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Alien Invaders in the Florida Everglades

Close up of an alligator head barely above water with long grasses in the foreground.
An alligator hides in the water of the Everglades. Photo © Daniel Martone.

About a month ago, I beseeched travelers to help the eight national parks most endangered by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Sadly, this devastating spill has yet to be contained, which means that the parks, beaches, islands, and wetlands along America’s Gulf Coast continue to face the ecological fallout now and in the future. On a recent trip to a Florida beach, for example, my father reported seeing tar balls along the shore and oil slicks in the distance. As tragic as this situation is, however, it’s important to note that major cataclysmic events like oil spills, fires, and hurricanes aren’t the only threats to our national parks and other U.S. travel destinations. Even without intentional malice, unaware visitors can cause their own share of damage to these precious resources.

As I mused last year on one of my other blogs, it’s often bugged me that, in the classic tearjerker E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, little Gertie offers a geranium plant to a hapless member of an alien race. Although her intentions are pure, the unfortunate fact is that the introduction of even the smallest rodent, fish, plant, insect, microbe, or other exotic organism into a foreign ecosystem can have devastating consequences for native inhabitants—even extraterrestrial beings. Just consider how tiny Formosan termites, which accidentally arrived via American ships returning from the Pacific during World War II, have caused millions of dollars in damage, repairs, and pest control throughout the historic French Quarter of New Orleans. Like such ferocious super-termites, many unwanted animals, insects, plants, and other pests have spread from region to region by wind, water, birds, vessels, and vehicles, but many others are transferred by humans, either by accident (as with many recreationists and travelers) or by design (as with consumers of exotic pets and horticulture), without understanding the potentially harmful effects of their behavior.

To better comprehend this alien “bioinvasion,” it’s helpful to know the key terminology involved. A native species is one that occurs in a particular habitat, ecosystem, or region without direct or indirect human actions. Every organism on the planet—whether plant, animal, insect, fungi, or bacteria—is native to some locale, where it’s probably existed for thousands of years due to natural forces like climate, storms, moisture, fire, soil, and species interactions. In North America, native species are considered those that occurred prior to European settlement. Approximately 18,000 plants are native to this continent, serving as the foundation for a variety of landscapes as well as providing sources of food, fiber, and other necessities.

Nonnative species, meanwhile, are organisms that occur artificially in locales beyond their natural ranges. Also known as exotic, foreign, introduced, nonindigenous, and alien species, such nonnatives can do irreparable damage to fragile ecosystems in the United States, whether they’re accidentally or intentionally transported between continents or from one part of the country to the other. In America, nonnative invaders and habitat destruction have led to the extinction of roughly 200 native plant species since the 1800s. That’s because, without natural enemies in their new habitats, these aliens quickly proliferate by preying on or hybridizing with native populations, polluting food supplies, degrading native habitats, and introducing fatal pathogens.

Of course, not all nonnative species are dangerous. Without such exotics as honeybees, kiwi fruit, soybeans, and tulips, American consumers would still be limited to the several dozen crops that existed prior to 1492. Still, no matter the advantages of certain nonnatives, all such aliens can affect the present balance of nature, often in negative ways. Just consider anglers who have accidentally transferred parasites from shoreline mud to healthy waters via infected boots and equipment, families who have released unwanted and potentially diseased goldfish and cats into the wilderness, homeowners who have used smothering water hyacinths and English ivy to decorate their gardens, and wealthy landowners who imported Indian peacocks, prized for their ornamental feathers, during the late 1800s, only to have them overrun countless zoos and sanctuaries, subsequently uprooting or smothering fledgling plants.

Many national parks have been adversely affected by such alien invaders. In Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, for instance, feral cats and pigs have spread deadly mosquitoes, cleared pathways for exotic plants, and preyed upon fragile orchids, ferns, and other native species, while grizzly bears and other animals in Yellowstone National Park have suffered a loss of sustenance due to the illegal introduction of deep-water lake trout, which devour other native fish. While researching southern Florida for my upcoming travel guide Moon Florida Keys, I discovered that several invasive plant species are currently threatening native plant populations in Everglades National Park (40001 S.R. 9336, Homestead, 305/242-7700), which can, in turn, affect other native inhabitants, such as alligators. Such alien invaders include:

Australian pine: (Casuarina equisetifolia) Native to Australia, Malaysia, and southern Asia, this tall, fast-growing pine tree was introduced to Florida in the late 1800s for the purposes of ditch and canal stabilization, shade, and lumber. Today, dense thickets have displaced native dune and beach vegetation; radically altered the light, temperature, and soil chemistry of beach habitats; inhibited the growth of native plants, upon which native insects and other wildlife depend; and increased beach and dune erosion, which has affected the nesting activities of sea turtles and American crocodiles.

Brazilian pepper: (Schinus terebinthifolius) As the name indicates, this bushy, spreading evergreen tree hails from Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. Given its aromatic leaves, white flowers, and red berries, it’s no wonder that the Brazilian pepper was imported as an ornamental in the 1840s. Since then, however, the seeds of this fire-resistant, salt-tolerant plant have spread, resulting in the formation of dense monocultures in farmlands, pinelands, hardwood hammocks, and mangrove forests. As an unfortunate bonus, chemicals in the lovely leaves, flowers, and berries can irritate human skin and respiratory passages.

Latherleaf: (Columbrina asiatica) Found along coastal areas of eastern Africa, India, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Pacific Islands, this sprawling bush was brought from Asia to Jamaica by immigrants in the 1850s. From there, the seeds, which can be dispersed by tides and storms, probably floated to southern Florida on ocean currents. Nowadays, latherleaf has invaded coastal beaches and dunes, pine and hardwood forests, and mangrove estuaries, smothering native vegetation and threatening to form a monoculture if left uncontrolled.

Melaleuca: (Melaleuca quinquenervia) Originally from Australia, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, this subtropical tree was introduced to southern Florida in the early 1900s for landscaping and “swamp drying” purposes. Today, the fast-spreading melaleuca is the greatest threat to the Everglades ecosystem, which faces extreme and perhaps irreversible alteration because of the tree’s ability to convert native plant communities like sawgrass marshes and wet prairies into impenetrable thickets.

Old World climbing fern: (Lygodium microphyllum) Native to Australia, Africa, and tropical Asia, this intertwining vine was introduced to Florida in the 1960s as a landscape ornamental. Since then, the climbing fern, which has a dense root system, has blanketed pine forests, cypress swamps, and other Floridian habitats; altered the water flow through streams and wetlands; and provided fuel for fires that would not normally spread through a wetland area.

Seaside mahoe: (Thespesia populnea) Indigenous to the tropical seashores of Africa and India, this tall, flowering tree was brought to Florida as an ornamental for coastal landscapes in the 1920s. Since then, the seaside mahoe has invaded shoreline habitats, where its dense shade has smothered its competitors. Unfortunately, its seeds float in seawater, which means it can also ride the ocean currents to colonize other unsuspecting shores.

Management methods vary from plant to plant, and some are definitely more effective than others. Over the years, biologists have struggled to fight the melaleuca, for example, with herbicides, managed fires, and melaleuca snout beetles. Unfortunately, they’ve discovered that trees can become resistant to herbicides, fires can actually spread the seeds, and released insects can attack non-target organisms. Because nonnative species don’t recognize regional borders, the key to limiting the harmful impacts of invasives is to prevent them from becoming established in the first place. Since most exotic species don’t pose a threat until years after they’ve been introduced, it’s crucial for humans to pursue activities that guard America’s distinct lands, waters, and national parks from such alien critters. To prevent the introduction or spread of all invasive plants, you can take the following actions:

  • Avoid disturbance to natural areas, such as clearing native vegetation, planting nonnatives, and dumping yard wastes
  • Refrain from the use of exotic species in your landscaping, land restoration, or erosion control projects
  • Use ornamentals that are native to your local region
  • Consult a local university, arboretum, nature center, native plant society, or Department of Agriculture office if you have any concerns about a plant that you intend to grow
  • Use techniques such as cutting, mowing, pruning, or herbicide to remove or manage any invasive exotics
  • Ask local nurseries and garden shops not to sell invasive exotic plants
  • Notify land managers about invasive exotic plant occurrences
  • Assist in exotic plant removal projects
  • Work with your local government to encourage the use of native plants in urban and suburban landscapes
  • Be careful not to transport exotic animals, plants, and microbes (even on camping equipment, fishing supplies, and the soles of your shoes)

Such precautions—however tedious they might seem—will go a long way in helping to preserve the natural state of our national parks and other precious regions for decades (and, hopefully, centuries) to come—as long as they’re not permanently damaged, that is, by major oil spills and the like.

Visiting Coastal Maine with Hilary Nangle

1. How would you describe Coastal Maine culture?

Cultural opportunities along Maine’s coastline vary greatly. Portland is Maine’s cultural center, with everything from ballet to opera, museums and historical sites. In general, the year-round communities, such as Brunswick, Rockland, Belfast, Ellsworth, and Bar Harbor, have the greatest concentration and variety, with concerts, dance, theater, film, and lectures widely available; museums and galleries open year round. That said, during the summer season and extending into the fall, even the smallest communities have fairs, festivals, concert series, and other cultural activities.

Although galleries might not be open year round in more seasonal towns, artists and artisans usually will open their studios to visitors if they’re around, which makes for a more intimate and personal experience. Summer in a seasonal community might mean weekly street dances, band concerts in the park, and fairs celebrating the local foods or heritage.

2. Where do locals go for lobster?

You mean besides cooking it at home? Most will head to a lobster shack, a no-frills waterfront joint. Shacks salt the coast, and the best ones keep the menu simple. Many allow diners to bring all the go-withs—appetizers, bread, wine, even flowers for the picnic table. But ask before bringing dessert as many serve to-die-for homemade pies.

3. What restaurants do you recommend making reservations for?

Reservations are a necessity at nicer restaurants in Portland as well as in smaller communities that are popular summer destinations, such as Ogunquit, Kennebunkport, Rockland, Camden, and Bar Harbor. For the nationally recognized restaurants, places such as Portland’s Fore Street, Hugo’s, Five Fifty-Five; Primo in Rockland; Kennebunkport’s White Barn Inn; and Arrows, in Ogunquit. Plan weeks, if not months, in advance.

4. What are three tips for families looking for lodging on a budget?

  1. Rent a cottage: This allows you to control meal costs and generally is far less expensive than nightly lodging.
  2. Camping and/or camping cabins: Tent camping is far less expensive than renting a room, and the nightly rate is usually per site, with children often included at no extra charge. If camping is a bit too primitive, look for campgrounds with camping cabins. While these are rarely fancy, they do usually have bunks (you may have to provide bedding). Some have primitive cooking facilities, but with most, you’ll share a bathhouse.
  3. Meal-inclusive plans, which include breakfast and dinner (called M.A.P.), sometimes lunch, and often activities in one rate. While such rates might appear high at first glance, when you consider everything that’s included, they often end up being a good deal. Families with older children should consider a Maine windjammer vacation; those with younger kids can look to places such as Sebasco Harbor Resort.

5. Which antique shops do you frequent?

I’m unable to drive by The Big Chicken, in Ellsworth, without stopping, and when passing through Wells, Wiscasset, and Searsport, I always need to allow myself time to mosey and browse the dozens of shops in each. Other must-stops include Liberty Tool, in Liberty, Brunswick’s Cabot Mill Antiques, Montsweag Flea Market in Wiscasset, and Nobleoro’s Antique Exchange. I’ve never been able to pass an antiquarian book store without picking up at least one or two treasures, and the Maine Coast is seeded with them. Just try to get out of Douglas N.Harding Rare Books, in Wells, without buying something.

6. Which artisan galleries should visitors not pass up?

Goodness, that’s a tough one. Maine is such a magnet for artisans. The Blue Hill/Deer Isle peninsula is especially rich in studios and galleries thanks to the presence of the Haystack Mountain School of Craft. Jud Hartmann and Works of the Hand, both in Blue Hill, are fabulous; Nervous Nellie’s, in Deer Isle, is a must for folk art fans; Greene-Ziner Gallery is a two-fold find, pottery and metalcraft; Blue Heron specializes in the work of Haystack faculty. The Schoodic Region is another artisan seedbed, with places such as Lee Art Glass, U.S. Bells Foundry, Hog Bay Pottery, and Lunaform. Eastport through Calais is also peppered with artisan studios and galleries. The Commons, in Eastport, is a fine place to see the work of many of them.

7. Where are visitors most likely to spot puffins?

Puffins nest on offshore islands, and excursion boats depart from Bar Harbor for Petit Manan and from Jonesport, and Cutler for Machias-Seal Island, site of the best known colony; some trips allow you to actually step on the island, not just view those clowns of the sea from the boat. The Puffin Project, on Main Street, in Rockland, is the best resource for all things puffin related, and it brings the puffins to you via a live web cam.

8. Tell us about some of the seasonal fairs and festivals along the coast.

Hardly a summer weekend goes by without a fair or festival somewhere along the coast. Some of the biggest and best known celebrate food, pairing meals with entertainment, art and craft shows, parades, children’s activities, and zany competitions. The Yarmouth Clam Festival, Rockland Lobster Festival, Machias Wild Blueberry Festival, and Eastport Salmon Festival are musts on many a Mainer’s summer calendar. But be on the lookout for the smaller food celebrations, the one-day events such as the Annual Strawberry Festival and Country Fair, in Wiscasset; Cushing’s annual Bean-Hole Supper; and lobster festivals both in Winter Harbor and on Frenchboro island.

Other festivals celebrate communities’ ethnic roots, such as La Kermesse, a Franco-American celebration in Biddeford, and Portland’s Greek Heritage Festival. At both, you can see and hear traditional entertainment and taste traditional foods. Basketmakers and other artisan from Maine’s four Native American tribes gather in Bar Harbor for the Native American Festival, which includes drumming, dancing, and food. And then there’s the Maine Highland Games, a celebration of everything Scottish, in Brunswick. Both the Fishermen’s Festival and the Boat Builder’s Festival honor the Boothbays’ roots as sea-faring communities, as does Camden’s Windjammer Weekend; like the major food festivals, both include a wide variety of activities and entertainment. Blue Hill’s annual Full Circle Fair reveals the communities progressive side, with worldly music and socially and environmentally progressive activities.

Of course, since Maine has been an artist magnet for centuries, arts festivals are plentiful. The Maine Crafts Guild has a series of festivals in coastal communities, and the Grand Lake Stream Folk Arts Festival is one of my all-time favorites, with juried exhibitors and knockout music, as well as barbecues and an evening contra dance. If you’re more of a blues fan, plan a visit around Rockland’s North Atlantic Blues Festival.

9. How do outdoor enthusiasts get their fix in this region?

So many possibilities; let’s start on the water: Maine’s peninsula fringed, island-dotted coastline is especially popular with boaters, and the Maine Island Trail network makes it easy for sea kayakers and other small craft to hopscotch along the coast and camp on islands. Penobscot Bay is renowned among sailors, and it’s also home base for the Maine Windjammer Association fleet, which take the semi-adventurous out for three- to six-day sails, a really fabulous vacation. You can join a lobster boat tour, a whale-watching excursion, a day sail, and guided nature cruises from seaports all along the coast.

Parks and preserves as well as rail trails and community trail networks provide plentiful options for walking, hiking, and mountain biking. Many state parks also have camping facilities, some with waterfront sites, and they also provide guided walks and talks. For campers who prefer more primitive sites, Maine’s Public Lands, such as the Donnell Park Reserve and the Cutler Coast reserve deliver those along with spectacular scenery.

Acadia National Park, of course, is the biggest magnet for outdoor lovers. Here you can do just about anything: take a horse-drawn carriage ride, walk, or pedal a bike along historic carriage roads; hike island peak’s for amazing views; scale seaside cliffs with a climbing guide; join a ranger on a guided walk or cruise; paddle the coastal nooks and crannies; and so much more. Birding, especially during the spring and fall migrations, is extremely popular all along the coast.

Blue Ridge & Smoky Mountains with Deborah Huso

1. 2010 marks the 75th anniversary of the Blue Ridge parkway, are there any special events or celebrations happening?

There are literally hundreds of special events occurring on and along the Parkway this year in honor of the 75th anniversary. Upcoming festivities include “Handmade: The Western North Carolina Craft, Architecture and Design Expo” in Asheville June 25 and 26 and the “86th Annual Singing on the Mountain” at the base of Grandfather Mountain on June 27.

2. What’s your favorite campground?

My favorite campground is the Julian Price Park Campground at MP 297. The campground has many shady sites alongside a creek and provides convenient access to boating, fishing, and hiking around Price Lake and is also close to the Moses H. Cone Memorial Park as well as the village of Blowing Rock. It’s a very popular campground, however, so you’ll want to arrive early to get a spot on summer weekends.

3. What hiking trails do you frequent most?

I love the Bluff Mountain Trail (MP 238.5) because it’s accessible from so many different points along the Parkway, meaning you don’t have to hike the whole thing, and it offers some of the loveliest long distance views without very strenuous hiking even though it’s over seven miles long. I also like the Beacon Heights Trail (MP 305.1) because it’s short and easy and offers an alternate view of the profile of Grandfather Mountain and the Mile-High Swinging Bridge as well as stunning mountain vistas to the north and east.

4. What budget hotel or lodge along the Blue Ridge parkway do you recommend?

I especially like Bluffs Lodge (MP 241), which is located right on the Parkway in the Doughton Park area. While the rooms are small and simply furnished, the views (and the sunsets) can’t be beat. One of my favorite activities after a long day hike is just sitting in a rocking chair on one of the lodge porches watching the deer graze in the open fields at sunset. And rooms can be had here for under $100 a night.

5. Is there one outdoor activity visitors should make sure and do?

While most people who visit the Blue Ridge Parkway spend most of their time in their vehicles or pausing occasionally to take photographs at scenic overlooks, to fully appreciate the Parkway, you need to get out and hike some of the trails. Hiking not only helps you take the time to appreciate the Blue Ridge’s flora and fauna, but it will give you access to even more incredible vistas, waterfalls, and even old graveyards and ruins of turn-of-the-century residences. The nice thing about trails off the Parkway is that there are so many hikes suited to every ability level. I highly recommend Leonard Adkins’ book Walking the Blue Ridge as a resource on Parkway hikes.

6. For visitors that aren’t outdoors enthusiasts or avid hikers, what activities do you recommend?

Be sure to check out the Parkway Craft Center at Moses H. Cone Memorial Park (MP 294), which showcases works of the Southern Highland Handicraft Guild, the Folk Art Center (MP 382) just north of Asheville with its galleries of native crafts, explore the antique galleries and shops in the high elevation village of Blowing Rock, have dinner with a view at the Pisgah Inn (MP 408.6), and tour the quaint Main Street shops and restaurants of Waynesville.

7. How do you enjoy the breathtaking views?

I love nothing better than a high elevation picnic at an overlook or just taking in the sunset from the Waterrock Knob Visitor Center parking area at MP 451.2.

8. What wares from local artisans should visitors pick up?

Among the most emblematic of native Parkway treasures are locally made white oak baskets, functional and beautiful turkey wing brooms, and, for something inexpensive, a cornhusk doll.

9. What kid-friendly activities do you recommend?

Your best bet if you have the kids in tow is to focus your visit on the area from Blowing Rock to Linville. Little ones will love the Wild West theme park of Tweetsie Railroad at Blowing Rock as well as the wildlife habitat at Grandfather Mountain. There are also a number of relatively easy hikes for families in this area, including the Price Lake Trail and a number of hikes around Linville Falls.

10. What’s the likelihood of spotting wildlife?

Unlike the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, where wildlife of all sorts is pretty pervasive, you could easily drive a full day on the Parkway without seeing more than a squirrel skitter across the road. You may see white-tailed deer occasionally, though your best bet even for them is to hang out in an open meadow or picnic area at dawn or dusk. Black bears are common in the Blue Ridge, but your chances of seeing one while driving are pretty slim. You may, however, run into one on a backcountry trail or find one seeking out human treats in a Parkway campground, one more reason to be sure to store food items (and trash) properly.

US & Canada Pride Events 2010

Pride parades and events celebrating queer life have sprung up all over the country, spreading joy and love across the land. Pride events are powerful displays of diversity, acceptance, and celebration, and many of the larger parades take on a Mardi Gras-like character involving floats, dancers, drag queens, and music. Everyone is welcome at pride events whether lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or straight.

Most pride events occur annually in June to commemorate the Stonewall riots, a pivotal moment in the modern LGBT rights movement, though it is possible to find pride events throughout the summer months and even into October. Here is just a sampling of upcoming pride events.

In the United States

Atlanta, GA

The city of Atlanta holds its Pride Festival in the fall (October 9 & 10 in Piedmont Park, this year), but continues to commemorate the Stonewall Riots with several events June 19-26, like the East Point Possums Show, Georgia Equality’s Evening for Equality, and the Sylvia Rivera Stonewall Community Brunch.

Houston, TX

Houston’s annual Pride Festival and Parade on Saturday, June 26, is a multi-block celebration of the LGBT community featuring a variety of performers on several stages. The Pride Festival is a great way to experience the community and its history, and visit the many booths of local vendors.

Memphis, TN

For years, the Mid-South Pride Festival and Parade has been held in mid-June. However, due to concerns about extreme summer heat, this year’s festivities have been rescheduled for October 16, to coincide with National Coming Out Day.

Minneapolis-St. Paul

The 2010 Twin Cities Pride Festival is scheduled for June 26 & 27 in Minneapolis’ Loring Park. Event organizers have lined up the Village People with CeCe Peniston and local artists for the main Pride in Concert on Saturday night along with over 400 vendors, several organized sporting events, and a dance tent. The 2010 Ashley Rukes GLBT Pride Parade steps off on Sunday at 11:00 a.m. along Hennepin Avenue in downtown Minneapolis.

San Diego, CA

The San Diego Pride Festival 2010 is planning on upwards of 50,000 participants at Balboa Park on July 17 & 18 with multiple stages for entertainment, 300 vendors, an art exhibit, and tons of great food. A single day pass is $20 at the gate, or order your tickets early to save (one-day $15, two-day $25).

San Francisco, CA

The San Francisco Pride Celebration and Parade is still the granddaddy of all Pride events. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the event with a “Forty and Fabulous” theme. The San Francisco Pride event is free to the public and features over 200 parade contingents, 300 exhibitors, and 19 entertainment stages and venues. The festivities kick off at noon on Saturday, June 26, and wrap up at 7:00 p.m. on Sunday.

Savannah, GA

As the Hostess City of the South, Savannah has attracted an eclectic population and is an intriguing and beautiful setting for a pride event. The 11th Annual Savannah Pride Festival will be on Saturday, September 11 in lush, gorgeous Forsyth Park.

Seattle, WA

Seattle’s 2010 Pride Parade is on June 27 and steps off at 11:00 a.m. from the corner of Union St. and 4th Ave. then proceeds down 4th Ave. to Denny Way. Expect a dazzling spectacle of floats, outlandish costumes, and dancing in the streets in this high-energy celebration of diversity, community, and unity. Following the parade, tens of thousands are expected at the Seattle Center for one of the biggest free Pride Festivals in the country, and several street parties are scheduled around the downtown area.

St. Petersburg, FL

The 2010 St. Pete Pride Street Festival and Promenade on June 26 is Florida’s largest pride celebration. The Promenade steps off at 10:00 a.m. followed by the Street Festival covering 21st Street to 28th Street on Central Avenue.

St. Louis, MO

The 2010 PrideFest St. Louis will be held at Tower Grove Park on June 26 & 27. In addition to the parade, live entertainment, and vendors, the festival will feature a Pet Parade, a talent show, and Commitment Ceremonies.

In Canada

Calgary, AB

The annual Pride Calgary celebration is scheduled for August 4 & 5 this year, with the parade stepping off from 8th Street and 8th Avenue SW on Saturday. The festival will be on Sunday, at Olympic Plaza featuring street vendors, a beer garden, a stage with DJs and entertainment, and a Kid Zone for the little ones.

Kelowna, BC

The 2010 Okanagan Pride Festival runs August 11–15 this year, kicking off on Wednesday, August 11, with a screening of Beyond Gay: The Politics of Pride, followed on Thursday with the 2nd Annual Best Ball Golf Tournament, and the main festival on Saturday, August 14, at Kelowna City Park.

Vancouver, BC

The August 1, Vancouver Pride Parade & Festival is focusing on liberation and what it means to be free this year. The parade steps off at noon at Robson and Thurlow and runs through the heart of downtown Vancouver. Celebrations continue after the parade at the Sunset Beach festival site showcasing local artists and performers, over 100 vendor booths, and drinking and dancing at the beer garden.

Victoria, BC

British Columbia’s capital city will hold several pride events June 27–July 4, like a drag baseball game, Gaga for Pride, the Big Gay Dog Walk, and more, culminating with a parade and festival on July 4. The parade steps off at noon, followed by the festival beginning at 1:00 p.m. at MacDonald Park. Expect live bands, drag performances, vendors, a food fair and beer garden, and children’s entertainment.

The NYT’s Frugal Traveler in Brazil

A bottle of Guarana - a pink, fizzy soft drink
Photo © Michael Sommers.

I don’t know if any of you have ever read a great blog published by The New York Times called “Frugal Traveler“. Published in the Times‘ travel section, for the last three years, the blog was authored by Matt Gross, a charmingly geeky presence whose attempts to travel cheaply around the globe were informative, entertaining, and frequently quite contentious (he was often taken to task by readers – sometimes quite vehemently – for not being quite as budget-minded as some hard-core budget travelers expected a “frugal” traveler to be).

A couple of weeks ago I was saddened to discover that Gross was giving up his post to return to normal civilian life (maybe he just wanted to stay in a five-star hotel). I was worried that the blog itself was going to vanish (such is the sad state of journalism these days). However, I then made the happy discovery that Gross was being replaced… and that the new Frugal Traveler was going to be none other than Seth Kugel.

[pullquote] I was thrilled to discover that Seth Kugel’s first mission (beginning last week) was a 3-month, 10-country, Pan-American road trip from São Paulo up to New York. [/pullquote]

For those of you unfamiliar with Seth Kugel, he is a journalist who splits his time between New York and São Paulo, and I sort of have a readerly crush on him. Over the last few years, he has contributed various articles (most of them for the Travel section) about Brazil, which I love to read: 1. Because he really “gets” Brazil and 2. Because he is a terrific travel writer – engaging, original, perceptive, and often quite funny (which is actually a difficult feat to pull off in terms of travel writing).

Under Matt Gross’ reign, the “Frugal Traveler” (much to Gross’ chagrin) rarely journeyed south of the Equator; with the exception of Argentina and Uruguay, Gross skipped South America altogether. Consequently, I was thrilled to discover that Seth Kugel’s first mission (beginning last week) was a 3-month, 10-country, Pan-American road trip from São Paulo up to New York.

So far, Kugel hasn’t disappointed. His Brazil posts have detailed the terror of absent-mindedly losing (and miraculously finding) his passport in São Paulo’s Guarulhos Airport; described his indecision regarding what boat to take down the Rio Preguiças (Lazy River) in the fabulous dune-and-lagoon-scape that is the Parque Nacional dos Lençois Maranhenses; and provided an in-depth appraisal of Maranhão’s No. 1 soft drink, a pink fizzy brand of Guaraná called Jesus (named after the drink’s founder, not the Redeemer).

I highly recommend logging on and accompanying Kugel on his voyage. I think that over next three months, we’ll be in for quite an interesting journey.

Exploring Kansas City with Katy Ryan

1. What about Kansas City attracted you to move there, and what has made you stay?

I grew up in Columbia, and often traveled to Kansas City to visit family. I had no doubt I’d move to Kansas City right after college because I craved a bigger city that wasn’t too far from home. Kansas City offers the best of a big city atmosphere—vibrant downtown, constant activities, fabulous shopping and dining—but really is a small town at heart.

2. If you had to choose one barbeque joint for your last plate of ribs (or brisket, or chicken), where would you go and what would you order?

Oh, wow—what a difficult question! Can I combine various barbecue items from several restaurants? I’d have to go to Fiorella’s Jack Stack for a big plate of pulled pork and pork ribs with a side of baked beans and spicy barbecue sauce. It’s a phenomenal plate of food that encompasses the quintessential flavors of Kansas City’s beloved cuisine.

3. If barbeque isn’t your taste, what restaurant would locals recommend?

No matter what cuisine you’re craving, Kansas City chefs can dish it up. Some non-barbecue favorites include Waldo Pizza; Happy Gillis (a gourmet sandwich shop); Bluestem (fine dining with a modern flair) and Blanc Burgers + Bottles (try the Boulevard beer-battered cheese curds!) Kansas City also offers a flavorful ethnic food scene—Indian, Ethiopian, Greek, Middle Eastern, Asian, French, Spanish—it’s certainly possibly to eat your way through the world without leaving the city limits!

4. You’ve lived through all of the extreme season changes in Kansas City. When is the best time of year to visit?

Because the seasons can be brutal here, I always recommend mid-spring or mid-fall for visits. The weather is typically mild and somewhat dry, and there’s enough going on outside so visitors can still take advantage of festivals, parks and al fresco dining. The foliage during both seasons is gorgeous—blooming flowers in the spring, brightly colored leaves in the fall—so make sure to bring your camera!

5. How can visitors’ best experience the benefits of Kansas City’s multibillion-dollar downtown renaissance makeover?

Planning an itinerary that revolves in and around downtown Kansas City is truly the best way to take advantage of the now-thriving area. What was formerly a ghost town has been revived in recent years to boast an entertainment district, new events arena and a number of shops, restaurants and businesses that bring a true local flavor to the urban core. Book a hotel room at the Hilton President, Aladdin or Savoy Hotel and you’ll find yourself within walking distance of some of downtown’s best attractions. And thanks to a well-connected highway system, you’re never far from points of interest found in other parts of the metro area.

6. Kansas City’s Crossroads Arts District is one of the most concentrated gallery districts in the nation. What galleries are a must see?

For the full Crossroads Arts District experience, time your visit to coincide with the first Friday of the month. During First Fridays, galleries and shops stay open late for a gallery crawl that boasts special events, art openings and receptions. But no matter when you go, make sure to stop at Arts Incubator, an arts education and expansion space that includes 47 active studios and a gallery. Fans of contemporary art should stop by Hilliard Gallery, which often features group shows that exhibit a variety of mediums from local, regional and national artists. Although it’s not typically kid-friendly, the Slap-N-Tickle gallery is a thought-provoking stop for adults interested in evocative—and often provocative—artwork. And within the cleanly modern interior of the Blue Gallery, contemporary fine art demonstrates expressive techniques in a variety of mediums.

7. What are the best places for kids in Kansas City?

One of the great things about Kansas City is despite its cosmopolitan, cultural vibe, it’s a wonderful city for families seeking kid-friendly entertainment and attractions. Notable stops include the Kansas City Zoo and Worlds of Fun/Oceans of Fun, but your kids will also have a blast touring the Hallmark Visitors Center or exploring the immense sculpture garden at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The interactive atmosphere at The College Basketball Experience is ideal for kids of all ages, or try the Money Museum at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City for an enlightening—and entertaining—look at currency. Need a break? Fritz’s Railroad Restaurant is a beloved landmark in which hamburgers, sandwiches and sides are served by model trains.

8. Sometimes the most important part of the city you visit is the area around your hotel. What districts would you recommend tourists book their stays in?

If you’re eager to see a number of attractions and want to be near Kansas City’s nightlife scene, booking a hotel downtown or in the Westport/Midtown/Plaza district is your best option. The Plaza, said by many to be Kansas City’s crown jewel, offers a variety of hotels, from affordable chains to boutique hotels to bed and breakfasts, meaning you’ll find something for every budget. Most downtown, Westport and Plaza hotels offer free shuttles to stops within the surrounding area, meaning you can easily access sights in these districts if you opt not to rent a car.

9. What’s the best way to get around the city and see the sights?

Although Kansas City boasts an intricate highway network that makes car travel relatively simple, the converse result is a city that isn’t terribly pedestrian-friendly. If you’re eager to explore a large area of Kansas City, it’s best to rent a car for the duration of your trip. If you prefer to walk, however, book a hotel downtown or in the Midtown/Westport/Plaza area to find yourself within blocks of shopping, dining, nightlife and leisure spots. Bus transportation is available, and for more efficient travel, consider the MAX transit, a bus line that makes fewer stops and is considered an express option.

10. What greater Kansas City attractions would you visit?

It’s a bit of a drive from downtown Kansas City (about 35 minutes), but dining at Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant is a must-do while you’re in town. The locally owned restaurant has earned critical acclaim from local food experts and national sources alike, and you’re sure to enjoy an unforgettable meal when you go. And the numerous attractions/sights in western Wyandotte County (Kansas City, Kan.) are fun for the whole family—Kansas Speedway, Schlitterbahn Vacation Village, shopping district Legends at Village West and an under-construction destination casino await. A trip to Kansas City isn’t complete without an excursion to the city’s beloved amusement park, Worlds of Fun—brave the towering heights of the Mamba roller coaster for an incomparable view of the downtown skyline.

11. What are some of your favorite things about Kansas City? What’s the one place, or tradition, you feel is your own?

Well, let’s be honest—I feel truly at home in any shop or boutique thanks to my shopaholic tendencies! In all seriousness, however, I’ve felt truly at home since I moved to downtown Kansas City’s River Market. There are few things I love more than starting a sunny Saturday at the City Market, buying produce, stopping for lunch at Habashi House and leaving with a fresh-squeezed strawberry lemonade. An afternoon at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art always leaves me inspired, no matter how many times I’ve wandered the hushed, stately hallways. And in the evening, I love to unwind with friends and my fiance at Harry’s Country Club, a casual bar that specializes in a lengthy beer list, inventive cocktails and one of the best jukeboxes in the city. Make your Kansas City travel plans and I’ll be sure to save you a seat!

Beauty and the Bündchen: Standards of Beauty in Brazil

In Moon Brazil and in my previous posts, I often touch on the fact that one consequence of traveling around Brazil is the discovery that there are many different countries contained within this continent-sized nation. The observation was underscored this week in an article published in The New York Times. In a piece entitled “Off Runway, Brazilian Beauty Goes Beyond Blond” Brazilian correspondent Alexei Barrionuevo highlights yet another Brazilian paradox: despite being a country in which over 50 percent of the population possesses some African and indigenous descendency (i.e. isn’t white), when it comes to the way Brazilian women are represented on the world’s runways and in the fashion media, the whiter, blonder, and more European, the better.

[pullquote] The truth is that an estimated 70 percent of all Brazilian models are culled from the three small, most homogeneously European states that comprise the Brazilian South; meanwhile black models claim it’s easier to get work abroad than in Brazil. [/pullquote]
The journalist accompanied a few Brazilian model scouts as they set off in hot pursuit of the next Gisele Bündchen. The task involves tracking down (literally – as if they were hunting elusive wildlife) fair-skinned, golden maned, tall, and naturally thin girls who share the same profitable genes as the world’s longest lasting and highest paid supermodel. With this mission in mind, the scouts head to the hills of rural Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil’s southernmost state.

While Rio Grande do Sul boasts less than one-twentieth of Brazil’s population, the state yields the largest concentration of Brazilian models – apart from Gisele, Alessandra Ambrosio, Caroline Trentini, and Raquel Zimmerman are other Gaúchas whose names might ring a bell. The impact of these glamazons is felt not only on the Brazilian catwalks, but on the runways of New York, Paris, and Milan as well. For this reason, scouts such as the rapacious ones featured in the article spend so much time pouring over books, maps, and web sites. In studying colonial history, immigration patterns, and demographics, they strive to discover untapped areas that are likely to have “the right genetic cocktail of German and Italian ancestry, perhaps with some Russian or other Slavic blood thrown in.”

The article makes the point that these snow white Brazilian beauties are sought after by the global fashion industry to the detriment of black, indigenous, and mixed race Brazilians, while Brazilians themselves find dark-haired, darker-complexioned women to be “among Brazil’s sexiest.” According to Barrionuevo, “the pattern creates a disconnect between what many Brazilians consider beautiful and the beauty they export overseas.” He then quotes a renowned São Paulo fashion consultant, Erika Palomino, who admits to being “perplexed that Brazil was never able to export a Naomi Campbell, and it is definitely not because of a lack of pretty women.”

The argument is certainly valid, as is the fact that, in recent years, Brazilian women of color (and non-white Brazilians in general) have achieved historic prominence in all social spheres. As the Times article mentions, over the past decade, the income of black Brazilians has increased by around 40 percent, creating an important black consumer class. It also alludes to the fact that this year, for the first time ever, the heroine of the Globo television network’s 8 o’clock novela (soap operas that are watched by roughly 30 million Brazilians every night) was a black woman, played by the actress Taís Araújo, whose character just happened to be an international top model. The latter fact is significant viewed that as recently as ten years ago, virtually the only TV roles available to black actors were housekeepers and slaves (in the case of period novelas).

However, it’s also erroneous to imply that Brazil doesn’t have its own race issues when it comes to the color of its beauty icons. For every Taís Araújo, there are at least 10 (real or fake) blond bombshells anchoring TV shows for both children and adults. And although Taís Araújo might have played a model in a fantasy soap, in real life, big-name black models (excluding actresses) are virtually non-existent.

The truth is that an estimated 70 percent of all Brazilian models are culled from the three small, most homogeneously European states that comprise the Brazilian South; meanwhile black models claim it’s easier to get work abroad than in Brazil. Erika Palomino might find it “embarrassing” that Brazil never exported a Naomi Campbell, but it’s ironic that the best known black model working in Brazil today is not only imported from abroad – but is the one and only Naomi Campbell herself.

Over the last few years, Campbell has become a fixture on the São Paulo Fashion Week circuit, appearing in runway shows, and more frequently, on paparazzi sites and in magazines (true to form, she’s racked up a few VIP Brazilian boyfriends – all of them wealthy and white). In the meantime, São Paulo state prosecutors recently forced the organizers of SPFW, Brazil’s biggest and increasingly international, high-profile fashion event, to ensure that 10 percent of the models hired are of African or indigenous descent (this on account of the fact that in 2008, only 2.3 percent of models models – 8 out of 344 – who paraded down the runway weren’t white).

There are numerous stories I’ve heard or read about that I could relate concerning black Brazilian women’s efforts (conscious or otherwise) to comply with white standards of beauty. One of the most recent and personal involves Alice, the 5-year-old daughter of two close friends of mine in Salvador, a city where 85 percent of the population possesses some African descendency. Alice’s mother, Myra, is black and her father, Edivaldo, while light-skinned has an Afro (and considers himself “preto” (black). Both are very proud of both their color and heritage… a fact that made it all the more puzzling, and disarming, when their daughter, a butterscotch-skinned girl with long thick waves of blondy-brown hair, announced to them (and to the world at large) that she thought curls were “ugly”. Instead, she fervently wished that she could trade her voluminous tangles for the silky, platinum tresses of Barbie (whose presence is ubiquitous in Brazil among the under-6 set).

Myra, Edivaldo, and all their friends went into full defense mode. For weeks, when in Alice’s company, we oh-so-subtly championed the glory of curls (Myra even found her a terrific picture book about a little girl with crazy, crinkly hair whose life took a turn for the definitely dull when she had it straightened), while making snide remarks about Barbie the imperialist bubblehead.

This happened a few months ago. Since then, the anti-curls phase seems to have passed, and the Barbie phase will pass as well. But here’s hoping that when Alice grows up and looks at the mirror on the wall, Gisele won’t still be considered the fairest of them all.

Portland’s Best with Hollyanna McCollom

1. Rain aside, what type of climate should visitors comes prepared for?

The climate in Portland is actually quite temperate, but the skies can be a bit fickle during transitional months. Snowfall is pretty rare, but a cold snap or two is most likely to happen between December and March, when the snow and ice sometimes venture far enough from the ski slopes to show up on the city streets. Summer months are usually dry with temperatures averaging around 70–85°F and the occasional 100°F scorcher come July and August. Fog is fairly common in the early mornings, but usually burns off before lunchtime.

2. How can visitors make the most of rainy days?

Embrace it! Oregonians are sometimes affectionately referred to as web-footers, and it’s because life never stops for a little bit of rain. Chuck the umbrella (it will probably be too windy anyway) and invest in a waterproof windbreaker or anorak that you can slip off during sun breaks. If you’d rather stay dry, there are a number of museums and attractions that can easily occupy the better part of a rainy afternoon. Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) is a good bet for both kids and grown ups, while the Portland Art Museum has over 112,000 square feet of sculptures, paintings, and exhibits for art lovers to explore. Bibliophiles will want to make a beeline to Powell’s City of Books, which occupies a full city block and could easily keep you busy through a three-day monsoon.

3. What’s the best way to get around town?

Thankfully, Portland is a very walkable city, with wide sidewalks, clearly labeled intersections and short blocks. Much of the city is on a grid and was designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind, so it is fairly easy to navigate. Walking straight from one end of downtown to the other would take most people about 15 to 20 minutes, and most hotels and visitor’s centers have free walking maps available which detail the shops, restaurants, and attractions along the way. The public transportation system in Portland is also reliable and user-friendly. Inside the downtown region, the Streetcar and MAX are free, so go ahead and hop on. Also, in Old Town and the Pearl District, there are a number of bicycle-driven rickshaws known as Pedicabs. The eco-friendly transport system is surprisingly quick and efficient and the drivers are oftentimes fonts of knowledge about the ins and outs of the city.

4. Portland has countless parks and open spaces, which ones do you recommend strolling through?

When most people think about city parks, they picture kids screaming through fountains and dog walkers dodging college students with laptops. And while Portland has those parks (think Jamison Park and the Park Blocks, respectively), Forest Park is the real gem. Mere steps away from the city, the 5,000+ acre park has a remarkable diversity of wildlife under a cool canopy of Douglas Fir, Western Hemlock and Red Cedar trees. There are miles of tree-lined trails to explore here, but a good place to start is at the Wildwood Trailhead, which can be accessed by walking north past the World Forestry Center in Washington Park. Another popular trail begins at Lower Macleay Park near NW Thurman Street. From this access point, you can embark on a 2 to 3 hour hike which will take you past a photo-worthy old stone house and the fantastic grounds of Pittock Mansion.

5. What does Portland have to offer gay and lesbian visitors?

Portland has a vibrant and diverse LGBT scene, thanks in part to the city’s penchant for art, creativity, self-expression, and individuality. A number of the city’s top chefs, designers, artists, business owners, and celebrities (including the mayor) are gay, and they have had a profound impact on the city’s tapestry. In fact, if you attend the Portland Pride Festival in June, you are likely to see Mayor Sam Adams riding along with the floats and drag queens on a bespangled bicycle. Pride Fest is just one of a number of fun festivals and events which are held throughout the year. Another example, the annual Red Dress Party is one of the most well-attended charity events of the year at which men and women alike don red dresses and raise a glass to charities that support gay and lesbian youth, AIDS awareness programs, and LGBT support centers. Sprinkled across the city and in neighborhoods like Old Town, the Hawthorne District and the Alberta Arts District, LGBT travelers will find a number of restaurants, bars, galleries and attractions that are gay or gay-friendly. Furthermore, many of the city’s boutique hotels offer special romance packages to gay and lesbian travelers, some of which are discounted during LGBT events.

6. What can visitors expect from Portland’s live music scene?

Portland’s music scene is amazingly effervescent, and seems to both produce and attract musicians with passion, originality, and panache. The city has a robust punk scene that dates back to the 1980s when clubs like Satyricon (where Kurt Cobain met Courtney Love) reigned supreme. Back then, blues and jazz were big too, and still today Portland plays host to one of the world’s best blues festivals, and a jazz festival that brings in some of the top artists around. The city’s nationally recognized jazz scene is bumping these days with a number of talented young players, legendary musicians like Mel Brown, and clubs like Jimmy Mak’s leading the charge. And of course, Portland is home to some of the world’s best indie music, with such talents as Everclear, Pink Martini, The Decemberists, The Dimes, The Dandy Warhols, Helio Sequence, M Ward, Modest Mouse, and The Shins calling Portland home. Any given night of the week you can find some of the industry’s top talents playing at venues like The Aladdin, Doug Fir Lounge, the Crystal Ballroom, the Roseland, and Dante’s. Pick up the Portland Mercury or the Willamette Week from most bars, restaurants, coffeehouses and street corners to find out who is playing and where.

7. In your opinion, what is Portland’s number one attraction?

Inspiration. Ok, it’s not a venue or a landmark, but it practically flows down the streets with the rainwater. Dine in a few restaurants and you will understand why everyone is buzzing about the food scene. Duck into a few galleries on First Thursday and you will find it there too. Hunker down at a coffee shop and strike up a conversation with a local about their next big project and you’ll feel it start to affect you too. There is an undercurrent of creativity in this city that makes people want to live here or visit here, and dig their fingers deep into the things that they are passionate about. It is the reason the city is home to so many amazing artists, chefs, musicians, and writers. Over and over again, I talk to people who say that they came to Portland for some innocuous reason and were suddenly, inexplicably drawn to the city’s creative energy.

8. What’s your favorite neighborhood, and why?

I’m a huge fan of the Hawthorne area because it has all my favorite things in about a ten block stretch: Powell’s, thrift stores, artisan cheese, wine, and kitschy vintage shops. I have a routine that usually starts with coffee at Starbucks, shoe shopping at Buffalo Exchange, dress shopping at Crossroads, vintage slips at Red Light, lunch at The Bagdad, groceries from Pastaworks, and a frozen yogurt from Swirl. I’d like to say that this is a once-in-a-while occurrence, but I do this about two or three times a month.

9. What part of town has the best eats?

Honestly, it depends on what you are looking for, but if you want really great food for next to nothing, head to one of the city’s food cart clusters. There are a number of them downtown and all you have to do is look for the crowd of locals to find the really popular ones. Portland is getting national attention from the likes of The New York Times, Bon Appetite, and Sunset for its rebellious take on dining. In these carts, it’s all about the food, or more specifically, it’s all about the soup, or the French fries, or perogies. Each cart has its own specialty and the not-so-secret secret around here is that they do it better than most of their brick-and-mortar compatriots. Most of the carts are clustered in parking lots downtown, occupying the blocks around SW 4th and SW Hall, SW 5th and SW Stark, SW 9th and SW Yamhill, and SW 3rd and SW Washington, but there are notable clusters scattered all over the city. The best website to check out for up-to-date info on the best and brightest carts is

10. What’s your favorite microbrewery?

That’s like Sophie’s Choice! I go through cycles that largely depend upon the season because I like a good hearty stout (like the Alameda Black Bear XX) in the winter, a fruitier wheat beer (like McMenamin’s Ruby) in the Fall, and an IPA (like Amnesia’s Copacetic IPA) in the summer. My overall favorite right now for their across-the-board good brews and their food is Hopworks Urban Brewery (HUB). Every time I go, I have to talk myself out of a huge stein of their organic Seven Grain Stout (which goes perfectly with the Black Pepper and Garlic Beer Sausage). Fortunately for my waistline, I’m also a big fan of their Crosstown Pale Ale paired with a really tasty salad that has fresh local pears, Rogue River blue cheese and housemade vinaigrette.

11. What activities do you recommend for outdoor enthusiasts?

Rent a bike! Bicycle magazine named Portland one of the ten best cities in North America for two-wheeled enthusiasts and there are a number of trails where you can get a good look at the city. Take an exploratory ride along the waterfront loop or through Mt. Tabor Park, or opt for a guided tour. If cycling isn’t your thing, try kayaking, hiking, or golfing. And of course, one of the best things about Portland is its proximity to the mountains and the Pacific Ocean, so skiing, snowboarding, surfing, and fishing are only a hop and a skip away.

Ghost Towns of the Atacama

Piles of rusted metal and a warehouse-style building red with rust.
Humberstone Factory. Photo © Wayne Bernhardson.

Most Northern Hemisphere residents think of the Southern Cone countries – Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay – as summer destinations. In the southern winter, of June, July and August, they tend to stay closer to home for their travels, but that means they often miss out on more distant attractions. Thus, over the next several weeks, I’m going to focus on Southern Hemisphere getaways for Northern Hemisphere residents at this time of year.

One of those is Chile’s Atacama Desert and, like the Mojave Desert of California and Nevada, it’s often best to visit in winter even though, because of the Pacific Ocean’s cool Humboldt Current, it stays far cooler in summer than the Mojave does. Still, the mild winter are ideal for exploring the backcountry even though the nights get chilly except along the subtropical coast, where temperatures remain comfortable all year, at all hours.

Like the Mojave, the Atacama has its share of ghost towns and, to my mind, they’re one of its real highlights. Unlike the scattered settlements of the Mojave, though, the ghost towns of the Atacama were sprawling company towns that grew up in response to massive surface mining for nitrates. These oficinas operated from the mid-19th century to the mid-20th but, as the nitrate industry declined when petroleum-based fertilizers replaced nitrates for agriculture after World War I, they began to fall into disrepair. Many of them were dismantled for scrap or, infamously, robbed for their wood and other valuable building materials.

Three large oficinas, though, remain reasonably well intact and easily accessible. On the high steppe about 45 km east of the city of Iquique, Humberstone and nearby Santa Laura are a combined UNESCO World Heritage Site that displays a remarkable number of amenities for nitrate miners, including the impressive Teatro Humberstone, built of Douglas fir imported from the United States, and an enormous cast-iron swimming pool that’s now rusting and waterless.

When I first visited here, in 1979, you could actually walk around the ruins and even climb the rafters of structures like Santa Laura’s Planta de Chancado (ore-crusher) but, today, authorities have put more of a premium on safety. Still, you can see walk inside many buildings, climb aboard rusting locomotives from the narrow-gauge rail line, and walk the wraparound porch the borders the Casa del Administrador (administrator’s house) and its tennis courts. It’s easy to spend a morning, afternoon, or even a full day at one of the most picturesque ghost towns this side of Bodie (California). With frequent buses from Iquique, access is easy.

The other major ghost town, slightly less accessible than Humberstone, is Oficina Chacabuco, about 100 km northeast of the port city of Antofagasta. Opened in 1924 to accommodate the new Shanks system of extracting nitrate from ore, it closed its brief life in 1940. Occupying an area of 36 hectares organized in a regular grid, it included a theater larger and more elegant than Humberstone’s and, today, well-preserved frescos still overlook its stage.

Chacabuco, though, also has a darker history – after the military coup of 1973, it was used to house more than 2,200 political prisoners and, though none were executed here, it was surrounded by land mines to discourage escapees. The upper levels of the theater include a photographic display of Chacabuco’s heyday, and information about the prison camp.

Buses from Antofagasta to the city of Calama run along the highway but it’s about four km south of a major highway junction; northbound buses to the city of Arica, though less frequent, will drop you directly at the entrance road. The hop-on, hop-off tour company Pachamama by Bus includes Chacabuco on its Atacama itineraries, which continue to San Pedro de Atacama.

Color map of Chile.

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