Taha’a – Life’s a Beach

From Raiatea, we cruised a few kilometers across the strait in the evening to our next stop, the island of Taha’a and Motu Mahaea, an islet in the reef that surrounds Raiatea and Taha’a. What a great day this was! I had decided to take advantage of the morning cruise excursion, which was a “drift snorkel tour” on the northwestern side of Taha’a. For many passengers (and the rest of my family), they enjoyed the free day on Motu Mahaea, where the cruise line has a nice set-up — lounge chairs on the beach, kayaks, paddle boarding, beach games, snorkeling and swimming, in addition to a great BBQ lunch. I was able to join the rest of the my family on Motu Mahaea for the afternoon after the morning snorkel.

Drift Snorkel Tour

On our way out to our snorkel spot. Our guide was wearing a t-shirt map of Taha’a and Raiatea, very helpful to get our bearings. The island of Taha’a is in the background.

Our snorkel spot was on the northwestern reef of Taha’a, with a spectacular view of Bora Bora providing the backdrop. The channel has a strong current and you literally just drift along with the current taking in the underwater sights.

This was the channel in the reef where we snorkeled. There is a pretty strong current through here–from the ocean side into the protected lagoon (Bora Bora is in the distance).
We did three snorkel tours through this channel taking different routes.
Views of our snorkel tour using my GoPro knock-off camera — works pretty well!
Another snorkel view of the channel.
The abundance of coral and varieties of fish were amazing and beautiful.

There are a few resorts out here on this part of the reef of Taha’a, which would be a nice place to stay, and maybe a little less expensive than Bora Bora.

Motu Mahaea

After our great snorkel tour, we headed over to Motu Mahaea, to join many other passengers for an afternoon BBQ and fun on the beach.

A view of Motu Mahaea as we arrived. Nothing like your own private play island in French Polynesia!
Cruise passengers enjoying a kayak, with our cruise ship anchored in the background.
The facilities on Motu Mahaea were very nice, and you can’t beat the setting!
After our day in Taha’a and Motu Mahaea, we set sail for Bora Bora (my in-laws enjoying the view as we got underway).

The sunset highlights the beautiful coastline of Taha’a.
One more evening view of the gorgeous island of Taha’a.
Leaving Taha’a – I really loved this evening shot showing the difference between the open sea and the calmness and protection that the reef provides.

Raiatea – the Birthplace of Polynesia

After Moorea, our next stop was Raiatea. Although it is the second largest island (of the Society Islands) and home to the “second largest city” in French Polynesia, the island is blissfully undeveloped. Waking up early and walking out onto the deck as we sailed along the coast of the island and into the port of Uturoa was the way I’d love to start every day! (More information below about Raiatea’s significance to the history and exploration of Polynesia).

My wife Robyn taking in the beautiful coastline of Raitea as we arrive for another day in paradise.
Coming in to Uturoa, on Raiatea.
Our cruise ship, Windstar (on the left), docked in Uturoa.

Geographically, Raiatea shares the same lagoon with Taha’a (our next stop) and both islands are close to Bora Bora.

Raiatea was one stop where we decide to “wing it” from a tour standpoint. We got off the ship, found a small tour desk and eventually we were able to secure a guide who gave us a fabulous tour of the island.

Our tour guide explains the growing of breadfruit and other crops on Raiatea.
Breadfruit, not my favorite fruit!
Raiatea has the only navigable river in French Polynesia – one of the cruise ship tours takes kayaks on the river for a few kilometers.

Raiatea has significant cultural and spiritual importance to the native population because it is the geographical center of eastern Polynesisa (a triangle can be formed between New Zealand, Raiatea and Hawaii), and it is considered the ancestral homeland of the Maori people, most closely associated with New Zealand. A traditional name for the island is Havai’i, which sounds very similar to Hawai’i, which also has a close link anciently to Raiatea. It is believed that ancient Polynesians set out to explore the Pacific from this island. Learn more here.

Taputapuatea

We visited the sacred temple site of Taputapuatea, where our guide gave a great history and navigation lesson in the sand (taking a stick and drawing out symbols, maps, and terms in the packed sand). This sacred spot was the launch site for exploration and a worship center for Polynesians across the Pacific.

Some of our guide’s drawings in the sand – fascinating information on how the ancient Polynesians navigated on the ocean.
Our tour guide explaining the history at the thousand year-old Taputapuatea Marae.

We also visited the home of a friend of our guide (I’m sure everyone on the island knows each other). This gentleman was from San Francisco originally and has lived on Raiatea for many years, in a very simple fashion. His home was essentially a small wood framed structure with metal siding and swing out “windows”. He lives largely off the land with what he can produce. He offered us some lovely fruit dishes and we enjoyed visiting with him. Not a bad way to retire!

The gentleman whose home we visited is on the left, partially hidden by my mother-in-law.

Before heading back to our cruise ship, our guide took us to a pretty spot with a nice view of the southern part of the island, where he shared a little more about this wonderful slice of paradise.

View of the coral reef protecting the south shore of Raiatea.
Another view of the southern part of Raiatea.
One more view of Uturoa, Raiatea, as we depart in the evening.

Our next stop was just a few kilometers across the strait which separates Raiatea from Taha’a. Our next day was going to be all about playing in and enjoying the water – stay tuned!

The Island of Moorea – Does Life Get Any Better Than This?

There is often a debate of “should we go to Moorea or Bora Bora?” Let’s just say you can’t go wrong with either island – both are stunningly beautiful. Moorea has the advantage of being closer and easier to get to from Papeete, Tahiti. We left Papeete in the evening (see our first French Polynesia post for more information about our cruise) and sailed over to Moorea, just a short distance away (10 nautical miles or ~18 km). I could hardly wait for daylight the next morning to check out what is considered one of the most beautiful islands in the world. I wasn’t disappointed. Our ship anchored in Cook’s Bay, one of two main bays on the northern shore of Moorea.

Cook’s Bay from the deck of Wind Spirit.

We signed up for a 1/2 day photography tour with the cruise line, the idea being to make us great photographers – ha. The tour guide was from “mainland” France and living the dream in Moorea. We made 4 stops on this tour.

First Stop: North Shore Lookout

We drove up a very steep, narrow little ‘road’ to get to this lookout, and it was worth it.

Overlooking the entrance to Cook’s Bay.
Another view of Cook’s Bay (our cruise ship was just behind the nearest hill).
Overlooking the village of Pihaena and northern reefs of Moorea, just to the west of Cook’s Bay. The reefs provide the islands with protection from the constant pounding of the ocean waves.

2nd Stop: Belvedere Lookout

This is probably the most photographed spot on Moorea, with the stunning Mount Rotui in the background, and picturesque bays on either side of the mountain. This lookout is in the volcanic crater known as Opunohu Valley (the heart of the volcano that became island of Moorea).

A view from Belvedere Lookout, with our cruise ship in the distance in Cook’s Bay.
Another view from Belvedere Lookout, with Opunohu Bay on the west side of Mount Rotui, in the distance.

3rd Stop: Opunohu Valley

From Belvedere Lookout, we drove down into the Opunohu Valley, which has a very remote feel, with a few dirt roads and overgrown pineapple fields.

The Opunohu Valley, with fields of pineapple. From this spot, it would be easy to imagine that you are the only person on the island.

4th Stop: Vanilla Bean Plantation

One of the main cash crops in French Polynesia (more specifically the Society Islands) is vanilla. French vanilla is the world’s best, and learning how they grow these beans gives one an appreciation for why it is so expensive (and flavorful!). Most plantations are small and family-owned. The effort to grow vanilla beans is intense, and mountainous nature of these islands makes it hard to find suitable areas for growing this crop.

The vanilla beans are grown on stocks, not unlike pole green beans (the vanilla beans can be seen growing just to the right of the path). Each flower must be individually pollinated.

After our photography tour, we were able to spend the afternoon at leisure. One of the advantages of Windstar cruises is their swim platform and free water sports activities. We took out a couple kayaks and then I did some wakeboarding in Cook’s Bay! What a blast. Wakeboarding in Moorea – an experience I’ll always remember. Unfortunately I did not get pictures!

Robyn enjoying Cook’s Bay in a kayak. As is typical in the South Pacific, we had a little rain shower pass by while we were out–just adds to the adventure!

It wasn’t too sad for us leaving Moorea that evening, because we knew we were coming back after our cruise for a stay at the Hilton Moorea Resort, also located on the north shore. I’ll do a separate post on that part of the trip.

Leaving Moorea at sunset – on our way to another island adventure!

Here’s a 30-second video of our departure. Enjoy!

Our departure from Moorea, with a little Beach Boys music in the background!

Why We Chose a Cruise as a Way to See French Polynesia

My wife and I had wanted to visit French Polynesia for a long time – who hasn’t dreamed about this remote idyllic paradise as a place to spend a romantic vacation? Luckily, we made the trip just before the pandemic, and we’re so glad we were able to go. The challenge for us was how to visit – pick one island and stay at a resort? Or visit two islands? Do a cruise? Although cruising isn’t usually our first choice for a vacation (we prefer more independent travel – hence the name of this blog), cruising can be a great way to go for certain locations, and French Polynesia is one of them, especially if you want to see as many islands as possible and do so relatively economically. Air travel between the islands is expensive, as are the resorts (especially the over water guest rooms!).

There are only two major lines that cruise exclusively within the islands – Windstar and Paul Gauguin. It was a bit of a toss-up for us between the two, but we chose Windstar and we were very happy with our choice. Our particular ship provided a bit of an actual sailing experience – the four sails help propel the ship (in addition to diesel engines) and what we especially loved was the fact there were only 150 passengers. Paul Gauguin is more like a typical (although smaller) cruise line/ship that accommodates about 300 passengers.

The Wind Spirit, our home for seven days of cruising in French Polynesia, at dock in Papeete, Tahiti.

Because the ship is small, by the end of the cruise you at least recognize most of your fellow travelers and have become friends with some of them – through participating in some of the same sightseeing tours and onboard activities. With fewer passengers the port stops and embarkations don’t seem overrun and it’s more like a large family reunion on shore and at dinner as well as for the entertainment. The crew is also very friendly. Early one morning while at anchor in a beautiful bay in Moorea I went up to the bridge and had a casual conversation with the Executive Officer – he showed me the bridge controls and gave some great insights about his experience and cruising in the islands.

The Bridge of the Wind Spirit

One night they held a crew talent show and I have probably not laughed as much as during that show – some of the skits were hilarious! Most of the time onboard we just enjoyed sitting on the deck, watching the sea and islands and enjoying the fresh air. The ship also had a water sports deck, where you could borrow kayaks, snorkel gear and use a floating swim dock. They also had a small outboard motor boat that took us water skiing and wakeboarding simply at your request for free – I got to do both, and that was a blast! At the end of this post, I provide a few tips and comments about this beautiful country and Windstar cruises.

The aft deck and pool and hot tub on the Wind Spirit.

The staterooms were a reasonable size, the food was excellent, and there were just enough entertainment options on board to keep us occupied (if desired) without it feeling like we were at a Las Vegas casino hotel.

Our stateroom aboard the Wind Spirit.

Our cruise visited 5 islands (7 day cruise, see map below) and we decided to stay an extra few days afterwards on Moorea in an overwater bungalow–highly recommended (Hilton), and then we toured a bit of the island of Tahiti on our last day before our flight left for the mainland that evening.

Our cruise visited 5 islands, and gave us a good feel for this part of French Polynesia. The ship spent two nights in Bora Bora. Bora Bora is about 172 miles from Papeete. Moorea is only a ~30 minute ferry ride from Papeete.

Since our cruise started and ended in Papeete, Tahiti, I’ll show a few images of this island and city and in future posts we’ll cover the other islands we visited.

A view of Papeete, Tahiti.
A street scene in Papeete, Tahiti. Most roofs are made of corrugated metal, they probably hold up best in this tropical climate.
A big market in Papeete, Tahiti. Lots of local items available here, a good place to shop before heading home.
Our guide for our afternoon tour of Tahiti before we flew home, in front of the LDS Temple in Papeete.
Locals enjoying a Sunday afternoon at the beach near Papeete. The beaches on the north shore of Tahiti are black sand.
Another view of the north shore of Tahiti, a rugged and beautiful coast line.
On our short tour of the island of Tahiti, we visited some falls in the Fa’Aruma’i Valley, one of the falls is 300 feet high.
The Arahoho Blow Hole, near the Fa’Aruma’i Valley.
Another beach with surfers along the north shore of Tahiti.
Robyn overlooking the north shore of Tahiti. The island of Moorea is just barely visible on the horizon.

We’ll share more of the French Polynesian islands in future posts. Here are few tips and observations for visiting French Polynesia and cruising the islands:

  1. French Polynesia is not Hawai’i. Outside of Papeete (population of about 100,000), the towns on the islands are VERY small, and the islands (even Moorea) feel remote. While there are a few high-end resorts on several of the islands (especially Bora Bora), in general the islands are very quiet and rural. It’s not hard to imagine what life was like here a hundred years ago.
  2. This is the South Pacific – plan for rain, but mainly short bursts. We went in November, a shoulder season, and had great weather overall, with occasional cloudy skies and some showers. The ocean water was warm and very pleasant for water sports. Plan on diving or snorkeling. We saw lots of friendly sharks and rays.
  3. There are activities on board the ship, but they are limited, and there’s just one small shop. If you want 24/7 entertainment, this may not be the cruise for you. Personally, we enjoyed the quiet downtime.
  4. Arranging port tours. There is always a question in my mind as to whether to sign up for the cruise ship tours (which tend to be more expensive) or plan one on your own once you get off the ship at a port. We did some of both. Since these islands have small populations, we weren’t sure what the availability of tours/transportation would be when we got off the ship, and so we booked several tours ahead of time as part of the cruise. Don’t expect a ton of tour guides mobbing you as you get off the ship (we were actually ferried to shore in tenders at all stops), usually there was one little desk with a tour agent, and that was it! In Bora Bora we decided to wing a tour of the island, and had a great time doing a land tour and private boat tour of the lagoon (HIGHLY recommended – seeing the island from all sides was really great, and the water adventures as part of this tour were great too). In addition, I did a diving tour on Bora Bora as part of the cruise offering. I would say in general it made sense to book through Windstar for these islands.
  5. The French Polynesians are extremely friendly and relaxed, they take the tourism in stride and are rightly so very proud of their history and culture. There are ancient connections between the natives of Hawai’i, New Zealand and French Polynesia. Since this is an “overseas collectivity” of France (part of the French Republic), you do find some caucasian French citizens making their home here.
  6. English is widely spoken, along with Tahitian and French of course.
  7. Papeete is about an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles.

Post-Pandemic Travel: 3 Mistakes To Avoid

In this post our guest writer, Jesse Clark, provides some excellent tips and links to great advice for post-pandemic travel. Excellent suggestions for those getting ready to hit the road again! See her other posts here. More about Jesse below. 

Since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, people have been spending most of their time in or near their homes. Travel of any kind, especially nonessential, recreational travel like sightseeing and vacationing, was heavily frowned upon or outright prohibited until very recently when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a major policy change. Even if you were able to travel a bit, you likely found many attractions and accommodations either closed completely or operating at a nearly unrecognizable level.

As the nation’s vaccination figures rise and the number of new COVID-19 cases declines, travel is making its comeback. However, don’t expect everything to bounce back to the way it was immediately — or, in some cases, ever. The pandemic has inflicted some permanent changes on the way businesses and travelers operate, and some of those changes may be here to stay.

Go ahead and strap on that fanny pack. But before hitting the road or taking to the skies, The Independent Tourist gives you these three common mistakes to watch out for.

Mistake No. 1: Thinking There’s Only One Safe Way To Travel

Condé Nast Traveler points out that health experts and travel industry leaders alike have been debating for some time about which mode of transportation has the lowest COVID-19 risk for travelers. As it turns out, the safest travel method may depend on how far you’re traveling.

For a shorter trip of fewer than 500 miles, car travel is likely your best bet. On a road trip, most of your time is spent in a vehicle with just a few other people whose vaccination records are easy to verify. You’ll avoid spending hours at the airport being in close contact with hundreds or thousands of strangers who may or may not be vaccinated, and you won’t be seated inches away from a stranger who will share your airspace for the entire flight.

That said, car travel requires more frequent stops than air travel, and each stop means interacting with new people. Beyond a one-day trip — roughly 500 miles — the COVID-19 risks of all those necessary road trip stops begin to outweigh the risks of airport crowds. For longer trips, air travel is likely the safest choice.

Mistake No. 2: Choosing the Wrong Destinations

You may be itching to get back to your favorite beach or shopping mecca, but so are thousands of other people. Avoiding crowds is still critical to staying safe on your travels. Outdoor destinations, such as parks and campgrounds, are a safer choice than crowded resorts and hotels.

A surprising silver lining to the COVID-19 cloud is that, with international travel bans still in effect, there has never been a better time to visit some of the country’s most stunning national parks. These destinations are seeing smaller-than-normal crowds due to the absence of international tourists.

Mistake No. 3: Not Updating Your Tech Gear

In a post-pandemic world, expect to have your smartphone always glued to your hand. From navigating trails in the great outdoors to taking advantage of contact-free reservations and check-ins, your phone is more important than ever. If you need an upgrade, now’s the time. Because your smartphone will be everywhere you’re venturing, the risk of damage from the elements — rain, dirt, the sun — as well as drops increases, so you’ll want to invest in a rugged, durable screen protector to protect your lifeline. Many of today’s screen protectors go through extensive testing for things like scratches and impacts.

Also look into a good phone sanitizer to keep germs at bay. Noise-isolating headphones may help you remember to practice safe distancing, and a backup battery or power bank will keep you connected on the go.

While you’re no doubt excited to start traveling again, it’s important to prioritize your health and make smart choices to keep you and your travel companions safe on your adventures.

The Independent Tourist is your source for worldwide independent travel, a blog and guide written by an independent tourism enthusiast for independent tourists. Check us out today! theindependenttourist@gmail.com

Jesse Clark is a traveler, so she’s no stranger to experiencing wanderlust and that strong desire to travel. She’s already had enough experiences to last a lifetime, but she’s not stopping anytime soon.

Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Costa Rica – Pura Vida II

From Quepos & Manuel Antonio National Park (see Costa Rica – Pura Vida I), we drove (via a hired driver and car) to the town of La Fortuna, near Arenal Volcano, in north central Costa Rica. This ride took about 5 hours, although it’s only 135 miles (218 km). The roads are narrow, slow, and twisting through the mountainous countryside.

We arrived at our hotel in La Fortuna in the early afternoon, and the hotel very kindly helped us arrange the activities for our short stay. My wife, son and daughter were able to take a tour of a cocoa (chocolate) plantation that same afternoon, while I hit the hotel’s pool.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano Area1

The pool at our small hotel on the outskirts of La Fortuna. It felt good after a 5 hour drive!

My family couldn’t stop talking about the cocoa tour when they returned–they learned a lot and really enjoyed it. We all enjoyed the ground cocoa bean mix we brought back to the U.S, it made the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted.

The hotel helped us arrange an all-day tour for the following day, our only full day in La Fortuna. It was a good tour and covered a lot of ground. We did the following in our one day:

Hike

The first activity was a guided hike on lava flows near the base of Arenal volcano.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano Area9

This sign points out that the lava flow we hiked over happened in 1968.

Arenal Volcano, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Our hike through the lava fields with Arenal Volcano in the background.

We climbed through the lava fields and jungle-like vegetation, with some good views of the volcano and surrounding countryside, including Lake Arenal.

Lake Arenal, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Lake Arenal, from our hiking trail.

La Fortuna Falls

We then traveled to La Fortuna Falls, where we hiked down a steep hill (via a long wooden stairway) for about 1/3 of a mile to the base of the beautiful falls.

La Fortuna Falls, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

View of La Fortuna Falls at the start of the hike.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano Area La Fortuna Falls9

Reaching the base of La Fortuna Falls after a steep stairway down.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano Area La Fortuna Falls19

Another view of the base of La Fortuna Falls.

There were several natural pools when you can wade into the water and get a refreshing shower from the spray of the falls.

La Fortuna Falls,

Another beautiful pool near the base of La Fortuna Falls.

There are also some wooden platforms and benches for changing shoes and toweling off after a swim. At the entrance to the Falls there is a restaurant and small shop.

Hanging Bridges

After a very good lunch, we drove out to an extensive set of hanging bridges constructed through the jungle, again with some great views of the volcano, which dominates the landscape.

Costa Rica Arenal Volcano Area57

View of Arenal Volcano from the Hanging Bridges park.

Hanging Bridges, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

One of the hanging bridges.

Hanging Bridges, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

I love this image of the tree I took from the hanging bridges. The leaves look so intricate.

These bridges are suspended over some deep ravines. We learned about the local plant and animal life on this walk. As you wander on the trails and over bridges you wonder how many creatures’ eyes are following you!

Baldi Hot Springs

Visiting these hot springs was probably the highlight of the day. In this volcanic region, there are numerous hot springs, many with beautiful hotels/spas built in and around them.

Baldi Hot Springs, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Swim up bar at Baldi Hot Springs.

Baldi Hot Springs, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

One of the pools at Baldi Hot Springs. There are numerous pools that vary in temperature. We tried several of them, it would take half a day to try them all!

Baldi Hot Springs, La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Dusk descends on Baldi Hot Springs.

You also see areas along the rivers with hot springs where locals hang out without paying the high resort fees. We spent a couple hours enjoying the a series of pools (and fun slides!) and then indulged ourselves at a buffet dinner at the resort, before being picked up and transferred back to our hotel.

Although Baldi Hot Springs is beautiful, this particular hot spring/hotel was probably our 2nd choice, since we had only booked the day before and it was a holiday period (New Year’s). Our 1st choice, Tabacon, was fully booked. We won’t complain too much, Baldi was great.

It was a very enjoyable stay in La Fortuna. If I were to go back, I’d spend a few more days in this area, explore more of the hot springs and enjoying  ATV’s and other adventures. The next day we had a driver take us to San Jose, where we spent the afternoon/evening before flying back home the following day.

Costa Rica – Pura Vida, Part I

Note from The Independent Tourist: While tourist travel during this time of the coronavirus pandemic is unrealistic, I think we can safely assume that one day the virus will be under control and we can resume connecting with the world again via personal travel. In fact, there may be a pent-up demand for tourist travel once things settle down. Let’s use this downtime to do our part to protect our loved ones, reduce the spread and stay safe, while demonstrating our hope for a fun-filled travel future through continuing to learn about great destinations! 

After four great days in Guatemala, we flew to San Jose, Costa Rica. We had two primary destinations picked out for our few days in Costa Rica: Manuel Antonio National Park (near the Pacific coastal town of Quepos) and Arenal Volcano, near the town of La Fortuna, located in the interior of the country. These two spots were a perfect introduction to this beautiful part of Central America. Costa Rica has a very different feel than Guatemala, more “Hawaii-like”. Guatemala felt more like a ‘foreign’ country while Costa Rica felt more like the U.S. – lots of tourists, with many US expatriates living here. Costs in Costa Rica are generally higher than Guatemala too.

The town of Quepos is almost directly south of San Jose and on the map it doesn’t look very far – only about 80 km (50 miles) as the crow flies. But by car, you have to take a circuitous route of 163 km (101 miles) to get there. Most of Costa Rica is very mountainous with few fast or straight roads, therefore it takes a lot longer to get where you’re going than you might imagine. Our drive to Quepos was about 3 hours, with a couple of stops along the way.

Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Jaco Beach, about halfway between San Jose and Quepos, where the road drops out of the mountains and follows the beach to Quepos.

Also along the way we stopped at the famous Tarcoles Bridge, known for the crocodiles who gather here.

Tarcoles Bridge, Costa Rica

The view from Tarcoles Bridge. Those are some friendly crocodiles enjoying the sunny day in the river!

Costa Rica Tarcoles Bridge Crocodiles4

A bit closer view of the crocs.

Quepos

We arrived in Quepos and found our Airbnb house, just outside of town along the narrow and hilly coastal road that connects Quepos to Manuel Antonio National Park.

Costa Rica Quepos House 1 2

Our Air bnb house in Quepos. It was a great spot for our family to call home for a few days–two bedrooms, a large kitchen, living room and pool!

We did not have a car, so we either walked or used the local bus system to get back and forth from Quepos to Manuel Antonio Park. The bus worked great, it was $2 for each ride and a good option since there was little parking available along the narrow, hilly streets – cliffs or coast line on one side and mountains on the other.

Quepos, Costa Rica.

The town of Quepos, with lots of restaurants, shopping markets and tour offices.

Quepos, Costa Rica

A park in Quepos along the Pacific coastline.

Manuel Antonio National Park

The narrow stretch of road between Quepos and Manuel Antonio National Park is dotted with restaurants, boutique hotels or guesthouses, and shops. We had lunch at the famous El Avion, a restaurant that is built in and around a C-123 Fairchild Cargo plane–no one can tell you how it mysteriously ended up here, but it is a great conversation piece. There is a story posted near the plane about the scandalous 1980’s Nicaraguan Contra affair – and the smuggling of weapons and drugs. Perhaps this plane was involved? We may never know.

El Avion, Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

Inside the airplane is a bar, and the restaurant surrounds the plane, with great views of the coastline.

Costa Rica Quepos El Avion6

The El Avion bar inside the plane.

Costa Rica Quepos El Avion2 2

View of the Pacific Ocean from El Avion restaurant.

From the restaurant we made our way down to the Park and beach. The Park entrance is a bit tricky – they only allow so many people into the Park each day, no food may be brought in (they check you very carefully – I assume they don’t want you feeding the animals), and the Park (including beaches) closes at 4 pm (I have no idea why since it’s light until at least 7 pm). The Park is a nature preserve, with boardwalks through the jungle and posted information pointing out the flora and fauna and various jungle animals (we did get to see a sloth).

Costa Rica Beach Area Manuel Antonio2

Shops near the entrance to Manuel Antonio National Park; there are lots of restaurants near the beach for a sunset meal after a day in the water and sun.

Costa Rica Manuel Antonio Map

A very simplified map of Manuel Antonio Park – Quepos and El Avion would be to the left just off the map.

Playa Manuel Antonio Beach and Park, Costa Rica

Playa Manuel Antonio. A lovely beach that we got to enjoy for a couple hours before being chased out of the water and the Park at 4 pm by staff with loud whistles.

Playa Espadilla Sur, Manuel Antonio Park, Costa Rica

Playa Espadilla Sur, just on the opposite side of Playa Manuel Antonio. Since this beach is not in the Park, it’s open all day.

Other Activities in Quepos

In addition to the Park, we enjoyed a couple other activities in Quepos – jet skiing and a zipline adventure.

Costa Rica Jet Ski Tour8 2

Jet skiing off the coast near Quepos. The water was warm and we had a blast, as my son and daughter will tell you!

Zipline, Quepos, Costa Rica

We did a zipline adventure in the mountains near Quepos. It was a lot of fun.

Zipline, Costa Rica

My wife, Robyn, zipping across the jungle canopy. There were 7 segments, and some of them were over a half mile long – and fast!

Costa Rica Quepos Zipline Tour53

After the final segment, you get lowered to the ground via a harness – a great way to end the adventure. This was a half-day trip – they fed us a meal at the end and transported us back to our guest house.

As the Costa Ricans (or Ticos) say when greeting you, “Pura Vida!” – which means “simple life” or “pure life” – it’s way of describing the local attitude and laid-back way of being here. Life is pretty good in Costa Rica – let your troubles go and just enjoy the ride!

My next post will cover Arenal Volcano – another great adventure!

 

Images of Tikal National Park, Guatemala

In my previous post on Tikal, I explained the important details to help ensure a successful visit. In this post, I’ll share images of the beautiful ruins. The order of images below is in the approximate order of our visit over about 7 1/2 hours in one day. Tikal is a large park and it will take a full day to see most of the ruins. The ancient city covered about 25 square miles and only about 15% has been excavated, meaning there is far more out there than meets the eye.

Map of Tikal, Guatemala

Map of Tikal National Park, showing the proximity of the major sights to one another. You can reference this map with the images below for an idea of the layout and structures in the Park.

Gran Plaza

This is the focal point of a visit to Tikal, and the “postcard” view spot. You can climb up Temple II, for a view of Temple I and the Plaza, as shown below.

Gran Plaza, Acropolis Norte, Temple 1, Tikal, Guatemala

Gran Plaza, Acropolis Norte to the left, Temple 1 (Gran Jaguar) on the right.

Temple 1 (Gran Jaguar), Gran Plaza

Temple 1 (Gran Jaguar), Gran Plaza, in the early morning mist.

Temple II, Gran Plaza, from Acropolis Norte.

A framed view of Temple II, Gran Plaza, from Acropolis Norte. This temple can be climbed from a stairway on the back side.

Acropolis Central, Gran Plaza, Tikal, Guatemala

Acropolis Central. This acropolis is on the south side of the Gran Plaza.

Temple III

Hidden behind Temple II just to the west of the Gran Plaza is Temple III. It is hard to see it through the trees, you’re looking straight up trying to find it! Most of this temple is still covered with jungle foliage.

Temple III, Tikal, Guatemala

Temple III, just behind Temple II. Most of Temple III is unexcavated, making a photo difficult. It dates from 810 CE.

Plaza de los Siete Templos

This site is at the southwest side of the Park, and was very quiet during our visit. While the structures may be a bit less grand here, it was a fun area to explore with no other tourists in sight. This site gets its name from seven small temples at one end of the plaza. There are 3 ball courts here, which is unique in Mayan archeological sites.

Plaza de lost Siete Templos, Tikal, Guatemala

Plaza de los Siete Templos is a bit off the beaten path.

Plaza de los Siete Templos, Tikal, Guatemala

One of the structures in Plaza de los Siete Templos, in its more natural ruined state.

Mundo Perdido

Also tucked away in the southwest corner of the Park is Mundo Perdido, or “Lost Word”. It kind of feels like that. This was one of my favorite locations in Tikal, partially due to the remote setting with the huge temples and the views from the top of the Great Pyramid.

Great Pyramid, Mundo Perdido, Tikal, Guatemala

This structure, called the Great Pyramid, is the oldest in Tikal and is part of a complex called Mundo Perdido (Lost World). Great views from the top!

Tikal, Guatemala

View from the top of the Great Pyramid, Mundo Perdido. On the right are the tops of Temples I and II (the Gran Plaza), on the left is the top of Temple III.

Sloping Panel Temple, Tikal, Guatemala

This is the Sloping Panel Temple, also part of Mundo Perdido (Lost World).

Palacio de las Ventanas (Palace of the Windows)

Another spot a bit off the beaten path. If you like bats, you’ll find them here. This structure is between Mundo Perdido and Temple IV. You can climb into the structure, at least there were no signs indicating this wasn’t allowed.

Palacio de las Ventanas, Tikal, Guatemala

A bit of a hike up to the Palacio de las Ventanas – somewhat steep and slick.

Palacio de las Ventanas, Tikal, Guatemala

Another view of Palacio de las Ventanas.

Temple IV

Temple IV is at the far west end of the Park. You can climb it (via a wooden stairway) for a view of the surrounding structures in the Park.

Temple IV, Tikal, Guatemala

This is Temple IV, it is extremely difficult to get a picture of, due to thick jungle growth all around it. It is the tallest temple in Tikal at 70 meters (230 ft).

North Zone, Complex “P”

We visited Complex “P” after Temple IV. It was a 20-25 minute walk. This complex is on the northern edge of the Park, and once again it was very quiet, I think we were the only tourists out here at the time.

North Zone, Complex "P", Tikal, Guatemala

These temples are part of the North Zone, Complex “P”.

North Zone, Complex P, Tikal, Guatemala

Another view of Complex “P” in the North Zone.

North Zone, Complex "Q", Tikal, Guatemala

Also part of the North Zone, Complex “Q”. Complex Q is closer to the Gran Plaza and therefore had more visitors. Note the stelae in front of the structures (the upright stones and circular altars) – their function is unclear, but they might have been used in worship rituals or commemorating various important events. Note: the map I have names these structures “Complex O” but the sign in the Park called these “Complex Q”).

Temple V

Temple V is on the south side of the Gran Plaza in its own little corner. On the signpost at this temple, it shows some photos of the excavation process – what a lot of work!

Temple V, Tikal, Guatemala

This is Temple V, it is 57 meters (187 feet) high, and dates from 650 CE.

Plaza Este y Mercado

Plaza Este y Mercado, Tikal, Guatemala

The Plaza Este y Mercado is located just to the southeast of the Gran Plaza. As its name implies, this must have been a commercial or shopping area.

Palacio de las Acanaladuras

Palacio de las Acanaladuras, Tikal, Guatemala

The Palacio de las Acanaladuras was a residential area. It is located about halfway from the Gran Plaza to Temple VI

Temple VI

Probably the most remote ruin in the Tikal visitor circuit, it’s a good temple to see on your way out, since it’s at the southeast end of the Park, and from here it’s a straight shot back to the main entrance.

Temple VI, Tikal, Guatemala

This is the back side of Temple VI. Although very hard to see, there are hieroglyphs on the upper part of this side, the most extensive amount found in Tikal to-date.

Temple VI, Tikal, Guatemala

Front view of Temple VI, very hard to get a good photo of this temple also.

As shown above, there’s lots to see in Tikal. Plan for a full day, put on some comfortable shoes and have fun exploring this magnificent Mayan site, one of the grandest and largest in Central America.

Visiting Tikal, Guatemala – What You Need To Know to Have a Great Experience

If Guatemala is known for one tourist site, it would have to be the stunning Mesoamerican archeological site of Tikal. Tikal was “discovered” in 1848 and opened to tourism in 1955. Located in the northern part of Guatemala, near the Belize border, Tikal is just one of a number of archeological sites in the region, and if you can, I highly recommend allowing enough time to see at least one other site in addition to Tikal. In our case, that was Yaxha, which is gaining popularity with the tourist.

I hope to clarify a few things about a visit to Tikal below, which is a Guatemalan National Park. Prior to our visit, I found detailed information online lacking.  I will share more images of the entire site of Tikal in my next post.

Getting to Tikal

There are many ways to visit Tikal: 1) as a day trip from Guatemala City by air, 2) a day trip driving over from the country of Belize, or 3) using one of the towns near Tikal as a home base (such as Flores) after arriving by air, bus, or auto; or 4) staying near the Park itself. The problem with the first two options is that your time at Tikal is limited significantly by all the same-day travel, and you’ll be there at the peak time of the day with the tourist crowds. The problem with the fourth option is that you are severely limited in terms of restaurants, transportation, etc., since the Park is remote. The most popular option is #3, staying in Flores, and this is what I recommend. You’ll get a full day at the Tikal and you can visit other sites if desired before or after Tikal.

How Long Should We Plan for a Visit to Tikal?

This depends a bit on how much you want to see. We arrived at 7 am (about one hour after the official opening time), and kept moving all day long. Walking at a pretty good pace, we saw all the major temples, plazas and other complexes, had time for numerous photo opportunities, climbed multiple pyramids, stopped a couple times for cold drinks and snacks, waited out a short rainstorm, and made it back by around 2:30 pm to the designated pick up spot, so that was about 7.5 hours total. The overall site is huge, and it’s about a 20 minute walk from the pedestrian ticket entrance to Tikal’s Gran Plaza (“ground zero” for photo ops and tour groups). The Park is open 6 am to 6 pm, 365 days per year. For an additional separate fee, and with a guide, you can get into the Park as early as 4 am and leave as late as 7:30 pm for sunrises and sunsets, but in my opinion, these times and fees would not be worth it, most days it’s hazy or misty early in the morning in the jungle (see below).

Gran Plaza, Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal’s Gran Plaza in the early morning mist. There were just a handful of tourists at this time – about 7:30 am. (We came back later to take more pictures with bright blue skies).

For me, the 7.5 hour visit was about perfect. There were still a few structures we did not explore, but we saw the vast majority and far more than those on a day trip from Guatemala City or Belize would see.

Other points about the Park: a) It is well sign-posted with large maps and several covered break areas and restrooms.

Guatemala Tikal Ruins Park 1

Example of the maps in the Park, found at the rest areas. The maps show approximate time from point A to point B for each trail. The map also shows “usted está aquí” (“you are here”)!

Guatemala Tikal Ruins Park 2

One of the break/restroom areas at Tikal.

Guatemala Tikal Ruins Park 5

Typical sign posts along the trails.

There are signposts everywhere, so it would be hard to get lost, the main issue is determining your route based on how much time you have, and planning to get back to the main entrance in time for your return transportation. b) The distances on most maps look deceptive, it takes a bit longer to walk from temple group to temple group than you might think. The trails are a bit slippery due to the constant moisture/humidity.

Guatemala Tikal Ruins Park 3

This is one of the better trails in the the park, others are a bit rougher and narrower.

It helps to be in moderate physical condition, since you will be on your feet all day walking the trails, climbing up the pyramid staircases and dealing with the weather – even in winter (when we were there), it is still somewhat humid and warm, and we had a rain shower. The site is not wheelchair friendly, the only way to get around is on foot.

You can take a small backpack into the Park with water, snacks, umbrella, etc. There are a few places to buy drinks and light snacks inside the Park also. Official Park regulations can be found here.

Transportation and Entrance Fees/Procedures

We arranged transportation at our hotel in Flores, about 24 hours in advance. It appeared that our bus (which was a regular-sized tourist bus) was collecting groups from multiple small hotels all over Flores and it also stopped once or twice along the way to pick up tourists or guides from other small towns. We had to be ready to go at 4 am and the bus departed Flores around 4:30 am.

On the drive to Tikal, the bus stopped at the main National Park vehicle entrance at 6 am where you buy your Park entrance ticket. You must have cash (US dollars or local “Q” -short for Quetzal) in exact amounts, and have your passport with you (at the time of our visit it was 150 Q per person, or about $22). You can check on the latest entrance fee amounts at the site listed above (see official Park regulations). This whole process took about 30 minutes for all of the passengers on the bus. We got back on the bus and then drove another 20 minutes or so into the Park (it’s big!), and then we were dropped off at a central location where the various tour groups connected with their guides and got organized. We then made our way to the pedestrian entrance, which is another 5-10 minute walk from where the bus drops you off. Speaking of tour guides, I rarely use them, unless absolutely required. The map we bought at the pedestrian entrance gave us the basics about each temple group, plus there are signs at most major sights too.

Guatemala Tikal Ruins Temple 3 1

These signs (in Spanish and English) are at most major temples or complexes, making it easy to learn what you want right there.

Let’s be honest, not all that much is known about Mesoamerican archeology or history, so the tour guide’s information is going to be limited anyway and will just slow down your visit.

You must hang on to your bus ticket (do not lose it!), and then catch one of several buses going back to Flores in the afternoon. It’s better to be ready for the return trip to Flores a bit early (like around 2:30 pm for a 3 pm departure). I noticed tourists were getting a little antsy that the buses were filling up at the end of the day (3 pm was the designated time when the last bus would take off for the normal day), and it appeared there were more people than seats, but the transportation company commandeered a couple other vans to transport tourists back to Flores. The ride back took about 1.5 + hours, including a stop at the airport to drop those off who had flown in that morning and a drop or two for other guests staying somewhere other than Flores. We got back to the hotel in time to have dinner before heading to the airport for the flight back to Guatemala City that evening.

Show Respect

Finally, please don’t be the “ugly American” tourist (regardless where you are from). Obey signs (i.e. don’t climb where you’re not supposed to), don’t litter, don’t be rude to the Park staff or other tourists. I hate when I read about tourists causing problems at popular tourist sites–e.g. going to jail because they have to climb to the top of the Pyramids of Giza, Egypt for the best Instagram image. These sights are sacred to the local population and need to be treated accordingly. We are guests in their country. The last thing we want as global explorers is to have sights become more restrictive because of a few dumb acts by thoughtless people. Enough said!

In my next post, I will share a photo tour of the main sights within Tikal.

 

 

 

 

How to Save Money on Your Next Vacation

In this post our guest writer, Jesse Clark, provides some excellent tips and links to great money-saving resources for travel. Saving a bit here and there can really add up and allow you to visit even more great destinations! Her bio information is below. 

We all love going on vacation, but few of us actually love the effort that goes into organizing one. Planning for a trip can be a constant headache when you’re trying to scour for the best deals possible and save money across the board. You want to hit everything on your to-do list in your destination city, but you don’t want to break the bank to get there. If you’re planning a trip on a budget, we’ve done some of the work for you! Here are some of our favorite ways to cut costs when arranging your next vacation.

Book a Room with a Kitchenette

An easy way to save money when traveling is to forgo eating out for every meal and instead cook at home. Book a hotel room or vacation rental that offers a refrigerator, microwave, and maybe even a stovetop. You’ll be able to save plenty of money by cooking your own food instead of going to restaurants or ordering room service. Carry snacks with you when you’re out and about so you can eat a little throughout the day. Not only will you be less hungry overall, but you’ll also have the energy you need to enjoy all the activities. A win-win for everyone.

Consider an AirBnB

Hotel rooms are great for single travelers or for couples, but when traveling as a family or with small children, it’s often more economical to look to rentals through sites like Airbnb or HomeAway. With these websites, you can rent an entire house, apartment, cabin, or vacation home complete with a full kitchen, separate bedrooms, and an outdoor space. You’ll usually have more room for a cheaper price than a standard hotel room. Be sure to read the reviews under each listing to get an idea of what the space is like and how easy the host is to communicate with, in case you encounter any problems during your stay.

Be Flexible with Flying

Plane ticket prices eat into a huge chunk of anyone’s vacation budget, but there are only so many ways you can save money there. One of the best ways is to just be flexible with your travel dates. Tickets are cheaper during the week than on the weekends, so if you plan your trip to avoid flying on Saturday or Sunday, you could save a few hundred dollars. Likewise, being open to flying at less opportune times of the day, like early in the morning or late at night, can save you in the long run, as well.

Look for Deals with Enterprise

If you need a rental car on your next trip, look no further than Enterprise. This agency is the largest rental car company in the world, with thousands of cars in circulation and more than 7,000 locations around the world. Chances are good you’ll be able to find an Enterprise location near wherever you’re heading, and it’s highly probable you can find an excellent deal on a rental. Search online for Enterprise coupons and promotional codes for an even better deal!

Avoid the Tourist Traps

It’s easy to stick with touristy activities when you’re on vacation, but try to stray off the beaten path so have a chance to see more and maybe save some money. Many restaurants and attractions geared toward tourists are overpriced on purpose. Check out a few of these sites, but don’t be afraid to ask around for places the locals recommend. This gives you a better feel for the area and could even point you toward an incredible experience.

Traveling is all about immersing yourself in new experiences, cultures and opportunities. Getting hung up on your budget can be a drag. By digging around for deals and taking a different approach with your vacation, you could save money and still have the time of your life.

Jesse Clark is a traveler, so she’s no stranger to experiencing wanderlust and that strong desire to travel. She’s already had enough experiences to last a lifetime, but she’s not stopping anytime soon. Find out more and contact her through soulful-travel.com.