between their teeth. However, many others flaunted bright-colored manteaus with tight sashes and headscarves that hovered airily around their necks, exposing lustrous locks of hair. Their faces glistened from thick layers of makeup, their feet adorned with outlandishly stylish shoes. These women exuded confidence. If their outfits violated the dress code, they did not seem to notice or care.

Their complete tranquility bewildered me. Shouldn’t they be terrified of breaking the law?


Once in Tehran, I broached the topic of illegal activity with my Iranian hosts, a married couple introduced to me over Facebook by a Colombian friend. How is it, I asked them, that they have Facebook accounts? Isn’t Facebook illegal in Iran?

The husband laughed. “Everyone in Iran is on Facebook. Even the Supreme Leader!”

Now I was really confused. “Aren’t they afraid of getting caught?”

“No, of course not!”

When I asked his wife to preview the manteaus I had brought with me—each several sizes larger than necessary to ensure they would be wide enough to conform to the dress code—she laughed at me too.

“These are too conservative!” she cried out. “Why didn’t you bring something tighter and more fashionable?” I blushed, recalling the women at the airport.


As the days passed, it became increasingly apparent to me that the rules I had been so concerned about obeying were regularly flouted by Iranians.

Despite the prohibition on satellite television, nearly every home we visited during our two-week stay streamed in foreign television channels via an illegal satellite. The preferred channel among the families we met was a Persian-language version of MTV broadcast from Los Angeles. Our hosts— among them timid chador-wearing mothers and grandmothers— seemed unfazed by the wild dancing and glittery halter-tops of the women on the screen.

Our home visits also revealed another common form of illegal activity: drinking alcohol. Many Iranians were eager to share with us the wine or arak they had prepared in their basements or procured from a smuggler. When I questioned them about the risks of consuming alcohol, they shrugged. Sure, sometimes people get arrested for it. But, then, the next day, they are let go. It’s not a big deal.  I thought back to my college days, when most of my friends under 21 drank without fear of arrest and wondered whether perhaps it was not so different.

Then there were the dozens of Iranians we met with I-Phones. While the Iranian government does not prohibit Apple products, U.S. sanctions forbid their importation into Iran. And yet, often, it seemed that, everywhere I looked, there was an Iranian texting or talking on his I-Phone or photographing with an I-Pad. Most had the latest models and ridiculed me for my outdated phone.


Contrary to what I had imagined, I noticed no secret police lurking in the shadows scrutinizing my every move and saw no one get arrested. I was never questioned or even asked for identification by a police officer. The only time a police officer did approach me he asked if I felt safe and then walked away.

Still, I kept my promise to be as cautious as possible. I tried not to advertise my ties to the Great Satan, as the Iranian government calls the U.S., and, when politics came up in conversation, I would hold my tongue, despite my intense curiosity to ask Iranians what they thought about the political situation.

It was not until the end of our trip that I summoned the courage to ask some new friends the questions I had most wanted to know.

“Is it ok to talk about politics? Is it very sensitive?”

“Of course!” one replied. “Everyone talks about politics. No subject is taboo here.”

“What about the Couchsurfer who asked me to bring him an American flag? Do you think he was a spy for the government?”

“No!” another scolded me. “Iranians love the U.S.  I’m sure he genuinely wanted the flag.”

Then, he paused and said: “Why didn’t you do it? I would have done it. When I traveled to the U.S., I brought back a LGBT flag.”

I was stunned. In a country where homosexuality is punished by hanging, my new friend had no qualms about smuggling in a rainbow flag in support of gay rights.

In Iran, the surprises never end.


Why Iran?





Last month, I embarked on a three-day journey by plane to a country I had longed to visit for many years: Iran. My decision to visit Iran puzzled nearly everyone I told. They could not understand why I would choose to vacation in a country synonymous with American-hating ayatollahs intent on building a nuclear weapon. Had I not heard about the hikers who were held for two years in Tehran’s notorious Evin Prison on baseless charges that they were spies for the U.S. government? What about ISIS? What about the war in Yemen? Wasn’t Iran dangerous?

Those less hysterical, and less interested in recent developments in the Middle East, would simply stare at me dumbfounded: Why Iran?

I, too, may have thought of Iran as a peculiar travel destination if I had not discovered it several years back through a pair of films by Iranian director Majid Majidi. The two films—Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise—introduced me to a fairy world I had hitherto known nothing about.

Bucolic mountaintop villages set against verdant valleys with dazzling fields of wild flowers. Labyrinthine streets with winding canals and shadowy arcades from which cobblers and coppersmiths toiled diligently. Kind-hearted schoolteachers, adoring grandmothers, generous and obedient children. For a country about which I previously had only vague associations of violence and Islamic fundamentalism, the films were a revelation.

Eager to learn more, I delved into books, articles and films about Iran. They led me to Iran’s long and storied history of powerful empires and ruthless invaders, its reverence for poetry, roses and rugs and the fierce pride of its people in their unique culture and language. They also unveiled a more complex face to modern Iran, grimmer but more intriguing than the hyperbolic wonderland depicted by the Majidi films.

In Iran, I learned, nothing is exactly as it seems. Though the government is deeply conservative, the population is often willing and eager to rebel against the restrictive policies imposed on them. The result is a state of constant contradiction– women who don headscarves in compliance with the official dress code while flaunting bright red lipstick and designer jeans; families who profess loyalty to the state but eagerly watch prohibited television channels via illegal satellites.

For me, Iran became the epic travel destination— steeped in ancient history, unknown to outsiders, surreal. Tentatively, I began to research whether a trip there would be feasible. To my surprise, I learned that U.S. citizens are not prohibited from touring Iran, provided a licensed tour guide accompanies them at all times. In my own case, I could avoid the guide requirement by traveling as a citizen of Uruguay, the country where I was born. Still, the idea of visiting Iran seemed far-fetched and risky. Perhaps it was possible to travel there, but could it really be safe?

To answer that question, I turned to online accounts by foreigners who had been to Iran—bloggers, journalists, travelers who had posted their impressions on chat boards. Amazingly, not a single traveler spoke of harassment or ill treatment. In fact, they all swore they had never felt so safe and raved about the warmth and hospitality of the Iranian people. The Americans, above all, spoke of being treated like rock stars. Their descriptions of the places they had seen only fueled my intense desire to see it for myself– desert cities with beguiling wind towers and fire temples, refreshing oases and gardens, spectacular mosques and palaces, lively bazaars.

Yet, for many years, I wavered. I could not shrug my deep sense of suspicion towards a country I had been taught to distrust. I fixated, in particular, on the story of the American hikers. I knew they had been caught under unusual circumstances— illegally entering Iran while hiking through Iraqi Kurdistan—but their imprisonment on charges of espionage spooked me. Was it rational to fear that I too might be accused of espionage? Or should I trust instead the many reassuring accounts by tourists who had traveled to Iran without incident?

My uncertainty persisted until I finally set foot in Iran earlier this year.  Only then did my paranoia seem laughable.  Over the next few weeks, I will be posting entries about what it was like to visit Iran. Through my stories, I hope to dispel some of the myths that caused so many people– including myself– to worry I would be in danger there.  I realize that many of you will not be fully convinced.  I only ask that you keep an open mind—you will likely be surprised by what you hear.

Cartagena, Colombia


Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.



How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.


Mompos, Colombia

Ceiba Tree, Mompos, Colombia

I had long been intrigued by Mompos. A fabled Colombian city of exquisitely preserved colonial architecture, Mompos is perhaps best defined by its obscure location. The city sits on an island, shrouded by a maze of marshes on the Magdalena River, several hours inland from the Caribbean Coast. To this day, no road connects Mompos to the mainland.

However, Mompos’ location was not always remote. During the colonial era, Mompos achieved preeminence as one of Colombia’s key commercial ports, precisely because of its position on the Magdalena River. At the time, the Magdalena served as the region’s central thoroughfare, funneling goods from the interior of the continent to the Caribbean port of Cartagena and onward to Spain. In the 19th century, following the wars of independence, traffic along the Magdalena declined. Mompos’ location lost its strategic value and many of its residents abandoned it for new opportunities in the burgeoning industrial city of Barranquilla. Gradually, Mompos faded into obscurity.

Mompos’ fall into oblivion is what drew me. Unlike other colonial cities that have been forced to adapt to a changing society, Mompos was left entirely alone, its plazas, churches and houses untouched by the modern world. I envisioned Mompos as a relic of an earlier, quieter Colombia, a rare haven not yet bombarded by the blaring stereo systems and roaring motorcycles that have become ubiquitous across the Caribbean region. A forgotten city with nearly empty streets and glorious mansions and plazas, where only the faint gurgle of the passing Magdalena would be heard. A place, that I hoped, might still contain the magic of its colonial past.

Raft on Magdalena River, Mompos, Colombia

Outer Marshes, Mompos, Colombia

When I finally visited Mompos earlier this year, the main challenge was getting there. Jorge and I began our journey in Bogota, where we boarded an hour-long flight to Corozal, a marginal town in the Caribbean department of Sucre best known for its bird-infested trash dump. A loquacious taxi driver, Carlos, met us at the airport and entertained us with stories of his jealous wife, as we inched past wide-eyed bulls saddled on pick up trucks and jubilant families on horseback on their way to the annual bullfighting festival in the neighboring city of Sincelejo.

Two hours later, we arrived in Magangue, a lively, but crumbling port city on the Magdalena, pungent with the air of fish and sewage. There, we boarded a chalupa, a rickety motorboat, with twelve other passengers, crammed with life vests, babies bobbing on their mothers’ laps and green bunches of unripe bananas to be sold at island markets. As we hurtled into the river, we rushed past tiny islands bursting with the jagged oversized green palms from which plantains grow. From their shores, children in their underwear waved at us excitedly before flinging themselves into the river on rope swings.

In only ten minutes, we had arrived in Bodega, home of the wobbly dock and patch of mud that is the principal port for the series of islands on the Magdalena. A mob of colectivo taxi drivers accosted us, each insisting that we pay him for passage to Mompos. We selected one quickly and boarded his car along with a tight-lipped momposina in a knit cap who refused to share in the payment of the empty seat that had to be filled before we could depart.

During the final hour of our journey, we traversed the marshes that separate Bodega from Mompos, via a series of precarious mud bridges. The road buzzed with the chaos characteristic of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. Motorcycles, overloaded with passengers, barefoot and helmetless, weaved dangerously in an out of lanes and whizzed past us. Roadside pit stops advertised patacones and fried fish in garish hand-painted signs. Boom boxes blared a cacophonous mixture of traditional vallenato and hip-hop-inspired reggaeton outside cement houses, where entire families weighed down by heat and boredom, sat idly in plastic chairs, watching the traffic pass.

Yet, beyond the road, a tropical stillness reigned. Here, there were only marshes and high grasses, blanketed by a light mist. Where the land was firm, ceiba trees rose dramatically, dominating the landscape with their enormous trunks and broad, decisive canopies. A haunting primordial beauty pervaded this place, a hint of what I had hoped to find.

Houses, Mompos, Colombia


Motorbike, Mompos, Colombia

With dusk fast approaching, we reached Mompos. At first I saw only dusty streets and motorbikes and decaying one-story buildings, all painted in the same faded white with large wooden doors and iron wrought windows. The thump of reggaeton reverberated from a storefront. It did not look so different from any other modern Colombian town graced with the vestiges of colonial architecture. I braced myself for disappointment.

Then, as the taxi turned onto a riverbank, I caught my first glimpse of the Magdalena—flowing quickly and vigorously, dragging with it tassels of bright green foliage ablaze in the late afternoon light. Alongside the river, the city and its surroundings were suddenly infused with a glowing and magical force. On the opposite shore, the same giant ceiba trees I had seen from the road set the stage, reaching, like dancers, wildly into the sky. The city they faced gleamed with a serene elegance. Waterfront mansions boasted tall pillars and proud doorways, alongside open plazas and ornate churches, all carefully displayed to impress the visitors that had once arrived in droves along the Magdalena.

When the driver reached our hotel, I leapt from the taxi and scurried towards an empty park that bordered the river. I closed my eyes. Somewhere nearby, I imagined a pair of dainty young women strolling beneath white lace parasols. A lovesick man appeared too, serenading one of the señoritas with a violin. A crowd gathered around me and we all eagerly awaiting the latest shipment of gold that would soon arrive from a faraway mine. Alone with my trance, I savored the lost majesty of Mompos.

Contemplating the Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia


Ceiba Trees, Mompos, Colombia

How to get there
From Bogotá, fly to Corozal via Satena Airlines. Then, take a taxi or bus to Magangue, board a chalupa to Bodega and finally a colectivo taxi to Mompos. Alternatively, travel from Cartagena, where you can arrange for a door-to-door van (Toto Express 310 707 0838) to pick you up from your hotel and shuttle you by land and ferry to Mompos. The total travel time, from either Bogotá or Cartagena following the routes suggested above, is about five to six hours.

Where to stay
Portal de la Marquesa: This beautifully renovated colonial mansion originally served as the residence of the Marquis of Valde Hoyos. Its location—directly facing the river, but removed from the nightly parties near Iglesia Santa Barbara– is ideal. Address: Cra 1, No. 15-27, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6221, + 57 (5) 685 6781

Where to eat
El Fuerte: This restaurant, owned by Austrian chef and furniture-maker Walter Maria Gurth, features delicate and flavorful wood-fired pizzas in a whimsical garden setting complete with outlandish wooden tables and lush palms. The classical music playing in the background provides a welcome respite from the dueling boom box parties in the nearby plaza. Address: Cra 1, No. 12-163, Mompos, Colombia; Tel: + 57 (5) 685 6762

Trees on Magdalena, Mompos, Colombia

Bicycle taxi, Mompos, Colombia


Into the Puna

Exactly one year ago, I traveled to the Puna, a desert in northern Argentina, with my husband, Jorge.  In January, when I returned to San Francisco, I took a travel writing class at Book Passage in Corte Madera with the fabulous Don George.  Don enjoyed the essay I wrote on the Puna so much that he decided to include it in Lonely Planet’s 2014 anthology, “The Innocent Abroad“, which was published this month.  Here is the complete essay:

Campo de Piedra Pomes, La Puna, Argentina

We drove for hours through a vast frigid desert littered with silver rubble and scraps of ancient lava. A solitary dirt path stretched before us endlessly. It snaked past incinerated volcanoes cloaked in black ash and mountains of red earth before dissolving into a tidal wave of purple peaks bobbing in a metallic sea. A fierce sun clung to every rock, mountain and grain of sand, causing my vision to blur and my temples to pulsate. There was a sinister quality to this place that permeated my body to its core.

We were in the Puna, a high-altitude desert in the extreme northwest of Argentina near the border with Chile and Bolivia. Along with the Atacama Desert to the west and the Bolivian Altiplano to the north, the Puna comprises one of the driest regions on earth, a place so hostile to life that it is frequently compared to Mars. I had come to this region drawn by the visual spectacle of otherworldly landscapes and had chosen the Puna, in particular, because it is by far the most remote and least visited of the three border regions. Now that I was here, I felt deeply unsettled. I cringed at the glaring monotony of the surroundings.

And yet, the Puna beckoned to me. At every turn, I would spot a dozen stupefying images that I wanted desperately to capture on my camera or describe in my journal. This bleak land was stranger than I could have ever imagined and every scene that horrified me fascinated me in equal measure. My curiosity propelled me forward.

Red and Silver Mountains, Puna, Argentina


My journey to the Puna began a world away in Salta, a bright and vibrant city with pleasant palm tree-filled plazas and lively cafes. There, as I lounged with my husband, Jorge, on the terrace of the elegant finca where we were staying, I fantasized about our journey to the Puna. The Puna had become the focal point of our two-week vacation to northwest Argentina after I had chanced upon a photograph of its hypnotic clay-colored dunes a few months earlier on the internet. I was immediately captivated. I imagined myself with Jorge driving through the windswept dunes in a jeep, exhilarated by the magical solitude of the desert, exploring a place that few had ever seen.

Once in Salta, I immersed myself in a book about the history of the Puna. An ancient plateau of hard crystalline rock, it had originated at sea level. During the Tertiary Age, with the formation of the Andes, the Puna erupted to its present height of 13,000 feet. Indigenous peoples settled in the Puna long before Spanish colonists arrived, including the Incas, who asserted their control over northwest Argentina for roughly sixty years. The book interspersed this historical account with spectacular photographs of dazzling salt flats and pink flamingos, both legacies of the Puna’s maritime origin, as well as volcanoes, lava fields, and undulating expanses of sand. I marveled at the exotic beauty of it all.

Continue reading

Southeast Turkey: Planning Your Trip

Deyrul Zafaran, Turkey

When To Go

Southeast Turkey is dry and hot with mild winters and scorching summers. Avoid the summer months (June – August) at all costs. For ideal temperatures, visit in April or October.

Suggested Itineraries

Situated between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the cradle of Western civilization, the southeast corner of Turkey contains a plethora of ancient cities, each distinguished by its unique cultural, culinary and linguistic heritage. It also boasts extraordinary ruins from the world’s oldest temple, Göbekli Tepe, to the colossal head statues of Nemrut Dagi to the dazzling mosaics of the Roman ruins at Zeugma.

With so many important sites, the region requires time to appreciate. For trips of a week or less, I recommend choosing to make either Mardin or Sanliurfa your base and limiting your travels to the immediate vicinity of each. With two weeks, you will have time to visit all of the important sites in the region.

Below I have outlined two recommended itineraries of five days each.  If you have more than five days, simply select your favorites from each itinerary or combine the two.

Five Days: Mardin, Midyat, Hasankeyf


Hasankeyf, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Mardin. Stay at Gazi Konagi or Reyhani Kasri. For dinner, go to the rooftop terrace at Seyr-i-Merdin, where you can take in breathtaking views of the Syrian plains below. Order the Kaburga Dolmasi, slow-cooked leg of lamb shredded and served with rice, fried almonds, and spices.

Day 2: Wander the narrow, sloping streets of Mardin, exploring its bazaar, mosques, courtyards and caravanserais. Visit the Sakip Sabanci Mardin City Museum for a fascinating introduction to Mardin’s history and culture. If you have time for excursions beyond the city, arrange for a driver or guide to take you to the extensive Roman ruins at Dara or the former seat of the Syriac Christian Church, Deyrul Zafaran Monastery.

Day 3: Travel by bus or taxi to Midyat, an ancient Syriac city about an hour from Mardin where Aramaic, the language of Jesus Christ, is still spoken. Stay at the exquisitely remodeled Kasr-i-Newroz, our favorite hotel in all of Southeast Turkey. Discover the city’s Syriac Christian churches and beautifully preserved honey-colored homes.   When you have finished exploring Midyat’s historical center, visit Mor Gabriel Monastery, the oldest Syriac Orthodox monastery in the world, set among the olive groves and rolling green hills beyond the city.

Day 4: Take a 30-minute bus or taxi-ride to Hasankeyf, a bewitching city on the Tigris River that will soon be flooded by the Ilisu Dam.  The only drawback to visiting Hasankeyf is that hotel options are very limited.  If you are not concerned about comfort, stay at the Hasbahce Guesthouse, which offers basic rooms at inflated prices.  Alternatively, you could visit Hasankeyf as a day trip from Midyat, though be warned that if you plan to travel by bus you will miss the late afternoon and early morning light that is ideal for photography.

Once in Hasankeyf, walk to the bazaar and ask for the rug dealer, Arif. He speaks perfect English and can help you find a guide to take you to the expansive cave city and castle above the city, where residents of Hasankeyf lived until the 1960’s. At sunset, stop for tea at one of the many teahouses perched above the Tigris River and enjoy views of the ancient stone bridge, minaret and Zeynel Bey mausoleum beyond. For dinner, eat fresh fish from the Tigris at Ramazan restaurant and chat with the friendly English-speaking owner, Rustem.

 Day 5: Return to Mardin (1.5 hours from Hasankeyf) for your flight home.

Five Days: Sanliurfa, Homestay in Kurdish Village, Nemrut Dagi/Gaziantep

Manici Hotel, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Day 1: Arrive by plane to Sanliurfa. Stay at Manici Hotel or Cevahir Konuk Evi. Walk to Urfa Castle at sunset for stunning views of the Great Mosque and city below.

Day 2: Stroll along the tree-lined canals of Gölbaşı gardens and visit the Balıklı Göl, or Pool of Sacred Fish, where pilgrims flock to pay homage to the site where God intervened to save Abraham from his death. Explore the complex web of shops that comprise Urfa’s ancient bazaar. Within the bazaar, stop for coffee at Gümrük Hani, a courtyard filled with men in purple headscarves smoking from water pipes and playing backgammon. About 30 minutes beyond the city, visit Göbekli Tepe, an archeological site dating back to 9500 BC, which is believed to be the world’s oldest place of worship.

Day 3: Arrange to spend a night with a Kurdish family in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa through a local tour company called Nomad Tours. The family will spoil you with their gracious hospitality and fabulous home-cooked meals and you will acquire a first-hand look at life in a Kurdish village.

Day 4: Continue your cultural tour of the region with Nomad Tours by requesting the Sunset and Nomads tour. This tour includes a visit to an animal market in Siverek, tea with nomads, a boat trip across the Euphrates and finally a sunset hike to the head statues at Nemrut Dagi.

Day 4 Option 2: From the Kurdish village, travel about two hours by bus or taxi to Gaziantep, the largest city in the region. The main attraction here is the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which recreates the ancient Roman city of Zeugma and showcases its exquisite mosaics. Gaziantep is also celebrated for its cuisine, especially its baklava which is considered the best in Turkey.

 Day 5: Fly home from either Sanliurfa or Gazientep.

Nemrut Dagi, Turkey




Zeugma Mosaic Museum

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the construction of the Ilisu dam that is scheduled to flood the ancient city of Hasankeyf. The dam will bring electricity and water to the region, but will destroy the city’s extraordinary ruins, including a medieval bridge, Roman fortress and an extensive network of caves where local residents lived until the 1960’s. The controversy over the dam raises a tricky question. In a region that has long suffered from unemployment and poverty, which is more important: economic development or preservation of cultural heritage?

Since the 1980’s, when the Southeastern Anatolia Project (also known by its Turkish acronym “GAP”) was implemented with the aim of raising income levels and living standards in Southeast Turkey, this exact controversy has played out repeatedly throughout the region.

The GAP project initiated the construction of dams, power plants and irrigation schemes in nine provinces located in the basins of the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The same provinces are home to some of the first settlements in Mesopotamia and contain hundreds of sites of archeological importance. Since the project began, many of these ancient sites have been flooded. Still others, like Hasankeyf, are slated to vanish soon.

Many locals feel they have benefited from the GAP project. When I stayed with a family of shepherds in a rural village outside of Sanliurfa, I marveled at the modern conveniences the family could afford, including a car, washing machine and indoor bathroom. Our Canadian guide and translator, Mary, told us many of the rural families she worked with in the area attributed their rise in living standards to the GAP project.

There is no question the goals of the GAP project are laudable. But can they be achieved without destroying the region’s enormously significant archeological sites? In the case of Zeugma– an ancient Roman city on the banks of the Euphrates famed for its magnificent mosaics — the answer was yes.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

With the completion of the Birecek dam in 2000, the ruins at Zeugma were deluged. Archeologists banded with the Gaziantep Museum to salvage hundreds of square meters of mosaics, columns, fountains and small artifacts that were now under water. Later, they succeeded in building a museum to house the rescued artifacts and preserve the memory of Zeugma. The Zeugma Mosaic Museum, which opened in Gazientep in 2011, recreates the architecture, streets and fountains of Zeugma and exhibits its 1700 square meters of mosaics, making it the largest mosaic museum in the world.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

Walking around the Zeugma Mosaic Museum, I was amazed by the hauntingly beautiful mosaics and the richness of the city’s history. I felt grateful that the city’s relics had been rescued despite the fact the actual site had been submerged. At the same time, I thought sadly of all of those nameless cities that have disappeared without a trace due to flooding by the dams.

Zeugma Mosaic Museum

I then remembered Hasankeyf. There is still a chance for Hasankeyf to go the route of Zeugma rather than vanish like so many other sites. If construction of the dam cannot be avoided, then a compromise should be reached.  A restaurant owner I met in Hasankeyf told me that the city’s monuments could be saved by simply lowering the level of water in the dam. If this is the case, there is no excuse for allowing Hasankeyf to disappear.

Gypsy Girl, Zeugma Mosaic Museum





Meeting Kurdish women in their homes

Baking bread with Ayten, Gollu Village, Turkey

While walking along the streets of Southeast Turkey, Jorge and I encountered men everywhere. They were our waiters, our hotel clerks and our taxi drivers. They were the denizens of the teahouses, bakeries and kebab shops we frequented. They were the ones who we negotiated with when buying carpets and ceramics.

If we were lost, for even a moment, a man would appear out of nowhere to guide us graciously to our destination. And even if we were not lost, we were constantly chased down by grinning men eager to share with us the one English phrase everyone in Turkey knows (“Hello! Where are you from?”) and then invite us for tea at their shops or houses.

Women, on the other hand, were noticeably more discreet. We rarely saw women and, when we did, they were heavily cloaked and dared not look our way. When I had my camera out, men would gesture to me from afar to indicate they wanted their pictures taken. Women who saw my camera would hold up their hands to conceal their faces.

It was not until we had the opportunity to visit Kurdish families in their homes, which we arranged through a local company called Nomad Tours, that we interacted with women for the first time. To see women in their homes was to see women in the sphere in which they reign. I was stunned to find confident, outspoken women who looked me in the eye and answered for their husbands and brothers.

The first home we visited was in a rural Kurdish village of about twenty families near Sanliurfa. There, we stayed in the home of Ali and Ayten and their five children. Ali and Ayten were both extremely welcoming to us. But whereas Ali generally hung back, smiling sweetly and saying nothing except to tell the occasional joke, Ayten made it clear that she was in charge.

Ali and Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Upon our arrival at the house, we found Ayten crouched on a stool with her purple headscarf milking sheep, while her children stood by ready to follow her orders. Ayten then proudly showed us her garden, where she grows eggplants, tomatoes, almonds, pomegranates and a wide variety of other fruits and vegetables. She told us about the intricacies of bee-keeping and carpet-making, for which she is regarded as an expert by her community. In fact, Ayten is revered by women in her own village and the neighboring villages for her leadership and competence.

Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

Over our meals, which we ate while seated cross-legged on carpets, Ayten was the first to speak. She told us about the food (for dinner, bulgur she had dried and ground herself and, for breakfast, cheese, yogurt and bread she had prepared from scratch that day) and about the family’s routine. When we timidly asked about topics that might be sensitive, such as arranged marriages and education for women, Ayten did not hesitate to answer our questions directly. She even boldly tested out her English on us (“Welcome! This is the bathroom”).

Breakfast with Ayten, Gollu Village, Sanliurfa, Turkey

The following day, we met a few more women Kurdish women while visiting a camp where nomads live.  We found the camp by driving along a main highway near Siverek and stopping when we saw tents on the side of the road.  Two young women, both strikingly beautiful with large eyes and dazzling smiles, greeted us warmly.  They did not seem in the least perturbed or scared by the fact that we had shown up uninvited.  They were trailed by several chubby, curly-haired toddlers.

Nomad Camp near Siverek, Turkey

The women invited us into one of their tents and laughed merrily as they told us about their lives.  They had come to this region with their families only for the winter to graze their animals.  The rest of the year they live in Erzurum, a city in northeastern Turkey with a much harsher winter climate.  We were shocked to learn their ages—only 12 and 15!  They exhibited the poise and maturity of women at least twice their age.

Kurdish nomads, Siverek, Turkey

When we peppered them with questions about marriage and education, they did not bat an eye.  They had both dropped out of school (presumably due to responsibilities at home), which they now regretted.  They were in no rush to get married and would choose to marry whomever they liked once they were older.  For now, they cooked and cleaned and cared for the children of their older siblings.

Kurdish nomads near Siverek, TurkeyBy meeting Kurdish women in their homes, I discovered that the women of Southeast Turkey are not universally submissive or shy.  The women we met, in fact, were as self-assured as the men who regularly ran up to us on the street.  However, in a society in which men and women occupy distinct social and physical spheres, what you see on the street is only half the story.