Our time in Mexico has been unique for several reasons (global pandemic anyone?), but honestly, one of the most notable differences is the fact that this is our first time living abroad with a car. While it seems like such a small thing, it has definitely changed many aspects of our day-to-day life here and has (very fortunately) allowed us to explore Mexico in a new and exciting way. Yay road trips!
Of course, at first, we found the thought of driving our car down to Guadalajara a bit daunting (not to mention keeping up with basic maintenance and handling any issues that cropped up totalmente en español), but after almost two years, I feel like we’ve now got a pretty good idea of what to expect on Mexico’s roadways. So, for this month’s post, I thought I’d share some of the things I wish we had known from the beginning, things that might help anyone else who is planning to drive around Los Estados Unidos Mexicanos.
Rules of the road:
First up, I have to mention some of the different (and sometimes unwritten) rules of the road here in Mexico. When we were first preparing to drive across the border, the main thing everyone kept saying was, “don’t drive at night”. It turns out that most of Mexico’s highways, especially those cross-crossing deserts and jungles, don’t have street lights, so it is really difficult (read: impossible) to see anything that might be in the road (be it half a tire, a pothole, an animal of some sort, whatever). We experienced just how crazy this type of driving can be on one early morning drive from Sayulita to Puerto Vallarta…not a very far drive, but jungle-y, hairpin turns and surprise speedbumps in the pitch-black darkness was not fun at all.
Another thing we learned on the fly was utilizing the phantom third lane. Since a lot of Mexico’s tollways are two-lane roads, which happen to have tons of semis and other big, slow trucks, drivers have come up with a solution, which I call the phantom third lane. Basically, everyone drives straddling the line that designates the shoulder, which creates a lot of space in the center of the road. People that need/want to pass can then use that middle “lane” to get around slower vehicles and then get back to the shoulder, so cars on the other side can have the same opportunity if needed. At first this scared the sh*t out of us, but now we love how efficient and consistent the process really is.
One last thing to mention about road rules in Mexico – pedestrians will be in the roads. In the cities, they’ll be there to clean your windshield, sell or replace your wipers, or entertain you with a bit of fire-dancing. In the countryside they’ll be crossing with a flock of sheep or flagging you down for some fresh fruit or nuts. And on the highways, they’ll be darting across to get to the bus stop or rest area, so be on the lookout for people crossing any and all roads at any and all times.
The roads themselves:
Now onto the types of roads. Immediately upon entering the highway system of Mexico, it becomes evident that there are two sets of roads: cuotas (tollways) and libres (freeways). The cuotas are often much newer, smoother, and in many instances straighter paths to wherever you may be heading, but they do come at a price. All along the tollways of Mexico there are casetas/plazas de cobro (toolbooths) which charge anywhere from 40-300 pesos (approximately $2-15USD). The tollbooths are very clearly marked, with prices listed for each vehicle type, and there are very rarely any issues, lines, etc. However, be prepared to pay in cash. Lots and lots of cash.
The good news is, it’s not only tolls that you’ll come across on the road. There is also a plethora of gas stations, rest stops, and roadside stands dotting Mexico’s highways. There are gas stations you’ll recognize (like Shell, BP, and Mobil) and some that are specific to Mexico (like the national chain Pemex). The major chains all have little convenience stores (usually Oxxos) and bathrooms, which are sometimes free and sometimes five pesos or 25 cents. One thing to be aware of, however, is that Mexico is like Oregon or New Jersey in that you can’t pump your own gas. When you pull up to the pump, someone will come over and ask which type and how much you want. They might also clean your windows and check your fluids for a tip.
In addition to the many places you can stop, go to the bathroom, and stretch your legs, Mexico also has several road safety services that you can use if needed. As you drive along, you’ll see emergency service numbers posted everywhere, which is super nice. You’ll also occasionally see the Green Angels themselves, which are roadside assistance vehicles that are supposedly bilingual and free. Thankfully we’ve not needed to use any of these services yet, but just that fact that they’re there makes me feel really good. Another interesting safety feature you can find along Mexican highways would be the water points, or places where you can get free, potable water if you ever run out. Desert driving has lots of potential hazards!
Why we do it:
With all the things that can go wrong on a road trip, especially one in an unforgiving and unknown environment, a lot of people wonder why we do it? Mexico has amazing long-distance bus services as well as super affordable domestic airlines, but no matter where you are, something about road trips just hits differently. Stopping when you want, snacking, blasting music, it’s all about the journey, right? Like most of North America, Mexico has an incredible diversity of things to see and do, and we wouldn’t have seen half of it if we hadn’t chosen to drive to so many places.
So, was there a steep learning curve? Sí. Was it worth every hard-earned lesson? ¡Absolutamente!
Summer is officially here, so where better to celebrate than South America, where it happens to be winter! Of course, escaping the heat wasn’t our main reason to take off to Argentina this month, but I won’t lie, we were very happy to be donning our coats in July. Such a surreal experience!
In reality, we had many reasons to head to the opposite side of the Americas. For one, when we booked this trip, Canada was still an unknown, and Buenos Aires was at the top of our list for places to go after Guadalajara. Therefore, a large part of this trip was a scouting mission. Would we like southern South America? Would we prefer Buenos Aires or the nearby Montevideo, Uruguay? Could we picture ourselves moving there? Lots of questions to be answered even if the potential move has been pushed a bit further down the line. So, once again, we took to the road (or sky in this case) for some more “research”, and here’s what we discovered:
First off, packing coats, scarves, and gloves for a July vacation was really strange. Of course, we knew the southern hemisphere is always in the opposite season as the northern hemisphere, but experiencing that drastic switch overnight in the dead of summer/winter was still disorienting. As was the fact that the weather got colder as we went further south. I didn’t realize how ingrained “north = colder” was in my brain! We also found it really entertaining to be all bundled up on the 4th of July – I can only imagine how strange Christmas in Argentina would be for me!
Another surprising, geography-related experience was just how far south Buenos Aires is! Our flight from Mexico City was 9 hours. We could have crossed an ocean in that amount of time! However, I think the long flight is worth it to have four distinct seasons. It was lovely to have brown leaves crunching beneath our feet again. Slightly less lovely was the fact that Buenos Aires is an hour ahead of Eastern Time. In Mexico, we’re an hour behind, and apparently, we’ve gotten really used to our work days ending at 4pm.
Next up on our list of discoveries was actually more of a confirmation. Near our apartment in Guadalajara, we have several Argentine restaurants, and they’re easily some of our favorites in the city. We were beyond excited to try some of our favorite dishes in their country of origin. Thankfully, Argentina did not disappoint! Of course, the steak and wine were incredible (and SO inexpensive!), but the provoleta, the empanadas, the huge number of sandwiches, the dulce de leche – omg. I was extremely impressed with all the international options we had as well. Italian, German, Korean, Asian-style pay-by-weight places, we were definitely able to branch out even in just 2 weeks.
I was also blown away by the café culture of Argentina. I knew that people in South America have an affinity for drinking mate (a tea-like drink) and, of course, as part of Latin America, coffee is popular as well, but what I didn’t expect was just how abundant and accommodating the cafés would be. Literally every block of downtown BA had at least one café, most of which had several floors offering comfortable places to sit, eat, drink, and chat to your heart’s content. And whether at a café or a restaurant, you absolutely must ask for the check because they’ll never hurry you out.
So Much Nature
While the local food is always a priority for us when we travel, the memories that stick with us longer are often our forays into the surrounding nature, which is something that South America has in spades. We knew we wanted to take a few trips outside Buenos Aires while we were there, but deciding on where to go was so tricky! An overnight train to the Andes out west? A trek through the jungle to see the infamous Iguazu Falls? Or fully embrace winter with a flight down to Cape Horn? Of course, we went with the coldest option!
Thanks to Argentina’s budget airline, Flybondi (which is thankfully still operating post 2020), we were able to find cheap tickets down to Ushuaia. Ushuaia sits in the far south of Patagonia and is known as “the southernmost city in the world”. Here we were able to play in the snow, chill our craft beers on the window sill, and tour the icy Beagle Channel. As a geography nerd, the sheer fact that I was at the southern tip of the Americas, only about 1000km from Antarctica was enough for my bucket list, but the incredible mountains and pink morning skies just made it that much more beautiful.
As amazing as it was to be surrounded by such diverse nature, we definitely spent the majority of our time in the two major capital cities: Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Turns out we could have used even more time because Buenos Aires is huge! That’s really the immediate impression I got from the city. It was a 45-minute ride from the airport to Retiro (a downtown neighborhood), and aside from the distance, the number of massive buildings, many of which were apartments, definitely stood out. Walking downtown, I was also amazed by how tall so many of the building are. Very old, very European-style architecture, but much taller than I seem to remember in Poland (or than what we find in Guadalajara). Luckily everything seemed to be bigger in Buenos Aires because there were also gigantic plazas and parks, wide sidewalks, and many-laned throughfares. It seemed like the kind of place you could live for years and still be discovering new points of interest.
Montevideo, on the other hand, was much smaller. Both in terms of the city’s size and the architecture. Although just a few hours away, across the Rio de la Plata, Montevideo is the capital of Uruguay and has an entirely different vibe. Of course, we were super interested in noting any and all differences (in the name of research) and couldn’t help comparing as we went along. To me, Montevideo felt a little like the quirky younger sibling of Buenos Aires. It was much more colorful with lots of street art and eclectic architecture throughout the old and new sections of the city. It also felt much more coastal with its huge rambla (promenade) and beaches. While a lot of the culinary traditions are similar between the two countries, Uruguay has a few of its own stand-outs as well, like the Chivito sandwich, which is now in Tucker’s top 5 sandwiches of all time.
Another interesting experience on this trip (as well as on our trip last year to Ecuador) was the Spanish we were hearing and eventually using. The Spanish I’m learning is Mexican, and this is never more obvious than when we’re traveling in another Spanish-speaking country. Words like “alquilar” (to rent), “maní” (peanut), and “palta” (avocado) gave me pause because we regularly (read: only) use “rentar”, “cacajuate”, and “aguacate”. Just like learning to use “chulla vida” in Ecuador, it was really interesting to see which indigenous words Argentina and Uruguay have adopted and how these (and other) influences still serve to differentiate Spanish varieties around the globe.
However, it wasn’t just the vocabulary that caught our attention on this trip to South America. The first real conversation we had in Argentina was with the security guard in the building where we were staying. He gave us our keys and made sure we knew what to expect with entering, exiting, etc. Luckily, having a few Argentine teachers in the past helped prepare me for hearing things like “sha” and “shaves” instead of “ya” and “llaves”, but it was still much harder than I expected. The accent is SO different from what I’ve grown accustomed to, but it was surprisingly easy to pick up and start using ourselves. After just a few days we were saying “sho” (yo) and “para shevar” (para llevar) like everyone around us!
So, What’s the Verdict?
Well, we loved it all! We could definitely see ourselves moving to either Buenos Aires or Montevideo in the future, and I would absolutely love to have a few years down there (at least!) to more thoroughly explore South America. Even though we might be going north before we make it back down south, I’m beyond thankful for the opportunity we had to get even a glimpse of such an amazing part of the world! Until next time! ¡Chau!
Last month I finally decided to move my writings from our time in Poland off Facebook and onto my blog site as individual posts. (Sorry to those of you who got email updates before I remembered to turn off the notifications!) This was a long time coming, and although the process was a little tedious, I thoroughly enjoyed reminiscing about all our trips and experiences in Europe. Therefore, for this month’s blog post, I thought I’d do a little countdown of some of my favorite photos (and the memories that accompany them) from our beloved Polska. Enjoy!
#12 – St. Jakob’s Orthodox Church, Częstochowa
We had never heard of Częstochowa prior to moving to Poland, but after visiting, we fell in love with this highly-organized city of international pilgrimage fame.
#11 – Orłowo Pier, Gdynia
The Tri-City area of Poland might just be our favorite because it is filled with all sorts of unexpected sights and activities! For example: intriguing pirate ships, beautiful sandy beaches, and a lovely ferry to Hel and back.
#10 – Słowiński National Park, Łeba
The sand dunes of Słowiński National Park are also high on our list of incredible (yet unexpected) sights in Northern Poland. Is this even Poland? Tak, to jest Polska.
#9 – Market Square, Wrosław
Some cities have something so unique that they will always stand out in your memory. For me, I will always remember Wrosław for its legion of tiny dwarf statues.
#8 – Town Hall, Poznań
Poznań was another city of surprises with the legendary goat dance and the highly revered rogal świętomarciński, a pastry with its own museum. Smacznego!
#7 – Countryside, Silesia
Our main method of transportation around Poland was Polskibus (something I miss dearly). Views of the beautiful countryside from the windows of a double decker bus will forever be etched in my brain.
#6 – Wawel Royal Castle, Kraków
We were lucky enough to visit Kraków several times, but the bar crawl we did on a whim one night gave us more stories than any other singular event in Poland. My head still spins at the memory.
#5 – Oświęcim
Oświęcim, the Polish name for Auschwitz, was a sobering reminder of the horrific events that occurred here and the fact that those who do not remember the past are surely condemned to repeat it.
#4 – Motława River, Gdańsk
Another part of the Tri-City area, Gdańsk, has such an interesting history and local flair. Reflecting on it now, Gdańsk is probably the most likely candidate for a long-term return (other than Łódź, of course).
#3 – Tatra Mountains
Truly a Winter Wonderland, hiking in the snowy Tatras was utterly surreal. As was the fact that we traversed the 16km trail thick with fresh snow…in gym shoes. I can still feel my frozen toes.
#2 – Malbork Castle, Malbork
Europe has such a knack for making you and your life feel small in the face of so much history. This was certainly the case in Malbork, exploring the largest Teutonic castle in the world.
#1 – Główny Rynek, Kalisz
Regardless of destination, the memories (and photos) that mean the most often have to do with friends and family. For me, walking around one of the oldest cities of Poland with my parents falls directly into this category.
What an incredible country! I love reminiscing about all the things we did and saw while living in Poland (thanks for humoring me, by the way). One of the most shocking things about this little project was realizing that this was 7 years ago! We’re clearly long overdue for a trip back. Fingers crossed it happens sooner rather than later! Naprawdę tęsknię za Tobą Polsko.
One of my goals for our time spent living in Mexico is to visit as many of the 31 states as I can. In fact, this lofty goal, coupled with the fact that my mother-in-law loves the beach, is what led us on our most recent adventure to Mexico’s easternmost state, Quintana Roo (pronounced “keen-tah-nah row”). Typically, we don’t spend quite as much time (two weeks!) in one state, nor do we often have the luxury of visiting four separate cities and two islands on one trip; however, we definitely wanted to be thorough here because these are some of the most popular tourist destinations both within Mexico and internationally! So, if you’ve always wanted to head on down to Riviera Maya, here’s my summary of what you can see, do, and expect:
Cancún / Isla Mujeres
Our first stop was in Cancún for many reasons. For one, Cancún International Airport is the second largest in the country, which means there are tons of flights in and out from a huge variety of locales. Another solid, practical reason to start in Cancún is the fact that it’s located at the very tip of the Yucatán peninsula, meaning flights from east of the Mississippi are quite short and very affordable. Personally, I also wanted to start in Cancún because I had (erroneously, as it turns out) thought that Cancún would be my least favorite of the cities on our itinerary, and I’m very much a save-the-best-for-last kind of person.
The Best Parts:
Speaking of bests, one of our favorite experiences in Cancún was kayaking among the mangroves in the Nichupte Lagoon. As a planned city, Cancún has several distinct “zones”, and the Nichupte Lagoon is actually what separates the Hotel Zone from the city center, making it very convenient regardless of where you’re staying. The lagoon is part of a protected reserve and boasts incredibly clear and calm water as well as a plethora of flora and fauna. Another must-do, as far as we’re concerned, is a catamaran ride to Isla Mujeres. On a whim, we booked an all-day package that included a catamaran ride, snorkeling through MUSA (an underwater art museum), an open bar, a buffet, and several hours of free time on the island. It was amazing! Dancing to the macarena with a group of strangers was the cherry on top of the perfect beach day. Of course, all the beaches on Cancún and Isla Mujeres are glorious. I have never felt sand so powdery soft or seen such beautiful water both on the shore and out at sea. I totally get why people fall in love with these beaches.
Things to Note:
For me, Cancún (and really all of Riviera Maya) is not the place to go for true Mexican culture. It is a tourist haven, and there are essentially zero Quintana Roo locals. Cancún, especially, has a bit of a Vegas vibe as the city is divided into the Centro and the somewhat remote Hotel Zone – the Hotel Zone being very much like “The Strip”. We actually learned the hard way that getting around Cancún isn’t as easy as it usually is in Mexico. Ubers are banned from the airport and the Hotel Zone, taxis do everything they can to ensure they’re getting their money’s worth, and the buses (while frequent) are quite crowded and more expensive as well. The resorts can also be a bit of a headache for those who are staying downtown. Although, by law, all beaches in Mexico are open to the public, private hotels can and have put up walls that require a long walk around to specified access points along the Hotel Zone. That said, once you’re on the beach, you can walk anywhere you want, and there’s nothing they can do about it!
Playa del Carmen / Cozumel
Our next stop was Playa del Carmen, another resort-focused city along the coast and without question a part of the infamous Riviera Maya. As it’s only about an hour from Cancún, it’s really easy to travel from one to the other, and like Cancún, Playa del Carmen also has a famous island destination right off its shores: Cozumel. Interestingly, I had been to Cozumel as a pre-teen while on a family cruise, but to be honest, my memory of it was almost non-existent…maybe that should have been my first clue as to how I would feel about it as an adult.
The Best Parts:
But first, the positives. The center or anchor of Playa del Carmen is a long shopping/restaurant street called Quinta Avenida (5th Avenue). Here they have everything from high-end malls to beach trinkets and 5-star dining to taco stands. We ate at Aldea Corazón, which had an absolutely delicious take on modern Mexican cuisine. They also have a waterfall and cenote in the outdoor dining area, so the atmosphere is as excellent as the food. After Cancún, it was nice that everything: hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. were all running parallel to the beach, just one block inland. I appreciated not needing any form of transportation while seeing the sights. Playa del Carmen is also beautifully placed directly between Cancún and Tulum, making it easily accessible from either direction.
Things to Note:
Okay, now I’ll be the first one to admit that sometimes you have bad days or bad experiences while traveling (it has definitely happened to us on more than one occasion), and it doesn’t usually affect how I feel about a particular destination. However, our time in Playa del Carmen, definitely had some extreme travel lows. Tourist scams are abundant, upcharges are frequent, and Cozumel is catered to cruise ships. All I can say, is you’ll have to pay A LOT to see and do things that were honestly better in Cancún and Isla Mujeres. Another thing to note (really in all heavily touristed areas/large cities) is to be aware of your surroundings. While we were in Playa del Carmen, we witnessed a serious street fight that got out of hand and could have easily escalated into something much worse. Remember it’s not only family vacationers that frequent high-end resort areas.
After our day in Playa del Carmen, we drove down to our next destination: the highly touted, Tulum. If you consume a lot of travel-related media (like I do), Tulum is/was most likely already on your bucket list as well. Mayan ruins on the cliffs, underground rivers and cenotes, eco-tourism at its finest! I think for this particular trip, Tulum was the city I was looking forward to the most.
The Best Parts:
The things that have put Tulum on the map are definitely the main reasons to visit. The Tulum ruins are incredible! There is so much history and beauty in these sites (although I do have to say that Uxmal, which is closer to Mérida in Yucatán, is still my favorite Mayan site. Yes, even over Chichén Itzá.) The cenotes, of which there are so many in this area, are also well worth the trip. Crystal clear freshwater swimming holes that have so many interesting facts and stories surrounding them – what’s not to love? Downtown Tulum isn’t quite as developed as either Playa del Carmen or Cancún, but the number of independently owned, vegan/vegetarian-friendly restaurants is certainly top notch. The main road through the city is the aptly named Avenida Tulum, but I highly recommend walking parallel to the main drag (on either side) to get a little more of the real day-to-day life of Tulum. And if you are planning to stay in Tulum, I cannot recommend Casa Libélula enough – such a beautiful little oasis tucked away in the chaos that is a burgeoning tourism hub.
Things to Note:
As I mentioned, Tulum is still a growing tourist destination, meaning there are some kinks they’re still working out. Sidewalks are mostly present, but not always, and the locals are still figuring out the right prices for their wares…in my opinion, they’re aiming quite high at the moment. Unfortunately, another thing that goes along with these up-and-coming tourist destinations is the yolo mentality (on both sides). The tourists are yolo-ing it up with a lot of noise and trash (and no resort personnel to clean up after them), and the vendors are making the most of a current fad that they know might not last forever by taking advantage when and where they see fit. In addition to the pandemic-related slump that has affected tourism globally, over the past few years, the Caribbean coast of Mexico has also been inundated with sargassum, or seagrass, and Tulum is unfortunately not immune.
Finally, our last stop on this epic journey, the future tourist hot-spot of Bacalar. Bacalar is about 4 hours south of Cancún, an hour north of Belize, and sits on the pristine Bacalar Lagoon. Unlike the other three cities we visited, Bacalar had not been on my radar until after we moved to Mexico. This is a favorite among locals, and anyone who visits can easily understand why. During our time in Bacalar, I actually felt quite sad thinking about whether or not it’s going to become the next Tulum or Playa del Carmen, but I have to think that it will always retain the special type of mágico that exists there now. ¡Ojalá!
The Best Parts:
Immediately, one of the best parts of Bacalar for me was that it felt much more like the Mexico that I have come to know. It is much more laid back (even with the growing tourism industry). Bacalar has a more traditional main square, an old Spanish fort, and plenty of places to just sit and chill out in the shade. Thankfully, price-gauging hasn’t become an issue in the local shops, and here, more than anywhere else on our trip, was my Spanish needed (as it should be!). Then there’s the lagoon itself. 42km by 2km (26mi by 1.2mi) of incredibly clear blue water (in fact, Bacalar Lagoon is known for having 7 distinct shades of blue). As there is a lot of shoreline available along the lagoon, it’s very common and affordable to stay right on the water, which is what we did. We stayed at Seven Blue House and had an amazing time swinging in hammocks on the dock, kayaking in the lagoon, and watching the sun and wind play on the water from our balcony right over the edge of the lagoon.
Things to Note:
Of course, with Bacalar being so much smaller than the other notable cities in Quintana Roo, the amenities are limited (no Señor Frog’s here!). It’s also not on the beach if that’s something you’re looking for. The lagoon is a couple of hours from the nearest Caribbean beach and all that accompanies it (like sand, for instance). Bacalar is also the furthest away from the big airports and most famous sites of the Yucatán peninsula, so if you want to do and see it all, Bacalar is not a likely home base for a trip like that.
Ultimately, this was a trip full of surprises for us, which shouldn’t actually be so surprising given all the expectations and preconceived notions we came into it with! In summary, I do feel a little guilty about how hard I was on Cancún (before I even visited) because in reality I enjoyed the variety it had to offer. Playa del Carmen isn’t really my vibe, but I can see the draw. I wish I had traveled to Tulum 10 years ago, but it’s still such a sight to see. And with Bacalar, the baby of Quintana Roo’s tourism industry, all I can do is wish it well and hope it remains as unique as it is in this moment.
And with that, another extraordinary trip is in the books! Just so everyone knows, I still pinch myself quite often over the fact that we’re able to do and see all that we have. What an incredible planet we inhabit! Hopefully everyone reading this is currently planning their next adventure, but if not, I hope you enjoyed living this one through my eyes. Here’s to the next one!
For me, the National Park Service is easily one of the most amazing things about the United States. I am very fortunate to have seen many of these incredible places growing up, and even now when I plan trips back to the States, I always try to include a national or state park in my itinerary. The diversity and the beauty of North America is absolutely astounding, and I (and many others) can’t get enough of it. FDR once said that “there is nothing more American than our national parks”, and I really couldn’t agree more, which is why I want to share a few of my recent NPS experiences and ultimately spur others to get out there and see these beauties while we can!
Number and Size
The United States is a massive country. As the song goes, it stretches from sea to shining sea, covering a whopping 2.43 billion acres. Thankfully, in the 1800s, Americans realized that we might just need to protect some of our incredible land (mostly from ourselves). Thus, the first national park was born. These days, national parks make up about 80 million acres of the US, and when combined with state parks and other protected areas, represent about 14% of the total land area. As of January 2022, there are 63 congressionally-designated national parks and 423 national park sites located in the US, all chosen for “their natural beauty, unique geological features, diverse ecosystems, and recreational opportunities”.
What’s in a Name?
As mentioned, we have 63 infamous national parks, but what is the distinction between the parks and the national park sites? And what about national monuments or state parks? Well, the national parks can be seen as the big kahunas. They are what the other parks, sites, and monuments hope to be when they grow up. To be designated as a national park there has to be an abundance and variety of natural resources and large swaths of land or water areas that enable the protection of these resources. National park sites and monuments on the other hand are usually smaller and singularly focused (as in one element of a national park or a historic site completely separate from the national parks). They might also include things that are not so park-like, such as Castillo de San Marcos in St. Augustine.
State parks, however, are quite different. As the name suggests, they are run by each state as opposed to the federal government. This usually means that there is a lot more variety in how they are managed and upkept. Luckily, it also means that they are right outside your door (wherever that happens to be). Tucker and I really discovered the joys of state parks while we were pandemically pinned in Florida. Florida and most states east of the Mississippi are somewhat lacking in national parks, but they are not lacking whatsoever in state parks. Florida, for example, has 175 state parks, Illinois has 123, and Georgia has a still-respectable 46. While they might not be as big or famous as those in the NPS, they’ve also been chosen specifically for their natural beauty, historic interest, or recreational potential.
All Good Things
All of these protected areas are well worth seeing. Yellowstone, Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, the Everglades, and so many others are the epitome of America’s beauty, and the lesser-known names are no less so. Our national and state parks are extremely accessible and fortunately not cost-prohibitive. The most expensive entrance fees are $35, but the vast majority of parks charge only a fraction of that, making national and state parks not only an incredible experience, but also one of the cheapest you can find (so much better than a day at the movies, in my opinion). Not to mention, the money you spend at the parks goes to an amazing cause: the conservation and preservation of our incredible homeland. So, who’s ready to get out there and explore our amazing parks?!
Another year is coming to an end…and although it wasn’t quite as crazy as 2020, it was close. For me and Tucker there were definitely some things that changed (drastically) and others that were oddly more consistent than ever before; all of which has me reflecting. So, here’s a look back at our 2021: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
In an effort to cleanse ourselves from the craziness of the previous year, we started 2021 by burning everything we could find that said “2020” on it. It was extremely cathartic. As was our drive to Florida’s west coast for sunset followed by a drive to the east coast for the first sunrise of 2021. I enjoyed the dramatic ending of what was objectively one of the worst years in recent history. Although, unfortunately, a lot of what made 2020 so bad seemed to follow us into 2021, I was still extremely happy that I was able to use the New Year as an excuse to move on (mentally and physically as it turned out).
In February we finally said “au revoir” to Quebec (at least for now, accepting the long immigration pause as a bit more permanent than we had originally thought), and then we literally said “goodbye” to Orlando as we packed up and headed out for yet another (different) international move. This time we went south, moving to beautiful Guadalajara, Mexico! With all the new challenges, like obtaining residency, driving across the border, and settling in with a four-legged family member this time, we all felt completely refreshed. It’s amazing what having tangible plans and clear goals can do for your mentality, especially after a year of complete stagnation. I joke that Mexico became my therapist because I had seriously needed something to focus my energy on post-2020, and luckily, I found it.
In addition to giving us a new focus, Mexico has been an incredibly fun experience! In April, Tucker and I celebrated our birthdays with piñatas and cervezas before getting the best birthday presents ever: our vaccines! Getting vaccinated was another sort of turning point for us as we had severely limited our time outside the house prior to the vaccines. Having some sort of protection (in addition to our masks and other precautions) allowed us to begin exploring again. Since we brought our trusty steed (our Ford Focus) down to Mexico, we’ve actually been able to take several road trips thus far: visits to Puerto Vallarta, Aguascalientes, and Querétaro just to name a few.
Of course, we’ve also spent a good amount of the year simply adapting to life in Mexico. We’ve settled into our incredible neighborhood, and like I did with Orlando, I’ve essentially walked as far as I can in every possible direction to really get the feel for where we live (apparently this is my favorite pandemic-induced hobby: neighborhood walks). Another favorite pastime for me this year has been taking a plethora of Spanish classes. With the flexibility of my remote work schedule, I’ve made it a point to really work on my own language learning in 2021. I hope to continue this trend in the New Year as well. As for Tucker, he’s been paying a lot more attention to soccer as of late. We recently watched Atlas (our home team) win a championship, and we have plans to watch them play in person at some point. Fingers crossed!
While there have been many changes for us this year, one of the biggest things that hasn’t changed is work. This is the first time in many, many years that Tucker and I both started 2021 with the same jobs that we’re ending it with. Gotta love the remote work life! We’re also happy to report that our international family visits have continued as well without too much difficulty. As always, it has been such an amazing experience to share our new home with our most adventurous family members! During a lull in the variants, Tucker and I even got to continue our international travels by visiting an entirely new (to us) continent with our Thanksgiving trip to Ecuador. I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that particular spur-of-the-moment decision. Maybe it’ll tide me over for a while…but probably not.
In contrast to all the triumphs, whether new or continued, we’ve also had a few unexpected hurdles this year. International apartment hunting amid a global pandemic was quite a challenge as was the procurement and installation of the most irritating dishwasher known to man. I also had to have a medical procedure done back in September, which not only tested our Spanish, but also our ability to lean into the unknown/ambiguous aspects of living abroad. Thankfully all went well, and I have only great things to say about the healthcare system of Mexico. Another difficulty arose a few months ago when a rogue highway rock hit and cracked our car’s windshield beyond repair. Dealing with car issues and insurance is never fun, but in a foreign country, in another language, it was torturous. However, as I kept reminding myself throughout the mishaps, this is exactly why we love living abroad: new challenges and endless lessons in patience.
As I write this, we’re enjoying the peace and quiet of the days between Christmas and New Year, which brings me to yet another one of the most exciting aspects of our year: celebrating all the holidays! Learning that Cinco de Mayo is mostly an American invention, reliving the events of “Coco” during Día de Muertos, and wishing everyone “Feliz Navidad” this month have all been incredible additions to our collective cultural knowledge. Now I can’t wait to eat my 12 grapes on New Year’s Eve and ring in what I hope will be an even more exciting and transformational year! Here’s to a próspero 2022!
Over Thanksgiving break this year, Tucker and I decided it was finally time to hit the international travel trail again! Aside from our move to Mexico last winter, we hadn’t been abroad for business or pleasure since 2019, so it was definitely an exciting prospect for us. For this particular trip, we decided on Ecuador, which meant that we’d not only be traversing a new country, but also a new continent since this was our first time to South America as well. Woohoo! Here’s my take on our latest journey:
Of course, before venturing out, the first question we had to ask ourselves was where to go, which is not so easy in post-Covid times. Different countries have different restrictions and requirements for testing, vaccination, tourism, etc. We finally settled on Ecuador for several reasons. For one, I was happy that they require either a negative PCR test or a vaccination card for entry (a little regulation goes a long way). Two, we were also hoping to stick to the Spanish-speaking world (to continue our practice/immersion, of course). And three, I’ve always wanted to visit the equator – how cool is it to be able to stand in two different hemispheres at the same time!
Once we decided on the location and made sure we had the necessary documents ready, we were able to start planning. The planning also turned out to be a little different than our pre-2020 travels. A lot of services and attractions have been permanently closed (including the postal system as we found out), and even those that remain open often require additional amounts of flexibility because everything is very much subject to change these days. This was really my first glimpse into just how hard the tourism industry has been hit over the last two years. Prices, schedules, options, procedures – a lot has changed, but with any luck, it’ll continue to bounce back and hopefully be stronger than ever. I know I’m beyond ready for that.
The Capital: Quito
Our first stop and home base for this trip was Ecuador’s capital city, Quito. If you weren’t already aware, Quito is one of (if not the) highest capital city in the world at 2,850 m (9,350 ft). I love the fact that the elevation meant chilly temperatures (even so close to the equator), but, unfortunately, my head doesn’t particularly like the pressure changes that also occur at elevation. The good news is I already knew about my sensitivity to high altitudes, and I was able to take Western medicine (Acetazolamide), drink the local coca tea, and share some traditional Chinese medicine with a fellow traveler all to avoid any unwelcome bouts of altitude sickness. I’m not exactly sure which one did the trick, but other than a mild headache, I was totally fine to climb stairs, hike volcanos, and do anything and everything else I wanted to do Ecuador. Another success!
Aside from its elevation, Quito is also unique in that it is wedged between several Andean mountains and volcanoes. For this reason, although the city is about 40 km (25 mi) long, it’s only 5 km (3.1 miles) wide. It’s also extremely hilly, which made for many beautiful views all across the city as well as some of the most difficult driving conditions I’ve ever experienced. Imagine a 45-degree incline on slippery cobblestones in bumper-to-bumper traffic with a manual vehicle. I made sure to compliment the driving of every one of our taxi/Uber drivers- so impressive! Another amazing part of staying in Quito was the history. Quito has one of the least-altered and best-persevered historic centers in the Americas, and the plazas, churches, and neighborhoods were so much fun to explore.
Another really fun part of this trip was the fact that we were trying out a completely new type of cuisine. Neither Tucker or I could remember ever having Ecuadorian food, so everything was completely unknown. From the tostados (or toasted corn kernels) and ají (a spicy sauce served with every meal) to the most famous dishes from the highlands, we loved learning and sampling everything. Some of our favorites included empanadas de verde (empanadas made of plantains stuffed with cheese), locro de papa (creamy potato soup), and pristiños (fried dough with honey). Another infamous dish in this region (one that we actually opted to forgo) is cuy, or in English, guinea pig. Definitely new to us!
While certain things (like rodents on the menu) made Ecuador seem very far from the US, other things made us feel like we’d gone north rather than south. For example, Ecuadorians use the US dollar as their currency, and I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed the break from constantly converting in my head. Another similarity is that servers in Ecuador often take your credit card to a register in the back of the restaurant for payment. Not so strange for the average American, but after years in countries where that would never fly we found ourselves feeling a little concerned about identity theft. I mean, where’s the portable terminal? And why aren’t those commonplace everywhere?! It seems so bizarre to us now!
As amazing as Quito (and its restaurant scene) is, the nature is the real draw. Ecuador is home to the Amazon, the Andes, and the Galapagos Islands. It has an incredible amount of biodiversity, and while we mostly stuck to the highlands (this time), we were absolutely blown away by what we saw. Our focus on this particular trip was definitely the volcanoes. Ecuador has the most volcanoes per square kilometer of any country, including some of the only volcanic glaciers on/near the equator. One of our favorite experiences in Ecuador was climbing Cotopaxi, the highest volcano in the country. Not being very experienced or even prepared climbers, we only hiked to the refuge (at 4,860 m / 15,744 ft), which was difficult enough with the lack of oxygen, unstable terrain, and hail we experienced along the way. Still, I’d definitely do it again in a heartbeat – so cool!
The other big hike we did was at the Quilotoa crater, about three hours from Cotopaxi. Quilotoa used to be a volcano, but after its last massive eruption in 1280, it is now classified as a caldera. Here we found ourselves climbing down rather than up as we made our way into the crater to get to the shores of the mineral lake that now fills the void. The hike down was absolutely breathtaking, but the hike back up was brutal: 1.7 km of steep, sandy paths (still at an elevation of over 3,914 m / 12,841 ft), and if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, it rained on us the whole way out. This was one of only a few trips where Tucker and I actually lost weight on vacation…despite all the good food. And speaking of food, my favorite part of this day might have actually been the meal we had after the hike – a Thanksgiving feast that will live in infamy.
The Random Facts We Gleaned
Since our buses out to Cotopaxi and Quilotoa were cancelled (because there weren’t enough people to warrant them), we actually got to tag along with a tour bus group instead. This meant that we got loads of information about Ecuador, the Andes, volcanoes, etc. – much more than I ever would have found on my own. For that reason, I have a plethora of other interesting facts to share about Ecuador. Here are some of my favorites:
-Ecuador was the first country to give constitutional rights to nature. In 2008, Ecuadorians voted to give its mountains, rivers, forests, air, and islands “legally enforceable rights to exist, flourish, and evolve”.
-One of the most widely spoken indigenous languages in this part of the world is Quechua, which is derived from the language used by the ancient Incan empire. Interestingly, Ecuadorians refer to the Peruvian dialect as Quechua while calling their own Quichua.
-Many place names and colloquial expressions in Ecuador combine Spanish and Quichua, such as the catchy “chulla vida”, which is the Ecuadorian version of “YOLO”.
-Llamas and alpacas are both endemic to this part of South America and can be commonly seen alongside other livestock throughout the highlands. But how can you tell them apart? Well, alpacas are much shorter, have softer fur, and are typically less aggressive. Llamas are the ones to look out for!
-Another interesting fact about Ecuador is that it is home to the highest mountain in the world…sort of. The peak of Mount Chimborazo is actually the furthest from the center of the Earth (or the closest to the sun). Mount Everest is the highest if compared to sea level.
-Gravity is lower at the equator, which is why many rocket launch sites are located close to the equator. It’s also the reason it’s supposedly easier to balance an egg on a nail. #huevochallenge
-Ecuador is also the world’s largest exporter of bananas. Unsurprisingly, the bananas we had while there were extremely cheap and perfectly ripe.
Overall, it was truly an incredible trip. I feel so grateful that we were able to have this experience, and I sincerely hope it won’t be so long before our next big adventure!
It’s December! Only a few days from the official start of winter! You might already know this about me, but I absolutely love this time of year. Of course, I know not everyone feels the same way, and I also know that this year is different (in about every way possible). Typically, during the holidays, Tucker and I do some traveling: we disconnect, explore someplace new (often somewhere we can play in the snow), but alas, 2020 has kept us pretty tethered…in Florida of all places. So, for this month’s post, I ask you to humor me as I look back at some of my favorite winter destinations of years past. I’m aiming to turn this pining into planning, and I invite you to do the same. There’s always another winter coming!
Tatra Mountains, Poland
This is the trip I always find myself looking back on around this time of year. Magical is the best word I have to describe our snowy hike in the Tatra Mountains. It felt and looked exactly like a fairy tale (well at least until our inadequate clothing choices had us pondering the effects of frostbite). Zakopane was the little mountain town we based our trip around, and the mulled wine, grilled oscypek (a mountain specialty), and the handmade wooden crafts in the local markets made it all the more beautiful.
Even if you don’t like the cold, you should still be able to appreciate the incredible Snow and Ice Festival in Harbin, China. I’ve never been to the North Pole (or any city that associates with it), but I definitely got Santa’s Village vibes while we were there. Snow sculptures as far as the eye could see, entire buildings and playgrounds made of ice, and, if I recall correctly, there was even a VR experience with penguins. Definitely worth the icy eyelashes!
New York, USA
A post about winter trips must include New York City. It’s truly lovely any time of year, but bundling up on a ferry crossing the Hudson, drinking hot chocolate while watching the ice skaters at Rockefeller Center, and feeling the fierce winds tunneling through the skyscrapers are some of my favorite memories of this iconic destination. I also feel pretty strongly about the fact that it smells much better in winter – no baking garbage or sweaty subway seatmates. Bonus!
We actually booked our trip to Bergen on a bit of a whim because we found cheap tickets from Warsaw and we had the time off. In hindsight, I can’t believe we hadn’t already had such an amazing place on our travel list. We loved strolling down the snowy cobblestone streets and the fjords and scenic train rides were absolutely breathtaking. If you ever find yourself in Norway debating whether or not to do one of the “Norway in a Nutshell” tours – do it!
Perhaps a somewhat surprising winter location, but as Chengdu is known as one of the “Furnaces of China”, I vowed to stay away in summer or anything summer adjacent. Thus, we visited in January and had the most amazing time! Pandas are adorable year-round, and I found the outdoor tea houses and consumption of extremely spicy food much more enjoyable in cooler temperatures. The mountains (and yaks) just outside the city were also extremely beautiful covered in a pristine blanket of fresh snow.
Just for fun, let’s say you’re like me and would love to have TWO winters in a given year. A trip to Australia can grant this wish! The Southern Hemisphere, of course, has their winter from June-August, so one year, we spent July in “wintery” Sydney. It was a mild winter to say the least, but the general vibe was there as we walked by ice rinks and snowflake décor all around the city. Like NY, Sydney is an amazing place to visit any time of year, but the less touristy off-season was perhaps even more enjoyable.
Another, slightly warmer location we really enjoyed one winter was Lisbon, Portugal. The city is incredibly gorgeous, but really hilly, so we were very happy for cool weather/less sweaty hikes. The local wine and food we had was also very fitting of the season: thick stews, warm egg tarts, and strong vinho verde, just to name a few of our favorites. I’m also a big fan of quiet oceanside walks in winter, and Lisbon’s coastline did not disappoint.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
And finally, because I realize many people take vacations to hotter climates in order to escape winter, I’ll include Chiang-Mai on this list. We were there in January one year, and let me tell you, it can definitely be considered a “hotter climate”. While Bangkok and Phuket might be the more famous of Thailand’s must-see destinations, Tucker and I fell in love with CM. The temples, the mountains, the food (omg), and the small-town feel with some of the friendliest, calmest locals we’ve ever encountered, Chiang-Mai is a great place to relax during one of the most stressful times of the year.
So many memories, so many possibilities! My mind is spinning thinking about future winter trips! But for now, I’ll make do with reminiscing and enjoying a quieter, calmer winter. Happy holidays everyone!
Another month, another amazing country explored! Have I mentioned how nice it’s been working entirely online? No, but seriously, we’re incredibly lucky to be able to support these explorations as Tucker and I continue to make plans for what we want to do and where we want to be in the future. For the past 30 days, we’ve been in Mexico, sussing out the situation in three amazing cities, and learning all we could in the process. When planning our Mexican adventure (while happily freezing in Canada), we narrowed our focus down to Merida, Guadalajara, and Mexico City. Through online research and word of mouth, we felt that these were the three most likely candidates for a potential future home that fits our particular set of needs/wishes. So we set out to see which city would reign supreme (in our eyes anyways). Of course, we were also very interested in what living in Mexico would be like in general, having never visited any part of Latin America, and also how much tourism we could possibly squeeze into this already packed month of international inquiries! Here’s what we learned:
Our first stop was the city of Merida, which is the capital city of the Yucatan peninsula. We arrived fairly late at night and were quite surprised when the first restaurant we came face-to-face with in Mexico was a Carl’s Jr. Haha! From that moment on, we were constantly reminded how much the US and Mexico have influenced each other over the years. From the abundance of Coke products to the variety of Christmas songs, there were so many things that made us feel like we weren’t too far from home. Some things, however, were very different. For example, the colors of Merida were unlike any city I’ve ever been to! Every building was painted a different, yet equally vibrant shade: coral, sea foam, cyan, olive; I lost count early on. All the color was even more surprising when we learned that Merida’s nickname is “the White City”! Apparently that has more to do with the traditional clothing than a description of the city itself, because Merida is nothing if not colorful.
Merida was also incredibly clean! Everywhere we walked we could smell the scents of soap or laundry detergent wafting out of the various doorways. I had also (wrongly) assumed that in such a warm climate, bugs would be imminent, but we saw none during our 10 days on the peninsula. We what did find was a lot of extremely helpful strangers. As we stood in front of famous buildings or walked back and forth trying to find the correct bus stop, so many people approached us and gave us advice and information. We learned a lot about the Mayan people from locals who kindly shared what they knew in English, just for us. They didn’t ask for tips or for us to buy something from them, they shared because they’re proud of their heritage and wanted foreigners to also soak up some of their history and culture. Overall, Merida was incredibly laid-back, absolutely unique, and unequivocally friendly.
Our next stop was Guadalajara, the capital city of Jalisco (I’m really beginning to think I must have a thing for capital cities…). Anyway, when we arrived in this, larger city, I realized just how much all the negative hearsay (like the number of well-meaning warnings I received before our trip) can really affect first-time travelers. I immediately felt uneasy, like everything was an unforeseen danger. Of course, after only a few hours, that was all wiped away. The people of Guadalajara were just as friendly and carefree as those in Merida. Our Uber drivers, especially, greeted us and patiently listened as we stumbled through Spanish to ask questions or give any necessary additional information. We also noticed that in Guadalajara, and perhaps Mexico as a whole, the timings of things are quite flexible. We often found ourselves checking the hours of one place or another, only to arrive and see they haven’t quite set up yet (even a few hours after opening). We really felt the struggle of coming from a China mindset (up early, asleep by 10pm) to the Mexican way of life, where nothing really gets going until after 8pm at least!
Once it gets going though, it’s impossible to deny the liveliness of Mexcio! Guadalajara in particular has an amazing bar/restaurant street that has so much activity it would take more than a year to see and do everything just on that one strip! From festivals and live music to pub crawls and lucha libre tours, the people in the city know how to party (even on weeknights, which was incredibly impressive, and something I wasn’t quite able to do). While in the city, I was also surprised by the extreme variety of Mexican cuisine. I love Mexican food in the US, but what we typically see is a list of the same 5-6 items with various customization options. In Mexico, the food-scene is much more diverse. From the taco stands and torta kiosks to traditional Aztec/Mayan dishes that look like they came right out of a Top Chef episode (not to mention all the international options). In 30 days I’ve added countless new dishes to my favorites list, and I can now be absolutely sure that Mexican is my favorite of the world’s cuisines. Of course, my favorite among favorites is still the humble taco, and I feel no shame in admitting that Tucker and I kept track of the 75 tacos we ate in Mexico!
Carne en su jugo
Top Chef quality
Our final stop on this scouting mission was the infamous Mexico City. One of the largest cities in Latin America with about 9 million residents, and easily one of the most welcoming mega-cities I’ve ever been in. Sometimes in cities of this size, the expectations for speed and efficiency can be extremely high, which poses a problem for travelers who are clueless as to how things are usually done. However, I never felt any impatience from the locals in CDMX (Ciudad de Mexico). Things were just as easy-going and friendly as the other cities we visited. Of course, Mexico City is quite big, which does bring about some challenges. For example, it typically took over an hour to get from one side of the city to the other, even with the super convenient (and cheap) metro. A sprawling city combined with loads of commuters, holiday shoppers, and tourists definitely made for a chaotic transportation situation. However, because of that large and diverse group, we were also able to get some Kansas City BBQ when we wanted something a bit different one night. It’s the eternal struggle of city life!
Aside from the sheer size and diversity Mexico City (and really all of Mexico) has to offer, I was also really surprised by the openness we saw and felt. Mexico is a Catholic country, and having lived in Poland, I remember the conservative lean that often goes along with that. However, Mexico proved again and again that if it’s not bothering anyone, who cares? We immediately noticed all the pda (public displays of affection): lots of kissing, hand holding, etc. anywhere and everywhere, by all sorts of couples: old, young, gay, straight. We also saw more skin than we had grown used to in China (although that is pretty much necessary when it’s still in the 80’s in winter). And finally, the language used was a bit freer as well. I’ve never seen so many kids shouting curse words as when we went to the lucha libre match (all in good fun though). Ultimately, Mexico had the “anything goes” approach that we sometimes found in China and Poland, but here it was definitely more strongly connected to social issues, and we ultimately found it very refreshing.
Mexico In General
As I’m writing this, I keep thinking of things I want to add. All the information we got in Merida about the Mayan people and the way it influences the modern culture there, all the flowers and fruits of Jalisco that surrounded us even in the middle of a huge city, and all the people in Mexico City, who just like in NYC are trying to make it big in one way or another. As is typical when we travel, we learned so much about the places and people around us, but we also learned more about ourselves: like how strong preconceived notions can be (even in experienced travelers), how many American exports are actually really unhealthy (sugary drinks and fast food), and ultimately, how similar we all really are. We often found ourselves bonding in limited language over traffic, wifi, cute animals, and delicious food: you know, the important things in life.
In short, Mexico was absolutely amazing, and we could definitely see ourselves living there in the future! We felt safe and welcomed, and we had a great time getting to know our southern neighbors a bit better. As it stands now, we’re muddling our way through Canadian immigration, but at least we now have a solid plan B (Guadalajara won out, by the way). Or, who knows, maybe after a few years in the frigid north, the desire to thaw out in Mexico will draw us south of the border sooner than we think!
Japan was absolutely amazing! This summer we spent over three weeks there, traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, Nara, and Osaka, up to Hokkaido (Otaru, Kutchan, and Sapporo), and back down to Tokyo and Fuji – shout out to the JR Rail Pass for all that travel! During our trip, there were so many interesting tidbits that I wanted to share, but I think what I most want everyone to know about Japan is how incredibly unique and delicious the food is! As a non-seafood eater my expectations going in were a little low. Prior to our trip when I thought about Japanese food, I thought of things like sushi, tempura fried shrimp, and wriggling octopus tentacles…so I was a little afraid that I’d be spending the three weeks eating chicken teriyaki while everyone else sampled the bounty from the sea. However, after only a few days I began to realize that the Japanese cuisine in my mind was seriously off the mark. Here are some of the abundant, delicious, not-so-seafood-in-your-face meals we enjoyed on our latest trip:
Omurice – As you might have guessed, omurice is a combination of the words “omelet” and “rice”, and that’s exactly what this dish consists of. Fried rice wrapped in a fluffy omelet covered in sauce. What’s not to love about that?! The original version is covered in ketchup, but more commonly in restaurants they’ll have demi-glace or cream sauces – the ultimate comfort food.
Katsu – Pork katsu is a Japanese dish I had heard of but didn’t really try until moving to China (where it became one of my favorites at a nearby Japanese chain). In Japan though, it was easily ten times better! Crispy breaded and fried pork cutlet served with rice and a crisp cabbage salad – so good! Plus, of course, Tucker loved all the dipping sauce options. In addition to the traditional katsu dishes, we also loved the katsu sandwiches that often came in the ekiben (boxed meals sold on the go). These were great for train rides and baseball games, and although they look quite simple, the sauce is so delicious!
Ball game treats
All that Yaki – Yaki means “grilled” in Japanese, and there are a lot of variations beyond the teppanyaki that we know in the States. Okonomiyaki, yakiniku, and yakitori were probably my three favorites (although the takoyaki “grilled octopus” might have been the most popular). Okonomiyaki roughly translates to something like “everything you like grilled”. Basically you choose all your favorite ingredients and fry them up in a thick pancake/hashbrown thing on a griddle that’s set into the table in front of you. Think Waffle House meets Hibachi – truly a one of a kind combination! Yakiniku is more like what I always call Korean BBQ. Lots of meats and veggies all grilled to perfection right at your table! Yakitori (or grilled skewers), on the other hand, don’t require any table-side cooking. Typically the skewers are ordered in sets and come covered in the most delicious sauces. Chicken is the most popular yakitori, but we also had beef, quail eggs, okra, mushrooms, etc.
Grill your own
Gyudon – Gyudon means “beef bowl” in Japanese, and while it is incredibly simple, it might be my favorite thing I ate while in Japan. A pile of beef and onions simmered in soy sauce, mirin, and dashi sitting atop a mound of sticky white rice served with fresh cabbage: as a lover of plain, simple foods, I was in heaven! I stumbled into this dish when we first ate at Yoshinoya, a Japanese fast food chain, after which I subsequently ordered it three times at various restaurants and eateries!
Karaage – Karaage is a Japanese style fried chicken that pretty much blew my mind. Unlike the fried chicken I know, which really only comes in two flavors: spicy and regular, karaage has a plethora of options. Some of my favorites included soy sauce, ginger, and spicy garlic. And the absolute best part? No bones! A popular spot to enjoy karaage is at a local izakaya, or Japanese pub. Cheap beer paired with fried chicken, always a great combination!
Izakaya beers and cheers!
Curry – Tucker and I love curry. Thai curries, Indian curries, homemade curries: we eat them fairly often, but we had definitely never had Japanese curry before. It’s usually dark brown and served with either chicken or pork katsu, and although it looks similar to other curries, it’s really quite a bit different. Japanese curry is much sweeter and thicker than the typical renditions, and aside from the katsu addition, it also occasionally comes with a hard boiled egg.
Ramen – Ah, my favorite type of men…ramen! Before our trip, this is one of the dishes Tucker and I were most excited about. We really love ramen in all its forms abroad, so surely in Japan it would be amazing! Well, I’m happy to say that it absolutely was! All the bowls we had were massive, and the broth was literally worth licking out of the bowl. I was surprised with how many variations of ramen there are though, from a more traditional soy sauce base to the sweet corn miso broth famous in Sapporo – they were all delicious!
Sushi – Of course I can’t write about eating in Japan without mentioning sushi. Surprisingly, even as someone who doesn’t enjoy eating anything from the water, eating sushi in Japan was a highlight for me. We went to one of the sushi conveyor belt restaurants, which are always fun, and we blindly let Tucker do the ordering – the insane number of possibilities of ingredients, preparations, pairings, etc. was really quite impressive. Ultimately, the food was beautiful, and with enough wasabi, I tasted nothing seafood-y. Haha!
Eel and tuna with avocado
Beef sushi (for me)
Bento – Train food is always a guilty pleasure of mine. In Poland, we got little ham sandwiches, in China, instant noodles, and in Japan: bento boxes. Bento boxes are pre-packaged meals, that are typically quite beautiful as well as delicious! Each little compartment in the box has a different dish, which also gives a lot of variety even when cooped up on a train/plane all day. We paired our bentos with some bīru (beer), and had a wonderful train ride along the coast of Hokkaido.
Otaru Cheesecake – Sometimes you run into a “famous” dish or cuisine on accident, and that’s what happened to us with the cheesecake in Otaru. We stayed in the small port city of Otaru towards the beginning of our trip, and as we were walking around the city, there were signs everywhere for a local cheesecake. Of course, we tried it, and were blown away by how good it was! We never associated Japan with cheesecake before, but it was clear that other tourists did because we then saw this brand of cheesecake for sale all over Tokyo, in the airport, as gift-wrapped souvenirs, etc. I like to think it was much better at the source though.
Other Snacks and Experiences:
Onigiri – flavored rice balls often wrapped in nori
KitKats – the infamous crazy flavors of the beloved candy bar
Shabu Shabu – Japanese hotpot or fondue, usually all you can eat
Croquettes – creative new take on the fried food classic, I loved the green tea ones
Gyoza – Japanese fried dumplings
Uni – sea urchin (tastes like buttery sea water)
Matcha – green tea power, which can be found in anything and everything
Mochi – sweet, squishy rice cakes
Cheese Dogs – corn dog plus, especially since we had ours in colorful Harajuku
Vending Machine Meals – everything from fried chicken to corn soup