Note: Whoops, looks like I lied when I said I’d soon be caught up on posting roundups. But we are almost there, I swear! Sorry for any confusion my lazy posting has caused!
Month 44 found me back on the go after a nice stretch at home for the holidays. I eased back into life on the road with some domestic travel, visiting family and friends in Louisiana and Florida — in total, I logged time with five family members and four close friends. Visiting loved ones is such a great way to travel! Yeah, I’d make my way to New Orleans and Miami eventually regardless of if I had a sister and cousin living in those respective cities. But would I ever go to Tampa, Florida, if I didn’t have two beloved aunts there? Probably not. Yet I’ve had so many fun trips and unique travel experiences there now (diving with sharks comes to mind!) that I can’t imagine having never been. When people wonder how they can travel more, it’s the first thing I suggest… think about where those far flung cousins and long lost friends live. Maybe it’s time to reconnect!
Anyway, from Miami I hopped to Managua, kicking off my next multi-month international trip. I’d really waffled about whether or not I was doing the right thing in heading to Central America — as always, Southeast Asia was calling me home — but as soon as I landed I knew I’d made the right choice. Southeast Asia may win the gold for me, every time, but Central America easily places for silver. And I had plenty of exploring ahead.
Where I’ve Been
• Six days in New Orleans, Louisiana / USA
• Three days in Orlando, Florida / USA
• Two days in Jacksonville, Florida / USA
• Seven days in Tampa, Florida / USA
• Five days in Miami, Florida / USA
• Six days in Granada / Nicaragua
• Spending a completely unbeatable New Year’s Eve in New Orleans with my sister, my best friend, and her sister (how well this crew got along was just a highlight on top of a highlight). I’ve had some pretty amazing New Year’s Eves before but… this one is going to be hard to top. Starting with sister massages at The Ritz (my sister’s Christmas gift to me!), followed by a fun and relatively cheap group dinner and finally celebrated with fireworks, people watching, and live music in the streets — what more could we have asked for? Perhaps some late night beignets and hot chocolate at Café du Monde? Oh right, we did that too.
• Live music everywhere. It’s one of my favorite things about New Orleans. And seeing Rebirth, one of the cities most beloved big brass bands at the Maple Leaf was a night I’ll never forget. It was perfection.
• Watching my sister with her students, and helping her set up her classroom for second semester. She met me at the airport with three of her girls in tow, and later we took three of the boys the Insectarium and tricked them into eating creepy crawlies at the Bug Cafe. I’m just so proud of my sis, and as grateful as I am to technology for letting me follow along on her teaching journey through Snapchat and Instagram, it really hits home when I get to go to experience it all in person. Watching her grow through her two years teaching with Teach for America has been an unbelievable joy.
• Eating. Duh. Baru and District Donuts were new favorites from this trip, as was Commander’s Palace — for the food, yes, but more so for the company and the dress up cuteness (and the 25 cent martinis).
• Getting along so well with my sister. For years we’ve had a roller-coaster like relationship typical of close-in-age siblings, but lately we seem to be on a streak of mutual love and support — one that really kicked off on this trip. Nothing makes me happier than seeing her FaceTime requests pop up on my screen.
• Arriving in Orlando and flinging open my curtains every morning and seeing what animals were lounging below at the Animal Kingdom Lodge! I’ve wanted to stay at that resort for years — or at least since my dad became a member of the Disney Vacation Club. And there’s no one I would have rather shared a room with than Florida fanatic Angie. We had such a good time gossiping about blogging, singing silly Disney songs, and talking travel, as always.
• A Jacksonville jaunt. I was so excited to check out Angie’s hometown with her! Unfortunately arctic temperatures (seriously, it snowed in Florida) kept us inside, so I didn’t actually see much of Jacksonville, but I didn’t mind snuggling up in her apartment for a few days — we both had tons of work to catch up on anyway. But it was great to hang with her family, meet her fiance, and get to check out Angie Away Headquarters!
• Family time in Tampa. I was so excited when I put a whole week in Tampa with my aunts on the books, and even more thrilled when I talked my dad and sister into joining us for a weekend. Still, I loved our nights just the three of us, when we went through their old travel photos and souvenirs and they regaled me with tales of their great backpacking trip through Europe.
• A day in Weeki Wachee. The mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs basically hit on every one of my travel obsessions — I was pretty much vibrating with excitement while we were there. Under-appreciated aquatic antics in a kitschy Florida setting with a quirky history and amazing photo opportunities at an insanely reasonable price? It’s LIKE I LITERALLY DREAMED IT.
• Taking a dip in the Florida Aquarium. This was probably my most exhilarating adventure of the month — getting to dive with sharks in Tampa! I loved geeking out at the behind-the-scenes action at a major aquarium, and was beside myself at the opportunity to be so close to (and photograph, of course!) such amazing creatures. Having my auntie entourage along doubled — nay, tripled — the fun.
• Going movie mad. Going to the movies is one of my favorite forms of entertainment, and I knew I’d soon be heading into a cinema-free few months, so I wanted to see as many as possible on the big screen before take off. I was introduced to this crazy fancy breed of new dine-in and drink-in theaters at the The Theaters at Canal Place in New Orleans, where I saw Wild, and continued the theme at the Cinebistro in Tampa, where I saw American Sniper. These theaters are so fun — I’ll definitely be seeking out more when I travel. However, my favorite flick of the month, despite being screened at a regular ‘ol multiplex, was Selma.
• Driving through the Everglades. I was SO pumped about this road trip, and it didn’t disappoint. With my girl Michelle flying in from Albany to play co-pilot, we made our way from Tampa to Miami while stopping as often as we could along the way. I loved this trip for a lot of the same reasons I loved Weeki Wachee. Basically, I just want to live in a Carl Hiaasen novel.
• Decadent days in Miami! From relaxing at the pool of my cousin’s downtown building to drinking ciders on the beach (fellow Rekorderlig fans, rejoice — you can stock up at ABC Liquor stores in Florida!), from after dark nightclub antics to getting tipsy on Ocean Drive in the middle of the day, my time in Miami with Michelle was indulgent and fun. I love this city!
• Unexpectedly Miami meetups. When I arrived in Miami, I realized via Instagram that fellow travel enthusiast Kirsten Alana was there too. We’ve been online friends for ages but never had the opportunity to spend one on one time together — when we finally met up for lunch at PAMM, Miami’s modern art museum, we clicked instantly. It’s always great to meet up with my (normally virtual) blogging colleagues on the road! But she wasn’t the only one — I also comically discovered in the midst of a major text sesh that my friend Ashley was in town too! I love when my world feels small, and it was great to get to spend some time with her.
• Taking amazing Viator tours. Man, I love my job. I got to take some fabulous Viator day tours over this month, from the aforementioned shark diving to going behind-the-scenes at Mardi Gras World to taking a cocktail tour of New Orleans to taking a food tour of Miami to stunning and adrenaline boosting air tours over both South Beach and the Big Easy. I would be seriously hard pressed to pick a favorite.
• Booking my flight to Central America on points! I always feel like I’m getting away with something when I score a free flight thanks to Frequent Flyer miles and travel hacking with my credit cards. And listening to a girl in my hostel sob because she couldn’t change her flight made me grateful that booking with Aadvantage points means you can change your flights with no change fee — maximum flexibility for the win.
• Landing in Nicaragua. It’s been one of the highest priority countries on my “to visit” list, and finally making it there felt like a victory.
• Going on a people detox in Granada. I love me some serious family and friend time, but… I also love binging on high quality me time. For my week in Granada I very purposefully went into social hibernation and didn’t have a single non-essential conversation for the whole week. It was wonderful! I went sightseeing in blissful silence, chain watched Friday Night Lights, and logged endless hours writing in sunny cafes. A lot of travelers say that they love solo travel because of how easy it is to meet other people, and that is totally true. But I also love solo travel because of how easy it is to be completely anonymous, when that’s what you need.
• Peeking behind closed doors. My one real tourist activity in Granada was a hit! It was also fun to write about and share with you guys, since the tour isn’t very well advertised or promoted. Hopefully I convinced a few other travelers to head out and hit up this unique tour, the proceeds of which support a local library.
• Pure. This gym slash spa slash health center was one of my favorite things about Granada, and was a huge factor in my three night stay doubling to six.
Lowlights and Lessons
• Flight frustration. I had to change my flight to New Orleans and lose two days there because of my surgical infection, which definitely bummed me out. But the upside was that I booked with Southwest, who makes flight changes insanely simple — I actually ended up getting a refund because the new itinerary I booked was cheaper than the original.
• Shivering in New Orleans! While it was certainly warmer than New York, we did catch a bit of a cold front in New Orleans — a week earlier it had been ten degrees cozier. I don’t do well when I’m chilly, especially in the evening. I think we all turned in a bit earlier than expected on New Year’s Eve simply because we wanted to warm up!
• Financial fluster. On New Year’s Eve, I had a seriously inebriated bartender who — long story short — returned my credit card saying it was rejected, so I handed her another one. Turns out they both went through, which launched a nightmare with my credit card companies in trying to get one of them reversed. If time is money, that was a very expensive round of drinks.
• Disney disappointment. Downtown Disney was a bust. I know they were under construction, but after I saw Universal’s CityWalk I was actually kind of embarrassed for them. In general, Disney Florida did not hold the magic of Disney California for me. It felt overwhelmingly big and spread out, and a little more tired. I think part of it had to do with not going to the actual Animal Kingdom park, which I do kind of regret in retrospect. Overall, It made me appreciate my California experience all the more, though!
• Ankle ouch. I fell hard in Tampa, and it was the injury that just would not heal. I actually started getting a little scared in Granada, where every day when I got back to my room my ankle was swollen and hot to the touch and my calf was stiff and filled with fluid. It was my fault for not staying off of it, but it’s pretty hard to submit yourself to bed rest when you’re excited about a new city.
• Photo frustrations. I had a really hard time getting decent photos from my two night flights. The combination of the motion of the plane and the lack of light was too much for me and my lens to handle. If you’re a photo fanatic planning an aerial tour, you might want to avoid the evening hours and go for a nice bright daytime flight.
• Cousin crunch. Because he had a last minute family emergency back in Illinois and had to fly out for much of my time there, I ended up barely seeing my cousin Eric in Miami, which was as bummer. The good news is I know I’ll be back.
• Accommodation antics. I dreamed about staying at The Freehand in Miami for a long time, and I was really excited when Michelle decided to join me despite being a little skeptical of the whole hostel thing — what a great first experience for her, I thought! Yet as outlined, it wasn’t really the smoothest. On top of everything else, when we first checked in they told us we’d be in separate rooms despite booking together! The lovely girl at the front desk helped us sort it out, but I definitely felt I aged a few years in the process.
• Selfie sighs. It might sound silly, but when I left Granada I realized I had just a single photo of myself from there — a mediocre selfie snapped atop the cathedral. I figure a few decades from now, those are the photos I’ll really cherish, so normally I’m pretty good about asking others to take my photo or setting up my self timer. A good reminder to be better in the future!
• Granada regrets. I was ready to move on and get to the beach when I left Granada, yet there were a lot of things I wish I had done while I was there — paint something at the art cafe, go SUPing on the lake, etc. I guess in the end, it just gives me a good reason to go back.
• Lesson learned… again. I spend so much time traveling alone that sometimes I forget that traveling with others (or to see others) is a whole different ballgame. One thing that I am constantly relearning the importance of is setting expectations before a trip/visit. Want to lay low and relax all week? Better to make that known ahead of time, in case your travel companion is packing their dancing shoes. Need some time blocked out to work? Let your host know in case they are busy building a jam-packed schedule. From now on, I’m making it a rule to set aside time for a pre-trip call where I ask the other person or people involved, “how do you envision this trip going?”
• I just about died when I overheard one of my little sister’s students coming to a shocking realization at the Insectarium in New Orleans. “Miss Baackes… is THIS NATURE?!”
• I don’t think I’ve ever laughed quite so hard in an airport as I did at this. Only in New Orleans, right?
• Have you ever taken the train in Florida? No? Well neither, it seems, has anyone in Florida. As a New Yorker, booking the Amtrak from Jacksonville to Tampa was a no-brainer — cheaper than flying and much more comfortable than a bus. But from the reactions this choice garnered from my hosts in both cities, you would have thought I’d chartered a private unicorn to fly me between them.
Angie, who’s lived in Jacksonville her whole life and didn’t even know there was an Amtrak station there, had us leave her apartment half an hour early out of grave concern that the whole thing was a hoax and Google Map’s directions were going to lead us to an empty field with some rusty old tracks lying around. My aunts in Tampa had their concerns as well, sounding highly suspicious of the whole situation even after I assured them I had, in fact, made a booking. “Hmm. I’ll look into that,” my aunt Karen said, as I stared at the ticket in my inbox. And the train ride itself? Enough of a tragicomedy to warrant its own chapter in a future short story collection. Stay tuned.
Because this month features such drastically different destinations in terms of affordability, I’m not going to do a dollar by dollar breakdown. However, in the future I’ll likely do a full budget breakdown for Nicaragua, so stay tuned for that. The good news is that overall, I made more than I spent. The bad news is, I spent quite a bit while I was in the US. Though apart from The Freehand I didn’t spend anything on accommodation as I was crashing with fam and friends or booking with points, I made up for it with pretty lavish meals.
Still, I spent less than $2,500 for the month (not including what I pay my assistant) which is not bad considering it consisted of three flights, one being international!
Unsurprisingly, I got tragically behind on work while I was traveling stateside. I thought I’d built in enough days that I’d be glued to my laptop, but it’s really hard to maintain control of your schedule when you are traveling with or staying with others. Thankfully, I knew I had my time in Granada coming up and so I remained pretty calm about how behind I was getting.
On the blog front, my traffic dramatically spiked in January — and has stayed up! I had a great month of income with projects for Enterprise, Viator, and Contiki, as well as some small writing and graphic design projects and a decent chunk of affiliate earnings.
Health and Fitness
I went to one barre class in New Orleans, went for one bike ride in the Everglades, worked out once at a gym in Miami and went for one run in Tampa — which yeah, if you read through the lowlights section, didn’t end well. That twisted ankle would haunt me for months! But basically, I didn’t put much emphasis on exercise when I was in the US, and I did put a lot of emphasis on eating and drinking every single thing I could get my hands on.
However, I really turned things around when I got to Central America. I started eating relatively cleanly again, and despite my ankle, worked out almost every single day in the form of either yoga, Zumba, or a gym session. Zumba was my big discovery of the month — I seriously fell in love — but I also set a pattern of focusing deeply on my yoga practice, which would become somewhat of a theme for this trip.
A few more weeks in Nicaragua and then onto El Salvador.
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.