Starting the New Year with a Trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula

One of my favorite destinations, Yucatan is a place I can visit multiple times a year.  Which we did this time, returning after only a few months.  We were there in the spring of 2017, and we set off for the same destination once again, on New Year’s Eve.

View from the Top of Nohuch Mul, Cobá
View from one of the tallest pyramids of the peninsula, in Cobá. I have never seen the surrounding forest this green before. It’s winter, the wet season.

Air Travel on the Day of New Year’s Eve

I wasn’t sure what to expect when we set off to the airport on the morning of New Year’s Eve.  It was my birthday, and it was the second year that I spent half my birthday traveling.

Last year we were driving back from a short trip, but this time we were flying away for a week.  I’ve never been on a plane on a Holiday.  We try to avoid it, when we can.  However, this time it just worked out with our “free” tickets.  We travel on points many times, since we do have frequent flier miles and credit cards that add flying points from purchases.

The airport was almost deserted.  Getting through security was a breeze, and the flight itself was one of the most pleasant I have experienced in a long time.  The plane was half empty.

Since they had no stress that comes with crowded planes, too many different people to please, the stewardesses were at their most pleasant.  We could sit wherever we wanted, taken a whole row if we felt like it. When we commented on how we’ve never been on a plane so empty, and didn’t expect to be on one on a Holiday, the stewardess commented,

“Yes, because everyone thinks they don’t want to travel on New Year’s Eve.  You should not think like everyone.”

We landed on time, got our rental car, and by dinnertime, we were in Puerto Morelos, where I did make a reservation in a hotel, knowing that it might get booked.  We rarely make reservations, but this time I was glad I did.  It was the only way we got a room.  Though we could’ve slept on the beach, the weather was perfect, and there are no bugs by the ocean.

New Year’s Eve in Puerto Morelos

Once we got our room, we set off for dinner.  Our favorite restaurant, on the beach, was more crowded than I ever saw it, and they was closing for the night.

We stopped at one of the other ones we knew from the old days.  It was half-empty.

“Do you have reservations?”, asked the greeter.  We didn’t, so we couldn’t stay.

The same thing happened in two other restaurants.

We finally decided that we would eat some street food or a cliff bar for New Year’s Eve dinner.  But we walked around some more, off the main square.  We didn’t hope for much, all the restaurants that lined the streets were full.

Still, we stopped and asked if they had a table available at another one of the smaller restaurants we ate at in the past. Yes, they did, if we gave them a minute to set it up.  They moved a few chairs, and tables around, then invited us to sit.

Someone at a neighboring table tried to order two different things they didn’t have. We looked at each other and smiled. “Here we go again.” When our waiter got there, we asked,

“What do you have on the menu?”

“Almost everything”, he answered.  “Except coconut shrimp and any chicken.”

We still had a few choices. They did have fish, and that’s what I cared about. We were in a fishing village on the sea, after all.

The New Year’s celebration at midnight was subdued.  We watched kids lined up in front of a piñata in the shape of a person with 2017 written on it. They took turns hitting it, until it opened.  We weren’t close enough to see, but I think they had to break free the New Year, 2018.

A Week of Exploring Old and New Places on the Peninsula

We stopped at Xel-Ha Ruins, though I feel like I know every structure,  every stone and tree there.  It was the Mayan site I have ever seen, and as such, it will always have a special place in my hearth. We spent a few hours there, before moving on to our next destination. 
We always stop at Muyil (Chunyaxche), no matter how busy it gets (and it is still not too bad, once we pass Tulum).  The combination of great structures and a jungle walk makes it a treat. 
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
The Main Pyramid at Muyil Ruins
It was dinnertime when we arrived to Siiyil Noh-Ha. After settling in our hut, we climbed the Mirador – Lookout Tower – and enjoyed the view of the jungle canopy around us.
“We only have shrimp ceviche tonight”, our host told us, when we sat down for dinner. I never had it before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, but didn’t have a choice.  We ordered one to share and I found my new favorite Yucatecan food. 
After two days in the middle of nowhere, with very limited phone and no internet service, we drove to Coba.  Two days exploring the ruins and the the town was perfect, while we tried to figure out what we would want to do next.
We found a great deal in a hotel we knew, so we returned to Chichen Itza. I know, I did say that I was done with the place, but it ended up being much more pleasant than I expected.  That is because we only used it for a base, to explore the back roads, the small towns, little-known ruins, places that we haven’t seen yet.  Yes, we still found some of those, close to the well-known and busy Wonder of the World.
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town
Chichen Itza. Temple in the Old Town

Another Great Trip to Yucatan

By the time we were ready to get home, we felt that we did a lot, once again. We didn’t swim much, except one day, since it was actually cold in Yucatan.  Relatively cold, meaning very pleasant for hiking and climbing pyramids.  
We explored sites we didn’t know existed.  Small sites, but still impressive, where we were the only visitors. 
We met volunteers who were cleaning another site. We talked to a Mayan who told us stories about the Caste War, the site and working with a renowned archaeologist I admire. I bought a beautiful huipil-like shirt made by his wife I met. 
We climbed cleared pyramids, and one that only has a trail leading up to the top, and is still covered by vegetation. 
We walked through the jungle and explored a colonial town we have never been in, where no one spoke English.  
As always, we left with plans to return soon.  

A Visit to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

One of the first stops on our latest Southern Arizona road trip was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum on the outskirts of Tucson.

Last time I visited it my now-21-year old son was still in elementary school, his sister in preschool.  Living in the desert ourselves, we didn’t feel the need to revisit for a long time.  But my youngest daughter has never been there, and I wanted her to see it.

The Desert Museum is a zoo and botanical garden comprised. To get there, we drove through Saguaro National Monument. I wanted to stop, but in mid-November it was still too hot this year to hike the trails.  Even though we didn’t hit any trails, driving through the highest concentration of saguaro cacti through the park was a treat.

Saguaro National Monument, Arizona

Aquarium at the Desert Museum

As soon as we entered the Desert Museum, my daughter took off towards the aquarium.  Yes, aquarium in the desert. I didn’t remember it being here, but it makes sense.  We do have water in the desert, and most people wouldn’t expect it.  Added in 2013, long after my latest visit, it is set up to teach out-of-state visitors (and locals, though we should know this) about life in the rivers of the Sonoran Desert, including the Colorado, and life in the Sea of Cortez.  Without these bodies of water, the Sonoran Desert would not be known as the “greenest desert”. Following our daughter, we walked through two exhibits, one highlighting life in the freshwater rivers, the other one in the Sea of Cortez.

Aquatic Life at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

Walking on the Trail

Out on the trail it was warm, so we were trying to find shade as soon as possible.  We walked out towards the pollinator gardens, with bats, bees and butterflies. Since it was daytime, we didn’t see any bats, but bees and butterflies fluttered and buzzed around us.  I learned that female bees don’t sting, something I never knew in my fifty years of life, even though at some point my dad owned a beehive while I was growing up. You learn something new every day.

Walking towards the hummingbird aviary, I noticed a docent with a beautiful barn owl on her arm, giving a presentation. We stopped for a few minutes to listen, and admire the bird.

We spent some time in the hummingbird aviary, trying to follow some of the tiny birds. Yes, we have lots of them in our backyard, but we still wanted to see them here, as well.  I did notice one with deep purple colors that I haven’t seen before. We were able to see them close by at times, if we stood still for a few minutes.  No luck taking photos of them though, they are much too fast for that.

The Organ Pipe – Cactus

Organ Pipe Cactus at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

We walked through a desert garden, where I pointed out an organ pipe cactus to my daughter.

“Do you recognize this?” I asked her. “We have one in our front yard.”

“No way, it doesn’t even look close,” she answered.

“This one is probably a few hundred years old”, I said. “Ours is only about twenty.”

As she looked closer, she did notice the resemblance.

“Could ours get this big?” she asked.  “It would take over the whole front yard.”

It probably would.  As I stopped to read what they say about my cactus, I realized why I see bats in and around our house sometimes at night.  It is a night-blooming cactus.  Although I have not seen its flower in bloom yet, my son told me that last year, when he came home very late, that he did see one of the flowers open.  It is beautiful, but only opens for the night pollinators, the bats.

Back on the Trail

Back on the trail we walked through the riparian corridor and stopped to admire the bighorn sheep in their enclosure. The underwater viewing center offered shade and a fun way to see the river otter and beaver up close in their element. The beaver was very active, and we stopped to watch him from the outside as well, standing under the shade of some trees.

We bypassed the cactus garden, because, well, we pretty much live in a cactus garden, and it was still too hot to hang out outside.  Instead, we took a beeline to the cat canyon.  The bobcat and the ocelot were sleeping, or resting, but the grey fox was walking around her enclosure, and I was able to stand there and watch her for a while. The porcupine was sleeping right by the window, easy to see.  My daughter remembered seeing one in the wild, in Banff National Park a few years ago.  They live in both environments.

Though we originally planned to walk through the Desert Loop Trail, we didn’t do it this time.  It was sunny and still too warm to walk the half-mile with no shade in sight. We live in the desert, after all, we see it every day.  But for out-of-state visitors, it is a great hike.  Especially on a cooler day. Normally it cools down enough by this time of the year, but global warming must be real, we haven’t seen real fall/winter weather yet.

Blue Heron in the Desert?

In the Desert Grassland Exhibit I admired the great blue heron, standing by the water, and grooming herself.  Her neck is so long and so flexible, she seemed to turn her head all the way around.  The prairie dogs here are bigger than those in the Phoenix Zoo, and they are fun to watch. A few turkey vultures and black vultures added to the diversity in this exhibit.

My Visit with the Mountain Lion

Mountain Lion in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum

The Mountain Woodland was the highlight of our visit.  I noticed the mountain lion.  She is one of the most beautiful creatures I can imagine.  As it was still hot, she just sat in the shade under a rock, grooming herself and lazily looking at the visitors, and me, as well. She looked so much like my kitty at home, I wanted to pet her.  Of course, she’s much bigger and I doubt she would have enjoyed me petting her. We walked around and looked at her through the glass, from the other side of her enclosure, she was closer to the window.

They have a beautiful Mexican Wolf in this exhibit, as well. It is an endangered species and I know that the Southwest Wildlife Center in Phoenix helps with its captive breeding program.  So far, the program seems to be successful and these wolves are slowly reintroduced to the mountains of the Southwest. Their howl is one of the most beautiful music I ever heard.

Earth Science Center

Before leaving, we walked through the artificial cave in the Earth Science Center. It was a great place to get away from the sun and fun to explore it. but the real deal was waiting for us later on, when we visited Kartchner Caverns at the end of the trip.




9 Ways to Get Most Out of Your International Travels

International travels are one of the best ways to learn about the world, and about different cultures. That is, if you are open to new experiences, meeting new people, understanding different cultures.

Of course you can just stay in a resort, and expect everyone to speak your language and cater to your taste.  You are paying for it, after all.  But in that case why leave your own country at all? The resorts are the same everywhere.  And, if that’s the way you travel, this article is not for you.

But, if you are like me, and travel to expand your horizons, to understand others, read on.  I’m going to share some tips I picked up from my own international travels.

1. Go during off-season, if possible

There are a few reasons you might want to do this.  First of all, your airfare will be cheaper, and in general your money will go further, wherever you are. This might be important, especially if you are on a budget.

More important though, you won’t need to deal with too many tourists. You will have a chance to enjoy the place, and connect with locals. You’ll get a chance to understand the place better, since most well-known destinations have a different dynamic during tourist-season.

Lake Moraine. Banff NP
Lake Moraine, in Banff National Park, is teaming with tourists in high season. But in early June, we encountered fewer visitors.
2. Learn at least a few words of the language people speak there

Today, no matter where you go, you will find people who speak English to one degree or another.  You’ll get by, no matter what. However, locals appreciate it when you try to speak their language.

Even if you mispronounce words, they will smile at you and correct you or just acknowledge that you said it wrong but they still understand what you mean.  If they don’t they will always switch to English, but you’ll make friends by trying. As a bonus, you will probably get better service in most hotels and restaurants as well.

3. Stay in smaller, locally owned hotels, away from the tourist zones

Like I mentioned before, if you plan to stay in a touristy resort, why are you traveling far from home anyway? By staying in locally owned hotels, you help their economy and have a chance to experience life like the locals. As a bonus, it will cost you a lot less. Local hotels have more personality, even if they are not quite as comfortable. How much time do you plan to spend inside your room anyway?

We made some very good friends in Mexico when we first decided to stay in a local hotel.  We spoke a very broken Spanish, they spoke mainly Maya, and broken Spanish in addition to some English.  Between the three languages we managed to communicate quite well, we ended up learning some Mayan and they learned more English from us.  It was a fun learning experience, which we would have missed out on if we stayed in some resort on the Riviera Maya.

Hotel Sac-Be-Coba
Hotel Sac-Be, a local family owned hotel in Coba, Quintana Roo.
4. Eat where the locals eat

When you want to eat, follow the locals. They know the best restaurants, where you will get the best food, for the best price.  Of course, it will be authentic, local fare. Try it.  In my experience, even one of my pickier child always enjoyed a good meal in small, local restaurants.

5. Walk through the town or area you are visiting

Walking through new places is the best way to get a feel for the place, to understand the landscape, and the environment around you. You might  find unexpected places, small museums or local stores that you didn’t know existed.

Or you might find yourself in nature, in unique environments, very different from your own, surrounded by vegetation or critters you’ve never seen before.

Turda Gorge, Romania.
Crossing a footbridge through Turda Gorge, Romania. the place is home to plants and animals tha you can’t find anywhere else.
6. Use local transportation

To understand the people, to feel at home in a new place, use local transportation.

When my older kids were little, we took them to Puerto Vallarta. Of course, if you’ve had any of my articles, you know that we didn’t stay in the tourist zone.  Instead, we found a hotel in the center of the city.  When we wanted to go to a different beach, we took the local bus.  We were the only gringos on that bus.  Though people eyed us with curiosity, everyone was pleasant to us.  The kids, five and three at the time, loved the experience.

And then again, two years ago, we took a bus through Europe.  Most of it was easy, but one part of the trip was a true adventure, when the “real” bus broke down and they crammed us all in a small shuttle-size bus.  We spent ten hours on it, driving in the middle of the night, through towns and country side.  Ok, so it was a bit scary and not the most fun I, or any of us, experienced. But it was still a learning adventure, and no one got hurt in the process.

6. Don’t be afraid to get lost

This might be scary for some, but getting lost in a city is the best way to understand it. I’ve never been in a place I haven’t gotten lost at least once.

I don’t mean try to get lost, but don’t be afraid to wander around, even if it takes you off the beaten track, or in unknown places.

Don’t panic if you get lost, even if you don’t speak the language of the place you are in. Take it as an extra adventure. You are in no rush, and when you eventually find your destination, you’ll have a better understanding of the place.

Prague, a city where it is easy to get lost, but even easier to find your way.
7. Go With the Flow

Don’t rush through things.  If the museum you wanted to visit closes before you get there, you can try again the next day. Find something else to do in the meantime. You might find something unexpected and even better than what you planned. Unexpected things always happen.  You should have a plan, but be flexible with it.

On my very first time in Yucatan, I ended up stranded on a beach.  We had car trouble and my husband had to go back to Cancun to the rental place. I did not speak a word of Spanish, I didn’t know anything about the place. Still, to this day I think of that time as one of my best adventures. I was a lone gringa, on a trail used only by locals, in Mexico. Still, I knew I was safe. The rest of our trip got delayed by a whole day.  Bu tin the meantime I had an unexpected adventure.

8. Pick up a souvenir from a local artisan

I’m sure you’ll want to pick up souvenirs, most people do. Make sure you buy it from a local artisan. It will remind you of your trip, and you will help the locals.

9. Don’t forget to take plenty of pictures 

Your photographs will be the best reminders of your international trip, as well a great opportunity to share your experiences with your friends.

Picturesque Prague.




Why Visiting Costa Rica Is More Fun With a Ten-Year-Old

Costa Rica was one of the places we have talked about going to, but kept postponing for a very long time. When we finally made it a few years ago, only one of our children was free to go with us. She was ten, the older ones were out of school, busy with college and jobs. Taking our ten-year-old proved to be the best thing for that rip.  She’s a nature lover and Costa Rica is a  nature lover’s paradise.

costa rica - la paz butterfly garden

Late Arrival
When we walked into the small, local restaurant at ten o’clock at night, the lingering teens turned their heads in our directions. Besides their group, no one seemed to be in the tiny establishment. The restaurant had only two tables, one taken by the above-mentioned teens. We sat down at the other one and hoped for the best.
We were in a local neighborhood of San Jose, Costa Rica. The tiny hotel we got our room in was close to the airport.  We picked it because our plane landed late at night. In another lifetime, without kids, we would have skipped dinner, opting for a few snacks. But, I could not let my child go to bed without a proper meal. So there we were, at an almost deserted restaurant, in the middle of a local neighborhood.
A middle-aged waitress came out and tried telling us in Spanish that they were closed. Then she noticed our daughter and smiled.
“Never mind, I can serve you anyway”, she added. I guessed that she was not only the waitress, but the owner as well.
She brought out a few tiny hand-written menus, and offered to bring us fresh fruit juices. We ordered three different flavors, pineapple, coconut, and strawberries.
As we watched, she put the fresh fruit in a blender, and whipped up some of the best, freshest smoothies we’ve ever tasted.
It was tricky to order since she did not speak a word of English and our Spanish was rudimentary. She had no children’s menu, no easy, fast food, only local fare. Still, she tried to find out what our daughter liked and work around her taste buds.
We ended up ordering three different meals, hoping that one of them would please her, and we’d eat the other ones. We expected our picky eater to be… well, picky, her usual self. To my surprise, she sampled everything and liked it all. She ended up eating the most unusual local dish, with nothing familiar in it. You never know with kids.
Traveling without a Plan
After that first night, we had no hotel reservations, only a vague idea of what we wanted to see and do. It was one of our regular “go with the flow, see what you can find” type of trip. No one I know does this with kids. I probably don’t know the right people. Our friends might think that we torture our kids when we take them on trips with no reservations and no plans. But, our kids are used to this and love it (or so they say). They have done it since the day they were born. Kids are much more flexible and resilient than we give them credit for.
On the first morning of our trip we got in our rental car and set off. We stopped at a local grocery store, bought plenty of water and snacks for the road, then started driving. Leaving the area proved harder than we anticipated. We drove around in circles for a while, feeling lost. I noticed the raised eyebrows and questioning looks of some locals watching us.  When we passed them the fourth time, we stopped by them. Without even waiting for us to ask, they came over and offered advice on how to make it out of the neighborhood.  We finally made it to the highway towards Poas Volcano.
Kids Make You Slow Down and Smell the Roses
Things were slower since we stopped more often with our daughter. After a “short” stop at the volcano, it was past lunch time. The snacks were not enough to hold her over longer. When we saw something that resembled a restaurant on the side of the road, we stopped.
 As we were exploring the premises, we realized that the restaurant was also a small hotel.  Yes, they did have one room left available for the night. By then our daughter already made friends with one of the dogs, and she begged us to stay for the night. Of course, we stayed.  We were in no rush, we had no set destination.
After our (very) late lunch, we got acquainted with all the other animals on the premises. The hotel seemed to be also a farm, with goats, sheep, cows, and more dogs.
Kids find everything, in this case, including a trail into the jungle right in our back yard. I followed my daughter into the dense forest. We live in the desert, so being in a tropical jungle was an especially great treat for both of us. She got excited about anything, a tree, a bush, a bug, even a broken bridge that we traversed.
breathe the fresh air. costa rica
bridge in the jungle. costa rica
We Spend a Day at La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden

Costa Rica - La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden

The happened to be close to the Waterfalls and Butterfly Gardens, so we decided to visit it the next day.  We spent a full day there, from opening till closing time and we had a great time, in spite of the surrounding tourists.

While the waterfalls are undoubtedly the major attraction in the park, the animal sanctuary/zoo is also worth the visit.

The animals and birds that live there were rescued when they got hurt, or confiscated from people who tried keeping them as pets. Wild animals don’t make good pets. You can read their story as you enter the sanctuary, and always hope that they can be returned to the wild some day.

Costa Rica - Toucan in La Paz Gardens

Costa Rica - Jaguar in La Paz Gardens

The butterfly garden is another great stop in the park.  Thousands of butterflies, of all different species, some of which I’ve never seen before, fluttered around us, sometimes settling on a flower close by.

Butterfly in La Paz Gardens Costa Rica

The major draw to the park are the waterfalls.  Years ago visitors used to be able to see nine waterfalls.  Although an earthquake buried a few, the remaining five are still spectacular and worth the hikes through the jungle.

Costa Rica - La Paz Waterfall and Butterfly Garden

At the end of the trail a shuttle bus is available to take you back to the visitor center.  By the time we got there, we had spent a full day in the park, and enjoyed every minute of it.

We Help A Family of Agoutis Cross the Road

On the road to another destination, she noticed a bunch of little animals. We stopped to watch a family of agoutis walk by the side of the road. We spent what seemed like hours on the side of the road, following them around.

Then, they decided to cross the road. My daughter asked me if we could help them. We walked out in the middle to make sure other cars would stop to let the little creatures cross. Would we have done it without her? I’m not so sure. Even if we stopped, we would have been long gone before they decided to cross.

Grazing Deer Lead Us to A Two-Day Stay in a Resort
Later on, we passed an area where a bunch of deer were grazing. Again, our ten-year old she asked us to stop. We pulled into the parking lot of what ended up being a hotel and restaurant. Since it was close to lunch time, we ate, then took a walk on the premises.
We ended up staying two nights there, and it was some of the best part of our trip. We found the pool deserted after we checked in, so we enjoyed a soak/swim/playtime. While swimming, we noticed a few howler monkeys in the surrounding trees.
howler monkeys in costa rica
Later in the day, they got very vocal, and we were able to follow them jumping from one tree to the next. A few families of howlers lived on the premises. They woke us up in the morning, since they sat up camp in the tree by our window.
We watched them for hours, following them as they moved from one tree to the next. While they were fun to watch on the treetops, the agoutis were hard to miss, walking around us.  We also noticed some other small animals that we only found out their local name (and forgot), and the deer that led us to stop there in the first place. Walking around the hotel grounds turned out to be a lot of fun itself.  We didn’t need to drive anywhere to enjoy nature and see plenty of wildlife. 

Without our daughter, we might have seen “more”. We would have rushed through things, trying to get to as many destinations as possible in a short time. She forced us to slow down, to enjoy time in another country, make friends with locals and local fauna. Taking our daughter on that trip made it slower paced, and much more enjoyable.

Exploring a Nature Preserve in Mexico – Calakmul

Sleeping In A Nature Preserve

The loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes me up in the morning.  As I slowly return to reality I realize that I slept in a Mayan hut, with no windows, only screens to keep the bugs out.  We are in Calakmul Nature Preserve, in Campeche, Mexico.

When we first arrived, we noticed a family of howler monkeys up in the trees above the huts.  One of the Mayan guys working there smiled and told us in broken English that ten individuals make up this family.  They have lived in the trees within the hotel boundaries for years.

Howler Monkeys in Calakmul
Howler Monkeys in Calakmul

The hotel Puerta Calakmul seems more of a village with individual huts, each with a short path leading to it.  We’ve stayed there in the past and always had a great experience. It is one of the best places where we have seen a lot of wildlife, and experienced life in the jungle.

Exploring the Preserve in the Ruins of Calakmul

In the early morning we take off on the sixty-mile dirt road that leads to the ancient site and the trails. The road is so narrow, two cars can barely fit through and the canopy encompasses it.  We are driving in a tunnel of green.  We keep it slow in the hopes to see wild animals close to the road.  Iguanas are sitting in the middle of the road every so often, basking in the sun.  It is hard to make them move, at times we stop altogether until they take their time to walk off.  We spot a few ocellated turkeys, their colorful plumage bright against the surrounding green.  Later on, we even spot a peccary wandering close to the road.

Ocellated Turkeys in Calakmul
Ocellated Turkeys in Calakmul

On the trail, we try to walk without making too much noise or talking.  Birds chatter, insects buzz, and lizards run around in the dried leaves under our feet.  The jungle is full of life even when it seems quiet.

We catch up with a group of local birdwatchers. One of them offers her binoculars to our daughter and points out a bird for her to look at.  Soon we all take turns with her binoculars. We follow her directions and notice a tiny bird that looks like a toucan, only much smaller. She is colorful and her yellow beak is huge compared to her body. Soon I spot a few more close by in the canopy.  We learn that they are called toucanitos, or little toucans.  There are a few of them together, we find out as we watch them for a few minutes.

Toucanito in Calakmul
Toucanito in Calakmul

As we make our way through the ancient structures, we see a family of spider monkeys on the top of the trees.  They seem to be resting, some of them sleeping with their long limbs dropping on the sides of a branch.

We spend all day on walking on the trail, and climbing structures.  We hear the distinctive call of the howler monkeys from the top of a pyramid, though they are hard to spot from that height.

On Top of a Pyramid in Calakmul
On Top of a Pyramid in Calakmul Ruins

Back to Our Mayan Hut

When we return to our hut, the howler family greets us.  They throw sticks and half-eaten fruit at us, trying to either get our attention or chase us off.  We decide they want our attention and stand under their tree for a long time, watching them.  I notice a tiny baby on his mother’s back.  Other young howlers also walk around the mother, while the older ones hang in trees close by.

Howler Monkey. Mother and Baby in Calakmul
Howler Monkey. Mother and Baby in Calakmul
Night in the Jungle

At night, we sleep surrounded by the music of the jungle, the sounds of crickets and insects, bats, and owls, tree frogs and lizards.  Then suddenly, as soon as we fall asleep, we are awakened by the loudest growls we could imagine.  For a moment I think it might be a jaguar, but I realize that it is the howler monkey family.

Howler Monkey in Calakmul
Howler Monkey in Calakmul

Someone or something woke them up and they are all howling and hooting, growling and roaring.  We record their sound, it is amazing! As we listen, we start to discern the sounds of the big males, the young monkeys, the mother and even the baby. Soon they settle back to sleep, and the night is quiet once again.

Quiet is relative in the jungle. In this case it means the sound of crickets, insects, tree frogs, bats, owls, rodents, lizards moving.  It is the most relaxing music to fall asleep to.

As soon as the sun’s first rays peek over the horizon, the loud chatter of thousands of birds wakes us up.  As we walk out, we notice all of them, in the trees that surround us.  They are big and small, colorful and plain. We even recognize the mot-mot bird, with its distinctive long tail feathers.

We set off for our next destination, one that will involve more nature preserves, both in the jungle and on the coast of the Yucatan peninsula.

What Is Calakmul?

Calakmul was an ancient Maya city, one of the greatest in its day.  At the moment it is one of the few an archaeological site where you can still climb the pyramids.  Sitting in the middle of the jungle, in a nature preserve, it is off the beaten track. Spending time there is an adventure in itself, especially for children, if you are traveling with them.

Since it is out of the way, at the end of a sixty-mile dirt road, the best option is to stay at the only hotel close by, La Puerta Calakmul. If you really want to rough it, there is a camping site within the preserve, but I haven’t tried it.

La Puerta Calakmul has different size rooms, all in stand-alone huts, or bungalows.  No TVs in the rooms to distract you, but you do have signal if you carry a cell phone. The rooms have comfortable beds and hammocks, with modern bathrooms.  Although instead of windows, you are surrounded by netting, they are very well insulated, so no mosquitoes or bugs of any kind get through.  The beds have mosquito netting, just in case.

The hotel also has a restaurant, that has some of the best meals I have ever tasted.  If you go to the ruins for the day, you can also buy packed lunches to bring with you, since you will most likely spend the whole day there. The pool is small, but clean and refreshing, especially after a long trek in the jungle.

How to Get There and Other Helpful Information

Cancun is the easiest airport to get to on the peninsula, and chances are, you might want to visit other sites, or spend time on the beach as well if you’re there.

Rent a car and drive towards Tulum. You might want to stop there and enjoy a day on the beach or visit the site of Tulum.  Then keep going south, towards Bacalar.  This is another place you might want to stop, for a beautiful lagoon, called Laguna des Siete Colores or the lagoon of seven colors.  It is beautiful and worth a swim.  You can find a hotel in Bacalar for any budget, right on the water if you wish. From Bacalar, you need to take the road towards Xpujil.  Shortly after you pass the town of Xpujil, you’ll see the road to Calakmul.

The hotel Puerta Calakmul is on the left, off a short dirt road, right after the turn-off.  You are in a nature preserve here.

When you walk in the preserve, make sure you carry enough water, and snacks.  Wear good hiking or walking shoes. Wear a hat and sunscreen, and keep bug spray at hand.  Remember that is hot and humid, especially during midday, so dress accordingly. Being in a nature preserve, there is no real dress code, even in the more traditional Mexico. I would just stay away from very short shorts or crop tops.









How to Use Essential Oils for Healthy Travels

Essential oils are my magic potions.  They are my go-to remedies for anything from bug bites to cold and flu, from cleaning to a great-smelling home.  I also have my travel pack with the most essential oils that help me stay healthy while on the road.

It wasn’t always the case. During most of my international travels I have gotten sick by the time I reached a destination.  It usually happened on long flights, when I was traveling across the Atlantic, from the US to Europe.  Though I usually didn’t let it stop me, it did slow me down and on occasion. Once I even missed out on meeting up with an old friend because I was too sick to talk to anyone.

Learning About Essential Oils
A few years ago, I discovered essential oils. I am a reader so of course, the first thing I did I bought a book about them.  Although I can find any information on the web these days, I need to have a physical book for reference.
I learned about the oils and their uses from the book.
At first I only used them in a vaporizer to freshen up the smell in the house or to help me relax before bedtime.  I have a vaporizer in everyone’s bedroom. I like to use lavender in mine every night.
When anyone from the family shows the first signs of getting congested, I use eucalyptus oil.  It always helps. An idea to do this during travels?


Use an Inhaler as Decongestant during Travels

Use the eucalyptus in an inhaler.  Better yet, I found that a combination of eucalyptus and peppermint works faster.  Now I made a few for everyone and I carry one with me everywhere I go.   Flu and cold season is upon us.

To make the inhaler, add a few drops of eucalyptus and peppermint essential oils to the bottom of an inhaler.  I found that 4 drops of eucalyptus and 4 drops of peppermint work great. Put it together and use it any time you feel congested.  It should last about two months.

Natural Headache Remedy Using Essential Oils

I get headaches very often, especially when I travel.  Because of this, one of my main combinations, one that I use every day, is a headache remedy. It works every time, especially if I apply it as soon as I feel a headache coming on.  My friend used it once as well when we were out together and we both experienced the onset of a headache.  The culprit was a very strong smell in closed quarters at a zoo.  My remedy worked for both of us.

I made two different ones, to see which ones works better. As carrier oil, I used grapeseed oil, as usual. I mixed it all in a roller bottle (you can buy a set here).

I learned the combinations from my books: DYI Aromatherapy, published by Rockridge Press Berkeley, California, with a Foreword by Lea Harris, certified clinical aromatherapist.
At the onset of a headache, I roll the blend on my forehead, on the back of my head at he hairline and behind my ears.
Keep the Germs at Bay During Long Flights

During our travels, we inevitable get exposed to germs.  Especially if we fly.  I don’t remember a flight anywhere when I didn’t hear at least one person in my vicinity coughing.

But my family loves to travel, we don’t mind flying.  I usually get everyone lots of Vitamin C before air travels, to get our immune systems in top shape.  It works most of the time.

With the essential oils, I have another options.  The newest one I learned from Andrea Butje’s Aromahead blog.  She shows us how  to make an inhaler with germ-fighting essential oils, here.

I made one for my upcoming travel to Europe.  I’ll let you know how it works.

Travelers and Essential Oils – The Story of Thieves’ Oil
You know how I always say that traveling makes us smarter, teaches us a lot? Turns out that travelers were the first ones to use essential oils to fight germs with success.
Some of the first travelers were merchants by default.  How else would they be able to wander the world, and still be able to survive? 
Back in the 1400s the black plague decimated the population of Europe. The dreaded disease was killing thousands and the physicians of the day had no way to stop it.  
Merchants had no way to make a living. No one had the means to trade or buy goods. So they resorted to other means of living.
No one noticed what happend to them, or where they went. But officials noticed that a band of thieves was robbing plague victims. How did they do it? How did they not get sick? No one could figure it out. The plague was so contagious that anyone even close to a victim would get sick and die.  
The thieves were finally caught. Though they got sentenced to be hanged, the judge offered them a deal. They could walk free in exchange for their secret. How did they stay alive and healthy around plague victims?
Of course, the thieves took the deal, who wouldn’t? 
As it turned out, they were merchants, spice and perfume traders, who often walked the Silk Road.  By trading essential oils, they understood their properties. So they figured out a  combination that would keep them safe from the dreaded disease.  
Of course, they shared the recipe in exchange for their lives.  They might have shared it anyway.  Centuries later it became the base of what is today known as Thieves’ oil in aromatherapy.



Using the Thieves Oil Formula for Travel
The whole story might be fiction, or a legend, where only some of the facts are true.  
Whicever way it came to be, the combination known as thieves’ oil works like magic for killing all kind of germs.
I use the formula to make my household cleaner (it not only works better, but kills more germs that Lysol – and it smells great!). I also make a germ-fighting “magic potion” that I always rub on our feet at the first sign of us getting sick. It works. I tried it, both with my kids and myself.  If used right away, we don’t even get sick, or if I use it “too late” the flu or cold that gets us, is gone in two-three days the most.
But I’m talking about travel, right? I have a roller bottle I filled with a combination of Thieves’ Oil and a carrier, like grapeseed oil.  I take it everywhere we go.
You can buy pre-mixed Thieves oil, or you can make your own.  If you are new to essential oils, buy a pre-made mix.  I buy my essential oils from Plant Therapy, but there are many reputable companies you can use.  Do you research, we all have different preferences. 
If you want to make your own, you can find the formula in any aromatherapy book or on the blog of most companies. Make sure you get it from a certified aromatherapist. You’ll need clove, lemon, cinnamon, eucalyptus and rosemary essential oils to make it. 


My Stay-Healthy Packing List for Travel

My travel packing includes a few essential oil blends.  Since I store them in bottles of 10ml or less or inhalers, I don’t have an issue with any of them when flying. Here’s my list:

  1. ten-ounce roller bottle of essential oil headache remedy
  2. one germ-fighting inhaler
  3. one decongestant inhaler
  4. ten-ounce roller bottle of antibacterial “magic potion” aka Thieves’ oil

Bryce Canyon National Park – Hiking through Hoodoos

One of our latest weekend trip took us to Bryce Canyon National Park.  It has been over ten years since our last visit, but the landscape and the park hasn’t changed.

Although geologically speaking, hoodoos, the rock formations that Bryce Canyon is famous for, don’t last long, one lifetime in human years doesn’t make a difference in their shape.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="Bryce Canyon National Park,"/>

What Are Hoodoos?

Tall, skinny spires of rock, hoodoos seem like tall totem poles, carved by nature.  At Bryce Canyon, they range from 5 to 150 ft tall, and come in all shapes and widths.

<img src="hoodoos.jpg" alt="Hoodoos in Bryce Canyon National Park "/>

I see hoodoos as children of a parent rock, slowly parting from the whole family and becoming their own beautiful, separate selves. The “family” that supports them, the rock formation that forms them is called the Claron Formation in Bryce. This rock was “born” 30 or 40 million years ago in an ancient lake.

<img src="hoodooformations.jpg" alt="hoodoo formations in Bryce Canyon NP "/>

Hoodoos are formed by different weathering processes.  The extreme temperatures on the plateau cause freezing followed by thawing. This process gets repeated more often here than in other places.

The melting snow seeps into the cracks of the limestone, then it freezes, which makes it expand. (Yes, water expands when freezing. If you need to see the process, freeze water in a plastic bottle, and watch what happens.) In the case of the limestone, this freeze/thaw process causes cracks to appear. This process is called frost wedging.

<img src="brycecanyon.jpg" alt="view from trail at Bryce,"/>

Then rain, sun and wind slowly erodes the rocks and separates the hoodoos from their parent rock.

Of course, the same process that forms hoodoos, will eventually erode them, too.  We don’t see the difference since the erosion happens at the rate of 2-4 feet every 100 years. But in another few million years they won’t exist as they are now.

We are the lucky ones who get to enjoy them.

<img src="brycehoodoos.jpg" alt="hoodoos sunset Bryce,"/>

Hiking to the Bottom of Bryce Canyon

While my husband decided to walk down and into the canyon on the most strenuous (but most spectacular) trail, my daughter and I took the easier, more traveled one.  I usually choose the less traveled path, but sometimes, when I am out of shape, I don’t mind easy.

<img src="queensgardentrail.jpg" alt="hiking the Queen's Garden's Trail in Bryce Canyon,"/>

In the morning, to catch the best light, we set off from the Sunrise Point on the Queen’s Garden Trail.  It was pleasant, an easy hike (of course, it was downhill), though slightly crowded. The short trail got down to the Queen’s Garden.  Queen Victoria, that is.

<img src="trail.jpg" alt="tunnel on the trail in Bryce Canyon,"/>


“Why would they name that rock formation Queen Victoria?” asked Karen.  “She’s never even been here.”

Yes, I know.  I guess whoever named the rock has seen the queen and felt that it resembled her, looking over her garden of other hoodoos. It took me a while to see the resemblance, but I finally got it while sitting in the shade of a tree in front of it.

<img src="queensgarden.jpg" alt="Queen Victoria and her garden, bottom of Bryce Canyon,"/>


Instead of returning the way we came, we walked through the canyon for about a mile, and took the Navajo Loop Trail back up, through the Wall Street formation.

<img src="bottomofBryceCanyon.jpg" alt= "hiking on the bottom of Bryce Canyon,"/>

Given the fact that it was sunny and hot by midday, when we got there, Wall Street was the highlight of this particular hike for me.  We spent a fair amount of time in the shade of the tall rocks surrounding us.

<img src="wallstreetbryce.jpg" alt= "walking wall street at Bryce Canyon,"/>


Of course I was a slow turtle going up the steep switchbacks, but I made it.     It was worth it, every step of the way both down, and up.

The Overlooks

When we first arrived the day before, we drove to the Southernmost edge of the park, and stopped at Rainbow Point.  The easy hike on the Bristlecone Loop, through a pine forest took to Yovimpa Point, offered a far view into the Four Corners area.

<img src="rainbowpointview.jpg" alt= "View from Rainbow Point Bryce Canyon,"/>

We stopped at the Natural Bridge overlook, where we enjoyed the view of the arch.

<img src="naturalbridgebryce.jpg" alt= "Natural Bridge Overlook Bryce Canyon,"/>

After we settled in the lodge, we walked the rim trail between Sunrise and Sunset Points, with a great view of the amphitheater below.

<img src="rimtrailbryce.jpg" alt= "Rim trail Sunset Point Bryce Canyon,"/>


Now, after a relatively long hike, we were on the shuttle to Bryce point, with an overlook of one of the most scenic vistas of the whole amphitheater. Different view, different perspective. The Peekaboo trail, a harder hike into the canyon, starts there, but I left it for another time.

<img src="brycepointview.jpg" alt= "Bryce Point View,"/>

Before leaving the park, we stopped at the Fairyland Canyon overlook. One of the most strenuous, but also most spectacular trail starts here, about eight miles long with an elevation gain of over 1100 feet. In comparison, the combination of two trails that I did was a little over 3 miles long and an elevation gain of about 600 feet.  I thought that was high. Of course, I left without hiking the Fairyland trail.  I need to train for that, if I ever want to make it.