I’ve always wanted to go to Barcelona. I’ve traveled a ton and I had been to Spain before, but not to Barcelona, and the city had always had an allure to me that few places I’ve never been to do. Given that, when it was time to disembark from my 11-day transatlantic cruise over to Europe I was incredibly excited to begin exploring the city.
The city itself certainly didn’t disappoint. The architecture was beautiful, the city was clean, the mix of green space, urban space, and beach were lovely, and the smattering of bizarre architecture from Gaudí added just enough quirk to the city without making it ugly. The people, on the other hand, left a bit to be desired in the area of warmth and friendliness.
Take a look at the photos and videos below to get a feel for the city and I’ll do a couple more posts about some of the most notable sites over the next few weeks. FYI: the last ~4 mins of the video are of the fountain show so feel free to turn it off once you get there if that’s not of interest to you.
As I mentioned in my last post, I decided to sail to Europe instead of flying so I booked a transatlantic re-positioning cruise aboard the Norwegian Epic. Our one and only port day on the journey before arriving in Barcelona was in the city of Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira. With just one day in Funchal, I opted for a ship-promoted tour that took me to see a bit of the city, to hike up one of the tallest lookout points on the island, to a brief tasting at a winery, and on a toboggan ride and a cable car ride. I’ll write about the toboggan and the cable car in upcoming posts but the video and photos this week are just a general overview of the city.
I was quite pleasantly surprised by Funchal and really enjoyed the brief stop there. It’s a very pretty little city and the tour I took was excellent. It appeared that the area was a popular spot for hikers and backpackers, but not being either and only having about 8 hours there, I can’t make any promises. For a day or even a weekend of just relaxing and exploring, however, I can definitely give Funchal a thumbs up.
We lucked out with gorgeous weather while I was there so the views from all of our stops on the tour were fabulous.
The only downside to the tour I took is that it took us to this lookout point over Nuns’ Valley. Some of the others visited a cliff overlooking the ocean that gave them way cooler views and better pictures.
After wrapping up my adventures in Latin America for the time being, I decided to head to Europe. Instead of opting for the boring and potentially torturous flight, however, I decided to try sailing across the Atlantic instead.
I chose an 11-day transatlantic cruise aboard the Norwegian Epic that would take me from Miami to Barcelona with one brief stop in the port of Funchal, Madeira, an island off the coast of Portugal. I chose the Epic because it is outfitted with a number of “studio” cabins designed for solo travelers, so I figured there would be a better shot of me finding some other solo cruisers to hang with, which would be somewhat important given the number of sea days on the journey. Now, I have (obviously) traveled extensively on my own and I have also been on many, many cruises. However, I had never cruised solo, so I was a bit nervous to have such a long and sea-day-filled itinerary for my first solo cruise.
As it turns out, I had nothing to worry about. There turned out to be a surprising number (meaning maybe a dozen or two) of young (meaning under 40) people on the ship, so I had no problem finding people to hang out with and ended up having a fabulous time. We all formed a rather tight bond and still refer to ourselves affectionately as the Bracketeers (a reference to us being the only passengers in a particular age bracket). We’re even planning yearly reunions because we all missed each other as soon as we had to get off the ship in Barcelona.
I was also pleasantly surprised that the ship didn’t feel uncomfortably huge to me. This was the largest cruise ship I had sailed on (my first mega ship) so I was expecting to spend a lot of time wandering around lost. Surprisingly, I really didn’t feel the size difference as compared to the smaller ships I’ve cruised on in the past.
I do have to say I wasn’t super thrilled with the entertainment. In lieu of the standard, cheesy, cruise ship singers and dancers there were more specific performances including the Second City comedians, Blue Man Group, Legends in Concert, and a Cirque du Soleil dinner show. I would have preferred the standard cheesiness. They did have the normal audience participation games though, and my team and I came out on top as champions of The Quest! I also attempted to participate in the Newlywed game, but I think they spotted my lack of a ring and didn’t allow it 😉
All in all, it was a great cruise that far exceeded my expectations and I would certainly recommend it over flying to anyone who can spare 11 days to get over to Europe (or to get back from Europe as the ship will do the opposite route in October as it comes back to the Caribbean for the winter). I myself will almost certainly do it again.
As I mentioned in my last post about my hot air balloon ride, one of my weekend trips out of Mexico City took me to San Miguel de Allende. I had been hearing about this city for well over a year (since my last stint living in Mexico) and was excited to finally get the chance to check it out. I have to say, while it was a very pretty little city and I had a lovely time, I didn’t think it was anywhere near as special as I’d been led to believe. It definitely wouldn’t have been worth the trip out if San Miguel de Allende were the only attraction and I hadn’t also been able to enjoy the hot air balloons in Tequisquiapan.
Some people absolutely adore San Miguel, however, so you may still want to check it out if you ever have the opportunity. The pictures below will give you an idea of what to expect.
One of my weekends in Mexico City I decided to take a little trip a few hours away to visit Tequisquiapan, Queretaro, and San Miguel de Allende. More on the other cities later but for now we’re going to talk about the highlight: a hot air balloon ride in Tequisquiapan.
I had never been on a hot air balloon ride before but had always wanted to do one. Given that this was Mexico and it was off season, the price was just too good to pass up. My friends and I booked a package that included 1 night at a hotel, dinner, breakfast, and the balloon ride, all for less than $200. The hotel and food were nothing special but they were definitely pleasant enough and certainly adequate since we were really only there for the balloons. In fact, if I had to estimate, I would say about 98% of the guests were really only there for the balloons.
We drove to the hotel from Mexico City on Friday afternoon, explored the town of Tequisquiapan a bit, checked in, had dinner, and then tried to get to bed at a reasonable hour because we would be picked up for our hot air balloon ride before 7am.
In the morning we got up and joined the other travelers to take the van out to an open field where the sun was just starting to come up as they began to inflate the hot air balloons. After a fairly useless safety discussion (“You may not jump out of the basket,” etc.) we were split into groups of 8, loaded up into our balloon baskets, and took flight. The baskets were actually much sturdier than I expected so the flight wasn’t scary at all and was actually quite relaxing.
Once we landed, the guides allowed us to walk inside of the still semi-inflated balloon and take pictures. Then we loaded back into the vans and were delivered back to the hotel where we had a champagne toast (if you can call that stuff champagne), enjoyed breakfast, had the option of purchasing photos of the tour, and then packed up and headed on our way.
All in all, it was a very fun experience and it was extremely low-key so anyone of any age or activity comfort level should be able to enjoy.
Today’s post really isn’t all that exciting because I didn’t have any grand adventures. In fact, it was the day after I’d gone to Xochimilco, where I’d had a fabulous day drinking and spending time with friends, and I would have happily called it a night early that evening.
However, it was St. Patrick’s day and 1) I am (half) Irish-American (half Puerto Rican) 2) A good friend of mine I hadn’t seen in years was coming to town and 3) I actually happened to be in a city that was participating in Global Greening, so there was no way I was going to stay in. Global Greening is a program that the embassies of Ireland organize around the world every year on St. Patrick’s Day where they turn some of the world’s most recognized landmarks green to celebrate. They’ve done iconic structures like the pyramids in Egypt and the Eiffel Tower in France in the past and this year, it was the Angel de la Independencia smack dab in the middle of my city (my city for that month anyway).
Given all the reasons I had to celebrate, I painted my finger nails green, donned my green garb, picked up my friend at his hotel, and met up with some others at the Angel just after 7pm, the time when the greening was to happen. I have to say, it was a bit anticlimactic. I had expected a bit more fanfare and many more Irish or pseudo-Irish people to be out celebrating, but it was a bit of a dead night. Far less activity than my 2013 St. Patrick’s Day, which I also spent in Mexico City. The Angel did look cool lit up in green though, so here are some pics for your enjoyment 🙂
The Torre Latinoamericana (Latin American Tower) in downtown Mexico City provides great views of the city (which seems to continue on endlessly to the horizon) and the surrounding mountains. There is an observation deck, however, I opted instead for visiting the bar 2 floors below and still got a lovely (and free) view right around sunset.
One of my favorite day trips while living in Mexico City was my visit to Xochimilco. Xochimilco, while formerly an independent city, is now actually one of the sections of Mexico City and is known (facetiously) as the Venice of Mexico. It’s a fun outing for people that want to escape the city for a nice day of food and drink on the water aboard small boats called trajineras. Basically, you hop on and float around the hundreds of (crowded) canals just enjoying time with your “shipmates.” You pay by the hour for your time on the trajinera (you pay by boat, not by passenger) and there are vendors that float around on other boats offering up everything from roasted corn on the cob to serenades from live mariachi bands.
If you have more than a few days in Mexico City and a great group of friends to go with, I would definitely recommend this outing.
Today’s post will be a quickie – just some photos of my time in Mexico City and I will do some other posts about specific attractions and adventures I’ve had here. The capital of Mexico is actually not one of the biggest tourist attractions in the country as many people prefer to head to the beach, however, it does have a lot to offer, as you’ll begin to see over my next few posts. Last year while I was here I took little day or weekend trips out to the pyramids of Teotihuacan, to Puebla, and to the pyramid at Cholula. This year I explored a bit of the city itself and will be sharing some weekend trips that are just a little further away, so stay tuned.
Fun fact: Mexico City is not part of any of the states that make up the United States of Mexico. It is a separate federal district (hence the name México, Distrito Federal) similar to Washington, DC in the U.S. of A.
Last week we talked about the tools I use to keep my business up and running while I travel the world – if you missed that you can see it here – and this week I promised to fill you in on all of the stuff that helps me with the actual travel. I will include links to everything I mention below and, just like in the other video, some are affiliate links – meaning I will get paid if you buy after clicking that link – and some are not. I want to be clear though, everything I mention here is stuff I actually use and I’m just giving you affiliate links because it would be silly for me not to. I didn’t put anything on here just so I could use an affiliate link. That’s why a lot of the links are just regular links – I tell you what I really use, whether or not I can get paid for it.
First of all, I love to see new places and meet new people, that’s why I travel as much as I do, but the actual travel part of travel really sucks. It’s expensive and uncomfortable and is just something you have to tolerate so you can get to your amazing destination – with a few exceptions like a bus ride crossing the Andes between Chile and Argentina. It’s been my experience that getting to your destination is not only the least fun part of the trip, it’s also the most costly. So let’s start with some tips for how to get cheap travel.
Of course, the first option is to look at alternatives to flying like buses or trains. These are especially good options outside of the U.S. They can be insanely inexpensive and there may be something worth looking at out of the window. You can also consider cruising as an actual transportation option as opposed to as a pseudo-destination in and of itself. For example, I will be spending the summer in Europe and I am cruising over instead of flying. The cruise is approximately the same price as my one-way flight would have been, even though I am paying double for my cabin because I am going solo, and I will get to enjoy 10 days on the open ocean with all of my needs catered to and an endless amount of free food before swinging by Portugal and landing in Spain. Not only can cruising be fun and cost effective, but it also forces those of us who are technology addicts to disconnect because the internet and cell service are so slow and expensive onboard.
If you must fly, however, there are some tricks I use to get the best fares. It takes some work, but I usually find some pretty good deals. Firstly, do all of your searching in the incognito window. All of the travel sites track you so if you start searching around for a particular flight and perform the same search over and over, it’s going to affect what you see, even though it shouldn’t. I’ve literally done the same search side by side and seen different prices because on one computer I had been tracked and on the other it was a brand new search. If you’re in Chrome, you can open an incognito window by clicking Ctrl + Shift + N.
When I search for flights I always look at both CheapoAir (affiliate link) and Kayak (not an affiliate link) and sometimes Hipmunk (not an affiliate link) as well. Plus, I check out Superfly (not an affiliate link) and my credit card rewards. Superfly aggregates all of your frequent flyer mile programs so when you search for a flight it can show how best to utilize your rewards points. If I’m traveling short distances I also check out local discount airlines in the region. Just remember to be careful when comparing because the vast majority of the airlines now are nickel and diming you on luggage charges, so you want to make sure you’re actually comparing apples to apples when you look at the quoted fares on the different sites. These discount airlines can also come in handy if booking a flight that you know you can’t go direct anyway. You can often fly to a less expensive hub in Europe, for example, and then take a discount airline to your final destination. The combo price of the two separate tickets can often be considerably lower than booking it all together on one major carrier.
You should also do your best to be flexible about travel dates. Sometimes you just have to be somewhere on a certain date and there is nothing you can do, however, if possible, flying in the middle of the week and/or at off peak times of year will usually save you quite a bit on the fare and can result in a more comfortable ride as the flight won’t likely be overbooked.
Once you arrive, you can obviously go the route of typical hotels or hostels but I’m not a huge fan of either. I like to get a bit deeper into the culture than I feel like you can at a regular hotel – I want to have a kitchen and be able to shop at the grocery, live in a normal neighborhood, etc. and I’m just a bit too old to be willing to share a bunk room in a hostel. So, I tend to opt for Airbnb (not an affiliate link) or a homestay through HomestayBooking.com (not an affiliate link) when I travel. Both options let you immerse yourself a bit more into the culture and are usually less expensive than your hotel options. I also love these options because I continue to have wonderful experiences meeting and hanging out with the hosts and other guests at these accommodations – some of which have turned into great friends that I am still in touch with today.
Finally, for the real nitty gritty of travel, I never leave home without a Nalgene (affiliate link) (a virtually indestructible water bottle), my passport case (affiliate link), so that I can keep all of my visas, entry cards, immunization records, etc. organized, super light luggage with 360 degree spinner wheels (affiliate link), and my favorite travel pillow (affiliate link). Now, a note about this travel pillow: it’s not a normal crescent travel pillow and it’s the best I have found. However, when inflated, it’s rather large and you will get some stares. It’s worth it though, for me anyway. Every time I have used it on a long flight the other passengers look at me like I am insane when I take it out but once we land and I have been getting my beauty rest for 8 hours and am ready to see the town while they’ve been uncomfortably bobbing their heads around and just want to go to sleep, they all ask me where I got it and want one for themselves.
So that’s it for my essential travel tools. I hope that helps you out a bit as you plan your next trip, whether for business or pleasure.
Now I want to hear from you: What are your best travel tips and favorite travel tools? Please let me know in the comments section below.