A Prison and a Piece of Paradise in Panama

Imagine being sent to an island hours from the coast to spend your days with the worst criminals in the country.  Tales of torture, muder, and cannibalism were familiar to the people that were sentenced to spend their days on the Island of Coiba.  Serving as a penal colony from 1919-2004, the largest island off the pacific coast of Central America, Coiba is a place protected by ghosts.  The fact that it was the worst prison in the country and that even the name of the place scared people, managed to keep many away over the years, and helped protect the rainforest on the island.  It has been a National Marine Park since ’92 and was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005.

The park is a group of islands, the largest named Coiba.  With a surface area of 650,000 acres, it is the third largest marine park in the world after the Great Barrier Reef and the Galapagos National Park.  From a prison to a protected paradise, this place has more than just a well preserved eco-system and an abundance of marine life, it also has stories to tell.

There are reports of unusual occurences and hearing strange sounds  while on staying on Coiba, and many are sure the spirits of the people murdered in this place still inhabit the island. Nowadays, you can go and enjoy some of the best snorkelling and scuba diving around!

It is possible to visit Coiba now from the sleepy town of Santa Catalina, described by Lonely Planet as having some of the best surf on the Pacific coast of Panama.  If you go for a relaxing day-trip though, remember to reflect also on the dark part of the history here, which played a part in making it the place it is today.

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The Cotton Castle of Pamukkale

It makes sense that the name of this place translates to Cotton Castle in Turkish when you arrive in Pamukkale.  Located in the South Eastern part of Turkey in the Denizili province, the bizzare land-scape here looks like it cannot be real.  It’s one of those places that even when you are there in person, the senses have a hard time processing it all.  The numerous hot-springs in the area have deposited a type of sedimentary rock called travertine forming an amazing series of terraces 2700 metres long and 600 metres wide.  It’s no suprise the ancient city of Hierapolis was built here and for thousands of years people have bathed in the thermal pools.

This place is definitely worth going to when you visit Turkey and is a recognized World Heritage Site.  Like many wonders of the world, there will be many tourists (bus-loads infact) to share it with, but that is often the case at places that are this cool! There are busy hot-springs with bars and restaurants if you want some company and don’t mind crowds, or you can wander off into the terraced pools and find your own litte corner of the Cotton Castle.

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Baracoa, the ‘First City’ of Cuba

Often when people hear the word Guantanamo, they think of US military bases.  In this province of Cuba though, on the other end of the island, far from the current capital of Havana and the beaches of Veradero is a place many locals will tell you is worth seeing.  Orginally established as the first capital of the country by the Spanish, Baracoa lies in the Bay of Honey surrounded by a wide mountain range, near the Eastern tip of the island.  The impressive view of El Yunque, a table-shaped mountain nearby, was described in the journals of Christopher Columbus. In his logbook he wrote ‘The most beautiful place in the world..I heard the birds sing that they will never ever leave this place‘.  Isolated from rest of the county for many years ’till a single mountain road was built in the ’60s,  today Baracoa can be reached easily by the bus.  Still, the remote-ness of it’s location keeps the back-packer traffic down.  You can also fly there, as long as you don’t mind possibly getting an old Soviet plane and having a white-knucked landing experience!

The town is very very relaxed and feels like a step back in time.  The people come from a mix of different cultures like most places in Cuba, and include many French who fled to Baracoa from the revolution of indepence in Haiti.  They are very friendly and open their homes to people who visit.  Although there is a beautiful church, beaches nearby and many places to choose from for great live music, it’s hard to say exactly what makes this place special, it just is.  Most of the Cacao in Cuba comes from this region, and in  town you will see locals of all ages selling bars and various sized balls of fresh chocolate.  Many of the Casa Particulares that rent out rooms to travellers will often serve hot chocolate at meals and chocolate mousse for dessert.  Careful though, cause this isn’t the over-sweetened, processed chocolate you might be used to, this stuff is pure and it packs a punch!

If you go, you might even get a chance to shake hands with Veinticuatro, a local farmer with 6 fingers on each hand and 6 toes on each foot who goes by the nick-name Twenty-four.  Something you don’t see everyday!

Highlights of this destination are cheap fresh lobster, endless amounts of chocolate and seeing a different side of Cuba than most visitors to the island.

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Can’t decide between Yemen or Somalia? Why not the Socotra Islands?!

If you find yourself down to a coin toss between Yemen and Somalia for your next vacation spot, dont worry, there is a small group of Islands in the Indian Ocean, about mid-way between the two countries, that is like no place else on Earth.  It is located a little closer to the Horn of Africa than it is to the Arabian Peninsula, and politically part of the Republic of Yemen.  The locals speak Soqotri, a semitic language that developed away from the Arabian mainland.

This archipelago is one of the most isolated continental landforms on the Planet (not formed by a Volcano),  and a third of the plant life isn’t found anywhere else in the world.  One look at the landscape, and you quickly realize you’re not in Kansas anymore.  From the striking Dragon Blood tree to the ridiculous looking Cucumber tree, some of it seems straight out of a Dr. Seuss book. Often described as one of the most alien looking places on Earth, Socotra has been recognized by UNESCO as a world natural heritage site.  While you are there, make sure to try the rare Socotran pomegranate!

To get to this bizarre place, you can either catch a flight from the Yemeni mainland, or if it’s more about the journey than the destination for you, why not hop aboard one of the pirate-ships that frequent the waters around the islands!  However you get there, make sure you bring your binoculars and swim-trunks, ’cause it’s a bird-watching haven and the there’s no one harassing you to buy a poncho at the beaches!

Highlights of this destination:  Delicious goat stew, friendly islanders and camel rides.

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2012 End of Days; Mayan Style

2012 is finally here, and the countdown ’til doomsday isn’t the only thing that has begun. Tourism promotions and parties  are in full swing in and around the popular resort town of Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula.  Mucho dinero will be poured into showcasing the Mayan culture in the region, as well as everything else this area of Mexico has to offer, in hopes of attracting  more future visitors. They will already welcome the flocks of people who have been thinking about this date for years and would love to be in the thick of things when the mole hits the fan, but they also want to attract those that don’t fear a Mayan rapture, and may have just over-looked the destination. It’s definitely an attention-getter!  The apocolypse done Mexican-style is bound to be a lot more fun than some crazy people driving around in a bus, and there will be a bottle of Tequila for every table!  It will be  Dec 21, 2012  before we know it. We can either debate over whether it actually means the end of the world to the Mayans, or just a shift in global conciousness, and get bogged down in boring information such as long count vs. short count and lunation length, or we can just look at it as another good reason to stop what we are doing and go party in Mexico!

You can’t blame the Mexicans for taking advantage of this excellent opportunity to draw back some of the tourism that has been scared away by increased media reports of violence and drug gangs. Although Cuba is nice and sunny, if the world really is coming to an end, and you’ve visited all the new 7 Wonders of the World except the Mayan ruins of Chichen-Itza, the publicity serves as an excellent reminder!  This can also show many repeat visitors to Mexico that it has more to offer than swim-up bars and buffet tables;  It is a place with amazing culture and history. The food is also more delicious in Mexico than it is in Cuba, and anywhere can be dangerous when you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. The world may or may not end later this year, but either way, there is money to be made from it!

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When I think off the beaten track, I think Tristan da Cunha.

Many travellers dream of visiting places off the beaten track, far from the annoying umbrella swarms of the motor-coach crowd. However, the more one travels , the more one realizes how difficult these places can be to find. You daydream of a place you’re sure no one else has thought of, only to find long line-ups at the various sights and other travellers telling you how much nicer it was before the tourists discovered it. The idea of hiking the Inca trail in Peru, or visiting the ancient stone city of Petra in Jordan can seem like an exotic holiday plan for someone whose friends stay only at all-inclusives resorts, but for the type that have already checked the Galapagos Islands and Antartica off their bucket-list , it can be a lot more difficult to come up with a vacation destination fellow travel junkies haven’t already conquered.

Next time you find yourself combing the globe, or tossing darts into a map to find what you hope will be a place your Facebook friends don’t already have mutiple photo albums of, pull out a map of the  South Atlantic.  Almost 3,000 kilometres from Africa, and little further than that from South America lies the British overseas territory of Tristan da Cunha; The most remote inhabited archipelago in the world, inhabited by 275 people sharing only eight surnames.

Visiting this place is not simple. The first step is to learn all about the islands, including the families and community news, and plan exactly where you will stay and what you will do. The next step is to write the Secretary to the Administator to request permission to travel to Tristan da Cunha. Then, all you need is make your way to Capetown, South Africa, and it’s only a week-long boat ride to Tristan. This keeps the mobs of tacky tourists and fast-food restaurant chains away for sure!

Highlights of this destination:  Being the talk of the town while you are there, seeing how the community gets by in a place so isolated from the rest of the world, and the fact that all the locals will find you attractive just because you’re not their cousin.

Check out what the island folks are up to before you go at http://www.tristantimes.com/


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