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ilulissat ice fjord greenlandGreenland is the world’s largest island, but it’s also one of the most remote, with most of its 836,000 square miles buried under a massive layer of ice all year round. Exploring Greenland requires warm clothing and a sense of adventure. You’ll also need a bit of extra money; because roads don’t connect the isolated towns and villages here, your only transportation options are expensive flights and ferries.

The most convenient choice is to visit Greenland by cruise ship. That’s what I did on a recent trip aboard the Fram, a 256-passenger expedition vessel run by the Norway-based Hurtigruten line. I chose the “Glaciers and Ice” sailing from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, one of several summer sailings from Hurtigruten. (Another itinerary later this summer includes the rarely visited North East Greenland National Park, which is frozen over for all but a few weeks of the year.)

During my 11 nights onboard, I had plenty of time to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the Hurtigruten experience in Greenland. Here’s what worked well — and what could’ve used a little improvement.

HITS
The Itinerary: The ship only made one call in Iceland, but it was a good one; the Snaefellsnes Peninsula is quintessentially Icelandic, with sheep and horses roaming green hills, fishing villages dotting the coastline and a volcano brooding over the whole scene. Then we reached Greenland, where the fjords glittered with ice and brightly painted houses provided the only splashes of color in a stark, rocky landscape. It’s a fascinating part of the world that few travelers get to explore.

6 Reasons You’ll Love an Expedition Cruise

Local Experiences: In Itelleq, our last port of call, Hurtigruten offered a couple of memorable chances to interact with the 120 Greenlanders who live in this small settlement. All of us got tickets for a kaffemik, a visit to a local home for coffee and pastries; then we had the chance to join (or watch) a friendly soccer game between Fram passengers/crew and the residents. We shared little common language, but sports and smiles managed to bridge the gap.

Enrichment: Except for the busiest days in port, most daily programs included at least one or two lectures by members of the ship’s knowledgeable expedition staff. Topics included the natural world — ice, polar bears, whales — and the history of Greenland, from the earliest nomadic peoples to Vikings such as Erik the Red. These helped us better appreciate the towns and landscapes we were visiting onshore.

Staff: From the expedition team to the waitstaff in the bar and restaurant, Fram’s crewmembers were nearly all friendly and multi-lingual. During one hike, our enthusiastic guide switched effortlessly from German to French to English, depending on which passengers he was speaking to. At dinner, our waiter quickly learned our drink preferences, and the housekeeping staff always greeted us with a smile in the halls.

MISSES
Missed Calls: We were unable to make four of our 11 scheduled port stops due to excessive fog and ice. (Ours was the first Greenland sailing of the season; such significant ice is a little less likely on cruises later in the summer.) It was a reminder that expedition cruises to remote parts of the world always come with a little unpredictability. Our extra days at sea were filled with lectures and afternoon snacks in the lounge — interesting and fun, but not quite enough to make up for the experiences we’d hoped to have ashore.

Buffet Meals: Dinners onboard alternated between plated meals served at the table, which were generally quite good, and buffets that too often didn’t live up to the same standard. Some dishes were lukewarm or overly salty, and the fixings at the salad bar began to look awfully familiar after a few days of seeing the same ones at both lunch and dinner. (Unlike larger ships, Fram offers no alternative restaurants.)

Internet Access: During our 11-night sailing, I only managed to get online twice via the computers in the ship’s Internet cafe, and I couldn’t connect at all on my own laptop (though I tried daily). When I did get online, the connection was agonizingly slow. One crewmember told me that the staff couldn’t connect either and that Hurtigruten is working to get the issues fixed. Of course, not everyone wants to get online during their vacation, but if you do, for now you’ll have to rely on your phone or be out of touch completely.

See Our Latest Cruise Deals

– written by Sarah Schlichter

venice gondola A few years ago, I considered my first solo trip (to Austria). Though I’d flown to Europe alone several times in the past, I’d always met familiar faces at the airport. This time around, I knew I’d want a similar kind of security — and that’s when I discovered Monograms through a travel agent.

Monograms — which operates in the Americas, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia/New Zealand — helps travelers spend less time on trip planning by organizing hotels, airport and city transfers, and suggested itineraries. It also provides insight and help from trusted locals, should you want it. But as a traveler, you’re supposed to feel as though you’re on your own — not on a tour group vacation — the whole time.

I never took that trip to Austria, so when I recently received an opportunity to experience a Monograms vacation package — this time in Italy (the company’s most popular destination) — I happily accepted the offer. Read on to see what I loved about the trip, as well as didn’t work quite as well.

HITS
Convenience: Monograms packages include accommodations and complimentary breakfast at a centrally located hotel; a Local Host, who essentially acts as your personal concierge; organized sightseeing opportunities; and transfers between cities. Airport transfers are also included if you book your flight via Monograms. Shortly before the trip, visitors also receive an information packet with a (loose) itinerary and useful tips about the destination, such as electrical outlet guidelines, customary tipping procedures, emergency phone numbers and a weather forecast.

9 Things to Do When No One Speaks English

Independence: As mentioned, select sightseeing opportunities are included in Monograms packages (though they’re certainly not mandatory), and are typically offered in half-day sessions. This allows plenty of free time to go it alone; in fact, you’ll feel like you’re on your own most of the time. Other excursions (like a gondola ride in Venice, for example) are available for an additional fee.

Local Insight: The most valuable feature of Monograms is the Local Hosts. While they can handle trip logistics and answer questions, they’re also a great resource for recommendations and inside tips. For instance, our Local Host, Igor, directed us to the best place to beat the crowds and view Venice’s Rialto Bridge (Campiello del Remer). Upon request, he also gave us a few history lessons via a spooky tour of the city at night. Local Hosts are helpful from a safety perspective as well — if you get in a bind, they’re just a phone call away.

Special Privileges: By traveling with Monograms, you can skip lines at attractions included in sightseeing tours. For example, I was allowed immediate access to St. Mark’s Basilica, Scuola Grande di San Rocco and Museo del Vetro (Murano Glass Museum) in Venice. Since the lines for these landmarks can get excruciatingly long, especially during the summer months, this is a welcome perk.

MISSES
Group Sizes: Monograms doesn’t really limit the number of people who book vacation packages at one time, and some travel dates are just more popular than others. In this case, Monograms might split a group for sightseeing tours, but in the event it doesn’t, you’ll likely be walking around in a giant group like other tourists, headset in ear and all.

Tourist Trap-Heavy: To that effect, most of the sightseeing options included in Monograms itineraries are popular attractions, a k a tourist traps. While some are certainly worth the visit (I’m not sure who’d pass up a tour of the Eiffel Tower), many travelers might prefer to bypass the big names and spend their money on an entirely off-the-beaten-path getaway.

Tourist No More: 3 Secrets for Traveling like a Local

By the way, I still plan to visit Austria, and when I do, it’ll more than likely be with Monograms.

– written by Amanda Geronikos

tour guideThere’s no better way to get to know a new place than by meeting up with a local friend or family member who can show you all the secret hot spots that first-time visitors usually miss. Alas, even the most well-connected travelers can’t possibly have friends everywhere — and that’s where a site like Tripbod.com can help.

The site, founded in 2007 and recently acquired by IndependentTraveler.com’s parent company, TripAdvisor, bills itself as “your friend at the other end.” It helps travelers connect with local experts called Tripbods who can provide trip planning advice, put together a personalized itinerary, or offer unique experiences such as a photo safari in London or lunch in a Moroccan souk.

In some respects the site is like a modern version of a travel agent. One typical listing from a Tripbod in Guayaquil, Ecuador, offers “Skype conversation, emails, advice in how to make the most out of your time, best restaurants, budget hotels, and local operators so that you can develop your own detailed itinerary” for 23 GBP (about $38 USD). For travelers who enjoy planning their own trips, it’s an ideal way to get information and guidance without having to be led around by an actual guide at all times.

Tourist No More: Three Secrets for Traveling Like a Local

If you do want a guide, the site offers that too. There’s an enticing array of experiences and tours ranging from meeting indigenous populations in the highlands of Mexico to cycling through rice fields in Yangshuo, China.

Of course, there are a few caveats. Some of the experiences are on the pricey side — such as a homemade Icelandic dinner outside of Reykjavik featuring lamb, potatoes, salad and dessert for 75 GBP per person (more than $125 USD). I also encountered a few search glitches. When I looked for tours in Wellington, New Zealand, the site turned up results almost everywhere but (New Delhi, San Salvador, Glasgow, Muscat …). And while the site offers a space for past travelers to review each experience, none of the ones I clicked on had received any reviews yet, making it tricky to decide whom to trust.

Still, as a traveler who’s eager to meet locals and find experiences beyond the usual sights, I know I’ll be checking out the site before my next trip.

20 Ways to Blend in with the Locals

Would you give Tripbod a try?

– written by Sarah Schlichter

calendar with pin on 13
The date may mean nothing to you now, but December 13 of this year is already getting a ton of hype at hotels and resorts around the world.

Why? Because it’s 12/13/14, and people love unique dates. Remember November 11, 2011 (11/11/11)? And get ready for March 14 (3/14/15, also known as the first five digits of the numeral pi). In fact, this week is being called Palindrome Week as all of the dates (4/12/14 – 4/19/14) read the same forward and backward.

With only 365 days in a year, it’s hard to avoid the cliche holiday proposals, stereotypical wedding dates and other event planning faux pas that make your special day overlap with that of countless others.
That’s why, according to CNBC, popular destinations such as Las Vegas are gearing up special hotel and vacation packages for this milestone — the last sequential calendar date this century. (The next won’t be until 01/02/2103.) Luckily for marrying couples and party throwers, 12/13/14 falls on a Saturday.

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According to the CNBC article, many of Las Vegas’ renowned chapels are already fully booked, with some accommodating couples who wish to exchange vows at exactly 12:13:14 on the clock. Some resorts and spas are offering full and exclusive rentals of their entire property on December 13, with price tags upwards of $115,000.

Other hotels and casinos are getting creative with pricing; MGM Grand is offering a package from $1,400 with a commemorative certificate to mark the calendar occasion, while Omni Barton Creek Resort & Spa in Austin, Texas, is offering a special rate of $1,213.14 for its luxury Crenshaw Suite to any couple who books their 12/13/14 wedding at the property. To top it off, the married-couple-to-be will also receive complimentary weekend stays for their 12th, 13th and 14th wedding anniversaries — it’s the date that keeps on giving!

On the flip side, many share the same idea of tying the knot or making a statement on an iconic date, so it may not be so unique after all. According to a David’s Bridal survey, around 3,000 U.S. couples were set to marry last year on 11/12/13, a Tuesday, and even more six years earlier on 07/07/07 (a Saturday).

Have you ever used an iconic date for a wedding, a retirement or just an excuse to get away? Let us know in the comments!

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

classroom polish studentsThroughout my travels, I’ve learned that the best way for globetrotters to immerse themselves in a destination and its culture is to stay for as long as possible and mingle with locals daily. That can be difficult for average folks like me who hold jobs and can’t exactly afford to scamper off for weeks at a time. But there are ways to do it inexpensively — like teaching, for example.

English teachers are in high demand in countries like Chile, China, Thailand, Spain, Poland, Italy and France, and programs exist to send willing native speakers abroad for free (or at least to cover their costs while they’re in town) in an effort to bolster student learning.

Take, for example, the Teaching English in Poland program, run by the Kosciuszko Foundation. I applied and spent one month of my first post-college summer at an English immersion camp, instructing teens in the tiny town of Limanowa. The program paid for everything but my flights: housing, food, and trips to places like Krakow, Warsaw and Zakopane on weekends. It even provided a small stipend, which was a welcome surprise at the end of my time there.

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I made tons of amazing friends with my fellow American teachers, as well as the Polish staff. I’m still in touch with several of them and with many of the students I taught. I quickly adapted to a life with no air-conditioning, no baseball (although we did try to teach the students how to play), crosses on the walls of every classroom, and surpluses of churches and vodka. I took a semester of Polish in college before embarking on the adventure, but my ability to actually speak it improved markedly with each day.

Other “programs” aren’t really programs at all, however. In fact, English-speaking travelers are often approached to teach while they’re already abroad — no experience needed. In China, for instance, teachers providing private English lessons aren’t required to have an education background or even a work visa.

If diving into a new place and imparting knowledge while doing it sound appealing, be sure you’re signing up for something reputable. Sites such as InterExchange.org, TransitionsAbroad.com and TeachAway.com are good places to start your research. If you’re being compensated for your time (or if the program is paying for your expenses), keep in mind that your goal should be to serve as an educator first and a tourist second. Even if you never venture beyond the town in which you’re staying, you’ll be surprised by how much you gain just from spending time with your students; you’ll learn as much from them as they will from you.

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

semester at seaThere is something serious we need to address with the youth of America. Drink milk, play outside, brush your teeth and, when the time comes, study abroad.

According to a survey from NAFSA: Association for International Educators, only 1 percent of all students enrolled at an institution of higher education study abroad. One percent! The world is the greatest education out there, and 99 percent of our students aren’t taking advantage of it.

Some say you can’t know another person until you’ve walked in their shoes. Walking their streets in their city, and sharing the same living space with their students, is pretty darn close. It really is a different experience to read about the plight of child labor in India, and to meet the children struggling to educate themselves at a rural development center (where I once stayed overnight on an excursion sponsored by Semester at Sea). Turning a page, flipping a channel and trying to look away from what’s right in front of you are three different concepts. Would you compare wandering the halls of the Louvre to reading or watching “The Da Vinci Code”?

Living Abroad: 12 Tips from Travelers Who’ve Been There

Right after I returned from my semester abroad, my dad decided that we should all go to Greece as a family for summer vacation. I never felt more isolated from my parents than I did when I realized my traveling style had morphed completely from passive to engaged. I bought a pocket guide before I left, read it cover to cover on the plane, and was determined to practice the key words and phrases included in the back (even if they were just parakalo and efcharisto — “please” and “thank you”). I begged to take public transit rather than overpay for taxis and made every effort to skip tourist traps. My parents were both amused and slightly annoyed by my quest to avoid the tourist stereotype at all costs. In the end, I survived with my newfound travel dignity intact by taking several side trips on my own, which I never would have had the courage to do without my independent experiences abroad.

Granted, the world isn’t free. For those needing financial assistance, a number of study abroad grants are available. The general rule is that if you can afford a semester of college, you should be able to afford that semester in another currency. Many schools offer in-house study abroad programs, so to speak, that make the transition from campus to Cadiz fairly seamless.

Other institutions, such as my alma mater, Semester at Sea, offer unique opportunities like studying abroad in multiple countries while completing your coursework at sea. You can even study in the frozen plains of Antarctica (through Antarctic University Expedition and other universities), or the forbidden lands of Cuba (see Academic Programs International) and North Korea (check out the Pyongyang Project).

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Way past your college years and want to see the world through new eyes? Many institutions offer adult programs so you too can engage in an academic adventure. Lifelong Learning is Semester at Sea’s onboard program for adult learners who wish to take courses, mentor and even present seminars on their areas of expertise.

– written by Brittany Chrusciel

upside down house polandYes, we’re seasoned world travelers, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t occasionally enamored with kitschy roadside attractions. Be they weird landmarks, supernatural places, wonky museums or crazy theme parks, there are lots of curiosities that appeal to our roving sense of wonder.

Take, for instance, this sampling of some of the oddest homes we’ve found, both in the United States and abroad. Perhaps you’ll feel like making a pit stop on your next journey.

Beer Can House: Houston, TX
Former owner John Milkovisch began inlaying rocks, marbles and aluminum on his front and back yards in 1968 after claiming he was tired of taking care of the lawn. Aluminum roofing and siding followed over an 18-year period. The strangest part? The aluminum is all made of beer cans — including the beer-can-lid garland that hangs from the roof. It gets a bit noisy when the wind blows, but the material evidently cuts down on energy costs. After Milkovisch’s death in 1988, the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art took it on as a restoration project, and it’s open to visitors on weekend afternoons.

Nautilus House: Mexico City, Mexico
A couple in Mexico City hired an architect to aid them in building themselves a home — a home that just happens to look like a giant seashell. Complete with a giant stained-glass window and several other porthole-like openings, the home is bit reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, boasting tiny vegetation-lined paths that wend between rooms, all of which are furnished with cartoonish furniture that’s fit for a hobbit.

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Whimzeyland: Safety Harbor, FL
This home, purchased in 1985 as a plain-looking dwelling by current occupants (and artists) Todd Ramquist and Kiaralinda, is cheerfully decorated with bright colors and knickknacks galore. Among bottle trees and other whimsical found objects are the dozens of bowling balls that can be seen throughout the grounds’ landscaping. Years ago, the pair obtained bowling balls for free at a local flea market and used them to liven up the place, painting more dismally colored ones for an even more happy effect.

Upside-Down House: Szymbark, Poland
At this dizzying property, visitors can walk around inside the structure’s upside-down rooms, which allegedly mess with the equilibria of many. Designed by Daniel Czapiewski to represent the fall of communism, it was reportedly cumbersome for builders to complete, due to the topsy-turvy nature of, well, just about everything. Bonus: If you turn your camera upside down before snapping a selfie, it’ll look like you’re hanging from the ceiling.

Winchester Mystery House: San Jose, CA
Built by Sarah Winchester, the wife of William Wirt Winchester (as in Winchester rifles), the mansion cost $5.5 million to build and contains 160 rooms. Construction went on for years as Sarah claimed she needed to accommodate the spirits of those who died at the hands of the guns her husband helped to produce. It’s now a major tourist attraction that features a museum, a restaurant and expensive tours. Hours vary seasonally.

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Which of these crazy houses would you most want to visit? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

globe woman world travelWhat do Cape Town, Christchurch and Calgary have in common … besides all starting with the letter “C”?

They’re all on the New York Times’ annual Places to Go list. This year the much-anticipated list numbers 52 places, up from last year’s 46 recommended destinations. And they’re all pretty phenomenal.

Examples include the Albanian Coast, which the Times says combines the rugged beauty of the Dalmatian Coast with Greece’s ancient ruins and the easygoing nature of rural Italy (No. 4 on the list); Fernando de Noronha, a 21-island archipelago 330 miles off the coast of Recife, Brazil, that boasts 250-foot black cliffs and peach-sand beaches and to which only 246 visitors are allowed per day (No. 14 on the list); and Chennai, one of India’s cultural capitals, home to several dance and music schools that offer regular performances around the city (No. 26 on the list).

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Several of the places on the list matched up with IndependentTraveler.com’s Top 9 Destinations for 2014, including two exactly: Nepal (No. 45) and Iceland (No. 30). Others fell within broader destinations we picked for 2014. The New York Times, for instance, includes the Arctic Circle (No. 38), while IndependentTraveler.com chose the Far North (defined by us as anywhere you can see the Northern Lights).

The Places to Go list is a great resource for discovering new must-visit destinations — I added five items to my bucket list including the Albanian Coast; Krabi, Thailand (No. 28); the North Coast of California (No. 3); Varazdin, Croatia (No. 48); and Xishuangbanna, China (No. 32) — and reaffirming that several places already on my bucket list really are worth visiting, like Namibia, the Seychelles and the Arctic Circle.

Another thing I love about the Places to Go list is ticking off places I’ve already been. Of the 52 places suggested for 2014, I’ve already visited seven, though I’m dying to go back to Cape Town (No. 1), Perth (No. 9) and Scotland (No. 16).

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How many of the 52 places have you been to? How many are already on your bucket list? And how many — and which — new places did you add to your list?

– written by Dori Saltzman

space balloon capsuleTwo things have been holding me back from signing up for a trip to space: a susceptibility to motion sickness and a decided lack of millions of dollars. Now a new company has emerged with a possible solution to both of my issues.

World View Enterprises recently revealed plans to use a helium balloon to lift eight customers in a pressurized capsule to the brink of space, nearly 100,000 feet (just under 19 miles) above the earth. According to the Washington Post, the trip would last about four hours, with a 1.5-hour ascent and two hours spent hovering at the edge of outer space. From that height, participants would be surrounded by the intense darkness of the sky and able to see Earth curving beneath them.

The company hopes to launch its first customer outing by 2016.

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Because the capsule, which would protect occupants from the harsh dangers of the upper atmosphere, would never actually get into space, require G-force speeds or reach zero gravity, the risk of motion sickness would be minimal as compared to other space travel options.

The price tag is also significantly reduced from other forms of space travel … but in the way that a Vera Wang dress on sale at 50 percent off still costs a mint. Half off sounds great, but 50 percent of $50,000 is still a whopping $25,000.

In this case, the difference in price between Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 proposed space jaunt and World View’s edge-of-space offering is a massive 70 percent. And compared to the $50 million price tag for Space Adventures’ trip to the International Space Station — the only currently available option for space tourists — the World View offering is an absolute steal.

But it’s still $75,000 for a four-hour trip, which puts it solidly outside of my travel budget.

Are you tempted by the new company’s offering? Is $75,000 closer to what you’d pay to get near to space, or would you rather use the same amount of money to explore more of the planet you’re already on?

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– written by Dori Saltzman

merida independence day grito de doloresImagine how many insights travelers to the United States would glean about the American character if they visited during our Independence Day celebrations on July 4.

They’d pick up some of our essential values, such as patriotism (flying of flags), love for family and community (reunions, BBQs, hometown parades), distrust for institutional authority (setting off fireworks, both legal and illegal) and occasional stupidity (ER visits because of the aforementioned fireworks). Not to mention all of those sales (pursuit of happiness?).

Of course, we’re not the only country that celebrates an Independence Day. So when I found out that I’d be traveling in Mexico over its holiday (held on September 16 — not Cinco de Mayo as many people think), I saw it as a chance to dive a bit deeper into our southern neighbor’s national psyche.

My trip to Merida, a colonial city in Yucatan that’s popular with expats, also reminded me that visiting countries during their holidays can require a few schedule (and attitude) adjustments. Here are some tips I picked up.

Read up. Before you go, it helps to learn about the country’s history. A bit of research taught me that Mexico’s struggle for freedom from Spain was just as arduous — if not more so — as our break with Britain. For one thing, the war lasted 11 years, from 1810 to 1821, compared to our eight. And Spain had been in control of the colony since 1521, establishing dominance for nearly 300 years (talk about fighting the power).

The centerpiece of Mexican Independence Day is called the Grito de Dolores, a symbolic re-creation of the beginning of the revolution. It’s broadcast nationwide from Dolores, the small town in central Mexico where it all began. On the night of September 15, crowds gather in city public squares throughout Mexico to ring bells and watch fireworks. Having a little knowledge about the first Grito, issued as a call to arms by a Roman Catholic priest named Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla, made the event more special for me.

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Expect crowds — and closures. I arrived in Cancun on September 14, the Saturday before the holiday. The airport was even more packed than usual, with Mexicans arriving from overseas to celebrate the holiday at home or taking advantage of the three-day weekend to go on short trips outside the country.

Once I arrived in Merida, I learned that some attractions I’d planned on visiting, such as the Noche Mexicana, a folk festival usually held on Saturday evenings, would not be taking place. Some roads were also closed to through traffic, which meant taking a cab to the Plaza Grande was out of the question (luckily, it was a short walk from my hotel).

Tip generously. Not everyone has Independence Day off, of course. Because of the increased crowds, the day was business as usual — and then some — for people who work in the hospitality industry. If you know that you are keeping your driver, tour operator or server from being with their families on their national holiday, it’s a nice gesture to make your tip a little more special. After all, wouldn’t you want visitors to the States to do the same?

merida independence dayTake part. After checking with my concierge to make sure it was safe, I headed out to the Independence Day festivities around 10 p.m. Sunday night. The streets were packed with revelers, mostly families, and the restaurants on the Plaza Grande were full. After grabbing a mango sherbet at Sorbeteria Colon, which has been serving sweet treats since 1907, I positioned myself on a bench to people watch (the giggling teenagers with the fake moustaches — a tribute to the bushy revolutionaries — were particularly entertaining).

I didn’t have long to wait. After the Grito at 11 p.m., the crowd erupted into cheers. “Vivan los heroes que nos dieron patria!” the chant started, before naming some of the country’s founding fathers. “Viva nuestra independencia! Viva Mexico! Viva!

At the end of the third “Viva Mexico,” fireworks shot into the sky. The national anthem started to play, and the people around me started singing. I found myself moved by their obvious love for their country, and realized that patriotism — as opposed to its more sinister cousin, nationalism — is a beautiful thing to watch, regardless of your passport.

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– written by Chris Gray Faust