The World’s Most Green Cities

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From offering plentiful bike paths and thriving farmers’ markets to ensuring cleaner air, a city’s environmental efforts don’t just help the planet – they benefit residents too. Related article: Living in – the world's friendliest cities According to the Siemens Green City Index, an ongoing project researched by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the world’s greenest [...]

From offering plentiful bike paths and thriving farmers’ markets to ensuring cleaner air, a city’s environmental efforts don’t just help the planet – they benefit residents too.

According to the Siemens Green City Index, an ongoing project researched by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the world’s greenest cities score high marks in CO2 emissions, transportation options, water and waste management, and overall environmental governance.

Different urban areas have different sustainability strengths, so we talked to residents in the top-ranked cities across the globe to find out what living in them is like.

Vancouver, British Columbia
Compared to other cities of its size, Vancouver scored incredibly well in C02 emissions and air quality, due in part to the city’s emphasis on promoting green energy and its use of hydropower. Vancouver has vowed to reduce emissions by 33% by 2020.

Vancouver, British Columbia, gardening, green, eco-friendly
One of Vancouver’s many gardens. (AFP/Getty)

That commitment doesn’t surprise resident Lorne Craig, who moved to the city from Calgary in 1985 and writes the Green Briefs blog. “Vancouver has been home to a deeper green counter-culture since the 1960s and is recognized worldwide as the birthplace of Greenpeace,” he said. “Mountains tower over the city. It reminds everyone here that we are part of something bigger and more beautiful.”

As other cities continued building freeways that promoted driving and sprawl, Vancouver remained committed to urban living, as evidenced by the development of Granville Island, a pedestrian-friendly peninsula where residents frequent large public market and art studios.

Plenty of other Vancouver neighborhoods are eco-friendly too. A large network of bike routes makes cycling around town easy, especially West 10th Avenue, where people regularly cruise on bikes, electric scooters, and even unicycles. Craig said the neighborhoods of Commercial Drive and Strathcona, both east of downtown, are “more left-wing green” – meaning, more politically active – while Kitsilano to the west and the Main Street neighborhood to the south of downtown is “more the Prius type of green” – wealthier, with a more laid-back approach to activism.

Curitiba, Brazil
Of all the cities on the South American Siemens Index, only Curitiba scores above average in the green rankings. After building one of the planet’s first large-scale, rapid-transit bus systems in the 1960s and developing a world-leading recycling program in the 1980s, the southern Brazilian city continues to be environmentally forward-thinking. In fact, the heavy use of public transportation means Curitiba has one of the highest air qualities in the index.

Curitiba, botanical garden, Brazil, green city, eco-friendly
Curitiba’s botanical garden. (David Silverman/Getty)

However, the city could use some revitalization, according to resident Stephen Green, who moved to Curitiba 15 years ago from London and writes the city lifestyle blog Head of the Heard. While Curitiba plans to build a metro system and an additional 300km in bike routes, the projects are expensive and the city needs more funding to complete them. Still, compared to other cities in the region, “Curitiba is excellent,” Green said.

Green lives in Merces, a traditional city-center neighborhood that’s popular with older residents. “We have a good market on Sundays, decent public transport links and the biggest park in the city is close by,” he said. Farmers’ markets move around the city, helping residents find local organic produce.

Copenhagen, Denmark
Though fellow Scandinavian cities Oslo and Stockholm trail close behind, Copenhagen consistently ranks as Europe’s greenest city. Almost all of the residents live within 350m of public transportation and more than 50% regularly use a bicycle to commute. As a result, Copenhagen has extremely low C02 emissions for a city its size.

Copenhagen, Denmark, windmills, eco-friendly
Windmills off Copenhagen. (Tore Johannesen/Getty)

While the entire city is bike-friendly, the districts of Nørrebro in the northwest and Frederiksberg in the west are especially committed to cycling, said Copenhagen native Mia Kristine Jessen Petersen. “They’ve spent a lot of money creating “Den Grønne Sti [the Green Path], a 9km-long path for walking and biking,” she said. “The Green Path is made to help cyclists get through the city fast and easy in the beautiful scenery. But the path isn’t just a path; it’s also filled with parks, playgrounds, benches, and different terrain, so the scenery shifts at every turn.” Grønne Sti ends in Valby, 4km outside of downtown, a district popular with families who live there for its plentiful parks, schools and safe streets.

In addition to their love of cycling, Copenhagen residents are passionate about recycling and composting, as well as conserving electricity and heat. “Danes see nature as a sacred haven,” Petersen said. “We do whatever we can to take care of the nature we have in the cities and to get more.”

San Francisco, California
San Francisco ranks as North America’s greenest city in the index. The city has a long history of environmental consciousness stretching back to the founding of the Sierra Club environmental group in the 19th Century. San Francisco has a 77% recycling rate, one of the highest in the world, made possible through city mandates requiring the separation of recyclable and compostable materials from regular garbage.

San Francisco, eco-friendly, recycling, restaurant
Recycling at a San Francisco restaurant. (Justin Sullivan/Getty)

“We are surrounded by stunning natural beauty, and we have a history of progressiveness and open-mindedness,” said Donna Sky, who moved to the city from Costa Rica nine years ago and founded the locally produced hummus company Love & Hummus. Local farms also contribute: Many residents care where and how their food is produced and strive to eat food produced nearby.

To that end, many neighborhoods have their own farmers’ markets, each with a distinctive character. North of the Panhandle – NoPa for short – has a market that’s open throughout the year, whereas the Mission and central Haight-Ashbury (famous for its hippie culture and Victorian houses) have seasonal markets.

All three neighborhoods are also bike-friendly due to their flat topography, said Jarie Bolander, a long-time Bay Area resident and past president of the North of Panhandle Neighborhood Association. “Each of these neighborhoods has its own unique vibe,” he said. “NOPA is primarily young professionals and civically minded, while the Haight is a healthy mix of aging hippies and hipsters.”

Cape Town, South Africa
South Africa’s second-largest city is making some of the biggest environmental strides in Africa, in part by pushing for more energy conservation and greater use of renewable resources. In 2008, Cape Town started using energy from the country’s first commercial wind farm and now aims to get 10% of its energy from renewable resources by 2020.

These efforts are transforming life in the city. “More bike routes are becoming available, farmers markets are very popular, and chefs definitely place a premium on sourcing ingredients and produce locally,” said resident Sarah Khan, who moved to Cape Town from New York City in 2013 and writes The South African blog. Still, she believes the city could do more to improve public transportation and prevent the electricity shortages that are becoming increasingly common.

Cape Town, Camps Bay, eco-friendly, green, South Africa
Cycling Camps Bay, Cape Town. (Franz Marc Frei/Getty)

Locals tend to have an “outdoorsy nature” and aren’t afraid to hop on a bike to get around. “The most bike-friendly areas to live within the city are definitely Seapoint and Greenpoint, where there is great cycle infrastructure,” said Leonie Mervis, the founder, and director of urban cycling campaign Bicycle Cape Town. Though the city center itself doesn’t have as many dedicated cycling routes, bikes are allowed for free on the My Citi rapid bus service, making the city easy to get around in without a car.

Mervis lives in Hout Bay, a neighborhood 20km south of the central business district that’s home to many creative types and environmentally conscious residents. “Many people living in our community have solar energy systems and grow their own vegetables,” Mervis said. “We also have an environmental committee that works to support green initiatives and rehabilitate and care for the surrounding open space system.”

Source: BBC Travel

Not Just Summer: 6 Reasons to Head to Greece in Winter

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Greece is so closely linked to summer vacations that it rarely features in winter escape plans. That's a shame, because while it rules the Mediterranean in the heat of July and August, it's also got some pretty cool moves in the dead of December. Falling temperatures sprinkle new magic on stone-built villages lost in deep [...]


Greece is so closely linked to summer vacations that it rarely features in winter escape plans.

That’s a shame, because while it rules the Mediterranean in the heat of July and August, it’s also got some pretty cool moves in the dead of December.

Falling temperatures sprinkle new magic on stone-built villages lost in deep forests and medieval castles built into that beautiful Greek coastline.

Throw vibrant cities into the mix, along with buzzing ski resorts — yes, ski resorts — and a whole new perspective of the country opens up.

Here are six classy places to consider for a Greek winter getaway.

For romantic escapes: Aristi Mountain Resort Hotel & Spa (Zagorochoria, Aristi)

A hidden mountainous treasure in the Epirus region of northwestern Greece, Zagorochoria is a complex of 46 stone-built villages.

This parkland ecosystem is where locals take special guests to illustrate their ideals of natural beauty.

Scenic mountain roads and traditional arched stone bridges interconnect tiny villages filled with guesthouses and little cafes.

Aristi Mountain Resort, in the village of Aristi, is ideal for exploring the region.

Located atop the village, the resort enjoys grand views of the “Towers of Astraka,” the striking rock cliffs that dominate the skyline.

Accommodation includes rooms scattered around a complex of stone buildings and three newly built villas.

Its spa facilities feature an indoor heated pool with stunning views of the surrounding area, while its Salvia restaurant serves local specialties and fine Greek wines.

Aristi Mountain Resort Hotel & Spa, Aristi, Zagorochoria, Erirus; +30 26530 41330;winter prices from $136 per standard double room per night with breakfast

For city breaks: The Excelsior Luxury Boutique Hotel (Thessaloniki)

The main hub for northern Greece, Thessaloniki is an all-year round destination.

A hotspot, compact in size, the city’s Tsimiski, Mitropoleos and Proksenou Koromila streets are filled with fashionable boutiques.

There are fancy bars along Valaoritou Street, and many restaurants in between.

Its many engaging museums, important archaeological sites and byzantine monuments are an ideal winter cultural fix.

Thessaloniki’s art deco Excelsior hotel is a destination in itself, housed in a historic building right in the heart of the city, a few steps from the main Aristotelous Square.

An opulent marble staircase leads upstairs to 34 rooms individually designed by a team of well known architects and featuring original art by young and emerging Greek artists.

The Excelsior Luxury Boutique Hotel, 10 Komninon St./23 Mitropoleos Ave. 546 24, Thessaloniki; +30 2310 021 020/+30 2310 021 000; winter prices from $175 per standard double room per night with breakfast

MORE: Will new seaplane service open up Greek islands?

For mountains and sea: Sakali Mansion (Pelion, Pinakates)

Hiking trails, villages and ski slopes with panoramic views of the Aegean Sea and the Pagasetic Gulf make Pelion a strong winter destination.

The mythical mountain of Centaurs lies in the southeast part of the Thessaly region, forming a peninsula surrounded by water.

Pinakates village, in west Pelion, looks like a scene from a painting, with stunning mansions and photogenic cobbled streets.

One of them, Sakali mansion, is a stylishly renovated 18th-century building converted into an immaculate guest house. It features a heady blend of traditional architecture and warm hospitality, with a dash of chic.

Its rooms feature original artwork, restored antiques, handmade rugs and fancy toiletries.

Some also include fireplaces.

The highlight is an antique-filled two-room suite with a king-size bed and wooden ceiling.

It’s rich, burgundy interior looks out over great views of the surrounding area.

Sakali Mansion Luxury Guesthouse, Pinakates, Pelion; +30 6932 429150/+30 24230 86560/+30 210 9657584; winter prices from $125 per standard double room per night with breakfast

For snowy scenery: Anerada Inn (Evritania, Megalo Horio)

Located in the heart of Greece, the Evritania region has traditional villages, stunning gorges, heavily forested mountains and historic monasteries.

There’s plenty to do outdoors, including snow-fueled fun at Velouhi Ski Resort, on the slopes of Mount Tymfristos, followed by apres ski in the lively regional capital, Karpenisi.

Nearby, plenty of attractive villages offer traditional guesthouses and boutique hotels.

In Megalo Horio (“big village”), the Anerada Inn boutique hotel serves as an ideal base to explore the area.

Both the interior and exterior of this getaway feature romantic country-style decor.

The Garden Cottage is a two-story garden house with a fireplace that’ll come in handy on cold, winter nights.

There’s also a well thought out wine selection.

Anerada Inn boutique hotel, Megalo Horio, 360 75, Karpenissi, Evritania; +30 6944-505045/+30 22370-41479; winter prices from $120 per standard double room per night with breakfast

MORE: Which Greek island should you go to?

For year-round seaside escapes: Kyrimai Hotel (Mani, Gerolimenas)

Located on the middle of the three peninsulas of southern mainland Greece’s historic Peloponnese region, Mani stands at the meeting point of the Ionian and Aegean Seas.

Home to more than 96 traditional villages, Mani is dotted with traditional tower houses, Byzantine churches, sheltered coves, gorges and a coastline that provides a dramatic backdrop for any winter road trip.

There’s a local saying: “You need three lives to fully understand Mani’s soul: one for its sea, one for its mountains and one for its people.”

The Kyrimai Hotel helps visitors make a start on all of these.

Built in 1870 on the small bay of Gerolimenas to give the area a commercial boost, the Kyrimai started life as a residence, an old shop, a warehouse and an imposing tower.

Today, its been carefully restored and converted into a luxurious hotel run by the Kyrimis family.

Protected by the Greek government, the building is listed as a unique historic monument of traditional Maniot architecture.

Its tastefully decorated rooms, 23 in total, are all different in style.

Kyrimai Hotel, Gerolimenas, Mani; +30 27330 54288; winter prices from $100 per classic standard room per night with breakfast

For dramatic scenery: Moni Emvasis Luxury Suites (Monemvasia)

In the southern Peloponnese, the old town of Monemvasia is one of Greece’s best-preserved Byzantine citadels.

It’s a fairy tale-style castle, off limits to cars, located on a small islet linked to the mainland by a bridge.

It looks as if it’s floating on the Myrtoon Sea.

It’s surrounded by aristocratic mansions, churches, hammams, fountains and winding paths.

Monemvasia’s important role during the Byzantine period is still evident in the walls that dive into the deep blue sea.

Just 50 meters inside the castle town’s entrance, Moni Emvasis Luxury Suites features a restored complex of private, stone-built suites with views over the sea.

Suites here feature limestone domed arches, vaulted and wooden beamed ceilings and handcrafted stone masonry.

There are also amazonian showers with chromotherapy and spa bathtubs.

Furnished, private balconies look out over the fortress, the town and Aegean Sea.

Source: CNN

The Show that Redefined a City, Miami Vice

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It’s hard to imagine now, amid the sea of luxury high rises and shiny sports cars, but during the early 1980s, Miami was a disaster of a city. Well-armed drug lords, better known as cocaine cowboys or marijuana millionaires, helped transformed the place into a warzone; Miami had the highest murder rate in the world. [...]


It’s hard to imagine now, amid the sea of luxury high rises and shiny sports cars, but during the early 1980s, Miami was a disaster of a city. Well-armed drug lords, better known as cocaine cowboys or marijuana millionaires, helped transformed the place into a warzone; Miami had the highest murder rate in the world. Yet amid all that blight, a couple of guys saw gold. TV writer Anthony Yerkovich teamed with producer Michael Mann to create a cop drama that would redefine television and the city in which the show was set: Miami Vice.

Cue Crockett and Tubbs.

Crocket and Tubbs, Miami Vice, Miami
Crockett and Tubbs, played by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. (Silver Screen Collection/Getty)

The show premiered in the US 30 years ago and was ultimately syndicated in 77 countries, introducing viewers to two dapper undercover narcotics officers played by too-cool-for-school Don Johnson and hot-as-hell Philip Michael Thomas. It also introduced a fleet of cigarette boats, sports cars and bikini clad women set against the backdrop of Miami’s Art Deco architecture. Add Jan Hammer’s thumping theme song and a killer New Wave soundtrack, and Miami Vice created a character arguably sexier than Armani-clad Crockett and Tubbs: the city of Miami.

Does that Miami – the show’s Miami – still exist? I wanted to find out.

I didn’t have to spend more than a few minutes in the city to see that Miami has spruced itself up considerably since the ’80s. But the city is a work in progress; more than a few cranes loom above multi-million-dollar condo construction sites.

I strolled through the Brickell neighbourhood, just south of Miami’s downtown, past the intersection that was home to the show’s Organized Crime Bureau of the Metro-Dade Police Department, better known as Miami Vice. The building – covertly labelled in the show as “Gold Coast Shipping Company” to keep their anti-narcotics operation undercover – was where Crockett and Tubbs debriefed cases. Today, the building is just a memory, and the intersection of SW 7th Street and SW 2nd Avenue where it sat is shadowed by a looming luxury apartment complex; a brightly lit Publix supermarket lies steps away.

Miami, Miami skyline, Miami Vice
Blue sky over Miami. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty)

But I didn’t have to travel far to reach another iconic Miami Vice location. Just south of the show’s former headquarters along Brickell’s bayfront lies the 20-storey Atlantis Condominium building with its shocking, square hole in the centre – the building was featured in the show’s opening credits. The Atlantis telegraphed just the kind of futuristic cool image that producers wanted. As the sleazy racketeer Vinnie DeMarco played by Joe Dallesandro remarked in one episode, “If Miami hasn’t got it, they haven’t invented it yet.”

But 30 years later, the Atlantis’ dark, mirrored exterior and relatively squat height look dated, particularly compared to neighbouring buildings – newer, sleek white towers with gleaming, pale-tinted glass and balconies.

Miami, The Atlantis Condominium, Miami Vice
The Atlantis Condominium, completed in 1982. (Valerie Conners)

Of course, Miami’s shimmering turquoise water featured prominently in the show, and just north of Brickell in Miami’s downtown I found the Miamarina, a marina filled with flashy yachts and speedboats where Crockett docked his houseboat, the St Vitus Dance.

The marina now houses the sprawling Bayside Marketplace, a hub of shops, restaurants and bars. Crockett’s dock no longer exists; the place has been completely remodelled since the ‘80s, and the St Vitus,portrayed by three different yachts over the show’s five lifespan, is long gone from the marina.

Miami, Bayside Marketplace, Miami Vice
The waterfront Bayside Marketplace. (Valerie Conners)

The marina makes the roster of sights visited by one local tour operator, Speedboat Tours, whose boat also zips past Hibiscus Island and a mansion whose exterior and waterfront deck stood in for a drug dealer’s house.

“Really, if it wasn’t for Miami Vice, the tourists wouldn’t be here,” said tour guide Michael Lynch. “The show transformed the city. In those days, people used to call Miami ‘heaven’s waiting room’. It was old people playing chess and waiting to see God, and it was also the deadliest city in the country.”

But Miami changed. In a way, it was life – city life – imitating art.

“People started filming music videos, doing fashion shoots here,” Lynch said. “This drew models and people looking to be discovered, and then, tourists from around the world.”

South Beach and the Art Deco buildings along Ocean Avenue were an ideal backdrop for videos and photo spreads, and not surprisingly featured heavily in countless scenes throughout Miami Vice’s five seasons.

By the time filming of the show commenced in the early 1980s, groups like the Miami Design Preservation League had succeeded in getting the city’s Art Deco District listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but designation offered no protection from demolition; only local ordinances could protect the buildings from being razed.

When Vice was filming, producers noticed the decaying Art Deco buildings, and also their bland, beige colours. Producer Mann had taken the extraordinary step of declaring that no earth tones be used in the show. Something had to give.

“Location scouts would see they wanted to shoot a particular building, but the colours were wrong,” says Judith Frankel of the Preservation League. “They would actually find the building’s owner and ask if they could paint it.”

Suddenly the area was awash in vibrant hues: pink, green, turquoise, yellow.

“The colours became synonymous with Miami Beach,” Frankel said. “People are seeing these bright colours and associating their liveliness with Miami.”

Investment followed, and then local ordinances were passed to protect the buildings.

South Beach and its Art Deco buildings appear in all five seasons of the show; in fact, they’re viewers’ first glimpse of Miami in the show’s two-hour premiere.

Miami, South Beach, Carlyle Hotel
Th Carlyle Hotel. (Jeff Overs/Getty)

Among the show’s Art Deco stars was The Carlyle Hotel. In one episode, Crockett, in his usual aloof, linen-bedecked glory, stands outside, watching in distaste as a street dancer busts a move on the otherwise empty blacktop. “Five thousand street corners in Miami,” he said, “and Gumby here has got to pick ours.”

The Carlyle didn’t look half bad in the show – a little seedy maybe, but with potted plants out front. Walking past the Carlyle today, I noticed it shines neon-bright as one of Ocean Drive’s sleekest hotels. At night, crowds of club-goers teeter past on stiletto heels or swig booze out of margarita glasses the size of their faces.

In a 1989 interview with the New York Times, creator Yerkovich noted, “When we got there, the Art Deco district was somewhat threadbare … Now it’s up to its Ray Bans in espresso.”

The thing is, there’s still an awful lot of espresso here, and really, a remarkable number of Ray-Bans.

Glimpsing the ghosts of Miami Vice in Miami isn’t hard. After five seasons and more than 100 episodes, great stretches of the city made their way onto the show. Incredibly, Miami Vice highlighted everything wrong with the town – drug cartels, corruption, loads of violence – but did so in a way that made Miami look gorgeous.

If Miami Vice worked to make a troubled city sparkle, today Miami dazzles on its own.

Source: BBC Travel

Seeking the Thrill: Extreme Hikers go the Distance

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(CNN) -- They had been in Nepal for a week trying to reach Thorong La Pass, 17,769 feet above sea level, when they were caught in a snowstorm, unable to make it to the nearest village. Avalanches roared down the mountain. Jeremy Aerts and his girlfriend May Wong pressed on: Extreme hiking enthusiasts, they had [...]


(CNN) — They had been in Nepal for a week trying to reach Thorong La Pass, 17,769 feet above sea level, when they were caught in a snowstorm, unable to make it to the nearest village.

Avalanches roared down the mountain.

Jeremy Aerts and his girlfriend May Wong pressed on: Extreme hiking enthusiasts, they had committed to making it all the way through.

For some people, the idea of facing such obstacles — especially voluntarily — seems crazy. And yet many in the extreme hiking community wouldn’t have it any other way.

The new film “Wild,” based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed, chronicles a grueling solo hike along 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail, on the border with Mexico, after Strayed’s divorce and the death of her mother.

The movie, which hits theaters Friday, might encourage more travelers to try extreme hiking.

Aerts, 30, a GIS analyst from Pittsburgh, describes that night in Nepal this past spring as the closest he has ever been to death.

Despite being unable to see 10 feet ahead of them, Aerts and Wong continued.

“At one point the wind was so strong it knocked me off my feet,” said Aerts. “We had to break into an abandoned cabin just before dark to spend the night with our guide and another trekking group.”

The payoff came the next day when the couple reached the tiny village of Muktinath, surrounded by Himalayan peaks.

“It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever had the chance to see,” he said.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Aerts hikes.

“I love the sense of adventure and challenge that it presents,” he said. “I like the idea of never really knowing what to expect around the next corner.”

Mohit Samant, a 27-year-old software engineer from Kansas City, Kansas, got a similar feeling about hiking when he visited Guatemala a year ago in his most memorable of many hikes.

He had half a mind to quit midway through his hike through the Pacaya volcano due to the incredibly steep terrain, but the hikers with him motivated him to continue to the top.

Ultimately, he said it was the best hiking excursion he has done.

He was able to admire views of three other nearby volcanoes: Agua, Fuego and Acatenango, making the whole experience — three hours on foot — well worth it.

Besides the surge of adrenaline, these adventures pay off with some amazing photo ops. Check out the gallery to see more photos you can only take on extreme hikes.


A Journey Deep Inside Spain’s Temple of Cave Art

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I gasped at my first glimpse of a cave painting: a crude red outline of a deer with one wild circle for an eye. Its iron pigments blazed under the lamplight. The illusion of a breastbone emerged, ingeniously, out of a hump in the limestone wall. After a while, a cave becomes a long black [...]


I gasped at my first glimpse of a cave painting: a crude red outline of a deer with one wild circle for an eye. Its iron pigments blazed under the lamplight. The illusion of a breastbone emerged, ingeniously, out of a hump in the limestone wall. After a while, a cave becomes a long black tunnel of sensory deprivation; the sight of this tender image jolted my breath back to life.

“Can you tell you’re in a sacred place?” asked Marcos Garcia Diez, the archaeologist who had agreed to show me some of the most breathtaking rock art ever created. “This cave is like a church and that’s why ancient people returned, returned, returned here for thousands of years.”

Jutting from the base of a mountain about 85km west of Bilbao, El Castillo is one of the world’s most celebrated rock art temples. When Homo sapiens first began their northward migration from Africa to Europe around 40,000 years ago, some joined the Neanderthals here in Cantabria, a region that is home to at least 40 painted caves, including El Castillo. So magnificent are the province’s primordial masterpieces that when Picasso visited, he reportedly declared, “We have learned nothing in 12,000 years.”

El Castillo cave, entrance, Cantabria, Spain
The entrance to El Castillo cave. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Unlike France, which has barred the public from entering its greatest cave art sites, Lascaux and Chauvet, Spain’s culture ministry has kept El Castillo open to the public, allowing up to 260 visitors per day. Officials even recently opened the nearby Altamira cave, the so-called “Sistine Chapel of rock art”, to five visitors per week through February 2015.

Incredibly, El Castillo’s deer painting, along with renderings of archetypal bison, horned ibex and extinct cows, were merely a prelude to my ultimate goal: to see, deep within the cave, an extraordinary smudge of calcite-encrusted red paint – by all accounts, a treasure found nowhere else on the globe.

Two years ago, Diez and a team of archaeologists discovered that the smudge – a red disc painted in a corridor known as the “Panel of Hands” – was much older than previously realised. In a 2012 study published in the journal Science, they revealed that the painting was at least 40,800 years old – making it the earliest-known cave painting on Earth.

Gallery of the Discs, El Castillo cave, Cantabria caves, Spain, ancient cave art
Gallery of the Discs in El Castillo. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

Diez and his colleagues argued that the painting was so old, in fact, that it might predate modern man’s arrival in this part of the world, and thus may actually be the work of a Neanderthal. With more research, Diez thinks they will soon discover even older paintings.

The revelations did not come without controversy, but it wasn’t the methodology that experts quarrelled with. Many agree that the standard practice of radiocarbon dating is limited at best; it applies only to charcoal works and loses reliability after about 35,000 years. To go back further, into the age of Neanderthals, Diez and his colleagues borrowed a technique from military science for dating the radioactive uranium that appears in calcite. They tested formations of the mineral that had grown atop paintings in 11 caves, assuming that whatever its age, the underlying paint had to be at least as old, and possibly much older. (The method proved so successful that other researchers used it to make another major discovery in October 2014: a 39,900-year-old handprint in Indonesia that is now considered the world’s second-oldest painting.)

What did cause contention was the suggestion that Neanderthals may have been responsible for the art – a divisive theory that threatens to disrupt decades of scholarship on the origins of human creativity. Scientists have long claimed that our thicker-skulled ancestors were not intelligent enough to make art. But today, a growing number of scholars argues that the characterization of Neanderthals as boneheaded beasts is an outdated, sapian-centric construction – even a kind of bigotry. As Gregory Curtis described in his book The Cave Painters, some view Neanderthals as “the very first victims of imperialism”.

None of this seemed of particular interest to Diez, however, as he led me deeper into the cave, guiding me through narrow verges and up muddy inclines. He thinks of himself as a “dirt archaeologist” – more interested in exploration than debate.

Yet Diez still enjoys asking impossible questions about the meaning of cave art. “Why do you think they painted so many of these?” he said, squatting beneath a rough but unmistakable sketch of a bison. Before I could answer, he explained how some ethnographers theorize that ancient hunters painted these prized sources of meat with the shamanistic belief that pictures could summon the animals. This “hunting magic” theory works a little like voodoo: representation as actualisation.

El Castillo cave, Panel of Hands, Cantabria, Spanish cave art
Detail of two hands. (S.RECD/Government of Cantabria)

While Diez forged ahead, I stopped at the Panel of Hands, the site of dozens of handprints stencilled in ochre. I held my palm up a few inches from one of the outlines. I wanted to press down upon it, as if to gain access to some ancestor who, 1,600 generations ago, also laid a hand against this stone.

When Diez turned back, he flashed his light on my hand, still mid-air. “That. What you’re doing right now,” he said. “That, I think, is the reason for the paintings.” As I looked at my palm still hovering over the handprint, I realised he was right.

It was the innate human impulse to connect to something bigger than oneself. The wall was more than a canvas, it was a threshold – “a being”, Diez said. In this view, the cave is a kind of Palaeolithic church, where paintings are scriptures and creativity is the measure of divinity.

“We’re close,” Diez said as we continued down the rocky chute. By now, it had taken us nearly three hours to walk – and often crawl – through the 1km-long labyrinth, and I sensed that we were circling back near the entrance.

Sure enough, a minute later, the hollow widened and Diez flashed his light onto a low, shadowy wall. There it was: the oldest-known painting in the world. Nothing more than a fist-sized red splotch.

“Is it everything you expected?” he asked.

I fumbled for an answer, but only more questions came to mind: Was this the work of history’s first artist? Did it represent the moment mankind transcended the animals?

The marking struck me as a kind of vanishing point: the furthest visible moment on the plane of human history. Yet as I stood before it, all of time seemed to melt into illusion, and I began to understand why we so often describe the ineffable with inadequacies like “spiritual” or “transcendent”. Sometimes we must simply surrender to the unfamiliar, to the limitations of our knowledge, perception and language.

So I replied, truthfully, “It’s so much more.”

Source: BBC Travel


Ancient Drink in Mexico Makes a Comeback

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Those who are familiar with pulque will tell you that it won’t get you intoxicated – not exactly. Mexico’s oldest alcoholic beverage works in strange ways. “You can sit there and drink pulque for hours and you just don't get drunk,” said my friend Donnie Masterson, an expert in Mexico’s epicurean delights. “Then you get [...]


Those who are familiar with pulque will tell you that it won’t get you intoxicated – not exactly. Mexico’s oldest alcoholic beverage works in strange ways.

“You can sit there and drink pulque for hours and you just don’t get drunk,” said my friend Donnie Masterson, an expert in Mexico’s epicurean delights. “Then you get up to leave and realize your legs don’t really work right. Your mind is completely clear, but your body doesn’t work.”

pulque, Mexico City, La Botijona bar
Coconut pulque on ice. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)

Pulque also has a penchant for making gringos like myself sick. In fact, whenever I mentioned the beverage during a recent trip to Mexico, I was usually met with the kind of tempting warning an evil older brother gives his younger sibling – something akin to, “I don’t know if you should try it. It’s only for real men.”

Obviously, I had to try it.

Pulque is the stuff of legend. The frothy white beverage predates the arrival of the Spanish by at least 1,500 years; it’s the ancient ancestor of mescal and tequila. All three drinks come from the same family of plants, but pulque is made by fermenting – as opposed to distilling – the sap of maguey, or agave. The maguey plant can take eight to 12 years to reach maturity and produce sap, or aguamiel – literally honey water. Fermentation starts almost immediately after the plant is cut and the aguamiel begins to run; the beverage continues to ferment – and become more alcoholic – as it makes its way down your throat. It’s usually between 2% and 8% alcohol but tends toward the lower end of the spectrum.

Agave, pulque, Oaxaca, Mexico
Agave plant in Oaxaca state. (Brad Cohen)

For some Indians of the central highlands, pulque was once at the centre of their religion and the cure for just about everything – from diabetes and intestinal problems to sleep disorders. (Pulque is reportedly a great source of probiotics, protein, and various vitamins and minerals, too.) In its long and strange life, it’s been used as an aphrodisiac, a fuel for celebrations, and to ease the pain of sacrificial victims. Because it’s so vitamin- and mineral-rich, it was once consumed in arid parts of Mexico when water was scarce, and some pregnant women and new mothers still drink it to promote health and lactation.

While it’s known as the Aztec drink of the gods, to the uninitiated, pulque seems anything but divine. Before I ever tried it, I listened to dozens of people struggle to describe its texture. Descriptions were invariably of the sexual or scatological variety – filthy and vivid enough to make a ranchero blush.

La Risa, bar, pulque, pulque curado, Mexico
Pulque with friends at La Risa. (Brad Cohen)

My first battle with pulque was in the centre of Mexico City at a pulqueria called La Risa, whose saloon-style swinging doors have been open to pulque faithful since 1903. For years, pulquerias like La Risa flourished in Mexico, with more than 1,000 in Mexico City and the surrounding farming regions. But between the early 20th Century and early 21st that number tumbled to around 80. Cerveza (beer), which arrived in Mexico with the Spanish, took pulque’s place behind the bar, thanks to beer’s relatively long shelf life and status-symbol image.

But in the last five or six years, pulque has made a small resurgence, thanks mostly to young artists and punks who view the ancient drink as everything beer is not — fiercely Mexican.

Inside La Risa, tattooed and pierced punks, a man in a business suit and a crowd of teenage girls who insisted they were “old enough” to drink were gulping down pulque.  Murals of dragons and Mayahuel (the goddess of maguey), and pictures of the Virgin Mary, surrounded small, stained metal tables.

A metal bucket of pulque was soon placed before me, along with an accompanying pink scoop. In colour and texture, the drink resembled the top of a pancake just before it’s ready to flip; it certainly didn’t resemble anything meant to be drunk. When my nose first got a whiff of its pungent, acidic odour, my stomach began to churn.

I poured a glass and strings of the viscous liquid clung to the scoop like mucous that refuses to fully drop from the nose after a violent sneeze. I took a deep breath, braced myself and brought a glass to my lips.

It wasn’t bad. Actually, it was almost enjoyable except for the unsettling feeling I had that pulque was meant to be consumed only on a very serious dare – like eating insects for the first time.

After finishing the bucket, my Mexican friends asked if I was ready to try pure pulque. Apparently, the beverage I had just ingested was curado, or cured pulque, in this case mixed with oatmeal, which explained the slight sweetness. Pulque curado, which is mixed with any number of flavours but usually fruit, became popular in the early 19th Century, perhaps as a way to make the beverage palatable to more people. Today, at least with the younger crowds of Mexico City’s resurgent pulque scene, curado is at least as popular as pure pulque.

I wanted to sample uncured pulque, but after piling one-third of a bucket of curado on top of a bellyful of chilaquiles, that seemed like a bad idea. Besides, I was told, the fresher the pulque, the better. It would be best to go straight to the source.

About 270km northwest of Mexico City in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, I got my first chance to sample pure pulque, as it was made 2,000 years ago.  In the parking lot of a market on the edge of town, I approached a boy manning a small table. He couldn’t have been older than 12. He sat in front of a water cooler full of chalk-white pulque. It was a hissing, frothing cauldron.

The boy funnelled the pulque into two used 2L soda bottles and closed the top. The liquid attempted to bubble its way back out of the bottle, wheezing like an angry rat and smelling of acid and yeast and human gas. This is what my friends and I would be drinking – a litre each, apparently, for a combined 80 pesos.

We sat on the curb in front of a band of idle musicians and began to drink. The texture was less offensive than that of the curado – more like spit than mucus. It was room temperature, sour, acidic and yeasty. The first cup was a little hard to get down, but as I continued to drink, I warmed up to the flavour. It even started tasting a little fruity. By the third glass, I had acquired a taste for the drink of the Aztec gods. My limbs began to relax and my mind was still clear. A smile was plastered across my face. The band launched into a song.

Under the heat of the Mexican sun, I watched the guys pluck their strings. The room-temperature pulque might not have been as refreshing as sipping an ice-cold cerveza, but at that moment, it tasted just right.

Source: BBC Travel


A Quest to see Canada’s Orcas in the Wild

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This is exactly why I’d come to British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait – to find killer whales. Related article: Eyeball to eyeball with Canada's migrating salmon My first wildlife memories are of visits to Moose Jaw's Wild Animal Park, a now-closed collection of small concrete enclosures and pony rides 50km from Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, and 2,000km [...]


This is exactly why I’d come to British Columbia’s Johnstone Strait – to find killer whales.

My first wildlife memories are of visits to Moose Jaw’s Wild Animal Park, a now-closed collection of small concrete enclosures and pony rides 50km from Saskatchewan’s capital, Regina, and 2,000km from the west coast. The experiences offered a window to another world, and I was so moved, I spent my childhood role-playing as an animal trainer. But I’d since learned animals need bigger cages and tanks, or none at all.

The plight of killer whales, in particular, gained renewed attention in 2013 with the release of the documentary Blackfish. The film criticized the treatment of captive orcas at United States’ SeaWorld parks and prompted protests over the whales’ well-being and the safety of trainers. Stock prices dropped, along with attendance at the parks. SeaWorld, meanwhile, announced plans to nearly double the size of the orcas’ tank in San Diego.

I came here to the birthplace of western Canadian whale watching to see how viewing orcas in the wild might compare to an aquarium’s front-row seats. Roughly 250 Northern Resident orcas reside in the waters near northern Vancouver Island, eating salmon and growing up to 9m long. Another 250 Biggs killer whales also pass through the area, feeding on a steady diet of marine mammals. Whale sightings are common, and now, perhaps because of a boom in harbour seal and Pacific white-sided dolphin populations, sightings of orca hunts – though still rare – are occurring with greater frequency.

I joined five others aboard the MV Gikumi, a converted tugboat, on Orcella Expeditions’ five-day exploration in the teeming waters east of north Vancouver Island – an area Orcella refers to as Blackfish Archipelago that includes the 110km-long Johnstone Strait. Our captain was Jim Borrowman, who has no fewer than three decades of experience tracking orcas in these waters.

Gikumi, British Columbia, Johnstone Strait, Vancouver Island
The Gikumi between outings. (Carol Patterson)

As our boat glided through the strait’s choppy waters, I heard the orcas before I saw them. The blows sounded like muffled gunshots. Then I saw a dorsal fin, and the orca’s inky-black hide broke the surface, a bubbling wake at its head. Its blowhole spray shot into the air. Adrenaline coursed through me. A fellow passenger shrieked. A Swiss photographer began muttering, his voice betraying deep awe.

Borrowman pointed out a distinctive pale-grey saddle patch behind the dorsal fin and identified the orca as one he sees frequently: a 43-year-old male known as A38. Each local whale has been photographed and classified by matriline, or a family of whales descended from a matriarch. In the case of A38, he stayed with his mother until she died, relying on her superior fishing skills for sustenance. In fact, all Northern Resident male orcas stick closely to their mothers. So strong are the family bonds that a male orca has a 14 times greater chance of dying in the year after his mother dies because of his struggle to feed himself.

As the whales got closer, we saw the 17 members of the A30 and A42 matrilines swimming in small groups, their rapid back and forth movements hinting that they might be on the hunt. A humpback whale that had been feeding nearby squealed and slapped its tail, sidling up to our boat.

Jackie Hildering of the Marine Education and Research Society, a guest naturalist on board, explained that the baleen whale was trying to intimidate the orcas to avoid being attacked, since Biggs orcas kill humpbacks. But luckily for the larger whale, the nearby orcas were Northern Residents that eat fish, not other whales.

As we kicked back on the top deck for lunch, the orcas moved languidly in a tight group near the surface. Deckhand Bruce Paterson said they were resting, or as close to sleep as whales get. Unlike humans, whales must consciously remember to breath and rest by shutting down one brain hemisphere at a time – a fact humans know from studying cetaceans in captivity, he said.

That night, we camped near the boat in Telegraph Cove. I poured a glass of wine, admired the neat, crayon-coloured houses dotting the wooden boardwalk, and chatted with other campers. I had trouble believing we could top the day’s sightings, but I was game to try.

Orca, killer whale, dorsal fin, British Columbia, Canada
A dorsal fin shimmers in the light. (Carol Patterson)

The next morning, we returned to the boat and headed back into the strait. Four hours later, we came across the same 17 orcas we’d seen the day before. The relaxed attitude we’d observed yesterday was gone; two long dorsal fins sliced the water in quick, successive turns. Borrowman identified them as males – A38 and A66 – and said they were probably looking for lunch.

He cut the boat’s engine and we watched from outside the 100m minimum viewing zone. The hydrophone – a microphone submerged in the water – crackled with the orcas’ clicks. Borrowman recognized the A-clan’s sounds – they were lower pitched than the R-clan and missing the donkey-like call of the G-clan, he said.

Suddenly, A66, a large male, was swimming right for our boat. The orca slipped under the hull, its belly patches bright white against the inky-green waters.

Everyone on deck raced from one side to the other.

“He’s coming back,” someone squealed. I watched a worried Chinook salmon streak below us. The hull offered protection for the fish, but not for long.

The orca tracked his prey like a heat-seeking missile. Soon another orca joined in and two school-bus-size animals were circling the boat. In a flash, the hunt was over. Stamp-size fish scales drifted to the surface, glinting like diamonds in the sunlight. “I think that whale could have finished him off sooner if he’d wanted,” Borrowman said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

orcas, killer whales, Johnstone Strait, Vancouver Island, British Columbia
A pair of orcas off Vancouver Island. (Jim Borrowman)

For a long time, killer whales were not just hunters – they were also the ones being hunted. Until 1967, Canada was a whaling nation. The Canadian Air Force even fired upon killer whales for target practice during a time when people viewed orcas as simply black fish. After the ban, orcas were still occasionally shot by fishermen who saw whales as competition for fish.

“When I started there were approximately 140 Northern Resident killer whales, approximately 5,000 boats fishing five days a week in Johnstone Strait, and we were finding fresh bullet holes in killer whales almost every year,”  Borrowman said. “Today, we have approximately 265 Northern Resident killer whales [and] a fraction of the fishing boats. There have been no known bullet holes in many years.”

As we motored back to harbour, I was tired – certainly much more so than I would have been after simply viewing an aquarium show. I had seen behaviours that would have never occurred in a tank. But I was also torn, knowing that research conducted on captive orcas had helped me understand what I had seen in the wild.

The days that followed did not reveal more orca hunts or Biggs killer whales, but there was plenty to see: a few dozen Pacific white-side dolphins riding our boat’s wake, a humpback using his mouth as a giant food trap. Each of us has to decide how we feel about whales in captivity. But I ended the trip knowing that if I’m going to watch orcas again, I’ll to return to the blue waters of Johnstone Strait.

Source: BBC Travel