Big Bend National Park, Texas

Big Bend National Park, Texas

More and more, gift giving in my family has turned from things to experiences. Personally, I love this trend, and for my birthday this year, Ryan surprised me with a trip to Big Bend National Park!

Big Bend is a national park along the Texas / Mexico border that spans over 800K acres. While my birthday is in July, we took off on our road trip to Big Bend in September so that the heat wouldn’t be in full force. We left after work on a Thursday evening and., after 7.5 hours of driving, podcasts, and yelling at our two dogs to behave in the back of my Jeep, we arrived at our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas at 1 AM.

Our dogs on our long road trip to Big Bend National Park

Our AirBnb was a traditional adobe looking building and was pet friendly, so it was almost perfect for our dogs. I say “almost’ because the fenced in back yard was missing about 6 feet of fence so we couldn’t let the pups romp around off-leash, but the inside was super cute.

Our AirBnB in Alpine, Texas

We chose to stay in Alpine to reduce the drive from Dallas to the Park and stay in a in a more populated area, but that meant some early mornings to get to Big Bend. Big Bend was about 80 miles, or an hour and ten minutes, from our AirBnb, so we only got about 5 hours of sleep after arriving in Alpine before waking up to head to our kayaking experience. We woke up around 6, walked the dogs, cooked some breakfast, and took off on the hour long drive to Terlingua to meet up with our guide.

We met at the one gas station in Terlingua and gas cost $3.15! To set expectations, gas was $2.11 when we left Dallas, was $2.83 in Alpine, and over $3 in Terlingua! We are so glad we listened to the warnings about filling up before we left to the park. The drive to the park was spectacular and went relatively quickly at 80+ MPH.

We grabbed some extra water and snacks from the gas station upon arrival and then met our guide, Erin, and the dad / daughter duo that were the other guests on our hike. We loaded into Erin’s van with all of the kayaks in the back. The drive from Terlingua into the park was about 20 minutes, and then it was an additional 40 minutes or so to get to the river entrance. Erin was full of fun facts about the park and it’s history, living in the small town of Terlingua, and her background from Tennessee. Her accent made the stories that much better.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We were in awe of the views along the park and couldn’t believe the river close to the road was the boarder between us and Mexico. We finally pulled up to the parking lot and had to unload all of the kayaks and fill up our dry-bags for the trek. We even got these really sexy looking boots to wear through the mud. My boots were about 2 sizes too big so I was slipping and sliding all over the place! This made carrying the kayaks quite difficult but we eventually got to the Santa Elena Canyon entrance. We waded into the water and took off our boots to get into the kayak. The mud felt so good on my feet and was only about 1.5 feed deep, but there were some sections where you feel into quicksand like mud and it went up to your hip! It was so crazy.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Once we were all in, we started our semi-relaxing ride. I say semi because we were able to paddle about 80% of the time and were stuck in mud and had to pull about 20% of the rest of the time. The Rio Grande river is damned up in El Paso and, unless El Paso releases some of the water, the Rio Grande river is very shallow in the Santa Elena Canyon. It was still an amazing experience in between the massive cliffs, especially since there were only 5 of us. It was so relaxing. Ryan couldn’t have done a better job planning this.

Pulling our kayak through Big Bend National Park, Texas

We make it about 2 miles up the river before stopping for lunch. I made some PB&Js and we enjoyed some Sun Chips while taking in the view. I found a nice-looking log and pulled it into the shade as my lunch chair. It was a truly great spot.

Kayaking through Big Bend National Park, Texas

Eventually, finished lunch and relaxed in the river for a little bit. The water temperature was absolutely perfect. We really lucked out. While the other duo on our trip power-paddled back to the exit, Ryan and I took our time to really enjoy the view and take it all in.

The most difficult part of the whole day was getting the kayaks back to the van. We were covered in mud, our boots were super slick, and there were rocks all over the place to push you off balance. We had quite the time trying to carry the heavy boats back but, eventually, made it. We got quite a workout in for the day! After loading up the van, we hit the road for the hour long, educational drive back to the gas station. It even rained a little and Erin joked that Big Bend judges rainfall by “drops per square foot” since they get so little.

We were pretty exhausted and didn’t dawdle in Terlingua once we arrived. It was back in the Jeep and off to the Airbnb. Our pups couldn’t be happier to see (and smell) us when we got back. We showered off all of the mud, took the pups for a walk, and relaxed a bit before finding a spot for dinner.

There is a pretty popular place in Fort Worth that we have both been to called Reata, and apparently, the original location is in Alpine! We went around 6:30, were starving, and ended up ordering waaaay too much food. We started with some delicious corn bread and biscuits, had crab stuffed, bacon-wrapped peppers, split a goat cheese salad, and then got two massive entrees. Ryan’s chicken fried steak should looked like two entire chickens, and my steak with enchiladas had two bread-plate sized pieces of steak, corn, beans, and enchiladas.

We were soooo stuffed and had to take the majority of the food back home. Since it was my birthday celebration, they even boxed up some apple pie and ice-cream for us, which we enjoyed cuddled up on the couch at the Airbnb before hitting the sheets for bed.

Day 2 – Big Bend Hike & Marfa, Texas

Our 1 year old dog, Dixie, was not a happy camper at night. She was barking in her kennel all night and we had a rough time sleeping. I had to get up at 3 AM to take her potty, which actually turned out OK because I looked up into the night sky and saw millions of stars. It was beautiful!

Combined with the 6 AM wake up to head to Big Bend for our hike, we were so tired. Thankfully, we grabbed a bunch of caffeine at the gas station which perked us up for the 2 hour drive to our hiking spot within the park. The drive was beautiful and we got to watch the sun rise over the mountain range in all of these amazing pastel colors. It made the drive much less boring. We even passed a Target along the way!

Target by Marfa, Texas

We arrived at our hike and were excited to start on the 4.8 mile journey up to the top. Originally, we were going to hike the Emory Peak Trail, a 12 mile rigorous hike that reminded us of the Tongariro Pass that we hiked in New Zealand. However, we opted to hike the Lost Mine Trail instead so that we could check out Marfa in the second half of the day.  We were not disappointed by Lost Mine in the slightest. The views were amazing there was some cloud coverage so we didn’t get too much sun. The temperature was perfect for hiking and there was even a cool breeze to cool us down. We got so lucky.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

Even though Big Bend is technically a desert, the plant life is so diverse and beautiful. There are cacti of various types all over the place, flowers in different colors, grasses, and other weird looking plants that, when combined, made for a gorgeous looking landscape.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the ridge top. Again, you couldn’t beat the views. We spent some time at the top taking it all in. We even took a snack break and attempted rock climbing on a big boulder just to enjoy it further.

Hiking the Lost Mine Trail in Big Bend National Park, Texas

The dad and daughter from our kayaking journey the day before were also supposed to hike Emory Trail, but we ended up running into them on our hike down from the top! They said that they got to the Emory trailhead too late and the park rangers were cautioning people not to go since it was going to get too hot! I am glad we didn’t waste time driving over to that trail only to get rerouted to Lost Mine.

The hike was the perfect length and we were sore but feeling good once we got back to the Jeep. We ate our PB&Js on the 2.5 hour drive to Marfa. Marfa is a town of 1.8K or so in the middle of nowhere. Marfa has become well know among the art community for Chinati Foundation which is on 340 acres and is a permanent house of certain artists work. There is also a random Prada store (similar to the target) about 30 miles north of Marfa which is now an iconic image for Marfa. With all of the driving we did to and from Big Bend, we decided to skip the Prada installation and check out the gallaries in Mafa instead.

We started by going to the Chitani. When we got there, the two people at reception did not even look up to greet us. It was pretty strange and they told us that the only thing we could check out there was the outside cement block installation. We walked through what sounded like rattle snake infested grasses down to the art- which really just looked like a dumping ground for giant concrete blocks. We didn’t get it, but that’s OK. Every type of art is not always for everyone.

We then went to the Ballroom – another gallery. This one had this creepy exhibit of motion triggered things – like ladders with dog heads that had long wigs and the ladders moved closer to you when you walked towards them. It was very strange and, again, not my cup of tea. We went to Inde / Jacobs Gallery and had a great conversation with the owner. We actually liked the style of art at this Gallery. We kept walking, got some coffee, and checked out the Marfa Store. It was run buy this young guy from Minnesota who moved to Marfa with his boyfriend. We talked to him about transitioning to such a small town and he had some interesting perspectives.

 

We the checked out the town square and the shops / galleries within. There was one gallery with 3 massive Andy Warhol paintings! It was so crazy seeing such high caliber art in Marfa, Texas! We walked past a few places for sale and decided to check out the real-estate prices on Zillow. Holy cow it was expensive. The homes were comparable price-wise to Dallas, but some of the homes didn’t have city water or even AC! We were so shocked!

We took off back to the AirBnb to spend some time with the dogs. Ryan and I hung out in the hammock in the backyard for a bit before we decided to go find some food. We went into the town and settled on an Italian place called Guzzy’s. It was strangely decorated insides and reminded us of a night club. I got some ravioli with Alfredo and Ryan got some pizzas. The food was average but did the trick and we spent the remainder of the evening with the dogs before passing out around 9 PM.

Guzzy's in Alpine, Texas

Advertisements

Florence

Florence

Off to Florence this morning! After a quick walk to the Spanish Step’s Metro station, we were on our way to Roma Termini to get on the train to Florence. The Metro station was attached to the train station so there were plenty of signs to easily direct us to the train tracks. We bought tickets at one of the self-serve stations and we in quite a hustle to get on the train. Ryan was running ahead of me, weaving in and out of people to a track. I had no idea if it was the right one, especially since the destination portrayed on the screen was not ours. Ryan made his way down the platform and hopped into a train car and I was still confused. We sat in some open seats and I was pretty sure we were on the wrong train, but there was no one in sight to help direct us. The only thing we had going for us was that the train number on the screen was the same as that on our ticket, so I just had to trust Ryan that we were going the right direction. After the water taxi debacle in Hvar though, I was a bit nervous.

The train from Italy to Florence, Italy

It also turned out that we had assigned seating and were in cart 6 instead of 11. We got kicked out of our seats and had to travel the carts to the back of the train. We finally found our seats, and I was a little stressed out, but thankfully, we were able to confirm we were on the right train! Phew!

It only took a little over an hour to get to Florence, and our hotel, C-Hotels Ambasciatori, was right across the street from the platform which made things super easy. Our room was quite large, the bed was soft, and we had pretty nice balcony with a good view.

After a quick refresh, we were off to find lunch. We walked for 20 minutes or so through the alleyways, past the markets, super expensive stores, the Duomo, and down to more reasonable restaurants outside of the tourist section.

We ended up at a hole-in-the-wall place down a random alley and had a delicious pasta meal, however, the bread was terrible. We had to douse it in balsamic to give it any taste. Little did we know that, in Florence, the bread is made without salt. Apparently, years and years ago, the coastal city of Pisa was in charge of the salt trade that fed into Florence. Florence and Pisa went to war, and Pisa refused to sell Florence salt so, Florence stopped putting salt in their bread and, instead, made their olive oil and meats more flavorful and salty to make up for the bread’s flavor deficits. Florentines also typically do not eat the bread until their main course, not with the appetizers or pastas, so we were doing it all wrong!

Truffle ravioli in Florence, Italy

After lunch, we explored a little bit before walking over to the Uffizi to meet up with our tour guide for our Skip the Line Uffizi Gallery Tour. I didn’t want to admit it, but I was officially sick. My nose would not stop running and I was exhausted. I think the wine at lunch also affected Ryan because all he wanted to do was nap – we were a pretty pathetic looking duo at this point. On top of that, we realized that the meeting point for our tour was about 5 blocks away at a square, not at the Gallery as I thought – oops. This was not a “good mood” day unfortunately. We made it to the meeting point and were not the “talkative” couple in the group. We somehow made it to the Uffizi and I had to get about half a roll of toilet paper to use as tissues throughout our tour.

Our guide was super nice and chipper though, and did a great job of perking up our spirits and walking us through the amazing rooms of the gallery. We looked at a lot of Gothic, Medieval, and Renaissance period pieces, learning all about the style of painting during those times and the breakthrough’s of Davinci, Raphael, and Micheal Angelo.

The paintings and sculptures were pretty amazing, especially considering the massive size of them. Even the frames were incredible. We just had some art framed and could only imagine how much the ornate frames here would run.

The Birth of Venus at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy

We made it through the Uffizi in one piece and followed our guide over the Ponte Vecchio bridge which is filled with jewelry stores. Ryan kept having to pull me past all of the sparkles in the windows. After we got over the river, our tour was over and we were ready to pass out at the hotel. We made a quick stop for a bite to eat in the Piazza della Repubblica. I had some yummy petso raviolis and Ryan had a delicious salmon gnocchi. Apparently the best day to eat gnocchi is on Thursday’s because that is traditionally the day most restaurants make it and, luckily for us, it was Thursday.

During our entire dinner on the patio, we watched the illegal sellers of random junk harassing people in the square. They had selfie sticks, light up balls that they threw high into the sky, roses, and other little things for sale. As soon as you made any sort of eye contact with them, they would run up to you and hustle you to buy whatever it was they were selling. They even came up to the people inside the restaurant multiple times. It was quite annoying and invasive of our space. The entire time we watched, we did not see one person actually buy anything. It was a little sad really.

We walked through random little alleyways back to the hotel. Along the way, we stumbled across a huge crowd of 50 – 60 people. I thought there must have been a fight or really good street artist or something, but in reality, they were all crowded around the closed doors of a restaurant, Il Latini. The doors opened at 7:30 on the dot and people were basically “Black Friday” rushing to get in. Those with reservations were picked out to enter and everyone else could go in as tables opened up. With such a crowd, the place had to be good, so we called to make a reservation first thing once we got back to the hotel.

 

We were getting ready for bed and I noticed that yet another one of our hotels had a bidet. Since we both had no clue how to use one, I turned to YouTubed to show me the way. Ryan and I laughed our way through the video and then I proceeded to go into the bathroom and turn the thing on out of curiosity. Little did I know, the water spigot was facing upwards and water went everywhere! Not kidding, I flooded the bathroom. I busted out laughing and Ryan kept asking me what happened from outside – my strategy, obviously, was to deny deny deny, but he totally caught me making a total mess of the loo. It was hysterical! Thankfully, we had a bunch of towels to absorb all of the water before hitting the sheets to sleep.

 

Playa Del Carmen – Day 3

Playa Del Carmen – Day 3

The view of the pool at the Paradisus La Perla, Playa Del Carmen

Upon check-in at the hotel, our concierge guy Marcos convinced us to sit through a 90-minute presentation about the Melia membership club. We were hesitant but, after a lot of back and forth, he promised he would pay for our $200 meal at the Passion by Martin Berasategui restaurant and gave us two 50 minute massages for the price of one at the spa ($150 savings). For a 90-minute presentation at 8 AM over breakfast, the $350 worth of stuff was with the time sacrifice. We researched the presentation before going into it and read a lot about how some people’s tours were 2 hours, how you needed to be very firm with the sales people, and how some people spent way too much money on a membership and couldn’t get out of it. We put together a game plan going into the pitch to make sure we stood firm that we were not going to buy.

Our sales guy was quite nice and apparently, Marcos gave more free perks that he was supposed to. We had breakfast at the buffet and talked before the sales guy showed us a few luxury suites, and then took us to their business office to show us the club membership. The pitch boiled down to a $42K price tag on a partially covered 1 week vacation every year for 50 years, however, there were tons of crazy additional fees and your money bought points instead of hotel nights so the value of what you buy might change arbitrarily based on the chain’s whims. They also wanted the money within 24 months which equalled out to payments more than our rent! We were flabbergasted at the “deal” and were joking about the ridiculous cost with so many caveats.

Our sales guy quickly realized that we were not buying and we were done with the presentation in under an hour. For all the stuff we received, it was very worth it, but some of the other couples we met here had a bit higher pressure sales person and it wasn’t quite as easy to make a get-away. If you do decide to go in for the pitch, make sure you have a game plan ahead of time so you don’t sign up for something you regret.

After the pitch, we found some lounge chairs by the pool and lathered up with sun screen. The weather was perfect and the sun came out right as we laid down. Being the antsy person I am, I left Ryan to nap and headed to the pool bar. I started chatting with this super nice couple who were on their honeymoon. They also had recently visited Thailand, and were thinking about going to Peru, so we had lots to chat about! Eventually, Ryan wandered over and we had a great conversation over some bloody Mary’s, mud slides, strawberry daiquiris, and then rum and Cokes. Unfortunately, all those drinks forgot to remind me to reapply sunblock, and my back got nice and uncomfortably red! Oops!

Around noon, the water-jazzercise started in the pool. We watched the two instructors do some pretty intense water moves outside of the pool for 20 minutes – they were so enthusiastic about their moves we hand to laugh! Eventually, we hopped out of the pool and headed to a sub par, pizza lunch at one of the restaurants. It seems that the cooks “forgot” to add marinara sauce to their pizzas, making for Hawaiian cheesy bread instead.

After lunch, we found a cabana by the pool and napped under the shade for a few hours. Talk about relaxing! Around 5, I attempted to go to spin class but the instructor hurt his back and canceled the class. Feeling a bit woozy on the treadmill, I decided to head back to the room, got ready, and went to a Rodizio dinner at the hotel before hailing a cab to head to Playa’s famous 5th Street.

We heard about 5th Street from quite a few people. It is about 2 miles of cute local and chain shops, beauty parlors, restaurants, and bars. We were dropped off at the end closes to our hotel and we walked for about two hours down the street. There were tons of people! I left my sun hat on the Edventure shuttle from our sea-turtle tour the day prior, so we haggled a few shop keepers until I found a fabulous new sun hat at a great price. I was also very impressed by all the restaurants and bars. They were so cute and each had a very unique theme with amazing décor. It didn’t seem like there were any chain places at all (outside of Senior Frogs) and I wanted to stop and try all of them!

There were also loads of typical American shops like Nike, Sephora, Forever 21, but we only shopped the local ones since those are unique to the area. There were lots of nice leather goods and amazing art at very reasonable prices. I wish our apartment had more room for all the things I wanted to buy – especially the art! There was a full side street of amazing paintings by local artists.

We stayed on 5th the entire time and felt very safe. After so much walking, our feet started to complain and we hopped in a cab to head back to the hotel and then to bed.

 

Santa Fe, Day 3

Santa Fe, Day 3

Another early morning for our last day in Santa Fe. We packed up our bags so they were ready to throw in the car for our noon checkout, walked the puppy, and headed to breakfast at Cafe Pasqual’s across the street.

Cafe Pasqual's in Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Cafe has a stellar reputation in Santa Fe and was recommended over and over for a breakfast-must and we immediately saw why when the folks next to us at our communal table received their food. It was all so delicious and fresh. Everything at Cafe Pasqual’s is made in-house and, for the most part, is organic and naturally raised. We made 10 new friends at the communal table from all over the States and filled up interesting conversation and on the below:

  • Breakfast Quesadilla – Whole wheat tortilla, melted jack, guacamole, scrambled eggs, house-made chorizo and green chile salsa
  • Durango Omelette – three organic eggs, Fra Mani rosemary ham, jack cheese, scallions, guacamole, sautéed field mushrooms, green chile, and house-made toast

After our huge breakfast, we were ready to walk! We hopped in the car and drove over to Canyon Road, home to over 100 art galleries, to walk and see all of the art. The galleries were just opening as we arrived and the art spanned all styles. Each gallery had its own vibe and greeting party upon arrival – my favorite were the dog greeter – always a treat! It is truly awesome how Santa Fe loves and welcomes man’s best friend as much as we do.

IMG_1470 Galleries on Canyon Road Santa Fe, New Mexico

We ended up walking into the McLarry Modern gallery which housed art that completely complemented our tastes. We stumbled upon a room in the back full of colorful art that, upon further inspection, reflected certain infamous people in American culture. Figuring out who was portrayed by the colors and symbols in each painting became a game for us as we traveled through each canvas. We discovered that we unintentionally completely fell in love with Poteet Victory’s Abbreviated Portraits series.

We came to Canyon Road with every intention of just window shopping our way through the afternoon, but once we learned the story behind the series, were entranced by his wife, and taken up to the studio where the works come to life, and meeting Poteet himself, we decided to make Mrln Mnro our first original piece of art (the red and white piece featured above). Such an exciting and surprising day!

After we finalized our purchase, we walked through a few other galleries, learning about the artists, styles, and stories behind the various pieces. All of the art curators at each place were friendly and so knowledgeable and willing to impart that knowledge on us. I don’t think we could have had a better experience.

We had to head back to the hotel and checkout at noon, so we grabbed our bags and our excited dog, and started to long drive back to Dallas. Thankfully, we downloaded some really interesting podcast series, my favorite being Criminal, and took in the Texas views on the way home. We must have passed thousands of windmills along the way. We also passed a donkey that escaped a fence and was being chased by a lone police officer who was trying to corral the donkey while keeping the other horses within the fence boundaries. It was pretty funny!

Road trip to Texas

Road trip to Texas

Ten hours, and a stop or three later, we made it back to Dallas with some great memories and the constant urge to travel again!

Florence, Italy

Sometimes when you are on a trip with random people you’ve never met before and you have to share rooms with them, you learn quickly if they have different tendencies than you. One of the girls in our group liked to get up at the crack of dawn, and so, it was another 6:30 AM wake up to embark on our journey to Florence!

We got a later start on the road and hit some traffic, so our journey took 2.5 hours instead of 1.5, but it gave me plenty of time to catch up on sleep and my travel journal. We drove through the spine of the Alps, but it was hard to see through the fog. Finally, we arrived at our hostel in Florence! We stuffed all of our bags into a room, ran to the front door to start our exploration, and was confronted with torrential rain!

We bought some umbrellas at a shop next to our hotel and took off through an alley way to a tiny little deli the size of a closet for a delicious goat cheese, sun-dried tomato, and salami sandwich. It is amazing how every alley in Florence is packed with little gems of stores and restaurants.  After lunch, we walked past the gigantic Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Flowers to the Palazzo Medici.

The Palazzo Medici is a huge palace filled with amazing architecture, views, and art. The ceilings are so ornate with gold lief, intricate carvings, and paintings. We were completely in aw walking through such a place. You can see the scale of the ceiling and how ornate they were in the photos below, plus my favorite painting of the tour.

We also tried to go to the Accademia Gallery to see the Statue of David, however, the line was around the block and we couldn’t get in. I definitely recommend buying tickets to the Florence museums in advance as both the Accademia and the Uffizi (one of the most acclaimed museums in the entire world), were sold out on the days we wanted to go.

Since we couldn’t do any more museums, we went to the market to shop for goodies. Florence is known for its leather and, while there are a lot of faux-leather in the market, you can find some good deals on the real deal. I bought a beautiful leather jacket and haggled my way to a great price! On the way back to the hotel with all of our new stuff, we came across this really interesting building that, starting at about 10 feet up, was completely covered in dollar bills:

Dollar bill building in Florence, Italy

You never know what cool things you will encounter down the non-touristy path.

We walked through the cobbled Florence streets to an adorable little restaurant for a group dinner. The wine, sausage pasta, and bruschetta made for an excellent experience, but the waiters really topped if. They were young men and, with the 40 women in our tour group and our tour guides teasing, their faces were redder than my wine! The waiter’s dad even let them off duty early to lead our group, like parade grand marshals, to the bar. Hilarious!

Dinner in Florence, Italy

We ended up at a space age style club appropriately called “Space” where all of the tourists apparently go. The music was funky and we had a great time people watching the night away on the dance floor!

Florence tips:

  • Bring an umbrella and shoes that can get wet.
  • Buy tickets to the museums and tours you want to take in advance.
  • Wake up and climb the Florence Cathedral’s Duomo as soon as it opens! The stair ways are super narrow so, the less people, the better. Also, the view is so much better without the crowds and the climb will take you half the time.