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Ciao Italia!

A week wandering the Bel Paese

sunny 26 °C

Sample One-Week Itinerary
Day 1: Florence – check out the key religious sites (especially the main cathedral – il duomo), visit a museum or art gallery (there are endless options!), and spend the evening piazza-hopping from Piazza della Signoria to Piazza della Repubblica listening to live music
Day 2: Tuscan countryside, Florence – Tuscan daytrip! Although we didn’t have the time to do this, many of my friends have taken daytrips to beautiful surrounding towns and highly recommended it. You can also check out Pisa, if you’re really craving a classic touristy Italian photoshoot
Day 3: Florence – enjoy the area around the mercato centrale, consider a free walking tour like through La Bussola (bring cash tips, of course), visit the sinagoga e museo ebraico (Jewish synagogue and museum), cross any one of the beautiful old bridges (don’t miss ponte vecchio) to get to Villa Bardini and watch sunset from the Piazzale Michelangelo
Day 4: Pompeii, Salerno – spend the morning and/or afternoon at Pompeii (easily accessible by train) before returning to Salerno, shopping and seeing its historical sites
Day 5: Amalfi Coast, Salerno – take the ferry to Maioiri, hike the “Lemon Trail” to Minori, take the ferry to Amalfi, consider bussing to Ravello (beware the crowds), walk over to Atrani, ferry back to Salerno taking in the beautiful Amalfi Coast sunset before strolling its pedestrian thoroughfare and walking by the seaside promenade
Day 6: Rome – spend the day exploring the Vatican City, both the surrounding areas and the museums (make sure to purchase the guided tour in advance!). Make the most of Roman nightlife in Trastevere
Day 7: Rome – cross through Isola Tiberina to explore the former Jewish ghetto and then the many historic sites Rome has to offer: Torre Argentina, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and finally a tour of the Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. Check out what’s happening at Mattatoio, a former industrial complex, and dine at Testaccio Market across the street

Overall Tips
- Carry a pack of Kleenex wherever you go – many restrooms don’t have toilet paper, will charge you (so carry coins too!), and might not have a toilet seat either
- Don’t forget to get a travel charger and also an adaptor (or even a converter depending on the electronics you’re bringing)
- Bring cash and credit card, most places accepted either but it’s helpful to have a back up
- Consider purchasing an anti-theft purse or backpack as certain areas are extremely crowded with tourists and have become hotspots for pickpocketing
- Download a language-learning app like Duolingo in advance so that you can practice some common phrases like “grazie”, “prego”, etc.
- Always make sure you have the medications you’ll need, my seasonal allergies really flared up (for example) so I was glad to already have my pills on hand
- Confirm what Covid restrictions are still in place. As of June 2022, it was necessary to wear a KN95/FFP2 mask on all of the high speed trains and inside the Vatican City museums but no Covid testing was required

Where to Stay
- Florence: B&B Relais Tiffany – roughly $100/night, 10-minute walk to Florence S.M. Novella Train Station
- Salerno: B&B Il Reticolo – roughly $80/night, 10-minute walk to train station
- Rome: B&B Suites Trastevere – roughly $115/night, 10-minute walk to Trastevere train station

Where to Eat
Florence: All’antico Vinaio sandwiches; I Tarocchi pizza; Mercato Centrale for everything
- Gelato, ranked in order of deliciousness: GROM (their signature flavour) then Edoardo’s and finally Venchi (likely wouldn’t go back there)
Amalfi Coast: Divin Baguette in Maioiri for superb sandwiches; Pasticceria Sal de Riso in Minori for treats; Ristorante Cicirinella and Pizzeria Giagiu’ in Salerno (our favourite pizza on the trip!)
- Gelateria Giallo Limone and Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria in Salerno both had fantastic sweets
Rome: Mercato di Testaccio (especially pizzeria Casa Manco); Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina and Pizzeria da Baffetto were both recommended by friends but were totally packed so we couldn’t try them
- Frigidarium (chocolate dipped gelato) and the Pasticceria Boccione (kosher bakery) were both delicious

How to Travel
Trains
- We took high speed Frecciarossa trains between our destinations – they go up to 300 km/hr. I booked all our tickets in advance using Trenitalia. The competitor company, Italo, would have been fine but I found the prices higher or the schedule less convenient for us. I spent some time calculating whether Eurail passes would be helpful, but in our case it was cheaper to buy each individual ticket.
- Always double check the stations you’ll travel to. For example, Pompeii Scavi is the closer train station to the ruins, not Pompeii, but we couldn’t get there (on time) from Salerno so we had to budget additional time.
- When you buy a train ticket you won’t know which direction the seat will face. Since there were two of us, we always bought seats facing each other so I could always take the seat facing forward (to avoid motion sickness). The trains have washrooms, in case of emergency.
- They provide complimentary snacks and drinks depending on the tickets you purchase; otherwise, you can purchase them on board for a small fee. We brought our own snacks.
- KN95 (FFP2) masks are required on board, unlike the American Airlines flight to and from Italy (with more than one maskless, coughing American). The conductors really take masking seriously in Italy as on more than one occasion I saw customers being reminded that cloth masks weren’t good enough and that they had to wear the FFP2 ones.
- The train platforms won’t necessarily show up on the screen until a few moments before departure, but you can ask a staff member where they’re more likely to depart from.

Ferries
- We bought all of our ferry tickets on the spot, rather than in advance. We never had to wait and were able to get on each ferry. That said, the ferry from Amalfi was chaotic and it was unclear where to wait or whether everyone would get on so try to get there early and consider buying those tickets online.
- There were restrooms on board but I saw one restroom out-of-order, so I’d recommend using the toilet while you’re still on land. And if you know you get motion sick, always carry a "barf bag" just in case.

Buses
- In Rome, we took a bus upon arrival. We purchased our tickets from a central booth and then had to validate the tickets once on the bus. I’ve heard stories about travelers not validating their tickets and then getting fined.

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My Travel Diary

Despite visiting all of its neighbours, I had never become acquainted with Italy until this year. When I stumbled across roundtrip tickets for less than $500 each, I knew it was time. The only issue? (Aside from the ongoing pandemic…) We only had one week! For that reason, this blog entry will be more like the antipasti than the main meal – it’ll give you a taste of Italy, while leaving you (and me!) wanting more.

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This was my first trans-Atlantic flight in over three years. Since the pandemic started I’ve become a nervous flyer, feeling uncomfortable with the idea of being trapped in a small space with so many strangers especially since there’s always a chance that my motion sickness may strike. So, even before boarding, I dreaded the thought of having to fly for ten hours each way. It helped me to think about everything I was excited for – the food, the hikes, the history – but, it helped me more to fall asleep after taking motion sickness medication. We arrived at Roma Fiumicino (Leonardo da Vinci) airport and made it to the train station within half an hour or so of landing despite my groggy state. I was shocked by how easy it was! Then I noticed the chaos of the train ticketing area: a couple of long lines, some broken machines, and many confused tourists. We skipped the machines and went straight to the line for ticketing agents. The trains could go to either Roma Tiburtina or Roma Termini – make sure you catch the right one! We headed to Tiburtina and from there we caught a train to Firenze (Florence) Santa Maria Novella train station.

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Upon arrival in Florence, I was instantly impressed. It’s bellisima! Across from the main train station, we stumbled upon the Basilica di Santa Maria Novella which is a Gothic church that’s hundreds of years old (like much of the city). The style, to me, looks similar to the famous Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore, also known as “il duomo”. Seeing Brunelleschi’s amazing approaches to art and architecture (including the world’s biggest masonry dome) made me better understand how Florence was the starting point of the Renaissance. Brunelleschi, Donatello, Da Vinci, and Michelangelo (among many other talented people) all lived in Italy during the 15th century – what a roster of genius.

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To fuel our Florentine expedition, we needed plenty of food. Fortunately, in Italy, there’s never any shortage of gelato – in Florence alone, I tested GROM, Venchi, and Edoardo’s. As I learned in my college statistics classes: sample size matters! On our first day in Florence, after filling up on too many treats, our only meal was sandwiches at the famous All’antico Vinaio – I got vegetarian #2 with Stracciatella, pistachio cream, tomatoes and basil. On the second day, we ate a proper dinner at a nice patio on the other side of the river. The pizza took so long to arrive that I was tempted to offer my assistance in the kitchen, but it turned out to be well worth the wait. My favourite meal in Florence was actually at the Mercato Centrale where Dmitriy and I ate with my friend, Dave. The three of us split everything from liver on toast to pesto pasta. The only thing I didn’t try was the famous Florentine lampredotto (tripe sandwich) – weeks later, I still don’t regret not eating the fourth stomach of a cow. In addition to food, we made sure to quench our thirst with local drinks. Downstairs we purchased cappuccino at the Caffe del Mercato while upstairs we went for an Aperol Spritz, famous in that region. As a side note, you have to pay for water there, but at least, for once, the washrooms were free!

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Florence, like many cities, offers fantastic free walking tours; the only caveat is that you should tip the guide for their expertise and time. Dmitriy, Dave, and I spent a couple of hours wandering the streets of Florence with our guide from La Bussola Tours who gave us a solid foundation in Renaissance architecture and insight into the incredible power of the Medici family in the 1400s. He explained that, in his opinion, the Renaissance started in 1401 and ended in the 1520s. It was the perfect storm: wealth in Florence, competition between rich families, and the prominence of religion and skilled artists. Wealthy people, in those days, would be patrons to artists like Donatello or Michelangelo and insist on religious art being displayed around their palaces to show their virtue. Doing terrible things and then hanging pious paintings sounded like my trick of eating three gelatos but following up with a salad and calling that healthy eating. Everything is a matter of perspective!

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As we looked at the family coats of arms (like the 3 moons of the Strozzi family) on the palaces, we noticed how the buildings were built with bigger windows at the bottom and smaller windows on the highest floor to give the illusion of grandeur. All over Florence, we had to play with the illusion of reality: much of what you see is a replica, not an original. For example, outside of the Orsanmichele Church we saw a statue carved by Donatello… but not actually the one made by Donatello, just a copy. Regardless, the workmanship was incredible and we were fascinated to hear about how the church had been run by trade guilds like bankers, woolworkers, butchers, and sword makers, for example. I particularly liked the image of St. George made by Donatello, although every time I mentioned the artist’s name out loud my childhood obsession with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles bumped up against my adult art sensibilities.

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The tour ended at the Basilica di Santa Croce, where Michelangelo is buried (another great ninja turtle!). Apparently, it’s the largest Franciscan church in the world but it has a massive Star of David on the front façade in honour of the Jewish architect, Niccolo Matas. We took that as our sign to seek out the Jewish area of town, a short walk away (as most everything is in Florence). Sadly, the imposing Sinagoga e Museo Ebraico was closed by the time we arrived; however, we did bump into a nice American Jewish couple who highly recommend the Ba Ghetto kosher restaurant. Always good to get firsthand recommendations!

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Throughout our trip, Dmitriy and I made time for romance - admittedly, a pretty easy feat in Italy. So, on our last evening in Florence, we crossed the picturesque medieval Ponte Vecchio (where we had seen a proposal the night prior) to climb up to Piazzale Michelangelo and watch the sun set over the city. We had anticipated a serene scene but were met instead with throngs of like-minded tourists and the constant shutter of camera phones.

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So, our next stop, Salerno, came as a welcome respite with its local vibrancy complemented by quiet corners. Although it served as our base for a trip to Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast, Salerno is a beautiful city in its own right. Traces of human settlement in the area go back over 2,500 years and the city’s central cathedral hosts the tomb of St. Matthew. Since Salerno was the only city we visited where my friends and family hadn’t yet traveled, everything felt new to us. We opted to have dinner there both nights, wandering the wide pedestrian thoroughfare, Corso Vittorio Emanuele, to find the hidden restaurant Cicirinella and then the more prominent Pizzeria Giagiu’. In both cases, I enjoyed our dinners and also the subsequent treats at the delicious gelateria Giallo Limone and bar/café Zer0ttoNove Bar Caffetteria respectively. At the latter, Dmitriy ordered crema del nonno, which sounded slightly more questionable when translated into English: “grandfather’s cream”. Dmitriy, as always, was nonplussed and happily enjoyed his creamy iced coffee.

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While Dmitriy is generally a very easy-going person, our afternoon at Pompeii managed to get under his skin. For anyone who’s not been, the site is expansive – we’re talking over 98 acres of potential walking. When we arrived in the town of Pompeii, we weren’t at the train station closest to the ruins (Pompeii Scavi) which meant that even prior to the tour we had already walked half an hour in the heat. It turns out, unsurprisingly, that there’s very little shade, very few restrooms, and a whole lot of space to wander. Our guide, Melania, worked with the company “Enjoy Pompeii” and was full of interesting information. She started by providing us with context and myth-busting facts like how lava wasn’t the killer, but rather asphyxiation from the gas and metres of volcanic dust shrouding the city. These people’s nightmarish deaths were helpful for historians as everything is incredibly well-preserved. That said, during WWII, Pompeii was bombed many times so some areas are more damaged from the recent past than the ancient tragedies.

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Pompeii, like any contemporary city, went through different cultural transformations, but our guide talked to us most about who was living there in the first century AD. She talked to us about the earthquakes people experienced prior to the eruption and how the townspeople believed it was Bacchus (who they thought resided within Mt Vesuvius) sending them messages. Their main deity was Jupiter, and we saw evidence of this. Regardless, because Pompeii used to be a port city with people coming (and being forcefully brought) from all over, there were many languages and belief systems. For that reason, visuals were key to communication. For example, carved penises were used as street signs to advertise the 20+ brothels and within the brothels there were illustrated menus of sex positions with numbers underneath them. In fact, we saw phallic symbols all over the place. Apparently, horizontal penises were directional markers while etchings of vertical penises were actually symbols of prosperity.

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The richer families also had some beautiful frescoes and mosaics with all kinds of vibrant, less sexual images. Melania emphasized that the incredible artwork and advanced systems like windows, geothermal heat, sliding doors, roadways and so on were mainly made by enslaved people. Another disturbing fact that she told us was that life expectancy was very short. Many of the 20,000+ residents would die in their 30s because of improper hygiene, lead pipes, and lack of medicine; even prior to that, babies were often killed if they weren’t considered “perfect”. Melania’s tour certainly wasn’t uplifting, but it was informative.

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Our daytrip to Amalfi was a much gentler experience. We hadn’t bought ferry tickets in advance, so when we arrived at the dock at Salerno, we bought tickets for the next boat (regardless of where it was going!). After a very short 3-euro ferry ride, we got off at Maioiri. Because we knew we would be hiking the Sentiero dei Limone, Lemon Trail, we decided to stop and eat there first.

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We got to Divin Baguette shortly after opening, so the server had lots of time for us. This came in handy not only for my many questions about which sandwich to get (the salmon one was excellent!), but also for the miscommunication surrounding my order of “lemon juice”. In my mind, lemon juice obviously meant lemonade; I couldn’t fathom someone opting to suck on liquid lemons. To the server, lemonade was not “naturale” enough to serve, so his “lemon juice” was obviously just freshly squeezed lemons – nothing more, nothing less. Suffice it to say, the drink left a sour taste in my mouth. We knew that the Amalfi Coast was famous for lemon everything, from alcohol to desserts; however, we weren’t expecting that level of immersion.

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To access the trail, we began by climbing past the supermarket and up to Santuario Santa Maria e Mare with its beautiful green and yellow domes, preparing us for the many lemon orchards to come. The signs for the Lemon Trail were clearly marked, and truth be told it was mainly stair climbing past people’s homes and lemon trees – sometimes overhead, other times below us, but the plentiful lemons were always there. The views were stunning and we took about 45 minutes to walk (and photograph) it.

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This wasn’t exactly wilderness, but we did meet a few stray dogs and some mules on route to Minori. Next time I wouldn’t mind staying at one of the many B&Bs, or stopping for limoncello, but we decided to keep going past the beautiful mosaics down the stairs to Minori and the Basilica I Santa Trofimena. We bought treats and boarded a ferry to Amalfi, savouring the sweet flavours and sights simultaneously.

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Arriving in Amalfi your eyes feast on the cliffs and colours, and it’s clear that this town is much bigger (and busier) than the others along the southern coast.

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The beaches were full of little pebbles, and all privatized so we set off instead for the central square: the Piazza Flavia Gioia. We appreciated the Fontana di Sant’Andrea and Cattedrale di Sant’Andrea, dating back to the 9th century. We then walked past famous fountains like the one devoted to donkeys, the Fontana “de Cape ‘e Ciucci”, built in the 18th century. I’m not sure how donkeys and dolls are connected, but this fountain has been decorated with dolls since the 1970s. Fortunately, they weren’t half as creepy as the dolls littering Xochimilco in Mexico City. Chucky couldn’t hold a candle to them. Following Lorenzo d’Amalfi, we arrived at Dalla Carta alla Cartolina/Scuderia del Duca – a casual postal museum and stationery store. I’m not quite sure what a postal museum is supposed to look like, but this one certainly surprised me. I had very little time to explore its contents before needing a washroom. This was an ongoing challenge in Italy. I’m not asking for a Tim Horton’s on each corner, but at least one public washroom for every few blocks would be helpful. Fortunately, there’s a public washroom near the Museu della Carta uphill from where all the tourism is, so I had access to a free toilet. It turns out there’s also a beautiful waterfall, gorgeous mountain views, and access to a hike up there.

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Eventually, we made our way downhill to walk over to the neighbouring town of Atrani. It’s exceptionally narrow and tall. We didn’t stay long before heading back to Amalfi to catch our ferry. Unfortunately, the ride to Salerno was less than pleasant. Of all three ferries that day it was the ferry from Amalfi to Salerno which was, (1) the longest ride; and, (2) the bumpiest ride. It didn’t help that the washroom was broken. The views were still beautiful but I didn’t appreciate paying 9 euro for nausea. A man behind me paid to vomit. I got the better deal.

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Speaking of transit, the trains were all wonderful – spacious and clean. I felt bad for the tourists with suitcases so large that they could barely fit in the overhead storage areas though. One woman looked about ready to leave the country and go home, cursing and muttering about the weight. The irony is that she wasn’t even doing any manual labour as a young Italian man had lifted her suitcase for her since she was blocking everyone from taking their seats. Because we never knew which direction the train would go, we had purchased seats across from each other. I knew it would be easier that way since my motion sickness won’t let me face backwards on a moving vehicle and I wasn’t sure how accommodating our train companions would be. I found out pretty quickly that not everyone takes the seats they pay for. On our journey from Salerno to Rome, we noticed an elderly Italian couple across the aisle who were seated beside the windows and had pulled out countless snacks. In Naples, a foreign couple got on and tried to kindly inform the old Italians that they were in their seats. After about five minutes of miscommunication and much huffing and puffing, the Italian man pretended to start gathering his goods but his wife stopped him. Dmitriy and I stared out the window, not daring to make eye contact with the naughty nonna. We got off at Roma Termini station and promptly our luck ended. We couldn’t figure out where to buy tickets for the train to Trastevere station which was leaving in a matter of minutes. Instead, we bought bus tickets, which turned out to be a blessing as it helped us situate where we were and how ancient this city really is. When we got to our B&B, we also quickly learned how prehistoric the elevator was. The doors had to be manually shut for it to work. We learned this when, approaching our floor, we excitedly started opening the inner door and the elevator abruptly came to a halt. We were stuck in the elevator a few inches below where the floor should have been. Fortunately, we’re good escape artists and we made our way back to solid ground within a matter of minutes. It’s a good thing too because no one responded to my cries for help; instead, an older Italian woman on the ground floor began yelling for us to hurry because she needed the elevator asap for her groceries. It’s a hectic city and this was just the beginning.

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The day we arrived in Rome I had booked us a Vatican City Museums tour, so we had to hurriedly walk through Trastevere. We stopped along the way very briefly to take in sites like the 15th century Ponte Sisto and Castel Sant’Angelo (built BC by Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum). It’s impossible to capture just how much life is vibrantly on display in the streets of Rome, and Italy overall. There’s an incredible togetherness when cities are built for people, not cars. Our tour started at 3pm and we arrived early at the Basilica di San Pietro, the world’s largest church and supposedly where Peter the apostle is entombed. We realized fairly late that we were at the wrong spot and we had to rush to the other side of the city where the museums are located. Everywhere was packed, and I’d made the mistake of not eating a proper meal yet – relying on free snacks instead. The lack of sleep, water, and food combined with the heat and crowds wasn’t an ideal combination. I found it hard to take in everything the small guide was loudly lecturing about.

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She started the tour by explaining the symbolism of the Sistine Chapel including the size of the books that captured details of who would go to heaven and who to hell. I found listening to her less important than actually being present in the chapel (after the tour had ended) and taking in the immensity of the artwork: from Jonah and the Whale to Moses parting the sea, I was amazed by the detail and beauty of the tableaus. The chapel itself is also home to many security guards whose job it is to keep the area quiet and keep people from taking photos. They failed over and over again, until finally one of them warmed up a microphone and in a tone and pace like that of a Gregorian chant, he began reciting his prayer for “silenzio” followed by “no fotos” and finishing with “no videos”. I was entranced; Dmitriy was irritated.

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On the museums tour, we just scratched the surface of Vatican City's immeasurable wealth. But the guide never mentioned any of the controversies, like what's covered in articles like this: https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/metis-researcher-counter-narrative-vatican-indigenous-1.6394948. We started the physical tour by walking through a courtyard with a giant pine cone and peacocks, which were originally built near the pantheon (decidedly not a monotheistic locale). We also saw Pomodoro’s sfera con sfera showing the dynamic and fragile nature of the world. The gravity of the work was lightened by the English translation of the artist’s name: Mr. Tomato. We kept exploring the endless museums like Pio-clementino with sculptures predating Christianity like Laocoon (40 BC) which tells the story of the Trojan War. Our guide talked about how the Romans imitated the Greeks, their styles and stories. She gave us a long lecture about it; my short attention span couldn't keep up.

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One of my favourite rooms was actually the map room, which depicted the many areas of Italy in surprising orientations (by modern cartography standards). We also saw more recent works like in the Sala dell’Immacolata (19th to 21st centuries), the Rooms of Raphael, the Room of Eliodora and other modern art by Dali and Chagall; however, the guide was in such a rush that we couldn’t even stop to see these pieces. In her tour, she shared too many details but not enough foundational information. Bits and pieces stuck with me though like how often faces would be dedications in art. For example, the Pope’s face might be painted on a hero’s body. It was also curious how only living people would be painted looking directly at the audience. She also underscored trivia like how all of the guards in the Vatican City are Swiss, which dates back to the reputation of the Swiss as killer mercenaries. Apparently, it had nothing to do with their chocolate-making abilities or purported neutrality – I guess those aren’t skills you look for when hiring people to save your life. Overall, I felt destroyed by the time we finally entered the Sistine Chapel at the end. We took our time sitting on a bench staring up at the glorious artwork, but it was hard to fully absorb the magnitude of the magnificence. Regardless, my feet welcomed the rest. On our way out, we still had to pass by multiple stores, cafeterias, and myriad other museum exhibits about topics like coins and stamps. In fact, they have a Vatican post office where you can buy a special stamp and send your mail. Whether the secular system will deliver the holy mail is another story. Right before exiting the Vatican City, we saw a small stand with photos and quotes about Indigenous people like “Your culture… must not be allowed to disappear”. The irony was not lost on me.

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Hungry and tired, Dmitriy and I wandered in circles until he found a restaurant he was confident in. I’m less bothered by reviews when hungry, but Dmitriy is a stickler for stars. We ordered immediately and were promptly brought a multitude of antipasti. My fried tempura zucchini tasted mediocre at first bite, but it was the second that surprised me. It turns out that the cook had run out of the cheese advertised in the menu so had substituted… anchovies! Suffice it to say I’d rather sip pure lemon juice than bite into something so fishy. Sadly, “Claps” is not a restaurant I’d recommend if you have dietary allergies, or preferences. Anyway, we made up for it later. After wandering the Mattatoio area, which used to be a slaughterhouse and industrial complex, we came across the open-air Mercato di Testaccio. It had live music, dancing, and (most importantly) tons of great food stalls. We tried four different types of pizza at Casa Manco before waddling our bloated bodies to the dance floor. They played English, Spanish and Italian music… and hosted a Zumba class! We had a great time and I loved that everywhere we went felt so safe, even in a big city like Rome. It was a welcome change. That said, it’s a fairly dirty city – there’s litter and graffiti all over!

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Speaking of safety, a trend on this trip was people trying to enter our hotel rooms. In Rome, this meant that at 1 am we suddenly heard jangling on the door handle, while in Salerno it was the housekeeper entering before 9 am every day (which somehow felt less reasonable). Our first morning in Rome, we were awoken to knocking on the door because it turned out (for once) breakfast was included but we hadn’t indicated what we wanted to eat. We weren’t thrilled about being woken up like that, but the delicious breakfast in bed was worth it.

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We still opted for a second breakfast – we didn’t want to repeat the mistake of undereating. I had read about Rome’s Jewish quarter and wanted to experience it for myself, whether we attended services at the synagogue, visited the museum or just ate some tasty kosher treats. In the end, we opted to pick up sour cherry ricotta cheesecake (crostata di ricotta e visciole) from Pasticceria Boccione – it was soft on the inside and perfectly crispy on the outside. Dmitriy and I shared a slice, but secretly wished we’d bought at least two.

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We also wandered past the impressive Tempio Maggiore di Roma, built in the early 1900s after centuries of Jewish people being contained within the Jewish ghetto. The Jewish Museum is located within the temple building, while the powerful Fondazione Museo della Shoah, Holocaust Museum, can be found beside it. We wandered through the latter and learned more about the resilient Roman Jewish community. In fact, Italian Jewry date back over 2,000 years. A couple of friends had recommended going on one of the Jewish tours in Rome and Florence (the food tours looked especially great!), but we never found the time. As a side note, one of the companies that came recommended was: https://www.florence-jewish-tours.com.

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The famous Arch of Titus tells some of the story of Jewish enslaved people being brought to Rome. With its implicit and explicit depictions of the Roman attack on Jerusalem, destruction of the sacred temple, murder and enslavement of Jews and pillaging of their treasures (like the famous menorah), it’s a harsh reminder of how Jewish life in Israel was drastically altered leading to thousands of years of diaspora living for so many Jews. I hated how this was being celebrated in this arch, which is, to so many tourists, seen as just another unique piece of ancient art on their trip to the imposing Colosseum. There's always a juxtaposition between recognizing the beauty of a place and reflecting on its bloody past, I suppose.

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Before leaving for Italy, I was really torn about whether we should take tours at Pompeii and the Colosseum but after speaking to friends about it, it became clear that if you aren’t a historian or archeologist, you should probably take a tour. Our Roman guide was incredibly enthusiastic even when recounting gruesome details of the Colosseum’s construction. He discussed how macabre the Colosseum was: from the enslaved people who were made to fight (and die) as gladiators to how Romans killed so many lions that they became extinct in North Africa. The amphitheatre, though it may not look like it, was the largest ever built, yet it was built in eight years (in the first century AD). The guide facetiously pointed out that the metro stop there has been in a state of renovations and upgrades for over ten years already. He should try visiting cities like Toronto or Chicago where extreme weather means that transit expansion, let alone maintenance, feels like it takes millennia. Anyway, at its peak, the Colosseum could hold 50-80,000 people who were able to watch the performances free of charge. Apparently, this was (and still is) a popular political strategy: distract the populace with free entertainment so they won’t fight back against the squalor.

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A lot of innovations went into making the Colosseum: they would flood the stage and host water shows or have set changes with exotic plants they’d pull up and down using lifts and underground tunnels. The roof itself was even retractable! I made a joke about the Toronto Skydome, but I think the guide’s laughter was an automatic response rather than actual acknowledgement. He lectured us about the many uses of the Colosseum: entertainment, housing, and even prayer. On site we saw a lot of original relics like graffiti from the stadium, seats, and mosaics. While wandering, we were fortunate enough to hear an Italian singer taking advantage of the acoustics – her striking sounds wafted up through the air lending us an impression of how exciting it must have been to see a performance of any kind in a structure so intentionally built to bring together tens of thousands. We also watched our guide’s flirting in action as he complimented the singer and invited her to join our group... as long as her boyfriend wouldn’t mind.

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The Roman Forum was literal layers of history. Once again, it felt overwhelming trying to catch all the details spilling out. The guide picked ancient artefacts up off the ground and reminded us never to think of the past as just one static point in time because it’s a mishmash of so many cultures and civilizations coexisting, killing, and conquering. There are so many distinct periods of time with so many unique customs that he could never answer a question like “what was marriage like for the Romans?” without specifying which century he was considering for his response. He hurried us past the crowds and into a church that was unearthed after destroying the one on top of it – frescoes of sullen faces were still fresh after 1400 years. I can only imagine how humans would be perceived if the images unearthed thousands of years from now were of botox-infused duckfaces. The guide pointed out Basilica Giulia, the temple of Rumulus and other places frequented by emperors like Caesar. The Roman Forum was always a gathering area while the Palatine Hill was for the emperors. We were forced to explore that area ourselves as the tour abruptly ended after two hours (I thought it would last three). Based on the signage, we learned about the ruins of Temple of Vesta where the Vestal Virgins kept the flame burning to signify Rome as an eternal city – no men were allowed except one, and the women would be buried alive if they made a mistake. Linkedin would have trouble advertising that one. Meanwhile, the Imperial Palace took up the whole hill above and was split into three parts. We were exhausted by the time we made it up the hill so we quickly looked around the Farnese Gardens (named after the family that bought this land in the 16th century), took photos for a tall tourist and then headed to get our Covid testing done. At this point, the US was still requiring negative antigen or PCR tests for re-entry. I found it odd that people were forced to test before entering the country, but they weren’t required to wear masks on the 10+ hour flights. I’m not the one making the rules though, just abiding by them (with negative test in hand).

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While in Rome it felt inappropriate not to visit the key tourist spots, so we made sure to snack in Piazza Navona, pose on the Spanish Steps (not sit though – that’s prohibited!), fill our water bottles outside the Pantheon, throw coins into the Trevi Fountain and stare in awe at the Piazza Venezia. I was most impressed by Trevi Fountain, much to my surprise. I couldn’t believe how huge it was! Neptune is incredibly detailed for his size and I can only imagine that even in the 18th century the crowds must have been huge. It’s an interesting spot too because on the one corner you have this fountain which is hundreds of years old and the other is a Benetton.

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One of the older customs that some restaurants still honour is being closed on a Sunday. So, when it came time for our last supper we made our way to Roscioli Salumeria con Cucina, a place my friend Adrian had recommended, only to learn that it was not accepting new patrons and that many of the surrounding restaurants were closed. While frantically searching for an open, tasty restaurant, the tall red-headed man from the Colosseum strolled up. It turned out that he was from Amsterdam and was equally surprised by the coincidence of us running into each other again in such a large city. Fortunately for us he recommended Pizzeria da Baffetto and the Gelataria Frigidarium next door to it. We chose to eat at a restaurant in Piazza Camp de’ Fiori instead because of its phenomenal people-watching, including a very dramatic fight wherein a woman angrily crossed her arms, turned around, and then stormed off from a friend who promptly burst into tears. We couldn’t hear what transpired, but the stereotype was proven true: Italians really do talk with their hands.

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Our last night ended with my sticky gelato hands meeting Dmitriy’s for a sweet slow dance on the Ponte Sisto footbridge to acoustic guitar music. We pulled ourselves away from the moonlit river and our private concert to wander the winding alleys of Trastevere, full of fun and mischief. Although it was hard to say "ciao Italia", I’m looking forward to sampling many more of its flavours in the future...

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Posted by madrugada 19:11 Archived in Italy Tagged mountains beaches churches buildings food architecture hiking italy florence paradise rome beauty ancient eating amalfi tuscany cafes minori pandemic salerno amalfi_coast romantic_getaway bilingual_travel atrani maiori Comments (0)

Hawaiian Island Hopping

Aloha Oahu and the Big Island!

Sample Itinerary for 5 days on Oahu and 5 days on the Big Island

Day 1: Arrive in Honolulu, Oahu
- Walk around Waikiki and down Ala Wai blvd.
- Swim at Ala Moana Beach

Day 2: Honolulu
- Hike Diamond Head
- Explore historical sites: King Kamehameha’s statue, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church
- Swim and dine at Waikiki

Day 3: Honolulu and the East Coast
- Hanauma Bay
- Makapu’u hike
- Waimanalo (for lunch)
- Pearl Harbour
- Dinner in Waikiki

Day 4: North Shore and Polynesian Cultural Center
- Haleiwa (for breakfast)
- Laniakea Beach (check out the turtles!)
- Waimea Beach
- Sunset Beach and Turtle Bay Resort
- Polynesian Cultural Center (including the lu’au buffet dinner)

Day 5: Kane’ohe area and Honolulu
- Byodo-In Temple
- Lanikai Pillbox Hike
- Pali Lookout
- Ala Moana Beach to watch sunset
- Fly to the Big Island

Day 6: Kona on the Big Island
- Walk around town
- Swim at Magic Sands Beach

Day 7: Kona's Surrounding Sites
- Snorkel at Two Step Beach
- Visit Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park
- Check out Kealakekua Bay

Day 8: Drive east to Hilo
- Manini'owali Beach/Kua Bay
- Lunch in Waimea
- Chasing waterfalls: Akaka, Umauma, Rainbow

Day 9: Volcanoes
- Hawaii Volcanoes National Park

Day 10: Back west to Kona and fly home
- Botanical World Adventures near Hilo
- Maunakea
- Mountain Thunder Coffee Company near Kona
- Stroll around Kona and watch sunset at Magic Sands Beach

Where to Stay
- Honolulu, Oahu: Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki
- Kona, Big Island: Airbnb

Where to Eat
Oahu
- Nanding’s Bakery near Diamond Head – the best macadamia nut cookie you’ll ever have
- Duke’s Waikiki Restaurant - great salad buffet, and right on the beach
- World Famous Hawaii HotDogs beside the State Supreme Court - hot dogs pair well with lilikoi (passionfruit) soda
- Hawaiian Island Café in Waimanalo - the gorg sandwich is amazing!
- Coffee Gallery in Haleiwa – mocha freeze was a great way to wake up
- Koa Pancake House in Kane’ohe – excellent macadamia nut sauce on the pancakes

Big Island
- Fish Hopper Restaurant in Kona -- beautiful view of the water, and tasty breakfast
- Annie's Burgers in Kealakekua -- award-winning burgers
- Humpy's in Kona -- good food, better view of the beach volleyball court right next door
- Waimea Coffee Company -- good caffeinated beverages
- Cafe Pesto -- best restaurant in Hilo, hands-down
- Papa Pa'aluo Bakery -- amazing apple bran muffins
- Island Ono Loa Grill in Kona -- creative burgers

What to Bring
- Sunscreen, dressy and casual clothing, swimsuit, flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, hiking boots/running shoes, USD cash, assistive devices, etc.

My Travel Diary
Departing from Chicago for Oahu, the Hawaiian island with roughly two-thirds of the state’s population, we had to fly through Oakland. When we arrived in Honolulu, Hawaii’s capital city, we were both exhausted from our 10+ hours of flying so we promptly picked up our Alamo rental car and headed straight to the Wyndham Vacation Resorts Royal Garden at Waikiki. Unfortunately, the parking there was pricey, so instead we parked about 20 minutes away where the street parking was free and available. As it turns out there is free parking right beside the hotel on Ala Wai blvd., but it’s rarely available since it’s such a hot commodity. Tiredness aside, we were both really happy to feel the Hawaiian heat (yes, even at night you could feel it!).

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Since we were in Hawaii for such a short time and had decided to explore two islands, our itinerary was packed. This approach is not for everyone, and if/when we go back we'll likely try for a longer trip so that we can spend more time relaxing, and also budget time for more islands: Kauai and Maui. Back to Oahu! As soon as we woke up on our first day in Honolulu, I was already pushing us both out the door to hike Diamond Head. In my rush, I forgot to bring cash – big mistake! You can’t enter Diamond Head, whether you’re walking, running, or driving, without cash. Our delay had a plus side though: it meant more time to savor the baked treats we’d purchased at Nanding’s Bakery. Once we finally got our cash (we only needed $1 USD per person to walk in!) and made it back to Diamond Head, it was already packed. We still managed to find a free parking spot on the way in, and save ourselves slightly more cash… to later spend on cookies, clearly. When you arrive at the base of the trail, you’ll notice some explanatory signs. That’s where I learned that Diamond Head was named such by explorers in the 1700s who thought the calcite crystals there were actually diamonds, but in Hawaiian it’s known as Le’ahi because its profile resembles the ahi fish.

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The trail is open every day from 6 am to 6 pm, although you can’t enter after 4:30 pm. It’s only a 1.3-kilometre hike to the summit, but you’re climbing up 560 feet. The hike itself wouldn’t have been too challenging compared to what I’ve done in the past, but compounded with the lack of sleep, my underlying conditions, and heat, it caused my body to react in strange ways. I felt lightheaded, heavy chested, and nauseous to the point where I made it about 10 minutes from the top and had to turn around. I get really upset when I set goals that I don’t reach. My boyfriend kept going and showed me photos, but that’s just not the same. It seems that I turned around at a popular spot because I ended up hiking down with some other Canadians (whose accents were just as absent as mine). When I reached the bottom, I purchased one of the many pineapple products available to drown my sorrows. I also took a look in the mirror, and realized that I resembled the lobster from the Little Mermaid. Not a good look.

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Keeping with the diamond theme, we drove by the Diamond Head Lighthouse, which was first built in 1899 and later rebuilt in 1917. After our brief drive southeast, we returned to Honolulu to see King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani’s respective statues, Iolani Palace, the State Capitol and Kawaiaha’o Church. The church was the first built on Oahu, in the early to mid 1800s and continues to use Hawaiian in parts of its service. It’s made of coral rock, which I found really visually appealing. The most beautiful building though, to me, was the Iolani Palace. Surprisingly, it was only finished in the late 1800s but the site had already served as residence to multiple Hawaiian kings (in another building that was later demolished), and was considered a site of worship prior to that. The last monarch of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, was actually imprisoned there for months after her ousting from the throne. There’s a lot to explore at the palace, and it’s open Monday to Saturday 9 am to 3:30 pm with admission set at $20 USD using an audio guide, which is available in nine languages.

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Right behind the palace are huge, graceful banyan trees, a statue of Queen Liliuokalani and the Hawaiian State Capitol building, which is open to public visits. I’d recommend taking a tour if you’re interested in architecture – particularly if you like Bauhaus or 1960s architecture.

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While you’re in the area it’s worth paying homage to King Kamehameha who united the islands we now call Hawaii in the early 1800s. His bronze statue stands tall at 18-feet in front of Aliiolani Hale (Hawaiian Supreme Court Building). History doesn’t appeal to everyone, but I think it’s a crucial part in understanding the current societies you’re visiting. In any case, all of these sites were in short walking distance to each other, so the only real challenge was finding parking. The consistent issue on all of our road trips – unless we’re headed to rural areas, like the Maritimes, or small-town Georgia – was definitely the availability and cost of parking.

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Honolulu has a number of beautiful beaches, including Waikiki. Our favourite spots were: the beach that Maita’i Catamaran launches from and Ala Moana Beach. Both had beautiful views, but the Ala Moana Beach definitely had less available space when evening came as it turned into a prop for engagement photos. In fact, one evening the shoreline was covered almost entirely in engagement photoshoots as about six couples were lined up in a row for their “unique” photos.

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I understand the hesitation in visiting Waikiki because of all the crowds, but I actually enjoyed the strip. Then again, I like Vegas, so what do I know? As we were walking toward Waikiki for the first time, we were caught off guard by the number of SWAT team vehicles and men with machine guns hanging out in front of a hotel. What further confounded us, was that tourists were still freely milling about… If there were an emergency, wouldn’t the area be cordoned off? Or are Hawaiians just that laid back? As it happens, we had accidentally walked onto the set of Hawaii Five-O. Feeling pretty VIP after that, we got ourselves a fancy corner seat at Duke’s Waikiki and ate our hearts out with my boyfriend’s Hawaiian friend. After the feast, we took a stroll past the Moana Hotel, which was Waikiki’s first hotel (opened in 1901), and savoured all the Christmas festivities in the outdoor malls and streets. The beauty of a busy area like Waikiki is that there are always events happening – from live quilting lessons to matcha tastings in the Japanese Market to ukulele concerts on the streets. From the get-go, Honolulu had me feeling all the aloha.

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Honolulu was great, but our favourite moments were in the southeast and north of the island. We were happy to explore the more rural areas of Oahu. We drove east along the H1 exploring all the stops we could along the way, including a seaside park where my boyfriend tested his Tarzan skills by climbing a tree. We also drove past Hanauma Bay, Halona Blow Hole, and Sandy Beach Park. Parking was fairly tough along the way because there was so much tourism. We were still able to stop a few times to take brief strolls by the water and climb the chunky rocks. The most stunning views, hands-down, were at Makapu’u Point. We arrived on a beautiful day, so we could see 26 miles across the Kaiwi Channel to the island of Moloka’i. Roughly 20 000 years ago, Maui, Moloka’i, Lana’i, and Kaho’dawe were a single island when sea level was lower. Nowadays humpback whales are able to swim through the channel between November and April. Anyway, the hike itself was about 1.5 miles with no shade, restrooms or water but it was paved which means it’s still a good place to visit on a rainy day. Apparently the trail (before it was paved) was made in 1909 for mules/horses to reach the previous lighthouse property. As is the norm, the lighthouse was automated in the 1970s meaning that the families who lived there had to leave. It’s amazing when you think about how the places you visit have shifted in time and place – from the geological changes, to the human footprints.

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Driving around Oahu was breathtaking, from the seaside views to the journey through the Ko’olau Mountain Range which stood like noble green gatekeepers bowing for us to travel through. I also enjoyed our drive through the interior, past the Dole pineapple plantation (which was closed, unfortunately!) up to Haleiwa. Driving around listening to local radio was fascinating – from all the casual conversation about Filipinos (I'm not sure why?) to the ongoing pop music obsession with “Hot Girl Bummer”. It felt like the whole island was a tight community, which wouldn’t be surprising given the size. Although, when we delved a bit deeper we found out that there is some resentment toward perceived foreigners; so, when we saw the Hawaiian flags flying upside down, we came to understood it’s a form of visual protest.

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The North Shore is a very different vibe. It was even more relaxed, if that’s humanly possible. We loved watching the massive waves crashing into the land, but unfortunately didn’t have many opportunities to hike because of the windy, rainy weather. We stopped briefly at Laniakea Beach where we sought out giant turtles. Sadly, we saw none but later on the Big Island my boyfriend was lucky enough to swim with one at the Magic Sands Beach. Next, we jumped out at Kawela Bay Beach Park to visit the secluded beach and incidentally stumbled upon huge banyan trees that were used in scenes from the TV show “Lost”. Right next door is the Turtle Bay Resort where “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” was filmed, so we continued our Hollywood tour. To be honest, it didn’t seem worth the cost to stay there so I’m glad we just paparazzi’d and left. The natural beauty is so bountiful that you don’t need to pay hundreds of dollars to stay at an exclusive resort in order to soak up the scenery.

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Some of the strangest experiences we had on this entire trip were at the Polynesian Cultural Center (PCC) in Laie on the northeast coast of Oahu. The city’s history is interesting because it was a sanctuary for fugitives until the early 1800s. Since the 1860s it’s become the Hawaiian Mecca for Mormons. Unbeknownst to me when I purchased our tickets, the PCC is owned and operated by the Mormon Church. They've stated that the profits all go to daily operations and the student-employees from Brigham Young University (the campus is right next door). I wasn’t aware of any of this when I purchased tickets – all I knew was that the prices were high ($123 USD each), but the reviews were excellent. When we first arrived, we felt like we’d hit Polynesian Disneyworld – cultural presentations, activities, and a lu’au! We set out to learn more about Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Aotearoa (New Zealand) and Rapa Nui (Easter Island) before the 4pm lu’au began. We started at the Polynesian Football Hall of Fame, which was an eye-opener into the traumatic effects of concussions on these football players, including suicide. We then moved onto lighter things, by engaging in a ukulele lesson. I’ve been meaning to learn to play for years, so I really appreciated the introductory lesson. I’ve committed to buying one before 2021. There were plentiful activities, including a canoe ride through the grounds where we learned about patterns of migration through the islands and started learning some local lingo. I’m a much better linguist than spear thrower, as we learned in Tonga. We also tragically learned that I’m unable to board a Tongan outrigger canoe without dropping my phone in the murky Polynesian lagoon. A man reached in quickly and grabbed it for me but it was soaked by that point. I can’t pretend that I didn’t mope about it; all my photos were on there, not to mention my point of contact with others around the world through social media, etc. We still continued on our canoe ride but it all felt like a blur until we hit the lu’au where I was given a real orchid lei, which made me feel ok… until I started having terrible allergic reactions to it! It turns out a small percentage of the population has allergies to orchid sap. Count me in.

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The most enjoyable games at the PCC were definitely from the Maori area. We played Maui Matau, which is a stick game requiring rapid hand-eye coordination and an astute ability to predict others’ behaviour. We also really enjoyed the Titi Torea game. After I deemed myself the big winner, we agreed to get matching Fiji warrior (temporary) tattoos. We also ate some celebratory Tahitian coconut bread, which was made in the ground. Surprisingly, it was even better than the lu'au food - although that's not saying much. I was fairly disappointed by the lu'au meal, but the people were very helpful – bringing me rice in a Ziploc bag to help my battered, drowned phone recover. The show itself was wonderful. We learned all about Queen Lili’uokalani, the last ruling monarch and only sovereign queen of Hawaii (who also happened to be a skilled composer!). She ruled until 1893 when the US overthrew the monarchy, and she was then placed under house arrest. This gave us greater context for why there’s still ongoing contempt of “foreign interference” for some people there.

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Speaking of interference, it became clear fairly early on that the cultures being shared were more than just Polynesian when all the staff there kept asking if we’d yet visited the Brigham Young University campus, or seen the Mormon temple. While staff were wandering the audience at shows trying to convince people to go on a Hawaiian mission settlement tour, we just didn’t engage. We just consistently shut down any of the missionary talk, in favour of questions about the Polynesian islands instead. It’s neither here nor there really because the place was fascinating, but if you’re not interested in supporting the Mormon church then you should probably be aware of who’s running PCC. We were happy to enjoy the PCC in our way, sticking to ourselves, and enjoying the entertainment. We had a lot of fun watching the Huki Canoe Celebration, which showed clothing and dances from all the islands. Later, we appreciated the skills it took to perform the Ha: Breath of Life show. All the seats had fairly good views, but you’d probably need to reach out in advance if you have accessibility needs. The show had incredible pyro displays, like men even sitting on fire! The music was great too. Although I was irritated at myself for breaking my phone, it probably made me more present in enjoying the shows. There’s often a silver lining to frustrating situations…

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The next day we explored the area around Kane’ohe, including the Byodo-In Temple. It’s located in the Valley of the Temples Memorial Park at the foot of the Ko’olau Mountains. The Temple was established in 1968 to commemorate 100 years since the Japanese landed in Hawaii, and it’s modeled after the 950-year-old original temple in Uji, Japan. Unlike the PCC, there was no one actively trying to convince you about anything regarding their religion, so I felt more comfortable initiating engagement with an elderly gentleman who prays there. I had used the last of my cash to get us into the temple grounds, so we couldn’t make any purchases in the restaurant on the grounds, but we built up a bit of an appetite walking the grounds (and by that, I mean following the black swans around).

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We were relieved to find out there was no cost to do the Lanikai Pillbox Hike, although I hadn’t expected it to be as rugged as it was. It had started drizzling by the time we arrived, so I was confused about whether to put on sunscreen, bug spray (not necessary on Oahu), or take an umbrella. It ended up being an uncomfortable, but beautiful hike. It was very steep at the beginning with no clear path, and the drizzle had made the path slippery. Fortunately, the rain didn’t last long but the skies broke open with fury. We beat the windy assault to make it all the way to the top. We were then blown away by the rich colours of the water, grass, and sky. Once we made it to the top, the challenge felt worth it: my concerns about what happened at Diamond Head, the lack of infrastructure, the bad weather – it drifted away with the waves. The reason it’s called the “pillbox” hike is because at the top there’s a concrete pillbox, which soldiers used to hide in to watch for incoming enemies during the war. I'm not sure how anyone could focus on approaching enemies with such gorgeous views.

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I found myself inappropriately dressed when we stopped at the Pali Lookout. Due to high winds, my loose t-shirt became a liability. Every two minutes the wind would hit and my hair would attack my face, while the t-shirt would fly up like it was trying to escape this world. Suffice it to say, the pretty views couldn’t keep me away from the car for very long. The expensive parking also helped keep me anchored to my car seat because we decided to leave almost as soon as we came. The only photos we got were utterly ridiculous, but we still enjoyed ourselves regardless. If you have accessibility issues, Pali is a good option because you can just park and then the views are a couple of minutes away (on paved ground), there’s no hiking required.

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Before leaving Oahu, I’d recommend taking time to pay respects at the Pearl Harbour Visitor Center, which also serves as a memorial site. I will warn that it can be tricky to secure tickets because it’s done online and it’s a matter of first come first serve. The moral of the story: check early and be vigilant! There are multiple options, and we chose the free one – the USS Arizona Memorial. It entailed a 75 minute program with film and boat trip to the memorial. The memorial itself was built on top of the shipwreck of the USS Arizona, which made it eerie but meaningful. It’s simple and calming: white rectangular blocks with wide slits on top and at both sides, where it also sags; it’s higher on both ends to represent victory sandwiching the sagging defeat of lives lost in the middle. It was powerful visiting the memorial for many reasons, including the constant stream of leaking oil which reminds us of the ongoing impact of the previous devastation. I wasn’t surprised to hear that many survivors of the attacks on Pearl Harbour on that fateful day of December 7, 1941, felt guilt in the aftermath because I think that's a common response to tragedy; I was surprised that many of them have been cremated with their lost brethren. It turned out that a number of ships were destroyed that day, and over 2400 people were killed – many of whom remain lost in the waters below. The site also served to educate people by explaining the history of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, and how it led to America’s involvement in World War II. In fact, Japan attacked Pearl Harbour to reduce any potential challenges to their own intentions of taking over Southeast Asia, e.g. The Philippines. Of course, there are many theories about how things played out – many centered on the fact that Japanese planes (forming the largest aircraft carrier strike ever up until 1941) were able to attack in spite of active Hawaiian radar monitoring the airs, and also sail their fleet over 4 000 miles undetected. In some ways visiting Pearl Harbour becomes an academic exercise in studying political and military strategy, historical context, and current culture; but, it’s still a site of great loss and conduct should reflect that.

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For me, it’s important to reflect on how the tragedy impacts our individual and collective actions nowadays. How do we memorialize? How do we identify as communities and nations? How do we protect our most vulnerable? And how do we come to share the narrative of caring, in spite of political difference? Overall, Oahu felt like paradise. We were able to learn about Hawaiian history and current culture, explore incredible hikes and take in beautiful scenery, eat all the macadamia nuts we never knew we needed, and soak up the sun. I kept wondering why we don’t live there, but then I realized the fatal flaw: the sense of isolation would surround me. It was hard for me living on an island on the west coast of Canada, and I was relatively close to the mainland (I could do a day trip, if needed!) – knowing myself, I don’t think I could handle being such a distant flight away from family and friends. Travel helps you push yourself, but also makes you realize your limits.

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Travel between Hawaiian islands isn't as cheap as I expected, but the diversity of experiences is great. As soon as we arrived on the Big Island, we realized that it would be a much more rural experience than Oahu. The lack of light meant that it was slightly challenging finding our Airbnb, but once we did arrive we were happy with how private and spacious it seemed. At the end of the day, each couple is different but I like to have as much alone time as possible with my boyfriend on our trips given that we're already in a long-distance relationship which means limited face-to-face. It's been wonderful traveling with him because we like to do similar things: physical activity, cultural exercises, and delicious dining. As usual, we started our time in Kona at a restaurant. We chose Fishhopper because they had a nice view of the water and a good selection of food. The guava jam turned out to be terrific! I love visiting tropical destinations because the food reminds me of my family, and the meals we would have when visiting them in South Africa. Travel is always about taste.

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Kona is the big city on the Big Island apparently, but its population only sits at about 15 000 people according to locals we spoke with and it can't compare in size to Honolulu which is home to around 70% of Hawaii's total population. Thinking Honolulu is like all of Hawaii would be a problem though. It's like considering Toronto representative of Ontario, or Canada - it's not, in the slightest. We really enjoyed Honolulu, but we were also happy to see the smaller towns and more recent volcanic scenery. That being said, my boyfriend loves the beach. So when our local host suggested Magic Sands Beach, we were happy to follow his advice. We had a lot of fun frolicking in the waves, but I don't enjoy turning into a prune quite so much. Unfortunately, my aversion to wrinkles meant that I missed the giant sea turtle that was swimming by us in search of Nemo. One girl screamed and ran out of the water. According to my boyfriend, the turtle was giant and looked prehistoric, so I can understand why she ran for land. I wouldn't be interested in coming face to face with Jurassic World either.

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The other beach we enjoyed was called Two Step, although it's more of a snorkeling spot than anything else. My boyfriend actually borrowed snorkel gear from our hosts and so he was able to see the underwater world surrounding us. Instead, I observed the social dynamics surrounding me. Suffice it to say, there was blood, gore, and drama. Literally, there was a woman with a bloody hand. It turned out she had stuck her hand flat onto a sea urchin, and it was full of black spikes and dropping blood. Let this be a lesson to anyone who's visiting that area, please be aware of where you stick your hands. In fact, that's a good life lesson overall! Just south of that site is Pu'uhonua o Honaunau National Historic Park, which was a place of refuge and royal grounds. It also functions as a cemetery of sorts as 23 chiefs are buried there. Hawaiian islands have been populated since around 900 - 1100 CE and people continued back and forthing to Tahiti til the 1400s when chiefdoms flourished on the islands. We continued our history tour by visiting Kealakekua Bay where James Cook first had contact with Hawaiians in 1779. After all the learning, we had to do some eating so we conducted a burger tour around Kona. As a former vegetarian, I have to admit that burgers were one of the few things I missed, and I definitely made up for lost time while in Hawaii.

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We went north of Kona to visit Kua Bay and Manini'owali White-Sands Beach. I was really touched seeing a woman use her hands and arms to move herself to avoid the waves because she had no control of her feet and legs. It was great that she was able to enjoy that beach on her own terms. Traveling in spite of chronic illness or accessibility needs can be challenging, but it's so important to remember that modifying an experience doesn't diminish it. I lose sight of that myself sometimes, like when I can't complete a hike (i.e. Diamond Head) I get really angry at my limitations but in those moments I forget my abilities. Anyway, we continued east to Waimea where we had a coffee stop before continuing east to get to the Umauma Falls near Hilo. The area wasn't well-maintained, but you still have to pay an admission fee. I enjoyed the scenery so much that we kept chasing waterfalls. We were going against destiny though, and the rains started coming down hard to halt us. We made it to Akaka Falls, but couldn't get out of the car due to the rain storms. We shouldn't have been surprised though because Hilo is on the wetter side of the Big Island, and we were visiting during the wet season. The only thing dry was our sense of humour.

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I found Hilo very troubling. It had more dilapidated buildings, and a very visible problem with drug-use and lack of shelter. Hawaii is a study in contrasts: some of the most gorgeous scenery (and beautiful houses) I've ever been privileged enough to visit, but also some deep poverty. It turns out that much of the poverty is concentrated in the Hilo area. There is an active campaign to prevent drug abuse with slogans like "smoke salmon, not drugs". I can't really comment further given that I'm not part of the community. I can say that I felt very lucky to be visiting and I tried to really make the most of it, and support local businesses all over. I also loved the scenery close to Hilo, which included black sands beaches, waterfalls, and botanic gardens. Waterfalls really ground me: I find peace watching their powerful fall. My favourite waterfalls in the area were probably Rainbow Falls. The waterfalls were supercharged, but there weren't too many colours - just murky brown. I loved the shrubbery and trees though. It all felt like we had walked into a magical kingdom; all that was missing were the talking animals.

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Our day at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park continued in the otherworldly vein. The rock formations, and colours were so unbelievable they felt like they were literally out of this world. The park has over 150 miles of trails and you can go as high as the Kilauea Summit (at 4000 feet). We started at the most popular trail: Kilauea Iki Crater. It was about 4 miles and took just over 2 hours with photo stops, of course. We actually did it "backwards" because we ascended the 400 feet on the stairs rather than the graded slopes. If you're interested in doing it that way, you start by going left from the parking lot instead of right. We had beautiful solitude for the first quarter of our hike with views of the lava fields from the rainforest. The lava spewed in 1959, but some areas still seem fresher than others. It was amazing to see how the ground has cracked yet vegetation has sprouted from it. The Kilauea caldera was beside us and includes lava flows from 1924 (and even before) until 1982. We couldn't really see it from our hike, but drove by later on the Crater Rim Drive and saw all the steam vents. It felt like the earth was opening up to prove its power. There's an angry boiling world below us, and occasionally the cracks reveal its potency. Honestly, the black cracked ground reminded me of Toronto's roads: although, I'm not sure which actually has more potholes.

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We drove down Chain of Craters road about 20 miles to get to the Holei Sea Arch, which reminded us of the Hopewell Rocks we saw months before in New Brunswick. It costs $25 USD to enter the park, and it's all well worth it because the parking is included as well as a useful map, and the roads are well-maintained. The lava flow sites from the 1970s along the way and the 1.4 mile hike at Pu'u Loa Petroglyphs allowed us to really get a feel for how the area has changed over time. You can also look to the mountains and see the black, brown, green, and grey which is like a map for how lava flows have changed the landscape over time. If we had been there 30 years before or if we visit again 30 years from now, it'll be a different outlook altogether. The petroglyphs highlighted how cultures preserve themselves and their legacies over time. In the etchings we saw people and tiny circles, which indicated where placenta and umbilical cords were buried to represent birth and life. It's interesting how many cultures use imagery to represent their most sacred stories. It's amazing how the images weren't covered in lava flows when just 1 mile west all the lava from the 1970s covered the grounds. The most recent eruption was in 2018 and drastically changed the landscape of the park - shutting down the lava tube and museum. It also ended up destroying 700 homes nearby, creating a new black sand beach too. Most importantly, the visitor center is still open. We found many useful resources there. They also confirmed that there are no longer dangerous sulfur dioxide gases in the environment. I wonder if all of the 400 national parks in Hawaii are as well-run.

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Although we both preferred Oahu, we really did appreciate the geology and also the flora on the Big Island. On our last day there we visited Botanical World Adventures where I spotted the incredible Rainbow Eucalyptus Tree. I've never seen such a colourful tree in my life; it almost looked like an homage to the 80s with its green and orange neon hues. The grounds were really large so we were also able to admire all kinds of flowers and trees. We also saw more waterfalls. I'm starting to think Hawaii may be called the Rainbow Nation because there are so many waterfalls that play backdrop to the rainbows above them. Even the spiders in Hawaii were colourful; which made it easier to spot them, and then promptly run in the opposite direction. Apparently the huge spider with yellow markings that we saw a few times wasn't actually poisonous, but still scary for me. I really appreciated that Hawaii brings paradise without the trouble: no bears or giant cats to beware of, and even the snakes and spiders are generally fine. This was a far cry from our recent trip to Costa Rica where every day I learned about a new predator: from jaguars to tiny bullet ants, whose bite makes you feel like you've been shot.

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There's an incredible amount of spirituality and symbolism on the Big Island. We happened to visit while there were protests around the mountain, Maunakea. I had heard about the protests and seen the signs as we drove through Oahu and the Big Island saying "Ku Kia'i Mauna/We are Maunakea". I had even followed the movement online. I still didn't really grasp the full significance of more development on this sacred site until we drove by and saw it. It's a huge area, and just driving through you feel the weight of its significance. In fact, it's earth's tallest mountain - yes, it's taller than Everest - but so much of it is submerged below water that you wouldn't realize its height from base to summit. It's also already home to thirteen telescopes (built on the mountain), and even an army base. This wasn't supposed to happen though. As the land is very meaningful to Native Hawaiians - it's considered the center of the universe - it was supposed to be held "in trust" for them after Hawaii's Queen was overthrown. The land was later leased to the University of Hawaii which was supposed to request approval before developing it, but instead they went ahead and built multiple observatories. It's a familiar narrative: colonized peoples losing sacred lands to development. It's an ongoing struggle in Canada too - especially when there's discussion about more pipeline development. In this case, there's an alternative option for development. Apparently the project could be built in Spain with similar scientific results.

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On a less political note, after our Costa Rican adventure we both became curious to learn more about coffee so when we returned to Kona we visited the Mountain Thunder Coffee Company. We learned about the history of Kona coffee, and also enjoyed plentiful taste tests. Their grounds weren't as large as I anticipated, and each tree only produces about 1 to 1.5 pounds of roasted coffee per annum so surrounding farms actually bring their crops too. I also hadn't realized how much of the raw coffee beans aren't even viable. In order to sort the beans, they first look at size and weight before moving on to colour. The tour consisted of us and one other couple: the other man and I ended up throwing a lot of questions at the very knowledgeable guide. We even got into a discussion about insurance policies for business near volcanoes. Interesting stuff! The guide's mom is Japanese, so she also made a point of telling us about how the Kona coffee industry wouldn't exist if it hadn't been for hardworking Japanese people who committed to it flourishing. Hawaii's largest ethnic group is people of Asian descent, even greater than people of Native Hawaiian background, so I wasn't surprised to learn about the influence of the Japanese community on the Big Island.

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Before leaving the Big Island, we made sure to spend more time strolling by the water and soaking up the sun (away from the coffee plantation's cloud forest base). We also had to have another burger because they had just been so delicious everywhere we went! We followed that up with a dole whip, which is an absolute must if you're in Hawaii. I hadn't ever tried pineapple flavoured soft serve ice cream before, but I really hope I get to try it again one day! I'm glad our final memories in Hawaii were so peaceful and happy because our return flight was an absolute nightmare. You have to take the bad with the good, I guess. We flew without interruption to Seattle, but then returning to Chicago we hit scary windstorms. In fact, a number of flights had been grounded and I'm not sure why ours wasn't. A high wind warning was in effect, and it seems really irresponsible for them to have continued flying even though they already had that information before taking off in Seattle. The wind gusts got up to 60 miles per hour, which caused turbulence like I've never experienced. Even once the plane had landed, the winds were so bad that the plane was being rocked side to side. I got through three airline sickness bags, and felt absolutely humiliated when I even ended up throwing up on myself a bit too. Thankfully, my boyfriend was really supportive and quick-thinking. He asked the flight attendants for a cloth for my head, and also some water so that I wouldn't get too dehydrated. He also got them to bring a wheelchair because I actually lost feeling in my feet. I've had motion sickness my entire life, and it can legitimately be debilitating but this quite possibly was the worst experience with it that I've ever had - I had even take tablets before the flight, as always! I was incredibly disappointed to find out that there was no first aid area in the airport where I could lie down in the dark - instead we were told to just sit in a boarding area until I felt well enough to leave, at which point an attendant could come wheel me out. After some sips of Gatorade, and many dirty looks (no, motion sickness is not contagious!), we were finally able to leave the airport. Worst ending to the best vacation. All I can say is, what a trip!

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Posted by madrugada 11:27 Archived in USA Tagged beaches ocean hiking scenery palm_trees paradise wilderness tropical forest beauty oahu hawaii coffee botanical_gardens honolulu waikiki pineapple big_island aloha island_hopping rainbow_eucalyptus romantic_getaway lush_greenery Comments (0)

Colourful Costa Rica

Driving from Liberia through Central Costa Rica down the Western Pacific Coast to Manuel Antonio

all seasons in one day

Sample Itinerary
- Day 1: Fly into Liberia
- Day 2: Liberia to Arenal/La Fortuna, stopping at Rincón de la Vieja for hiking en route
- Day 3: Explore Arenal/La Fortuna - I recommend checking out Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park
- Day 4: Arenal/La Fortuna to Monteverde where you can stroll and eat well at El Trapiche tours
- Day 5: Monteverde (check out the Selvatura bridges before you leave) to Jacó
- Day 6: Jacó to Manuel Antonio - enjoy the local beach
- Day 7: Manuel Antonio - spend the day at the national park
- Day 8: Manuel Antonio to Cañas - appreciate the art, wildlife, and food
- Day 9: Cañas to Liberia, and fly away home

Where to Stay
- Hotel Javy in Liberia -- although I wouldn't necessarily recommend staying in Liberia overnight
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in Arenal/La Fortuna -- amazing accommodation and facilities, including games area, multiple pools and delicious breakfast buffets - just watch out for the ants!
- Belcruz B&B in Monteverde -- as long as you're ok with rustic lodgings
- Rancho Capulin -- near the Rio Tarcoles crocodiles, and fairly close to Jacó; make sure to request the Mirador if you want a stunning sunset from high above the trees
- Hotel Costa Verde near the Manuel Antonio National Park and close to Quepos -- Area D is isolated from the complex, but has beautiful views since you're surrounded by nature
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica near Cañas -- former presidential retreat that's still secluded, but in need of some repairs

Where to Eat
- Maria Juana Restaurant in Liberia -- cool outdoor setting and hearty pasta
- Casa de Calá in Liberia for drinks
- Casa la Fortuna Restaurant in La Fortuna -- not the best beef, but an adorable setting with cute hammocks and tasty smoothies
- Volcano Lodge, Hotel & Thermal Experience in La Fortuna -- phenomenal breakfast buffet, and delicious dinner
- Sabor Tico in Santa Elena (near Monteverde) for a regional tortilla aliñada as a snack
- Soda Angel in Manuel Antonio -- cheapest and tastiest food you'll find
- Aguas Azules in Manuel Antonio -- nice, sit-down dinner place
- El Wagon and El Avion in Manuel Antonio -- affiliated with the Hotel Costa Verde, so you can request a shuttle
- Hotel Hacienda la Pacifica in Cañas for another great breakfast and dinner combo - it's also worth stopping in town for a leche dormida since that's the famous local drink

What to Bring
- Bug spray (I cannot emphasize this enough!), sunscreen, clothing for all weather (e.g. waterproof jacket, tank tops, swimsuit, etc.), hiking boots, assistive devices (and make sure to confirm accessibility of sites before you go), flip flops, hat, sunglasses, umbrella, pocket tissues, useful medicines (e.g. for bug reactions, etc.), an SUV (if you choose to drive), US and/or Costa Rican cash (this was very useful), a water bottle (most areas had potable water), and Spanish-English help through an app or pocket translator

My Travel Diary
When I first started planning our three months of travel in 2019, I knew that Costa Rica would likely be the pinnacle. I've always been curious to see the eco-tourism haven of Central America. As such, it was no surprise that when we arrived in Liberia we were met with a smaller city than anticipated and a tremendous amount of greenery. Due to its wild nature, there's a huge emphasis on conservation, and also environmental consciousness. This flies in the face of much of what is shared on social media, so it's no surprise that the airport has actual posters instructing tourists not to disturb wildlife for pictures - "sloths are not made for selfies". What if selfies were made for sloths though? Anyway, we had decided (as per usual) to rent a car, so once we had picked up our Mitsubishi Outlander from Sixt we began on the real adventure, i.e. where to park, and how not to disappear into potholes. Liberia has a unique parking system in that you need to go into an official vendor, like a pharmacy, to purchase time and a specific parking spot. There are no parking meters on the street, and not even some of the locals I spoke to could really identify how the system works. It was still cheaper than having our car stolen and replaced, so I happily paid the pharmacist. Liberia actually seemed very safe and liveable - I'm fluent in Spanish though, so I'm not sure how challenging it might be if you're not - but it's just not an ideal tourist destination either way. Apart from the downtown square and imposing white church, there wasn't much else to explore. We did enjoy watching the birds all line up on cables taking in the striking sunset - it felt like the rom-com version of Hitchcock's "The Birds".

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I very quickly learned that my favourite thing about Costa Rica was actually one specific bird: el gallo, a.k.a. the rooster. Although it wasn't the bird itself that I loved as much as their famous local breakfast dish: gallo pinto. I happily devoured the rice, beans, and special spices every morning (and even a few evenings, where I could find it). Our first morning in Liberia I ate a tremendous amount at the hotel, which prepared me well for our long hike ahead in Rincon de la Vieja. There were a number of accommodations near the volcano park, which were pricier than the hotel we stayed at in Liberia - but you're paying for the adventure retreat instead of the discounted city lodgings.

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Rincon de la Vieja is a fairly short drive from Liberia and well worth visiting. There are two main entrances and areas to explore: Sector Santa Maria, and Sector Pailas. We chose the road less traveled (and also less paved), by visiting Sector Santa Maria. The road was actually just a gathering of huge rocks assembled in a fairly straight line, basically a miniature Stone Henge. If we didn't have an SUV, there's zero chance that we would have attempted that drive. Once you actually reach the ranger's station though, you realize that it'll likely have been worth the ups and downs. The ranger was a kind older gentleman who told us we were lucky that it was a fairly dry day (just spitting rain), but didn't go into much detail beyond that. About 15 minutes into our hike, we questioned his judgement when we ran into a river. Yes, there was a literal river for us to cross at the beginning of our hike. My boyfriend and I chose to cross the river at different spots: with rocks submerged but closer together vs. rocks above the water but farther apart. Thankfully, we were calm as the current and managed to cross safely. Since we were basically river otters after that experience, the next two rivers didn't faze us - it also helped that there were cables strung across to assist with balance. With or without the cables, I felt like a brilliant explorer mapping out my rocky route across the rivers. My bravery came into question every time I heard a sound though: was that a puma? or a snake? or a scorpion? Usually it was just me scaring myself by stepping on a stick. For someone who is actually more terrified of bugs than animals, Costa Rica is a tough destination. I won't sugarcoat it: I had a very hard time managing my insect anxiety because they are everywhere - whether you're indoors or outdoors, they'll find you (dead or alive).

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The Santa Maria sector of the park is open daily at 8 am and you have to come prepared to pay a cash entrance fee of $15 USD per person. Although I've read reviews suggesting sandals I would argue that's totally misguided - if you're crossing rivers, you want tread, and I'd prefer to have waterproof boots on instead. Unless, of course, you plan to step in the rivers. My boyfriend, for example, decided to jump right into a river in order to reach some isolated hot springs. I was more hesitant. Once I finally caved and stepped in, I was eaten alive within seconds. I panicked and ran out of the river without ever making it to the hot springs, instead I had little bloody bug bites all over my legs and a weird red worm on my toe. I guess what they say is true: you can’t step in the same river twice. The river my boyfriend entered definitely treated him differently than me. For my boyfriend, the hot springs were the highlight of our trip, but my experience wasn’t so hot.

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The (live) volcano itself can't be seen from Sector Santa Maria; however, you do get to explore multiple waterfalls: bosque encantado, and the morpho waterfalls. In addition to the hot springs, there are also cold water pots and an old sugar cane processing plant. All in all, we spent about 3.5 hours hiking in the area, and ran into 4 people. If you're afraid of being alone in the woods, this is definitely the wrong part of the park for you.

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It took us about three and a half hours to drive to La Fortuna (the town beside the volcano, Arenal). Weather in Costa Rica is really unpredictable and, on our drive, it alternated between gorgeous skies and windy/rainy storms. There's a gorgeous lookout en route and we were mesmerized by the volcano itself. It's an active volcano, which last erupted in 2010. At 1633 metres high with a 140 metre diameter crater, it literally looks like a picture-perfect conic volcano. The prettiest conehead you'll ever see! From our hotel, we had a lovely view of it, made even better by the fact that we were spying on it from our thermal hot springs. In fact, our hotel had so many amenities that our first day there we spent most of the time hiding from the rain by playing pool, darts, Foosball and other games in the bar area. Finally, we decided to brave the rains and head off to the Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges Park. To be honest, we weren’t that brave – the whole park was paved, resulting in less mud and discomfort than even walking around our own hotel’s trails. It was also fairly empty, likely due to the rains and the late hour of our arrival. We got there at about 2:30pm and it closes at 3:50pm.

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The views were spectacular because it wasn’t just the forest – it was also the volcano. The sights became more interactive as we had to follow the path and explore the 22 bridges; the highest (#9 puente la catarata) was 148 feet tall. I’m good at dispute resolution, but I can’t imagine building bridges like that. I also can’t imagine crossing those bridges daily because even an hour of it made me nauseous from the swinging motion. This discomfort was amplified by an allergic reaction to a bug bite. I’m awfully afraid of bugs, which, unlike my Spanish fluency, was not an asset in the wilderness of Costa Rica. This trip actually helped me realize that I need help addressing some of my anxieties. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with being afraid of bugs, but there is something wrong with negative thought patterns that spiral into obsessive behaviour. I had to separate fact from fiction when I saw bugs and remember that Aragog, the giant spider from Harry Potter, is not real and does not vacation in Costa Rica.

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Apart from the bugs, the weather was also a nuisance at times. I was really glad to have a raincoat with me for our time in Monteverde and La Fortuna. I was also happy that we rented an SUV for our drive from La Fortuna to Monteverde given the prevalence of potholes that sucked you in like the Bermuda Triangle. They were buffered on both sides by ditches as deep as black holes. To make the drives even more like a video game, my boyfriend (the driver) had to keep his eyes open for loose cattle, and overzealous dump trucks on these narrow, eroded roads. Another obstacle was the constant stream of cyclists that appeared around every corner. The cattle on roads was a constant theme on this trip. In fact, I’m surprised we never saw a cow-on-car collision – that would have been mooving, in all the wrong ways.

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In Monteverde, apart from the cloud forest, we really enjoyed visiting El Trapiche tours. We caught their last tour of the day at 3pm, which was fortunate because I definitely needed a mid-day snack. They supplied plentiful amounts of coffee, sugarcane and chocolate while also providing the added bonus of an informative tour of their stunning grounds. The wildest part was probably the moment when we watched a mother sloth feed her young in a tree, while we took an ox-ride down below. Our ox rode us down a path of enlightenment as we learned everything there is to know about coffee. My favourite fact was that in Costa Rica they only produce high-quality Arabica, since they actually made it illegal to grow poor quality coffee. I wish we could make it illegal to sell bad quality coffee in Canada, although that would likely undermine Tim Hortons’ entire business model. Anyway, it turns out all the volcanoes have made the soil rich in minerals, and led to an appropriate level of acidity. I’m glad the coffee isn’t as bitter as my views of politics, or we wouldn’t have enjoyed it much. We also got to see the trees that grow coffee berries/beans, and learn that the caffeine is more potent once they’re roasted. In fact, we learned all about coffee processing: peeling, sorting and roasting. In addition to coffee, we learned about cacoa, which grows in pods on trees. Once the pod is broken you see that it’s full of seeds. We got to try them raw, but also processed. My boyfriend even got to work off some of the calories by riding a bike that ground up cacao. I made him pay 35$ USD to ride a bike, but he loved it. Although he enjoyed the tour, we did not appreciate the fact that the bathroom door broke. Fortunately, neither of us was in the bathroom when the door jammed; unfortunately, we were both desperate to get in. As they say, travelling definitely brings couples closer together – especially when both people are locked out.

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Anyway, we survived a number of other disasters that day and still managed to enjoy our time at the Selvatura hanging bridges. The grounds were muddy, but they didn’t cloud our views of the lush green forests. We even spotted some wildlife from our bird’s eye view (including many types of birds). The most gorgeous views appeared seemingly out of nowhere on our drive southwest. We even stopped a few times to take photos and just stand hand-in-hand soaking up our moments together.

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Our romantic journey continued when we arrived at Rancho Capulin (bed and breakfast), our gorgeous jungle habitat for one night. The hosts are a lovely couple who moved there from France about a decade ago. They also happen to be the parents of one of my childhood friends, so our stay was not without nostalgia. It was heartwarming hearing about how their kids are doing, and also listening to their story of adapting to this new country and building both a home and business there. It’s inspiring when you see people pursuing their passions, and creating their communities. Life isn’t prescribed, no matter what social norms may exist.

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Rancho Capulin is right beside the Tarcoles River, so on our way to Manuel Antonio we managed to cross the famous Crocodile Bridge and peer down at a tremendous number of man-eaters. I like swimming, but you couldn’t pay me to plunge into those waters. We bypassed Jacó because we were more interested in arriving safely in sunlight at our Manuel Antonio hotel. Our hotel room was in an isolated part of the hotel complex, which meant additional privacy and also stunning views of the water, wildlife and jungle from our balcony. I basically felt like we became Tarzan and Jane, or Romeo and Juliet – but without the problematic underpinnings.

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Manuel Antonio has a fair number of restaurants, and also a few beaches to explore – in addition to the obvious draw, the national park. My main advice in that region is not to trust the many scammers that hang out in the parking lots, and near the park’s entrance. They will tell you they work for the government, that you need to pay them to enter the park, that there are limited spots available daily, and a number of other bold-faced lies. For better or worse, I’m a very blunt person. I was very clear with these men that their behaviour was manipulative, and that I wouldn’t give them a dime (or the Costa Rican equivalent). Needless to say, we were slightly concerned with parking our car around these men after my honest diatribe and so we mainly chose to walk – accepting instead the narrow, windy roads and lack of sidewalk. Espadilla (public) beach wasn’t far, so the walk didn’t inconvenience us.

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I also enjoyed looking down on the beach from our hotel’s helipad structure. The view from above allowed us to really soak up all the scenery, and also stay dry under the umbrellas. I couldn’t really complain about the constant drizzle though given that we made the decision to travel during the rainy season. I did try singing: “rain, rain, go away, come again another day”, but apparently my Canadian lullabies don’t translate into impacting Costa Rican weather conditions.

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The Manuel Antonio National Park is closed on Mondays, and open all other days from 7 am to 4 pm. Tickets are purchased near the entrance at the Coopealianza where it’s definitely preferable to pay the $16 USD entrance fee with cash, although they will accept credit card too for an additional fee. To save some money (and help the environment) take your water bottle with you - the park has potable water, like much of Costa Rica apparently. The park is quite large (1950 hectares), but the paths are manageable and you can see most of it within a few hours (depending on your pace, of course). Although we weren’t heading to Jurassic Park, it definitely felt wild. We saw so many animals and insects, even without having hired a guide. It wasn’t hard to spot most of the animals: from agouti to deer. The birds could be a bit trickier, but the tremendous number of guided groups made it easier because they would crowd near a spot in the forest and point their cameras in whatever direction we needed to follow. We walked all through the park, and my boyfriend even swam through parts of it. While he turned into a merman, I chose to binge on ice cream. My gluttony was punished very quickly, as I got pooed on by a monkey while walking back to the beach. Thankfully, the monkey didn’t aim at my ice cream, but it definitely splashed its lunch all over my bare shoulder. The monkey mafia targeted me again later because when we got back to the hotel, a monkey in a nearby tree ripped off some bark and whipped it at me. I’m not sure what I did to deserve that kind of violent crap, but they weren’t monkeying around with their attacks.

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It was hardest leaving our hotel room in Manuel Antonio because rain or shine, we couldn’t stop staring out into the beauty surrounding us. In fact, in a flash rainstorm, I stood on the balcony in solidarity with the toucans, monkeys, taipirs, and agoutis hiding in the jungle in front of me. I’m glad to have had the chance to see the world they still live in, and hope not to contribute to its demise. No matter how much I hate bugs, I recognize that they have as much of a right to exist as me. It’s a shared world, and without those bugs these animals couldn’t feed themselves. Life lesson from a trip to Costa Rica, or from the Lion King? Not sure, but it’s an important one either way.

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Our final stop on this Costa Rican journey was near Cañas, which is about an hour outside of Liberia. We decided last minute to stay at a hacienda there built in the 19th century by a former president of Costa Rica. It was definitely a rustic retreat: as we pulled up, we were greeted by deer. We also played hosts, as our room was visited by cockroaches and lizards. The nearby town of Cañas made for a nice visit because of its beautiful cathedral decorated with mosaic tiles. While there it’s worth trying a leche dormida, their local specialty drink. We couldn’t find an open restaurant so we spent the evening back at our hotel grounds, eating at the delicious on-site restaurant and strolling like president and first gentleman around the large grounds.

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The hotel’s neighbour is actually el centro de rescate las pumas – a conservation site for rescued animals. The entry was $12 USD and we appreciated that most of the money seemed to go toward saving and treating animals in need. Each animal had a troubled past, from the two jaguars who were rescued when their mother was poached to pumas who had been kept in chicken coops as pets. It was hard seeing the animals caged, but it seemed (and we really hope) that they're treated ethically. Most encouraging was seeing all of the children visiting and learning about the plentiful environment around them, and the importance of respecting and preserving it.

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Like those children, I think this trip was an opportunity for me to recognize the importance of my role in environmental protection too. I can choose whether to spend my money on visiting (and petting) animals in captivity for entertainment, or those that have been rescued and are being sheltered for their protection. Overall, travel creates a large carbon footprint, so it’s important to act on ways to offset that. Even at home, it’s also crucial to consider how best to reduce waste and improve recycling. I have a lot of room for growth, but I really am inspired by Costa Rica’s progress. That being said, I won’t miss its monkeys.

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Posted by madrugada 10:04 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged landscapes beaches animals chocolate rainforest rivers monteverde ocean wildlife costa_rica coffee crocodiles liberia roadtrip greenery environment central_america arenal jungles rincon_de_la_vieja la_fortuna manuel_antonio cloud_forests jaco sugarcane romantic_getaway bilingual_travel hanging_bridges _pura_vida tarcoles spanish_speaking_country cattle_traffic Comments (2)

¡Viva México!

Traveling Backwards: Revisiting Mexico 11 Years Later

sunny

When one of my best friends announced that he was getting married in Mexico and wanted me to be part of the wedding I felt excited for him but nervous to be returning there after so many years. The thing is, I lived in Mexico eleven years ago – at the time I was a very young, very impressionable woman. Now I’m a not-so-young, very impressionable woman. In all seriousness though, a lot has changed since my time doing an internship at a homeless shelter in Mexico City. In fact, this blog was conceived at that time and I’m sure that those experiences and my perspectives would be wildly different were I to write about them now. One of the concerns that sprang to mind was how it would feel to see my old friends, and visit my old neighbourhood. Would they remember me? Would it all look different? How might this trip down memory lane impact my feelings about my time living there? I was also very aware of my relationship with fear and how that’s changed. When I lived in Mexico for those four months, I acted in foolish ways at times without anticipating consequences whereas now I avoid risk because I’m wholly aware of what the repercussions could be. Of course, it didn’t help that the Canadian government has a number of alerts about travel to Mexico.

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Before I go into much detail about my trip, I just want to provide a few disclaimers. I’m a fluent Spanish speaker who has lived in Mexico before so my perspectives are based on my experience meeting people and using services entirely in Spanish. I can’t speak to how accessible things would be in English unless I’m reporting on what my friends or boyfriend experienced. I’ll also mention that as a woman who has had some problematic experiences with men in Mexico in the past, safety may be more of a concern for me than others. I’m trying to paint an accurate picture of my relationship with Mexico, not pretend every trip is a blank canvas. In my opinion, every traveler brings their bias and should also be aware that the identity you wear on your sleeve when you travel may not be how you self-identify. I’ll finish off my preamble with this: just reflect on how you may be perceived before you go – it’ll ultimately make the trip easier.

The wedding itself was in Puerto Vallarta, which I had never planned to visit. I anticipated it being like Acapulco, and in some ways it was – for example, it’s packed with tourists, but fortunately in many ways it wasn’t because, for example, it’s incredibly safe. I will say that their airport is probably the least organized I’ve ever seen in my life. As it’s such a small place I assumed it would be a quick trip past customs and instead it took two hours from the point of disembarking to finally make it out of the building. This was in large part thanks to the many airport employees who were too busy gossiping to actually form lines and/or direct passengers. I voiced my discontent, and fortunately they seemed to take my words to heart. Unfortunately, my back was already killing me by this point (I learned my lesson – do not travel with a 20 lbs. backpack). When it came time to get to la Zona Romántica of Puerto Vallarta, I opted to catch a bus to save some money. Instead, I befriended a lovely couple at the bus stop who gave me a free Uber ride to town and inadvertently hooked me up with a private driver for the duration of the trip. I do not recommend taking a taxi from the airport if you can avoid it – they’ll charge roughly 320 pesos more than one of the buses. If you really want to travel in comfort, just order an Uber and save yourself some money for your nights out on the town.

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It felt appropriate that I was staying in la Zona Romántica on Valentine’s Day, even if I was alone. In fact, I was still able to get into a good restaurant (El Dorado) and treat myself to a nice meal. I also enjoyed long romantic walks along the beach at sunset punctuated by people trying to sell me massages, roses, and keychains. El Malecón is well worth strolling because it’s the main boardwalk of the city from which you can see vistas of the water and mountains, but also the plethora of statues, artists, and attractions. One of the strangest acts I saw was a clown who spent about 15 minutes making fun of where audience members were from and then proceeded to line children up from tallest to shortest. Somewhere between the silence and lack of laughter I grew bored and wandered away toward the Plaza Principal and Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (church). Fate drew me instead right through the doors of el Museo de Chocolate. I learned about how cocoa is harvested, mass production of chocolate and its use in Indigenous cultures, but more importantly I discovered tejate - a tasty prehispanic drink of maize, cocoa, milk and mamey from the Oaxaca region.

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Puerto Vallarta is a great place to relax. The problem is I’m not very good at relaxing. My hotel, Hotel Porto Allegre, really helped in this regard because it had a beautiful rooftop patio with views of the jungles, mountains, and water. I was able to keep my mind racing by reading the newspaper, but also feel at ease by soaking up the surrounding beauty. The best views I saw were on the hike up to the Mirador Cerro de la Cruz. I would suggest not following the makeshift signs that take you through a jungle shortcut and instead following the street. I would also suggest bringing water. Trust me, I learned the hard way. Somehow, I avoided kidnapping, and also heat stroke. Hopefully you manage to do the same.

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Puerto Vallarta has a number of nice neighbourhoods, and based on your interests you’ll determine which area works best for you. Some of my friends chose to stay in the Marina Vallarta for their last night, which is a cute spot for restaurants and bars as well as crocodiles. No word of a lie – there are real crocodiles that live and lounge in the waters of the marina. The crocodiles didn’t scare away my appetite, and when I visited I ate a plentiful portion of risotto at Porto Bello Restaurant.

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The wedding itself was held in a town called La Cruz de Huanacaxtle at a resort called B Nayar. I could write an entire blog entry about how weird this “hotel” was. Firstly, it turned out that it’s not a real hotel but rather a timeshare scheme or fancy Airbnb. Secondly, it took an hour and a half to check in because it turned out our suite had gecko feces all over, no lights in one of the bedrooms, a broken safe, as well as multiple broken patio/balcony doors. Finally, I woke up to no running water on my last morning there. I’ll just leave that there.

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The majority of the wedding party stayed at an all-inclusive resort, the Royal Decameron, in the nearby town of Bucerías. One of the things that turned me off about the resort was that they don’t allow Mexican tourists. It was mind-boggling to me when I found out because it would seemingly violate so many human rights/anti-discrimination laws. In any case, I found that disheartening. The wedding itself took place at the B Nayar. Although I found it a bizarre place to stay, it certainly was a beautiful wedding venue. The wedding took place on a beach looking out over the sea and mountains of Puerto Vallarta, which was a great spot to watch the sunset. The views were simply spectacular. The bride and groom were ecstatic, and it was wonderful being able to celebrate their love with a number of my friends. I was actually surprised by the number of people who attended given that destination weddings are a significant investment in terms of both time and money. It goes to show how much love surrounds this couple.

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After the wedding weekend, it was time for me to fly to Mexico City and begin my journey to the past. Of course, it was a bumpy ride. Literally. I got so motion sick on the flight that I couldn’t stop vomiting even once I was safely on land. Fortunately, my personal doctor arrived soon enough and we headed to our Airbnb for a grounded evening. We had chosen to stay in la Zona Rosa because I knew it was safe, and also full of fun. As safe as it is in la Zona Rosa, that’s relative to the rest of the city. So, as a Canadian, I had to readjust because when in Mexico it isn’t uncommon to see massive guns. Even in a nice café, Tierra Garat, in a safe neighbourhood, our thoughtful conversation about “cien”tipedes was interrupted by two men who ran by us with massive guns straight into the kitchen. After realizing we were the only people in the café who seemed to notice this, I asked one of the employees who then informed me that it was a security company collecting cash. With that assurance, we could return to our discussion about whether all centipedes have one hundred legs. Turns out I was wrong - they don’t.

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Overall, we really liked staying in la Zona Rosa but I’m glad we moved elsewhere over the weekend because I’m a light sleeper and it gets loud. We were right down the street from Kinky Bar, and it makes its presence known even on the weekdays. We really enjoyed the evenings because there was some fantastic people-watching from some really great bars and restaurants. Although we ate mainly Mexican food, we also enjoyed some other places like il Ristorante (Italian food), and Cafebreria el Péndulo (bookstore bar). A surprisingly good Mexican restaurant was actually in the mall Reforma 222. I had a delicious dish with mole at el Bajío, and my boyfriend and two friends ate quesadillas amongst other delicious dishes. It was nice to have a quiet space for the four of us to catch up, laugh and gossip without much distraction. It was also a good opportunity for us to remember that we’re in our 30s now and would rather have dinner in a mall than go dancing in a club.

Mexico City has a magical air about it. There are endless things to do, places to go and people to see. And unfortunately, we just didn't have the time to see all the people and places I would have liked. I planned our trip such that each day would be one zone. Our first day was spent in the historic center (la Zona Histórica) where we walked for seven hours in the sun (again, without much water). I would recommend only drinking bottled water while in Mexico, and making sure you actually drink enough of it! Again, learn from my mistakes. We started our day at the Torre Latinoamericana where we took in the best views of the city while enjoying brunch. If you’d rather not pay the price of admission, then visit the building directly across from el Palacio de Bellas Artes where you’ll still get a beautiful view of the downtown. Some of the key sites in that zone are: el Palacio de Bellas Artes (for the murals, and the shows), el Templo Mayor (where you can learn more about what ruins were unearthed while building the subways), el Zócalo (the main town square with the gigantic flag), Templo de San Francisco (one of many beautiful churches in the city), Citibanamex Culture Palace (home to interesting free photography exhibits), Sinagoga Justo Sierra (if you’re interested in the history of Ashkenazi Jewry in Mexico), el Palacio Nacional (to see some of Diego Rivera’s most prominent murals), and Plaza Garibaldi (for the live mariachi music, although I wouldn't go after dark).

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Although we rushed through these places in a day, it’s entirely reasonable to extend your visit so that you can really soak in the culture and history. There’s an incredible amount to learn, and you may not recall much if you’re too busy trying to make your next move. In fact, it was for this reason that we chose to spend an entire afternoon at the Museo Memoria y Tolerancia. We wanted to give this museum the respect it deserved given the gravity of the topics it broached. If you’ve read my other blog posts, you know that I like to travel to learn and often that takes me to some dark places. Visiting a museum that’s primarily focussed on genocide is not everyone’s idea of an ideal vacation, and that’s understandable. We left with heavy hearts, but we also felt lighter because the museum ends with messages of hope through tolerance. The museum is curated by people who understand that dark histories need to be balanced with the presentation of peace plans - for that reason, visitors will learn about the likes of Nelson Mandela and Ghandi before leaving. To me, the most inspiring part of that visit was the fact that we had to wait half an hour just to get into the museum. On a beautiful Sunday afternoon when people could be strolling the streets, they chose to spend their time acknowledging the atrocities of the past and present so that they can hopefully equip themselves with tools for tolerance and understanding in the future.

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My boyfriend flew out before me on the Sunday evening, so I spent that time returning once again to la Zona Histórica in order to quickly buy a traditional Oaxaca style blouse from el Mercado de Artesanías la Ciudadela, pop into Cafe de Tacuba for dinner and catch a performance of folkloric ballet at the Palacio de Bellas Artes before flying out myself later that night. They have performances Sunday mornings and evenings for a very reasonable price – my seat was only 300 pesos. The repertoire is diverse and covers everything from Aztec dances to a summary of the revolution of 1910 (complete with dancing female soldiers). One of the more bizarre dances was called la Vida es un Juego and involved massive dancing toys – supposedly, the game is controlled by the devil. Again, it’s possible to see a lot in very little time but you need to decide if that’s the type of trip that works for you. If it were my first time in Mexico City, I would likely have slowed the pace substantially.

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If you have a week or more in Mexico City it’s well worth considering your daytrip options. A must-see is Teotihuacán – the ancient Mesoamerican pyramids built around 300 BC (well before the Aztecs). You can choose to purchase a tour, or attempt to get there by yourself. Remember that if you go with a tour you need to really do your research to ensure that it’ll allow you adequate time to explore the site, and remember that you’ll be paying a lot more. Many of the tours force you to make stops at markets where they’ll take a cut, rather than permitting you plenty of time to climb the pyramids. Also, be aware that there are multiple pyramids and you need to dress appropriately for climbing them. I saw some folks who didn’t understand that climbing a pyramid and going salsa dancing involved different attire. Although we dressed appropriately, our mistake was that we didn’t leave our hotel early enough to arrive there with sufficient exploration time. Because we left so late, we only arrived at Teotihuacán early afternoon, and the site closed at 5pm. The site entry tickets cost 75 pesos each, and even though we had such a short time it still felt like we got our money’s worth just seeing that incredible taste of Mexican history. When you factor in the tremendous crowds, our bad timing left us with enough time to climb only one pyramid: the Pyramid of the Sun. We had climbed a mountain two days prior, so we were excited for the pyramid climb and able to complete it within about 15 minutes (accounting for the lines). The view is incredible and really leaves you in awe of the ability of ancient peoples, and interested in learning more about their way of life. Walking the Avenue of the Dead, which takes roughly half an hour from end to end, also left us very curious about their philosophies on life and death.

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If you’re not taking a tour, you’ll likely need to trek to the Terminal Central de Autobuses del Norte where I’d suggest buying roundtrip tickets (you can buy an open return) for 104 pesos. The buses leave fairly frequently but they also stop frequently to pick up seemingly random passersby on the way so it isn’t as quick a trip as Google Maps may have you believe. For us, it took just over an hour and fortunately we were able to sit together on the way there (but not on the way back). We experienced some confusion around which gates to wait at, but ultimately the buses stop at a few so we weren’t left searching for caves to sleep in. If I were to go back, I would take more snacks and also make reservations at the only walkable restaurant – la Gruta, which also happens to be in a cave. When we arrived, we were told it would be a one hour wait, so we settled for street food instead.

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La Gruta would be a great place to dine because they provide entertainment like dancers and singers. All in all, it worked out fine though because we ended up back in Mexico City early enough to go for a proper meal at el Quebracho (Argentinian steakhouse) in the Cuauhtémoc neighbourhood. As it happened to be our last night together in the city, we dressed nicely and after our tasty dinner and dessert, we went strolling by the famous Ángel de la independencia on Reforma ave. Just as a quick note on dessert: there are amazing churros all over, but my favourite spot was el Moro. I surprised myself thinking about this but in all honesty my all-time favourite dessert in Mexico is fruit. You can find fresh fruit on many street corners, and it’s tropical too! The best street meal, in my opinion, is a licuado de mamey and a quesadilla con flor de calabaza – it gives the fancy Argentinian steakhouse a run for its money.

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For our last days in Mexico City, my boyfriend and I moved from our Airbnb in the gay village to luxury suites in Cuauhtémoc at the MX Grand Suites. I thought it was an excellent hotel. They were particularly helpful with last-minute requests like on the Friday night when a protest shut down a number of streets nearby and our Ubers kept canceling – the concierge called us a taxi, and walked us to it so that we wouldn’t be further delayed. The taxi had our backs and we weren’t late to our very important date. My friends were meeting us at the Arena México for Lucha Libre – Mexican professional wrestling entertainment. It turns out that my friends were able to get us VIP tickets which meant that we entered through the same doors as the wrestlers. Because the first luchador I saw was Místico he quickly became my favourite. That being said, without a doubt my favourite wrestling name was Terrible – he calls it like it is. Ultimately, the battle that most impressed me was the one-on-one, which just went on and on and on. I couldn’t believe the stamina of these men. Although it’s all staged, I’m sure, it’s still incredibly physical and these men knew the show had to go on and on and on too. It was a lot of fun attending Lucha Libre with my Mexican friends because they were able to fill us in on the back stories of the different entertainers, it was like watching a real-life multi-generational telenovela.

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After Lucha Libre we were contemplating whether to call it a night, but felt like our old selves would have been disappointed (and we knew it was our last time hanging out as a group, for this trip at least) so we headed out to an open-concept bar/restaurant called el Comedor. There was no dancing, just eating. Good compromise between wanting to live up to our partying past, but acknowledging our particular present. Catching up with my friends felt so natural even though we hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. We saw this couple a couple of times because, well, they’re just such wonderful people and were also integral to my time in Mexico. It also helped that my boyfriend and the husband hit it off instantly, and could communicate in English. One of my concerns before departing on this tour to my past was whether things would be the same. While there, I realized that things didn’t need to be the same to feel just as natural. Although we have grown and changed, we still get along and respect each other for who we are now. It was really special for me to be able to share that experience with my boyfriend too, because I think learning more about someone’s past allows you better insight into their present. I just wish we had had more time to catch up with more of my Mexican friends, but it wasn’t in the cards for this quick trip.

Speaking of my Mexican past, I wanted to spend time in la Condesa – the area I had lived in all those years ago. My boyfriend and I wandered the streets until we found my old house, and although I seriously considered ringing the bell to see whether the landlady still lived there, I decided against it. It was enough for me to just see that the house was safe. You see, an earthquake in September 2017 did a significant amount of damage to that neighbourhood, and in a sick twist of fate it occurred to the day on the 32nd anniversary of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City that had killed at least 10 000 people. People often think about danger in Mexico as being restricted to person-on-person, and they forget the raw potential power of the earth. The spot that struck me the most was an apartment building near the fashionable Parque México that had been ravaged by the earthquake. It stood there wedged in between stylish condo blocks, totally out of place yet standing its ground. The bottom floor was still in use by a business, even though the floors above were shattered and uninhabitable.

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After wandering streets and sipping drinks at endless cafes, it was important for me to spend some time in the massive Bosque de Chapultepec. At over 1 600 acres in size, I’ve been told it’s the largest urban park in North America. Although it’s undoubtedly beautiful, it’s also not the kind of natural retreat you’d get at Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York for example because it’s filled with vendors, museums, and even a castle. I couldn’t remember ever entering the castle, so my boyfriend and I decided to pay the fee, hike up the hill, and go for it. The information inside is entirely in Spanish so I played translator for him as we wandered the opulent halls, and paused to take in the gorgeous views of Mexico City. I really enjoyed learning about how the castle changed depending on who was residing in it. In a nutshell, the castle was first built in the 1700s and has served as everything from: astronomy observatory to a military college to a house for the president. Some of the history is depicted visually through murals, by Antonio Gonzalez Orozco and Diego Rivera, for example. And prior to 18th century development on the hill, it was already a spot of great importance to Aztec cultures.

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Speaking of the Aztecs, we did a day trip to Tepoztlán so we could hike up the mountain Tepozteco and visit the temple dedicated to the Aztec god of drunkenness and fertility (naturally the two would go hand-in-hand). Although we weren’t drunk or pregnant (although it would be amazing if my boyfriend were the latter), we still managed to enjoy the visit immensely. Like our day trip to Teotihuacán, we opted out of guided tours or private guides and instead took the subway to Tasqueña metro station and then walked to the Terminal Central del Sur where we bought our roundtrip tickets (134 pesos each). Our trip was eventful as the highway exit was closed, and the bus driver announced that he wasn’t familiar with the neighbourhood. After accepting advice from passengers, we detoured through the smoke from a massive countryside fire and eventually made it to the bus terminal in Tepoztlán. Our journey wasn't over yet though. From the terminal we had to walk for more than half an hour, and naturally stop for ice cream at the famous Tepoznieves, before we made it to the base of the mountain. It took us just over an hour to get to the top, but we were fortunate that there was no rain because it’s a messy path. In fact, large parts of the hike are just rocks and loose stones which definitely helped me sprain my ankle on the way down. I can’t imagine doing the hike in anything other than hiking boots or running shoes, but I did see some people struggling to do it in flip flops. Did they make it to the top? I can neither confirm nor deny. My boyfriend and I certainly made it to the top, and loved the views from up there. We also appreciated that there were water bottles for sale because by then we had finished ours (and were able to toss them in the garbage bins). Something that really surprised us both were the animals we met along the way like the coatis, which are sort of like Mexican monkey raccoons who are very territorial about the garbage at the precipice. The hunger in their eyes, albeit for garbage, definitely triggered our appetites and by the time we made it back to town we stopped at one of the first restaurants we saw: la Colorina. We basically ate our way through every town we saw, and enjoyed every bite.

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Hands-down my favourite meal (for the food and ambience) was at Antiguo palacio de Coyoacán in the south of the city, where I enjoyed sopa Azteca and tacos dorados. I particularly liked that we were sitting on a patio and could people-watch, although I was distracted by the man beside us who was watching telenovelas on his cellphone. I was ambitious in our planning for our time in southern Mexico City because I thought we may be able to visit Coyoacán, San Ángel, Desierto de los leones and Xochimilco in one day. At the end of the day we had made it to Xochimilco and Coyoacán. Upon further reflection, I realized that we could drop San Ángel from our itinerary because it’s a similar vibe to Coyoacán. Instead of rushing, we spent some time wandering the cobblestone streets and relaxing in the central plazas: Plaza Centenario and Plaza Hidalgo.
In contrast to the calm of Coyoacán, Xochimilco was more like a frenzied fiesta. Xochimilco is actually a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, and has an incredible history given how the landscape (and lake) has changed over time. It’s known as the Venice of Mexico because it’s full of canals and boats called trajineras which are ridden by mariachi bands, and vendors selling everything from huitlacoche (corn fungus) to dolls. Dolls have become integral to the tourist experience at Xochimilco given that there’s an island of dolls, which is quite unnerving if you don’t know what to expect given that half the dolls are dismembered or decapitated. We had set off from the Embarcadero Nativitas whereas in the past I had left from the Embarcadero Belem so depending on where you leave from and how long you want to spend on the canals you may see the original island of the dolls or the fake version – they’re both equally creepy, don’t worry. Our steady trajinera, Paola, took us past the dolls, the mariachis, and the hoards of other tourists with only a couple of collisions.

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After our time down south, we decided to have dinner with an old friend of mine and his girlfriend back in the center of the city. Neither of them speaks English, so I got to reprise my translator role. It really was a throwback to the past because my friend and I had worked together at a homeless shelter a decade ago and we’re now working in very different contexts. Listening to my friend give updates about the men we worked with really left me torn. It was also difficult to hear that the organization and shelter no longer exist. Apparently, everything shut down, and the only thing that remains of it is that some of the former employees now serve as consultants in the field of homelessness. The organization and shelter had such an inspiring philosophy: future-focused to equip the men with skills like cooking, marketing, and business by letting them run a local bakery. On top of that, it also ran programs for local youth to help them stay off the streets. It’s estimated that there are millions of homeless people in Mexico City, and there are a lot of people doing a lot of good work to help that population. Seeing old friends reminded me of the passions and interests I had living there, and the many caring people who helped me through some tough times, including some of the incredible men I worked with at the homeless shelter. Mexico City was definitely a trip through the past, and it reminded me of the importance of compassion and not letting fear drive how you live your life. I’m so grateful that I was able to be a part of my friend’s wedding ceremony in Puerto Vallarta, and spend time with my boyfriend and old friends in Mexico City. I loved reflecting on the things (and people) that matter in my present, and what I want from my future.

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Posted by madrugada 16:50 Archived in Mexico Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains churches mexico romantic_getaway wedding_season Comments (0)

America, Again

Touring the States eight times over 2018: Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, and New York

all seasons in one day

I never expected to visit the US more than once in 2018 (let alone eight times!), but my first trip fared so well that I couldn’t stop myself from revisiting my neighbours to the south. It all started with Chicago in February. Although the trip was family-focused, I decided to spend the last night alone. By alone, I mean going on a date with a handsome local at a pizza joint. To be fair, Chicago is a foodie’s paradise and beyond the delicious grease of a deep-dish pizza (Giordano’s is my go-to), there’s classic Japanese BBQ at Gyu-Kaku (beware it is a chain, though), or brunch at Allis (I’d recommend a cocktail and crème brulee) among a multitude of other options. I picked up more than just a few pounds while eating my way through Chicago, I also met my boyfriend (that handsome local).

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Chicago is an architectural gem! After one third of the city burned to the ground in 1871, it was rebuilt even bigger and better. A great way to learn more about its history and edifices is through the Chicago Architecture Foundation River Cruise. Because I took the river cruise alone, it was easier to find a front-row seat… although my view was blocked by a fanny-pack yielding tourist for about half the cruise. I spent that time debating whether I liked fanny-packs, or whether I should defend my view. I decided to keep my opinions to myself: on both the fanny-pack and the selfish view-blocker. In any case, I think the cruise is a must-do, but ensure that you buy your ticket in advance and maybe motion sickness pills - it truly is called the windy city for good reason.

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After visiting Chicago three times last year, I’ve realized it’s designed for enjoyment come rain or snow… and there will be lots and lots of snow. Chicago’s climate is very similar to Toronto’s meaning that it experiences two seasons: intense cold and intense heat. One of the difficulties in either climate is the humidity. In the summer I find it worse in Chicago than Toronto because something about the humid heat there seems to function as a wake-up call for all the spiders residing in the continental U.S. As a committed arachnophobe, the summer of spiders in Chicago may be my biggest challenge to completely loving the city. In the summer, if you can make it through all the spider webs, it’s worth trekking to Navy Pier. It’s an entertainment hub beside the water, which is also a great spot to watch fireworks a couple of times a week. Another place I like in the summer is Millenium Park which offers summer concerts at Pritzker Pavilion. The iconic Bean (technically called “Cloud Gate”) is also readily available for all your selfie needs.

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If you’re in more of an indoor mood (i.e. it’s too cold outside to breathe), it’s well worth visiting the Art Institute of Chicago which was founded in 1879 and includes art by Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso and many other esteemed painters and sculptors. Another great thing to do in cold weather is to visit the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower) for the breathtaking views and potential for sappy photos. My boyfriend and I went with his friend and girlfriend, and we realized very quickly that you need to have your poses prepared because if it’s busy you only get one minute when you’re on the glass floor. They aren’t messing around – they will usher you out after your allotted time. Quick tip: you get more time if you’re a larger group, so you can use it to split into pairs and do a group shot.

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Because Chicago’s neighbourhoods each have their own unique culture, the place you stay will really impact your trip. When I’ve stayed up in the northern suburbs like Highland Park, it’s made my trip more about exploring the Botanic Garden or the shops and restaurants of downtown Highland Park. It’s always more of a family feel, and for that reason we end up shopping more or visiting the beaches (in the summer). If you’re visiting the northern suburbs as a tourist and are looking to incorporate some learning and depth to your trip then it’s worth a trip to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie. Although it’s not a typical vacation stop, I think it’s an important time to reflect on how seeds of intolerance have the potential to turn into dangerous movements of death and destruction because it means that we can all equip ourselves with the tools to fight that hatred. We have the potential to learn from our past, and help ensure others don’t experience the same injustice, and traumas.

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If you’re looking for a lighter experience then focus on more of the tourist areas, in which case you will want to stay close to the downtown core, a.k.a. Millennium Loop. It’s most convenient if you can stay near Millennium Park or on the Magnificent Mile (I can vouch for the Marriott there) because that way you’re able to walk or commute quickly to most sites of interest. Personally, I like staying in Gold Coast and Lakeview too because I feel close enough to the busy downtown core while still enjoying the sounds of silence. To be fair, I mainly choose to stay where I’m welcome: with my boyfriend or my family. Assuming I haven’t done or said anything stupid that would make me uninvited… which is always a big assumption.
Every time I visit, I feel like there’s something new to explore. In the Gold Coast, I’ve really enjoyed going out for dinner with my boyfriend to Old Town – especially when that means burgers at Small Cheval. In November, we also went to a show at Second City (Chicago is where it originated), which was not only hilarious because of the content but also ridiculous because the audience participation only involved Canadians. Who knew I wasn’t the only Canadian obsessed with Chicago? Actually, I knew because every time I visit the only comment I hear is: “you’re so lucky – it’s my favourite U.S. city”.

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Three of my trips to the US in 2018 were for weddings: New Jersey, Minnesota, and Missouri. Minnesota is a fabulous place to visit in August because of the state fair. If you’re ever craving fried food on a stick, art made out of seeds, or pumpkins that need some Weight Watchers then it’s the place for you. Unfortunately, we went on a rainy day; fortunately, even the combined smell of wet goat, cow and sheep isn’t nearly as bad as the smell of wet dog. As long as you’re properly equipped (sunscreen and rain boots), you’ll be ready for the long lines ahead. Surprisingly, catching the bus (from Minnesota’s Mall of America) was easy and didn’t even require waiting in line. Even more surprising was that there was a line for breakfast at the Olde Main Eatery in Elk River (the town where the wedding was held) – although to be fair, the pancakes were well worth the wait.

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The wedding was a casual backyard affair with a travel theme because the couple met in Turkey, where they had already held the more formal wedding and civil ceremony. The Minnesota wedding was held in Elk River because that’s where the bride comes from, and it was fun to learn more about her heritage. Visiting a person’s hometown, and meeting their family, is always a great glimpse into what has shaped that person. I hadn’t anticipated that one of my friends and I would be de facto wedding coordinators and help set up the grounds the day of the wedding, but it became an opportunity to get to know the bride’s family on a deeper level. We bonded with them over scotch tape emergencies, and love of the bride. It was a beautiful wedding, and on top of that it was an incredible reunion because it meant I got to see three friends from many years ago. My fellow coordinator friend and I stayed together in the basement of a nearby house and heartily enjoyed our sleepovers. It’s silly to think that slumber parties are for kids. What adult doesn’t want a solid night of silliness with a friend? Of course, the wedding (and all its accompanying friend-time) was the highlight of my trip, but I’d say the locals (particularly at the vintage/antique stores in town) were fantastic too – I’ve never been in a kinder state than Minnesota. It felt like each person I met was paid to please. Although considering most of my interaction with locals was at restaurants, I guess they literally were paid to please. And they did it well.

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Missouri gives Minnesota a run for its money when it comes to kind locals though. The second wedding in the “M&M” states was held in St. Louis, and yes – they played Nelly at the reception, and yes, it was hot in therre. The St. Louis wedding came with a harsh reality check: my boyfriend is likely a better dancer than me. Although the wedding we attended in New Jersey came with an even harsher reality check: his father may be a better dancer than both of us combined.

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On another note, St. Louis, which was “founded” in 1764, had a key role to play in the history of slavery in the US. Slaves were sometimes sold at the Old Courthouse, while other slaves were emancipated there and others yet sued for freedom including Dred and Harriet Scott. Their legal action went all the way to the US Supreme Court where they lost the case, which effectively meant the US Supreme Court was sanctioning slavery thus being one of the triggers in the Civil War from what I understand. Full disclosure: I’m nowhere close to a historian – and have never formally studied U.S. history.

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St. Louis is clearly an important part of US history for its civil rights implications, but also its symbolism as the gateway to the west (because of its location near the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers) for pioneers going to Oregon and California during the 19th century. This history is represented by its landmark Gateway Arch National Park was built in 1965 and is the tallest human-built monument in the US (height and base width are 630 ft). My boyfriend wanted to ride the elevator that takes you through the arch, but I wasn’t too interested in turning into a sardine trapped in a little rickety tin with five others. I would literally rather eat a tin of sardines.

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St. Louis is also an outdoors paradise with Forest Park being a great spot for frisbee, soccer, or picnics and also housing the St. Louis Zoo, a history museum, art museum and science center (which also has an omnimax theatre). If you’re interested in medicine then Forest Park is also a great location to visit because you can check out Washington University on the way. Its medical school is consistently ranked in the top ten in the nation and first for student selectivity, so it may be worth a stroll to see if you can take in a free lecture or educational event. We did nothing quite so intellectual while in that neighbourhood, instead we made a stop at IKEA because clearly that’s a Missouri must-see.

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While in St. Louis we stayed in an Airbnb in the Tower Grove South area. I enjoyed strolling the streets and looking at the historic homes. It’s a very quaint neighbourhood with lots of local eateries, and a very calm feel. There’s also a beautiful park (aptly named the Tower Grove Park) that’s located adjacent to the Missouri Botanical Garden. I’d highly recommend staying in this neighbourhood, if you have a car. The most fun I had in the city was without a doubt at the City Museum. It’s a playground for adults – equipped with endless tunnels to climb through, ladders to climb up, and ballpits to jump into! There’s even a ferris wheel on the roof, and then you can take a slide down to the floor below for some post-ride tequila shots. If you’re going to go (and aren’t used to being on your knees for extended periods of time), you should definitely ask for the free kneepads at the entrance. I’d also suggest you dress sporty, unless you’re planning pure photo opps – in which case you may as well just check out the many restaurants and bars around town.

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We happened to visit St. Louis in October and the weather was ideal. We were comfortable in t-shirts and shorts, and also got to celebrate some spooky Halloween themed fun at the zoo and at a cute bakery named Chouquette where they roll out a Harry Potter menu for the month (complete with fresh pumpkin juice and all). If you’re more interested in real meals rather than fantasy snacks, across the street you’ll find Olio Mediterranean Restaurant which is absolutely worth making a reservation for – we enjoyed dinner on the back patio. Unfortunately, I felt sick during our dinner so I was only able to stomach a small soup but my boyfriend definitely benefited from my nausea because it meant even more fantastic food for him.

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Hands-down the best meal we had last year on all our trips was at Harvest Restaurant in Cambridge (Boston) in the summer. They serve local New England cuisine for a fair price given the fresh food and amazing ambience. I found more past than present in Boston given that the city was “founded” in the 1600s. We literally walked through history as we followed parts of the Freedom Trail visiting Boston Common; Park Street Church where an abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, gave an antislavery speech in 1829; Old South Meeting House (built in 1729) where the Boston Tea Party was launched in 1773 by Samuel Adams; and Quincy Market and Faneuil Hall, which were built in 1742. Faneuil Hall is a great place to find plentiful clam chowder, if you decide to indulge in tourist tropes. Instead, I gorged on mac and cheese. Seemingly, you can take the girl out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canadian Kraft Dinner addiction out of the girl.

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Boston and its surrounding areas are well-known for academia, which makes sense given the plethora of post-secondary institutes there. My favourite campuses to wander through were Harvard University, where my sister who’s studying there acted as our de facto tour guide, and Boston College. We had fun pretending to still be students, although it was more fun pretending we were actually fit and attempting to climb the 294 steps of the Bunker Hill Monument. To be fair, we were able to climb all the way to the top which was a step ahead of some of the other visitors. Unfortunately, the stairwell is really narrow so make sure you get your steps in before the trip so that you’re not that tourist who shuts down the monument because you can’t make it all the way up or down. And yes, that actually happened while we were there.

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The trip to Boston was also an opportunity for a meet-and-greet with my sister and my boyfriend. We decided to break the ice on the water with a sunset cruise (Charles Riverboat Cruise Company). It was the perfect opportunity to see the sights, and get to know each other (including my quirks, unfortunately). Before the stories went too deep into childhood, the cruise was over and we were en route to Cambridge for more to explore. Although we stayed in Boston, if I were to go back I would stay in Cambridge. I found more to do there at night than in our area of Boston (Dorchester/Codman Square). As well, it’s close enough by train that you can still commute freely.

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While we were visiting Boston there was a map exhibit at Harvard University’s library; however, when my mom recommended that I go she just told me to check out the “Boston special maps” but she didn’t specify where (i.e. that it was at Harvard University). Google Maps, in all its wisdom, sent my boyfriend and I instead to the Mary Baker Eddy Library’s Mapparium at the First Church of Christ, Scientist. It turned out to be an excellent detour because we were able to see a snapshot of what the world looked like in 1935 through stained glass. It was also worth it for the look of confusion on my mom’s face when I thanked her for sending us to the place that put Christianity on the map. I’m not sure if she was more taken aback by my awful humour or the fact that we had accidentally discovered this world of colourful Christian stained-glass maps.

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Speaking of stained glass, a last-minute trip to New York City for St. Patrick’s Day involved a lot more than just churches and cathedrals, although the St. Patrick’s Day parade was a major highlight. I went on this trip with a close female friend who happens to be very petite, which made it easier for me to sneak her into a VIP section at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the parade. It also made it a lot easier for the Archbishop to presume she was a child and pose with her for a photo-op alongside other children. The highlight had to be when he hugged her and kindly said “I’m just so glad you’re here”. Boy was I glad I was there for that too.

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The parade requires considerable planning, and as an attendee it’s important to get there early and remember that the crowds will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. It goes without saying that if you’re in New York City over the holidays any of the typical tourist traps are going to be even more full of people. When I went back to New York in December with my boyfriend, Times Square was exactly as I remembered it – so full of people you can’t walk (although not enough people to dissuade me from making it to the M&M store); Central Park felt more like a zoo of people; and Brooklyn was my refuge.

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In fact, on both trips I stayed in Brooklyn for one night. It gave me an opportunity to explore Brooklyn Library, Prospect Park, and Crown Heights. I even befriended a local coffee shop owner on the first trip en route to Brooklyn and really enjoyed the vibe at his place: the Breukelen Coffee House. It’s located on a really nice strip replete with other restaurants and cozy bars. My favourite was Chavela’s, which served great Mexican dishes. On the December trip, I also got the chance to explore more of Brooklyn by going to Williamsburg, which is unofficially known as a hipster’s paradise. We started our time there with some fresh and delicious Joe’s Pizza before wandering to the Brooklyn Bridge – which is a great vantage point from which to see the city sights.

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Another spot with great views is the lower end of Manhattan. Once you’ve walked by the Charging Bull statue, and visited the Occulus Mall (totally worth it), I recommend heading to the Staten Island ferry for a free roundtrip ride past the Statue of Liberty. You won’t get up close and personal with her, but you’ll be able to get a good view. You may even be surprised by how petite she is – although you wouldn’t mistake her for a child.

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New York is loaded with culture and comedy so on our March trip my friend and I decided to visit the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. While in Harlem we also headed to gospel Sunday brunch at Sylvia’s Restaurant – if you do nothing else, do this and make sure you book in advance. It’s a fun experience because you’ll be sweetly serenaded while eating fried food. Or you’ll be roasted while sipping something salty. Either way you’ll have fun.

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Any time I’ve been in New York I’ve spent most of my time in Manhattan, and I’d recommend the Blue Note Jazz Club, and the Comedy Cellar. Although the comedians were hilarious (especially Michelle Wolf) at the comedy club, beware that there is a minimum spend on top of the cost of tickets. The amount that I shelled out for a small meal was no laughing matter.

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Speaking of high prices, on our romantic getaway in December we met up with some of my boyfriend’s friends who wanted to test out Katz’s Deli – the American equivalent of Montreal’s Schwartz’s Deli. I had been there a few years back and remembered the sandwiches being as high as the prices. Nothing has changed. Just like the gospel brunch, I recommend going with a group because you’ll want to share your food – the portion sizes are wholeheartedly American.

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Something else that’s distinctly American is Christmas at the Rockefeller Center. It’s worth checking it out once. Although I can be curmudgeonly when it comes to costs and crowds, there is something magical about New York at Christmas time. Even the walk to the 9/11 Memorial had a slightly mystical feel to it as we walked through parkettes with lights strewn about. Overall, the 9/11 Memorial is an important site to visit because it illustrates the trauma and resilience of the city and its people. From bustling business place to eerily quiet memorial site, there’s something otherworldly about the visit.

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The last place of interest I’d recommend visiting in New York (but not in winter), would be the High Line. It’s hard to describe why it’s worth seeing, but picture yourself walking through an elevated garden amidst a sea of concrete, looking down on the grey but looking ahead to green. To me, it felt idyllic. My December trip to New York was spurred by a wedding in my boyfriend’s family in New Jersey. We decided to go to the wedding, but also have a quick romantic getaway in New York City as the wedding was nestled away at a banquet hall in a small town in Aberdeen County, New Jersey – not exactly the epicenter of culture, or cuisine. My snotty attitude aside, I really enjoyed the wedding. It was really inspiring watching how the bride incorporated her Zoroastrian faith and the groom weaved in his Ukrainian Jewish heritage. It was also a good chance for me to practice Russian, and by that, I mean smile, nod my head and repeat “da” over and over.

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In terms of accommodation, I wouldn’t recommend staying in New Jersey when visiting New York unless you’re into a long commute. While we were sightseeing in New York my boyfriend and I stayed in Brooklyn at a standard hotel chain, the La Quinta. It worked well for us because we had breakfast in the morning, and were located within walking distance of the subway and bus routes. I was surprised though by the number of missing items: from no telephone in the room, to no water in the breakfast kitchen. But at the end of the day, we had a bed to come back to and a locked door to permit privacy so no real complaints from my end. When we transitioned to New Jersey we stayed at an Airbnb in Matawan, Aberdeen because it saved us time getting to the wedding and cost half as much. Call me old-fashioned but I wasn’t expecting Airbnb prices to be the same as hotels in New York. I also wasn’t expecting the prices in Manhattan to be so high that we had to stay elsewhere. In all honesty, I preferred staying in Brooklyn because it feels like there’s more authentic daily life there while Manhattan, to me, feels more manufactured. I will admit though that staying two nights in Manhattan at the Off Soho Suites Hotel in March was far more convenient for seeing most of the tourist sights, so you have to think hard about what you prefer: convenience and cost, or quirk and cost-savings.

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All in all, I feel really lucky to have been able to see so much of the U.S. last year. I feel even more privileged to have been able to meet such wonderful people, my incredible boyfriend included. It’s easy to fall into a pattern of thinking about places and make assumptions about what the people there will be like but the beauty of travel is that you can shatter your preconceived notions over a slice of pizza, or on a rooftop ferris wheel. America is definitely a diverse country with unique histories in each corner of each state, and to me it seems well-worth a visit not only to the big cities like New York and Chicago but also to the smaller towns like Elk River. At the end of the day, travel reminds us that we’re all human, and there’s a lot of beauty in meeting the faces of endless places.

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Posted by madrugada 20:21 Archived in USA Tagged food architecture new_york history urban halloween chicago rural christmas usa cambridge massachusetts boston st_louis pumpkin illinois minnesota missouri new_jersey elk_river mid_west valentine's_day state_fair romantic_getaway wedding_season Comments (0)

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