Alex In Wanderland http://www.alexinwanderland.com Working and playing around the world Tue, 30 Jun 2015 22:26:20 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=4.1.5 My Travelversary: Year Four http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/29/four-years-of-travel/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/29/four-years-of-travel/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35684

June is a pretty big month around these parts — the 9th (yup, this post is a tad late, what else is new) marked four whole years in Wanderland. Four years since the day I took off from New York on a one-way ticket. Fourty-eight months since alexinwanderland.com went live. One thousand, four hundred and sixty days since I’ve been chasing — often in circles — this dream of working for myself while I see the world.

When I was in high school I’d spin the globe and run my hand along it, longing to go everywhere my fingers touched. Four years later, I still can’t walk by a map without stopping to daydream. Four years later and — temporary bouts of jadedness aside — I still look at the world with great curiosity, and the corners of it I’m lucky enough to travel to quite frequently leave me feeling overwhelmed with gratitude and awe.

In the past, I’ve celebrated with a big anniversary post highlighting my year in travel, blogging, and beyond. This year, I decided to break this baby down into a mini-series (see previous years here, here and here). Starting with from which the rest grows: a recap of the last twelve months of travel.

My Year in Travels

Year Four 1. Home Sweet Home

My year of travels kicked off, once again, stateside. I spent about a month bouncing between places that feel varying degrees of “home” to me — Albany, New York, and Martha’s Vineyard — and made a trip to Philadelphia to visit my dad. Highlights included Father’s Day with all four sisters in attendance, the Mermaid Parade in Brooklyn, and my first Fourth of July celebrated in the USA in six years.

When it was time to leave, I wasn’t quite ready to go! But another adventure called…

US Travel

US Travel

2. England

London was the logical starting point for my European adventures — I nabbed a cheap flight from New York, and I have close friends there that I was dying to see. I’ve never been crazy about England in the past but this visit was a turning point me for: I didn’t want to leave after a week. Third time really is a charm, and I now look forward to going back.

London Travel

London Travel

3. Malta

I flew to Malta with one goal in mind: spending a week with my (obviously extremely amicably) ex-boyfriend Anders, who was working there as a dive instructor. The beautiful Mediterranean island we were on was just a perk — though it turned out to be a major one. Exploring Malta with a set of wheels and a map, and without expectations or schedules, was absolute perfection. When I look back on my time here it replays in my mind like a hazily lit indie music video.

Malta Travel

Malta Travel

4. Belgium

Belgium is the country responsible for getting me to start piecing together this Eurotrip in the first place by making me obsessed with a little ‘ol festival called Tomorrowland. Once Heather and I decided to go and nabbed tickets, I basically built everything around that. And while it was the undoubted highlight of my time in the country, I’m glad I built in some time to peek at Brussels, Ghent and Bruges.

My fight with Belgian customs and the hundreds of dollars I lost in the process still stings, but overall I give the country two thumbs up — or two dancing arms in the air, more accurately.

Belgium Travel

Belgium Travel

5. Greece

Ah, Greece — the mere mention sets my heart aflutter. This is one of my favorite countries in the world and I could not have been happier to spend more than three whole weeks in this gorgeous place.

Looking back at this period in retrospect is really interesting. I realize now that I did not build enough down time and work time into my Europe trip, and as a result I was starting to crack from pressure by the time I got to Greece. So intellectually, I know that while I was there I was manically swinging between highs of having beautiful, life-defining moments and lows of being paralyzed with stress. Yet when I  reminisce about Greece, I just muse on all the good stuff — a really nice gift my memory gives me.

Greece Travel

Greece Travel

Greece Travel

6. Bahrain

Bahrain was a bonus! The cheapest flights between Athens and Bangkok involved a twenty-four hour layover in one of the Middle East’s most sophisticated city-states, and having never been to the region, I seized the opportunity to take an exploratory bite. No surprise here — my whirlwind visit left me wanting more.

Bahrain Travel

7. Thailand

Thailand. By the time I landed here, I wasn’t even three months into the year, and I’d already crossed seven borders and rounded the edge of blogging and travel burnout. I was ready to throw my laptop and passport in the ocean and never write another word or apply for another visa ever again.

But Thailand healed me. My ten weeks back in my home away from home  allowed me to hit the reset buttons in my mind and soul and remember to be grateful for what I know is a beautiful life I’m lucky to be living. The vast majority of my time was spent in Koh Tao, thought I did have jaunts to Koh Samui, Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Pai thrown in for good measure.

Thailand Travel

Thailand Travel

Thailand Travel

There is nowhere on this planet that I feel more content than on Koh Tao, and being back there was the highlight of my year. I am so grateful for whatever twist of fate first brought me to this island back in 2009. I can’t imagine my life without it.

Thailand Travel

8. Cambodia

One short and sweet week in Phnom Penh was the perfect way to toast to my latest trip before heading back stateside. I came to visit my dear friend Wes, who very conveniently moved to my favorite Southeast Asian city. This was my third trip to Cambodia, and I already look forward to the fourth.

Cambodia Travel

Cambodia Travel

9. USA

I’ve become determined to spend the holidays at home every other year, a pattern I’ve kept up with now for half a decade. What started as a Thanksgiving-through-Christmas trip mushroomed into a six week stateside extravaganza including watching my older sister run the marathon in Philadelphia, spending Thanksgiving and Christmas in Albany, showing my new friend (wink wink) from Koh Tao around New York, spending New Year’s Eve in New Orleans and kicking off 2015 all over Florida.

On the other end of the fun spectrum, I ended up in hospitals twice — once in the ER with a mysteriously blown pupil and once on the surgical table having a tumor removed. While both were scary they were, in the grand scheme of things, minor — and didn’t come close to slowing me down.

US Travel

US Travel

US Travel

US Travel

10. Nicaragua

I really learned my lesson with Europe and vowed to take this Central America trip nice and slow. And I started out doing just that — my month in Nicaragua was broken into just three destinations. I can’t explain how calm and content I was to be in a country I’d dreamed of for so long, and to be exploring it with what felt like a luxury of time for each city I visited. Nicaragua now sits near the top of the list of my favorite countries.

Right before I left for Central America, close friends of mine asked me, “What do you want your word for 2015 to be?” I’d responded, “Whatever the opposite of frantic is.” Well, in Nicaragua, I nailed it. It was deliciously un-frantic.

Nicaragua Travel

Nicaragua Travel

11. El Salvador

Much like I built my Europe travels around attending Tomorrowland, I built my Central America travels around attending Equilibrio. It was a special thing to be a part of, and to share with some of my oldest friends from New York. I’m so grateful to this festival for bringing me to El Salvador, which I’m not sure I would have emphasized otherwise! And again, I nailed it on the timing — two weeks, two destinations, one chilled-out blogger.

El Salvador Travel

El Salvador Travel

12. Guatemala

My perfect plan of slow, soak-it-up travel kind of fell apart in Guatemala, where I never quite found the perfect place to sit still. My six weeks here were all over the place, and I didn’t quite fall in love with it the way I hoped I would. That said, there were plenty of highlights, from diving in Lake Atitlán to discovering the charms of Guatemala City to sticking my toes in a black sand beach in Monterrico.

Guatemala Travel

Guatemala Travel

Guatemala Travel

13. Belize

Belize is a really special country for me, as a family vacation there about twelve years ago was the first international trip I ever planned! Returning for a second time, again with my family, was a truly sentimental experience. I love that my Central America travels were a mix of traveling solo and meeting up with loved ones. And I couldn’t have picked a better destination to bring my mom, sister, and cousin to — from charming islands to lush jungle, this little country packs a lot of punch.

Belize Travel

Belize Travel

14. Honduras

Having been to Honduras once before and hit many of the highlights, I admit that returning wasn’t high on my priority list — yet the only way to reach Grand Cayman directly from Central America is via twice weekly direct flights from La Ceiba. Despite temperamental weather and low expectations, I really enjoyed my time in both Copán, a new destination for me, and Roatán, an old favorite.

Honduras Travel

Honduras Travel

15. Cayman Islands

I’ve been trying to return to Grand Cayman for years, since I first spent a summer there before my senior year of college. I centered my trip around Batabano, which was every fit as fun as it looks in photos. Unfortunately, the rest of the week we were plagued by bad weather and bad luck, but hanging with Heather meant I was having a good time regardless.

Cayman Travel

16. Bermuda

Bermuda was a last-minute addition to my travel itinerary for the year — and I couldn’t be more grateful it fell in my lap. Though I spent just four days here, they made a huge impression. Diving, stand up paddleboarding, and scootering all over this pink sand island in a pair was the perfect encore to a sweet travel romance that first kicked off in Guatemala.

Bermuda Travel

Bermuda Travel

Bermuda Travel

17. USA

As has become a beloved tradition, I’m spending my travelversary, and summer, stateside. However, I’ve hardly turned in my dance card since landing back on US soil. I truly cherish this time spent exploring my own backyard. Thus far, I’ve hit up Albany, the Finger Lakes, Martha’s Vineyard, and New York City — with many more domestic destinations on the docket before I take off internationally again.

The best part, as always? Spending time with some of my favorite people on the planet.

Upstate New York Travel

My Year in Numbers

Countries Visited: 14. Wow! More than double from last year. So far, I only have three new countries on the docket for year five, and I plan to keep that number as low as possible to I can focus on quality over quantity.

New Countries Visited: 7. Again, kind of ridiculous — but it brought the grand total of countries I’ve visited to 30! One fun milestone I was excited to reach was having visited every country in Central America. I look forward to saying the same about Southeast Asia someday.

States Visited: 5. All were states I’ve been to before and have family ties to.

Plane Rides Taken: 22. (I count origin to final destination as a flight regardless of how many segments or layovers it has). Of those flights, three were basically free thanks to frequent flyer miles (including two of the big international ones), four were paid for by work, and five were under $100 each. The most painfully expensive flight was from Athens to Bangkok at $655.

Though I took many flights, primarily I traveled by bus, train, car, and ferry.

Beds Slept In: 74, not counting overnight flights, buses and trains. More than ever! Of those, 22 were crashing with family or friends, 20 were hotels, 17 were hostels (9 dorms, 8 private rooms), 7 were apartments I rented (1 long term, 6 short term), 3 were beach or jungle bungalows, 2 were guesthouses, 2 were tents, and 1 was a motel.

In keeping with my slow down theme, I hope to reduce this number for next year.

Dives: 19. Less than ever! However, I kind of made up for quantity with quality — I dove in exotic locales, from a high altitude lake in Guatemala to a volcanic crater in Greece and many more in between. Still, I’m hoping to sneak in a liveaboard in Southeast Asia in the coming year, which will definitely jack this number right up.

Conferences Attended: 0. A bummer, as I love catching up with my blogging and diving buddies.

Weddings Attended: 0. Another big surprise.

Festivals Attended: 4. Tomorrowland, Yi Peng, Equilibrio, and Batabano.

Four Years of Travel

My Year in Feels

Overall, I feel overwhelmingly grateful to have explored four diverse and exciting areas of the world this year. Southeast Asia, the USA, Central America, and Europe in just twelve months — and I even got a hint of the Middle East! While the first two feel like home, the latter three still feel deliciously exotic.

This was a year I feel I could count in loved ones, rather than days and months. Many of my trips were centered around people — family I wanted to visit, friends I wanted to travel with, people with whom I wanted to reconnect. That made it a really beautiful year.

However, for someone who keeps claiming they want to slow down, I didn’t do a great job of achieving that goal this year — it was, in fact, my busiest and most travel-crazy yet. The truth is, I have a hard time sitting still. It’s hard to stop moving when there’s so much to explore. This time last year, I’d never been to the Middle East. I’d never run a 10K, I’d never taught a writing workshop, I’d never been diving at altitude or in an aquarium. Now, I’ve done all of those things, and my life is richer for them. But it’s equally rich, I feel, for having rented an apartment for two months in Koh Tao. For having made a regular Sunday spa date with a girlfriend. For having dated someone for longer than the two weeks it took for us to be heading to different countries. For having had a set of keys to call my own again.

Diving in Guatemala

What’s Next

Year four was the year of saying yes (well, let’s face it, it’s been a lifetime of saying yes), but year five is going to be the year of saying no thank you. I don’t need to go absolutely everywhere. But I do need to be more present in absolutely every day. And the best way to do that? Probably to cut my movement in about a half. I’ve been saying I wanted to do this for years, and I did want it in theory, but I wasn’t ready to execute in practice. Now, I am.

After my summer stateside is up, I’m going back to Koh Tao on a one way ticket. I can’t wait to have a home base again! I’ve already got a few small trips planned — Burma with two of my girlfriends, Bangkok to attend a conference, hopefully a liveaboard in Indonesia at some point. Am I going to be traveling less? Technically, yes, but I don’t really see it that way. I’m going to be traveling deeper.

Backbends in Belize

Next up, my year in blogging…

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Photo of the Week 211: Albany http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/28/photo-of-the-week-211-albany/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/28/photo-of-the-week-211-albany/#comments Sun, 28 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35895

Happy Sunday from Albany, New York! I spent the week in my hometown with Wanderland Vice President Tucker Baackes — who just so happens to be the cutest cocker spaniel in town — enjoying some down time between trips and taking care of all that pesky real life business that I spend most of the year outrunning, ie. going to the dentist and ophthalmologist; cleaning out my closet and sending a big clothes donation to a local charity, and making some much needed gear repairs and replacements.

My biggest move of the week was ordering a new DSLR, a new underwater camera setup, and new versions of a few other electronics that have recently failed me. They were huge expenditures and the simultaneous timing of their urgent purchase was unfortunate, but considering they are the tools of my trade I had little choice in matter. After much research and contemplation, I feel confident in my purchases and now can’t wait to start shooting with my new fleet. I’m looking forward to doing a post about my new family of Canons — looks like this page is going to need updating soon.

Paint and Sip Saratoga

So, after a week filled with nothing but work, working out, and wiping out my meager life savings, I was thrilled to have a dear friend’s wedding shower on the docket for the weekend. After a beautiful shower in Saratoga, the bachelorette kickoff activity was a private party at a Paint n’ Sip studio. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to join in — I’ve been dying to check out one of these places since they started popping up all over the US a few years ago. It was such a fun group activity and felt so good to have a paintbrush in hand again.

For a quiet week, I had a quiet post — just one photo. But it’s a good one, because it inspires me to finally make good on that promise I always make to myself. A promise to start creating art again.

 . . .

Well, I guess I can’t ask which photo is your favorite this week! So I’ll ask a few other things instead — are you interested in camera review posts? Any artists out there that travel with their tools? Does anyone else find cleaning out their closet infinitely more satisfying than filling it? Inquiring bloggers want to know! See you in the comments!

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I’m a Boring Millennial, And Other News http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/26/im-a-boring-millennial-and-other-news/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/26/im-a-boring-millennial-and-other-news/#comments Fri, 26 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=36040

This post brought to you by Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase. The content and opinions expressed below are that of Alex in Wanderland.
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I, I reluctantly admit, am not special. Science says so.

Actually, I didn’t really need science to tell me that. The whole point of this ‘lil ol blog — other than to obsessively document my travels for my own feeble-memoried self to flip back through — is to show that heck, if I, the cheerleader next door, can do this travel thing, surely so can you! Have I never mentioned that I was a cheerleader? It’s true. I was also in AP History, so take that, stereotypes! (But I do have blonde hair and also once broke a microwave by trying to heat up soup still in the can. So there’s that.)

Anyway, back to how not special I am. It might seem like becoming a divemaster, frolicking with elephants, and attending international music festivals are exciting and special things. But no, I’ve learned. Those are just things millennials like.

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Often, when brands want to work with me, it’s because they are hoping to tap into this mystery market of those of us born between 1980 and the late 1990s. They want to know what makes us tick. I love when this happens, because I have a lot of exciting ideas to share (we want, for example, a more clear explanation of what metals can and cannot go in the microwave.)

One brand wanted to know more — so they asked a bunch more people. Marriott Rewards Credit Card recently conducted a nationwide survey of travelers (defined by those who stay in a hotel at least five nights per year) aged 18-67 to see if they could once and for all suss out what us millennials (ages 18-34) are really into.

Your Standard Model Millennial

Based on their findings, shown above, I’m a pretty standard millennial. That divemaster training I loved so much? A full 67% of millennials are into watersports too. That elephant I fed bananas to? Yup, 63% of millennials are armed with a fruit basket and up for hanging out with wild animals. And Tomorrowland, the electronic playground I attended in Belgium last summer? Well, 28% of millennial seek out nightlife when they travel, almost double the number of Gen Xers (ages 35 – 49) and more than quadruple the number of Boomers (ages 50 – 67) who do the same.

Marriot Rewards

To me, all these findings speak to an idea that I believe to my core — in general, my generation doesn’t want to simply take vacations, or fly to another country just to plop on the beach and relax. There’s sleeping-when-we’re-dead for that! No, we don’t want to take vacations — we want to have adventures.

More about Marriott Rewards Credit Card

You guys know I’m a travel hacking addict — and one of the keys to getting started is finding the best way to manage your money abroad with the perfect travel credit card for you. One example? The Marriott Rewards Credit Card from Chase, which has no foreign transaction fees, and allows travelers to rack up accelerated Marriott Rewards points on all purchases. I have personally used cards like this to help me earn points that I redeem for nice hotels when I need a break from backpacking — it’s an awesome treat! Keep an eye out for sign-up bonuses that can help you nab your first free hotel stay more quickly. Visit Marriott Rewards Credit Card for more info.

Are you a standard millennial like me, or do you deviate from the norm?

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Waking Up With The Jungle at Tikal http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/24/waking-up-with-the-jungle-at-tikal/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/24/waking-up-with-the-jungle-at-tikal/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35918

Stepping off the bus that I’d called home for the past ten hours, I stopped for a moment to stretch and reflect on my coast-to-coast journey. A few days before, I’d played in the black sand of a beach on the Southwest coast of Guatemala. After stops in both Antigua and Guatemala City, I hopped the country’s one and only overnight bus route to reach Flores, a town just a short drive from the Belizean border in the far Northeastern corner of the country.

Like many, I had come to Flores to visit the Mayan ruin of Tikal. However, with four days left before I’d meet my mom, sister, and cousin in Belize, I had plenty of laptop time to log before I could sign off for family time. Flores, I’d hoped, would be a charming and colorful base from which to hunker down.

It was indeed.

Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

I knew Flores was tiny, but it didn’t matter how many maps I looked at — I didn’t really feel it until I was there, and I’d traversed the island town in about five minutes flat. Connected to the mainland by a long causeway, Flores floats serenely in Lago Petén Itzá. While Tikal is a massive draw and tourists are abound, it seemed to me the town is still more of a stopover than a final destination for most — every traveler I met was staying a night or two rather than a week or two. Hence, there’s just one true hostel, a few cute restaurants, and not a single yoga studio in sight. Laugh it up, but I found that yoga studios, along with Western gyms, were a strong indicator of a destination’s development in this region. Monterrico and Flores were the first two destinations I’d hit in my Central America tour that didn’t have one.

While I did miss having a place to roll out a mat (I’ve never been such a vinyasa fiend as I was on this trip — I was practicing a few times a week!) I stayed active by strolling around the town with my camera in hand.

Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

I discovered San Telmo restaurant on my first afternoon stroll, and returned there every single day. They had a great menu of healthy meals and homemade treats — banana bread and Diet Coke became my regular afternoon treat — and a great atmosphere, with river views.

San Telmo, Flores, Guatemala

San Telmo, Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

I also really enjoyed the food at my own hotel, Los Amigos. They had a fantastic array of salads, smoothies, and filling breakfasts.

I’d been a little nervous about getting in at Los Amigos as I showed up without a reservation, but I managed to snag a private room with a shared bathroom for $20 a night. Not the best deal I found in Guatemala by a long shot, but considering how much work I needed to get done, I was willing to invest in good sleep and a private space. (Note to others who require a strong internet connection: you aren’t going to find a great one in Flores. The wifi at Los Amigos ranged from decent to unusable, while San Telmo was reliably slow.)

Los Amigos, Flores, Guatemala

Los Amigos, Flores, Guatemala

But to balance out that splurge of a room, I found an insanely charming taco stand where a burrito or three tacos would set you back a mere $2. Yum! The perfect find for a sunset picnic around the edge of the island.

Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

Flores, Guatemala

While it might take just fifteen minutes to circumnavigate the island of Flores, I was more than content to use this cheerful little town as a base for a few days. But people don’t come to this part of Guatemala for Flores. Nope.

They come for Tikal.

Tikal, Guatemalasquinty selfie alert!

There are four main tours available to Tikal, based on what time you want to be there. I flip-flopped on which I wanted to take but eventually signed up for the Sunrise Tour, departing at 3am. Ouch. As we trekked through the jungle in a blanket of blackness — long time readers may recall I have a pesky phobia of the dark — I wondered what I’d gotten myself into. Our guide Luis, who I’d only seen through the beam of the flashlight he flashed on his face when he spoke, shone a light on a set of temple stairs, telling us to sit quietly at the top and wait for sunrise. Please don’t speak, he emphasized.

We obeyed, climbing the steps in silence and settling in on the cool stone steps at the top. We sat in the darkness for a while, a quiet cough or a slight seat shifting the only breaks in our meditative solitude.

Then another group arrived. They were noticeably noisy coming up the stairs, but surely they’d settle down in a moment — right? Wrong. Though there was now enough ambient light to see that there were dozens of others sitting in silence, a few choice tourists — a more crass blogger might refer to them as jackasses with Nikon starter kits, but I’m much more refined than that — couldn’t quite grasp that it was purposeful. Despite several sushings, many passionately issued by myself, a few small groups would simply not STFU. I felt myself getting hot with annoyance. I generally think of myself as a pretty easygoing person, but this is just one of those things that pushes my buttons. I just feel that if you are physically incapable of silencing yourself for like, half a hour while witnessing a beautiful wonder of nature atop a sacred Mayan site, then please spare us all your commentary and stay in bed.

Just as I was about to get up to issue this suggestion to the offenders, something magical happened. As if responding to a silent alarm, the jungle roared to life.

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

The worst kind of fellow tourists aside, it was a magical moment. The sound of howler monkeys filled the valley below, and the piercing call of a macaw seemed to announce the rise of hazy sunlight. In the far distance, the peak of another temple built centuries ago peeked through the lush canopy.

Despite the fog, the early morning wake up had been worth it.

Tikal, Guatemala

That said, I really did want the fog to go away. It was kind of ruining my pictures! Our guide Luis noticed I wasn’t taking many photos and asked what was wrong. I sheepishly replied that unless conditions were perfect I couldn’t really be bothered. He laughed and told me I was like a tour guide — and he would know. Now forty, Luis has been guiding in Tikal since he was twelve — and selling water on the site to tourists since he was seven.

His experience helped us spot tons of wildlife. Though we were sad to hear we missed the jaguar he’d seen only a few days before (though I can’t really complain — I saw two in Peru last year!), we did spy a host of howler monkeys, plenty of beautiful birds, and even a baby wild cat.

Tikal, Guatemala

Wildlife at Tikal

Wildlife at Tikal

Wildlife at Tikal

Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly what this little guy was called (any ideas?) — but he sure was cute.

Wildlife at Tikal

Wildlife at Tikal

Wildlife at Tikal

And there was one creature I have to admit I was fine with not seeing…

Wildlife at Tikal

Finally, as we headed to the most famous temple complex, the sky began to clear. This, I winked to Luis, is what I was waiting for.

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

Tikal, Guatemala

Of course I couldn’t visit a notorious Central American wonder without snapping a selfie! Actually there’s a funny story behind this one. As I was taking it, a guy came up and offered to take my photo. I gladly obliged, and he was just about to release the shutter as he asked, “So, are you Alex in Wanderland?”

The shocked look I had in that picture was less than flattering, but we had a laugh and a great chat. I ended up being approached by a total of six different readers in Central America — so fun! — but I have to admit that was the funniest encounter.

Tikal, Guatemala

Just as the heat of the day began to settle in, it was almost time to return to Flores.

Tikal, Guatemala

With the sky cleared, many in the group opted to use their remaining hour to return to the temple we’d watched the sun rise from. Surprisingly, as I’m normally never one to say no to a photo op, I decided to head back to the entrance and find a shady spot to read my Kindle.

However, two little kids — probably future little Luises! — had another idea. They caught my attention with a fairly strong jaguar impression and responded to my applause by turning me into a jungle gym. I’m not really a tiny human person normally, but these two were pretty irresistible. The hour I spent giggling with them is probably my favorite memory from all of Flores. It was a nice reminder that it’s not all about the big sights and the beautiful dSLR photography. Sometimes it’s about the little moments and the iPhone selfies.

Kids at Tikal, Guatemala

Kids at Tikal, Guatemala

And with that, my month in Guatemala had come to a close — for now. Eventually, I’d have to re-enter Guatemala in order to make it to my outbound flight from Honduras. But for now, I was Belize bound. And I couldn’t wait.

Guatemalan Flag at Tikal

This was the first of three Mayan ruins I’d visit in Central America on this trip. Do you make a point to stop at cultural sites like this when you travel?

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Photo of the Week 210: Kentucky and California http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/22/photo-of-the-week-210-kentucky-and-california/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/22/photo-of-the-week-210-kentucky-and-california/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35894

Greetings from Los Angeles! Well, more accurately, from LAX, from where I’ll soon be taking off again for the East Coast. This week absolutely flew by. I kicked off the week crossing from Tennessee into Kentucky, where I soaked up as much as I could of the Bluegrass State in my less than forty-eight whirlwind hours there. Then it was back to Tennessee and onward to California, where I spent Father’s Day with my dad and little sister. I love how much time I’m getting with family this summer! At first it was an adjustment to think of my dad so far away on the West Coast, but he’s thrilled to be in Los Angeles and I look forward to exploring his new city with him. I’ve already booked a trip back in September, as this one was all too short.

Now, I’m looking forward to a busy week of working back in Albany, winding down from the action packed two before it. I’ve learned how important these weeks of downtime are for me, and to cherish those empty swaths on my calendar. Happy Monday!

Photo A

KentuckyLexington, Kentucky!

Photo B

Kentucky HorsesKentucky horses, roaming regally

Photo C

LACMA Los AngelesA popular exhibit at LACMA in Los Angeles

Photo D

Los Angeles Looking up and down in LA

Which photo is your favorite?

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Memories of Monterrico http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/19/monterrico/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/19/monterrico/#comments Fri, 19 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35863

Close your eyes and picture a beautiful beach. A hundred people will have a hundred different visions of exactly what that paradise would look like. One thing the majority will probably have in common? Silky white sand. And believe me, I love those picture perfect paradises as much as the next daydreamer. But over the years, I’ve occasionally become enticed by something a little more exotic: a black, volcanic beach.

Which is what brought me to Monterrico, Guatemala.

Monterrico, Guatemala

Well, that, and the promise of a sweltering lowland heat. See that big selfie smile below? That’s the smile of a girl who’s back in her happy place. I know I harp on being cold sometimes. Put me in a sub-tropic swamp or an oven-like desert any day — I promise I’ll take it like a champ! But I’m the first to admit I have zero tolerance for being even the slightest bit chilly.

I know not everyone is programmed the same way, but I do want to caution those that are Guatemala bound not to fall into the same trap I did and fill their backpack with nothing but bikinis and summer skirts. Those were perfect for Nicaragua and El Salvador but completely inadequate for the highlands of Guatemala in March. Thank goodness for the one pair of jeans and one long sleeve top I’d packed (items I’d previously considered wasted space), which I wore every single day of my three weeks in Antigua and Atitlán! I was bundled up in both the morning I departed from Antigua, and quickly drifted off to sleep huddled across an empty row in the back of my shuttle. When I awoke two hours later, I felt a line of sweat rolling off my forehead and blinked awake to the sight of palm trees passing by through the window overhead. I peeled off that long sleeve shirt and smiled. I was going to the beach.

Monterrico, Guatemala

Monterrico, Guatemala

Back to that black sand. Many visitors to the country never see so much of a glance of either coast of Guatemala — it doesn’t have an internationally known beach town on par with San Juan del Sur in Nicaragua or Bocas del Toro in Panama. The closest it does have is Monterrico, a tiny speck of a beach town along the Pacific slope of the country, not far from either Guatemala City or Antigua.

From the moment I read about Monterrico, I knew I’d eventually be digging my toes into its black sandy shores. I’m a sucker for dark sand everywhere from Santorini to Hawaii, and I was craving the ocean something fierce after a few weeks of being landlocked.

Black Sand Beach Guatemala

Monterrico, Guatemala

Monterrico, Guatemala

I arrived in Monterrico on a Thursday and was surprised to find I had it more or less to myself. The town was quiet during the day, the beach was almost abandoned when I went for a run at sunset and when I jumped in my hotel pool to cool off after, I floated on my back and stared at the stars in total seclusion.

“Mid-week, and no turtles,” the manager at my hotel explained. The weekend, she warned, would be chaotic, though not as bad as July through October, when tourists flock to watch baby turtles be released into the ocean every evening. In all my travels, I’ve yet to overlap with turtle season anywhere — I really need to work that into a future trip someday.

Tortugario, Monterrico, Guatemala

Still, I wasn’t to be alone for long. Early Saturday morning, three of my dear friends from Brooklyn unloaded onto the beach. The masterminds behind Equilibrio, they had recently relocated to Guatemala City and we’d settled on Monterrico as the perfect meeting place for a nomadic reunion.

Smoothies on the beach, Monterrico, Guatemala

Black Sand Beach Guatemala

As promised, the beach quickly flooded with weekenders. Though there were few foreign travelers to be found, Monterrico is a popular hotspot for domestic tourists, leading to a much-appreciated local vibe.

One thing we quickly noticed? There weren’t very many people actually in the water. I’d read endless warnings about the strong waves and tides in Monterrico, but hadn’t been particularly concerned. I was on swim team, after all! Then, not long after my first venture into the surf, I was knocked straight on my bum in about calf-deep water. Suddenly, the warnings that swimmers die here every year didn’t seem so abstract. And the number of people cooling their heels in the hot sand seemed a bit more understandable.

Monterrico, Guatemala

Luckily, with the crowds concentrated on the beach, there were still plenty of quiet corners of town to explore.

Cemetary in Monterrico, Guatemala

Cemetary in Monterrico, Guatemala

Coconuts for sale, Monterrico, Guatemala

Coconuts for sale, Monterrico, Guatemala

Coconuts for sale, Monterrico, Guatemala

I debated between two lodging options with dorm-style accommodation for us: Hotel El Delfin and Johnny’s Place. Both have pools, beach restaurants, and terrible but existent wifi. We went with Hotel El Delfin and I was grateful, because Johnny’s Place is also a popular late-night drinking spot on the weekends and we were in bed by the time the bar closed at Delfin at 10:00pm.

So depending on what you’re looking for — peace and quiet or a party — the decision is pretty much made up for you.

Hotel El Delfin, Monterrico, Guatemala

Hotel El Delfin, Monterrico, Guatemala

Hotel El Delfin, Monterrico, Guatemala

Salad at Hotel Delfin, Monterrico

Hotel El Delfin, Monterrico, Guatemala

There’s not too much to do in Monterrico, outside turtle season. There are early morning mangrove tours and there is a Spanish school tucked away somewhere, but the main items on our agenda were sunbathing, strolling lazily through town taking photos, and spending time together.

I stayed three nights in Monterrico, which was the perfect amount of time — even two would probably be adequate for the average traveler who just wants a quick hit of beach before moving on. However, for those with time to burn, you might as well make it four — Delfin has a stay three nights, get one free deal going on that never expires.

Beach Days in Monterrico

Monterrico Beach, Guatemala

Monterrico Beach, Guatemala

Monterrico Beach, Guatemala

Coming to or from Antigua? No problem — hop on the $15, 2.5 hour shuttle that departs the city each morning at 8:00am and returns at 4:00pm. Getting back to Guatemala City via public transportation was a little more complicated, but certainly not short on adventure. A boat ride through the mangroves followed by three chicken buses (in which I shared my seat with a pulsating bag of live crabs) and a taxi ride later, we were back in a big bad city, and the quiet beach town of Monterrico seemed worlds away.

Monterrico Beach, Guatemala

Monterrico Beach, Guatemala

Is Monterrico the best beach town in Central America? Not by a long shot. Was it a lovely few days in the sun? Indeed. Did it break up what would otherwise be a few weeks of landlocked travel? Yup. Was it a conveniently located getaway with friends? Heck yes. When we left Monterrico, I didn’t feel anything pulling me to stay. But as I picked grains of black sand out of my toes later that evening, I was ever so grateful that I’d been.

Next stop, Flores!

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Surfacing Among Volcanoes: Scuba Diving in Lake Atitlán http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/17/scuba-diving-in-lake-atitlan/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/17/scuba-diving-in-lake-atitlan/#comments Wed, 17 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35821

I might have taken a laid back approach to my week in Lake Atitlán, but there are plenty adventure opportunities on hand for those who want to be a bit more active while visiting this high altitude Guatemalan highlight — paragliding off a volcano, hiking up a volcano, or diving below a volcano all come to mind. Of course, you know me — I went for the latter.

And I was perfectly situated to do so while staying at La Iguana Perdida, home of ATI Divers.

Diving at La Iguana Perdida

I’d heard all the warnings — temperatures are low, visibility even lower, and there is limited sealife — er, lakelife? — to see. Still, a close friend in Thailand had recommended it as a unique experience, and I don’t think I could turn down the chance to try scuba diving in a high-altitude volcanic lake, regardless.

I mean, the views on surface interval wouldn’t be too bad.

Lake Atitlan Diving

Diving at La Iguana Perdida

One morning at breakfast, I joined the resident divemaster, his trainee, and an American couple living in Guatemala for a dive briefing. The wind was howling and the water just looked cold. “Maybe we should reschedule for tomorrow?,” I ventured hopefully, all while knowing I’d only delay the inevitable. But no, the other couple was leaving the next day, and divers cannot leave the lake the same day they dive. Because Atitlán is ringed by tall volcanic ridges, leaving the lake for any destination involves altitude gains that cannot be made for eighteen hours after surfacing. Hence, you must stay put at lake level for the remainder of the day, and night, after diving.

So we suited up instead.

ATI Divers

Diving Lake Atitlana historic photo of the lake from the dive shop

And we were off.

Diving in Lake Atitlan

Our first dive site was one I’d heard good reviews of. Because the water in the lake continues to rise, entire buildings now sit below the surface. We were going to visit one such shell of a hotel. As we backrolled off the boat I was pleasantly surprised by the temperature off the water I plunged into — it stays at about 70 degrees at the surface year-round, though at depth we’d clock down to 66 degrees. When I surfaced to give the all-okay signal, the wind felt like a slap on my face.

We descended quickly.

Diving Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan Diving

Descending down the murky waters of an underwater stairwell is certainly a distinctive diving experience — and an eerie one. Later, the divemaster would admit that the visibility that day was about as bad as it gets in the lake. For someone so focused on underwater photography when I dive it was a little disappointing, but you certainly can’t win them all — and I’ve won many when it comes to good luck with dive conditions.

One other thing that contributed to the air of eeriness? The fish graveyard also known as Lake Atitlán. During our dive briefing I’d been fascinated to hear the history of diving in the lake, and of the lake itself. One of the more tragic chapters involved Pan Am’s attempt to turn the region into a sportfishing destination by airdropping a lake full of invasive species of fish into Atitlán in the 1950’s. The outcome, as anyone who has ever heard of an environmental impact study might have gleaned, was not positive. One introduced species — the name now escapes me, but it is pictured above — spawns frequently but dies quickly due to its inability to adapt to the lake’s temperature shifts. Hence, lots and lots of dead fish, which I had not been warned about on any tourism brochure.

Diving in Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan Diving

Yet it was a fascinating dive. Hovering over a balcony it was easy to imagine a guest once lingering on it over their morning tea, as I’d that morning from the deck of Iguana Perdida — would that too someday be underwater? Petrified trees that once gave shade now provides a playground for fish, and a still-functional tap that once bore drinking water now supplies underwater entertainment for divers. The water that gushes when you reach out and turn the creaky faucet is noticeably warmer than that it pumps into.

Diving in Lake Atitlan

Lake Atitlan Diving

High Altitude Lake Diving Guatemala

After a surface interval in which I tried to will a hot tub into existence at La Iguana Perdida, we head back out for a second dive. This time we dropped off at Aguas Calientes. This dive would bring us sixty-five feet deep along the active fault line of one of the lake’s looming volcanoes, which sounds pretty impressive until you consider the fact that the lake reaches depths of over 980 feet — we were barely covering a blip.

My body temperature already low from the first dive, I was shivering within moments of descent. Good thing we were on the hunt for heat. Every few feet we’d plunge our hands into the silty floor of the lake, kicking the sand into beautiful patterns and getting literally and metaphorically warmer and warmer until we finally found the fault line — it was so hot that I could only stick my hands in for a few seconds before it felt like they were burning. Deep below the surface of Lake Atitlán, I’d never felt the power of an active volcano more intimately.

Diving in Lake Atitlan

It was so hot we even boiled an egg! Once I’d properly marveled at that moment, we started working our way back up the underwater slope towards yet another sunken relic left behind by rising lake waters. This one was a former pool, sauna, and wet bar — a family’s epic lakefront deck, reclaimed by the lake itself. We watched as crabs scuttled in the corner of the pool before entering the sauna-turned-swim-through, in which a massive volume trapped air allowed us to pop out our regulators and have a brief conversation beneath the surface. We concluded our dive with a bit of play acting in the bar area, which was still stocked with glasses and empty lake water-filled bottles.

And then it was time to go have a real drink. (Of hot chocolate, that is. Did I mention it was freezing?)

Lake Atitlan Diving

High Altitude Lake Diving Guatemala

Frankly, you don’t have many options when diving in Lake Atitlán. There’s one Guatemalan-focused dive shop in Panajachel, and there’s one foreigner-focused dive shop in Santa Cruz — and that’s ATI Divers. Luckily, they’re top notch. The British owner of La Iguana and ATI Divers, Deedle Ratcliffe, was one on of the first divers to join exploratory teams around the lake in the 1990’s — she knows her stuff! Safety standards were closely followed and I felt very comfortable with the entire team.

At $65 for the day, it was a reasonably priced adventure!

ATI Divers

High Altitude Lake Diving Guatemala

Am I ready to trade in my ocean obsession for a fresh water habit? Nah. But! My first time high altitude diving, my first time lake diving, my first time sticking my hand into a volcanic fault line — not a bad day out in Guatemala.

What’s been your most unique diving experience?

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Photo of the Week 209: Tennessee http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/16/photo-of-the-week-209-tennessee/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/16/photo-of-the-week-209-tennessee/#comments Tue, 16 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35080

Greetings from Kentucky! I’ve just arrived in my twentieth state and am so excited to be speaking at today’s PRSA Travel Conference. However, I’m still basking in the glow of state nineteen — Tennessee! It was a whirlwind inaugural visit, planned to perfection by my dear friend and hostess with the mostess, Kristin Luna. The trip kicked off with four days in Nashville where we went country music crazy at both the CMT Awards and CMA Fest, and I embarrassed Kristin to the maximum by wearing both cowgirl boots and a cowgirl hat. But we went beyond the country classic — Kristin made sure I experienced a bit of both the arts and food scenes before we made our way to Manchester.

Because then it was onto Bonnaroo! I couldn’t have been more pumped to add another festival notch to my belt, and Bonnaroo didn’t disappoint. We had a fantastic crew, saw some fabulous sets, and noshed on some serious treats.

Obviously, there’s so much more to come on all of those adventures. But first, this week on the blog, I’ll be posting about a very big milestone this blog just passed. This week in real life, I’ll be heading from Lexington to Nashville to Los Angeles. Hope you all are having a wonderful week!

Photo A

Cheekwood NashvilleExploring Nashville’s art world at Cheekwood

Photo B

Food in NashvilleDiving into the dining scene at Jeni’s and Biscuit Love

Photo C

Nightlife in NashvilleNightlife in Nashville!

Photo D

Ferris Wheel at BonnarooBonnaroo! Soaking up the view from atop a ferris wheel

Photo E

Bonnaroo 2015Rocking out at the main stage

Photo F

This Tent at BonnarooCleverly named tents for a carefree festival

Which photo is your favorite?

 

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Inspiration Around Lake Atitlán http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/14/inspiration-around-lake-atitlan/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/14/inspiration-around-lake-atitlan/#comments Sun, 14 Jun 2015 15:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35358

I was quick to admit that Guatemala just wasn’t my jam. Yet there was one destination on my itinerary there that stopped me in my tracks, a place that made me nod my head and say, oh yes, yup, indeed I see it now — this is what everyone is going on about.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

And that place was Lake Atitlán. This volcanic lake is historically, ecologically, culturally, and economically significant to Guatemala and is noted as one of the world’s great mystical energy centers. I’d heard friends, bloggers and fellow travelers lavish praise on this high altitude Central American highlight for ages, and I carefully noted their opinions on the various villages doting the lakefront. Though one of my goals for this trip was to spend more time in less destinations, I couldn’t pick just one to base myself in, and decided instead to hop between a few of the favorites.

I’m glad I did. The villages are so tiny that eight nights in one might have been excessive, and it was quick and easy to travel between them via boat.

Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

My first stop was one that people couldn’t stop raving about — Santa Cruz. As far as most backpackers are concerned, Santa Cruz is La Iguana Perdida, the lakefront oasis with views that just beg you to kick back and stay awhile. Here I found a friendly place where the staff greeted you by name after you arrived and hugged you goodbye as you left, a place where guests struck up conversations in front of the fireplace in the evening, a place where time seemed to slow.

I loved it. My goal for my week in Lake Atitlán was to find an inspiring place to write and read, reflect and reconnect — and La Iguana Perdida couldn’t have been a better base for it.

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz was unique among the four towns I visited in that the village itself was perched high above the water, reachable via a steep hike up from the lakefront. The lakefront was made up of La Iguana Perdida, the village dock, a few luxury hotels and a smattering of high end homes. Because it is so small and isolated, there are a limited number of dining options in Santa Cruz. That means that La Iguana becomes more than just a place to rest your head at night — it really becomes home away from home.

Dinner at La Iguana is served communally, which I grew to love. Because I was traveling alone and spending my days mostly writing and reading in silence, it was wonderful to be thrust into such a warm — yet totally low key — social situation every evening.

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

One thing that took me by surprise about Lake Atitlán was how affordable it seemed after being in Antigua. At La Iguana, basic private rooms ranged from 70-100 quetzales ($9-13), and options included a room with a writing desk and a water view and a treehouse with a private balcony. Open-air dorms were just 35 quetzales (less than $5)! Higher-end options with private bathrooms were also available.

I heard some backpackers grumbling that the communal dinner was a little pricey at 60-65 quetzales per night (about $8), but considering that the meal included a delicious soup, an entree and a dessert, it seemed pretty fair to me — however, with no kitchen available and limited options in Santa Cruz, you don’t have many options. The only thing that rubbed me the wrong way was that there was a charge for coffee and tea, which are free at many hostels around Central America, but I guess nowhere is perfect. (I do think La Iguana comes pretty close, however.)

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

La Iguana is home to one of Lake Atitlán’s only international dive center (another, based in Panajachel, targets domestic tourists), and I’ll be writing a separate post about my experience going for a dip. But there was more to do than just dive. A yoga teacher in residence offered daily donation classes that I loved on the patio, and on Saturdays a local market set up on the same stones.

If you come to Lake Atitlán and don’t stay in Santa Cruz, (which, BTW, you crazy), the small market definitely makes Saturday the day to drop by.

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

Iguana Perdida, Lake Atitlan

It seemed that the only thing on the agenda for most visitors was finding a cozy spot to curl up and dreamily stare out at the lake. In my three nights in Santa Cruz I left Iguana Perdida just twice, to take a photo walk around the lakefront and then later up to the town. Lonely Planet Guatemala warned me that Santa Cruz was the prettiest of the lakefront villages, and I’m glad I soaked up every bit of my time there.

Because they were right.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Though many who stay on the water in Santa Cruz never make it up to the village above, I was so glad I made the trek. It didn’t feel respectful to take my camera out, but I’ll treasure the memories. I went up on a Sunday afternoon, and was treated to a rare view of a way of life frozen in time. The sounds of competing Sunday services filled the air, and I wandered from church to church smiling as I saw women do the family laundry in communal basins in the plaza, locals playing basketball in traditional Mayan dress, and children smiling and waving at me from their house windows.

It was a slice of life from a time I thought had long passed.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Because La Iguana is purposely wifi-free, I almost didn’t stay there — so glad I didn’t make that tragic mistake! Turns out, it was the perfect place to unplug for three nights. There is a paid-use computer room available before 8pm, which allowed me to rest easy knowing there were no work fires I needed to put out and that my inbox wasn’t piling up in my absence. But aside from those thirty or so minutes per day, I enjoyed working totally offline and the clarity and focus that gave me to write. Writing for myself, and not for my blog — what a novelty! I almost wish I’d prepared further ahead so that I could have stayed more than three days.

Santa Cruz was just magical.

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

But indeed, after three days with no wifi or ATM, I was in fairly dire need of both a connection and some cash. The two main hubs of Lake Atitlán are Panajachel and San Pedro, the only two towns around the lake with ATMs. I’d entered the lake through Panajachel and not been impressed — after lunch and a stroll around town I was more than ready to go — and so I thought I’d check out San Pedro this time around.

I arrived, checked into a private room at a hostel called Zoola, and thought I’d found my happy place.

Zoola, San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Zoola, San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Yet San Pedro had a notably different vibe than Santa Cruz. Notably different… and notably more seedy. I’m sure I’d have had a good time in San Pedro if I were with a group and down to party — Adventurous Kate had an amazing time there with her tour group — but for the reflective and creative mood I was in, it just totally was not my scene. Not to mention, when I was there in March it was freezing at night (well, okay, it was in the low 40’s). Even the staff at La Iguana confessed that it was unseasonably cold and they’d run out of spare blankets. Once the sun went down each evening, I piled on every layer of clothing I had and pretty much ran to bed at 9pm, willing myself to fall asleep and wake up when it was warm again. Dramatic? Slightly, but seriously, I was chilled to the bone. Hence, yet another reason nightlife was not on my itinerary.

So I hit up the ATM and soaked up the good wifi and new dining options for two days, and then quickly hit the road — er, the lake.

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

Colorful? This is still Central America, so heck yeah. But charming? Not really, beyond these photos I snapped on one of my daily walks. The frozen-in-time feeling I’d had in Santa Cruz was replaced by a tension between a people clinging to a traditional way of life and a merry band of travelers who seemed vaguely oblivious to it. One evening, I noticed a group of women washing their families’ clothes in the river banks — had I taken a photo, you’d never have known that just a few feet away, gringos were sipping cold beer and singing along to Down Under. I’ve been plenty of places in the world going through this awkward transition, but for some reason, here, it made me uncomfortable.

But I have to admit, as far as ATM stops go, it wasn’t an awful one.

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

San Pedro, Lake Atitlan

My final stop around Lake Atitlán was San Marcos, home of yoga fanatics and permaculture enthusiasts alike. I’d been running with a pretty hippie dippy crowd since Equilibrio and more than once I’d found myself stuck in awkwardly deep eye contact while someone with unshaved armpits extolled the virtues of this transcendent little town.

Though I wasn’t ready to toss my own razor just yet, I was intrigued by this particular sub-culture of travelers and was excited to experience this place I’d heard so much gushing about.

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

A friend of mine had recommended Hostal del Lago, and up arrival I melted. A yoga platform over the lake? Stunning views of the volcano? A colorful restaurant filled with hippies wearing bindis and typing on Macbooks? This is my kind of place, I thought.

Unfortunately, things kind of went downhill when I realized my private room was a mess, none of the showers worked and there was a major insect problem in the restaurant. The friend who recommended it to me went back a few weeks after I did and said she was shocked by those issues, so unfortunately I don’t think it was a fluke. If I were to ever return to San Marcos, I’d make it a priority to stay at Yoga Forest and align my stay with one of their writer’s retreats. I even considered moving there during this trip, but I only had three nights in San Marcos and wasn’t prepared to go without wifi again (Del Lago has it, and Yoga Forest does not — though the connection at Del Lago is pretty horrific).

Del Lago, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

Del Lago, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

Del Lago, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

Del Lago, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

And that kind of mirrored my overall experience with San Marcos. I was surprised by how small it was, I was disappointed by the lack of healthy eating options (Circles Cafe, below, was one notable exception, but overall I had better salad and smoothie opportunities in San Pedro!), and I kind of kept wondering where the “there” was. Sure, I found plenty of posters advertising bring-your-own-crystal Cacao Ceremonies and heart-opening drum circles and healing guided meditation sessions, but I didn’t feel the strong sense of community I expected — perhaps that would have required a much longer stay.

That said, I loved my daily yoga classes on the Del Lago platform and it was nice to run into some of my friends from Equilibrio again.

Circles Cafe, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

Circles Cafe, San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

San Marcos, Lake Atitlan

Overall, I adored Lake Atitlán. I came here to write, and words poured out of me. I came here to read, and I soaked up page after page. I came here to do yoga and to reflect, and I found a dreamy, volcano-dotted setting to do it in.

While I didn’t fall in love with either San Pedro or San Marcos, I am glad I took the time to explore them — and it made me appreciate the beauty I found in Santa Cruz even more! If I ever find myself in Guatemala again, I’ll absolutely return to Santa Cruz, and also set aside a few days to explore a few of the other villages I didn’t get the chance to see. I love that there’s a little something for everyone around Lake Atitlán, and I certainly found what I was looking for and more. As Aldous Huxley famously wrote of Atitlán, “It is really too much of a good thing.”

Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

Have you been to Lake Atitlán? If so, which village was your favorite? If not, which would you head to?

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Bermuda by Scooter: One Last Day in Paradise http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/10/bermuda-by-scooter/ http://www.alexinwanderland.com/2015/06/10/bermuda-by-scooter/#comments Wed, 10 Jun 2015 14:00:00 +0000 http://www.alexinwanderland.com/?p=35438

Note: I’m temporarily jumping out of my chronological Central America trip coverage to tell you about my very last stop en route back to New York: Bermuda! We’ll jump back into Guatemala after this post.
.

With just one full day left in Bermuda, we knew there was only one way we were going to make a dent in everything we wanted to see — getting our own set of wheels. Of course, it would in fact only be a dent, because I think I could have easily filled a two week vacation with all there is to do on this tiny little island.

The Hamilton Princess Bermuda

Driving a Scooter in Bermuda

Surprise #9: Tourists in Bermuda can’t rent cars — but they can get mopeds.

We didn’t have to go far to hop on a bike — Smatt’s Cycle Livery is right next door to the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club and quickly had us on our way. Though I’m very familiar with driving a scooter, I was pretty happy to hand the keys to London Lawyer — not only is he accustomed to driving on the left, but it also left me with two free hands for photo taking.

Driving a Scooter in Bermuda

Our first stop was one I found on Trover, the Crystal Caves of Bermuda. There are actually two different caves at play here — the Crystal Caves and the Fantasy Caves. While I would have loved to have compared both, we decided we only had time for one, and I was content to save the other for my next trip to Bermuda.

Crystal Caves Bermuda

Crystal Caves Bermuda

Crystal Caves Bermuda

The caves were gorgeous and beautifully lit — a photographer’s dream! There’s also a great history behind them, which was relayed to us by a funny and charming tour guide. I don’t care how many times a day they get repeated — cheesy tour guide jokes get me every time.

Crystal Caves Bermuda

Crystal Caves Bermuda

Right next door is Bermuda’s famed Swizzle Inn, the original home of Bermuda’s national drink the Rum Swizzle. Though we’d originally planned to grab lunch here, the line was long and so we decided to make like seven-year-olds having an unsupervised play date and do ice cream for lunch instead.

It was a fairly warm day out, after all.

Swizzle Inn Bermuda

Bailey's Ice Cream Bermuda

After fueling up on a scoop of coconut cream, we pointed the bike West. We pulled over often for photos, my favorite scenic point being in colorful Flatt’s village.

Bermuda Travel Blog

Beautiful Bermuda

Eventually we pulled along the South Shore, again stopping often to admire the various beaches dotting the stunning coast. We were excited to find the future site for the Hamilton Princess’ Beach Club, which unfortunately wasn’t yet opened at the time of our visit (though it’s up and running now!)

It was hard to imagine anything that would make me love that hotel more… but I suppose a private beach club might do the trick.

Hamilton Princess Beach Club

Hamilton Princess Beach Club

Driving a Scooter in Bermuda

Just look at those hues of blue!

Surprise #10: Bermuda is tourist-tension free.

With water like that, I could easily see how Bermuda is lumped in with the Caribbean in guidebooks and the collective consciousness of potential travelers there (that’s where I put it on my destinations page, knowing that that’s where people would expect to see it!). However, while I could see many similarities, there were a few things that really starkly set Bermuda apart from that region of the world for me. The biggest one that jumped out on our big day out exploring was that we were in fact so comfortable out exploring.

Unlike many tropical getaways, tourists aren’t being herded into all-inclusive resorts to shield their eyes from terrible crime and crushing poverty. Bermuda has a low unemployment rate and one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. With the vast majority of the population living in comfort, from what I could see there was little cause for tension between tourists and locals. From bankers in bars to attendants at gas stations, the people of this pristine island couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming, striking up conversations about everything from football teams (that would be soccer for us North Americans) to favorite beaches.

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Our next stop was Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse, one of the tallest points on the island. The views were spectacular, and the walk to the top was quite literally breathtaking. As in, I had to stop to catch my breath a few times. But I think we can all agree it was worth it, no?

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Gibbs Hill Lighthouse

Finally, we decided it was time for one more beach stop. We knew it would be hard to top Elbow Beach, and it was. We stopped first at Horseshoe Bay, arguably the island’s most famous beach, but found it a bit too crowded for our liking. Next, we decided to try Warwick Long Bay on a recommendation from the man who rented us our moped.

The longest stretch of pink sand in Bermuda, Warwick Long Bay was deliciously uncrowded. We visited on a Monday in May and more or less had the entire beach to ourselves!

Warwick Long Bay Bermuda

Warwick Long Bay Bermuda

Warwick Long Bay Bermuda

Out of the two, I’d recommend Elbow Beach if you’re looking for amenities like restaurants and bathrooms. Warwick Bay was a bit more wild — there’s no one sweeping up seaweed here, as far as I could tell — but much more private and expansive.

I don’t know if I could pick a favorite.

Warwick Long Bay Bermuda

Warwick Long Bay Bermuda

Eventually, though, we raced back to the hotel for one last sunset. And wow, did it deliver.

Sunset at the Hamilton Princess

Sunset at the Hamilton Princess

Sunset over Hamilton Harbor

Sunset over Hamilton Harbor

As much as we’d enjoyed going on out on the town, we spent our last night right at home at the Hamilton Princess & Beach Club. She was just too pretty to leave.

Hamilton Princess at night

The next morning, I couldn’t quite believe it was time to leave Bermuda already. I love when a destination manages to catch me by surprise, and that’s exactly what this little island nation did. This is no interchangeable, palm-lined bland beach destination. This is a sleek island getaway with a trendy food scene, interesting cultural quirks, and colorful charm to spare.

And I’ve been itching to return to since my departing flight left the runway.

Hamilton Princess Infinity Pool

Have I surprised YOU about Bermuda? I’d love to hear how in the comments!

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This is a sponsored conversation written by me on behalf of The Hamilton Princess & Beach Club via Rhythm One. As always, all thoughts and opinions are my own.

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