Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Driving to the Top of Colorado’s Pikes Peak

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Welp, friends, this past weekend consisted of ticking things off the bucket list from left to right and every way sidewise. It was our annual birthday trip getaway for my birthday (if you’ll recall, we’ve made something of a tradition of heading out of town for both my and Chris’ birthdays. Last year was Great Sand Dunes National Park for Chris and Telluride for me), and we headed into the mountains — to Woodland Park, to be exact.

Woodland Park is charming in its own right, but really, the main attraction for people coming to this particular area is the drive up to the summit of Pikes Peak, one of Colorado’s (in)famous “14ers,” meaning a mountain whose summit is higher than 14,000 feet. This particular mountain reaches 14,115 feet … and I had no particular interest in heading there.

Until, of course, Chris mentioned it as a potential spot for my birthday weekend getaway.

Continue reading “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough: Driving to the Top of Colorado’s Pikes Peak”

Great Sand Dunes National Park For an Epic Birthday Celebration

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Happy Tuesday, friends! Chris & the girls & I got back yesterday from a weekend away in Alamosa, where we stayed at the adorable 40 Winks Inn and visited Great Sand Dunes National Park. We only found out about the Great Sand Dunes over the summer when a cousin of mine was visiting Denver with her family and they went to see them. Chris really wanted to plan a visit for his birthday, and I’m so glad we did. They are the tallest dunes in North America and are surrounded by grasslands, wetlands, conifer and aspen forests, alpine lakes, and tundra. It’s honestly, truly magnificent. And although Lotte originally referred to them as a “big pile of dirt,” I think she honestly had the most amazing time sandboarding with Chris and just playing in the sand in general. We had the most glorious weather, packed a picnic, and even did a little off-roading afterwards.

Colorado, you are one beautiful state, and you never cease to amaze us.

So, are you ready for lots of photos of sand? Well good, then you won’t be disappointed!

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^^ These ladies were the most amazing travel buddies on the four-hour ride. We were a little nervous about Lotte and the whole potty situation, but she only had one accident, and honestly it was our fault because we should have been paying closer attention. Overall, we were so impressed with these little travel warriors.

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^^ We stopped in Bueno Vista and had sandwiches at Biggies Sub Shop, which turned out to be way delicious and the perfect little half-way pit stop.

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^^ Colorado road trip roadside views = pretty epic.

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^^ Someone was less excited about the views 😉

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^^ How cute was our Airbnb, 40 Winks? And how cute is little Lotte, making herself right at home on her potty! There were two bedrooms in the space, but there was also a Queen bed in the living room around the corner, so it was perfect because Chris and I just slept there and gave each of the girls their own room. It was a great little spot, and only two blocks from Main Street which, while very small, had some nice restaurants and breweries.

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^^ Our Airbnb was made for Insty 😉

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^^ Our first stop after rolling in on Saturday was Square Peg Brewerks on Main Street, where Lotte made the cutest little friend, fell in love with a dog and had the best time playing cornhole.

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I didn’t take any photos there, but we also visited San Luis Valley Brewing afterwards for drinks and dinner, which was super tasty.

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^^ Sunday was the big day. After renting a sandboard and a sandsled from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa, we headed to the Dunes, which was about a half hour from Alamosa. Our first stop was the visitor center, which small enough to not feel totally intimidating but had all the info you could possibly want about how the Dunes form (the Medano Creek brings the sand down, and the wind blows it back up … in a nutshell).

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^^ This studmuffin carried the sandboard, sandsled and our 2-year-old in her hiking backpack up the mountain of sand. I had G strapped to me and I was huffing and puffing. We only went to the closest dune before plunking down and having Chris take Lotte on some sled rides, but still, it was enough for me to know that anything further would have been really, really hard to do. One note about the sandboarding – Chris didn’t love it. I guess he was hoping it would be somewhat similar to snowboarding … but it’s not. Oh well, lesson learned, and at least he tried.

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^^ Epic and amazing.

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^^ G slept during most of our Dunes adventure, but she did wake up in just enough time for some adorable pictures.

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^^ We weren’t exactly sure how Lotte would take to sand sledding (she doesn’t necessarily love getting dirty) … but she loved it! Every time they got to the bottom she’d squeal, “More, again!” And even though she had dirt flying into her face, eyes and mouth the entire ride, she always enjoyed it. I was actually quite proud of my gal.

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^^ Sand babies <3

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^^ The dirt on Lotte’s face in this pic gets me every time!

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^^ It didn’t hurt that it was the height of fall for our trip, meaning the trees had all turned glorious shades of yellow.

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After a full day at the Sand Dunes, we headed back to our place and chilled for the rest of the night, made dinner and let the girls rest. It was really the perfect first day at the Dunes, and I hope we get back some time soon.

Monday was Chris’s actual birthday, but we had to pack up and head back to Arvada … but not before stopping in Buena Vista again, but this time at Eddyline Restaurant on South Maine, which turned out to be so adorable and picturesque.

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^^ These two <3

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^^ More roadside Colorado craziness. Chris actually took this picture from the car while I was driving, which I’d say is pretty impressive.

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^^ Heading into Eddyline … how cute is this little neighborhood?!

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^^ Not a bad lunch view.

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^^ This one, too <3

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And that was our trip, friends! For a place that we never knew existed before a few months ago, it was pretty amazing how beautiful it was and how much fun we had. Plus, you just know we love ticking National Parks off our bucket list! This was Lotte’s fourth National Park (Yosemite, Sequoia and Rocky Mountain being the other three), and G’s second, so we hope to keep up the tradition with them and tick some more off the ole’ list soon.

And also, how are we almost in November already?! In other travel news, we booked our trip to Australia for Christmas last weekend, and we even have a couple hours of a layover in Vancouver on our way out, which Chris is very excited about. I’m a little nervous about the flight, I can’t lie, but here’s hoping everything goes smoothly … or as smoothly as it possible can with a 2.5 and 1-year-old … right?!

Bis bald, friends!

Our Final Day in Kyoto: Bikes, Bamboo Trees & Beautiful Walks

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Hi friends,

So two Saturdays ago was our last full day in Kyoto before heading back to the states. Chris’ parents had gone back to Tokyo the night before to catch their super early flight on Saturday morning, and we had the whole day stretched ahead of us to finish up some final things we really wanted to see and do.

Then … that all got sidetracked for a couple of hours while we spent some time on the phone with American Airlines trying to figure out what to do about the fact that Chris had left his green card back in Denver. This is such an important topic for those of you with green cards, that Chris has said he’ll write his own little post on it and share here, which means I won’t go into a ton of detail on this post, other than to say … don’t do it!

Anyway, after (sort of) sorting that out, we headed out into beautiful Kyoto for our first stop — the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. I had been dying to do this ever since I started researching Kyoto about a month before our trip, and I’m so, so glad we made it there, because the experience really is incredible. Luckily for us we happened upon a bike shop on our way from the subway to the grove, though, because without the bike rental, I think it would have been pretty difficult for my preggers legs to do all the walking we would have done that day. So — that’s just something to keep in mind for anyone who maybe isn’t so into walking miles and miles. Even if you don’t mind the walking, though, renting a bike is a great (and super fun) way to take in the grove! It does get pretty busy, though, so there were times when maneuvering a bike through the crowds was tough. Still, overall, I’d say we were super happy to have had the bikes. Plus, riding bikes or taking bike tours on our trips (or even where we live) has become something of a traditional with us. We’ve done it in New York and Denver, Munich, Iceland, Berlin, New Orleans, London and now in Japan. It’s high on our list of recommendations for things to do when traveling.

Anyway, here’s a bit of what you’ll see at the Bamboo Groves. We spent a good two or three hours here, with a trip into the beautiful garden and temple area that’s right around the grove and a quick stop for a picnic lunch (meaning pastries!) that we had brought, as well.

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After the bamboo, we got back on the subway and headed back to the Ginkaku-ji (Silver Pavilion) that we had missed the day before with Chris’ parents. This place is gorgeous and serene, with its manicured rock gardens, temples, streams and foliage. There’s also a tiny hill you can walk up and get a pretty nice view of the city skyline.

It doesn’t take very long to see the whole park (if you don’t want it to, or you could spend an hour or so meandering around, it’s perfect like that), and afterwards there is a gorgeous little 1.7 mile walk called the Philosopher’s Walk nearby that I would suggest doing as well. The end of the walk will bring you pretty much right out to a bus stop that can bring you right back to the center of town.

thumb__DSC4021_1024^^^ The Silver Pavilion inside Ginkaku-ji

thumb__DSC4040_1024thumb__DSC4077_1024^^^ An artist making the most of Philosopher’s Walk

And that was pretty much our Saturday, friends. Dinner was out at a noodle restaurant, and then it was back to the hotel to attempt to pack up for our bullet train back to Tokyo to catch our flight back to the U.S. the next day.

Japan, you were everything I imagined you would be, and also so much more. Thanks for showing us such an amazing time. We hope to make it back here again to do even more!

Bis bald, friends!

Moab Camping … Put This Place On Your Bucket List

Hi friends,

Last Friday Chris took a half day from work and we took off in our little Matrix hatchback filled with camping gear to cover the approximately 5-hour trip from Denver to Moab, Utah. We would be camping with three other (way more experienced than we are, thank goodness!) couples, and they had all headed up the day or so before to grab us what turned out to be an amazing camp site in some backwoods area off the beaten trail.

So I wish I had been able to take some decent photos of the car ride out to Utah, because I think it’s safe to say the gorgeous scenery starts pretty much as soon as you hit the mountains on the way out, and only gets prettier and prettier. The five hours seriously flew by, since we were down in the depths of canyons, passing through arid desert, traipsing through small mountain towns …. basically it’s a breathtaking and incredibly entertaining ride the whole way.

But wahoe, my friends! It only gets prettier the second (and I do mean second) you enter Moab territory. Red rock canyons for as far as the eye can see. After about 10 miles of hairpin turns and rocky climbing which I wasn’t totally convinced Manny the Matrix could handle (and which she did, with aplomb), we made it to our camp site.

Behold our home for the four-day camping trip:

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_DSC0989^^ Meet the Avocado, the adorable little camper one of our camping companions purchased a few years back for $4 grand and remodeled into an adorable little compact camping van. Doesn’t she just seem like she belongs out there?

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_DSC1073^^ That’s our little Manny, next to the tent we had to borrow from my sister’s sister-in-law, since we currently have no camping gear to call our own. Thanks, Rachel!

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Tent_View^^ The view from our tent every morning. Le sigh.

Smores^^ Enjoying smores by the camp fire.

_DSC1080^^ Sunsets each night produced this halo effect on the surrounding canyons, making it appear as if they were lit on fire from some unknown, hidden source. Breathtaking.

_DSC1082^^ See!

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_DSC1128^^ On our last night we hiked up onto one of the closer canyons near our campground and had a fabulous 360-degree view of our campground and all of the surrounding area.

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_DSC1138^^ Gloriousness all around!

So now comes the adventure part of our little trip. I’ve learned a lesson here, my friends, and it’s this: When you’re traveling with friends who are all marathon runners, take whatever fitness level they tell you the upcoming hike you’re about to partake in will be and multiply it by 10, and you’ll start to come a bit closer to what an average person would call the strenuousness of said hike.

That’s not to say that had they accurately described any of the hikes, that I wouldn’t have gone on them, but it’s just something good to be aware of, going into such physical activities.

For our first hike on Saturday, I’d call it a moderately strenuous rock climb. The first portion (and therefore last as well) consisted entirely of climbing up pretty vertical rocks, which I actually don’t mind doing, believe it or not. The views, of course, were unparalleled. Here are photos from that first hike, called the Hunter Canyon Rim Trail.

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_DSC0992^^ Cactus makes sense in the desert, but we were even more surprised by some of the random trees and wildflowers that grew out from the rock, clay and dirt. How do they even manage to live there? Nature is amazing.

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_DSC0998^^ Spectacular canyon views.

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_DSC1039^^ Feelin’ pretty happy with myself, if I’m being honest 😉

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After our three-hour hike we headed into the town (which, by the way, is totally adorable) and had lunch at The Spoke on Center Restaurant. My house-made veggie burger was something spectacular (although to be honest, at that point I was so hungry I probably would have eaten dirt), and they’ve got lots of local beers on tap, too.

Here’s actually a nice place to segue into some of the craziness of Utah. In a state whose population consists of many, many Mormons, it only makes sense that some of these laws would involve drinking. (Take, for example, the fact that beers are not allowed to be poured in front of the general restaurant — all of that has to be done in a kitchen, away from the eyes of the people eating.) In addition to the drinking rules, though, come some doozies like the fact that husbands are responsible for the criminal acts that wives commit in their presence, it’s a felony to persistently walk on the cracks between paving stones on the sidewalk, and women are not allowed to swear in Logan, Utah.

Oh, and dancing is illegal in Saint George, Utah, as well.

Sheesh. There’s too much to love about the outdoors in Utah to care about their crazy rules, though, so moving on …

On Sunday we hiked what’s known as the Top of the World Trail — a consistently uphill 4-mile (although this link says 5, so guess somewhere in between) trek to some of the most spectacular views you’ll find anywhere, ever, in your life. Be warned, though …. this hike isn’t for the faint of heart. The entire time it took us to hike it (about 3.5 hours up and back), we never came across any other hikers. Everyone else was riding up on either 4-wheelers or in their Jeeps or such, although we did see a few mountain bikers who I think were just about as crazy as we were.

This hike is also not for those afraid of heights. I mean I guess it’s okay to do the hike, but you definitely shouldn’t look at the end view if you’re afraid of heights, and if you can’t do that, well let’s be honest, what’s the point. From the Top of the World you can see Titan Tower and Fisher Towers, as well as a whole big huge portion of Utah in all of its splendor. We had picked up some bagel sandwiches from The Red Rock Bakery & Net Cafe in town before heading out, so we housed those in about 10 seconds flat, took in the amazing scenery, and then made our way back down.

This was our reward after all that crazy hiking (which, I cannot lie, may have caused me to shed a tear or two in leg pain anxiety … totally worth it!):

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The next day we were up early to head out to Arches National Park. Since it was Memorial Day and we had been told this was one of the busier ones that people in town had ever seen, we were a bit worried that we might have to wait in line quite a while to get in, but lucky for us, the wait was only about 10 minutes before we could ride right in.

You can choose to drive all the way around the park, if you want, and you can even see Balanced Rock this way (pictured below), but the best thing to do is drive some and get out and hike a bit. You’ll have to hike about 3-miles roundtrip (which includes some pretty hefty uphill rock face climbing on the way there) if you want to see the Delicate Arch, but I would highly recommend doing this — it’s more than worth the leg pain …

_DSC1167^^ Balanced Rock from the road.

_DSC1190^^ And the big kahuna — Delicate Arch. See what I mean — how amazing?!

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_DSC1206^^ Be sure to take the short trail off the Delicate Arch path to see the Moab Indian Rock Art that dates back to the late 1800s. It’s amazingly cool.

And that was about it, my friends! A short but totally jam-packed and beyond amazing camping trip. We have to really, truly thank our friends from NY for inviting us and showing us the ropes. Moab is huge and intimidating and extremely free-form … and Chris and I both agree that we probably would have wasted a lot of time trying to find our way around a map on our first trip out had it not been for our friends. So thanks guys — and please feel free to invite us back on your yearly Moab camping trips any time!

Bis bald, my friends!

The Galapagos Islands: Back When I Was Fulfilling a Dream of Mine

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So, how exactly do you blog about a trip that has meant so much to you for so long? It’s hard to know where to start, friends, I’ll tell you that much.

Let me start from the beginning. When I first started out in college as a bright-eyed freshman, I went in as a biology major, since I had had the dream of becoming a vet for oh-so-very long (nevermind the fact that this dream eventually gave way to my one of being a journalist … let’s skip that part for the purposes of this story). During fall semester of my freshman year, I became obsessed with a school trip to the Galapagos, where we would be following in the footsteps of Darwin, making amazing discoveries and partaking in fascinating experiments.

Not to make things dramatic (who are we kidding — I’m nothing if not dramatic), but my parents wouldn’t let me go. So it became a goal of mine to, at some point, make it to this beautiful, interesting, historic place.

And a few weeks ago, I did, friends — I accomplished the goal. Go me! And it was way, way, way more than I ever could have hoped it would be. Little did I know what adventures awaited both me and Chris when we signed on for the 5-day Aida Maria cruise in the Galapagos (which, by the way, was booked by Southern Explorations on our behalf as part of our whole Ecuador package). Little did I know that we would fall in love with our tour guide (a Galapagos native named Reuben who walked around everywhere barefoot), or snorkel 2-3 times every single day with everything from sharks to sea lions, or see penguins and owls, as well. (Penguins, for goodness sake!).

If you’re an animal lover, you must add the Galapagos to your list, because there is no place on earth like it, my friends. So far in life I’ve had the great opportunity to snorkel in some pretty amazing places (the Bahamas, Jamaica and the Great Barrier Reef, to name a few), and nothing even came close to snorkeling here. (Sorry, Barrier Reef. You were awesome and all, but the Galapagos has my heart.)

Let me start by explaining our boat to you. The Aida Maria is a small-ish sized yacht that fits up to 16 guests, and we had 15 on board for our trip. Lucky for us, Southern Explorations booked our trip early enough so that we got a top room (there were only two available, and we were told they’re booked on a first-come, first-serve basis), because it really helped make the cruise special to be able to open our bedroom door every morning to gorgeous Galapagos waters. The size of the ship also means that space is pretty limited, and while we had bunk beds in our room, Chris and I used the top bunk to store our luggage and we slept together on the bottom bed. I’m honestly not sure what people did who didn’t share a bed, because there would have been very little floor space for luggage.

In terms of our itinerary and the islands we visited, here’s what we did:

Sunday: 
AM: Baltra Island
PM: Bachas beach (and our first snorkel!) on Santa Cruz Island

Monday:
AM: We woke up after cruising all night in the midst of Genovesa, a shield volcano in the eastern Pacific Ocean
PM: The Barranco (aka Prince Phillip’s Steps and the place where we found owls!) at the top of Genovesa

Tuesday:
AM: Bartolome Island
PM: Sullivan Bay and its insane lava fields on Santiago Island

Wednesday:
AM: Daphne/Black Turtle Cove
PM: Cerro Dragon (a trail that runs through three different environments even though it’s  just 1,600 m long) on Santa Cruz. It’s named this because the northwestern side of Santa Cruz Island is home to an impressive population of Conolophus subcristatus, or Galapagos land iguana. We also had our final (and my favorite) snorkeling excursion on this particular outing. It was here that we saw sharks again, and I had one playful little sea lion who swam in circles around me while I snorkeled, waving her cute little fin at me the whole time. Oh Galapagos — you slay me with your magical moments.

Thursday:
AM: The Charles Darwin Station, where we saw giant tortoises! We were a bit bummed as we left that we hadn’t seen these awesome animals in “real” life, but as we were driving back to the airport we saw three or four them along the side of the road — so check that off the list 😉
PM: It was back to Baltra to catch our flight back to the mainland Ecuador

Something else that was really cool about the trip is that everyone’s itinerary was planned by the National Park Service in order to keep as few people as possible on the islands at the same time. So for example, even if we were docked at an island with two or three other ships, we were never doing the same activity at the same time as the people from the other boat. If we were hiking, they would be snorkeling, and vice versa.

The last night of our trip we even got to go out to a bar (which was a good thing because the ship ran out of booze!) with a couple other young people from our boat and our tour guide (there were some restaurants, shops and bars at Puerto Ayora, which is where our tour guide was from. We even got to meet his adorable wife and 5-year-old son!)

Now let’s get to the fun part — the photos!

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_DSC0030^^ This (not so) little guy is a land iguana. We came across another one later in our hike that walked a good 100 feet towards our group of 16, bobbing his head in warning the whole while, before getting a couple of feet in front of us and turning around. I think he made his point, though 😉 Land iguanas are pretty territorial, but they’re also pretty harmless.

_DSC0034^^ Pink flamingo!! Look at this scenery — does it not look like another planet?

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_DSC0123^^ Clawless lobsters at the fish markets in Puerto Ayora.

_DSC0146^^ A marine iguana just hangin’ out. Watching them swim in the water is pretty amazing.

_DSC0160^^ How cute are the giant tortoises?! They can live to be between 120 and 150 years old, so you just know they’re super wise 😉

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_DSC8982^^ These bright red crabs against the black lava? Amazing.

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_DSC9084^^ Being in the water snorkeling was amazing, but watching sunsets from the back of the boat wasn’t too shabby, either.

_DSC9139^^ The sea lions would get so close to you! And our tour guide would say, “Just see what happens.” Animals on the islands are super curious, and because humans aren’t their predators here, they are just fearless. It’s pretty cool.

_DSC9169^^ A lava heron (which we concluded looked shockingly similar to a grumpy old man, no?!)

_DSC9207^^ A few minutes after this photo was taken this sea lion would take a big ole’ dump in the water while I was snorkeling, totally bringing me back to earth (and out of the water!) from the surreal moment I was having. See the one in the background, too? With his nose in the air? I always wondered what they were thinking when they did that. So cute!

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_DSC9418^^ The blue beaks on the red-footed boobies are simply beautiful.

_DSC9519^^ This was a view from Cero Dragon on Santa Cruz island.

_DSC9593^^ Penguins! Can you believe the Galapagos has penguins? What doesn’t this place have?

_DSC9632^^ Look at our cute little boat — oh how I miss it!

_DSC9729^^ Chris took this photo of me at Sullivan Bay on Santiago to demonstrate how far and wide the lava fields went. And our tour guide went barefoot on this! Poor Reuben — his feet were too big for standard Ecuadorian mens’ sizes, so he grew up not wearing shoes most of the time, and now his feet are tough as nails! (As was demonstrated on many, many, many occasions on this trip.)

_DSC9762^^ The site of one of our many, many snorkel adventures.

_DSC9813^^ “There’s a blue-footed booby on the rocks!” This was an inside joke amongst everyone on our boat, since we came to realize that we could listen carefully for Reuben to call out loudly when we were on hikes or outings and he spotted some wildlife he really wanted us to see. His enthusiasm was seriously contagious. You could tell he loved his job and loved the Galapagos and just wanted to teach us everything he could, and that was just the best.

_DSC9913^^ Pelican in flight.

_DSC9915^^ We took the dinghy’s out one morning to Black Turtle Cove and saw all manner of animals, from the blue-footed boobies above to this green turtle, to mating sea turtles to sting rays and sharks.

_DSC9925^^ Mating turtles, oh my!

_DSC9936^^ Shark!

_DSC9947^^ Four stingrays in a row, right in front of our boat.

Honestly, we took about a gazillion photos here friends, as I’m sure you can imagine, and culling them down into just a couple is really hard. But I think what I’ve included here gives you a good indication of what the Galapagos is like — and it’s simply a heaven on earth.

So after our five days on the boat we caught a flight back to Quito and Jorge dropped us back off at La Rabida for what turned out to be only a couple of hours, since our flight to Costa Rica was super early in the morning and we basically had to be picked up at 2 a.m. to check in and such.

We leave for Australia this Monday (ah, I can’t believe it!), but I’ll be sure to get my final South American post — Costa Rica! — up as soon as possible next week. So bis bald for now, my friends! I shall see you all again very soon!

Back to Machu Picchu, and the Hike That Practically Killed Me …

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Okay — to say that the 7-hour, 9.5.-mile hike we did of the Inca trail almost killed me would probably be a bit of an exaggeration … but let’s be honest friends — that schiz is hard! I honestly don’t know how people do the full, 4-day trek, with camping and stuff. They’re pretty awesome, that’s for sure!

After spending four days in Cusco getting acclimated to the altitude and checking out some of the other sites, we woke up around 6 a.m. on a Friday to head three hours on the train with our tour guide, Michael, to the spot on the Inca trail where we would be starting our trek.

Anyway, I have a ton of photos from this trek, and it was all hard — but at the end of it what I can seriously say is that I was so incredibly proud of both myself and Chris for having finished it (although let’s be honest — it was much harder for me than for Chris!)

Here’s a bit of what we saw on that hike:

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One little tale about the trek that I’d like to share was a sort of adorable one about my lunch. The night before we left it occurred to me that I should probably remind the B&B where we were staying (which was booked in conjunction with our entire Inca Trail/Machu Picchu hike) that I am a vegetarian, since they were packing our lunch for the next day. “Sure no problem!” they said.

Cut to our lunch on this intense hike the next day (you can probably see where I’m going with this). Our guide seemed really nervous about the lunch and kept saying, “Oh I really hope they packed your vegetarian!” He was eager for me to open my lunch so he could make sure it was the right stuff, and when I did he was so relieved. “Oh good, they did pack you a vegetarian!”

“Absolutely, looks great!” I assured him, even though what I was looking at was fried rice with ham.

It was really no biggie — I just ate around it. I figure in circumstances like this, when you’re traveling in different parts of the world and trying to be thoughtful of their own customs and traditions, it’s best to go with the flow as much as possible. Lucky for me, big pieces of ham are easy to eat around 😉

Anyway … after about seven hours of ups and (very few) downs and stairs and switchbacks, I was ready to be done! And thankfully we had quite the amazing payoff at the end of the hike, too:

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Not bad — am I right?! When you book the 2-day trek (at least when you book with Cusi Travel), what happens is you hike the Inca Trail all day, ending up at Machu Picchu late in the afternoon. You then take the bus (the crazy bus down the side of the hill where there is barely enough room for one vehicle, let alone the two that sometimes squeeze by each other!) down into Aguas Calientes — the town below Machu Picchu — to spend the night. We then got up super early the next morning to stand in line to catch the bus back to Machu Picchu for a tour with our guide, and we had decided to hike Huayna Picchu as well, so we’d be doing that without our guide around 10 a.m. the following day after our Inca Trail hike.

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A word now about the Huayna Picchu hike (before I share some of the absolutely stunning photos) — it’s terrifying. And when I saw terrifying, I mean terrifying! First off, it’s sometimes referred to as the “hike of death,” so you know, there’s that. See that tall-ass mountain that sticks straight up into the sky in the photo above? The one directly to the right of Machu Picchu. That is Huayna Picchu, my friends, and that is what we hiked the day after our Inca Trail hike. It’s 8,920 ft high, with barely any handrails or cover of any kind, and only 400 people are allowed to climb it every day in order to keep it from being too crowded. (If you want to learn more about the hike itself, if you’re considering it, I would read this, which has some really good info to prepare you before you decide either way.)

I’m going to be honest — I didn’t do any reading about the hike before we took it on. I had a friend who had done it a few years earlier and she recommended adding it to our Machu Picchu visit before our tour guide even recommended it to us (you have to sign up way in advance, since like I said before, only 400 people a day get to climb), so I took her lack of “Oh by the way it’s seriously scary and hard” conversation as proof that, you know, it wasn’t seriously scary or hard.

That was obviously my bad. (I will definitely be asking you for more info the next time you recommend anything travel related to me, Faye!)

Anyway, I’m now so incredibly glad that I didn’t do any reading about the hike ahead of time, because it may have scared me away from actually doing the hike, in which case I would have been robbed of an amazing feeling of accomplishment, not to mention these amazing, once-in-a-lifetime views:

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I mean … you can see why people chomp-at-the-bit and laugh at the potential of death to do this hike, right? Still — don’t say I didn’t warn ya!

And that, my friends, was pretty much our 2-day Macchu Picchu and Inca trail tour! Of course there is a ton that I’m leaving out about Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail itself (I mean we spent two full days at these places, so obviously there’s a lot to take in here), but if you’re interested in learning more about the amazing history of the place, I would suggest checking out this History Channel stuff about it, because they’ll do a much better job at describing it than I ever could hope to.

After Huayna Picchu, we caught the bus back into Aguas Calientes to grab a bite and do some shopping, then we caught the train back into Cusco to spend one last night at the Cusco B&B and in town before catching our flight to Ecuador early the next morning to start the second phase of our adventure — Quito, the Amazon and … drum roll please … the Galapagos Islands!

In honor of my favorite holiday, though (oh hey, Thanksgiving!), I’m going to go ahead and give the blog a break for the rest of the week. I’ll be back next week with the rest of our adventure, though — so for now everyone … enjoy your time with friends and family and loved ones on Thursday — I know I will!

Bis bald!

Hot Air Balloon Rides, Corn Mazes, Farms and Food in Albuquerque

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Welcome to my second day in Albuquerque, my friends, wherein I woke up supremely early to do something that I was in my heart of hearts really hoping I would get to do while I was here — a hot air balloon ride!

I rode with the Rainbow Ryders, and it was everything I had hoped it would be and (so much) more. Despite the fact that I was woefully unprepared for the frigid morning air (wear sweaters and coats and closed-toe shoes and scarves if you’re lucky enough to go on a ride!), the weather warmed up pretty quickly, especially since we were standing right under blasting fire for an hour once we started on our way …

_DSC6871^^ Have I mentioned yet that it’s almost Balloon Fiesta here in Albuquerque, wherein hundreds of thousands of people flock to the city to watch the world’s largest (I can’t back that up, but seems like it should be!) hot air balloon show? Anyway, the field where all of this will take place is where we all go to set up the balloons.

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_DSC6892^^ Ours was the first of our whole group to head into the air. What can I say — we’re overachievers 😉

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_DSC6906^^ These balloons get up to 10,000 feet above sea level …

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After the ride, we toasted with mimosas and muffins back in the Balloon Fiesta field, and they even gave us these cute certificates to take home. It was a truly Albuquerque-ian thing to do, and I’m so glad I got the chance.

After the ride (which starts at 6:15, but the way), I had a little time before my lunch meeting, so I took up one of the suggestions from the Albuquerque Convention & Visitor’s Bureau (who invited me out here, if you’ll remember) and visited Wagner’s Farmland Experience. Even the road out to the farm is picturesque, with little fruit stops and restaurants on the way, and the farm itself had some pretty spectacular views.

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_DSC7045^^ Who doesn’t love a good petting zoo?

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_DSC7054^^ The 2014 corn maze is up at Wagner’s right now and I thought … “What the heck? It can’t be that hard, right?” WRONG. I am seriously directionally challenged, my friends. Lucky for me a group of elementary school kids were tackling the maze and I followed them out of the thing. (Not without lots of confused looks and questions, though.) And a big shout out to my husband for trying to help me find the way out of the maze, from all the way back in Manhattan, using Google maps 🙂 I’m not sure if that’s cool or creepy …

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_DSC7065^^ The end of the maze led you out to a cute little pumpkin patch.

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So, once that adventure was over, it was back into the car to head to lunch at El Pinto, a spectacular New Mexican restaurant with an amazing outdoor garden and eating area (and even more amazing tequila, as I would come to find out).

_DSC7069^^ The house Margherita is anything but ordinary.

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_DSC7085^^ Look at that bar, my friends! They’ve got 160 types of tequila here!

_DSC7089^^ They even bottle personal tequila for patrons who can purchase it at the restaurant and keep it there for any time they come in.

_DSC7095^^ Oh, and by the way, a warehouse in the back makes 25,000 cans of salsa each day to distribute. This is their special version specifically for Balloon Fiesta weekend.

_DSC7097^^ And here was my tequila tasting. All in a day’s work, friends, all in a day’s work.

_DSC7104^^ After lunch I was taken to the back to see the warehouse and the garden, where the restaurant is starting to try to grown some of the foods that they’ll later prepare.

_DSC7110^^ Dessert was the restaurant’s version of a tiramisu, called Levante. It’s made with biscochitos, the traditional New Mexican cookie (they were declared so by the New Mexico Legislature in 1989, and were first introduced to Mexico by Spanish settlers who brought the recipe from Spain). This dessert was every bit as decadent as it looks, my friends.

After lunch I had stops at two breweries. The first was the Red Door Brewing Company, which actually just opened its doors about three weeks ago. Their cider was actually my favorite drink (that and the milk stout), and it actually has the highest alcohol content, as well. (Boy do I know how to pick ’em.) Since it was early when I got there (around 1:30), there weren’t too many other people around yet, but three cyclists came in about 15 minutes before I had to leave, and it was really great talking to them. One of the two men in the group was with the traveling tour of Wicked, which is in town now, and the two others were taking him around on their own, self-made Breaking Bad bike tour(Ummm, here’s where I admit that I’ve never watched the show. Sorry Albuquerque! Before I come back I promise to give it a go!)

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After Red Door I moved on to a brewery staple here in Albuquerque — Marble Brewery. This place had a nice patio outside where they bring live performers, too.

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While I’d love to say that I kept going strong after Marble Brewery, the truth is, friends, that this gal needed a little nap. Unfortunately that means that I’ll probably not get to make it out to the Nob Hill area of the city, which is disappointing. But I still have one more fun activity planned for tomorrow, so that leaves me with a bit of something to look forward to after what can only be described as an amazing, entertaining trip.

Dinner Wednesday night, by the way, was at Mas, the tapas restaurant right inside my hotel, and I was given a tour of the hotel as well, which turned out to be especially important since apparently I was seriously missing out on so many amazing facts about this place.

But let’s start with dinner. Hot gouda apple bake w/ crostini, patatas bravas (crispy fried potatoes w/spicy mayo), bruschetta de la boca (toasted bread w/ mushroom-manchego cream, fried egg & truffle oil) and grilled artichokes w/spanish goat cheese, orange zest and mint.

And those were our appetizers.

Dinner for me was the classic veggie paella – and absolutely everything was to. die. for.

And now a bit more about this amazing hotel. The hotel has been around since 1939, when Conrad Hilton completed it as his first New Mexican hotel for $700,000. At the time, it was the tallest building in New Mexico, and the first in all of New Mexico to have air conditioning.

In 1984 the building was placed on the National register of Historic Places, and after being purchased a few additional times, it was finally sold to Gary Goodman in 2005 and promptly shut down for four years for $30 million-worth of renovations. Despite the renovations, though, a lot of the original existing structure runs throughout the hotel, still.

_DSC7121^^ While Goodman originally envisioned this room directly across from the restaurant to be open as a sort of nightclub to the general public, he quickly realized that the general public didn’t necessarily mesh well with the upscale clientele staying at the hotel, and so now only private, ticketed events happen here.

_DSC7124^^ I know this isn’t the greatest photo, but please stick with me here. So one of the hotel staff currently working at Andaluz actually has worked at this hotel ever since it first opened its doors. When Goodman purchased the hotel in ’05, he turned to this staffer to learn more about what the place was like back in its heyday. During one of these conversations, he learned about a mural — this mural– that had been painted on one of the main walls as you enter the hotel and that had since been painted over. So he commissioned an artist to recreate the original painting from old photos. This is exactly as the photo was back when the hotel first opened, with the one small exception of the third figure’s ankle, which is slightly off the ground. The artist did this to leave his mark on his work, but otherwise the painting is an exact replica.

_DSC7126^^ These casbahs can be rented out and hotel guests can have dinner and drinks in them privately.

_DSC7128^^ So this wooden structure — which is actually much larger than this photo lets on — was originally commissioned to hang in the elevators, but didn’t pass fire code. So the panels were quickly removed and sent to the basement, where they spent many years until they were moved up to the main lobby for all to enjoy.

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_DSC7130^^ So I know this might seem like a mistaken photo of the floor, but it’s actually seriously cool! So back in the days when the hotel first opened, the reception area used to be where the casbahs are now situated. The bellman would stand in this one spot, because he had the perfect vantage point to see guests coming in from both entrances. And for this reason alone, that very spot is actually worn out in certain spots, and when you stand on it, you can feel the dipping where the bellman’s standing has worn out the tile. That’s pretty incredible, is it not?

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^^ The library is definitely one of my favorite rooms.
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^^ And this is Ibiza, the 2nd floor, outdoor rooftop bar for the hotel.

Which brings me to one final note about this awesome hotel — it’s sustainability. From their solar heated water systems and compost system to the building’s seriously advanced energy management system (the rooms literally use sensors to detect when a person is in the room or not and uses that to determine when lights/heat/air should be on and off), Andaluz is one of the greenest spots in Albuquerque hands down.

Alright friends — well that’s been the bulk of my trip, for sure. I head back to good ole’ NYC tomorrow after a quick pit stop at one more place. It’s been a whirlwind, but it’s been so much fun. It’s been real, Albuquerque … and I have a definite feeling you’ll be seeing me again some day!

Bis bald, friends!

Our Final Day in Iceland

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Last Monday was our last day in Iceland. (A tear.) We had had an absolutely amazing time up until then, what with making friends and seeing the Northern Lights and watching a geysir explode and eating some delicious food. But we had something on tap for Monday that, if I’m being completely honest, was high up on my list of reasons why I wanted to visit Iceland in the first place.

The Blue Lagoon.

Let me tell you a little bit about this place, my friends. According to their website, “the Blue Lagoon was accidentally formed in 1976 during operation at the nearby geothermal power plant. In the years that followed, people began to bathe in the unique water and apply the silica mud to their skin. Those with psoriasis noticed an incredible improvement in their condition. Over the years, the Blue Lagoon has been innovative in harnessing this gift of nature to develop different spa services and products. Today, Blue Lagoon is recognized as one of the wonders of the world.”

In other words, friends, the Blue Lagoon is straight up magic. The silky blue water is just warm enough that you never want to leave, but not so hot that you can’t stand bathing in it for hours on end. (We were there from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.) The silica mud — placed in little containers around the outskirts of the Lagoon that you can spoon out and spread on your body — makes your skin feel like perfection and gives you a glow that lasts for weeks for come. There is a swim-up bar with smoothies and wine and beer, a waterfall that you stand underneath whose pressure feels like the best shoulder massage you’ve ever had in your life, a steam and sauna room and so, so, so much more.

Oh, and it’s friggin’ beautiful …
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Photo 7^^ Us after spending four hours in that ridiculousness. See? Aren’t we resplendent 😉

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You can get lockers as part of your Blue Lagoon package (there are a bunch of different package options … we picked the cheapest one), and there is a space to store your luggage. The Blue Lagoon is about 20 minutes from the airport, and about a 40-45 minute ride from Reykjavik, making it the perfect activity either directly after arriving in Iceland or right before heading back home. You can book a package, like we did, that provides transportation to and from the airport and or your hotel.

A word to the wise when it comes to the Lagoon — this is no place for modesty, friends. Full showers are required both before entering the Lagoon and after, and this means sans bathing suit showering. Lots of naked people are gettin’ about in these Lagoon locker rooms, my friends, and there’s no use feeling awkward about it, because you’ll just be out of place. Another tip is to load your hair up with as much conditioner as possible — and leave it in, don’t wash it out — before heading into the water. Even so, you’ll probably end up leaving the Lagoon with a mess of mangled, salty hair, but it’s totally worth it.

And so that was about it. After four hours of relaxing in the Lagoon and the steam room, after smothering our bodies in what could only have been pounds and pounds of silica mud and after eating delicious smoothies, we headed back into the locker rooms to shower and dress and catch our bus to the airport to head home.

Iceland. Oh, Iceland. I had an idea of how amazing you were before I visited you … but I never in a million years could have imagined the impression you would leave.

If it’s within your ability to do so, I would highly recommend making the trip. Believe me … you’ll thank me later.

Bis bald, friends! A quick last-minute addition to my travel list for this year is a trip to Marathon Key with my bff for my birthday in early April. It’s a 10-day trip using her parents’ time share … and yes, I do believe I am one of the lucky ones.

Okay, now bis bald, friends!