A Small Space in Your Suitcase Can Make a Big Impact in the World!

Did you know you can make a big impact on the lives of children around the world if you Pack for a Purpose?

How did we not know about this organization?

It’s such a simple way for us to use available space in our luggage to provide supplies to communities we visit – and we just had to share our good luck in finding out about it!… CONTINUE READING >>

What we're giving through Pack for a Purpose

Did you know you can make a big impact on the lives of children around the world if you Pack for a Purpose?

How did we not know about this organization?

It’s such a simple way for us to use available space in our luggage to provide supplies to communities we visit – and we just had to share our good luck in finding out about it!

Here’s the scoop:

Pack for a Purpose Logo

By just making room for 5 pounds, you can bring:

– 400 pencils or
– 5 deflated soccer balls with an inflation device or
– A stethoscope, a blood pressure cuff and 500 band-aids

It’s easy! Go to the Pack for a Purpose website and find your destination. They’ll let you know what supplies are needed in that area and how they will benefit the community you are visiting.

It adds up! Since their inception in December 2009, the global travel community has donated more than
30,000 pounds of needed supplies to schools, clinics and orphanages worldwide.

How did we find out about this wonderful charity?

Parador Resort & Spa in Costa Rica

Next week we will be traveling to Costa Rica, and had been drooling over the website of our host, Parador Resort & Spa.

We already knew that, as an eco-resort, they pride themselves on their commitment towards sustainable tourism, community outreach and education.

Then we saw this:

“We are proud members of Pack for a Purpose, an initiative that allows travelers like you to make a lasting impact in the community at your travel destination. If you save just a few kilos of space in your suitcase and bring supplies for area schools or medical clinics in need, you’ll make a priceless impact in the lives of our local children and families.”

Click here to see our heartwarming visit to the school we packed for!

Now, happily, we can say:

Pack for a Purpose Logo
And we will do so from now on!

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

YOUR TURN: Did you know about Pack for a Purpose? Would you consider making room in your suitcase on your next vacation? Isn’t this a great idea?

The Galápagos on Your Bucket List? What You Need to Know to Go

The Galápagos Islands had long been on our bucket list. 

Finally tuition-free when our youngest graduated from college, we treated ourselves to the adventure of a lifetime.

Here’s what we learned about how to get there, what to pack, what to expect and how to prepare for one of the most fascinating… CONTINUE READING >>

A female frigit gets a bit frisky!

The Galapagos Islands have long been on our bucket list. Finally tuition-free when our youngest graduated from college, we treated ourselves to the adventure of a lifetime.

Here’s what we learned about being of “a certain age” and visiting the giant tortoises, blue-footed boobies and friendly sea lions of The Galapagos.

A sea lion hitched a ride on Yolita in the Galapagos
This sea lion decides to take a quick break on the swim platform on the back of our boat for the week, the Yolita II.

Don’t book the wrong trip!

Bucket List Item: The Galapagos Islands

You must book passage on a Park Service-approved boat to tour the islands. You can’t just show up and start looking around. For the protection of the animals and the ecosystems of the islands, the boats are scheduled so very few people are allowed on any one island at a time.

Choosing the proper boat with the proper group is imperative! Our boat carried sixteen passengers, and most vessels touring The Galapagos are that intimate. We didn’t want to end up on a party boat and we felt it was necessary to be with a group of people with similar activity levels.

After much research, we booked passage with Road Scholar, a non-profit organization that focuses on lifelong learning. We weren’t kept up by all-night revellers with more energy than we had, didn’t feel like we were holding up the pace on hikes and felt completely comfortable in our bathing suits in front of everyone.

Galápagos Giant Tortoise on Isabela's Urbina Bay

Packing properly

The flights into The Galapagos have a 44-pound weight limit for luggage and cabin space on the boats is tight. It’s best to take less clothing and to plan on hand washing if the need arises. Extra heavy duty clothes pins were provided on our boat for hang-drying clothes and swimwear.

Tame Air Ecuador

Bring comfortable, well worn, rubber soled shoes! The terrain varies greatly on each island. From sand to lava flows to hiking up to a volcano — you’ll need shoes with support that won’t give you blisters. Throw in a pair of swim shoes and some non-slip sandals for the boat and you’re set.

The tropical sun on the black basalt flow takes a toll on Veronica.

See more about the landscape of The Galapagos

Yikes! The sun is STRONG at the equator. Bring LOTS of sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and a t-shirt for snorkeling. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the back of your neck! Better yet, cover it up.

Bring an extra pair of eyeglasses and don’t forget prescriptions. Just in case. If you are prone to sea sickness, talk to your doctor about remedies.

Keep a supply of large zip-type sandwich bags with you. These help keep moisture and sand out of your belongings and camera equipment.

Blue Footed Boobie in the Galapagos

Have a supply of pre-moistened lens cleaning wipes for eyeglasses. Works wonders on camera lenses as well. Salt air is sticky!

Pack a battery powered or wind-up alarm clock. We had a bit of confusion the first morning — the time didn’t update on anyone’s cell phones so far out to sea, so using the wake-up function was a lost cause.

Learn about how we pack and our always-adhered-to “One Trip Rule”!

Sea lion in the Galapagos

Visiting the islands

Zodiacs boats are fun! But we’re not going to lie, they are intimidating at first. But it wasn’t long before we got the hang of getting in and out and perching on the sides like champs. There were always at least two crew members assisting with entrances and exits. We experienced both wet and dry landings and were helped along every step of the way.

Zodiac ride along the cliffs of Genovesa, Galapagos Islands

The animals are incredibly unafraid of humans. Visitors must stay at least six feet away from the animals at all times. It’s surprisingly easy to break this rule as the animals have little fear of humans — if an animal approaches and comes within the six foot barrier, the HUMAN is obligated to step back.

A Nazca Boobie blocks our path

Click here for our entire live-blog of our week in The Galapagos

Half the fun is in the water

Gearing up for snorkeling on Genovesa Island in the Galapagos

The sea creatures are just as unafraid of humans as their counterparts on land. You will get up close.

You will be provided with snorkel gear and a wet suit. Wear your wetsuit. In addition to keeping you warm, wetsuits add extra buoyancy and offers greater sun protection. There’s no shame in adding a life vest to the equation either — snorkeling is WAY more fun when the struggle to stay afloat is eliminated.

Green Sea Turtles in Galapagos Island, Ecuador

See more about what’s going on underwater in The Galapagos!

While snorkeling, a guide will always be with you. We always had a guide in the water, leading us to, and pointing out the amazing sea creatures of The Galapagos. In addition, Zodiac boat teams stay close by to assist, watch over and provide a resting spot, if needed.

Many times, the captain of the Zodiac can spot a sea lion, turtle, penguin or marine iguana with his above-the-waterline advantage. If you decide to opt out of snorkeling you may ride along in the Zodiac.

If you’ve never snorkeled before, learn ahead of timeYou don’t want to miss out on this:

Or this:

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

Click here for our entire live-blog of our adventure in The Galapagos

Delve deeper:
See the incredible work done at Giant Tortoise Breeding Center
Check out the lsg
Cavort with Sea Lions!
The Birds of The Galapagos – wild!
The Underwater World of The Galapagos
People live in the Galapagos?

YOUR TURN: Are The Galapagos Islands on YOUR bucket list? Have we inspired you to go? 

A Catalina Christmas

For most of us, thinking about Christmas conjures up Currier & Ives scenes of snow covered cottages nestled among frosty flocked evergreens. It’s a lovely image, but overlooks the freezing reality of bone chilling blizzards, so we decided to celebrate the holiday with a quick jaunt across the Pacific to Santa Catalina… CONTINUE READING >> 

For most of us, thinking about Christmas conjures up Currier & Ives scenes of snow covered cottages nestled among frosty flocked evergreens.

It’s a lovely image, but overlooks the freezing reality of bone chilling blizzards and inevitable travel delays left in their wake.

With that in mind we decided to celebrate the holiday by leaving behind a much different wake. Cruising across the waves on the Catalina Express fast ferry may not be dashing through the snow in a one horse open sleigh, but we could learn to embrace it as a yuletide tradition.

And after our quick jaunt across the Pacific, we found Santa Catalina properly decked out for the season…  island style.

That laid back pace made for a perfect getaway.

To begin with, we had the ultimate home base at The Avalon Hotel, one of the many fantastic Select Registry hotels.

Our spacious home for the holidays offered not one, but two balconies overlooking the harbor and the town. And what to our wondering eyes should appear, everything else we could want to see was awaiting from the rooftop patio’s full 360° panoramic view.

We also enjoyed all the comforts of home, such as a fridge, microwave, coffee maker, and then some, like a huge tub for lounging in an indulgent bubble bath.

Foamy fake Santa beard anyone?

After a long winter’s nap we were ready for some exploring.

In order to help preserve the natural beauty of the island, vehicles are extremely limited on Catalina.

It can take fifteen years or more to get to the top of the list for owning a car, probably even longer for flying reindeer, no matter how naughty or nice you’ve been.

This has led to a unique preferred method of transportation, golf carts. So, when in Rome and all that jazz, we rented a cart and set out to do some serious sightseeing.

It was not an epic trek, since there are only about twenty miles of roads available to roam by cart. The little mini mobiles are not allowed to wander into the interior of the island, which is a protected nature reserve and only accessible by permit.

Still, there was plenty to see in a compact area.

We began along the harbor where we found Old Ben sunning himself on a rock in Old Ben Park. The famous sea lion is now immortalized in bronze, but one hundred years ago he could almost always be found along the waterfront begging for fish.

Often he would even climb out of the water and follow fishermen until they would oblige him with a freshly caught snack.

Just a few blocks away we had to get a glimpse of another small park, just to make sure the name made any sense. Machine Gun Park, yup, that’s the name, actually does have a machine gun prominently displayed among the jungle gym and swing sets.

The weapon, captured from the Germans during World War I, was donated to the city of Avalon by the Catalina Island Post 137 of the American Legion in 1925.

Next we ascended Mount Ada for a closer look at the former home of William Wrigley Jr. and his wife Ada. The mansion overlooks the town and is now a bed and breakfast.

Wrigley almost single handedly developed the island as it is today. He had a vision of Catalina becoming a thriving tourist destination and made his dream come true.

Throughout the early nineteen hundreds the chewing gum magnate not only built almost all of the island’s attractions, he also owned the ships that ferried folks back and forth from the mainland.

In 1921, as a way to get publicity for the team and the island, he brought his beloved Chicago Cubs here for spring training, making Catalina the first Southern California home of major league baseball. The Cubbies stayed until 1951 before moving their training camp to Arizona.

After Wrigley passed away in 1932 a 130-foot high memorial was built in his honor, along with thirty-eight acres set aside as a botanical garden.

As we followed the road around the perimeter of Avalon we came to the Chimes Tower. For nearly one hundred years since Ada Wrigley brought these bells from Chicago, they have been ringing the hours. This time of year we also got a carol or two thrown in.

How’s that for Jingle Bells?

Completing our circumnavigation of the town, we stopped for a look at the Casino. This fantastic circular entertainment center has been the signature landmark of the island since it was erected in 1929. Wrigley, always with an eye on drawing attention to his undertakings, built the world’s largest dance floor.

Tours of the facility are available, but we were getting hungry and opted to come back later for a movie in the beautiful twelve hundred seat Avalon Theater.

So what does one eat for a holiday feast on an island? A seafood Christmas dinner of course.

That meant a trip to the lobster trap where we dined on fresh caught local lobster and pasta with clams. The California spiny lobsters pulled from these waters don’t have claws, but boy do they have flavor. We’d bet even Santa would prefer it… certainly over milk and cookies.

For art deco aficionados the theater, one of the first designed for talking movies, was everything we had hoped for. The murals by John Gabriel Beckman are still vibrant and stunning. Plus, we got a special seasons greetings in a performance on the original pipe organ built by the Page Organ Company.

The following morning, we had time to stop in for a quick history lesson at the Catalina Island Museum.

The beautiful new gallery has plenty about Wrigley, and the island’s long relationship with Hollywood. Three hundred movies used the island for locations and many stars chose to use it as a hideaway.

Most famously Charlie Chaplin and Johnny Weismuller spent tons of time here. There was also a young girl named Norma Jeane Mortenson, who lived in Avalon as a teen, that grew up to be perhaps the most famous starlet ever, Marilyn Monroe.

In addition to those displays, we were really thrilled to find an exhibit on José Guadalupe Posada.

His famous engraving, the Calavera de la Catrina, has become almost synonymous with Día de Muertos, the Day of the Dead celebrations November 1st. This tied in perfectly with the movie we had seen the night before, Coco.

Feeling the synergy, we were not too surprised to see a jolly bearded man getting off of the ferry as we waited to get on.

Could it be him?

Was St. Nick arriving on Catalina for a well-earned vacation?

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to the Avalon Hotel, Select Registry hotels, and Catalina Express for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.

A Night Out in Old (and New) Havana

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, many had questions as to if that was even possible. We had some concerns, but in the end they turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The process is actually fairly simple, as long as the visit is part of a well-planned tour group… CONTINUE READING >> 

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, many had questions as to if that was even possible. Sure, for a long time it wasn’t, or was at least very difficult, then a few years ago it became much easier.

This past summer it became it bit more difficult again, but certainly not impossible. We won’t go into the politics or rationality of the situation, so let’s just say that for those of us with an open mind and an adventurous spirit Cuba is accessible.

We had some concerns, but in the end they turned out to be mostly unwarranted. The process is actually fairly simple, as long as the visit is part of a well-planned tour group. That is where Backroads excels, such as with our Cuba Bike Tour: National Parks, Rum & Latin Rhythms into Havana.

Being part of their special People-to-People experience meant that getting our Cuban Travel Cards, the equivalent of a visa, was basically a breeze and we had absolutely no issues entering or exiting the country.

One of the stipulations for travel from the U.S. is that tourists are not permitted to enter the Cuba more than 24 hours before their tour begins, or stay over 24 hours after it ends. Still, that left us with one night on our own in Havana before our bicycling began.

The ride into the city from the airport served as a quick tour as we passed revolutionary monuments, the old capitol building, and many grand old structures in various states of repair from regal to ruinous in this city founded over five hundred years ago.

Rather than trying to make the scene that was famous in the city’s glory days of yore, when nightclubs and casinos were all the rage, we chose to meet up with a few of our fellow cyclists and explore the burgeoning art scene.

That meant a trip to what has come to be known as simply La Fàbrica, the Fàbrica de Arte de Cubano, which means the Cuban factory of art.

As a special introductory to Havana bonus, we were more than pleasantly surprised that a 1955 Chevy Bel Aire showed up to take us when we called a taxi. We didn’t know it at the time, but discovered that many of the old American classics now serve as “illegal” taxis. In this case the lack of legality only means that they are not state run.

The museum is actually housed in an old factory, which creates a maze of variously sized rooms and spaces serving as galleries and performance venues. Originally part of the Havana Tramway back in the eighteen hundreds, the name recalls a famed cooking oil brand which occupied the premises pre-World War II.

The Factory opened in 2013 with the concept of uniting all forms of art, music, and theater and quickly became a must see in Havana, attracting some of the world’s most famous folks such as Mick Jagger, Lady Gaga, Quincy Jones, Beyoncé, and President Barack Obama.

Our visit came too early in the evening to catch any of the musical or theatrical performances, but we wandered through the numerous rooms admiring the innovative works in their unique settings, much of which has a decidedly political theme.

While drinks, snacks, and a full service restaurant are available, we decided to walk next door for dinner at El Cocinero Restaurant. This establishment, like the private taxi and the “casa” that where we were staying for our first night, is part of a new tourist economy that has emerged in Cuba.

A few years ago the government made the decision to pursue international tourism as a source of income, but the state run services were not ready to meet the demand so rules were put in place to allow some private ventures.

What sprung up resemble Air B&B type lodgings called particulars and Uber style taxis. A similar movement has taken place in the restaurant business with the rise of paladares. These were once restricted to limited seats within a home, but have morphed into what we experienced seated on a beautiful terrace overlooking the Vedado neighborhood of la Habana.

Chef Ramon Manuel Lopez Alarcon has created what is consistently named as one of, if not the best restaurant in Havana.

Far from the bland, uninspired cuisine we had been warned to expect in Cuba, we dined on pork tenderloin with a creamy corn and coconut sauce and grilled Caribbean spiny lobster accompanied by pilaf and salad while some of our tour mates chose lamb curry and duck confit.

Delicious as the entrées were, the deserts were outstanding. We ordered a couple to share around the table, including the house specialty chocolate tart and a cute take on rice pudding that came served like sushi.

After another illegal ride back to our casa, we were left to ponder just how this strange new brand of seemingly capitalist entrepreneurship can coexist with the official economy that remains strictly controlled.

A few years ago the government created a two-tiered currency system, which in essence keeps these new businesses separated from the state run counterparts, but the discrepancy of incomes between government employees and these new service workers has become wildly unbalanced.

Foreigners can exchange currency for convertible pesos (CUC) at a rate pegged to the dollar, which are used for almost all tourist services. In fact, we never even saw a regular peso.

The trouble with this is that CUCs are twenty-five times more valuable than the regular pesos (CUP) that most everyone else is paid in.

This means that on a good night an illegal taxi driver, a server at a private restaurant, or a casa innkeeper can make the equivalent of many months of salary for a doctor, teacher, or engineer working for the state.

The system certainly looks to be unsustainable to our eyes, and Raul Castro has promised to do away with it for some time now, but has yet to find a workable way out.

Hopefully a balance can be struck that will allow Cuba’s burgeoning tourism sector to thrive.

David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com

A big thank you to Backroads for providing this adventure, as always, all opinions are our own.