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honest advice for moms who travel

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How (Not) To Make Money to Travel

How (Not) To Make Money to Travel

People generally want more money for travel, so they can do it better, or, in some cases, to do it at all. I know the feeling – I’d love to upgrade my budget hotel to the Chateau Fairmont when I travel to Quebec City, for […]

Airbnb Property Review:  Casa Pacifica in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Airbnb Property Review: Casa Pacifica in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica

Our group of 9 – including three young children and one senior with minor mobility issues – stayed at an Airbnb property, Casa Pacifica, when we were in Playas del Coco, Costa Rica, in January, 2018.  Here is my review of the property, and our […]

Travel Anecdote: That One Time, in Guatemala…

Travel Anecdote: That One Time, in Guatemala…

When we arrived in Guatemala City in March, 2009, it was sort of a series of ‘one thing after another’ sorts of incidents. Trevor’s backpack took a detour on the way down, and arrived two days after we did, necessitating a longer stay in Guatemala City than we had anticipated.  Our hostel, while quite nice inside, was not in the best area of town. There had been a series of machete attacks in the city – not in our area, but not that far away – and everyone was quite riled up about safety. At the time when we went, there had been some tourist kidnappings, as well, and the government travel websites were fairly hysterical about the whole thing. We were a bit wound up.

Once we finally got our missing luggage, we decided to head to Rio Dulce, which had, at one point, been a contender for our wedding location.

We got up early to head out of town. A six hour bus ride got us to Rio Dulce with minimal fuss, though we stopped about seven hundred times to pick up people who flagged the bus from the side of the road. At Rio, we were herded to our hotel, where we booked into a little slat-sided cabana with a tin roof and mosquito netting like a princess veil over the bed. Everything was on stilts in the swamp, even the walkways, and overgrown with trees that we keep for houseplants back home – hibiscus, dieffenbachia, philodendron, and others I couldn’t identify.

Guatemala Travel Anecdote

We had a fun horseback ride with a guide who didn’t speak any English, but who had no trouble communicating anyhow. We walked on a rickety suspension bridge 15 m (45 feet) over some jungle canopy, went up a lookout tower, and washed up in a little man-made pool…and all of this was right on the property of the hotel. It was quite a nice day, overall, and we had fun (though, given how Trevor feels about horses, I had quite a bit more fun than he did, I suspect).

We hung out by the pool in the evening, then retired, across the rather shaky wooden walkway, to our room. The slatted walls were kind of romantic, and we could hear the insects and toads as if we were still outside…which, really, we basically were – you could see through the walls! We tucked ourselves into the mosquito netting, and settled in for the night – we were pretty worn out after such a long day.

Guatemala Travel Anecdote

We were comfortably asleep when two gunshots shattered the quiet. We rolled out of bed like rambo ninjas and grabbed machetes to crouch by the door, like coiled springs, ready for action as the men in jackboots came tramping up the walkway…

Okay, well, actually, we froze in bed, terrified, and I may just possibly have soiled myself. I got up and stumbled briefly around the cabana, simultaneously terrified and still basically sleeping, looking for our passports, with some harebrained idea to hide them, ‘just in case’. Some men, yelling in Spanish, tramped up the walkway, and I froze by the door, waiting for them to kick it in and drag us away as hostages. All I could think of was how under-dressed I was for the occasion.

The men talked loudly for a while, right outside our door, almost as if they were arguing; eventually, they stomped off heavily enough that the walkway and our cabana were actually swaying. We sat there in the dark for a long time. A really looooonnnnnggggg time, hardly breathing, and certainly not daring to shine a flashlight. Eventually we screwed up the courage to venture out to the bathroom, as I REALLY needed one. We didn’t see anything, but that somehow wasn’t reassuring, and we didn’t get much sleep after that, either.

The next morning, in a mixture of Spanglish and Pantomime, we were informed that the security guards routinely fire shots into the air to warn off boats that come too close. And tramp loudly over the walkways, checking on guests. While we were relieved that there had never been any real danger, we didn’t spend another night in that particular cabana, either.  Aah, well – nearly ten years later, it’s still a great travel anecdote!

Booking.com Review

Booking.com Review

I recently used the website Booking.com to reserve a couple of hotels.  This was a new site for me, and I ran into a few issues.  This is my Booking.com review.   Normally, when I am traveling to a cheap destination, I book a hostel […]

Do I need to bring my own car seat to Costa Rica?

Do I need to bring my own car seat to Costa Rica?

When we were planning our last trip with kids, we kept coming up against the question:  Do I need to bring my own car seat to Costa Rica?   We went on a family trip to Costa Rica in January, 2018, with six adults and […]

Next Destination:  Quebec City, Canada

Next Destination: Quebec City, Canada

I’m going to Quebec!

 

I have signed up for the Women In Travel Summit (#WITS18) – a conference that is being held in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada in May 2018. I will be staying a few extra days to check out Quebec City…obviously!

Quebec City has been on my bucket list for quite a while, now. I have traveled significantly in the Western provinces (Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia), as well as some of the Maritime provinces (Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Prince Edward Island), but I haven’t had as much of a chance to explore Ontario and Quebec. Quebec City, in particular, has always caught my fancy, with its European looking Old City – that is the sort of thing that always gets my attention!

 

A view of Rue du Petit-Champlain in the Old City of Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Rue du Petit-Champlain. Image courtesy of Quebec City Tourism / copyright Ville de Québec

 

Founded in 1608, Quebec City is one of the oldest still-inhabited cities in North America, and it also has one of the only remaining fortified city walls north of Mexico. Quebec’s Old City, within those walls, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and is the main attraction of the city. There are several notable landmarks and attractions in and around Quebec City, including nearby Montmorency Falls and Mont-Sainte-Anne ski resort, as well as architectural features such as La Citadelle and Chateau Frontenac within the Old City itself.  Quebec City Tourism has a well-designed and comprehensive site that is going to be a huge help with my planning!

 

Montmorency Falls in Quebec, near Quebec City, Canada
Montmorency Falls – Image courtesy of Quebec City Tourism / copyright Yves Marcoux

 

The Women In Travel Summit will be held at the Fairmont Le Chateau Frontenac, which is a gorgeous, castle-like structure in the Old City. Chateau Frontenac is one of Canada’s Grand Railway hotels, a series of luxury hotels across the country that were built in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s to serve passengers on the expanding national rail system.

Chateau Frontenac was built for the Canadian Pacific Railway, and opened in 1893. Its architecture is similar to the Banff Springs Hotel, which was also a Canadian Pacific property, and opened a few years earlier. The hotel dominates the Old City skyline, particularly the Central Tower, which was not part of the original hotel; it was added in 1924.

 

A view of Quebec City with Chateau Frontenac dominating the skyline
Chateau Frontenac. Image courtesy of Quebec City Tourism / copyright Luc-Antoine Couturier

 

I love the old railway hotels, and grew up admiring the Bessborough “castle” in my hometown of Saskatoon. To be honest, though, the Chateau Fairmont is probably out of my budget, and I will likely find other accommodations nearby. I am super-excited to check out the food and art scene in Quebec City, and will absolutely have to find myself an Old City tour or two…maybe I can even find a photography tour of some sort! I am in the ‘research and dreaming’ stage of planning my trip right now – and I will share my planning process in a future post – but I am super excited about this trip already!

Au Revior!

 

Saint-Jean gate in the walls of the Old City, Quebec City, Quebec, Canada
Saint-Jean gate. Image courtesy of Quebec City Tourism / copyright Jeff Frenette Photography
Three Easy Tips for Better Zoo Photography

Three Easy Tips for Better Zoo Photography

If you travel with children, there is a good chance you will end up visiting some zoos.  Here are three easy tips to improve your zoo photography!   When we travel, and especially when we travel with the kids, we always seem to end up […]

Costa Rica Scam:  Liberia Airport

Costa Rica Scam: Liberia Airport

I have to confess, I’ve been scammed in most of the countries I’ve visited. Whether it’s paying ‘tourist prices’ in overpriced markets, or having my cheap ‘local guide’ demand money to guide me back out of the medina he’d just guided me into, I kind […]

Mayan Pyramids – Chichen Itza or Tikal?

Mayan Pyramids – Chichen Itza or Tikal?

I have traveled to Mexico and Central America on a number of occasions, now, and I have to admit, I have a certain fascination with the ancient Maya. I have visited several Maya sites with smaller ruins, as well as having gone to the Mayan pyramids of Chichen Itza and Tikal. I have to admit, though, that neither site is ideal for everyone. Which to choose?

The ancient Maya civilization spanned a huge area, covering part of Mexico, all of Guatemala and Belize, and parts of Honduras and El Salvador. They had a complex society, with a written language, amazing art, and impressive architecture, including huge step pyramids; there are hundreds of ruins across southern Mexico and northern Central America.

Two of the largest and best-known Mayan pyramids are Chichen Itza, on the Yucatan peninsula in southern Mexico, and Tikal, in northern Guatemala. Both offer stunning pyramids on large sites with many monuments, but both present challenges for travelers. Here is a comparison to help you choose which one is best for you:

Chichen Itza

Mayan Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico
Chichen Itza, in Mexico, is close enough to Cancun to be an easy day trip – 2 to 2.5 hours by bus. You can arrange a guided tour from any of the all-inclusive hotels in the area, and there are even tours available from Cozumel. From Cancun, most of the tours will also include a stop for lunch, and often a swim in a cenote, as well.

Chichen Itza covers an impressive 5 square kilometers (1.9 square miles), though the main attractions of the step pyramid (Temple of Kukulkan) and the Great Ball Court are relatively close together. The El Caracol observatory is also of interest; when I visited the site in 2006, you could still climb that structure to get a higher-up view of the site; however, I have heard (but not confirmed) that you can no longer climb it. The site itself is quite accessible, and relatively level and smooth (considering it is an archaeological ruin and all), with well-maintained grass that would be fine for someone who was a little unsteady on their feet, or for pushing a large-wheeled stroller. Even a motor scooter would probably fare fine here.

The Observatory at Chichen Itza, Mexico
I don’t think tourists are allowed to climb here anymore.

 

The main challenge of Chichen Itza is the sheer volume of people who visit the site. During high periods, there are thousands of visitors a day, meaning you are unlikely to get a photo that isn’t jam-packed with people, or a moment to yourself to enjoy the awe of these incredible structures. The popularity of the site means it is more commercial, and, due to the damage that the millions of tourists were doing to the structures, most of them are now closed to climbing.

The main advantage of Chichen Itza is it’s ease of access. The main disadvantage are the hordes of tourists.

 

Mayan Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico
What it looks like in the brochures

 

Mayan Pyramid at Chichen Itza, Mexico, with tourists
What it looks like when you’re really there!

 

 

 

Tikal

Temple 1 and the Plaza at Tikal, Guatemala
Tikal is a huge site in north-eastern Guatemala. The original city had more than 3,000 structures covering an area of approximately 60 square kilometers (23 square miles), though the main archaeological site is smaller, at 16 square kilometers (6.2 square miles). Regardless, this is a huge site, so pack your hiking boots.

Getting to Tikal can be accomplished from within Guatemala or from neighboring Belize. Most people start from the city of Flores, which is approximately 65 kilometers (40 miles) from the site; transport to Tikal can easily be arranged from there. When Trevor and I were there in 2009, we traveled in from Belize and overnighted in El Remate. This is an option for the more adventurous; after a rather confusing border crossing, we ended up getting dropped off the bus at a dusty crossroads; after sitting down at a little cantina to eat lunch and recoup and figure out where the heck we were, we ended up hiking the last few kilometers into El Remate.

Just as an aside, El Remate is a cute little town, but don’t expect the vast array of tourist amenities you would find in a bigger centre. There are hotels and some restaurants, and we enjoyed our time there, but if you want a curated experience, you might be better off to stay in Flores. Guatemala, in general, has much less tourist infrastructure than the more popular destinations like Mexico, and far fewer people speak English. This did not prove to be a problem for us as backpackers, but it is worth being aware of if you decide to travel there – do yourself a favor, and learn at least a few phrases in Spanish.

Tikal has a number of huge pyramids and other structures, and you are still allowed to climb most of them. This is unsafe at best; there are rickety wooden stairs, and, in some cases, no guardrails. We found it exhilarating, but I would not attempt this with young children. There are smaller structures that might be okay with kids, but stay off the big pyramids, with the possible exception of Temple 2 in the main square. Having said all that, we climbed both Temple 2 and Temple 5, and it was amazing!

 

Rickety stairs in Tikal, Guatemala
These stairs were even shakier in person than they look here!

 

 

Temple 5 at Tikal, Guatemala
Can you see me in this picture? This pyramid is huge!

 

Looking down from the top of Temple 5 in Tikal, Guatemala
Looking down from the top of Temple 5 – there’s no guard rails, and that’s a long way down!

 

The terrain at Tikal is not flat. The main square / plaza is pretty accessible, but the rest of the site is somewhat hilly, with stairs in places; some of those stairs are simply wooden berms filled with dirt. There are well-marked paths, but anyone who is unsteady on their feet will absolutely want a walking stick. You could take a sturdy stroller to the site, though I would probably opt for a carrier for babies and smaller toddlers, myself.

A path in the Tikal complex in Guatemala
Stairs on one of the paths at Tikal, Guatemala

 

Given that Guatemala is a far less popular travel destination, and Tikal is in a rather remote corner of the country, there are far fewer tourists. Given the size of the site, you have a fair chance of having time to really explore by yourself, and, if you’re willing to hike away from the main square, you have a good shot at getting some tourist-free photos. With so few tourists, it has not been necessary to close structures to climbing, which will also be a big draw for some.

The view from the top of Temple 5 in Tikal, Guatemala

 

The main challenges of Tikal are the accessibility issues – a huge site, combined with uneven terrain – and the remoteness of the actual site. The main advantages are the lack of tourists and the ability to actually climb structures.

 

Conclusion:

 

In all, if you struggle with any sort of mobility issues, or want to stay close to civilization, or just want an easy trip with the kids, Chichen Itza is an excellent choice. You get to see amazing pyramids and ruins, without the hassle of trekking into the middle of a remote jungle to do so. The major downside to this is that there are so many other people visiting the site.

If you are an adventure traveler or backpacker, Tikal may be the better choice. It can definitely be an adventure to get to, and the payoff is the chance to climb a huge pyramid in the middle of the jungle…possibly with few or no other tourists!

Whichever you choose, both sites are amazing, and I would recommend traveling to either one…or both!

 

Monument at Chichen Itza, Mexico

What To Do With Your Houseplants While Traveling

What To Do With Your Houseplants While Traveling

When we’re not actually visiting a jungle (which is – you know – most of the time), we still like to try to live in one. I’m talking houseplants, here. Lots of lush, tropical, green houseplants, that help us feel a little more cheerful in […]