Retro post: Road Trip Through the Yucatán

In January 2016 we took a 12 day road trip through the Yucatán peninsula with our then 5 and 7 year olds. We had been to the island of Isla Mujeres (off the coast of Cancun) with them twice as toddlers and were ready to venture out further into the Yucatán for some more adventures.

We left a few days after Christmas and since we were visiting family in NJ we flew out of Newark. We made sure to pack light with one carry-on each (and during the trip I still felt we still had too much stuff!)

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Our flight connected in Charlotte and was delayed, so that we missed the connection. Luckily they were able to rebook us for about an hour and a half later, and we arrived in Cancun in the late afternoon. We headed over to the easyway car rental company. I had done a lot of research about renting cars in Cancun, as the internet was full of horror stories. Much of what I read suggested to stay away from the companies that sound like typical US companies, such as Alamo, and that they lure you in with the promise of a cheap daily rate and then pile on the extra insurance. I read that easyway was a local company that was more trustworthy. I also read that the rental cars have special license plates that make them easier to spot for shakedowns, whereas easyway doesn’t use those plates.

We finally got our very, very basic car. There was not even a cigarette lighter to charge our devices, and headed out on the toll road to Merida, a 3 hour drive. The road is pretty well maintained but flat and boring. We were exhausted so the kids fell asleep and we finally got to Merida around 7pm. We checked into our cute little hotel, in the traditional Spanish style with an open courtyard in the center, and then walked over to a nearby plaza that had several restaurants. The plaza was lively with lots of outdoor seating, and we ate at a burger place before finally crashing back at our hotel.

The next morning we walked around the city and the kids took pictures with the go-pro cameras they had gotten as gifts for the holidays. They ended up taking some really amazing photos! It’s cool to see the little details they focused on, whereas the adults are used to taking pictures of the large things, like historic buildings. I felt that their photos give an even more authentic view of Merida.

The architecture and colors are gorgeous in Merida, but it got hot quickly so we went back to the hotel for a dip in the pool. That afternoon we took a cab to El Gran Museo de el Mundo Maya, which had some excellent exhibits on the ancient Mayans. That night we ate dinner at a great traditional restaurant, which in was the house where Andres Quintana Roo once lived.

The next day we headed out of the city a little bit to take a tour of an old sisal plantation. Sisal is a fiber used for ropes made by a plant similar to agave, and the region was once booming with this industry. The tour was well done, and after the tour they showed you around the plantation and took you via a small train thing our to the cenote on their property! This cenote was underground in a cave, and it was so much fun to splash around! After that they offered us a Yucatecan lunch which was delicious, and we headed back to the hotel.

That night was New Year’s Eve and we learned that it’s actually a fairly quiet holiday in Mexico as most people celebrate at home with their families. We decided to take a horse-drawn carriage ride through the city and we got to see some gorgeous mansions all lit up. Afterwards we headed over to the famous restaurant, La Chaya Maya, which has traditional Mayan food. The food was delicious but the service was awful. There were two ladies right next to us making homemade tortillas, yet our server never brought us any! Talk about a tease! The kids were exhausted and my oldest literally fell asleep at the table, so we had a quiet New Year’s drinking wine in the hotel courtyard after the restaurant.

The next morning we checked out of the hotel and took the slow road to Valladolid, through little Mayan villages. We drove through Valladolid and up to the ruins at Ek Balam. These ended up being my favorite ruins of the trip. They had a large temple you could climb, and the site was not very crowded at all. They also had their own cenote you could bike to but it was getting closer to evening so we headed back to our hotel.

We got to our lodge, Mayaland, in the early evening. This is a large property that abuts Chichen Itza, so they have their own back entrance to the ruins! You can even see the observatory right from the hotel lobby. We ate at the hotel’s buffet dinner which was fun because they had traditional dancers for entertainment. After dinner we went for a night swim in one of the hotel’s pools and then to bed.

The next morning we woke up early and had breakfast before getting into Chichen Itza right when it opened. It was so nice to be there before the big crowds came in the tour buses. As we headed over to the big temple, Kulkulcan, the crowds grew larger and the heat got more intense, but it was truly breathtaking to see the temple in person, as well as many of the other ancient structures. By mid-day the heat and crowds started to get pretty bad, so we drove a few miles into the town of Piste. There is a cenote there run by a collective of Mayan women, cenote Yodkoznot. It was an open sinkhole-style cenote and they had steps going down into it and also offered life vests. It was not very crowded, in fact we even had it to ourselves at one point!

We also ate lunch at their little restaurant and the food was absolutely delicious. After we rested that afternoon we drove back into town to have dinner at one of the little restaurants and we let the kids run around the town plaza for a bit.

The next morning we drove back to the town of Valladolid and had breakfast and walked around the town square. It was a very cute little town and I would have liked to stay longer but my youngest was having a meltdown after he dropped the onyx jaguar he got at Chichen Itza and it broke.

We drove about another hour south to the ruins at Coba and everyone seemed to be in a better mood by then. These were the oldest ruins we saw on the trip and definitely impressive. There are two main areas separated by about a mile, which you can walk or hire a bicycle taxi to pedal you over. We chose the latter, which was a good choice because the bike driver also functioned as a tour guide and he taught us some Mayan words. You can also climb the main pyramid at Coba but the kids were too scared to, so I stayed with them while my husband climbed to the top. He said it was exhilarating.

After a quick lunch at a restaurant near the ruins we drove out to the beach town of Tulum where we had rented a beach bungalow for the next 6 days. Our bungalow was in a little cluster of about 5 other bungalows on the property and was on the beach, about 40 feet from the ocean! We also found out via Facebook that friends of ours were in town so they met us on the beach and the kids made a beeline for the water.

We loved our little bungalow however we were a little annoyed but how Tulum was laid out. There was the main little Pueblo about 5 miles from the beach, and then a small road along the beach with jungle restaurants and boutique hotels on either side of the road. The road was jam packed with cars, taxis, and bicycles, so it took forever to get anywhere.

We spent the next several days enjoying the beach and exploring the town a little. The ruins at Tulum were nearby so we headed over there one morning. This was my least favorite site as it was very small and very crowded. Although the scenery was gorgeous as they are perched on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. If you plan to check these out I would recommend going first thing in the morning before it gets too crowded.

One of our favorite experiences at Tulum was going to Zine, a dinner and a movie restaurant in the jungle. They had a receiving area where you choose your movie and dinner, and then they take you to a private screening room with a large movie screen and comfy chairs and cushions. They brought you popcorn and drinks while you waited for food and when that was ready they quietly brought it in while the movie played. One side of the room was a screen door so you could see and hear the jungle while you watched your movie. We had a great night and never would have expected this type of place in the jungle! Sadly, I don’t think this place exists anymore.

On one of our last days we drove over to Xel-Ha, a large “eco-park” where you can go snorkeling, tubing, zip-lining, and cliff jumping. We took tubes through a mangrove forest into the main lagoon, and then the kids practiced snorkeling. We also bought the “all inclusive” package where you can eat at the breakfast and lunch buffets and drink at the bars. Unfortunately later that evening my kids both felt sick and started vomiting. We finally got them to sleep and then I spent a miserable night with my head over the toilet as well. It seemed that we had gotten food poisoning. Well at least the kids and I, my husband was spared.

The kids felt better the next day but I was wiped out and just laid on a lounge chair on the beach. The day after that we finally started making our way back to Cancun for an early evening flight home. On the way we stopped at a little zoo called, Crococun, which was fun for the kids as they got to pick up and pet some of the animals.

After that we dropped off the rental car and boarded our flight back to the US!

The verdict

Overall it was a fabulous trip. We love the people and culture of the Yucatán and it was great to see some cities such as Merida and Valladolid, as well as have some time at the beach. As I mentioned, my favorite ruins were Ek Balam and I would have liked to have spent more time in Valladolid and some of the other small towns.

We were not big fans of Tulum. The beach was beautiful but the restaurants along the beach road were very over-priced and seemed to cater to the boho-chic set. The prices for food in the Pueblo were a little better (still expensive for Mexico), but you had to drive into town, and as I mentioned, the one road in and out was always clogged with cars and bicycles, making the ride into town super annoying. So while I would return to Merida and Valladolid, and I would like to explore some more of the Yucatán, I probably wouldn’t do a return trip to Tulum.

We also thought it was a great trip for kids! They loved the ruins, the beach, and Xel-ha (despite the food poisoning), were all fun for them. Mexico is known for being very child and family friendly and we definitely found that to be the case on this trip.

Costa Rica!

The planning

I have wanted to travel to Costa Rica for many years, but we decided to wait until both of the kids were at least 8 year old so they could do some of the adventure activities that CR is famous for.

I started planning our trip for winter break 2018-2019 about 2 years in advance. I needed to know which airline we were likely to take so I could start accruing miles for it. I eventually settled on American Airlines. My family really wanted to leave the day after Christmas so that we got the maximum amount of time in Costa Rica over winter break. The problem with leaving the day after Christmas to a warm and popular location is that flights are notoriously expensive, even with miles. No problem, I was up for the challenge!

I opened two Barclays Aviator cards (business and personal), which were offering 60k points once you make one purchase of any amount, and pay the annual fee of $95. That brought me to 120k AA miles. I think transferred some of my SPG points to AA when they were having a bonus deal. You can transfer SPG points to many airlines and get a 5,000 point bonus for every 20,000 points transferred, and AA was running a deal where they added another 25% on top of that, so for 20k SPG miles you got 30k AA miles. I did this twice I think and with some of our pre-existing AA miles we had enough to book our flights!

For the lodging, I was very specific about places I wanted to stay, and none of them were bookable using points. I did book some places using hotels.com to add to my reward night count, however. I booked most of the places in February (10 months in advance), because the week between Christmas and New Years is one of the most popular times to travel and I wanted to make sure we got our choice of accommodations. You normally don’t need to book your lodging this early, however some of the places I wanted to stay had only 3-5 options, so they were sure to book up. For example, the tree house hotel only had 3 or 4 tree houses that would make sense for us, and one of them was already booked! Likewise, for Airbnb, if you see a property you are dying to stay in, book it ASAP. Chances are it is very popular and since there is only one of it, you could lose it later.

For the itinerary, we decided to do the rainforest activities for the first week, and the beach for the 2nd week. Since all of our locations were in the Northern part of the country, we decided to fly in and out of Liberia airport.

The Traveling

We left my mom’s house in NJ at 2:30am the morning after Christmas to drive down to Philadelphia airport. Even though technically they live closer to EWR (Newark Airport), we tend to prefer PHL (Philadelphia). It’s just nicer and less congested with traffic. From my mom’s house it’s a straight shot down 95, we have a park-and-fly place we use that we really like, and PHL has a Centurion Lounge (an Amex lounge for Platinum card holders) that we love. We arrived at the airport around 4:20 and had to wait for the lounge to open at 5am. After a bite to eat there we headed to the gate and boarded the plane to Miami.

At Miami we hit Centurion lounge #2 for a delicious breakfast of ricotta pancakes, Spanish style tortilla, potato and sausage hash, fresh fruit, mimosas, and espresso (Membership does have its privileges!), and then we boarded the flight to Liberia. We had seats in the bulkhead in main cabin extra. This is because last year I received AA Platinum Pro status for four months as a promotion. With that status you can choose the main cabin extra seats for free, so since I booked these tickets when I had that status we had those seats that have extra leg room and free adult beverages. It’s nice to be in the front of the plane when traveling internationally because you get to the immigration line first 😉.

Our flight was great. We sat near a group of 4 families who are all neighbors in Chicago and vacation together. We also vacation with our neighbors although we only do a yearly camping trip so far…I think we need to step it up a notch!!!

Customs and immigration in Costa Rica was smooth as was our car rental. We got our little SUV and took off for our first lodging which was near Tenorio National Park and Rio Celeste; a little over an hour from Liberia airport.

The drive was beautiful. We passed farmland with volcanos in the distance and then in the last half hour climbed a bit up into the mountains through denser vegetation until we got to the little village of Bijuagua. The colors of the landscape were so vividly green it was hard for my eyes to take everything in.

We turned onto a dirt road and about 2 miles up we made it to our lodging. They weren’t kidding when they said the roads in CR are bad! The main roads were paved and fine but as soon as you turn off onto a side road, it’s rock city! I can’t imagine how difficult it is to navigate during the rainy season with all the mud. Our hotel was actually a group of small little cabins (casitas) in the forest. Our casita had a long porch overlooking the forest, and within about 15 minutes we spotted about 6 monkeys! 🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒🐒 The binoculars my son got for Christmas came in very handy as we watched them scramble through the tree tops. I couldn’t believe how quickly and easily we spotted the wildlife!

We made it an early night after we went to a restaurant for some comida tipica (typical Costa Rican food) and headed in to bed.

 

Day 2: Rio Celeste and Night Hike

As I lay in bed early in the morning, I kept wondering whose phone was going off making Chewbacca noises. Only later did I realize it was the howler monkeys waking us up! After some coffee in the casita we headed over to the main dining area. The BnB served a farm fresh breakfast in an outside area overlooking the forest, and we were able to see Toucans and other exotic birds as we ate. We took a tour of the farm that is part of the BnB, although my youngest and I got some ant bites and had to cut it short to go back to our casita and put on socks!

After breakfast we drove over to Tenorio National Park and did the hike out to Rio Celeste waterfall. The color of the water is this amazing bright sky blue. We ended up splitting up because my youngest had an issue halfway through the hike that needed to be taken care of in a bathroom. So my husband took him back. My oldest son and I hiked out to the lookout tower and then turned around because we were unsure how much further the other points in the hike were and we had no water with us. Come to find out they were pretty close to where we were. Oh well, it turned out my husband and other son made had hiked out to the waterfall too and we met up with them at the little restaurant near the entrance. After some refreshing batidos (Costa Rican smoothies) and tasty empanadas for a snack, we headed over to a little mom and pop restaurant on the side of the road and had a larger lunch of casados (typical Costa Rican plate of a meat, rice, beans, salad, plantains, and macaroni salad).

We headed back to our casita to rest and explore the property a little more. Around 5:30pm we headed out for a night hike with a local guide named Miguel. He took us on a 2.5 hour hike with flashlights through his property and we were able to see many local fauna, including a sloth, the red-eyed tree frog, the strawberry poison dart frog (or blue jean frog), a huge bull frog, a basilisk lizard, a kinkaju, several birds, many insects, and more. It was pretty special and the boys were amazed. Everyone agrees this was our favorite activity of the whole trip.

It was about 8pm by the time we were done and there weren’t many restaurants to choose from in the sleepy little village we were staying in. We ended up at a Costa Rican Chinese food restaurant kind of by accident. The food was actually decent and we ate well and went straight to bed.

I loved this part of the trip. We were in a quiet small town that had few tourists, so it was great to see a lot of every day Tico life. The BnB we stayed in was really nice and the staff was great. I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a little off the beaten path.

Day 3: Drive to Arenal

The next morning we had another delicious breakfast and saw toucans, monkeys, and sloths right outside the dining area! We then checked out and drove about 2 hours to the town of La Fortuna near the Arenal volcano and national park. La Fortuna was very busy and touristy compared to the little town of Bijauga that we had just left.

After some lunch at a soda (small Costa Rican restaurant, like a diner) in town, we drove up towards the Arenal volcano to stay at the Arenal Observatory Lodge. This is a large property close to the volcano with views of the Arenal lake. We swam in the pool and hot tub and then explored their large property which had some trails, a frog pond, a small “museum” about the volcano, it’s eruptions, and local wildlife, and a restaurant. We had dinner at the lodge restaurant mainly because we didn’t want to drive all the way back down the mountain to La Fortuna in the dark.

The lodge was pretty cool because it was so close to the volcano. I probably could have stayed one more day because we didn’t get to do a lot of the hikes. But I wouldn’t have wanted to eat at their restaurant every night and driving back and forth to La Fortuna in the dark to eat would have been a pain, so overall I think one night was fine.

Day 4: Arenal and drive to Treehouses!

The next morning we woke up early and had a buffet breakfast at the lodge. They had a huge spread with lots of different Costa Rican food, such as a corn pudding (my husband thought it tasted like kugel). Afterwards we headed over to Sky Adventures, a tour company within the park that has zip-lines, hanging bridges, and a gondola up the side of the mountain. Since we are all scared of heights, we skipped the zip lines and did the sky trek and sky tram, which is a 2.5 hour guided hike through the rainforest followed by the 10 minute tram ride. The trek was pretty amazing, as we walked over four hanging bridges and saw two waterfalls. We also saw some howler monkeys and two vipers!

Afterwards we went back to the lodge to check out and then we headed back into La Fortuna for lunch at Don Rufino, one of the best restaurants in town. It did not disappoint…the food was incredible!!!

Following lunch we drove about 40 minutes through the beautiful countryside and a couple small towns until we landed at our next lodging, Treehouses Hotel Costa Rica. We checked into our treehouse, The Sloth (or Perezoso). It was about 40 feet off the ground and had a queen size bed on the first “floor” and two twin beds up in the loft. It also had a/c, a fridge, and a bathroom with shower!

The property has trails to a local river for swimming, so before it got dark we trekked down to the river for a quick dip. It was a little cold but so refreshing!!! We were pretty tuckered out by the time we got back to the treehouse so we ordered pizza (yes they delivered it to the treehouse!) and had a quiet night in.

Day 5: Quiet day at the Treehouses

Today we took it easy after so many adventures. In the morning we got to have our coffee on the treehouse balcony and watch the birds. The hotel made us a delicious Costa Rican breakfast at their outdoor dining area. After we rested a bit we walked on their private trail to a small waterfall and then went for some more floats in the river. I had considered driving back to La Fortuna to go to the La Fortuna waterfall, but my sense is it would be very crowded and having an entire riverside area to ourselves to play around in seemed so much nicer. We also saw a three-toed sloth in a tree and a group of howler monkeys later when we returned to our treehouse.

We went to a small little restaurant for lunch and tried some Costa Rican tacos. They’re kind of like large taquitos in that the tortillas are wrapped around the meant and/or cheese and deep fried.

Afterwards we came back to the Treehouses and had a private chocolate making workshop. The chocolatier was a local guy who has a small craft chocolate business. He taught us the history of chocolate and then we made fresh chocolate from the nibs! My husband and I were able to try the ancient chocolate drink the Aztecs and Mayans drank from fermented cacao (no sugar or milk), and the kids had one that was sweeter. Then, after some rendering of the chocolate we got to pour it into to the molds. It was delicious and so much fun!!! The kids had a blast grinding and pouring and picking out what flavors to make. We had a great time talking to the guy and learning about chocolate and Costa Rica in general.

Day 6: Whitewater rafting!

On this day we had another delicious home cooked breakfast at the Treehouses and then just rested around our treehouse until 11am when the whitewater rafting company came and picked us up in a van with a bunch of other people. We drove about 15 minutes to the put in, and everything started moving really fast. This was not like WWR in the states where they take 45 minutes to give you a lesson and sign paperwork. After a quick lesson we were in the water and hit many class III rapids in a row. It was super exciting and luckily no one fell out! About halfway through the trip the river became muy tranquilo and we only had a few class II rapids. We were able to take it slow and see some wildlife including monkeys, sloths, and iguanas. The guides gave us a fruit snack and the trip was over after about 2 hours.

We were starving since we hadn’t eaten lunch so we went to a restaurant called “Happyland” for an early dinner. I have to say, I was so hungry I actually enjoyed my tilapia stuffed with ham, American cheese, and shrimp – a combo that I questioned later. That night back at the Treehouses we did another night hike with the caretaker and saw some more insects and frogs. It was New Years Eve but we were so exhausted we fell asleep at 10pm!

Overall, I loved the treehouse resort. It was really relaxing, and again, I liked that we were in a smaller town away from the crowds. I loved that they had the private river to swim in, and they had a lot of wildlife right there on the property. The staff was wonderful as well. I would highly recommend staying in this place if you are in the area. It’s close enough to La Fortuna to do the activities there, but away from the hustle and bustle.

Day 7: Wildlife Refuge and Hot springs

On this day after breakfast we checked out of the treehouse and drove about 5 minutes to the Proyecto Asis Wildlife Refuge. We took a private tour of the facility that rehabilitates animals that were either hurt from cars or had other accidents, or were taken as pets and domesticated when they shouldn’t have been. They help the domesticated animals learn to be wild again so they can release them back into the jungle, however some of the animals have been so injured they will have to stay there forever. After our tour we were able to prepare lunch for the animals and feed many of them, including spider monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, parrots, and peccarry pigs. The kids loved handing the monkeys pieces of banana and having them grab them out of their hands, and the alpha capuchin monkey even got a little aggressive with my husband, grabbing his hand and pulling it close to bite it before my husband got away. The guide said he probably thought my husband was another alpha monkey because of his beard 🤷🏻‍♀️.

We finished up around lunch time and headed into La Fortuna for lunch. On the way we stopped at a little souvenir shop the Treehouses staff recommended, run by a husband and wife. He carves little wood sculptures and she paints them. The owners were super nice and had us walk around their property a bit. The wife showed us all of her birds and the husband cut open some fresh coconuts for us. We did buy a couple souvenirs and they also gave us one as a gift.

When we got to La Fortuna many stores and restaurants were closed because it was New Year’s Day, but we ended up eating some empanadas and finding a great little gelato place. We then drove over to the hot springs resort, Los Lagos.

Our room was not ready yet to check in and change, so we walked around the property for a bit. They actually had a little “zoo” of sorts, with a huge crocodile, a butterfly house, a frog pond, a turtle pond, and an ant house with lots of leaf cutter ants. After we got changed we explored all the pools and hot springs. The hot springs varied in size and temperature and the largest one had a swim up bar! There were slides in several of them. Some of the hot springs pools were small, fitting only a few people at a time in a man made cave. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening swimming around until we wrinkled up like prunes and then went to bed.

I’m glad we stayed one night at the hot springs resort rather than doing a day trip because we could have some drinks and stay until it got dark and not have to worry about driving back to our hotel. I probably wouldn’t have stayed more than one night there because it was kind of resort-y. It was big and touristy and the rooms were just ok. But it was really fun to spend the afternoon and evening soaking and swimming in the hot springs.

Day 8: Waterfall swim and drive out to Nicoya Peninsula

After a buffet breakfast at the resort we checked out and drove all along Lake Arenal (a man-made lake along the side of the volcano) for about 2 and a half hours until we got near Canas. The road was very twisty and turny but the views were incredible. We drove out to a waterfall I had heard of called Llanos de Cortes. You can swim at the base of it and they had lifeguards and lots of people picnicking.

It reminded me a lot of the waterfalls near us in Ithaca, NY, where you can also swim, however those are always freezing cold, even in August! The nice thing about this one was the water was pretty warm and made for comfortable swimming. We also got to see a bunch more howler monkeys and a monitor lizard! We had a really nice lunch in the nearby town and then got on the road again to drive out to the beach.

Waze had us go up through Liberia and then out to the Nicoya Peninsula where many of the beach towns are along the Pacific. The last part of the drive was gorgeous through lush rolling hills. We made it to our Airbnb around dinner time and after a swim in our private pool we went over to a beach restaurant for a late dinner.

Day 9: Playa Sámara – Beach day!

The nice thing about being at an Airbnb finally (besides a washing machine for laundry!) is that we could make our own food. We picked some things up at the grocery store and had a home cooked breakfast. We then headed out to the beach which was gorgeous. The water was so warm, I couldn’t believe this was the Pacific Ocean. The kids and my husband were having so much fun playing in the waves that they stayed in a little too long, and despite having put on a lot of sunscreen they all got sunburned on their faces. So we spent a quiet evening at home making our own dinner and relaxing.

Days 10-17: Time to chillax…

It took us a little while to get used the laid back vibe in Samara after the go-go-go of all the rainforest adventures. It was a kind of like driving at 60 miles an hour and going into a 25 mph zone. On our second day we spent a lot of time in the house and our pool since my littlest had such bad sunburn. We also had a chance to eat some more meals at home, saving some money.

I also started going to yoga at the beach! The instructor is actually a massage therapist who’s office is connected to our Airbnb. She offered a very similar practice to what I do at home in the hot yoga studio – only you don’t need to turn up the heat here! There’s nothing like taking a yoga class while looking out onto the beautiful ocean to get your namaste on!

 

There’s no coastal road connecting all of the beaches and beach towns along the Nicoya Peninsula, so you can’t beach hop without lots of driving. Fortunately, there is a paved road connecting Samara to one of the most beautiful beaches in Costa Rica, Playa Carillo, only 10 minutes away! Carillo has no development on the beach, it’s like a park, and so amazingly beautiful! There are palm trees along the road where you can tie your hammock, and then the beach itself of huge and uncrowded with white sand. Along the sides there is a bit of a coral reef for snorkeling (I saw some incredible sea life!) and it faces west for amazing sunsets. We hung out here about three times and the rest of the time we went to Samara since it was a 5 minute walk from our house.

We also did two tours in Samara, one was a boat tour to see dolphins and go snorkeling. We set out early and the guides found a bunch of dolphins pretty quickly. We sat on the front of the boat and the water was so clear you saw them swimming literally right below your toes! We even saw one flip in the air! After that we went over to a reef for about 40 minutes of snorkeling. The reef wasn’t as colorful as some in the Caribbean, but there were many varied fish.

Our second tour was through a all woman-run company called “Horse jungle” for a horseback riding tour through the jungle and then out to a remote beach called Playa Buena Vista. The ride was about two and a half hours long and so beautiful. Our horses were very tame but our guide’s horse was skittish and actually threw her off at the beginning of the ride! She assured us it was just her horse but it made the kids nervous for a while after that. My favorite part was riding along the beach, which I have never done before. I also just loved getting to see the countryside in this part of Costa Rica.

Other than going to the beach, doing yoga (me), these two tours, and swimming in our pool, we tried some local restaurants and hung out with friends of a friend who are live in NYC but just bought some property in Samara and were putting a container house on their land!

After 9 days we definitely got into the (slow) rhythm of things in Samara but we were also ready to go home. If I had to do the trip over we probably would have gone to another destination for some of that time, like Monteverde cloud forest or a different beach town, and had less time at the one place. However it was nice to have so many days there because you really could only be at the beach for 1-2 hours a day or risk getting sunburned, so this definitely gave us ample beach time.

If you are considering a beach destination in CR, I would definitely recommend Samara and Carrillo. The beaches are gorgeous and the ocean has waves that are big enough for playing in but not too rough. It is not over-touristed or over-crowded and you can really feel that laid back, low key beach vibe. There are also enough activities to do if it gets too laid back, and it is close to the airport.

Going home…

The drive to the Liberia airport was pretty and uneventful. When we dropped the rental car off they started giving us a hard time about some pre-existing damage that the person who checked us out had shown me and told me he recorded. I always take pictures and video of the car when I rent it to have it time-stamped, and of course this was the one time out of 20 that I’d didn’t, so I started to panic that they were going to charge us. Luckily after the clerk searched the system she found that the damage had been recorded and she apologized for insinuating that we had caused it.

We brought our own lunch to the airport because we had heard that the restaurants there were crazy expensive (and the rumors were true – a plain bagel without cream cheese was $7.95 USD!!!)

After cleaning security we headed to our gate and right next to it there was a sign that said “VIP lounge.” I had checked my lounge apps and both said there was no lounge at LIR, but my husband went and asked if they took priority pass and they did! It turns out the lounge is brand new and so the apps didn’t even have it listed yet! Everything was sparkling new and clean. They had tamales, meatballs, soup, mini-quiches, some salads, and complimentary wine, beer, soft drinks, and tea and coffee. Even though we had just had lunch it was nice to pack in a little more food because our connection was so tight in Miami we knew we wouldn’t have a chance to eat again until after 11pm.

We again had the main cabin extra seats, and although our flight landed in Miami 45 minutes early, they had no open gates so we sat on the tarmac until one opened up. That gave us only 90 minutes to clear customs and immigration. Thank goodness we had global entry and did not have to get any checked bags, otherwise we would not have made it. Also my husband just received the same AA promotion for platinum status a few days before, and that helped us skip ahead in the TSA line, because they had no separate pre-check line. We made it to our gate with only 10 minutes to spare. We finally landed in PHL around 11pm and drove an hour to my mom’s house in NJ to crash. Back to reality!

So, overall the trip was pretty epic. I think my itinerary worked very well although like I said if I had to do it over we would have added one more destination and take away a few days from the beach. Costa Rica is such a beautiful country with an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. The people are super nice and welcoming and the food, while often simple, is delicious. I will definitely put it on my list to return, especially since I feel we only scratched the surface.

San Miguel de Allende!

Even before Travel + Leisure voted San Miguel de Allende (SMA) the best city in the world, I have wanted to visit. So for my husband’s spring break this year, I started the planning a year ago (as I usually do).

The Planning

Warning: this is a bit long and geeky, so if you want to just hear about the trip, skip ahead to The Trip.

Flights:

At that time (April 2017), I had 60k American Airlines (AA) miles saved. Not enough for 4 round trip tickets, but enough to get us there (one way). I looked at all the combinations and somehow figured out if we could get there on the AA miles, we could come back on Delta using the 50% points back option I have written about before using the Amex business platinum card. The only issue was, because we had to go this exact week, I didn’t have a ton of flexibility, so the best I could do initially was flying out of Philadelphia at 5am on Tues, getting to Mexico around 3, and then flying back out early on Sat on Delta. That would only leave us with 3.5 days in SMA. Not ideal, but WTH. I booked it.

Now here’s where it gets interesting. Because I booked so far in advance, I ended up being able to change the flights several times (for free!) and ended up with 7 full days (8 nights) and way more convenient flight times. This is how:

For the AA award flights, I knew that AA would let me change to flights to something else for free as long as the departure and destination cities were the same and the award level was the same (i.e., they had to be “saver” Awards). At booking no other awards that week were available, but I knew there was a good chance more would open up over the 11 months until we went. Enter expert flyer. This site monitors award flights for you (for a small fee), so I entered in all the possible flights I wanted that left on Sat, Sun, or Mon of that week and crossed my fingers. Lo and behold, about 6 months later a bunch of award flights opened up. I quickly changed them to a flight that left on Sat afternoon. Again, you can do this for free on AA as long as they have the award seats and open.

For the flights home, it was a little different. These weren’t award flights per se, rather I used American Express points to book a revenue flight. So basically the flights were $482 each on Delta, for a total of $1928. That translated to 192,800 Amex Membership Rewards (MR), but when I paid that I got 50% of my points back, so total points spent was 96,400, or 24,100 per ticket. It is a lot but since it was Spring Break week everything was jacked up.

Now initially Delta had us leaving SMA at the crack of dawn on Sat. Which is tough because it’s a 1.5 hr drive to the airport! At some point though, Delta actually cancelled the flight altogether! Once I realized this (they didn’t contact me directly, which was frustrating), I called and was able to get on a later flight that left around 12 on Sat. Cool! Much better than 5:30am. But then at some point they changed the flight, to the point where the layover was like 30 mins. That’s impossible on an international flight coming home where you have to clear customs (even with global entry and TSA pre check). So I called and asked to be put on a flight on Sunday instead (my preferred departure date). “No problem!” said Delta. Once an airline makes a flight change, as long as it’s more than about 30-60 mins, you can ask for whatever flight you find is more convenient for you, and they will usually get you on it. Many times I’ve asked for flights to day before or day after to extend my trip and they’ve always obliged.

This is one of the reasons I book so early. There is a greater chance you will get a flight change to your cheap but inconvenient flight to one that is more convenient but was originally out of your price range! Also, going back to the AA flight awards (to get to SMA), I knew that 15k per person for the award was the lowest they would ever go, so I booked them even though it wasn’t “ideal,” with the knowledge that there was a good chance better award flights would open up later if I monitored for them. And it paid off! So our initial 3.5 day trip with terrible flight times became a 7 day trip with reasonable flight times, all for free! Oh and since I was given free platinum pro status from AA in January through May of this year, I could move us to the “premium seats” for free, so I got us in the bulkhead in economy, which my husband and kids prefer.

Total miles used for air: 60k AA miles and 96,400 Membership Rewards (MR).

Lodging

Initially when we were only staying for 3.5 days, I booked the super-LUXE Rosewood San Miguel for a total of 115,000 Ultimate Rewards (UR) Points (28k points/night). This is a lot of points but considering that at the Rosewood rooms start at $600 a night, it’s a great redemption!

“But Deb, aren’t you always saying how you stay in Airbnbs and cheap local places?”

Yes! But I knew SMA wouldn’t have a ton of activities for kids so I wanted to book a place that had an awesome pool. Plus all the reviews said Rosewood is very family friendly. Also I don’t know if it was because I booked super early or what but when I checked later after I extended our trip to add the extra days, they had gone up significantly! Back to the drawing board.

I looked up various hotels in the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal, read their reviews, and ultimately settled on a small hotel called Casa Mia Suites for a total of 12,600 points for 2 nights! (6,300 per night – Mexico prices!)

I also had to book one night in Guanajuato, and after some research I picked a hotel that was not available via Chase Ultimate Rewards, however since it was only $107 a night I used my hotels.com account to add to my “book 10 nights, get one night free” account.

The Trip

We left on a Friday evening right after the kids got out of school (and as more snow started falling in Syracuse) to make the 4 hour drive to Philadelphia. Unfortunately, after 15 minutes on the interstate we came to a dead stop and that’s where we sat for two hours! Apparently we missed a 30 car accident by about 5 minutes (it was so recent even though we were using Waze it didn’t re-route us yet). The department of transportation closed the highway for 2 hours and we just had to wait for them to clean everything up. It was awful and frustrating to sit there for that long, but I just kept thinking he lucky we were because if we had left 5 mins earlier we could have been in it! That definitely would have ruined the trip. We arrived at the Hampton Inn PHL airport around 11 and went to bed. I booked this Hampton Inn for the Park and Fly option. We could leave our car there all week. Also, I had received a challenge from Hilton Honors that if I had 5 stays in Hilton properties between Jan and April I would get an extra 2000 HH points per stay and 10,000 HH points at the end of the challenge. All these little Hampton Inn airport stays count, so their plan to build brand loyalty worked for me!

In the morning we took the shuttle to the Philadelphia airport early to check out the brand new Centurion lounge (for Amex platinum card holders). It was nice and clean and empty! Plus we were able to eat both breakfast and lunch there (Israeli food!) and get some preflight artisan cocktails.

Our flight to Dallas took off on time and when we arrived we had about 2.5 hours to kill. Time to hit Centurion lounge #2 at DFW! This one was so crowded! We barely got a table. But they had delicious Mexican food and we were able to get the children’s room to ourselves for about 45 minutes so my youngest could play Xbox. Finally around 6:30pm we boarded our flight to Mexico!

By the time we got to Mexico around 9:30pm everyone was out of sorts. We were of course staying at the Hampton Inn at the airport, but we were too tired to understand their Spanish about the shuttle, so we took a cab. After some more miscommunication we eventually made it to the Hampton Inn BJX (only $50 US a night). We crashed and were disappointed the next morning to learn the pool was closed until the evening. The breakfast was amazing for a Hampton Inn though! Pancakes, Chilaquales, picadillo, and some other Mexican specialties. Around 10am or driver came and got us to make the 90 minute drive through the gorgeous desert to San Miguel!

We arrived at our first hotel, Casa Mia Suites, and it was adorable. Right in the center of town and we had a little apartment with a full kitchen on a lovely Mexican courtyard. We headed into town to find it vibrant, busy (it was a Sunday and we learned later SMA gets swarmed on the weekend), and beautiful. We had a delicious Mexican lunch, walked around, napped, visited an amazing folk art toy museum and then had dinner later.

The next day was similar in that we did lots of exploring and eating. We visited the craft market and soaked in the town.

The following morning we checked out of Casa Mia and were picked up to do a horseback riding excursion in the country. This ended up being the highlight of the trip. The kids were nervous as they have never ridden horses before. But they bravely got on their horses (they each had their own guide in front, holding the reigns), and off we went. The ride was about 2.5 hours through the desert with amazing vistas and down the sides of a canyon. The kids had an absolute blast and were so proud of themselves for conquering their fear! After the ride we had an authentic and delicious Mexican ranch lunch, and then were driven back to SMA, where we checked into the Rosewood hotel.

The Rosewood is the ultimate luxurious accommodation and the swankiest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Truth be told, I found it a bit over the top, but the pools were great and the huge room was nice to spread out in, with big comfy beds and turndown service.

The next day we spent the morning at the botanical garden, El Charco Del Ingenio, which was another treat. It sits above SMA and has nice walking trails with indigenous desert plants. There was also a greenhouse, an observatory, and a children’s playground. After that we had some delicious fish tacos and spent the rest of the afternoon swimming at the hotel.

That evening our good friends came to meet us in San Miguel! They happened to be traveling to Mexico City the same week and I enticed them to come to SMA to hang out with us for a few days. We all went out for dinner at a restaurant that was highly recommended but ended up having terrible service. Luckily we all laughed about it and redeemed our meal by going to the churros restaurant for dessert.

The next day the six of us met at noon to do a San Miguel food tour. The guide took us on a walking tour of the city, stopping at 6 food stops to try various things including Peruvian ceviche, Yucateco pibil, enchiladas mole, a vegan taco, ice cream from a street stand that has been there for 50 years, and churros filled with carmelized goat milk. The kids did great on the tour even though a lot of it involved waiting for food. That evening we got a babysitter from the hotel and had a grown up night where we met our friends at a mezcal/tapas restaurant.

The following day some of us had a bit to much Mexico in their stomachs, so our friends went to visit a local hot springs and we stayed at the hotel, enjoying the pool. We met up with them for dinner at a delicious Peruvian restaurant that was on our food tour, and for and one last evening stroll through San Miguel.

The next day we left early to head to Guanajuato city, the capital of Guanajuato state and another old colonial town. My husband was in very rough shape this day. Luckily, even though we arrived at this hotel at 10am, they let us have our room early. The kids and I ate at the breakfast buffet at the hotel while my husband rested. He did try to go out with us and we visited Diego Rivera’s childhood home and had some drinks at a cafe. But he was too sick to continue sightseeing, so he and my youngest went back to the room and I went out with my oldest to explore the city.

Guanajuato is a beautiful place! I wish we had allotted two days to see it. It is an old mining town built into the sides of the canyon and there were cool tunnels and passageways throughout. It also houses the University of Guanajuato so there were lots of college students and coffee shop culture. They also love Don Quixote, so there were statues of him all over the city. It seemed like a very European city with circuitous alleyways and cobblestone streets. We visited an art museum and had a delicious taco lunch.

Later that afternoon my husband and other son joined us and we took a funicular up the side of the mountain to see the El Pipila statue (symbolic of a hero of the Mexican revolution, which began here) and to get some gorgeous views of the city and the mountains. We then had a tasty dinner of tacos al pastor and my husband went back to sleep in the hotel while the kids and I walked around watching all the street performers.

The next morning we got up and headed to the airport for our flights home. Getting from the Leon airport to Atlanta was fine. At ATL we got through customs fairly quickly because of our Global Entry, and we headed over “The Club,” a lounge we like there and can access using our Priority Pass. When we got to the gate for Philadelphia however, we were a little delayed. The gate agent said this was because the plane needed a little “extra cleaning.” Uh oh, someone had some kind of accident. The gate agent was trying to lighten the mood, so she had a dance contest and then she asked who could spell “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.” I, of course, raised my hand, and I got it right on the first try! My prize was 3 drink tickets.

After another 15 minutes, they called our names up to the front. Another agent informed my husband that because of their “extra cleaning,” we would not be able to put our bags on the floor in front of us on the plane. At that point I figured it out. Someone had puked, and we were sitting in the puke seats. I asked the flight attendants and they nodded and apologized. I asked if they could move us and they said they couldn’t because the flight was full. I couldn’t believe this happened to us again! (In October our flight was delayed 90 mins after boarding because a drunk girl puked right in front of our seats in the bulkhead and it took them an hour and a half to get “cleaners” to do a good enough job of cleaning it up). The flight attendants asked us if we wanted miles for our inconvenience, and I said, “yes please.” So even though it smelled a little like puke and we couldn’t put our bags on the floor, we finally landed on Philly around 9:30pm, now with 3 drink tickets and 30,000 extra Delta skymiles. We got to the Hampton Inn, got our car, and drove home!

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my drink tickets!

Overall it was a fabulous trip! My only regret was not staying in Guanajuato longer as it was a very cool city. The whole area is a wonderful place to explore and visit, however. It has a beautiful climate, great food, nice people, and lots of Mexican culture. I would love to go back one day!