Family Vacation at the Barcelo Palace

All-inclusive.  The phrase causes some people to shudder in disgust (“how will you get an authentic experience if you don’t leave the resort?”) and others to sigh in relief (“I won’t have to worry about a thing AND there won’t be any hidden costs!”). I love a good DIY adventure, but I also believe there’s something to be said for an all-inclusive resort. And I particularly like an AI for a family vacation more geared toward having fun and relaxing. Enter the Barceló Palace.

 

After hours of scouring the internet and speaking with friends and fellow travel agents I finally decided upon the Barceló Palace for my family’s inaugural Mexico vacation (hubs and I had visited before, but it was the 10 YO boy child’s first visit). My most recent AIs were both Iberostar Grands so I knew I wanted to stay somewhere with a posh reputation otherwise I’d spend my entire vacation kicking myself. My secondary criteria was a good beach and plenty of things to do to keep a boy busy. The Barceló Palace promised all this and more. And they delivered.

 

Did I mention I wanted posh? I’m a total sucker for beautifully manicured grounds.

IMG_1506

And a beautiful buffet.

IMG_1288IMG_1292

IMG_1286
Can you tell I’m extra interested in pastries?

And a gorgeous beach. Note that some of the trees have electrical outlets!

Even the rinse stations between the beach and the rest of the resort are pretty.

IMG_1331

As you can plainly see, the resort is beautiful and well kept. It’s also massive. We stayed in the Palace and generally did not feel a need to visit the other parts of the resort though a Palace wristband will gain you entry and access to all the other parts of the resort AND top shelf liquor AND reservations at an à la carte restaurant for every evening of your stay at no additional charge (non-Palace guests must pay $20 per person to dine at these and are limited in the number of reservations they can make).

FOOD.

There are three à la carte restaurants at the Palace: Rodizio, Brasserie, & Caribe. Reservations need to be made at the Guest Services desk around the corner from the check in desk. Do this as soon as you arrive because you cannot do it in advance and spaces fill up fast! I tried to make reservations at Rodizio (churrascaria), Brasserie (French), and La Trattoria (the Italian restaurant in the mall). La Trattoria was booked, but I was able to secure reservations at the other two.  The woman at Guest Services gave me printed receipts of my reservations which I brought with me when we checked in at the restaurants.  While this is not required it did seem to facilitate the process.  A couple checked in after my family without their receipt and some time was spent looking up the reservation.  No big deal, but the receipts made life easier for everyone.

Rodizio. This was a meat lover’s paradise.  My husband chose to have the churrascaria service and was presented with 7 different types of meat. My son chose the enoteca (NY strip) and loved it. I had the spinach lasagna which was very tasty (and I may have helped the boy with his steak). No photos were taken as we were too busy eating.

Brasserie. I was a bit concerned about this one because none of the adult options appealed to the boy. He ended up with a ham and cheese sandwich with fries. Mike and I both had the burgundy escargot which was fantastic (even the boy enjoyed it once we convinced him to try a bite). My beef wellington was pretty good though the pastry was a bit gummy in the center (still a much better job than I could have done). Mike had the duck. he said it was a little overcooked but added that maybe he should have ordered it differently. His crème brûlée was not very good, but the surprise chocolate boxes were.  I really thought we’d receive a box with a few chocolate truffles, but this is what we got instead:

IMG_1466

Yes, the box itself is made of chocolate. Sorry to ruin the surprise. It was so pretty we hated to eat it, but we did it anyway and enjoyed every bite. And it more than made up for the so-so crème brûlée. The Brasserie menu is below (my apologies for the terrible glare).

 

In addition to the three à la cartes, the Palace has two buffet dining rooms (El Mirador and La Hacienda). They share an actual buffet though there are different things on both sides so don’t be afraid to cross the threshold or you may miss out on something delicious! There are different theme nights (i.e. Mexican night or Seafood night).  We dined in El Mirador on the seafood night and discovered that there were plenty of options besides seafood. These buffets are for when you’re dry. When you’re wet, head to the Coral Grill (literally next door to La Hacienda so there’s no missing it). This is a much smaller buffet, but a good place for late breakfast or a snack. Oh! And did I mention that the buffets have serve yourself beer and coffee? I didn’t utilize these, but I did see some people do it.  The waiters were plenty quick with carafes of coffee in the mornings so I didn’t see the need. And speaking of the waiters, never did I see any of them with anything but a smile.  Our service was fantastic at every meal, in every restaurant, and even at every bar. Bring plenty of tip money because the staff works hard and deserves it.

WATER ACTIVITIES

There are plenty of included activities at the Barceló. We did not take advantage of any of the pool slides or the miniature golf, but they are options if you’re so inclined.  We really wanted to take out the water trikes (who even knew that was a thing?) but the water was too rough when we wanted to go. Single person kayaks are also available, but that felt too much like work. Mike got a refresher course in the use of a Hobie cat and took the boy and me out for a ride. Lessons were free of charge, but once again the staff is amazing and should be rewarded, so plan to tip. No payment was required for the use of the non-motorized equipment.

IMG_1483
water trikes. seriously how cool is that?

 

IMG_1481IMG_1495IMG_1485IMG_1480

If you have your own snorkel gear then bring it because you won’t want to miss some of the resident wildlife.

DCIM100GOPROG0172288.DCIM100GOPROG0172298.

ROOMS

All the food and swimming had us going to bed before 10 every night (which is a shame because the shows all start at 9:30).  The rooms were pretty and the bathroom divided in such a way that someone could use the toilet in privacy while someone else was in the bathroom.

The only thing I did not like at the resort was the bed. I despise these beds. They are hard and the sheets are noisy. Yes, you read that correctly. Noisy sheets. After two nights I discovered that if I slipped the mattress protector to the side by releasing two corners, removed the loud sheet, and lined up the pillows to create my own pillowtop mattress, the bed was acceptable. My husband did the same (less the pillows) on the other double bed which was free because my son begged me to sleep on the couch because it was more comfy than the bed. A five star resort should not have a one star bed. So while it’s my only complaint it is a big one.

 

DOLPHINARIS

Right. So I struggled with this one a bit. There is a daily show at 11:30 for no charge and you can pay to interact with the dolphins.  The pool seemed quite small to house 5 dolphins thought it is approved by some European dolphin regulatory group or something.

MISCELLANY

Wifi.  Wifi costs $12/day for one day. The more days you purchase the less the cost per day. Only one device can be logged in at a time. At first I thought this was bordering on a disgrace, but I found that I really didn’t miss it.  We did purchase it so my husband could do some work and my son used it a bit, too. If you use Apple devices you have to go to a special web address to log on and off. Unfortunately one of our devices got “stuck” logged in and we couldn’t free it so Mike was forced to work from his phone. He states he wouldn’t go back unless they fixed the way they handle the internet.

Airport transfers. I purchased a package from Funjet with a private transfer through Lomas Travel. Finding them at the airport was easy peasy. They have a cooler in their vehicles with cold drinks including beer available for purchase at half the price of the kiosk outside the airport.

Included wine. Not a big deal for most of you, but I enjoy red wine with dinner. There was only one included red wine and I never thought to get the name. It wasn’t awesome but it was drinkable (I generally prefer malbecs, blends, & riojas if that helps). Non included bottles can be purchased for 3-4 times what you’d pay at a store in the US.

Excursions. There are several travel companies at the ground floor of the Palace. You can purchase an excursion through them or directly through the resort. We purchased the Tulum Express through Lomas and found ourselves on a bus with guests from another part of the Barcelo who purchased directly though the resort. I did not ask what they paid but I will tell you that I was able to negotiate our price down. I guess the lesson is to shop the price or just pick whoever makes you feel comfortable.

Thanks for reading all the way to the end. I will reward you with the most important advice I have to give about travel in Mexico. When you arrive at Immigration and present the form you’ve been given to the officer, he/she will tear off the bottom and give it back to you. YOU MUST NOT LOSE THIS OR YOU CANNOT LEAVE THE COUNTRY. Seriously. I have a friend whose wife misplaced his and he had to sleep at the airport (until they kicked him out because they close every night) and he had to complete extra paperwork for some government official and pay extra money the following day during business hours. Hungover. With a broken toe. Don’t let this happen to you. I attach a paperclip to the back cover of my passport and store my government papers there. You should, too.

Interested in learning more? Any questions I neglected to answer? Leave a comment or contact me directly at amanda@designmytrip.net.

 

 

 

Cuzco & the Inca Trail in September (and why you should go)

My first trip to South America was full of firsts for me: first time to sleep in an airport, first time to be threatened with fire and rocks by the locals, first time to sleep in a tent at a train station, first time to eat a guinea pig, first time to go four days without a shower. None of this sounds like a good time, but it added to the experience. After all, you never tell the story about the time everything went right….

 

Getting to Cuzco (Friday & Saturday)

Luckily for me it’s pretty easy to get to Peru from Houston. A mere 6.5 hour direct flight will get me to Lima.  Which would be great if I wanted to hang out in Lima (which by all accounts is a cool place and maybe one day I’ll check it out). But this visit was all about Cuzco. It’s kind of a pain to get to and here’s why: There are no late night flights from Lima to Cuzco. Houston flights arrive after 11PM and flights to Cuzco end well before then and don’t resume until after 3AM.

So that means you’re either spending the night in Lima (which would be a great idea if you have the time) or you’re spending the night in the airport (a significantly less exciting prospect). My husband was short on vacation days because he’s my adventure buddy and I’m constantly dragging him all over the world so we wanted to get to Cuzco as soon as possible to begin the acclimatization process.  We (my husband, brothers, and I) opted to sleep in the airport and take the earliest? second earliest? flight we could get to Cuzco. Some things I learned:

1- Don’t throw away the baggage claim stickers they give you when you check your luggage in the States.  I often use mine to throw away my gum (gross but true). Luckily this time I didn’t.  An airport employee in Lima checks everyone’s tickets as they pull their luggage off the baggage carousel.  You have been warned.

2- There are tons of dining options including Papa John’s, McDonald’s (they even have a quarter pounder despite being in a metric-using country), and various other eateries.  There’s a lot of activity in the Lima airport at midnight.

3- Go ahead and buy that bottle of water. You are allowed to take it through security on domestic flights but you still have to take off your shoes. Go figure.

4- Sleeping in the airport isn’t as bad as I thought it would be and a surprising number of people do it.  My husband and brothers shielded their eyes with baseball caps.  I used my lavender scented zebra striped sleep mask. (Don’t judge). It’s easy to find space to sprawl across a few seats by your gate so use your backpack as a pillow and get comfy until your plane arrives.

The LAN flight to Cuzco was easy peasy. That was my first time on that particular airline and I can’t complain (though I did doze off again so maybe I’m not the best judge). I heard they served a delicious orange cake (because that’s what people want at 4:00AM?), but as mentioned I was sleeping so I missed it.

We arrived in Cuzco just after 5AM. It’s a small airport so no stress. And nobody checks your luggage tag so do what you will with it (at your own risk).  There’s an official taxi stand where you collect the baggage and plenty of independent taxi drivers just outside the door.  We decided to play it safe and grabbed a taxi from the official guy.  Because of our luggage we split into two cabs. A trip from the airport to our hotel (the JW Marriot El Convento) was $40 per cab.  We paid about half of that on our return trip so the lesson here is shop the price.

A short 20? 30? minute drive later we were at the hotel.  Naturally our rooms were not ready, but they did hold our luggage for us so we went out to explore the city before the streets became packed with tourists.  We returned to the hotel sometime after 6AM and hit the breakfast buffet. A nap, a shower, and some coca leaf tea later and we were ready to wander the city on foot. Here are a few pics:

img_4297
Plaza de Armas (taken later in the day)

 

 

Lunch was at Paititi at the Plaza de Armas where we all decided to try the lomo saltado.

img_4295

It was great and the food was reasonably priced.  In fact, at the conclusion of our trip we discussed the fact that all food and drink we encountered in Peru was very reasonably priced (with the exception of my $20 hamburger at the JW.  But it was soooooo good).

Despite our naps, we crashed pretty early that night. The hotel offers entertainment in the courtyard (including s’mores!) Saturday nights and it can get loud.

 

Tips:

1- Take advantage of your ridiculously early arrival in Cuzco and use that time to explore.  You will never again have the chance to explore and photograph the city without jostling and competing for a shot with hundreds of other visitors.

2- Bring your earplugs. Generally a good idea anyway for a myriad of reasons, but especially useful when your hotel has amazing entertainment that you’re just too tired to enjoy.

Day 3 (Sunday)

Time to explore! We hired a taxi in Cuzco to take us on a tour of the Sacred Valley. We spoke with our concierge who called a taxi service for us. We got Franco in taxi #18 (you can request him by name or car#). He drove us around the Sacred Valley rockin’ out to his collection of 1980s American pop for half a day.  And bonus that he offered to take our photos at every single stop. Franco didn’t speak much English but two of us spoke enough Spanish that we were able to converse and thereby get a little history lesson/tour guide with our ride. If you don’t speak Spanish don’t fret. Just do a little research on the Sacred Valley before hand so you have a clue about what’s going on.

We saw some good things on our way to Pisaq like alpacas and non-bewitched houses. Hmmmm….

img_4334

img_4324

 

 

Next stop was Awanacancha where you can learn about llamas, alpacas, & vicuñas in a pretty nice little museum, feed said animals, then purchase items made by local craftspeople with fibers from those same animals. Overall a nice place to spend an hour or so.

img_4348

 

Pisac (Pisaq)

Our first major site was Pisac (or Pisaq if you prefer). There is a large market in the actual town but we opted to skip it even though rumor has it that it’s pretty good.  We learned the hard way that the Pisac ruins are pretty crowded on the weekend, but we were still able to enjoy them.  Purchase your ticket in town (your driver will know where to go). Vendors sell drinks and snacks at the entrance and there a loads of tour guides offering their services for a fee (not sure what it was because we didn’t hire one). Pisac is a good place to spend 1-2 hours.

 

Urubamba

We stopped here for lunch at Inka House.  They offer a wide variety of local foods at their buffet. Lunch cost about $15 with a drink and was all you can eat.  The food was excellent and I discovered banana fritters. Yum. This is a popular place with the tour groups. If you’re lucky like we were you’ll be wrapping up as the tour groups begin to arrive.  For your added enjoyment there’s live musical entertainment.

There’s definitely more to do in Urubamba, we just didn’t do it.

Chinchero

Our final ruin of the day. Not nearly as impressive as Pisac.

img_4420

Our final tour stop was at another weaving facility. This time we learned how the fibers are dyed, spun, and woven from a Quechua lady that spoke wonderful English.  It was very interesting and I’m glad we stopped. Naturally there are goods for sale including silver items in the back.

 

You can find them online at http://www.incas.org/center-for-traditional-textiles-of-cusco

Tips:

  1. Take plenty of cash and plan to haggle.  It’s fine and it’s fun.
  2. Get started early. There are other major sites in the valley. We missed them, but you don’t have to.

We finished the day with dinner at the KFC in Cuzco and had to try the local soda (think Big Red meets lemonade)

 

We ended the evening with a visit to our tour outfit to prepare for our trip to the Inca Trail.

Day 4 (Monday)

Monday was spent wandering around the city (again) and checking out the things we skipped before.  Highlights included the San Pedro market (where a mean lady fussed at me for taking a photo of her wares -I asked permission after that). You could probably find just about anything in the market from flowers to souvenirs to animal parts. There’s a collection of stands in the back where you can order food but we declined since we were heading to the Inca Trail that evening and didn’t want any issues. If I had planned things a little better we would’ve hit that on day one to enjoy some of the local street food.

 

img_4435
some type of eggs

Somewhat bummed about having to skip the food kiosks at the market we decided we could still enjoy the local food scene at Kusikuy. What is Kusikuy you ask? Well let me tell you.  It is (apparently) the premier place to eat guinea pig. Seriously. And alpaca, too.  We arrived early and were the only patrons. The owner talked with us for a bit and then was kind enough to tell us how to the the little booger. Between the four of us we had chips, 1 guinea pig, and 2 orders of alpaca along with a beer each.  That was plenty.  Mike thinks the cuy tastes like a cross between rabbit and squirrel. I haven’t determined why he knows this. My humble opinion is that the cuy was kind of gross but the alpaca tasted like a really lean beef. I’m glad I tried all of it, but I probably won’t eat any of it again. Incidentally I asked out taxi driver Franco if he ate cuy thinking maybe it was some elaborate hazing that tourists were subjected to.  He said yes so I asked him if it tasted like chicken (which was lost on him because he told me it tasted like rabbit.)

 

That evening we gathered and weighed our trekking gear, packed the other stuff in our suitcases to be kept safe by our hotel until our return, and headed over to the tour outfit to meet up with the rest of the group to travel to the start of the Inca Trail.

The Inca Trail (Monday- Friday)

You’ve read the posts, blogs, and articles, but there’s nothing like actually experiencing it for yourself (duh). For example, as I was scouring the internet, never did anyone mention that they had spent the night in a tent in a bus parking lot before beginning their trek (I did). I also did not read about strikes by the local workers (which we encountered including flaming objects blocking the road and angry men threatening our bus with large rocks). And you know what? We survived.

Monday evening. My husband, brothers, and I met at the office of our tour group. Due to planned strikes in the area they determined that we should leave Cuzco at 8PM in the evening as opposed to the originally planned 4AM the following day. Just in case we encountered any issues. Which we did. A quick debriefing and we were sent back to our respective hotels to gather our trail gear and meet back at the office a few hours later.

We returned as arranged and met our fellow hikers- 3 couples from Canada, 2 girlfriends from Malaysia, a mature couple from England, and a solo woman traveler from the Midwest. We hopped on the bus then began our multi hour drive to KM82- the beginning of the trail (and coincidentally a train station). There were some tense moments as we encountered flaming logs blocking one lane streets and men threatening our van with rocks. Luckily our guide was part Quechua and was able to disarm the situations in which we found ourselves (also I’m fairly certain he paid some people off). We arrived very late, the porters pitched our tents, and we were out for the next 5 hours.

Inca Trail Day 1 (Tuesday)

Day one on the Inca Trail in early September is hot. And that’s coming from someone born and raised in Houston. You’ll start the day with sleeves but know that a few hours in you will be stripping and applying sunscreen. Plan accordingly. Day one wasn’t at all how I imagined the Inca Trail. It was a dusty trail through a handful of villages. And really the word village implies that there are more than a handful of buildings. What we encountered were mostly a few houses grouped together around the trail. Enterprising people in the villages had toilets we could use for 1 sol and they even gave us toilet paper. (Yay) You’ll take it for granted but I promise that you will remember these toilets fondly by the end of your trek.

We trekked for about 9 hours before arriving at our campsite for the evening. During that time one of the Canadian men began feeling violently ill. He and his buddy (also starting to have mild discomfort) rented donkeys in the village where we stopped for lunch and rode to the camp. Our guide had them start Cipro which would have been great if they only had traveler’s diarrhea. Turns out they brought a virus along on our trek which managed to infect almost all of us. I mention this because it’s a good reminder with useful information.

  1. Bring lots of hand sanitizer. I had a travel container clipped to my pants at all times. I should have brought 2.
  2. Bring Cipro. Just in case you do get Traveler’s Diarrhea. Tell your doctor you’re traveling to Peru and he/she will likely suggest it before you even have a chance to request it.
  3. If you get ill on day 1, you can rent a donkey. This may  or may not be useful information depending on how your day is going. There are no villages after the first day so you suck it up and do your best if you’re ill at that point.
img_4473
obligatory IT sign photo with my favorite adventure buddy

A few interesting photos from Day One:

All in all Day One was fairly unremarkable. The highlight of the day was getting to know our fellow travelers during the trek and in the dining tent that evening.

 

Inca Trail Day 2 (Wednesday)

Day two. Day two was an exceedingly difficult day for some. Our guide started us on the trail just after breakfast and told us to wait for him at the pass. The trail was steadily uphill with a few false summits. Four of us made it to the pass over two hours before our guide showed up so we got to cheer on the trekkers from our group and others who arrived after us. I think our success was due to the fact that we were all distance runners or endurance athletes of some variety. Also I was totally cheating by using Diamox. Dead Woman’s Pass has a good view, but it’s cold so if it’s within your power, try not to hang out here for two hours. There was another pass after Dead Woman’s, but it wasn’t nearly as grueling. There was also a great fort just an hour’s hike before camp.

 

img_0627
Dead Woman’s Pass

 

img_4627
Sayacmarka

Inca Trail Day 3 (Thursday)

Day three. The most beautiful day in my opinion. This is what I pictured in my head when I thought of the Inca Trail. Large stones created a path through all sorts of gorgeous scenery. We began the day by visiting a cloud forest . It was cold. And cloudy.

After the cloud forest we proceeded along the trail getting closer all the time to the Amazon jungle. All the ascents and descents made trekking poles very useful and I learned that steps are easier to negotiate if you walk side to side.

 

The day ended at Wiñay Wayna.

img_4741
Did I mention there were lots of steps?

 

Inca Trail Day 4 (Friday) Machu Picchu!

We woke up eaaaaarly in order to be among the first in line to enter the gate on the path to Machu Picchu. Though the gate doesn’t open until 5AM people begin lining up hours before. Let me just tell you that it is cold in the dark early hours of the morning. It wouldn’t be so bad if we had been moving but we were just keeping our places in line. Some people did jumping jacks and some played cards. Most of us just huddled in misery and waited for the gate to open.

The final trek to Intipunku (the Sun Gate) is short and easy until the final push at the end

Intipunku was more crowded than I expected but still pretty cool.This is where you’ll get the money shot of Machu Picchu if you’re fortunate enough to get a clear morning (which we were).

img_4814

img_4825

The walk down to Machu Picchu was very easy. Around this time we started seeing a few people walking from MP to Intipunku. You could tell they had taken the train because they had makeup and nice clothing. Slackers!

We exited the park then re-entered (something about getting the tickets properly stamped), stowed our backpacks, used a real flushing toilet!, then got a whirlwind tour from our guide.

I was surprised by the number of people at Machu Picchu. It was overcrowded. The number of people and the heat of the day really detracted from my overall enjoyment (boohoo I know). Having said that, there were some amazing views to be had and here are a few for your viewing enjoyment.

 

Once the tour was over we had the option to re-enter and proceed at our own pace or to head over to Huayana Picchu if we had previously purchased the ticket.

There are two groups per day allowed up Huayana Picchu. I went up with my husband and brother (my other brother was stricken with the virus and vomiting violently outside the Unesco world heritage site). Being overachievers we decided to time ourselves (It took 34 minutes from start to summit). There were maybe two dozen people on top and most were good about getting their photos of Machu Picchu then getting out of the way (except for one guy). Huayana Picchu has some awe inspiring views but it is very steep and there are some really exposed areas. If either of these are a problem for you then enjoy the next photos and live vicariously through me.

 

 

The bus ride down the hill was uneventful (as you would hope). Aguas Calientes has a certain charm even though it’s pretty clearly designed for tourists. The train station is easy to find and getting on the correct train is a no brainer. We opted to take the upgraded train when we originally purchased the tickets knowing that we would want a little comfort and that we’d want an earlier departure (the basic train leaves later in the day and leaves you with a 2 hour bus ride after the train stops in Ollytantambo whereas the upgraded train takes you to Poroy which is only a 20 minute ride to Cuzco).

A representative from the tour outfit collected us at the station and then dropped us all at our respective hotels.

 

Final Day (Saturday)

Our final day was spent lazing around with a side visit to the market at San Blas and other miscellaneous souvenir shopping. And I had the most delicious and overpriced burger ever at the JW’s restaurant (it disappeared too fast to take a photo).

The adventure was overall a huge success and while I was happy to head home for a bit I’m already planning my next big adventure.

If you’re interested in the finer points of the hike including gear, clothing, etc. then stay tuned for my in depth what to expect/do/wear/bring article.

Want to hike the Andes? I can hook you up completely free of charge with a turnkey adventure including almost everything except international airfare and a few meals. Want a more tailored experience? For a small fee I can custom design your experience from start to finish. I do hate to charge, but there are a lot of moving parts to piece together (and this girl has to make a living to support her travel habit).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Top Ten Tips for Disney World

img_0753Disney World. You either love it or you don’t. One thing we can all agree on though is that a little preparation and know-how can go a long way towards making your visit as perfect as it can be.

There are dozens, nay, scores, even hundreds of lists of things to take or do or avoid and my guess is that you’ve read at least a few of them. Some of my tips may be repeats (but they’ll be worth repeating) and some may be new. Either way, as a frequent visitor here are my must haves/must dos.

1. Get to the park early and be there when it opens. Doubtless there’s at least one ride you desperately want to ride but for which you couldn’t get a FastPass. Speed walk to that as soon as you enter the park and you’ll be set. There may still be a small wait depending on your racewalking prowess, but I promise it won’t be anything like the 2+ hour wait later in the day (I’m looking at you Seven Dwarves Mine Train).

2.  Download the My Disney Experience app.  You will be lost without it.  (literally- it has a map). Yes, they still have paper maps at the entry to the parks in more languages than a UN meeting, but the app has so much more than just directions- think reservations, Fast Passes, and wait times. Download it and use it.  You will be glad you did.

3.Bring a small charging device for your phone.  You will spends loads of time on your phone at the park. Between taking photos, using the My Disney Experience app, uploading your photos to social media, and playing games while waiting in line your battery is going to need a boost.

4.Download the app Heads Up. It’s a fun way to pass time in line with your friends. As an added bonus when you download the Disney pack of cards from inside the park they’re free. Woohoo!

5.Bring your own bottle(s) of water. Yes, you can get free cups of ice water in the restaurants with fountain drinks and you may have to do so at some point, but life is a lot easier if you have your bottle with you from the start.

6. Bring a small backpack. You won’t be hiking the Inca Trail so no need to bring anything massive.  A small pack to hold your water, a camera (if you’re old school like that), your phone charger,  baseball cap and sunglasses (for the wild rides), and a souvenir or two and you should be set. (If you run out of souvenir space the shop can send it to your resort room so you don’t have to shlep it).

7. Bring your own wine/beer/booze to the resort (Not the parks!) After a day at the parks it’s time to decompress. Yes, you could go find an adult beverage for an exorbitant price orrrrr you could open that bottle of wine you were smart enough to bring with you. I use Bottle Armor when I check my wine (it protects the bottle AND has a corkscrew pocket).

8. Stay on property. Yes, you can stay at a local chain hotel. They may even offer a shuttle and free breakfast and while that sounds good, there’s a downside. That free shuttle? Most likely doesn’t get to the park until mid-morning. So you’ve missed out there. (Refer to Tip #1 on why this is a bad thing). Not worried about the shuttle because you plan to rent a car?  Awesome. So add that car rental fee to your hotel charges and don’t forget to throw in $20 to park at the parks. Each day.  (And besides all that, have you SEEN the size of the parking lots? Massive.) That’s still not that bad you may say to yourself.  And you’d be right (maybe). But then I’d ask- What is your time worth? What is it worth to you to have someone else do the work?  Do yourself a favor, stay on property, and use the free shuttle service to the parks provided by Disney. As an added bonus, you get to take advantage of extra magic hours that off-property guests don’t get.

9.  Wear comfortable clothing. Most of you will pack comfy clothing and shoes but some of you will go for fashion rather than comfort. Don’t do it! There’s no need to impress your family because they already think you’re awesome. (After all, you brought them to Disney World). And if you’re single, do you really plan to meet Mr./Mrs. Right at Disney World? Take a shower, use deodorant, and hide your hair under a hat if you must. Do what you must regarding makeup and be done.

10. Pack your patience. It seems obvious but it’s easy to forget when you’re trying to dodge double strollers, scooters, and people obliviously wandering down the sidewalks & streets. At a snail’s pace. Right in front of you.  Four abreast.  (I’m still working on trying to find my zen.) Just take a deep breath and remember that you really are at the happiest place on Earth! (And that there’s a bottle of wine waiting for you in your room).

 

3 Days in Puerto Rico

 

Hola friends! Have you ever thought to yourself “Self, let’s go to Puerto Rico”? No? Well maybe it’s time you had that conversation. I recently spent about 72 hours in PR and this is how it went:

Day One

Mike and I landed around 4, grabbed the rental car (all car rental companies share one building and it is directly across the street from baggage claim- no need for a tram, bus, or anything but your own two feet), then headed straight for the San Juan Water and Beach Club on Isla Verde. They were packing away the beach loungers by the time we checked in, changed, and made it to the the beach so naturally we headed up to the rooftop bar. We had to try the local brew (Medalla) and decided it was fine.  Nothing to write home about, but it was cold so we were happy .  And the views from the top didn’t hurt.

 

img_0016

A quick discussion with our bartender about local food and drink led us to the conclusion that we needed to leave the hotel and head to Mi Casita (a 5 minute walk down the street) to try their famous mofongo.  Rumor has it that tourists and locals eat there and it did appear that way once we arrived. Mike had the pork mofongo with a Magna (the other local beer) and I had the shrimp mofongo with red wine. Mine tasted better than his, but that was just my opinion. (But I was right)

After dinner and a bit of wandering we ended up back at the rooftop bar for  nightcap. I desperately wanted a mudslide but they were completely out of chocolate syrup so I had a Kokok instead (vanilla, cinnamon, and coconut).  It totally satisfied my dessert craving.

 

 

Day 2- Beach & Old San Juan

We started the day early with an awesome breakfast at a place we’d seen the night before- Playa Papaya. Mike had some sort of eggs and vegetables and I had the biggest most beautiful parfait ever.

 

After breakfast we made a quick walk over to Walgreen’s for important stuff like sunscreen, bug spray, and wine. Then we headed for Playa de Isla Verde (the beach at the hotel).  The sand and water were perfect- no debris on the beach or in the water and the surf wasn’t rough.

img_0043
Playa de Isla Verde

Around 11 we left the beach (sad face) so we could shower and check out by noon. We opted to leave our luggage at the hotel with the car and catch an Uber into Old San Juan so we wouldn’t have to deal with parking, etc.  That turned out to be a great idea. Our Uber driver dropped us at the Plaza de Armas and off we went.  We meandered along the Paseo de la Princessa Calle Shumberg toward El Morro stopping to take pictures of the multitude of statues and giant trees along the way.

 

img_0055
Plaza de Armas

img_0065img_0062img_0069

El Morro

 

Entry to El Morro is $5/adult and there’s plenty to explore. Bonus is that it’s on a hill with a great breeze.  In fact, the grounds in front are popular with kite flyers and we saw several while we were there.  After our visit we walked down into the city to find Senor Paleta for fresh made ice cream as recommended by our Uber driver.  The ice cream was cheap and delicious.  Try the dulce de leche.  I would have taken a picture, but I was hot and my ice cream was melting so you’ll have to take my word about the whole thing. We passed some interesting things along the way.

 

A quick Uber trip after that took us back to the San Juan Water & Beach club to collect our car and head down the coast for the Wyndham Rio del Mar.  (Pro tips- Waze works great in PR. Download it and use it if you plan to drive. Also, leave San Juan before 4 if you want to beat the traffic).

Sixteen miles and 40 or so minutes later we were pulling into the Wyndham Rio del Mar. Check in was painless and the room was lovely though freezing (the AC worked very well). Room keys are bracelets (a la Disney World style Magic Band) and they are different colors based on your resort (The Wyndham is connected to Margaritaville). In all honesty I was concerned about the 2 resorts in one but it wasn’t a problem at all and the facilities throughout were the same with no noticeable difference from one side to the other.

We made it to our room and put on our swimsuits then headed down to the pool bar. Sometime around then I realized I’d lost my camera. After some frantic searching and phone calls we discovered I’d left it in the Uber driver’s car. So we killed time at the resort then went back to San Juan where we killed some more time waiting for our guy to get out of class. Dinner that night was at Church’s Chicken. I’m pretty sure you don’t want pictures of that which is good since I didn’t have my camera.  Anyway, that pretty much killed that evening.  We were exhausted by the time we made it back into the hotel and crawled into bed.

 

Day 3- El Yunque, Los Kioskos de Luquillo, Wyndham beach/pool

We woke up bright and early and ready to explore El Yunque! We grabbed coffee and muffins at the hotel, picked up the car, then headed across the highway to begin our exploration.

We arrived at the first point of interest shortly after 8AM. Our early arrival gave us loads of time to explore the trails, waterfalls, and towers without fighting crowds. We spent approximately 5 hours wandering the park and loved every minute of it.

Pro tips for El Yunque- bring a rain jacket, shoes with some sort of traction (my trail running shoes worked great and Mike’s hiking sandals were pretty good except for a few spots where he had to watch his toes on rocks), water, and a snack if you plan to explore as much as possible.  There is a snack shop in the park (there may even be more than one), and rumor has it that the food is good, but we didn’t stop.  Also, as mentioned earlier, arrive at the park early so you can enjoy the trails in peace and get some great photos without fighting crowds.

Los Kioskos de Luquillo

Playing in the rain forest made us hungry so we left the park and drove about 2 miles down the highway to the Kioskos de Luquillo.  In my head I pictured Oistens in Barbados- just a total warren of food shacks, but it turned out to be more of a really long strip center of food shops. Mike wanted ceviche so we stopped at the first place that advertised it and looked good. Three Medallas, one ceviche, one crab arepa, & an order of tostones later, we were full and happy. Yareh- Kiosko 43 is the place to go!

The remainder of the afternoon was spent at the beach and the pool back at the resort. We briefly considered going kayaking that night on Mosquito Bay to see the bioluminescence, but quickly discarded it as being too much work after our morning adventures (plus Mike didn’t want to drive).

For dinner we ordered a large pizza from the resort bakery (it was actually pretty good), took it to our room, and enjoyed it on our balcony. And remember that bottle of wine we bought at the Walgreen’s? Yep. We had that with our pizza. So we saved a ton of money and didn’t even have to leave the resort to do it. Pro tip- bring your own wine/whatever to enjoy in your room or on your balcony. Wyndham does have a strict no cooler policy so don’t expect to hang out at the pool with your budget beer.

 

Final Day- Day 4- Day 3.5?

Yes, I know I said three days in the title and now I have a day 4. What can I say? We spent the morning hanging around the beach and pool then gathered our things and said adios to the lovely people at the Wyndham. A few things to note- check out time is 11 AM. They’re happy to store your luggage for you if you want to enjoy the pool/beach after your check out, but there are no showers at the fitness facility to get cleaned up before you head back to the city to catch your flight.  I did ask the concierge about this and he referred me to the night manager who informed me that I could shower at the golf pro shop. I got the impression this isn’t highly publicized, so now you know. Make sure you turn in your towel cards AND your wristbands upon check out or you will incur fees. And the valet will want to see your final hotel receipt before you depart (probably to make sure you were honest and paid for valet instead of self parking). Though it’s only about a 35 minute drive back to the airport the Wyndham manager told me they usually recommend departing the resort 3 hours in advance of your flight due to increased Sunday traffic (people driving back to the city in anticipation of the work week) and to give yourself plenty of time to get through “agriculture” (a quick x ray of all your belongings as soon as you enter the airport). He said sometimes it takes 10 seconds, sometimes more. Luckily we were in the 10 second group.  Easy peasy.

A final note about the airport- you exit security straight into the duty free shops. A & B gates are to your left and that’s also where you’ll find the cheap food- Subway, Church’s Chicken, and a handful of others. C & D gates are to your right and there are limited options on this side. Most notably there’s a Margaritaville where you’ll pay $10 for a beer and $18 for a sandwich. So save yourself some $$ and go to the left.

 

Final Thoughts/ Miscellaneous Info

1- First of all, everyone speaks English- this isn’t surprising, but now you know in case you were wondering.

2- The roads are in good shape and Waze works like a charm so do yourself a favor and rent a car. We ran into a woman at the resort that had not rented a car but really wanted to go explore El Yunque at her own speed without signing up with a group. Bummer for her.  (BTW, El Yunque is part of the National Park Service and it’s free).

3- The Wyndham offers an All- Inclusive option. Skip it.  The people I spoke with on the AI plan were disappointed in their options. Apparently not all restaurants at the resort are part of the plan.

4- The beach at the Wyndham isn’t all that great. Yes, I know we spent a lot of time there, but there was organic debris all over the beach and a few yards out in the water. Maybe it’s from the river up the coast or maybe it was from recent storms? Either way, that combined with a rough surf made for a sub-optimal beach experience. The pools (adult/quiet & family/activity) however were great as was the service we received from the entire staff.

5- Bring a reusable water bottle.  The tap water is fine to drink and doesn’t taste weird so why spend the extra money on bottled water if you don’t have to?

 

 

 

Getting to Know Me

Hi everyone. As I figure out the world of blogging I thought I’d take a minute to tell you a little about me.  I’m married (to the most patient man on earth) and have an amazing 10 year old son.  I prefer puppy pictures to baby pictures and I prefer red wine to white. I love to cook, read, and run. When I’m not busy doing those things I’m busy planning my next trip. After bumping around the world for the last few years, I’ve learned that the best experiences are whatever make you happy. Everyone’s got their own style and that’s ok.

IMG_3013
Iberostar Grand Hotel Paraíso