Salt Flats, Desert, Volcanoes, Lagoons…

…all in one little country! After being in Peru, worried almost constantly about the food and water and feeling like it was dirty no matter where we went, I did not have high expectations for Bolivia and was just looking to “get through it” and move on. I knew there was no way that we could (or should) skip it but I honestly wasn’t looking forward to it.

I wrote this blog post back in March, which feels like a lifetime ago now. We were in Bolivia Feb 29 – Mar 3 and I’m only now getting around to posting this to the blog. We have a little catching up to do, which we will try to get to over the next few weeks.

We started with just one day in La Paz upon arriving in Bolivia. La Paz is an interesting place and Robin and I both wish we had taken another day or 2 to more fully explore. I would have loved to have more time to ride around on the cable cars and even complete the whole circuit of all 10 lines. It’s amazing to me that the Teleferico is both an amazing tourist attraction but also just regular public transit for Bolivians living in La Paz! This was #50 on top 100 List of Activities. After riding the Teleferico up the mountain to the top and back down again (on the yellow line), we walked down to the neighbourhood of Sopocachi to find a spot to have some dinner. We didn’t have a plan and I was still pretty anxious about eating and drinking but as we stood in the central plaza looking around, we noticed a little cafe that appeared to have a magical theme…We walked over to El Caldero Chorreante to discover that it is indeed a Harry Potter themed cafe!!! It was so much fun and the food was good, the boys enjoyed Butter Beers and Robin and I shared a cauldron of some concoction that we had to “brew” ourselves and serve up with a ladle. With our bellies full we grabbed a taxi back to our hotel to rest for the night before catching an early flight in the morning to Uyuni.

NB: If you are visiting Bolivia and have not just come from another high altitude city (like Cusco), you will need to spend more than a day in La Paz to acclimatize to the altitude before moving on.

From Uyuni we planned to find a 3-day tour of the salt flats, hoping to leave the same afternoon so that we did not have to stay a night in Uyuni (there’s not much to do there). Being the last weekend of Carnaval, many of the tour operators were closed and not running tours! While I sat with the boys and all our luggage, Robin tried tour company after tour company, discovering that all were either full or closed. He was given a recommendation to try Tupiza Tours and landed on a winner. I did some quick google searching to find that they had largely very good reviews and from the sounds of what they were offering, it was comparable to all the other operators. The other big advantage was that there was only one other person signed up for this tour so we would be 5 people, instead of the standard 6. Kate from Montreal joined us on our 3 day adventure and she was a lovely young lady, traveling on her own, who seemed to not mind being stuffed in a car us, including 2 very chatty boys. Along with our tour guide Oscar and our driver Wilmer, we set out on an adventure of a lifetime.

Our first stop was to a train grave yard – this is more interesting historically than anything else but the boys enjoyed climbing around on the abandoned trains and taking pictures.

From there we had some administrative errands to accomplish – buying tourist tickets, picking up food for the next 3 days, etc. Once all of that was out of the way we paid a quick visit to a little town that has a bunch of vendor stalls where you can buy…just about anything. I picked up a little pair of alpaca wool socks and I was very glad later to have them! Right after the little town, we headed out to the salt flats. Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat, located amidst the Andes in southwest Bolivia. It is a desert-like landscape of bright white salt, rock formations and cacti-studded islands that cover nearly 20,000 square kilometers and is #7 on our list of Top 100 Sights. We entered the salt flat and got our first look at the vast expanse of salt, with many parts covered at this time of year with a layer of shallow water, creating a mirror-like illusion. I wondered how we could possibly spend a whole day exploring a giant field of salt…but it’s possible. And super fun!

We stopped at what was once the original salt hotel, but is now a museum of sorts, for lunch where we ate the food that was prepared in advance for us at a table made of salt, sitting on stools made of salt. But you can’t eat that salt (seems obvious but some of us inquired if it was possible). After lunch we carried on across the salt flat, driving for 30-45 minutes towards a group of mountains that appeared to be both very close and very far away at the same time. The sensation was unnerving and lead to much discussion among the youngest minds in the car about perspective. We arrived in an area of the salt flat away from everyone else to take some fun pictures that would capture the perspective (or lack thereof) we were experiencing. There were lots of other trucks with other groups of tourists around but our driver and guide managed to find a spot where we couldn’t see another soul. Armed with sunblock, hats and sunglasses (“white” and “bright” just do not adequately convey the effect of the sun reflecting off the salt) we spent the next hour or so playing around with our cameras to capture some photos that will help us cherish the memory of this spectacular experience for many years.

We were still scheduled to stop and visit a spot where the water covered the salt flat to allow us to capture some of the incredible reflection pictures you sometimes see from people who have visited during the rainy season. It had not rained in 2 weeks so it took some time to find a good spot, but eventually Oscar and Wilmer found it and we got some great shots of the mountains reflected in the water, some neat pictures of us, and finally, the most amazing sunset – times two πŸ˜‰

We stayed that night in a salt hotel. Do not underestimate the definition of “salt hotel” (like I did). The walls were made of salt bricks, the tables and stools were all made of salt, the mattresses rested on salt slabs beside salt bedside tables and the floors were covered in, yep, salt (the toilet, thankfully, was standard porcelain). It was weird. And fun and probably the most unique hotel experience we will ever have.

The next day we left the salt flats and headed into the desert. I didn’t really know anything about this part of the tour in advance and don’t those usually turn out to be the most fulfilling experiences in life? The ones you didn’t have any expectations for? When I go see a movie that I don’t know anything about, it almost always turns out to be the best movie I’ve seen in a while. This day was like that. No expectations, huge reward. The Altiplano region in Bolivia and the Atacama desert are incredible. We stopped at lagoons – so many lagoons! First a black lagoon, then a lagoon that was filled with hundreds of flamingos, a red lagoon, a white lagoon and a green lagoon. There were so, so many flamingos. There’s not a lot of wildlife in these areas but we saw enough flamingos for a lifetime and I had no idea there were so many types of flamingos!! There were lots of llamas and vicunas too. It was on this portion of the tour that Robin was able to console himself over missing out on #97 from our Top 100 Sights list…we (or rather he and Kieran) had planned to visit Vinicunca, or Rainbow Mountain, in Cusco but due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, they had to abandon their plans. Little did we know that we would have the opportunity to see so many rainbow mountains in Bolivia! And they are spectacular. As much as we were in and out of the truck all day and bouncing around on dirt “roads” in the desert for 10 straight hours we were continually beguiled by the ever changing and surprising landscape as we marveled at Wilmer’s ability to navigate, what seemed to us, a vast maze of dirt tracks in the desert. We arrived at our hostel for the night tired and hungry and very, very happy.

We popped outside after dinner in search of quinoa beer (yes, it’s a thing and gluten free!). We found no quinoa beer but did find a great view of the milky way in the night sky! Robin and Caleb also did an astronomical tour in the Atacama desert in San Pedro but his camera was not cooperating so you’re going to have to trust us on experiencing #48 from our Top 100 Activities list: Capture the Milky Way through the Clearest Sky on Earth, Atacama Desert, Chile. I did manage to capture a picture from outside our hostel in Bolivia using Night Sight on my Pixel 4. 

On the morning of the third day of our tour we had to wake up shortly after 4:00 to be ready to depart at 5:00. We headed in the dark back into the desert where I really wondered how on earth our driver knew where to turn left or right or go straight and we arrived at the geysers in time for sunrise. We had a few stops to make and lots of desert to cover before arriving at the Bolivia-Chile border to catch our bus at 9:00 am. It was very cold at 5000 m above sea level in the desert before the sun came up to warm the air a little and we were reminded of a very brisk fall morning at home. In a way. The border crossing was a little weird and they charged us a fee illegally to leave Bolivia, but there’s nothing you can do except smile and say thank you as you hand over your 15 BS per person. We boarded the bus that would take us across the border and into Chile and said goodbye to what has probably been our favourite South American country so far.

(Wendy's) Perspective on Peru

I did not entirely enjoy our time in Peru. For the most part, I found it dirty and smelly in the most offensive way possible and having to worry constantly about the quality of food and drink really stressed me out. People are somewhat friendly but mostly because they are trying to sell food or a tour or souvenirs, with noted exceptions of course. I found myself particularly uncomfortable in Cusco. The second place we stayed, where all 4 of us were together, was particularly offensive. It was in a neighbourhood about a 15 minute walk away (in the wrong direction) from the Plaza des Armes in a small, traditional quinta. From the dirty street that stank overwhelmingly of dog feces and urine, we entered a nondescript door that lead to a series of little alleys with doors, all leading to stairwells and apartments. Our apartment was in the back (past even more more dog crap and who knows what else) and had absolutely no ventilation to the outside, smelled horribly and had quite a bit of mould, especially on the ceiling and walls in the main bedroom. It was noisy at night because of the rain on the roof and we could hear everything from our upstairs neighbours, who were thankfully pretty quiet.

We do most of our own cooking, but I’ve worried constantly about the quality of the food that’s available and even more so on the occasions when we’ve needed or chosen to eat out. You can’t do anything with the water from the tap here and boiling the water isn’t sufficient because of the high altitude. I don’t do very well with illness, especially gastro related illness, so having this concern in the back of my head constantly was really stressful for me.

In the end, on the last night in Cusco I was feeling so stressed and uncomfortable that I booked a hotel in the San Blas neighborhood and Caleb and I left. Robin opted to stay in our original accommodations with Kieran as he wasn’t feeling well and felt that staying put would be easier than packing everything up and moving. It was such a relief to take a nice, hot shower in a clean bathroom and sleep in a clean room with nice beds. The morning found both Caleb and I in much better moods, after enjoying the breakfast that was included with our room. I’m not a high maintenance traveler and don’t mind a bit of discomfort but when I’ve reached my limit, I put my foot down. I’m grateful for Robin’s understanding and accommodating me when this happens. It’s comforting knowing that when enough is enough, I will be able to do what I need to do to keep going. It’s pretty normal for me when we are traveling to get uncomfortable at some point and we were chatting about this in hindsight yesterday (it happened a few days ago now) and Robin pointed out that so far in a month and a half of travel, I haven’t freaked out on him or had a meltdown. In the past, when I get uncomfortable or stressed I have tended to freak out and pick a fight, rather than actually talking about what’s bothering me and problem solving. This has been a big area of personal growth for me on this trip!

Thankfully moving back to the Sacred Valley has been great and we are staying in an awesome cottage in Calca on the Urubamba river. I’m glad that I’ll be able to comfortably enjoy the last few days of our visit to Peru and that the discomfort of our time in Cusco hasn’t tainted the entire experience for me.

I think the things I’ve learned through this experience are to research the area where we are planning to stay more thoroughly and be sure that it’s the kind of place we’ll be comfortable – a safe neighbourhood, relatively close to the things we want to see and do and probably an area that attracts other tourists. For other travelers visiting Cusco, I don’t there’s any reason to be deterred from visiting but if I were doing it again, I would book a hotel or hostel rather than an Airbnb and I would book at least one tour that would give an overview of all the highlights in Cusco. Then I’d go back and visit any that we were really interested in more thoroughly. The way it worked out, I ended up feeling like we missed some things that would have been interesting and wasted time on other things that we could have easily skipped.

I know that not all of us are going to love every place that we visit and that’s natural given that we’re going to 46 countries! There are so many things that have influenced my experience in Peru and I truly believe that under different circumstances, I may have loved it as much as others do and have. Perhaps one day we will return with open minds and hearts and I will find a different perspective.

Cusco y El Valle Sagrado

As most of you probably noticed via social media, Kieran and I spent about a week longer in Cucsco and the Sacred Valley than Robin and Caleb. Back in Costa Rica, I was suffering from the heat and starting to feel really nervous about the time we had planned in Puerto Maldonado, volunteering in the rainforest (too hot, too wet and humid, way too many bugs). I kept it to myself for a couple days, thinking that I just need to find a way to suck it up, until I realized how much it was affecting my mood and how I was feeling about the trip and I talked to Robin about it. We made an easy decision to explore the possibility of splitting up for this week and giving the boys the option to choose what they would like to do. It turned out to be an easy decision for them too. Caleb was very keen to go ahead with the volunteer work and Kieran was as reluctant about it as I was and relieved to be presented with another option. I’m really happy that we can be flexible about our plans and adjust as needed and also that we are comfortable spending time apart when it means that we can all find a way to enjoy what we’re doing without being obligated to participated in every activity.

Kieran and I spent the first 4 nights of our time apart in Urubamba in the Sacred Valley, staying with a couple in their home. I wanted to find a unique place to stay that would allow us to spend some time with locals, learn a bit more about Peru and the Sacred Valley and to immerse Kieran in real life where we were staying, rather than just hanging out in an apartment by ourselves. It turned out to be a wonderful experience! Our hosts, Juan and Dew, were so nice and welcoming. We felt like friends from the moment we arrived at their home. The room we stayed in was really large and had a lovely balcony and we had the perfect mix of privacy and the opportunity to connect and spend time with our hosts. They prepared all our meals for us, helped arrange a few little trips for us and welcomed us to spend time watching movies with them, chatting and playing with their dog (Kintu) and cat (Wichi). Kieran wasn’t feeling keen on doing a lot of things while we were there so we mostly hung out in the house.

We took a trip to Pisac to visit the market on Sunday (despite Kieran’s protests that he wanted to stay home). The market was busy and filled with vendors, locals and tourists. There were people in traditional Peruvian dress with alpacas who were looking for tourists to stop and hold or pet their alpacas and take pictures with, for a tip of course. One girl saw Kieran and before he could protest, shoved her baby alpaca into his arms and posed for a picture. He wasn’t very happy about it, but I obliged and took his picture and gave her a small tip. On the way back to Urubamba we made a stop the Museo Inkariy – a great little museum where I was able to learn more about the the groups of people that came before the Incas – Caral, Chavin, Paracas, Mochica, Nazca, Wari, Chimu Lambayeque, and finally, the Incas. It was fascinating and far more information than I’ve ever seen before about the history of the Incas. Kieran opted out and stayed in the car the whole time – I let him.

The following day I convinced Kieran to go out for a walk for a few hours to explore Urubamba and visit the Plaza des Armes. We got ice cream, which always makes him happy, and walked around a while, taking in the local scene. Being the rainy season, there aren’t too many tourists around the Sacred Valley right now but the Plaza des Armes is busy enough that you can kind of blend in to the hustle and bustle.

On the second to last day, our hosts arranged for us to visit Ollantaytambo. It was a shorter drive than the one to Pisac, so Kieran was less reluctant. We went there with the intention of visiting the ruins for a while and then stopping at the chocolate museum for a tour and demonstration. We went first to the ruins and we were both so taken with them that we hired a guide and spent an hour and a half exploring and learning all about the temple site. It was well worth hiring the guide and I feel now that when we visit Machu Picchu later next week with Robin and Caleb, it will provide some valuable context and contrast. In the end, we didn’t have time for the chocolate museum but we did stop for a nice lunch at a local restaurant.

On our way to Ollantaytambo, our driver pointed out a hotel on the side of the mountain. She stopped the car so that we could crane our necks to look waaaaay up (and at the people scaling the side of the mountain to get to it!!!) and take a picture. I’m all for interesting accommodations but ya, that’s a hard no from me.

We left behind our cozy house and new friends in Urubamba and headed for Cusco a few days ago. It has been very uneventful since arriving and we’ve spent almost all our time in our hostel. It’s a fun little rooftop room + living space + bathroom + kitchen and we have it all to ourselves. We only need to go down to the main kitchen to get breakfast in the morning, which has suited us fine. On our first afternoon is Cusco we explored around a little, stopped by the Correo Central (post office) to pick up Robin’s yellow fever vaccination card (thank you Tina!!!), visit the Plaza des Armes and get some food. Kieran took a little turn for the worse overnight and neither of us got much sleep so we spent the whole next day hanging out, watching movies, reading, and cuddling. He’s feeling better today but it’s pouring rain and only 11 degrees so we’re huddled up again – neither of us is complaining though. We are looking forward to seeing Robin and Caleb tomorrow, to some better weather and getting back to adventuring and exploring. I’m grateful for our adaptability, willingness to compromise for each other and most of all, for the time we are getting to spend together whether we’re making memories or just enjoying each other’s love and company.

Top row (left to right): a boy and his cupcake; Cusco Plaza des Armes (in the sun!). Bottom row (left to right): sunny, daytime view from our rooftop room; nighttime view; rooftop living space; me all bundled up from the rain and cold.

Ica, Peru

Getting to Peru from Ecuador can be expensive if you fly and for that reason, Robin had planned for us to take a bus from Guayaquil to Peru. Initially he had us scheduled to take a 24+ hour bus ride all the way to Lima. This was one of the first trip planning vetoes that I exercised. My kids don’t do all that well on the 5 hour trip from Toronto to Ottawa – I couldn’t even begin to imagine spending more than 24 hours on a bus with them. I was sure it would end it a flight straight back to Toronto. Finally I conceded that taking an overnight bus from Guayaquil to Piura, Peru was warranted in order to save the much higher cost of flying over the border. It turned out to be not nearly as horrific as I had imagined. The bus left Guayaquil at 9pm and after only about an hour of playing on their computers and getting settled, we were able to convince the boys to try to sleep. It helped that everyone else on the bus was also sleeping. Around 1:00 in the morning, the bus stopped at the border between Ecuador and Peru. We waited in line for an hour at border control and then another hour to get back on the bus, remove the passengers that were denied access (!!!!) and get back on our way. Sleep came easily again after that and we all rested fairly well, right until about 7:30 when we got close to our destination. We still had a long haul ahead of us – a 4 hour wait in the airport in Piura, then our flight to Lima, arriving in the late afternoon. All in all I was impressed by the boys’ patience and resilience throughout the 30+ hours of travel and I suppose, having survived it, I would probably be more open to a long bus ride in the future.

We stayed only one night in Lima and didn’t venture out much. Robin and Caleb went into downtown to buy bus tickets to Ica and get some food for dinner but Kieran and I camped out in our Airbnb apartment as he was in need of recovery (and a shower) from the long trip. From what we saw, Lima is a big city and probably could be interesting to visit. I heard later from our host in Urubamba, who is from Lima, that it has a lot of offer as a traveler. Perhaps on another trip we will visit again.

From Lima we took the bus the next morning to Ica where we stayed for 3 nights and 4 days. Ica is a fairly small place but here you can visit Huacachina (an oasis in the desert), see the Nazca Lines, and it is also the origin of Pisco and home to many wineries. Our taxi driver from the bus terminal to our Airbnb extended an offer to arrange our trips to Huacachina and Nazca and fortunately, having done research in advance, Robin recognized that his offer was a pretty good deal. The thing I was most amazed by about this was that Bryan, the taxi driver/tour operator, did not speak a word of English. Instead, he spoke Spanish very slowly and clearly and we were able to understand everything and communicate back to him (thank you Duolingo!).

The next afternoon we were picked up by a taxi (the wrong taxi due to some misunderstanding and a missed message) to go to Huacachina. Visiting this real life Oasis and trying out sandboarding was one of the items on our Top 100 Activities List. We were able to hang out and enjoy some of the desert oasis for a couple hours while we waited for the main event. The boys went out on the lagoon in a paddle boat and we stopped for afternoon snacks and drinks. Then at 4:00 we headed out for our dune buggy ride and sand-boarding. This turned out to be way more fun than any of us anticipated – definitely a highlight of the trip so far. Despite some mechanical malfunction that ended in a face full of engine coolant for Robin, it was a super fun time. We sand-boarded down 3 big hills and bounced around in the dune buggy until dusk when we stopped to watch the sun set over the dunes.

It’s worth it to watch this video with the sound on to hear the commentary and screaming from the boys…followed by my signature “thrill ride cackle” that only those of you who have been on a roller coaster with me will recognize πŸ˜‰
Robin taking on the first hill
Caleb’s turn
“I did it” – listen for it at the end πŸ™‚

The next day we were picked up again, this time in the right taxi, to go to Nazca. The whole purpose of this trip was to go up in a little plane to view the Nazca Lines from the air (really the only way to appreciate them). The Nazca Lines are #84 on our list of top 100 activities. “Created some 2000 years ago, the Nazca lines are a set of some 300 figures covering 50 square km, the largest of which is more than 1.1 km in length. The mystery is both how and why these figures, which can only truly be appreciated from the air, were constructed.” I have to say, it was truly worth enduring the long car ride and the bumpy, nausea inducing flight to see this from the air. When you look at pictures of the Nazca Lines, it’s difficult to have an appreciation for how large and stunning the figures really are. The mysteriousness around their origin and creation are brought into focus when you see them with your own eyes.

We didn’t have enough time to visit a winery in Ica, but Kieran and I took a short trip to the Plaza des Armes where there was a little bodega that let me sample some of the local pisco and we stayed to have some ice cream (Kieran) and pisco sour (me). It was a nice little ending to our short stay in Ica.

A pleasant ending to our short stay in Ica

Isabela Island

We spent the next few days of our time on the Galapagos on Isabela Island. It’s such a lovely, quiet little place with not a lot going on but lots of character and a relaxed atmosphere. We stayed again in a hostel – Hostel Jeniffer – that was much nicer and cleaner than the first. Everything is within walking distance on Isabela and it offers quite a bit to do at no cost. I think Robin and I both wished we’d spent a least one more day on Isabela.

The only downside to visiting Isabela is the requirement to take a ferry to get there and back. We had to take 2 ferries to get to Isabela – a 2 hour ferry ride from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz at 7:00 in the morning followed by a second ferry trip in the afternoon from Santa Cruz to Isabela. It’s the rainy, warm season right now so the seas were not too rough for our journeys but the boats are small, uncomfortable and even when the water is relatively calm, the ride is still pretty rough. On the trip from San Cristobal to Santa Cruz, our boat broke down briefly in the middle of the ocean, leaving us bobbing around for quite some time while the captain and assistant worked to repair it. In the end, they were successful so certainly not a worse case scenario and I was thankful when we arrived safely on the dock. The second trip from Santa Cruz to Isabela was better – the seats were forward facing and more spacious than on the first boat and I was relieved to be able to relax a little more. I insisted that when booking our return trip to Santa Cruz that Robin ask specifically to be placed on a boat with forward facing seats again. Clever me! Thinking ahead like that and ensuring that we got placed on the “best” boat rather than randomly. Oh boy, did I ever have a chance to eat crow over this little assertion later.

Over the course of the two and a half days we spent on Isabela, we used our time as wisely as possible to try to experience as much as possible of what the island has to offer. There is a little town square where all the action is and where you go to eat or book tours. All the restaurants line the “main road” (a path of sand, really) and offer more or less the same thing at any given time of the day. There is a green space (featuring astro turf) across from the line of restaurants and little park where the boys enjoyed running around and playing while we waited for food or Robin and I just sat relaxing.

On the first full day on Isabela we opted to split up and try 2 different tours – Robin and Caleb went on a kayaking tour to Tintoreras (more on that from Robin in another post) while Kieran and I did a half day trip to Los Tuneles. Both turned out to be very fun and worthwhile trips and each was the perfect choice for the boys respectively.

Robin and Caleb’s kayak tour was in the morning, so while Kieran and I waited to start our afternoon tour, we did a little exploring around on Isabela on foot. We hiked the wetlands path up to the giant tortoise breeding centre and were rewarded with lots of close up iguana and sea lion encounters (not hard to come by!!), wild flamingo sightings and of course, getting to see the giant tortoises.

One of the only checklist items I had for our time on the Galapagos was for Kieran to be able to see a penguin. The kids LOVES penguins and knows everything there is to know about them and can identify different types of penguins instantly. Kieran is always sensitive about not putting pressure on other people and not wanting to create disappointing situations so he wasn’t saying much about it but he knew that there was a chance that he might be able to see a penguin on this trip. Thankfully, he was not disappointed!

We snorkeled around for a while and Kieran had a much better experience than at Kicker Rock. The water was shallow so we were able to see lots of sea life – sharks, sea horses, tons of colourful fish and huge sea turtles. Kieran got so comfortable with snorkeling that after a short time in the water, he was free diving to be able to get a closer look at some of the animals! After an hour and a half we climbed back into the boat and went a short distance to Los Tuneles, which are tunnels that were formed by cooling lava. There is little sea life to see in the tunnels (except for a few turtles here and there) but it’s really cool to be able to snorkel through the tunnels. Diving them would have been even more exciting πŸ˜‰ After the snorkeling, we did a little hike on top of the tunnels and got to see some blue footed boobies up close.

On our last morning on Isabela, while Robin did a volcano hike, the boys and I rented snorkel gear and visited Concha de Perla. Despite hearing that this was a must-see, we were all a little disappointed. The lagoon was crowded, there wasn’t as much to see as our other snorkeling experiences and I worried the whole time about our stuff, which was just hanging on a hook on the little dock (with tourists and locals alike just hanging around).

Leaving Isabela was by far the most challenging part of our trip to the Galapagos. As I alluded to above, despite the forward facing seats, our ferry was far from “the best”. It as a little like crossing the ocean in a sardine tin and I maintained a white knuckle grip on the seat in front of me throughout the entire 2+ hour journey as the boat heaved and rocked and tossed around on the sea. I know some have had far worse experiences (Lori and Kyle!!) but this one was as bad as I could handle. While I didn’t feel seasick at all, I did fear a little for our lives for the entire trip. Between being violently tossed around on the water and the suffocation of the carbon-monoxide filled cabin (because none of the windows could be open without water pouring in), that was the last ferry ride I want to be on for the foreseeable future.

Galapagos – San Cristobal

We’ve spent 10 days in the Galapagos Islands and the experience did not disappoint. I didn’t have very many expectations coming` in to this part of the trip, although Robin did remind me that coming here was something that I insisted on early in the planning. So much time and energy has gone into planning the whole trip that I had forgotten all about my enthusiasm for including the Galapagos. That’s not to say that I didn’t want to include it or that I regret making that assertion so long ago! When we would tell people about the bigger trip, almost everyone asked if we were coming to the Galapagos and it’s clear after being here for 9 days now and visiting all of the 3 major islands, that most people come here with very high expectations. Rightfully so; it’s an incredible place.

We started on San Cristobal Island for just 2 nights and stayed, for the first time on this trip, in a hostel. All 4 of us in one slightly smelly room. They were not the best accommodations but we managed for the couple of nights we were there and really, we didn’t spend much time in our room anyway with so much to see and do. On the first day we walked to the Interpretation Center at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno and did some learning about the history of the Galapagos. Right near the Interpretation Center there is a small beach called Playa Punta Carola where we had our first real encounter with sea lions. They were lying all over the beach, letting tourists get quite close to take pictures and selfies with them. The sea lions swim in the water near people as well and they can be dangerous but are kind of playful too. One sea lion tried to steal Kieran’s water shoe! Kieran freaked out a little and moved to where the water was more shallow and we sent Caleb out to retrieve the shoe that had been forcefully removed from Kieran’s foot. The boys stayed quite close to the sand after that, not wanting to interact that closely with the wildlife anymore. We stayed into the evening to watch the spectacular sunset from the beach before heading back to grab some supper.

The strip along the waterfront near the pier at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno is a fun little spot in the evening. The sea lions and iguanas provide abundant entertainment and it’s not nearly as expensive as one might think to sit and have a simple meal on the waterfront.

The main attraction while visiting San Cristobal is to take a tour to Kicker Rock, also known as Leon Dormido depending on your interpretation of the shape of the formation, and we did so on a lovely sailboat. It was a nice day and we had mostly good weather, the other people on our trip were very nice and we enjoyed a relaxing day and some good conversation together. The most amazing thing about this trip was the dolphins we saw on the way to Kicker Rock. They were very close to the boat and almost wanting to play with the boat! They put quite a show on for us, jumping up out of the water and swimming right up close beside the boat. They stayed with us for quite a while and it was just incredible. Shortly after the dolphins moved on, Anne Marie (one of our fellow tour goers) and I were sitting on the bow of the boat, enjoying the sun and she noticed an eagle ray jumping out of the water. She explained that she had heard this could happen but neither of us had seen it before (and I missed it!). A few minutes later it happened again and I saw it this time. It was breathtaking!!! The eagle ray was about 2m across and just majestic! It came so far out of the water that it looked like a huge bird. Unfortunately I was not in any way prepared to capture a photo of this remarkable sight but I will not soon forget the image.

Upon arriving at Kicker Rock, we snorkeled between the 2 rock formations, which some of us enjoyed more than others, and saw some turtles and fish. The water was pretty deep so the sea life was not abundant but we did see some frigates, nazca boobies and blue footed boobies on the rock itself. We stopped at a beach for a little while but the water was pretty choppy, preventing us from actually reaching the beach, and the boys and I only got off the boat into the water long enough to cool off a little. It rained the entire way back to port so everyone was huddled either in the cabin of the boat or on the back under a less than adequate tonneau cover.

I’m glad we only opted to stay a couple days on San Cristobal; while it was a lovely little town with interesting things to see and do, it was definitely our least favourite of the 3 islands that we visited and we left feeling satisfied with our experience there.

We keep things real by vegging out from time to time with TV shows and movies (both Robin and I as well as the kids); my friend Daryl has been awesome at supplying us with all the media we can ask for and it really helps bring an aspect of normalcy to our busy and constantly new stream of experiences.

Walking in a Cloud (Forest)

In Costa Rica we had the incredible opportunity to visit Monteverde – the Cloud Forest – also #69 on our list top Top 100 Sights. This was by far my favourite thing that we did in CR!

While in Monteverde, we stayed at a little cottage on a working coffee farm, just outside Santa Elena. It was very cute and rustic and our host was a lovely woman named Hermida who runs the coffee farm – Finca Lluvia de Gloria – with her family. If you follow us on Instagram, you will have seen our not so little visitor to the cottage (a tarantula), but we did not let that get in the way of our thoroughly enjoying this tranquil little farm. The cooler climate was also a much appreciated reprieve from the sometimes oppressive heat of Ocotal/Coco.

Clockwise from top left: rainbow over the coffee farm in the morning; cabin #2 where we stayed; enjoying a dinner prepared by our host Hermida; sunset over the coffee farm; coffee plants!

Getting to Monteverde was a bit of an adventure in itself. We decided to rent a car in Coco and drive ourselves to Monteverde, thus avoiding the public buses and saving several hours of travel time but also allowing us to have our own transportation while in Monteverde, which actually proved to be the greatest benefit of having shelled out for the rental. However, in keeping with our effort to be frugal, we rented a compact sedan for the journey (a Toyota Yaris) and this turned out to be like driving a go-cart up and down a black diamond ski hill. I do all the driving in our family so by the time we reached the coffee farm, my nerves were shot and I was in a less than great mood. Over the next few days navigating around the roads of Monteverde I got used to the terrain and we slowly and carefully made our way around in our eco and budget-friendly little ride. We returned the car in one piece after thankfully avoiding any damaging incidents so I can’t say it was a terrible idea…it would just maybe a little less nerve-racking to be in a higher, possibly 4-wheel drive vehicle.

While in Monteverde, we were able to experience the cloud forest in 3 different ways – a suspension bridge walk above the jungle, a night walk, and a day hike on the jungle floor. They were all incredible and unique in their own ways. We started with the suspension bridge walk. Initially Robin and Caleb were going to do this while Kieran and I went ziplining (again) but when we arrived at Sky Adventures and got a look at the suspension bridges, we quickly changed our minds and decided to go on the suspension bridge walk as well – this is definitely saying something if you’ve been paying attention to how enthusiastic I am about ziplining πŸ˜‰ This turned out to be my favourite experience in all of Costa Rica. It was breathtaking to see the jungle from up above, marvel at the more than 7000 organisms and over 500 species of plants growing on a single host tree (including several species of orchids), and observe the variety of birds flying around this unique ecosystem. The thrill of being suspended several hundred metres above the jungle floor did not disappoint in the category of adrenaline-producing experiences either.

The same day that we did the suspension bridge walk, we did a night hike in the jungle with Kinkajou Tours. We don’t have many pictures of the night walk, for obvious reasons πŸ™‚ Both Caleb and Kieran said this was their favourite thing to do in Costa Rica and despite our concerns that it might be a little scary to be in the jungle at night, neither were at all nervous and they had a great time searching for wildlife and critters in the dark with their flashlights. We saw tarantulas, a kinkajou, a viper snake, and lots of exotic birds trying to get some shut-eye. Sadly, the sloths eluded us on this particular adventure. You have to be able to keep up on this tour as the guide was pretty aggressive with the pace of the hike. Several people in our group got left behind a couple times and they were not pleased (understandably) about being stranded in the dark without a guide. It’s not as scary as it sounds as there are lots of groups of tours going on at the same time and they were easily pointed in the right direction by another guide before they could freak out too much.

The last way we experienced the cloud forest was hiking through the jungle in the Santa Elena reserve. It was beautiful and breathtaking and WET. The paths were relatively well maintained but there had been a fair bit of rain over the past few days and the deeper we got in the jungle, the wetter and muckier it became. After hiking for a couple hours we stopped to eat some lunch that we’d brought along – grilled cheese sandwiches and whole carrots (a Robin brown-bag special) – and then decided to split up. Robin and Caleb wanted to do a much longer hike that was going to take another 3 hours or so but Kieran wasn’t feeling up to it or just wasn’t in the mood. He and I took a shorter loop but were rewarded with a path that featured a lookout tower that put us literally right up in the clouds. It was pretty spectacular. We got soaked and pretty muddy but it was well worth it and we still had about an hour left to wait for Robin and Caleb while we warmed up and dried out a little inside with some hot beverages.

On our first night in Monteverde we got take-out from a famous taco joint in Santa Elena called Taco Taco. It was a slightly underwhelming experience as the boys both seemed to be too tired to eat much (!!!) and when you get take-out, you don’t have the option of a side of margaritas. Santa Elena is a lovely little town though and I commented to Robin that if we had been there just the 2 of us, I would definitely have opted to stay in one of the little boutique hotels or B&Bs. A different trip for another time I suppose.

On Food and Cooking – Costa Rica

When we packed up the house in Toronto, it was shocking and upsetting how much food we had to throw out. I felt sick to my stomach looking at the amount of food waste. Since we started traveling, we’ve mostly had to walk to the grocery store, which of course limits how much we can buy in one trip. We managed to leave Ocotal CR (our first stop) with a bare fridge and left behind only a small amount of dry beans for the next people. For the most part, this has continued to be true at each place we have left so far and I’m learning a lot about how to be mindful about what we are buying to avoid food waste. We still tend to have quite a bit of leftovers from each meal as it’s really difficult to predict how hungry the boys will be from meal to meal.

I have been doing significantly less of the meal planning and preparation than I was used to at home. We still cook most of our meals ourselves because eating meals out all the time would be cost prohibitive. Robin and I do almost all the meal planning and shopping together and he’s been preparing about half of the meals. This is new territory for me but I’m getting used to it – perhaps too used to it πŸ˜‰

While we were in Costa Rica, we tried to cook meals that are typical of the culture and when we did eat meals out, we mostly ate typical Tico food as well – at least Robin and I did – it was difficult to convince the kids to opt for something other than burgers and pasta when it was on offer. A typical Costa Rican meal is called Casado and it consists of rice and beans, vegetables and a protein. It’s a very simple, balanced meal and Robin was very pleased to be able to eat like this almost all the time as this is his preferred type of meal.

We had the opportunity to try 2 of our top 100 foods while we were in Costa Rica. The first was #28 Gallo Pinto – we tried making it on our own as well as sampling it from a local soda and a home cook at one of the airbnbs we stayed at. Gallo Pinto is made from precooked rice, beans, red pepper, onion and a seasoning called Salsa Lizano that tastes a little like Worcestershire sauce (but not quite). This is the recipe I used and it turned out pretty close to what we had elsewhere. Everyone enjoyed it although I don’t think the kids are going to be opting to switch from their usual breakfast to Gallo Pinto anytime soon.

Our attempt at Gallo Pinto
Gallo Pinto that came as part of a typical Tico breakfast at one of the places we stayed – Finca de las Lluvias de Gloria – in Monteverde. Hermida was our host and she was a wonderful cook!

The second food from our top 100 list that we got to try in CR was #73 Granizado – basically a snowcone. You can get these anywhere, in any flavour, with or without powdered milk for about 1000 CRC (~$2.30 CAD). The boys tried several from the many cart vendors on the beach in Ocotal and Coco and then closed out our time in Costa Rica with a mint granziado from a place called Penguino Granizado in Jaco (Kieran is a huge penguin fan, so this was a big deal for him). I’m not personally a big fan of the granizado but it was naturally a favourite for the boys.

Top row – mint granizado from Pinguino, bottom row – beach granizado, both cherry con leche (milk).

Packing for Four

As we were preparing to leave, a lot of people asked what we were planning to take with us for the next 17 months. We will be “following the sun”, as Robin likes to put it, so the whole time we’re traveling temperatures will range from the current 32-33 degrees Celsius we are experiencing, to daytime lows in the mid-teens (overnight low will be closer to 4-5 degrees C). Robin decided long ago that he and the boys will take carry-on sized 40L backpacks (the Osprey Farpoint40 for him and Caleb and the Fairview40 for Kieran). I was very unsure about how I could possibly fit everything I would need (ha, and want) for 17 months into a 40L backpack and even spent more time than was probably reasonable discussing this with my boss during some of our one-on-ones in the last months before the trip. In fact, it was those very conversations that finally helped me make the decision to go with a 36L wheeled conversion bag plus a 24L backpack. I was still a little skeptical about whether I could Marie Kondo my packed necessities enough to get everything into even this configuration of luggage.

Robin finished planning and acquiring everything he is going to need for the next 17 months quite some time ago and trial packed about a week in advance of the trip. Me, not so much – I packed my bags for the first time on Dec 30. 

Lots of people want to know what we finally brought with us…Robin is a minimalist by nature and I don’t think this was actually that difficult for him and indeed, I think he rather relishes the idea that he can live for a year and a half out of a pack that can be carried onto an aircraft.

The basics of Robin’s packing list includes:

  • 3 t-shirts
  • 1 tank top
  • 2 long sleeved shirts
  • 1 hoodie
  • 1 raincoat
  • 2 shorts
  • 2 pants
  • 4 pairs socks/underwear
  • 2 pairs of shoes (running shoes and sandals)
  • 1 bathing suit
  • 1 travel towel

Plus of course basic toiletries and electronics. All of Robin’s clothing (except the 2 pairs of pants) are Merino wool. He will be rigorously testing the claims about Merino wool’s antibacterial (and anti-stink) properties and I certainly hope for a successful outcome. He seems (to me) to have an inordinate amount of camera gear but that will really be his hobby as we are traveling.

We already have a difficult time getting the boys to change their clothes regularly, so having express permission to wear the same few articles of clothing over an over will certainly not be an issue for them. I got them some new t-shirts that they  were forbidden from wearing until we left and they each brought just what the really need for 5-7 days. I had packed them in their bags on several trips plus summer camp over the past year so I was very confident that everything they need would fit and that they were also both able to manage carrying their own packs.

As for me…I felt intimidated and overwhelmed by packing right up until the end. I had this little collection of things that I thought I might want to bring with me but it was way too much stuff. I had a real fear of not having something I might want, or being otherwise uncomfortable, that I needed to overcome. I think the best advice I received (from a follow global traveler) on this topic was: don’t plan to change your normal style too much when planning a travel wardrobe. So as I started to pare down my collection of possible items, I tried to keep this in mind. Outside of work I generally wear a variety of comfortable clothes that I feel good in and I spent some time looking back on some of the photos from past trips, noticing that my style hasn’t changed very much, if at all, over the course of nearly 2 decades. If that “Little Miss Bossy” t-shirt still fit me (Australia/New Zealand 2007), you better believe it would be coming along.

After several wardrobe reviews with Robin’s mom, Simon, and finally a group of friends at our going away party, I was able to narrow it down to a collection that I felt comfortable with and that would fit in my bags, including all the medication for all of us!

So finally, here’s what I ended up with:

  • 7 tank tops
  • 5 t-shirts
  • 2 blouses
  • 2 long sleeves tops
  • 2 zip hoodies
  • 3 dresses (2 casual, 1 little black dress)
  • 1 shorts
  • 2 capri tights
  • 1 quick-dry capris
  • 1 long cotton tights/1 athletic tights
  • 1 pair jeans
  • pajamas
  • 7 socks/14 underwear/4 bras
  • 3 sandals, 1 pair running shoes
  • raincoat
  • vest
  • travel towel

I did bring some make-up (very minimal), dry shampoo, hair gel, and a travel sized straightening iron in addition to the usual toiletries that you would expect. So you can see, I wasn’t exactly minimalist in my packing – at least relative to Robin and the boys – and yet, it still all fit without too much trouble. I even expect that eventually I will send some of this home to myself if I’m not using it after a few months.

Not the most exciting post but answers some questions that we were frequently asked. If you want to know anything else, drop a comment!

Catching the [Travel] Bug

On our very first date, Robin told me about his dream of taking a year to travel the world, probably to make sure I would at least be willing to entertain the idea! Although I hadn’t traveled at all as a child and only some as an adult up until that point, I was keen on the idea and thought it sounded like a goal worth aspiring to. Originally his dream was toΒ sailΒ around the world and, being somewhat of a good sport, I agreed to take sailing lessons with him early on. I think he really enjoyed them but I say we would have ended up divorced before we were even married if we’d continued. I don’t like open water very much and I’m nervous when Robin is driving the car, let alone navigating a vessel on the vast, scary ocean. We quickly revised the plan (i.e. I said new plan or I’m not going) and have been talking ever since about taking a sabbatical year to travel with our kids.

By now I have traveled to many countries both with Robin and on my own and I have definitely caught the travel bug. Before meeting Robin I did a few resort vacations with friends and then in 2003, embarked on my most adventurous trip to date when I visited Europe with my friend Suzanne. It was a bit of a whirlwind and over the course of only 10 days we visited England, Holland, Belgium and Ireland. Since then, Robin and I have been to Thailand – one of my favourite places in the world has been Chiang Mai – and Cambodia in 2005, then Australia, New Zealand and Fiji in 2006, and Italy in 2012. We visited Dubai as a family in 2015 and while we were there, my dad, sister and I also made a side trip to Jordan. In 2016, Robin and I went to Iceland to celebrate our 10th wedding anniversary, and then in 2018, Robin and Kieran went to Belize together and Caleb and I went to Guatemala on a mission trip with our church. It was a great experience traveling alone with each of the boys and helping them gain some travel experience and confidence being in an unfamiliar country with just one parent.  This past year I had the opportunity to visit Germany and Poland, again with Suzanne, and Poland stole my heart! I’m very excited to add a long list of countries visited to my travel resume.

Besides traveling and learning about the culture, geography and day to day life in other countries, I think one of the things I love most about travel is what it has taught me about myself. Travel certainly pushes me out of my comfort zone and tests the boundaries of my tolerance and perspectives. While traveling in Australia and New Zealand, I learned that I don’t prefer to move around very quickly between places we are staying. I became very agitated (okay, I freaked out) especially when there was a lot of flying involved and I knew that for future travel, it would be important to me to stay a little longer in each place that we visited. That’s probably one of the things that made me love Chiang Mai so much – we stayed for longer in one place and I started to become familiar and feel comfortable with our surroundings. While I’m okay with minimal planning and being spontaneous during travel, I don’t like being rushed or trying to fit too many things into a short period of time. I do like to have prior knowledge of what to expect and do some advance planning for things that we absolutely want to be able to do/see/experience in order to avoid disappointment in the moment. I do not like being lost and to this day, cannot find the adventure in it. Maybe that will change (but probably not).

Above all else and probably most importantly, I love to travel with Robin and now with the boys as well. Seeing the world and being able to share experiences with them is one of the greatest joys in my life. Taking us out of the rush and bustle of every day life and being able to joyfully share experiences and grow together are among the reasons that this dream has become an important reality for our family. One that we have prioritized for many years now and I can’t wait to embark on together.

Top row (left to right) – Robin and I taking cooking lessons in Thailand; me sitting on steps of a temple in Ankor Wat, Cambodia; feeding kangaroos in Adelaide, Australia.

Second from top row – bungee jumping in Queenstown, New Zealand (top left); visiting the Guinness brewery with Suz in Dublin, Ireland (bottom left); Robin and I sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome, Italy (right).

Third row – Colosseum in Rome, Italy; eating pizza in Naples, Italy; Robin, Caleb and Kieran climbing the sand dunes in Dubai, UAE; Lori and I at Petra in Jordan.

Fourth row – snacking on glacial ice in Iceland; diving at Silfra in Iceland (top middle); at Kerid, a volcanic crater in Iceland (bottom middle); enjoying a pint (and then some) at Hofbrauhaus Munchen.

Bottom row – discovering my new favourite food (Zapiekanka) in the Jewish Quarter in Krakow, Poland; Caleb and I admiring the view from our hostel in Coban, Guatemala.