As a long time user of airbnb I want to feel like I can support this company and the homeowners who choose to participate but the more I travel the world and see the effects it is having on other major cities as well as my hometown the less comfortable I am with using its services. While I enjoy the feeling of being in a city and making it home for a brief moment I am becoming increasingly aware that my footprint isn't the only one that has or will be in that place. Not every neighborhood or neighbor wants a constant flow of tourists on their street or in their building. One could argue that with globalization on the rise this will just be a continuing issue we have to deal with, especially if we live in a place that relies heavily on tourism spending. I am not quite sure what the best solution is and honestly that is not the main reason I am writing this. I travel quite a bit to Barcelona and have taken many opportunities to stay in both hotels and airbnb properties. When I was in BCN last May I started to notice a growing movement AGAINST illegal short-term rentals and even tourism in general. I thought what an unfortunate situation, this city has so many amazing people living in it and they are starting to feel overrun by tourists and the mark they are making on this town, I don't want to be that burden, but I also want to continue to come here and feel welcomed. I came home feeling torn and decided to research what their tourist numbers looked like. The city of Barcelona has a population of nearly 1.6 million residents and saw over 8 million tourists last year. I wanted to compare it to my hometown of New Orleans with a permanent resident population of just over 375,000. To my surprise, my tiny city (by comparison) saw over 9 million tourists last year. We are a quarter of the size and saw approximately 1 million more tourists than Barcelona. Where did they all stay?!?! My guess is after hotels, illegal short-term rentals. I started to wonder how many of my friends and family members were affected by these crowds. After asking around, it seemed to be a split group, depending on what part of the city you are living in you either dealt with a bachelor party every weekend or barely a peep the whole year. Upon my return to Barcelona this past month the movement seemed to have grown stronger and more organized with almost every building posting official signs that basically say, you rent this apartment illegally and I have no place to live. The long story short is that this system isn't working for a lot of residents in cities around the globe. And my point is from here on out, I will choose to do extensive research before traveling and renting an illegal apartment again because while I consider myself to be a fairly respectful and conscientious traveler it does not mean that every one else is nor does it mean that I, along with other renters, am not making it harder and harder for locals to find affordable places to rent. I urge everyone to strongly consider the impact tourism has on major cities and be respectful of its residents, streets, artwork, historic buildings and culture. If we want to be able to continue to travel freely we must respect the concerns of the people in the cities we love so much.
Spending a few action packed days in BCN felt like it warranted a weekend excursion up to Costa Brava. The plan was to bounce around from town to town, eating, drinking, swimming, hiking.... well you get it. We chose to start at the most northerly point we would be at and then work our way down the coast. After doing some research on the Empordá wine region I found what appeared to be an awesome small-production winery run by a younger generation of people who were doing things a little differently.
La Vinyeta is located in the town of Mollet de Peralada, just under an hour to the closest border with France. Upon arriving we walked into a small building that houses pretty much everything. It smelled oddly like tomatoes and we were later told that was because they have a garden and use their tomatoes to make conserves. Downstairs holds the fermentation tanks and bottling machine and just off to the side of that was a separate barrel room. This VERY small winery has 10 people working year round as well as the owners, Josep and Marta. It is clearly a very passionate and driven group of people who work around the clock to get everything done.
On our tour of the vineyard our host, Alizee told us all about the winery's beginnings (just over 10 years ago) and how the couple met and came to own this property and winery. When they acquired the land there were no vines on it yet so they did all the planting themselves. They did did discover, however, an olive tree grove that had been nicknamed the "dark forest" by the local teenagers. This "dark forest" was apparently a place to make out back in the day before Josep and Marta made it their vineyard. So besides wines and tomato conserves, they also make olive oil! From the vineyard we made it over to the chicken coop which houses over 1000 hens. Apparently the couple wasn't satisfied with the idea of wasting all of the grape refuse post-production so they started using it like a compost between the rows of vines and discovered that birds loved eating it. So why not chickens? They can eliminate waste more easily and now they have eggs to eat and provide to local restaurants.
The tasting the day we went was held outside on the patio overlooking the vineyard and we were lucky enough to have the place to ourselves. All the wines we tasted were incredible and each label had a very personal story. My favorite had to be the Heus line of wines. Heus meaning "once" in Catalan, the label was designed to look like the first page of an old book, it was their way of signifying that this line of wines was young and meant to be drunk early. As the wines progressed, each label had some significance to the owners. If I didn't have to travel so far I would have taken them all home with me. I was so impressed with how dedicated and intimate this project seems. Everyone was so friendly and seemed genuinely happy to be there. It was a great way to start our mini tour of northern Cataluñya.
The first time we went to Cal Pep was when we were in BCN last May. I had heard first hand from friends how great it was and had read numerous reviews touting the same. I looked up the opening time for dinner and made sure to be there 30 minutes early since I had heard the line builds quickly. After a much anticipation we filed in to grab our seat at the long bar facing the chefs and our servers for the evening. I will preface the next part with this- you are not given a menu and we weren't sure if you got to choose any of your meal, whether you spoke Catalan and/or Spanish or not but we decided to go with the flow and just let our server bring us what he thought we would like. The only guidance we gave him was, we eat anything and we want vino blanco. The meal was off to an ok start with padron peppers and a fried mix of seafood. Next came croquettes and then tortilla española. The meal continued along in that fashion, it definitely felt like we had been pegged for a typical tourist. Not to say it wasn't good but looking around at the Spanish and Catalan speaking patrons who were getting razor clams and tuna tartar and steak, we felt a little stereotyped. All in all, the meal was a bit of a let down. The service was excellent, but we obviously hadn't conveyed that we weren't your average Americanos.
Bringing you to the present, last night we were hoping to make it into El Xampanyet for a late (for us) dinner and to no surprise, it was packed at 9:30pm. So we thought "should we give Cal Pep another go? They will probably be swamped too, but maybe it's worth not writing off just yet." So we head over and it looks like we got lucky, only 9 people were ahead of us in line! Side note- no one in Barcelona is ever in a hurry to turn over seats so 9 people ahead of us meant an hour of waiting. While in line though we made sure to note all the amazing food things that we would insist we wanted. We finally sat around 10:15, the last seating of the night. Our server came up and asked "do you eat everything? may I order you the mix of tapas?" Part of me always wants to say "YES! I love when the server orders for me!" but I knew better here. We had to be more assertive. So we said "we were here a year ago and had a decent meal, but we want something different." We were delighted when he asked us what we actually wanted. We picked out botifarra with beans as well as padron peppers and left the rest to him. What came next was hands down one of our favorite meals in Barcelona. We had confit octopus with potatoes, berberechos in a briney, garlic broth, creamy tortilla española, sauteed spinach and squid and crema catalana. WE ATE IT ALL. We had a fantastic rapport with our waiter, he guided us to all the right places with our meal. At the end, he treated us to shots of an herbal Galician liqueur and cervezas as well as toast with chocolate and sea salt. He tried to keep us longer with offers of more shots and beer and chocolate, but we didn't want to ruin the fantastic feeling of that great meal with a hangover the next morning.
Needless to say, we couldn't have been more excited and surprised by trying Cal Pep again, it was totally worth the wait!
What better way to spend the hottest, stickiest, sweatiest part of the year waiting for your next big adventure than to treat yourself to a staycation in your hometown at a hotel with a pool? That's just what we did this weekend in New Orleans. The newly opened Ace Hotel is super stylish and will definitely make you feel like you have left New Orleans once you step foot inside. The lobby is furnished with antique rugs and sofas, great pieces of art, and a cocktail bar- it has a "come in and stay awhile" vibe that reminds me of being in my grandparent's living room. The first floor of the hotel also holds a hugely popular Stumptown Coffee and the very tasty Josephine Estelle restaurant.
We opted for a medium room and it is a pretty decent size. I loved the special touch of leaving music on in the rooms, it made me instantly feel at home. Our room was on the 3rd floor but faced the front of the hotel so we still had a good view from our windows. The rooms are a mix between sleek and modern and hip and vintage. There was a retro style avocado green refrigerator stocked with goodies and a guitar (tuned, might I add) ready for you to start composing.
We spent most of day dodging rain drops by ducking into Willa Jean for lunch and a glass of their signature frosé. Once the rain let up we made our way up to the rooftop pool. I've been to quite a few hotel pools in New Orleans and I must say this one is the nicest. They have a great pool bar with an interesting selection of wines and house made frozen daiquiris as well as a grill in case all that swimming makes you hungry. It was unseasonably cool for August 14 and the pool itself was nice and crisp so we mostly lounged and dipped our toes in.
After sunbathing we went downstairs to the freshly opened Seaworthy for happy hour oysters and txakolina. The gulf oysters were a perfect compliment to the refreshing Basque wine. I am looking forward to checking out the rest of the menu soon! We finally wrapped up the evening with a spectacular dealer's choice meal at Josephine Estelle. The snapper crudo and JE salad are to die for! We also tried EVERY pasta on the menu and to be honest, I couldn't tell you which one was my favorite, they were all amazing. We finished our meal with the ribeye and the soft shell crab and while they were pretty good, the pastas and small plates stole the show for us.
In short, our staycation was pretty baller. We didn't really have to leave the hotel which made it feel even more like we were in a different city altogether. Even though we weren't playing tourist at home, we definitely felt like we were on vacation, if even for 24 hours.
This map will give you a better idea of where we spent our time and how everything in the desert is positioned in relation to San Pedro de Atacama.
On our last night in Santiago we decided we just wanted to relax and grab a bottle wine and maybe a hunk of cheese and relax on our balcony at The Aubrey. So we headed over to Vinomio to browse and started a great conversation about Chilean wines and how the US, the south specifically, gets very few quality Chilean wines even though there are so many amazing ones being made. They told us that every bottle in their shop was small production and local (obviously) and that most were made using biodynamic methods. After tasting an awesome Pipeño Nouveau with them and picking out 6 bottles to bring home we asked for a recommendation on where we could pick up something simple to bring back to our room. They enthusiastically insisted that we eat down the street at Peumayen, a wonderful restaurant specializing in Chile's ancestral food. They even walked us over and finagled a reservation for us on a packed Saturday night. They were not wrong about this place, the food was incredible as well as the wine list and pisco list. If only we had discovered this place before tonight! This restaurant is not for the picky or the squeamish, we had horse tartare and llama stew as well as razor clams and seaweed salad. They represented every part of Chile, from coast to mountains and from desert to glaciers. This was an unforgettable meal, and dare I say, more interesting and passionate than Borago.
On our last morning in the desert we head up to El Tatio geyser field. Admittedly, geysers don't seem to impress me that much, but these were pretty awesome. Maybe it was the sun rising over the mountains on our hour long drive up, or maybe it's the fact that we were in the largest geyser field in the southern hemisphere or that it is highest elevation geyser field in the world, 4,320 meters ASL!!! We reached the field right after sunrise and saw a great show of steam and boiling water shooting into the atmosphere. It was a beautiful way to spend our final morning in this weird and wonderful place. I can't wait to return!
This morning was our full day excursion out to Lagunas Miscanti and Miñiques. The story is that they were once one body of water and Volcano Miñiques erupted with lava flow coming down and separating the two lagoons. The drive is about an hour from San Pedro de Atacama but you will pass over the salt flat and through the desert town of Tocanao and then the mountain town of Socaire. Once past Socaire you will head up to the altiplano and then still higher reaching past 14,000 ft. In this area you will see vicunas and flamingos and this beautiful wheat colored grass called paja brava that only grows at high altitudes. This was definitely the most picturesque scenery I have ever seen with my own eyes. The Chileans do such an amazing job of preserving the natural beauty this country has.
On our way back to town we stopped at Laguna Chaxa which is part of the Los Flamencos National Reserve in the Atacama which covers about 180,000 acres. There you can observe both Chilean and Andean flamingos feeding and their nesting sites.
Today we set out for a 4 hour horseback ride towards Valle de la Muerte. The walk was incredibly majestic, we were the only people around for miles. I have to stress that we were here during the middle of winter so there weren't many tourists, this made sightseeing extremely easy and photographs near perfection because no people were in them.
We set out from Awasi through the town of San Pedro towards Devil's Ravine where we had been mountain biking the day before. Once past the ravine we headed through a canyon, slowly ascending a trail that ran parallel to an intact Inca trail. Along the precariously narrow path that even the horses seemed hesitant to scale we could see miles out past the Rio Grande river towards the Andes. It was truly one of the most bizarre and special landscapes I have ever encountered. Once we reached the top we travelled an extensive plateau able to see for hundreds of miles in all directions. We came to the edge of the plateau where we could see VERY steep sand dunes all the way down to a valley. This was where we thought our guide was joking when he instructed us to step off the edge and run down the dunes on the horses. Apparently he was not joking... not even the GOPRO could capture how steep this descent was. We finished off our ride through Valle de la Muerte and then back through town. Of all my horseback riding in different countries, this was the most exhilarating and unique, it is not to be missed when visiting the Atacama.
Our first full day here has been incredible! The flight from Santiago to Calama is an easy 2 hour hop, from the airport it is about one hour to the quaint desert town of San Pedro de Atacama. We spent our first afternoon getting acquainted with the rustic luxury lodge, Awasi Atacama. Situated just off the main pedestrian street in town you have access to all the amenities but once inside the gates it feels as if you have been transported to the middle of nowhere. We slept like babies in our beautiful suite after an evening of wonderful food and conversation with our hosts for the next 4 days.
We woke up around 8am and had a wonderful breakfast with just about anything you could ask for and some things you probably didn't know existed (like lucuma- a Chilean fruit that tastes like dulce de leche!) Ricardo, our guide, picked us up around 10 am to head out to Puritama Springs. The springs are a series of geothermal pools located in a canyon at 11,000 ft. The water is about 90 degrees Fahrenheit which was perfect for the mild, overcast day we were having. The water is crystal clear and because of the slope of the canyon some of the pools have waterfalls. I could have spent all day there.