“When in Rome”: Local Customs and Cultural Experiences

Caribbean

Think of Aruba and you’ll be whisked away to sandy afternoons, topless beaches, and a pure blue skyline adorning the entire horizon. Yes, we love beaches (who doesn’t?) but there’s much to be gained by taking a rest from your smoothie-sipping, little pink umbrella in a delicious daiquirí paradise to enjoy some of the island’s most popular festivals. The Aruba Carnival (January 1-February 22, 2012) runs from New Year’s Day right up to Ash Wednesday, giving you more than enough time to settle into the cycle of drinking, dancing, drinking some more (water), and sleeping the sunny days away on the beach. Mondays are specially designated as fiesta-free to let the island’s population pick themselves back up from a weekend of delectable partying. Prepare yourself for two months worth of torch light parades, Antillean tumba music, salsa escapades, and enough glitter for a whole herd of unicorns to don as costuming. Sunscreen, stunna shades, and dancing legs are a must.

The art of voodoo isn’t just good for scaring gaggles of giddy girls at middle school sleepovers. Any stay in Port-au-Prince, Haiti is incomplete without an excursion into the city’s ‘Voudou rock’ scene. Take a break from the hustle and bustle of city traffic at the Hotel Oloffson for weekly concerts by the band RAM. Watch RAM jam with rara horns, guitar, and keyboards. Surrender your body to the forces of this tangy Afro-Caribbean fusion.

Dominica, named by Columbus some five and a half centuries ago, has been long known for its lush rainforests housing rare plant, animal, and bird species. Keep your eyes to the sky and you might just spot the infamous Sisserou Parrot, notable for its green and blue feathers and prominent position on the country’s flag. Fortunately for the modern visitor, geothermal-volcanic activity continues to form the island. One such volcanic eruption in 1880 gave birth to the Boiling Lake, a 207-foot-wide marvel of grayish bubbles cloaked in steam. Nowadays you can get at the boiling marvel by hiking six miles along the ridges of the “Valley of Desolation.” Remember to pack a sturdy pair of shoes, your sense of adventure (a dose of optimism can only help), and a pair of clothes you don’t mind getting scruffy. You never know what fellow adventure seekers or locals you might come across on the narrow path.

 

Mexico

Who wouldn’t go gaga for a fuzzy, beady-eyed, 14-inch long orphaned spider monkey? Just outside the coastal city of Akumal on the Yucatan Peninsula, a gringo couple retired and established the Kuxi K’aax (Jungle Place), a place of refuge for spider monkeys orphaned, abused, and malnourished by the illegal pet trade. Make friends with any of the eighteen rescued primates. Each, of course, has its own unique personality, so choose your soon-to-be hairy best friend wisely. Gain their trust and you’ll have a monkey on your lap, one hanging from your arm, and another picking through your hair.

Cozumel: an island of peace, love, and sweat. Treat yourself to an hour in a traditional Mayan steam lodge, or Temazcal, smack in the middle of the jungle. Long touted for its medical and therapeutic qualities, the Temazcal is thought to help out your digestive, nervous, and respiratory systems, give your skin cells a lift, and help the casual traveler attain a new level of island relaxation. A day at the steam lodge will lead you through four phases of cleansing (one for each of the cardinal directions) and five times for visualization. After all that work, cool off in a fresh water bath in an adjacent cenote (swimming hole) and kick your feet up in a hammock with a glass of fresh fruit juice harvested on the nearby Xkan-Ha reserve.

Stay out all night in Mexico City at the Patrick Miller disco, a beat-dropping 1980s scene complete with cross-dressers and working-class regulars looking to blow off steam after a long week. Dance or lurk in the corners for some fantastic people watching; the choice is yours. When the dawn dose of hunger hits, head over to Fonda Margarita, a humble tin-roofed eatery you can trust for your fix of local fare for breakfast. Fonda Margarita’s ridiculous popularity is testament to the deliciousness of their chile salsa verde and tender pork served in oversized clay dishes. Lines tend to run out the door and around the block. Get there early or risk going hungry – some travelers report food running out as early as 11am (open 5:30-11:30am, M-Sa).

 

Central America

To get to the Davis Falls in Belize you’ll need to brave a bumpy fruit wagon ride over seven river crossings or a half-day hike into the center of the Stann Creek District. No one regrets the effort. Snack on local jelly coconut before beginning the second leg of your epic journey: a moderate hike on maintained trails through the heart of the rainforest. The sound of rushing water will draw you closer and closer until you’ve found a set of waterfalls positively worth losing your breath over. Hundreds of feet tall and surrounded by brown, jagged rocks, the water divides into fingers as it descends. Let the misty calm take you over.

Visitors to Granada, Nicaragua, one of the oldest cities in Central America, will find a delicious new twist on an old delicacy at the ChocoMuseo. Learn everything about chocolate and cacao, its history from Mayan times to the present. Workshop participants can roast cacao beans, remove the husks, grind the interior with mortar and pestle, and whip up a chocolate-y drink just like what Mayan emperors would have enjoyed back in the 6th century. Admission is free and there are ample opportunities for taste testing 50% and 70% cacao handmade Nicaraguan organic chocolate and watching the master chocolate artisans at work. Be sure to stock up at the gift shop for your long journey home. Nothing keeps jet-lag at bay quite like a mouthful of dark chocolate goodness.

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