Archive for November, 2013

When to go to Costa Rica…

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Costa Rica’s high season for tourism runs from late November to late April, which coincides almost perfectly with the chill of winter in the United States, Canada, and Great Britain, and includes Christmas, New Year’s, Easter, and most school spring breaks. The high season is also the dry season. If you want some unadulterated time on a tropical beach and a little less rain during your rain-forest experience, this is the time to come. During this period (and especially around the Christmas holiday), the tourism industry operates at full tilt — prices are higher, attractions are more crowded, and reservations need to be made in advance.

Local tourism operators often call the tropical rainy season (May through mid-Nov) the “green season.” The adjective is appropriate. At this time of year, even brown and barren Guanacaste province becomes lush and verdant. I personally love traveling around Costa Rica during the rainy season (but then again, I’m not trying to flee cold snaps in Canada). It’s easy to find or at least negotiate reduced rates, there are far fewer fellow travelers, and the rain is often limited to a few hours each afternoon (although you can occasionally get socked in for a week at a time). A drawback: Some of the country’s rugged roads become downright impassable without four-wheel-drive during the rainy season.

Weather

Costa Rica is a tropical country and has distinct wet and dry seasons. However, some regions are rainy all year, and others are very dry and sunny for most of the year. Temperatures vary primarily with elevations, not with seasons: On the coasts it’s hot all year; in the mountains it can be cool at night any time of year. Frost is common at the highest elevations (3,000-3,600 m/9,840-11,808 ft.).

Generally, the rainy season (or “green season”) is from May to mid-November. Costa Ricans call this wet time of year their winter. The dry season, considered summer by Costa Ricans, is from mid-November to April. In Guanacaste, the dry northwestern province, the dry season lasts several weeks longer than in other places. Even in the rainy season, days often start sunny, with rain falling in the afternoon and evening. On the Caribbean coast, especially south of Limón, you can count on rain year-round, although this area gets less rain in September and October than the rest of the country.

In general, the best time of year to visit weatherwise is in December and January, when everything is still green from the rains, but the sky is clear.

Holidays

Because Costa Rica is a Roman Catholic country, most of its holidays are church-related. The biggies are Christmas, New Year’s, and Easter, which are all celebrated for several days. Keep in mind that Holy Week (Easter week) is the biggest holiday time in Costa Rica, and many families head for the beach. (This is the last holiday before school starts.) Also, there is no public transportation on Holy Thursday or Good Friday. Government offices and banks are closed on official holidays, transportation services are reduced, and stores and markets might also close.

Official holidays in Costa Rica include January 1 (New Year’s Day), March 19 (St. Joseph’s Day), Thursday and Friday of Holy Week, April 11 (Juan Santamaría’s Day), May 1 (Labor Day), June 29 (St. Peter and St. Paul Day), July 25 (annexation of the province of Guanacaste), August 2 (Virgin of Los Angeles’s Day), August 15 (Mother’s Day), September 15 (Independence Day), October 12 (Discovery of America/Día de la Raza), December 8(Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary), December 24 and 25 (Christmas), and December 31 (New Year’s Eve).

 

Adventure and Culture on Canada’s Eastern Edge

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  • 10,000 year old icebergs

29,000 kilometres (18,000 miles) of coastline

22 species of whales

Perched on the eastern edge of North America, Newfoundland and Labrador offers easily accessible, larger-than-life adventure, wilderness and culture. Hop on a boat to spot massive mountains of ice on the move in Iceberg Alley, crane your neck to see some of the 35 million seabirds including colourful puffins, or commune with 20 whale species – perhaps in a kayak or even joining them underwater!

Walk in the footsteps of long-vanished Vikings amid misty L’Anse aux Meadows’ sod houses, and explore dramatic fjords that were home to Inuit ancestors in the Torngat Mountains. Taste salt cod cakes and pies made of tundra cloudberries. Dance a jig or reel to fiery fiddling in the shoulder-to-shoulder pubs of the capital of St. John’s. A multi-cultural past that includes English, Irish, French and Aboriginals has spawned not only a quick-wit with a charming Irish lilt, but also a multitude of dialects and home-grown sayings that make up a unique local dictionary – after all, where else can you find place names like Jerry’s Nose, Leading Tickles West and Little Heart’s Ease?

Outdoor adventure

  • View freshwater fjords and 200 to 500-million-year-old fossils in dramatic Gros Morne National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Stay in a base camp managed by Inuit, hike the dramatic Torngat Mountains fjords watching for polar bears and caribou and visit the foundations of ancient sod houses and stone burial sites.
  • While hiking along the 336-mile East Coast Trail, check out the Spout, a natural, wave-driven geyser found en route.

Urban adventures

  • Prowl George Street, the seat of St. John’s nightlife, amidst a waterfront region with more pubs per square foot than almost anywhere in North America.
  • Sample traditional local dishes like cloudberry pie, cod tongues and cheeks, salt cod and “toutons” – crispy pork lard – and a Jigg’s Dinner.
  • See the views of icebergs and whales from atop historic Signal Hill where the final battle of the British/French Seven Years’ War was waged in 1762.

Arts & Culture

  • Walk in the footsteps of Vikings at L’Anse aux Meadows, the earliest known European settlement in the New World and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • Embed yourself into Newfoundland and Labrador neighbourhoods, live like a local and take a self-guided eco-culture experience.
  • See where Guglielmo Marconi received the first transatlantic wireless signal in 1901.

Nature & Wildlife

  • Go whale watching along the Southern Shore while paddling a sea kayak
  • Peek at puffins and have a picnic with whales in the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve.
  • Don a wetsuit and slide into the water for the once-in-a-lifetime experience of snorkeling with whales.

On the water

  • See the “frozen behemoths” of Iceberg Alley, as chunks of glacial ice the size of ocean liners float into Labrador; finish the day with a shot of vodka made from fresh iceberg water.
  • See icebergs rise like surreal white mountains from the blue sea, while watching North America’s largest population of humpback whales and seabirds.

Weather

  • St. John’s enjoys the third mildest winter in Canada with comfortable cool-to-warm summers.
  • Across Newfoundland, the average summer temperature – July and August – is 16°C (61°F) while the average winter temperature – November to March – hovers around 0°C (32°F).
  • In Labrador which is further north, winter climate is somewhat harsher, but temperatures can top 25°C (77°F) during the short but pleasant summers.
  • In spring, during the peak iceberg and whale-watching season, the average temperatures in St. John’s hover between 2 – 6°C (35 – 43 °F)

 

Calgary and Vancouver lead Canadian housing market boom

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CALGARY — Strong sales in Calgary and Vancouver led to a Canadian housing market boom in August as transactions across the country were up 11.1 per cent compared with a year ago, according to the Canadian Real Estate Association.

In releasing its national data on Monday, CREA said sales in Vancouver were up 53.1 per cent from last year to 2,557 while Calgary transactions rose by 28.8 per cent to 2,830.

In Canada, total sales in August were 40,350.

The year 2013 has been a very strong year for the Calgary real estate market. Earlier in the year we saw the market pick up as we transitioned into a sellers’ market as a direct result of low inventory levels. The market maintained strong with low inventory right through to spring. The summer months are traditionally a bit slower than spring months, but not for 2013. The market continued on with record sales without rest as inventory levels continued a downward motion into summer months.

There is no doubt that the flood has greatly affected the housing market in Calgary not just for sales. Workers that have flocked to the city to aid in Calgary’s rebuilding and displaced people looking for temporary housing have exhausted the inventory in the rental market and in turn we are seeing rising rental prices. The raised rental market is making it sense for some first-time buyers to enter into the market. Bank interest rates are also on the rise. We are seeing many buyers out there with great interest rate holds nearing expiration so some of those buyers will be on a time crunch to save some money in interest.

Ann-Marie Lurie, chief economist with the Calgary Real Estate Board, said the past two months have seen sales activity in the city shoot up higher than long-term trends.

There’s also the added possibility of increasing mortgage rates causing people to get into home ownership sooner.

In August, Alberta saw sales increase by 17.8 per cent from last year to 6,124 while the average price rose by 7.1 per cent to $381,642.

On Monday, CREA also released its forecast for the rest of this year and 2014. It said Alberta MLS sales would grow by 6.2 per cent this year, the best in the country, to 64,100 and by another 2.3 per cent in 2014 to 65,600.

In Canada, sales are expected to drop by 1.0 per cent this year to 449,900 but expand by 3.5 per cent next year to $465,600.

The average sale price in Alberta is expected to rise by 4.8 per cent this year to $380,500, the second best growth rate in the country behind Newfoundland’s 6.1 per cent. Alberta is then forecast to lead the country in 2014 with 3.4 per cent growth to $393,300.

Canadian average sale prices are forecast to grow by 3.6 per cent this year to $376,300 and by another 1.7 per cent in 2014 to $382,800.

Sales activity dropped sharply around this time last year in the wake of tightened mortgage rules and has improved since then, so a sizable year-over-year increase this August was expected.

Buyers who put off purchase decisions or who were otherwise sidelined by tighter mortgage rules and lending guidelines implemented last year were anticipated to return to the housing market. That said, the upward trend and levels for activity in recent months has been steeper than expected, but that may not last.

Recent increases to fixed mortgage rates caused sales to be pulled forward as buyers with pre-approved financing at lower rates jumped into the market sooner than they might have otherwise. That pool of home-buyers has largely evaporated so demand may soften over the fourth quarter. The outsized year-over-year gains may persist, however, due to weak sales toward the end of last year.

 

10 top tourist attractions in Spain

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Spain is a surprise to those who have the image of having to fight for towel space at one of its crowded beaches or sipping sangria while watching a bull fight or flamenco. From the ancient monuments left by the Romans and Moors, the medieval castles of the interior, the white villages in inland Andalucía or the vibrant cities of Barcelona and Madrid, there is a great mixture of cultural attractions in Spain.

The landscape varies just as widely. The evergreen estuaries of Galicia could hardly be more different from the deserts of Almería or the rugged mountains of the Sierra Nevada. And then there are the countless glittering beaches that dot the Spanish coast. Although busy in summer even along the coast of the big tourist Costas some enjoyable beaches can easily be found.

 

10 Palacio Real 

The Palacio Real (Royal Palace) of Madrid is the official residence of the King of Spain although it is only used for state ceremonies. The Royal Palace was built between 1738 to 1755 and King Carlos III took up residence in the palace in 1764.

9 Running of the Bulls

Pamplona is a city in Navarra, famous for its San Fermín festival held each year from July 6th – 14th. At the heart of the festival is El Encierro, the Running of the Bulls, an activity that involves running in front of a dozen bulls that have been let loose, on a course of the town’s streets.
 
8 La Concha
Protected from strong winds by steep cliffs and islands, La Concha in San Sebastian is said by many to be one of the best city beaches in Europe, let alone Spain. Here you can go surfing, walk along the promenade in search of good restaurants and enjoy the beautiful views of the beach.
 
7 Aqueduct of Segovia

The Aqueduct of Segovia is one of the best-preserved monuments left by the Romans in Spain. The ancient aqueduct carries water 16 km (10 miles) from the Frío River to Segovia and was built of some 24,000 massive granite blocks without the use of mortar. Probably constructed around 50 AD it still provided water to the city in the 20th century.

6 Cuenca

Situated between Madrid and Valencia, Cuenca is a marvelous example of a medieval city, built on the steep sides of a mountain. The many “hanging houses” are built right up to the cliff edge, making Cuenca one of the most striking towns in Spain, a gem in the province of Castilla La Mancha.

5 Ibiza

Ibiza is one of the Balearic Islands in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Spain. The island is one of the most popular party destinations in all of Europe. During summer, the island’s population doubles as tourists flock to Ibiza to enjoy the night clubs, beach bars and restaurants.

4 Sagrada Familia

The Sagrada Familia is a large Roman Catholic church in Barcelona, and one of Spain’s most visited tourist attractions. It’s a design by Antoni Gaudí, a Catalan architect who worked on this project for almost 40 years until his death in 1926. The construction of the basilica began in 1882 and still as yet not finished.

3 El Escorial

Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, El Escorial was the political center of the Spanish empire under King Philip II. Philip appointed Juan Bautista de Toledo as the architect in 1559 and together they designed El Escorial as a monument to Spain’s role as a center of the Christian world. Today it functions as a monastery, royal palace, museum, and school.
 
2 Mezquita of Cordoba
The Mezquita (Spanish for “Mosque”) of Cordoba is a fascinating building famous for the forest of pillars and arches inside the main hall. The site was originally a Roman temple, then a Visigothic church, before the Umayyad Moors built the Mezquita. After the Spanish Reconquista a cathedral was built into the center of the large Moorish building.
 
1 Alhambra
Part fortress, part palace and part garden the Alhambra is situated on a plateau overlooking the city of Granada in southern Spain. The palace was constructed in the 14th century by the Nasrid sultans. The Alhambra is now one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and many visitors come to Granada just to see the Alhambra.

Spanish bank take-under reveals real estate mess

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Spanish bank investors have just had a painful reminder of the real estate mess that burdens the country’s banking system. Just a few months after Banca Civica listed on the stock market, Caixabank is buying the smaller lender – and its dud property loans – in an all-share deal priced at an 11 percent discount to market value. Caixabank will reap savings from cutting costs, including its own network. Without state support, though, the deal is still a risk.

Banca Civica was in a bind after the government recently tightened requirements for impaired property loans. It needed to do a deal. For Caixabank, already one of Spain’s biggest banks, the rationale is less straightforward. The combined entity will become Spain’s largest lender by assets, with leading positions in the wealthy regions of Catalonia and Navarra, and populous Andalusia.

On paper, the deal makes financial sense, giving Caixabank a good excuse to restructure its own bloated branch network. It says the combination will generate 540 million euros in annual synergies, mostly from cost savings, which have a net present value of 1.8 billion euros – nearly twice the 977 million euro price the deal puts on Banca Civica’s equity. Caixabank reckons its earnings per share will increase by more than 20 percent in 2014, excluding restructuring costs.

The deal won’t stretch Caixabank’s balance sheet too far, either. It is buying Banca Civica for a third of its 2.9 billion euro book value, and will write down the lender’s real estate assets by 3.4 billion euros. After taking into account various adjustments, including the conversion of preference shares, the hit to Caixabank’s capital will be 167 basis points. That shouldn’t impede it from reaching the 9 percent core capital ratio that European regulators require it to hit by the summer.

 

Matacanes Canyon: torrents of fun

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Be able to enjoy its exuberance for many years to come. Its name comes from the porous rock formations, of calcareous origin, shaped like huge showers, called matacanes.

The fun in this canyon is found in the large number of waterfalls, slides and caves you will cross during your descent. You will walk among waterfalls, crystalline springs, caves, underground rivers and huge gorges. The tour includes a rappelling descent over at least two waterfalls, 88 and 59 feet high, respectively. There also are waterfalls between 13 feet and up to 39 feet high, although most of them are optional.  

Two favorite places are: first, a 16 feet jump in the dark, where the sandy bottom helps cushion the fall; and then a deep pit with walls approximately 26 and 45 feet high. The area surrounding the cliff facilitates the perfect appreciation of these jumps and the possibility to repeat them as often as you like. This is the meeting place for some groups who encourage and cheer on those who jump into the pit.

The aquatic tour can last between five and eight hours, depending on the number of people participating in it, the physical capability, the performance and the pace and rhythm of the group. Its landscapes, with clear water rivers, huge walls, the sound of waterfalls filling the atmosphere, and its winding trails full of vegetation, will be worth all the hours spent on the tour.

In order to get there, you will have to wear all the necessary equipment: a helmet, harness, carabiners, safety belts, ropes, life jacket, shorts, boots, a dry backpack or a watertight container for keeping food and dry clothes, and a headlamp for caves.  

The best season for visiting the Matacanes Canyon is between the months of March and August. To get there from Monterrey, you have to take the national highway (federal highway 85) southbound.

If you are looking for places to sleep, the closest hotels are found in Santiago, a magic town, or else in the Potrero Redondo cabins. To eat, look for a restaurant in the Santiago municipality, specializing in arrachera (grilled beef).