Queen of the Watering Can: Volunteering in Nicaragua

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I climbed into the front seat, “Me llamo Oscar,” he introduced himself, a friendly smile on his face. “Abbie” I responded pointing to myself, “No habla Espanol.”  It turned out Oscar knew as much English as I did Spanish, so we shared several short sentences and many smiles throughout the ride on the way to La Mariposa getting ready to begin my time in Nicaragua volunteering and learning a new language.  A warm summer day with no AC, the windows were down and we bounced along the dusty road, the cement feeling more like a cobblestone sidewalk, unlike smooth paved US highway roads.  With Managua in the distance and Spanish music playing in the background, I gazed out the window taking in rural views and small towns along the way.  Dilapidated homes with colorful walls, men sitting on the street corner and women setting up fruit stands.  The familiarity of life in a developing nation mixed with the unknown of Central America, it was a new adventure and Central America felt like home.

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We arrived at the school and eco hotel, what a little oasis.  La Mariposa is just south of the capital, Managua, in La Concha, which is a typical Nicaraguan town.  The students at the program ranged in age and nationality, all staying for different lengths of time, all here to have a deeper experience, develop language skills and leave with fonder memories.  The building is surrounded by lush vegetation, with rescued dogs and chickens roaming about the property.  The classrooms are dispersed outside throughout the property so you’re learning Spanish in what feels like a jungle, with birds chirping in the background and a little dog resting at your feet.  I was so impressed that each of us had our own one on one grammar and conversation teacher, it made learning quickly along with retention that much easier.  It was also a quiet but powerful representation of the good this school does for the community.  Each day there would be dozens of locals here for work, whether it was on the property, in the kitchen or in front of a whiteboard, I was happy to see how small but mighty La Mariposa was for San Juan de la Concepcion.

La Mariposa Classroom in Nicaragua

 

The Finca 

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There are several different opportunities for volunteering while at La Mariposa, in addition to the Spanish classes it was such a rewarding way to get to know the people and culture better.  I chose to work at the finca, an organic farm that grows produce for the school and community. Mornings were peaceful, I would water plants, tend to the seedlings, prep the beds and the soil for new growth.  The sun shining down while working, I didn’t mind being sweaty and I looked forward to the walk each morning from town to the farm, having the time to take in nature around me, it was unhurried and freeing.  Working alongside the staff was the best part of the experience, getting to know new friends while having the opportunity to brush up on my Spanish.

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The first day I realized how far from fluent I was, when my morning ended, Natan had told me our work for the day was finished.  Turning back to the garden, I had thought he was asking me to follow him so I quickly walked behind him towards the back of the garden.  He stopped, turned around, and looking puzzled repeated what he had already said and turned again.  After a third time of not understanding what he had said, we played a quick game of Pictionary amongst the veggies.  Speaking slower, he motioned to me with his two fingers, mimicking two little legs walking across his hand, than pointing towards the front gate.  Aha!  Ok, I realized my morning flew bye and it was already time to go.  On my last day as an inside joke, Natan made the same hand gesture before we hugged goodbye and said our farewells.

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As the days went on, my Spanish came easier and our conversations filled the quiet spaces of the garden.  I dubbed myself “la reina de la regadera” which got a chuckle out of Natan.  I reigned over the flowers and veggies for the rest of the week, at lunchtime leaving my loyal subjects to head back to the school for afternoon lessons.  It was only my kingdom for a short time but it was one of my favorite parts of my trip.

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Riding the microbus is an adventure all on its own, so even transportation in Nicaragua comes with a story.  The bus was my excitement for the morning the first couple of days but then quickly became routine.  You flag one down from the side of the road and hop in, cramming along with lots of other commuters.  Think if Uber had a shuttle system that drove around town and you could hail them down like a taxi, pay almost nothing and squeeze in with about a dozen other strangers to get across town.  There’s a guy who usually crouches in the back next to the door, opens it, collects the roadside riders and then as the van gets rolling he hangs from the side, sliding the door shut while in full momentum, collects our fares as we continue on.

Volunteering Nicaragua Road

Mariposa is a well oiled educational and responsible travel machine.  The programs in conjunction with classwork were diverse and valuable to the local community.  Many of the other visitors were working at the nature reserve, local schools, a bakery cooperative or helping through rehabilitation programs with horses.  You could easily tell we all felt we were making a special connection with the people and the town when we all reconvened at lunch time and shared our volunteer stories.  For those just interested in the study program they had activities for everyone to participate in after classes, nature walks, horseback rides and day trips.

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Nicaragua is known as the country of lakes and volcanoes and we had a great vantage point of one of those big beauties, Masaya.  It just so happened that while I was there, several of the active volcanoes were awake, with a few erupting within the past few months.  Masaya volcano at night was wondrous, standing in the midst of the Jurassic Park landscape, the full moon brightly shone, casting shadows over the large banana trees looming over us, creating a picture postcard with the smoke billowing into the star filled sky, it’s quiet crimson hues above the mountain only a few miles away.

Nicaragua Masaya Volcano

Nicaraguan Evacuation Route

Thank you so much to Unearth the World for the opportunity to connect me to such a remarkable place.  It was such a treat to give back a bit and to feel like I received all the more in return.  For an opportunity to volunteer, visit Unearth the World or check out La Mariposa Spanish School & Eco Hotel for a further glimpse into the work they do and what kind of vacation with a positive impact awaits.

It’s Better in Baja; A Wildlife Weekend in Mexico

His eyes widened, animated and appeared to lock onto mine, his ebony pupils dilated to an obscene size and his flat, thin lips slowly opened and closed in an almost rhythmic motion.  We gazed at each other for a moment, my hands bobbing on the surface of the water, his spines creating pressure against my palms.  What an expected surprise, to be treading in crystal blue water of the Loreto Bay, face to face with a porcupine fish!

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Photo credit: Kymri Wilt / Mira Terra Images

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Photo credit: Kymri Wilt / Mira Terra Images

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Islands of Loreto are located in the Baja Sur region of Mexico, on the stunning Sea of Cortez and the wildlife is abundant both on land and in the water.  Its a short flight from Los Angeles but feels a world away making it a great destination for a weekend getaway.  As we approached the airport for landing, gliding closer I sneaked a peak across the row of seats to the window. The light brightly burst through the portal and I could make out dark blobs in the water, at first thinking they were large rocks submerged in the sea. My eyes adjusted to the sunlight and the rocks began to move, a pod of whales, dozens of whales, making their way through the Baja region during their annual migration pattern.  I squealed with delight. I knew we were going to be whale watching that weekend and now it was certain we would encounter something in the water.

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Piling into the shuttle, we set off to Villa del Palmar at the Islands of Loreto Bay. The road was winding, on the left of us was a costal view of the Sea of Cortez, and the right was barren landscape that cascaded down from the mountainous terrain.   We were the only car on the road and aside from the occasional grouping of small local villages we only passed one other resort, we bounced down the dusty road alone, the seclusion a perfect start to a relaxing weekend.

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We were going to spend the whole day on the water, getting the full experience the Sea of Cortez has to offer. The Apex boat bobbed in the bay as we lined up along the shoreline, lifting our bags over our heads, hiking up our shorts and wading in the calm seawaters towards our little vessel.

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We slowed as we came to a large rock formation jutting out of the sea with a mass of sea lions basking in the sun. A few of the males, bulls, lazily lifted their heads in our direction, showing us who the alphas in the pack were while assessing the danger level of our approaching boat. Seeing that we weren’t a threat, they continued to lay about on the rocks, the water splashing up around them.  Several slick, shiny heads poked out of the water near the boat and would quickly disappear, playing peak a boo with our group, the younger pinnipeds playfully swim about or float along the surface mimicking those sun bathing vacationers we had left on the beachside earlier that morning.

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After hanging around observing them for a bit, there was a sudden mass exodus into the water, about half of the pack barreled into the sea as we turned the boat around and headed back out on our journey.

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You won’t be on the water long without seeing other wildlife, looking in either direction up or down.  Beautiful birds soaring above our boat as we skimmed along towards our little secluded beach spot at lunchtime.  Hiking, hanging by the water and snorkeling, our break from the boat was peaceful and beautiful.

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The snorkeling here is wonderful, I would have loved to spend more time in the water.  I jumped in fin first from the side of our boat only to interrupt a huge school of Angel Fish and I quickly could see how Jacques Cousteau affectionately call this region the “Aquarium of the World”.  We were constantly talking about how impressive it was that after the whole day out we had only encountered one other boat towards the end of our trip; it was as if we had the whole sea to ourselves!  It made for a great way to explore, the calmness and lack of other swimmers or boat engines allowed us to view some unique sea life!

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The highlight of the day was when we came upon a huge pod of dolphins, we were the only boat around and they playfully swam and chased us as we circled around them, creating a wake for them to jump into.  I was at the front of the boat trying holding my balance as we sped, pointing, shouting and grinning ear to ear like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert, as we watched the dolphins playfully jump all around us.

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Once we made it back to land we took a quick tour of the town of Loreto, checking out a few shops and seeing the old mission in the town center, but also making sure we had enough time for a guacamole & margarita pit stop.

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The Particulars 

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When to go?

This is the perfect spot for a west coaster to have a get away weekend.  It’s a quick flight from LAX, all you need is the time off, your bathing suit and a passport.  For us east coasters, the flight may be a little longer, but it is worth it to explore another side of Mexico aside from Cancun and Playa del Carmen.  We came in January which is right during peak season (December – March) but is also the time when the whales are coming through this region so if you want to go whale watching it is worth the extra price hike.  Aside from high temps in the summer time, Baja is potentially a year round destination spot.

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Where to stay?

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Villa del Palmar at the Islands of the Loreto Bay was a total hidden oasis!  Our group spent the long weekend there being pampered by the staff whether it was at the spa, the beach or the dining table.  They have spacious apartment style rooms with kitchens and the resort also has all inclusive packages if you would rather just check in and have the location do the rest.  A back of house tour revealed some wonderful eco conscious operations along with a great work environment for the staff which is an added bonus to such a gorgeous location.

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Although I was a guest of the Villa del Palmar for this trip as usual, all of my comments reflect my own personal thoughts and opinions.

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What a pleasant surprise Nicaragua has been.  I have met some of the friendliest people, the photography has been wonderful in both the cities and in nature so it’s safe to say I’m quickly falling in love with this region.  I’ve taken to getting up really early each morning for long walks with my just me and my camera.  It has given me time to get lost and experience Granada in an amazing way, void of the tourists crowds who are still resting in their beds while the locals are up heading to work or the market.  With the constant pressure to be busy and active, it’s a good change of pace to just take a walk with no intentions, nowhere to actually be, pausing to drink in moments like this one, just two boys peeking on their neighbors.

Hidden Paradise in Vietnam; Phu Quoc Island

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A Vietnamese island, off the coast of Cambodia, in the Gulf of Thailand, it sounds like Phu Quoc is having an identity crisis and with good reason, it’s easy to loose yourself here.  Ahhhhh, island living, it’s quiet and beautiful.

Phu Quoc is the place to retreat and relax.  Aside from exploring the national park jungle the spot to be here is with your toes in the sand at the beach.  Snorkeling and diving are popular activities and since SCUBA is relatively new to the area there is a lot to uncover and much of the region has been untouched.

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Fish Sauce is a staple in much of the food of Vietnam, and the island is famous for it’s distilleries.  It’s a type of anchovy fish fermented in large, old, wooden vats, aged slowly and pressed to produce the staple brown liquid.  If you can get past the smell, you can tour the facility here yourself.  To the Vietnamese, fish sauce production is like olive oil to Italians, or wine to the French.  Quality ingredients and age old wisdom make for the best results.

About half of the island is protected National Park space so hiking and trekking is a popular way to explore.  Amidst all this beauty there is a sad history that shouldn’t be avoided and this was really difficult for me to learn but I felt like it was important to not avoid some of the tragic and uncomfortable historic events between Vietnam and the US.  In the An Thoi village there was the Coconut Tree Prison, which was established during the Indochina War and at one time housed over 14,000 prisoners.  After the war ended, the prisoners returned to their homes and the buildings remained unused until the 1960’s during the Vietnam War.  US troops used the space as a prisoner of war camp where torturous war crimes occurred.  It is hard when such a dark secret is revealed about such a beautiful paradise, but it’s important to know the history while appreciating where the island is today.

 

The Particulars

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How to get there? 

An international airport was built in 2012 but most flights come in from Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.  We flew from HCMC on a VietJet flight, quick, easy and inexpensive.

There are fast and slow ferry rides to the island which are 2-3 hours respectively.  The tickets are really cheap (around $15) but since our flight was faster and less than $50 so we opted for convenience over cost on this one.

When to go?

We stayed for five days in late October which is right before peak season (November-March).  The wet season is from July-September so we ran the risk of a rainy day or two but our weather was perfect, not too hot & not monsoon season.  If you stay during “shoulder season” (April-June or October) there are less crowds and the cost is more reasonable.  As for timing I would head to Phu Quoc sooner than later.  There is construction and new development popping up all over the island, tourism is making a bigger splash here than before and this little hidden gem will only get busier.

Where to stay?

There are several different options on the island ranging from backpacker hostels to small hotels or large resorts.  We opted for the later and stayed at the Salinda Resort which is one of the luxury beach resorts on the island.  The staff was really friendly and the pool alone was enough to make you want to change your address permanently.  The food is delicious, however, there are lots of non Vietnamese dishes on their menus so if you are looking for more local fare you can travel off the resort for meals and exploring.  We wanted our time in Phu Quoc to be relaxing and to be honest, just down right lazy before heading back to the states, so we chose Salinda because it was a location where if we didn’t want to leave we didn’t have to.  We mostly hung out by the pool, walked along the beach and drank our fair share of Rosé.  It was a welcomed change from the running around and touring we had been doing the previous weeks.  The beach is serene and the property is beautiful which was a win win for what we were searching for.

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15 favorites of 2015

Ok, so it’s a good thing the years keep getting bigger in number because my opportunities and experiences keep getting better.  The end of the year is the best time for me to reflect on what I’ve worked for each year, and look back on the opportunities that make me feel the most thankful and happy.

Up, up, up AND away in Myanmar, Spain AND Turkey

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The first 31 years of my life I had lived without stepping foot into a hot air balloon and just like that, I got the chance to take not one, not two, but three incredible rides.  Each overlooking a different landscape, iconic and unique locations, it is hard to pick which one I loved the most so I’ve included them all.  In Myanmar it was a sunrise ride over thousands of temples and pagodas in Bagan.  In Turkey it was floating atop fairy chimney rock formations in Cappadocia and in Spain it was gliding above the rural countryside outside of Barcelona.

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Ride a Water Buffalo in Vietnam

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My Trip to Vietnam was spectacular, an unexpected gem found in my busy travel schedule.  I think I could have easily listed each and every event on this trip as some of my favorites from the year but the highlight had to be the surprise water buffalo rides we had in Hoi An.  Our tour was one of the best afternoons we had spent, educational, enriching and exciting.

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Travel with Family in Europe

 

Don't forget you can still head to some iconic places and have amazing experiences.

Spending time with family each year becomes a blessing and this year I had the chance to spend several weeks with my mother and sister on an Italian excursion that was beyond measure the best time I have spent in that country.  The day they headed back for the states my brother flew to Rome where he and I set off on his post graduation Euro Trip.  Each country offered so many fun surprises made all the more special by sharing with family.

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Giving back in Cambodia

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This was my third time volunteering for Save Elephant Foundation but this time I traveled to Cambodia instead of Thailand.  The project is a protected land located outside of Siem Reap, where I spent time volunteering with the Cambodian Wildlife Sanctuary fostering a project where domesticated Elephants have space to return to the wild.

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Satisfied my Inner Beach Bum

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When I looked back this year I realized I was a bit of a sun chaser, spending most of my time in sunny spots, toes in the sand.  I came to the conclusion that for me beaches are like my children, I just can’t pick a favorite!

Witnessed National Treasures in Arizona

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I finally took the time to take a little American road trip and drove through New Mexico and Arizona.  I had the most fun exploring some of the US I haven’t seen before and went mule riding and hiking around the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Survived some travel terrors in Cambodia

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I pride myself on being a responsible, solo woman traveler, but that doesn’t mean I am immune to a few bad events.  I think it’s important to travel to places to  break stereotypes of cultures and communities, to find out for yourself and make your own assessments of a place or people.  Most of the time, it has been my experience that most of it is just negative conjecture.  This year I my purse, along with my passport, ended up begin stolen right from my shoulder only days before I had to leave Cambodia for Dubai.  After several trips to the police station, immigration office, US Embassy and then months of issues and paperwork after the fact, it ended up being just another travel story.  No one was hurt and the one thing I took away from the experience is that because of the actions of one horrible person I was introduced to a dozen more who were willing to help a perfect stranger when she was in need.  It confirmed for me that “Travel Angels” do exist and among stress and sadness you can find hope and beauty.

Nailing Nomadic Life

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I’ve been living out of a suitcase, traveling around this wonderful earth for a few years now and this year proved to be simultaneously difficult and rewarding.  While most of my friends and family are putting down roots, buying houses and having children, I’ve forged ahead with my plan to try and see as much as I can for as long as I am able and after this year it’s clear I’m on a path that works perfectly for me.

Learned to surf in Portugal

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Portugal was a last minute decision and happened to be one of the better choices I made this year.  The people warm, the food wonderful, the weather and surf  were spectacular.  This country is for sure one where I’ll will direct some more attention in the future.

Booked a spontaneous trip to St. Kitts

 

I’ve made some last minute travel decisions in my day, changing itineraries or buying tickets later than I should but this was one of my better travel triumphs.  One of my best childhood friends had been living in St. Kitts and had decided to make a huge life change which involved moving back to the US.  She explained everything in an email at the beginning of the week, including that if we wanted to see her while she lived there it would be the best time to go.  A few emails and flight searches later I booked a flight with my miles to head down for a long weekend to hang out in paradise with one of my favorite people.

Stayed quiet in Bali

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I never thought it would happen once, let alone TWICE!  I returned for the second time to Bali Silent Retreat for some much needed zen time with yoga and meditation.  It was just as powerful as the first time I had been and was a great way to start the year on a fresh note.

Realized traveling alone is both difficult and rewarding

 

This year I spent the majority of my time traveling solo.  It was nice having some friends and family meet up with me along the way but being by myself has continued to give me some perspective.  I’ve had moments where I felt really alone then times where I was proud to accomplish something difficult on my own.  Being a solo traveler reminds me how important relationships can be while at the same time consistently challenging myself.

Culinary chops in Spain

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I spent a month in Spain, several weeks living and working in Barcelona where I ate some of the most amazing foods.  While there I sat in on a few cooking classes with Barcelona Slow Travel and learned the secrets to making the most delectable Paella.

 

Took a Tour of Turkey

 

I usually take way too much of my own free time planning and researching where I’ll be staying, what food I want to try and where I want to explore with each country I visit.  This year however, I decided to relinquish some of my control freak tendencies and went on a three week planned trip around Turkey.  All I had to do was pay, get insured and show up for all the insanity.  It was a bus full of fun, adventure seeking people and some of the people I met on that tour will be life long travel buddies.

 

Finding Joy

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Starting in Southeast Asia, migrating westward back to America by air, land and sea.  Stepping foot in sixteen countries, making countless new friends, spending late nights and early mornings juggling writing, consulting, non profit work while researching, photographing, learning and living 2015 was in no way short of lots of hard work with some out of this world rewards.  I’m thankful that I’ve fostered great relationships in both my personal and professional life to make a year like 2015 come to fruition.  Looking forward to all the amazing endeavors that await in 2016!

 

Pining for Portugal, a perfect weekend in Porto

The Algarve has the beaches and coastal charm, Lisbon has the culture and city living, but Porto has history and for me much of the heart of Portugal.  You could spend enough time walking through the city just exploring but here are some recommendations of some of my favorite things I stumbled on while in this UNESCO World Heritage city.

Get lost


A small old city, Porto winds through narrow alleyways towards the Duoro River.  The Ribeira is the soul and historic center of the city, the best place to see beauty by the river, colorful tiles and crumbling old buildings.  By night it’s a great place for dinner or drinks.  Aside from the picturesque waterfront, there are several other spaces to find and explore.  The oldest bookshop in Portugal, Livraria Lello & Irmao is a book worm and Art Nouveau lovers paradise.  The shop was said to be frequented by J.K. Rowling and the interior architecture is more than inspiring.


Sao Bento Railway Station is a quick but memorable stop.  Still in use today it has hauntingly interesting history.  The building began as monastery in the 16th century and was a victim of a fire, was renovated and then fell into a state of disrepair.  The city was eager to demolish the building but the plans could not begin until the nuns left.  Refusing to leave their monastery, the city patiently waited until they all perished, with one solo nun living there for years before her death and is said to haunt the station today.  The tile work was completed in 1905 and the history of Portugal is displayed on thousands of alabaster and powdery blue tiles.  Have a minute to spare?  Watch the women who sell basil by the train station, they shoo away potential customers who pinch their plants, with a superstition that you’ll pinch the fragrance out.



There are two bridges crossing over the Duoro that are of significance.  The Dom Luis I Bridge is a double-decked bridge that was the longest of it’s kind during construction in the late 1880s.  The best way is to walk over on the top level, make your way back down through the neighborhoods of Vila Nova Gaia and then head back to the city on the lower level which leaves you conveniently at the main street on the waterfront.  This massive metalwork is not to be confused with the Maria Pia Bridge, engineered by Gustave Eiffel (yes, the Eiffel Tour Eiffel) the other arched metal bridge connecting the two municipalities of Porto.

The Imperial Cafe.  This next suggestion usually goes against what a lot of travelers tell you.  “You’re in a new country, avoid American food.” or “You can eat McDonalds back at home.”  Say what you will about avoiding the mega chain when abroad, but this is one Mickey D’s I recommend you visit, it’ll be the prettiest place you’ll eat a burger wrapped in paper.  It’s conveniently located in Praça da Liberdade, so you can head to the square in town and check out some remarkable architecture.

Get tipsy


I hadn’t had much experience with Port wines  before coming to Portugal.  For some reason I had a preconceived notion about Port being overly sweet without any flavor profile but I quickly learned that if you want to change your opinion about something, go to the source.  Port can be on the sweet side, but if you taste a quality purveyor, it’s delicious.  Port wine comes from grapes in the Douro Valley region of Portugal, it’s barreled and aged before bottled.  Much like other wines there are several different styles of Ports; Tawny, Ruby, Rose and White along with vintage reserves and late bottle vintage wines.  Take a few hours one afternoon and have a tour of some of the wine makers in town and if time allows head out on a day trip to the Douro Valley to see the lush wine making landscape that flourishes along the river.

  

There are Port Houses as far as the eye can see but there are a select few that are pumping out quality port.  Ramos Pinto has a Port wine museum and you can get a great look at their massive cellar along with their famous vintage port posters.  Offley Cellars are a great place to see an original Port house and taste some top notch wines as well as nearby Taylors.  Fancy some Fado music with your wine tasting?  Quevedo conveniently has both, so get out your map and start creating your own wine walk.

The Frankenstein of Sandwiches

Portuguese for “little Frenchie”, this sammie is anything but.  I dubbed it the Frankenstein sandwich because in my mind it had to have been an invention from a mad scientist turned chef.  The story is that the creation is a high caloric take on the classic french sandwich, Croque Monsieur, locals may tell you that Daniel David Silva tried to lure beautiful French women in with the promise of a French “inspired” food.  This sandwich is a meal on it’s own, with ham, sausage and beef stuffed between two thick slices of bread, topped with melted cheese, a fried egg and then a spicy tomato & beer based sauce is drizzled on top.


Where’s the best place to stuff your face?  For this particular feast there are a couple of local spots.  Restaurante A Regaleira is a diner style spot great for local dishes, Cafe Majestic is a beautiful touristic cafe on a popular pedestrian shopping street and Cafe Santiago is a no frills spot with some great home cooked food.  Get adventurous and try all three!

Room for Dessert?


If you have already eaten and drank your way through the city, there is one thing to make room for.  A small local sweet shop where the best chocolate cake I’ve eaten is being baked.  If you can find Cozinha Doce it is worth

Travel Tip:  This place is A. not easy to find and B. if my memory serves me the woman working there doesn’t speak much English and usually caters to locals and not tourists.  She must have been in love with our tour guide because that morning we had a small group and he took us there, she obliged and the desserts were so delicious a handful of us went back later in the evening and she begrudgingly gave us more cake after some persuading and hand gesturing.  It’s heaven in your mouth and worth all the hassle.

Sunset at the The Yeatman


Stroll across the bridge, head up to the luxury Yeatman Hotel, they have wonderful cocktails and a Michelin Star restaurant if you can’t afford to stay there, make a reservation and enjoy the view, I think it was the best place to see the sunset and look out over all of Porto.  If the Yeatman is too swanky for you, I’d also suggest the rooftop bar at the Espaco Porto Cruz.  An 18th century building with modern interior, the port house has a gallery area, restaurant and ultra modern tasting room in addition to the 360 top floor views.

The Particulars


Where to Stay?

I stayed at Yes! Hostel, they have a location in Porto and in Lisbon.  Clean, good location, busy but attentive staff.  They have activities if you are traveling solo to join in with the group or private rooms if you are looking for a low cost accommodation option.  Portugal is a relatively inexpensive European vacation destination so you can find nice hotels at a good value.

How to get around?

By foot is my preferred option and their is no better way to get acquainted with a city than with a walking tour.  Did I mention it’s free?  I spent the morning with Porto Walkers, it was a fun, well informed tour that was a great introduction to some things I went back and explored later.  If you can’t get enough of your tour guide, they also offer afternoon Port wine tours, a must when in THE city that makes the wine.

When to go?

Portugal as a whole is a wonderful place to visit in the summer, sunny and warm.  Porto has a Mediterranean climate so May to September are ideal times to visit for heat and sunshine, while October through April can be cool and rainy.  I stayed for a week in early June and it was perfect.

The Stunning Southwest: A day at the Grand Canyon

We formed a row up against the worn, splintered split rail fence, like football teams at the line of scrimmage, we faced our opponents.  A half dozen pack mules stood at attention, their reins draped over the post, standing across from us patiently awaiting their instructions.

FullSizeRender-44Like my gym teacher in middle school pairing us for square dancing, the head rancher assessed our riding ability and introduced us to our trusty steeds for the morning, I was paired with Biddy, sweet but spunky.

FullSizeRender-49I mounted the little beast and we all filed in a close line, making our way towards the trail head, on our way to the ride a mule along the rim of the Grand Canyon.

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Or Would You Rather Be A Mule?

Aside from some experience horseback riding I’ve never been on, or even around a mule before.  I had a preconceived notion that the animals were stubborn and stupid, probably from this  Little Lulu cartoon my sister and I watched as kids.

So I’ve obviously gotten a chance to learn a lot more about these pack animals since this song from 1944…

FullSizeRender-62Mules, I’ve come to learn are smart and hard working creatures.  I also found out that a mule is a product of a horse mating with a donkey, and that mules themselves can’t procreate.  They have athleticism and endurance making them the perfect animal to carry packs and passengers up, down and around the Grand Canyon.  Mules have been used in the area since the late 1800’s, they were used to entice visitors who didn’t want to make the trek by foot by still wanted to experience the new terrain.  Since then there are several tours you can still take by mule both along the South and North Rim and an overnight trip into the Canyon with a stay at Phantom Ranch.  The wait list for the overnight can be up to a year long so it’s wise to plan early.

FullSizeRender-51Our group road along the rim, it was my first time seeing the Canyon in person and on the back of a mule who is walking adjacent to the edge with a mile long drop is an amazing viewing perspective not for the Acrophobic.  The guides were so knowledgeable, both having decades of experience on horses and pack animals, riding trails through the Grand Canyon day after day, knowing the landscape he would line up our mules along the ridge line sharing the geographical and anthropological history of the gorge, pointing out specific trails in the distance and indigenous plants that Native Americans and Canyon explorers would rely on.

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Total Loss for Words

FullSizeRender-47So growing up you see the Grand Canyon in photos, videos, it’s in the background of some famous movies and your best friend probably went there on a summer road trip and told you all about it the first week back to school.  I knew the specs, the sheer size and I thought I could fathom its scale in my mind, but upon first view, I was still dumbfounded.  It is one of the only famous landmarks where with all of my attempts to visualize how I thought it would look in my head, in person it’s magnitude amazed me.  Then, when you get into the geological background your mind really gets blown.  It’s taken over 17 million years to create the Grand Canyon with other evidence of history dating back 2 BILLION years, including prehistoric traces.  You feel like a tiny speck.

FullSizeRender-50At some parts the Grand Canyon stretches 18 miles across, and squinting into the floor there are sections where the Colorado River looks like a delicate string snaking through the jagged rock.  This is one of the main contributors in the creation of the canyon, the flow of water constantly cutting through creating a channel over time.  The ecosystems of the canyon are impressive.  There are five different zones throughout the region all with varying plants and wildlife dependent upon the elevation, temperature and rainfall.

FullSizeRender-53Another mind blowing fact about the Grand Canyon is the National Park that surrounds and protects it.  There are over 1 million acres of land in the park space.  Driving through the park gives you a better idea of the size, I only had the opportunity to spend two full days exploring and quickly realized you could take your whole vacation here camping and hiking.  It’s so massive is has it’s own school and library within the park.

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Travel Tip: I used the library wifi to do some much needed work one afternoon, it’s quiet and a great place to relax.  The deer just graze around the parking lot so you can sit outside and have wildlife as your coworkers.  

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The Particulars

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How to get there?

By far the best and most iconic American way to see the Grand Canyon is by taking a good old fashioned road trip.  I drove through New Mexico and Arizona in a rental car and then flew out from Phoenix but the possible itineraries are endless.  Las Vegas is a short ride away and a popular destination point in conjunction with the canyon trip.  Get all of your information about the park on the National Park Service site.

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When to go? 

If you plan to stay in and around the park a little planning needs to be made in advance.  The South Rim is more popular than the North Rim so during the busy season the South will be a lot more crowded.  Most of the region is a desert climate, I was there in late September and it was still hot hiking in the afternoon heat.  The best times to go are March through May or September through November, when the temperatures are right and the crowds are thinning out.  Be aware that due to weather certain sections of the park close down, for instance the North Rim is closed from mid October and reopens mid May.

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What to do?

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The outdoor activities are endless and range from just shy of lazy to super hero hiker.  You can take transit throughout the grounds of the park, conveniently dropping you and picking you up at observation locations scattered throughout the canyon so you can view some of the more iconic areas.  There are hikes that start near visitor centers that vary in ability and if you want to get really serious, you can venture down into the canyon making for a tough adventure.  Check out the FAQs HERE on the parks website.  There are mule rides, jeep excursions, rafting trips, and helicopter tours if you want to see the canyon from another perspective than on foot.  Whatever way you decide to do it, make sure you just enjoy the all the beauty.

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