Travel Guide

TRAVEL GUIDE: RIVIERA MAYA, MEXICO

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Stay.

30th birthdays are always a celebration, and this past weekend, I was able to embark on a trip to Riviera Maya, Mexico with a group of girlfriends to celebrate one of my college roommates 30th birthday.  Being that we live all over the US, it’s always a rare treat to be in the same city for multiple days.  And while I have been to Cozumel on a Carnival cruise, this was my first inland trip to Mexico.

Sidenote: Since this trip, I’ve added Cabo to my list, and it has become my favorite city to visit in Mexico. You can read about my trip to Cabo by clicking here or book your room at Secrets Los Cabos by clicking here.

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After reading reviews and perusing through several destinations and resorts in Mexico, we opted for the fairly new and renovated El Dorado Seaside Suites, an adult only, all-inclusive resort near Tulum.  From the private infinity pools, modern decor, expansive bathrooms in each suite to the swing bar and fancy restaurants, and 24 hours room service with bomb ass quesadillas, this resort was one of the better all-inclusives of which I have stayed.  In every building, guests were greeted with champagne, and the resort itself was just the right size for walking, if you didn’t want to wait on the shuttle.  The beach near our resort was still under construction, as much of this resort was built on coral reef (great for snorkeling, not so fun for distance swimming), however, the finished beach had a great bar and impeccable service that kept beach patrons with a fresh drink in their hands, even though I was drinking Mexican Cokes like water.  We were also connected to a nude beach, but due to time constraints, we didn’t make it over to that side.  Not saying I’m a nudist, but I am saying I might have went and took a little peeky peek.  And I can’t help but to mention the way that we walked into almost every club on the resort and took over the DJ booth and the dance floor.

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Note: Riviera Maya has become one of my favorite quick and cheap getaway destinations, and while El Dorado Seaside Suites was a great resort, I have fallen in love with the Secrets and Breathless chain of hotels. From the service to the amenities, you can’t go wrong with any AM Resort, and you can check prices and book your room directly from my website by clicking here.

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Play.

Similar to my planning for any trip, I set up a board on Pinterest and mapped out the must-see/must-do things in and near Riviera Maya.  Usually, I create a list and if it is too lengthy, I consult the locals on arrival to help narrow it down.  The list for this trip was fairly short though, as there were only 2 main attractions that kept popping up, Chichen Itza and Xcaret.  So, I shot my suggestions over to our group message, we voted, and the majority of the group decided to also purchase tickets to these attractions.  

Xcaret.

Xcaret.

Note: There are two other excursions that I highly recommend, especially if you are an adrenaline junkie, like myself. You can zip line, ride ATVS, and swim in a cenote at Extreme Adventure Eco Park or up the anti at Xplor with swimming in underground caves and driving amphibious vehicles through the jungle terrain.

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Since our arrival to the resort was marred with the news of the death of music icon, Prince, we spent most of it at the bar or in our private infinity pools swimming under the influence.  There’s nothing like being the bearer of bad news to the other vacationers that had been disconnected from the media, while coercing them into purple shots.  I mean, it was an all inclusive, drink to you can’t drink anymore.  And I must be honest and admit, I didn’t get to fully enjoy the grand splendor of our resort or our suite until the next day due to my level of alcohol consumption that first night. #RIPPrince

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For relaxation purposes, we decided to plan our excursions in the middle of our trip, leaving room for 2 resort days.  In hindsight though, I wish that we would have stayed an extra day or 2.  I feel like I didn’t get to enjoy enough of the resort, sober at least.  On our first excursion day, we embarked on a journey to Mexico’s premiere adventure park, Xcaret.  Now, let me be honest, in the same way that I kept referring Chi-ch-en Itza as Chicken Itza, in my mind, Xcaret was a water park.  Yeah, I mean water park like Splashtown or WaterWorld (if you’re from Houston and old enough to remember).  Yet, on arrival and entrance I quickly found out the meaning of “adventure-park.”  Xcaret offered everything from snorkeling, to swimming with dolphins and sharks, underwater fish watching, jaguar and puma exhibitions, cenote tours, a recreated Mayan city and Mexican cemetery, along with a host of other “adventurous” activities.  The way our sleep was set up, we didn’t get there until the afternoon, but it was easy to see how a whole day could be spent at Xcaret.  One of the highlights of the park is their award winning night show, Mexico Espectacular, which details Mexico’s history from Mayan times to today.  One of the most powerful parts of the show was seeing Mayan warriors being converted to Christianity.  While we were too tired  to enjoy the show in all of its glory, we realized the next day on our tour of Chichen Itza how many of the shows historical references we were able to connect to our tour.

Being that I graduated with a Bachelors in History and its on my bucket list to see the 7 Wonders of the World, Chichen Itza was a must see, even though there was much group debate about going to Tulum instead. However, after reading the reviews and debating life experiences, we chose Chichen.  I was leery of the trip, due to reviews from my brother about the long drive, however, we all packed good books and a couple of snacks and set out on our 12-hour excursion.  I’m convinced that I have a case of car narcolypse, so true to my fashion, I slept most of the way to Chichen Itza.

I’ve always had a sick fascination with gory historic events and unexplained phenomenons, and the visit to Chichen Itza combined components of both.  As the brutal sun took its time trying to convince us to strip out of our clothes and try our luck in the Sacred Cenote, we embarked on a tour of one of the most popular Mayan cities of all times.  From viewing Chichen Itza, and learning that it was actually a temple and calendar used to keep track of the days and seasons, viewing the sacrificial statues, the Wall of Skulls, their sports colosseum where participants fought to their deaths, literally and figuratively, to the Sacred Cenote, an underground river where humans dead and alive were sacrificed to the Mayan water God, Chaac, I can see why Chichen Itza it designated as a world heritage site. For 3000 years, a civilization thrived, only to be reduced to myth and speculation. Included in the tour to Chichen Itza, we also had the oppurtunity to wander through Valladolid to view the colonial landmarks and to have lunch and swim in one of the most famous cenotes, Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Ik Kil.

Chichen Itza.

Chichen Itza.

For those travelers that prefer a low key trip with shopping, purchasing souvenirs, and enjoying food outside of the resort, I definitely recommend heading to 5th Avenue in Playa del Carmen. Whether you’re in the market for some authentic Mexican vanilla to up the anti with your baked goods, perusing the racks at Zara and other high end shops, or bar hopping to find your favorite haunt, 5th Avenue is the place to be.

As the members of our college crew enter their 30s, I realize that it won’t be too long before our girls’ trips become family trips.  I’m cherishing each and every one of these moments, even though the family additions will be welcomed additions.

Valladolid.

Valladolid.

 Restaurant Highlight- Yo Amo Tacos

Let me first say, I might be the only Texan alive that doesn’t really like Mexican food, unless Taco Bell counts.  But I have started to dabble in rice and beans and love tacos.  Yo Amo Tacos, located on 5th Avenue, offered a large selection of tacos and authentic Mexican cuisine, and not one of our crew of 6 had any complaints.  Between the lively patrons and savory tacos, Yo Amo is a must visit the next time you’re near Playa Del Carmen.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: EAT, PLAY, STAY IN MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA

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When I first visited Jamaica for my 30th birthday, it was understood that the only thing I was concerned about was jumping down a waterfall or 2, drinking Red Stripes for breakfast, and eating oxtails in the city. Let’s just say, mission accomplished and exceeded in all of areas mentioned above. And while I was able to scratch those things off of my bucket list, I also walked away from Jamaica with a newfound respect for the culture, the people, and the land. My first trip to Jamaica was centered around Ocho Rios, because I’d always been advised it was the better option to the more touristy Montego Bay, however, when it came to finding a luxury all-inclusive room to accommodate three guests, the better options were in MoBay (the local name for Montego Bay).

Out of the group of 3, there was one Jamaica newbie, so in order to create a trip filled with new experiences for us all, I made sure to peruse blogs, Pinterest, and tour sites for the best off-resort excursions.

My only regret from this entire stay was not being able to stay longer. This trip was a reminder of everything that I loved about Jamaica, from the people to the food, and we even left with a new adopted uncle in the form of our driver, Dean. Our respect for Uncle Dean might have been the only thing that kept our party animal sides in check when the cocktails and shots started flowing like the water down Dunn’s River Falls while at Rick’s Cafe.

Here is my comprehensive guide to enjoying Montego Bay on your next visit to Jamaica.

Eat

It goes without saying that one of the best things in Jamaica, next to the people, is the food. On vacation, God removes gluttiny as a sin, and encourages you to eat as much as want, whenever you want. Well actually, I’m sure that I made that up, so don’t quote me at the pearly gates, but that’s definitely my rule of thumb. Just in case you’ve either been under a rock or are far removed from anything that resembles Jamaican culture, I’m listing some of the staples below:

  • Jerk Anything (but start with the chicken)

  • Oxtails

  • Rice and Peas

  • Beef Patties

  • Curry Goat

  • Coco Bread

  • Fried Plantains

  • Callaloo

  • Rum Cake

  • Rum Punch

  • Blue Mountain Coffee

There are to many traditional foods to name, but the list above should leave you off to a good start. And if you’re a lover of spice, try the Jamaican pepper sauce made with scotch bonnet peppers. Yum!

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The best place to try authentic Jamaican food is in town or by suggestion of the locals, so I’ve listed and linked some favorites below:

Scotchies

The Pork Pit

The Pelican Grill

And just in case, you decide to try your hand at making some jerk delicacies when you return back home, pick up these seasonings either in town or at the airport.

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Play

Since this was not my first trip to Jamaica, I had already knocked some of the popular touristy things out like Dunn’s River Falls and the Bob Marley tour in Nine Mile. You can read about those by clicking here. This trip we were torn between a day in Negril and a trip to Kingston for the extended Bob Marley tour, where Negril won by a hairline fracture (only because I wanted to cliff dive).

Negril is most famous for two things: Seven Mile Beach and Rick’s Cafe. Even though it took almost 2 hours to get there from our hotel in Trelawny, the day spent in Negril might have been one of the best days on vacation in my life. Seven Mile Beach is breathtaking, even though the hagglers can be overwhelming, but between the authentic jerk chicken and pork being grilled on the beach, that according to Uncle Dean is some of the best in all of Jamaica, and the free cream rum tasting at the gift shops, you can haggle me for my last $2 any day.

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And Rick’s Cafe. I really want to write a soliloquy about the romanticism of the sunset, the water that is an emerald blue like nothing I’ve seen yet on this planet, the DJ that must have a part time residency learning the hits in the States, the lobster that we ate like someone was going to steal it from us, and the rum punches and test tube shots that made cliff diving from the highest point seem like a good idea… But instead, I will just tell you, go to Ricks and thanks me later. And if you can swim, cliff dive. #TheEnd

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Sidenote: Imagine our surprise when Mike Epps walked in to enjoy Rick’s on a random Tuesday with the rest of us.

Our day in Negril was perfect, but there’s another excursion that I added onto the itinerary as a surprise to my girls for letting me drag them across the Caribbean more than once. Jamaica is one of only five places in the world that has a bioluminescent bay, which is essentially a body of water that lights up with millions of microorganisms to the touch. The only way that the glow of the water can be captured is with a specialized camera, so even our fancy new IPhones didn’t do the trick, but the sunset dip in the dark lagoon surrounded by glowing microorganisms was one pretty dope experience that will forever be committed to memory.

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Our tour to Luminous Lagoon can be found by clicking here, but for any other tour or transportation needs in and/or around the Montego Bay Area, I recommend my Uncle Dean. He’s a preferred driver for Riu properties, so if you’re staying at one of them, even better, but if not, he can be reached via What’s App at (1-876-394-1171). You can tell him that one of his nieces from Houston sent you.

Note: US Dollars are widely accepted in Jamaica preventing the dreaded currency exchange.

Stay

There are 2 things that determine whether a resort is perfect in my eyes, besides visual aesthetics, and those things are food and service. Melia Braco’s Village, almost 5 star overall customer reviews on Trip Advisor was solidified from the moment that we stepped foot on the resort.

Since we had been traveling since early morning, after dropping off our luggage, the only thing on our minds was the nearest place to fill our rumbling stomachs (and maybe grab a rum punch or 2). If you’ve been to multiple all-inclusive resorts, then you probably know that the lunch food by the pool can be either hit or miss, but let me tell you about my first meal. Imagine jerk snapper covered in sautéed greens, onions, and bell peppers before being grilled in a foil pack and served to your table hot and ready to enjoy. This was the first of many great meals, including hibachi good enough to put Benihana’s out of business.

Our resort was filled with many amenities, including it’s very own complimentary adventure park with zip-lining and an obstacle course. And let me not forget the many photographic areas, like this little hut that just screamed Jamaica.

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Confession: I’ve realized that I might need to start writing in some travel picture time into each day, because my camera is often replaced by a cocktail or plate of food within the first few hours of any trip. Hence, the lack of shots around the resort.

Would I recommend Melia Braco Village for your next trip to Jamaica? Yes, BUT that’s only if your sole purpose is enjoying the resort and the food. I could talk about the food, amenities, and great service all day, however, since our resort was situated in Trelawny, about 30-45 minutes outside of Montego Bay, cabs were pricey and hard to come by, preventing us from getting to enjoy the nightlife as much as we would have preferred on this trip.

On my next trip to Jamaica, I’m sure I will be staying at one the Secrets Resorts or Breathless, which can be booked directly from my website by clicking here.

Have you been to Jamaica? What were some of your favorite food and local spots?

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P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

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TRAVEL GUIDE: LAS VEGAS, NEVADA

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Las Vegas is a place that I try to visit at least twice a year, so when I found a RT flight for less than $100, I was super excited to enjoy a weekend of fun with my girls. And then, like 99% of Americans the winter of 2017-2018, I caught the flu, and since my flight and hotel were non-refundable, I packed a bag and my meds and still flew to Vegas.

Usually, I’m a party all night and wake up in the afternoon to do it all again the next day Vegas visitor, but being that I was technically on the sick and shut-in list, I had to get creative to still enjoy my trip. I recommend purchasing a Explorer Pass for discounts and/or entry to some of the most popular attractions. Below is my Vegas guide for those that won’t be spending their weekend in the club:

Visit the Bellagio.

The Bellagio fountains are one of the most popular tourist attractions on the strip, and as many times as I’ve watched the different shows, this is still one of my highlights each and every time that I am in Vegas.  The fountains come to life every 30 minutes, Monday through Saturday, from 3pm to 8pm, and every 15 minutes from 8pm to midnight.  On Sundays, the show starts at 11am and plays every 30 minutes until 7pm, and every 15 minutes from 7pm until midnight.  You can view the schedule by clicking here.

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Another one of my favorite attractions at the Bellagio is their conservatory and botanical garden.  Seasonally, the atrium in the Bellagio is transformed into a 14,000 square foot floral playground fit for one of the scenes in your favorite fairy tale.

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Eat, Eat, Eat.

In my opinion, Vegas is one of the foodie capitals of the world, especially if you know where to look.  One of my favorite hidden gems is Secret Pizza on the third floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel.  Don’t look for any signs to lead you to your destination, just ride the escalator up and look for the long line that appears out of a seemingly inconspicuous hallway. And according to one of my Vegas Uber drivers, the founding chef, Chris Vaughn, has been repeatedly ranked one of the top pizza chefs in the world.

Whether it’s pizza at Secret Pizza or black rice and oxtail risotto and fried chicken skins from Carson Kitchen, there are plenty of top notch restaurants located all over Las Vegas.

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See a show.

On my very first trip to Las Vegas, which seems like decades ago, my friends and I bought tickets to see Peepshow, starring Playboy’s own Holly Madison.  According to Wikipedia, the contract for this burlesque show expired in 2009, so you don’t have to do much math to figure out that was quite a while back.  However, since then I have seen everything from comedy shows to concerts, and I have yet to be disappointed.  Don’t judge me, but I still plan to spend the gazillion dollars to see Celine Dion perform at Caesar’s before her contract expires.

Take a Uber to Fremont St.

If your only Vegas experiences have taken place on the main strip, you have been depriving yourself and your wallet of the hidden gems of Fremont St.  Before the strip came into existence, Fremont St was the face of Las Vegas and home to the city’s first casinos.  And if gambling is your thing, trust me when I say that you have a much better chance of winning on Fremont St versus one of the fancy hotels on the main drag.  And thanks to the Fremont Experience, the already numerous bars and restaurants have been increased, you can zip line down the street, and did I mention that’s where you can find a light show on the world’s largest screen.

You can find all types of entertainment on Fremont St, from live music, to vendors selling custom goods, to …..

Stay in a 5-Star Hotel.

One of my guilty pleasures is my love for posh hotels with luxe amenities.  The best part about Las Vegas is that you can usually get great rates on 5-star hotels, since they know that they will just pick up your extra cash in the club, at the bar, or at one of the many slot machines or tables you have to walk by to enter and exit every hotel on the strip.

Go skydiving.

This still remains on my bucket list, but one day I will take the plunge, literally and figuratively, over the Grand Canyon on one of my Vegas stays. Click here for more information.

Go see the Hoover Dam and Grand Canyon.

Like a watercolor painting brought to life, the magnificent cliffs of the Grand Canyon loom, bold, brilliant, and beautiful.  For a split second, I forget about my fear of heights, until I take a peek over the edge of the nearest cliff, longing to see the plains below, or at least the muddy waters of the Colorado River.  Dizziness, nausea, and the fear of plunging over the edge, quickly send an alarming reminder.  As I let my camera be my eyes to capture the depths, I take in all the beauty.  If I ever questioned whether there was a God, the Grand Canyon sends a swift, yet powerful, reminder of the perfection of HIS creations.

Approximately three hours from the bustling Las Vegas strip stands this magnificent creation, formed by time and evolution.  Named one of the seven wonders of the natural world, visitors have the opportunity to view the various gorges from land, air, or water.  With a sanctity and tranquility guarded ferociously  by the Hualapai Indians, the only way to tour this mammoth site, is through the purchase of a tour either on location or from an outside vendor.

You can either book a tour to the West Rim or take the longer, more scenic view of the South Rim. For those that choose the West Rim, which is best for those with minimal time in their schedule, and the route that I chose, there’s even a brief stop at the Hoover Dam and optional paid access to the Skywalk. And for my adventure enthusiast, you can enhance your experience and view the Grand Canyon by helicopter and boat by clicking here.

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Shop.

It doesn’t matter if your taste and wallets are on a Forever 21 budget or a Chanel budget, there is plenty of shopping up and down the Vegas strip and an outlet not far away where you can shop until your credit cards stop swiping.

Ride a roller coaster.

Since I’m not a roller coaster enthusiast, but am more of a wait at the exit kind of gal, the only thing I can tell you about this horrifying experience is that it is located on top of the New York, New York hotel.  And for those of you that suffer from weak knees and self-diagnosed heart problems when it comes to mechanically engineered machines designed with drops and loops, there’s a cute little arcade where you can wait for your friends to finish defying death.  Issa “no” for me.

Visit Paris, Italy, and New York. 

Just in case your budget hasn’t extended past domestic travel, don’t worry, many of the hotels on the Vegas strip are fashioned after some of the world’s most beautiful cities.  You can visit Rome via Caesar’s Palace, Venice at the Venetian and the Palazzo, and Paris and New York at the hotels bearing their namesakes.  You can even take a gondola ride through the Venetian and Palazzo to really maximize your Italian experience.

Pose with your favorite celebrities at Madame Tussaud’s.

Did I ever tell y’all about that time I took a pic in the oval office while interning for President Obama?

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Get your Explorer City Pass by clicking here.

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: TIPS BEFORE THAILAND

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As with any trip, the best lessons are learned through trial and error. Below are some tips to help make your trip to Thailand as smooth as possible:

1) Trip Advisor is the traveler’s bible.

One lesson that I learned real fast in Phuket is that a 4 star hotel can be equivalent to a Motel 6 in the States. You may be planning on spending most of your time in the city or on the beach, but before you book a hotel at that great rate, check the reviews and make sure that you will have basic amenities like hot water, air conditioning, and wifi.

2) Be prepared for tummy troubles, just in case.

In all honesty, I was scared shitless, no pun intended, about my trip being ruined because I was sick to my stomach due to the horrible traveler tales I’ve heard from people that had visited before me. It is not uncommon for your body to have an adverse reaction to all of the rich and flavorful foods that Thailand and similar countries have to offer. In Bali, they even have a name for the phenomenon that occurs from eating their exotic foods, Bali Belly. We all know the old adage, you get what you pay for, so decide very wisely if that $2 US Pad Thai is worth the tummy troubles that might accompany it on the backend, pun intended.  Before I left Houston, I stocked up on Imodium, and everything else I could think of just in case. Happily, I didn’t get sick at all,  but if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.

3) Ladies, don’t leave home without toilet paper and hand sanitizer.

It was very American of me to think that toilet paper was standard in restrooms all across the world.  Let’s just say it took one hole in the ground restroom experience (yes, I mean a real, hole in the ground) for me to learn this lesson really fast.  Also, pay close attention to whether the restrooms that you use are toilet paper in or toilet paper out, as most of the drainage systems in Thailand were not set up to properly dissolve toilet paper.

4) Don’t lose your departure ticket.

You don’t need a Visa to visit Thailand, however, you will need the exit ticket you receive on arrival to be able to depart the country. I’m not sure what happens if you lose it, but I’m pretty sure it’s something that’s undesirable like a fee and/or extended security process.

5) If you want to play with elephants, visit a sanctuary versus a trekking camp.

By no means am I an animal activist, but there was something about seeing such mild animals chained to trees and beaten with sticks that prompted some additional research.

Even though I paid for Elephant Trekking as part of my package, I kindly opted out after doing my research and will make plans to visit the sanctuary in Shanghai instead where you can bathe, feed, and interact with elephants that have been rescued from trekking camps.

6) Don’t be afraid to negotiate with vendors.

I literally watched my friend buy a pair of Hay Ban (not Ray) sunglasses that started at 950 Baht and dropped down to 200. Your goal is not to commit highway robbery, but never go with the first price, especially since it’s not like you probably need the stuff you’re buying anyway.  The goal is not to scam the vendors out of making a dollar, but definitely, don’t let them scam you either.  The rule of thumb is that the real price for a street vendor item is usually 25-50% lower than the first price asked.

7) Don’t get scammed.

Even though there are some really nice people in Thailand, the honest truth is that most services come with a price.  When it comes to advice and finding cheaper pricing, check with your hotel or hostel, before you go with a random stranger on the street, especially if they are the ones offering.

8) Don’t drink the water.

I learned this tough lesson the tough way in Mexico, so I was already prepared by the time I reached Thailand. For the most part, most restaurants and your hotel will have bottled water, but just in case someone brings you a glass, kindly decline unless you want to be a victim of number 2.

9) Respect the customs.

In many of the temples and religious buildings, you may be required to cover certain parts of your body.  My advice, be like Nike, and “Just do it.”  I’m not going to lie, I was confused at the penis paraphernalia and sex propaganda on every corner with religious expectations on the next, however, my goal when I travel is to follow the rules and make it back home.  And while this was not something that affected me directly while on my trip to Phuket, I read various blogs and articles that stressed the importance of never touching a Thai person on their head, as it is deemed a sacred part of the body, or point your toes at a religious image, particularly of Buddha, or images of the King.

10) Enjoy your vacation.

I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this, but just in case, smile, unplug, and enjoy your vacay. You deserved it.

Read all about my trip to Thailand and things you must do by clicking here.

Be sure to read our blog on making the perfect itinerary here.

 P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

TRAVEL GUIDE: THE EUROPEAN TRAVELER

“Not all those who wander are lost.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

Even though I’ve always been an avid traveler, in the summer of 2015,  I decided to embark on an 18 day journey across Europe before the celebration of my 30th birthday.  You can read about how I planned my trip by clicking here. Below are some of my best memories and thoughts of each city.

London

I think I’ve found my new home away from home.  London was similar to big cities in “America”, but the people, food, and culture were absolutely amazing! From visiting Buckingham palace, to purchasing tea at Fortnum and Mason, to eating at Nandos (Rihanna’s favorite restaurant), London is a unique mix of the historic with the modern (and everyone speaks English).  Even though I flew through pounds like I had a press in my backpack,  I can’t wait to visit again.  And I’m sure it will be sooner rather than later.  One of the most memorable moments from London was being able to stand outside of the gate of the late Amy Winehouse’s home in Camden.  Amy will always remain one of my favs that gained her wings well before we were ready to see her go, and the tribute from her fans in front of her apartment touched my heart to its core.  I had intentions to see her recently released biopic in London before our departure, but unfortunately, time was not on our side. You can visit Stonehenge and Bath by clicking here.

Paris

Before the start of this trip, I knew that Paris would steal my heart, but it did nothing of the sort.  While the sights were breathtaking and the food delicious, the anti-American and anti-hygienic people of the city left a lot to be desired. From the rancid smells to the lack of participating English speaking French people, I’m not sure that Paris will make it back on my wanderlust list.  However, there was one highlight that made my trip to Paris well worth it.  Versailles.  As a Marie Antoinette fanatic, I was more than stoked to walk the halls of the historic, yet still breathtaking Versailles, even though we only had 30 minutes to navigate due to a time restricted tour and crowd at capacity.  I can’t wait to go back and revisit on a less crowded day and view it in all of its splendor.

Cognac

“Every cognac is a brandy, but not every brandy is a cognac.”

From the moment I discovered that all cognac comes from a small town outside of Paris (or else it is brandy and not cognac), I knew that this was one place that I had to visit.  And where Paris lacked in American enthusiasm, Cognac opened its warm arms and grasped a place in my heart.  Jayne, our experienced tour guide, arranged informative tours and cognac sampling at Courvoisier, Remy Martin, and Camus (Hennessy is closed for renovations), three of the world’s top 5 cognacs, and we embarked on a journey of cognac 101.  I’m not sure whether my extreme happiness at the end of this tour was dedicated to my cognac consumption or excitement in finally meeting some nice people in France, but I look forward to one day revisiting with my brothers and/or male counterpart. I recommend using Cognac Tours to arrange your ideal experience with a knowledgeable guide. You can tell them that Tonia from Texas sent you. And while I didn’t get a chance to visit Champagne country, this tour is definitely on my wish list, click here.

Venice

It was hot, and I got lost ALOT, but the food was amazing. And you can’t go to Venice without a gondola experience.

Florence

I think I’ve found my favorite European city thus far.  From the people, to discovering Tuscan steak, to the picturesque landscape and the natural beauty of structures that have survived the test of time, Florence stole my heart.  And while discussing Florence, I must talk about 2 noteworthy experiences.  On our first night in Florence, we partook in a lovely feast in the Tuscan hills.  This entire European trip has been filled with various tours from many different companies, but this one stole the show.  We were treated to a 4 course meal with 4 wine selections, and both the chef and host were extremely personable and entertaining.  Personally, I think that the host had been sipping some “vino” himself, but hey, what’s Italy without a little wine.  It was at this beautiful farmhouse in the hills that we discovered the Tuscan peoples love for steak and the beginning of the end for my delight in American cuisine.

Note: The Tuscan Dinner Experience that is described in this blog is no longer available, but you can click here to find a comparable option.

What this tour overcompensated for in good cheer and delicious cuisine, our second tour in Tuscany almost sent me packing.  Since every Chianti daytime wine tour was sold out, I found a tour that involved an easy-medium walk of Florence and included a wine tasting at an exclusive Tuscan villa in the hills.  When the tour guide showed up in full workout gear with us being the only three patrons, I should have known that we were in deep trouble.  We shall call this tour the “Death Walk.”  After hiking up 140 steps (no exaggeration) and up the Tuscan hills through winding roads that often required us to clutch the wall to prevent becoming road kill, we finally made it to the villa.  While the villa was just as beautiful as described and the wine and food pairing were superb,  we definitely caught a taxi back home.  Easy-medium walk my ass. You can click here to find an easier tour with a similar tasting and villa experience.

Rome

How does the old adage go?  When in Rome, do what the Romans do….  If that involves eating a lot of pizza, doing a lot of drinking, becoming a Gelato connessieur, and being one hell of a foot soldier, call me Roman.  There were so many architectural marvels in Rome, with the Colosseum being the one that stopped my heart.  Standing outside this majestic structure, I could hear the crowd cheers as the gladiators fought to their deaths.  Like really, I’m serious!  But even with all of the marvel that the Colosseum had to offer, I’m sure that my favorite would have been the Trevi Fountain.  And I say would have been, because of course, it is still under construction.  However, I still made my wish.  *shrugs

Colosseum.

Colosseum.

Vatican.

Vatican.

Pompeii

While our first day in Rome was spent sight seeing, day 2 was dedicated to seeing the ruins of the once glamorous city known as Pompeii.  I think that the only city that intrigues me more than Pompeii, would be the city of Atlantis (whether mythical or not).  Needless to say, our tour of Pompeii was not only informative, but hilarious.  Not only was Pompeii a city of fine architecture and riches, but also a city of brothels where gay sex was the norm.  And to think, our society likes to think that we are in the end of days.  The sins of man haven’t changed, just the way in which they are cloaked.  Let that sink in for a moment, it’s deep, I know.

Pompeii.

Pompeii.

Athens

Let me start off by saying, our stay in Athens was rough.  It is a shame that our stay in this marvel of a city had to be marred by a traveler’s worst nightmare… Lost luggage.  In the matter of a one way flight via Vueling Airlines, you can go from being best dressed to struggling choosing supermarket panties and deciding how to recycle today’s outfit for tomorrow.  I spent my first day in Athens trying to keep the group’s spirits up and trying not to succumb to the fear of our luggage being forever lost in oblivion.  However, we eventually sucked it up, hand washed our drawers, and handled it like some champs.

Since a day was wasted wallowing in our feelings, my time in Athens was minimal.  However, I did get to marvel at the city view from the top of the Acropolis (after almost sliding to my death due to the lack of grip on my converse and muscles in my legs) and find my favorite restaurant of the entire trip, Agora.  I’m not usually big on repeating restaurants, especially in a new city, but the staff and food was so good, that we made it a point to return the second night.  And the free fruit, ice cream, and shots at the end of each meal, only sealed the deal.

Click here for a half-day tour of Athens.

Let me not forget to add that we were also able to find some good deals on clothes at the mall in Athens.  Due to the $50s per day we were given for each day our luggage were lost, we were able to find some steals to hold us over for a few days.  I spent $100 and was able to replace most of my necessary toiletries and get 2 swimsuits, 2 pairs of sandals, 3 dresses, 2 shirts, and a skirt thanks to the end of summer/recession sale at H&M.  Won’t he do it!

#VuelingSucks

#VuelingSucks

Mykonos

If there was one place I wish I could have experienced in my early 20’s, it would have to be the Mykonos, my second favorite place of the entire trip.  The beaches were beautiful, the people were friendly, and the party scene rivaled anything I’ve encountered in the past 29 years (and I like to party).  From champagne showers to gorgeous Italian men that clearly liked black women, Mykonos owes me nothing (but a new liver).  If only for one city this trip, I was able to be my usual “free spirit with a wild heart” self and just live, live like no one was watching. We drank, we partied, and we drank some more.  And it was in Mykonos that we became one of the few Vueling customers to ever recover their lost luggage.  Perfect ending, right?

Crete


From the Mykonos, we traveled via ferry to the largest island in Greece, Crete.  While we arrived in Heraklion, I opted for our group to stay in a small village about 20 minutes from the city known as Archanes.  Crete was the portion of our trip where we could just let our hair down, rest our tired toes, and just chill and marvel in the beauty of our travels.  And that is exactly what we did.  Within 24 hours of arriving in Archanes, we had become one with the locals, including one of the only two taxi drivers, Katerina.  If you’re ever in Archanes and need a driver, call her (0030)6944-232224.

In Archanes, life takes place in the city’s square, which was a short trot down the hill from our residence house.  In the square, you could find your restaurants and bars and mingle with the city “folks.”  And at the end of each meal, they resumed the tradition of not allowing us to leave without enjoying complimentary shots, fresh fruit, and dessert.

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Michael and I.

Michael and I.

Santorini

I’ve always said that my perfect honeymoon destination was going to be Bora Bora… Well, that was before we took a day trip to Santorini.  Santorini was everything that every picture has every shown, and it was the epitome of the beauty of Greece and all of its marvels.  From the white buildings, to the blue beaches, to the rolling cliffs, my only regret is only being able to spend one day enjoying it’s beauty.

Instead of opting for a traditional tour, I was able to talk my traveling compadres into renting ATVS to tour the island like some bosses.  Until you’ve zipped through cliffs without barriers at high rates of speed without a map or care in the world, I’m going to venture to say maybe you haven’t lived.  Before this trip, I might have been the ride on an ATV behind her man kind of girl, but thanks to this trip, I’m now the get your own and meet my ass at the top kind of woman.  Hell of a difference….

Epic Fail.

Epic Fail.

End Notes


I started this 18 day “sabbatical” with a heavy heart and a wounded spirit with a slight vendetta with God.  So many doors have recently been closed in my face, without rhyme or reason, and I was beginning to doubt my purpose, or whether I even served a purpose.  I came to Europe looking for my muse…  the potion to heal my wounded heart and ego.  And I left with so much more… Not only did I find my muse, but a renewed lust for life, and a better understanding of why sometimes God has to make you uncomfortable to allow your true purpose to shine through.  I’m back focused, and all I can say is thank you God.  Thank you for the traveling grace, thank you for the trials, and thank you for putting me on the right track to finding myself.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: CHICAGO IN THE WINTER

It’s not a secret by now that Chicago is one of my favorite cities, if not my favorite city, in the States. Summertime Chi is enough to make you pack up your bags and relocate to the Windy City. But even though I’ve been to Chicago a handful of times, I had never been in the Winter, until I decided it would be a brilliant idea to bring in my NYE in this city notorious for its harsh winters with negative temperatures.

Let me first give this disclaimer, I’m from Texas. My winters usually involve days where shorts and sandals are appropriate, and even as I boarded my plane to head to temperatures slated to be at or around zero, I was only layered up to be prepared for disembarking from the plane. So, it’s not surprising that my conversation with my friend that’s a Chicago Native went something like this:

Me: Do I need to wear long johns and fleece tights at the same time?

Her: No.

Me: Are you going to help me decide the best way to tie my scarf?

Her: Yes.

Me: Do you think I need to go and get a ski mask?

Her: (I’m pretty sure this is probably where she slammed her hand to her forehead)

I’ve been to New York in the Winter, but that’s honestly where my experience with extreme cold weather temperatures comes to an end. And I can remember being so cold my first night in NY that I refused to leave the warmth of my cousin’s apartment. 110 degree weather, I have experience for days, but sleet and snow are outside of my realm of expertise.

There are a million ways to enjoy Chicago in the summertime. The weather is perfect, the festivals are in full swing, and the rooftop bars become every liquor connoisseurs playground. But what do you do when the temperature creeps into the negative, when it’s no longer fun to be an outdoor tourist, and when you’re in one of your favorite cities in the world?!?

Click here to get your Chicago City Pass for discounts to some of the most popular Chicago attractions.

Here is my list of 9 things to do in Chicago when the temperature tries to prevent you from living your best life:

Be festive. 

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years are my favorite holidays, making winter and fall my favorite seasons to indulge in holiday activities.  Whether you go to ZooLights at Lincoln Park Zoo, see a Charlie Brown Christmas at the Broadway Playhouse, or visit the Magnificent Mile Light Festival, there is plenty to do for holiday enthusiast like myself.

Eat like you’re trying to gain a layer of flubber.

When it comes to food, Chicago is one of my favorite cities to restaurant hop and live the foodie life. This trip, I had the opportunity to enjoy some of Chicago’s best food outside of the ritzy and touristy areas. From the beef tips that I enjoyed at Wiley’s to the fried hot polish from Maxwells , I know that I put on a extra four or five pounds during my trip. I will just say that I needed the extra weight to battle the freezing temperatures. You can venture out on your own or take a food tour.

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Go ice-skating. 

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See a show on Broadway. 

Warm up with a cup of steamy hot chocolate.

There’s nothing like enjoying a warm, steamy mug of hot cocoa to escape from the frigid temperatures. Get on Trip Advisor and find the nearest highly ranked carrier in your area and forget it’s windy and below zero.

Visit a Museum. 

While many tourists know to visit the Art Institute Museum, Chicago is home to many other museums like the Field Museum or Museum of Contemporary Art.  Get a Chicago Explorer pass and escape the frigid temperatures to stimulate your artistic creativity.

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Go to a sports game. 

Whether it’s the Chicago Bulls, Bears, Cubs, White Sox etc, Chicago is the perfect city for sports fans. And if you like hockey, don’t forget to go and visit the all-new Black Hawks stadium.

Take a self-led tour of filming locations.

There have been many popular movies and TV shows filmed in Chicago. Since I’m a Batman fanatic, this is right up my alley. You can click here to track down some of Chicago’s most popular shot locations.

Shop at the new Jordan store. 

Picture Courtesy of Chicago Tribune

P.S.  If you would like assistance booking your next trip, click here.


Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: PACK RIGHT, PACK LIGHT

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Sign up for my mailing list by clicking here to get your free packing list, discounts, updates, and much more to help your satisfy your wanderlust.

In April, a group of friends and I embarked on a trip to Mexico to celebrate the 30th birthday of one of my college roommates and closest friends.  As we organized our trip via group message, one of the questions that seemed to arise continuously were the packing necessities that would need to be brought along for our getaway.  Unlike many vacation destinations, all-inclusive resort trips are usually the easiest trips of which to pack.  Your day wear often becomes your night wear as you enjoy the many amenities the resort has to offer and the drinks that flow at the snap of a finger.  While I am usually very fashion conscious and prefer cocktail dresses to sundresses, I’ve learned my lesson about over packing when visiting the Carribean.  They say you can never be overdressed or overeducated, and while I agree with the latter, no one wants to be the girl at the resort club with the achy feet watching the other vacationers dance drunkenly in flip flops still coated in sand. Below are helpful tips to help you pack for your next all-inclusive vacation.

Travel Documents: Depending on your destination, make sure you have proper identification (passport, visa, etc) and travel documents required for boarding your plane, hotel check-in, excursions, etc.  Your internet access might be spotty, even if your resort says otherwise, so it’s best to have everything printed and readily available.

Clothing: Before you leave for an all-inclusive vacation, be sure and check the resort’s dining restrictions, as most of the finer resorts may have a dress code for their fine dining establishments.  Pack clothing items that fit these restrictions, and when possible, try to pack articles of clothing that will work for day and night.  Since most of your day will be spent soaking up the sun in swimwear, that maxi dress you packed to wear around the beach as a cover up that didn’t leave your beach bag can instead be carried over to dinner attire.  Pack light, pack right (unless you are a career fashionista or fashion blogger).  Since I’m someone that doesn’t like to be seen in the same swimsuit twice, below is my ideal clothing list for a 5 day, 4 night all-inclusive trip:

  • 4 Swimsuits

  • 2-4 Cover-Ups

  • 3 Dresses (These can  be substituted for non-shear cover-ups)

  • Sandals (Not Flip-Flops)

  • High-Heels

  • Sneakers (for workouts and/or excursions)

  • Pajamas

  • Undergarments

  • Excursion Outfit(s)

  • Workout Attire

  • Small Clutch or Swing Bag

  • Travel Outfit

Toiletries and Grooming: Let’s be honest. Most of your all-inclusive trip will be spent in or near water, and unless you plan on styling your hair everyday just to jump in the pool or swim on the beach, grooming supplies can be kept to a minimum.  Besides the daily toiletry items, like my dental hygiene products, soap, deodorant, lotion, perfume, etc, I try to keep my toiletry case light, especially when it comes to hair care and makeup products.  I wear minimal makeup on most days, so when I’m on vacation triggering my inner mermaid, I keep my products to the basics: Foundation, Blush, Mascara.  And I usually only break them out for dinner.  Now, I realize that everyone’s haircare regimen is different, but only bring the products that you absolutely need and leave the rest at home.  And don’t forget your sunscreen, mosquito repellent, and any medications that you may need while away from home.

Misc: Since the weather will probably be somewhere between hot and scorching, be sure to include your sunglasses and a beach hat.  Also, verify that you have all of your chargers and additional batteries to sustain your electronic devices while on vacation.  I can almost promise you that you don’t want to pay the up-charge for either at your resort.  While I am not one to wash clothes on vacation, if your resort offers that amenity and you’re a stickler for returning home with clean clothes, be sure to include your travel sized, leak-proof detergent.  And if you plan to shop, it may be wise to pack an empty bag to bring home your loot and/or use as your daily beach bag.  Last but not least, check the weather and see if you need to throw your umbrella in your bag, swag.

Helpful Tips:

  1. Check out my Travel Store to purchase some of my favorite travel items, from fold-able duffel bags to fancy passport covers and more (Available February 2019).

  2. When I headed to Europe for 18 days last summer, one of my friends recommended handy travel compression bags.  These bags are an inexpensive way to compress multiple items to make for easier packing. Click here to purchase a set.

  3. Be mindful of airline baggage costs, and keep your bags and fees to a minimum.

  4. Don’t check your fancy luggage and expect it to come back in tip top shape.  Let’s face it, if you’ve ever watched the airlines unload/toss your luggage off the plane in transit to baggage claim, then you are more than aware of the scuffs and tears that come along with checked luggage.  And unless your bag is severly damaged, meaning the type of damage that prevents it from being re-used, you will not be reimbursed for their callousness.  If you’re rich forever and plan on taking your Louis, make sure its carry-on size.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.

Disclaimer: Some of the links in this blog are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase.

TRAVEL GUIDE: TIPS BEFORE BALI

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This summer I had the opportunity to combine two trips into one, so after spending 5 amazing days in Thailand, I hopped on a plane to begin my stay in Bali. Bali easily landed on my list of places that I will revisit many times throughout my life, and here are some tips to make your trip just as enjoyable:

1) Make sure to bring some conservative pieces, especially if you will be staying in Ubud.

While daisy dukes and swimsuits were the norm in Kuta, Ubud was much more conservative, and appropriate covering is required to enter most temples and religious buildings. Since the sun can be brutal during the day, err on the side of caution and at least stick a cardigan in your bag just in case the environment is attire restricted.

2) Be careful of the foods you consume.

Bali Belly is very real, and unfortunately, one of my friends fell victim after over-indulging at the 99k ($7 US) buffet.  Bali Belly not only ruined the last few days of my friend’s trip, but it also followed him home. And being that he had just come from out the country, he couldn’t be treated at an urgent care clinic and had to choose between toughing it out until he met with his doctor the following weekday or taking a trip to the emergency room. The flight to Bali is long enough without having to deal with additional shit, pun intended. Unless you want to spend your entire trip suffering from tummy troubles that may land you at the pharmacy or clinic, be mindful of the foods you eat and pack some Imodium and probiotics to strengthen your immune system, just in case.

3) Do not drink the water.

Refer to #2.

4) Buy your liquor at a duty free BEFORE you reach Bali.

Liquor is considerably more expensive when you get to Bali, in both stores and restaurants. I kicked myself in the butt for not buying a bottle or 2 in Singapore on my layover when I got to Bali and saw that a bottle of regular Hennessy was $120 US. And let me not even mention that their cheapest bottle of wine was around $40 US, and that was for a brand that was similar to Barefoot, which is $5 a bottle in the US. Your money goes far in Bali on just about everything, with the exception of liquor.

5) Respect the offerings.

One of my favorite things about Bali, especially Ubud, was the smell of incense permeating the air due to the fresh daily offerings in front of almost every home and business. Since the offering are plentiful, be sure to watch your step, so that you don’t inadvertently knock over one or smush it under your shoes.

6) Include these amazing things on your itinerary (click here)

7) Stay in Seminyak versus Kuta.

When I first started mapping out my trip to Bali, I read several blogs and articles about the best places to stay. Almost every blog recommended staying in Seminyak over Kuta, since the 2 are so close in proximity.  On arrival, I figured out the rationale fast. Kuta is considerably more sketchy than Seminyak and nowhere near as nice, but don’t worry, you can still reach the same attractions from both.

8)  Be extremely careful when taking an Uber. Please.

Even though you can request Uber from various places in Kuta and Seminyak, the service is discouraged and there have been many reports of Uber drivers being attacked during passenger pick-up or drop-off. At many businesses, including popular places like Potato Head and Ku De Ta, Uber pickups are banned and there are several signs discouraging riders from using them versus a taxi. If you decided to call an Uber and your driver requests to pick you up in a different, but close location, it is probably for their safety. Uber is the cheaper route (and has a motorbike driver option), so we did opt to use it, especially since the ride to the airport was $3 US versus $20 US using the hotel shuttle, but just make sure that you use with caution and are open to being flexible with your driver. And if you should opt to use a taxi, use blue taxis only, as they are the only ones regulated by the city.

9) Negotiate.

The price of almost anything that you can get off the street in Bali, including taxis, is negotiable. NEVER go with the first price, and as a rule of thumb, remember that the real price is often 25-50% cheaper than the first asking price.

10) Rent a Scooter (at your own risk)

Ummm, so I would like to think that I am a decent driver, and I’ve rode solo on everything from a ATV to a snow mobile, BUT that did not prepare me for driving my first scooter. Let’s just say after skidding out full speed into traffic and attempting to stop the bike with my water shoes like I was on a 10 speed while steadily hitting the gas, both my travel companions and the owners of the scooter company decided that maybe I would be better off as a passenger. And just to give you a visual, I had my tote bag on my shoulder like I was really about to get on the scooter and do something. Tragic, just tragic. So while scooters are a great way to see the rice fields up close and let the gentle breeze waft through your hair, rent at your own risk.

11) Invest in mosquito spray.

I thought that mosquitos couldn’t get any worse than at my Granny’s house on the east side of Houston, until I went to Bali. Mosquitos were everywhere in the midst of the other exotic bugs, and quite the nuisance, which I can’t understand since there were frogs by the dozen on every corner trying to steal my joy.

12) Make sure you take some days to relax and just enjoy the scenery.

P.S. If you would like help planning your next vacation, click here.