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Things to Know Before Going to Cuba for Americans

by Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Big changes between America and Cuba have come since President Obama and President Raul lifted the embargo December 14, 2014, with plans to normalize relations after more than 55 years as adversaries. The news intrigued curious Americans who wanted to be the first to visit, before this frozen in time, island country in the Caribbean, is morphed into a modernized version of its former self.  Although it is now legal, with restrictions,  there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.thewanderlustyogi.net

I just returned from my first visit to Cuba and I wanted to share what I learned while it was still fresh in my mind. Cuba is so much larger than I had imagined so I wasn’t able to see even one-fourth of it, but I did spend time in Old Havana and Varadero, which are probably the two most popular areas to visit.

Here is a list of some things to know before going to Cuba for Americans.

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ENTRY REQUIREMENTS

Just because it is now legal for Americans to travel to Cuba, doesn’t mean any American can just jump on the next flight from Miami with a suitcase and passport in hand. There are still firm restrictions for travel to Cuba for Americans and tourist activities remains prohibited. Americans who wish to travel to Cuba must fall into one of the 12 category reasons authorized by the Cuban government.

  1. family visits
  2. official business of the US government, foreign governments, and certain governmental organizations
  3. journalistic activity
  4. professional research or professional meetings
  5. educational activities, including people-to-people exchanges open to everyone
  6. religious activities
  7. public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic and other competitions, and exhibitions
  8. support for the Cuban people
  9. humanitarian projects
  10. activities of private foundations or research or educational institutes
  11. exportation, importation, or transmission of information or information materials
  12. certain export transactions that may be considered for authorization under existing regulations and guidelines

I used journalistic activity because of my travel blog, but most use educational activities or people-to-people. When getting the visa documents at the airport, the reservationist handed me the paper to fill out and told me to just choose #5. I thought it was strange because she clearly had no idea if I fell into that category.  The airline workers seemed as if it was just routine to choose that category for literally everyone and it was all very informal.  I, on the other hand, was kind of freaking out that I should have not used journalistic activities now, but instead used educational activities. I was going to change it, but I already used journalistic activities when purchasing my plane ticket online and was told to “stick with your story”.  And most importantly, whatever you do, to never, ever say your visit was for tourism, if asked. My husband kept joking that if they asked him he was going to say for smuggling.  I was going to kill him! This is not a joking matter, especially in this still sensitive time of transition. I also wasn’t aware that the visa for entry into Cuba was $100.00. I did know that they require everyone to get Cuban health insurance, which is $25.00, but most airlines cover the cost in your ticket price.

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Before I left, I spoke with a lot other travel bloggers and friends and family who have already gone to Cuba and they all said its super easy to get in, the only issue may be coming back into the United States, that you could be questioned by customs and immigration, but most likely you won’t. Lucky us, on our return, we were asked!

 

This is how it went;

immigration officer: “What were you doing in Cuba?’

me:  “journalistic activities”

immigration officer: “What were your reporting on?”

me (gulp): “my husband and I run a travel blog.”

immigration officer: “Okay, did you bring any tobacco or alcohol back with you?”

my husband: “Yes, a box of cigars (starting to open his suitcase to show him)

immigration officer (to my husband): “No worries, you don’t have to show me. Welcome home.”

 

Phew.  I nearly shit my pants! Within those few seconds thoughts spun in my head, “I should have just changed it to educational activities, damn it!”, ” I’m going to be fined!! Ahh!”. “OMG! I’m going to Cuban prison!!” But thankfully, I was just freaking out for no reason. He was just going through the customary questions and wasn’t making a big deal about it.  I was! So, my tip to you, just choose category 5, everyone else does. Since it’s the most common category chosen (seems like the only one), you probably won’t get asked a thing.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

 

MONEY

When it comes to money, cash is king. You won’t find any places in this country that will accept American credit or debit cards, so keep your VISA and MASTERCARD at home. With that said, keep in mind that when you try to exchange USD to their currency (CUC), they will charge you a 10% fee. The best way to avoid this is to exchange your USD to CAD or EURO before you leave the States. The conversion rate is better and you won’t be slammed with that fee on top of it.

Another thing to consider when it comes to money is because plastic or USD isn’t taken in Cuba, you have to carry the amount of cash you will need for your entire trip with you. I admit, this was very difficult to figure out how much to bring since we didn’t really know the prices of things and the amount can vary so much depending if you stay in hotels or casa particulars, if you like to go on tours, if you want to buy souvenirs like cigars and rum, if you want to travel to a lot of different areas, if you dine in hotel chains or paladars, if you want to sip on mojitos everyday? All of these things need to be considered so you don’t end up penniless and stranded for a ride back to the airport on your last day. Lots of planning and budgeting must be done beforehand.  One valuable tip to help alleviate bringing large sums of money is to book accommodations in advance. Although you could save money by just showing up and renting a casa particular for around $30 CUC/night, which are virtually everywhere,  for added peace of mind, this can be done through AirBnB and a few online companies. You won’t find hotels on your normal go to travel websites such as http://travelocity.com, http://priceline.com or http://expedia.com (not yet anyway), but in my research I did find a few that will work with US credit cards.  We booked through http://elvoline.com and http://skoosh.com through a website all about Cuba called Cuba- Junky(http://cubajunky.com).  Make a point to browse over their website before you go. There is so much great information in it.  Please note, hotel rates in Cuba are extremely high and if they have a 5 star rating in Cuba, they most likely will more like a 3 star in the US, Canada or Europe. In Old Havana, they run between $400-$500 USD/ night for a standard room, bare minimum with no view. Ouch!

SAFETYthewanderlustyogi.net

After reading the last section you may be thinking that it could be unsafe walking around Cuba with a bunch of cash on your person. I instantly thought of that too. I thought that by being an American, the locals would know this and we would be a walking target for getting pick-pocketed. Thankfully, from word of mouth of other Americans, talking with the locals and my personal experience, that was not an issue at all. In fact, Cuba is extremely safe and has hardly any crime. The first few days while strolling along  alleys of slum neighborhoods, I had a hard time not thinking the worst, especially at night.thewanderlustyogi.net However, once the culture shock wore off and nobody harassed us, I understood this to be true. Oddly enough when speaking to the many locals, they would ask us why we have so much violent crime in our country and boasted how they are such a safe country with no gangs and a very low crime rate. The irony.thewanderlustyogi.net

 

ACCOMMODATIONS

I traveled to Cuba with my husband who is not as an adventurous traveler as I am. In other words, he is a bit on the high maintenance side. This means he prefers hotel living over AirBnB rentals or homestays. In Cuba, the best and the cheapest way to stay is renting a casa particular, which is a phrase meaning private accommodation or private homestays in Cuba, much like a bed and breakfast. You don’t even need to book them in advance, actually you can’t with most, but some use AirBnb to advertise their place.

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If you are new to AirBnB and want to save $40.00, use this link to book http://www.airbnb.com/c/jedith

There are signs virtually everywhere you look for rooms for rent and they will only run you about $30 CUC/night in Old Havana, and even cheaper outside of the city. On the other hand, if you want to stay in hotel, you are looking to spend easily $400+/ night. These extremely high western prices for hotel rooms don’t exactly give you western standard accommodations. Most hotels are very run down and out-dated and only have the bare essentials.

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This is the symbol for casa particulars where you can rent a room. They are everywhere.

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The pool at night at Parque Central, Havana, Cuba. We would have loved to stay here, but there was no availability. We waited until last minute to book because we weren’t sure what kind of accommodations we were going to choose.  I think it’s the nicest hotel in Old Havana. It is an Iberostar property.

  • The positive of staying in a casa particular is saving so much money and experiencing the true culture of Cuba. Most casa particulars offer dirt cheap meals too and you get to immerse with the locals.
  • The negative of staying in a casa particular is you will not have wifi, won’t have a television, and probably wont have air-conditioning either.
  • The positive of staying in a hotel is you will usually get breakfast included, television, wifi (with a charge of $2.00-$4.50 per hour), air-conditioning, restaurants, and maybe even a pool. Also, if you prefer booking ahead of time, this is the best way to do it. Furthermore, if you book ahead you will now only have to bring spending money with you.
  • The negative for staying in a hotel is the high cost for subpar standard rooms and not getting to know the locals.

In hindsight, I wish we would have stayed in a casa particular. Maybe if I go again without my husband, I will?

FOOD AND HEALTHthewanderlustyogi.net

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If you visit Cuba, you may have a hard time finding foods you like if you are kosher or a vegetarian. Their main source of protein is pork, with more pork on top of pork. Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit, but the menus have numerous pork dishes and you will find whole roasted pigs at every restaurant and paladar you visit.  A paladar is a restaurant run by self-employers, unlike a hotel chain or a government-run restaurant.

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Eating at my first paladar called Europa. The location was great (right on a main tourist street called Obispo), and had extremely low prices, but the food was just okay.

If you have a sensitive stomach you may want to avoid them, or only go to ones that are recommended, because you will not be positive of food handling safety. However, if you aren’t too concerned and want an authentic, cheap, Cuban meal, it may be your best option.  If you don’t like pork, you may like one of the national dishes of Cuba made from beef (more commonly lamb at paladars) called ropa vieja.  It is made with shredded meat, a tomato based sauce and vegetables. It’s usually served with rice and beans.  I tried this at two places. The first was at a paladar and it was very chewy and tasteless, but then I had it again at Parque Central Hotel (http://hotelparquecentral-cuba.com) and it was delicious. (Make sure you visit this hotel and go to the rooftop pool and restaurant. It’s a great way to take a break from the heat and chaos down below and it has an amazing view of the El Capitolio and the city. This is true for the Saratoga Hotel(http://hotel-saratoga.com) as well, which is where we stayed on our first night.) 

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my husband at the rooftop pool of Hotel Saratoga (where we stayed our first night)

Vegetarians may be disappointed with salad offerings. Most of their vegetables are canned and salads are mainly made of chopped cabbage, some shredded beets, green olives and ham. So if you do order a salad, make sure you mention,  no meat. The same goes for the fruit. They generally have canned fruit and the fresh fruit doesn’t look too appealing.  We saw this at all of the hotels and restaurants we went to and were very surprised. I would have thought in a tropical location there would be an abundance, but this wasn’t the case. They did have some street vendors selling fruits and vegetables but there were very slim pickings.

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vegetable stand in Cuba

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If you like protein bars, snacks or nuts, you will not find them anywhere. Same goes for hair conditioner and sunblock.  If you can find them, they will be super expensive. If you know you will want these items, make sure you pack them with you.  Also remember like any 3rd world country, it is not safe to drink the water. Always use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth. Keep in mind, if you are drinking coffee with milk in a paladar, they use unpasteurized milk, but hotels will have pasteurized milk. Same rule applies to ice as with water in paladars, so stick to no ice or canned drinks, but in hotels you will be fine.

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ropa vieja

TRANSPORTATION

Just like any big city, Old Havana has taxis everywhere you go. What’s so special about Cuba is you may end up in a classic 50’s car. These cool cars make you feel like you are in a time warp. The reason they are still around is because of the embargo with the United States. Since 1961, during the Cold War, the United States blocked any US companies from trading with Cuba, leaving Cuban people holding on to their vintage American cars, patching them up and using any parts they can get from other countries to keep them running.  Walking around Old Havana you feel like you are in a classic car museum. It was one of my favorite things about Cuba. You will see newer Japanese and German cars, but Fords and Pontiacs will be from the 1940’s and 1950’s.thewanderlustyogi.net

If you are spending the day strolling around Old Havana, you find out quickly how large the city is. For a fun and inexpensive way to get around you can take the hop-on-hop-off bus for $10 CUC/ per person/per day. They also have them in Varadero for $5  CUC per day/ per person. It’s especially fun getting on top of the open air double-decker bus. Keep your eyes peeled for low branches.

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Cuba coco taxis

They also have horse-drawn carriages and little yellow taxis called Cuba coco taxis, prices range depending on how far you go.thewanderlustyogi.net

There are many places to visit in Cuba, each with its own unique charm. People don’t realize until visiting Cuba, just how large it really is. I surely didn’t. Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean and it is a little smaller than Pennsylvania. It is 760 miles long and 55 miles wide.  It will take you 12 hours to drive from one side to the other. Because of this, I wasn’t able to go to two places I had originally planned on.  Trinidad (a colonial town that was highly recommended and has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1988), which was 4 hours away by car, and I could have gone to Vinales (the valley where they grow tobacco and was told how gorgeous it is) since it wasn’t too far from Old Havana (could be visited for a day tour), but we ran out of time.  We were also shorted by one day due to snow and delays from de-icing our plane.

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Old Havana, Cuba

Besides Old Havana, we split the week in half, spending three days in Varadero at their pristine white sand beaches and perfectly turquoise ocean water, which was a two-hour drive from Havana. Going there you will not find any culture, as it is void of locals, but full of Canadian and European tourists and all-inclusive resorts. I knew this before visiting the area, but we wanted to spend a few days relaxing on the beach and getting some much-needed sunshine, especially coming from two major blizzards in our home state.

 

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swimming at the beach of Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Walking on the beach at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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My husband taking it all in, sitting on a beach bed at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

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Waiting hours for check-in at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba. This is the running theme everywhere in Cuba. The service is very slow, or otherwise known as “island style”. We waited for 4.5 hours to check into our last hotel in the Miramar area of Havana (this is the fancy area where all the embassies are and where Obama stayed on his visit), at a place called Memories Miramar, La Habana. I won’t even go into the details about that place. Let’s just say an Australian couple we met at check-in told us they call it “bad Memories”

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If you weren’t prepared with some knowledge on the distance of places, not to mention the high expense for the transportation to and from them, you could be very disappointed. Mapping out your itinerary ahead of time may help you organize your trip better.

Here are a few examples of typical cab fare from Old Havana to popular cities:

Old Havana to Varadero is $120 CUC one way

Old Havana to Trinidad is $160 CUC one way

Old Havana to Havana airport is $30 CUC

Old Havana to Vinales is $100 CUC one way

Old Havana to Santa Clara is $140  CUC one way

To save money on transportation, you may choose to use their bus system. Taking the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero is only $10.00  CUC, from Havana to Trinidad its only $25.00 CUC. (To see their schedule you can check out their website at http://viazul.com, they leave  four times per day to many cities nation wide.) This is a huge difference, but don’t forget that you need cab fare to and from both bus terminals and they are not always right where you want to be when you get to your destination. Also, it takes longer and you will not get to make any stops if you see anything of interest on your way.  We were going to take the Viazul bus from Havana to Varadero, but once we got to the bus station, we were approached by a cab driver who was willing to make a deal with us and another couple. We ended up sharing a cab for $20 CUC each ($80 CUC total), and was delivered straight to the front door of our hotel.  The cab driver was also kind enough to help find a casa particular for the other couple who didn’t have a reservation anywhere. It was high season and at first he had no luck finding a room at the first few places we checked, but low and behold, he found something for them. So remember this if you have no hotel booked ahead of time and need a place to stay. The cab drivers always can find a room for you and are happy to help. I think they get a finder’s fee for it too? (another way to help the Cuban people).  It may have been a little more money but when we figured the $25 CUC we would probably spent to and from each bus terminal and the $10 CUC each for the bus equaling a total of $70 CUC, what was another $10 CUC for the convenience? Plus we made friends with a really nice Serbian couple and talked the entire ride. They may even come for a visit to stay with us in New Hampshire. They love skiing and are planning a trip to New York City soon.thewanderlustyogi.net

One place that is a must-see on your visit to Cuba is the hottest new spot in Havana. It is Fabrica De Arte Cubano (www.fac.cu), which is an art museum/club/ restaurant.  There is no dress code and you will find people of all ages there with a mix of locals and tourists. It’s super trendy and seems like something you would find in New York City. The place opens at 8:00 pm, but be sure to arrive early because the lines get extremely long.  Also, we didn’t get to do this, but there is a restaurant right next door that is supposed to be good, and if you dine there beforehand, you get VIP entrance. It is an old peanut factory that offers Caribbean, Latin and Cuban food and it is called El Cocinero (elconcinero.cuba). Reservation is needed. thewanderlustyogi.net

Another thing worth mentioning, (even though I didn’t try it myself) is La Guarida restaurant (laguarida.com). By word of mouth, it is supposed to be the best restaurant in Havana. I heard about this and knew it was going to be very popular so I would need a reservation. I booked it for the last night of our trip.  During our visit we weren’t having the best of luck with food, so I was even more excited to end my week with a delicious meal.  When we arrived the hostess said she could not find my reservation. I told her I booked it online last week and she went back to check her computer. Still nothing.  At the same time there was another couple from Ireland who ran into the same issue. We were all so disappointed. We talked to them and they told us about a cool new art place and restaurant they were told about (you know the one).  Then, we bumped into a young American girl from Minnesota who asked if we were eating there. We told her our story ad she said the same happened to her, but she ended up getting a table on another day.  She was visiting Cuba for 18 days and will be spending quite some time in Havana with her husband and baby, Juddah. She said the meal was so good and they only one she really enjoyed since she has been there, that she booked lunches for the rest of the week there, since they are much easier to get.  She loved the place so much, she changed the location of her casa particular purposely to be next door to it! If that’s not a good recommendation then I don’t know what is? So, obviously booking online for a reservation is a joke, but if you go there in person right when you arrive, they will probably have availability to dine there at least once on your visit.

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on the stairs of La Guarida before we found out we didn’t have a reservation

I didn’t cover a whole lot on Varadero, Cuba and the reason is because its your typical all-inclusive beach resort area.  You really wouldn’t know if you were in Cuba, Bahamas, Dominican Republic or Mexico. If you love white sand beaches and crystal clear blue water, this is a perfect stop for you. If you want a ton of culture and history, you won’t find it here.  We spent three days at the Royalton Hicacos Resort( http://hotelroyaltonhicacos.com). It was said to be the best resort in Varadero. It was nice, but if this was the best one, I can’t even imagine the worst one. It used to be a Sandals property, but they sold it to Blue Diamond resorts company. Our time there fell on Valentine’s Day, so it was really romantic at sunset on the beach.

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Sunset on Valentine’s Day at Royalton Hicacos Resort, Varadero, Cuba

They even offered a special Valentine’s dinner on the beach for an added fee.  We didn’t do that because the food at the resort wasn’t good.  I actually was supposed to teach yoga there through a company called NRG2GO (http://nrg2go.net) two years ago, but at the last-minute the company cancelled because they had a problem getting me a work visa.  I was so disappointed because this was right at the beginning of Americans being able to travel to Cuba and I thought this was my in, but due to this, it was too complicated for them to want to deal with. They ended up hiring a Canadian yoga instructor instead.

After a few days of eating the lackluster buffet-style meals at the resort, we wanted to get off the compound and find a restaurant in town, and explore Varadero a little. We took the hop-on-hop-off bus to the center. There were shops and horse-drawn carriages, a few restaurants and bars and of course, the beach.  We stood in front of a restaurant reading it’s menu and we were stopped by a nice Canadian man who is always there for business.  He noticed that we were looking for a place to eat and suggested the best place called Varadero 60 (http://varadero60.com). He said it may not be as good as food in the States, but it’s the closest you will find in Varadero. I’m so glad he suggested it because he was right and if he didn’t tell us we would have never found it since it’s location was on a back street a few blocked away from the main road. Also, we would have never gotten a reservation because it is so popular, but because we went so early, at 5:00pm, the dinner crowd hadn’t come yet. Their reservations start at 6:00pm. We had a lovely meal and at the end, they gave me a red rose. It was a nice touch.

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Varadero 60 restaurant in Varadero, Cuba

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After we ate a nice meal at Varadero 60, we went to the Beatles Bar to hear some live music.  It was a really cool place and if you are a Beatles fan, you will love it!

 

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The Beatles Bar, Varadero, Cuba

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hanging out at the Beatles bar in Varadero, Cuba

Then, we obviously had to go check out the beach. It was just as pretty as the beach at our resort.

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town beach in Varadero, Cuba

Cuba is an amazing place to visit. It’s like nothing I have ever seen.  It is a mix of old-world charm, rumba music, dance, art, history, culture, classic cars, cigars, beaches, valleys, colonial towns and friendly people, but, there are things to know before going to Cuba for Americans. I hope I covered the most important ones in this post.  If you are planning on visiting Cuba and have any other questions I’d be happy to help if I can. My biggest piece of advice I can give you,  is to go now,  before there are McDonald’s and Starbuck’s on every corner.

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Varadero, Cuba

 

 

 

 

Gap Year Kids go Off the Grid with NOLS

by Monday, September 26, 2016

Week one of the Winterline Global Skills program was their official orientation. It was designed for the kids to get to know each other better. They spent time in Denver, Colorado at Estes Park (aka the YMCA of the Rockies), attempting ropes courses, engaging in team building activities, problem solving, critical thinking and sharing personal stories.

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Winterline orientation (Daniela, Michael, Noah, and Rochelle)

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Leo on the ropes course!

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Emily taking photos of Ana Paulina, while Chandler is throwing up deuces

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Lilly, McKenzie, Chandler and Gabbi all in deep focus, while poor Susie needs a nap. (planning a Gap Year is hard work!)

This week was in preparation for their first big challenge at Winterline; an eight-day backpacking trek off the grid, and into the Rocky mountains of Wyoming.

But first, they needed to be trained by NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School).  They took a bus from Denver, Colorado to Lander, Wyoming, which was where the base camp of NOLS was located.  They spent a few days at the NOLS hotel for training.  They took very intensive classes on wilderness first aid training, leadership skills, outdoor skills, environmental studies and risk management.  Once they have passed their in-class tests, they were ready to put their new skills to use.

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NOLS wilderness first aid training…not funny when you’re sent a snapchat of this with no explanation!

They broke the cohort into two groups of ten. Each group was equipped with NOLS issued tents, sleeping bags, a camp stove, food, and even a bear fence. Yikes! Each group also were accompanied by two, highly trained  NOLS instructors. What couldn’t fit in their, close to 50 lb. backpacks, (and also NOT allowed),  was their smart phones!

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The two teams for the NOLS backpacking adventure. (my daughter Maddie is the little one at the bottom, center)

This meant zero contact with the outside world for eight days!

This second week would prove to be a challenge for the Gap Year Mom’s too, as we were at home worrying, and had no clue on how they were doing.  Thank goodness us Gap Year Mom’s have united and formed a chat group. This was a great idea from a mom from Columbia. She uses the app called Whats App to stay in contact with her daughter. I have used that app and Viber while traveling abroad.  They are both great apps to stay in contact with friends and family while traveling abroad, and what’s even better is that  they are FREE ( as long as you have a WiFi connection)!! We also have a private group on Facebook (created by Winterline) and all follow each other, our kids, and Winterline, on Instagram, snapchat and twitter.  The reason for us using the Whats App more is because some of us don’t have Facebook or other social media apps on our phones.  Many of us haven’t had any prior experience with social media at all. The gap year learning is extending onto the parents.  Gotta love social media! It really is a lifesaver through this!

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food prepping for their 8 day NOLS expedition

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Maddie and Michael (both from NH) all ready for their eight day backpacking expedition in the Rocky mountains

The first week for the Gap Year Mom’s was hard adjusting to our kid’s absence.  The second week was even harder, because they weren’t only gone, but we couldn’t talk to them either. It almost felt like they were in boot camp. And in a way, they were.  Each of us from our “Gap Year Mom chat group” checked in from time to time, seeing how we all were holding up. It was like a virtual lifeline for us when we started to worry. Even with our busy lives, working, doing our routine errands and the such, we always made time to pop in and check on each other.

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camping food doesn’t look half bad…who knew?

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Elise, Michael and Emily setting up camp

The Gap Year Moms had our share of ups and downs during this week. Every day was the countdown, ” eight more days”, “seven more days”, and so on…. When someone expressed a thought of worry in the group such as;

“What if they are freezing?”,

“What if they are homesick?”,

“What if they are scared?”,

“Do you think they came across wildlife?”,

“I hope they don’t get lost!”,

“What if they have a medical emergency?”,

to, you name it, (we thought of every possible scenario), the others would talk that mom down.  It’s like we took turns being the strong one, and the weak one.  Even though we couldn’t talk to our kids, to know what they were going through, it was nice to talk to other Gap Year Moms having these same concerns. Also it was nice knowing that we weren’t alone.

That eighth day came and we were all on the edge of our seats waiting to hear from the kids. We knew that they had to hike to the base camp, but didn’t know how long it would take. We were all on high alert, checking our phones in between patients, at our lunch breaks, during down time at work, or whatever else we were occupied with, each promising to immediately report when we’ve made contact with one of the adventurers.

 

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We’re on top of the world! Wind River Wilderness, Pinedale, WY (elevation 12,500 ft. )

They made it!!

Each of us got a call, some sooner than others, but we were all so relieved to hear their happy voices.  I was afraid that my daughter might be complaining about how hard it was and how much she hated it, but no, it was just the opposite! She was breathless while excitedly speaking about how amazing and life-changing her experience was.  She said it was one of the most challenging things she has ever done, but felt so accomplished for sticking it out and completing it. She spoke of the extreme mountain hiking, totaling forty miles, with elevations reaching 12,000 ft. and up, the beauty of the Rockies, the cooking shifts,  setting up camp, scaling the Continental Divide, some cold and wet nights, not showering, the bathroom situation and how exhausted and sore she was, but most importantly, having a feeling of self-satisfaction and an increase in her self confidence.

I was so happy and so impressed that my little 90 lb. daughter was a bona-fide BAD ASS!

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My little backpacker!

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The campers keeping each other warm.

The Gap Year Moms chat group was buzzing with awesome stories of their happy campers. So many of the kids shared the same sentiment, that it was so hard, but life-changing.  They were not only challenged physically but also mentally and emotionally.  Some kids even lost some weight, which they had made as a personal goal for this year.  There were tears of happiness shared by all the moms and a good night’s sleep to be had that night. Winterline is already impacting us all in so many positive ways and we are only two weeks in!

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taking in nature’s beauty

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Emily, Michael and Maddie taking it all in!

This week solidified my decision to let my daughter go on a gap year. As many of us in the Gap Year Mom group have confessed, we at times, doubted ourselves if it was a right choice.  Not because we didn’t know what an amazing, life changing experience we were giving our kids, (we all knew that) but because of the naysayers in our lives that don’t understand what a gap year can do for young adults.

I hope that by sharing these stories of my daughter’s gap year, it can help enlighten others to be open to the idea of how awesome this can be for kids transitioning from high school to college.  We aren’t saying that college isn’t important. We all agree that it is.  It’s just that, we recognize, that learning through life experience while being fully immersed in hands-on education, instead of only in a classroom setting, can be even more beneficial. To be able to first begin with a gap year traveling the world, in ten different countries, learning one hundred new skills and becoming more independent, and then going into to college the following year, we believe, it will only make them that much more prepared for college and adult life.

This journey has already proven to be reaping so many benefits in its first twenty days for our kids. Winterline has impressed me from day one and has continued to throughout this entire process, thus far. I can only imagine how transformational this will be for them in nine months! What I wasn’t aware of was the friendships and journey the Gap Year Moms are going through together is just as transformational for us.

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After 8 days without a shower. She has dreadlocks!

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They Passed! On their return from the wilderness, they all received their diploma of completion through NOLS

Next stop, Costa Rica!!…..PURA VIDA!

 

 

 

 

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone

by Tuesday, September 6, 2016

As I lie in bed on a dark and rainy September morning, my two Boston Terriers by my side, I feel numb. Earlier today, while many moms and dads have sent their kids on the bus for their first day, back to school, the day after Labor Day, I sent mine on a plane to travel the world for nine months. Without me!

I knew this day was coming. Hell, if it wasn’t for me, I don’t think it would have ever happened? You see, I am in love with travel. This is something I passed down to my daughter.  Being able to travel the world, visiting exotic places and meeting people from foreign lands, for an extended period of time, is something that many only dream about.  Many, including me. Now, my daughter is living that dream. This is her reality and the thought of it is so surreal that it  gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.

I am over the moon with excitement for her, knowing that she is able to see the world in this unique manner.  This traveling style will allow her to fully immerse in different cultures, will expose her to new people, new foods and new traditions, in such a way that is very rare for a person to achieve on a typical two-week vacation.  The program she is traveling with is called Winterline Global Skills  This program has created an extraordinary hands-on approach to learning.  Therefore, she is not just visiting 10 countries, hitting a few tourists spots and leaving. She is visiting places such as Costa Rica, Panama, Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Austria, India, Cambodia,  and Thailand and while she spends time at each location, she will be learning 100 new skills as her journey progresses. The thought of how such experiences will positively impact her life in so many ways makes my heart sing.

So why am I so sad then?

After returning from the airport and driving up my driveway the first thing I see is her car with her Winterline bumper sticker proudly displayed on the back of her beat up Lexus RX300 SUV, that used to be mine, and used to be nice, but through the years it has aged, as did she, as did I. Thoughts ran through my head, “That car will no longer have Maddie coming and going in it”. “That car won’t move for months on end.” “It may even still be there when it snows and she still won’t be back!” My heart pounded and my eyes filled up again, right when they finally dried up from my drive home. “Take a deep breath Jess. She is going to be okay. You are going to be okay. She is so happy and that makes me so happy!”

But I’m going to miss her.

I proceeded to walk into the house, greeted by my fur babies, that thankfully “will never leave me”, I thought to myself,  and then saw her shoes by the doorway. I tried to ignore them looking at me, as they whispered, ” She is gone. It’s time to let her go.”  I contemplated on going in the kitchen for who knows what? I wasn’t hungry. I wasn’t thirsty. I decided to instead to go upstairs and lay in my bed. I did wake up at 3:00 am to drive her, so I was really tired, but in reality, it was more a feeling of loss than fatigue that I was feeling.

I made my way up the stairs with Gabby and Bernie following close behind and in my peripheral vision I saw her clothes hanging to dry on the railing from the night before. ” I don’t know why she washed them if she wasn’t taking them?” I thought, “but if I don’t put those away in her room after they are dry, they won’t be touched or worn by her for at least three months, and by then, the shorts, crop tops and rompers won’t be in season. “

I need to get away from her stuff. At least for today anyway. I don’t dare go near her bedroom although I project images of myself laying in her bed on days I’m missing her.

My husband knows how hard this is for me, so in between his jobs he came by the house to check on me and to bring me a pumpkin spiced iced-coffee from Dunkin Donuts to cheer me up. It did temporarily. He knows that I am genuinely so excited for her, but have to transition to the empty nest stage of life. He also knows that this will be especially hard for me because she is “my person” and he isn’t even remotely jealous in that fact. He thinks we are clones, especially when we sweet talk him into things. We always eventually get our way with him, but I know he secretly loves it.  I wonder if now I won’t get my way without her added persistence? She is good. Really good, but  I digress.

He is a man a few words. He shows his love by his actions and has a hard time expressing his feelings verbally.  Before she left he wanted to add patches to her backpack of all the places she has already gone.  This is something we talk about on every trip we take.  We buy the patches, intend to put them on when we get back home, but never get around to actually doing it.  His goal was to have hers complete by her trip.

It started out rough. Some of the places we visited, we didn’t get a patch, so he ordered it from Amazon Prime. (I love Amazon Prime btw! You can get virtually anything!)  We were waiting for them to arrive and it was getting very close.  Then, the patches we thought were iron-on were actually sew-on. Trying to sew these heavy-duty stitched patches onto a nylon Northface backpack seemed nearly impossible.  It was a grueling nightly task that he would make his chore for a week or so until it was complete, finger pokes and all. This was his way of saying good luck and a send off gift, “Brice-style”, not to mention the hefty contribution to this Gap Year he made. She loved it!

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Maddie at the airport with her backpack adorned with country patches on her way to her Gap Year

It’s now the afternoon and I’m still here on my bed writing my thoughts as I hear my dog loudly snoring next to me. As I finish off the last sips of my melted down, now less sugary, pumpkin spiced iced-coffee, I allow myself a day to mourn.

Today, I am mourning the end of her childhood.  I am mourning our times chatting all night about all the drama at her school. I am mourning the unbearable wake-up calls for her before school meetings for FBLA.  I am mourning seeing her pretty face smiling at me as she walks in from wherever she was that day.  I am mourning the nights I couldn’t fall asleep until I knew she was home safe.  All these things and more, will no longer be.

However, tomorrow, I will be celebrating her journey into adulthood. I will be celebrating the amazing experiences she will have exploring the world.  I will be celebrating all of her accomplishments.  I will be celebrating the obstacles that she has overcome.

I will be celebrating HER.

As a mother, letting go is hard. So hard. But when you know that by doing so, you are giving your child wings to fly, it’s all worth it. This is what I believe that being a good parent is all about.  You can love them, nurture them, teach them, guide them, and hope you’ve done you’re best. BUT, you have to let them go. If you’ve done well, they will never forget where their nest is.

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The first group has arrived in Colorado!

 

 

 

 

Sleeping in a Capsule Hotel for one Night: My Out-of-this-World Experience!

by Monday, May 9, 2016

You might be thinking? “How did you end up sleeping in a capsule hotel for one night?” I know. Crazy! It was really simple actually. My daughter and I were traveling on EVA Air (aka the Hello Kitty airline), which is a Taiwan based airline, and we had a 21 hour layover in Taipei on our way to Bali, Indonesia. We wanted to figure out an easy and cheap way to get a little rest, instead of waiting it out in the airport! That would have been horrible, especially having a 15 hour flight to JFK-New York City, once we got to leave Taipei. Ugh!thewanderlustyogi.net
I started to look for a discounted hotel around the airport by using my usual goto sites, like www.kayak.com, www.booking.com and www.agoda.com.  While browsing, I came upon this hotel called, Hey Bear Capsule Hotel. It first caught my eye because of it’s funny child-like name and theme of Teddy bears and other animated animals.  What is it about Taiwan, that everything is cartoony; Hello Kitty airlines, Teddy bear hotels?  Its so funny!  Then, the term “capsule” was something I didn’t quite understand. So, because of my curiosity, I clicked on it.
I started perusing the hotel information and reviews. It appeared to be a hostel type hotel, but the unusual part was it had individual sleep capsules for each guest to sleep in. The reviews were “excellent”, scoring a 9.0  out of 10 and the pictures made me scream with laughter!
As I laid on my hotel bed of our last night in Bali,  searching on my iPhone for a perfect place to stay the next evening, I yelled to my daughter, “I think I found where we are staying tomorrow night in Taipei?” She said, “Okay, where? Is it near the night market?” As I answered, I couldn’t help, but giggle the whole time. ” What do you think about staying in a capsule hotel? We each will get our very own pod or coffin, ha ha ha, and, we not only will have a totally unique hotel stay, but its right near a night market! Do you want me to book it??” My daughter squealed, “YES!!! This is going to be so cool!” So, for $26.00/ per capsule, I booked it!
The next day we took our 5 hour flight from Bali, Indonesia to Taipei, Taiwan. As we prepared for landing, it suddenly occurred to me that we are sleeping in a capsule hotel! This thought made me feel excited and giddy,  but also a little nervous. Not that I was scared to stay at the hotel, but I wondered if I would feel claustrophobic or not like it? In any case, we were only staying one night. I mean, it couldn’t be that bad? It’s a hell of a lot better than sleeping on an airport floor. Been there. Done that. The worst!
Now, I really knew nothing about Taipei. It was never on my list for a place to visit. On a quick overview of the city, I realized that of everything this city has to offer and with our short amount of time we had there, we had to at least;

  1. Go to a night market.

  2. Eat dumplings.

If I did those two things on our quick little layover, I would feel accomplished on my visit.

TAIPEI, TAIWAN:
We got through customs in no time and stepped outside into the taxi line. We noticed that we were not only, the only non-Taiwanese for miles around, but we were also the only English-speaking people around. This could pose for some struggles. Most places I have traveled, someone around me could speak English (the privilege we have as Americans only knowing the Universal language-cringe), especially people in the hospitality business such as taxi drivers, hotel workers and restaurant workers. Not in Taipei! This was going to be so much harder than I thought. I tried to say the name of the hotel to the taxi stand worker, “Hey Bear Capsule Hotel”. Then again slower, (this time just) “Hey Bear”, but for some reason my Boston accent came out full fledge. It does that every once in a while, even though I try my best to control it. (lol) My daughter caught it and she smiled, as to call me out.  She always does that to me and teases me about it. Brat!   I sounded ridiculous and knew I was wasting everyone’s time. He has no clue of what I was saying.  I looked around me, searching for a sign that someone knew what I was saying and could translate it for me. Nope! Not a soul.
Thankfully, for some reason, (something I’ve never noticed before) www.agoda.com, whom I booked the hotel through, had a pop-up message that said,  ‘”show this to a local language speaker to ask for directions”.  It was a picture with Taiwanese writing.  I couldn’t read it of course, but I assumed it was the name and address of the Hey Bear Capsule Hotel. I screen shotted it, just in case.
At last resort, I remembered that I took that screen shot and pulled out my phone and showed the taxi stand man.  He glanced at it quickly and boom, hailed over a taxi, told him where to take us and we were off! Just like that. So, another great tip I learned and wanted to share; for anyone staying in a foreign country that can’t speak the language or even say “hello” in their native tongue-Get your hotel information translated into that country’s language. I don’t know what we would have done? Thank you www.agoda.com. It was a total life-saver!thewanderlustyogi.net

CHECK-IN:
We arrived at Hey Bear Capsule Hotel. It was in a regular building with other businesses. It had eight floors, with the hotel being on the top floor. thewanderlustyogi.netThe elevator doors opened and there was statues of teddy bears and other cute animals at the entrance. We laughed. We continued into a common area room with tables, computers, a coffee machine, a hot water machine (for ramen/tea naturally), video games, and a front desk. We went up to the front desk and was greeted by a young man. He couldn’t speak English at all. I showed him my passport and he filled out some papers, handed me two key cards and smiled. I smiled back and showed myself to the door that had a pink teddy bear on it. It was a male or female dormitory hostel. I presumed I was headed in the right direction. I also saw two young girls walking in that door, using their key card to access it while I was checking in.thewanderlustyogi.net
I took my key card and pressed it near the sensor. It opened. We entered into a locker room, with lockers and a bench, and a door to our right, leading to a bathroom,  and a row of doors to our left, with numbers labeled on each. I looked at my key card and saw that I was 805-1, my daughter’s was 805-2. I looked at the doors and found 805. It was the first door. I used my key card for access and it opened. The room was small with 4 pods on the left and 4 pods on the right. It looked like a space ship or some sort of coffins of the future. This was going to so hilarious!thewanderlustyogi.net
thewanderlustyogi.netWe each found our pod. Mine was on the top (sort of set up like bunk beds) and my daughter’s was in the one directly beneath me. We met a girl named Ivy, who had just arrived too. She had never stayed in a capsule hotel either. We all used our own key cards to access our pods and all of us were chatting and cracking up as we explored our little sleep cubicles.
When you enter, you couldn’t help but notice the blue neon light that felt almost soothing. They also had baby music pumped throughout the place that sounded sort of like a lullaby. I think its to calm you and make you feel sleepy? It’s a little creepy in a way.  I guess it was all part of the ambience?thewanderlustyogi.net

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My daughter in her capsule with iPhone in hand. Shocking!

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Me getting used to the idea that I will be sleeping in this thing!

Each pod had a basket with slippers, a bottled water, remote control (for the TV), headphones and a small towel. The bed was soft and all the linens where white. There was one pillow and underneath the pillow was a white comforter. The pod was equipped with a TV, lighted mirror, outlets for plugs and USB ports, a port for headphones and buttons for different lighting choices (back light, reading light, mirror light etc). Also, there was a button that was to lock your pod.thewanderlustyogi.net
For some reason, seeing the lock button, made my stomach feel a little uneasy.   All I thought about was, “What happens if I lock it and it didn’t open and I was stuck inside!?”  I needed to not think like that. It was going to freak me out.
I first took some video footage and pictures so that I could share this unique hotel experience with my friends, family, and my readers, but then thought it would be a good idea to see how it was going to feel, really sleeping in this thing.thewanderlustyogi.net
I laid down and pulled the blanket over me. I put the light on back light because that seemed the most like a night-light. I put the TV on and put the headphones on. Lastly, I hesitantly closed the capsule door until I heard a click. I checked it. Yep, it was definitely locked. My heart started beating a little faster. Let me just press the button to be sure it opens. I pressed it. The door made a click noise. I reached over to slide the door and it wouldn’t open! I tried again. Still nothing. I started to panic a little, but then after my third attempt, it opened. Yikes! That was a little nerve-wracking, but it was all good. “I think I’m just being a little paranoid?”,  I say to myself.
The bed felt very comfy and since I was so tired anyway,  I didn’t think I would have any trouble sleeping in this capsule at all (as long as I didn’t think about the door locking too much). The size felt bigger than you’d think and mostly anyone under six feet tall would fit perfectly fine inside with plenty of room to move around.
HOTEL/HOSTEL AMENITIES:
Besides our individual pods, we also had access to a common area that had tables and seats and computers, a bathroom that was equipped with showers, dressing rooms, mirrored vanities and restroom (Eastern-style and Western-style options-thank goodness!). Each capsule also had an assigned locker to keep your belongings in. The pod would be way too squishy if you had to store all your luggage in it with you.thewanderlustyogi.net thewanderlustyogi.netthewanderlustyogi.net
The one thing that stood out by far was the cleanliness of this hotel. It was absolutely meticulous and there was always someone cleaning the whole time we were there. It was not only clean, but was very modern as well. Like I said earlier,  you feel like you are in a space ship!  Its ultra-new age! The hotel itself, just opened in 2016.

CHECK OUT:
Additionally, the staff members at Hey Bear Capsule Hotel were very friendly, even if we mainly only communicated by hand gestures and smiles. The owner was a sweet women, who spoke English, and was very excited for us to recommend Hey Bear Capsule Hotel to our friends and family and she asked if we would come back. We told her we loved it, thought it was so fun, complimented the cleanliness, and even bought T-shirts of the hotel, as a keepsake. Our flight wasn’t until much later than check out, and she was kind enough to let us store our bags there until we left for the airport.thewanderlustyogi.net

Overall, sleeping in a capsule hotel for one night was a unique and fun experience that I will never forget. I’m not sure if I would recommend it for all travelers, especially for an extended period of time, for people with confinement issues (claustrophobia), for an older traveler, for someone traveling with small children, or if you are trying to have a romantic night’s stay (aka honeymoon) It’s one person per capsule.  However, if you are a free-spirit, young and able, love adventure, trying new things and not afraid of small spaces; this is surely something you will want to try at least once in your life! I never thought I would ever find myself sleeping in a capsule hotel for one night, but my experience was out-of-this-world!

Do you think you could ever sleep in a capsule hotel?

On a side note: Taipei, Taiwan was a fun city to visit with super friendly locals and would be a foodie’s delight.  We felt extremely safe and would recommend it for a female solo traveler.  We did go to a night market and ate dumplings. Two thumbs up for both! Now that I spent, almost a day there, I wish we could have stayed longer.  I hope to be able to go back some day.

Where Do Trending Celebrities Vacation?

by Thursday, March 3, 2016

When you are trying to plan your next vacation, do you ever wonder where do trending celebrities vacation? I know I do. My thinking is, if it’s good enough for them, it’s got to be good enough for me, right? I mean, they can literally go anywhere they want. It’s not like money is an issue.  The world is essentially their oyster. I decided I wanted to find out for myself. There are so many celebrities out there so I had to narrow it down a bit. I chose the top 10 trending celebrities on Twitter, in order, according to the number of their followers. If they aren’t influencers, than I don’t know who is? You may be surprised to where they go?  Maybe this will inspire you to want to go there too?

1. KATY PERRY (@katyperry/83,818,992 followers on Twitter)

This past June 2015, Katy Perry traveled to the Greek Islands, during her hiatus from her Prismatic World Tour. She vacationed with her family, including her older sister and her baby niece. This photo was taken in Mykonos with a backdrop of the Aegean Sea, with her instagram caption, “Oh my Goddess”

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2. JUSTIN BIEBER (@justinbieber 76,286,692 followers on Twitter)

Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin, daughter of Stephen Baldwin, spent the holidays in Anguilla with Justin’s dad and siblings. The couple claims that they are just good friends, but they seem pretty cozy in their pictures? I wonder what Selena thinks about this?

thewanderlustyogi.netAlso spotted in Anguilla: Kendall Jenner, Harry Styles, Jon Bon Jovi, Ronald Perelman, Shia LaBeouf, Liam Neeson, Ethan Hawk, Uma Thurman, Kevin Bacon, Robert DeNiro, Toby Macuire and Dustin Hoffman. (It is said that these celebs go to Anguilla now instead of their usual St. Bart to escape the paparazzi- unfortunately it looks like not for long)


3. TAYLOR SWIFT (@taylorswift13 72,059,519 followers on Twitter)

This past December, Taylor Swift took her entire tour crew on vacation to Australia. At the final leg of her 1989 World Tour she gave her squad a much needed holiday. Her and 125 crew members spent their vacay on Hamilton Island, Australia.

 

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4. BARACK OBAMA (@BarackObama 70,564,093 followers on Twitter)

I don’t know why I was surprised to see that President Barack Obama tops in Twitter followers. He is, after all, the coolest President the United States has ever had. I think it is fair to say that we all know that he is from Hawaii. Yes, that island in the United States of America Mr. Trump, not Kenya!  He and his family spend every Christmas season with family on the island of Oahu. On his visits, he enjoys golfing, spending time on the beach and eating a Hawaiian favorite, shave ice.

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5. RIHANNA (@rihanna 56,724,337 followers on Twitter)

Rihanna, a native of Barbados, goes back home to vacation. Rihanna was there this past August 2015, to celebrate the Carnival Festival. She partied with her friends and enjoyed this annual event. She may be a force to be reckoned with in America, but she never forgets where she came from.

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6. LADY GAGA (@ladygaga 56,424,580 followers on Twitter)

While on tour this past summer with Tony Bennet for their collaborative album, Cheek to Cheek , Lady Gaga took a little beach break in the Bahamas in June 2015. Although her career has never been so busy, as she notes in her caption on her photo on Instagram, “I take a Bahama mama. Work hard, play hard. Work hard again, play harder.”, she makes sure she takes time for herself and her loved ones, especially her fiance, Taylor Kinney, star of NBC’s Chicago Fire.

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7. ELLEN DEGENERES (@TheEllenShow 54,884,493 followers on Twitter)

Ellen DeGeneres and wife Portia deRossi spent the holidays with friends and family on St. Barth. On their holiday , they strolled along the shops, relaxed on the beach and dined on a yacht with Kendall Jenner and Harry Styles. These two love birds frequent this Caribbean island, as well as many other celebrities.  This is definitely a favorite among the rich and famous.  Maybe because St. Barth has a variety y of designer boutique, many fine-dining options, yachts and amazing views and it’s not too far of a flight from LA? In any case, a ton of the elite come to vacation on St. Barth.

thewanderlustyogi.net

Also spotted in St. Barth: Gwen Stefani, Beyonce and Jay Z, Lindsay Lohan, Miranda Kerr, Derek Jeter, Mariah Carey, Leonardo DiCaprio, Heidi Klum, Jessica Alba, Chrissy Teigen and John Legend, Channing Tatum, Paul McCartney, George Lucas, Prince, Paris Hilton, and Star Jones. (This place has got to be awesome!)


8. JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE (@jtimberlake 52,427,307 followers on Twitter)

During Justin Timberlake’s, 20/20 Experience World Tour, him and his wife Jessica Biel spent some time in New Zealand.  They are extremely private about their relationship and sharing pictures of themselves. That’s why it was rare to see this Instagram picture on Justin’s account with the caption, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” – a quote for the fictional movie character Ferris Bueller. On their vacation, they enjoyed hiking, spending time on the black sand beaches, exploring caves and being away from the public eye.

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9. BRITNEY SPEARS (@britneyspears 44,287,656 followers on Twitter)

This past summer, July 2015, Britney Spears, her two sons and her boyfriend, Charlie Ebersol vacationed in Hawaii. She enjoyed her time off from her Las Vegas shows, relaxing on the beach. She didn’t just relax though, she was spotted doing very difficult yoga poses while at the beach in Kauai. She is clearly determined to squeeze in some exercise, even while on vacation. Namaste!

thewanderlustyogi.net


10. KIM KARDASHIAN (@KimKardashian 41,014,992 followers on Twitter)

Last August 2015, Kim Kardashian and the whole Kardashian clan vacationed together in St. Barts. As stated earlier, this is definately a hot spot for the trending celebs. Kim being very pregnant still wore a tiny bikini and enjoyed playing in the ocean with her daughter, niece and nephew. Kim, her sisters, and her mom relaxed on the beach, shopped, dined at exclusive restaurants and went yachting. Most of the time however, the girls focused their vacation on taking their best Instagram photos of themselves. Well of course they did!

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In researching the places that trending celebrities vacation, I found that they have trends within their circles too. This includes where they live, where they shop, where they dine, where they party and also where they vacay.  It seems like they influence each other on where the hot-spots are for A-Listers, whether it be The Hamptons, Hawaii, St. Barts, St. Tropez or Cabo.  Most likely, if you spot one celebrity, you can be sure to find another one to follow.

I’m looking into my summer vacation currently and now Hawaii and St. Barts is high on my radar. I doubt I’ll be able to stay at the posh, high-end and exclusive resorts where the trending celebrities stay, but at least I can be close. Come to think of it, maybe I don’t want to be near them? It could be depressing.

Before You Rent a Car in Costa Rica: READ THIS!

by Thursday, February 18, 2016

I  just got back from Costa Rica a few weeks ago and there were many things I wanted to share about my experience. However there was one component that was most pressing. It’s in regards to renting a car in Costa Rica. From my experience and first hand observations, I wanted to inform travelers to consider not renting a car when visiting Costa Rica.  This may sound like an overstatement and must make you wonder why I feel the need to say this or even suggest this? To better clarify, I came up with ten reasons you shouldn’t rent a car in Costa Rica.

This is the one topic that came up continuously on my trip to Costa Rica and what my travel companions said I must share with people.

We rented a car because we knew we would be exploring many areas and figured it was the most economic and easiest way to get around. Boy were we ever in for a surprise. Even right from the start there were unexpected issues.


10 REASONS YOU SHOULDN’T RENT A CAR IN COSTA RICA

1.There are hidden fees at car rental companies in Costa Rica.

Before heading to Costa Rica and planning on renting a car, I was aware that it was highly suggested to get the extra insurance when doing so.  Thus, while booking my car rental through Expedia, I opted for the extra insurance, which was another $11.00/day. This was no big deal I thought. The price for the car rental was only $7.00 per day (which I thought had to be an error because it was so cheap), so when you add the extra insurance, it still only came to $18.00/day. I usually spend around $35.00/day for a car rental, therefore I thought the price was great and the extra sense of security would be worth it. However, when we got to the car rental place, that all changed.

They told us extra insurance or any insurance, for that matter, from a company in the USA  did not cover for anything in Costa Rica. What? How is that even possible and why would they offer it then? This is one of the hidden fees that I feel is so wrong. They use this loop-hole to pressure you into buying extra insurance, through them, and propose that you also give a $500.00 flat fee, to cover anything, which is (btw) non-refundable. So much for the great deal I thought I was getting! This was supposed to be $50.00 (for the car rental)+$77.00 (added insurance)= $127.00. I knew that was too good to be true. It was.  

After we said we didn’t want to cough up the non-refundable  additional $500.00, he told us, then he would  have to hold $2,500.00 on a credit card in case of damages.  So basically, even their insurance covered nothing! That was on top of my extra insurance through Expedia and my extra insurance through them!  It seemed completely ridiculous!

We ended up spending $408.00 for the week for all the added fees, GPS, hotspot, and extra insurance through them, and they held $2,500.00 which was released 48 hours after the car return. I really don’t understand how they can advertise such a cheap price on the internet, when it’s a total lie. This is even worse if you are a budget traveler. We saw four young backpacker guys renting a car at the same time as us. When they were explained all the hidden fees, especially the $2,500.00,  they were flipping out. That was all of their money. They didn’t have a credit cards, only debit cards. This could absolutely ruin someone’s vacation if they weren’t aware of this and didn’t have the money.  They ended up scrambling the $500.00 flat fee between them, but you could tell they were already upset about the unexpected spending that they were trying to avoid, and they were only there for less than an hour.   $125.00 to a young backpacker is a lot of money. Welcome to Costa Rica!

2. Costa Rican drivers are very aggressive.

 

I’m not trying to say the locals (or Ticos as they are called in Costa Rica) are not nice people. They are just the opposite. Every Tico or Tica I met was warm and friendly. It’s just that their driving is very aggressive and there seems to be no road rules that people follow. Now I’ve driven in New York City and other extremely intense driving situations, but nothing compared to the chaos that is felt on a busy traffic street in San Jose or a dirt cliff road in San Raphael, Costa Rica. Actually, that isn’t necessarily true, India was way worse, but nobody rents a car in India. That would be considered suicide! Luckily my husband was the one driving and he is a much better driver than I, but he agreed that they were the worst drivers he has ever dealt with.

3. The road conditions in Costa Rica is very bad.

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we had no idea how bad this road was going to get

The road conditions in Costa Rica go from bad to worse, depending on the area. If you are in the city of San Jose, the traffic is nuts and the road construction and potholes in the street make for bad driving conditions, not to mention the way they drive. If you get out of the city and feel relieved that you got away from all the craziness, it is almost worse in the mountains, but in a different way, especially if you are afraid of heights, like me. Many of the roads are dirt and have huge rocks throughout and if its raining, turns into muddy conditions, that without 4-wheel drive vehicle, it would be almost impossible to drive through. Then, you add the cliff drops on both sides of the road, shared bridges and the constant passing of cars, its enough to give anyone a heart attack. If that’s not bad enough, there is also fog when you get to higher elevations that is so thick that you can’t see one foot in front of you?  We experienced this near Monteverde and the Cloud Forest. This area is eerie, beautiful and almost mystical to witness, but driving in it is so scary.

4. The risk of car theft in Costa Rica is high.

Everyone told us over and over not to leave anything in our rental car because it will be stolen.  We figured since we would be moving around a lot that we could keep all of our valuables in the trunk.  “No way!” a Tico told us. “Everything will be stolen!” That was a huge inconvenience, especially when we were leaving one hotel, going on our day trip, and then checking into another hotel later that day. “Were we supposed to take our laptops and suitcases hiking with us?” It was awful. In certain situations we had to park and leave our stuff. We really had no other choice. We just took our money and passports with us and crossed our fingers. Fortunately, nothing was stolen, but the worry it would cause us, while we are trying to enjoy a nice hike through the amazing jungles of Costa Rica, kind of dulled our enthusiasm bit.

5. Driving in Costa Rica is so stressful.

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“cloud forest”

For most people, when you are on vacation you like to relax and enjoy yourself. The thing with driving in Costa Rica is you are always feeling stressed, whether you are scared while driving, hoping not to get into a car accident or drive off a cliff, or you’re worrying about the car getting broken into. How is this a fun and relaxing vacation? It’s not. On our worst day of driving, we had been on a four-hour drive from Jaco to La Fortuna and we drove literally over a mountain. It was the scariest, most intense car ride I have ever experienced. Being in the fight or flight response mode for that long was overwhelmingly exhausting. Once we arrived and were relieved that it was over and we didn’t die, we all were mentally and emotionally drained. I had a migraine and none of us barely spoke at dinner, we felt traumatized.  It was really that bad.

6. Driving in Costa Rica is time consuming.

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Most likely when you go on a vacation you have only so much time. With that being said, would you want to spend most of your one or two-week, hard-earned vacation in a car, fearing for your life? Me neither. I think one of our biggest mistakes about Costa Rica is how far each area was to one another. On a map, locations may not appear to be too far from one another, but if add the road conditions, construction, and traffic, you will most likely double the time you were initially expecting your journey to take. I think the best way to explore Costa Rica is to choose one area, and not four. If you are really keen on seeing more than just one area, then booking a tour might be the best option. That way you can leave the driving to the bus driver, who is used to these conditions and you can just sit back and relax.

7. The chances of getting into a car accident is very high.

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This one is an obvious one due to all that I mentioned above. The car rental place basically said to us that we were more likely to get into a car accident than not. Awesome! How is that for reassurance? I also had read about this and heard about this from others, which made me a little worried, but I thought it might be an exaggeration or at least I hoped it was. We hadn’t even gotten the rental car and we were mentally preparing ourselves that we would most likely get into a wreck. That seemed crazy to think like that, but we did. My head was spinning.

Thank goodness we didn’t get into a car accident, but there were numerous times that we came uncomfortably close to one. Each time it happened I thought, “Welp, here it is. They were right!”, but for some reason though, we narrowly escaped from any. I like to think it was because of my reiki energy protecting us and my husband likes to think it was because of his Nascar style driving skills. Maybe he is right? lol

8. Addresses in Costa Rica don’t always exist.

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If you do, after reading my warning about renting a car in Costa Rica, decide to give it a go, make sure you get a GPS and even better, one with a hotspot. If you don’t,  you will definitely get lost. Even with the GPS and hotspot that we opted for, there were some places that just didn’t have an address. Some places may have coordinates, but no physical address.  This was extremely difficult for finding things. So, what I would also suggest is if you have a place you want to go to and they have no physical address, try dropping a pin in the area you think it would be.  Then, drive to the pin and keep your eyes peeled for signs. It’s much better than driving through the mountains or jungle aimlessly. That just reminded me of another tip. If at all possible, don’t drive at night. It’s hard enough to drive during the day. Driving at night would just add to your anxiety and stress and if you are lost, it would be a total nightmare.

9. Parking in Costa Rica is sometimes a challenge. 

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Parking for TICOS ONLY

Parking is another tricky thing to deal with because some areas have nowhere to park, while others have parking, but you aren’t really sure if it is safe. The last thing you want to do is come back from an activity and find your rental car is gone or broken into. There were many times that we skipped stopping to see something just because we didn’t know where it was safe to park.  A total bummer.

10. They try to scam you out of more  money at car rental places when you return your car. 

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I met a women while we were at a dentist office in San Jose, for our dental tourism story, who was from Alaska and this was her fifth visit to Costa Rica for dental treatment. We of course discussed the driving and how nuts it was!  She learned as we did, that driving in Costa Rica was for the birds. When she comes to Costa Rica now, she refuses to rent a car. “The stress of it all is just too much!”, she said. She gave me a really good tip,  that I’m so glad she did before we returned the rental car.

She told me that the car rental companies (not all, but many in Costa Rica) have a sneaky way of adding charges at the end. She said it happened to her, a few of her friends, as well as to people that she has met along the way through her travels in Costa Rica.  She didn’t want it to happen to me.

THE SCAM

What they do is check the car for damages after.  That’s the usual part. It could be anything from a scratch to a dented bumper. They look, jot a few things down and then ask you to sign the release form without saying anything and while you are signing, another worker takes the car off the lot.  What’s unusual is, then when you get back home you may find a charge for $100.00 for damage to a rental car, taken straight out of your deposit that you signed for.  By that time, going through all the steps to remove it becomes such a hassle that most people don’t bother fighting it.

She suggested you stay with the worker while they are looking and when they ask you to sign, look at what they wrote, even if they say, “it’s just signing that you returned the car.” Also, if possible, to have someone stay in the car. That way they can’t use the excuse,“Well there was a scratch on the car but now its off the lot so you can’t see it”  That’s what they did to her and they knew she was in a rush to get to the airport and didn’t have time to wait for them to go back and get it. How convenient.

They, in fact , tried to do this with us. I stayed in the car while my husband walked around with the worker, he wrote something down and asked my husband sign. My husband asked what he wrote.  He wrote that there was a scratch and they were charging us $50.00 for it. When my husband asked,” Where?”, the guy couldn’t produce a scratch. He was pointing to an area of the car that just had some dirt on it.

Luckily, he knew we were on to his scam and didn’t charge us for it, but otherwise, I’m sure the same exact thing would have happened to us.  Can you imagine how much extra income they make from this little scam that unknowing tourists fall for on a daily basis?


thewanderlustyogi.netI hope this warning will help better inform those who are considering renting a car in Costa Rica. Even after reading this, you may still decide to rent a car, which is totally fine, but I’m convinced that learning these tips and words of caution beforehand would be very beneficial. I know I wish I knew what we were getting ourselves into in hindsight.

In closing, I  want to express, although I would never rent a car again on any upcoming visits to Costa Rica, that doesn’t mean I didn’t love this country. It was a gorgeous country with so much biodiversity. This place is absolutely beautiful and offers so much in one small country. Costa Rica is literally a nature lovers dream. I will be going back in six month for my husband to finish dental work he is in the process of getting in Costa Rica. On this next trip, however, we will leave the driving to the Ticos. You live and learn.

 

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