Denver to Kona, Budget vs Convenience: Would You Rather Save Time or $1000?

This year, I took two trips to the Big Island. In January, we flew to Kona to attend a wedding and spend time with friends from California. In March, I found myself booking another flight to Kona after my brother announced he was getting married in April.

Unlike my friends and family on the West Coast, booking a Hawaiian vacation from the middle of the country has its disadvantages. Denver is far and way more expensive. I have found ways to be creative with saving money, but sometimes convenience exceeds a budget. This year, I was able to try both ways to get to Hawaii. It was saving money versus saving time! So which way won? I’ll let you decide.

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Birthday girl!

Separate Flights: Less Money, More Anxiety

In January, I was able to save over $1000 on our flights combined by booking a direct flight to Kona from LAX, and booking flights to LAX from Denver through a budget airline.

I had looked through Google flights and third party sites for several weeks. After constant searching and looking at price prediction graphs, the cheapest flight I could find from Denver to Kona was $759 roundtrip. This “cheap” price included layovers in Seattle or San Francisco, totaling 18 hours of travel time. For the 3 of us, we were looking at spending $2,277 for tickets plus a long layover. That did not sound like a deal to me, so I decided to get creative.

I ended up booking flights from LAX to Kona for $345 roundtrip. I then booked tickets from Denver to LAX for $66 roundtrip through Frontier Airlines. A total of $411 roundtrip from Denver to Kona, and an overall total of $1,233 for our 3 tickets. By booking separate tickets to Los Angeles, I was able to save $1,044!

Although the savings were phenomenal, there was definitely a downside. On our way back, we had a red-eye to Los Angeles from Kona and when we arrived, we were exhausted. We then had the task of finding our flight to Denver in this massive airport which consisted of taking a bus to another terminal and going through security again.

We also had another problem; Clayton lost his wallet in Hawaii and had to undergo additional screening through airport security. At the airport in Kona, they told us it would be the same procedure at LAX, but that was not our experience. When we got to the front of the security line, we explained that Clayton did not have his ID and that we needed additional screening. They made us wait for over 20 minutes and when a TSA agent finally spoke to us, she said we would not be able to go through without identification. My response was “so you’re saying we’re stuck in Los Angeles? We were able to board our plane in Kona.” And her response was, “we do things differently than Hawaii.” I wanted to respond that TSA should be consistent, but instead, I replied, “I understand. Can I speak to a supervisor?” And so, a supervisor came, checked our boarding passes, saw our last names matched, looked at a credit card with Clayton’s name and proceeded with the additional screening that was similar to Kona.

My point in that story, if anything goes awry.. a lost wallet, a delayed flight, long security line or even getting lost looking for your other terminal, things could go south. Also, discount airlines like Frontier are not forgiving about missed flights so initially when the TSA woman wouldn’t let us through, I was already thinking we’d have to purchase new flights to Denver. My anxiety during the ordeal made me wonder if going the cheaper route was even worth it.

Big savings on our family trip!

Direct Flight: More Expensive, Less Travel Time

When my brother announced his April wedding in Kona, the thought of our trip in January with long layovers and lost IDs sent me into a panic. Clayton opted out since there was no way we were spending money on 3 roundtrip tickets to a destination we went to 3 months prior. And the wedding date was set on my birthday… meaning I had to cancel travel plans my husband made for my 31st and I had to travel alone. I refused to experience the same trouble as January. I just wanted to go and get home ASAP so I found the only direct flight from Denver to Kona.

United is the only airlines with routes directly from DIA to KOA, and even though I booked an “economy fare”, the total came to slightly over $650 roundtrip. For kicks, I googled flights from the West Coast and felt uneasy as I saw flights for barely over $300, but I continued to reassure myself that this was the best option. I was technically saving money for traveling alone so justifying the more expensive flight was easy.

The Pros: Everything was so easy and smooth. I got on a plane in Denver and I got off the plane in Kona. Even though it was a 7-hour flight, it passed by quickly. This trip was significantly easier than the one in January.

The Cons: When traveling alone on the economy fare, I was given the aisle seat on both flights. Turns out, the area under the seat where you store your bag is significantly smaller on the aisle compared to the window and middle seat. I found this very surprising. The only bag I had was my “Never Full” Louis Vuitton bag. This bag fits perfectly fine under the seat on budget airlines like Frontier and Spirit, but on United, it was a tight squeeze. On my return flight, it was even worse. I got the aisle seat in the very last row! A 7-hour flight in the most uncomfortable seat on the plane was a nightmare.

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Solo trip on a faster flight.

In all, it depends on what your priority is. My priorities were different for both trips. When I was with the family, saving over $1000 was significant. We were able to use that money on food and activities while staying under budget. But, if money isn’t an issue, definitely go with the direct flight. Although there are downsides, keeping your travel plans uncomplicated makes flying over 3,000 miles seem really easy.

Which way would you choose?

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Hawaiian Vacation and a Missile Threat: Reflecting on life when faced with death

If you would have asked me two weeks ago about my biggest fears, I’d quickly list 3 things that have always scared me: the dark, deep water, and death. Death has always been at the top of that list. My own death, the death of loved ones, even the death of strangers freaked me out.

Although I feared it, I was always confronted with my own mortality. In my previous life as a social worker, I was faced with crisis and death on a weekly basis. The lack of warning for most of these people frightened me and ultimately pushed me to make changes in my life. I quit my career, sold my belongings and decided that I needed to dedicate my time to the things that really matter.

I created a life that I am happy with. One that is simple and focused on my family. I figured in the end, I would face death with grace and no regrets, even if it came unexpectedly.

 

Kona

 

On Saturday, January 13th, I faced the reality of death. Granted, it was only for about 20 minutes, but it was 20 minutes too long. I went through a rollercoaster of thoughts and emotions that I never thought I would experience. So did I handle it with grace? Slightly. And did I have regrets? Well… read on.

That Saturday morning was a beautiful morning. We rented a house in Waikoloa Village with a group of our closest and oldest friends. My biggest concern for the morning was getting the wrinkles out of my dress for a wedding we were attending that evening, and Riley woke up eager to head to the beach and play all day. I can still picture that day so clearly. The weather was amazing and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I looked outside and thought about how perfect the day was.

I got Riley and I ready for the beach then went into the kitchen to help Clayton with breakfast. All of our phones were on a nearby table connected to chargers. We were talking and laughing when we were suddenly interrupted by the blaring alarm coming from all of our phones. I immediately thought it was an Amber Alert. The sound was so familiar that I calmly walked over to my phone to check the message. As soon as I read it, I felt my heart drop into my stomach. “Wait… what?” I just stared at my phone and all I could mutter was “what?” Everyone else grabbed their phones and we just stared at each other bewildered.

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We immediately sat down with our phones still in our hands. I started to feel my chest tighten and my hand began shaking uncontrollably as I panicked. I looked at my husband and asked, “this can’t be real, right?” But the fear on his face made me realize, this wasn’t a joke. After a few seconds of initial shock, we went into action. We needed information before making our next move.

One friend announced he would check Twitter. Surprisingly, it’s one of the fastest ways to get news plus we were hoping Trump had something to say. The rest of us quickly searched Google and turned on the TV. There was nothing. All I could find were old articles from November about preparing for possible attacks. I got desperate and posted the alerts on Facebook and Instagram hoping someone on the mainland had heard anything on the news. Once again, nothing!

Soon my fear turned into anger. Why in the hell is there no information about this? Does no one in our country care about Hawaii?! Are they hoping no one finds out?! What the hell is happening!! All I needed was for someone to confirm that this was real, where it was coming from and how much time we had left. I needed to know exactly how much time I had left.

I put my phone down and walked over to the window. It was still beautiful out. It was still bright, colorful and calm. Not what I pictured the end of the world would look like.

I walked back over to the couch and looked at my son. He giggled as he played on the floor with one of our friends, a former Marine, who kept Riley distracted the entire time. I sat there paralyzed watching them play. I just wanted to save my little boy. As Riley continued to roll on the floor and laugh, my friend looked over at me and said, “there’s nothing we can do.” I nodded and accepted our fate. We were all going to die.

I looked around the house wondering where we should take shelter. I then began to worry about how it would happen. Will the Big Island be hit directly and we just explode? Will we burn or be instantly demolished? Will it hurt? If we shield Riley with our bodies, will it hurt less for him? At that moment, I didn’t care about me, but I still felt the need to protect my child.

As our friends began to call their parents to say goodbye, my mind went straight to home where I wished I could see the mountains one last time. I picked up my phone to call my mom then hesitated. “I can’t call my mom, this will destroy her.” I stared at my text messages and wondered what I should do. I didn’t want to hear my mom cry, but I have to say goodbye and tell her that I love her. She needs to hear Riley’s voice one last time. I decided to wait 5 minutes. “We for sure have 5 minutes”, I thought to myself.

It was then that my mind began to slow down. I was still shaking, but my thoughts stopped racing. I said a quick prayer. Surprisingly, I prayed like I always do. I always imagined that if I faced death, I’d be on my knees reciting the entire rosary asking for forgiveness, but that wasn’t the case.  I have always wondered about my faith and spirituality… like do I really believe in the things I say I believe in? And it turns out, I do. I looked around at everyone in that room and truly believed that if we didn’t survive, we would all meet somewhere else.

And finally, I reflected on my own life. I always assumed that at the end of my life, I would have regrets about the things I didn’t do or the places I never got to see. But there wasn’t a single regret that crossed my mind. Instead, I was filled with gratitude. I was so thankful for the 30 years I was given on this Earth. It was a short life, but it was a beautiful one. I’ve had many hardships, but I’ve also had many blessings. I was overwhelmed with gratitude for my husband and my son, for our amazing experiences and for the love they always showed me. In the midst of being in an unlucky situation, I felt very lucky to have lived my life.

I looked back at Riley, still giggling and playing with our friend. I picked up my phone, ready to call my mom and asked the room, “how much time do you think we have left?” Our friend, the Marine said, “we would hear the alarms.” It was then that I took a deep breath. He’s right! Where are the alarms? Suddenly, our other friend starts yelling from his room, “Motherfuckers! It’s a mistake! It’s a fucking mistake!” And those were the sweetest words I have ever heard.

Thanks to Twitter, we were able to breathe. Twitter told us it was a mistake.

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It wasn’t until the 38-minute mark that we received new messages on our phone. I went into our room, pacing like a zombie. We needed to eat and head to the beach, business as usual, but I couldn’t stop that aching feeling in my chest… and that lasted an entire week.

I find myself randomly crying when I look out the window or getting really emotional when I kiss my son goodnight. When I’m with my husband, I find myself focusing on the warmth of his hand and of his kiss. Every little day to day thing that I used to take for granted has consumed me. I can’t even explain how grateful I am to be alive.

 

We made it to the beach that day!

 

With every hardship and trauma I have encountered in my life, I always look at the silver lining. What exactly did I learn from this situation and what message do I want to share with others?

It was almost 3 years ago that The Valiant Life began. I can still remember when I was depressed and anxious as my life was centered around work and creating that “American dream” that wasn’t mine. My husband and I worked opposite schedules, I only saw my son when I picked him up from daycare and tucked him in at night, and I hated what I was doing Monday through Friday. I was sitting in a cemetery near my office during my lunch break (I knew I had hit a low when I was spending lunch there) and I remember looking around and thinking, “I’m going to be in one of these someday.” And that’s when I asked myself, “if I die tomorrow, will I be happy with the life I lived?” My answer was no, and that’s when I knew I had to change it.

Every single one of us has a death day. For most of us, we will have no warning. We will plan out that day like it is any other and suddenly, it will end. I want you to ask yourself the same question, “if I die tomorrow, will I be happy with the life I lived?” If your answer is no, then do what you need to do to create a life you love.

Death is inevitable. None of us will live forever. I find comfort in knowing that when my time comes, I truly will have no regrets. And that realization feels amazing. I encourage you to reflect on what is important to you, be true to yourself and what you truly love, and live your life the way it’s meant to be lived. When you take control of your life, the possibilities are endless and the happiness that comes will be overwhelming.

So go on! Find your calling, be happy, and live life valiantly!

 

Grateful for my husband!

 

Ice Castles in Dillon, Colorado

We had an opportunity to check out the ice castle in Dillon two days before opening day. The Ice Castles are an entertainment company from Utah and have castles in six different locations across the US and Canada.

This was our first time in an ice castle and it was incredible! From the intricate carvings to the icicles and the color changing ice, we had a blast running around, trying out the slides and chasing each other through the little ice caves.

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Riley entering an ice tunnel

The official website has all the details and FAQs if you’re not sure what to expect on your visit. My advice is dress warm, wear snow boots, and bring your camera! There were several parents who brought sleds for their children since strollers would be nearly impossible to push through the ice. Also, pets aren’t allowed so we had to leave Jack at home.

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On Fridays and Saturdays, the castle offers fire performances which sound pretty amazing. And all of this is offered at a great price! Prices are the following:

Monday-Thursday

Online- General Admission (12+): $15.95 Child (4-11): $10.95

Walkup- General Admission (12+): $19 Child (4-11): $13

Friday-Sunday

Online- General Admission (12+): $16.95 Child (4-11): $12.95

Walkup- General Admission (12+): $21 Child (4-11): $16

And children 0-3 are free!

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Overall, we were so impressed and fascinated by the entire castle. We plan on returning for a day time tour before it melts in late winter. And I’m currently working on a video from our time here, so stay tuned!!

Eat, Wander, Love: Our journey through Cinque Terre and Florence

When I look back on our Italian vacation, Cinque Terre and Florence are two highlights that bring back fond memories. A vast contrast from our time in Rome, we experienced a slower pace even amongst the crowds of tourists. Maybe it was the fact that I could sit quietly on the streets without a vendor in my face or the amazing food we enjoyed in both places. Overall, I know that if we ever return to Italy, Cinque Terre and Florence will definitely be on the list.

Riley enjoying a red sunset over Ponte Vecchio

Cinque Terre

I’ve learned that a sign I had a great time is when I barely have any photos. I can easily get caught up in the moment and forget to take my camera out. Cinque Terre was a definite “living in the moment” experience. It’s hard to put into words the magnitude of how amazing this place is so my advice to everyone is, you need to experience it for yourself.

I booked our accommodations in Cinque Terre at the last minute and was unable to find a hotel or Airbnb close to the water. Initially, I was concerned when I looked at Google maps because our spot looked incredibly far from the main towns. Turns out, my procrastination was a blessing in disguise. Located in the Cinque Terre National Park, in the middle of the mountains, the bed and breakfast I booked was a small farmhouse with beautiful views. The cold mountain air and the sound of silence was a familiar feeling of home, and for the first time during our trip, I felt comforted by my surroundings.

After a night of quiet and restful sleep, we found ourselves waking up later than expected and forgoing our plans of hiking through the five towns of Cinque Terre. Luckily, it started raining and we were told that the trails are closed when it rains. Despite not being able to hike, there was so much to see and eat within the five towns that we kept busy the entire time. We purchased an all-day train ticket, hopped around each town, ate seafood, and drank cappuccinos. I walked around with my head looking up the entire time. It’s honestly such a pretty place. I kept mentioning to Clayton that it felt like we were walking around a movie set or Disneyland because the buildings looked surreal. Next trip, I’d like to visit when the weather is warmer. The water looked crystal clear in some parts, I can only imagine how amazing it would be to swim in it!

Calamari at La Scogliera in Manarola
Seafood pasta at La Barcaccia in Monterosso
My way?! It was meant to be, I loved Cinque Terre!

Florence

Prior to writing my post on Rome, I came across discussion boards where people hated Florence and loved Rome. I read through these posts of self-described “Rome girls” and realized it must be a personality difference because I LOVED Florence.

The significant difference between Florence and Rome? For me, it was the obvious cleaner streets and the lack of vendors constantly in my face. Those “skip the line” tours that are so aggressively advertised in Rome are non-existent that I was able to sit on the steps in the middle of the Uffizi Palace and read my Florence guidebook without anyone approaching me. It was also refreshing to see the people of Florence take care of their city.  The amount of garbage in the streets was significantly less, almost non-existent, compared to the streets of Rome. I saw a man who was literally vacuuming the streets! The locals were also much nicer and it was easier to find spots that wouldn’t charge you an arm and a leg for a bottle of water.

In addition to the better ambiance, the restaurants and coffee shops were incredible. It was hard not to find a spot for a delicious meal, a good cappuccino, incredible desserts, or even an IPA American style beer.

Here are some of my favorite spots in Florence:

Venchi: I am well aware that this is a chain, but I was first introduced to Venchi in Florence and I truly miss it. Grab a gelato then buy some souvenirs! We purchased a bottle of the Cuba Rum which is a delicious dessert liqueur and a few pieces of chocolate. I was obsessed with the Chocaviar which is a super dark chocolate and the chocolates with pistachios in it.

Caffe Gilli: I LOVED the cappuccinos at Gilli’s! It was so creamy and made to perfection. I went here twice in one day! Just be aware sitting here is really expensive,  I believe about 7 euros per seat so just stand at the cafe and enjoy.

Ditti Artigianale: Another great cafe with a delicious cappuccino. I don’t remember how much it was to sit, but we sat so it must have been cheap. This place had a young/hipster vibe and service was very friendly. Riley also ordered a tiramisu and loved it!

Osterio Santo Spirito: Great food, friendly service and a really awesome outside seating area. It’s a pretty popular place and quite small, so I suggest making a reservation.

Fishing Lab Alle Murate: The fish and chips were delicious, and they have a take-out option which is great when you’re on the go! It’s really nice inside, plus they had an American IPA which was delicious and made me miss good beer at home.

Caffe Liberta Firenze: Cappuccinos were decent, but what really stood out were the pastries! They were so good!

Gelateria De’Medici: The best gelato we had on our entire trip. Many say that it is the best gelato in Florence. They had some really cool, exotic flavors and it wasn’t expensive!

Dragon Fruit, Chocolate Rum, Rum

 

Cinque Terre and Florence were exactly what I imagined when I pictured our time in Italy. Historical sites, friendly people, amazing food, and lots of coffee and wine! If you’re looking for a great time and plan on eating your way through Italy, I recommend starting in Florence and Cinque Terre. Come hungry and enjoy!

An introvert in Rome: The 5 realities I wish I knew before I visited.

Our trip to Italy made me realize what kind of traveler I am. I always described myself as budget conscious, slightly adventurous, and down for any destination. I typically like sightseeing and partaking in experiences that are off the beaten path, but I’m also not opposed to the touristy places that other travelers have added to their “must see” list. Ultimately, I thought I was easily adaptable.

The busy city of Rome provided a realization that I was slightly aware of. I’m not a city person, I extremely dislike crowds, and I don’t like people in my face. Unfortunately, Rome was all of those things. It’s a giant city, filled with millions of tourists, and everyone is in your face trying to sell you something.

Trip Highlight: Walking around St Peter’s Square at night

I had romanticized the idea of Rome while failing to realize that it is one of the most visited cities in the world. I put my best attitude on and tried to make light of the situation, but I couldn’t help thinking that I wish I was prepared for this. And I wish social media hadn’t given me unrealistic expectations of what I would encounter.

So here’s my list of the harsh realities of Rome and what I wish I knew before going.

Reality #1: Mass with the Pope was not a spiritual experience.

I’m Catholic (not the best Catholic), but mass with the Pope was at the top of my bucket list. I’ve watched videos of Pope Francis that have made me cry, so I thought he was going to give out this amazing life changing homily and I’d have this crazy spiritual experience.

So what really happened? I had about 50 selfie sticks blocking my view and all the Pope did was give shoutouts to everyone attending. I found a spot with some shade, sat down and felt my eyes get watery with disappointment. I looked around at everyone taking selfies with the Pope in the distance. They looked like they were having a great time. I sat there wishing I could find the same joy in taking a picture of myself.

 

Reality #2: Group tours are a necessary evil.

I’m not a group tour kind of person. I like doing things at my own pace and as an introvert, I find large groups of strangers frightening. In Rome, every five feet you walk, someone will be in your face trying to sell you a “skip the line” tour. Initially, I found it incredibly annoying. It’s an overpriced tour that allows you to skip the line at several sites, and if you ask these guys how to buy a regular ticket, they won’t give you an honest answer.

I yelled at one guy who was in my face at the Colosseum. He claimed we would wait in line for over an hour, but for over double the price of regular admission, we could skip the line. We took our chances and got through the line in 15 minutes. Several Euros were saved!

An educational experience: Riley reading his 100 Facts about Gladiators book

A different story at the Vatican Museum. The Sistine Chapel was number one on my list of things to see and of course, the line was insane. Not sure why, but everyone in the regular line to buy tickets were not being admitted inside. We waited until it started to look grim… it was my last day to see the chapel and I wasn’t getting in through regular admission.

I finally gave in and paid 40 Euros for a “skip the line” tour when admission should have only been 16 Euros. Clayton waited for me outside because it was too expensive for all of us to go. Our tour was the last group admitted, and that ended up being incredibly dramatic as well! With three tour guides yelling at the guards and only part of our group running inside without our guide (I led the way and got reprimanded), it was quite the shit show, but I got in.

The exit of the Vatican Museum. I actually took this photo without looking! Afraid of heights!

Reality #3: Your bucket list item is on everyone’s bucket list. Prepare to push and shove while taking in the sights.

When I finally got into the Vatican Museum, I was so pumped to see the Sistine Chapel at the end of the tour. I pictured myself sitting in the chapel, taking a seat, looking up and admiring that famous ceiling. Here’s what really happened: we got pushed in like a can of sardines and we weren’t allowed to stop and admire anything. A guard is constantly yelling to keep people moving while simultaneously moving everyone towards the exit. I was literally shoulder to shoulder with other people the entire time while slowly moving forward. In addition to being the biggest fire hazard I’ve ever been a part of, I couldn’t even take a moment to take it all in. I looked up, felt extremely claustrophobic and after 5 minutes, I ditched my tour group.

It was the same story at every other famous sight. All I remember from the Trevi Fountain is hoards of people, and the constant sounds of whistles being blown by police because people would stop to take a picture or try to sit at the edge of the fountain. Seriously, as I type right now, all I hear are whistles in my head.

The only photo I captured without someone walking in front of me

Reality #4: Hospitality is nearly nonexistent and you will encounter people who hate tourists.

Don’t even bother asking a bus driver a question. Ours literally told us he had better things to do! I guess he was right, he had a bus to drive. One girl on our bus was from Turkey and couldn’t figure out how to get back to her hotel. The bus driver refused to help. She got off with us and we tried our best to help her find her way.

We had a few unpleasant interactions with locals. One group thought it was funny to mock us as we asked for directions in Italian. Another woman put both of her hands on my back and literally pushed me a few feet forward because I apparently was in her way.

I learned to start asking local Filipinos for directions because they were so helpful and friendly. One Filipino man walked us all the way to the metro station after we missed the right bus stop to catch a train. Another Filipino woman gave me directions to a restaurant. I learned, when in Rome, ask a Filipino!

Lastly, we learned that hotels will try to take advantage of you. At one place, they tried to charge us 210 Euros instead of the listed 105 because we had our 6 year old with us. I told the guy we would pay extra for our kid even though we were all sharing a bed, but there was no way we were paying double. He wouldn’t budge so we didn’t either. Next time, we won’t waste our time at a hotel.

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At this cafe, I paid for food and a seat, yet I wasn’t allowed to drink coffee at my seat because it would be an additional charge…..

Reality #5: Other people will always be in your photos.

Taking a nice family photo became an impossible task. It got to a point where I gave up and stopped caring that people kept walking in front of our camera. I then remembered that several people on Instagram had told me to go out before sunrise to take photos. We were jet lagged the entire time and I wasn’t going to wake up my exhausted 6 year old for a picture at dawn. So if you want a nice photo, you need to literally be out there before the sun.

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Despite all the people, I still like this picture

In the end, I am so thankful that I got to see Rome. I know that I am incredibly privileged to travel and see these amazing places, and even though I was met with some disappointments in this city, I was able to see this as a learning experience.

So what did I learn? My husband and I are a great team. When we realized asking for help was out of the question, we figured things out on our own. From the buses to the metro to the suburban trains, we had it down pretty well. We even jumped on a couple buses without being 100% sure of the destinations and quickly became very familiar with the streets.

I also learned, you don’t have to be completely in love with every place you visit, and there’s nothing wrong with that. We all have our preferences, and an awesome time for me might be completely boring to another person. We’re all different and because of our differences, I now know to choose our future destinations and activities based on our personalities, and not by the suggestion or pictures I see on social media.

We had a great time over all. We made amazing memories and have some funny stories to tell! But I think it will be a while before we go back to Rome… or possibly any city.

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We loved the food and all the desserts!

Piombino: An underrated beach town in Tuscany

Piombino, a charming little beach town located in Tuscany, was hands down our favorite destination during our trip to Italy. We were lucky enough to have our own private beach house with incredible views of the sea right outside of our window.

It was a beautiful sight, every single day.October is considered the offseason, but even with the lack of tourists, there were still places to shop, eat, and grab a beer late at night. During the day, we walked around the shops and strolled around the beaches in total peace and quiet. At night, the streets became lively filled with beer drinking on the patios and singing inside the restaurants. The hospitality was unlike the other cities in Italy. The servers were incredibly nice and welcoming, food and drinks were not overpriced, and most menus were translated in English and German.

Here is a list of our favorite places:

Pictured: Il Gusto Giusto

All natural gelato made with quality ingredients. In addition to being incredibly delicious, it was also not expensive! My kind of place.

Not pictured: Da Rosa Alimentari

 Two doors down from Il Gusto Giusto, on the corner, is a small deli that sells fresh fruit and other groceries. We were able to get 2 large sandwiches, a slice of cake and a liter of water for less than 10 euros. The sandwich was delicious, fresh and introduced me to pecorino cheese! And that was literally the cheapest food we had during our entire trip.

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Pictured: Osteria Da Mamma Carla

We came here for dinner twice and it was definitely one of the best restaurants we ate at during our entire trip. In addition to the amazing food, the owner’s son/our server was incredibly friendly. We felt so at home at this place. Try the pesto lasagna and calamari!

Not pictured: Pizzeria Tonino

We had pizza around 10 o’clock at night and the place was filled with young locals enjoying beer, clams, and pizza! The quattro formaggi was delicious, but be aware, individual pizzas in Italy are really big so either share or come with a big appetite!

Cafes:

I failed at writing down or taking pictures of the cafes in Piombino. I was drinking about 3 cappuccinos a day, so I got to a point where I stopped taking note of every place I got a coffee! Luckily, the 4 cafes we stopped at all had great drinks and desserts, so I think it’s hard to go wrong in the area.

The beach:

October is not a popular time to go swimming. Actually, while we walked around in shorts and spent time at the beach, locals were dressed in their fall attire looking at us like we were crazy. We live in the mountains, so we had to take full advantage of the water. My advice, take a dip even if it’s not in season!

On our way out, we took the train, Trenitalia, back to Rome. It was about a 3-hour train ride and cost 18 Euros each. Prices vary and tickets can be purchased at a machine at the train station.

I highly recommend Piombino to anyone looking for a quiet and relaxing break from the crowds in Italy. If it wasn’t for my long list of places I had to see during our trip, I would have stayed in Piombino the entire time.

Next stop, the bustling city of Rome!

Don’t get stranded in Cuba! 8 tips for Americans to help your Cuban vacation go smoothly.

There are a few obstacles for Americans when visiting Cuba. Once you arrive and plant your feet on Cuban soil, you’ll realize foreigners from other countries are having a different experience from you. Not to worry! It’s like a special club where you’ll bond with the few Americans you run into and laugh about the things that have gone wrong.

The biggest issue we had was the inability to use our credit cards and debit cards. It is a scary thing to consider: you’re in a foreign country and you’re carrying all the cash you have for your vacation. How do you know how much to bring? What if you lose it? What if you run out? Well, that happens and it happened to us!

Read my 8 tips below to help you avoid any mishaps on your Cuban vacation.

Tip #1: Bring more money than you expect to spend

When we arrived in Miami, we had $1200 in our pockets with the assumption that we would spend $150 total on visas. A budget of $1000 for 7 days seemed like enough since all of our accommodations were prepaid. But if you read my previous post, our visas ended up costing $300 and that made us a bit nervous.

We headed out of our terminal to the only ATM near our gate and as we attempted to take out $300, the ATM broke. We looked at each other and thought, “$900 should be enough right?” We thought so, but we were wrong. My advice is, bring more than you need.  If I could go back, I’d take $1500 for the week plus $500 in emergency money. Just because you bring it, doesn’t mean you have to spend it, and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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I’ll always remember Vinales as the place where we ran out of money.

Tip #2 Exchange most of your money to Euros and leave some American dollars

The currency for tourists is the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) and the exchange rate is 1:1 for Euros. American dollars, on the other hand, are taxed 10% during the exchange, so it is better to exchange your money to Euros prior to arriving in Cuba.

And why keep some dollars? In case you get into a bind. When we ran out of Euros while in Vinales, the line for the bank was incredibly long. On a failed attempt to pick up money from Western Union (long story), we headed to the bank to exchange our last bit of Euros to find that the bank had closed 20 minutes early. Many businesses are also closed on Fridays and Sundays, so we found ourselves stranded and unable to catch a ride back to Havana if we couldn’t find someone to exchange our money.

Turns out, there’s a way to get your money changed and it makes you look a bit sketchy. We found a group of guys who hang out in the town square and offer several services for tourists, one being a money exchange. It’s probably illegal, but we’d be stuck in Cuba if it wasn’t for them. Overall, it was a difficult exchange because all of them wanted American dollars, not Euros. It took a couple minutes of begging until one guy finally stepped in and agreed to exchange 40 Euros. That was enough to get us back to Havana so I was grateful, but I also wished I had kept some dollars to make that whole process easier.

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A church in the town square where I prayed then begged to have my money changed.

Tip #3 Bring EVERYTHING you think you might need

Cuba doesn’t have a corner store where you can buy things you happened to forget. If someone in your group gets sick, gets hurt, or gets a terrible sunburn, you’re out of luck! Try to think of things that might go wrong, especially if you’re traveling with kids. Example of things I brought: suncreen, children’s Tylenol and ibuprofen, Bandaids, antiobiotic cream, aloe vera, bug spray, Benadryl. I felt like a girl scout preparing for a major backpacking trip, but I’m so glad I had these things with me, just in case.

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We almost ran out of sunblock. We also all got terrible sunburn.

Tip #4 Skip the hotels and book a Casa Particular

A casa particular is a private residence that rents out rooms. You can book through Airbnb and it’s significantly cheaper than a hotel. Our first casa cost us $20/night and our last one cost $32/night. When we looked into hotels, $250 per night was the cheapest we could find and the reviews were pretty terrible. At a casa, we were able to mingle with the locals and learn about their culture. We also made friends with other travelers from around the world.

Most of the casas also offer you breakfast for about $5/person (children are usually free). We opted for this since it was cheaper than eating out, and the food was always so fresh and delicious.

When booking through Airbnb, make sure you book with a casa that has reputable reviews and a host you can contact prior to your trip. Long story short, we could not find our casa when we spent 3 days in Vinales. Our cab driver asked several locals for directions and was unsuccessful when calling our host. We ended up in front of another casa where Americans were checking out so we decided to stay there. Side note, this is why we ran out of money in Vinales because we ended up spending 100 CUCs more than anticipated when we booked a new place.

If you book through Airbnb, use my code to get $40 off your first trip! I’m not affiliated with the company, but using my code will get me $20 off my next booking, so help a girl out!

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Our last casa was beautiful! We had a great patio overlooking the streets of Havana.

Tip #5 Use collective taxis to get around

When we needed transportation, we used a taxi collectivo. It’s where you share a taxi with other people going to the same destination. When we needed transportation from Havana to Vinales, we learned it was cheaper and quicker to take a taxi than a bus. The bus cost 12 CUCs per person with potentially more charges depending on the amount of luggage. The taxi to Vinales cost 20 CUCs each and small children are free, so it was a better deal for the 3 of us. On our trip back to Havana, we organized a taxi for 15 CUCs each (again not including children). Your casa host can organize this for you or you can find someone on the street whose job is to organize rides.

*Note: taxi collectivos were not an option going to and from the airport and I’m not exactly sure why.

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We met people from around the world in collective taxis.

Tip #6 Keep street cigars in Cuba, bring sealed cigars home

When you’re a tourist in Cuba, everyone will ask you if you want to buy cigars. We don’t even smoke, but buying a cigar in Cuba sounded like a cool thing to bring home. We bought a box in Havana when we arrived then purchased 10 cigars wrapped in a banana leaf when we did a horse tour on a tobacco farm in Vinales.  The day before we went home, we were informed by a tour guide in Havana that US customs can confiscate your cigars if they do not have a seal of authenticity on the box.

We were bummed at the idea of our 10 cigars being thrown out, but once we went through customs in the US, our cigars weren’t an issue. Since getting back, I’ve read about Cuban customs detaining Canadians for attempting to bring home cigars that weren’t purchased at a government shop. The information seems to be inconsistent, but to avoid detainment or confiscation in either country, the safe thing to do is enjoy your street cigars in Cuba and bring the legit, sealed cigars back home.

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We bought the 10 pack, then panicked.

Tip #7 Print out important information and buy a wifi card asap!

Internet is not the easiest thing to obtain in Cuba. It’s not everywhere like it is in the US. Prior to arriving in Cuba, I had all of my Airbnb info printed out, along with maps for directions to our casas. I also printed out blog posts on things to do and see in Havana.

It wasn’t until we were in Vinales, running out of money that we purchased a wifi card to contact my mom so she could attempt to send money through Western Union. It was then that I realized, we should have purchased a wifi card at the beginning of our trip. It’s good to have just in case you need info, or if you need to contact someone back home in an emergency. Also, it’s good to just check in and let everyone know you’re okay!

Wifi cards can be purchased at several locations such as the one in the picture. Just find a hotspot (it’s usually areas where everyone is sitting in a random place staring at their phone) and log in.

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A very long line to buy a wifi card.

Tip #8 Learn Spanish

Clayton and I dabbled a bit with the duolingo app thinking we had the basics down and turns out, we knew nothing. Seriously, it was embarrassing.

We were grateful that our hosts were able to speak some English, but that was pretty uncommon when walking around. Be sure you brush up on knowing your numbers and how to ask questions like “how much”, “where is…”, “I need a ride to…”, “where can I exchange money?” Even basics like “where can I find breakfast, lunch or dinner.” One of the housekeepers at a casa had an app that translated sentences. Get one of those and make sure it doesn’t require wifi. Anything that helps will go a long way! I often had a blank look on my face when people spoke to me and the only time I didn’t look confused was when someone offered me cerveza.

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We attempted to smoke our street cigars before leaving. Clayton did well and I got nauseous.

Those are my 8 tips to help your Cuban experience go smoothly! If you have any questions, leave them below.

Visiting Cuba: tickets, medical insurance, and visas.

As an American, Cuba has always been a fascinating place, a forbidden land of mystery. When the travel ban was lifted, our curiosity got the best of us, so we decided on Cuba for our first international trip as a family.

Prior to our trip, I googled information, read several blogs on tourism in Cuba, and bothered every person who wrote #Cuba on Instagram. I soon found that the information I gathered wasn’t consistent. Confusion loomed over where to purchase a tourist card, what to see, and how much money to bring. My anxiety heightened by the lack of information.

Despite the headaches and the eye twitching that came immediately while checking in our bags, our misadventures became a learning experience and for that, we are grateful. Let me set the record straight so you can leave your headaches in the US and enjoy your Cuban vacation!

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Riley and I strolling through Havana

 

Booking your flight:

There are 8 major airlines that fly to Havana. We booked our ticket with Frontier since it was about $200 cheaper overall including baggage fees. When we booked our flight, we were asked on the Frontier website what our reason was for visiting Cuba. Americans are banned from visiting for tourism so you must choose a reason that makes the most sense. We chose “Support for the Cuban People” because we were spending our money and helping out the economy. For other airlines, such as Southwest, you are asked your reason at the counter prior to obtaining a visa. Please remember, US visitors are required to keep an itinerary of their activities and it must match your reason for visiting. Apparently, our government can ask for our itinerary years after a visit. So keep track of what you’re doing and make sure it consists of more than just hanging out at the beach and drinking rum.

Medical Insurance:

American citizens are required to have Cuban medical insurance prior to entering Cuba. Check with your airline to see if it is covered with the price of your fare. Since we flew with Frontier, our medical insurance was paid through our tickets, so we didn’t have to worry about purchasing it elsewhere.

Cuban Tourist Visa:

The information on obtaining a visa was the most confusing ordeal of my life. The Frontier website had no information other than a link to a company that sells the visa and sends it to you for $110. I was informed by friends who had visited that visas could be purchased at your connecting airport for $50. After speaking with several people, we decided not to purchase the visa ahead of time and waited until we got to Miami.

Here’s the kicker and the beginning of my headaches/eye twitching; when we checked in our bags at DIA, the woman at the Frontier counter asked if we had our visas. When I told her we would purchase it in Miami, she said there was no guarantee they would have visas for us in Miami then said ” well, your bags will be in Cuba, but you might not be. Good luck.” Can you believe that?! She also mentioned how we risked being detained with a $3000 fine for not buying it ahead of time. Thanks to her, I didn’t sleep on the plane and I was sick to my stomach the entire flight to Miami.

But of course, I shouldn’t have worried and should have trusted what I knew. Once we got off the plane, we heard an announcement asking passengers to Havana to come to the Frontier desk. They had visas! Stacks and stacks of visas. And I cursed the Frontier lady at DIA for worrying me for no reason. So here’s my advice: flying with Southwest? Wait it out and buy your visa at the counter because it’s only $50. For the rest of us, it’s $100 per visa although I don’t understand why there is a price difference. I thought I was going to save money by buying it in person, so if I were to go back, I’d buy it online. And please remember, do not make mistakes on the visa. One mistake will force you to fork over another $100 for a new one.

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For my next post, I’ll outline all the things you need to bring like loads of cash and sunscreen. Did you know Americans can’t use credit cards and debit cards in Cuba? Yes, cash is king. And did you know there is literally no place to buy sunscreen? I’ll outline all of it in my next post on what to bring and how to prepare. Stay tuned and leave any questions below!

Phoenix/Flagstaff/Sedona

A list of our favorite places in Phoenix, Flagstaff, and Sedona.

Hopefully, our “best of” list will guide you if you’re not sure where to go in Arizona!

Sedona

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Sedona can be a pricey place to stay and eat while enjoying the red rock views. If you have a ton to spend, it can be a luxurious getaway. But, if you are a budget traveler like us, consider the following:

Red Rock Visitor Center and Ranger Station needs to be your first stop when entering Sedona. Not only do they have educational info about the area, but the rangers are incredibly helpful in finding the best trails to explore. If you don’t stop here, you might find yourself stopping at all the crowded trails waiting for people to get out of your way just to take a picture!

Cave Springs Campground and Pine Flat Campground located between Sedona and Flagstaff in the Oak Creek Canyon. Both campgrounds are very shady and have spots along the creek. Good for tent camping and there are no hook-ups available. There are vault toilets at both sites and Cave Springs has coin operated showers. Be sure to make reservations online since they both fill up fast, especially on the weekends!

Dead Horse Ranch State Park in Cottonwood, only a 30-minute drive from Sedona and away from all the crowds! There is a $7 entrance fee, $15 fee for tent camping and $60/night for camping cabins. We tried out the cabins for a night and loved it! Check out the website for all info on recreation plus it’s also close to Jerome!

My favorite hot dog place in Sedona closed down, so the only recommendation I have for quality food on a budget is Wildflower Bread Company. Since Sedona is a big tourist town, I feel like they lack decent food unless you are willing to spend a ton of money. We usually avoid all of the restaurants on highway 89 because they tend to be overpriced for the quality.

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We had a very memorable hike up to Fisher Point Overlook. The overlook is an intermediate trail that ends at 6, 620 feet where you get an amazing view of the forest. After the overlook, we wandered around the surrounding trails and found beautiful rock formations and caves. It’s also an awesome place to bring your mountain bike if you have one!

After a big hike, I suggest visiting Beaver Street Brewery and Historic Brewing Company. Both places have beer and food. The burgers are awesome at Beaver Street!

Payson

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Near the Tonto Creek Campground is the Horton Creek Hiking Trail. The hike is 7 miles RT but overall an easy trail. At the end of the trail, there is a beautiful gushing creek that is the perfect setting for a picnic.

The Tonto Natural Bridge State Park has the world’s largest natural travertine bridge. It’s a short, but slippery hike that brings you under the bridge and gives an incredible view. Also, a great place to bring the family for a picnic!

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I accidentally forgot my bag with my hiking clothes and shoes! Don’t be like me! This was incredibly slippery in boots.

Beeline Cafe, 815 S Beeline Hwy in Payson is a small diner along the highway that offers big portions, delicious food, and good prices. Great for those of us on a budget, just remember to bring cash!

Phoenix

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Bartlett Lake

There are so many amazing places in Phoenix, I could go on for pages giving recommendations on camping, hikes, things to do, things to eat! Instead of rambling, I’m giving you my top favorites. Use my guide if you get overwhelmed by google and yelp!

Food:

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Butterfield’s Pancake House and Restaurant in Scottsdale is Clayton’s favorite place. They offer a traditional American breakfast with big hearty portions. This seems to be a favorite for locals and snowbirds. Clayton recommends the pancakes, German pancakes, benedicts, and omelets.

Butters Pancakes and Cafe in Scottsdale was more of a favorite for me. It’s a bit more trendy than Butterfield’s and has an assortment of omelets, benedicts, and pancakes with interesting toppings. Avoid the fresh squeezed orange juice if you’re trying to save money!

The Breakfast Joynt in Scottsdale has amazing red velvet waffles. And that is the only thing I’ve ever gotten there!

Spinato’s Pizzeria has the best pizza I have ever had in my life. They have 5 valley locations, so there is bound to be one near you. You have to try Mama Spinato’s Signature Spinach pizza. I would fly to Phoenix just to eat this pizza!! But be warned, some people don’t like it because the sauce tends to be on the sweeter side.

O.H.S.O. Eatery and Nano Brewery has 2 locations and has an amazing happy hour!! They are also extremely dog-friendly. You can find free dog treats and pictures of dogs on the walls. I love grabbing an AZ Burger while having a beer or sangria on the patio. They are also gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan friendly!

Postino has 7 valley locations and is known by locals for their $20 Monday/Tuesday deal. On these days, you can grab a bottle of wine and a bruschetta board for only $20. At Postino’s you can be fun, fancy, and cheap!

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We enjoyed some delicious fish tacos and margaritas at So Cal Fish Taco Company in downtown Gilbert. Their happy hour was incredibly cheap and they have a great patio.

Talking Stick Resort has the most amazing buffet, Wandering Horse Buffet. This is not your ordinary casino buffet. Their food is top notch, especially during dinner. They even have a full on gelato bar! If you have an RV, they also offer free parking so you can fill up on food then go straight to sleep in the parking lot.

Hikes:

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McDowell Mountain Regional Park

McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Scottsdale is a family favorite for us. You can have an easy to difficult hike, all within the same area. Pick your trail, spend however long you want, and enjoy the awesome views of the valley. No fee to enter this park!

Usery Park has the Wind Cave Trail that is an easy hike for those wanting to take in awesome views without taking the whole day.

Camelback Mountain is a favorite for locals and visitors. It can get extremely crowded and parking is incredibly limited. I don’t recommend this one for young children. The crowds plus the steep trails might make parents a bit anxious even if your kid is capable of difficult hikes. Many people have fallen at Camelback and have gotten seriously injured. Also, dogs are not allowed on any trails!

Tom’s Thumb in Scottsdale is a heart pumping hike surrounded by beautiful desert scenery and awesome rock formations. This one is at the top of the list for us!

Spur Cross Ranch Conservation in Cave Creek has tons of trails for hiking or horse back riding. Make sure you bring cash for the entrance fee!

Lakes:

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Bartlett Lake

Lake Pleasant Regional Park located in North Phoenix has beautiful waters to go boating or swimming. It is also home to a ton of wildlife including bald eagles! $6 per vehicle at the gate.

Canyon Lake in Tortilla Flat. This lake is at the top of our list because the scenery is incredible. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day here.

Bartlett Lake in Scottsdale is beautiful and typically less crowded than the other lakes. This is a popular spot to go camping right along the water. You will need to purchase a Tonto Pass to spend the day or night here.

Saguaro Lake in Mesa is a beautiful place to find wild horses. It is also close to the Salt River where most locals float during the summer. A Tonto Pass is also required here.

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Horse traffic jam at Saguaro Lake.

More Fun:

Catch a Spring Training game for as low at $8! It’s an awesome way to spend the day even if you’re not a baseball fan. Spring Training begins the end of February and usually lasts about a month.

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McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park is one of Riley’s favorite places! Catch a ride around the park on their dog-friendly train, hop on the carousel, grab some ice cream, and check our their train museums. It’s a low cost, fun way to spend the day with any train lover in your family. They also have events during the holidays and a summer concert series.

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Arizona is an awesome, diverse state with so much to do! It’s obvious why it’s one of our favorite states to visit. Have fun and comment below if you have any questions.

KOFA

“Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Off-roading to Skull Rock

 We left the bustling area of Joshua Tree and headed east towards Arizona where we decided to spend time in a state that we love and used to call home. When we lived in Phoenix, our many trips west to California had us driving past Quartzsite without any thought as to what this area of the desert had to offer. Before our nomadic streak, we would pass this little town and think of it as a place with many rock shops, clean restrooms and some fast food. Turns out, Quartzsite is a gem (pun intended!) and it gave us one of the most memorable stops of our trip.

 KOFA National Wildlife Refuge is located between Quartszite and Yuma, and camping in this area is primitive and free. The refuge was created to protect bighorn sheep and covers over 600,000 acres of the Sonoran Desert. Kofa comes from King of Arizona, the name of a goldmine that used to be active in the area. This area of public land is filled with rugged rock formations, fascinating hikes, endless opportunities for off-roading, and wildlife sightings that left us in awe during our stay.

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Cholla “jumping cactus” got all of us as we hiked by!
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A coyote’s dinner?

 When we arrived in Quartzsite and headed towards KOFA, I noticed most travelers were camped closest to I-10. We drove out about 18 miles south to our campsite near the Palm Canyon Trail. Our area was empty compared to the hundreds of RVs we saw near the interstate. I wondered if people knew they could camp this way? Or did the inconvenience of the road turn them away? As usual, the road less traveled always leads to the best destinations.

 We set up camp not far from the trail to Queen Palm Canyon. It was midday when we arrived. The blazing desert sun right over us as we unpacked and stared down at the cars who quickly drove past us and blew dust in our direction. We didn’t have any neighbors camped nearby, but the dirt road we parked on had frequent visitors who would drive up to the trailhead and quickly turn around.

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View from our campsite.

 By the time we prepared dinner, the influx of visitors had disappeared. The rising rock formations that stood over us glowed a deep red as the sun began to set. I looked at the valley in front of us, at all the tall cacti casting long shadows along the desert sky. Once again, it was that feeling of freedom, that incredible feeling of being small. We were graced with a vibrant sunset then the winter night sky gave us a clear view of the bright moon and stars.

The entire week we were there, we’d start a fire just after dinner. As the coyotes began to howl, we’d spot Venus in the distance and laugh at how we watched the moon and the stars glide past Queen Palm Canyon. As insane as it sounds, every night we danced with Venus. We’d focus on one part of the canyon and move along with the planet. We’d laugh then look silently, and I’d quietly reflect on how amazing this time was with nature and with my family.

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Getting the cholla out of Jack’s paw!
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Home is where you park it!

Our hike up the Palm Canyon Trail:

 A short walk from our campsite was the trailhead to the Palm Canyon Trail. This trail is very short, only about a half mile. The reviews on TripAdvisor are a bit misleading citing the trail as somewhat difficult. It’s a bit rocky and I can see it being a fall hazard for certain people, but for the average person, it’s literally a small uphill walk to view the palm trees in the canyon.

What’s cool about this hike? These palm trees are native to Arizona. Apparently, the theory is certain animals had eaten the fruit of these trees and brought their droppings into this canyon which in turn planted palm trees.

Once we saw the palm trees, it was an interesting sight, but definitely not enough of a hike for us. We decided to continue on, ultimately bouldering up the mountain until we could no longer safely climb up. We did our best to follow the cairns placed by other hikers, but we eventually hit a dead end. We finally stopped and turned around realizing that every inch of effort in that climb was totally worth it. We had the whole place to ourselves and the view was stunning.

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Our week at KOFA was one of the most spectacular sights we saw on the road. I still dream about our beautiful campsite and the feelings of peace I had during our stay. My advice is, take the road less traveled and stray away from the rest of the visitors. KOFA has so much to offer even though it may not be evident at first sight.  I promise you won’t reget blazing your own trail.