Posts tagged ‘UNESCO World Heritage’

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Brasília – Future Present

Brasília has always intrigued me. A modern metropolis located in the middle of nowhere yet a powerful statement of rising Brazil’s great potential – built with spectacular speed under the careful guidance of Brazil’s top designers. I spent a Sunday roaming its methodical streets, marveling at the novel buildings and wide open spaces, yet sensing a bit of emptiness amid its monumental enterprise.

Brazil’s capital has a history of moving around with shifting economic power centers: first Salvador in Bahia for most of the colonial 300 years, then to Rio de Janeiro for another two centuries. All along there was talk of moving the capital to a more central – and politically neutral – part of the country and by 1891 the constitution mandated this.

But it took another 50 years for President Juscelino Kubitschek to get the ball rolling in 1956. Stunningly, Brasília was officially inaugurated just over three years later in 1960.

Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic National Congress sits in the triangular <em>Praça dos Três Poderes</em>, which also houses the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court.

Oscar Niemeyer’s iconic National Congress sits in the triangular Praça dos Três Poderes, which also houses the Presidential Palace and the Supreme Court.

Brasília was conceived by heavyweight trio Oscar Niemeyer (architect), Lúcio Costa (urban planner), and Roberto Burle Marx (landscape designer). Their distinctly modernist approach – fueled by a healthy dose of utopian optimism – prescribed a workable and futuristic metropolis. The result is a fascinating 20th-century creation: impeccably planned streets, purpose-built neighborhoods (Hotel Sector, the Banking Sector, Embassy Sector, etc), and an efficient infrastructure built for a new millennium.

From above, Brasília is shaped like an airplane. The “cockpit” houses the main seats of government in the Praça dos Três Poderes (Plaza of the Three Powers). The “fuselage” centers on the Eixo Monumental (Monumental Axis) lined by the principal monuments and federal administrative buildings. The outspreading “wings” enclose measured superquadras (superblocks) that obsessively propose the number and type of apartments, stores, schools, and parks.

Brasília has both adherents and detractors. Many laud the auspicious planning and consideration for 20th-century urban life. It is the only UNESCO World Heritage city founded in last 100 years due to its epic and ambitious design.

A sparseness pervades Brasília despite the larger-than-life avenues, sprawling <em>praças</em>, and ambitious construction.

A sparseness pervades Brasília despite the larger-than-life avenues, sprawling praças, and ambitious construction.

Yet others point out the failure to fully realize this vision. To me Brasília lacks a certain human touch, and this was especially true on a quiet Sunday when government offices are closed. While I was impressed with the idiosyncratic buildings, I felt weighed down by its austere urban expanse. So much of the bleached exterior smacks of artifice and invention – some of it even feels outdated. In Simone de Beauvoir’s words, Brasília exudes an “air of elegant monotony”.

After sightseeing I saw a Brazilian friend I met in Salvador at the Uruguay-Italy FIFA match a few weeks prior. Edmilton (or simply “Ed”) is a government functionary and a transplant from São Paulo like most of the migrant candangos who were not born in Brasília. We drank some beers late in the day and I heard another side to the Brasília story.

With my <em>brasiliense</em> friend Edmilton outside the tomb of beloved Juscelino Kubitschek’s (affectionately known as “JK”) who made Brasília happen after centuries of talk.

With my brasiliense friend Edmilton outside the tomb of beloved Juscelino Kubitschek’s (affectionately known as “JK”) who made Brasília happen after centuries of talk.

Continue reading ‘A Tale of Two (Planned) Cities: Brasília and Goiânia’ »

Scenes from San Agustín and Tierradentro

I had no intention of visiting San Agustín and Tierradentro. But after perusing the information wall at the excellent Hosteltrail.com hostel, the Colombian Heritage Circuit struck me as the perfect four-day getaway to an interesting and not-very-visited part of the country.

This is an area that only recently opened to tourists. Long the domain of leftist People’s Army, a.k.a. FARC guerrillas (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), the Colombian army has succeeded in pushing anti-government forces out. While I felt safe in my travels so far in Colombia, my current guidebook (published only months prior) still had intriguing warnings on specific routes:

You should not travel after dark, not because of guerrilla activity but rather due to late-night bandits…

I asked several locals in Popayán and no one seemed to think the area or the journey were all that risky. So off I went, during daylight hours of course.

San Agustín and Tierradentro are the sole UNESCO World Heritage architectural sites in Colombia, important reminders of the ancient culture of southern Colombia that dates from 4000 BC when settlers established agricultural communities and thriving trade connections.

Unfortunately little is known about this civilization. But hundreds of unearthed statues remain, beautifully sculpted from volcanic rock, represent humans, sacred animals and even fantastical monsters. Today these are viewed atop panoramic altos (hilltop burial grounds) overlooking emerald forests.

I arrived safely to San Agustín town after an uneventful (yet bumpy) bus ride through the sparsely populated Andean hills. I did see armed Colombian soldiers patrolling the roads but the only apparent threat were the hairpin turns on unpaved roads that teetered above steep chasms.

Continue reading ‘Unearthing Colombia’s Ancients in San Agustín and Tierradentro’ »

Scenes from Quito's Old Town, a colonial gem of a city

Quito’s Old City, a wondrous maze of colonial architecture, is the largest and best-preserved in the Americas. Having endured a massive upgrade in recent years – with historic buildings restored and dicey barrios revitalized – the Old Town now boasts an impressive list of notable wonders: nearly 60 colonial churches and plazas, a bevy of Independence-era buildings, dozens of private homes, and a long list of outstanding museums.

Wandering the Old Town is a treat for the eyes and I was entertained for days. I’m not normally a huge fan of Latin American capital cities but the lure of Quito’s centro histórico is hard to resist!

The capital city of th Tiwanaku, the great Andean civilization that preceeded the Incas and who influenced them heavily

Tiwanaku

I couldn’t bear another cold, rainy day in La Paz so I struck out after breakfast one Saturday to visit one of Bolivia’s most important archaeological sites Tiwanku, a UNESCO World Heritage Site just 90 minutes from La Paz. This “cradle of Andean civilization,” which preceded the Incas, was centered near the fertile soils near Lake Titicaca and flourished for nearly 2500 years until about 1000 AD when the site was abandoned after severe drought.

There is no written history of the Tiwanaku so unfortunately very little is known about this civilization.  An agriculturally based society, they developed sophisticated farming methods (including the sukakullos which Paul and I saw near Copacabana earlier this year) which sustained a considerably growing population. By 800 AD, the capital city of Tiwanaku had perhaps 50,000 residents and recent studies suggest up to 1.5 million inhabitants lived in the region.

The walled Kalasasaya, sacred space featuring many of the most important icons and temples (as seen from atop the Akapana pyramid).

The walled Kalasasaya, sacred space featuring many of the most important icons and temples (as seen from atop the Akapana pyramid).

They worshipped many gods, the most important being Viracocha who created the earth at Island of the Sun on Lake Titicaca and brought forth humans from the earth’s rocks. He is celebrated in the site’s outstanding Temple of the Sun, one of the few remaining monuments at the site.  The Tiwanaku also placed great spiritual importance in prominent mountain peaks, the apus (deities) that control weather and determine agricultural output, traditions which continue to this day.

One of the iconic monoliths central to Tiwanau sacred art. This religious leader holds a goblet-like keru for chicha and a wooden case holding hallucinogenic herbs.

One of the iconic monoliths central to Tiwanau sacred art. This religious leader holds a goblet-like keru for chicha and a wooden case for hallucinogenic herbs.

Continue reading ‘Tiwanaku: The Cradle of Andean Civilization’ »

Scenes from Samaipata: Paul amid the peaks ~ Peter chatting on the parrot phone ~ El Fuerte archeological site ~ Easy rider Paul

In Quechua the town means “The Height to Rest” – and indeed this is where Paul and I found a relaxing and picturesque place to kick back for a long weekend.   We were coming from steamy, tropical Santa Cruz in the eastern lowlands of Bolivia in search of cooler temperatures and an escape from the crowds.  It was our last weekend together in Bolivia before Paul had to return home.

Samaipata is something of an anomaly for Bolivia.  Blessed with a delightful subtropical climate and tucked in the easternmost folds of the Andes mountains, the area has attracted foreigners for centuries: first the Sephardic Jews expelled from peninsular Spain during the Inquisition, later some Italians and Croats, and finally a sizable number of expats (mainly artists and free-thinkers from Europe) starting in the 1970’s when the road from Santa Cruz was paved.

Perhaps the most celebrated foreigner to come to the region was Ernesto “Che” Guevara in 1966 during his ill-fated attempt to bring Socialist revolution to South America.  He was killed almost a year later in the nearby village of La Higuera.

Today Samaipata remains a sleepy backwater with quiet colonial streets, a peaceful Plaza Principal filled in the evenings with locals on promenade and traveling hippies playing music and selling hand-made wares.  The resident expats are barely visible but present, often running businesses catering to tourists.  Samaipata hosts organic farms, Buddhist meditation retreats, ecological construction (my superadobe instructor from La Paz is based here), and a large number of reveling cruzeños from Santa Cruz on holiday weekends.

Samaipata is an especially agreeable place.  It reminded us of what San Miguel de Allende in Mexico may have been like decades ago.

The quiet streets of Samaipata: wandering cows, unpaved roads and the parrot phone booths

Continue reading ‘Finding R&R (Rest & Ruins) in Serene Samaipata’ »

Hoi An – Graceful and Genial Town

We had high expectations long before arriving in Hoi An.  Many travelers we met previously raved about the place and from the get-go the town did not disappoint.  A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the old town packs in an impressive assortment of historic temples, bridges, merchant homes, picturesque alleyways, grand French colonial buildings, and creaky wooden boats along the riverside docks.  Paul and I were happy to be in the thick atmosphere and elegance of this stunning town in Vietnam.

Once a thriving port town, the Thu Bon River silted up in the late 1800’s basically turning Hoi An into a ghost town, its old quarter effectively locked in time for a century.  After the economic rebound of Vietnam in the 1990’s, Hoi An was well positioned to gain restoration funds for the historic buildings and a flood of tourists followed suit.

Today Hoi An is a heavily touristed town but it fortunately maintains a delicate balance between the needs of visitors and the laid-back locals.  The old quarter consists of a relatively compact area, filled with monuments and buildings worth visiting.  Another highlight of Hoi An is its culinary richness.  We were immediately smitten with the food offerings in Hoi An, remarkable in a country celebrated for delectable food on every corner.

Continue reading ‘Vagabonding in Vietnam Part II — Creeping Northwards’ »

Open-air excitement in Cat Ba Island, Vietnam

A bit weary of the cramped chaos of Hanoi, a bustling yet very absorbing city, we were eager to strike again for the coast, this time towards Ha Long Bay.  Famed for its remarkable limestone karsts generously dotting the aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Tonkin, this area of exceptional beauty was recently named one of the new “Natural Wonders of the World” and deservedly so.  95% of tourists opt for one of the 2- or 3-day cruises in the many wooden junk boats that ply the bay, but from the descriptions from our guidebook and after the advice of fellow travelers who had lukewarm experiences, we decided to skip the all-in-one tour and instead choose to DIY.  This would give us maximum flexibility while avoiding the groups, regimented schedules and quasi-“cultural” trappings of a package tour.

Cat Ba Island seemed the logical place to start.  Long the domain of backpackers, this largely unpopulated island is just south of Ha Long Bay and boasts its own La Ha Bay, equally majestic but far less visited than its well-known sister.  Additionally the sleepy seaside town of Cat Ba was an ideal place to kick back between the many outdoor offerings in the area.

Continue reading ‘The Great Outdoors of Cat Ba Island, Vietnam’ »

Museo de las Momias, Guanajuato, Mexico

An unusual rainy spell has struck pretty much all of Mexico, and here in San Miguel de Allende the high altitude has made for some pretty cold temperatures with daily highs only in the low 50’s F.  This chill, combined with the non-stop rain showers, have made the past few days rather unpleasant.  Normally warm and sunny with bright blue skies during the day and cooler, dry air in the evenings, the high-altitude desert of Guanajuato state is usually an ideal locale to spend some time during the winter months.

Yet the region has had a significant drought in recent months, with the normally wet summer producing inadequate rainfall.  Wells are low, the lakes far below the normal depths, and there are reports of cattle dying in the fields.  Mother Nature has not been kind to the region last year.  Sanmiguelenses had been praying for rain – fortunately for them past few days have generously spawned downpours and frequent passing showers.  This soaking rain will go far in replenishing the local supply of fresh water much to the satisfaction of all of us that depending on it.

Continue reading ‘Las lluvias del invierno… Museums and Mummies in Guanajuato’ »