Where to next?

“Where to next?” is every travel addict’s favorite question. I love to talk about my plans (or dreams) for my next destination. I’m always finding inspiration for my next trip, so I’ve created a Google document that lists out all of my dream destinations.

It’s a definitely a living document! Please comment on what I should add and include links to resources.  If you’ve inspired me, I’ll add it to my list!

Bachelorette Party in Playa del Carmen, Mexico

I spent a long weekend in Playa del Carmen to hang out with the bride-to-be and the girls in August 2016.

Tips:  

  • Sargassum (seaweed) is a growing problem along the coast. You’ll want to check on the situation at the beaches. While that may dampen the beach experience, the pools at the resorts or the home rentals are great.
  • Take the ADO bus from Cancun International Airport to Playa del Carmen. The buses are in great shape, run frequently and are inexpensive.
  • If you rent a home, make sure to get clear instructions on how to arrive there from the bus station. The taxi drivers may not know how to get there since the home may be in a gated community and only have a name as an address.
  • If you’re not renting a car to explore the area around Playa del Carmen, I recommend hiring Tino Gutierrez. He took us around for the day and was amazing!

Must Do’s:

  • Rent a house on the beach
  • Listen and dance to incredible salsa music at La Bodeguita del Medio (the mojitos are amazing!)
  • Snorkel in Akumal Bay with the green sea turtles
  • Swim in the Gran Cenote
  • Mayan Ruins in Tulum
  • Eat at Mateo’s in Tulum (seriously, the best fish tacos in the world)

If I had more time: 

  • I wish we had gotten a slightly earlier start on Saturday so that we could have seen the Mayan Ruins from the beach within the park–beach access closes about a half hour before the park does.
  • Four days in Playa del Carmen is not enough! There’s so much to do in the area, such as releasing baby sea turtles, swim with whale sharks, etc. I would love to go scuba diving in the cenotes.
  • I would have loved to explore Las Coloradas (the pink lagoons–super instagrammable!). And I’ve heard that Isla Mujeres have great beaches.

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the itinerary here.

Recommended reading: 

  • Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens
  • A Forest of Kings: The Untold Story of the Ancient Maya
  • Conquistador: Hernan Cortes, King Montezuma, and the Last Stand of the Aztecs

Life Pro Tips for UK Festivals

Going to your first UK festival (Glastonbury, Bestival, etc)? Here are some life pro tips from a festival vet:

  • Bring the right gear!  Sensible footwear, like gumboots, and heavy-duty rain jackets.  CamelBak to stay hydrated.
  • Buy a cheap tent that you can leave behind. It will be a hot mess by the end of the festival.
  • Bring a large flag pole so that your crew can find you.
  • Bring a “festival phone.” First, this is a phone that has a long battery life so that you aren’t spending valuable time charging it (although battery packs can help with this problem nowadays).  Second, you won’t mind if it gets damaged, lost or stolen. The Nokia 3210 is a good one.
  • Bring ear plugs in case you are close to the stage, but mainly to be able to sleep (if you do try to sleep).
  • Go a day early to get a good space for your tent.

Did I miss anything?  Comment below:

The Best of Chicago for First Time Visitors

Chicago is a world class city filled with amazing restaurants, museums an activities. It’s always wonderful to host out of town guests. For the first time visitor, I’ve compiled my full list of activities and recommendations for you to make the most of your trip. I hope you come back to explore more off the beaten track activities!

Tips:  

  • Chicago is a foodie’s dream. Make reservations for the best restaurants weeks or months in advance for the best times, but if you don’t have reservations, arriving around 5 pm usually means you’ll get a seat.
  • Check out a roof top bar when the weather’s good, but get there early or be prepared to wait. They’re also pricey. 
  • The best place to take photos of the skyline (aside from being on a boat in Lake Michigan) is on the Adler Planetarium’s peninsula.  It’s easy to get to using the lake shore path.
  • Many of the boat cruises and kayak tours have sunset or firework options. You may want to consider doing that–booking in advance is recommended.
  • During the summer, the Shedd Aquarium has Jazzin’ at the Shedd Nights. There’s live music, cocktails and a great view of the fireworks. The Adler Plantarium has a similar program, called Adler After Dark.
  • A hidden gem is the Chicago Cultural Center. Upstairs is the largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world. The center is free to explore (it used to be a public library) and is right across the street from Millennium Park.
  • Go to the Signature Room for a cocktail and an amazing view of Chicago.
  • Garrett’s Popcorn is a wonderful souvenir.

Must Do’s:

  • Eat Deep Dish Pizza (I recommend Lou Malnati’s, but Pizzeria Uno claims to have invented the style of pizza), Portillo’s and a nice steakhouse. 
  • Eat a nice steakhouse
  • Visit one of the many amazing museums
  • Take a river cruise
  • Enjoy the view from the Signature Lounge at the John Hancock building
  • See a show at Second City’s mainstage
  • Do a shot of  Malort!

Download the activities here.

Activities:

Recommended reading: 

  • The Devil and the White City
  • The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream
  • Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul
  • The Warmth of Other Suns

Fellow Chicagoans, did I miss anything?  Please comment below:

 

Samba in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval!

A week in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate Carnaval in February 2009.

Tips:  

  • Stay in Leblon. We stayed at the Hotel Ritz. It’s a beautiful hotel close to the beach, restaurants and bars.
  • Do the cablecar to Sugerloaf Mountain an hour before sunset and watch the sunset from the bar at the top, drinking caipirinhas
  • Sector 5 is the best value for money for seats in the Sambadromo

Must Do’s:

  • Hang glide
  • March with one of the schools in the Sambadromo

If I had more time: 

  • I would have spent time in the neighborhoods of Santa Teresa & Lap and visited one of the nearby beach towns (Angra dois Reais or Buzios).

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • The War of the End of the World

My Trusty Travel Binder

Let me preface this story:  this trip happened before the widespread adoption of smartphones.

My first big adventure trip was to Peru to hike the Inca Trail. I went with two girlfriends and as you can see in the itinerary, it was about a two week trip.

We had to leave some of our stuff at the hostel while we were hiking the trail. As we were organizing our things, we pulled out all of our documents (flight confirmations, hostel reservations, etc) to get our Inca Trail permits. One friend had a neatly organized binder with her documents in separators. I had a semi-rigid folder that had all of my documents in chronological order.  My other friend had….well, she had a wad of papers that she kept in her cargo pants pocket. It took her a bit longer than us to find her proper documents, but she did.

I copied my more organized friend and stepped up my travel binder game for my big trips.

I use 1/2 inch binders (you don’t want it to be too big) and I put my documents in various separators according to theme.  Here’s what my trusty travel binder contains (each bullet point has its own separator):

  • Printed out travel itinerary with dates, locations, flight numbers, hotels, tour information
  • Printed versions of all of my confirmations in the order in which I’ll need them (hotels, tours, flights, visas, travel insurance, etc)
  • Copies of my various credit and debit cards
  • Additional paperwork

The travel binder takes a lot of stress from my travel.  I know where I need to be and I know I have the proper documents in case something goes awry. It’s also handy to have if you receive certificates or departure cards–it’ll keep them in good shape and you won’t lose/forget them.

Does anyone else still travel with paper?  Share your experiences below:

 

 

 

Why You Need to Learn How To Scuba Dive Right Now

I live in the middle of the US surrounded by flat lands and no ocean. When I traveled internationally to beach destinations, I always saw dive shops that offered scuba certification courses. Every time I saw those, I vowed to learn to scuba dive…one day.

I decided that to truly experience the Great Barrier Reef, I need to be able to dive.  I wanted to experience its beauty. And with that resolution in my mind, I got certified in the middle of the US, doing my open water work in a quarry. It wasn’t pretty but it got the job done. It’s been almost four years since my certification and it’s changed my life.  Here’s why you should get scuba certified right now:

  • The amazing beauty hidden under the water
  • The sense of soaring when swimming through the ocean
  • The meditative experience–hearing yourself inhale and exhale, controlling your body in new ways, it’s only you and your thoughts
  • The excitement of discovery–the hidden flounder, the sand covered rays
  • The adventure–you never know what you’ll see underwater
  • The sense of accomplishment–learning to be calm under (water) pressure, doing more challenging dives
  • The awesome community of scuba divers–they look out for each other, they love to travel, and they have great travel recommendations

If my words aren’t enough to convince you, watch my videos from the Great Barrier Reef, Belize and Bali:

Great Barrier Reef 1

Great Barrier Reef 2

Blue Hole Diving Belize

Diving Half Moon Wall

Soaring with the Manta Rays in Bali

Have I convinced you?  Where do I need to go for the best diving? Leave your comments!

 

A week in Belize!

Known for the beautiful, Belize Barrier Reef, we traveled along the coast of Belize to enjoy various scuba diving and snorkeling activities. The main goal was to catch a glimpse of whale sharks in Placencia. But overall, the country is one of the best places that I’ve gone diving.

Tips:
  • You should double check to see what the seaweed levels are in Belize. While this may dampen the beach experience, it isn’t likely to impact the snorkeling and diving. Ask the hotels and dive shops.
  • You can snorkel or dive with the whale sharks in Placencia, Belize but don’t get your hopes up. It’s very hit or miss.  It seems that the 2017 season was cancelled because of a lack of sightings. If you do see them at the surface, you only have a few seconds with them so be prepared! I went with this dive shop and had a great experience.
  • When whale sharks are in the area, there’s only a certain time when they are there to feed. Reserve your space well in advance.
  • Reconfirm your boats’ departure times the night before as they may change.
  • In Palcencia, we loved staying at the Dolce Cabana Waterfront Suites. It’s off of the main street, so it’s very quiet. It has a great back deck with wonderful hammocks. The owner is amazing.
  • The Blue Hole is a great attraction.  We loved diving it, but it is a two hour, rough boat ride to get there. I’m not sure it’s worth it if you’re just snorkeling and it’s definitely not worth it if you get seasick easily. Instead, you can view it from teh sky. I recommend Tropic Air.
  • All businesses accept dollars but list prices in Belizean dollars. The exchange rate is 2 Belizean dollars to 1 US dollar.  Bring small dollar bills to pay for things in cash.
Must Do’s:
  • Snorkel or dive around the country, Turneffe, Hol Chan and the Blue Hole are great dive spots–all accessible from Ambergis Caye
  • Tour the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) Cave
  • Rent a golf cart in San Pedro to explore Ambergris Caye
  • Eat fryjacks and try Marie Sharp’s hot sauce
If I had more time:
  • I would have spent more time inland, particularly San Ignacio, Belize. You can combine a visit to Tikal in Guatemala (do either the sunset or sunrise at the ruins) and the Actun Tunichil Muknal (ATM) cave from San Ignacio.
  • I would have spent more time figuring out where the “secret beach” is in Ambergis Caye.
Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman’s Fight to Save the World’s Most Beautiful Bird
  • Pataki Full

How to Hike the Inca Trail in Peru

I hiked the Inca Trail and traveled around Peru for two weeks in September 2008. I loved the experience and the country.

Tips:  

  • The entry rules to Machu Picchu changed in 2017. Please be aware of this when booking your travel, even if you aren’t hiking the Inca Trail.
  • Choose a responsible tour operator that treats its porters well (here’s a good resource). We went with Peru Treks and they were amazing!
  • Book your Inca Trail hike far in advance (there are limited spaces available). The trail is closed during February, which is the height of the rainy season. Avoid hiking in the rainy season, which runs from November to April.
  • The second day is tough.  You can hire an extra porter for that day to carry excess stuff if needed.
  • Bring the appropriate amount of cash to tip your trekking staff (make sure you have the right bills–there’s no change!).
  • Don’t overpack your daypack for the trail hike
  • Don’t stay four days in Arequipa unless you are hiking Colca Canyon

Must Do’s:

  • Hike the Inca Trail, don’t just take the bus from Aguas Calientes
  • Spend time in Cusco, a beautiful city

If I had more time:

  • I would have spent more time in Lima for the food and ended my trip at a beach.

Itinerary and Packing List:

Download the file here.

Recommended reading: 

  • Last Days of the Incas
  • The Other Path: The Economic Answer to Terrorism

12 Tips for International Air Travel

  1. Always travel with a pen. You will be given immigration and customs forms on the flight. It’s good to have a pen handy to fill the forms out on the plane. I’ve noticed that pens have become scarcer at the airports, so having your own pen is key. Also, keep whatever forms immigration/customs give back to you. You’ll need them when you leave the country—another good use for the travel binder.
  2. Always travel with a travel battery charger. Electrical outlets can be scarce in airports and planes. Travel with a travel battery charger with an octopus style for your various electronic devices. And of course, remember your adapters.
  3. Sign up for loyalty programs and perhaps get a cobranded credit card. It is much harder to earn miles from a loyalty program by just flying, but it’s free, and over time it might add up to something. If you have a preferred airline alliance, I’d recommend getting a cobranded credit card if you are eager to earn miles to redeem for flights. But the biggest perk of having a cobranded card is that you have your own customer service phone number. You can get faster service if something goes wrong with your flight by calling that number.
  4. Arrive to the airport extra early. I hate worrying about potentially missing my flight. It’s the worst anxiety ever. In international airports, you don’t know the layout, the check-in procedures and security protocols (sometimes you have to go through customs to leave a country). Give yourself some extra time at the airport so you don’t worry.
  5. Bring your own entertainment. U.S. airlines are in the process of upgrading their fleets, so it’s hard to tell what kind of entertainment options you’ll have. I recommend bringing your own. Also, your headphones will likely be better than the ones the airlines hand out.
  6. Select the right seat for you. Know your seat preference and check in early online if you can. Loyalty programs also help with getting your preferred seat. I prefer the window so that I can sleep up against the wall, and I only usually go to the bathroom once a flight. Some prefer the aisle so that they have unrestricted movement.
  7. Bring water and snacks. I always bring a bottle of water and a small bag of trail mix that I buy at the airport. You never know when thirst or hunger will strike. It’s important to always stay hydrated on the plane. And I’ve accidentally slept through food and drink service.
  8. Know how you’re leaving the destination airport. It’s important to know how you are getting from the airport, whether its public or private transport. You’ll likely be tired from the flight, maybe jetlagged, so having this planned in advance is one less thing to worry about. Some airports have reliable and safe shuttle options. Some airports have reliable and safe taxi operations.  Some airports have reliable and safe public transit options. And for some airports, it’s best to arrange an airport transfer. Most hotels and hostels offer an airport transfer. I think it’s worth it to go through them. This way you know that someone with your name will pick you up and take you straight to the place you need to be at a price agreed upon in advance. If your accommodation doesn’t offer transfers, I recommend using Booking.com–it’s been a great experience for me.
  9. Grab some location currency.  You can convert some of the US$200 that you have on you although the exchange rate may not be the best. Or withdraw some cash from an ATM.  You never know how soon you’ll need local currency.
  10. Pack your checked bag wisely. I’m advocate for packing light (pack only what you can carry). Make sure your bag stands out in some way, and if it doesn’t, put a marker on it. It’s also good to take a photo of it in case something happens. Always take care to keep the bag tag in case it does get lost or delayed. It’s much easier to handle those situations when you have that tag.
  11. Keep your carry-on luggage light. It’s even more crucial to pack your carry-on luggage lightly. I hate having to fight for overhead space, and this leaves room for last minute gifts at the airport. I usually travel with my small messenger bag and a backpack that’s not full. Make sure to have everything that you can’t live without on you. Never fully trust that your checked bag will show up with you. I don’t travel with jewelry, but anything expensive, such as camera gear, should be on your person at all times. Remember to bring your medications and maybe a spare pair of underwear. I also bring a passport holder that goes around my neck. It holds my passport, my travel wallet and my house keys. It stays around my neck and under my shirt all times. It may not be the safest way to carry these things, but it guarantees that I don’t lose my important documents and credit cards. It’s amazing how many things you can forget or lose on a plane, especially long haul flights. The seat pouch in front of you is not really your friend! Speaking of which, resist the temptation to turn on your phone as soon as you land. First make sure you’ve gathered all your belongings. If you start talking or texting right away, you’ll be more likely to leave something important behind.
  12. Consider Global Entry. If you plan to travel internationally a few times a year and are eligible to do this, it might be a good idea to sign up for Global Entry, which helpfully includes expedited TSA Pre-Check security screening even when you’re traveling domestically.

Did I miss any? Please share your tips below!