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!!

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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.

Flagstaff

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.

Joshua Tree National Park

“One time I saw a tiny Joshua tree sapling growing not too far from the old tree. I wanted to dig it up and replant it near our house. I told Mom that I would protect it from the wind and water it every day so that it could grow nice and tall and straight. Mom frowned at me. “You’d be destroying what makes it special,” she said. “It’s the Joshua tree’s struggle that gives it its beauty.” –Jeannette Walls

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When our time in Slab City had come to an end, we headed an hour north to Joshua Tree National Park. As we picked the spot we would camp in for the week, I looked over at I-10 in the distance and thought about all the times we have passed this area during the years we lived in Arizona. I never gave much thought to the beauty that was hidden along this stretch of highway. It’s funny how much you start to notice when you’re no longer so distracted.

The tree itself, is an interesting sight. I saw Dr. Seuss in the makeshift structure of Salvation Mountain and the theme continued here in Joshua Tree. The harsh desert creates interesting characters. In the several days we stayed here, we found striking contrasts in our experiences. The days were hot and the nights were cold, we had peaceful days with no one around and we had busy nights with neighbors playing EDM music till 3 AM. We met wonderful individuals then met drunk ones who like to heckle rangers. But in the end, we found a way to balance our encounters, learn to be flexible and walk away with a memorable experience.

Camping details:

Camping ranged from $15-$20/night inside the park. Due to Joshua Tree being located in California and near major cities, the best thing to do is plan ahead and reserve a campsite prior to leaving.We were also unaware until we arrived that it was a holiday weekend. Dates and time often becomes irrelevant when living on the road! So the park was full and every campground was packed during our stay.

Lucky for us, we planned on BLM camping. Free is always better! The area is located just outside the south entrance along I-10. When we arrived, there were several RVs parked in the area so it’s very hard to miss. The downside to BLM camping is that it is completely primitive meaning no toilets! But, if you can dig yourself a deep hole or hold it in until you get inside the park, it’s totally worth all the money you can save. The upside is it’s free and you can gather vegetation for campfires at night.

Here’s a tip: Find dead and fallen ocotillo branches for fire. Take a walk around your campsite and don’t be afraid to venture out. Ocotillo branches are lightweight and long so you can drag a bunch back to your site. Check out the boys gathering wood below.

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What to do:

Day 1: When arriving at any national park, make sure the Visitor’s Center is your first stop. I grabbed a newsletter and brochure that listed all the hiking and off-road trails. On our first day we decided to hike around the Cottonwood Spring area and up to Mastodon Peak.

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We had an awesome time roaming around this area. Riley walked around with his Jr. Ranger booklet filling out the questions and got a kick out of the old mines around the loop. We climbed to the top of Mastodon Peak which gave us an amazing view of the park. The trail up the peak is not maintained, but it’s really short and not difficult.The narrow climb combined with the rocks can be intimidating and caused several people to turn around, but I recommend giving it a try if you have proper footwear.

Day 2: On our second day, we needed to buy groceries so we drove through the park to Twentynine Palms. The south visitor center to the north visitor center is about 40 miles and since we were driving at slow speeds through the park, it takes quite a while to get from one end to another. We stocked up on food and supplies so we didn’t have to make that trip twice.

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Joshua Trees at dusk on our way back to camp

Day 3: We decided to go off roading on Pinkham-Canyon road and bushwacked through a random hill for some exercise. Be sure you have 4wd if you decide to do this! There were a couple areas where our truck worked hard in the sand. It was a bumpy and fun ride, and even for a holiday weekend, there was no one out there! Here is the info from the NPS website:

Pinkham Canyon-Thermal Canyon Roads
This challenging 20-mile (32.4-km) road begins just south of Cottonwood Visitor Center, travels along Smoke Tree Wash, then cuts down Pinkham Canyon, exiting onto a service road that connects to I10. Or you can pass Pinkham Canyon and continue on to Thermal Canyon Road. Sections of these roads run through soft sand and rocky flood plains. Drivers should be prepared and should not attempt travel on these roads without a high-clearance, 4-wheel-drive vehicle and emergency supplies. “

Day 4: We drove halfway through the park and explored some of the boulders! There was a ton of running, jumping and climbing. A simple day without any plans, and we had the best time.

Day 5: We hiked Ryan Mountain then headed over to some more boulders and jumped around. The trail on Ryan Mountain was fairly crowded, but overall it was a good hike with nice views.

 

Overall, a fun and relaxing 5 days for us at Joshua Tree. If you go, we recommend: camp for free so you can stay longer, talk to a ranger to attend the free events, do some hiking, and don’t be afraid to explore off road away from the crowds. Have fun!

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Jack enjoying the desert views.
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Gorgeous desert sunset from our free campsite!

 

 

GoodBelly Probiotic Juice

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Happy, healthy GoodBelly family 🙂

Three years ago, my family and I went through a major transformation with our diet. I was a steak eating, milk drinking, I love to eat anything with a face kind of girl until my health started to deteriorate. It was hard for me to understand why I felt so lousy when I exercised pretty regularly. I’ll leave my condition nameless to stay on track, but one day I had a wake up call and decided to make changes in my lifestyle. Beef and poultry were the first to go, then it was dairy. Within 3 weeks, all of my symptoms had vanished and I was changed forever. That’s when I realized, I really need to be careful about what I put in my body!

As my health continued to improve, there was still one reoccurring issue. I was constantly getting a cold! I kind of accepted this fate due to my line of work. I was a social worker who conducted homevisits for a child abuse prevention program. My clients were from birth to five and when one household got sick, my whole caseload somehow had the same sickness. Consequently, I would catch it then bring it home to my family. Loading up on Vitamin C and cold medicine never seemed to help and in the midst of my whole diet change I thought, “there has to be something I can eat to keep me from getting sick??”

And that’s what lead me to the wonderful world of PROBIOTICS! I read countless articles online about how they worked and basically got the jist: good bacteria in gut, helps with digestion and immune system, good to take when on antibiotics and so on. Sounds legit, but which one do I take? I was familiar with Activia: my mom used to buy it when I was in undergrad and my only memory was having to run to the bathroom after eating it. Also, yogurt was not appealing since my stomach couldn’t handle dairy anymore. Yakult was another name I knew, but that was dairy too. I thought, “oh crap, are probiotics only in dairy??”

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My discovery of GoodBelly may have been serendipitous. I was perusing through Whole Foods when I saw the cute colorful cartons that said “Probiotic Juice Drink.” I was excited, yet a part of me thought “I bet this doesn’t taste good.” I purchased only one carton as a trial and went with the mango flavor because that felt like a safe bet. When I got home, I poured myself a tiny glass and the rest is history. It was DELICIOUS. It just tasted like juice… like normal, regular, have this with my breakfast kind of juice. I was hooked.

I didn’t even have to do the 12 day Belly Reboot as the carton suggested. I noticed a difference in my regularity within a week, and I kept drinking it to boost my immune system. I also discovered the Plus Shots which include the daily amount of probiotics plus vitamins. Whenever one of us starts feeling like a cold might be coming, I stock up on the Plus Shots and I swear it’s helped with preventing a serious cold. Another plus side is, our 5 year old loves this stuff. Whenever we go to the store, he’s grabbing one of each flavor and putting it in the cart.

On the go? No refrigerator? Traveling overseas? Click here Probiotic Supplement for Digestive Health – Probiotics for Men and Women – Aids in Digestion & Supports Your Active Lifestyle to purchase the supplement to keep your gut healthy everywhere you go!

You can find GoodBelly pretty much everywhere now. During our travels, it’s a necessity to have this stuff in our fridge and we’ve been able to find it in every state we’ve visited and several stores like Safeway and Kroger in addition to stores like Whole Foods. And if you’d rather have GoodBelly everywhere you go, try their supplements! No refrigeration is needed! The downside is these are not available in stores, so click the link above to order it through Amazon.

It’s been a good couple of years with GoodBelly and it’s a product we stand by and recommened to everyone we know. Now go on with your healthy self and pour a glass of Good Belly!