Mask Temple Lamanai Belize

A Visit to the Lamanai Ruins of Belize

One of the highlights of any trip to Belize is a visit to the ancient Maya world and thankfully one of the best ancient Maya sites, the Lamanai ruins, is not far from Belize City and can be easily seen in a day. Lamanai is one of the largest and oldest Maya ceremonial sites within the region consisting of over 700 impressive structures. Lamanai – which translates into “submerged crocodile” – dates back to 1500 BC and tells the story of the ongoing Maya resistance against the European invaders for centuries making this site the longest known occupation throughout the Maya empire. It wasn’t fully abandoned until the 17th or even possibly 18th century. Its impressive setting along the banks of the New River surrounded by lush tropical jungle make a visit to the ruins all the more meaningful.

Located about 25 miles south from Orange Walk Town on the shore of the New River Lagoon, getting to the ruins is half of the fun and is quite frankly an adventure in itself. The majority of tourists opt to take an hour long speedboat ride to the site so you can observe and explore the fascinating flora and fauna that live along the mangroves of the river. Blessed with over 590 species of birds in Belize and plenty of unusual trees and plants, not to mention sun-bathing iguanas and crocodiles, the ride is magnificent and adds to the adventure of the arriving at the ruins. The ride back is full speed ahead and all the more thrilling.

Lamanai was my first experience exploring the fascinating ancient world of the Maya during a week long trip to Belize and Guatemala, and began a deep curiosity and appreciation for Maya culture and civilization.

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How Ecotourism is Helping Protect Endangered Howler Monkeys in Belize

The Yucatan Black Howler Monkey is the largest monkey in the Americas, and found only in a small section of Central America. Originally called baboons by the locals, the Yucatan Black Howler Monkey has been listed as an endangered species since 2003 and its population has declined over 60% due to loss of land, hunting and disease. Yet an innovative, community-led grassroots project called the Community Baboon Sanctuary located in the Belize River Valley outside of Belize City is doing wonders to conserve and protect both the monkeys and the local community who support them. It was the first place I visited on my trip to Belize with G Adventures and was the perfect way to start off a week of adventure and sustainable travel.

I arrived in Belize City on a non-stop morning flight from cold, wintry Minnesota. The moment I walked off the plane, I was greeted with the sticky, thick humidity of the tropics. A smile instantly came across my weather-worn face. I was ready for some sun and adventure, both which would be coming over the next eight days in Belize exploring the jungle, ancient Mayan ruins, and marine life in the world’s second largest barrier reef.

After gathering my luggage, I was greeted by a representative from the Black Orchid Resort where I’d be spending the first two days of my trip. Located next to the mangrove banks of the Belize River near the tiny village of Burrell Boom, it was the perfect alternative to staying in Belize City. The Black Orchid offered peace, beauty and nature yet was not too far away from the major tourist attractions and very close to the Community Baboon Sanctuary where we would be spending our first full morning.

After an evening of settling in at the hotel and meeting my fellow group of travelers with G Adventures, we were ready to depart for a morning tour of the Community Baboon Sanctuary (CBS). I was extremely excited to visit the CBS because I love monkeys and I am passionate about seeing sustainably run conservation projects on the ground. We arrived around nine and were met by our guide Robert who would first give us an overview of the project and then take us on a wonderful nature walk within the sanctuary where we would learn about the flora and fauna of the rainforest and be able to observe the monkeys in the wild.

The CBS is an exemplary community-led grassroots conservation project that works to protect the natural habitat of the endangered Yucatan black howler monkeys while also working hand in hand with the local community through education, community development and sustainable ecotourism practices. The CBS was founded by American primatologist Dr. Robert Horwich in 1981 after he identified the region of the lower Belize River Valley as one of the largest habitats of black howler monkeys in North Central America. Working with the local community of private landowners, the pioneering idea of creating a voluntary sanctuary for the monkeys was formed. Property maps were drawn up for each landholder and they were asked to sign a voluntary pledge that outlined the management plans for conservation.

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Jökulsárlón Northern Lights. Photo credit: Tom Archer

Discovering Iceland with Hidden Iceland’s Small Sustainable Tours

There is perhaps no other more mystifying place on earth than Iceland. Known as “the Land of Fire and Ice”, Iceland is home to extreme geological contrasts being blessed with some of the largest glaciers in Europe and also some of the world’s most active volcanoes. Iceland’s extreme beauty has captured the world’s attention making this small Nordic country one of the hottest tourist destinations in the the world. Many travel companies have opened up shop to support the growing tourism industry especially in a sustainable, responsible way. Hidden Iceland is one small tour company that is breaking the way in sustainable travel.

I went to Iceland in the summer of 2008 filled with anticipation. I had heard so much about Iceland’s stunning natural beauty of rushing waterfalls, massive blue icebergs, and her expansive, mysterious landscape. I wanted to see for myself if this magical place was real and within the first day I fell in love with her mystical power and beauty. While there were tourists around most of the sights during my visit, it wasn’t as popular ten years ago as it is today. Over the past few years, tourism has exploded which of course has its pros and cons. Per the Icelandic Tourist Board, “The total foreign overnight visitors to Iceland was around 2.2 million in 2017, a 24.2% increase from 2016, when foreign visitors numbered around 1.8 million”. With Iceland’s small population of approximately 338,000 this surge in popularity has not come without its price and there have been lots of people wondering how to travel to Iceland sustainably and protect its unique culture and environment.

One way you can travel responsibly is by choosing a sustainable tour company that offers off the beaten path tours to lesser visited areas, employs local guides and also takes care of the environment and culture. Hidden Iceland is a boutique travel company that focuses on immersive experiences with passionate guides in remote settings such as glaciers, volcanoes, Northern Light spots and ice caves.  Hidden Iceland is also a Certified Climate Neutral Partner offsetting their carbon emissions, and also maintains a strict sustainability policy of offering only small guided group tours. They are currently ranked number 3 in all of Iceland on TripAdvisor out of 386 tour outfitters (with all five star ratings!), and their unique approach to combining personalised service, expert knowledge and a love of all things Iceland is what makes them stand out as one of the best.

Sólheimajökull Blue Ice.

Sólheimajökull Blue Ice. South Coast. Photo credit: Norris Niman/Hidden Iceland

I had the opportunity to learn more about Hidden Iceland from Ryan Connolly, one of the co-founders and here is what he has to say about what makes their trips unique.  

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Xunantunich Belize

Top Things to Do in Belize in a Week

On the Caribbean coast of Central America to the south of Mexico and the east of Guatemala lies the tiny country of Belize. One of the smallest countries within Central America, with a mere population of around 382,000, Belize has an incredible amount to offer the intrepid traveler. Belize’s lush jungle, stunning barrier reef, plethora of ancient Mayan ruins, rich culture, and downright natural beauty make it a haven for adventure junkies, nature lovers and those wanting to experience island life on one of its many cayes (islands). Furthermore, Belize is Central America’s only English-speaking country making travel much easier for those who don’t speak Spanish or Creole.

After exploring much of Central America and particularly falling in love with the beauty Costa Rica, I personally wasn’t sure how Belize would compare. I had honestly never truly given Belize a thorough review, as I had only visited Belize City and one of her lovely cayes for a day trip when we were on a family cruise years ago. But that one visit to paradise was enough to whet my appetite for more and instill a desire to return for a full blown week long adventure. The only challenge was that I would be traveling alone.

After careful research, I found the perfect way for me to visit Belize without my usual traveling companions, my family. I joined a small-group tour with G Adventures, a Canadian-based company with a focus on responsible travel and tourism. I had learned about G Adventures years ago when I heard its inspiring founder Bruce Poon Tip present at a travel blogging conference in Toronto. I was instantly impressed with his vision and passion for sustainable travel through G Adventures’ for Good Programs around the world.  I was thrilled to see G Adventure’s Belize Trip used local tour guides, drivers and locally-owned hotels for all the stays, and also included three G for Good Program visits where we could support the local community. I booked the trip in early December and anxiously awaited the departure just as winter in Minnesota was gathering steam.

Belize Barrier Reef

Setting sail on a catamaran to Belize’s Barrier Reef

Belize Barrier Reef

Snorkeling with sea turtles, nurse sharks and rays is a highlight of any trip to Belize. Photo Credit: Anda De Wata Tours, Belize

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Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

Best Hikes in Tucson: Hiking the Ventana Canyon Trailhead to Maiden Pools

For the past 25 years, I’ve been a regular visitor to Tucson and have fallen in love with her laid back, Southwestern disposition and charm. Tucson has become like a second home to me and there is no place I’d rather be in Tucson than on a hike in the desert or mountains. One of my all time favorite hikes in Tucson is along the Ventana Canyon Trailhead up to Maiden Pools. Located adjacent to Loews Ventana Canyon resort in the Santa Catalina mountains and less than five minutes from my parents’ home, this 4.7 mile hike up the canyon is one of Tucson’s finest.

Known for its spectacular beauty and magnificent views, the hike to Maiden Pools is a moderate two and a half hour hike depending on speed and stops. If you really want a challenge, you can continue on to “The Window” or “Ventana” in Spanish which the canyon is named after. This 12.8 mile rugged hike is quite challenging and takes pretty much the entire day. The majority of hikers opt for the hike to Maiden Pools where you can stop for a lovely picnic lunch and even dip your toes in the water if you like.

The hike

The Ventana Canyon Trailhead is located just to the west of Loews Ventana Canyon Resort. There is a parking lot right next to the trailhead for hikers. When you enter the resort, follow the signs which will lead you to the left side of the resort and the parking lot is just past the employee parking lot.

As you leave the parking lot and follow the trail you are inside the property of Ventana Canyon Resort. The walk brings you around some of Ventana’s rental condos and past the old Flying V Ranch who owns a chance of acres adjacent to the resort and trail.

After about twenty minutes, you reach a walk-through fence where you enter the National Forest boundary and begin the true trail. You can see the stunning steep cliffs of Ventana Canyon rise above you from below in the desert landscape where you are surrounded by cactus and majestic hovering saguaro.

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

The fence that is the boundary of the National Forest

Ventana Canyon Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

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Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

Tucson Travel Guide: How to Plan the Perfect Trip to Tucson

Tucson, with her laid-back charm and sunny disposition, has long been a top destination for travelers craving a visit to the American Southwest.  With an average of over 300 days of sunshine, four different mountain ranges to choose from, a vibrant University scene and a mecca for golf courses, resorts and spas, Tucson, Arizona’s second largest city, offers a great escape from a cold Minnesota winter or quite frankly winter anywhere.

I have been visiting Tucson for over 25 years and have always adored her vibrant desert landscape, rugged mountains, and bewitching southwestern charm. It is no wonder that Tucson is the perfect year round destination for outdoor enthusiasts who come to play golf, bike, hike, and explore nature. The options and opportunities to be outside are endless. For those seeking culture, Tucson’s rich Native American, Spanish and Mexican heritage as well as her Wild West past can be discovered within Tucson’s architecture, food, arts and overall vibe. Perhaps I’m slightly biased given Tucson is like my second home but in my opinion Tucson is a fabulous place to visit.

Why Tucson?

Tucson has a lot to offer given her size compared with her much larger neighbor Phoenix. At under a million people, Tucson is fairly manageable and you don’t have to drive too far to see great things. Although getting from one end of town to the other (such as driving from the Sonoran Desert Museum to Sabino Canyon) can be a bit tedious due to the lack of a freeway system, Tucson is a piece of cake in comparison to massive Phoenix. Furthermore, you are much closer to the mountains and hiking which is huge on my list. There are also some very nice museums to check out and enough luxurious resorts and good restaurants to keep you busy.

There is plenty to do for an entire week whether it involves relaxing at a spa or pool, hiking, biking, birdwatching, exploring culture and arts or taking a few scenic drives. Less than 90 minutes from Phoenix and a little over 3 1/2 hours to Sedona and five to the Grand Canyon, Tucson can easily be added on to an Arizona road trip. However, trust me there is plenty to do for an entire week especially if you time your visit right with the weather.

Best Time of Year to Visit

Tucson can be visited year round however it gets very hot in the summer so that is the one time of year to be avoided if possible. If you do visit in the summer, plan on rising early to do your outdoor pursuits and spending the hottest hours of the day either in the pool or checking out some of the indoor attractions. My favorite time of year to go to Tucson is late March or April in the Spring when all the desert flowers and cactus are in bloom, the water is rushing through the streams and canyons and the weather is delightful with highs usually in the 80s. Another wonderful time to visit is in mid-Fall. October is still warm yet not as hot as September. This is also a nice time to consider a visit to Sedona or the Grand Canyon as it is not nearly as crowded as other months. Winter months (December – February) are nice as well but you can occasionally get cooler weather and rain.

Top Five Things to Do

There is a ton to do in Tucson and it all depends of course on your interests. Here are my top five things to do that cannot be missed when visiting Tucson.

Take a Hike

Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

One of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  The best hikes to do:   Walk any distance along the paved road through Sabino Canyon (7.6 roundtrip) , take Phoneline Trail (7.6 miles) or hike to Seven Falls (7.9 miles).

If you go: The Visitor Center is open 8-4:30 pm daily and the cost to park is $5 per vehicle. Location:  5700 N Sabino Canyon Rd, Tucson, AZ 85750. To learn more visit US Forest Service website for Sabino Canyon Recreation Area.

If you really want a challenge, you can spend a day climbing Tucson’s highest peak, Mount Wrightson but be prepared as this is a 5-6 hour challenging hike to almost 10,000 feet.

 

Hike to Seven Falls, Tucson, Arizona

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Old Baldy Trail Mount Wrightson

On Top of Tucson’s Highest Peak: Hike to Mount Wrightson

Hands down, one of the greatest hikes in Tucson is to the top of Mount Wrightson. Located about 40 miles south of the city in the lush Coronado National Forest of the Santa Rita Mountains, Mount Wrightson and lesser known neighbor Mount Ian comprise the backdrop of any picture taken in Tucson. At 9,456 feet, Mount Wrightson is Tucson’s tallest peak (Mount Ian is slightly smaller at 9,146 feet) and the views along the way and at the top are quite impressive. Where else in Tucson can you pass through four different ecological zones ranging from the last remains of the Sonoran desert to the Ponderosa pines and finally the majestic Douglas Firs. In a little over five hours, you can have it all and get a challenging hike too.

I first hiked Mount Wrightson over twenty years ago when I was visiting my parents in Tucson. It was in my early hiking years and at the time I found the hike pretty darn challenging. I remember when I reached the top, I realized that it was the highest mountain I’d ever climbed. I’d done a lot of hiking growing up in Minnesota and had even hiked in the Alps but I had never hiked over 9,000 feet before. I’d only skied at that elevation. Being on top of Mount Wrightson felt like being on top of the world. It was exhilarating and set in motion a strong desire to keep climbing.

Five years later, I made another attempt to summit Mount Wrightson but physically it was not meant to be. I was three months pregnant with my son and the morning sickness made the hike impossible. I only got to the first saddle at 7,100 feet. That was in November 2003 and it took another 15 years for me to finally get the opportunity to attempt the hike again.

Ventana Trailhead, Tucson, Arizona

At the top of Ventana Trailhead overlooking Tucson and a view of Mount Wrightson and Mount Ian far off in the horizon. January 2019. 

Why go

Reaching Tucson’s highest peak is always an accomplishment and the hike itself is truly quite stunning, affording sensational views all the way into Mexico and beyond as well as getting a feel for Arizona’s incredible ecological diversity. Of course there are plenty of stunning hikes to do in the desert surrounding Tucson yet a climb to the top of Mount Wrightson is truly special and unique. If you are lucky you may also even see wildlife that only lives in higher elevations like the Whitetail and Mule Deer, Wild Turkey, Black Bear, Coati or even a fox. Plus what is not to love about a nice, demanding leg burning hike.

The Hike

There are two trails to choose from to reach the top of Mount Wrightson (or Mount Ian if you prefer to climb that peak). For those who want to get there faster and have a more challenging hike, follow the Old Baldy Trail, a ten-mile hike through the forest with switchbacks weaving you up to the top. If you want an easier, less trafficked yet longer hike you can follow the 13.1 mile Super Trail (Also known as the Loop Trail). I prefer the Old Baldy Trail.

Both hikes begin right next to the parking lot at the Madera Canyon Trailhead located at the end of the Madera Canyon Road. The 11-mile drive into Madera Canyon is quite spectacular in itself as you leave behind the dusty desert landscape of cactus and mesquite trees and enter the lush Coronado National Forest composed of Evergreen Oaks, Arizona Sycamores, Fremont Cottonwoods and Alligator Junipers.

Along the way are tiny cabins and a few B&Bs where birders from around the world come to spend a night or two. With over 250 species of birds identified in the area, Madera Canyon is one of the most renowned birding destinations in the United States and it is evident by the number of birders walking around with their binoculars, sun hats and enormous cameras.

The start of both trailheads is at 5,450 feet and by this time you have already left behind the desert landscape that surrounds Tucson and have entered the Coronado National Forest lush with a wide variety of trees. The start of the Old Baldy trailhead is wide and a bit rocky until you reach the woods and the first of many switchbacks winding you up to the Josephine Saddle.

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Laguna Chocuaco, Rancho Quemado, Osa Península, Costa Rica

Sustainable Travel Guide: What to Do in the Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

Gently pushing off the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica lies the beautifully pristine Osa Peninsula, a magical paradise of untouched primitive rain forests, deserted beaches and rural communities relatively hidden to mainstream tourism. Known for its conservation efforts and robust ecotourism industry, the Osa Peninsula is one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet with over 2.5% of the world’s biodiversity in less than one millionth of the Earth’s surface area.

With utterly jaw-dropping beauty, immense expanses of virgin rainforest and parts of lush green jungle that literally look like it is dropping into the celestial blue sea, the Osa Peninsula is my favorite part of Costa Rica. What I love best about the Osa Peninsula is it is still a bit of an undiscovered jewel. Despite a handful of small towns sprinkled throughout the peninsula, the majority of the Osa is uninhabited and undeveloped. Even the airports are simply plain old landing strips in the middle of a field or jungle. Its lack of development and its immense bounty of undisturbed nature and wildlife make it the ideal part of Costa Rica to experience pura vida, the pure life.

Why go

While many travelers chose to visit the more popular parts of Costa Rica such as the endless beaches of the Guanacaste, the precious yet touristy Manuel Antonio National Park in the Central Pacific Coast or the cloud forests or Arenal volcano of the Northern Zone, a visit to Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula will be sure to be an experience not like any other.

Where else can you be rewarded with the opportunity to immerse yourself with the local life, culture and extraordinary nature in one of the most magical, biodiverse places on earth? The pure remoteness of the Osa Peninsula works to keep the hordes of tourists away which is an added bonus. If you want the pure, real deal then go to the Osa Peninsula. It is sadly the last frontier of Costa Rica and hopefully it will stay that way.

Some of the unique things you can do in the Osa Peninsula include bathing in jungle swimming holes and waterfalls, birdwatching in a private lagoon, spending a night in a locally run guesthouse that is only reachable by foot, eating home-cooked Tico cuisine, all while supporting the local community. A highlight of any visit to the Osa Peninsula includes a day or more at the Corcovado National Park where you can see scarlet macaws, monkeys, sloths, tapirs and for those lucky few, an endangered jaguar. You can also spend a day dolphin and whale watching or diving and snorkeling off Isla de Caño or go for a sunset horseback ride on the rarely visited Playa San Josecito. The options are endless and after few days in the Osa Peninsula you will be wishing you had more.

The Osa Peninsula is idea for nature lovers, adventure lovers, families and couples, and especially those who are interested in supporting sustainable tourism. However, be prepared. The Osa Peninsula is still like the Outback and getting there and around requires a test of patience and some white-knuckle driving. Many places are only reachable on foot, on ATV or by boat. For those who love adventure, this is the place for you!

Osa Peninsula, Costa Rica

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The Best Ski Areas in Minnesota

I love to ski and while here in the Midwest we don’t have the amazing mountains of Colorado or Utah, Minnesota surprisingly has quite a lot of ski areas to learn on and hone your skills. I grew up skiing Minnesota’s often icy and cold ski areas, learning to ski at the tender age of three. For me, skiing is the best way to survive our notoriously long Minnesota winters and a way to get outside in the depth of our coldest months.

When I tell my non-native friends that I spend my weekends skiing in Minnesota, they are often surprised until I remind them that it was little suburban ski area Buck Hill in Burnsville, Minnesota where one of the best skiers in the world got her start, Lindsey Vonn. Taught at Buck Hill by the renowned Erich Sailer who also groomed slalom racer Kristina Koznick, Vonn put Minnesota on the map for many young ski hopefuls. Vonn eventually moved to Colorado to train on the bigger mountains but often looks back nostalgically on the icy, sometimes brutal conditions of Minnesota skiing where she got began.

Given my love for skiing, my husband and I started our own kids skiing when they were toddlers with weekly lessons at Buck Hill. Once the kids were in elementary school, we joined a Twin Cities based ski and snowboard club called Blizzard that brings us to a different ski area every Saturday from December through March. We have been members of the ski club for six years and have skied all over the state. While one ski area crosses the Minnesota border slightly into Wisconsin and the best ski area is near the Canadian border, all ski areas are within an hour to four and a half hour drive of the Twin Cities. Here is a list of my favorites in order.

Lutsen Ski Area

https://www.lutsen.com

Located in Northern Minnesota near the Canadian border is Lutsen Ski Area, one of the largest ski areas in the Midwest. Nestled within the stunning Sawtooth Mountains with massive Lake Superior as a backdrop, Lutsen Ski Area encompasses four interconnected peaks, 95 runs, a gondola, and 825 feet vertical rise (not bad for the Midwest). Although it can be cold, it is by far the best skiing Minnesota has to offer and makes for a great family, friend or couple weekend trip. Besides skiing, there is also nordic skiing, snowshoeing, dog sledding and sleigh rides so there is plenty to keep you busy.

About a four and a half hour drive from the Twin Cities, Lutsen is best experienced over a weekend and there are tons of great lodging options available. You can stay mountainside, at the Lutsen resort or at a Lutsen Sea Villa along the edge of frozen Lake Superior. Lutsen has been a favorite ski area of mine since I was a kid. We usually go skiing in early March to escape the colder winter months however you never know when you may just luck out with warmer weather and good snow. Some friends of mine just got back from an early January trip and the conditions were outstanding.

Check out current conditions and see a trail map here. To view accommodations check out Lutsen Resorts.

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Bell Tower, Prague

Self-Guided Walking Tour of Prague: A Complete 2-3 Day Itinerary

While Paris has always been my first love, little did I know that I’d also fall madly in love with the old world charm and beauty of Prague. In my opinion, few cities in the world compare to the magical architecture of these two cities, both equally adored in my eyes. I first saw Prague while I was living and studying abroad in Paris back in 1993, just four years after the Velvet Revolution. With over 40 years of communism, much of Prague’s beauty had been shroud in mystery and wasn’t unveiled for the world to see until 1989 with the fall of communism.

Prague’s history is long and deep which makes this charming city even more fascinating. Founded around the end of the 9th century at the crossroads of Europe, Prague became the seat of the Kings of Bohemia with a thriving marketplace alongside the River Vltava. Feuding kings, bloody wars, and the building of the Old Town Square surrounding the immense Prague Castle defined this prospering city that reached its glory in the 14th century during the reign of Charles IV. Charles IV commissioned the building of New Town, the spectacular Charles Bridge, the Gothic masterpiece Saint Vitus Cathedral and the Charles University, the oldest in Central Europe. Thanks to Charles IV, the “golden age” inspired much of the beauty you see in Prague today.

When to Go

Today, Prague relishes as one of the top major tourist destinations in all of Europe where people from all over the world come to take a step back in time and marvel at this masterpiece of architectural delight. Prague’s multi-layered history of architecture takes us back to her founding 1,100 years ago in the Romanesque era to her flourishing by the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque eras, all within 3.34 square miles.

With only 1.3 million inhabitants, Prague sometimes can feel overrun with tourists blocking its tiny, winding cobblestone streets and filling up its squares. But despite the hordes of tourists, the magic of this city is spellbinding and is bound to take your breath away.

The best time to go to Prague if you want to avoid tourists yet take a little bit of a chance on weather is during the shoulder season meaning either Spring or Fall. We went in early May and had fairly good weather with a little spring rain. It wasn’t too unbearably crowded or hot like it gets during the busy summer months. I imagine September would be lovely in Prague.

Neighborhoods to See

Prague is made up of five independent municipalities: Hradčany (Prague Castle), Lesser Town (Malá Strana), Old Town (Staré Město) and New Town (Nové Město) and Josefov (the Jewish district) was added in 1850. Although Prague was one of the few European cities untouched by WWII, the Nazi occupation lead to the demise of the Jewish population who either fled or were killed in the Holocaust. The Germans who had formed the largest ethnic group in the city were expelled after the war. Then came 40 years of communism followed by freedom and an opening to the world.

In this guide, I will focus on the top touristic neighborhoods to see first for old world charm and architectural bliss:  Malá Strana (Lesser Town), Old Town (Staré Město), Malá Strana (Lesser Town), and Hradčany (Prague Castle). We stayed in Nové Město (New Town) which despite its name, is not new as it was founded in 1348 by Emperor Charles IV to link Old Town with other parts of Prague. There is plenty to see in Nové Město as well in terms of stunning architecture, the Wenceslas Square, department stores, shops, restaurants and more. Another district you must visit is Josefov, Prague’s old Jewish ghetto filled with beautiful synagogues, an old Jewish cemetery and the Jewish Town Hall. We only had time to briefly visit the Old New Synagogue (Staronová synagoga), one of the oldest and most valuable European and world Jewish monuments, and the oldest synagogue in Central Europe. We simply ran out of time. I would highly recommend spending at least half a day in Josefov if not more. If you like to shop, then you could also easily spend a half to full day in New Town as well. The itinerary below is meant for at least 2-3 full days to explore at a leisurely pace.

Prague at sunset on the Charles Bridge.

Prague at sunset on the Charles Bridge.

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Blackett's Ridge Hike, Sabino Canyon, Tucson, Arizona

The Best Hikes in Tucson’s Sabino Canyon

There is no better way to connect with the raw beauty of nature than by doing a good hike. I grew up hiking and for the past twenty years I have enjoyed sharing many hikes with my father, my siblings and my own children wherever we can find a good trail especially when we are visiting my parents in Arizona.  Tucson is a hiker lover’s paradise. With over 300 days of sunshine a year, a desert climate and four different mountain ranges surrounding the city, there are endless opportunities to take a beautiful walk or challenging hike in nature. Whether it be to the Santa Catalina Mountains in the north, the Rincon Mountains in the east, the Santa Rita Mountains in the south or the Tucson Mountains in the west, you will find no shortage of trails to explore.

Fortunately for me, my parents have lived in the foothills of the Santa Catalina mountains for over 25 years and their home is only five minutes away from one of the best places to hike in all of Tucson, Sabino Canyon Recreation Area with tons of hikes through both Sabino and Bear Canyon.  Over the decades Sabino Canyon Recreation Area has become my outdoor playground and I try to hike every day when I’m visiting my parents. It is achingly beautiful and perhaps one of the most stunning places in all of southwestern Arizona.

While there are several hikes and walks to choose from, these are my top four recommendations for the best hikes in the Sabino Canyon Recreation Area. I have put them in order of difficulty which does not necessarily mean distance. All of the hikes are appropriate for children over ten as long as they have a decent level of fitness however I wouldn’t recommend bringing a child under ten years old on any of these unless you are prepared to take a lot of breaks and be mindful of the dangers that exist. Instead, I would stick with walking on the paved path that runs 3.8 miles (7.6 miles roundtrip) through Sabino Canyon or even wandering around some of the shorter nature paths near the entrance of the recreation center. There used to be a guided tram service that brought tourists to both Sabino and Bear Canyon but unfortunately the service has been shut down while the park service rethinks its environmental impact. This has dramatically impacted available hiking options especially for families with young kids or for those who can’t walk as far.

Sabino Canyon

Sabino Canyon is beautiful any time of year.

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First Time Guide to Climbing Kilimanjaro

Have you ever had a dream for so long that it never stopped bugging you until you decided to just do it? For me, it has always been Kilimanjaro. I had wanted to climb this epic mountain ever since my father did it in October 1999. There really had not been any dream or travel goal that I have had for that long.

Like most dreams, there have been many obstacles and road blocks along the way. It wasn’t until a few years ago that my decades long dream became a reality.  I had wanted to make this climb special and have it be somewhat similar to my life-changing trip to Nepal. Serendipitously I was connected with the U.S.-based non-profit Solar Sister, an organization who provides solar electricity in Sub-Saharan Africa. For their fifth year anniversary, an international team was planning to climb Kilimanjaro in June of 2015.  Each climber was required to raise $4,000 to support the hiring and training for 8 new solar sister employees in Africa and to celebrate the success of Solar Sisters, we would climb Kilimanjaro together as a multigenerational, international team. It was a perfect opportunity and I seized it. Looking back today, it was even better than I ever dreamed it would be. It was truly epic. Figuring out what on earth to do next after such an incredible climb will be the challenge.

Why go?

Kilimanjaro, the fourth highest peak among the seven summits, soaring at 19,340 feet (5,895 m) and one of the world’s highest freestanding mountains, has long been one of the most popular climbs given its relative ease of climbing (no technical climbing ability is necessary) and beauty.  Located 200 miles (330 km) south of the equator in Northern Tanzania, the snow-capped volcanic dome of Kilimanjaro dominates the skyline like no other mountain on earth.

Kilimanjaro is actually not a single peak but a vast complex of cones and cores spreading over 38 miles (61 km) long by 25 miles (40 km) wide. There are three distinct volcanic cones: Kibo, Mawenzi, and Shira. Uhuru Peak is the highest summit on Kibo’s crater rim and is the hopeful destination of thousands of climbers every year.

Mount Kilimanjaro, Tanzania

For me personally, I had grown up hiking, and climbing Kilimanjaro had been a long-term goal of mine after seeing my dad’s photos of his own climb back in 1999. I also desperately wanted to get there soon before the snow that caps the top of this mighty beast and makes it so stunning, is gone forever. Some scientists predict that the glaciers atop Kilimanjaro will be gone as early as 2030. What a tragedy!

What Route to choose?

There are six main climbing routes on Kilimanjaro with the Marangu Route (also known as the “Coca-Cola Route”) being the easiest and most popular. Our group chose the longer, more scenic Machame route that can take anywhere from 6-7 days and is known as one of the most beautiful routes on the mountain, passing through five distinct ecological zones and affording dramatic views every single day of the climb. The Machame Route also has one of the highest success rates for reaching the summit since it allows proper acclimatization before the final summit push.

Total Length of Hike: 62 miles (100 km) up and 24 miles (38 km) down.

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia)

Image of Mount Kilimanjaro Climbing Routes (Wikipedia). Our route was the Machame colored in brown.

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