Category Archives: Road Trips

I am a road trip lover! Driving is my favorite form of travel because it gives you the freedom to stop and explore whenever and wherever you want. This section of Traveling with Joy highlights some of my favorite road trips I have had the opportunity to enjoy.

A Weekend Guide to La Fortuna and Arenal

You know those weekends where everything is just perfect? You set out without an official plan, but everything falls into place just as it should? Well, this is typically how I travel, and that’s exactly how the weekend went when I recently made my way to Arenal and La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

Hot River remote side

I set off with my friend, Bryan, and we made our way from Santa Ana of San Jose, to the town of La Fortuna near the famous Arenal Volcano. We used a GPS application called Waze to direct us, and the trip took around 3 hours. The roads are in good condition, albeit quite curvy and mountainous at times. On this route, you pass by the airport, and shortly afterwards you will see signs from several years ago that point you right towards “Arenal”, but there is a new route which goes straight past these signs and shaves off a few hours, and this is what we took.
Along the way, we had a few fun pit stops to explore and stretch our legs. One place we visited was called “Lands in Love”, and if you’re looking for lodging that is in the middle of no where, but encompasses the best of Costa Rica, this could be a cool option for you. This mountain resort had access to white water rafting, rappelling, zip lining, hanging bridges, gardens, and much more. They are also know for their restaurant, which can be accessed right off the road, with mannequins hanging right over the road to call attention to their zip lining offers.
After walking around the grounds for a bit and enjoying the beautiful surroundings, we were off again, on the road for another hour or so, until we saw a group of tourists stopped alongside the road, looking up into a tree. Sure enough, there were two sloths in the tree, and both were fairly active. You never know what type of wildlife you will see along the roads of Costa Rica, so drive with caution and with your eyes wide open!

Sloths

Just before entering the town of La Fortuna, we passed over Rio Fortuna, and my friend told me there was a swimming hole and rope swing, so we decided to stop for a swim and a picnic. It was SO much fun, and 100% free! When we arrived, there were some local boys already swimming and jumping from the rocks, and when they saw we were interested in using the rope swing, they used one of the nearby sticks to grab it for us, and then demonstrated where to jump in. It’s quite self-explanatory: let go when you’re as far out as possible! Sometimes the river can be quite strong, so swim with caution and always have a buddy. Once you’re in the river, you can climb up the steep rocks to get out, or drift down a bit and climb out on a less rugged path.
While there, we made friends with these boys, and they told us how to find the free natural hot springs, and also how to access Cerro Chato without paying. Both the hot springs and climbing Cerro Chato were on my list for the weekend, so it was excellent to receive the inside scoop of how to get to them. After our swinging and swimming, we decided to walk the path down into the jungle, which brought us to a beautiful area where we enjoyed our picnic. Moments like thees are why I love Costa Rica. There we were, literally just off the side of the road, enjoying the most lush vegetation and pure, clean river, eating our picnic in peace and harmony with the nature around us. This is Pura Vida!

Rope swing Rio Fortuna

From Rio Fortuna, we decided to continue on to the hot springs, as this was the reason we had come to La Fortuna! We drove towards Tabacon Hot Springs, a beautiful and ritzy resort with access to the natural hot springs as well, and once we passed the main entry and the curve, we parked on the side of the road in front of a yellow triangle off-road gate. There were quite a few cars there, as this place is not exactly “‘secret”, and although the river is free, you will be expected to pay 1,000 colones ($2) to park your car and have the guys watch over it for you. Along the road, they are typically selling pipa fria for 500 colones (cold coconuts for $1) and sometimes sandwiches and other drinks. Enter through the yellow fence and walk down a few hundred feet until you reach the river. As soon as you step in, you will delight in the luxuriously warm water!
If you have hiking sandals, or waterproof shoes, you will probably be happier using them as you navigate the rocky river, but it is not a “must”. Once at the river, make your way under and through the bridge tunnel, and when you reach the rocky opening, you can either fight the current and climb right through, or you can walk off to the right and hop through a hole in a chain link fence.

Hot river entrance

In this direction, you will find many people sitting and relaxing in the river. Despite the fact that there is typically a crowd, it isn’t a bother, because the rushing sounds of the water drown out the conversations of those around you, and there are tons of places to choose from where you can sit and enjoy a bubbling, hot water massage. If you want to find your own private oasis, simply walk in the opposite direction of the bridge when you enter the river. It is by no means an easy trail, but you will find beautiful areas with the same hot water and have it all to yourself.
We left the hot springs just before dark, and as we were leaving I spotted a hand painted red tomato sign advertising rooms for 10,000 Colones ($20) at a place called Cabinas Arsol and vegetarian food at a place called Flying Tomatoes. It was located 200m North of Banco Popular, so we decided to check it out. The road that Cabinas Arsol is on looks practically abandoned when you approach it from Banco Popular, and when we pulled up, it had conflicting signs saying “Cerrado” (Closed) and “Abierto” (Open). It had funky cat sculptures on the roof, and other animal cut outs on the walls, and there were two little dogs in the front yard as well as a young child.
My friend laughed and then looked at me, “You said you wanted a ‘Mom and Pop’ type place!”

Cabinas Arsol

We went in to ask about rooms, and they had one for us. 10,000 Colones each ($20) for a private room with a shower and even a kitchen! It was a bit dark and shabby, but with perfect Costa Rican charm, and a toucan painting over the bed whose eyes followed you anywhere you went in the room- we called it TucaLisa.

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The hotel was one block away from the main street, so we changed out of our wet bathing suits, hung our clothes on the line to dry, and made our way over to a fantastic restaurant called Restaurant Los Nenes. It’s down the street from the Musamanni, and you an see a big sign for it on the road, even though it’s up a tiny side street. There were quite sophisticated displays of food, with more than one entree coming out on fire. My favorite part of the restaurant was the back wall which was painted with all sorts of Costa Rican birds. After dinner, we made a little ice-cream stop, mistakenly stopping at a Pops, when right up the street there is an excellent gelato place, with much more savory and sweet flavors. You won’t be disappointed.

Restaurant Los Nenes

The next morning we were up early, and made our way out. I had slept well, but my friend had not. He said he was attacked by mosquitoes and that the bed wasn’t good on his lower back. I’m guess I’m lucky I can sleep anywhere, because it was fine by me! We had breakfast at a great little restaurant called Soda Mima, right off the main street in La Fortuna. There were two options, one of which was a “typical” breakfast, including eggs, gallo pinto, and coffee. We had a fun time reading the signs drawn by people from all over the world, and I even found one from some Michiganders!

Soda Mima La Fortuna

Michigan love in Costa Rica

From Soda Mima we made our way back to the road which leads to the La Fortuna waterfall. The boys from the rope swing had told us that we could find a free trail to Cerro Chato about 3 km up the road, but alas, after driving around and asking around, we could not find it. We settled for entering the hike via a hotel called Green Lagoon. It was 5,000 Colones ($10) for locals and 6,000 Colones ($12) for foreigners, and the hike was quite steep. Other options for arriving to Cerro Chato are to enter from the La Fortuna waterfall site (perhaps a good option if you want to see the waterfall as well), or entering from Arenal Observatory. From the Green Lagoon entrance, we made our way up a rough cow pasture, and then up an intense hike through the forest to arrive at the top. It was a cloudy day, and the mist hung close to the trees, making the forest damp and enchanting. We saw a brown snake coiled up on a tree trunk, and we marveled at all the life growing thick on each tree. We arrived to the top in about an hour, but I would say to allow yourself up to two hours to make the climb, because we didn’t really stop and take breaks.

Hiking to Cerro Chato

Once at the top, we wanted to get down to the green lagoon. The first route we encountered was incredibly steep and muddy, but we took it anyway. On our way down, we saw a young girl and her mother climbing back up, and they told us we had about 10 more minutes until the bottom. We figured if they could do it, we could do it, and we did, but this portion of the hike is not for the faint of heart. We were literally swinging down muddy ruts using tree roots, ropes, and vines, and my friend sat down and slid half the way, as did many others.

Hiking to the Lagoon in Cerro Chato

Whether you take this route down to the lagoon, or not, good, sturdy hiking shoes are highly recommended for anyone who embarks on this Cerro Chato trek, as well as lots of water, snacks, and potentially a towel to wipe your muddy hands off. People do go swimming in the lagoon as well, so you could bring a bathing suit. We opted out of a swim, as it was grey and rainy that day, but on a hot sunny day I can see how it would be the perfect reward to this serious hike.

Happy days on Cerro Chato

Upon returning from Cerro Chato, we made our way back to the hot river near Tabacon for Round 2 of relaxation. It was just as wonderful as the first time, and again we sat in the warm water for hours, talking, listening, and enjoying the partial submersion in the natural pools.

Relaxing and smile

When we left the hot springs, we asked the coconut salesman where we could find a good but inexpensive place to stay, and he recommend a place called Cabinas El Buho. We searched it via Waze, but before we got to it we found a place called La Choza Inn, which was 10,000 Colones ($10) each for a private room, and included a breakfast of eggs, toast, fruit and coffee. Sold. We took it and slept like babies. Dinner that night was at a place called La Choza de Laurel, which makes great typical meals and drinks, and was right up the road from where we stayed.
Our final day in the La Fortuna area, we decided to go kayaking on Lago Arenal. We set off around the lake, in the same direction as the hot river and Tabacon Hot Springs, and just after the dam/bridge of Lake Arenal you will find people along the road renting kayaks. We rented two kayaks for two-ish hours for 15,000 Colones, ($30 total for two kayaks). The lake is a wonderful temperature for swimming, and from the point where you enter the water it takes about 30 minutes to curve around a bend and get a good view of Volcan Arenal. You can see where lava had run down the sides in the past, and it’s cone-shape is quite exquisite, even on a cloudy day.

Break time

After kayaking around, exploring the island and the coastline, we called it good and returned the kayaks. The coconut salesman here told us about a great little restaurant called La Mesa de Mama in a town called El Castillo, which was on the way to the Arenal Observatory. We decided to go check it out, and once we were there we had quite a laugh at the “customer service” provided by this small town operation. At one point the waitress knocked off our water bottle and just left it on the floor, but she was so sweet and smiley it was obvious she didn’t think twice about it.
After lunch, we continued around the lake in opposite direction, until we came to a sustainable hotel / farm called Rancho Margot. This place was completely remote, with bungalows and bunk houses, yoga, cow-milking, farm-to-table meals, and gardens galore. We took a little tour to enjoy the grounds before making our way back to La Fortuna, with one last pit-stop at the hot river, to say goodbye.
Overall, the weekend was magnificent. We experienced the best of what La Fortuna had to offer, on a budget of less than $40/ day, proving that Costa Rica doesn’t have to be super expensive to have a great time.
Although we didn’t take any official tours, we did find a place on the main drag called “Travel Costa Rica Now” and their prices blew the others out of the water. You can look them up at www.travelcostaricanow.com.
From La Fortuna, a great option is to continue along the lake and make your way through Nueva Fortuna to Tilaran and up to Monteverde. Around Tilaran, you will see a sign advertising waterfalls, and this private farmland is spectacular. When I went back in 2012 it was $20 to enter, and there are at least four amazing waterfalls on the property, as well as great flora and fauna. While there I found two hummingbird nests- one with eggs, and one with babies. Be sure to check it out if you have the luxury of driving yourself.

Two Weeks Traveling Colombia

When my mom was planning our travels around Colombia, I was little to no help. I was in India, with intermittent access to Internet, attending a yoga teacher training course that kept my days full with meditation, yoga, and lectures. I told her, “Go for it! Whatever you want to do, I’ll do, and whatever we end up doing will be great, because we will be together.” This gave her free range to plan whatever she wanted. She utilized a Lonely Planet book and TripAdvisor, and ended up planning an incredible, off the beaten path, 9 day adventure-packed journey around Colombia.

Guatape

 The journey started in Bogota, Colombia with a group of flower enthusiasts known as the World Flower Council. With this group, we visited a local market, breezed through the Gold Museum, walked around the city and stopped in the beautiful Botero Museum, full of statues and paintings done by Colombia’s own Fernando Botero. We also had the chance to visit the countryside outside of Bogota and to see three different and distinct flower farms: Jaroma Roses, Alexandra Farms, and Eclipse Gardens.

Jaroma Roses

 From Bogota we caught a plane to Cali, Colombia, where we enjoyed four days of learning about floral design and connecting with hundreds of other people involved in the flower world, all in the name of “World Peace through flowers”.

World Flower Council

 Our solo travels started out the Monday morning after we finished up with the World Flower Council and Iberiada floral summit. We set off on a day-trip to Cordobá, where we embarked on a wild ride on a “brujita”, a wooden bench cart which is pushed by a motorcycle on a train track to the jungle town of San Cipriano. We spent the day enjoying all San Cipriano had to offer: a cool and refreshing river to swim in, delicious fresh fish meals and coconut muffin tortas, and an extremely rugged yet rewarding hike through the jungle to a waterfall.

IMG_0534

 The next day we set off for the town of Silvia, near Popayán, where we spent hours and hours  walking around the town’s Tuesday market and mingling with traditionally dressed locals.

Silvia Market Colombia

 From there, we set off on the mountain roads less traveled to get to San Andrés de Pisimbalá. The drive was full of breathtaking moments brought on by the both the spectacular mountain views, as well as the treacherous driving conditions. It was all worth it in the end, because our hotel in San Andrés, La Portada de Hospedaje, had the most genuine, hospitable owners and the best food of our whole trip.

Driving in Colombia

 We spent our day in San Andrés on horseback, riding through the mountainsides of the archaeological sites of Tierradentro, climbing down steep stairs to see some amazing ancient tombs which were well-preserved with their wall paintings and carvings.

Tierradentro Colombia

 When it came time to leave Tierradentro, we drove through the hot desert-like Huila region of Colombia, pausing to take a look at one of the biggest rivers in the country, The Magdalena, before we arrived at the microscopic airport in Neiva, where we caught a domestic flight to Medellin, the city of eternal spring.

The Magdalena River Colombia

 Medellin was impressive right from the start. As we spent nearly 30 minutes driving down a mountainside to get towards the impeccably clean El Poblado neighborhood we were able to observe the sprawling city and its beautiful mix of green space. While in Medellin, we took a free walking tour, which explained a lot about the city’s difficult past while highlighting its transformation which makes it the “New Medellin” that it is today.

Real City Tours Free Walking Tours Medellin Colombia

 Just outside of Medellin are the flower metropolis farmlands of Santa Elena, and we spent one day touring a beautiful hydrangea farm, learning about the growth process, and also oogling over the 3000 species of award-winning orchids that made up the personal collection of the owner.

Orchids in Colombia

 After a few days in the city, it was time to get back in touch with nature, so we set off for El Cañón de Rio Claro, a beautiful and completely affordable private nature reserve. The two nights we spent there were absolute bliss, with our open air room allowing us to have a birds eye view of the lush jungle that enveloped us. We could hear and see the river rushing below and we were at the same level as the colorful toucans who perched in the trees across the river. The reserve also has an amazing and intense hike through a marble cave, which involved trekking through the jungle, jumping into deep pools in the dark cave, and walking through stretches where creepy nocturnal birds cackle like goblins.

Rio Claro Colombia

 When our time in Rio Claro came to an end, we knew we only had one day left before we would separate our paths. We spent the last day driving to the massive rock known as El Peñol, and climbing the 740 steps to the top where we were able to indulge in a 360 degree view of the surrounding flooded mountains. The rock is near the cute and colorful town of Guatape, and after we descended from El Peñol we wandered the town, enjoying the beautifully painted houses.

Guatape

 One more long drive brought us back to the same hotel we had left only a few days earlier in Medellin. There we unpacked and re-packed, shared photos and reflected on the amazing trip which had just come to an end. My mom’s great energy and good attitude always make her my favorite traveling partner, and when I had to say goodbye the next morning I knew my travels would be quite a bit different as I continued on exploring Colombia without her.

Guatape

Hot Springs of Iceland

Iceland. Brrr. When I visited the country in May 2015 I was expecting beautiful spring weather, never-ending sunny days, and fields of blooming flowers, but what I encountered more closely resembled the stark landscape of autumn. However, the gray days were no match for my sunny disposition, and I set forth to explore as much as I could during my few short days in the country. I visited the sulfury geysers, road tripped along the famous Golden Circle, walked the black sand beaches of the south coast, hiked along glacial lakes in the southeast, and encountered more waterfalls than I can count in between each stop. But what was my favorite part about Iceland? Without a doubt, it was the hot springs and hot spring culture!! 

While traveling through Iceland, I had the pleasure of experiencing several distinctly different versions of hot springs and I embraced them all whole-heartedly. From rural, to hike-able, to community style and finishing at the top tourist destination in the country, the Blue Lagoon, I made my way into each of them with a splash. Here I will share a re-cap of each, and you can see which style pool would be meant for you… 
1. The Rural Hole-in-the-Hillside Hot Spring 

This was my first hot spring in Iceland, and it came to me by accident. It had been a cold, rainy day, and on our drive we had passed dozens of signs with a man sitting in water, which we assumed to mean “hot springs”. This got us in the mood for a good long soak in a hot spring. As we were filling up gas near the Strokkur Geyser we asked the attendant where the nearest hot springs were, and he told us he knew of a really local place in a field about 20 minutes away. We set off, based on his loose directions, got lost, and ended up having an interesting cultural exchange with a woman who explained to us how to cover the last ten minutes of our expedition. 

“You drive forward past the thing that keeps the ships in place,” she said, as she drew something that looked like an anchor on a map. 

“Ok, look for an anchor,” said my one friend. 

“No, I think that’s a cattle guard. She’s saying ‘sheeps’,” replied my other friend. 

“Then drive past wooden people on the side of the road,” continued the woman. 

“Ok, so wooden sculptures of people alongside the road,” said my friend, again slightly wrong with her interpretation. 

“No,” contested the woman. “They are more like wooden dolls.” 

With these oddly specific directions, we again set off, and after a shocking encounter with an electric fence, we found the hidden yet public hot spring, nestled into the hills, in the middle of nowhere. There we met a local Icelandic couple and learned so much about Iceland, it’s people, their interests (“Free the nipple!”), and they even told us the history of the hot spring we were bathing in; apparently the farmer who owned the land found the hot spring and started washing his sheep who has eczema in the lower waters to cure their skin, and then he carved out the upper pool so he and other farmhands could soak as well. It turned out to be quite a popular destination, but the young groups that joined after us took the sheep washing station, leaving us the big, farmhand pool. 
 

The quaint changing house for the hot springs
  
The larger pool, carved into the hillside

2. The Hike-Able Hot Spring Pools of the South, Cerca 1923 

Our second experience with a hot spring was a little more straight-forward. We again were in the mood for a warm soak in a spring, so we started asking the locals if there were any pools around. We were dining at a delicious restaurant directly across the highway from the Skógafoss waterfall when we learned that, much to our delight, there was a hot spring pool a few kilometers up the road. Within minutes we were at the trail entrance that would take us to the Seljavallalaug hot pool. The trail was essentially non-existent, but we saw a steady stream of people walking deep into the valley, so we set off, crossing a freezing cold river en route, and within 10 minutes we came upon the pool, in all its simple yet spectacular glory. It was surrounded by snow-capped mountains (potentially seasonally dependent) with breathtakingly beautiful views in every direction. There are large, communal changing rooms available, so we ditched our clothes for our swimsuits and jumped into the warm water. These pools were not hot, unless you went directly towards the source- a rock wall at the back of the pool, or a front corner which had a pipe feeding directly from the mountain into the pool. We completely lost track of time as we soaked and swam, chatting with other visitors as much as amongst ourselves. When we emerged it was surprising to find out that it was 10pm. One of the perks of spring/summer in Iceland: never ending daylight! 
 

The beginning of the short hike to Seljavallalaug
 
 
Seljavallalaug Pool, nestled in the valley of the mountains
 

3. The Laugardalur Community Pools of Reykjavik 

  • These pools are much more modern than the previous two hot springs described. There are locker rooms where everyone strips down and showers before making their way out to the pools, which can be found both indoors and outdoors. I spent the entirety of my time there moving from pool to pool outside, enjoying Iceland’s constantly changing weather from the safety of warm-water pools. They say, “If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes,” and it is absolutely true. I experienced everything from sun, to clouds, to rain, to slush-balls in a matter of a half hour. There are dozens of hot pools around the outer perimeter ranging from 38-44 degrees Celsius, including my personal favorite: a special saltwater pool around 42 degrees. When these pools get too hot for you, you can move to the larger, cooler pools where you even have the option to swim laps, if your inner athlete so desires. There is also a steam room, and a water slide, which is absolutely not to be missed. Let your inner child delight, and climb the stairs to the top of the tower, then wait for the “traffic light” to turn green and slide down. I was not expecting the tunnel to be so dark, and I was definitely not expecting the lit-up stars along the way. I was laughing with glee by the time I splashed down into the warm pool below. If you visit the pools during the week you may even see hundreds of school children splashing around for their mandatory swimming classes. 
I didn’t snap a photo of Laugardalur, but nearby is the Ásmundur Sveinsson Sculpture Museum, which is worth walking around

4. The Most Famous Hot Springs of Iceland

I almost didn’t go to the beautiful Blue Lagoon, because I thought maybe it was just one of those things that all tourists do, but on my last day in Iceland I decided to head to the infamous lagoon before making my way to the airport. Boy, am I glad I did! It was unlike anything I have ever experienced before, and my skin felt incredible for days afterwards. Read more about my trip to the Blue Lagoon here

 

Just outside the entryway you can see the untouched landscape of the lagoon and the celestial waters
  
 
And there you have it. From rustic hillsides to luxury spas, Iceland can fulfill all of your hot spring desires. Which one looks best to you? 

Driving in India

As I sat on a bus, making my way from one Indian city to the next and letting myself get lost in my own thoughts while watching the scenery blur by, I was snapped back to the here and now when our bus slammed on its breaks and swerved back into its own lane. What happened this time? I wondered, as I peered out the window to observe the culprit for our disruption: a young Indian man going through driver’s training. Our bus had been trying to overtake him while driving through a tunnel, only to come upon cows blocking us in the lane ahead…

  

Now, I don’t know one thing about the actual rules and regulations of driving in India, and I dare to guess that many of the people actually driving here don’t either. It’s really a “make it up as you go” kind of situation here, and to help give you an idea of what the roads are like in India, let me paint you a picture… 
First, take the busiest road you know and erase the lanes. Insert cars, busses, tractors, motorcycles, rickshaws, carts, camels and elephants going whichever way they want. 
  

Next, take every stray animal imaginable – dog, cow, monkey, whatever- and allow them to roam freely on said lane-less road. 
  

Then, take every (nonexistent) trashcan and turn it upside-down, spreading the contents everywhere. If you are so inclined, scoop some of these contents together in a pile and light them on fire. 

Now add in a homeless population who will bang on your windows, peddling for money. Some will be selling food, some will be pushing you to buy useless toys or souvenirs, and some will be carrying around babies and children to tug at your heartstrings. 

As a final touch, add in the incessant honking of horns. Think one horn-blow for every breath of every driver. 
If you’re coming from the Western World, it sounds chaotic, right? We are used to an organized flow of how things should go, but at the same time it’s kind of fun and exhilarating. You can do whatever you want. Sure there are rules, but they are made to be broken. 

Surprisingly enough, during my time in India I did not witness too many accidents, just a lot of little fender-bender bumps. Obviously severe crashes do occur, and when they do they are often fatal. Afterall, it’s not like an ambulance can make its way through the traffic any faster than everyone else! However, over the course of the years, I think the Indian drivers have developed approximately six eyes in their head to be able to see and sense whatever is coming their way. It is impressive! 

So next time you’re driving along, lamenting over a few bumps in the road, remember this post on driving in India, and think about your situation again… 

Take a Trip to Iceland’s Incredible Blue Lagoon

When traveling, I love to go with the flow. I spent a week exploring around Iceland, and before I knew it my last day was upon me. I still had yet to see the famous Blue Lagoon, the beautiful hot springs which had been the inspiration for my trip in the first place. I had the whole morning before I had to arrive at the airport the following day- could it be done?? I took a walk to the Gray Line bus company in downtown Reykjavik to find out, and all my questions were answered.  

With a plan in place, and my mind at ease, I spent the rest of the evening walking around the beautiful city in the blustery arctic winds, thinking about the warm pools that awaited me in the not-so-distant future. I was about to wrap up my night, when the magic of travel started to take place, setting me up for some incredible company the next day…

 The Blue Lagoon in Iceland 

One Fated Night: 

 As I sat in the entryway to my hostel on the eve of my last day in Iceland, a guy blew in with the wind and snagged a seat at my table. 

“Mind if I sit here?” he asked. 

“Of course not,” I replied.

He was eating a brand of yogurt that is like a gift from the Icelandic Gods, Skyr.is, and I was curious about his flavor selection. Strawberry. 

 Skyr yogurt Iceland 

We began to talk, a conversation shared as much with our eyes as with our words. His journey was just beginning, and mine was just coming to a close, but I had a plethora of advice for him, gathered from my adventures of the last week. We pulled out a map and started talking about the wonders of Iceland. Just as he said “west fjords” a passerby stopped dead in his tracks and looks us both squarely in the eyes. 

“Are you two talking ’bout traveling up to the western fjords?” asked an obvious Irishman. 

I lamentably told him that my trip was coming to a close, without seeing the northwestern area of Iceland, but that my partner in conversation was setting off on an unspecified road trip the next day, and that I would be taking a bus from Reykjavik to the world-renowned Blue Lagoon, then on to the Keflavik airport for takeoff. 

“Oh the Blue Lagoon is brilliant!” he beamed. “I just spent the day there meself.” 

After my two new friends settled with a handshake on a meeting time for the morning, the Irishman left, and it was again myself and the mystery man of my table. We talked with ease for hours, with the sky outside softly aglow, dimly lit from the remnants of the previous day and in anticipation for the day that was beginning to commence. 

I fell asleep abuzz with the energy of the night’s connections and several short hours later I pulled myself from bed, and made my way back down to the lobby, ready to catch my ride and kickstart my day, when who did I see? My two mates from the night before. Their car rental was late, and before I knew it, the Irishman had jumped on board with my venture to the Blue Lagoon. I love the Irish- they’re such good craic- and this guy was no exception. 

We bid farewell to the now-lone ranger as we set off for the Gray Line bus that awaited us outside. The course of my whole day had changed in the blink of an eye, and I was ready to embrace it. 

The Journey to the Blue Lagoon and Beyond: 

Our conversation was full of energy as we both spoke of embracing whatever may come your way while you are traveling. We were both fans of not having plans, and of meeting wonderful strangers and turning them into friends along the way. We had both connected with local Icelandic people, and had many stories to share. The hour-long trip between Reykjavik and the Blue Lagoon sped by as we raced along the coast, the brightly colored square houses a blur among the moss covered rocks, forming an almost other-worldly landscape on the other side of the bus windows. 

Driving in Iceland 

As we neared the lagoon, the rocks became black and visibly jagged. Light milky-blue water lay brightly between the crevasses of the earth, and steam rose as the warm water met the air and dissipated before our very eyes. 
I checked my behemoth of a backpack at the luggage building, then eagerly made my way to the entrance, pausing to take a side-trip on a trail to the left of the building, where my companion offered to snap a blustery picture of myself among the unique landscape. 
 The Blue Lagoon in Icaeland  

The modern design of the building welcomed us with windows of natural light. We breezed through the nearly empty queue to enter the locker rooms and emerge freshened and ready for the pools on the other side. Tip: Go early! The lines and the pools get steadily more congested as the day progresses.

The Blue Lagoon is different than the other hot springs of Iceland. There is a sensation that you’re soaking in more than just water- you’re soaking in a mystical, mineral-rich, celestial body of bliss. The rocks around the pool are edged with a white remnant of the milky water, and steam rises and rolls over the surface. The ground of the pool isn’t entirely smooth, but rather you can feel sediment, similar to sand, along the bottom, and as you approach the bubbling cone in the far-side of the lagoon you might stumble as you knock into protrusions from the floor below. 

There are pots of silica mud, which you can spread on your body and face, and it was there, spreading the silty substance onto our faces, that we met two more interesting solo travelers who had caught a Gray Line bus directly from the airport to arrive in this magical Blue Lagoon. Bonding quickly over our unique-to-Iceland experience, we became a foursome, sharing stories and meandering around the pool, towards the pounding waterfall, the sauna and the steam room. The lagoon even offers a swim-up bar and a special massage pool as well for those who wish to enjoy a little extra indulgence. Relaxation was our guide, and exploration was our motivation. 
 Inside the Blue Lagoon in Iceland  

All too soon I had to call my time to a close. My flight time was approaching and my designated bus would soon set off for the airport. I bid farewell to my partners of the lagoon, and set off into the mist. 

As I boarded the Gray Line to Keflavik airport, I couldn’t help but feel blessed at my good fortune. I had nearly skipped these magical pools, thinking that they would be overpriced and too touristy, but in all honesty they are not to be missed. Without the easy-access route of the Gray Line company I wouldn’t have been able to make it happen. Their combination of the Reykjavik pickup, Blue Lagoon drop off, and Keflavik airport transport really made it an easy, done deal.

All in all I’d say my last 12 hours in Iceland turned out phenomenally. 

Did You Just Step in India?

Normally when I travel, I live by the rule “Look Up”. Far too often, we miss the beauty around us by looking down…However, if you’re ever walking around in India, this rule is meant to be broken.
Of course there is beauty up, down and all around, but the streets of India are full of obstacles and distractions. There are always at least a dozen, if not a hundred, things calling for your attention at the same time.

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You become adept at using your peripheral vision, and dodging traffic, animals and crowds, all while navigating your way among the unmarked streets. However, whilst all this is going on, remember to look down!! If you don’t watch where you put your foot, you might just “step in India” and it won’t be pretty…
There are many dogs, sleeping wherever they please, without a care…

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And men charming cobras…

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Goats with sweaters…

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Cow pies aplenty, and “holy puddles” leftover from the cows as well…

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Holes in the ground where you walk…

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And trash piles waiting to be burned, or currently burning…

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There are women stringing flowers for holy offerings…

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And many people selling fresh produce…

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Add monkeys to the mix, and you not only need to watch your step, but you also need to watch your stuff!…

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As you can see, if you make it to this interesting country, it will be nothing short of an adventure, every step of the way…

As Different as Night and Day – A Tale of Using Zimride to Get from SoCal to NorCal and Back

Travel can be heavily influenced by the people you meet along the way. Depending on who you come into contact with, your experience can be as different as night and day. As a traveler, I am always trying new and different things to meet people and save money while traveling. Please note that as I am adventurous, I am also cautious, and I take safety precautions to the best of my ability when I try out these various services. This past weekend I used a service called Zimride to make my way from Anaheim, SoCal to San Francisco, NorCal, and back. In a mere 48 hours I experienced both the best and the worst of what this site can offer.

I first learned about Zimride from a well-traveled friend who has made his way up and down the coast of California countless times. This site allows people to post their travel routes with the hope of getting either a passenger or a driver who is heading the same direction. It is not a free service, there is a price tag attached to each ride, but it is much cheaper than renting a car or taking a flight, and it is much faster than taking a train or a bus. When I decided I wanted to spend the weekend in San Francisco, I signed up for the site, got in touch with a few drivers, and eventually found a guy who would pick me up at Point A and drop me off at Point B. The guy, Caldwell, seemed like a decent person, but I still made sure we had another passenger as a sort of “safety precaution” so I wouldn’t be alone. As the story unfolds, it would turn out that the passenger would be both a blessing and a curse…

Caldwell picked me up from my floral design course on Friday, and from the get-go he was tense. He had agreed to pick up another girl in LA, but she was anxious about what time he was picking her up, and this was stressing him out. I suggested that maybe we shouldn’t pick her up if he was already getting a bad vibe from her, but he said he needed the money, so I didn’t argue. I wasn’t overjoyed about heading into the heart of LA on Friday at 5pm, but I wasn’t going to start questioning the driver.

It took us nearly 2 hours to pick up the other passenger, Lisa, and by the time we got to her Caldwell had worked himself up to the point of anger. As soon as Lisa got in the car he rudely demanded his money for the ride, which put her on the offensive because the site clearly says that you pay your driver upon arrival to your destination. I worked to diffuse the situation between the two, and Lisa ended up paying him so we could get on our way. Over the course of the next 3 hours I thoroughly enjoyed conversation with Lisa. She had traveled extensively in SouthEast Asia, and as she told tales of her travels I took notes on the many tips she was dispensing with every story. Caldwell did not join in the conversation at any point and I tried to have a few conversations with him, but in all honesty I hated how he would quickly go off on ranting tyrants, and I much preferred conversation with Lisa.

When it came time to fill up the gas tank, Caldwell asked if I would take over driving. I agreed, and when he got in the passenger seat he slammed the seat back into Lisa’s knees, causing her to exclaim, “Hey Man!” At that point, he turned around and went absolutely ballistic. He started screaming in her face and was saying that ever since she got in the car he hadn’t liked her, that she was the type of person who manipulated and disrespected people, and that he didn’t like how she was befriending me to make him look like the bad guy. I tried to diffuse the situation again, but failed this time, and when I suggested he calm down and take a rest, he instead demanded that he was going to drive, so I slid over to the passenger seat, unsure of what was worse: being left at a gas station 2.5 hours from San Francisco, or continuing with a ranting lunatic and most likely making it to my final destination. I chose the latter, but was silently preparing for the worst. I had come from my floral design class, and had packed my florist knife. I slowly reached for the knife to have it ready in case I needed to use it, and I made sure my bags were ready at my feet in case I needed to spring from the car. I sent my location to a few of my friends in San Francisco who were expecting me, and then I settled in to endure the worst drive of my life.

 The next two hours were horrible. Caldwell screamed like a psychopath, and Lisa proceeded to debate back and forth with him. There was no winning. If she would agree he would call her a liar. If she would disagree he would call he a spoiled bitch. He went on and on about the state of America, and his addictive personality, and his emotional instability. But the whole time he was yelling. I stayed out of it as much as possible, only piping in to confirm positive things, like when he would say, “I’m am ADDICT! I just want a fucking drink right now!” and I would reaffirm to him that losing his sobriety over this was not worth it… He seemed to listen to me, but I was still uncomfortable as hell.

When we finally got in to the city he had calmed. Lisa got out at my stop, even though it was not her destination. We hugged and she thanked me for “being an angel” during the situation. It’s kind of ironic, because during one of his rants, Caldwell was yelling, “And now you two will probably be friends and say things like, ‘Remember that crazy guy who gave us the ride to San Francisco?!'” And he’s probably right. When you survive a situation like that with someone, there is a bond. I honestly think if she had not been in the car, I would not have had a problem with him. Sure, I would have been bored to death with his conversation, but I would not have been scared for my life.

I had originally signed up for a ride there and back with Caldwell, but when he dropped me off, both he and I knew that there was no way in hell I was riding back with him. This meant that on Saturday I had to begin searching for a ride home on Sunday. I figured I wouldn’t have a “rotten egg” twice in a row, so I used Zimride again. Eventually I connected with someone and saw that he too had a passenger for the ride down to LA, so I confirmed.  I am happy to say that my ride back was fantastic.

On the ride back, we were all basically first time Zimride users, and for me, it was a perfect ride: safe, full of conversation and full of cultural exchange. The driver, Anish, was from India and I have just decided that I am going to start my travels next year with a trip to India, so he shared many things about his culture and his country. The passenger, Alex, is from Temecula, where I actually spent 6 months living back in 2010. He had just spent the past two years teaching English in Korea, and had a ton to share about traveling in Asia, which is exactly where I plan to head after India. The three of us were really happy to meet one another, and we all exchanged information so we could keep in touch. They were both full of supportive ideas when I told them I am getting started with blogging, so I’ll give them both a little shoutout right now- hey guys! It was great to meet you!

 The world is full of many different people, and that’s what makes it such an interesting place. The people you meet along the way can add such a different dynamic to your travels and your experiences, and I am happy to have ended my weekend trip on a positive note. I will never forget my first experience with Zimride. The differences between the first and the second ride were like night and day. I had a taste of the good, the bad, and the ugly, but all in all I wouldn’t hesitate to use the service again.

Traveling is like being on a roller coaster – it can be a fun, yet scary, ride. Here at the top of the hills in San Francisco, you can feel as though you’re at the top of a roller coaster with hills and tracks like these.

Petaluma: The Cutest City North of San Francisco

Have you ever heard of a city called Petaluma? Neither had I… until I was about an hour outside of San Francisco and drove right into it. My first time there, it was a dark and rainy night, but the charm of the stores and restaurants lit up the city. It was not my intention to stop only an hour outside of San Francisco, but as I continued to pass stores with amazing window displays  and restaurants aglow with people and cheer, I simply had to get out and explore. In a matter of minutes, I fell in love.  Below are 4 reasons why Petaluma is the cutest city north of San Francisco, and why it is a place which should be on your bucket list to visit. Whether you live in NorCal or are just passing through, this city nestled in Sonoma County will delight you over and over and over again…

1. Window Shopping is as fun as Actual Shopping 

In a few walking blocks, you can find countless cute and unique stores in Petaluma. From paper products to consignment shops to boutiques and beyond, Petaluma has dozens of stores to get lost in. The best part about the stores? They are incredibly affordable, and totally unique. The second best part about the stores? The colorful and creative window displays make window shopping just as much fun as actually getting inside to shop around.

Red Umbrella Consignment Shop
Cathy Wayne handcrafted felt products
Paper White paper products store. This is the store which is the inspiration behind my yearly Valentine’s Day cards!
Splendid Little Shoppe clothing and accessories
Splendid Little Shoppe clothing and accessory store

2. Delicious Restaurants Line the Road

With delectable and award winning restaurants lining the streets, the options are endless when it comes to places to eat in Petaluma. My favorite restaurant is a charming place called Central Market, a farm to table restaurant with Californian-Mediterranean  inspired  cuisine. This restaurant is one of those places that is so good, it makes it hard to try someplace new.

3. Musical Performers Are Out and About on the Streets

Each and every time I have visited Petaluma, I have come into contact with wonderful musicians out and about on the streets. Whether it is a man rolling a full-sized piano along with him on the sidewalk, or a small hipster band singing “a dub a day keeps the doctor away” each and every one of the musicians brings a smile to your face and leaves a song stuck in your head as you continue to stroll through Petaluma.

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Petaluma Pete out on the streets

4. Artsy and Cozy Places to Rest Your Head

Petaluma is full of artistically inspired stores and restaurants, so it is only fitting that the hotels are unique and boutiquey as well. While there, I stayed at the Metro Hotel & Cafe and I was blown away by how charming it was. They describe themselves as “a little trip to Paris in Sonoma County” and that is exactly the ambiance that is portrayed when you enter this quaint and beautifully decorated hotel and cafe.

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10 Stops for a Perfect Drive Along the Pacific Coast Highway (Los Angeles to San Francisco edition)

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a lover of road trips. There is nothing quite like driving along with the freedom to stop and explore whatever may catch your interest along the way. Recently I was able to indulge on a quick drive up the beautiful California coastline, and the road trip did not disappoint. I had embarked on the same route 4 years earlier, and had encountered ancient painted caves, waterfalls cascading into the ocean, quaint bed and breakfasts tucked away into the redwoods, and so much more. This time around, I again enjoyed the amazing coastline scenery but discovered a few new treasures that I hadn’t encountered during my first drive. 

Let me recap my Top 10 favorite stops during a drive up and along the Pacific Coast Highway -the PCH- from SoCal to NorCal…

1. Ventura

Ventura is a coastal town, not too big and not too small. The first time I came across this quaint town it was a rainy December night, but my travel partner and I decided to get out and explore nonetheless. We came across tons of cute stores, but the one that sticks out in my memory the most is the Wet Sand Surf Shop. Decked out with artistic displays made from beach debri and surfboards, and loaded with tons of comfy t-shirts and sweatshirts and other fashionable beach apparel, this store is definitely worth a stop if you’re passing through Ventura. The town is also packed with fantastic restaurants, but during my time in Ventura I ended up eating at two different diners. One was a charming 50s style diner called the Busy Bee Diner- You can’t ever go wrong with an old fashioned American hamburger-Frenchfries-milkshake combo! There’s also a great breakfast place called Pete’s Breakfast House. Apparently this place can get so busy in the mornings that there is live music playing outside to entertain the hungry folk waiting for a table. When we got there, we beat the rush and sat right down in one of the booths alongside a full wall mural of all things USA. With items on the menu like the pancake roll, biscuits and gravy, and a wide assortment of egg-inspired creations, there is something for everyone.

2. Santa Barbara

My first time in Santa Barbara, I went directly to the Mission. I will never forget watching some young kids skim-boarding on the beautiful grassy rose garden area outside the mission and seeing one of them get tasered by an officer! Presumably he was being a cocky kid and not listening to the cop, but still- I was shocked!!  After witnessing a little police brutality I explored inside the peaceful grounds of the mission, walking the gardens within and learning that the Mission was established on December 4, 1786 and represents the longest continuous presence of the Fransicans in the US. They still live, pray, and practice there today.

My second time visiting Santa Barbara I made my way down to the pier at Stearns Warf. The quantity of marine animals there was incredible- there were dolphin spottings, seals swimming alongside the pier, stealing fish from the nets of the fishermen, and pelicans galore. A quick walk along the beachfront is a delightful way to stretch your legs after a bit of a drive.

3. Painted Caves Road 

Somewhere in between Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo there is a road, on your right hand side, as you’re driving up an incline. The road’s name is Painted Caves Road, and I am happy to say I let my curiosity be my guide, and I took a turn onto this side street. A few minutes of driving the winding road up into the woods and there they were- caves with walls full of ancient human paintings! The caves are barred off to the public to prevent vandalism, but you can still get up close and see everything. This place was a lucky find and is definitely worth a pit stop.

4. San Luis Obispo (SLO)

San Luis Obispo is a college town, but it’s such a fun town to walk around! There are tons of shops and restaurants, and from what I could see, there is always a lot going on. All store fronts were loaded with posters advertising concerts, fundraising walks, dance parties, potlucks…the list goes on. We stopped in SLO to grab a bite to eat at the cute Sidecar restaurant (the tater tots were amazing) and then we continued on to walk through a gum-covered alleyway, with the smell of gum still lingering in the air… San Luis Obispo, is also home to the delightfully tacky Madonna Inn. There are so many patterns and colors in this place that at first you don’t know where to look, but after your senses adjust it is fun to walk around and take in the restaurant, cafe, and wine tasting room. While there, make sure to take a break in the cafe and try a slice of the German chocolate cake. Our slice was the size of my face, and it was out-of-this-world delicious. 100% recommended.

5. Hearst Castle in San Simeon

This amazing feat of art and architecture cannot be missed if you are driving along the PCH. Designed back in the early 1900s by architect Julia Morgan and owner William Randolph Hearst, this mansion atop the hilltops in San Simeon is absolutely magical. Inside the “castle” there are art pieces and artifacts from countless countries (think Spain, Italy,

France, Egypt, China) and throughout the whole property there is a special Mediterranean feel. Outside, there is the spectacular Neptune pool with ancient roman columns and statues surrounding it’s entirety, and indoors there is another  pool with gold leaf tiles covering the ground you walk on. There are over 165 rooms in the main house and side cottages, as well as gardens that used to be home to a private exotic zoo. If you’re lucky (as I was upon my second visit) you may be able to see the zebras which still roam freely upon the ranch’s land.

6. Elephant Seal Beach

I don’t think this is officially the name of this beach, but it may as well be. Only a few miles up the road from Hearst Castle in San Simeon, you can find this Elephant Seal Beach full of the massive creatures. Elephant seals are a strange combination of walrus-proportioned mammals, with an elephant trunk-like nose. They grunt and bellow and play with each other in the waves…or they just sit like lard along the beach.

7. Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn

Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn is absolutely magical! Nestled into the redwoods, and across the road from the cliffs and crashing waves of the ocean, you will find Deetjan’s Big Sur Inn. All rooms are within the same few houses, but are decorated differently and exquisitely. While at Deetjan’s, we stayed in the Fireplace Room, complete with a personal fireplace, and there was a cool journal for people to write and draw in. To top it off, the restaurant is incredible and serves unique recipes making up some of the best food you will ever put in your mouth. I can’t say enough good things about this place- you absolutely must make a stop here if you’re driving the Pacific Coast Highway.

8. Each and every State Park along the coast – specifically Big Basin Redwoods and Pfeiffer State Parks

These state parks along this Pacific Coast Highway drive are breathtaking. Take each one as an opportunity to get out of the car and stretch your legs. Walk through the green, misty, moss-covered woods and emerge in front of the ocean. Breathe in the salty air and explore the coastline up-close and personal.

9. Carmel by the Sea

Carmel by the Sea is absolutely gorgeous. This town is a bit more ritzy than some of the others along the coast, with the prestigious Pebble Beach golf course attracting golf enthusiasts from around the world, but there is an undeniable charm throughout the area. My favorite place was a restaurant called Casanova. The ambiance of this place is wonderful, with the feeling of an open-air Italian garden inside, complete with beautiful tiles in the walls and a retractable rooftop. The French-Italian inspired cuisine is a little bit of heaven in every delicious bite…After a meal here, make your way down to the beach and take a walk along the water. I remember seeing one of the most spectacular sunsets my eyes have ever had the pleasure of viewing when I was relaxing along this beach.

10. Monterey

While driving up the coast, just before you arrive to San Francisco, stop off in Monterey and enjoy the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The jellyfish are massive and mesmerizingly enchanting. They alone will make this stop worthwhile.

Taking off the Golden Handcuffs and Traveling With Joy

I have been a traveler all my life. I have learned that it’s not always about the destination – it’s about the journey, complete with all the road bumps along the way. The things you encounter and the lessons you learn through travel make you richer than anything money can buy. Growing up, I was lucky to be exposed to travel in the form of family road trips, but it was a summer study abroad program in Rome, Italy, which really ignited my passion to explore the world. Over the course of a six-week semester of living in a foreign land, my eyes were opened, my world shifted, and I developed the desire to see as much of this planet as possible.

After finishing up with college I was fortunate to land a job with a big multinational corporation. I was hired as part of a “development program” which combined continuous learning with professional development and also came with the perk of a new location every six months. It was perfect for me! I love to meet new people, learn new skills, and explore new places, and I could do all of this and get paid at the same time!  While working as part of this program I made my way from Southern California to Northern California to Chicago and on to Columbus, Ohio. In between each location there were many unforgettable cross-country road trips with my favorite travel partner, my mom. We would pack my little yellow Mazda Protege from window to window and set off, armed with our GPS, into the great unknown.

As my final rotation in Columbus, Ohio came to a close, I got wind of an opportunity to take on a short term assignment working in Alajuela, Costa Rica. I had always wanted to live in a foreign country and learn another language, so I raised my hand for the opportunity, and off to Costa Rica I went. What was supposed to be a one year assignment stretched on past two years, and could have easily continued for a lifetime… I loved Costa Rica!  I loved the food, the culture, the people, the countryside and the language.

However, as time went on, I knew that there was still a dream deep within me that I must pursue. A dream of world travel. Like my shadow, this desire to unabashedly explore the world followed me everywhere. I had been lucky to be able to travel and work at the same time for 4 years, but the whole time I was working I was never satisfied. I always knew that being another cog in the wheel was not my calling. I knew that a time would come where I would throw caution to the wind and set out on my own terms, at my own pace, and without the golden handcuffs of security that come with a corporate job.

I am now spreading my wings and taking flight with this dream. I have always been passionate about flowers, so I am heading over to Croatia, to participate in a World Flower Convention. This group’s mission is “World Peace through flowers” and I cannot wait to get on board. After the convention ends, I will continue on through Eastern Europe, getting to know the globe one country at a time.

I don’t have an exact timeline or schedule. I have a vague idea of where I will start and where I will go, but I am completely open to the winds of the world and the opportunities that may open up. I know it’s about the journey and I hope that perhaps you will want to come along for the ride and see the world too, traveling with me, Traveling with Joy.