Treasured Travel Destinations of Latino Americans

We figured Hispanic Heritage Month could inspire some of us to look to our homelands as we plan – or dream – about our next vacation. It’s easy to overlook the stunning diversity of landscapes in the Caribbean and Latin America.

NBC News Latino asked some of our friends to share their special places when they go visit their families’ native countries. We got back some beautiful pictures and unique locations.

Mexico

It’s hard to pick where to travel to in Mexico, because it has so much diverse beauty in its more than 30 states. Cancún, and Tulum, which both reside on the Yucatan Peninsula in the state of Quintana Roo, continue to be winning beach destinations year after year. The capital, Mexico City, is one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world, with 16 boroughs and more than 300 neighborhoods. In addition to being a lead city in the arts, it is also home of the Aztec archaeological ruins of Teotihuacan.

Jaime Davila’s family is originally from General Terán in Nuevo León. Also known as the“Breakaway Backpacker,” Davila is currently on his second trip around the world and just happened to be in Mexico. He said this has been his favorite gem so far:

Image: Guanajuato, Mexico.
(Photo/JAIME DAVILA) Guanajuato, Mexico.

“Get lost in one of the many callejones, “alleys,” that make up this colonial city set on hills,” said Davila. “As you wander its cobblestone streets, you’re met with an array of color. You can’t help but smile with joy and wonder how it’s kept its charm for so long. Even though it is filled with many attractions, the best thing to do, when visiting, is to just get lost and soak it all in.”

Chile

With its amazing stargazing at the Atacama Desert, its ancient moai statues on Easter Island, and beautiful ski slopes during (our) summer, Chile placed second on Yahoo Travel’s “World’s Top 10 Countries” this year.

Andrea Farah, who is from the capital, Santiago, visited this luscious place in southern Chile in 2011 and has loved it ever since:

Image: Termas Geometricas.
(Photo/ANDREA C. FARAH) Termas Geometricas, Chile.

Termas Geometricas has been one of the most breathtaking sites I have been to – there is so much peace and beauty there,” said Farah. “I literally felt full of energy visiting the Termas. I would definitely recommend anyone visiting Chile to go to there. There are hot springs in the middle of the forest! It can’t get any better than that,” she shared.

Loreto Riveros Fraser, also from Santiago, loves visiting the city of Valparaíso about an hour away from her hometown.

Image: A trolleybus and the Turri Clock Tower behind it in the Financial District of Valparaiso, Chile. (Photo/LORETO RIVEROS FRASER) A trolleybus and the Turri Clock Tower behind it in the Financial District of Valparaiso, Chile.

“I took this photo in February while I was visiting my family after two years,” said Riveros Fraser. “It is special, because it is a family tradition to go and ride the trolleybus, and I haven’t done that in a long time,” she shared.

Bolivia

Bolivia, like Peru, was part of the Inca Empire before Spanish colonization. The land-locked country has many beautiful spots to visit such as Lake Titicaca and Madidi National Park.

Ingrid Matias, whose family originates from Bolivia, recommended this unique location:

Image: Salar de Uyuni, salt water flats in southwest Bolivia.
(Photo/INGRID MATIAS) Salar de Uyuni, salt water flats in southwest Bolivia.

“If you’ve ever wanted to walk on the clouds, Uyuni is the place to visit,” she said, adding that everyone who visits el Salar must join a tour group. “The whole tour lasts three days.”

Image: Hotel-Museo del Sal in Salar de Uyuni.
(Photo/INGRID MATIAS) Hotel-Museo del Sal in Salar de Uyuni.

“We didn’t stay in Hotel-Museo del Sal, because it’s a museum now, but we did stay at a salt hotel in a nearby town,” she told us. “The bed frames were made of salt. The walls were made of salt.”

Puerto Rico

The island of Puerto Rico is just a gem in itself. Walking through colonial San Juan, and climbing to El Morro brings you back to the 16th century. You can also take a ferry to visit some of the world’s most beautiful beaches off the islands of Culebra and Vieques.

Jessica Caban, who is from the northwestern city of Aguadilla, said she has been to the El Yunque Rainforest twice already and can’t get enough:

Image: El Yunque National Forest in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
(Photo/JESSICA CABAN) El Yunque National Forest in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

“There is a small rock ledge that you could stand on – on your way up to the highest peak – where you can see a large part of the forest and feel the clouds on your skin,” said Caban about El Yunque, a rainforest that is part of the U.S. National Park Service (Puerto Rico is a U.S. commonwealth). “It’s actually a very breathtaking view, but quite scary, – the ledge is small, and there are no guard rails so you can fall off!” she said.

Caban also loved hearing the coquis (small tree frogs native only to Puerto Rico), butterflies and parrots, as well as the waterfalls and rivers one can bathe in.

Priscilla Rivera from Luquillo loves this hidden treasure of Puerto Rico that she recently visited:

Image: Rio Camuy Caves in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
(Photo/PRISCILLA RIVERA) Rio Camuy Caves in Arecibo, Puerto Rico.

“You basically have to go through someone’s backyard to get to this particular cave and waterfall system,” said Rivera. “On the way there, you walk along a very steep mountain, almost on your tippy toes, and then once you reach the cave, you have to jump in ice-cold water to get inside of it.”

The tour of the cave itself is about two hours long, she said, and it requires maximum physical fitness – as well as not being afraid of cave spiders and bats.

“I thought I wouldn’t make it through all of the different entrances of the cave because of claustrophobia, but the equipment they give you and a well-trained tour guide helped a lot,” said Rivera. “Once you get out of the cave, you go through this tunnel waterfall system on your back – body rafting.”

Peru

Recently named the leading cultural and culinary destination by the World Travel Awards, Peru is the home of the majestic 15th-century Inca site, Machu Picchu, the mysterious Nazca Lines, located in the Nazca Desert in southern Peru, and some of the world’s most genetically diverse crops.

Jonathan Siu, originally from Lima, Peru, shared some of his favorite, less known locations in his native country:

Image: Paracas, a desert reserve located near Las Islas Ballestas.
(Photo/JONATHAN SIU) Paracas, a desert reserve located near Las Islas Ballestas.

“The first thing that comes to my mind is the peacefulness of the area,” said Siu. “AlthoughParacas is becoming a resort-esque city, it still conveys a local, almost familiar ambience. I took this picture on my way to the Ballestas Islands.”

Image: Village of Huacachina, five hours south of Lima.
(Photo/JONATHAN SIU) Village of Huacachina, five hours south of Lima.

Huacachina is a small village that surrounds a natural oasis in the desert of Ica,” he said. “We got there after taking a buggy ride and sand boarding throughout the desert dunes. It is truly a magical place. On this particular day, the weather was not on our side, hence the contrast between the dark skies and the whiteness of the sand.”

Dominican Republic

From its 16th century castles and monasteries to its tropical green hills and turquoise beaches, the Dominican Republic is a favorite destination for many. Catherine Cuello, co-founder of the Greenhopping app, says these two places from her native Dominican Republic make her feel at peace, calm, and serene.

Image: Puerto Bahia in Samana, Dominican Republic.
(COURTESY CATHERINE CUELLO) Puerto Bahia in Samana, Dominican Republic.

“It’s my place to unwind and re-power to be able to handle New York City,” says Cuello. “It’s my safe haven and my piece of bliss.”

Image: A view of the beach in Barahona, Dominican Republic.
(COURTESY CATHERINE CUELLO) A view of the beach in Barahona, Dominican Republic.

Brazil

There doesn’t seem to be a single person who doesn’t have Brazil on their “bucket list” of places to visit, and it’s with good reason.

Rio de Janeiro is home to the iconic Ipanema Beach, the largest art statue in the world –Christ the Redeemer– and of course Rio’s annual Carnival held during the Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday.

Denise Oliveira, from Rio de Janeiro, shared with us her family’s favorite location:

Image: Marau Peninsula, town of Barra Grande, state of Bahia in Brazil.
(Photo/NESTOR MACIEL) Marau Peninsula, town of Barra Grande, state of Bahia in Brazil.

“Barra Grande Beach in Bahia has become my family’s favorite vacation destination in Brazil,” said Oliveira, “…it has the most beautiful scenery in the country, and the food is amazing.”

 Originally published on NBCNews.com.

 

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The Latinas behind the Americas Latino Eco-Festival

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Festival founder, Irene Vilar (Photo/Gary Isaacs)

Irene Vilar is no stranger to activism. She says her own grandmother spent 27 years in prison for fighting to make their native Puerto Rico an independent state.

Vilar wrote a memoir and became an author at the tender age 22. Years later, she founded the non-profit Americas for Conservation + the Arts, the mother organization of the Americas Latino Book Awards, as well as the first non-profit literary agency in the U.S. dedicated to proliferating minority literature in the Americas. Continue reading

The Tejano Sculptor Behind The Life-Size Statue Of Texas Coach Gil Steinke

 

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Armando Hinojosa with his statue of Coach Gil Steinke (Photo/Doug Smith)

Amando Hinojosa is a former art teacher from Laredo, Texas, well-known for his beautiful bronze sculptures across the nation.

Over his 40-year sculpting career, his intricately detailed work can be seen decorating Sea World, Boy Scouts of America, and different hotels and court houses around the country. In 2012, his Tejano Monument was unveiled in Austin – the largest monument at any state capitol in the nation. It is comprised of 11 life-size bronze sculptures and represents the Hispanic influence on the formation of Texas.

RELATED: Sculptor to unveil Tejano Monument after a decade

On Saturday his latest project was unveiled at the football stadium of Texas A&M University-Kingsville: a life-size, 6-foot statue of its legendary football coach, Gil Steinke. Steinke led the Javelina football team from 1954 to 1977, and played for Texas A&I University, as it was known until 1993, from 1938 to 1941.

“He was the first college football coach to recruit Blacks and Hispanics,” said Hinojosa in an interview with NBC News, when asked why this particular project makes him so proud. “He won six national champions…and got more players in the NFL Hall of Fame than any other coach.”

Hinojosa, who is an alum of the University when it was called A&I, said that a life-size statue costs about $30,000 to make. According to a University news release, the Texas A&I Alumni Association donated the statue to the school, and the University paid $70,000 to prepare the foundation.

“Twenty years ago, we changed our name from A&I, but we still have an alumni group for A&I,” said A&M University-Kingsville President Steven Tallant. “That group raised the money and selected Armando to do the sculpture, and they donated the sculpture to us.”

Hinojosa has two more statues on the Kingsville campus, including one of their mascot, javelinas, called “Leader of the Pack.”

(Photo/Doug Smith)

Hinojosa explained he is a proud Tejano. His father – also an artist– came from Mexico and married his mother, an American citizen, who was a direct descendant of the founder of Laredo, Don Tomas Sanchez. His family resided in Texas as early as 1755.

The energetic 70-year-old artist said he’s looking forward to his next project. The Cotulla Convention Center in South Texas has already booked him to make a life-size sculpture of the city’s founder, Joseph Cotulla.

“I gotta move on,” he said. “I gotta work for the future now. I’m ready for something new.”

Originally published on September 6, 2014 on NBCNews.com.