Toronto and Montréal

Below are some of my favorite pics from my quick and unexpected trip to Toronto and Montreal in December 2014.  Turns out that Air Canada cancelled one of my flights and I wound up having a three day stopover in Toronto. I decided to take advantage of this mishap and see a bit of both Toronto and Montréal.  Looking back on my trip, I managed to see a lot and cover quite some distance in just three days; putting sleep and comfort on the back burner was well worth it! I landed in Toronto just after midnight on Day 1 and took the 6am Megabus to Montréal.

Sleeping in the airport for a few hours never seems like a big deal when you book your ticket, but there is always several moments of regret in the moment. It was a long night of scouting out the best seats to nap in, people watching and dozing in and out of “sleep.” Getting from the airport to the bus station at the crack of dawn was quite the challenge, as a snowstorm had just begun. I managed to grab two busses and hike through the snow for a few blocks (with all my luggage) to find the bus stop.   Boarding the bus to Montréal was such a relief as I could finally relax and get a decent nap. Strangely enough, I felt like I was taking the bus from Kansas City to Chicago, as the landscape was almost identically flat and uneventful.

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When I arrived to Montréal just after noon on day 1, I took the métro to my hostel for the night. I had always assumed that some people spoke French in Québec, which was wrong. Everyone speaks French all the time, which was a bit intimidating at first.  It was surreal for me at times being in Montréal because it felt like I was dropped somewhere in Europe, but in reality was very close to the USA.  This also sparked my interest in wanting to learn French, as I spent the next few days trying to pick out words I could understand here and there.  After I dropped my things off at my hostel. I wasted no time and began exploring on (wet and soggy) foot, as the snow continued all day long.

The métro in Montréal

The métro in Montréal

Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal

Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal

It was a pleasant change traveling to Montréal after spending so much time traveling throughout Latin America, everything seemed to work out just as planned and I could use google maps with ease!  The snow-covered city was beautiful and I think I got a good taste of downtown and also spent some time in the Contemporary Art Museum.  At the end of the day, I fell hard against my pillow as I had only slept a few hours during the past few days.

A snow covered view of the city from Parc Mont Royal

A snow covered view of the city from Parc Mont Royal

Vieux-Montréal

Vieux-Montréal

I woke up on day 2 energized and ready to get back out and explore the city.  I started off by walking up to Parc Mont Real, which is located on a hill that overlooks all of Downtown Montréal.  The park was beautiful and covered with snow, and I was treated to an awesome view of downtown (and a snowman) once I reached the lookout point.  I also made my way to Old Montreal, which is the historical part of town where old French architecture has been preserved.  The Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal was unreal – such a huge and intricately designed and decorated basilica unlike anything I had ever seen.  Although I got lost a few times, I had a great time wondering around and before I knew it I was on an overnight bus back to Toronto.

The Art Gallery of Ontario

The Art Gallery of Ontario

An early morning view of the CN Tower

An early morning view of the CN Tower

The St. Lawrence Farmers Market in Toronto

The St. Lawrence Farmers Market in Toronto

Day three, my final day in Canada, started bright and early at the Toronto bus station.  After a quick breakfast in Denny’s at 5am, I set off on foot to explore downtown for a bit.  I got to do some exploring before the rest of the city woke up. It was a bit surreal wondering around such a big city almost alone, but the rest of the city eventually woke up and decided to join me.  I made my way to the St. Lawrence Market, which was huge!  You could find everything from fruits and veggies to breads, juices, coffee, etc.  I must say that the best part of the market were the free samples at the cheese stalls. After the market, I spent some time walking around downtown and saw the CN Tower make its appearance between a few buildings.  Finally, I made my way to the Ontario Art Museum before I had to get back to the airport and board my flight to Chicago.  I am a big fan of long layovers and stopovers.  Depending on how determined you are to get out and explore, you can see a lot in a small amount of time and get a taste of what that city is like.

25th Birthday in Nicaragua

To celebrate my 25th birthday, Mauricio and I decided to take a long weekend trip to the colonial city of Granada.  It had been a few years since we went to Nicaragua last, and we both had wanted to visit a new part of the country we had never seen before.  The long, hot and crammed chicken bus rides were worth it, as we spent four days relaxing and treating ourselves.
IMG_0228We spent most of our trip wondering around on foot and taking in the colonial architecture.  Although it was hot, the weather was great the entire time.  Compared to Costa Rica, Nicaragua is so cheap, and we had the chance to eat some awesome food for a great price.  It’s a win-win combination, you get to treat yourself without feeling guilty!  Where else can you get a romantic three course candle-lit dinner for two for $20?!
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We took a day trip to the Mercado de Masaya located about an hour away from Granada.  Although we didn’t find the cool leather bag we set off looking for, we had quite the adventure getting to the market.  Finding our way to the market via chicken bus and advice from locals was a lot of fun and certainly a change from the everyday transport.  We went to both markets, the artisan (super touristy) market and the market locals frequent to find almost anything under the sun.  IMG_0262Exploring on foot can get a little monotonous, so we decided to switch things up a bit.  Setting off to explore on two wheels was a great idea, and we had a blast!  It was a pleasant change of pace, as we leisurely peddled our way through parts of the city we hadn’t yet seen.  We got a good taste of what it was like to live in Granada by seeing families hanging out in their neighborhood.  We talked a lot about how cool it would be to buy a run down apartment, renovate it and have it be our getaway vacation loft.  Never hurts to dream, right?! 
IMG_0274The pool was essential, as the heat was unbearable at times.  We ended up staying at a hotel that just opened which had it’s own pool.  During our entire stay, we were the only guests in the entire place, so we essentially had the hotel to ourselves! Traveling during the low season is the best.  The hotel, which used to be some sort of a mansion back in the day, was apparently haunted. Luckily, we had no unwanted visitors.

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As always, our vacation ended as quickly as it started.  We made our way back to Costa Rica with cheap rum and lots of great memories.  Mauricio and I love Nicaragua, and still talk about going back to see different parts of the country.  Traveling for our birthdays has become a tradition for us that is well worth the effort; travel is a great way to celebrate and reconnect!

Ultimamente…

Although it’s been more than six months since my last post, I wanted to take some time to myself and write.  In the craziness of everyday life I have neglected to devote some of my time to relaxation through writing. These last six months have been pretty eventful and I figured it would be nice to recap some of the most memorable moments.

Since my last post, Mauricio and I settled into our new place and had a memorable Thanksgiving dinner with friends from around the world.  Mauricio made a kick ass turkey, we ate pumpkin pie and nobody left hungry.  No Thanksgiving would be complete without some drama, but that’s another story.  As quick as Thanksgiving was over, so was Christmas. Mauricio and I spent our second consecutive Christmas together in Costa Rica, and without a doubt the best part of the holiday was Mauricio’s present – a golden retriever puppy!  This hands down is the best gift I have ever given.   This was the second year in a row that I spent away from my family in the United States, and it makes you reflect on the importance of holidays.

Sandy, the best Christmas present anyone could ask for!

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Sandy is seven months old now and getting bigger every day.

One of the biggest highlights from these past months was having my dear friend Christin visit all the way from Germany.  Once an exchange buddy, always an exchange buddy!  Although it had been more than two years since we saw each other last, it felt like we hadn’t been apart for more than a few weeks.  It was so much fun showing her around Costa Rica, introducing her to my way of life and getting to reconnect with her.  We drove all over the country, went zip lining, toured the city and took a killer weekend trip to Bocas del Toro, Panama.  Our weekend in Panama was filled with plenty of beach time, crazy boat rides, our own golf cart (cause you know, we are hostel royalty) and plenty of bug spray to keep the dengue fever away.  Next stop – Germany!

Christin and I in Bocas del Toro, Panama

Christin and I in Bocas del Toro, Panama

I have been transitioning well and learning a lot at work also.  I successfully coordinated my first Walking Tree Travel programs in Costa Rica, and am getting super excited for this upcoming summer. Working from home has been an adjustment, but I am really enjoy it.  Being disciplined, keeping a routine and staying organized have helped tremendously.  The most rewarding part of the job so far is being able to build relationships with several small communities around the country and organize service projects for American high schoolers.  Thanks Craigslist, I owe you one for helping me find this job.

After more than a year and a half of endless paperwork, bureaucratic madness, countless trips to immigration, waiting in line for hours and more bureaucratic madness, I am finally a resident in Costa Rica!  The amount of satisfaction and achievement associated with getting residency is related to graduating again.  Seriously, until you actually do it you have no idea how much work it takes to get a simple resolution.  Being in immigration limbo for such a long time is a mess, and knowing that you are completely “legal” is super important, especially if you are trying to make a life in a new country.

Boom! Residency!

Boom! Residency!

Most of May was spent back in the United States with Mauricio.  Mau and I were both really excited about traveling together since we hadn’t done so in such a long time. We both started off our trip in Denver for the annual Walking Tree training session.  Every time I go to Colorado, I fall more in love with it.  We were able to stay with some of our friends, explore Boulder and Denver and spend some time in the mountains during a freak May blizzard, which was completely unexpected.  Being together with the entire team only happens once a year, and it’s a lot of fun to hang out and catch up with everyone (and drink plenty of microbrew IPA’s).

The 2014 Walking Tree Travel team.

The 2014 Walking Tree Travel team.

After Colorado, we headed to Chicago to spend some time with my niece and nephew.  We quickly realized that playing with a two and four year old is super fun and extremely exhausting. Being “dindo” (godfather) is always awesome, and I wish I could spend more time with the kids.  We took a few days to escape the suburbs and spend time in Chicago, one of our favorite cities.  With our CTA pass in hand, we took to the city exploring China Town, Wicker Park, the lakeshore and downtown.  We ate authentic Chinese food, Greek gyros, Brazilian feijoada, Vietnamese pho, and had a pickle back shots – a shot of whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice (accompanied by a hot dog of course).  The gastronomical site seeing was just as fun as the actual site seeing.  While in the city we stayed with our good friend Hollie, and had plenty of time to reminisce of our crazy days as irresponsible exchange students in Costa Rica. We better see you soon in Costa Rica, puta!

Reunited with Hollie in Chicago

Reunited with Hollie in Chicago

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Such a beautiful city.

It’s been exactly a month since we moved in to a new apartment, and Mauricio and I love it.  We learned some good lessons about renting from the last place we lived, mainly the importance of a good location.  We are within walking distance of a supermarket, convenience stores, bus stops, cafes and Downtown Heredia.  Our new place is the perfect location, perfect layout and just really cool.  Mau does a great job of decorating and his “updated vintage” style is really awesome. Most of the furniture and decorations in the house are second hand, recycled or made by Mauricio himself.

Here it is, the new apartment!

Here it is, the new apartment! Updated vintage.

Until next time…

Dia de los Muertos – Guatemala

For the past week, I have had the pleasure of getting to know a great group of people in a truly beautiful place: Guatemala. Our trip started in the colonial city of Antigua. Declared a world heritage site by UNESCO, we became immersed in the old world colonial architecture, wondered over cobblestone roads, explored century old ruins and enjoyed some great weather. Practicing our bargaining skills proved to be a challenge at time, but luckily we bought some great one-of-a-kind handicrafts to bring home with us. For many in the group, this was not their first time in Guatemala, so our group was able to revisit their favorite spots around town. Thankfully, there was never a shortage of refried beans, corn tortillas or coffee.

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After our first two days in Antigua, we hopped on a bus to Sumpango to celebrate Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). In Guatemala, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated mostly in the cemetery by decorating grave sites with flowers, food and ornaments. This day is used to remember, honor and celebrate the lives of loved ones who have passed away. The colors, sights and sounds of the cemetery offered a glimpse into Guatemalan and Mayan culture that many of us have not seen before. Day of the dead is also celebrated by flying “barriletes” or kites. Sumpongo is known for its giant kite festival, where elaborate kites made of tissue paper and bamboo are displayed to the public before flown. There were kites of all sizes, and some of the biggest measured up to ten meters in diameter! The artisans who make these kites spend months planning, building and preparing for the big event.

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After a color filled morning in Sumpongo, we took our bus to Panajachel, situated on the banks of Lake Atitlan. The two days we spent in Panajachel were dedicated to learning more about Starfish One by One, a non profit organization based out of Colorado which focuses on educating indigenous Guatemalan girls around Lake Atitlan. Our participants, who also sponsor young indigenous girls, were able to see young women whom they support and share lunch in their homes with their families. Starfish staff members from both the United States and Guatemala facilitated a wonderful graduation ceremony for a group of graduates who recently completed the Starfish mentoring program. It was really amazing for us to be able to see first hand the important impact that Starfish One by One has made and continues to make on various communities around the lake. Talking to young women who have completed the program, as well as mentors for these women, gave us valuable insight into the challenges that these ladies have overcome during their lifetime. They proved to be an inspiration for all of us!

We ended our trip to Panajachel with a sunset boat ride across Lake Atitlan, surrounded by three magnificent volcanoes. We spent the following evening in a coffee plantation called Los Tarrales, located on a private nature reserve. Bright and early the next morning, we took a bird watching tour and spotted 28 species of tropical birds. We were all very impressed by Josue, our guide, who was incredibly knowledgeable about everything bird related. The highlight of the tour was spotting a hard to find Ferruginous Pigmy-Owl. We eventually made our way back to Antigua for our final farewell dinner where we recapped our favorite parts of the trip and shared some memorable stories with each other. As we all part ways for our homes today, it has become very evident that we have left a piece of our hearts here in Guatemala.

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You can check out the original blog post on the Walking Tree Travel website here!

A Birthday Reflection

Birthdays are a great time to reflect on the past and look forward to the future.  At the ripe age of 24, I have a lot to reflect on, especially from the past year.  It’s been more than a year now since I permanently moved to Costa Rica, and I have evolved in many different ways.  A year ago I was nervous, unsure and had no idea what the future had in store for me.  Living and working in Costa Rica was a much different experience than studying here, and I found myself celebrating the small victories of living abroad, such as getting a call for a job interview, applying for a residency permit, being able to find my way around town and making new friends.  I called myself a teacher for the first time and fulfilled my goal of teaching abroad.

A year later I still find myself celebrating the small victories (such as finally opening a bank account), along with some bigger ones as well.  Mauricio and I moved from our tiny apartment to a larger house in a new location.  We have wanted to move for a while, and when we finally found a place that we loved, we signed a lease and moved within 24 hours!  It all happened so fast, but we are much happier to be in a new place that we have made our own.  We have natural light, a patio for the dogs to run in, and a kitchen with cabinets! It’s the little things that make the biggest difference.  Mauricio has more space to be creative and work on his projects, and I am much more comfortable working from home now. Our housewarming party last week was a huge success, and I find myself channeling my inner domestic abilities that I never knew existed.

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This is the view from the balcony in the new house – big upgrade!

As of last week, I am now the caretaker of a burgundy 1993 Toyota 4Runner.  It’s huge and so loud that it sets off alarms when I drive past cars. Did I mention I don’t know how to drive a manual car? Mauricio and Saphire have been teaching me how to drive stick and how to be an aggressive and defensive driver – a must in Costa Rica.  After a week of practice (and one flat tire), I was ready to take the beast to the beach for the first time to celebrate my birthday.  Unfortunately, the 20-year old car with 350,000+ kilometers didn’t even make it half way to the beach before dying. Mauricio and were stranded at a super on the side of the road for about four hours until we had to be towed back to San José.  Undoubtedly, the highlight of the day was riding in the car on the top of the tow truck. Basically, driving has been a fun, but mostly stressful experience so far.

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The 1993 4Runner. She’s a beast!

For me, the best part of my birthday each year is receiving happy birthday wishes from my friends and family. I am truly grateful to have my friends and family in my life.  At 24, I consider myself to be very happy, lucky and thankful.  I am in a wonderful committed relationship, have great friends and family, and have a pretty sweet job.  No, I don’t feel any different now that I am 24, and I still consider myself to be young! Lets see if that changes next year.  Cheers to this coming year’s victories – both big and small!

Pura Vida!

Hello all!

Our group has been in Costa Rica for a few days now and it’s been treating us very well! After traveling from the airport, the group had an amazing time at Pura Suerte, an area overlooking the Pacific coast surrounded by farmland, jungle, and waterfalls, where we learned about sustainable development and reforestation. As we went along the property we got a glimpse into a myriad of vegetation that Costa Rica has to offer while hiking through acres of beautiful forest – and we even got to see some howler monkeys! After a good night’s sleep in the Jungalow cabins, the group was off to the Nauyaca waterfall! A healthy, slippery hike that lead to a well-deserved dip in the waterfall pool basin and a picnic lunch! We laughed, we hiked, we conquered.

As the day came to a close we arrived at our host village: Herradura. A small town of close-knit families, Herradura has been host to Walking Tree groups before, and were very excited to receive our company! After family placement, we all went home for a relaxing night of games with siblings, a delicious dinner, and general family time – especially watching telenovelas, or soap operas! Early bed makes for early rising, everyone was finally showered and in warm beds, and fell asleep to the sounds of Costa Rica in their new homes.

The first few days at the work site have been productive thus far and spell good things for the rest of the week. The group is working diligently on removing dirt and rocks from the side of the major road that goes through town in order to pour our hand-mixed cement and create a drainage system. An imperative task, as the rainy season here lasts for several months and floods the major roads to the point where walking through town is a non-option. The drainage system will help redirect water towards the beautiful river that runs through the town and will help keep the road usable where it had not been before, particularly adjacent to the school and medical clinic. We plan on finishing the system during our time here, no easy task, all the while continuing to increase our proficiency of the Spanish language and getting to know our new families. We are having time to play a lot of soccer with our host brothers and sisters.

– Sarah, Junior Leader

Check out the original article on the Walking Tree Travel website here! 

The End of a Wonderful Adventure

After our wonderful stay in Monteverde, we headed back to Alajuela and Hotel Pacande. We had downtime at the hotel and we all took well deserved siestas. After that we headed to dinner. The inside joke of the meal was, “They only have 2 portions of water, sooo, who doesn’t want some?” and of course the usual question was asked before, during, and after dinner: “Can we stop for ice cream?”

The next morning was an early morning. We left the hotel at 5:45 to head for the Rio Pacuare. We were met by Mauricio, a guide from the Pacuare Lodge. We stopped for breakfast on the way and finally made it to the start of our rafting trip. We all split up into 3 different boats and geared up. The other boats, beside my boat that is, practiced in a non-rapid area of the river first. My guide, Mauricio, jumped into the boat and we were off to the first rapid! The first day had just class 1-3 rapids out of a scale of 1-5. The first rapids were easier and Mau (short for Mauricio) was a bunch of fun. Amanda, Owen, Rachel, Matt, and myself had SO much fun in the rapids. Once we began getting into the harder rapids, I began to get nervous but the adrenaline was pumping so fast that those feelings were being cancelled out. It was the most fun I have ever had while being kind of sick! We also stopped at a place where we could jump off a rock into the river and as well we took a short walk to a gorgeous waterfall where we could swim. The water was cool and refreshing and it felt good on our already sore bodies. Also, we had the chance to jump off more rocks into the bright blue pool of water. Then, it was back to more rafting! As we reached the lodge, we had the chance to experience “surfing.” As the water goes over a big rock, it creates a hole below. Our guides stuck the front of our raft into that hole. No worries, it was totally safe! As the water poured into the boat, we got spun in circles as we all crouched inside the raft to keep ourselves from falling out. Mau called this one, the “washing machine.” It was terrifying and exhilarating all at the same time. Once out of the “surf” we realized the water was up to our knees! Don’t worry, the raft drains itself! Then we beached the rafts at the Pacuare Lodge, where we would be staying that night. As soon as we took off the rafting gear, we were greated with warm towels and watermelon drinks. We were all taken aback and shocked as we had never before such treatment, but then we glady accepted the gestures. We were all shown our rooms and explained how the Pacuare Lodge prides themselves on being eco friendly. There was no electricity inside the cabins, only in the restaurant and office. Thankfully, we didn’t have just one shower, but two – indoor and outdoor. AND, we had hot water. It was heaven in Costa Rica. After showers, we all went to the restaurant for lunch. To say it simply: Best. Food. Ever. Also, they asked us what we wanted for dinner. We had two options for appetizers, main entrée, and dessert, cooked to our specifications. Then we all went back to our wonderful, amazing, gorgeous rooms that overlooked the river with patios and hammocks and just relaxed. Then it was off to dinner, which was also amazing. Each minute I stayed at the Lodge, I was more and more pleasantly surprised. Then it was time to go to bed to prepare for tomorrow’s portions of laughing.

After a wonderful breakfast of pancakes and french toast, we packed our belongings and headed for the river for more rafting. It was sad to say goodbye to such a wonderful resort. Today we were going to try harder rapids — class 3 and 4. The rapids definitely got harder and Rachel was the first and only to take a fall out of the boat on one of the harder rapids. Also, on some of the easier rapids, we were able to sit on the front of the raft and ride down feet out. Again, terrifying and exhilarating. Also, we went down sideways, and spinning on the easier rapids. The best part though, was when our guide told us to get out of the boat and swim down the rapid. We all jumped out without thinking but soon regretted it. It was only a class 1 but still, it’s a rapid. It wasn’t bad until we all hit a rock with our butts. We all hit it in the same spot on our right butt cheek!! In the end, I know that I would have regretted it if I hadn’t tried it. I’m glad I did! Then we all climbed back into the boat and went down some more rapids. After that, it was time to stop along the river for lunch. We had pasta salad, chicken, pineapple, watermelon, and papaya. We all went swimming in the river as well. After lunch, we got back into the boats and finished the rapids. Before we ended, we were able to swim (or just float and let the current take you) down a part of the river with no rapids. The trees and vines hung over the river making it feel private and it was absolutely breathtaking. The water was refreshing and never felt better. At the very end, we saw some locals jumping off of a abandoned bridge. I don’t know how high it was but it was SO high. I would not have been able to do it! Then, before we knew it, our rafting trip was over, which was sad because the staff were very nice and we had SO much fun! Then we took the 3 ½ hour bus ride back to Alajuela to spend the night for a flight home. It all hit us that we were leaving the next day once we got back to the hotel. Later, we all went back to the restaurant where we ate the very first day in Costa Rica. Also, Ronny, our original chauffeur was there!!! We all ran out and gave him big hugs! It was so nice of him to return to send us off! We were also lucky for his wife and daughter to join us. At the end of the meal, it was sad to say goodbye to Ronny. We all hope that we will be able to see him again one day.

– By Sarah Wilkinson

The entire theory behind the name “Walking Tree” is that a tree will spread and grow into new areas, all while maintaining the same stationary appearance. The tree is not actually walking, but rather expanding. At the beginning of our trip, we didn’t quite understand the metaphor here. But now when we reflect back on all of the adventures we have shared as a group, we understand it fully. We started this trip as a group of 14 teenagers just trying to fit in, and we ended it as a family. Much like the Walking Trees, we all ventured out, leaving our comfort zone, and spread out into a new culture. Although uncomfortable at first, we adapted (but I am sure we are all sick of rice and beans). During our homestay, we lived for 2 weeks without any of the “basic” things we treasure in the United States. And what shocked us the most, is that, we didn’t miss it. We realized that we didn’t need what we consider necessities back home. It was an experience we’ll never forget and it’s amazing now to have family in so many states and even another country. We graduated a couple of hours ago, and now I can confidently say that . . . I am a Walking Tree.

Conclusion by Max and Danni

Ready for white water rafting!

Ready for white water rafting!

Check out the original post on the Walking Tree Travel website here!