I stand corrected.

“Cancun is terrible.”  “An All -Inclusive Resort? I’d rather stay home.” These words have most certainly come out of my mouth.  In general, I do think that there are better destinations and better options than a resort……but I also am a travel hacker and wasting points/miles/free-anything is strictly forbidden.  So, when we learned that Luis’s Hyatt account had two free nights at any property that were going to expire in February, I was forced to reconsider.   Previous prejudices aside, we booked at the Hyatt Zilara, a relatively new all-inclusive, adults-only resort smack  in the heart of hotel drive, Cancun. Yes, I did that.

And it turns out…..we had a phenomenal time.  They had much better restaurants than the previous all-inclusive I had been to, including a Tapas restaurant, our favorite cuisine!  The property was beautiful.  Our status allowed for an upgraded room and our own special concierge and we did nothing but eat, watch the sun rise and set, belly up to the pool bar, lounge on the beach beds, read with the sea breeze to keep us cool and enjoy the view!

I’m not a convert and I don’t think I’d like a full week of that type of vacation – but another 2 nights comped, sure thing – sign me up!  I may have created a monster though. Time will tell how far out in the future my husband will stop what he’s doing, look at me and say “Mason, I miss the Hyatt Zilara!”

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Snorkel, rest, repeat

Ignorance nearly made these the only fish we would see. Thankfully we decided to brave the waves and check out the underwater world.
Ignorance nearly made these the only fish we would see. Thankfully we decided to brave the waves and check out the underwater world.

“In hindsight”.   So many great observations begin with those words, eh?  Our “in hindsight” observation is that we should have docked at Caye Caulker island, walked to the nearest snorkel/dive shop and booked 3 days in a row of snorkeling.  We are novices and didn’t know any better.  We did at least get one morning of snorkeling the Belize Barrier Reef and thank goodness as it was by far the highlight of our visit to Belize.  Some might say “obviously!!”, because Belize is a well known dive and snorkel hub, but we were oblivious to how spectacular the reef is.  Now it is obvious – this is why we were supposed to come here.  Caye Caulker’s best attribute – the  underwater world!

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Our few hours out centered around the Hol Chan Marine Reserve & Shark Ray Alley.  An underwater canyon cuts through the reef providing an area with an abundance of marine life to observe.  Our guide drove us out about 30 minutes off the island and killed the engine.  We were immediately surrounded by nurse sharks and sting rays looking for food.  We had gone with a company that doesn’t feed the marine life as it really isn’t a good practice but they are so used to the boats feeding them that they swarmed us anyway.  It seemed a little counter intuitive to jump into waters with at least a dozen sharks and rays in view but in we went.  It was spectacular and our guide was great at pointing out corals and fish I might have missed on my own.  No underwater camera, but a few images pulled from the web of the fish we saw:

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It was already our last day when we took our snorkeling trip but had we had more days we would have booked to go to an area full of manatees and would likely have considered a trip out to the Blue Hole, despite the cost and distance.  For some odd reason the tour companies don’t really promote the Blue Hole, so it didn’t really even occur to us that it was an option until it was too late – which is crazy given it is one of the natural wonders of the world.

Even though we weren’t crazy about Caye Caulker and the little we saw of Belize, we might be back just to tie up these loose ends!

The Blue Hole !!  To snorkel around the edge would be amazing!
The Blue Hole !! To snorkel around the edge would be amazing!

 

 

Unbelizeable?!?!

We had a vague idea of what we wanted to do with our short introductory trip to the Belizean islands: eat lobster, snorkel, read a book & maybe lay in a hammock.

While we managed to accomplish our meager list, we came away from Caye Caulker with the eloquent review:  “it’s meh.”

In Caye Caulker’s defense, I didn’t really have any expectations for the trip, nor did I research the small island’s claim(s) to fame so it’s not really fair to say that the island let me down, but let’s be honest….the island let me down.

The Positive

It’s cute, I’ll give it that. Shoes are overrated.  Mostly bikes and golf carts – bonus points.  Not overly developed with obnoxious hotels and resorts!  Restaurants with all outdoor seating.  Tempting seafood on every menu.  A nice mix of tourists.  It’s a tiny island so in only a few days you can feel like you really got to know the place. Amazing sea life to explore!  The crystal clear waters are kickass and the stars are bright at night. It’s not Spring Break-style, nights are fairly quiet and relaxed.  It’s a genuinely happy place!

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The Spoiled Girl’s Whine

There isn’t really anything to do unless you are a hardcore scuba diver.  I guess not having anything to do is kind of the point of going to an island to relax, but still – we rode our bikes from one end of the island to the other a few times…and now what?  The tempting seafood on the menus was just ok and expensive for what was served and in comparison to the same dish a few miles away in Mexico.  There are pesky sand flies.  There are no beaches so the only option is to either have a hotel that has it’s own private dock and outdoor area with lounge chairs (we didn’t) or find a restaurant or watering hole where you can hang out oceanside as long as you keep consuming (we did).

But we rolled with it and had a  pleasant time nonetheless. Our AirBnB hosts provided us with 2 bikes so we cruised around the island and just checked out the scene.  On the far end of the island is The Split where a hurricane a few decades ago wiped out a stretch of land and made two islands.  Tourists and locals come to The Split to sit on the dock and dip their feet in the water, drink cold beers and listen to tropical-islandy music.  We  went to The Split to sit under the shade and watch the folks from more northern latitudes fry themselves like lobsters.

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We cruised to the other end of the island, past the airstrip, and through some mangroves lined with private residences.  We selected the restaurants we wanted to check out and got busy eating.  We tried the trio of local beers.  We chased the sun. We observed life coming and going from the island.  We tried in vain to decipher the unique language, a blend of English, Spanish and Island slang.

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The Tourism Board promotes the catchy phrases “You better Belize It” and “Unbelizeable.”  I can’t quite say I agree, at least not from our short stay in Caye Caulker but perhaps we’ll give it another shot someday, maybe to the mainland somewhere.  It was a good reminder that you don’t have to love every place you visit and when you dedicate yourself to life of insatiable travel, there are bound to be highs and lows, dreamy destinations and wild cards, and places like Caye Caulker, where  you can have a nice time, but aren’t itching to go back.

Reminders to my future self on dining in Caye Caulker:

    Fried Chicken @ Syds = Delicious and worth the wait
    Maggies Sunset Grill – Lobster Curry = overrated, unorganized staff, got appetizer after dinner
    Amor y Cafe – best place for breakfast
    Brisas del Mar – grilled lobster & beers next day – not recommended for anything other than a beer.  Pork Kebab was worst value we had in Belize.
    Roys Blue Water Grill – Best meal we had in Belize!!
    Pasta Pesto Casa – great homemade pasta
    The place next to Syds – Mahi Mahi – nice dish, good helping of sides
    Caribbean Colors Art Cafe – nice location but didn’t like as much as Amor y Cafe.
    La Cubana – good ice cream but rude staff and won’t return.

Journey/Destination

My Countries_Americas
Countries in the Americas I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

 

I’m on a mission to have visited all of the countries in the continental Americas by the end of this year.  It’s not likely to actually happen, but a girl can dream.  I’m limiting it to continental Americas, because I don’t think I deserve to tackle all of the islands until I can spell Caribbean without spell check.  My brain repeatedly insists that it is Carribean. Doh.

Countries I had remaining as of Jan 1, 2015:
Guyana
French Guiana
Suriname
Belize
El Salvador
Nicaragua
Panama
Paraguay (I spent an evening there, but doesn’t meet my “at least 72 hour rule”)

To kick off the new year and celebrate my husband’s birthday, we decided to tackle the closest to us:  Belize!

What is it they say?…..”It’s not the destination, it’s the journey.”

Journey, Indeed.

We decided on the 8th that we should go and left on the 13th, so it didn’t leave much time for planning….but that’s ok, how hard can it be to go to the beach?

The adventure began in the Mexico’s state of Quintana Roo, my second least favorite city/town in Mexico to date (Villahermosa gets first place!).  We’ve been there twice now and got stranded there both times.  It’s typically about 115 degrees in the shade, it smells funky and just seems like another sketchy border town.  This time around, I’d been advised not to buy the ferry tickets from Chetumal to San Pedro, Belize in advance because there are multiple ferry companies and you don’t know which company will be going on any given day.  We  were feeling lucky and timed our bus arrival to arrive about an hour before the ferry.  Not so lucky.  Upon arriving were informed that the day’s ferry was sold out.  We briefly considered crossing the border and either hopping a quick island flight or seeing if there were other water taxi services not advertised on the Mexican-side but Luis was thankfully acting sensibly and pointed out that we were likely to spend a bunch of money and get ripped off if we did things in a hurry so we opted to just stay put, get our bearings, ask around for an alternative, and get an early start the following morning.  We hunkered down in a crap Chetumal hotel and made ourselves feel better with some massive portions of fish tacos, ceviche and cervezas.

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Take Two:  5 am the following day.  I was perfectly happy to rise at 4:45 if it meant getting my foot out the door of the crap hotel and on our way to bluer skies.  A taxi to the Belize side of the border cost us 150 Pesos ($10 US) and included a wait for us to go through immigration on the Mexico side.  There was exactly one “taxi” on the other side, a man who uses his private vehicle to shuttle around tourists and he took us the remaining 10 miles or so to the town of Corozal and the ferry dock for $20 US.  The second taxi ride included a shady middle of no where currency exchange which I decided to sit out from the safety of the car.  Both taxis charged higher fares than they should have but given it was dark, 5 o’clock in the morning and the only taxis we saw….it was fine….plus, we were getting the hell out of Chetumal – I’ll gladly pay a premium for that!

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Luis partaking in a sketchy currency exchange – we got a killer rate though and in hindsight should have exchanged a lot more!

I may have been bushy tailed, but I wasn’t quite bright eyed so we bought our ferry tickets and decided to get some coffee.  I know I’m travelling “Jess-style” when I find myself someplace random with only nescafe on tap.

Another day, another Nescafe.  Life is grand!

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We waited around as a few more passengers began arriving on the dock, enjoying the rising sun and the crass chatter of a group of fishermen who seemed much more interested in cursing up a storm and getting the day’s gossip than actually catching anything.

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At promptly 7am, the ferry departed and we were on our way.  15 hours behind schedule, but Caye Caulker-bound!

Boat Rides in the Caribbean are simply the best!
Boat Rides in the Caribbean are simply the best!

 

Bringing an Idea to Life

La Campiña is born.

On All Hallow’s Eve-Eve, Tania and I were out for a walk around town.  Luis and I were ready to move closer to town and she and I were out house hunting.  Somehow, conversation shifted to how it might be interesting to open up a small shop or business.  As the afternoon progressed and the sun set, I was no closer to finding a place to live but our brainstormed list of business possibilities had grown exponentially.

Fast forward about 10 weeks and I write this blog entry from the shop that was born from that stroll.  It’s a quiet Monday night here in the shop.  We’ve had others like it, but we’ve also had many days with decent sales and traffic.  We don’t know what will happen over the next few weeks and months, but we pulled this together in less than a month and I can’t help but pat ourselves on the back for that!

While we are still working to define what it is we’ve got on our hands (store? shop? appetizer joint? booze hall?)….It came together….

We identified several ideas that we thought were missing from the San Cristobal scene and quickly settled on a two-part theme.  Half-store with mostly specialty food products and half-appetizer bar, serving simple but gourmet bocaditos!  It didn’t take long for the image of what we wanted to start clearing up and within a week of making our decision Tania was on a bus to Mexico City to source some products.  We were lucky and found the perfect location for rent after a few tiring days of searching and before we even knew what was what, we had a deposit put down and the keys to our new storefront.

I’m lucky to be in San Cristobal, where things are relaxed and a small business like this can be pulled together for pennies in comparison to what it would cost stateside.  That said, our budget was small even for San Cristobal, which led to a lot of DIY projects and pinteresting for ideas.  We are still working on finalizing all the permits and licenses we need which makes me a bit nervous, but like I said, things seem to be overly-relaxed in these parts and hoping for the best. Three weeks after getting the keys to our place, we opened the doors.  We weren’t 100% ready and still aren’t, but opening prior to the holidays was important and we were both of the mindset that we’d sort out the details and roadbumps as they came along.

We’re slowly adding more products to our store and experimenting with recipes for new marmalades, jams and chutneys to offer.  Our pâtés and sparkling wine concept is going over pretty well.  We look for things to improve every day.  It’s been a roller-coaster.  But a lot of fun.

Some pictures of our journey…

FIRST THINGS FIRST…MARKET RESEARCH AND COMPETITOR SURVEYING….OBVIOUSLY.

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TASTE TESTING, AN ACTIVITY OUR PARTNERS WERE HAPPY TO HELP WITH

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FOUND OUR LOCATION – TIME TO FIX’ER UP

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FURNISHING THE PLACE TOOK A FEW TRIPS TO THE MARKET AND SOME GRUNT WORK

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SHIT, NOW THAT WE HAVE SHELVES WE HAVE TO FIGURE OUT WHAT TO PUT ON THEM. GOOD THING I WAS ONCE IN 4-H!

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TIME IS  A’TICKIN….PUTTING ON THE FINAL TOUCHES

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GRAND OPENING – DECEMBER 11TH:  THANKFUL FOR FRIENDS AND FAMILY

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WHEN THINGS ARE SLOW WE FOCUS ON GETTING SOME MORE PRODUCTS ON THE SHELVES AND IMPROVING OUR CURB APPEAL…

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WE TOOK ADVANTAGE OF HOLIDAY VISITS TO EXPLOIT OUR FAMILY. AN UNCLE CARRIED 6 KILOS OF RICE ON A BUS FROM MEXICO CITY, MY PARENTS CARTED DOWN ALL SORTS OF CANNING PARAPHERNALIA AND MASON JARS FROM IOWA AND MY AUNT VISITING FROM COLOMBIA WAS PUT TO WORK PAINTING.

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SO FAR, THE REAL-TIME CONSUMABLES PORTION OF THE BUSINESS HAS BEEN MORE POPULAR THAN THE STORE…WHICH MAKES SENSE AT IT IS ALWAYS PRETTY EASY TO SELL BOOZE AND MORESO OVER THE HOLIDAYS, BUT WE HOPE THE STORE WILL GAIN SOME TRACTION SOON.  A FEW FINAL SHOTS OF US HAPPILY SELLING OUR GOURMET APPETIZERS AND BUBBLY!

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PS.  LA CAMPIÑA MEANS COUNTRYSIDE…come visit!

The Bee’s Knees of 2014

Happy New Year.  Feliz Año!

Wishing you several moments in 2015 that you can look back on with a smile.  My/our selected moments from 2014:

BEST TREE HUGGING MOMENT

In August, we took a day trip down to the Chiapas-Guatemala border to visit the Maya Archaeological Site of Chinkultic.  Here I found my favorite tree of the year and enjoyed the silence and mystique of this site that is not commonly visited, but should be.

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BEST TETRIS MOVE

I’m never moving back to Denver. Mainly because I never want to deal with my storage unit again.  I’ll just keep paying the monthly rent indefinitely for no good reason.

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BEST LEARNING EXPERIENCE

When your living space is infested with king size wasps, don’t waste several weeks walking around with a flip-flop in your hand trying to take care of business on your own.  Just hire the pros.

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BEST SWEET TOOTH SATISFIER

For this one, I’m trusting the sweets expert of the household.  This supposedly tasty treat is the Pasta Frola Dulce de Leche from a coffee shop in Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay.  My husband’s eyes rolled back in his head from the bliss.  I don’t like sweets, so I’ll take his word for it.

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BEST CULTURAL MOMENT

Lucha Libre in Mexico City.  A completely ridiculous way to spend 2 hours. And completely necessary!

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BEST SURPRISE VISIT

Nothing warms the heart like a visit to Grandma’s house….even in 20 below zero weather.  Late February I made a quick surprise visit to “the Lake”, more formally known as Lake View, IA, to visit my Grandmother.  Priceless.

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BEST BEEN THERE, DONE THAT

Even though I wasn’t completely enamored by Buenos Aires this time around, I still loved walking the streets of this vibrant city, 7 years later.

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BEST NIGHT UNDER THE STARS

One evening back in March or April the Orquestra Sinfonica de Chiapas was offering a free evening concert on the banks of the river in Chiapa de Corzo.  A more beautiful evening couldn’t be had.

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BEST DOWNTON ABBEY MOMENT

This was the best unintentionally stumbled upon museum of the year.  In Montevideo, Uruguay the Museum of Decorative Arts has a boring name, but I’m so glad I decided to walk in anyway.  Tell me Mrs Patmore and Daisy aren’t about to make dinner in this kitchen while Lady Mary plays the piano “up above”.

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BEST IF YOU MUST GO TO THE BEACH DESTINATION

More of a mountain girl, I don’t usually get too worked up about a visit to the beach.  Punta del Diablo in Uruguay was an exception as I loved our short visit during off season to this somewhat hidden pocket of seaside cottages and outdoor barbeques.

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BEST SNAP OUT OF A MOVING VEHICLE

On a bus ride from Mexico City to Puebla, we snapped a picture of the Popocatépetl volcano.  Maybe it’s not the best picture out of a moving vehicle of the year- but I just like saying Popocatépetl.

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BEST BOTANERO 

Mexico has a fabulous cuisine, but Chiapas doesn’t really have any regional dishes that knock the socks off.  So in the absence of local fare, we get really (REALLY!) excited about the botanero scene.  A botana is just basically a small plate or snack that is served along with your beverage, usually a beer.  This botanero, called Limoncito, in the city of Tapachula was our favorite new find of the year.  Even more so because we got to share it with my mother-in-law and a friend visiting from Colorado.

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BEST PERSONAL MISSION

To try all of the pozoles (pork and hominy soup) in all of Mexico.  I may live here happily for the rest of my life, simply continuing the pursuit.

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BEST NIGHT AWAY FROM HOME

We stayed at the cutest B&B in Oaxaca City back in March to celebrate our 5 year anniversary.  The owners were beyond pleasant and had thought of every detail.  We had the 3-bedroom house to ourselves and it wins the best night away from home award.  Night, singular.  Because nights 2 & 3 did not go so well as my husband gave himself ecoli with a plate of undercooked sausages.

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BEST I’VE DIED AND GONE TO HEAVEN

Biwa. Portland.  Go!

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BEST MOST UNCOMFORTABLE 2 HOURS OF THE YEAR 

Riding a camel sounds like a treat. And it is for about 3 minutes.  Thankfully I was on the lite version of the camel safari.  Two hours, enough for me!

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BEST BIRTH CONTROL

Hanging out with my father-in-law and his 7 children!  Ha!  Totally kidding.  We moved to Mexico to be in the family environment – and have had countless family gatherings since arriving.

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BEST STREET ART

I dig Mexico City, like a lot!  I love the random things you can find simply by turning the corner or looking the other way.  This vertical garden is fun and such a great idea.

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BEST MYSTERY

Indians and my wide-brimmed sun visor.  Several times I was stopped in the street, hotel lobby or on public transportation by someone wanting to know where I got it.  I really didn’t think it was anything special….I just hate sunscreen.  On one bus ride an older man sat next to me and he spent about an hour studying the visor in great detail.  I’m certain there now must be a factory somewhere in India now producing something similar.  These boys were the best though – they followed me around the beach for about 20 minutes before working up the courage to ask me if they could borrow my visor for a photo shoot.  Um, sure.

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BEST NEW OBSESSION

Buying all the textiles in Southern Mexico.  Beautiful.  Can’t get enough.

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BEST GIFT FROM THE PAST

All of the forts and palaces in Rajasthan, India.  The Amber (or was it Amer) Fort in Jaipur, specifically.  Mind blown.

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BEST OVERNIGHT DECISION

Look up how to get an Indian visa.  Find tour.  Look for available mileage award airfare that coincides with selected tour.  Give husband copious amounts of wine and convince him it’s the best idea you’ve ever had in your life – heck, maybe it was his idea to begin with!  Sleep on it.  Wake up and make it happen!

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 THE REAL BEE’S KNEES

Hanging with this guy. Period.

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On this, the shortest day of the year…

…it seemed fitting to take a few minutes to look back on the year that is about to end.  And by “look,” I mean literally. My “2014 Photos” folder has something like 3750 images in it….so something must have gone on this year.  That or I need to lay down the ol’ camera/phone and give it a bit of a rest.

I’m a gal who loves the changing of the seasons – yes, even winter!  It’s something I will gladly welcome back into my life when we live further north again one day.  No, San Cristobal’s options of “rainy season” and “not rainy season” don’t really do it for me.  While we may not have marked the seasons traditionally this year, we had some different road markers to mark the passing of the time in 2014.

Spring Equinox, March 20th

Having just moved to Mexico around the 10th of March, the Spring Equinox rolled through just as we were  getting settled into my father-in-law’s guest cabin, where we’d end up spending nearly 8 months. After several weeks of frantically packing up a life well lived in Denver we crashed through the door of that cabin and flung down our bags with a big sigh of relief. About the time of the equinox I suspect we were well into our 10 day binge of “welcome home” get-togethers with friends and family and making some last minute plans to head north to Oaxaca City to celebrate our 5 year anniversary.  I barely let Luis settle into his new routine before I whisked him away to Uruguay for the month of April. In hindsight, perhaps not the best of timing but I was overly enthusiastic about his newly negotiated ability to work from anywhere in the world!  As it turns out, he prefers the comfort of a decent chair and work desk over trying to manage his workload through shoddy wifi connections in a hostel courtyard.  Point taken. Sort of.

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Once we finally arrived at the 1st cabin we’d call home, we collapsed from exhaustion….view from that collapsed state.
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part of our standing welcoming party – little brother and dear friend Vladimir.
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Best meal of 2014 – totally worth flying all the way to Montevideo, Uruguay for!

Summer Solstice, June 21st

We were too busy yelling “GOOOOOOOOAL” at the top of our lungs for the latter half of June to even notice that summer had arrived. And by “we” I mean everyone but me.  I had to play along though because the World Cup Fever is just not something worth trying to resist.  For several weeks we had plenty of gatheringss with family and friends to watch as 32 teams whittled themselves down to one.  It gave us a good excuse to stay put for awhile and welcome in the summer by letting our roots grow a little deeper into the San Cristobal soil.  I did manage to plan us a little birthday trip up to the great city of Guadalajara and I snuck away for a fun week exploring Mexico City before we traveled to Portland and Denver for a few weeks later on in July.

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One of my fav places on earth -Pok Pok, Portland
One of my fav places on earth -Pok Pok, Portland

 

Fall Equinox, September 23rd

Fall caught me in the midst of fulling a longtime dream to travel India.  On September 23rd I was a little over halfway through a 45 day traipse through some of the most fascinating places on earth.  Having just completed an unforgettable 22-day tour with 10 new friends, I had just broken off from the pack to explore a bit deeper on my own.  On September 23rd I was getting intimate with the Bay of Bengal and spent the day exploring 2 World Heritage Sites in the town of Mahabalipuram.  I ended the day by stumbling into the Good Luck Cafe, one of the most memorable places I ate while in India.  I didn’t even realize it was a new moon and also a new season until late in the day when I asked why people were suddenly smashing pumpkins at every front door and dying them red.  Answer:  to welcome the new moon.  Obviously.

My Northern India A team.  Travelling with strangers can either make the trip, or break.  I was extremely lucky to have such a dynamic group of easy going folks to share in the ups and downs of travelling through India!
My Northern India A team. Travelling with strangers can either make the trip, or break. I was extremely lucky to have such a dynamic group of easy going folks to share in the ups and downs of travelling through India!
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September 23rd, visiting the Five Rathas in Mahabalipuram
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On September 23rd I had the pleasure of Meeting Kutty, chef extraordinaire at The Good Luck Cafe. She’s a gem.

Winter Solstice, December 21st

Exactly one year ago today I was saying goodbye to my grandmother and family in Colombia, making my way back to Denver, my husband and home, having just concluded a 12 week work assignment in Tarapoto, Peru. 12 months later, another winter solstice is here to welcome change and new beginnings.  We’re in a new cabin. I’ve opened up a small business with my sister-in-law.  My parents and an aunt from Colombia are coming to spend the holidays with us.  We have a bunch of travel plans and ideas mulling around for 2015.  And most importantly, we wake each morning with a smile – what more can ya ask for?!?

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Notes to self from a dedicated wanderess….Inspired? Join Me!

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