Snorkelling trip

The Best Way to Snorkel Isla Mujeres

The Best Way to Snorkel Isla Mujeres

01/12/2018

Booking With The Right People

As we travel through countries that have impoverished areas it is important to ensure you are supporting local communities by spending your money with local businesses. Too often we book our accomodation, our tours and our transport online with foreign companies where money is syphoned away from the very culture you might have hoped to support.

Because of this I recommend booking with a company on Isla Mujeres (who’s name I don’t even know) but I can give you a rough location. As you exit the ferry building and turn left towards Playa Norte, you will come across a bunch of guys hovering around trying to sell you snorkelling tours. They will be holding a laminated paper showing different spots they will visit. The cost at the time of writing is USD50 but can be negotiated based on what you want to see and how many in your group. 

Each person there earns money based on being able to fill their boat. This is important to note because they will only leave if their boat is full. Therefore you should aim to book with someone who already has a group of people waiting to go. This technique is common in Mexico. Even in the boat tours of Canon del Sumidera a boat will not leave until it is full. This means if you show up too late in the day you will not be able to go.

If you are travelling with elderly or small children be sure to check which boat they are using. Although all the boats carry a maximum of twelve people the floor is a little different in some of them which could make it awkward to get in and out, or stabilise in the boat. Important to note for those with young babies, we saw a family of twelve take a little pram onto their boat, so this could be an option for you. 

 

What to Expect About How They Operate

Because you are booking with a locally operated group, don’t expect safety waivers or proper procedures. Having said that these are well experienced guys who will look after you very well and ensure your safety. You will have an English and Spanish speaking tour guide who will take you on the snorkelling trips and the captain of the boat will speak enough English for a basic conversation. 

Because most people who book this snorkelling trip do not know how to swim, everyone must wear a life jacket. You will be given one before the boat undocks. A warning, they do not have life jackets for under six year olds. There is usually local marine police that are there to enforce this rule. This includes wearing one while snorkelling. Because it is difficult to wear one while snorkelling, your guide will show you how to tie it around your waist.

The snorkelling equipment is not the best quality but it does the job. When you first hop into the water give it a salt water rinse before putting on the mask and snorkel. They do provide flippers which is great for when you snorkel the underwater art museum area since it’s up to 9m deep. Each snorkelling trip is designed so that you move with the current and the tour guide will ensure you all stay together. The boat drops you at one point then picks you up at the other end.

It is a small boat that takes only twelve people. My concern before booking was that the boat would be too small for my little two and they would be driving me nuts before an hour was up. But actually this boat was perfect for them. The boat itself was small enough to be bumpy on the water when it was in high speed which kept them excited about being on a boat. It was also small enough that it would rock when heavy people got on or off the boat which they loved because they would try to stand and balance without falling to one side or the other. Plus when everyone was snorkelling it was big enough to run up and down the boat.

What Your Trip Will Actually Look Like

When they are selling you the trip they will tell you all sorts of spots they will visit but the “sell in” they give you on the street is not quite accurate. So to prevent any disappointment here’s what your trip will actually look like.

Summary

In summary, here is the whole itinerary. There are three snorkelling spots, the Lighthouse known as El Farita, the Manchones Reef and the Underwater Museum of Art (MUSA). On the way to Manchones Reef you will be able to spot the Turtle Farm and they will stop outside the Dolphin Discovery for a minute. Lunch is provided at the end of the snorkelling trip. The cheapest trip is the doing the Lighthouse snorkelling and having lunch. I recommend doing the full package if you know how to swim.

Hubby and I decided we would take turns snorkelling. He snorkelled the Lighthouse and I snorkelled the Manchones Reef. Our older two snorkelled at all three spots and our younger two happily waited and played on the boat.

El Farita 

The first spot you visit is the Lighthouse Reef which is five minutes off shore. All the boats anchor in a sheltered shallow bay that is waist deep. For those who are not comfortable snorkelling they can hang around in this area. There are plenty of fish to see here. You are reminded not to touch the reef. Unlike the reefs of New Zealand’s cooler waters, coral reef is very delicate and takes hundreds of years to recover from someone kicking it with a flipper accidentally. The coral around here is quite damaged from the hurricanes and tourism. 

All those who want to see more will join the tour guide and snorkel from this area to the lighthouse which is a distance of about 100m. The reef itself is very shallow, maximum two metres in depth. You will see a wide variety of fish including young barracuda. As with anyone, as long as you don’t antagonise the barracuda they will not harm you. It’s about a 100m easy swim.

Dolphin Stop

Next we head up the coast and pass the turtle farm, fortunately we didn’t stop here even though we were told we would. It was simply pointed out to us. The boat passes the Dolphin Discovery and stops for a minute here so we could see the dolphins. Our older two were not interested in seeing this and only our 4yo was interested in spotting dolphins. It was pretty heart breaking to see. It looks like a huge enclosure for the dolphins until you realise there are lots and lots of dolphins caged in a very shallow area. The worst part is people are allowed to ride the dolphins and you can pay to ride two dolphins at once. We met an Israeli couple on our boat who also did not want to see this attraction because of how unethical the practice is.

We carried on to Playa Tiburon to drop off anyone who only paid for the Lighthouse snorkelling. We would rejoin them later for lunch.

Manchones Reef

We carried on to Manchones Reef which is between five to nine metres deep. Interestingly a Columbian couple came on this snorkelling part of the trip and they couldn’t swim but knew how to float. They relied on the life jackets to snorkel. In this spot we saw a wide variety of bigger fish and bigger schools of them. Because the life jackets were so restrictive and our guide could see that my kids and I could swim, he let us take our life jackets off so we could free dive down a little. He dove down about nine meters to point out a big puffer fish.

MUSA

The third stop was the underwater museum. These structures hadn’t yet developed much sea life but the statues were still interesting. They saw a car and frogs and people.

Lunch

The tour ended with lunch at Playa Tiburon in a big food hall. Everyone from your boat sits at one table and your tour guide serves you a plate of food that includes salad, rice, plain spaghetti and Tikin Xic style fish plus fresh calientias. This experience alone was worth choosing this company because it allowed me to see the huge variety of different ethnicities within Mexico. Most of the tourists were Mexican and there were so many different faces.

Playa Tiburon

This small beach has some souvenir shops and a penned shark that you can take a photo with. We didn’t go see the shark although the kids would’ve enjoyed it. 

Heading Home

From here if you live on this side of the island you can catch a taxi back to where you are staying or head back on the boat to Playa Sol where you departed from.

 

Summary

Find the snorkelling company that is between the ferry building and Playa Sol, you’ll be supporting a local company.

They will take you to three different snorkelling spots and then for lunch.

The cost is maximum USD50 but can be negotiated depending on how many in your group and what activities you would like to see

Our Glimpse of Isla Mujeres

Infinity Pool

Garrafon Reef Park, Isla Mujeres

Garrafon Reef Park, Isla Mujeres

01/12/2018

Garrafon Reef Park is located near Punte Sur the most eastern part of Mexico. It is by a reef which offers some snorkelling and it features an infinity pool, buffet restaurants, kayaking, a zip line, a mayan steam house plus use of a locker and towel. For an all day outing for the family, this is a great way to relax. 

There is not much of a difference between the Royal Garrafon and the Royal Garrafon VIP except for a VIP buffet restaurant and the price difference is minimal so we opted for the VIP version. We did not want to do the Dolphin options because they felt unethical. Our only regret is that we arrived here at 12pm instead of when it opened. It really was a great place for our whole family to relax and have fun.

Infinity Pool

We probably spent way too much time in this pool given all the facilities available to us but we loved hanging out here. There was a great toddler pool that our little two enjoyed and little caves behind a waterfall which were fun to play around.

Mainly we enjoyed cooling off in one of the two pools on either side of the toddler pool and looking out at the endless ocean horizon. 

On a side note, children four years old and under must wear a life jacket in the pool. Make sure you get one that can be tied through their legs otherwise it will be annoying for them to play in the water.

Snorkeling

Don’t expect much in the way of snorkelling, there isn’t much to see if you have snorkelled quite a bit elsewhere. But if you love snorkelling as much as our family does then you will love the feeling of getting in the water and exploring what’s happening under the sea. 

Interestingly, it is compulsory to wear a life jacket here because many of the tourists do not know how to swim. It made the snorkelling a little bit uncomfortable because the jacket kept getting in the way but we were not provided with flippers so it did help to keep us buoyant when we wanted to adjust our mask.

Flying Fox

This is a three tier zip line. The view from each is gorgeous blue ocean against lush green land. Taking the zip line was worth the experience just for the views. And I couldn’t help myself, the photos were so good we purchased them from the photographer.

Other Features

This place had kayaks, a lounge area, a mayan steam house, and two buffet restaurants as well as a burger bar by the pool. We didn’t do any kayaking or spend any time in the steam house. One of the lounge areas down by the snorkelling spot was handy to put our 2yo to sleep while the older two went for a snorkel. We only used one of the buffet restaurants. It had a great selection of fruits and meats. Our older two preferred the burgers from the bar down by the pool. 

As an added bonus there are plenty of iguanas here. Sometimes we only saw them in the last minute. They are harmless but look intimidating when they are munching on leaves. The kids will love the opportunity to get so close to these big lizards.

Our Glimpse of Isla Mujeres

Caribbean coast of the island

Challenges at Our First Long Term Stay

Challenges at Our First Long Term Stay

16/11/2018

My Space Issues

 It wasn’t about the dog poo you have to watch out for as you walk the streets or the language barrier or the heat of the intense burning sun that made me want to get out of this place as soon as possible. In fact two days in I started planing our exit out -lol! 

Mexico does have beautiful tropical beaches and it has lovely people and Isla Mujeres is a typical island community – sweet people and small town life. But there were some things that tested my tolerance threshold in those first few days 😉

It started when we arrived and found ourselves in a cosy little home on the island. On the map this place seemed to be close to everything. The ocean, a dairy, a pharmacy and most importantly a bakery – which I’m proud to say I still haven’t visited.

For those of you that have heard my moaning you know that one of my biggest accomodation issues in Auckland was having a three bedroom home with four children. Finding quiet while being in earshot of babies that wake up regularly in the night;,or allowing space for toys and mess that’s out of the main living spaces (I could go on) had its moments.

But the place we find ourselves in on Isla Mujeres is a two bedroom with a fold out couch. When booking the pictures looked much more spacious than it actually is.

In this place we have one double bed in each bedroom with very little space to spare around each bed. Plus we have a pull out couch that acts as a double bed at night. When we pull out the double bed it fills up the whole lounge room. We have to climb over the bed to get to the dining table. This bed reaches the kitchen. The mattress on it has springs with very little foam padding. This means that when lying on it I feel the springs on the bony parts.

I know this sounds like I’m whining but the kitchen and bathroom are also tiny. It feels like we’re in a campervan except this time I wasn’t mentally prepared for it.

When I thought about it, this place would work for a weekend or even a week. But we have booked one month here which I thought was a little too long for the type of living space that it is. There is no privacy in the confinement of this Airbnb, except when everyone is sleeping or everyone is noisy – so private calls are out.

Looking at the Bright Side

The older two have not complained once about the confined quarters. The younger two though have needed more stimulation than what the dimensions of this place allows. It doesn’t have an outdoor area that I could let them play in. Thankfully there is a wonderful playground nearby and a covered soccer court (not field). That is definitely helping with my cabin fever.

As I walked around the neighbourhood I began to realise that we were living in a big place. Some of the folk in this area have one room, a kitchen and a bathroom for their family.

I’ve adjusted to its charm now and we have learnt to cook, study, work, play and clean by putting these away immediately and keeping activity indoors to a minimum while getting outside whenever its cool.

It has helped us to appreciate what we had and how spacious that was. It also helped to define our minimum requirements for comfortable living when we plan our one month stays.

This place has also made me grateful that I have the option for bigger and more luxurious. 

We have the ocean in walking distance for some Caribbean Sea breeze. 

We have an estuary across the road for a hit of nature. We have a playground super close by for the young ones. 

We have great wifi. And a few days ago we got hot water showers. Plus there’s still La Pañería (the bakery) to go explore. Life is good:)

Our Glimpse of Isla Mujeres

Frigate flying high - these birds with large wing spans (some upto 3 metres) cannot walk or swim. They are mostly found soaring really high above the island or perched on a tree in the evenings.

Wildlife in Isla Mujeres

Wildlife in Isla Mujeres

11/11/2018

I’ve often found knowing less about a place before arriving creates lots of wonderful surprises. In Isla Mujeres, one of these surprises is the wildlife.

Iguanas

The iguana lizard flourishes on this island and can be spotted regularly in spite of urbanisation. We visited Hacienda Mundaca and found it was overrun with iguana. And when we went to Garafon there were lots about to keep the kids engaged and partially freaked out when they were eating.

House Lizards

As in most hot climates, their tends to be one or two house geckos living inside your place. We had one in the kitchen, one in the lounge and sometimes one in one of the bedrooms. Plus there were at least three outside the front door. Our little ones loved spotting them if they came out of hiding. They would sometimes fan out their neck or bob their head up and down and every so often would call out to let us know they were there.

Pelicans

On Playa Nota the pelican bird is a common feature to the beach where you can snap photos of the birds diving into the water or perched on a breaker.

Frigates

These amazing birds cannot swim or walk. They fly high above the lake or ocean and dive down grabbing fish with their strong legs. They spend most of their time flying around but when they perch, they prefer the nearby mangrove trees. Because we were next door to the lake we saw many frigates flying here in the morning.

Other animals we’ve spotted

We were lucky enough to see one of the smallest birds on the island. To the unknowing eye it looks like a butterfly fluttering speedily by. Unfortunately, we didn’t capture a photo of it. There were also plenty of other beautiful birds. On a couple of walks we spotted a shell crab crossing the footpath.

Our Glimpse of Wildlife Around The World

Playground we mostly visited at night

Our Playtime at Isla Mujeres

Our Playtime at Isla Mujeres

11/11/2018

The Playgrounds

Islas Mujeres has great playgrounds and quite modern. 

Where we stayed near La Gloria was a new facility that had an outdoor stage, two soccer courts and a playground. We enjoyed going here when it was cool enough so that we could stretch our legs and play. The playground we visited almost daily had slides and see-saws and two pirate ships. It had slides for two days but the quality of materials being used on the playgrounds means that they do not last long. 

One of the great things about this area was that cleaners were in every morning cleaning up rubbish. That was important because a lot of people used the playground in the evenings and late at night so the bins would get full and then people would start dumping rubbish anywhere, in spite of all the “No tirar busar” signs.

There was one playground that was locked until after school hours and then it stayed open til well after 9pm. The locked one had toilets and sold snacks. We had to sign in every time we visited, which was often because it was opposite the laundromat I used.

The Soccer Courts

One of the outdoor soccer courts was covered which was great when it rained, or more importantly in the heat of the day, for us to play or exercise (although we probably could’ve done more of the exercise part 😉

On Thursday nights there was a soccer league in the uncovered soccer court which was a bit like indoor soccer rules because they were allowed to kick the ball off the side walls.

After school there were often kids hanging out here or playing soccer, it was definitely the most common sport we saw on the island.

Hometime Play

Because we spent a month on Isla we had a lot of downtime at home while the older two were studying. Being in such a tiny place we didn’t have much space to spread out so we had to be creative about how we entertained our little two. We also had the problem of using up a lot of plastic water bottles and having no recycling on the island. So most or our home play involved construction with blocks and designing vehicles with water bottles. I also called on my Playcentre forum to help with ideas. Heres what we came up with.

Waterfalls down the stairs where each bottle catches water from the step above. My daughter in her brilliance put a lid on the bottom bottle (not something I usually do when I have the hose constantly running) so the young ones learnt to take the bottle from the bottom step and carry it to the top to refill the waterfall. This saved me having to go back and forth from the kitchen tap for refills.

We tried drumming on the bottles, sometimes with water in bottles and mostly without. It was pretty noisey so we didn’t encourage this one much 😉

We made buckets out of the base of the bottles and used them in the shower. They often got into the shampoo bottle to make bubbles.

They requested lots of vehicles including submarines, air craft carriers, car ferries, planes and trucks. They also used my daughter’s creations as a light house and an air traffic control tower.

Outdoor excursions

Although we did beach trips, they were not frequent because we enjoyed our at home time. To keep ourselves moving about after being stuck in a tiny home, we would spend a morning or evening walking around the neighbourhood. We were close to the laguna (lake) which was shady from the mangrove trees and we could bird or lizard watch. Check out our wildlife post for more images. 

We also would do coastal walks and found a tiny nook of a beach on the east coast facing the Caribbean Sea where we could play on the sand with shells and rocks while having the whole beach totally to ourselves. The entrance is somewhere close to Isla Contoy and Calle Lizeta on the waterfront. I had so much time I checked out each little pathway to find a way down to the water.

Having said that, any of those pathways will take you to a rock where you can sit and enjoy the sunrise, at least until the little one gets restless and you have to start walking again 🙂

Our Glimpse of Playtime Around The World

Helicopter

Vehicles in Isla Mujeres

Vehicles in Isla Mujeres

11/11/2018

Rescue Vehicles

Being a small island community there was not much need for rescue vehicles but we still managed to find some. Two blocks from where we were staying was a police station so we saw Policia vehicles every time we went to the supermarket.

Delivery Vehicles

We were staying next door to a dairy (convenience store) and every day there were delivery trucks parked outside our place. Some of the drivers used to blast Mexican music which is how we knew they were there. The delivery trucks were relatively small on Isla Mujeres. There were many three wheeler bicycles and motorbikes that would go around the neighbourhood selling stuff. They would blow a horn or call out to let people know they were nearby.

Taxis & Other Vehicles

Because there are no buses on the island we caught taxis to places that were far away. All the taxis are red and you can hail them as they drive past. Lots of people would share taxis if they were going in the same direction. We couldn’t because there is six of us.

The rubbish trucks came every day and were much smaller than what you would see in a big city.

The golf carts were common for getting around but some people hired cool looking quad carts.

Boats and Ferries

The best way to the island is by ferry. There were many ferries that ran every day from the mainland to Isla Mujeres including car ferries. There were also lots of boats that tourists would take to check out beaches or snorkelling areas. We took a little 12 person boat to go snorkelling along the west coast of the island. There was Navy base on the island so often Naval ships were parked close to the ferry building in the Navy docks.

Helicopter

Isla Mujeres is so small it doesn’t have an airport and the air traffic control tower for the runway is only two stories high. We didn’t see any planes on the runway whenever we drove past. But! On our last morning there we spotted this helicopter with two soldiers sleeping underneath.

Our Glimpse of Vehicles Around The World

spanish-emersion

Cuban Español – Spanish Immersion

Cuban Español – Spanish Immersion

08/11/2018

Learning Spanish in Cuba

We did not expect to learn Spanish so rapidly from just a few days in La Habana. Very few people spoke even a little Inglés (English) so we found ourselves learning a language through immersion rather than through any app or book. We fumbled our way at sprinting pace inspite of no wifi.

When we arrived it was clear that none of the workers at the airport spoke English and this set the precedent for the rest of our Cuban holiday. 14yo told me to take photos of signs which were bilingual at the airport. That was great advise! Later on I was able to ask for toilets, currency exchange, a bag and shops.

To make conversation on the drive from the airport, I asked our driver how to say a few things and recorded it. His English was as bad as my Spanish so we used hand motion and my 14yo’s year 10 español to communicate. We managed to record on my phone “hows the weather?”, “it’s cold”, “it’s sunny”, “what’s your name?” And “my name is…”

The Cuban accent seems very different to what 14yo was using and his teacher had said he had great pronunciation. I’m assuming we’ll have to change our accent in Mexico too.

The first thing we needed was food so the owner of our casa particular had walked hubby to a local restaurant that was “poquito, poquito”. This was the word I’d learnt from her when I’d been asking her to reduce the price. I assumed it meant “cheap” I still don’t know what it means because google translate says it refers to “a little man” lol. And I still keep using it!

Everywhere we went we learnt the Spanish name for items we needed huevo (eggs), pampid (nappies), sin carne (without meat), etc. We also learnt that a tortilla is not a flat bread but flat food so you can order “una huevo tortilla sin sal” which is scrambled eggs flattened like a pancake without salt.

If people were friendly we asked “Commo es dis” which is “how do you say..” and then point to the item. If they spoke a little English we would ask for sentence structures like “cuanto es…” “how much…”. We played with the housekeeper’s two year old granddaughter. She loved soccer and together with our two little ones they kicked about the mini basketball. We learnt words as her dad told Isabela what we were telling our 2yo. “Pass the ball”, “Their turn”, “Well done”. We also learnt “choko” which was a way of saying hi-five that only her kindy used. If you want to learn a language immersion is definitely the fastest way. Having said that, we could’ve toured Cuba not learning any Spanish but surviving on other people’s broken English. We put ourselves out there and asked a lot and practiced pronunciations over and over. It helped to have a translation app for times when we couldn’t communicate plus we had our 14yo and 12yo’s little spanish for proper pronunciation. Probably the most important words to learn are: por favor- please, perdon- sorry, gracias- thank you, permiso- excuse me. In any language those words will take you a long way. When we reach Mexico I’ll be practicing counting, colours, directions, greetings and farewells and shopping. I found these to be the topics I functionally needed most. I would’ve loved to ask more political and religious questions but that’s probably when I’m at an advanced level.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Friendly bystanders who jumped right in to help us contact the landlord

Our accommodation dilemma in Cuba

Our accommodation dilemma in Cuba

07/11/2018

The Planning

Arriving in Havana I thought we were super organised and had taken all our learnings from the last three destinations and applied it here. Turns out our arrival in Havana was going to make all those learnings redundant. If you want a quick summary of our learnings, skip to the end of this article.

I had googled the airport arrival tips so I knew the process would be simple to get through customs and it was. When we came out I knew there was a currency conversion upstairs on level two that had no queues compared to the one downstairs that had long lines. That was true also. And I knew that the yellow taxis were out the door and to the left and the taxi fare was about 25-30CUC (cooks) to get to the area of Havana we were going to.

Plus we had our accomodation all fully booked for the five night stay. I had taken a photo of the address and where it was in google maps according to Airbnb because I’d read that there was no internet at the airport.

What Actually Happened

Apart from some extra forms to fill in, customs was simple to get through. I sent hubby upstairs for the currency conversion only to find that they only accepted Euros. Having just come from America we had USD and that was only exchangeable downstairs. Time to join the long queue.

We needed to go to the toilet. The first set had men and women using them and had no toilet seat and the plumbing wasn’t working. The second set was the same but the plumbing was working so I used these. I told hubby there was a set upstairs. This third set was men only or women only but the plumbing was not working and was clogged up. Eeeekk!!

We went to catch a taxi and the driver insisted it was 35CUC so I relented. He was a lovely guy and was willing to teach us some español which came in handy later like “frios” for cold.

Internet is limited in Cuba, so getting around works like it did in the old days: people ask each other for directions. It’s super common to pull up to someone on the street and ask where is a bank or a wifi spot is or a place to rent or this street name or number. Everyone is very obliging and willing to help.

Our driver reached the suburb we were staying in and then began asking directions. We arrived in our neighbourhood-to-be where we had booked ourselves in with a local family in one of their bedrooms. The address was not for a home at all, but for an automobile repair shop! I had taken a photo of her phone number so the taxi driver called her, then the neighbours called her. Many of the neighbourhood residents came out to find out what the commotion was and were using their five or six words of English plus hand motions to convey to us that it was going to be ok and they would find her. However, the host was uncontactable.

We were realising how desperately we needed to learn some basic español because hardly anyone understood inglés and if they did it was very limited.

We’d Booked a Dud

After some time of waiting around and everyone looking for her, the taxi driver told us we had to find another place to stay. We asked him if we could jump online so we could book another place. It went like this “Wifi. Internet. Book another casa particular?” He seemed to say there was no internet. I thought, well, this is what we need to learn to do in spanish at some point, might as well try now.

He taught me the phrase “puerdo in autra casa para rente”. That’s from memory so that could be completely wrong! Anyway I thought I’d have to get out of the car and start asking people. Fortunately he made some calls and found una Casa Particular. We parked outside a house in a much nicer neighbourhood. The place had a sign outside of it saying “se vente un casa”.

We went inside. It was lovely. It was a private room in a shared space, which is what a casa particular is. But then we had to negotiate the price. We had only been prepared to pay 30CUC per night for the six of us, this was going to be 60CUC per night. I was stressed and it was probably showing. A New Jersey tourist from another room tried to translate for us so that the owner would drop the price. Unfortunately he could hardly speak English despite having lived in Jersey for 22 years.

Eventually we settled on a price of 45CUC for two three-person rooms each with their own bathroom.

Internet Issues

Saved!! Now we just had to find wifi and cancel the original Airbnb. This proved a difficult task. Internet is not so freely accessible on Cuba. There are government hot spots throughout the country that are in public squares where you can connect. The lady of the house (I’ll call her lady but she was probably the maid) took me late at night to one of these spots but we were not able to connect. BTW, Mari (the lady of the house) spoke as much English as I spoke Spanish – please, thank-you, and lady. She asked some people who told her that we need to purchase a card. The card only cost CUC2 and gives you one hour of access. This was more than I needed. The problem was the actual connection. I struggled to connect and even when I did, it was super slow. There were about fifty other people trying to use the same spot at the same time.

Mari asked around again and found someone who helped me to connect. I jumped on, canceled our booking on Airbnb with only a partial refund but decided that I could sort the rest out later.

Cancelling with Airbnb

Turns out Airbnb are super awesome in dealing with these types of situations. I contacted them as soon as I had internet in Cancun. They apologised for our inconvenience and the stress it put us under and they explained the process. They would give our host two days to respond to the issue and action a full refund based on that. I knew the host was not going to get in touch. I hadn’t received any communications from her since booking the place.

Once the two days were up and the host had not responded, Airbnb gave me a full refund. They said they would’ve have reimbursed me the difference but because we didn’t have a receipt for our accomodation (everything was paid in cash), they couldn’t pay more than the refund. Another learning 🙂 I was happy with Airbnb’s service and the way they resolved the issue, and for me the refund was sufficient.

Learnings

Biggest learning is how friendly and super helpful Cubans are – one of the reasons we love Cuba!

If you’re great at negotiating, you can bargain your taxi fare down to CUC25. I’m not one of those (should’ve got hubby to do the negotiating!)

It’s is easy to find accommodation there. There are so many options but they are not online. This is definitely one place you could book one nights accomodation and then ask around, walk around, check out some of the options and then book a place for the rest of your stay. 

There is no internet but Havana works like Auckland did thirty years ago: everyone asks for help! I remember we’d pull up to a petrol station or someone walking on the side of the street and everyone was keen to help you out. It makes for a lot more communication, a lot more smiling faces, and a lot more opportunities to practice Spanish. 

Our Glimpse of Havana

The Vintage Cars of Cuba

Havana

Havana

Having known nothing about this place before landing, we quickly learnt the beauty this city has to offer any intrepid visitor.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Vehicles in Cuba

This bull dozer was parked outside our place every night. Nearly every day we had to stop and take photos because these two little ones

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Why We Love Cuba

We spent six days staying in a Casa Particular on the Caribbean island of Cuba where we fell in love with Havana. Here’s why we

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Our super awesome host Mari

The People of Havana

The People of Havana

06/11/2018

My experience of the people in Havana

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata!

He aha te mea nui o te ao

What is the most important thing in the world?

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata

It is the people, it is the people, it is the people – Maori proverb

I’m reminded of this Maori proverb whenever I think of our stay in Havana because of the heart-warming interactions we had with so many people. The most important thing in Havana is the people, and it was the people that truely made our stay beautiful even though we were in such a culturally differing environment.

Helpful Neighbours

We landed in Havana, haggled with the taxi driver, and then found him such a pleasure to interact with as he helped us learn Spanish. He must’ve known about a handful of English words but we were still able to have a fun ride to our “booked” accomodation. More about that drama here. We found the neighbours so helpful and concerned for us, and the driver took it upon himself to find us a new place. But this was a typical neighbourhood, where they knew each other and had a strong community feel.

We were introduced to our hosts, Lidia who is the housekeeper and Mari who only stayed at night so I”m not sure what her role was. With our language barrier, they didn’t speak any English, I didn’t think I’d grow to cherish these ladies like I did. 

Julio

We started our stay quite lost without the internet to guide us to locations and to translate for us. The owner understood our budget and introduced us to a local restaurant. This restaurant was not where the tourists eat, but served good food. We still don’t know what this place is called but it is if you’re ever in Havana, it is on San Lazaro between Hospital and Espada. On a side note, the common way to give directions is to give the intersection location. Here we met a young guy who spoke English and who we had the pleasure of building a relationship with. Julio had a natural style about him, he could get along with anyone. He also gave hubby a different Cuban dish every day which hubby loved.

We found out that Julio had a four year old daughter living with her mum in a town ten hours away from Havana. He worked every day for two months and then would get one week off to go see them. His partner had to stay with her mum because of illness so he would WhatsApp his daughter daily. This was typical of the hardship stories we heard here. 

The day before his dad was going to drive him, most people don’t own a car, Julio arranged for us to visit his favourite beach in Havana. More about that here.

Mari

On our first night I needed to access the internet to get a refund from Airbnb for our failed booking. Mari walked me to one of the government sites, which is usually a park or square. She linked arms with me the whole time which felt like it was for my safety. She stayed away from other people even though I thought we’d get better reception where most people were hovering around. I still couldn’t connect so she cautiously asked around for help and hesitantly approached a person so I could buy a one hour card for 2 CUC. Then she argued with him when I couldn’t connect and in his broken English he said he would make sure it works. I could see she took responsibility of me and perhaps this was her job at our casa particular. 

Once I had connected and sent my Airbnb message we strolled back and made conversation with hand motions throwing in one word here and there that we believed the person understood. She showed me photos of her granddaughter who lives in New York. She explained that she hadn’t seen her son since he was six when he escaped to America. She was not allowed a passport so couldn’t travel to see them and her son was not allowed to come back into Cuba or he would have to stay. I cried with her as I felt the sorrow in her loss.

Lidia

On Sunday we decided it was too hot to bother with sight seeing and preferred to enjoy the air-conditioned room. That day, I saw Lidia preparing a big lunch which turned out to be because her son and granddaughter were visiting. I wasn’t sure if it was an every Sunday thing or just one-off. Isabela was a spark of joy who made her grandmother’s eyes shine. More about her in our Cuban Espanol post.

Lidia’s son spoke quite a bit of English and shared that his wife was at home with their four week old girl. They lived about forty minutes away. I didn’t want to pry but I wondered how much Lidia would get to visit her son, because what I saw was her working seven days a week, all day. That’s probably why he was visiting here instead of Lidia going to see her newborn granddaughter. 

Lidia had a pet turtle which she kept in a bowl in the courtyard. My kids loved checking the turtle every morning. One day little 2yo was unsettled and crying so she talked to him the whole time about the turtle then picked up the turtles bowl, emptied into the sink and showed him how she washed the turtle’s shell with a toothbrush. He loved this and was a happy chappy after that. 

There were a few things that accentuated her role in the house. One day the New Jersey couple who I’d been conversing with were having a coffee in the kitchen with Lidia. I decided to join them and told hubby to come too. Lidia immediately got out of her seat and said she would stand because there were not enough chairs. Hubby refused to let her stand and he sat on the stairs insisting she sit down until she finally sat down at the table. Whenever my kids made a mess I would ask her for a cloth to clean it up and she would do the cleaning, refusing to let me do it. But she was always friendly and seemed pleased to be able to help us in any way. I suppose the most obvious was that they both slept on fold out beds in the kitchen.

Lidia helped me with all the little tasks at home that I needed for my family. She would continually talk to me in Spanish knowing I didn’t understand the words but by the way she spoke I did understand the jist of what she was saying.

Savouring the Local Vibe

When we were out and about eating where the locals eat, the people serving us were really accomodating. Not many tourists ate where the locals ate so the exploration of these places was exciting. We became familiar with the style of interaction the locals had for us as opposed to each other. We didn’t spend much time where there were a lot of tourists and perhaps that’s what created tantalised our senses more. 

Interestingly when we found a very cheap “American” style restaurant to regularly eat at, we felt disconnected from the charm of the local people. We were now officially tourists. A separate entity to the locals. No longer living with them. Instead now watching them. In hindsight, hubby and I felt that we enjoyed the vibe when we were eating as locals, able to connect with those that served us, far more than the  short term pleasure of eating familiar food at a tourist joint, where our wait staff were aloof, treating us as “just another customer”. 

Overall, the real treat was being able to sit in our casa particular, on the beautiful antique furniture, in the front room with it’s high ornate ceilings, keeping the front door wide open so that I could look out at the happenings on the street as the neighbourhood carried on with their daily life.

Our Glimpse of Havana

Playing in the rain

Why We Love Cuba

Why We Love Cuba

05/11/2018

We spent six days staying in a Casa Particular on the Caribbean island of Cuba where we fell in love with Havana. Here’s why we would come back to Cuba again.

Te Tangata! It is the People!

Whenever I think of our stay in Havana, I’m reminded of a Maori proverb that states the most important thing in the world is people, and that’s because of the heart-warming interactions we had with so many people. The most important thing in Havana is the people, and it was the people that truely made our stay beautiful even though we were in such a culturally differing environment.

We became familiar with our neighbourhood including the “too cool” teenage school kids, the fed-up business mama, the aimless old guy, the provocative old lady in the doorway, the fruit stand guy, the parents rushing their kids to school in the morning. On the whole we found the way friends interacted with each other was very playful with a lot of laughter. The few we had the pleasure of building relationships with had poignant stories that was simply part of their every day life. In so many we saw joy in spite of their poverty.

You can read more about our experience here.

Thunderstorms

We experienced a couple of amazing thunderstorms. The rain poured down in bucketfuls and the streets completely emptied. The thunder was so deafening it scared the little ones initially, but after half an hour they settled into the noise and were comfortable to go outside and dance in the rain.

Playa Santa María del Mar

We asked Julio if there was a nearby beach where we could go for a swim. He said his absolute favourite near Havana is Santa Maria and that he would arrange for a taxi to take us there and bring us back after an hour for CUC40.

After lunch we quickly packed some snacks and headed right back to the restaurant. We weren’t really sure if we’d be swimming so none of us packed togs. What a mistake!!

This beach is absolutely stunning. We couldn’t resist jumping in with our clothes on. Hubby took a hit for the team and sat out because 2yo was sleeping and 4yo found the waves a little too rough to run in.

You might laugh at me in my comparisons but I couldn’t help thinking of our favourite beach in Auckland at Tawharanui Regional Park. For a few of reasons. Although no-one was boogie boarding this would be a perfect boogie boarding beach. And it was a safe beach where I would happily let my older two swim without needing to supervise them because the current was not so strong and the depth was shallow enough at low tide that they could walk out a fare way. It was clear waters and the beach felt so untouched by humans.

But you’re right, in many ways it was nothing like Tawharanui! It was a white sandy beach in the Caribbean Sea with tropical warm waters that had a crystal blue hue as you gazed upon it. It had no shady spots so we sat under an umbrella. Interestingly, this was our first experience of having sunseats on the beach with an umbrella where you paid someone to use it for an hour. Although it’s not common in NZ and Australia, I’ve heard it’s quite common in other countries. It was very convenient instead of having to take your own seat and umbrella to a beach and it wasn’t much of a fee given the scorching heat.

Apparently there are many beautiful beaches around Cuba and we are so grateful we had the chance to experience one of them.

Buildings

 Some of the beautiful buildings in Havana were made as early as the 1600’s and have been modelled on the buildings from whoever was the biggest influence in Cuba at the time: first the Spanish, then the French, and lastly the Americans before they were kicked out by Fidel’s revolution. The Catedral de San Cristobal was built in the 1700’s along with much of Old Havana. 

Many of the central residential buildings have ornate designs on pillars or French balconies but have not been well maintained since the Castro family took over Cuba. Some of the them are colourful while others look decrepit. Regardless of how well maintained, people dwell here. 

The place across the road from us had two stories that looked uninhabitable. Yet every morning I would see the family leave through the front door which I could only assume meant they were living on the third level. Over the weekend awesome music came pumping from up there which confirmed it. 

Ground level windows generally have grills on them to prevent theft which I assume must be pretty high since people lock their scooter inside their home. Many of the residential homes are three to five stories high but only one family would live on a level. The level above us had four families occupying the space of our one casa particular. We were the mezzanine level of a four story building which apparently would be where slaves would live while their owners occupied the levels above.

Cars

In many photos of Cuba you will see cars from the 1950’s. That’s because after Fidel Castro became the leader Cuba in 1959,  America and Cuba began imposing trade restrictions with each other. Cuba outlawed importing any American cars or parts. It was only in 2015 when Raul Castro changed a law so new cars could be imported. Having said that we saw very few brand new vehicles and they were taxis. These beautiful Classic American cars are still hugely common and are somehow still functioning inspite of the spare parts import limitation.

Our Glimpse of Havana

The Vintage Cars of Cuba

Vehicles in Cuba

Vehicles in Cuba

01/11/2018

This bull dozer was parked outside our place every night. Nearly every day we had to stop and take photos because these two little ones wanted to pose in front of it.

Vintage Cars

Cuba is famous for it’s beautifully painted cars from the 1950’s and they are impressive. It was hard not to take photos of these cars. Some are super well maintained and some are run down. Whatever the condition we did not get tired of looking at them.

Buses for locals

These were the typical buses that locals used. Some were in good condition. Most were no. This one up above was crammed full just seconds before I took this photo. These buses are not supposed to be used by tourists, and personally I wouldn’t want to use them. They get jammed fuller than sardines in a tin!

The bus below is for tourists. We didn’t catch any buses. Everything was close enough to walk or cheap enough to catch a taxi.

 

Three Wheelers

Some taxis are three-wheelers. Some are new and some are simply bicycles

Some other vehicles: a yellow school bus, a white dump truck and a red dump truck. I only saw one fire truck at night. The fire truck had many fire officers squeezed in. 

Our Glimpse of Vehicles Around The World

orlando-1

Orlando

Orlando

I know Orlando has more to offer like the NASA centre but we only had one purpose here: Disney World

Our Glimpse of Orlando

Orlando

I know Orlando has more to offer like the NASA centre but we only had one purpose here: Disney World Our Glimpse of Orlando

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Getting Around Orlando

Getting Around Disney Springs and Lake Buena Vista Our main priority in Orlando was getting to and from the airport. All our other transportation requirements

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Understanding Hotel Living

The Best Western Hotel was a treat after doing three Airbnb’s. But I hadn’t factored in some housekeeping given the length of the stay here. Here’s some tips to “family living” in a hotel.

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getting-around

Getting Around Orlando

Getting Around Orlando

29/10/2018

Getting Around Disney Springs and Lake Buena Vista

Our main priority in Orlando was getting to and from the airport. All our other transportation requirements were not going to be a problem because of our chosen accomodation location.

When booking our hotel for Orlando we knew it had a free shuttle to and from Disney World. One of the reasons we went with a hotel rather than an Airbnb, as well as finding a great deal on a room that sleeps six people, was because of this service. Our hotel was in the Disney Springs area which is the closest hotel zone to Disney without actually being in a Disney World resort. All the hotels on this Lake Buena Vista area have free shuttles. 

I knew I had to do supermarket trips once there but I figured I could taxi. As it turned out, the supermarket was walking distance and there was a shopping complex in the other direction which was walking distance. Probably the hardest part of the one kilometre walk was the heat but it was nice and flat so made for a dash.The only issue with the shopping complex is that it is designed for Disney tourists so the shops, eating places and supermarket are relatively expensive.

Had we stayed in a residential area close to Disney World we would have had to hire a car to reach a supermarket and all the Disney theme parks.

Getting to and from the Orlando Airport

Arriving in Orlando at midnight meant there were no public transport options. The shuttle was going to be expensive but I’d read reviews that Uber Car Seat was the way to go for a family. In Las Vegas we’d already had Uber reject us because we needed a car seat for our 2yo. Unfortunately when we arrived we found Uber Car Seat for 6 people was $75 which seemed like taxi prices. We tried to book one anyway but because it was late at night there were none available. 

We ended up having to go to the taxi stand and was pleasantly surprised to find it was only going to be USD55 fixed price plus taxes for a van. As a bonus it had two car seats we could use.

On the way to the hotel, the taxi went through a toll bridge so the driver charged us the toll amount plus taxes. We got the feeling he wasn’t supposed to charge us for that but it was only an extra USD5 at one in the morning so we didn’t bother to contest it. Plus it still worked out cheaper than the Uber quote for an XL carseat car.

On the way to the airport from the hotel, the taxi was around USD60 including taxes. 

Summary

Getting to and from the airport is still proving to be the most expensive part of our transportation costs once we land in a place unless we are using public transport. Public transport isn’t an option after hours when our flights are in the midnight zone.

Do your research before booking accommodation in Orlando and find out how you will get to Disney World. You might find a hotel with a free shuttle works out cheaper than having to hire a car plus pay for an airbnb.

Our Glimpse of Orlando

Street Cars in mid town New Orleans

New Orleans

New Orleans

An amazing cultural experience full of food, music, interesting houses and trams

There are so many things New Orleans is famous for and the Disney Princess and the Frog highlights many of them. If you’re looking to experience New Orleans cultural food, music, wildlife, religion, architecture, art or history it’s all easy to find. And if you get stuck, the locals are so friendly you can ask anyone for help in finding it.

Our Glimpse of New Orleans

New Orleans

An amazing cultural experience full of food, music, interesting houses and trams There are so many things New Orleans is famous for and the Disney

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Homes of the Garden District

Houses of New Orleans

Houses of New Orleans

25/10/2018

The French Quarter

This area was the original town of New Orleans. It was settled by the French and named in honour of the Duke of Orleans. The street names are also named after their family including Bourbon St named after the House of Bourbon. This area predominantly had French speaking immigrants including French refugees from what is now known as Canada, Haitia and Sainte Domingue. Many of the French colony refugees included free people of colour who also lived in this area. Usually when immigrants came to New Orleans they settled in the French Quarter. This made for a very diverse racial population. 

There were French-African-Whites or Spanish-African-Whites called Creoles who considered themselves urbane. They were sophisticated and some of the wealthier sons were sent to France to finish their education while daughters were sent to local convents. Creoles are not to be confused with Cajuns. Cajuns were considered white French country bumpkin type people who were refugees from the Canada region. Creoles also should not be confused with the American slaves or descendants of slaves who were poor and generally uneducated, they lived in a different part of town. 

New Orleans allowed far more freedom for Creoles and people of colour, although they were still classed lower than lower class whites. Creoles had access to good education and were allowed to accumulate wealth. Along with the wealthy whites they loved cafes, masked balls and orchestral music. There were doctors, lawyers, teachers and business owners. Apparently in the 1850’s 85% were educated. 

This influenced the architecture in this area and many of the buildings are known as Creole townhouses. Many of the homes have a Spanish or French influence with cast-iron balconies and the top level is often half a level for children’s bedrooms while the bottom floor was a shop.

 

Mid-City

It was in the 1800’s when the white American immigrants settled in the French Quarter that the racial mix began to change. The whites did not like the freedom given to the Creoles and other people of colour. They began putting laws in place that divided the city and isolated whites from anyone else. It severely impacted the education and living standards of all people of colour who were sent to live amongst the American blacks. However, the blend also created Jazz and Blues music.

The Mid-City area where we stayed had a blend of Creole cottages and American style cottages. Although many of them were two-storey homes, usually they were duplexes or the upstairs was a separate home to the downstairs.

The Garden District

The Garden District was originally a separate city called Lafayette. It was English speaking and home to wealthy Americans. It had a variety of different styles based on the tastes of the owner.

Our Glimpse of New Orleans

Delicious Beignets

Food & Music in New Orleans

Food & Music in New Orleans

24/10/2018

Food & Music in New Orleans are often intertwined. Being the birth place of jazz music it’s not hard to understand why. Many restaurants and bars have live music. And although some great jazz bands start after 8pm there are many family friendly restaurants where you can feed the fanau day or night while enjoying soothing blues tones or jumping jazz vibes.

Our first day there, we started our expedition on the famous Bourbon St, (named after the French Royal family at the time, not the drink as I had assumed) looking for food. We came across an impressive jazz band playing in the street as well as young tap dancers. Now, although these busking artists perform for free we made sure to leave a tip for those we enjoyed because this was their livelihood.

We found ourselves in Oceana Grill that served alligator chips, crab cakes and etoufee  and this intense cocktail that didn’t taste good. Looked impressive though. I tried a creole vegetarian rice and beans dish which was flavoursome with a bite. The Cajun fries were really good. Being on a budget we could only sample a few New Orleans restaurants but we did learn what a lot of the local dishes are. As a vegetarian I didn’t have an appetite for crawfish, gumbo or poboys. But I did indulge in many Beignets!! (Pronounced ben-yay). 

 

The place to grab this delicious dessert is apparently Cafe Du Monde but I find Cafe Beignet’s beignets equally delicious. They had the same freshness, lightness, texture and taste. I did have a local tell me Cafe Du Monde was the only place worth trying these but if you don’t think the queues in the midday heat is your gig then Cafe Beignet on Bourbon St is definitely a great alternative. It’s a family friendly restaurant that plays live jazz music which is the reason we had stopped here one night. 

 

On hubby’s birthday we ventured to where the families went in the evenings to listen to New Orleans music: Frenchman St. We were directed to B.B. King’s Blues Club  a family friendly restaurant that plays live jazz, blues, soul and R&B.

 

 On our last night in New Orleans we ate at the Creole House on Canal St. Hubby had the Crawfish Etoufee and loved it. After a satisfying meal we strolled along Canal St and stopped at some tables outside a restaurant where we were able to enjoy an americano while listening to a live saxophonist busking on the footpath. He played a mix of jazz, blues and R&B tunes that seeped into our weary bodies from the long day of sightseeing and invigorated our soul. Our 4yo’s unbridled spirit acted out what most of us wanted to do but didn’t. He moved every part of his body to the rhythm of the music. We could see it as he shook his hands or waved his arms, tapped his feet, swung himself around or shook his body.

There’s debate over where and how Jazz originated. My overly simplified understanding is that it is a mix of Creole and Black American music. Creoles were free highly educated blacks that spoke Spanish or French. They had precision in their use of European instruments particularly their Spanish or French rhythms. The American blacks were poor and ex-slaves. They had rhythm and soul from their blues, gospel or labouring music. During a period of segregation in New Orleans, Creoles were forced out of the French Quarter into the Black American part of town on the west side of Canal St. It was traumatic for everyone involved but it also birthed the mixture of two different music types into Jazz.

Prior to visiting New Orleans I had no knowledge of why this music came into existence but I’d had the pleasure of enjoying a jazz tune when lounging about. Now when I here jazz I associate it with a diverse cultural mix of people that blended to create a whole new type of music.

 

Our Glimpse of New Orleans

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Vehicles in New Orleans

Vehicles in New Orleans

22/10/2018

Trams

New Orleans city has “street cars” or trams for easy public transport. We took this one back to our Airbnb from down town. 

Rescue Vehicles

We saw many Police cars like the white one here and we stopped outside a fire station where they were selling t-shirts to raise money for breast cancer charities.

Boats 

New Orleans is on the Mississippi River, the biggest river in America. There lots of boats to see including the famous water wheel boat.

When we went for a swamp tour we saw more boats. The big one is the boat we rode to look for alligators.

Rubbish Trucks 

Two rubbish trucks we saw in New Orleans, one in the French Quarter and one on Canal St

Horse and Carriage 

In the French Quarter of New Orleans by Jackson Square, you can get a ride in a carriage pulled by a horse

Our Glimpse of Vehicles Around The World

Baby gator on board the swamp tour

Wildlife in New Orleans

Wildlife in New Orleans

22/10/2018

The Bayou

The Bayou is where the ocean meets fresh water rivers and lakes, much like Auckland’s estuaries, where the tide creates a current in and out. It tends to be low lying areas with lots of sheltered areas for water plants to take root. This type of environment allows all sorts of wildlife to flourish (assuming that it’s not over-fished or over-hunted).  When we went to a Louisiana Bayou we saw birds, turtles, fish and a baby alligator.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

This aquarium had sea creatures from all over the world as well as a special Mississippi River feature that included it’s bird life.

Our Glimpse of Wildlife Around The World

staheli-farm-2

Southwest Region

Southwest Region

Exploring parts of Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Our Glimpse of the South West Region of America

Las Vegas

Our experience of Las Vegas was not the party life that tourists usually seek when visiting. Instead we stuck to sight seeing the strip, and

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Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend is a river set amongst a Navaho red rock canyon that has a hairpin turn shaped like a horseshoe, hence the name. It’s

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Antelope Canyon

Everyone asks “Why Antelope Canyon?” So perhaps I’ll start there. And then I’ll get into what it was like to view this stunning place (or

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Zion National Park

Beyond heading to Antelope canyon we hadn’t planned much more than this. So when we found we had a free day our hosts suggested Zion

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spot by the river at Zion National Park

Zion National Park

Zion National Park

20/10/2018

Beyond heading to Antelope canyon we hadn’t planned much more than this. So when we found we had a free day our hosts suggested Zion Canyon was well worth the one hour drive from Colorado City. Skip to the end to get a summary.

While driving the long desert roads from Las Vegas to Antelope Canyon we had seen some stunning scenery with pink and red rock formations. But it was a very different backdrop to the drive from Colorado City to Zion National Park which had the pink rocks but with green and yellow bush that flourished thanks to the pretty streams that flow through the area.

Getting into Zion National Park

I had only researched Antelope Canyon so we didn’t know what to expect entering ZNP. Initially there seemed to be a bit of logistics to navigate through. The town Springdale is located on the border of the national park. From here up to the entry point are free shuttles. There are loads of paid car parks and a few free street parks.

Once you reach the entry point you’ll need to pay USD20 per adult to enter the park and from there you can catch the free shuttle to nine different points that lead to various trails. If you are visiting more than one national park in a year it pays to buy the annual pass.

I had assumed because it was school time there would hardly be anyone in this remote location but this is not quiet New Zealand. We arrived around lunch time so we had a forty minute queue for the shuttle. And as it turns out Zion National Park is the most popular national park in Utah.

The Trails

If you ever get the opportunity to visit Zion National Park do Angel’s trek which takes a full day and apparently has spectacular views of the canyon. However, we were not prepared for such a big trek so we opted for the tracks marked “Easy”.

To view all the trails click here

https://www.nps.gov/zion/planyourvisit/basicinfo.htm

We first stopped at the entry to Angels Trek and played by Virgin Creek. Virgin Creek carves our the canyon in Zion. Whenever there are flash floods it creates a surge of water that erodes the walls of the canyon as well as flushing loose rocks on the river bed downstream. This creates a deeper and wider canyon. I remember playing by this stream with the fanau and being an awe of the canyon walls that towered above us.

After a quick picnic here we took the shuttle to another easy walk, Weeping Rock. Here the water has seeped into the earth from above and then reaches an impermeable layer where it pushes out of the side of a cliff. This creates a waterfall that seems to weep out of the rock.

We walked up a small hill to view Weeping Rock which creates a natural hanging garden under the shelf of the falls. It was a dry hot day so the fine mist from the sprinkle of water was a welcome sensation. From under the overhang we could look out toward a lush forest of trees at the base of a narrow red-orange gorge. With the rainbow that had formed with all the factors being in alignment, this looked like the back drop of a magical fairy tale.

This park is very well organised for thousands of tourists a day. It has flushing toilets at every shuttle stop along with drinking fountains to fill your water bottles. And at the entry point you can hire proper trekking shoes if required.

Because of the dry heat we decided not to stay too long. But the small parts we saw were beautiful. If I make it back to these parts again I will definitely set aside more time to see more of these National Parks.

Quick Learnings

  • Park close to the entry point which is after the town of Springdale
  • Catch a free bus or walk to the entry point where you can purchase your tickets
  • Tickets are USD20 per adult and allows you free access to the park shuttle
  • The shuttle takes you to nine different stops throughout the park where you can choose a trek appropriate to you

Our Glimpse of the South West Region of America

southwest-region

Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon

20/10/2018

Everyone asks “Why Antelope Canyon?” So perhaps I’ll start there. And then I’ll get into what it was like to view this stunning place (or 15% of it) with my fanau including a tired 2yo. Plus my opinion on our tour.

So, here’s the why. There was a time when I was subject to watching a lot of Lightening McQueen ie the Cars movie. I often looked at the background and wondered what the inspiration was, surely it was based on some place. Sure enough it was based on the old Route 66 and, as I tend to do, which is follow my research down a rabbit hole, I ended up finding Horseshoe Bend and Antelope Canyon. I put them on my bucket list of just sees.

Years later as we were deciding on where to go on our sabbatical, I thought we might as well swing by this place since we were heading to New Orleans and I didn’t think I would be heading to America again after that.

And so, was it worth the journey? Very much so!

It was our first destination and although we tried to break up the journey inside of a tight timeframe it still ended up jam packed.

To find out how to get there, check out this post.

The only way to see Antelope Canyon is using a tour guide. Much like the Fox and Franz Joseph glaciers, tragic deaths in the canyon caused by natural disasters had created these new rules.

From above the ground Antelope Canyon looks like a crack in the ground that you could jump over and never know what hides below. Or you might shatter the ground beneath you because it was a thin shelf and find yourself falling four metres into the canyon.

An amazing fact is that rain from up to 100 miles away can create flash floods that drain into Antelope Canyon. Once the water reaches the canyon it can be full in minutes.

First the water fills the top of the canyon hitting the sides creating a whirlpool. Once that top is full, it travels as a wall of water filling the remainder of the canyon.

The walls of the canyon are steep and it would be difficult to climb out of quickly. Currently there are steep stairs and ladders to help you in and out.

It was an incident about ten years ago causing some tourists to drown in the canyon due to a flash flood many miles away.

Before opening the canyon for the day, a couple of safety checks happen.

1. Rainfall is checked for miles around. Antelope Canyon May have blue skies but if it’s raining in an area that impacts the canyon then tours are cancelled for the day. This has only happened about ten times in the last twelve months.

2. Snakes, scorpions, wolves and any other dangerous creatures are picked up and moved about 500 metres away.

The canyon had so many designs crafted by the current of the water. The reddish pink earth was called Navajo sediment. We visited in the late afternoon and saw varying colours on the walls depending on where the suns reached inside the canyon.

Everyone in the fanau loves it! They were not enthusiastic about visiting Antelope Canyon until they were walking through it realising how beautiful it is. 4yo found it a bit scary because he said he was in a long tunnel. 2yo screamed his head off for about fifteen minutes of the walk – which seems endless when you’re trapped in a confined space that echoes. Once he passed out then I relaxed back into enjoying the scenery.

As for the tour, we went with Dixie Ellis. I’d read reviews about being given history of the people and some info on local flora and fauna. I’d hoped I could offset the tour as part of geographical, historical and biological study but this tour lacked cultural depth or any sense of education. 14yo comment that the “tour guide” was just a safety instructor and then went on to say that it could’ve been because it was the last tour of the day.

Our Glimpse of the South West Region of America

Horse Shoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend

Horseshoe Bend

19/10/2018

Horseshoe Bend is a river set amongst a Navaho red rock canyon that has a hairpin turn shaped like a horseshoe, hence the name. It’s easy to access and comes with some precautions but it’s well worth the effort.

If you are making the trip to Antelope Canyon you must visit Horseshoe Bend, it is only fifteen minutes away. 

The walking track to reach the lookout gave us a tiny window into what it’s like to walk on dusty, gritty sand type rock and to feel the burn of the sun overhead while the red rock bakes you from underneath. What could be considered a bleak landscape is home to so many creatures but we saw none. There are so many people on the track you don’t even have to be scared of snakes. The view is amazing and perhaps I’m biased towards water bodies, but the blue of the water combined with the red/brown/pink rock definitely makes for a pretty picture.

Horseshoe Bend is located fifteen minutes from the town of Page and fifteen minutes from the tour places for Antelope Canyon. The walk is a light twenty minutes (if you’re not carrying kids) up and over a hill then down to a cliff edge where you can view the river and wide bend in the canyon. Avoid going at peak times when it’s hotter and flooded with tourists. Morning and late afternoon is best.

Unfortunately we were still jet lagged on our fourth day arriving in America from NZ so we woke late and, after a two hour drive plus a few stops for the kids, only arrived at Page by 2pm. We had booked the Lower Antelope Canyon tour for 4pm but my watch said 3pm. Side note: Page is the closest town to Antelope Canyon but it’s also close to the border of Utah and Arizona which are in different time zones. It was this confusion that meant we only had thirty minutes to see Horseshoe Bend before sunset.

We parked the car in a very full carpark that also had bus loads of tourists. The signs said to take at least one bottle of water per person and to wear closed toe shoes. I laughed at the water warnings because I’d read that the walk is only fifteen minutes from the carpark. And the older kids smirked as they passed a lady wearing sandels who was complaining about stones in her shoes when there are multiple warnings to wear proper shoes and she had only just started the walk.

The water suggestion is important for the little ones. Having said that, Horseshoe Bend is in a desert and the earth heats up. That means you feel the heat from above you and below making you feel much hotter than if you were doing a fifteen minute trek in bush. We were brisk walking to ensure we didn’t miss our slot at Lower Antelope Canyon, so hubby and I were hot and thirsty by the time we reached the bottom where the lookout is. But if you had time to sit and savour this place for a while then you definitely want to bring water with you.

Our 12yo and 14yo, free of any excess weight, cruised it even on the uphill back to the carpark – with proper footwear and a water bottle.

On another note, it was safe to be at the lookout with the 2yo because there is a proper railing as long as your child doesn’t stray from the path. You could easily take a pram down this track but it is quite dusty and sandy so a carrier would probably be easier. (Because I was asked: No, we don’t have a carrier – it would’ve been too much extra luggage for a year of travel).

Sometimes I wonder if visiting a place will be as beautiful as the photos I googled portray. Feeling the awe of such natural beauty and the work of natural phenomenons having carved out this massive space makes Horseshoe Bend more beautiful than a picture can describe.

Our Glimpse of the South West Region of America