Well, here we are in Key West, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, also known as the Conch Republic. It is quite a scene. In some respects, it bears a faint resemblance to Nashville’s honky-tonk scene. There are lots of bars and restaurants with working musicians playing guitars looking for a break. Like Jimmy Buffet. But Key West is far more upscale.
Located in the Straits of Florida, Key West (Cayo Hueso in Spanish) is an island city at the Southernmost point of the North American Continent. It is closer to Cuba than it is to Miami. He island is very small—only 1 mile long and 4 miles wide. If you walk the length of Duval Street (the main street) you will have walked from the Gulf of Mexico at one end to the Florida Straits and the Atlantic Ocean on the other.
The permanent population is about 25,000, and tourism is a very big deal here. And the tourists arrive by plane, auto, ferry and cruise ship. In the first three months of 2018 alone, cruise ships brought about 275,000 tourists to the island and airplanes brought about 120,000.
Key West is (or was) home to quite a few notables, including Earnest Hemmingway, John Dos Passos, Tennessee Williams, John Dewey, Winslow Homer and Calvin Klein to name a few.
Anyway, Key West is a more than a bit bohemian with an independent streak and a live-and-let live attitude that is kind of refreshing. More than refreshing, actually. There may be a lesson here.
Here (below) are some photos taken during our too short stay.
St. Bart’s, St. Barth’s, St. Bartholomew—take your pick, the names are used interchangeably—is one of the 4 islands that make up the French West Indies. The other three are Martinique, Guadeloupe, and the French side of St. Martin. Most notably, St. Bart’s is where the beautiful people come and play, including the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and Mick Jagger. (Mick sends his best).
St. Bart’s is deservedly big in reputation, but small by area and population. There are only about 9,300 full time inhabitants, and its total size is just under 10 square miles. Tourism is its most important business. The small island attracts over 200,000 visitors each year. The island and its visitors are well-matched: they are relentlessly upscale. Upmarket shops dominate the capital city Gustavia, the harbor is full of yachts and the hotels tend toward the boutique.
About the hotels: there are about 25 of them scattered around the island. Most have 15 rooms or less. Instead of regular hotel rooms, most hotel accommodations take the form of villas. One of the most notable is Eden Rock, where we stayed about 15 years ago. Then again there is the Hotel Le Toiny where the rooms / villas start at $2,000 per night in January.
We spent our time in St. Barth’s wandering around the beautiful town of Gustavia, which is right on the water. Here below, are some photos taken there.
After traversing the Panama Canal, we arrived in the Caribbean Sea, leaving South America behind us. Our first stop in the Caribbean was Aruba. It is a small island, just 19 miles long and 6 miles wide and a population of about 104,000.
The geography of Aruba is very interesting. One side of the island is the Caribbean. That is the side with the large tourist hotels and white sandy beaches. The other side faces the Atlantic Ocean where the sea is fairly turbulent. The Atlantic here is violent enough to have carved out from the cliffs the highest and most spectacular natural bridge in the Caribbean. (It collapsed in 2005).
We went touring mostly on the Atlantic side of the island, visited the rocky shores of the Atlantic side as well as desert-like areas and a butterfly farm. Some photos are below.
The latest adventure is heading toward the closing chapter. After spending the last 2 days touring in Columbia, we will be heading out for Aruba, St. Bart’s and then Fort Lauderdale, where we will disembark. For some reason or other the cruise lines refer to this as “debarking” the ship rather than disembarking, but I refuse to go along with this construction.
While in Columbia we explored Cartagene on one day and then Santa Marta the next. They are both beautiful and very clean cities—at least the sections we visited—which included the old historical parts of these cities. And they are old—founded as they were in the 16th century, later gaining their independence from Spain during the 19th century under the leadership of Simon Bolivar, whose statues are everywhere. Makes George Washington look like a piker in the statue department. Around the same time (with leadership from Bolivar and General San Martin) Chile, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Venezuela won their independence.
Speaking of Venezuela, the story doesn’t change much. Venezuelans have flooded into Columbia because food, medicines and other necessities are in short supply thanks to the wonders of Socialism. 20 years ago, Venezuela was the richest nation in South America. Now it’s a basket case. You can see Venezuelans on the streets in Columbia (and Ecuador) selling water and trinkets trying to get by.
Columbia has made great strides over the years, largely defeating the drug cartels and the FARC and other radical groups. There is still plenty of work to do, but Cartagena and Santa Marta are mostly safe, and economic growth has resumed. Medellin—past center of the drug trade and home to Pablo Escobar—saw its murder rate drop to its lowest level in 40 years although it is still high at 20.17 per 100,000. By comparison, the homicide rate in Chicago jumped to 18.6 per 100,000 by the end of 2015. New York City had a homicide rate under half that at 7 per 100,000.
Anyway, Columbia is a fascinating place with lots to see. Some photos are below.
Located on the western bank of the Guayas River, Guayaquil is Ecuador’s largest city (pop 2.7 million) and its main port. It was founded in 1538 by Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Orellana. The city suffered a series of attacks and looting by French and English pirates over the years. By the 19th century Ecuador won its independence from Spain and became a sovereign country.
Ecuador is currently on a drive to attract tourism and international business—just like everybody else. Part of the project involves the apparently successful creation of a waterfront promenade in Guayaquil complete with restaurants, offices and hotels. Guayaquil also has a thriving arts community with an Arts district in the city that houses and galleries. We visited both places–some photos are below.
One of the problems Ecuador is attempting to deal with is the flow—becoming a flood—of refugees from Venezuela. To no one’s surprise (excepting Noam Chomsky) the worker’s paradise founded by Chavez, now presided over by Maduro, has been a crashing failure just like all the others. And so people are exiting for Ecuador, Columbia and Peru in an attempt to find food and medicine and other necessities. Venezuela’s neighbors have now shut their borders. Unfortunately, it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better.
Lima, is a coastal city and the capital of Peru. It is home to over 10 million people and is the 3rd largest city in the Americas, behind only Sao Paulo and Mexico City. About one third of Peru’s population lives in the Lima Metropolitan area. And like much of South America, the population is differentiated by where they live. People who are partly of European descent are more likely to live in the coastal and more prosperous cities. Indigenous people are more likely to live in the highlands or the Amazon.
Part of the differentiation is the result of the colonial past that still has an extraordinarily powerful influence on contemporary South American societies. Another (related) reason is that desert and the Andes mountains separate the two. The Andes mountains stop the rain from reaching the coastal areas, the result being vast desert areas that extend from near, and sometimes all the way to, the Pacific Coast. It is a bit of a strange sight to see the desert right up against the Pacific shoreline.
We spent two days in Peru, mostly in Lima. While there we visited the Barranco District, a bohemian section of town that is home many of Peru’s most famous artists, including nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa, one of my personal favorites. It is a beautiful section of town, with beautiful museums and architecture, and a spectacular view of the Pacific. It’s well worth a visit.
Iquique, a town of 181,000 people, is located in northern Chile on the Pacific coast. Originally part of Peru, it had a large Chilean population. But as a result of the War of the Pacific (1879—1883) Peru ceded it to Chile where is has remained since.
The town developed rapidly with the discovery of mineral riches in the Atacama Desert during the 19th century. Mining saltpeter was particularly lucrative for a while, but eventually a way was discovered to make it synthetically, and that spelled doom for many mining towns, the remnants of which can be seen today in the desert—which is the driest hot desert on the planet.
After docking at Iquique, we went out to see Humberstone, about 30 miles away. It is one of the abandoned “ghost towns” that dot the landscape. Actually, desert scape is probably a better way to describe the town, which was designated a UNESCO cultural heritage sight in 2005.
After making our way back to Iquique proper we went to an opulent club off the town square to have some Pisco sours, after which we looked around the very attractive town square, saw a demonstration, and headed back to the ship.
Iquique is the last port if call in Chile for us, so we are now headed off for Peru to see what awaits is there. Some photos from Iquique and Humberstone are below.
We arrived in Chile, which means we are also approaching the end of our journey. From here we travel up the west coast of South America, making stops in Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Columbia and Panama. After that it really is the last leg that will take us through the Caribbean and then on to Florida.
Our first port of call in South America was the port city Valparaiso, Chile. Rather than stay in Valparaiso we chose to go inland to the capital city, Santiago, for a day. It is an elegant and sophisticated city where the European influence is very strong. With its wide boulevards, classical architecture and parks, the city bears more than a passing resemblance to some of the great cities of Europe, especially Paris and Madrid. With about 6.5 million people, greater Santiago is home to about 36% of the nation’s population of 18 million.
When we arrived in Santiago we visited Club Hipico, the oldest racing track in Chile. Its architecture is classically elegant—the kind of thing you’d be more likely to associate with a museum than a racetrack. (See photos below). We also visited a national park, essentially planted and grown from scratch. And of course, we had lunch, with some fine Chilean wines, in a restaurant in the park, set up like a small version of Tavern on the Green in Central Park.
We will be off before long to visit some of the smaller cities of Chile, and we’ll see how that goes. Regardless, Santiago is a place you don’t want to miss—along with the very fine wines.
Easter Island is probably the furthest populated place from anywhere on planet earth. The nearest inhabited areas are Tahiti, which is 2,000 miles to the East, and Chile, which is 2,000 miles to the wet. It is a triangular in shape, made from 3 (now extinct) volcanoes, and now has a permanent population of about 7,000 people.
The island has been a source of fascination for decades, mostly because it houses something like 487 Moais—huge statues venerating tribal chiefs from a civilization that rapidly collapsed after reaching a peak population of about 10,000 – 15,000 around the year 1600. The reason for the collapse, combined with the existence of the huge Moai statues has tantalized academic researchers—as well as a fair number of cranks—for many years.
We were fortunate enough to be able to explore the island with a small group led by Professor Claudio Cristino, Easter Island’s resident archaeologist. (More on his work is available at this link to PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/easter/move/team.html). As it turns out the best explanation of the rapid collapse of the Rapa Nui civilization is resource depletion stemming from contests among the tribes to build the biggest Moai to the exclusion of all else. It is a fascinating story and an example of the tragedy of the commons in action. It has nothing to do with crackpot theories about outer space aliens coming to earth to direct earthlings to build huge statues.
Over the two days of our touring, we got lots of shots of the Moai statues as well as extinct volcanoes. Please see below.