BARCELONA:
Un-Spanish Spain

Barcelona skyline panorama at night
Barcelona skyline panorama at night

If you’re boning up on your Spanish for a visit to the capital of Catalunya, you may be wasting your time. The people of Barcelona, are proudly, happily and defiantly Catalan.

Barcelona is a city my soul could comfortably settle into, for a lot of reasons.

It’s Spain’s second largest city with a population of not quite 2 million people, but it doesn’t feel overwhelming in the manner of, say, New York or Tokyo or Mexico City. You feel at home in your first five minutes.

Broad boulevards link clusters of neighborhoods of tree-lined streets with storefront shops, cafes, bars. It’s also right on the Mediterranean, with a modernized, people-friendly shoreline and marina. When you’ve lived all your life on or near water as I have, that’s automatic bonus points.

It’s also one of the biggest cruise ports in Europe, with luxurious cruise ships and basic-but-comfortable sea ferries plying both sides of the Med as far east as Greece, Israel and Turkey.

A diverse, cosmopolitan, highly educated population. Young, energetic and sexy. An extensive network of subways, buses and taxis that makes it ridiculously easy to get around. Great food from all over the region and beyond. Nightlife that will drink and dance you under the table, and then drag you back out for more.

One of the world’s great soccer teams, FC Barcelona, plays here in their globally famous stadium, Camp Nou. More on the rivalry part later.

DESIGN CAPITAL

If you’ve got an eye for architecture, Barcelona may wear you out. Centuries’ worth of history is represented in the grim stones of the Barre Gotic. Modern Barcelona may be best represented by the Torre Agbar, a massive, multi-hued, bullet-shaped high-rise overlooking the city shoreline, with an unrivaled 360-degree view of the city and the Med.

But don’t start getting ideas. It’s strictly an office tower. No condos. What a shame.

In truth, though, Barcelona is all but a shrine to Antoni Gaudí. He left seven of his buildings standing in or near this city, and every one of them is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

If that’s not a record for a single individual architect, he’s got to be a member of a very small graduating class.

His grand master work, the Sagrada Familia cathedral, is Gaudí’s signature in stone on the skyline of Barcelona.

Gaudí had a way of blending nature, religion and architecture like no one else. No photo or video can truly convey the size, scale or grandeur of this place.

You’ll have to endure non-stop mobs and you’ll have to pay to get in, but it’s worth it, if only for the people-watching, because people from everywhere come to see this church.

So Barcelona’s got just about everything you could ask for in a European destination. But it’s also got something extra: Attitude.

CATALAN FIRST, SPANISH SECOND

This city officially is a part of Spain. Just try not to say that out loud to anybody while you’re here. Most Barcelona residents are Catalan first and Spanish second. A very distant second. They live, breathe and speak Catalan. But you’re in Spain and you speak Spanish, so you’re good, right?

Maybe not. Folks here prefer to speak Catalan. They also speak Spanish; they’re just very good at politely pretending that they don’t.

They will gladly communicate with you in English, or French, or Arabic, or Mandarin, maybe even Martian. Almost anything, it seems, except Spanish. Some bitter history explains why. There have been several attempts over the ages to grind Catalan culture into the dust.

The worst was probably after the Spanish Civil War. Catalunya had held out the longest against the fascist general Francisco Franco. When he finally won, he all but made being Catalan illegal, even to the point of banning the christening of babies with Catalan names. For 40 years, anyone who openly “repped” their Catalan heritage risked arrest, imprisonment and much, much worse.

The locals had to take their traditions underground to maintain them, but maintain them they did. Franco eventually died. The Catalan way of life did not.

And here in Barcelona, they’ve been flaunting it ever since, a kind “in your face” to the rest of Spain.

That ongoing antagonism between Spain and Catalunya gets played out every year when two of the world’s best soccer teams, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, face off in an ongoing series known simply as El Clásico.

This rivalry has so many moving parts that the sporting side of it almost takes a backseat. It’s regional. It’s political. It’s cultural. Spanish nationalism versus Catalan pride. This is not a game. This is a war based on a round ball and a couple of nets. Prisoners will not be taken.

But for sheer, passionate spectacle, a matchup between these two at Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium is hard to top.

Spain has an almost endless number of fun, beautiful, historic destinations, but if you’re a first-timer to España, I’d recommend Barcelona.

Even if you feel you’re only marginally in Spain.

IF YOU GO
Barcelona is well served from North America by air. Once in Europe, you can easily reach the city by air, road, rail or cruise ship.

From the US, you can fly directly into Barcelona-El Prat Airport (BCN), or fly into Paris and then spin a lovely 6-hour ride via high-speed train through French and Spanish countryside down to Barcelona. You could do it as an “open-jaw” trip, flying into Paris and out of Barcelona, or vice versa.

Lodging ranges from airbnb-cheap to 5-star luxury. Don’t expect bargains during Barcelona’s hot, humid and tourist-packed summers.

Between the extensive subway and bus system and the plentiful black-and-yellow taxis that often seem to be waiting on every street corner, you’ll have little trouble getting around. Also, a lot of people ride bikes here, many taking advantage of the city’s Bicing program, which lets residents borrow a red-and-white bicycle. Return it in 30 minutes or less and it’s free.

Locals will warn you about pickpockets. Heed the warnings, particularly in summer, when dense packs of tourists make easy targets for the light-fingered set. You’ll see a lot of locals and veteran visitors walking around with small messenger bags slung over their shoulders, kept closed and in front of them. A good example to follow.

One of the world’s major Christian pilgrimage sites, Montserrat, is an easy, spectacular ride away by light rail.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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Norovirus at sea

MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.
MS Veendam, right, in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. The other vessel is the cruise ship Norwegian Jewel. ©IBIT/G. Gross. All rights reserved.

An online check of your cruise ship’s health history, especially if you like to save money on last-minute bookings, can save your vacation from a disaster like norovirus.

There are certain words you never want to hear on a cruise ship. Norovirus. Quarantine. Code Red. On this year’s Christmas Week cruise from San Diego to the Mexican Riviera, I heard all of them.

Norovirus may sound rare and exotic, but it is in fact the world’s most common gastrointestinal infection. Everything about it, from the way it gets into your system to what it does to you once it gets there, is just nasty.

Someone takes a trip to the toilet without washing their hands afterward. You come along and touch what they touch, then touch your now-infected hand to your mouth, or swallow the viral culprit if they had a hand in preparing your food. That’s it. You’ve got it.

A day or so later, it’s got you. Next stop: non-stop diarrhea to go along with everything from chills and fever to aching joints, muscle spasms, and what one medical Web site calls “explosive vomiting.” Dehydration is a real — and in some cases, dangerous — possibility.

A NASTY LITTLE BUG

Norovirus periodically makes headlines when it takes hold in certain businesses and sickens its customers. Diners at Chipotle can tell you all about that. And it is really notorious when it strikes cruise ships.

Which brings us to Holland America Line and their cruise ship, the MS Veendam. She’s one of Holland America’s older ships, having been built in 1996. As today’s cruisers go, she’s a relatively small one, with room for 1,350 passengers (compare that with Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas, which can accommodate that many guests on four of its 16 passengers decks). She underwent a major overhaul in 2009.

Five days before Christmas, my wife and I left San Diego aboard Veendam for a week-long cruise to the Mexican Riviera — Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta. Three days in port, three days at sea. A nice, relaxing little cruise to destinations with which we were already well familiar.

We had scarcely settled into our cabin when the announcements started coming over the public-address system about an outbreak of norovirus aboard ship from the previous cruise, completed just that morning.

SICK SHIP
We’d already spotted the white plastic stands for dispensing hand sanitizer scattered about on every deck, now pretty much de rigeur throughout the cruise industry. We’d seen them before and used them before. No big deal. We heard and heeded the captain’s admonitions to wash our hand soften with soap and hot water, and figured that would be the end of it.

As it turned out, it was only the beginning.

For the first few days, the captain’s PA announcements told of continuing cases of norovirus illness on board (although he never once said how many), followed by exhortations to wash our hands often and avoid using the ship’s public restrooms.

Anyone who came down with this bug was quarantined in their cabin until the ship’s doctor and nurses were satisfied they had recovered. House arrest at sea, more or less.

Up in the Lido buffet, where passengers could serve themselves nearly all buffet food items for breakfast, lunch and dinner, we were met by a very different sight on the second day and for the rest of the cruise.

Crewmembers wearing plastic gloves now handled everything for you. And when I say “everything”… you had to ask them for salt, pepper, sugar, hot sauce. You couldn’t draw your own glass of water.

When I asked one why this was being done, his only response was, “We’re on Code Red now.”

ALL POSSIBLE MEANS
I soon learned what a Code Red looked like. For the rest of the week, the 368 men and women of the Veendam crew practically killed themselves trying to put the norovirus bug in check.

In addition the extreme measures at meal service, every fixture, every handrail, even the desk space inside our cabin, was wiped down with disinfectant — in some cases, several times a day.

They did all of this shorthanded because, as we would learn later, they were getting sick, too.

Waiting for you at various points around the ship were spinning machines into which you put your arms halfway to your elbows to automatically wash your hands with soap and warm water. Kind of like a human car wash. You couldn’t check out books from the ship’s expansive library. You couldn’t check out movies to play in the DVD player in your cabin.

After the first few days, the captain’s announcements spoke optimistically of fewer reported cases of norovirus, until by Friday, Christmas Day, it seemed inevitable that he would pronounce the Veendam bug-free.

That never happened, not even on the morning of our return to San Diego two days later.

There were other things we noticed, like the white bath towels, standard in all hotels whether on land or at sea, that looked less than white although they looked freshly washed. Bleach clearly hadn’t been used in washing them. Why not?

BLEACH ON THE ROCKS
A possibly answer came at breakfast when I took a drink of water — and caught the distinct smell of bleach in my glass.

When the Veendam returned to San Diego on Dec. 27, an investigator from the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was waiting.

In all, 84 people fell victim to norovirus on that cruise — 73 passengers, 11 crew.

The Veendam is one of two Holland America cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks in 2015. Royal Caribbean and Celebrity also had norovirus turn up on two of their ships, as did the high-end luxury cruise line Oceania. Entry-level Carnival, which has had its own norovirus problems in the past…has been clean in 2015.

In all, 12 cruise ships reporting norovirus outbreaks to the CDC this year as of this writing, an increase of three after only nine the two previous years.

All of this comes after a CDC health inspection in September gave Veendam a perfect score of 100, one of seven Holland America ships — and 32 industry-wide — to get perfect marks from the CDC. The same ship notoriously failed its CDC inspection in 2012, something that seldom happens.

Will I ever take another cruise after this experience? Almost certainly. But on my next cruise booking, I’ll be asking more — and different — questions.

HOW CLEAN IS YOUR CRUISE SHIP?
“Trust, but verify.” — President Ronald Reagan

Want to get an idea how sanitary your cruise ship is before you book? There are ways to find out, the most important of which you’ll find on the CDC Web site.

The Vessel Sanitation Program is the CDC’s ongoing effort to monitor the cleanliness and health safety of the cruise industry. Inspectors look for unsanitary conditions and practices aboard ships and grades them, the top score being 100.

A score of 85 pr below is considered a fail. (And I thought my math teachers were tough…)

General info about norovirus, updates on current norovirus outbreaks, how the CDC inspects ships. All that and more, you’ll find on the Vessel Sanitary Program. But the link that may interest you most is the Advanced Cruise Ship Inspection Search.

On this page, you can find the results of the most recent CDC inspection of every cruise ship and cruise line. Just select the individual ship or cruise line you want to check, choose a date (to keep things simple, I’d just select “All Dates,” choose the range of scores you want to see, then hit “search.”

The results will speak for themselves.

You also can check with ships reviews on sites like TripAdvisor and Cruise Critic, but go to CDC first. If you see something there that gives you questions about a ship’s sanitation, call up the cruise line and give them a chance to explain and answer your questions.

One of those questions should be about the ship’s refund policy if you’re sickened and quarantined as a result of a norovirus or other illness outbreak on board.

If you don’t like the answers you get, politely end the call…and then choose a different cruise ship. Or if necessary, a different cruise line.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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Airlines and debit cards

Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris
Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris | ©IBIT/G.Gross

Travelers trying to use debit cards to book air travel can be tripped up by an automatic spending limit. It makes last-minute bookings a risky business.

A recent teachable moment from a client of mine, whom we’ll call Adam (not his real name). He wanted to use a debit card to book an airfare for a domestic round-trip flight.

On general principles, airlines are more comfortable dealing with credit cards, but they do accept debit cards. Adam picked his flights and dates, then you tried to confirm the booking.

No good. Adam’s card was declined.

He assured the airline that he had more than enough money in his checking account to cover the airfare. It didn’t matter. The airline still refused, without telling him why.

What the eff, right?

The problem was not the airline. It was Adam’s bank.

Debit cards typically come with maximum daily spending limits, the better to keep you — or some ne’er-do-well — from draining your bank account all in one shot.

If the airfare you’re trying to book exceeds your daily limit, your booking attempt automatically runs into a computerized brick wall.

And as we all know from experience, trying to reason with a computer seldom ends well. Especially a bank computer.

NO CARTE BLANCHE
And if you’re wondering why the airline reservation clerk didn’t explain that to Adam, it’s probably because the clerk’s computer gave him no detailed reason for declining the card. It just said no.

To solve this problem, you do need to talk to a humanoid — not at the airline, but at the bank or credit union that owns your debit card. (And for the record, that card may have your name on it, but the financial institution still owns it, not you.)

This is the point at which someone invariably says, “Why didn’t the bank tell me that in the first place?” The answer is, they probably did, in the paperwork that came in the mail along with your debit card.

Call them up, tell them your travel plans and ask them to raise your daily limit long enough to let you buy your tickets. As long as you have the money ion your account to cover it, they usually will agree to do that without much fuss.

(NOTE: Getting your daily limit raised permanently is a different, and more involved, business, beyond the scope of this post.)

DON’T WAIT TOO LATE
How long does it take to get your daily limit raised? As with the original amount of the limit itself, that depends on your bank.

Some will do it almost instantaneously. Others can take 24 to 48 hours or more, and only after you physically go into your bank, talk to a bank officer and fill out paperwork.

The implications of all this are simple and clear. If you plan to use a debit card for travel, figure how what your daily spending needs will be, find out what your daily spending limit is, and if necessary, handle your bank business as soon as possible.

But do all of that well before it’s time to start booking flights. Procrastination could really torpedo your travel plans.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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Playa del Carmen:
An adult holiday!

Playa Del Carmen beach in Mexico
Playa Del Carmen beach in Mexico

The kids and the family will have their holidays for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come January, it’s your turn. Check out this incredible one-week adults-only getaway to beautiful, tropical, historic Playa del Carmen on Mexico’s Riviera Maya, presented by Honey Let’s Travel and Trips by Greg, with your hosts, Cap’n Paul Mixon and Marvelle Mixon, and Charlotte Mathis.

(Use your keyboard controls to enlarge the image below as needed.)

Playa del Carmen Beach Vacation

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RIVIERA MAYA:
Mystery in Paradise

Mayan ruins of Tulum near Playa del Carmen.  Carabian Beach is below.
Mayan ruins of Tulum near Playa del Carmen. Carabian Beach is below.

Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula is home to beautiful beaches, tropical breezes, and one of humanity’s most enduring puzzles — the disappearance of the Maya.

Almost every travel destination on the Gulf of Mexico gives you tropically-warmed surf, sand and climate in abundance. The Yucatan Peninsula, in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, is true to that rule.

But the region also gives you a little something extra.

Are you one of those folks who likes to bring a good mystery to read on vacation? Well, when you come down here for a visit, save the page-turner novel for the flight down and back. This region has a mystery of its own for you — a real one, centuries old.

Your first clue is in the area’s touristy nickname — the Riviera Maya.

The name comes from the Mayan people. Their civilization extended from southern Mexico down through most of Central America.

Now, back when I was a grade-school student in the 1960s — you know, prehistoric times? — teachers like to cast people like the Maya as being “primitive.” Well, these folks were anything but that.

Over the centuries, they built incredible cities of stone, hundreds of them, some complete with schools, hospitals, libraries, sports arenas. About the only things missing were freeways and smog.

Just how advanced were the Maya? Well, let’s see. They:

  1. created an accurate 365-day calendar of their own.
  2. figured out the mathematical concept of zero about a millennium before Europeans did.
  3. accurately tracked the sun, moon and planets.
  4. developed their own writing system, 700 years before the birth of Christ.
  5. were expert farmers, creating terraced fields that they irrigated.
  6. Wrote and published thousands — some say tens of thousands — of books. Real books, on paper.

And if none of that is reason enough for you to show the Maya some love, there’s always this: These are the people who invented chocolate.

From about 1800 BC to roughly 800 AD or so, the Maya had it all working.

Then, something happened. Nobody knows exactly what that something is, but everyone knows the results. The Maya abruptly started abandoning their great cities — all of them — and fleeing into the jungle.

By 900 AD, it was over. When the Spanish showed up a few centuries later, what few great Mayan cities they found were overgrown and devoid of human life.

And what of all those thousands of Mayan books printed over the centuries? Only four are known to still exist — and no one alive today can read them.

Scientists from all over the world have tried to figure out the mystery of the Maya. So far, no one has. Decades of research and exploration have yielded a handful of theories, guesses, suppositions. That’s it. That’s all.

So instead of wondering if your car will start in the morning after spending the night under a snowdrift, spend a pleasant week or so on the Riviera Maya. Run your toes through the warm, white beach sand and order another margarita or a Montejo beer while you ponder this question:

Why would a skilled, smart and prosperous people let their entire civilization vanish without a trace?

You can start your investigation in Tulum, just outside the beach town of Playa del Carmen. There, you’ll find the remains of a Mayan city, overlooking the clear, warm waters of the Gulf. Bring your camera. Bring questions. Then head back to Playa del Carmen and form your own theories over a great seafood dinner and drinks on 5th Avenue.

If you don’t solve this mystery on your first visit to the Riviera Maya, no worries. You can always come back. And you should. The great Mayan cities may be long gone, but the beaches and the Montejo will still be here.

Thinking about a visit to the Riviera Maya? We’ve got one for you! Check out the box above.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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OAKLAND: Follow the wine!

Photo by Drew Bird
Photo by Drew Bird

San Francisco’s less respected sibling by the bay already has built a reputation for a banging food scene. Now, the word is spreading about its wines.

Long the home of some of the best soul food and BBQ in the country (although you’re seldom likely to hear about it over the din from Kansas City, Texas and other regional temples of smoked meats), Oakland over the last decade or so has expanded its menu and raised its standards in the kitchen.

From word-of-mouth food trucks to 5-star hotspots, Oakland has evolved from a dining afterthought to a culinary destination, and the city’s ethnic diversity has a lot to do with that.

You’d expect that in a city where the residents collectively speak 125 different languages.

Mexican food has long been a staple here, and Colombian, Cuban Salvadoran and Venezuelan cuisine are now become a regular part of Oakland palate. Likewise, Asian food is fundamental in “Oaktown.” But since the early 1980s, in addition to Japanese, Korean, Thai, Filipino and a pantheon of Chinese cooking styles,O Oakland has become Ground Zero for some of the best Vietnamese food this side of the South China Sea.

Drew Bird Photo

One of my favorites is Le Cheval, in the area near downtown known as Old Oakland. But if you’re feeling adventurous, just wander down along International Boulevard (the main drag once known and still referred to by old-school Oaklanders as East 14th Street), and try your luck in any likely looking Vietnamese/Chinese joint between 1st and 14th avenues.

But in truth, Oakland’s food scene has been hot for quite a few years now. The new element coming to the table is the wine.

Say “wine country” and “California” in the same sentence and most thoughts instantly turn north toward the state’s north coast wine country. The vineyards of Napa County– collectively are the alpha dog here, with vintners in nearby Sonoma and Mendocino counties, as well as the central California region, doing their best to get some respect.

Now, Oakland is offering up something else fresh besides its upscale cooking — an urban wine crawl. Raise your glass — or several — for the Oakland Urban Wine Trail.

Ten vintners have set up shop — and tasting rooms for visitors — in Oakland’s warehouse district, which runs along Estuary separating Oakland from Alameda.

Here’s a handy map.

We’re not talking updated versions of Cisco, Thunderbird or Pagan Pink Ripple here. These are serious wines from serious vintners. The common goal is to produce wines that can look Napa in the eye and not flinch.

If you’re stalking a nice dinner in one of Oakland’s upscale restos in Old Oakland or Jack London Square, or maybe just in your hotel room, any of these wineries would be a good place to score a bottle of fine wine.

Perhaps the best feature of this trail — aside from the wines, that is — is that you can do that stalking on foot, because the whole thing is walkable. Indeed, most of the wineries stand within a six-block radius of Jack London Square.

So no tasting and driving, right? Just sayin’.

But if the idea of doing this wine crawl on foot sounds a little daunting to you, there is an alternative — do by bicycle. Cycling tour companies have been offering spins through the Napa wine country for years. Now, you can go urban instead.

East Bay bike wine tour

East Bay Winery Bike Tours, based in Jack London Square, will take you on a your choice of loop routes that visits wineries in neighboring Alameda or Berkeley as well as Oakland.

They provide you with a bike, a helmet, a guide and a picnic lunch to enjoy between wine tastings and meeting the winemakers.

There are those who view Oakland as a kind of last frontier for the young entrepreneur with more ambition and passion than money, the kind of place where you can start from scratch and make something happen. Others will tell you that Oaktown is just the next city to fall prey to a wave of gentrification fueled by trust-fund hipsters and Bay Area tech money.

However you see it, the results are giving Oakland a lot of fresh flavor, and locals, travelers and the foodie universe are all taking notice. Maybe it’s time you introduced your tastebuds to the other side of San Francisco Bay.

The ten wineries that currently comprise the Oakland Urban Wine Trail are:
Campovida
95 Linden St.
(510) 550-7273

Cerruti Cellars
100 Webster St
(510) 550-2900

Dashe Cellers
55 Fourth St.
(510) 452-1800

Irish Monkey Cellars
1017 22nd Ave.
(510) 915-5463

Jeff Cohn Cellars
160 Franklin St.
(510) 465-5900

Periscope Cellars
518 Ninth St.
(510) 655-7827

Rosenblum Cellars
10 Clay St.
(877) GR8-ZINS (478-9467)

Stage Left Cellars
2102 Dennison St., Suite A
(510) 434-9930

Two Mile Wines
477 25th St.
(510) 868-8713

Urban Legend Cellars
621 Fourth St.
(510) 545-4356

By year’s end, they may be joined by Brooklyn West Winery.

There’s a bit of local history behind the name: Before changing its name to Oakland, this city was actually known as Brooklyn, CA. No disrespect, but this longtime former Oakland resident is glad the city fathers changed the name. Somehow, “the Brooklyn Raiders” just doesn’t sound right…

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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“Pieces” of Africa in the Americas

candomble

When it comes to heritage travel for African-Americans, maroon is — or should be — the new black.

About an hour’s drive inland from the Colombian port city of Cartagena de Indias stands the village of San Basilio de Palenque. Population: roughly 3,500. Dusty streets, small, one-story homes and shops. A humble Catholic church. At first glance, nothing remarkable.

But its very existence is remarkable.

When the Spanish began shipping African captives into slavery at Cartagena de Indias back in the 17th century, some broke free and fled into the wilderness. They returned — often — to free every kidnapped African they could. Eventually, they built their own little walled, fortified village. A palenque.

They were led by an African king named Benkos Biohó.

Ultimately, the Spanish not only did they opted to leave the town alone, but formally granted its occupants their freedom. Which is how San Basilio de Palenque became the first community of free Africans anywhere in the Americas — North, Central or South — a fact that won it special recognition from UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

To every descendant of every African ever enslaved in the Americas, this is — or should be — sacred ground.

All across the Caribbean and South America, African escapees built palenques, sometimes clashing with indigenous peoples trying to protect their lands from these strange newcomers, as well as the European plantation owners who wanted their “property” back.

“FERAL ANIMALS”
They fell back on the knowledge of foods and medicinal plants they had brought with them from the Mother Continent. They kept alive their music, dance, religion, languages. They even raided European plantations for supplies, weapons — and more escapees.

Collectively, the Spanish labelled them maroons. Supposedly, the word derives from the Spanish word “cimarron”, meaning feral animal, fugitive, runaway. Or “outlyers.”

None had more success than in Haiti, where a force of free African rebels went toe-to-toe with the cream of Napoleon Bonaparte’s army and overthrew slavery altogether. But throughout Latin America, including Haiti, the maroons paid a high price for their defiance. Brutally attacked and suppressed in the past, discriminated against up to the present.

Add to that the need to migrate to big cities in search of jobs and you understand why San Basilio de Palenque is the only community of its kind left in the 21st century.

Still, the maroons themselves endure, and you can find them scattered across the Americas.

San Basilio de Palenque

They may speak Spanish in Mexico, Uruguay and Colombia, in the Dominican Republic and Cuba. They may speak Dutch in St. Maarten and Suriname or French in St. Martin, Haiti and Martinique, English in Belize and Trinidad.

Over time, some blended their native African languages with European tongues to create new languages spoken only by them.

Across the centuries, though, they all spoke a common language of resistance. For them, culture became a survival tool, a way of saying to the world, “This is who we are, and who we will remain.”

MANY BLACK AMERICAS
In Martinique, you can hear that pride and independence in the music of traditional artists like Sully Cally, who makes his own drums in the capital Fort-de-France with native woods he collects himself.

It may take the form of religion, santeria rituals in Cuba or in the practice of candomblé in Brazil, which has eclipsed Catholicism as Brazil’s most popular faith. In the conduct of weddings and funerals and births. Or in any of dozens of festivals across the Americas with their origins rooted on both sides of the Atlantic.

When you look at all that, you realize that there are many Black Americas, not just ours here in the United States.

Throw in great tropical climate, incredible natural beauty, food, music, beaches, nightlife and a lot of Latin American countries make great destinations. And slowly but surely, Latin America is catching on to that.

After centuries of persecuting maroons and their descendants, nations are starting to actively promote maroon-based tourism.

If Afro-Latin culture has a capital, it might be Salvador, the capital city of Bahia state in northeastern Brazil, where 80 percent of the population is of African descent.

“PIECES”
For 300 years, Portuguese slavery in Brazil was both huge and brutal. The Portuguese referred to Africans as peças. Pieces. It doesn’t take long to get the picture.

Today, the Bahia state government is marketing African heritage tourism to the world. State officials even speak of promoting it as a form of — wait for it — reparations. Says Bahia state governor Jaques Wagner:

“We are aware that our debt to Bahian people of African descent is still great. Yet with faith, courage and determination, we will build a Bahia that is even more diverse, more just and more human.”

Time will tell how serious they are about the reparations bit, but Bahia state already has put out the welcome for visitors wanting to get a first-hand look at its Afro-Brazilian culture.

Put it all together and you’ve got new reasons to explore Latin American destinations to which you might not have given a second thought in the past. . For culturally conscious African-American travelers, maroon may well be the new black.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of the Trips by Greg travel agency, specializing in cultural and heritage travel worldwide.

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Grownup playdate in Playa del Carmen!

The Christmas holidays are over. The kids are back in school. It’s time for the grownups to kick back and turn up.

IBIT is teaming up with Cap’n Paul Mixon, founder of the Black Boaters Summit, to put together a week–long winter escape for singles and couples age 50 and up, Jan. 23–30, 2016 in Playa del Carmen.

You’ll be staying at the Aventura Mexicana, an award-winning hotel and restaurant just two blocks from the beaches. It’s TripAdvisor’s top–rated hotel in Playa del Carmen. See for yourself… and then check out their rooms here.

Among its really cool features is that is comes with two pools and lounge areas — one kid–friendly zone for families, and one that’s strictly Adults Only.

But the best part just might be the price. One week at Aventura Mexicana in Playa del Carmen, starting at $700 per person. Airfare not included.

To register, click here.

Your deposit — $345 for a deluxe King or deluxe Double Queen room, or $385.25 for a Junior Suite — instantly reserves your room. When you’re ready to book, log onto the Aventura Mexicana website and check out their rooms. (WARNING: The no-view rooms are noisy at night from all the partying going on — but you weren’t planning to sleep all night anyway, right?).

When you’re ready to book, fill out this form. Be sure to use the promo code HONEY.

Getting there is easy, too: Just fly into Cancun, the gateway to the Riviera Maya. From there, ground transportation is readily available. Round-trips flights from most major US airports are about $400 or less. You can book your flights yourself, or we can handle that for you — and your ground transfers, too.

For more information, send an email to IBIT or to Cap’n Paul. And watch for more posts here on IBIT about this great winter getaway!

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The Riviera Maya: Chill without freezing

Gorgeous tropical scenery. White–sand beaches and clear, warm waters begging for swimmers and snorkelers. Mysterious ancient ruins. Mexico’s Riviera Maya is the ideal place for a grownup winter getaway.

Some folks actually love urban winters. Dressing in multiple layers of clothes every morning until they look like the Michelin Man in the Hood. Being able to see their neighbors’ breath from a block away. Navigating roads and sidewalks slick with ice.

And who needs the gym when you can work on your cardio every morning, just by shoveling a path from your front door to the outside world, right?

No?

Well, if frostbite is not your idea of a good time, consider taking a break from Old Man Winter’s grip. You might not be able to escape his grasp for the whole season, but you can slip away for a few days when he’s not looking.

One great place to do that is Mexico’s Riviera Maya on the Yucatan Peninsula, which sticks out like an upraised thumb from the Mexican mainland, jutting into the Gulf of Mexico. Think tropical breezes. White–sand beaches. Clear, snorkel-ready waters. And not a snow shovel in sight.

These are the welcoming conditions that helped turn Cancun from a sleepy little fishing village into a world-class resort city. But Cancun is not the only game in the Yucatan.

One very popular alternative to crowded and pricey Cancun lies just to the south in Playa del Carmen. In English, Carmen’s Beach. The same white sand. The same comforting climate and welcoming waters of the Gulf. Great restos, bars and nightlife, just like Cancun.

Only not as big, not as crowded and not as pricey.

WHO WERE THE MAYA?
The Riviera Maya gets its name from the Mayan people, whose empire was centered in Guatemala, but extended from Yucatan south to cover most of Central America. They were great architects, mathematicians, farmers, potters. These were the people who created the famed Mayan calendar.

From 1800BC to about 800AD, the Mayans had it going on in Central America. Then, they abruptly started abandoning their great cities and disappeared into the rainforest.

To this day, no one knows exactly why.

If you want to get an idea of what they so suddenly left behind, the Mayan ruins at Tulum are right on the coast, about 48 miles south of Playa del Carmen, easily reached by bus, taxi or rental car.

It’s not all about that beach life, either. If stalking bargains is your thing, Playa del Carmen has its own 5th Avenue. Lots of shops and boutiques to go along with the eateries and the watering holes.

All this, and no frozen sidewalks.

You can’t fly directly into Playa del Carmen from the United States, but you have a couple of options to get there. The most common is to fly into Cancun, then take ground transportation or your own rental car for an easy hour-long drive south along the Gulf coast to Playa.

Flight times to Cancun are a shade over four hours non–stop from New York City, a little under four hours from Chicago and about three hours and change from Washington DC.

If the “morning fog that chills the air” has you thinking about leaving your heart in San Francisco, but warming your bones elsewhere for a few days, your flight to Cancun will take between eight and 11 hours, but you have the added potential benefit of a day or two layover in Mexico City, one of the world’s great capitals.

If you’d rather not drive from Cancun, you could always fly instead to the island of Cozumel, a popular cruise ship port, and take a ferry over to Playa del Carmen. The crossing takes about 45 minutes or slightly less, and depending on which ferry company you choose, leave every hour to every 30 from 5:30AM to 11PM.

A swing south into the Riviera Maya could be just the thing to boost your morale to keep you going until spring. And if Old Man Winter asks where you went, I’m not telling.

The Christmas holidays are over. The kids are back in school. It’s time for the grownups to kick back and have an adult playdate.

IBIT is teaming up with Cap’n Paul Mixon, founder of the Black Boaters Summit, to put together a week–long winter escape for singles and couples age 50 and up, Jan. 23–30, 2016 in Playa del Carmen.

You’ll be staying at the Aventura Mexicana, an award-winning hotel and restaurant just two blocks from the beaches. It’s TripAdvisor’s top–rated hotel in Playa del Carmen. See for yourself.

Among its really cool features is that is comes with two pools and lounge areas — one kid–friendly zone for families, and one that’s strictly Adults Only.

But the best part just might be the price. One week at Aventura Mexicana in Playa del Carmen, starting at $700 per person. Airfare not included.

To register, click here.

Your deposit — $345 for a deluxe King or deluxe Double Queen room, or $385.25 for a Junior Suite — instantly reserves your room. When you’re ready to book, log onto the Aventura Mexicana website and check out their rooms. (WARNING: The no-view rooms are noisy at night from all the partying going on — but you weren’t planning to sleep all night anyway, right?).

When you’re ready to book, fill out this form. Be sure to use the promo code HONEY.

You have until Oct. 31 to register and lock in these incredible rates before the price goes up. There are 40 rooms available for this trip — and at these prices, they won’t be around long.

Getting there is easy, too: Just fly into Cancun, the gateway to the Riviera Maya. From there, ground transportation is readily available. Round-trips flights from most major US airports are about $400 or less. You can book your flights yourself, or we can handle that for you — and your ground transfers, too.

For more information, send an email to IBIT or to Cap’n Paul. And watch for more posts here on IBIT about this great winter getaway!

Greg Gross is Publisher/Senior Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel! and owner of Trips by Greg LLC, a travel agency specializing in cultural travel and tours.

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CUBA: Coming with a rush

Band playing traditional music in Old Havana

Like the objects in your car’s rear-view mirror, unfettered American travel to Cuba may be closer than it appears.

Despite the formal resumption of relations last week between the United States and Cuba — and the easing of US travel restrictions to the island even before that — the US trade embargo that has hampered the ability of Americans to visit Cuba for more than half a century remains in place.

Further, political conservatives have promised an uncompromising fight to keep it in place.

However, within both government and the US travel industry, events are moving so fast now that the embargo may become a non-factor, and sooner than anyone expected.

First came reports in mainstream media that President Barack Obama plans to use his executive authority to unilaterally make it easier for Americans to visit Cuba in two crucial ways.

For the first time since the embargo was implemented in 1961, Americans would be free to visit Cuba as individuals instead of being required to join tour groups.

And talks are already underway between US and Cuban aviation officials to allow regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries, something that currently happens now only on a limited basis between Havana and Miami.

Meanwhile, word comes now that American Airlines that it will begin offering charter flights to Havana from Los Angeles as early as December.

For West Coast travelers with a desire to visit Cuba, this is huge. Never mind no longer having to slip into Cuba illegally after first flying all the way to Toronto, Mexico City or Cancun. Now, you no longer have to fly first to Miami.

From here, it looks very much as if the rush to bring full-on mass-market US tourism to Cuba — and yes, it definitely is a rush — is building up the force and velocity of a tidal wave, an avalanche, a hurricane. Spinning. Roaring. Irresistible.

If you’re one of those Americans who’s been dreaming for years or even decades of being able to freely visit this fascinating country and its people, get your passport ready. It looks as if it’s going to happen, and maybe a lot sooner than anyone expected.

Greg Gross is the publisher/senior editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and owner of the Trips by Greg LLC travel agency.

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Save your trip from smog

Smoggy rider cropped

A customized itinerary can do a lot more than make you feel pampered when you travel. It also can safeguard your health.

When you set out to see the world, family, friends and travel writers are quick to warn you about the hazards. Strange foods. Overpriced tourist traps. Maniacal taxi drivers. Pickpockets and con artists.

The air?

In some of the world’s most famed and fascinating urban destinations, breathing truly can be hazardous to your health.

I was talking with a new member of my Trips by Greg team about group tours to India for 2016. The challenge now, he said, would be to expose visitors to the country’s impressive sights — without exposing them to its horrendous smog.

Come on, I said. Delhi’s air pollution can’t be as bad as that of Beijing, can it? His reply:

“It’s worse.”

He’s right. The World Health Organization says the air in Delhi has the planet’s highest concentrations of PM2.5, ultra-fine particles too small for the eye to see, that can play havoc with your heart and lungs.

Spend enough time breathing this stuff and you won’t have to worry anymore about what smoking can do to you.

Too often around the world, the rush to industrialize overwhelms the ability — and even the will — of governments to rein in the polluters. But this problem isn’t limited to developing nations.

In Paris this spring, the smog was so bad that city officials ordered half the cars off the roads for a day and let people use public transit for free. Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo is now on a jihad to permanently ban diesel-powered cars by 2020.

In London, where auto exhaust fumes regularly enter into an unholy alliance with dust all the way from the Sahara, concentrations of nitrogen dioxide in the air are the highest in Europe — and higher than Beijing, which is famous for it.

What’s a health-conscious traveler to do?

This is where bespoke travel enters the picture.

Simply put, bespoke travel is any travel with a customized itinerary, one tailored to the needs and wishes of a specific client. The word itself comes from the tailor’s shop: It means made-to-order.

It’s usually associated with luxury travel and upscale travelers. Typically, it’s also a bit more expensive than pre-planned “canned” tours. But if you’re trying to see the world — without having to deal with ugly, unhealthful air — made-to-order travel is just what you should be looking for.

A savvy tour operator or travel agent can build an individualized itinerary that can expose you to the sights, the local culture, the local flavor, while keeping your exposure to the hazards of environmental pollution to a minimum.

One result is that you may not spend nearly as much time in the big cities. You may find yourself instead out in the suburbs or the countryside, far enough from the choking industrial skies, but deep in the heart of the country you can to see and the people you came to meet.

This often has the fringe benefit of placing you in some of the most beautiful settings on Earth.

Bespoke travel can do that for you. Not every tour operator can, however. You need one with expert local knowledge who also is willing to go the extra mile on behalf of a client.

Or you need a travel agent who knows where and how to find one.

Greg Gross is the Publisher/Sr. Editor of “I’m Black and I Travel!,” and the owner of Trips by Greg travel agency.

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"Never give a day away." –Camel