Tag Archives: solo travel

I Left My Heart in Cartagena: Day 1

When In Doubt…Face Your Fear

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While everyone else would be eating turkey and sweet potato pie, I would be basking in the relentless humidity and endless aromas of arrepas and fresh mango. I chose to travel solo for my 30th for a specific reason. The last time that I remember my birthday falling on Thanksgiving day was when I was eight. It was also the last Thanksgiving I would spend with my mother. Thats a memory I have cherished throughout the last 22 years of my life. So I wanted 30 to be just as memorable.

Obligatory airport/boarding pass/passport photo.
Obligatory airport/boarding pass/passport photo.

If you’re like the thousands of others who binged watched Narcos (myself included), then you probably had this pre-conceived notion about Colombia. As someone who travels solo quite often, I found myself being nervous for the first time heading into Colombia. Which is odd because I booked the ticket without a second thought. Add to the fact that I was turning 30 and that came with its own insecurities. But it was the weeks leading up to the trip where my nerves started to set in. What was I all of a sudden nervous about?

Perhaps I too let all the bad press Colombia  had received shape my view of what Cartagena might be like. I sort of had buyer’s remorse for a second. Yes, me. The solo traveler down to explore where ever. Then I realized “well, you’ve bought the ticket already… no turning back now!” So I braced myself for impact. I thought of every possible scenario that could happen. I was prepared. What I didn’t prepare for was how much I would end up falling in love with this beautiful place.

A Bold Yet Simple Beauty

From the moment I stepped off the plane, the humidity swaddled me like a blanket. Being from SE Texas, I’m somewhat used to humidity, but Cartagena was definitely beyond my range of expertise. Arriving to my taxi straight off the plane (team carry-on!), we head straight for my hostel in the neighborhood of San Diego. I’m instantly captivated by the hustle and bustle of this quaint Caribbean city. The ocean to my right , with a vengeful line of taxis to my left. My high school Spanish hasn’t failed me miserably in the past, so I attempt to make small talk with the driver. He is not here for it. He is only there to do his job. Or maybe he’s just annoyed with traffic. Can’t knock that. A sea of horns are blowing around me as I assume we are caught in a lunch time rush. I also observe that there are no speed limits or yield signs in what looks to be a free for all type of traffic system.

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One of the many colorful streets of Cartagena

Fifteen minutes in and we reach the Walled City. Its stunning. The colorful buildings and walls are the first thing that jump out at me. The streets are busy and filled with people; mothers and daughters, street vendors, tourists. They all seem so relaxed with no immediate rush. I also see neighbors hanging out on the end of streets socializing . Every person I lock eyes with engages me with a smile. It was at that moment that I knew I was on to something good.

I receive the warmest welcome upon check-in at my hostel. I opted for a boutique hostel this go round because it was my birthday and not just any birthday. This was 30. I would need the peace of a private room after all the exploring I had planned to do.  The hostel was situated on a busy corner, so of course I could hear all the horns and cat calls throughout the day. But strangely, I didn’t mind that at all. Mainly because I was hardly ever in the room. I stayed long enough to wash the airport germs off of me and then I was off.

My quaint little room
My quaint little room
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View from my balcony

One Vibrant Soul

I couldn’t help but to realize how relaxed I had become upon arrival into the Walled City. All of those anxieties and fears I felt before instantly seemed to vanish. I wanted to take this place in and explore every crack and crevice that I could within my allotted time. San Diego, in all its vibrant colors and picturesque doors, was truly a sight to see. I walked down each narrow roadway in awe of the level of detail put into the color and architecture of each structure. And I wasn’t the only one. A few tourists like myself lined the sidewalks to capture the perfect photo of a myriad of doors with plentiful flowers hanging over them. This place was a photographer’s paradise! And me and my amateur self was happy to partake.

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People watching was also a joy. Watching how others interact with each other in another country is truly interesting to see. This city was definitely made for lovers. Love was all around. Young love holding hands, old love sharing an ice cream, a mother’s love making sure her kids stayed on the sidewalk and out of the street. Every corner I turned, I felt it. And it made me so happy that I was here, in this city, to experience it. And of course there were the street vendors. I can’t even knock their hustle. How they maintained to smile after tons of rejections in 85 degree weather with 100 percent humidity is beyond me.

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I settle on this Cuban restaurant with a 40’s theme. Get this, there’s a pool in the middle of the joint…Even better! Me and my mojito were happy to oblige. The vibe is relaxed, and its just what I needed after nearly a day of traveling (more on that in another post). Then I hear Terror Squad’s “Lean Back” followed by what appears to be rapping in Spanish. Its a young native shooting his shot with tourists nearby. They’re recording him with their cell phones. I think to myself “By any means necessary, huh?”. I chuckle at his direct and abrupt demeanor, yet I respect it at the same time. Who knows, he might be one YouTube view away from stardom.

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Cuba 1940’s

Did I mention the people here are so kind and generous? As I stated, my Spanish is not the best. But I found that if you were willing to try, the people were more than willing to help by correcting you in a forgiving way. I can’t tell you how many times I ran into American and British tourists who never even attempted. That annoys me just a smidgen, but thats also another post for another day.

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I leave the restaurant to do some more exploring. More picture taking. Then it hit me that I was officially in the 30 club. Man, oh man! I’ve already mentally prepared myself for the plunge in my metabolism. But all is still well. And all I could think about was how much I NEEDED to sleep. I had only been up a solid 24 hours. I got another quick bite and headed back to my hostel. Upon finding out that its my birthday, one of the hosts offered me a glass of wine and asked me to join him in an evening chat. I know I needed sleep but HOW could I say no to such a friendly gesture? We sat talking about random stuff. Laughs and lots of “no ways!”. Truly a treat. Another warm welcome and friendly face that made me not want to leave this place.  Not the scheming and crooked experience I had somehow talked myself into expecting. The patio area we were sitting in was open air so I could see the stars in the sky. It was the perfect ending to a long but awesome birthday. Cartagena’s plans to steal my heart were in full force. The more I relaxed, the easier it was for her to do so.

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Going the Distance: How I Plan My Trips

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You can’t avoid the itch that comes from being bitten by the travel bug. My way of scratching that itch is planning my next travel destination. As I’ve stated before, I’m not one of those types that can pack up and leave at a moment’s notice, with me having a career and all. But I do try to plan as thoroughly as possible, while still leaving room for some spontaneity.

Adventurer vs Beach Bum

The biggest question I ask myself when considering a trip, is “what type of trip am I trying to take?”. Will this be a lazy trip, where I do absolutely nothing but sip mojitos by the beach. Or am I looking to venture out and be active? Knowing what level of activity you plan to partake in will help determine what kind of budget to plan for your trip. You also need to know what type of atmosphere you feel comfortable in. I’ve been some places that made me feel a little out-of-place at times. Especially being a solo traveler in a place that may be deemed a romantic getaway by some. Turks and Caicos was very laid back and beachy by day. But turned extremely romantic and intimate by night. Naturally, I did start to feel a little like a third wheel. So I opted for a seat at the bar, and chatted it up with the locals. But no two beach destinations are alike! My trip to Tulum was the exact opposite. I mean at times you saw many couples. But I ran into so many back packers and solo travelers. I knew these things before I chose both places as my destinations. I knew that Turks and Caicos was one of the more expensive islands with nothing more to do than frolic the beach, so most of my money would go towards food. I also knew that Tulum didn’t cost nearly as much and that there were tons of places to visit and sites to see. This made planning my budget way easier.

Navigating Pricing with Seasons

Understanding the seasons and their relation to accommodation and flight prices will save you a headache and money! For example, while high season for the Caribbean is between December- April, those periods are actually low season for places like Bermuda. This because Bermuda sits in the Atlantic and the weather is more aligned with that of the South East coast of the U.S. Know beforehand what type of weather you would be ok with. I’m not a cold person, so traveling to Chicago in February or March is a no go. I’ll just have to save up to go in the summer! I still always try to travel in the off or low seasons, for obvious reasons. I went to TCI the first week of June, the start of hurricane season. As a native Texan growing up on the Gulf Coast, anyone will tell you that June is still relatively early in the season, so a hurricane off the bat, while possible, is not likely to happen. Record high temps for June were in the mid 90’s (I’m from Texas after all. I’m no stranger to 3 digit temps). So June was perfect for me. Absolutely no crowds whatsoever and I got a really good deal on the hotel.  My trips to Napa Valley are always in the fall. It’s the start of low season. The weather is amazing with not a cloud in sight. And the fall foliage is simply breathtaking. AND the accommodations are dirt cheap! The only way you will ever catch me there in the summer would be during a group trip where the costs could be split.

Flights and Accommodations

I always try to be as flexible with my flight dates as well. Departing on a Saturday and returning on a Tuesday has yielded cheaper results than flying out on a Thursday and coming back on a Sunday. Signing up for flight alerts are a must as well (my fave is the Fare Deal. Be prepared to have the money on hand to purchase, as most deals only last 2 days). And depending on the duration and type of trip, I try to be flexible with my hotel bookings as well. What do I mean? If I know this will be a short weekend getaway, I use sites like Hotwire for the cheapest deal. The catch is, in order to get the cheapest price, you don’t find out the hotel until after you book. The trick is, at least for me, to never book anything less than 3 stars. It’s not completely fool-proof, mind you. But I’ve done it enough to know what kind of hotel to expect. For longer or out of the country stays, I prefer Booking. com or booking directly through the hotel if they offer specials.  I ALWAYS use Trip Advisor as a guide (Not law. Some reviews are just down right petty). So far, it hasn’t steered me wrong.

Lavish Foodie or Minimalist 

Food while on vacation is kind of big deal. Some places, the food prices may be outrageous. In those situations, I always try to book accommodations in walkable areas ( or easily accessible by car) near local food marts or grocery stores. I can purchase snacks and breakfast items, which would allow me to splurge on lunch and dinner. Or, you could book accommodations where breakfast is included. I stray away from all-inclusive because I’m all for culture immersion. Plus,  it’s a wonderful way to get out and be a local for a day or two.  However, if I know that I am going to a foodie mecca, I try to skimp as much as I can on flights and accommodations.

If nothing at all, I try my hardest to keep everything simple. This is a time for you  to relax or focus on getting out and seeing. The last thing you want to do is overcomplicate things. Do you have any ideas or things of note that help you plan for your trips?

Wanderlust-ing: My 2015-16 Travel Wish List

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So I have finally put the finishing touches on my travel wish list! Because my job’s fiscal year is September through August, I have to plan my trips around our year beginning and end. This also aids in knowing which locations I can visit during what times of year for the best price, based on busy/slow months at the office. The list stretches into 2016 (I’m pretty handy with budgets and spreadsheets). I also incorporated a “wild card”, just in case I find some extra money floating around. What places does your travel wish list consist of?

1. Tulum

2. New Orleans

3. Oregon

4. Niagara Falls

5. Breckenridge, CO

6. Big Bend National Park, TX

7. Belize

8. Great River Road Drive (Louisiana road trip)

9. Ireland

10. Charleston, SC (wildcard)

A Day in Isla Mujeres

Such a world apart from Cancun, and a 30 minute ferry ride. Isla Mujeres or Woman Island, is a teeny, tiny stretch of land in the state of Quintana Roo. It boasts gorgeous sapphire blue seas from the south end of the island, with the calm turquoise waters to the north. Its charm is old-world like, very rustic. The locals are extremely pleasant and you’ll find a handful of ex-pats taking up residence within the neighborhoods. The preferred mode of transportation is by scooter. For exploring, most rent a golf cart. I chose to explore by foot (which I don’t recommend if you are staying at opposite ends of the island. Staying in the middle allowed me to break it up). It was a cloudy day when I arrived, which made it that much more calm and serene.

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I enjoyed my slow walk into town, taking in the sights and the light, misty rain.

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And then the skies cleared up, and I got to take in the spectacular views of Punta Sur.

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20150205_143534You can literally explore the entire island in an hour by golf cart. For that reason, I would definitely recommend a stay here if you intend to do absolutely nothing. Call me crazy, but I kind of liked the fact that it was a dreary day for most of the time I was there. It helped wrap up and wind down a super busy and exhilarating trip. Just the kind of calm I needed to prepare myself for the reality that awaited me at home.

 

 

 

Tulum: Day 3

My final day in Tulum. It was bittersweet. Such a chill place. So I made the most of it and did some more exploring. I caught a taxi to the Mayan ruins. The level of creativity and intelligence to build something so intricate before its time definitely demonstrates the ability of the human mind.

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I even made a new friend.

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After a walk through the entire site, it was beach time. The day was perfect. Just enough breeze to keep you comfortable.

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I decided to walk the beach side a little more for lunch. I found this really cool spot, El Prez. I had the best beer battered fish tacos ever. Like, EVER. And they take credit cards, one of the few places that did without charging an outrageous fee.

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And the drinks… A Hint and a Whisper… Gin and real lavender.

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I am definitely coming back to Tulum, especially now that I know what to expect. Its charm has truly captivated me. And there were so many more places I wanted to go, and in due time, I shall. Tulum was very international. I met French, Canadian, Argentinian and Australian travelers. Lots of back packers. If you are truly looking for a unique beach experience with a little bit of jungle thrown in the mix, I highly recommend Tulum. Keep in mind that its off the grid, with no connection to power lines ( hence the wind turbines you see along the beaches). It is definitely eco- chic.

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Farewell, Tulum! We shall meet again.

7 Basic Travel Tips for Beginners

Planning your first trip and trying to figure out pre-trip precautions? There’s nothing better than feeling fully prepared for a trip. Things happen, which is why its good to be as surprise proof as possible. Here are some of my basic travel preparation tips I’ve gathered along the way. For anyone just starting out with travel, whether it be domestic or international.

1. Call all banks and inform them of travel plans.

This is to make sure that your credit/debit cards have full functionality while you’re traveling. Most people do this when they travel internationally, but I have had my transaction denied while attempting to pay for gas in California. Highly inconvenient.

2. Write down all contact phone numbers of credit/debit cards in case of loss or theft.

This way you will be able to contact the institutions immediately if you suspect your cards have been lost or stolen. I try to keep a physical copy or store in my phone.

3. Send all trip itineraries and hotel information to a family member or friend.

I always send my flight and hotel information to my mom. If I’m going on a highly adventurous trip, I try to send her a round about summary of activities I plan to do, along with the times and days I plan to do them. Of course, this more so applies to short trips rather than extended stays.

4. Scan copies of driver’s license/passport.

This really comes in handy in case of theft or losing your wallet. Passports are kind of a big deal, and it can be a headache getting them replaced. So having a photocopy will give you a head start on the process. I either send the copies to my mom or save it somewhere I know I can have easy access to (Dropbox is cool because of the verification process in retrieving documents).

5. Purchase reusable toiletry containers.

This mainly applies if you only plan to use carry on luggage. Because I have naturally curly hair and because most of the products I use don’t come in travel sizes, this helps me maintain my mane. I simply pour my fave products into the containers and voila! Beats having to spend money on travel size toiletries.

6. Know before you go how much cash you’re going to withdraw.

This is why its a good idea to develop a trip budget! This mainly applies to foreign travel, just because of the international transaction fees charged by your bank. You don’t want to pay fees for multiple transactions because it adds up to a significant amount. So its good to take out money in one go, if possible. If you are traveling some place where most credit cards are accepted, keep in mind fares and tips for cab rides. Also, small local shops may not accept plastic.

7. Double-check hotel front desk hours.

The last thing you want is to have a delayed flight and show up to your hotel 3 hours later than planned, only to find out there is no one there to help you. Always check front desk hours and keep the hotel number handy to notify them in advance of any potential delays should you arrive after business hours.

Hopefully you find these tips helpful. Some I learned after the fact. But luckily you won’t have to worry about that:)

3 Reasons Why You Should Travel Solo At Least Once

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I wouldn’t call myself a travel expert by any means. But I’ve traveled enough to know and understand why I enjoy solo travel. It never fails, no matter where I go, when people realize that I am traveling alone they always say “Good for you!”.  I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel some sense of accomplishment from it.

The media and all of your aunts and uncles can put a damper on solo travel plans. Of course they mean well, but at the end of the day its your life. And here’s another word of unsolicited advice: The world isn’t as big and scary as they would have you believe. Not saying it is free from crime, obviously. Some of us hold on to this idea that we’re safer in America than anywhere else, which is false. This theory crashed and burned after my house was broken into AND I was living alone. Just because terrible things are happening in one part of a country, we start thinking it’s happening all over said country. Think about it. Would you not go to Denver because of crimes going on in certain parts of Chicago?  I mean they’re both in the United States. See where I’m going here? But now for the top 3.

1. See what its like to step out of your comfort zone.

Best part of doing so? No one will likely recognize you because you are in unfamiliar territory. When I was in Turks and Caicos, the front desk attendant at my hotel told me I should change my name for the rest of the week and do something I had never done before. I passed on the name change, but I did swim with a barracuda. This divorcee I met said her friends had challenged her to have a one night stand. A bit too rich for my blood, but I’m no judge! My point? Do what you want! Do a little jig looking at your reflection while window shopping. Dance on top of a table. Become the astronaut you said you would become as a kid. Well, I mean not literally. But the people you are meeting for the first time don’t know it isn’t true (unless you really like the new people you meet and intend to keep in touch, then be honest). You catch my drift?

2. You don’t have to wait on anyone else to make up their mind.

We all have that ONE friend. God love them, but they are one of the most indecisive creatures on the planet. From guided tours to dining options, they are super picky. But that’s one less thing you have to worry about with solo travel. Your time is YOUR time. If you want to lounge at the beach or go sight-seeing ALL day, you can. There’s no one there to give their input on what they would rather do. It’s all you baby!

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3. Get a chance to discover or re-discover yourself.

This is your alone time with you. Maybe you need to re-charge from the monotony of your everyday life. Now you can. Find a place and meditate. Enjoy the silence. Actually take time to thoroughly hear your thoughts without distraction. You may recognize answers you’ve been looking for. Enjoy these intimate moments with you. There’s only one of you and you deserve it. You may find that there are things you didn’t know you could appreciate about yourself. I never knew how sociable I was until I traveled by myself for the first time. Conversations with strangers came so easily to me. I opened up.

Quit hoarding away those vacation days. Stop relying on the crew to answer your emails about the payment plan for Jamaica. Go…. Just go. Trust me on this one, ok?

Facing My Fears and The List

I don’t know about you, but every time I think I may have put the finishing touches on my “list of things to do before whenever”, something else always catches my eye. I think my list consists of more destinations than anything. There’s this trend among some of my friends, where it seems like the lists are broken down by milestones. Like birthdays. 30 concerts before 30, 40 trips before 40 and so on. Seems pretty reasonable to me.The sky’s the limit, right?

Every time I think about my bucket list in its entirety, I start to get the feeling that I’ll run out of time because it’s so much stuff. Since my mom’s passing when I was 8, I’ve always felt this huge sense of urgency to do things (my family will tell you that I am the most impatient person you will ever meet). She was 37 when she received her cancer diagnosis and she passed 3 years later, which is far too soon. It took years of therapy for me to understand that I wasn’t destined for the same fate and that everything didn’t need to be so rushed. I was missing out on life.

Traveling has become sort of an outlet for me to channel that anxiety and fear. I haven’t completely rid myself of it, but its good to know that after all these years, I’ve finally found a way to cope with it that actually works. Solo travel was the catalyst. It was my first real risk I ever took, which was scary in itself, especially if you’re not used to doing anything alone. It taught me that I was stronger than I thought. I also grasped the concept of how time really does fly when you’re having fun doing things that are meaningful to you. You notice everything but the time and how much of it you have spent enjoying yourself. Most importantly, it taught me that you don’t need to be rich to travel. So I’m taking on my list one day at a time with realistic expectations. Of course, nothing is impossible, but then you don’t want to run yourself ragged planning for something that is supposed to be exhilarating.

What’s the one thing on your list (if you have one) you just have to do before your number’s up, or any other relevant milestone?