Fall 2017 Travel Plans

We’ve always said that having a baby wouldn’t slow us down – and we’re trying to make sure it stays true!  Of course we have slowed down a bit, but we have a busy fall planned.  We’ve completed a few successful overnighters (one weekend up in the Bay Area staying with my mom, and one down in LA at a hotel for a good friend’s wedding), and he did a great job.  So, what do we have planned?

  • Another weekend up in northern California – a couple of nights at my mom’s, and then our first real (mini) vacation as a family in Carmel.  We’ll be spending two nights there and have nothing planned other than enjoying the cooler temperatures!  We’re looking forward to a lot of walking, eating good food, wine tasting, and window shopping.
  • Oliver’s first trip to the beach in San Diego.  Mission Beach is my family’s annual vacation spot (although we kind of stopped for the past few years).  All of us are planning to go again, so Ryan and I rented a house right by the house everyone else will be staying in.  We’ll be down there for 4 nights and I’m really looking forward to morning walks on the boardwalk and relaxing afternoons on the beach.
  • Oliver’s first camping trip!  We’ve been planning to go to Yosemite since the beginning of the year and I can’t wait!  We’re staying in Yosemite Valley at Upper Pines (where we usually stay) and Oliver’s baby friends Emma and Austin will also be there.  So, it won’t be our usual camping trip with lofty hiking goals, but more of a relaxing trip.
  • Oliver’s first plane ride (notice a pattern?  A lot of firsts for Oliver!).  We’re headed to Denver for a week to visit Ryan’s family since most of them haven’t met Oliver yet!  Since we’re spending more than a long weekend there, we managed to sneak in a short trip to Aspen (I’ve never been!) with Ryan’s parents and brother and his wife.
  • And although it’s not booked yet, we’re also planning a trip to Europe!  We’re hoping for October, but we haven’t been able to get Oliver’s passport yet (we tried yesterday morning, but there were too many people so we have to go back sometime this week).  We haven’t yet decided where, but some ideas include: London, English countryside, Paris, southern France, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Bruges.  We need to book this soon since our planned departure date is in 7 weeks (!), so hopefully we can get serious about this in the next week or so.

Just writing it all out seems exhausting, but we are excited to experience old and new places with Oliver.  I am a bit nervous about some things – mostly the plane flights and dealing with feeding and naps while out and about (particularly in Europe), but I’m sure we’ll survive!

 

Sheraton Iguazú – Parque Nacional Iguazú, Argentina

We’re back from our two-week trip to Argentina!  We had a wonderful time and can’t wait to share what we loved best.  We started our adventure in Iguazú National Park and stayed inside the park at the Sheraton (only hotel in the park in Argentina).  This was the only hotel on the trip that there was no debate about – it was a Starwood property that could be booked with points (so it was “free”) and it was inside the park.  There was nothing else for us to consider, and we booked it as soon as we booked our flights!

Sheraton Iguazú

 A view of the hotel (yes, the exterior is a bit outdated) from the entrance to the park.  It was THAT close!  Better than we could have imagined.

Price. As I mentioned above, we were luckily enough to book our hotel using Starpoints.  For this time of year (late October), it was 16k points per night, for a total of 48,000 points. (When we were originally thinking of visiting in early September, the rate was 12k/night.)  I’m not sure how much it would have been if we had paid for it, but rooms seems to start around $300 (give or take, depending on the time of year).

Location.  In the national park!  Just a quick walk from our room (5 or so minutes) to the lower circuit trail of the park.  We could see (and hear!) the waterfalls from the hotel, and it was amazing.  You could also be the first and/or last people in the park.  We wandered into the park on our first afternoon, and we were surprised with how empty it was (it was about an hour before closing) and how close we were to the falls!

For us it was worth it to stay in the park, but it is about 30 minutes away from the town.  We took a taxi a couple of nights to eat dinner in town, which wasn’t a big deal for us.  One more logistical note – we had to pay the $260 (pesos) each to enter the park as we were driving in.  We had read that by getting your ticket stamped, you can then pay half price for the park entrance the following day (but on the third day, you would pay full price again).  Well, one perk to staying at the Sheraton was that we paid the entrance fee once, and never had to pay again (even though we left the park several times during our stay).

Iguazú Falls - Lower Circuit

This was a surprise for us – we went on a quick walk from the hotel on our first afternoon there, and ended up walking the lower circuit!

Room.  Since we booked with points, we had the standard room, with a view of the jungle.  A few days before the trip, I received an email saying we could upgrade to a falls view room for $50/night.  I jumped at the opportunity.  As luck would have it, we ended up getting a free upgrade when we got there!  Our room was second from the end, so our view of the falls wasn’t that great.  But it was still neat to see the mist from the falls and hear the falls!

Sheraton Iguazu - Room

Dining.  Honestly, it was a bit subpar.  They do have a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner, but we decided to skip it for everything except snacks.  The food was just okay, and the service was really lacking.  Breakfast was better – it was a buffet with eggs, meats, potatoes, cheeses, fruit, cereal, and an omelette bar.  They even had champagne! Breakfast was open from 6:30-10:30, so guests can get a very early start (the park doesn’t open until 8am, though).

Amenities.  The hotel has a pool (which we used everyday), a gym (which we never used), and a spa (which we tried to use, but it was booked).  It really is set up so you don’t have to leave the hotel to go into town for anything.  They even had a little gift shop that seemed to sell most things you’d need for your trip.  As mentioned above, there is also a bar in the lobby, and a restaurant that serves lunch and dinner.  The hotel also serves drinks and food at the pool, but the bar was being repainted while we were there, so it was closed.  They did have people taking orders, but the service wasn’t consistent and we were never able to get anything ordered.

Sheraton Iguazú - Pool

Transportation.  Usually this would go in a city overview, but since we didn’t actually spend much time in the city (Puerto Iguazú) and I won’t be writing a city overview, I’ve added it here.  For the Argentine side of the park, there is no transportation needed.  You walk to the start of the lower circuit and upper circuit trails, and to get to the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat), you take the free train that runs in the park.  For everything else, we used taxis arranged by the hotel – to go to the Brazilian side, to go to dinner in town (25-30 minute drive), to go to the front entrance of the park for the Full Moon Walk, and to get to the airport.  This was so smooth – the hotel has their own taxi service, so we were able to get a taxi at a moment’s notice.  Even to cross the border and go into Brazil!  And in all cases (other than getting dropped off at the airport), it was arranged so we had a roundtrip ride.  All rides were paid in Argentine pesos.

While the hotel wasn’t perfect, it was great for our stay!  I would definitely plan to stay here on a return trip.  I would also consider staying on the Brazilian side at the hotel inside the park – the Belmond Hotel Das Cataratas.  Apparently the rules are a bit relaxed on the Brazilian side, so you can actually enter the park before it opens or after it closes (not the case with the Argentine side).  If you are looking for nightlife, it may be best to stay in town – either Puerto Iguazú in Argentina or Foz do Iguaçu in Brazil.  Through the grapevine we’ve heard that Foz is better for restaurants and nightlife, but we didn’t even drive through the town, so I can’t really comment on that.  No matter where you stay, Iguazú Falls should be considered for any trip to Argentina (or Brazil)!

Next stop, Argentina!

We’re headed to Argentina today (right now)!  Despite being very busy these last few weeks and feeling like we haven’t had time to do much research, we managed to line up a few fun activities for our trip.  I can’t decide which stop I’m most excited for – they’re all so different! Here’s a look at all we’ve booked so far:

Iguazu Falls 

About two months ago I read something online about a full moon walk at Iguazu Falls. It happens once a month, around the full moon (of course!), which is when we’ll be there! For 5 nights, a company takes 3 tours out to see the falls under the moonlight. We had such a great time when we did our night visit to the Alhambra, so I knew we had to take advantage of this.  We booked and got our preferred date and time, and I can’t wait! I’m just crossing my fingers that the weather cooperates.

El Calafate

I already talked about our El Calafate activities in my post here, but will mention them again (now that we’ve officially booked). We’ll be taking the mini trekking tour with Hielo y Adventura on our first full day, which includes a trek across a glacier!  Our second day will be a bit more relaxing but the views will be stunning – we’ll be on an all-day boat cruise that will allow us to get up close to the glaciers.  We ended up booking with Marpatag because the experience looks more luxurious, but there are other (cheaper) options.

El Chaltén

Nothing booked! We have two long hikes and a few short ones planned, but the days are flexible and there’s nothing to book in advance!

Buenos Aires

Not wanting to be bored (but how could we be?) with 5 days in the city, we booked a few fun and different activities.  We’re starting out with dinner at the Argentine Experience – I guess it’s not a cooking class, and honestly I don’t really understand what it is. But it comes very highly rated and one of my best friends was just there and raves about it. This was a must do! The next night we are seeing a tango show! It doesn’t include dinner (which was our preference) and is in an intimate setting.  If we like it enough, maybe we’ll visit a tango club 😉

We decided to take one day trip (as opposed to two, which just seemed like too much time away from the city) and it was between a visit to an estancia, the Tigre delta, and a day in Colonia del Sacramento (in Uruguay).  Ryan found an estancia that offers a day trip (including transportation back and forth) that sounds like a lot of fun. It starts with a tour of the town (San Antinio de Areco) and then a visit to the estancia, with either horseback riding, a carriage ride, or a swim, a barbecue picnic, and a demonstration put on by gauchos! We booked this for the middle of our time I’m Buenos Aires.

We plan to tour the Teatro Colón, but thought it would be even more special to see an opera while in town.  When we went to buy tickets, we noticed that there was also a concert, so we booked that instead! The performance is in two weeks and we just booked it this morning.  Based on what I read online, we either wanted seats in the orchestra or the balcony.  I’m not sure if this is the case with all performances, but there were almost no seats left.  Luckily between the two of us we were able to navigate through the Spanish-only website and purchase two tickets.

The last thing we have booked is a graffiti tour.  One of our friends went to Buenos Aires a few years ago and this was his favorite experience of the trip.  We booked through Graffitimundo, which has south city and north city tours. However, the tours are only offered certain days, so although we really wanted to fit it in at the beginning of our trip, we’re having to wait until the very end.

And there you have it! A quick look at most of our plans for our trip.  We have high hopes for everything we’ve booked and for the activities in between.  We can’t wait for the adventure to begin!

City Overview: Tokyo, Japan

We just returned from our week-long adventure in Japan!  We had a wonderful time in Tokyo and Kyoto (despite the sometimes rainy weather), and we can’t wait to write more about the trip!

Shinjuku, TokyoCity.  Tokyo, Japan

When?  3 nights – September 5-8, 2015.  After we booked our plane tickets we found out that it’s the rainy season, and that there may even be a typhoon while we were there.  It worked out fine and our plans weren’t ruined, but it was less ideal to have to deal with rain.  For our 7-night trip, 3 nights was perfect.  That meant two full days in Tokyo, which gave us the opportunity to see our top priorities, while still allowing time for 4 nights in Kyoto.

Where?  We stayed at the Granbell Shinjuku Hotel, which we loved.   I was worried that the Shinjuku area would be too crowded for me, but we weren’t on any of the main streets – just close enough to be able to walk to shops and restaurants.  We aren’t big on the nightlife (and really, we had a horrible time getting adjusted to the time zone), but Shinjuku (particularly east of Shinjuku station), seemed to be lively well into the night.

Transportation.  We flew direct from LAX to Narita International.  We took the Narita Express (a train) from the airport into Tokyo, which took about 90 minutes.  From there, we took the Tokyo metro to a station closer to our hotel, and walked from there.  We relied on the metro a lot (which was very smooth and easy to use), and only used a taxi on our last day, since it was raining. Ryan will go into more detail about the transportation logistics.

Food.  Amazing.  We had some of the best food in Tokyo – an unforgettable sushi dinner at Sushi Iwa and ramen in the Golden Gai area were the highlights.  Everywhere we turned there was a sushi place – serving fresh fish that was caught locally and purchased at the fish market.  Even the department stores and train stations had restaurants.  It really was amazing, and I wish we had more time in Tokyo just so we could experience more of the food.Food

A food court (and grocery store!) in the basement of a department store. 

Day Trips. None, although we had toyed with the idea of a trip to Hakone, an area known for hot springs and views of Mt. Fuji.

Senso-JiAttractions.  This city has a lot to offer, and we didn’t even come close to scratching the surface.  Some of our favorite activities include a visit to Meiji Shrine, Gyoen Shinjuku park, a Kabuki play, and Asakusa (and Senso-Ji, shown to the right).  If that doesn’t interest you, there are museums (historical museums like the Edo museum and art museums), several other parks, Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo Universal Studios, Odaiba (an “island” with attractions to last at least a full day), and so many others.  It really is diverse and anyone could find something fun to do during a visit.  And there are so many people – visiting, living, wandering – that it can be fun tojust sit and people-watch!

 

Language Barrier.  We do not speak any Japanese.  The only word either of us used the entire time was “arigato” (thank you).  It worried me, but overall it worked out just fine.  Some of the people we met spoke English, and some not so much.  But everyone was very willing to help, so we never felt frustrated.  It’s amazing how much can be communicated through gestures!

Cost.  I hate to call a city expensive, but Tokyo did feel a bit more expensive than some other cities we’ve visited, at least for hotels.  Food can be VERY expensive, but you can also spend $10 and get a bowl of ramen and a beer!  It really does vary, and we did not spend too much money on transportation or visiting attractions, but did decide to splurge (a bit) on our hotel and on our one very nice sushi dinner.  

Advice. If you want to eat at a specific restaurant (and one that’s popular), plan to make reservations ahead.  We used the Visa Signature Concierge service for Sushi Iwa, but working with your hotel would be another good option.  Some restaurants may take reservations directly, but keep in mind that many restaurants will charge a hefty fee for a missed reservation (this can include being late).  So take the reservations seriously, and plan accordingly!

Closing comments. Tokyo was a great introduction to East Asia.  The city is modern and transportation is easy, everyone we encountered was very friendly, and there’s a lot of different types of attractions to enjoy.  And the food is amazing!  I think our 3 nights was enough to do what we really wanted, but you can easily spend more time exploring and enjoying this huge city!

Building a House in Mexico

We built a house!! Okay, we didn’t build it all by ourselves, but Ryan and I, along with about 40 other people, built a house in Tijuana over the weekend.  It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and an opportunity presented itself on a free weekend.  A coworker has done over 100 of these builds with an organization called Corazón.  (We learned more about the organization while on our trip and, in addition to building houses, Corazón helps with the cost of school – even college – for kids that participate.)

We left from San Diego and drove across the border on a bus.  The border crossing took a while (we all had to have our passports examined and our bags x-rayed; the way back was way quicker, believe it or not!), but the actual time spent driving was very minimal.  I had never been to Tijuana before or close to the border, so it was a bit shocking to see just how different things were just on the other side.  Such a change from the nice San Corazon - the view (SD)Diego homes and shops – small houses that were mostly falling apart, makeshift stairs and roofs, dirt sidewalks.  And a lot of the houses had a view of San Diego – imagine looking over and seeing that million-dollar view, but being just out of reach (pictured on the left is the view from our build site).  It was really eye-opening, and I’m glad we had the opportunity to help out a little.  I know building one house isn’t changing the world, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Almost everyone on our build was a first-timer, so we were warned that there was a chance we wouldn’t finish.  The first-time builders thing wouldn’t have been a huge deal, but we also had to deal with a “difficult” build site.  Luckily the day wasn’t too warm (a high of about 90 degrees, but most of us were from Bakersfield so we were expecting a lot worse) and we were all prepared with light clothes, hats, sunscreen, and lots of water.

Corazon - stairsWe had to walk up stairs made from tires and dirt (pictured on the right side of the picture above).  We spent quite a bit of time in a daisy chain, bringing materials up and down the stairs.  Much of the initial painting was done in the lower area, with the final exterior and the touch-ups completed once the house was up.  Ryan and I both spent the first few hours down below, painting the large plywood pieces and trim (used for trim all over the house, and some interior rails and steps).  We were called up late in the morning to see the walls go up, which was when it really hit us – this was actually going to be a house!

Corazon - walls going up

We were on track to finish before the end of the day, but there was still a lot of work ahead of us – putting up the roof (which was first priority after lunch), finishing the interior, putting up walls for the bathroom, and painting the exterior of the house.  We took our lunch break around noon, and I was so excited and ready for our rice and beans – Corazón provides the family money to buy ricCorazon - lunche and beans and, as a thank you, they cook lunch for us.  Imagine my surprise when we were presented with fish tacos topped with pico de gallo, lettuce, chipotle sauce, and salsa verde!  The family also had two types of fruit juice and cups with fresh fruit for dessert. Lunch was absolutely delicious, and if I didn’t have a lot of hard work ahead of me, I would have eaten at least two more tacos.

The second half of the day was absolutely harder for me.  I decided that I actually wanted to use the hammer I brought (and bought specifically for this trip), so I volunteered to get up onto the roof.  The roof frame had been built before lunch, but it had to be carried and pulled up onto the top of the house (there were two pieces, to make the A-frame).  This is where you really need a lot of people helping.  Even once it was up on the roof, there were several people who had to hold up one side, while some of us started nailing it to the top of the house.  With at least 15 people on top of the house, both sides of the frame seemed to be stable in no time at all, but there was a lot of extra nailing that had to be done to make sure the roof would stay secure during wind storms.

Corazon - exteriorScaffolding was up all around the house, which allowed us to get around relatively safely.

When the team started to nail down the plywood and put down the paper layer (before the shingles), I decided to stay on the scaffolding and work on some exterior painting (very hard work – trying to duck underneath the roof and paint without getting anything in my eyes).  However, I joined them up on top when they started laying down the shingles.  The smaller tack-like nails we used for the shingles were much quicker and easier to hammer in than the longer ones used to keep the roof in place.  I think the shingles were made out of rubber – the material had a good grip, so I wasn’t worried about slipping off the roof.  The only downside is that the sun made them VERY hot to the touch, so I had to be careful not to put my hands or knees down while I nailed.

Corazon - shingles

By the time I got down from the roof (at least two hours after I started) the house was really coming together!  I was so surprised by the amount of work that had been done to the interior and exterior of the house.  From there, it was really just the finishing touches – finishing up the walls of the bathroom, adding the loft to the house, putting the trim on the outside of the house, touching up the exterior paint, etc.

Corazon - interiorThe inside of the house had a loft area, and two small “rooms” separated by the wall pictured above.  Not shown is the small kitchen countertop, a storage area on the other side of the house, and the small bathroom.  The bathroom would eventually have a toilet, but we were told that the family would not have electricity or running water – the former could be added on, but running water was not part of the future plan.  Some houses did have running water.  While we were building, we had access to another family’s home for the bathroom – it was very nice with running water and a tub.

Corazon - us at the endThe family members, some of whom helped us build, were so grateful for their new house.  I wish we could have done more to help!  It didn’t seem fair that we were about to get back onto the bus, just 8 hours after we arrived, and go back to take a nice warm shower in our fancy downtown San Diego hotel.  So, while I felt good about the work we had done, it just doesn’t seem like it was enough.  We plan to donate to Corazón because I think they do a lot of good work with the donations (I was sold once I heard about the academics program).  We were still smiling at the end of the day, so I think it’s safe to say we would definitely do something like this again!  I can’t believe it took me this long to participate in a house build, but it was a great first build experience.