How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

How to travel the Galapagos without breaking the bank

When my mother-in-law told us she wanted us to accompany her on a trip for her 60th birthday, we all began planning on where to go and what to do. Top of our list was Vietnam and Cambodia but after some extensive research by my MIL, she wasn’t comfortable with making that trip. When crunch time came, B said “if you could go anywhere, regardless of cost, where would it be?” – Her response… “The Galapagos”.

To get to the Galapagos alone can be costly. There are no flights to the islands outside of Ecuador so you must first make your way to Quito or Guayaquil. From there, most people tour the islands via an organized cruise. Average cost of these run you at least $2,100 per person for the most budget-conscious package. Since B and I are neither cruise people nor did we want to drop that kind of dough on a 6 day trip, we proposed another alternative – stay in local hotels and limit our adventure to two key islands. We’d use the taxi boats to get from point A to point B, and eat at local restaurants.

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After a brief two day stop over in Quito, we boarded our plane to Baltra. The flight takes just over 2 hours, and as you approach the Galapagos Islands, you’re played an instructional video on what to do and not do while visiting the islands. This includes appropriate distances between you and the animals, disposing of garbage, and how to minimize your footprint while exploring. When you land in Baltra, there’s a fee to enter ($100 USD) and from there, a bus takes you to the ferry which transports everyone from the airport island to the main island of Santa Cruz.

The main town of Puerto Ayora is an hour away from the airport and buses run based on flights in and out. If you miss the bus, like we did, you can expect a LONG wait before another one arrives. If you’re lucky, you’ll already have arranged transport, which we didn’t, otherwise you can arrange to have someone come in from town. After waiting in the hot, unsheltered sun, we opted to call in a ride.

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Puerto Ayora is a very walkable town, situated along the water and packed with restaurants, cafes, gift shops, and tour operators. Within walking distance of the town is the Charles Darwin Research Station, where people from all over the world come to study and promote environmental education. We spent a few hours exploring the centre and could have spent more time if our day had permitted but with the heat and it being lunch, it was time to head back into town. Another popular destination just outside of town is Tortuga Bay. It’s quite a trek between the town and the beach so bring plenty of water, but in the end, it’s worth it. The beach is vast and beautiful. On one side, there’s plenty of waves, but as you walk along, you come to a secluded little piece of paradise. Here the water is more calm and is not only popular with the locals, but with iguanas too.

IMG_0805After a few days relaxing in PA, we set sail to our next destination: Puerto Villamil on Isla Isabella. Home to the Galapagos Penguin, Blue Footed Boobies, and Sally-Lightfoot crabs just to name a few, Isla Isabella is an animal lovers paradise. Much more undeveloped compared to neighbouring Santa Cruz, but with still plenty to do. Here we spent much of our time snorkeling with sea lions, relaxing by the beach, and exploring the little town of PV.

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Outside of PV is the Wall of Tears. After WW2, Ecuadorian prisoners were shipped to Isabella and the island served as a sort of prison. In the beating heat, these exiles were instructed to do useless tasks, one of which was to build this wall… a wall which served no purpose other than to torture those who built it. It’s only a 5 km hike or bike, but there are a lot of things to distract you along the way. If you take a bike, be prepared for a hilly ride and bring lots of water. If you choose to stop along the way, there are bike racks. The best part of PV is the unspoiledness of the surroundings. Sure, there are people, and there is clearly life there, but it’s much quieter and underdeveloped than the main island – which means you really do see more animals out in the wild.

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To get between islands, you have a few choices. There are the ferries, which are small boats that carry more power than you’d expect. They’re rough… and I do mean rough. As a girl who grew up on the water, and in boats, I even had a hard time sitting in my seat as we bounced around for the duration of our transport. If you’re not a fan of boats, or have a hard time keeping down your cookies, there are small planes that travel between the islands. Since B is more of a flyer than I am (I hate flying), he and his mom took the plane back to Santa Cruz while I stuck to the boat. Either way, you’re in for an adventure.

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In the end, our trip to the Galapagos didn’t break the bank. Our hotels ran us about $130 per night (we stayed for 6 nights), our meals ran us anywhere between $7 – $15, beer on the islands was about $3, transportation (all in) cost under $200. In the end, it was much more economical, adventurous, and well worth the effort to see penguins in the wild.

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Trulli living in Alberobello, Italy

Trulli living in Alberobello, Italy

It all started with a 1997 episode of Lonely Planet (or GlobeTrotter depending of who you ask) where Justine Shapiro made her way through Southern Italy, ending up in a small town known as Alberobello. The unique huts made of stone with cone-shaped roofs that scatter the town’s skyline left an impression on me and I knew that as we embarked on our Italian adventure for my 30th birthday, we just had to stay in one of these trulli amazing houses. (Note the puns here? ;))

Trulli houses Alberobello

After our Amalfi Coast scootering adventure, we made our way back to Naples (avoid if you can!) to pick up our rental car. After dealing with Naples and having an ambulance bump our bumper in a gridlocked round about, we were on our way to Alberobello. The drive takes you just over 3 1/2 hrs which is a much more efficient way to get there vs train or bus which takes you between 5 and 6 hrs depending on when you can get your tickets for. The drive is an easy highway drive and takes you right through the middle of the country, passing by Bari as you drive through the Puglia region. Without a GPS, we did get turned around a few times but managed to get back on track with a little luck and my iPhone’s compass.

When we arrived in Alberobello, we located our hotel’s main office to check in. Tipico Resort is made up of apartments in traditional Trulli, like ours, and others in apartments. After checking in, one of the staff members jumped into our car to take us to our Trulli. When we arrived, he helped show us the best place to park in Alberobello’s narrow streets, and getting us settled in, showing us our Trullo, the mini “balcony” and informing us about when our complementary breakfast would be served. From the moment we arrived in the town, I had a good feeling – much better than my initial feeling landing in Rome (see the Amalfi Coast post for details).

By this point, it was Perroni time so B and I head out in search for a beer and a snack. As we make our way into the centre of the town, we stumbled upon a gate with a sign that said “bar”. It looked innocent enough and we had had a long drive so we decided to take our chances. As we turned the corner, we saw a few tables with the most beautiful view of the town and an older gentleman resting by the door. As we head toward the entrance of the “bar”, he got up and lead us in… into what appeared to be his basement. Unfortunately, he didn’t have Peroni on hand but gave us other options, or so I assume. He only spoke Italian… and we only spoke English. In the end, we ordered a beer each and went outside where we brought out our beers, glasses, and a yummy crispy snack.

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Alberobello’s Trulli core is easily walkable and heavily populated with restaurants, gift shops, and “look-offs for photos”. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it draws in lots of visitors each year, which is really starting to have an impact on the stairs and streets with which these little houses are accessible by. Since the streets are made of stone, the ample foot traffic that walk them are causing the traction to become treacherous. Tread carefully for risk ending up on your ass.

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The little shops that line these streets are packed with nick nacks and lots of food items that are known to the Puglia and Apulia regions. From wine to olive oil, orecchiette pasta (ear-shaped) to taralli crackers (the yummy snack the old man at the “bar” served), Alberobello really does pull it’s weight in being an epicurean destination. The breakfast at our hotel was extensive and delicious, with a mix of breads, fruits, and yogurt. One of the breakfast elements that really stood out to me was focaccia barese – it was like eating pizza for breakfast! Focaccia is made across Italy, but has regional differences. Focaccia Barese is the regional version that comes from Puglia and I made it one of my staples during my stay, in addition to my afternoon beer at the old man’s “bar”. (On our second stop to the “bar”, the old man noticed my countless bug bites and offered a solution… a garlic clove and ointment. He instructed me to rub the bites with the garlic clove first, then apply the ointment… the itching went away and it didn’t bother me the remainder of the trip – who knew?!?)

Focaccia Barese

20 years after Justine Shapiro visited Alberobello and peeking my interested in Southern Italy, I found too myself surrounded by beauty, amazing food, and some of Italy’s most kind and generous people. While not every aspect of my larger Italian adventure went as I had expected, Alberobello left a completely different impression on me. The uniquely shaped houses, the wine, and more may have just been impressionable enough to make me want to return for more.

Trullo Alberobello

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

Middle of the Earth in Quito, Ecuador

All I knew about Quito before visiting was that it’s home to the equator, it has a very high altitude, and there are a lot of pick pockets. Despite my best efforts to learn more, there was very little information about the city outside of these three subjects. Oh, and potatoes.

Not only was this my first trip to South America, but it was also my first time traveling with my Mother-in-Law, who wanted to take us on a trip for her 60th birthday. After narrowing down a few destinations, it all came down to one place – the Galapagos. For years, she had wanted to go and see the Blue Footed Boobies but never wanted to spend the outrageous costs to go… that’s where we came in. As thrifty travelers, we devised a plan that consisted of a visit to Quito, followed by a flight that would take us to Isla Baltra. We would stay at a local hotel in Puerto Ayora for a few days before taking a local ferry to Isla Isabella. After a few days exploring the island, we’d backtrack, making our way back to the mainland and spending a few nights in Mindo. To start the adventure of a lifetime, we would first visit Quito, and of course, the Middle of the Earth.

It was late in the day when we arrived in Quito, and my Mother-in-Law had already arranged for an airport pick-up. After a quick Hola to our ride, we’re led through the masses of people, almost losing the driver multiple times before exiting the terminal. We all pile into the driver’s tiny SUV, with one of his helper boys (perhaps his son) in the trunk, we make our way through the streets of Quito. The city’s narrow streets sometimes make it difficult for two cars to pass each other safely, and the steep inclines must do a number on the clutches of the vehicles… but somehow, the drivers breeze through it all like it’s second nature.

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Our hotel is situated in the Old Town, right next to the Plaza de San Francisco. It’s a small inn with a lush courtyard in the centre. Our host greets us with news that our separate rooms are not ready for the night, and ask if it’s okay that we share a room – one night is no big deal so we oblige. After settling in, we head towards La Ronda to grab a bite to eat. Something I learned very quickly in Ecuador is that everything starts with soup. No matter how hot it is in the Galapagos or how chilly it is in the Andes, meals start with soup. La Ronda is a pedestrian only area filled with restaurants, bars, and tour operators. Since there are a lot of tourists that pass by on a daily basis, there’s a heavy police presence. It’s best to leave your purse at home, like I did, and carry only cash in a secure pocket because there’s also a lot of petty crime in the area.

The Ciudad Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the Earth) is just 26 km from the centre of Quito. While there’s a huge monument here, and a lot of people pay a visit to see this landmark, it is not the true equator as the calculation is slightly off. The local bus is easy to catch to take you there, but if you have a few people (like we did), it makes more sense to hire a driver for the day (which we did). We arranged with our hotel to have someone take us to the equator the next day and it happened to be the sister of our airport driver. When she arrived the next morning, she had brought her two sons along (one of which was one of boys who met us at the airport!), but only the youngest accompanied us on our adventure.

Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve

Cecila and Exile were great tour guides. Cecila’s English was minimal, but she tried her best and was very helpful. Exile was entertaining. At four years old, he became my shadow most of the day and taught me a game which I like to call “Donde esta la bufanda” – “Where is the scarf”. For a good fifteen minutes, he would hide his scarf in the trunk where he was sitting and encourage me to find it. After playing for about twenty minutes, I then only found out that bufanda meant scarf… languages are not my strong suit.

They spent the day taking us to four different landmarks. The first was a pit stop to the Pululahua Geobotanical Reserve – Ecuador’s first national park overlooking the Pululahua crater that surrounds the Pululahua volcano. It’s conveniently located near the Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila, Museum of the Sun Painter, which was our second stop of the day. After spending some time wandering around the property, Cecila was able to set us up on an English tour. It was a slow day at the museum but the guide walked us through the temple, highlighting its history and the art of the painter, Ortega Maila. The centre of the temple is situated on the equator so the tour guide led us in the test of balancing the egg on a nail – I failed at this task… here anyway. In addition to this, we were taken through an incense ceremony before indulging in some Coca Tea – which quickly eased B’s altitude sickness.

Museo Templo del Sol Pintor Cristobal Ortega Maila

Next visit was Mitad del Mundo, located just around the corner from Ciudad Mitad del Mundo. The tour we jumped onto here was engaging and educational, consisting of several tests to demonstrate the powers of the equator including the egg balancing trick (this time, I succeeded in balancing the egg!), and the water swirling test (clockwise vs counter clockwise in each respective hemisphere). With far fewer people than the neighbouring landmark, you have the option to stamp your passport with a special equator stamp as you exit, which I did.

Egg on nail at the equator

While we had spent the day seeing most of the sights in this area, we had one last stop to make: Ciutada Mitad del Mundo. After spending the day witnessing much of the same, the excitement of visiting had faded and I was ready to go back. If it had been up to me, I would have skipped this last stop as it’s overpriced, touristy, and littered with junky gift shops for a monument that was built on faulty GPS coordinates.

Ciutada Mitad del Mundo

It was a long day – even Exile thought so. We spent the drive back to the hotel reading the Spanish-English dictionary that we had brought along, pointing at images and Exile teaching me how to pronounce the word in Spanish. By the time we arrived back in the Old Town, I was tired, hungry, and had my fill of equator-related stunts, but it was worth it to actually succeed in balancing that egg on a nail.

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

It took me so many years of unbareable Canadian winters to finally do what so many Canadians do – escape the winter… well, at least for a week. I wanted a place where the only worry I would have is not putting on enough sun screen. This dream came true when I took my first trip to Costa Rica.

I know many people who go “down-south” consistently every year. They book their all-inclusive vacations at the most opportune time and they get great deals. They get off the plane, get taxied to their resort, and set up at the beach with unlimited drinks at their fingertips. For me, it’s just not how I want to experience a different country. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it (see my post on my experience in Mayan Mexico), but I crave a different type of holiday. Instead, I want off the beaten path, somewhere that is slightly unknown, but still known enough… that’s what brought me to Costa Rica.

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Instead of heading for the tourist-laden land of Jaco, B and I rent a Suzuki Jimny and made our way to the opposite coast, the Caribbean. I don’t want to say traveling this way was a breeze. The rental car agency took three hours to get us a vehicle (some people had been waiting longer) and when we finally got on the road, well, let’s just say driving on Costa Rican roads are not for the faint of heart (or for those afraid of heights). Having said that, I wouldn’t have traveled any other way – except maybe by motorcycle. After one wrong turn that took us back to Limon twice, we finally arrived at our destination: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Surfing. Chocolate. Reggae. PV has it all. A little more off the beaten path than other spots across the country, you get a much different experience here than you would any where else in the country. With a thick influence of reggae culture, it’s a laid back, surfing crowd that is drawn to this area. PV is home to Salsa Brava, Costa Rica’s heaviest wave and I’m told that surfers flock from all areas of the world to surf it. While I’m not a surfer by any means, if you’re interested in riding your first wave in Costa Rica, there are many beach side stalls along Playa Cocles that are walkable from the town itself – or by popular transport in PV, bicycle.

If you do plan to walk to Playa Cocles from PV – take the forest path starting at the end of town near Hot Rocks. It’s not best to trek this with flip flops, as there are a number of snake species in the area that you likely don’t want to step on, but you’re almost guaranteed to see some type of wildlife, whether it be some howler monkeys or a toucan or two. Once you’ve pretty much made it to the beach, take a break for a beer and/or snack at Tasty Waves – there’s an opening in the bushes to get back to the road.

The beach is not the only thing to do in the area. Our #1 highlight of the entire trip was divided between two attractions in the area. The first (not in order of favourtism because both experiences were #1 in our books) was the Jaguar Animal Rescue Center just outside of town, and Caribeans Chocolate tour.

IMG_0418The Jaguar Animal Rescue Center is in one word – amazing. Run by volunteers, this center rescues native animals in the region and re-integrates them back into their natural habitat. Some animals are badly injured and cannot be re-integrated but those that do are released in to a safe area at first and then back into the wild. The work of the volunteers changes daily whether it be hanging out with the monkeys, or sitting with a sleeping jaguar, to feeding and cleaning the animals… all of their jobs are so significant and everyone genuinely looks happy to be a part of it. I’ve already told B many times, that the next time we visit, I’m doing this. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and show you every corner of the rescue. At the end of the tour, you’re free to walk around on your own but keep in mind, it’s only open in the mornings. We went as soon as they opened as other visitors had suggested that time to be best.

IMG_0432An equally amazing experience in PV was going on the Caribeans Chocolate Tour. I’ve done significant research as part of my MBA on fair trade coffee and it was my goal to go on a coffee tour while in the country (sadly, that didn’t happen but this chocolate tour was beyond my expectations). We learned not only about how cocoa is produced, but the history of chocolate making around the world, how to taste chocolate for all of its complexities, and the business of cocoa in the region. I know what you’re thinking – please, tasting chocolate? But it’s true! I did not appreciate the different elements that live within a small piece of dark chocolate until I took this tour. Not only that, but the owner of the farm (originally from Florida) explained fair trade to the group and how he works hard to ensure all those he purchases additional cocoa from are compensated well above market price (even higher than the fair trade market price). In order to create different chocolate flavours, he purchases cocoa from various indigenous tribes around the area. Since working with them, they are now more interested and involved in the chocolate made from their cocoa than ever before. Near the end of the tour, the owner takes you up to the tasting plateau which offers stunning views of the valley and serves you a range of chocolate including a traditional Mayan chocolate drink – all laid out and prepared by his wife. I haven’t been on any other chocolate tours, but I don’t know how any other could possibly compare.

IMG_0326The whole PV experience would not be complete without mentioning our accommodations. After the long trek from San Jose, we finally arrived at our destination: Cashew Hill Jungle Cottages. Just at the back-end of town atop a hill, is situated the most amazing set of cottages I have ever stayed in. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill, I was nervous that we wouldn’t get up it but we did and were welcomed by Andrew, the owner. He’s young, hip, knowledgeable, and so welcoming that I felt as if I had known him for years. His two dogs, Stella and Harley, are there to welcome you as well – fyi: in Costa Rica, there are dogs everywhere – in PV, larger dogs for security. Our cottage overlooked Salsa Brava and despite a few ants (which is to be expected in a rugged jungle setting), there was literally no care in the world. Hungry? No problem – grab a starfruit from your balcony. Have some bugs? There’s a gecko for that! Tired? Chill out in your own hammock for hours on end. Everything you care and worry about back home simply melts away and here is a place where you can truly chill out and relax.

Puerto Viejo wasn’t our only stop on our trip but it was certainly the most memorable. It’s now been too long since we’ve been there and I’m itching to go back.

Mayan Mexico

Mayan Mexico

I’ve never been someone who quivers at the thought of rappelling down a mountain, or climbing up to the top of a tower and looking down – never… until I went to Mexico.

Mexico has always had my interest. Even as a young girl, Mexican food was always my favourite (well, what I knew of Mexican food anyway!). I just never really had the opportunity to go, until B and I wanted to take a trip with two of our close friends. After running through our list of options, we all agree on Mexico, just outside of Playa del Carmen. My first time doing an all-inclusive!

When we arrive, we pack into a hotel shuttle which takes us to our resort. It’s close to a two-hour drive from the airport and it’s dark by the time we reach our resort in Xpu Ha. Our resort is made up of a series of cabins, and has a wildlife “sanctuary” intertwined throughout the resort. It’s a resort that has seen better days (which is why I’m choosing not to name it), but the staff are friendly and after the first pool day, we’ve made friends with the entertainment staff who quickly know us by first name and call on us to join them in dancing, pool games, and trivia. We’re there for a full week and to keep busy, we devise a week of pool/beach days at the resort with bi-daily trips outside of the resort.

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Our first day trip is to Playa del Carmen. The resort has a “free” shuttle to the city, with an hour jewelry “tour” built in. I use the word “tour” lightly because really, all it is is a large room with jewelry to buy. While we don’t buy anything, we do get a free souvenir with our name written out with traditional Mayan script which is pretty cool.

Playa del Carmen is a resort city, a package tour paradise. A blend of night clubs, souvenir shops, and tour operators are all within walking distance. There’s a disbelief amongst Canadians and Americans that Mexico is dangerous – but I felt perfectly safe in this little piece of paradise.

After some Chicken tacos and some tequila tasting and education, we wander the streets before heading back to the resort for dinner. I’m not used to working against such a timeline and I know I’ll be back to Playa before we leave.

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Day three is a resort day and we split our time between hanging out with the animals and relaxing by the pool. While relaxing by a pool and having drinks served to you at a whim is nice, I’m craving a bit of adventure. I want to climb Coba, and go Zip-lining – thankfully, there is an excursion for that! In addition to three zip-lines, we can kayak, rappel down a mountain, AND swim in a cenote – what more could a girl want? On day four, we leave our resort by 8 a.m. and we’re on our way to our adventure.

Our tour is organized by Alltournatives and they’re great! After picking us up, we make our way to our first adventure stop – kayaking, cenote, and zip-lining. While the kayaking was a bit of a joke (we’re pretty avid kayakers), it was a nice start to the day. After the short journey, we take a short trek towards an enclosed cenote for a swim. If you haven’t swam in a cenote, or are unaware of what it is, it’s basically a natural sinkhole which creates secret swimming holes. The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for them and are sacred spots in the Mayan culture. Because of this, after our swim (which was incredibly refreshing), we attend a Mayan prayer ceremony. After a blessing from a Mayan elder, we continue on to zip-line #1.

I wish I had photos but the tour does not allow for cameras during the adventure portions of the excursion – which actually makes a lot of sense – Go Pros are permitted but I didn’t have one just yet. Moving on to our next adventure, we’re transported to a location just a few kilometers down the road. We’re led to a second zip-line which then brings us to our rappel down the mountain. The Zip-line was a blast so I volunteered myself and B to rappel first. Having done rock climbing multiple times, I thought this was going to be a breeze. I get all geared up and set myself up to back towards the edge and just like that, I freeze. I freeze hard. I can’t move. My palms are sweaty and I can’t move. Despite the staff urging me back, I freeze and demand to be removed from the ledge. And just like that, I don’t rappel down the mountain.

Still shaking from the rappelling incident, we head to lunch (which is provided as part of the tour). Lunch is buffet style and made of traditional Mayan dishes – all of which are fantastic. After a little shopping, we head to our final destination: Coba. Like Chichen Itza, Coba is an ancient Mayan city where visitors can explore the historic ruins. Unlike other ruins in the area, you can still climb the Pyramid in Coba (for now) and that honestly was one of my biggest draws to visit. You can explore the park by bicycle, on foot, or hire a rickshaw to take you around. We opt for the cheapest option – on foot and it’s hot. By the time we arrive to the foot of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, I’m over heating and burnt to a crisp, but keen to do the climb anyway.

coba

Because the steps are so small and fragile, you pretty much need to climb with your hands and feet to ensure you don’t lose your balance. To ensure that you don’t get in people’s way, you climb up on the right, and shimmy down on the left. Halfway up, I have a great idea to stop… bad idea. I take one look back and freeze. Until this point, I HAVE NO FEAR OF HEIGHTS. It’s like something snap in me and my knees go weak, and my palms are sweaty and I can’t move. I urge B to continue on and after some debate, he agrees. As people make their way past me, I realize that I can’t even move to get down… and I start to panic. Tears are rolling down my cheeks, my heart is pounding, and I panic. After a random stranger stops to ask me if I’m okay, I swallow my pride and gather enough courage to scuttle my butt over to the left and make my way down to the bottom. I’ve never felt so happy to be on solid ground.

Day five comes quickly and I’ve had my fill of unlimited drinks, pool time, and resort life. By the end of the day, B and I have a breakout plan to adventure without organization. On day six, we have breakfast with our friends and make our way to the entrance for the resort. We ask the guards to flag us down a collectivo – local bus – that will take us into Playa del Carmen. We’re lucky and are picked up on our first attempt! Cramped into the little van with a handful of locals, we make our way to the city. Upon our arrival, we wander some of the streets we missed out on our first time around, looking for some lunch and figuring out our plan. After a short time, we settle on taking the ferry to Cozumel, but first, a quesadilla!

The ferry is just under an hour and it’s simple to get tickets. You can purchase ticket right at the dock and line up from there. We sat on the top deck near the back and before we knew it, we were in a different part of Mexico. The ferry drops you off in San Miguel and you’re in the centre of town. The island is very small and accessible, and strangely different from the mainland with a slightly more Spanish flare to the architecture. After exploring the main town for an hour, we decide to rent scooters and explore even more of the island. There are multiple vendors so renting a scooter is easy, and affordable. After we settle on a shop, we make our way to the country side. Getting outside of the city centre was the best part of our trip. The island is easy riding, with so many opportunities to stop and enjoy the views. Untouched beaches, the open road, and warm breezes make me wish we had spent our entire trip on this little island. By the time we return the bikes, we miss our ferry and have to wait for the next one – putting us back in Playa after dark.

Cosumel

We wander the streets, making our way to the collectivo stand to head back to the resort for one last dinner. The drivers stand outside of their van calling out the destination names. With my limited Spanish, I find the collectivo heading towards our resort and the driver urges us to sit up front. He knows the hotel well and drops us along the side of the road directly across from our resort’s entrance.

Little did I know that just seven days in Mexico would teach me such lessons about myself – mainly that I am afraid of heights and not all resort experiences are created equally.

A Day in Champagne

A Day in Champagne

It’s 6 a.m. and I’m on vacation. As I wander around my hotel room half asleep, rushing to get ready, I curse at myself for waking up so early, but it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make. It’s all so I can get the early, and slightly cheaper, train to Reims. From Gare de Paris-Est, Reims is just under an hour. This quick commute puts us in the land of Champagne in time for breakfast.

8 a.m. is a bit too early to start drinking in my books so when we arrived in Reims we made a quick stop at the local tourist office for a map and we head towards the city’s centre. For a cheap breakfast, we stopp at a Paul bakery where our breakfast consists of half a baguette with butter and jam, cafe au lait, and orange juice, of course! By the time we are finished eating, it’s 9:30… still too early for Champagne. The streets even appear to be sleepy still (mind you, it’s late fall and it’s rainy and cold), so we head towards Cathedral of Notre-Dame de ReimsSurprisingly it’s just around the corner and before we know it, we’re standing in all of its glory. 

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Wandering around Reims is very easy, but the big Champagne houses are a brisk 30 minute walk from the historical centre. Since our visit to Veuve Clicquot (the only house we booked a tour at) isn’t until 2 p.m., we decide to spend the rest of our morning exploring the Palace of Tau – which is conveniently located right next to the Cathedral. The Palace of Tau was home to the Archbishop of Reims and also where past kings of France resided before coronation, which happened right next door at the Cathedral. Paired with the church, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site. 

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After wandering the halls of the grand Palace, and after trying my skills at puzzle making, it was time for lunch. At noon, it’s time for Champagne… but I have a glass of red instead. I figure I’ll get my fair share of Champagne in the afternoon and a good glass of red pairs nicely with my galette. Being vegetarian in Europe can either be easy, as in the case of France, or extremely difficult, as in the case of southern Germany. This time, my galette is topped with thin potatoes, red onion, and a delicious cream sauce. B has his with meat.

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Now that lunch is over, it’s time for Champagne! We make our way on foot to Veuve Clicquot for our 2 p.m. tour. I’m honestly like a kid in a candy store as we head towards the front entrance. The entrance is as elegant as I had envisioned. The staff are extremely welcoming and seem genuinely happy to have us there. After a few quick snaps, one of the hosts lead us to the waiting room until our guide is ready. The room is completely branded, right down to the pillows and even a foosball table. A few others join us from around the world and before we know it, our guide is with us.

The Veuve Clicquot tour is quite extensive and happens mostly in the cellars below the house. As we make our way through the cellars, the guide tells us the story of Madame Clicquot, who became a widow at the young age of 27, and the history of the house that bears her name (Widow Clicquot). The house holds a lot of history, including its role during the world wars where people lived in the cellars as fighting happened above ground. Symbols from the war can still be seen on the rock walls in the form of painted red crosses (symbol for where the hospital could be located), and craved markings. Aside from the history, the tour walks you through the production of the infamous champagne produced at the house. All bottles are carefully categorized as not to lose sight of them, and to ensure the various vintages are kept together for organization.

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The tour ends back above ground for a tasting – clearly, the best part! Our tour ended with a tasting for the yellow label, the most common bottle they have. Our guide shows us how to open Champagne correctly (after 6 twists of the wire, and a controlled cork removal) so to not cause premature de-carbonation. After a quick cheers, we enjoy our glass and plan our next house visit – Pommery.

IMG_2527Pommery house is just around the round-about, and a quick walk from Veuve Clicquot. While we didn’t book a tour here, it was very easy to get to. Entrance is a bit steep without a tour, but you get access to a tasting and their large tasting room where you’ll find an assortment of large art exhibits and information on the Pommery house. You can also sit in on a video that talks about the history of the house. Before this visit, I had never tried Pommery Champagne and I was pleasantly surprised. The staff poured us a glass of their Brut Royal which exceeded my expectations. After looking around at some art, and finishing our glass of Brut, we continued on our merry way.

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As we made our way back to the city centre, we stopped at Tattinger. We didn’t end up doing a tasting, they don’t actually do that, and their final tour had already started, so we continued on. Back in town, we sat down for some cheese and another glass of wine before heading back to Paris.

While it was just for a day, Reims was jammed packed with activity. For such a compact city, it offers a lot of activity and even more history. If you’re looking for a little adventure that’s an easy escape from Paris, put Reims on your list – you won’t be disappointed.

Sorrento & Amalfi Coast, Italy

Sorrento & Amalfi Coast, Italy

It’s been a long few days. I’ve just turned 30 and since then, everything has been going downhill. I got sprayed with toilet water, I arrived to Italy without luggage, I can’t find decent clothes in Rome that fit me, and now I had to go through Naples – the armpit of Italy (in my opinion). All I wanted was a little Italian adventure to celebrate the end of my 20s… but this wasn’t what kind of adventure I had in mind.

After just two days in Rome, we head to Sorrento, on the Amalfi Coast. As we make our way through the streets of Naples, I’m struggling to see why people fall in love with this place. It’s smelly, the people are rude, the food has been overrated up until this Naples Pizzapoint, and its hot, really hot. My goal in Naples is to eat pizza – of course. As we wander the narrow streets, we stumble upon a little restaurant that appears to be packed with locals, a sure sign of quality. We head in and settle near the back. On the walls are awards and blue ribbons that symbolize just how good this pizza is. I order a Margherita pizza with a Lemon Peroni and my hopes are high. The beer is good, as is the pizza, but to be honest, I can’t tell the difference between it and the pizza at Piatto in Halifax. Oh, and on the way out the owner played a little game with the bill and claimed “the payment didn’t go through” and demanded payment in cash. Sure enough we had been double charged, which resulted in a call to the fine folks at Visa to straighten things out and report the incident.

From Naples, we board our ferry to Sorrento, which is just under an hour transit. When we disembark, we’re greeted by an abundance of taxis, buses, and men holding signs waiting to tout tourists around the twisty roads of the Amalfi Coast. We opt for a local bus, but of course, the bus we need is at the top of the hill. With my plastic bag of recently purchased clothes, we make the trek up the steep hill to the town centre. We catch the bus and head towards the campground where we’ll be calling home for the next four days. After a short bus ride, we arrive at our destination and when we check in, the hostess says, “The airline called, they have your bag.” This is the best news I’ve heard the entire trip! She continues, “But it’s a long weekend so they can’t be here until Tuesday”… the day we leave for Southern Italy. *Sigh*

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As you can tell by the way I’m telling this story, I was having a pretty shitty time in Italy.  That is, until we hit Sorrento. I never imaged the joy that staying in an Italian campground could bring me, but it was just what I needed. The cabin we rented was perfect and fully equipped with a corkscrew, pasta strainer, and an espresso pot – all of the Italian essentials. The staff were wonderful – taking on the task of continuously calling the airline and airport to let them know I wouldn’t be arriving back in Rome for another week and to hold onto my luggage (they never did get a hold of the airline – never fly Veuling… or just fly carry-on only when going to Italy). The campground also has a pool, full-service restaurant, and access to a private “beach”. Wine at the camp shop costs less than 5$ for a litre – but you get what you pay for.

Riding a scooter is probably the best way to get around the Amalfi coast, but it’s not for the faint of heart, or inexperienced. The roads are narrow and twisty with cars and buses entering into your lane as they themselves vie for space on the road. But, for those who have experience riding, it’s an exhilarating and worth-while experience. There are a few rental places to rent from, just be sure to take lots of photos of the bike before you hit the road in case they inspect the bike when you return it (recommended by the guy we rented from).

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Sorrento is largely known for two things: lemons and leather. As you walk through the narrow street of the old town, you’ll see countless gift shops with lemon-flavoured candies, lemon scented soaps, and bottles of lemoncello for purchase. Aside from the lemon-inspired goods, visitors can reap the benefits of high-quality, handmade leather goods. Before heading to Italy, I didn’t know of Sorrento’s reputation but quickly realized that I would not be leaving Sorrento without a new, hand-made, leather purse.

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From Sorrento’s twisty, scenic riding trails, to their giant lemons that produces the most amazing lemoncello, Sorrento provided the Italian experience I was looking for, and needed.

PS: I did finally get my luggage when I returned to Rome for our flight back to Canada…. but that’s another story for another time.