A Stirring Tribute to Latin American Music Legends: Natalia Lafourcade’s ‘Musas’

Natalia Lafourcade (Courtesy Sony Music)

Physically, Mexican singer-songwriter Natalia Lafourcade is only 4 feet, 11 inches in height, but the soul she emanates with her ethereal music is fathomless. And audiences and critics agree – she won a Grammy last year for her album, “Hasta la Raiz,” in the Best Latin Rock, Urban or Alternative Album category – and this is in addition to the 8 Latin Grammys she has won.

In her newest album, “Musas” (“Muses”), she pays tribute to various musicians who have etched a musical memory in her heart at some point in her life and are beloved to many in Latin America and the U.S., such as, the late Chilean composer/songwriter Violeta Parra and Mexican dancer and actress Rocío Sagaón – well-known for appearing with actor Pedro Infante in the 1951 film, “Las Islas Marias.”

“I had many different teachers,” says Lafourcade. “I started writing songs at 14 about things I was living at school, and the things I felt at that age. In this album, I tried something different. I wanted to write about Veracruz, and my friend, Rocío Sagaón, who was like a grandmother to me and passed away two years ago. She was one of my inspirations.”

It was almost predestined that Lafourcade, 33, was to be a musician. She was born to two respected music educators in Mexico City, and spent a lot of her childhood in neighboring Coatepec, Veracruz amidst music and art. But the exact moment she herself was certain of her future, she remembers precisely.

“I knew that I wanted to be a singer when I was 10 years old,” Lafourcade tells NBC from Mexico City. “There was a party at school, and they invited me to sing for a play. I was really nervous, but when I was on the stage, I knew.”

And her feelings have never steered her wrong since. It is the profound way in which Lafourcade feels the experiences of life, which inspire her songs, that provide the magic touch to her compositions.

Her timeless, sweet and gentle sound is hard to fit in a specific box. She, herself, describes it as, “a mix of many genres. I would say maybe alt/pop, but now I’m trying to explore folk and traditional sounds of my country. Something that would include everyone.”

For the past decade, she says she’s been listening to a wide assortment of sounds, which cross countries, and genres, from Bob Dylan to Edith Piaf and La Lupe.

In her new album, she collaborates with the legendary Mexican guitar duo Los Macorinos.

“The idea to collaborate with Los Macorinos happened when we were having a concert as a tribute to Chavela Vargas four years ago,” said Lafourcade about Miguel Peña and Juan Carlos Allende, famous for accompanying the late legendary singer, Chavela Vargas. “That’s when I heard them on stage. I knew of them because of Chavela, but when I saw them on the stage, I thought it would be a great idea to work on a project with them.”

Last year, while on vacation in Brazil, the memory returned.

“When I got back to Mexico, I reached out to them,” says Lafourcade about how she got Los Macorinos to be her guitar and chorus accompaniment throughout the “Musas” album.

“It has given me so many things. It’s a very magical project. We decided to record the album live, and I never did that before,” she says. “I believe that’s why this album has this incredible spirit. Now I don’t want to record any other way.”

This all happened in a moment in her life that she needed music in a different way, “more ‘cotidiano’ (‘simple’ or ‘everyday’),” says Lafourcade. “I say that because working with Los Macorinos wasn’t as easy as I thought it was going to be. I would do everything faster. I had to go very deep, and I had to connect my heart and my soul in a very deep way – pay attention to the meaning of the songs and the energy. It made me more awake. That growth made me change the way I make my music now.”

She now adds Los Macorinos, who are in their 70’s, to her long list of teachers.

“It was very beautiful to share these moments. It was different for them, and for me,” says Lafourcade. “Before, I was working with artists who were my same age. Spending time with Los Macarinos was beautiful – to hear the music they were bringing to the table. There was a moment we had 200 songs we all loved, and we tried to decide which songs to include, so we were hanging out a lot and they told me a lot of stories.”

Her favorite musician to work with, however, she says was Cuban legend Omara Portuondo (from “Buena Vista Social Club”). They sing a duet on the track, “Tu me acostumbraste” (“I Got Used to You”).

“She is so amazing with powerful energy,” says Lafourcade of her 86-year-old mentor. “We get along very well.”

Although she’s going on a U.S. and Mexico tour, starting next month through October, Lafourcade says she will make a second volume of “Musas” later this year.

“I am 15 years into my career, and I want to go back to the piano and take the time to learn more,” she says. “I have many projects in mind like this one. By collaborating, you can do very interesting things. And it’s not just about me…We will see…”

For now, she just seems grateful for her experiences, and in love with life – as well as the person who inspired her original track, “Tú sí sabes quererme” (“You Know How to Love Me”).

“My mother always said I was singing before I was speaking,” laughs Lafourcade. “I came to this world to sing, and I feel very fortunate, because I am able to do that.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

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‘Lucha Mexico’ Filmmaker Honors Lucha Libre’s Proud Tradition

DOC NYC 2015 Premiere Of "Lucha Mexico"Left to right: Filmmaker Alex Hammond, professional wrestlers Jose Luis Jair Soria, aka Shocker, and Jon “Strongman” Andersen, and filmmaker Ian Markiewicz attend the DOC NYC 2015 premiere of “Lucha Mexico” at SVA Theater on November 13, 2015 in New York City. (Photo/Monica Schipper / Getty Images)

For the longest time, documentary filmmaker Alex Hammond had wanted to work on a film which shed light on her Mexican heritage. The director of “Children of Haiti” and “Better Than Something,” which explored the punk underground, grew up in Connecticut but spent nearly every summer in Mexico visiting family; her mother had immigrated to the U.S. from San Luis Potosí.

The result is “Lucha Mexico,” her new film created with longtime co-director Ian Markiewicz, which explores the dynamic subculture of Lucha libre, the beloved and more than century-old Mexican professional wrestling sport.

After four years of shooting in mostly Mexico, “Lucha Mexico,” is being released in theaters and on iTunes on Friday, July 15, playing in cities across the country, including New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston, among others.

Lucha libre literally means “free fight,” and dates back to the Franco-Mexican War in 1863. The wrestlers are known to wear colorful masks, which hide their true identities, and some are known for their aerial maneuvers. They also characterize themselves as “good guys” (called “técnicos”) vs. the “bad guys” (called “rudos”).

“I knew the moment I saw Lucha, that this is what I wanted to make a film about,” said Hammond, 35, to NBC Latino. “The idea that these athletes put themselves in the ring and put their lives on the line is where the interest started. When we got in there, we realized this world was so big.”

Hammond said it’s a good time to shine a spotlight on this sport, since it has been growing in popularity in the U.S. as well. Lucha Underground,” a weekly hour-long TV series which premiered in the U.S. on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’ El Rey Network in 2014, is still going strong in 2016.

“Because it’s taken us five years to make the film from start to finish, we’ve seen lots of changes,” said Hammond about the growth of Lucha libre. “‘Lucha Underground’ is getting a lot attention now —you’re starting to find them happening more often, I think because WWE is so big. They helped introduce the Mexican wrestlers. More people are exposed to it.”

Film poster for "Lucha Mexico" by Alex Hammond.
Film poster for “Lucha Mexico” by Alex Hammond. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

One of the film’s protagonists is American Lucha wrestler John Andersen, who goes by the wrestling name, “John Strongman.”

“He came down to Mexico from San Francisco as a pro-wrestler, and we got to document his first time going to Mexico,” says Hammond. “He would live in Mexico for a month at a time — now there are more Americans moving down there to wrestle.”

Hammond says the “luchadores” (wrestlers) are like superheroes for Mexicans.

“They are very real for the people,” says Hammond. “When you go to any show, you’ll see a grandmother and a baby – it’s a family affair.”

The “luchadores” themselves also take their careers very seriously. They go to Lucha school, starting sometimes as young as 15, to learn the proper fighting techniques.

Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right)
Sexy Star (left), Faby Apache (right) (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

“These men and women are really athletes, and you see how hard they work,” says Hammond. “For a lot of them, their parents were wrestlers…It’s like a whole close-knit family. When you retire, you work as a wrestling coach.”

The film shows how fans idolize their superheroes, but it’s not so glamorous for the wrestlers themselves. Blue Demon, Jr., the son of the legendary Blue Demon — who was also an actor in many movies, as his wrestling persona, in the 1960’s and 1970’s — describes the way of life as “lonely.”

“Out of 24 hours, I wear my mask for 18,” says Blue Demon, Jr. in the film. “You have to be a loner and not go out too much, eat cold meals in the hotel. You can’t go out at night, or you might be recognized.”

Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr.
Photo of the late Perro Aguayo Jr. (Courtesy Kino Lorber)

It’s also a dangerous sport. Hammond says the famous El Hijo de Perro Aguarro died in the ring last year.

“We had to recut the movie,” said Hammond, because he was supposed to be one of the main characters. “It was a freak accident. He died wrestling.”

Hammond said that throughout the making of the film, several wrestlers died from various causes.

But ultimately, the luchadores think it’s worth the risks and the sacrifices. One of the trainers told Hammond that ‘in order to be a wrestler, you have to be hungry and want to have that triumph.’

“That’s essentially what we wanted to capture,” she said, “what drives them to constantly get back in that ring.”

Hammond doesn’t know yet where her next project will bring her, but she says she’s always been interested in exploring different environments.

“I like getting people to feel like they are there,” she says. “For ‘Lucha Mexico,’ I wanted to show also how beautiful Mexico is – not just what you see in the news — it’s not just drugs.”

Originally published on NBCNews.com.

Nun Fights For Families Of Killed, Missing In Mexico’s Drug Wars

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

Sister Consuelo Morales (Photo/Victor Hugo Valdivia)

When one thinks of drug wars, a nun does not come to mind. But 67-year-old Sister Consuelo Morales’s fight for the families of those missing or killed in Mexico’s drug wars is one of the powerful story lines in the new documentary, “Kingdom of Shadows,” making its world premiere at SXSW on Monday, March 16.

Acclaimed Mexican-American filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz (Emmy-nominated “Reportero,” 2012), follows three individuals, with very distinct lives, all dealing with the consequences of the U.S.-Mexico drug war.

There’s a Texan rancher who fell into drug smuggling, because he had trouble making ends meet as a farmer, as well as a Homeland Security Investigator on the U.S.-Mexico border who witnesses the continual rise of violent and deadly organized crime. Then there is Morales, a Catholic nun in Monterrey, Mexico fighting for the rights of families whose loved ones have been killed or “disappeared” as a result of drug violence.

Sister Morales returned to her native city of Monterrey, Mexico in 1992, after years working to help indigenous communities in Veracruz and in Mexico City. She came back to find her community in turmoil. It was then she helped found Citizens in Support of Human Rights (Ciudadanos en Apoyo de Derechos Humanos, CADHAC) to help families in need – and she has devoted her life to that cause for the past two decades.

According to the latest official numbers from the Mexican government, the number of people who have disappeared since the start of the country’s drug war in 2006 is nearly 23,000 (although this number has fluctuated widely depending on the administration). Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz argues the most international attention this crisis has gotten was the disappearance of 43 college-student protesters in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero in September 2014, recently declared dead.

In an interview with NBC News, Sister Morales says the violence has substantially increased since 2007. “This situation of violence touches not only the people involved with narcos or the drug business, but it also touches families and young people that had nothing to do with it. When the Mexican government decided to stop this…the situation became worse and worse, because citizens were in between the delinquents and the soldiers. They were in a very vulnerable situation.”

She says that individuals ages 16 to 35 are the most affected by the violence and targets of kidnappings/killings. The worst years, she remembers, were 2010 through 2012.

“We were frozen,” says the nun. “People were so scared and still are scared. We just received a case from a mother who said five years ago they took away her son. Her husband is so scared [of the drug cartels] that he didn’t allow her to put an announcement with the authorities. They put an announcement with [CADHAC], but the day after, they didn’t come back.”

She explains this behavior is common, because Mexican citizens fear everyone – even the authorities – because they are also known to be involved in narco trafficking.

“Two years ago, a kid – two and a half years old – was walking with his father very close to his office,” remembers Sister Morales. “His father wanted to take him to the doctor. On the corner, there were two groups of young people. One of them was taking people away. They took his father, and left the boy on the street..If we don’t do something to support and give what we can to this child to grow in confidence, what will he have in his heart?”

According to Sister Morales, the people who are generally taken away are the ones giving economic support to the family. In this way, she says, the narcos are instilling fear in the community. If you don’t have money to pay them their “dues,” you get taken away.

The petite yet strong-willed nun arrives at CADHAC around 8:30 am every morning. After meeting with her team, she has appointments throughout the day with people needing help with justice or violent situations.

“They come and ask questions and share information with us, and we help them resolve their problems,” says Sister Morales. “We may help them, and stay beside them, but never in front of them. We help them with the tools to get justice.”

There was a point in her life, she says, when she questioned her belief in God. But helping people was something that was innate to her since she was a young child.

“I asked myself what was the message that Jesus gave us – it is to love each other,” says Sister Morales about why she does the work she does. “The only thing that is important is that they are human beings, and they have dignity. I am their sister.”

Bernardo Ruiz sees her as a savior.

“What I do know is that people like Consuelo, and the families she works with, need more international support,” he says. “From my perspective, they’re the ones who represent our path forward.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

3 travel destinations to volunteer in Latin America

It might be time for you to plan your next vacation, but you want to do more than lie around on a beach sipping drinks. If you have wondered about volunteering abroad, it’s a great way to give back to communities who could use a helping hand.

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke to Americans who have volunteered in Latin America, and they shared with us their life-changing experiences. You don’t need much time, or money. In as little as a day or two, and $50, you can make a difference in someone’s life.

Build Houses In Colombia

José Giron was born in Bogota and immigrated to the U.S. at age 5. Today, he’s a student at the University of Southern California. After hearing so much from family and friends about the good deeds Techo does in Latin America, he finally decided to volunteer with the non-profit organization and went to Medellin in June of 2013.

The project involved 15 U.S. volunteers and around 150 local volunteers, and its aim was to build 25 houses in a slum on the outskirts of Medellin. We asked José about his experience.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“It’s just a matter of sending an e-mail that you’re interested in helping in some way. Because Techo is basically volunteer-driven, we relied on our own fundraising to achieve our goals. Each volunteer had to pay something like $200 USD. If we didn’t come up with our goal amount for the trip, the central office in Chile would have to lend us the money that we have to pay back.”

Length of trip:

“I left on a Thursday night, and I was back Sunday afternoon, but I fundraised for a good four months for my plane ticket. Techo has teams that go months ahead of time to identify the groups of individuals or families that need the most help. The house costs about $2,000, and the family has to come up with about $200 (10 percent) in a couple of months. Techo volunteers also search the areas to see if the area is plausible given the terrain. You can volunteer for any part of the project.”

Where was the stay:

“In a school in Manantiales de Paz – 20-25 minutes from the city, but it’s the second largest slum of people displaced by violence. These people have been displaced because the military and guerrillas are fighting too close to their homes…There is no water – it is brought up by trucks. This makes water much more expensive.”

(Photo/SANTIAGO LOAIZA) A view of Manantiales De Paz.

What volunteers do:

“The first thing you do is get split into cuadrillas of 7 to 8 people. Each of these cuadrillas are assigned to build a house in the slum. We were assigned to this house that was up a steep hill. We had to carry all our equipment, because the trucks couldn’t even reach it. We had to carry like the entire front wall up the slope or the main beam up the slope. You work with the family that you are building the house for, and you really experience what it’s like to live there. We worked for three days building this house, from dusk until dawn.”

Life-changing moment:

“One of the nicer experiences is seeing how many people in the community helped us. There was a man who didn’t have an arm. He was helping us unload these extremely heavy beams and carrying them up the slopes, which were stairs made out of sandbags. At my particular house, there were these three neighborhood kids who were helping us – not more than 10-years-old. That was pretty moving.”

(Photo/SANTIAGO LOAIZA) Three neighborhood children who helped us build the house.

Visit Orphans In Mexico

Hilda Pacheco-Taylor, the founder of the Corazón de Vida Foundation, was an orphan in Baja, Mexico herself when she was a young girl. Today, she supports 15 orphanagesthroughout Mexico, housing more than 850 children. As they get older, she tries to teach the youths job and social skills with the help of the volunteers that visit.

Mariana Saori Wall, 26, from Venice Beach, CA, has been volunteering with Corazón de Vida for the past seven years. The focus of the trips, she says, is to spend time with the orphans and provide them much needed one-on-one attention. We asked Mariana about her trips:

(COURTESY OF MARIANA SAORI WALL) A volunteer comforts a child living in an orphanage, in Baja, Mexico.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“Volunteers can register on the Corazón de Vida website (www.corazondevida.org). The cost of the trip is $50 USD, and it includes the bus trip, lunch for the kids and volunteers, and a craft for the day. U.S. citizens must have a valid passport. Non-U.S. citizens must have a passport, visa and proper forms for re-entry. For minors under 18, parents must sign a consent form. Minors under 15 must be accompanied by a parent.”

How long does the trip take:

“Each month, a chartered bus with up to 55 volunteers departs from Los Angeles, Orange County and San Diego. From there, you’re at the orphanage in Tijuana in 20 minutes – arriving around 10am, and back home by 4pm. You can also go to one of the other orphanages in Mexico, like Baja for example, and you can have housing for a week, or a couple of nights. People come from as far as Germany.”

What you do:

“When you arrive, you’re greeted by all the kids. They know you’re coming that day, and they’re super excited. As soon as you get off the bus, they grab your hand and pull you inside. The first hour, you’re walking around and they’re showing you the place. They have an activity for you, making crafts, bracelets, and then you can volunteer to prep for lunch. Every volunteer picks a task for the day.”

Why it’s important:

“The orphanage in Tijuana is called “La Hacienda” and houses around 50 to 60 kids – the majority ages 3 to 12, a couple of teenagers…Tijuana is a big city and a lot of people are traveling in and out of there – a lot of prostitution, drugs, some places have more kids abandoned than others. I’m working on a documentary on these orphanages, which talks about the basic things the kids struggle with – getting paperwork ready for school, finding their birth mothers, so many struggles these kids are going through.”

Life-changing moment:

“Just seeing them (the children) be happy is what keeps me motivated to do my work with them. These kids are so happy. They are just so in love with the volunteers, so excited to see you. It’s so hard to leave. That’s the worst part, to have to go home. There is this one kid this past weekend. She’s about 3 or 4-years-old. She doesn’t speak. They are trying to evaluate her, because she doesn’t laugh or cry. One of the volunteers held her the entire four hours we were there. When we finally had to go, she gave the volunteer a kiss, and everyone was in shock. It is moments like those that you see these kids are getting better, and we are making a positive influence on their lives.

Clean Drinking Water in Ecuador

James Golden traveled to Muisne, a coastal town in northwestern Ecuador, during his summer vacation from Harvard University this past May through early July. He went with Water Ecuador, a nonprofit which provides new drinking water solutions to six developing towns in Ecuador using appropriate technology and business models according to the location.

Water Ecuador was created after Alex Harding traveled from the U.S. to volunteer in a small hospital in Muisne, Ecuador in 2006. He spent all summer watching children come through the hospital’s emergency room with illnesses caused by the lack of safe drinking water: diarrhea, vomiting and intestinal parasites. He quickly learned that being sick was almost a normal state of being in Muisne and decided to do something to stop the cycle. Golden told us about his experience.

Sign-up process/requirements:

“Water Ecuador does not charge any fees to their volunteers. They just ask that volunteers cover the cost of their travel and room and board. They prefer volunteers with significant experience in global health, or work in developing countries, and ask that volunteers come for a minimum of a month (sometimes doctors go for a week), but anyone is welcome to help. All is takes is filling out a short online application.”

Where do you stay:

“The accommodations depend on the site you’re staying at. There are four or five hostels to choose from. You have your own room with a bathroom, and sometimes you have WiFi. The cost is approximately $10 a night for a short-term stay, or $2 to $4 a night for an entire month. The main street of Muisne had a lot of hustle and bustle and store fronts, but as you got away from the main street, you could see poverty a little more evident and streets less paved.”

(Photo/JAMES GOLDEN) Muisne is pretty much always flooded during the rainy season (December through May).

What you do:

“I looked at the cost equality analysis of the 6 water treatment centers that Water Ecuador operates. I was planning on looking at the water quality of the handful of centers in Muisne, comparing it with the water we were distributing ourselves. What I found was that even though the water was adequately treated, they don’t do a good job at sanitizing their reusable water containers. They were contaminated and even had E. coli. That’s what Water Ecuador is currently looking at.”

Life-changing moment:

“The second week that I was in Muisne, I got a throat infection. I was trying to tough it out, but after three days of my throat swelling up, I realized I really couldn’t swallow anything. I ended up going to a private doctor, which cost me $10 and antibiotics cost me $4. I tested the water jug I was drinking out of and found E. coli on it. It was the most sick I’ve ever been, and I realized it was kind of routine for them. I experienced how debilitating it can be, but I could afford to go to the doctor. The locals can’t really afford to go to the doctor.”

(Photo/JAMES GOLDEN) Children in Muisne, Ecuador.
Originally published on NBCNews.com

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.