My Best and Worst Travel Experiences of 2013

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I saw and did some amazing things this year, to be sure! And let’s face it – travel isn’t always fun and games. Sometimes you just don’t dig a place, or have a travel experience that sort of sucks. The good definitely outweighed the bad, but I decided to be honest about both sides of the fence and share my most fun – and not so fun – travel moments of the year. Happy Holidays!

The Best

It’s hard to narrow it down, because there were so many great experiences in my travels this year. But these are for sure the top highlights:

Galapagos Islands Cruise

By far number one. One of those Top 5 Travel Bucket List Destinations of all time, our visit to these enchanting, unique ecosystem was a dream come true. It was added to by visiting family – Keith’s brother and sister-in-law lived there – and after 5 days with them, we were lucky to be able to go on an incredible cruise with Ecoventura. The excursions, guides and wildlife we experienced were unlike anything I’ve ever seen elsewhere.

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Sea Turtle Release in El Salvador

Another wildlife experience, while at a small beach hideaway on the Salvadoran coast Keith and I had the opportunity to participate in the sea turtle release program at La Cocotera Ecoresort. The Olive Ridley turtles nest on the beachhead right in front of the resort, which developed a seriously sustainable model to protect the nests, incubate the young and then release them back into the sea. They also involve the locals – an important part of such a mission – to replace the $5 they used to sell the eggs for, with $6-7 for a live hatched turtle. Pretty cool.

Kava Ceremony in Fiji

On my first trip to Fiji, of course I was jazzed to see the beautiful islands, snorkel in the turquoise waters, and experience this country I had never been to before. But, I also had one other big item on my agenda: I wanted to drink kava. The real way, how they do it in the South Pacific with their rituals and ceremony. In a village called Rarabanga, which we reached by speedboat down a river, we were treated to the full ceremony by the locals. Fun and interesting. Side note: kava tastes like dirt.

Underground Glacier Palace in Switzerland

The Matterhorn in the Swiss Alps is the most photographed mountain in the world. In September I took an aerial tram to the very top of the imposing mountain, where there is a viewing platform and restaurant. And it is very, very cold. But then you can take an elevator down into the glacier that the Matterhorn is part of, where you walk through a tunnel carved in the ice to come upon a glacier palace. Intricate ice carvings that are hauntingly lit up make for one unique, beautiful experience. There’s also a cool little ice sled, which I admit I went down (along with all the other eight-year-olds).

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Street Parade in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico

I love moments like this one – where you’re just walking along, wandering, and you happen upon something cool that’s going on. That’s what happened when I was in San Miguel by myself in January. In the main square, I just stumbled upon this street parade celebrating El Dia de Reyes Magos – Three Kings Day in Latin America.

Legoland California with a Toddler

An amusement park isn’t something I would have thought would make a list like this, but in spring when I took my mother, daughter and grandson to San Diego it was a fun family adventure. We took the one-and-a-half year old to Legoland, and did we all ever have a blast watching him. He was so enthralled, and so excited, that he barely knew where to run or what to do next. He could scream as much as he wanted, and his very favorite was the “ball house” with hundreds of nerf balls flying everywhere. We spent the day, and he was fast asleep before we even left the parking lot. Good family day.

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Visiting the Panama Canal

A feat of modern engineering, seeing the Canal for myself is something I’ve long wanted to do. This summer during our two-month sojourn of Ecuador and Central America, Keith and I got the chance. We started with a more unusual way to tour the canal – on a small boat eco-tour. Captain Carl pointed out history of the canal, boats that have been there since post-WWII, the current dredging and expansion going on, etc. — but he also took us on small tributaries, rivers and lakes that spin off the canal to see the wildlife and jungle. Afterwards, we went to the Miraflores Locks to see the ships coming in and out of the lock, and just how this whole thing operates. Fascinating.

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Open-Air Spa Day in Costa Rica

I enjoyed a lot of Latin American travel this year. Our last stop on the summer South/Central America trip was to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, where some of our best friends recently moved. Besides doing a lot of fun things in this gorgeous, peaceful country like horseback riding, zip lining and a fantastic catamaran/snorkel trip with our friends, we also enjoyed a stay at the small, private, romantic resort Los Altos de Eros. And there we were treated to a spa day, which was one of the most enjoyable I’ve ever had. The open air, Balinese style spa is relaxing and peaceful, and we were the only ones there getting our massages, soaking tubs and body scrubs. Yeah, it didn’t suck.

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The Worst

And now on to the experiences that weren’t so awesome:

Cold, Wet Hiking in Ecuador

This started off awesome enough – while in Cuenca, we took a bus to the nearby El Cajas National Park for some hiking. It is spectacular, the landscape and mountains and small bodies of water, truly a hiker’s paradise. But it was cold – made infinitely worse shortly after our hike started, when I discovered that some of the ground was very wet and muddy, at times with standing water. And I had on open-air hiking type sandals. With socks, of course, but the water quickly seeped in anyway. I blame Keith for not letting me know (as he had read) that the hike could be wet and muddy, so that I could have gotten some galoshes to wear over my shoes or something. Of course his feet were just fine. We also got off the trail and kind of lost. Thanks, Keith! It was a beautiful hike, but for much of it my feet were miserably cold and wet. Hiking fail.

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Taken at the beginning of the trailhead, when it was still fun.

Leaving Ecuador

Speaking of Ecuador – trying to get out of this country, or even just the airport, was a bitch every time we made an attempt. I should preface this by saying it is an amazing country, and we had a most spectacular time in the Galapagos, Quito, Cuenca and Banos. One of my favorite countries. But the airport…..sheesh. It began when we flew out for the Galapagos, with crazy ass lines that took two hours to get through – first for the special Galapagos permit, then for the special security check, then to actually check in at your counter. Even though we arrived nearly three hours before our flight left, we still had to run to catch the plane. And leaving Quito for Panama a few weeks later, we were not even allowed to check in or get on the flight because we only had one-way tickets into Panama, with plans to travel onward to Costa Rica by bus. Turns out they don’t allow that one-way entry shit into Panama. So we had to find wi-fi and book refundable return tickets out of Panama – which we simply cancelled days later. Wow, that policy really is effective, isn’t it? Finally we could check in, only to find the same insanely inefficient security lines which caused us to nearly miss the plane. AND I got pulled out of line, taken underground to the baggage area for an extremely intrusive search of my luggage and my person. Oh, and my phone got stolen somewhere in all that, I’m sure by the baggage/security guys. Love Ecuador. Leaving is a freaking bitch.

Can I just leave Ecuador this way??

Too Much Time in Panama City

Once we actually got from Ecuador to Panama, we had scheduled 10 days in Panama City. We started at La Playa Bonita resort just outside the city for a couple days’ R&R, and then we had a home exchange set up for 8 days in the city. This is one of my favorite ways to travel, and we got a chic, highrise two-bedroom condo to stay in, completely for free through an exchange. It was lovely, and Panama City was fun – for about three days. That’s really all you need there. I was actually shocked at how little there was to do there, outside of shopping and eating out. For such a big, cosmopolitan city it is sort of lacking in a lot of culture and preserved history. I’m sure a lot of this has to do with the problems the country has experienced, and the city is such a mish-mash of American influences, expats and building booms that it’s sort of gotten away from itself. Visiting the Panama Canal was great, as well as time spent at Casco Viejo and the seafood market. Otherwise, unless you like to shop there isn’t really that much to do. Way too much time, as it turned out, that we would have much rather spent in other Panama spots we loved like Bocas del Toro and Boquete.

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A big city with a dearth of fun/cultural activities, to me.

Day Trip Excursion from Cruise Ship in Cozumel

Cruises aren’t generally my thing, but in February I was invited as a member of the press and was able to take my mom with me, so it was a fun trip with lots of great food and shows, relaxation, and a couple of very good shore excursions in Honduras and Belize. But the last excursion, in Cozumel Mexico, we did not pick so well. It was billed as a “Scenic Coast Cruise, El Cedral, Museum & Shopping.” It started okay, with a pontoon boat cruise that was nice but lasted a little long. It really got bad, though, when we arrived at the El Cedral: “Cozumel’s original settlement, you will visit its landmark church and see the remnants of a Mayan temple that was destroyed by missionaries.” Yeah, right. The Mayan “ruins” were tiny, laughable recreations and the “artisan shopping” was a bunch of crappy trinkets and posing with iguanas. The absolute worst tourism, in my opinion. Mom and I got through it by making fun of the whole thing to keep ourselves amused, and as soon as we reached town again we ditched the group to drown ourselves in margaritas. Happy face.

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The best part of our Cozumel excursion

Getting Sick in El Salvador

When it comes to traveling and eating/drinking, I have pretty much an iron stomach. I mean, I don’t do anything crazy like gulp down the tap water in certain countries. But I don’t use bottled water to brush my teeth, I eat street food and pretty much whatever I want. I have rarely been sick while traveling, other than allergies or your typical short-lived headache or something. But in El Salvador, my luck failed me (and I was a bit stupidly careless, I’ll admit). First of all, in Suchitoto it was very hot one day, and in the main square I saw a lady selling ices. Of course it sounded great, and I ate one. Now I have done this kind of thing before and, even when the water isn’t filtered (as this most assuredly wasn’t), I’m usually just fine if I don’t overdo it. But I made the critical mistake of doing the same thing again the very next day, when I bought a smoothie from a street vendor at a market. Apparently the double-dose of tap water ice was enough to introduce an army of bacteria into my system, and I was very sick to my stomach for the next three days. Fortunately Keith went to one of the wonderful Central American farmacias for me and got an over-the-counter antibacterial medicine which knocked it out. (*Note – it’s this kind of action on Keith’s part that brings him good karma to make up for shit like taking me cold-mud-hiking).

Yeah, Shelley, suck down that smoothie - you'll pay for it!

Yeah, Shelley, suck down that smoothie – you’ll pay for it! I’m sure that’s why the lady is laughing in the background. “Stupid gringa.”

Happy New Year! Watch for my 2013 Video Travel Postcard which I’ll be releasing on the 31st.

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6 Comments on “My Best and Worst Travel Experiences of 2013”

  1. Marj
    December 26, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    Oh honey, your Cozumel experience made me smile. I did several cruises with my Ma before she decided she was too old to travel, and we came to dread those obligatory shopping-stops. You’d spend interminable hours on a char-a-bancs to catch a glimpse of some “ruins” or a volcano crater (swathed in impenetrable mist), then you’d be rushed back to the coach to go shop. It’s understandable; after all it’s a chance at some US$ for the local economy, and to be fair, our fellow-travellers were always keen to snap up some “bargains”. But we quickly learned to find a local cafe in which to sit and watch the local colour until the bus was ready to leave…

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    • December 26, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

      Marj, sounds like you know what I’m talking about! Yes, a local cafe and watching what happens around you is far preferable to me. I don’t go to Mexico to buy trinkets made in China. :)

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  2. December 26, 2013 at 7:33 pm #

    Thanks for the post, I’m actually heading to Galapagos in March so I was rather alarmed at your airplane story! So you’re telling me that we need to arrive at all Ecuadorian airports hours early, or is it just for the Galapagos one?

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    • December 26, 2013 at 11:57 pm #

      Hi Tamara,
      Congrats on your upcoming Galapagos trip – it is absolutely amazing and you will LOVE it! Yes, I would allow at least three hours before your flight leaves for the Galapagos trip. My boyfriend said the same exact thing happened to him years ago when he made the same flight. We almost missed the flight! 3-4 hours would be best, it is just extremely, typical Latin American inefficiency. A couple of tips will help though – when you get to the airport, the first thing you have to do is go stand on line to get your special permit to enter the Galapagos ($100). It’s to the very far right end of the airport when you enter it. Then you have to stand in the special Galapagos security line. Only THEN can you go to the airline counter to check in and get your boarding pass.
      And if there are already long lines for both the permit AND the security lines, one secret is that all travelers don’t have to be present to get the permit – you just need everyone’s passports. So one person could stand in line to get that (with the passports in hand, and money of course, for all travelers), and someone else could stand in the security line. It took us an hour to get through each one separately.
      The Galapagos are totally worth it though!

      Like

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  1. Turtle Lake Apartments in Panama City, FL | My Living Quarters - December 27, 2013

    […] My Best and Worst Travel Experiences of 2013 (tradingplacesglobal.wordpress.com) […]

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  2. My Year in Travel, 2013: Recap and Photo Slideshow | Trading Places - December 31, 2013

    […] video. I had many travel experiences this year (which I share – the good and the bad – in this post). I wish you all the best for the new year – Happy New […]

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