June/July 2019 Trip Report: Planning for Banff & Jasper National Parks

In case you’re unaware, I am very OCD about planning my trips. Mainly because time is money and time is also very precious to me. However, as much as I am a scheduler, I also add in flexibility to my vacation schedule as I know you can’t control everything (especially the weather!).

Earlier this year (January 2019) I spent a good 3 weeks planning my summer 10-day vacation to Banff and Jasper National Park’s. All that planning and research really paid off though as we’ve been having a wonderful time out here in Canada and yes, you really do need to book things that early! There are limited accommodations throughout the park so if you want to limit the amount of time of driving back and forth from place to place because you couldn’t get a room, definitely book by early January. Even when I was looking, a lot of the rooms I wanted were booked up! However other places also didn’t open up their reservation system for the summer until just after New Years (i.e., the wonderful Alpine Village in Jasper). I may have even started planning a bit around Christmastime last year, now that I think about it!

Planning for Banff & Jasper National Park (with a bit of Yoho on the side)

My holiday in Banff started at the end of June 2019, flying out Wed. June 26 and leaving Saturday, July 6. I’m currently still in Jasper (writing a long post since it’s been raining all day!) and I will say that I think you can do all the highlights in a week. However, it’s nice to have a couple of extra days to relax and unwind or to burn in case of bad weather. One great thing about the park system here is if you make a reservation for a gondola ride or lake cruise online, you can change it if your plan or weather changes.

Below is a brief outline of out overall itinerary as well as places we stayed at and brief comments:

The town of Banff on our first day (which was unfortunately cloudy and foggy).

The town of Banff on our first day (which was unfortunately cloudy and foggy).

Trip Overview

  • Flew into Calgary International Airport from JFK. Stayed one night at the Country Inn & Suites by Radisson near Calgary Airport. Great easy hotel, seems new, very comfortable and clean, decent free breakfast. We arrived at 9 pm so had to stay the night.

  • Drove 90 minutes from Calgary to Banff, stayed for two nights at Mount Royal Hotel. Loved it here, very boutique and luxe feel. Worth the $$$. No breakfast but nice rooftop indoor lounge and outdoor hot tubs (which were always in use). Centrally located with parking.

  • Drove 60 minutes from Banff to Lake Louise, stayed for two nights at Mountaineer Lodge. Based on my research, they just renovated these rooms in the past year and it shows! The outside may not look like much but inside was very comfy, clean and well laid out. Free breakfast included and parking. The proximity to Moraine Lake is CLUTCH. One night is really enough here but I’m glad we stayed two in case the weather was bad (and we definitely found things to do). Also, book this place early!! I initially booked one night back in Jan. and a few days later, tried to change it to two but the original room size I wanted was sold out so had to upgrade to a bigger one (which was ok since I’m traveling with two others anyway). The hotel allowed me to get the bigger room while paying one night fee of the smaller room, which was nice (I e-mailed them to ask if I could have the smaller room for two nights but glad we got upgraded for one night instead). While we stayed here, we stayed a few tour buses stayed here so it gets booked out for those. Has an indoor hot tub/sauna/locker rooms near the reception which I wish we got to use but didn’t have time.

  • Yoho National Park is twenty minutes away from Lake Louise, which is why we chose to spend two nights, not one here. Yoho is more underrated than Banff and Jasper. Emerald Lake is the highlight here, and if you want to go see Lake O’Hara, you must make rsvps online in advance as only shuttle buses are allowed to travel down there. I didn’t do this but it’s an option.

  • Drove 3 hours from Lake Louise to Banff, stayed four nights at Alpine Village Jasper. This place was SO WORTH THE MONEY. It’s expensive, but it’s the #1 rated place to stay in Jasper and they just renovated all their log cabins in 2018. It is so cute and cozy and feels like they were built yesterday. The grounds are so well maintained and it’s a comfy place to hang out in when the weather is bad. I think two nights is good for Jasper but we don’t mind staying four as we did a lot on this trip and it’s nice to relax and unwind in the country the last couple of days. If you pay in cash, you save a bit on taxes (plenty of ATMs in Jasper. Also side note: you really don’t need cash for anything else). Has a nice outdoor hot tub area but we didn’t use. Cooked meals in the nice clean kitchen.

  • Plan to drive 4-5 hours back from Jasper to Calgary on July 5 for our flight home to NYC July 6 (staying at another hotel airport).

  • Other tip: If you’re doing a 10 day trip like us, it’s a better value to buy the ANNUAL pass for Canada’s National Parks. You can do this when you arrive at the park gates. Once you buy a park pass, you hang it on your car. Otherwise buy the pass that best suits you but generally anything longer than a week, you should just get the annual pass.

  • Other things I booked online in advance included:

    • The Ultimate Explorer package. This included entry to the Banff Gondola ride up Sulphur Mt. (was foggy when we went but otherwise seems like it would be spectacular to do on a sunny day), a cruise on Lake Minnewanka (skippable), and the Glacier Adventure & Skywalk tour on the Columbia Icefields (nice, if you like glaciers and scenery). I booked this a few months earlier but you can wait a few weeks before your trip.

    • Gondola at Sunshine Village. This is a must do! I loved it. It’s a very long 20 min. ride to the top, and then another chairlift to the very top to Sunshine Meadows, where you can go for multiple hikes down to lakes sitting up 8,000 ft. at the top. Breathtaking, especially on a clear day (our day was partly cloudy). I booked this a couple of weeks before we left. The first day of operation was June 28 so you definitely should check/plan your trip around when they open (which is what I did when I started research back in Jan.).

    • Jasper Skytram. Also a must do. Gorgeous views of Jasper and the opportunity to hike up a mile up to the top of Whistler summit. You’re basically walking above the clouds up here! They are running a summer promotion where if you get on before 10 am (the open at 8), you get a free breakfast at the restaurant at the top! Amazing value and also great views. They run the same promotion for after 5 pm for dinner. You only get like 3 food choices but it’s still a nice deal. Peak tram times seem to be btwn 11-5 (when we left by 12:30 pm it was soooo crowded. We got there at 8:15 and it was quiet and so enjoyably peaceful). Booked this a week before we left.

    • Maligne Lake Cruise, premium. If you want to do a lake cruise, I would pick the Maligne one over Minnewanka. And you should do the premium one so you can have a nice little walk on Spirit Island (half hour stop which is enough) and take in some nice pictures. After seeing so many lakes here, they all pretty much start to look the same. Minnewanka is very nice and you should definitely stop over to see it but no need to do the lake cruise (just motors out to the middle and back, and there isn’t a huge outdoor walking deck on the boat).

Another thing you can do/book in advance is the Lake Louisa gondola ride but I think it’s probably less impressive than Jasper, Banff, and Sunshine (we went there and looked at the webcam views from the ticketing office).

So with all that being said, I’ll try to recap my trip by day so you get an idea of how much was crammed in.

Day 1: Banff

Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mt.

Banff Gondola up to Sulphur Mt.

We arrived in Banff on Thursday morning from Calgary at about 10 am, leaving Calgary by 8:30. The day was pretty cloudy and drizzly but we really had no other time on our schedule to do this so we up to the top anyway.

At the top—nice observation deck

At the top—nice observation deck

We could not see a thing but there were several indoor exhibits inside including a brief movie on the park and other factoids. There is also a nice boardwalk outside where you can walk up to the weather station and we enjoyed that even though we couldn’t see much. The clouds did lift a bit but overall not much of a view, I was okay with it though as I knew we would have other nice days and views ahead.

Boardwalking in the clouds

Boardwalking in the clouds

Afterwards we headed down on the gondola and walked around town a bit. The town of Banff is so cute with a lot of character, shops, and restaurants. I like it better than Jasper though Banff is probably more commercialized. Banff is more concentrated and compact though while Jasper feels more spread out and rustic.

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Since it was drizzling we were limited on what we can do outdoors. Banff has a TON of things to do and we only did a handful of it all.

After some lunch, we checked out the Cascade of Time Garden, which is free and easy to get to. Everything in Banff is easy to walk to, which is why i think I like it more too.

Cascade of Time Garden

Cascade of Time Garden

From there we tried to walk to Bow Falls Viewpoint (about 15 minutes from the garden) but when we arrived near the trail, we saw it was all roped off by the rangers. Apparently it’s calving season and this mama cow elk has been charging at hikers since she has a baby calf with her!

Mama Cow Elk

Mama Cow Elk

There were at least 5-6 rangers trying to herd her off and away from the trail so that was cool to see. You will definitely see animals coming into Banff/Jasper! We have seen at least one kind of animal every day.

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Since we couldn’t go to Bow Falls Viewpoint, we decided to go to Surprise Corner instead, which is probably a 15 minute walk from town but we drove there since it was raining. After you park at the designated parking lot, walk along the side of the road where you can hear the raging rush of the Bow River and you’ll get a great view of the Fairmont Banff.

Bow River

Bow River

Fairmont Banff

Fairmont Banff

This was all we got to do on the first day. We had wanted to do Tunnel Mountain, which is a hike next to Surprise Corner and is supposed to be a great view of the town but due to the weather and time constraints, we were unable to do it.

November 2018: Day 2 & 3 W Trek Recap (Patagonia)

Day 2 W Trek Recap: 13 km (8 miles) from Refugio Torres Central to Refugio Los Cuernos

Day 2 was my favorite day of the W Trek mainly because I woke up energized and ready to tackle the day. Part of this exuberance stemmed from these electrolytes that were laced with caffeine but who cares, I’ll take it! My muscles were sore and stretching them the night before and the morning of really helped. Breakfast at the refugio was nice but very basic (eggs, ham, cheese, cereal, bread and yogurt). We started our hike at 9:30 am and had to retrace some of the trail we took yesterday before it splits off to Los Cuernos vs. Mirador de Torres del Paine. After about a half hour, we reached ‘new trail’ and off we went.

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We had another brilliant day of warmer weather, sun, and no wind. The hike was not super easy but definitely easier compared to the day before. There were a couple of intense steep uphills for 20 minutes but overall this trail was a gradual ascent and descent throughout. After about an hour after we started, we came to this gorgeous view. I love how these two lakes are completely different tones of blue.

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We hiked alongside Lake Nordenskjold for most of the trail and it was a brilliant, clear aquamarine. I remember thinking how beautiful this part of the trail was and I couldn’t imagine seeing anything more beautiful. Pictures don’t really do the views justice, everything is magnified in person.

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Even the guides remarked how still the weather was. Generally due to the winds, you’d see ripples and waves on the lake, not a perfect reflection. In the two years one of our guides has been doing this trek, he said he’s only seen it like this a handful of times, when the weather was gorgeously calm.

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This is the main reason why I would never do the W Trek again. I can’t imagine my experience being better than what it was with the incredible weather we had. Although I braced myself for wind and rain, we luckily only experience one day of it.

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Our initial plan was to hike all the way to Domo Frances, which would’ve been another two hour hike after Los Cuernos and this section of the trail is steep. However, when we arrived at Refugio Los Cuernos for a break, our guides checked with the lodge and they had space to take us! Apparently a lot of tour companies may block off rooms but I guess there was a cancelation. The lodge allowed us to switch (although Domo Frances and Los Cuernos are operated by two different companies, I guess they work together somehow and allowed it to happen). I was relieved as Domo Frances has pretty crap reviews, even though it’s one of the newer ones. Thus we ended up finishing the day early before 4 pm and just hung out and relaxed around the lodge. You can even hear the avalanches from the French Valley here (I heard a couple in late afternoon!).

Day 3 W Trek Recap: 17 km (10.5 miles) from Refugio Los Cuernos to the French Valley to Refugio Paine Grande

This day was TOUGH and might have been even worst than the first day as it felt much longer than the 8 hours it took. We left at 8:30 am and finished at 4:30 pm. I woke up super early at 5:30 am as I wanted to see the sunrise hit the mountains and exude the sky with red. However I just missed the golden hour and only caught remnants of it (I should have skipped brushing my teeth and headed out then!). The other days were cloudy in the morning so there was no other chance.

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From Refugio Los Cuernos, we hiked a very pebbly path to the beach by the lake. At the end of this was the start of an uphill climb towards Domo Frances and Refugio Italiano. We got to use decent bathroom facilities near the campsite of Domo Frances (we never saw Domo Frances as you need to go down a different pathway) and then continued on to Italiano Campsite to start the roundtrip hike up to the French Valley to see glaciers and listen to avalanches.

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The hiking along this portion of the trail seemed rockier and it was definitely steep but not as steep as the very first day. Once in a while I would look up to see the views behind us but for the most part it was just go go go.

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We reached the Italiano Campsite (no refugio here, just tent camping) at about 10 am and dropped off our large hiking backpacks (everyone does this but don’t leave anything important just in case!) and switched to carrying just a daypack to the French Valley. It took about two hours to get up to the overlook and we had our lunch up there while admiring the view and listening to the crumble of avalanches. This picture below doesn’t capture all of it—it’s much wider and grander in scope. We stayed up here for about 45 minutes before heading back down to pick up our bags and continuing on to Refugio Paine Grande.

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After getting back to the Italiano Campsite, we headed westwards towards Paine Grande and it started to get really hot and sunny. It didn’t help that there was zero shade. In Dec. 2011 an Israeli backpacker set this forest on fire by accident and it burned for two months, destroying wildlife and a lot of this area of the park. He has since been banned from the country but the damage is brutal. Due to the damages, there are quite a few boardwalks around here instead of trails. By this point I was really tired and had to start singing songs to myself to get through the hike and make the time go by quicker. In total it took us about 2.5 hours to get from Italiano to Paine Grande but it felt way longer than that. During the last 40 minutes, the bottoms of my feet began to feel like they were burning, which I’ve never felt before when hiking.

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This view below of Los Cuernos though was the highlight of my day. I’ve seen a bunch of glaciers already (New Zealand, Alaska, Iceland) and so to me, the terrain of mountains, lakes and valleys are more appealing to me. I remember sitting here and staring at this and it looked so unreal even though it was right in front of me.

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As we moved closer to Paine Grande, the wind REALLY picked up and apparently this area of the park is the windiest. We were so hot and sweaty though that the gusty winds helped invigorate us to get to the end. I remember feeling a small ounce of joy once the refugio came into view from afar. As I mentioned in my Refugio post, this was my favorite place to stay because I loved the scenery around it. It was a great relief to kick off our shoes and enjoy the warm windy evening outside by the lake and watch the sunset.

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Skipping stones and chatting with everyone else from our tour group here was my favorite evening of the trip.

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November 2018: The Refugios of Torres del Paine

The refugios of Torres del Paine are hostels inside the park and serve as points of rest and refuel after a long day’s hike. I didn’t know what to expect and for the most part, I found the refugios to be clean (as they can be given the amount of people who stay in them!) and I’m glad we booked early (in May 2018 for the November 9th trek with Chile Nativo). Some people in our ten person guided tour had to sleep outside in tents as beds were booked up (they booked about a month or two before we left).

The four we stayed at during the 5 day trek were:

  1. Refugio Torres Central

  2. Refugio Los Cuernos (we were supposed to stay in Domo Frances, which is one of the worst-reviewed places and further west on the trail but when we got to Los Cuernos, they had room and allowed us to switch!)

  3. Refugio Paine Grande

  4. Refugio Grey

Of all the refugios, I think Paine Grande was my favorite. It’s one of the newest ones and it’s nicely decorated inside, huge, and cozy and the landscape of Los Cuernos in the back is breathtaking (see last pic below). The dinner here was also the best (juicy big piece of chicken) but the bathrooms were kind of terrible by the time we left in the morning. Paine Grande is different than the others as I think it’s owned by the government who leases it and operated by a private company. You’ll just notice the service is different. The other Refugios are run by private firms.

I also liked Torres Central—it’s a big beautiful cozy lodge with warm common rooms but I just thought the view of Los Cuernos at Paine Grande was the best view of any refugio. In terms of comfort and cleanliness though, Torres Central was the best. Torres Central was also the ONLY one of the four lodges that had personal closets for your bags/personal stuff (you need a lock to lock it though).

Refugio Los Cuernos was my least favorite. Although it was nice, the food wasn’t as good, the staff didn’t seem as friendly as the others, and the rooms and bathrooms were the smallest. We were also given sleeping bags to sleep here inside the beds as there’s no heating.

Refugio Grey was also nice, the staff was friendly and the rooms were clean and cozy and the food was good too.

Staying at the Refugios vs. camping is more expensive but includes all your meals. I’m not sure the price of each since we booked with a tour but it’s not cheap given the fact you’re sharing rooms and bathrooms with everyone else. But there are no other options so it is what it is, unfortunately.  

Pretty sure this bag from REI weighed anywhere between 16 and 19 lbs. during the trip, depending if I wore my fleece jacket and how big the bagged lunches weighed. Glad I practiced hauling 20-25 lbs. on my shoulders weeks before the trip! This bag is great though—it really distributes weight evenly and is comfy (the shoulder straps are cushioned).

Pretty sure this bag from REI weighed anywhere between 16 and 19 lbs. during the trip, depending if I wore my fleece jacket and how big the bagged lunches weighed. Glad I practiced hauling 20-25 lbs. on my shoulders weeks before the trip! This bag is great though—it really distributes weight evenly and is comfy (the shoulder straps are cushioned).

General Characteristics of the Refugios (Here’s What to Expect)

  • Bring your own toiletries and towels. Even though a couple of them offered shampoo/soap, it didn’t mean it was always available. Only two of the four (Torres Central and Cuernos) had any soap for the showers.  The bathrooms are cleaned certain times of the day (generally when everyone is out/sleeping) and hot water is also only available at certain times (generally after 5 pm). Towels were not always given.

  • Lights out at 10 pm (maybe a little later at others). This goes for electricity too so if you’re charging your phone, you might need to wait until the morning to finish up.

  • Dinner is served buffet-style or by meal times. There’s usually two meal times and you have to sign up for them. Our group sometimes had the early dining seating, sometimes later. Same with breakfast.

  • Water may/may not be available to fill up. For example on the first night, I was able to get water from the bar at Refugio Torres Central (they had a big water jug) but by the morning they ran out and wouldn’t offer anything for your personal bottle. Glacier water from the rivers and streams around the park is way better anyway but it’s so dry out there that having your bottle full is important! Bring electrolytes for added hydration!

  • Toilet paper must not be thrown in the toilet. As a result, the women’s room would stink after a few hours especially in the morning and late at night. It’s all thrown in the garbage, which may/may not be efficiently taken out (although the staff seems to try to keep up with it).

  • Any trash you take in with you into the park you’re expected to take out. The only trash cans that exist are the ones in the bathrooms so I would throw away the little litter I had in here. Trash is carried out by horses since there are no cars around either.

  • Hot water is a commodity but I never had any issue with getting a hot shower at any of the refugios. One shower you had to press every 90 seconds to keep the water going but otherwise I was able to take a decent shower at each refugio after every hike.

  • My trip was in November and while the refugios seemed full to me, not sure if they were. I never felt like it was overcrowded though. If you’re paying to tent outside, they set up the tents for you and provide everything but the tents may be a bit far from the bathroom areas. There were howling winds at night in a couple of the places we stayed at—not sure it’s pleasant to sleep in a tent but it is cheaper. I had bunk beds the whole time with my friends, anywhere between 4-7 people in a room. Co-ed as well. Bathrooms are not co-ed though.

  • Each refugio provides a bagged lunch. It was enough for me, I never ate any of the extra snack bars I brought on my own! It’s usually some kind of sandwich, and chocolate or sugary snack and fruit and/or cereal bars. Sometimes a juice as well. The best lunch was from Chile Nativo, who created the first day’s lunch for us to the long hike up to the Blue Towers. Second best was from Torres Central but don’t expect much. When you’re burning so many calories everything will taste good. Our sandwiches were either ham, turkey, or tuna. Breakfast was usually scrambled eggs with ham/cheese and cereal and yogurt and bread.

  • Pisco sours are delicious! The bars take credit card.

Pisco sour rewards for finishing a long hike

Pisco sour rewards for finishing a long hike

I loved the bar at Paine Grande as it had this amazing view of Los Cuernos.

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Seeing a refugio towards the end of a hike was a great boost to finish. I remember on the fourth day, I was so winded but as soon as I saw the roof of Refugio Grey from half a mile away, energy surged back in my bones and I practically ran to finish the W trek the last 5-10 minutes of the hike.

Definitely book early if you want a bed at a refugio. My guess is most refugios only have about 30-50 beds.

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November 2018: Planning for Patagonia

Planning for Patagonia is not logistically easy. It basically took me and my friends three days to get to Torres del Paine (pronounced Torres del “Pine-ay”), which resides in Chile, from NYC. Most people fly into Santiago, Chile to travel to Torres del Paine but we chose to go through Buenos Aires, Argentina as we wanted to end our trip visiting the vineyards of Mendoza.

This is the fourth time I attempted to plan this trip and I’m glad I waited this long. The first time I looked into going was more than 10 years ago and information on Torres del Paine is not as plentiful as it is today. The internet/communication infrastructure has probably improved over this period of time as well and a lot of things in place years ago are no longer. Four years ago I went to Argentina to visit Iguazu Falls (amazing, highly recommend waterfall lovers to go) and had to pay a $100 or so reciprocity fee (valid for 10 years) to get into the country. Well, apparently as of last year that’s no longer in place. In addition, the last time I was in Argentina, I had to exchange all my money on the ‘black market’ because the exchange rate was fixed as $1 USD = 8 pesos (on the black market you could get up to 12 or 14 pesos) and today, $1 USD = 35-38 pesos!

Anyway, planning a trip to Torres del Paine is no easy feat unless you have a lot of time on your hands. You need to register with the park and also make reservations in advance if you want to stay at the limited number of refugios (hostel lodges) in the park. From what I read on the internet, booking a bed or tent at the refugios was frustrating (payment won’t go through, people don’t respond, sold out, etc.) so early on my friends and I decided to bite the bullet and sign up with a tour guide instead to do all the bookings for us.

After a bunch of research, we decided to go with Swoop Patagonia. They have a flashy website and were very responsive and their itinerary worked out for us. However, as soon as we said yes to booking, they turned us over to Chile Nativo! So it turns out Swoop Patagonia is a 3rd party seller of tours and Chile Native is the local operator who actually takes you on the tour. It worked out anyway though as we LOVED Chile Nativo (and after speaking with them, I can see why they need Swoop—the agency has been around for over 15 years but is a small-run tour operator which has grown bigger in the last year and they just haven’t done as much marketing as they can be doing).

We found the price to be reasonable for our budget (we did the 5-day trek for $1695) though yes, if you planned this on your own, you’d be saving more than half. We just didn’t have the time to plan it all ourselves so to us, it was worth it. And no one in our group is an experienced camper or hiker so we felt more comfortable going with a guide in case something happened or someone got sick/injured but you don’t really need one. The trails on the W Trek are all well marked paths.

When I was doing my research for the tour, I read many mixed things about going either west to east or east to west on the W Trek (the other option is the O trek, which is much longer and you’ll see all of the park while the W hits the highlights). As Torres del Paine is known for its wind, most people suggested going west to east (to move along with the winds) but I am SUPER glad we went with Chile Nativo and did the route from east to west. I think this route is better because:

  • you’re moving along with the sun (if it is sunny—this will be incredibly helpful, hiking without the sun in your eyes)

  • we got the hardest part of the hike over on day 1, going up to the Blue Towers (which is what Torres del Paine means)

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This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

This is literally what you can expect from hiking Torres del Paine. Our trip started at Refugio Las Torres and we stayed overnight in Los Cuernos, Paine Grande, and Grey. The first day of the hike to the Base of the Towers was the hardest (22 km roundtrip back to Refugio Las Torres) and took 8 hours.

In addition to planning all our accommodations, meals, and guides in Torres del Paine, Chile Nativo also booked our first and last night in Puerto Natales (the gateway into the park). We stayed at Hotel Vendaval, which was a wonderful stay, and you’re able to leave whatever luggage you’re NOT taking into the park here (which we found to be safe and we had locks on our luggage as well).

Getting to Torres del Paine from New York City

We traveled through four airports, two taxi rides, and two buses over a 72 hour period to get to Torres del Paine. We flew with Aerolineas Argentina (pretty decent airline, I have no complaints—besides the very first 5 minutes of my trip, the check ins were smooth, service was friendly, and had no issues traveling with this line). In summary, these were our travel logistics:

  • On Tuesday, Nov. 6, we took a 3:30 pm direct flight from JFK to EZE, the international airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The trip may have started off on the wrong foot had I not watched out for my luggage! I ended up bringing just two pieces—a carry-on size hiking backpack for the trek and a carry-on size suitcase that I checked in. Well, while the Aerolineas Argentina agent gave me my plane ticket at check in, I noticed he totally forgot about my checked-in bag! When I asked him about it, his eyes got wide and said “Oh, yes! Sorry about that!” and ticketed my luggage, stuck the slips on, and put it on the conveyor belt. Had I not watched/said anything, who knows if my luggage would’ve made it out! Probably not, since he didn’t even issue a luggage ticket until I asked! My other friend also had an issue with her luggage and bringing on her trekking poles. Mine were foldable and hidden but hers were bigger and sticking out and had metal tips and they had to recall her luggage (after she checked it in) to put the metal tips away. They wouldn’t let her pass security otherwise. Anyway, after the luggage issues, we otherwise had a smooth overnight flight and arrived in EZE by 4 am, and in November, Buenos Aires is two hours ahead of NYC.

  • By the time we got our luggage and through customs, it was 6 am. I was paranoid about getting money from the ATM (last time I was in Argentina my cards didn’t work at all!) so I exchanged U.S. dollars at Banco Nacional, a local Argentinian bank. The bank is located directly outside the luggage, to the right. ATMs may have a limit to how much you can withdraw every day so I withdrew $600 USD which was more than enough to get me through the two week trip (most places except taxi cabs take credit card). The exchange rate I got it for was AR 34.60 vs. the official rate at the time of 35-36 pesos so not much of a difference. And if you do use the ATM, you will probably pay additional fees there too.

  • We booked a car transfer with Taxi Ezeiza. I made the rsvp a few days beforehand online and they charged $35 USD for 4 people. They’re also located right outside the luggage terminal, at a big booth and if you make a rsvp your name will be on a sign at the desk. You can pay in dollars or pesos (or in credit card). We had rush hour traffic and it took just over an hour to get to AEP, which is the domestic airport in Buenos Aires.

  • From AEP, we took a 12:15 pm flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, Argentina. You can either fly to El Calafate to get to Puerto Natales (the last town before Torres del Paine) or to Punta Arenas, Chile (which is further south than Puerto Natales). Two of my friends told me there was NOTHING to see in Punta Arenas whereas in El Calafate you at least have the Perito Moreno Glacier so I’m glad we stuck to El Calafate. Also, if you plan to visit more of Argentina after Torres del Paine, it’s cheaper to fly within Argentina than to fly to Chile and then back to Argentina. We arrived in El Calafate by 3:30 pm and grabbed a taxi to pick up our bus tickets for the next day’s trip to Puerto Natales. The bus terminal is about 15 min. away from the airport and costs like $10 USD to get there by taxi. We had to pick up our tickets the day before because they needed to verify our passport info for the border crossing. The bus office (Cootra) closes at 4:30 pm so keep this in mind if you choose to use them and fly into El Calafate before then! We stayed overnight at Hostal Gnomos, which is a 5 min. walk from the bus station.

  • The next day: woke up early to catch the 7:30 am bus to Puerto Natales. We got to the bus station by 7 am though as we heard horror stories of buses leaving without people if they were not on time. The Cootra bus was quite nice and comfortable. It’s a double decker bus (you can reserve seats in advance) and there is a bathroom on board for the 5-6 hour drive. The driver didn’t really speak English though but we figured things out. By the time we got to the border crossing it was about noon and the whole process took an hour. On the Argentina side, they just stamp your passport. On the Chile side, they stamp your passport but they also scan your luggage (we had no problem bringing in snacks or food—I think someone got fruit in—but from what I heard it really depends on the mood of the officers!). The Chile passport security check has bathrooms which was much needed after the long drive. The Argentina side does not, and going on the bus is not really fun. So after security check it was another 45 minutes to Puerto Natales. When we arrived, we grabbed a taxi for 2000 Chilean pesos to Hotel Vendaval (like $5 USD). I had gotten Chilean pesos before the trip at Chase Bank (they didn’t offer Argentian pesos though and all I took was $60 USD equivalent in Chilean pesos which was more than enough. I never needed Chilean pesos on the W trek, just for the taxis. We ended up using the money for dinners in town though but they take credit cards). Checked into Hotel Vendaval.

  • In the evening, we had our briefing at the office of Chile Nativo (literally a 2 min. walk from the hotel) and met our two tour guides, the rest of our tour group (10 people in total!) and got the details of the trip.

  • The next day: got picked up at 6:30 am on Friday morning, November 9, 2018 for the hiking trip of a lifetime!!!

Other Info

Other resources that really helped me for the trip:

  • This website someone recommended on Trip Advisor was amazingly helpful to check out the weather forecast in Torres del Paine: www.mountain-forecast.com. Just be sure to pick the lowest altitude and convert it to Fahrenheit if needed. I checked the forecast every day for a week before arrival and it was 90% spot on in predicting the weather we would be having in an unpredictable place.

  • REI. I love this store. I know I’m late to the game but I grew up as a city slicker. I never grew up camping or being in the outdoors! But REI and the people who work there were wonderful resources for me in terms of what gear I needed for this trip. I got my backpack, trekking poles, jackets, windproof pants, blister bandaids, everything here. I’ll do a post later on the gear I got.

January 2018 Trip Report: Cancun

It breaks my heart to see all the violent news coming out of Cancun these past few months. I've been to the Cancun region the most out of any other trip, 5x in the past 10 years. Most recently I went over Martin Luther King, Jr. Day weekend this past January and as usual I had an amazing time. If you haven't been yet, below are some of my thoughts and observations over the years:

Pool at the Westin Lagunamar

Pool at the Westin Lagunamar

The Cancun Area

  • Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum are all accessible from the Cancun airport. Cancun is the closest (20 min away), while Playa del Carmen can be anywhere from 45 min to an hour by taxi, and Tulum is about 90 minutes away by taxi. I haven’t been to Tulum yet, but it’s probably next on any future trips down there. Tulum is more low key/casual—the hotels there are more boutique, or bed and breakfast-style. It won’t be like grand resorts or anything and not as lively. From what I hear, most people go there for the more laid back/wellness-type vacations (ie yoga/hipsters, etc). Playa del Carmen and Cancun is much more family friendly. Cancun is super commercialized though, and I prefer Playa del Carmen more in terms of the downtown scene and the food (cheaper, more local Mexican food). Cancun is much more touristy. Both areas are pretty safe to visit, but you do have to watch out for scams and don’t go off the commercialized streets (ie don’t go anywhere that looks empty).
  • If you do go, they take both US Dollars and pesos, but you will get a better rate if you exchange dollars for pesos. So for example when I was just there, a taxi ride was 130 pesos but I didn’t have enough pesos on me and I knew the conversion was $8 USD but the driver charged me $10. Some charged $8 but others will say 10. It’s not metered, they’re flat rates so you have to ask before you get in how much it costs. I know I could’ve argued but given that I know they don’t make much I didn’t (but I was annoyed based on principle). Right now the exchange rate is about $1USD to 20 pesos but the hotels will exchange it for 18 pesos, which is not bad. You can def get a better rate at the ATM or whatever but at the end of the day I only spent like $60 USD in pesos btwn me and my friend (we were super lazy and took taxis to dinner the whole 4 days we were there). We didn’t have a problem using credit cards for food, just for taxis and tips you may need pesos for (and I also brought small $5 USD bills for tips).
    • I went to Cancun because SPG (the hotel rewards) sent me this amaaaaaaazing deal for the Westin Lagunamar. The deal was $320 for 4 nights, total. So I split w a friend, and we stayed there and the resort is fantastic. However, the reason why I got the deal was because they tried to sell me on a timeshare when I was there (I had to sit thru a 90 min presentation) but honestly, it was worth it cuz we paid so little for a great place and I got additional points for sitting thru the presentation (and I stood my ground and said no to the timeshare….they can’t hustle a hustler! Haha). I like going to Cancun though because there are SO many resorts and so I find the experience to always be different. You should research which resort to stay at though, as the beach property does depend on where you stay. The beachfront at the Westin was really clean and gorgeous. The neighbor resorts were also as nice, but not as nice as the Westin. But, not bad either. Other places I’ve stayed at and liked were:
      • Beloved Playa Mujeres: https://belovedhotels.com/; I stayed here for a friend’s wedding maybe 3 years ago. Nice resort, and all their water activities were free too (ie paddleboarding). I remember the ocean here was calmer too. Just FYI the ocean in Cancun is super rough, so you don’t really go in the water unless you’re a good swimmer. I think the water by Playa del Carmen is a lot calmer than Cancun. Cancun also tends to be windier as well. We were lucky and have two great warm sunny days, but the other two days were a bit chillier and windy (but still good enough to sit outside).
      • Royal Haciendas: https://royalreservations.com/resorts/the-royal-haciendas; I stayed here a few years ago for a friend’s bachelorette party and this was soooo nice too. Excellent pools and rooms (they have kitchens). This is closer to downtown Playa del Carmen as well I think.
      • Hyatt Playa del Carmen: https://playadelcarmen.grand.hyatt.com/en/hotel/home.html; I stayed here two years ago in Feb. I actually went solo and I had a great time. The beach was not as nice, but the pool was great and they have an amazing spa where I spent a whole afternoon in. It is also right next to downtown so no taxi required to go into downtown, unlike other resorts which are further away. But, may not be good option cuz it’s kind of clubby (they play loud music for the younger people to hang out to).
Sunrise from my hotel room this past January

Sunrise from my hotel room this past January

  • Other things to do in Cancun: There are tons of activities and tours but honestly I like to go and just chill at the resort. The Mayan ruins sound interesting but in my opinion are not really. Ha. They used to allow people to climb them but they don’t anymore, and the bus ride to get there is long. Isla de Mujeres is also touted as something to do but I also think you can skip it unless you just want to get out of the resort for a day. You take a ferry there and spend an afternoon walking around, but it’s mostly the same shops (touristy) that you’ll find downtown. You can do snorkeling etc but it’s not that great.
  • They do have some water amusement parks—I’ve been wanting to check those out but haven’t. But they seem fun/different than the ones in the US. 
Life's a beach

Life's a beach

  • If you do go, def arrange your hotel transportation in advance. Some hotels provide it, others don’t. If hotels provide it they will still charge you though and it’s not always the best rate. I used Canada Transfers for Cancun and it was great, so easy and great rates: https://www.canadatransfers.com/

We paid $53 round trip for two people, and it’s a private transfer so you are not stuck waiting for other people. I made the rsvp online and printed the vouchers and paid in USD cash in person when they picked us up. Returning to the airport they were also right on time. I highly recommend using them (and they give you water bottles when you arrive—do not drink tap water in Mexico, ever!).

  • Exiting the Cancun airport is overwhelming. People will try to get your attention and sell you something (anything, a tour, a taxi, etc). When you exit, just leave the terminal, don’t stop to talk to anyone, and just look for the guy wearing the Canada transfer shirt and holding up a sign w your name on it (it will have other names on it as well)
  • Do NOT throw away the bottom portion of the Mexico document you have to sign when you pass thru customs. They take the top part of the doc, you keep the bottom w your passport and hand it in when you depart at the airport. My friend wasn’t paying attention and threw hers away and had to pay $32 USD for a new one to exit.
The reason why I always return

The reason why I always return

Viva Mexico!

Viva Mexico!

November 2017 - Bermuda for Thanksgiving Trip Report

About a year ago, I knew there was no way I wanted to stay in NYC for Thanksgiving weekend. I grew up here my whole life so the magic of the holidays in NYC is not as appealing to me as it is for others. I also really hate the cold and knew I wanted to go away, but where could I go that would be close by, warm, and easy to travel around?

In Feb. of last year I found a pretty good deal to visit Bermuda for about $1,300 including flight and hotel. I've been stalking going to Bermuda for a few years and in general I would say going in the summertime, it usually costs more than $1,500 for flight and hotel. I booked on Expedia.com as usual, because if you also use www.upromise.com, which is a cash back rebate site similar to ebates.com and you get like 3% cash back on vacation combos.

I've always heard amazing things about Bermuda and always wanted to check it out. So is going to Bermuda for Thanksgiving weekend worth it? I will break down the pros and cons.

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Pros:

  • Such a short flight! I think it's just 2-2.5 hours away from NYC. Note there is also a one hour time difference.
  • Locals are really friendly. I don't find that to be the case at all island countries but in Bermuda, it felt very safe and people were helpful. There's a significant expatriate community due to all the companies that have offices there for tax purposes so you'll see a good mix of people.
  • No Zika. Apparently, mosquitoes can't thrive in Bermuda since there is no standing body of fresh water. Bermuda is surrounded by the salty ocean.
  • Easy to get around. You can't really rent a car due to limits on cars on the road, but it's pretty easy to get around on the local buses. There's not that many roads either, so everything kind of moves directionally.
  • Gorgeous clear blue water. Even on a cloudy day, the water was a brilliant shade of blue! It's because Bermuda sits on very white sand reef. So diving, snorkeling here is good.
  • The island is on the same latitude as the Carolinas, it's not as far south as the Caribbean islands. As such, Bermuda is not within the usual path of hurricanes.

Cons:

  • Everything on the island is expensive! Particularly the food. There are some affordable options but for the most part, eating here is as pricey or more than an average meal in NYC.
  • Weather in November is hit or miss. I was there from Wed through Sunday during Thanksgiving weekend and it rained pretty hard all day half the time. It was warmer than being in NYC (it was about 60s-70s) but the rain was a drag.
  • Not much to do on the island. Yes there are a ton of beaches to explore and some caves and museums to see, but if you're a well-traveled person, this place won't be as interesting from a cultural or activity perspective. There are things to see, but at this point in my traveling, I'm sick of seeing naval fortresses unless they're intricately designed/different. On the other hand, if you haven't been to many other islands, you may find their local attractions more appealing.
  • Had the weather been nicer, I would have liked to gone on a glass bottom boat tour since the water seems to be clear. I probably would've had a nicer time in the summer but it's also more expensive to go then.

Overall

Bermuda was a good weekend getaway from NYC but would I recommend it for Thanksgiving weekend? Yes, if you've always wanted to check it out and you want to get a better deal than going in the summertime. No, if you travel a lot and have been to a lot of other island getaways. Of all the islands I've been to, this is probably one of my least favorite. It was very pretty and nice, but just boring to me. The weather played a factor as well. I think the weather was pretty good the weekend before we arrived so it's a gamble. When it rained, it rained pretty much the whole day and at times, very heavily. The food was good, but not that amazing that you should go there just for that. Plus it's so expensive to eat there. However, it really is an easy trip from NYC so I'm glad I got to see it but I would never want to return unless I was going there for free! 

I stayed at the Princess Hotel in Hamilton, Bermuda (a Fairmont resort) and it was good for its location. It's not on the beach, it's close to downtown Hamilton (a 10-15 min. walk) but I picked that in case the weather wasn't great. They have a free shuttle to the beach though which gets PACKED so definitely line up early for it. 

Highlights:

  • Horseshoe Bay is gorgeous. Pink sand beaches hug the turquoise shoreline. In off season though, there are no services (ie bring your own food, beach towel, chair, etc.)
  • Eat at Hog Penny Pub. Apparently the inspiration for Cheers, the Boston pub, the food here was delicious (ate twice) and they have a good pre fix deal during the weekday. Can make rsvps on Open Table.
  • Lunch at Lost in Triangle (LIT)--best fresh fish tacos! A local casual sports bar, but the owner catches the food he serves. Came back twice for the fish tacos, didn't try much else. So filling, healthy, and tasty. It's in the heart of downtown Hamilton.

Skip:

  • Barracuda Grill--it's one of the most highly rated place to eat seafood but I thought it was overpriced and overrated. It's elegant and service was great, but in terms of quality and price, Hog Penny which is right next door is a much better deal and experience.
  • St. George--it's the other larger city in Bermuda but really not much to see there. It's about a 30-40 min. ride from Hamilton by bus, unless you're really bored and have nothing to do then go visit but not a must-see, in my opinion. Ferries do not run from Hamilton to St. George in off-season.
  • Royal Navy Dockyard--tourist attraction. Go if you've never seen anything similar, otherwise nothing to write home about this place. You can take a ferry to here from Hamilton during off season though.

May 2017 Trip Report: Amalfi/Ravello/Positano (Day 9)

Thursday was an amazing day. It started off kind of bleak--it was drizzling in Positano so not a good time to relax on the beach. I knew Friday's weather was supposed to better for the beach so I decided to head over to Amalfi and Ravello instead. I'm so glad I did because even though Amalfi is so close by, it was sunny! 

I wish I started my day off earlier. In my opinion, taking the ferry boat over is way better than the public bus since you don't know when it might arrive. I wish I had gotten on the 10 am ferry from Positano to Amalfi but I took the 11:10 am instead after I had breakfast at my B&B (they have umbrellas!) and got ready, etc. The ferry fare one way was 8 euros and I bought a roundtrip ticket. You buy them right off the ferry deck to the right of Spagio Beach (I checked/took snapshots of the schedule the day before). I knew the last ferry back was at 6 pm but I didn't want to risk being caught in a huge crowd so I aimed for the one before that, at 4:20 pm.  

Anyway the ferry ride from Positano to Amalfi was fine, it was raining at the time so didn't really see much and was sitting below deck indoors. Within 25 minutes we reached Amalfi though and the sky was clear and the sun was shining! 

In order to get to Ravello, I knew the public bus was the only way to get up there since it sits on top of Amalfi. I found out from the information desk that you can't buy tickets on the bus, you must get them from the Tabacchi shop right across from the bus stop (there is a huge awning that indicates it's a bus stop for all the Amalfi Coast towns--it's about a 5 minute walk to the right as you leave the ferry dock near the parking lot). Tickets were really cheap (2.80 euros I think) compared to taking a taxi up to Ravello which can be 30 euros or so. The bus supposedly comes every 30 minutes so I waited for the 12:15 pm bus with throngs of other tourists.  

Riding up Amalfi town via bus! 

Riding up Amalfi town via bus! 

However as I waited for the bus I started to doubt I could even get on it!!! There were so many people waiting!!!!! Also 12:15 came and went and no sign of the public bus but lots of traffic going by. At the same bus stop, there is also the red tourist bus where you can jump on/off. Luckily there is a city sight seeing tour bus just going between Ravello and Amalfi and it doesn't make any other stops. I asked how much it was and it was 5 euros one way, 9.50 roundtrip. I decided to spend the extra money as I was limited on time, plus the bus was open air which makes it great for pictures and more comfortable to sit in anyway. I'm so glad I did this because I got to Ravello way earlier and more comfortable than if I took the public bus (and I saw so many other public buses that were crowded and packed w tourists standing). So totally skip the public bus and spend the little extra on the red tourist bus for comfort and convenience. Plus you get to hear interesting facts along the way on the tourist bus. The red bus also comes and goes every half hour (whenever it's :15 or 45). It's more reliable since it doesn't stop anywhere else.

By the time I got up to Ravello it was 12:45 pm and I knew if I wanted to see Amalfi town too and get on the 4:20 pm ferry back to Positano, I needed to leave Ravello either by 1:45 or 2:15. So as soon as I got up there I speedwalked everywhere! 

Ravello is breathtaking though. I really wish I spent at least a half day, not just a couple of hours. Or even a whole day! It's just so pretty and charming. It truly is a garden city. It is very small so you can see most it in a couple of hours but to really enjoy and take it in, I think half or full day is better. Especially compared to Amalfi which was soooo congested and not as pretty.  

The views to the coast are amazing! I thought Oia on Santorini was beautiful (and it is) but I love how Ravello was short and sweet. I didn't have time to eat lunch since I was trying to cram so much sight seeing in a short amount of time.  

View from Ravello! 

View from Ravello! 

The main square is lovely and wish I had time to sit and have a snack or coffee. Everything just looks like straight out of a magazine on the Italian countryside. Flowers and trees were nicely manicured and Richard Wagner (composer) is celebrated here. 

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Walking around town is just magical and serene. Much more calm and secluded than Positano or Amalfi. 

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I definitely rushed around to see what I could, grabbing some gelato for lunch in the main square. I wish I had more time to leisurely explore! 

Private garden on the other side

Private garden on the other side

The most popular attraction up in Ravello is Villa Rufolo. Admission is 7 euros but I think it's so worth it. The villa is spectacular and they hold classical concerts here as the setting is fantastic. Great views of the coast from the villa as well. You can see all this in about 30 minutes if you walk thru quick. 

View from the Villa

View from the Villa

After enjoying what I could of Ravello, I caught the 2:15 pm bus back down. While doing my research I read that staying in Amalfi was better as it's cheaper but I'm sooo glad I stayed in Positano instead. Amalfi was full of tourists!!!! Positano is touristy as well but it's better controlled since you can't really park there. In Amalfi there are huge parking lots which makes bringing in people easier. I did not like it that much. It seemed more 'cheesy' than Positano although souvenirs and shopping is cheaper here. 

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I kind of wish I spent another hour up in Ravello but I didn't know I would feel this way about Amalfi. I just walked through the main shopping area and then along the coast line while I waited for the 4:20 ferry. I did pick up a small bottle of limoncello for 4 euros (among the cheapest I saw and it had a label verifying that it's made with Amalfi lemons).  

Religious fountain in Amalfi town

Religious fountain in Amalfi town

The ferries run pretty on time so definitely show up 5-10 minutes before so you don't miss them. There's usually a sign on the boats that say what the next destination is so just look for that as there are many boats that come and go on the dock. There are organizers who will tell you as well. 

Panorama view

Panorama view

The ferry ride back was beautiful as the weather was better and I got to sit outside on top of the boat. 

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After I was back in Positano, I headed back to my room and took a shower. I was dying for a great meal and all the highly rated places near Venus B&B were booked up!! I was not deterred though. I headed over to Da Vincenzo, which I really wanted to try, and at 6:15 pm it was pretty empty since everyone eats later. I asked if I could eat right now and they said absolutely but I had to leave the table by 8. No problem for me! And so I happily sat outside, right by the road, with an amazing view. It's everything I thought dining in Positano would be! 

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I know some people think sitting outside right next to traffic is gross but it's not too bad...I could smell the diesel fumes 10% of the time and being from NYC, where I've sat outside before and would get soot or micro dust/dirt in my glass of water, that didn't happen at all here. So it may not be perfect but it's not as gross as it is in major cities. For an appetizer I had a fresh tomato stuffed with raw shrimp on fresh mozzarella cheese and it was amaaaaazing!!!! I hardly eat raw shrimp and was afraid to but wanted to try it and it was soooo delicious. And no I did not get sick. In fact I came back the next night (at the same time and got the same table!) and had it again! The waiter recognized me and was pleased. I also had the lobster linguine which was also good and very filling. The next night I didn't want any more pasta so I had the yellowtail dish which was ok. I do recommend this place for the quality and price and definitely get rsvps in advance! Otherwise come at 6 pm to be seated!

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After dinner I walked off the calories along the path which goes past the center of town. You can only really walk (with a proper sidewalk) to the last bus stop in town (you wil see people waiting) but it's great views of the town in the evening.   

Sunset time Positano

Sunset time Positano

May 2017 Trip Report: Catania to Positano (Day 8)

I've been wanting to visit the Amalfi Coast for years . I had been to Capri and Sorrento a year after college but didn't have enough to make it down the luxe area of Southern Italy. I am so thrilled to finally achieve my dream of coming here! It's everything I thought it would be! Beautiful views, laid back vibe, but also classy. I love it here in Positano. 

Planning on how to get here was a nightmare logistically. There is so much info and many options you can take. The most popular areas to stay in the Amalfi Coast are Sorrento, Positano, and Amalfi. I chose Positano as it's in the middle and I just always loved seeing pictures of it. 

Spagio Beach, the main beach in Positano

Spagio Beach, the main beach in Positano

On Wednesday morning I left for Catania airport at 7:30 am even though my flight wasn't until 11:40 am. I'm so glad I left that early!! While driving to the airport, the exit from the highway was closed so had to take an alternate route. It worked out fine but you never know with these things. Then when I tried to check in, it just took forever! People at the airport were just soooo slow especially at the computer desk check ins. I had a flight with Alitalia from Catania to Naples but apparently when I booked it, I didn't purchase it with the ability to check in luggage. Since I knew my luggage didn't meet carry on requirements I just paid to check it which was 48 euros! Oh well at least my one way ticket wasn't too bad ($92 USD but better to fly one hour than take the ferrry/train for half the day!).  Anyway by the time I checked luggage and cleared security, it was 10 am which left me an hour to eat before boarding the plane. Catania Airport is small and there weren't a lot of options to eat. 

The flight to Naples ended up being delayed due to congestion on the runway. I landed at 1:30 pm instead of 1 pm and I got an email from my B&B host that the car service he sent for me was about to leave. Luckily my luggage popped up quick and I was able to catch the driver (who was also shuttling 8 other people and I was the last to arrive, whoops). However had he left, the next shuttle was at 2:30 but I'm glad I made it in time. 

So if you've been reading this blog, you'll know I value time. Getting from Naples to Positano by public transportation seemed like a nightmare so I asked my B&B host to arrange a dependable private transfer service and he really came through (the original one he proposed had atrocious reviews and when I sent him the link, he found another company which had better reviews). I was picked up by Seahorse Car Service and it was 90 euros round trip which I thought was great since I was traveling this leg of my trip solo and I knew the ride was over an hour long. We made a couple of drop offs as we headed south and before I made it into Positano, the driver stopped somewhere along the way and said I would be changing cars. The next car was right there and instead of a big van it was a nice small luxury call all for me! I think it's because Positano is further away so they have someone else take you the rest of the way. Anyway, service and everything was great and I'm thankful that my B&B host took care of all the arrangements (he sent me the voucher and I will pay him the fee for the ride since I think he covered it already). 

if you ride down to the Amalfi Coast, be sure to sit on the right side for amazing views of the coastline!  

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As for where to stay in Positano, everywhere I looked seemed quite expensive for just one person. Somehow I stumbled upon Venus B&B Inn and I am super thankful I did. Not only is the owner, Gippy, very responsive, but he's so friendly and welcoming and his place is in a great location for the price. For three nights single, I'm paying 285 euros.  As for the location, it's on via Fornillo and it's right at the beginning of the long walk down to the main part of town/beach. If you're healthy, love to walk or exercise, this is a great location because although it's a 15-20 min walk to the center of town , it's a beautiful downhill walk and a slightly challenging walk uphill (but not really if you're active). I also liked staying here as it's easy access to the main road, rather than staying somewhere with a lot of stairs to climb. And let me tell you, there are TONS of stairs. I inadvertently climbed 50+ flights twice because I thought I was taking short cuts. And yes, taking the stairs is 'shorter' in distance than walking downhill/uphill but thigh killers are thigh killers. I prefer a mild slope any day!

However one positive thing about taking the stairs is you don't have to watch out for cars. If you walk on the main road back and forth you have to be vigilant with the traffic. It's not too terrible but it can be slightly annoying.  

Unfortunately for me it was cloudy when I arrived in Positano. The views were still great though and I spent the evening getting familiar with the town. For dinner I made the mistake of trying to walk to the restaurant from the beach. I ate at C'era Una Volta which was decent but wouldn't say I'd go again (paperdelle bolognese was nice but not omg I have to have it again nice). Anyway it's further uphill than my B&B and from walking up from Spagio Beach, it took me about 40 minutes and I arrived drenched in sweat with aching calves!

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Luckily the restaurant has a free shuttle service and when I asked, they kindly let me take it back down.  

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I spent the rest of my night admiring the view from my balcony. I was also woken up at midnight with loud firecrackers for a wedding celebration! C'est la vie. 

 

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May 2017 Trip Report: Ortigia (Day 7)

Last day in Sicily was spent eating as much as possible! The pros of staying at a hotel with breakfast is it's easy to access and included in the price. The cons are of course not being able to go out and try breakfast and you might fill up by loading up on hotel breakfast. 

On our last full day in Ortigia, I tried not to eat too much to save room the rest of the day. Although Ortigia is very lovely, I think we could've cut it short by a day. But I didn't want to feel rushed which is why I planned to stay in town for 3 full days. You really need just a day or so to stroll around the city. I doubt there is an alley or street we did not walk down on at some point! If you love history and want to see everything, three days is good. But for me, I'm not that interested so I just like sampling food and wandering scenic venues. As I've said in past posts, I have limit to seeing museums and fortresses and churches!

The thing to see in Ortigia, however, is the archaeological park. I read mixed reviews on it and since Greece is still fresh in my mind, I passed on looking at more rocks. We did walk to the park (to get exercise in and walk off breakfast), it's about 20-30 minutes from Ortigia. Tried to wait for the local bus #2 instead but it didn't seem like it was coming!

Brilliant sandwiches  

Brilliant sandwiches  

Highlights of Food in Ortigia

All this was luckily discovered on our last day:

  • Caseificio Borderi: cheese maker by trade who now makes amazing fresh sandwiches for just 5 euros each! One is enough to share for up to three people (ask him to cut In thirds). The line starts at 9 am and can get long. I was the fifth person in line at 10 am and waited almost 45 minutes! The guy who makes the sandwiches is chatty and he tends to make two at a time (so if you order one w specific toppings he will make an identical one to sell later). My sandwich was on fresh bread with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella cheese, ham, mushrooms, rocket salad, and lemon juice and some other cheese. Was delicious and the cheapest meal we had! There are a variety of different toppings you can request. Great to pick up early in the morning and have it for lunch later in the day. They also sell olive oil and other items. 

 

  • Everywhere in Sicily you'll find jars of cream of pistachio and pesto pistachio for sale. Pistachio apparently grows very well in Sicily due to the climate so they have tons of pistachio products. We ended up buying cream of pistachio jars as well as cream of almonds. They are delicious! It basically tastes like Nutella but instead of chocolate flavored it's pistachio or almond. We bought large jars for 7 euros and found the price to be about the same (or higher) everywhere. Great for souvenirs too. 

 

  • Arancini Gluten Free: I love arancini! These hand size rice balls can be found throughout Sicily. In Ortigia we came across a gluten free Arancini fast food place near the center of town. Very cheap, 3 euros each and can totally share one. They have a bunch of options, including vegetarian and seafood and meat. We tried the Italian state one, which is vegetarian and mostly potatoes with a spicy kick to it (it was pretty spicy but good) and the one with beef sausage. Both were delicious and had a nice crunch. 

 

  • Sicily Fish and Chips:  We actually did not eat here but wish we did based on reviews. The internet is not that reliable with hours of operation for restaurants in Sicily so if you want to eat somewhere you should try to find it during the day first and check out if hours are posted. In this case we thought we could come for dinner but when we arrived at 6 pm it was closed. Knowing that most locals eat later we returned after 8 pm and it was still closed on a Tuesday night! Then I saw in one of the reviews that they close after they sell out so maybe that's what happened since many people seem to come here for lunch. Supposed to be fresh fried seafood. 

 

  • La Tavernnetta de Pietro:  Turned out for the best that Sicily Fish and Chips was closed as we got to try this place instead and this was the best meal we had in Sicily!!! Not only was the food so fresh but also so cheap compared to the other two places we had dinner in Ortigia! A large plate of mussels for 7 euros and three perfect pastas that were all 10 euros or less!!! The house white wine was also delicious and half a liter was only 5 euros!!!! Definitely come here for great homemade pasta and fresh seafood. There are two locations (across from one another on the same street but diagonally within a block). On the weekends I think both locations are open but on the weekday only one is. You can sit inside or outside on the pedestrian street. We did not have rsvps though you can make them online. We got lucky as showed up around 8:30 and waited just five minutes for a table. Others after us got turned away, the place was packed. 
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Sicily was great and we only had time to see the eastern side. Of all the places, Ortigia was my favorite to stay in but I did enjoy visiting and walking around Taormina for the scenic views. Ortigia has more charm but not a ton to do whereas Taormina there seemed to be more to sightsee and explore. Just depends what you like to do and how fast you want to pace yourself. If you don't care for museums, history, etc. you can definitely just spend 5 days visiting both. But if you want to relax and not rush then a week is good.  

May 2017 Trip Report: Ragusa (Day 6)

On Monday we left Ortigia and headed for the nearby Baroque town of Ragusa. It was about an hour and a half away and I'm glad I did some research on where to park because the streets are super narrow and windy!

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The best place to park if you're just gonna walk around for a couple of hours is probably near Piazza della Repubblica, at the bottom of Ragusa Ibla. Ragusa is a city divided into two parts. Ragusa Ibla is to the west and Ragusa Superior is to the east. If you put in "parking lot near Piazza de Repubblica in Ragusa" in Google Maps it will take you there. In general I had no issues at all using Google Maps but I stuck to the cities and not off the beaten road. Parking is public and for free. There was plenty of parking by the time we arrived around noon. At 3 pm it was a lot fuller but still spots left. Another parking area closer to Ragusa Superior is by the garden (Giardini). There is a ton of uphill/downhill/stairway walking in Ragusa but if you love to walk/hike/be physical you'll be fine. Public toilets cost 50 cent euros but were clean. 

You can spend about 2-3 hours in Ragusa depending on what you wanna see and how much you want to walk. We were here from noon to 3 pm and that was more than enough for us. The main highlights are the big churches, one in Ibla and the other in Superior, and the garden was very nice too. It's about a 30 minute walk in between the two areas depending which route you take.  I'm not big on souvenir shopping (unless it's for food items!) but there were some cute stores around.  

View of the countryside from the public gardens of Ragusa

View of the countryside from the public gardens of Ragusa

Ragusa is one of the oldest cities in the world and a UNESCO heritage site. Very quaint and a different feel from Taormina and Ortigia. 

Under the Sicilian sun

Under the Sicilian sun

Afterwards we headed back to Ortigia to walk around and have dinner. The prettiest part of Ortigia is the western side where you can catch the sunset and wander around the scenic paths along the water and restaurants. I especially love the very long promenade underneath the city walls. As you stroll along you can listen to music from the bars/restaurants and people watch.

Walk along the city walls

Walk along the city walls

I also like how the locals just find a spot they see fit and sunbathe where they please.  

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Dinner was at Schiticchio Pizzeria, which we liked (but not love). Very casual place to eat and many things to choose from. I thought the toppings for the pizza were fresh (tomatoes, cheese, rocket salad)and we tried one of the calzones with ham and cheese. I love ham and cheese so Italy is a great place to sample my fave combo!

 

Calzone

Calzone