Sunday, February 19, 2012


Before my trip last month to Puerto Rico, I hadn't been there in more than 25 years. Was is too close to home? Did I think of it as part of the United States, so not really a Caribbean Island?! Well, whatever I was thinking . . . what was I thinking???!!!

We arrived in San Juan, spent a couple of hours at a local beach, and drinks at the Caribe Hilton, before good friends from the island met us. We stopped at a local eatery, Panaderia Espa~a.  We were the only people who didn't speak Spanish, but that wasn't a problem. Everyone there spoke English as well.  We stood on line, placed our orders for food, brought it to a table and enjoyed every morsel. We ate a local soup called cal do gall ego. I had trouble pronouncing it, but no trouble at all finishing every last drop. It was amazing. 

From there, we met some other friends who were just flying in and got on the road towards Fajardo . . . into the rainforest area.  Since we hadn't eaten in a couple of hours, our local friends took us to one of their favorite restaurants in Luquillo, about 15 minutes west of Fajardo, La Parilla.  There we feasted on succulent lobsters, and island favorites such as plantains, mofongo, which is made from cooked and smashed plantains, seasoned and served with pork, shrimp, etc. and local drinks. We were not disappointed. Our stomachs were more than full.

We spent two nights at our friend's ranch in the rainforest. You must go to the rainforest. It is beautiful. You can hike on your own, or you can take a variety of tours, including zip lining through the forest.  We had a great time with friends there and heard the tales of "chupacabras," a vampire (like Dracula) who flies through the rainforest. The story is that he hasn't been seen in about 10 years, but locals tell stories of finding dead animals, blood sucked out of their bodies. The name means "goat sucker".  I stayed close to the hacienda and didn't venture out at night alone!!!!! Of course, most say that it's just a story, but . . . .

Our next six days were spent at the El Conquistador Resort, in Fajardo. This resort is a Waldorf Astoria Resort and lives up to it's name and then some. It is perched above the ocean on a 300 foot cliff!  We stayed in Las Casitas Village, which I highly recommend. Although at the far end of the resort and a little walk to get to the main dining areas, casino and harbor, it is peaceful and many of the units have beautiful views. There are 1,2 and 3 bedroom suites. Be sure to ask for ocean view or ocean front! Our unit had incredible ocean front views of Palomino Island (will talk about that soon) all the way around to the rainforest and overlooked the Casita's private Infinity Pool.  We couldn't have asked for a better location. However, no matter where you stay at the resort, you won't be disappointed. Just as a side note, if you stay in Las Casitas, please ask for a room with a view. We had a member of our group who was in a small room on a lower level. He said there was hardly any light coming in, and no view at all - except the parking lot. He had his room changed! They are very accommodating.

The resort has so much to offer. It has a magnificent golf course (I don't play golf, but I do know a   beautiful golf course when I see one).  It is on a rocky coast which is breath-taking. The beach is not on the mainland. You take a private hydroplane (ferry) to Palomino Island. It's a short ride to the resort's private island with crystal clear waters and white sand beaches. You can hike, horseback ride, take out sunfish, kayaks, snorkel, etc., or just sit back on a lounge chair and enjoy the beautiful vistas.  The island has a restaurant, bar and little gift shops as well, and you can charge everything to your room!

Back at the resort, there is a small water park with water slides and a lazy river pool. There is an extra charge, but if you are going with kids, it's a great way to spend a few hours.

If you want to be pampered, then you want to go to the Golden Door Spa. It is a world-reknown spa with so much to offer, you'll want to go back every day!

The resort restaurants are fantastic. No need to go into town for good food (locals told me this!).  Great dining experiences were had at the Stingray Cafe, where we had great Caribbean-infused seafood, and at Strip House, for phenomenal steaks. (of course the restaurants have large menus and items for those who don't eat certain foods).

We loved having breakfast outdoors at Casitas Cafe, overlooking Las Casitas Village Pool. It was quiet, the service staff was great and we sat and talked long after we finished our meals!

Ventana del Caribe, at the Infinity Pool in Las Casitas Village, is a great place for lunch. If you like wings, order them!!!! Our group ordered so many wings one afternoon that they ran out! Drinks are delicious and refreshing.  It was difficult to leave the pool because of the breathtaking views and the food and drink!  

You can leave the resort and go into the town of Fajardo. We chose not to since we were with a group. But we did do one thing that should not be missed. We did a Bioluminescence kayak tour at sunset into Las Croadbas Bay. Bioluminesence is a mysterious blue-green light that is created by micro-organisms in the water. There are only a couple places in the world where it is found year round, and Puerto Rico has 2 of those places, both with the highest amount of micro-organisms. Once of them is just past the marina which is at the lowest level of the resort.  If you aren't the kayaking type, no worries. They have electric boats that will safely take you on the same route. It is absolutely amazing and beautiful.

Now, there are so many more places to visit in Puerto Rico. If you've never been, definitely go to Old San Juan. It is beautiful and full of rich history.  You can go to Rincon in the winter months and surf - or watch the surfing competitions. Yes, that area (the most western part of the island) is a world class surf competition area.  There are islands like Viesques, of the northeastern coast, filled with beautiful beaches, abundant sea and land wildlife, great eateries, hotels and history. 

Was I happy that I returned to Puerto Rico? Not only was I happy, I am planning another trip there! The people are great, the food is great, the beaches are great, the weather is great . . . . and I want to see more!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Peru, The Sacred Valley and Machupicchu

 There are so many beautiful places in the world, so many places to visit. If you are looking for breath-taking beauty along with incredible history and lots of walking and hiking (of course, there are sites for all abilities), then you have to go to Peru.

Probably the most expensive part of the trip is the airfare, so if you have a mileage credit card, definitely start building up the miles!  If you belong to an airline that travels to Peru and have miles already, even better!!!!

I just came back from an incredible journey to the Sacred Valley and Machupicchu with a group totalling 8 people. This was the perfect number. We had a private tour bus as well as our own private guides who were knowledgeable, fun and passionate about their jobs.

The initial travel is directly to Lima. Most flights get you there late at night, so you can sleep at the airport hotel and the following morning start your adventure! The best way to do this is to work with a travel agent (Vacation On Your Mind!) who will coordinate with a local tour operator to create a custom vacation. This is exactly what we did! You need at least 5 days for the touring, but my suggestion is not to do less than 6. There is so much to see in this area that at the end of 5 days, you will be disappointed that you didn't stay longer!

We left Lima and flew to Cusco, which is known as the archaeological Capital of the Americas. It is a beautiful city where you will find a mix of indigenous styles and modern western influence. It is a vibrant city, alive from early in the morning through late nite. The elevation is high - about 12,000 feet, so many tour operators opt for a day there and then to continue on to a town with a lower elevation so that you can become accustomed to the change.  This is exactly what we did.  Cusco has a long and very interesting history dating back to 1200AD and linked to the first Inca ruler, and by the 15th century there was vast Inca expansion. lI'm not going to give away any more of its colorful history!

The Sacred Valley is home to many indigenous people, the Quechua. They speak their own native language, but most have learned Spanish. This was a big help to us because, since it is their second language, they spoke Spanish slowly and we were able to understand a little more!!!

We visited incredible ruins, including Sacsayhuaman, Tambomachay, Q'uenko, Puca Pucara and the "Koricncha", one of the most important building in Inca times (the Temple of the Sun) directly from Cusco and then were taken directly to the Sacred Valley (9100 feet).

In the Sacred Valley we visited the colonial villages of Pisac, Urubamba and Ollantaytambo. In Pisac we hiked for 2 hours to an ancient religious sector of the archaeological site which was hidden high in the mountains.  Don't worry - it's not all hiking! We went to a very unique local market in Pisac to begin our souvenir search!

In Ollantaytambo, we visited a major ruin that is known as the best surviving example of Inca urban planning and engineering. It was amazing. And, Ollantaytambo is still a living, breathing Inca city!

In Ollantaytambo,  we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes (Hot Waters), also known as Machu Picchu village. The town is about 30 minutes from the Machupicchu archaeological site. In Aguas Calientes there are hot springs, lots of shopping and restaurants galore.

There are two ways to see Machupicchu. One way is to stay at the only hotel that is just outside the gates of the site. They have a restaurant. You can get up pre-dawn and watch the sunrise. However, by the time you can go into the site, it is already light out. The sun hasn't come up over the mountain yet, but it is definitely light! A more affordable way is to stay in Aguas Calientes and take an early morning (they start at 5:30am) bus up to the site.  Again, you can be in the site before the sun comes up over the mountains and shines on the incredible ruins.  There is another way for those who are in great shape and love hiking. You can hike from Aguas Calientes up to Macchupicchu. It's between 1 1/2 and 2 hours to hike. It is steep and the air is a little thin, so this is only for those who prepare!!!

There are really no words to describe Machupicchu. It is defiinitiely the most incredible of the ruins. The beauty, the history, the llamas, the sanctity, the tranquility, the energy . . . you just need to be there!!! It is at the beginning of the Amazon Jungle (rain forest). You can wander around the ruins all day! There is a hike to the Sun Gate ("Intipunku"). For those who are in the best of shape, are not afraid of heights and have great balance, you can climb to the top of Waynapicchu mountain. It is a steep path up to the top and there is a limited amount of people allowed to climb it each day. It is also an additional fee, so if you are interested, you need to purchase those tickets in advance.

Back in the Sacred Valley, you can see more sites. You can go to Moray to see ruins that are a great example of the agriculture of the Inca civilization, to the Maras Salt Mines which are in the valley. You start high above and can see the 4000 salt beds in this Inca area. Once there, you can walk out and watch the locals working their "salt pools" and even taste some of it. It's something different and really interesting.  Chinchero is another example of Incan ruins with a city that is still alive and with rich culture  in the textiles. You can watch a really interesting demonstration on how sheep, llama, alpaca, etc. wool is created, dyed and weaved.

To shift gears, let's talk about the food. It's icredible - and it's not expensive.  You can get beef, chicken, pork and fish at just about any restaurant. And you can also get lamb, alpaca and guinea pig as well. We never had a bad meal. Most hotels include breakfast for their guests, which is great since you want to eat and leave to go to your next site!  They have coca tea, which is made from coca leaves. Yes, this is the plant that is used to produce cocaine, but no worries - you need to process it with other chemicals for that to happen. Locals say that the coca tea helps you with elevation adjustment, although those of us who drank it didn't feel any different!  Wine, beer, alcoholic beverages, juices, soft drinks - you can get it all. The Peruvian local drink is made with Pisco, an alcohoic beverage that I can only equate with tequila and vodka. Pisco Sours are a favorite there. If you have one and don't like it, try it some place else - everyone makes them slightly different!

We stayed at beautiful boutique hotels. Depending on your budget, you can go three, four or five star.  All the hotels were extremely clean, comfortable and the staff was some of the best we have ever encountered!

Again, using a tour company is the best way to see this part of Peru. Driving is absolutely crazy there, there are narrow, steep roads with cliffs galore. And even in town, there are these "taxis" which are motorcycles with compartments built over them to carry people! Speed bumps are very common - it's the only thing to slow down the drivers.  Using a tour company, once you've decided on your tour, they handle all the transportation tickets, site tickets, hotel arrangements, everything. All you have to do is show up!

Interested? Call me!!!! We're going again. Once is definitely not enough for me. It's magical, beautiful and I guess it stays in your blood!!!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Paradise in Playa Mujeres

Relatively unknown, compared to the Riviera Maya and the Cancun hotel zone, Playa Mujeres is a paradise on the verge of becoming the next great vacation spot. About 40 minutes north of the Cancun airport, lies a magnificent resort, Excellence Playa Mujeres. It is located on a 2 mile stretch of pristine white sand beach with crystal clear waters.

When we arrived at the front entrance, we were greeted like royalty. Of course, there was a cool wet towel and choice of champagne or a fruity cocktail . . . I chose both! Check-in was painless and very quick. We were welcomed with "welcome home" from many of the staff. They truly want you to feel like it is your home for the time you are here . . . And they aim to please!

The elegance of the resort is evident, yet there are no formalities. For our first lunch, we chose to eat outside, overlooking some of the pools and beach. You can't go wrong with
Cerviche and sangria to start off our holiday!

Our junior suite was ready by the time we finished lunch. Instead of describing the room, just look at some of the photos. New, clean, elegant . . . Beautiful. I was impressed.

A quick change into bathing suits and we are down on the beach, , , , palm trees and plenty of shade for those who are sun shy!!! Jesus, the beach bartender was at our chairs as soon. We sat down. Get the monitor . . . Very well made! After a sip or two, we took a walk into the calm, clean, crystal clear Caribbean. The water temperature was just too perfect!!! This is what Caribbean water should be like, everywhere!

Prefer sitting by a pool? This resort has a magnificent mending pool, with hammocks hanging just over the water, chairs placed in shallow areas for maximum comfort, again, plenty of shade for those who need it, and a pool bar with friendly staff. Along the buildings of the resort are smaller pools with many of the same features. There are plenty of quiet areas, and for those who want more activity, hang out closer to the pool bar and the Sol bar for live music and a large array of social activites.

The resort has .... Restaurants. Which one to go to first?!?!?! We chose Chez Isabelle. The atmosphere is romantic. The food was excellent. We had onion soup, surprisingly excellent, quiche lorraine, escargot, duck in a balsamic reduction and rack of lamb. I decided right then that I could eat there every night!!! We had wine poured freely through dinner and shared a dessert . . .just too full! After dinner, we went out to a courtyard where there was a live band, a good band, playing great classics, a mix of rock, blues. Jazz, etc. The bartender there, Pablo, became a quick friend. We had a nice ruby port while we listened to the music. There was a show (there is one every night) but we finished dinner too late to see it. We will see one another night. Tonight is about the music!

Back to some basics . . . The concierge is incredibly helpful with Anything you will need. You might choose to stay in the Excellence Club, which is an upgraded service, private check in, rooms closer to the beach (although many of the standard rooms have good views as well), a private bar, pool and beach area, if you want a little more pricacy!

The resort has one buffet style restaurant, Tuscaca, that is opened for breakfast and lunch. It becomes an italian restaurant for dinner.Definitely nit the typical buffet. At breakfast, there is a piano and horn ensemble playing, champagne, mimosas, bloody marts, an omlette station, crepe station, great fruit, fresh fruit drinks, smoked salmon with all the ecoutrements, and so much more. The food is excellent. For lunch on the second day we tried Toscana and delighted in fresh grilled calamari and shrimp, other seafood delights, salads galore, traditional Mexican foods, pasta station, pizza, sushi (they will make whatever you want) and so much more. Again, the service is great and they are extremely helpful. For example, I took the wrong sauce for my sushi, which was soy sauce with habeneros. I thought I would need a fire extinguisher, but one of the waiters saw my distress and brought over some bread, told me to eat it all, and onAly after that, to drink the water he was pouring. Way better than the fire extinguisher!

During the day, we met Oscar, who works with the social staff. He looked so familiar, and we realized we had met him while he was working at another resort. We introduced ourselves and he was as personable as we remembered! He had taught me in a spanish class at the other resort. I had requested that he do it on the beach so not to miss out on the scenery. He agreed . . . How could I forget him?!

I could tell you so many great stories about this resort, but instead I will just tell you about a few of the employees that made our trip so perfect!

Maria, the beach bartender, had so much fun at her job! She'd come around and say, "What's my name? . ..  remember to give me good comments!" There is a survey that you fill out during your stay -and she wanted to be sure to be mentioned - and for good reason. Great service, always a smile, and FUNNY! At the end of every day, she would come around to say adios, and would say, "See you tomorrow, same time, same place same crazy waitress!"  We looked forward to seeing her every day.

Jesus was another great beach waiter. He remembered every drink that we would order, and the next day, would still remember our favorites!

Daniel, at the water activities desk, was just a pleasure to be around. He took us out for Hobie Cat lessons (we had them before, but it's always good to take a refresher). He made it so much easier to understand the wind, the sail . . . even though I'm still not that sure about it. But, we did manage to take the Hobie Cat out by ourselves and, thanks to Jay, we made it back to shore!

I could go on about more servers, but you don't have all day. So I will just mention our absolute favorite person at the resort, Vilma, the concierge in the main lobby. She helped us more than you can imagine. Her attitude was one of excellence, an "if you want it, I can get it done" attitude with a smile (always). She met us the mornings of our excursions to wish us a good trip, she met us when we returned to see how our day was, she took us on a private tour of the resort and all the incredible suites, printed our boarding passes, made local calls for us, and so more. And when we were leaving, she made sure to be there, with hugs, wishing us safe travel home and hopes that we would return.  An incredible woman who has a passion for what she does - and it shows!

Enought about the hotel.  For excursions, we have done the Mayan ruins, the ecological parks, the jet ski tours, etc. This time, since Isla Mujeres (an island just off of Cancun known for it's white sand beaches, fishing villages, turtles, and more) was in plain view on the horizon, we took a catamaran excursion, by Sea Passion, to the island. We sailed, snorkeled, sailed, had a great lunch (with an option for lobster tail), sailed, docked in the market area where you can shop for all the Mexican items and more, and then hit the beach for a while before getting back on the catamaran for the sail back to the mainland. And, if I didn't mention it, this is a HUGE catamaran - 75 feet of pure heaven, with a great, fun staff, great music and some fun surprises on the way back . . . and unlimited drinks (alcoholic and non).  We left for the tour at 9am and returned after 5pm - so a full day of fun!

The BEST excursion we have ever done is only available from about May 15 - September 15 each year. We went on the  Cancun Whale Shark Tour. (www.cancunwhalesharktours,com). Roddrigo is the owner of this company and he has been doing this for years! There are many companies doing this tour, but his company is reasonably priced with the biggest bang for your buck. First class operation (now the boats are not yachts . . . they are made for people to get in and out of the water on a regular basis so they are simple, but fast and their captains are pros!).  Whale sharks migrate to about 25 miles off the coast of Cancun every year during the times I mentioned. I cannot explain how incredible the experience was - you simply have to do it. The feeling of swimming with some of the biggest fish in the sea - some were almost as long as our boat - is just breath-taking and euphoric. These sharks are vegetarians and extremely docile. And they are definitely used to having humans and boats around. They come back year after year (they are monitored) and are unaffected by us!  Imagine jumping into the water where you see fins all around you, and swimming out to swim along side (if you can keep up) with a whale shark.  We were 12 guests on the boat. We went into the water 3 at a time and we were able to go 3 times.  We were not rushed, our guide, Dioser, was a master! we swam up to these great creatures, swam with them and then swam to the next, and the next, and the next. There were over 100 sharks in the area, so no shortage for the other boats that were there.   We had people who had never snorkeled and some who were afraid of fish (not to mention sharks) on our boat, and everyone got into the water and loved it. It was an event I will never forget. Of course, bring an underwater camera - and an underwater video camera if you have one.  If someone doesn't believe you, just show them. And, I keep looking at them to bring back the incredible feelings of freedom!!!

I could go on forever about the resort, but I don't need to.  Since I am back, I've already booked this hotel for clients who read some of my Facebook posts! This is a definite repeat resort for me.  I've only been home a couple of days and I'm ready to go back.

If you want more information, just email me at or find me on Facebook. My page is Vacation On Your Mind. And when you find it, please "like" the page and you will see a lot more!!!!