We are going to Turkey!

Rob and I will be traveling to Turkey at the end of August! I found an incredible deal on Travelzoo for a 13 Day Turkish Treasures vacation package by Gate 1 Travel. Our package includes 11 nights at 4 star hotels in Istanbul, Canakkale, Izmir, Antalya, Cappadocia, & Ankara, as well as a ton of included tours and meals. This package can be booked to include airfare, but we purchased the land only package and plan to use reward points to purchase our airfare, making this vacation incredibly affordable! (Less than $1000 per person!)

This vacation will complete # 5 for my goals for 2013. Turkey is also on my Top Ten Wish List, so I will get to scratch that off the list as well! If you have ever traveled to Turkey, please feel free to leave any tips and suggestions for us!

Photo courtesy of Gate 1 Travel

3 Continent Cruise Mega-Deal

Would anyone like to knock out three continents on just one cruise? This amazing deal from Travelzoo offers you the chance to do just that and for an incredible price! Hop aboard Royal Caribbean’s Legend of the Seas in Dubai and then set sail for stops in Jordan, Egypt and Italy. This 15 night cruise is being advertised for $399, but the actual cost is $649 including taxes (still a steal!). The sale price is only valid for the April 19th departure. Of course, I can’t travel in April…but maybe you can!

In addition to the standard inclusions on any cruise, this deal also includes:

One spa treatment ($100 value)
Specialty dinner for two ($60 value)
Free cabin upgrade

Photo courtesy of Travelzoo.

January’s “New Experience”

Just a few blocks away from our home there is an outdoor ice skating rink set up every winter. The area is called Pentagon Row and it is a local hotspot for dining and shopping. Rob and I walk to Pentagon Row fairly often and every winter he asks me if I would like to go ice skating. My answer was always the same…No.

Rob would spontaneously ask me to go ice skating since we were already in the area for lunch or dinner. But I always had an excuse for why we shouldn’t go. It was either too cold, or I wasn’t dressed appropriately, or I had eaten too much, etc., etc. Rob never quit asking me to go and I never seemed to run out of excuses. Rob likes to be spontaneous, but I am a planner. We never planned to go to Pentagon Row to ice skate. We always planned to go there to eat out. How can he expect me to just jump on board when he springs this idea on me out of the blue? Ok, I realize I am not as spontaneous as Rob, but I would like to think I am not quite that rigid either. The truth is…I don’t have much experience on ice skates and I was just plain scared!

But one of my goals for 2013 is to experience something new in the DC area at least once a month. Since Rob has been asking me to do this with him every single year (for the past 7 years!) this seemed like the perfect activity to break the ice with my 2013 goals (no pun intended).

My sister Victoria came to visit us because she had recently joined the Air Force and she was about to leave for basic training. Victoria used to be a figure skater, so it seemed like a great activity for us all to do together. It had been quite a while since Victoria had been on the ice, but she was still out there skating backwards and doing spins. Meanwhile, I was clutching the side rail like my life depended on it! I got the hang of it after a little while and I was finally able to skate freely away from the rail. It wasn’t exactly graceful, but I was just happy that I didn’t fall (Rob fell though, but don’t tell him I told you). We all ended up having a good time, so maybe I will even try it again next year!

Preparing to go out on the ice (and hoping I don't make a fool of myself)
Preparing to go out on the ice (and hoping I don’t make a fool of myself)
Me, Victoria, and Rob
Me, Victoria, and Rob (please excuse our silly hats, but we each got a free hat with admission that day)
Victoria showing off skating backwards
Victoria and her friend Scott showing off skating backwards

Goals Instead of Resolutions

I realize my timing is way off here being that we celebrated the new year well over a month ago, but I have never been one to make New Year’s resolutions anyway. And this year was no different. Instead, I somehow ended up with a list of goals for 2013. I don’t normally make lists of goals for the new year either, but this one just fell into place so I figured I would share it.

1. Take advantage of all that the DC area has to offer by experiencing something new at least once a month. (We often take for granted the fact that we live here. We assume we have all the time in the world to explore the DC area, and then we never actually do it!)
2. Run a half marathon. (I am currently in training [thanks Brie!] and plan to run on March 16!)
3. Become a Humane Society volunteer. (I have always donated money to HSUS, but I realize that donating my time might be even more important.)
4. Open up my very own Etsy shop. (I’ve already come up with the shop name, now I just need to crank out some inventory!)
5. Travel to at least two new countries. (Of course my list of goals would have to require a passport! One down [Nicaragua], one more to go!)

Hopefully I can keep you all posted as I complete my 2013 goals!

Should You Travel to Nicaragua?

When talking to people prior to our trip to Nicaragua, I got the same question over and over again, “Is it safe there?” To which my reply was always the same, “It’s safe enough.” When I say I want to see the world, I really mean I want to see all of it, not just the places that have a Four Seasons. With that being said, there are many things a tourist can do to travel safely. Here are a few tips should you ever decide to visit Nicaragua:

Language: I have been to several Spanish-speaking countries before, even though I do not speak Spanish. During my other travels, I never felt like it created too much of a problem with communication as many of the locals spoke a fair amount of English. However, that was not the case in Nicaragua. Luckily, Rob and Tami both spoke Spanish so it was not an issue during our vacation. But, if you don’t speak Spanish, and neither do your travel companions, Nicaragua might not be the best choice for you.

Transportation: As I mentioned in a previous post, police corruption is definitely an issue in Nicaragua. This can make driving in a rental car a bit stressful; and let’s be honest, not everyone can afford to charter a helicopter! A good solution to this problem is to hire a driver rather than renting a car. This can be done at a reasonable cost. You won’t have the same amount of flexibility as you would with your own rental, but you also won’t have the headache of paying off the police for your traffic “violations.”

Safety: According to Wikitravel, Nicaragua was rated the safest country in Central America. I definitely felt much more “at ease” in Costa Rica, but I still thought Nicaragua was fairly safe. With that being said, common sense and good situational awareness will go a long way! Previously, I mentioned our neighbors at Playa Coco were robbed by a guy with a machete, but I doubt they were savvy travelers. Walking around after dark, in an isolated area, is just asking for trouble no matter what country you are visiting. Don’t make yourself an easy target.

Our trip to Nicaragua was an adventure, to say the least. The country really does have a lot to offer for tourists, so don’t write it off just yet.

Travel to Playa Coco in Style

Who wants to deal with police corruption while driving on Nicaragua’s roads? Not me! Next time, we are ditching the rental car and fueling up our chopper!


Oh, I’m sorry…did I forget to mention that Rob and I won the lottery and we now own a helicopter? That’s right, I did forget to mention it. But, only because it never happened (a girl can dream though).

Apparently, a very wealthy Nicaraguan man owns a townhouse at Playa Coco and he likes to spend his weekends there. Driving back and forth every weekend would be such a drag. I can totally see why he would opt for this mode of transportation instead. The word on the beach was this guy owns the largest cigar manufacturer in Nicaragua. He even had his own weekend staff to see him off. Whatever. I’m over it. I don’t like the guy anyway because he doesn’t like to share his hammock!




Hammock story: Rich guy’s staff sets up his hammock whenever he visits Playa Coco so that he can lounge on the beach, smoking his cigars, swinging in his hammock. I didn’t realize the hammock was not part of the “communal” property (like the pool), and I decided a nap in the hammock was just what the day called for. Unfortunately, I was quickly signaled to back away from the hammock. Then, the hammock disappeared just as quickly as his departing helicopter!

The Land of Volcanoes

Nicaragua is often referred to as “the country of lakes and volcanoes.” As you can see in the picture below, there is an impressive line of volcanoes that runs from north to south along the western side of the country. This picture shows Nicaragua’s share of the Central American Volcanic Belt. Some of the volcanoes are dormant, while others remain active. These volcanoes offer interesting opportunities for tourists. You can hike to the top of these volcanoes, swim in crater lakes, and there is even a thing called volcano surfing!


The two closest volcanoes to Playa Coco are located on Ometepe Island inside Lake Nicaragua. Concepcion is an active volcano and Maderas is dormant. People actually live on this island and there are even coffee and banana plantations amidst these two volcanoes. The last violent eruption of Concepcion occurred in 1986, but there have been less catastrophic eruptions as recent as 2009. Tourists are able to climb both volcanoes, but each have extremely high difficulty ratings. It is estimated to take about 10 hours to climb and descend Concepcion and the tour books recommend that you start no later than 6 a.m. The only problem there is that the earliest ferry to the island leaves after 7 a.m. So they recommend that you take the ferry the previous day and then spend the night on the island. I could be wrong, but I don’t think there are any hotels on the island and we forgot (a.k.a. didn’t intend) to pack a tent. Of course, Rob was all about doing this little adventure anyway, but there wasn’t much he could say to convince Tami and I to join him!

(Editor’s note: That Lake Nicaragua is super scary! Bull Sharks and active volcanoes, oh my!)

Concepcion (left) and Maderas (right) on Ometepe Island
Concepcion Volcano (I really wanted to befriend this pig!)
Maderas Volcano

As mentioned in an earlier post, the Mombacho Volcano is close to Granada and borders Lake Nicaragua. Mombacho is dormant and it is the second most accessible volcano in the country. There is a paved road so visitors can drive to the top of the volcano. We attempted to visit Mombacho after we departed Granada, but unfortunately, the park was already closed for the day (darn Sunday hours!).

View of Mombacho from bell tower
View of Mombacho from downtown Granada

The Masaya Volcano is active and it is the most accessible volcano in the country. There is a national park (Nicaragua’s first and largest) around the volcano and a paved road leads directly to the Santiago crater. The park actually includes two volcanoes (Masaya and Nindiri) and five craters, but the Santiago crater is the most active crater in the park. The Masaya Volcano is currently going through a cycle of passive degassing, which means sulfuric gas (among other gases) is continuously emitted from the crater. The cycle started in 1993 and still continues today.


Volcanic passive degassing
Looking into the Santiago crater

The volcano has erupted several times throughout history (most recently in 2003) and it was feared by the indigenous people as well as the Spanish conquerors. The Spanish baptized Masaya “La Boca del Inferno” (The Mouth of Hell) and they planted a cross above the crater to exorcise the Devil.

Overlooking the Santiago crater (sporting the provided yellow hardhat)

Check out the video below to see this awesome smoking crater!

San Juan del Sur

As I mentioned in an earlier post, San Juan del Sur is the closest town to where we were staying (Playa Coco). Once a sleepy fishing village, San Juan del Sur is now a tourism hotspot and considered the quintessential surfing town in Nicaragua. It is set aside a crescent-shaped bay and it is home to the Christ of the Mercy statue. The Christ of the Mercy is a giant statue of Jesus Christ that sits above town on the northern end of the bay, and it is the biggest statue of Christ in Central America (just in case you are a big fan of Christ statues).


There are many activities to do during the day, but San Juan del Sur also has bustling nightlife. The nightlife in Playa Coco is pretty much nonexistent, so we decided to spend an evening in San Juan del Sur so we could do some bar hopping. There are a ton of beachfront bars and restaurants and many of them offered sweet happy hour specials (we basically would have been losing money if we didn’t take advantage of these deals!).


After quenching our thirst on several tasty beverages, it was time for dinner. We picked a seafood restaurant along the beach so we could watch another beautiful sunset.




Visit Granada…But Don’t Feed the Children

When planning our trip to Nicaragua, I was told that we had to visit Granada. Granada was founded in 1524 by Francisco Hernandez de Cordoba and it is considered the first European city in mainland America. Granada is Nicaragua’s 4th largest city and it is rich with history and beautiful architecture. I was excited to visit Granada, but after our driving experience on Day 1, none of us were looking forward to the 2+ hour journey to get there. However, after establishing a better road strategy we managed to make it to Granada without getting pulled over!

We arrived in the historical center of the city and immediately began to appreciate the colorful buildings and colonial architecture. We walked around the Parque Central (town square) to get a nice view of the Cathedral and the streets lined with horse-drawn carriages.

View of Cathedral from Parque Central



For lunch, we decided to eat in the Parque Central at what appeared to be a popular outdoor restaurant. The food was delicious and very inexpensive. I ordered gallo pinto (rice & beans) with pork for about $2.


Eating in the middle of the town square had its downsides though. We were constantly bombarded by street vendors selling food or crafts, and children begging for money and/or some of our food. I had some leftover food, but I didn’t give it to the begging children. I gave it to this beautiful (well-mannered) guy…


I was getting some strange looks from the kids (and other bystanders) when I fed the dog rather than the children! I may not speak Spanish, but I am pretty sure I could read their thoughts….”WTF! You are going to feed that mangy mutt instead of giving your food to me?” Short answer…yes, that is exactly what I am going to do. I’m sure a lot of readers will think I am heartless, but I really don’t even feel bad about it. And, as it turns out, according to Wikitravel, I actually did the right thing:

“Social workers in Granada strongly advise to not give money or food to begging children. In Granada the homeless situation is not nearly as severe as in other poor cities. Orphanages and charity organizations take care of homeless children, and poor people have access to charity kitchens. The kids that beg and sell items to tourists do this to make easy money, and are being exploited by adults. Anything you give to these children keeps them from the place they belong: in school.”

(Even without Wikitravel’s blessing, I still prefer dogs over children.)

After lunch we decided to walk down to the waterfront. Granada is located along the coast of Lake Nicaragua, one of the world’s largest fresh-water lakes. Fresh-water lakes sound safe, right? WRONG! Lake Nicaragua is home to the Nicaragua shark (a.k.a. the Bull Shark) and they are extremely aggressive. Don’t believe me? Check out this article that lists Lake Nicaragua among the Top 10 Shark Infested Beaches in the World!

On our walk back to the Parque Central we passed the beautiful Guadalupe Church.

Guadalupe Church

Then we stopped at Lilly’s Café for a refreshing smoothie. Lilly is an expat that has been living in Nicaragua for about 20 years. We had a nice conversation with her about what it is like to live in Nicaragua. Despite the issues with police corruption, she seems to be extremely happy living there. Before we left, Lilly recommended we go to the La Merced Church and climb the Bell Tower of Iglesia for the best view of the city and the Mombacho Volcano. There was a $1 entrance fee to climb the bell tower, but the view was more than worth it.

La Merced Church


View of Cathedral and Lake Nicaragua in the background
Mombacho Volcano


We enjoyed our visit to Granada and amazingly we made it all the way back to Playa Coco without getting pulled over!

La Flor Beach Natural Reserve, Part 2

We returned to La Flor Beach just in time to catch another beautiful sunset.

Sunset at La Flor Beach


Shortly after that, Rob spotted another congregation of birds on the beach. After our experience earlier in the day, we knew that meant more turtles were hatching. We rushed over to scare away the birds and we watched more turtles dig their way out of the sand and make their way to the ocean. Rob was able to get some video, so now you can see it in action too.

These turtles seemed to have a much greater chance of survival because all of those pesky sea birds were gone! This time around it didn’t seem like the turtles were in imminent danger, so I allowed them to make the journey on their own. I just stood close by and lent a watchful eye to make sure the land birds didn’t try to sneak back.



It was really cool to see all the turtle tracks in the sand as they waddled their way to the water!



We hung around a bit longer to wait for the turtles in the basket (from Part 1) to be released. Finally, after it was completely dark outside, someone brought the basket of baby turtles to the beach. By this time, even the land birds were long gone, so it seemed like these turtles had a great chance for survival. The only problem was they had been in that basket for a very long time and I think they must have been exhausted from trying to climb out of the basket all day long. There were a few of them that made a bee-line right for the water, but most of them putzed along rather slowly. After a while, we decided it was time to offer a “little push” to the ones that were struggling. Or as the local said “thats okay, we will help the ones who look a little sad” (translated by Tami).