Friday, February 12, 2016


Making sandcastles at the Bahia Principe beach
We arrived in Cancun at 3pm and it took over 2 and a half hours to clear immigration, get our luggage and go through customs.  I was so surprised to see just how crowded the airport was.  At all of the airports we had gone through, this was by far the slowest process and the most congested.  We had planned on getting a rental car so once outside of the building we started looking for the guy that was supposed to meet us and take us to the rental car site.  20 minutes later we found him sitting in a corner talking to a couple of buddies with his sign in his lap.  If it wasn't for this other nice guy that could obviously see we were looking for someone and started to shout the name of the company, I'm certain we might still be looking for him.  Once we got to the rental agency they informed us that we were required to purchase a very expensive insurance that made the price of the car about 5 times higher.  At this point I was, you could say, a little cranky, and when another worker approached us and said they could take off $200 from the cost if we went to listen to a presentation about  vacation clubs, I just about lost it.  I had them take us back to the airport and Justin found a super shuttle to take us the 1 drive to our apartment in Akumal, which made it about 8pm when we arrived. 

We had found an apartment on the property of an all-inclusive resort, Bahia Principe. Our apartment was not all-inclusive, but we did get the use of one of the pools at one of the resorts and the beach with chairs and umbrellas.  We settled in the following day taking a cab to pick up groceries and headed to the pool.  We decided, after checking out the resort grounds that, in fact, we did not need a car.  They had shuttle services to get around and if we wanted to go anywhere else we could get a cab.  

A school of fish right near the beach

We took a few days and kicked back enjoying the amenities at the resort, even buying an all-inclusive day, just to see what it was like.  At one of the 4 other complexes there was a cute water park that the kids really enjoyed.  They even had a couple of organized games that all of the kids took part in and each of them came back with a t-shirt for placing in the top 3.  Joel and Eden as a team even came in first in the brownie decorating contest.  During our all-inclusive day we got to eat all of our meals at the buffets that they offered.  Unfortunately, I was expecting a lot more Mexican food and they only had a small sampling.  I did notice quite a bit of inebriated people walking around so we decided to stay closer to the water park in the hopes of avoiding them.  We also got to see an impressive dolphin show.  All in all, we had a pretty fun day.  

Danielle and Eden at the water park
It is impressive how high these dolphins get above the water

We also spent one of our days visiting the ruins in Tulum. After the advice from a couple of friends we ended up having a 15 minute drive to these ruins as opposed to a 2 and a half hour drive to a different area.  We were definitely not disappointed.  The ruins themselves are situated right on the edge of the ocean and the view was gorgeous.  The ruins were pretty interesting to see.  We had a really fun time exploring each of the buildings.  This had been a real huge interest for Joel.  During the whole trip he would say, "I can't wait to the Mayan ruins," and I am happy to report that he was thrilled to have gone there.  I should mention that there are A LOT of iguanas and these other rodent looking animals called coati and agouti roaming around.  I did not enjoy any of those and unfortunately for me in the ruins at Tulum we needed to pass through an entrance in the wall that somewhat resembled a tunnel, which had an iguana in it.  I freaked and almost said I would just wait for everyone near the wall but when I looked around I saw several huge iguanas and an agouti  run past, so through the tunnel I went, really, really fast.  The kids thought it was hilarious and I also spotted a smile on Justin's face, at least someone thought it was funny.  By the way, we did encounter all of these creatures around the resort.  In fact, the coati's seemed to get their meals from the many trash cans around, yuck.  

At the entrance of Tulum ruins
Joel in front of the temple
The coastline below the Tulum ruins

 The beach from the vantage point of the temple

On our last full day in Akumal we went to a lagoon called Yal-Ku to snorkel.  This place was recommended to us by the manager of the apartment.  I have to say it was a blast.  It is a combination of fresh and salt water and the lagoons are filled with so much fish that it felt like we were swimming in a tropical fish tank.  There were these huge rocks in the middle of the lagoons and all of the fish hung around that area.  The kids had a great time not only swimming with the fish, but they also had found these underwater tunnels that they swam through.  We all had a pretty spectacular time.  After Yal-Ku, we headed to a restaurant on the beach called Lol-ha to have a late lunch.  We had our fill of AWESOME Mexican food. Caleb, having become a rather adventurous eater ordered a varied platter of food that he had no idea what it was, but declared that it was all delicious.   After lunch, we walked the 25 feet to the beach and went for a snorkel.  I had read that this beach in particular was great for seeing sea turtles.  Well, they were right because there were tons of them.  Caleb, Joel, Danielle and I even saw a sting ray!  I did think it was funny that huge groups of tourist were paying ridiculous amounts of money to have a guide show them where the turtles were, when all you really needed to do was stick your face underwater and swim around for a couple of minutes.  I will say one thing we have learned along the way is that in some instances a guide or tour in not necessary.  We all had a perfect time at the lagoon, restaurant and beach and for me personally this day was my favorite in Mexico by far.  

Snorkeling at the Yal-ku lagoons

The path to the lagoons

Lunch at the Lol-Ha in Akumal

Danielle getting her hair braided

Another highlight, was that we rented a golf cart for a day.  Although we were not supposed to let the kids drive, we did, shhhh.   Justin took them out one at a time, gave them each a lesson and administered a driving test.  From this we do know who we will need to worry about and who we know will do just fine when it is time to get a driver's license.  I'm pretty sure those of you that know our children can predict this also.  Before turning the cart in I went for a spin in it myself with Caleb.  We ended up taking a tour of a couple of links of the very fancy golf course.  Justin later informed me that we are not supposed to be out there when we are not golfing so that we did not disturb the golfers, oops.  I told Justin we probably only disturbed one guy while he was trying to putt and I needed to reverse a couple of times to turn around. (While reversing the cart beeps).  Oh well, if his game was messed up by that, how good of a golfer is he?

We had a really great time in Mexico, and both Justin and I agree that  we would definitely come back, especially since it is not too far from Colorado.  Next stop Texas, USA!

These Agoutis were running around all over the place
That's a big beetle

Eden liked the new dress she got in Mexico

Caleb, or should I say, Luchador El Demonio Azul

Friday, February 5, 2016


Panama City Skyline
We decided to take a quick trip to Panama so that we could see the Panama Canal which was something Caleb really wanted to do.    In addition, Caroline would have a an excuse to play Van Halen's song "Panama" over and over again.  After an uneventful flight we arrived at Tocumen International Airport.   The hotel we were staying at graciously provided transportation for us.   On the drive over we noticed that Panama City is very modern with many newer skyscrapers dotting the skyline.   Our driver was quite aggressive weaving through the traffic.   The most memorable however was his technique in approaching a toll booth plaza.   We had a few of these, and each time he would seek out a lane that didn't have any cars waiting even if it was 5 or more lanes away.  If the crazy swerving wasn't enough, the gate would raise once it recognized the car through the electronic tolling system.  The driver had obviously done this often such that he had it timed so that the gate would open just before the car would have it.  For us sitting and watching, it seemed like for sure he was going to just blast through the gate without stopping.   We made it each time, but the gate wouldn't even be all the way vertical yet when we were passing through.  I wonder if he has ever hit it.  

We struggled a bit communicating in Panama given that we know as much Spanish as most people we encountered knew English.  That's to say not much.   Google translate helped immensely here.   We considered taking a bus to the canal but read that there were some areas that weren't safe to be walking around.   We didn't want to inadvertently end up in one of these areas so we decided to take a cab.   Actually, we tried Uber for the first time.   It worked out great.  Putting the destination into the app avoided miscommunication for our intended destination.   Also, we didn't have to negotiate the price down from the high tourist rates many cab drivers try for.  The payment is just fixed based on the time and distance.   I actually wish I would have used them previously on the trip.

The Panama Canal has it's visitor's center at the Miraflores Locks.  This is a double step lock near the Pacific side of the lock.   We were able to watch a large cargo and tanker ship make its way through the locks.   It is cool to see such a huge ship get lifted up in this water elevator.   The ships are pulled along with these mechanical "mules" that run on tracks on both sides of the canal.    We could see in the distance the construction area where they a building a new set of locks to accommodate even bigger ships.  We learned about the history of the canal through the visitor's center.  A few facts that I thought were interesting:

• The French had originally been the ones to start constructing the canal but after several years they abandoned the project.  The United States finished it in 1913.
• The United States relinquished full operational control of the canal to Panama in 1999.
• The canal is 48 miles long, most of which is through artificial lakes.  
• The canal saves 7800 miles for a trip by sea from New York to San Francisco.
• There are 3 sets of locks to get the ships up 85 feet and back down again to cross the Continental Divide.

We also learned of a website called MarineTraffic which the kids really liked.  It provided the geographical location of all the ships and information about the vessels.   Caleb enjoyed looking up the boats that were passing though and figuring out how much they weighed, etc… 

View of the Canal out to the Pacific Ocean
Large Freighter passing through the canal
Caroline, Danielle, and Eden at the Canal

Near the Miraflores Locks

Lock Gates Closing

The ships get pulled by the silver "mules" on the tracks adjacent to the canal

Group Photo

After visiting the canal we went to Casco Viejo, which is the old town in Panama city.  The streets are paved in red brick and many of the buildings have great character.  There is a lot of restoration occurring to preserve this area of town.  After exploring this area and having a meal we headed back to the hotel.

We departed back for the airport the next morning.  It was a short visit but I'm glad we did it.  The Panama Canal is an impressive feat of engineering and it was good to see it firsthand.

Casco Viejo

Lunch at a restaurant in Casco Viejo

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Dominican Republic

Nice palm trees at Cap Cana
We took a 5 hour flight from Peru to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.   Once off the plane, we were instructed that we had to pay a $10 US dollar arrival tax per person.    It had to be in US dollars.   We weren't carrying any US cash.  I thought this was strange that it wasn't in their local currency, and that this apparently applied to everyone even if they weren't US  citizens.   I asked where an ATM was and they pointed me to the one and only money exchange booth.  Basically we were cornered into using this service as there were no ATMs and no competition for the money exchange.   As expected, the exchange rate was ridiculous.  They charged a 22% fee to get $60.  The $12 currency exchange fee isn't that much money but I hate the fact that it is set up to rip off incoming tourists.   Not exactly the way to welcome visitors in my opinion.

We went to get the rental car at the AVIS counter.  The car wasn't ready.  We were encouraged to buy an expensive insurance package to cover the car in addition to personal injury in case we injured someone else.   I figured this was a good idea but wasn't sure why he mentioned the personal injury part of it a few times.    After about an hour of waiting we got the car and were off to our condo for the week in the town of Bayahibe.

The condo did not look like what we had seen in the pictures when we booked it.   The unit was run down and in a state of disrepair.  Doors wouldn't close, there was no hot water, and tons of mold in the shower.   In addition, the internet service didn't work and neither did the television.   The attendant at the front office told us that we needed to pay extra for having more than one guest in the unit even though when we booked we told them there were six of us.  If that wasn't enough they said they needed to charge for electricity.  The meter wasn't at the source to the condo, rather something that was plugged into one of the outlets in the living room.   I'm doubtful that meter would be accurate.  The whole experience at this place felt like another case of getting swindled.  After one night, we decided we needed to find another place.  That part was a bit tricky however because we didn't have internet.    We thought if we drove into the nearby town of La Romana we could find a restaurant with WiFi and search for another place.

When entering the town we came up to a traffic light that was green but some guys in their early twenties approached to wash the windshield.   I waved them off, but they didn't listen and threw their soapy sponges on the car.  I slowly drove away and they grabbed their sponges but they weren't happy that I didn't stop to pay them even though I didn't want the service and they didn't do anything.   At a subsequent traffic light another group was sitting by the curb watching cars go by.  One of them spotted me and they all jumped up.   I guess it is easy to spot the tourists.   They started throwing things and one of them jumped right in front of me.  I swerved and I missed him, but it was nerve wracking nonetheless.  I think his intention was to get hit so that he could get a big payday though an injury claim.   Now the statements from the man at AVIS about making sure I had personal injury insurance on the car made more sense.  We passed though some areas with tons of trash in the ditches and what looked like quite awful living conditions when we finally spotted a Burger King and pulled in to the parking lot which was manned by a security guard.    He watched our car the entire time we were inside the restaurant.  

Punta Cana has many 5 star resorts that are very expensive.  Many of them at $1000 per night or more.  There weren't any options at the last minute for a place to stay on budget, so we chose a condo in a resort area near the airport called Cap Cana that was the least expensive we would find at $300 per night.  This ended up being about the most expensive place per night that we stayed with the exception of our one night in Singapore.    The Cap Cana gated resort area is huge and there had to be 50 different condo complexes in the area.    From driving around it looked like maybe half of them were closed.   There were many buildings that were abandoned even though they look like they were built within the last 10 years and were quite extravagant.    We stayed at a place called the Golden Bear Lodge, named after Jack Nicklaus as we were right on a golf course.   The place was huge.   It was an almost 3000 square foot condo with 3 decks, and a private splash pool.  I'm sure this place would have rented for more per night back in its heyday.   I'd estimate that there were 60 condos here over about 10 different buildings but we only saw one other guest here during our entire stay.   It was a bit strange having our own personal resort.  The pool was very large and we had it all to ourselves.  There was a building for a restaurant and a bar near the pool but they weren't open.   I had read that this resort had actually closed down a few years ago and had recently reopened.    There must have been a huge real estate boom here and it was overbuilt and thus many of the places weren't viable financially when the bookings dropped.   

Joel and Danielle on the condo deck with the Ocean in the distance
Given our less than pleasant driving experience in La Romana, we decided to stay put and just stick around the resort and go to the pool and nearby Juanillo beach.    The weather was great and the beach was beautiful.  There were nice big palm trees on the white sandy beach right near the turquoise water to provide shade.   Sitting there it felt like we were in a "Corona" commercial even though we were drinking "Presidente".  It was nice to have some lazy days to just kick back and relax.  We had a cannonball contest at the pool.  We even found a Spanish restaurant that had really good pintxos.  It reminded us of being back in Pamplona.

Juanillo Beach
Eden and Danielle at the Pool
Caleb enjoyed the green mussels
We have tried to get off the beaten path at times on this trip so that we could experience the countries beyond just the tourist destinations.     It doesn't mean we will always like what we see, and the Dominican Republic beyond the gates of the expensive tourist resorts was raw, dirty, and not a welcoming place where we felt safe.   It's too bad because it is a beautiful island.  In contrast, our experience in Bali was very different in that people were welcoming and had pride for their land even though they were also living in poverty.   There have been many learning experiences on this trip.   My week in the Dominican Republic made me appreciate the safety and living conditions I have at home even more than I did before.  

Near the marina at Cap Cana

The kids liked the swings on this sideways palm tree

At the beach

Kids loved having the pool to themselves