Monday, February 19, 2018

Stepping Back in Time at Guatemala’s Tranquil Mayan Inn

Despite the presence of bland chain hotels in even some of the most remote corners of the world, there remain thousands of small, unique hotels tucked onto narrow lanes or hidden in quiet quarters of cities and villages.

During a recent trip to Guatemala, I stumbled across just such a hotel in the highland village of Chichicastenango. Somehow I’d taken multiple trips to this culture-rich country and well-known market town without finding the one-of-a-kind, charm-filled Mayan Inn.

Tucked behind one of the two elevated white-washed colonial churches that serve as iconic bookends in the village center, the Mayan Inn is quasi-museum, part cozy Central American inn, and complete time-capsule. Opened in 1932, the inn is crammed with antiques and original oil paintings and has changed little in intervening days.

Housed in a former monastery, the hotel has several bougainvillea-framed courtyards, shady loggias, and bubbling fountains. Best of all, each room offers a fireplace and an attendant who will build and stoke the fire. Nights can be chilly in the highlands, but a blazing fire along with thick, locally-made, fuzzy wool blankets on the beds will make you swear off warm nights in the Tropics.

Need your fire built or stoked, want some fresh water, or need more towels? Press a clunky, metal button above your bed to summon an attendant assigned to your room. Until a few years ago, rooms didn’t even have locks, but were watched by the attendant. These days, rooms have deadbolts, but attendants remain.

It might be tempting to spend your whole visit in the friendly confines of the hotel. Don’t. Steps away you’ll find the massive craft and food market, historic, unique churches which combine Mayan and Catholic traditions, and the colorful cemetery which includes functioning Mayan temples.

It took me several trips to this otherworldly market town to find the Mayan Inn, but it’s on my radar now. And next time I plan to stay longer.

Bonus: An old school bartender shakes and stirs classic cocktails in the high-ceilinged rooms of the bar. A blazing fire can be set at cocktail hour and original oil paintings provide apt and fitting pairings for the expertly-crafted old school cocktails. For afternoon drinks, ask the bartender to set up a table in the shady loggia overlooking the garden.

Cautions: Vintage bathrooms are spotless, but might not be to everyone’s liking. If you’re looking for a throwback experience that can’t be duplicated anywhere else, stay here.

Details: Rooms are around $100/night. Basic, non-gourmet meals are served in an airy dining room which also has a fireplace and daytime views of a garden and the surrounding countryside. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

Athens: More Than Merely the Acropolis

Athens gets a bad rap. “It’s dirty.” “There’s nothing interesting there except the Acropolis.” “What an ugly city.”

These were all warnings I heard before I visited. But this historic, sun-washed city held far more charms than I’d anticipated. 
Views of the Acropolis from the Plaka.
As with any city, ancient Athens has its less attractive neighborhoods, but there is plenty to like about it—and I’m not talking about just the Acropolis. No, there are plenty of reasons Athens is worth a stay much longer than a day.

For starters, well, there is that Acropolis thing. And don’t shortchange it. To do it properly, you’ll need a full morning or afternoon (and a guide). And if it’s a warm day, water. Another tip: ancient marble that has seen the soles of millions of feet becomes slippery. So watch your step (most of which are uneven, incidentally), but be sure to relish the fact that you’re treading upon ancient stones that have witnessed the birth of democracy, Plato’s oratories, and visits by Alexander the Great. If visiting the Acropolis is the only thing you do in Athens, you’ll find that it was worth the trip.
 But there is plenty more to see and do.

At the foot of the Acropolis is Dionysos, a restaurant with expansive terraces that just happen to have amazing views of, well, the Acropolis. If anything beats the experience of climbing around the ancient marbles of the ruins, it’s viewing it all from a short distance away.

In the shadow of the Acropolis, the architecturally stunning New Acropolis Museum straddles excavated ancient ruins. All three levels stacked above the ancient foundation are loaded with statuary, busts, ceramics, mosaics and a rich assortment of artifacts from the Acropolis and nearby sites. After you’ve taken in the art and history, reward yourself with food and drink on the museum’s rooftop terrace which provides difficult-to-digest views of the Acropolis.
View of the Acropolis from Dionysos.

Maybe it’s just me, but after studying the Acropolis in college and pining to make a pilgrimage for dozens of years, I couldn’t get enough of the vistas of the ancient temple’s gleaming white marble columns rising high above the city. Interestingly, the more ouzo or wine you consume, the easier the jaw-dropping view is to digest.

Greek-made ceramics from Dexipos
and Green Thumbs on Aiolou Street.
While owls have ascended to hipster icon status during the past decade or so in the States, they’ve always been hip in Greece—well, for a mere few millennia, anyway. Symbol of Athena, Athen’s namesake, the owl is more common in this country than a Cubs hat in Chicago. If you’re into owls (or even if you’re not), you’ll find a rich assortment of the handcrafted variety in wood, ceramic, and stone at many shops. My favorites were at Dexipos Art Gallery—which I’ll get to next.

Like any city that attracts crowds of tourists, Athens has a lot of shops stuffed with unremarkable souvenirs and crafts, some even sporting labels that read “Made in China”. My favorite, Dexipos, is located deep in the Plaka, the oldest section of the city, and just above the ancient Roman Agora which lies in the shadows of the Acropolis. The gallery’s crowded rooms are crammed with a wide variety of ceramics, paintings and sculptures—from 15 euro owls to $6,000 ceramic versions of the Trojan horse that are the size of a small car. This is the perfect spot to find unique souvenirs and gifts that are hand-crafted and made in Greece. After you’ve finished shopping, visit one of the nearby sidewalk cafes that offer some shade, cold drinks, and views of the Acropolis above or the ruins of the Roman Agora below. 

If you’re in Athens for a quick trip and don’t have time to visit one of Greece’s famed islands, you can enjoy a bit of their atmosphere just half an hour’s drive from the city center. My favorite was Astir (25 euro entry), a private crescent beach set within an inlet guarded by rocky bluffs. It offers well-groomed sand, umbrellas, comfy lounges, crystalline water—and food and beverage service. And if you’re interested in sea views but not a beach, head to Ithaki, a fine aerie-like restaurant situated above the cove.  
Astir Beach.

Looking for the perfect spot for a final night’s dinner? Check out Première which sits atop the non-descript Hotel InterContinental. Michelin-starred and offering creative takes on traditional Greek foods and ingredients, Première boasts—what else?—views of the Acropolis. Particularly when the weather’s warm and the expansive terrace’s lounge areas and dining areas are open, this is the perfect spot for great food and drinks and a final view of the Acropolis.

For more information or to book tours for groups or individuals, contact Greek Link at 
A street in the Plaka and the Roman Agora.

Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Last American Buffalo

Life changes abruptly for teen-aged Travis Whiting when he’s arrested while attending a protest march in Chicago in the run-up to the Iraq War. Sentenced to work a summer of Saturdays at the sprawling estate of Mr. Gudon, a wealthy Wisconsin widower, Travis’ once-sleepy world is shaken as he forms an unlikely friendship with the callous old recluse.

As the summer progresses, Mr. Gudon shares stories of his experiences in Thailand during World War Two which involve marrying a nurse who cared for a wounded fellow soldier in war-torn Bangkok. Weekly conversations bring to life an exotic and other-worldly Thailand, but the old veteran’s stories yield an equal amount of mystery. Why did the wealthy and handsome Mr. Gudon turn recluse and what happened to his injured friend?

Travis meets Lance, a Native American trespassing on Mr. Gudon’s estate as he completes a vision quest near ancient, hidden Indian mounds. Lance has a disturbing dream about Mr. Gudon, but Travis, having come to see the old man as lonely and kind, dismisses his warning.

When Travis begins working with his mother at a nearby organic farm, he meets the quirky and attractive Clare Simmons, but doesn’t trust her. As summer’s heat fades into the coolness of fall, Travis finds a letter in Mr. Gudon’s memento and gun-filled study that reveals a secret that has remained hidden since World War Two. The discovery sets off a series of events, finally uniting Clare and Travis, but also triggering tragic outcomes.

Set in the rolling green farmland of southern Wisconsin during the early 2000’s, The Last American Buffalo reveals the power of love, secrets and denial.

You can purchase The Last American Buffalo on Amazon here. .

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Genoa: Birthplace of Columbus Awaiting Discovery

Planning a trip to Italy this coming spring or summer? Chances are you’re planning to visit Florence, Venice or Rome, right? But why not add one more destination, one that’s not on most travelers’ itineraries?

Birthplace of Columbus, ancient seapower and still-functioning seaport, Genoa, Italy attracts few tourists—a shame for it, but a great opportunity for the curious traveler seeking that rarity: an Italian city without tante turiste.

To wit: these days it’s tougher than ever to escape crowds. Paris hosted 32.3 million tourists last year, Machu Picchu 3.1 million, and the Grand Canyon 4.5 million. Every year, more travelers crowd the world’s most popular sites and cities—which makes the less popular ones all the more appealing.

My parents taught me to get off the beaten track and stray from where tourists clustered, so from my first stop in 1989 at the atmosphere-rich, old Genoa train station sandwiched between bluffs and crumbling, terra cotta colored walls, I knew I had to visit.

And that visit finally occurred this past October.

And what did I find? An active seaport that boasts a row of grand palazzi, a harbor lined with cafés and restaurants, and one of the largest medieval quarters in Europe.

And the icing on the cake: the seaside city receives barely a trickle of tourists.

So why isn’t Genoa thronged with tourists? Well, the Mediterranean seaport is a little rough around the edges, more Naples than Florence. But if you prefer a city with streets lined with shops and businesses that serve residents instead of tourists, you’ll find plenty that pleases.

Winding, dark streets in the medieval quarter don’t have an abundance of polished cafés and restaurants, but serve as home to middle and working class Genovese. Toward the west, the quarter is occupied by immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. Throughout the neighborhood you’ll find small shops, stand up coffee bars, churches, small groceries, and few t-shirt shops. Churches are dusty, grand, and quiet.

Once one of the toniest streets in the world, Strada Nuova still boasts palazzi, but today they’re open to the public (complete with rooftop views of the harbor and medieval quarter).

For the kids there is a harbor side aquarium and sea cruises that feature dolphin sightings and views of seaside towns. For the parents, there’s great shopping (including, um, leather goods) and Old World cafés just outside the medieval quarter.

Best of all, Genoa is relatively undiscovered by the American tourist, so you can play a little like Columbus in reverse and discover his hometown.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Bosque del Cabo: For Spotting Lions or Lying Around, a Sublime Lodge in Costa Rica

For many years I preferred active vacations, whether it was backpacking to Machu Picchu or wandering the streets of Montmartre. To me, vacations were a chance to experience the world—not to merely melt into the sand on a beach or swing in a hammock.

These days, hectic workdays and creeping age have combined to make a slacker’s vacation more attractive.

I’ve traveled to Costa Rica many times and have wandered the tourist route (Monteverde’s cloud forest, Arenal's volcano and hot springs, the Nicoya Peninsula’s beaches, Manuel Antonio’s wildlife-packed national park) and explored some lesser-known spots such as UvitaDominical and San Gerardo de Dota

Before this February, though, there were some recommended areas, the Osa Peninsula and Corcovado National Park, that I hadn’t made it to yet. I was told that these areas—with only a few hotels and a remote location—were the most pristine and boasted the most wildlife.

Bosque del Cabo, a 45-minute drive on a pockmarked, rock-strewn road from a little airstrip in the dusty town of Puerto Jimenez, is an off-the-grid rainforest lodge and reserve that bills itself as the best place in the country to spot a rare and elusive lion (or puma, as they’re called in these parts). I’ll admit: I was skeptical. Staff at other reserves I’ve visited (in every Central American country except El Salvador) advised that pumas are never sighted.

Well, after my arrival at this isolated and verdant slice of pristine rain forest, I decided that merely spending some days in the company of giant trees, adjacent to thick, emerald-green jungle and 500 feet above the Pacific would be enough. I didn’t need to see a lion. Heck, I didn’t need to see any wildlife.

Upon our arrival, smiling staff greeted us with tumblers full of blackberry juice, so fresh, rejuvenating and delicious I didn’t even mind that it wasn’t sluiced with some spirit.

Before being escorted to the house we rented (and stopping off to see a slumbering sloth locked onto a tree limb), we inhaled lunches full of locally sourced ingredients, including fish, crisp greens, citrus and nuts. The setting for the communal meals is an enormous palapa (an open-sided, thatch roofed structure) overlooking sweeping lawns dotted with blooming bushes and palms. I was sorry to leave such a setting, but when I arrived at the house, I was quickly smitten. Spacious rooms and an expansive terrace of polished, mahogany floors, plantation shutters, and private views overlooked a tangle of jungle that plunged to the ocean far below.

That’s the problem with this place: there are so many idyllic spots that I felt as inconstant and fickle as a teenager. No matter where I was—the hammock, the terrace, a groomed trail, a hanging bridge, the pool or the restaurant—it was my favorite place.

After settling in, we quickly figured out that an expensive trip to nearby Corcovado National Park was unnecessary: the private reserve right where we were boasted more wildlife and groomed trails to boot. For the ambitious, there’s a steep trail that descends to the pristine shoreline and its empty beaches. Walk to the right and you’ll enjoy miles of uninterrupted beach and rough surf (there’s no swimming here). For those who prefer a swim after their hike, a different trail descends from the hotel grounds to the wide and equally empty swimming beaches along the calm Golfo Dulce.

But a person doesn’t travel to Bosque for the beaches. It’s the wildlife and rain forest that attract a small but steady flow of tourists to the two-dozen bungalows and houses.

All four species of monkeys swing in the nearby trees - and oftentimes from the trees above your bungalow. Brightly colored frogs, armadillos, peccaries, capybaras, and snakes (yes, even some venomous sorts) hang out in the neighboring forest (while the four-legged animals and monkeys are known to visit the grounds, snakes stick mostly to the jungle. Mostly.)

Mornings start before first light with the calls of howler monkeys. (Yes, this would be sometime around 4:00 am.) Second-string parrots and myriad songbirds join in around 5:00 or so. And just after dawn, late-to-rise but instantly garrulous macaws spin overhead and fill the air with their primeval call. I’ve seen scarlet macaws in other spots in Costa Rica, but never have I seen so many so often.
And then there are the pumas. One was spotted on one of the trails near the Casa Blanca where we stayed just a few days before we arrived. And another was spotted on the main road just after we left. (For updates on puma sightings, check out Bosque’s Facebook page.)

Thankfully, the open-air restaurant has plenty of steaming, dark, local coffee available, so even if the call of monkeys, locusts or birds drives you from your mosquito net-cocooned bed early, there’s an eye-opening cup of fragrant java to help you appreciate your surroundings.

If walking the private trails, observing abundant wildlife, lolling by the pool or gazing out over the cobalt Pacific starts to bore, trips to nearby beaches, snorkeling, kayaking and other short excursions are available. To me, though, leaving any spot in this place is difficult. When my friends and I returned to the tranquil grounds of the hotel—rich with birdsong and dappled with blooming flowers—I felt like I was home. As much as I enjoyed the communal dinners and hikes, it’s the terraces, decks and bungalow spaces with their private slices of jungle and views that thrill. 

In such a place, the reality that days in the Tropics don’t last longer saddened me. From late afternoon through sunset my friends and I were sprinkled across the terrace, tucked into hammocks or reclined on lounge chairs. We read, sipped wine, puzzled over crosswords or simply gazed out over the Pacific, into the thick jungle or at the infinite sky. As sunset approached, everyone’s attention shifted to the horizon and the spectacle of a colorful blaze illuminating the horizon while the world around us gradually fell silent. The jungle—a cacophony of locust buzzes, birdcalls and monkey howls—lapsed into deep stillness as the light faded from the sky. The sky turned black and was thronged with stars while the ocean crashed below. 

Sure, there could have been pumas about, but I could’ve cared less. They’d like you to think that it’s the pumas that make Bosque del Cabo unique, but that’s not it at all. Awaking to the sounds of monkeys, the crash of the ocean, the call of a macaw or the scent of the rain forest, I realized that there’s much more to this place than some rare felines.

But you need to experience it to understand.


Bosque del Cabo can be reached via small plane commercial service (about a 45 minute flight) from San José to Puerto Jimenez. The lodge can also be reached via rough roads.

A few categories of private bungalows and houses can be rented, most with ocean views. Prices per person range from around $150 per day (including meals) to around $250, depending on accommodation type and season.

The excellent restaurant is the best option for guests. Meal packages are typically included as part of the rate, though guests staying in houses can opt out. 

About Me

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I write about food, travel & dining, as well as related topics. My first novel, The Gods of Venice, can be found on & nearly everywhere else. My second novel, The Last American Buffalo, is available on Amazon. Follow me on Twitter or become a fan of The Gods of Venice on Facebook.
Alan J. Shannon Copyright © 2010