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:


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.

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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.

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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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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 


Exploring the town of Flores and Yaxha Archeological Site, Guatemala

After our day trip to Antigua and Iximche, we flew early the next morning to Flores, Guatemala (Mundo Maya Airport), a great home base for visiting the stellar Mayan archeological sites of Yaxha and Tikal, and other more remote sites if you have the time.

The flight to Flores from Guatemala City was short, less than one hour. From the small Mundo Maya airport, it is only a 5-10 minute drive to the town of Flores.

Guatemala plane to Tikal

Our tiny plane for the trip to Flores from Guatemala City.



The main town of Flores is situated on a small island in Lake Petén Itzá, connected by a causeway to the mainland.

Flores, Guatemala

View of Lake Petén Itzá from the town of Flores.

We stayed in Flores where there are a number of boutique hotels along with restaurants that cater to the tourist crowd. You can walk across the island town in about 15 minutes.

Flores, Guatemala

Street scene in Flores.

Guatemala Flores Town1

Our hotel in Flores. It had a nice atrium and breakfast veranda overlooking Lake Petén Itzá from the rear of the hotel.

Since we arrived at our hotel around 8:30 am, our room wasn’t ready yet and so we had a leisurely breakfast and then asked the hotel staff to arrange a tour to Yaxha for that afternoon (and for Tikal the next day), giving us some time to wander the town and prepare for the long (but enjoyable) afternoon/evening ahead.

Yaxha Archeological Site

I am so glad we took the time to see Yaxha our first afternoon before going to Tikal the following day, there is quite a bit to see here and it’s relatively quiet from a tourist standpoint – it felt a bit off the beaten path. Yaxha is growing in popularity, but still does not receive near the visitors that its more famous neighbor does. We were in a mini van with perhaps 10 other tourists. The road to Yaxha was not paved and very rough in spots. In fact, at one point the van could not make it up a hill (due to slick mud) and several passengers had to get out and walk while the driver made a couple more attempts to climb the hill, which he was finally able to do. At the parking lot in Yaxha, we saw just a handful of other tourist vans. The drive from Flores took about 1.5 hours, mainly due to the rough dirt “road” to the site after turning off the main road. This Wikipedia site give some good information on Yaxha, including a map of archeological sites in the Flores region.

The images below are in the approximate order of our visit to the main sites within Yaxha.

Minor Astronomy Complex, Yaxha, Guatemala

This structure is part of Yaxha’s Minor Astronomy Complex (also called Plaza C), near the parking lot.

Yaxha Juego de Pelota del Palacio, Guatemala

This site is known as Juego de Pelota del Palacio, or Palace Ball Game site. The ball court area sits behind this structure.

Yaxha Ruins Major Astronomy Complex, Guatemala

This unexcavated pyramid is part of the Major Astronomy Complex in Yaxha. From the top (called Mirador Lookout, using the stairway), you have a view of Lake Yaxha and some of the surrounding pyramids.

Plaza de las Sombras, Grupo Maler, Yaxha, Guatemala

Plaza de las Sombras, Grupo Maler, at Yaxha. This grouping was the farthest point in our exploration that afternoon, about 30 minutes walk from the parking lot.

Plaza de las Sombras, Grupo Maler, Yaxha, Guatemala

Another big temple structure at Plaza de las Sombras, Grupo Maler, Yaxha.

Acropolis North, Yaxha, Guatemala

You can climb one of the pyramids in Acropolis North, in the distance (called North Pyramid). There were numerous Howler monkeys in this area, and boy are they loud and scary sounding!

Acropolis North, Yaxha, Guatemala

Looking over the Acropolis North, from the North Pyramid. These are probably the most complete set of excavations in Yaxha.

Acropolis North, Yaxha, Guatemala

Another view within the Acropolis North, a huge pyramid on the east side of this complex.

After exploring the Acropolis North, it was time to make our way back to Las Manos Rojas pyramid, part of Acropolis East, to watch the sunset over Lake Yaxha. It is the highest spot in the archeological site.

Las Manos Rojas, Yaxha, Guatemala

The Las Manos Rojas (Red Hands) pyramid (also known as Structure 216), from which we watched a very peaceful sunset over Lake Yaxha. Our tour guide asked everyone to stop talking for about 15 minutes so we could enjoy a little quiet time as the sun set – a great idea.

Lake Yaxha sunset, Yaxha, Guatemala

The sun setting over Lake Yaxha, from the top of Las Manos Rojas pyramid. There is a stairway down to the lake if you wish to reach its shore.

We felt that a half day in Yaxha was sufficient, we were able to see everything we wanted to in that time and still have plenty of time to take photos and enjoy the evening quiet that comes over the remote jungle (once the Howler monkeys decide to go to bed!). Our entry tickets, transportation and tour guide all came together in one price. It was a long but perfect day (since our flight had left Guatemala City at 7 am and we didn’t get back to Flores until about 8 pm that evening). But what a way to spend one of our 4 precious days in Guatemala!



Iximche and Antigua – A Great Day Trip from Guatemala City

The two most popular tourist spots in Guatemala are undoubtedly the ruins of Tikal and the colonial town of Antigua. These locations were both on our itinerary, but we decided to combine a day trip to Antigua with a side trip to the ruins of Iximche as a “warm up” for Tikal. It was a great decision, not only to see Iximche itself, but to also enjoy the ride through the beautiful Guatemalan highlands.


Iximche sits at a higher altitude than Guatemala City, and the cooler temperatures were noticeable (Iximche is at 7,400 ft vs. Guatemala City at 4,900 ft). I was glad I had brought a jacket along (we visited at the end of December). Iximche is 56 miles from Guatemala City, but on the windy roads it took about 2 hours to get there.

Iximche was the capital of the “Late Postclassic Kaqchikel Maya kingdom from 1470 until its abandonment in 1524” according to Wikipedia. The Spanish conquistadors arrived around this time, as did Smallpox, which decimated the native population. The ruins were declared a national monument in 1960.

You won’t run into crowds here, Iximche does not receive a lot of “foreign” visitors, most are locals. We pretty much had the site to ourselves.

Model of Iximche, Guatemala.

A model of the city of Iximche at its peak in the late 1400’s. For the tourist, you enter the actual ruins at the lower left, and work your way to the far end of the display. only a few of the pyramid bases remain along with other foundations.

Guatemala Iximche2

An copy of Mayan text near the entrance. The long bars and small dots represent numbers or years.

Ball court, Iximche, Guatemala

A ball court at Ximche, a common feature of Mayan cities. The games were played with a rubber ball, no hands or feet could be used.

Other views of the ruins of Iximche:

Iximche, Guatemala

The central plaza area of Iximche.

Iximche, Guatemala City

The main structures here are known as Temples 1 and 2.

Iximche, Guatemala

Iximche, Guatemala

Iximche, Guatemala.

A ceremonial area at the far end of Iximche, still in use by the descendants of the ancient Mayan citizens .


From Iximche, we then drove on to Antigua. This is where most of the tourists hang out, both in terms of day trippers and overnight stays. Even cruise ships arrange day trips to Antigua from the Pacific Coast port of Puerto Quetzal, only 71 km or 44 miles away, about 1.5 hours by auto or bus. Antigua is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and was the capital of Spanish Guatemala back in the mid 16th century (it is considered Guatemala’s 3rd capital, Ximche being the first) and has an extensive amount of colonial architecture. It also is known for its setting, surrounded by steep volcanic peaks and close proximity to Guatemala City, only 40 km or 25 miles (plan about 1 hour by car).

Antigua, Guatemala

A view of Antigua from a hillside park. The city sits in a bowl beneath several volcanoes and has been the victim of volcanic eruptions and numerous earthquakes.

Santa Catalina Arch, Antigua, Guatemala

Antigua’s most famous landmark, Santa Catalina Arch. The arch was built in the late 1600’s and allowed nuns to walk over the street (convents were on both sides) without mingling with the public.

Antigua, Guatemala

Street scene in Antigua, with the brightly colored buildings and walls, and cobblestone streets.

Antigua, Guatemala

Another street scene in central Antigua.

Town square, Antigua, Guatemala

The main town square in Antigua.

Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala

Courtyard of the Casa Santo Domingo (aka Monasterio de Santo Domingo) in Antigua. This is a semi-ruined monastery that is now a hotel and destination wedding spot. Very cool place.

Casa Santo Domingo, Antigua, Guatemala

One of the chapels in Casa Santo Domingo.

On every corner in Antigua are interesting churches, some fully functional, but many in a state of ruin (some partially both!) due to numerous earthquakes over the centuries.

La Merced Church, Antigua, Guatemala

There are numerous beautiful churches in Antigua, this is the La Merced Church.

Church of San Francisco, Antigua, Guatemala

Early 18th century Church of San Francisco, Antigua. It is a pilgrimage site and has extensive ruins of a monastery next door.

Church of San Francisco, Antigua, Guatemala

Chapel of the Church of San Francisco, decorated at Christmas time.

Monastery, Church of San Francisco, Antigua, Guatemala

Ruins of the monastery at the Church of San Francisco, Antigua, Guatemala. The monastery was huge, there is a lot to see here, including some remaining large frescoes.

Antigua, Guatemala

Another church (known as El Carmen) in ruins in Antigua. How unfortunate, the decorative exterior must have been beautiful.

Antigua has surprises on every corner, it was fun to just wander the streets and see what we might find. Boutique shops, restaurants and fascinating sights abound.

Guatemala Antigua36

Papa Johns, Antigua, Guatemala

Of course you can find a Papa Johns in Antigua! (Better ingredients, better pizza!)

If you go to Guatemala, be sure to spend a little time in Antigua!

Four Days in Guatemala

We combined a visit to Guatemala with a few days in Costa Rica and therefore our time was at a premium in both of these fabulous countries. Here’s how we made the most of four days in Guatemala.

Day 1 – Guatemala City

You could argue that a precious day in Guatemala could be spent elsewhere. However, we were waiting for our daughter to fly into the country that morning and spending our first day in the city made sense based on our schedule. It also allowed us to see the “real” Guatemala – there wasn’t another tourist in sight in the capital city.  Since we were there right before Christmas, there was a lot going on in “Parque Central” (the main plaza) – live music, ice skating, and numerous clothing and food stalls. We enjoyed wandering around and taking in all the festivities.

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Ice skaters in the December 70 F degree weather in Guatemala City. Behind the skating rink is the National Palace of Culture, formerly the headquarters of the president of Guatemala, now a museum. All roads in the country originate from this spot, known as Parque Central.

Guatemala City, Guatemala.

One of the many tasty food stalls we saw during the Christmas celebrations in Guatemala City. We tried some good dishes!

Guatemala City, Guatemala

Wandering the colorful clothing shops set up near Parque Central in Guatemala City.

Guatemala City, Guatemala

A family strolling the main plaza in Guatemala City. The traditional women’s clothing is worn as everyday wear and is not just for “show”.

Guatemala City Cathedral, Guatemala City, Guatemala

Guatemala City Cathedral, which dates from 1783. It has suffered damage over the years from numerous earthquakes, but is still standing near the main plaza.

Guatemala City Cathedral 2

Nativity display in Guatemala City’s Cathedral.

Day 2 – Antigua and Iximche Ruins Day Trip

This was a very enjoyable and full day, we combined a visit to a small collection of ruins in Iximche (I’m a ruin junkie!) with a tour of the colonial town of Antigua. I felt an afternoon in Antigua was sufficient and splitting the day between the two sites worked out well.

Iximche, Guatemala

Ruins of Iximche. A small Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican archeological site and one of the closest to Guatemala City. Its heyday was in the late 15th century.

Antigua, Guatemala

View of the quaint Spanish colonial city of Antigua, Guatemala.

It was less than a 2 hour drive to the Iximche ruins from Guatemala City and then about 1.5 hrs from Iximche to Antigua and only about 45 minutes from Antigua back to Guatemala City. I will do a separate post with more detail on this day trip.

Day 3 – Fly to Flores and a Visit to Yaxha Ruins

We caught a 6 am flight from Guatemala City and arrived in the small town of Flores by 8 am or so. The town is on an island (connected to the mainland by a causeway) in Lake Peten Itza and made a great place to stay – lots of small hotels and close to Tikal and other Mesoamerican archeological sites, such as Yaxha. We wandered the town in the morning and then took a tour of Yaxha in the afternoon, which included taking in a beautiful sunset over Yaxha from the top of a temple.

Acropolis North ruins, Yaxha, Guatemala

My daughter and son in the Acropolis North ruins at Yaxha.

Lake Yaxha, Guatemala

Sunset over Lake Yaxha in the Yaxha archeological park.

A separate post on Yaxha will be forthcoming!

Day 4 – Visit Tikal Ruins and Fly to Guatemala City

This was very long but great day. We got on our tour bus in Flores at about 4:30 am and we were at the archeological park by 7 am. We exited the park around 3 pm.

Temple 5, Tikal, Guatemala

Temple 5 in Tikal.

We arrived back in Flores by about 5 pm, had dinner and then took a flight back to Guatemala City around 7:30 pm. We then flew out of Guatemala City early on Day 5, traveling to San Jose, Costa Rica. I will do a separate post on Tikal. (Posts on Costa Rica to follow Guatemala!)

With all of our flights into and out of Guatemala City, we stayed at the Courtyard Marriott, only about 15 minutes from the airport. The hotel is in a nice section of Guatemala City and there are good restaurants nearby. We found the Guatemalan people to be very friendly, kind and prompt. The food was excellent and prices were very good for most items. The weather in Guatemala City is lovely throughout the year and December was warm and pleasant with low humidity.

Kacao restaurant, Guatemala City, Guatemala

A fantastic dinner spread at the Kacao restuarant, near the Courtyard Marriott hotel, Guatemala City.


The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part II

There is so much to see in Milan, one post cannot cover it all. This post covers three churches that really are worth a visit (in addition to the Milan Cathedral), along with a couple other spots we enjoyed, shown at the end of the post.

Santa Maria delle Grazie – The Last Supper

This is a 15th century convent, and home of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (known in Italian as Cenacolo), one of his most famous works of art and unfortunately one that has not stood up well to the test of time, due to the experimental technique Leonardo used – painting on dry plaster rather than wet. The fresco started deteriorating almost immediately. Also, the church was bombed in World War II but amazingly the wall with this painting survived intact – thank goodness.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home of the Last Supper.

The Last Supper painting by Leonard da Vinci, Milan, Italy

The Last Supper (1495-1498) painting covers an entire end of the convent’s refectory (dining) room. Leonardo’s use of perspective gives the painting depth, almost like the scene is a continuation of the refectory. Some bright person decided to cut a doorway into the lower part of the painting back in 1652.

The Last Supper, Leonardo da Vinci, Milan, Italy

A closer view of the Last Supper – Jesus’ apostles asking “is it I?” when he announces one of them will betray him.

The Crucifixion, Giovanni Donato, Milan, Italy.

At the other end of the refectory is another painting, entitled the Crucifixion by Giovanni Donato, 1495. It does not receive near the attention of the Last Supper, but is another amazing work of art.

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent (which does not require any reservation or fee).

Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, Milan, Italy

It’s worth spending a few minutes wandering around the main chapel of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Convent, there are many other beautiful works of art here.

Note: You must have a reservation to see the Last Supper; we booked our tickets in March for a May trip. Reservations can only be made 60 days in advance, and a limited number of people are allowed to see the painting at one time (groups of 25 or so). The small group was great, because it did not feel crowded in the room, but you are only allowed 15 minutes in the refectory and then ushered out. The site to secure your tickets/reservations is here. The Convent is west of the Milan’s center, we took a metro train to the nearest stop and walked about 15 minutes to the Convent.

Leonardo da Vinci statue, Milan, Italy

This statue of Leonardo da Vinci is just north of Milan’s main piazza and Galleria Vittorio Emanuele. He was an artist, inventor, scientist, and so much more.

Sant’ Ambrogio (St. Ambrose)

This church is named after a 4th century bishop of Milan. I loved this old Church, which is a bit off the main tourist route. It’s ancient (the current 11th century structure is built on top of the original 4th century church), and houses a priceless 9th century altar decorated with gold, silver and precious stones.

Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Entrance to the 11th century Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio. There are Roman and Byzantine artifacts scattered around the covered porticos.

Altar, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

The 9th century altar in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio, decorated with gold, silver, gems and pearls. In World War II, it was transported to the Vatican for safekeeping.

Sarcophagus, Basilica Sant' Ambrogio, Milan, Italy

Near the amazing altar, a 4th century marble sarcophagus sits underneath the pulpit in the Basilica Sant’ Ambrogio.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

This monastery, which no longer serves as a church, is now a free art museum. The interior is stunning, and it would take weeks to absorb all the artwork.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Main chapel of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, Milan, Italy

Close up of a painting of the story of Noah’s Ark, in the Hall of the Nuns, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Sforza Castle

With everything else we were doing in our short time in Milan, we did not take the time to visit the interior of this castle which is now a museum. It is massive, and impressive from the exterior.The castle is just two metro stops northwest of the main piazza.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Exterior of Sforza Castle, with a dry moat.

Sforza Castle, Milan, Italy

Interior courtyard of Sforza Castle.

Milan’s Canals

If you really want to get off the beaten track, check out Milan’s canals. I didn’t even know that Milan had canals, but we discovered these in our exploration of Milan. No tourists out here, and we found a great little shop with a variety of Arancini (or Arancina) that we had to sample!

Canal, Milan, Italy

A canal in Milan. The canals are south of the central piazza about a mile or perhaps 1.5 miles. We enjoyed the walk through the less touristy part of Milan.

Arancini, Milan, Italy.

A shop with a tasty variety of arancini, they are breaded, deep-fried rice balls filled with a variety of items – meat, sauce, ham, cheese, etc. This fun food is originally from Sicily.

Milan Duomo, Italy

Visiting Milan, Italy – Part I

Milan feels a world apart from the other areas of northern Italy I’ve described in my most recent posts. The mountains, lakes and small villages of northern Italy seem a far away place when one is in Milan. Milan is to Italy what New York is to the U.S. – a center of fashion, business and finance. For the tourist, there is a lot to see, and Milan is worth a day or two for the tourist, before or after visiting the surrounding lakes and mountains. Listed below are just a few sights, I will cover others including the renown Last Supper fresco in “Visiting Milan, Italy Part II”.

A good place to start your visit is in the heart of Milan, at the Piazza del Duomo, home of the huge Milan Duomo (Cathedral) and the predecessor of today’s shopping malls – the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

Duomo (Cathedral)

This is the #1 tourist sight in Milan. The cathedral is huge – 514 feet long, 301 ft across. Highly recommended is a visit to the roof – you can walk on the roof among the forest of spires, statues, and gargoyle figures with great views of the surrounding Piazza and cityscape–almost like being the hunchback of Notre Dame! I can’t imagine how all the weight of the marble stone work (and people!) has been successfully supported for over 6 centuries! As shown in the images below, there’s lots to see above, below and in the main cathedral, so plan a couple hours for your visit to the Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

One of the many interesting figures on the roof of the Duomo.

Milan Duomo roof

The massiveness of the Duomo is felt as you wander through the archways and flying buttresses on the roof.

Milan Duomo

Getting up close and personal with the beautiful stone work on the roof of the Milan Duomo.

Milan Duomo, Italy

A view of the Piazza del Duomo from the roof of the Duomo, looking west. The entrance to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is to the right, under the short towers.

Milan Cathedral (Duomo)

Exterior view of the Milan Cathedral – it’s so large that it’s hard to get a good perspective on this marvel of engineering and art.

Milan Cathedral interior.

Interior of the Milan Cathedral – 52 pillars support the weight of the roof and expansive ceiling. The stained glass, statues, carvings and huge space all contribute to a feeling of awe.

Milan Catheral, Italy

Another interior view of the Milan Duomo. As can be seen, the restoration and upkeep work (with netting and scaffolding) on this size of building is never done.

San Bartolomeo, Milan Cathedral, Italy

A statue of San Bartolomeo (the apostle Bartholomew) with his own skin draped around him (legend says that his martyrdom was the result of his being skinned alive).

Milan Cathedral Museum, Italy

Your visit to the Duomo includes a visit to the interesting Duomo museum, well worth the time for a wander through. Some of the relics here are from ancient churches that existed on this spot prior to the present cathedral.

Milan Duomo Museum, Italy

Also in the Duomo Museum is a scale wooden model of the cathedral, used by the architects and engineers to build the actual cathedral. The model’s front facade is somewhat different from the final result.

Milan Cathedral Archeological museum, Italy

As is the case for many European cathedrals, the current Milan Duomo is built on top of earlier churches, and a visit below the current structure allows one to see excavations, such as this 4th century octagonal baptistry.


Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Located just a few steps from the Duomo, is perhaps the world’s first covered shopping mall – the Galleria Vittoria Emanuele II, this symbol of Milan dates back to 1865 (completed in 1878). The Galleria is named after Victor Emmanuel II, the first king of the united Kingdom of Italy (1861 – 1878). It has an expansive glass ceiling, mosaic floors and expensive shops and restaurants (and of course a McDonalds!), and the occasional model posing, since this is the fashion capital of Italy (if not the world!).

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy.

View of the interior of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II with its beautiful 19th century architecture and glass ceiling.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuelle II, Milan, Italy

A photo shoot in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, showing the mosaic floors along with this redhead model!


Street Scenes of Milan

Northeast of the Duomo is the where the high end shopping action is, and with the ‘guards’ at the store entrances, I didn’t even feel comfortable walking into the shops, plus in our travel clothes we felt a bit underdressed! The main ritzy shopping streets are Via Montenapoleone and Via Spiga. Bring your (fat) wallet and drive your McLaren up to the door and you’ll fit right in.

McLaren, Milan Italy.

Drive this little McLaren 720 S around Milan and you can park where you want while you do your shopping!

Milan, Italy Shopping

One of the window displays on Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

Another window display along Via Montenapoleone.

Milan Italy

This chocolate display looks very tasty!

MIlan Italy

For those of us with dreams but few Euros, you can be entertained by the street performers in Milan.

In my next post we’ll cover some other interesting sights in Milan, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper (Cenacolo).