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Thursday, November 06, 2014

Puerto Vallarta

I think I've wanted to go to Puerto Vallarta ever since I watched The Love Boat as a kid. On The Love Boat, Puerto Vallarta (or as the locals call it, Vallarta), was the final port of call for the Pacific Princess.

I flew on the direct flight from Atlanta on Sunday morning and checked into the Sheraton Buganvilias Resort and Convention Center. I loved the hotel and the service there. It was conveniently located close to the old town (and a cheap cab ride if you aren't up for the walk.) The pool and the view from my ocean front room were beautiful.

The view from my window
The swim-up bar
After a tremendous lunch at the hotel, I walked into the Old Town. It wasn't a far walk to the Malecon, the boardwalk that stretches down the beach. The pebble designs along the pedestrian walkway are charming, and along the way there are many beautiful statues and sculptures. Here were some of my favorites:

"Caballito de Mar" (Little Seahorse) or Boy on a Seahorse
This has become a symbol of Puerto Vallarta

"La Fuente de la Amistad" (The Power of Friendship)


 My two favorite finds for fellow American tourists?

My first recommendation is a little bar called Cafe Roma, just north of where the River Cuale hits the ocean. (The Cuale divides Downtown and the "Romantic Zone" or "Zona Romantica.") I was told to go there for the great mango margarita, but what I found in addition were the very friendly owners, Sr. Fox and his wife, and a crowd of people from Canada, the UK, and US who seemed to all know each other from multiple visits to Puerto Vallarta. (One of the Canadians bought me a beer just as I was about to leave -- "Here, have another fast one.") They have Karaoke on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, so I did get to hear Sr. Fox sing "A Pirate Looks at 40."

The River Cuale 

My second recommendation is a great food tour of the city called "Vallarta Eats." They have three different tours, and I did the "Mole, Pozole, and More Tour." Come hungry and bring comfortable shoes! You get great, authentic food with a local guide. You go in a small group, usually around 6 folks or less, and you eat at amazing spots as you learn about the city. It's probably a good idea to not eat everything, as I ate way too much. But it was delicious! Below I am at the first stop, Cisneros Mariscos, where I had a yummy yummy yummy smoked marlin tostada and a soup that had a shrimp broth with shrimp and octopus. The drink is a hibiscus water, which was delicious.

One of my favorite stops was Las Gueras where I had an awesome taco al pastor. So good! I liked it quite a bit better than the cow brain taco I tried at a street stand we stopped by. It wasn't bad, actually. I just didn't think it tasted great, and I didn't care for the texture.

Cow brain taco makin's 
My other favorite spot was El Mole de Jovita. The owner, Sergio, makes a mole paying homage to his mother and grandmother. There, we had two kinds of chicken enchiladas -- one with a poblano mole and the other with a green mole. This was served with an incredible warm salad of corn and poblano in a creamy sauce.

Inside El Mole de Jovita
The awesome owner Sergio standing behind me
 Puerto Vallarta was wonderful, and I definitely want to go back. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Munich Oktoberfest 2014


This year marks my 10th Oktoberfest in a row. I've loved every single year, and somehow it never gets old.

This year, I flew to Munich on Saturday. Because I waited to book hotels this year, I had to cobble together hotel stays, so the first night I was at The Olympic near Sendlinger Tor. Some of the Atlanta crew were staying there, so we checked in and had some burgers at a local neighborhood spot. Afterwards, I headed to one of my favorite Bier Gartens, Augustiner Keller.

Bier Garten at Augustiner Keller

That night, we headed to the Oktoberfest grounds and hung out on the outside of the Ammer Festelt.

The next morning, we started our Sunda early at the Bräurosl Festzelt. This was the scene at 10:45 am:

The Atlanta crew
Afterwards, we walked around the fairgrounds, and I did the "Toboggan" -- a ride that I do every year that has been at Oktoberfest for 80 years. Here is the view from the top of the Toboggan. 

That afternoon, I moved over to the Sheraton Arabellapark. It is a really nice hotel, though further away. However, it is still convenient as it is on the line that goes directly to the festival grounds. 

That night, we had our official "tent reservations" at the Hacker-Pschorr Festzelt. This is one of the most beautiful tent interiors, and certainly one of the most popular tents of Oktoberfest. This tent features the bandstand in the middle which turns slowly as well as a rooftop that can open. On this night, unfortunately, it was raining outside so the top was on for most of the evening. While the tent features traditional Bavarian brass music during the day, the evening entertainment is "Cagey Strings," who play great German songs as well as "Country Roads." 

As always, the crowd was fun, and the Bavarian fresh chicken was delicious! 

The next morning, my friend and former co-worker David arrived for his first Oktoberfest. After resting up a bit from his travel, we headed back to Braürosl for lunch. In the tent, we met a lovely family from Munich, Sylvia, her son Max, and her boyfriend Steven. We sat with them and we all ended up staying there for hours listening to the music, singing, and enjoying a Maß or two. 

Braürosl with Sylvia
Fun in Braürosl
David, Steven, Sylvia, and Frank
We ended up being in the Braürosl Festzelt until it closed that evening, then we left to go grab pizza at one of my favorite pizza spots, Sinan's. 

The next day, David and I headed into the city center and Marienplatz to get him some Lederhosen. We visited the open air market, the Viktualienmarkt before heading to the Hofbraühaus for some lunch. 

At the Viktualienmarkt
Hofbraühaus is always a treat. 

 That night, we went to another one of my favorite tents, the Augustiner-Festzelt

It was a little cooler that night, so I wore my long Lederhosen.

We also stayed to the end this night as well, making three nights in a row I closed down a tent.  We left, saying goodbye to the Oktoberfest one last time before heading for more late night pizza.

Toboggan in the background

Tuesday, July 22, 2014


 I landed in Brussels on July 22. While I've been at the airport and the train station (and even drove from the airport to Paris once) this was the first time I've been here to really see the city since my trip in junior high school.

I landed and took the train into the city and was luckily able to check into my hotel right away, staying in the European Quarter of Brussels at the Thon (I decided to go ahead and get some of the touristy things out of the way, so I headed to the Manneken Pis, which is one of the things I clearly remembered from junior high. The statue of the little boy urinating was put in place around 1618.

Manneken Pis
Of course, while there, I had to have a Belgian Waffle at one of the nearby stands. I had strawberries and whipped cream on mine.

On the way to get my waffle on, I passed through the Grand Place and the Brussels Town Hall. The oldest parts of it have been around since the early 1400s.

The main reason I was in town, however, was to do some trails with my international running club. About 3,000 people came from all over the world to be a part of this incredible weekend.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

Hurricane Arthur - Carolina Beach, NC

So there was that time we stayed at Carolina Beach during Hurricane Arthur.

Glad you could join the party, Arthur

It was a great family week at the beach -- my first time at Carolina beach. We were safe as the storm skirted by.

Other highlights:

The girls on the slide 
Good times

Fun on the 4th!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Jardín, Colombia

In Jardín

On Sunday, June 15, eight of our group left Medellin on a four hour, $9 bus ride to Jardín, Colombia. There was no air conditioning, but other wonderful amenities. Every once in a while, the bus would stop and let on someone who would try to sell us his wares. Another person that got on the bus at one stop turned out to be quite an important person for this trip. He sat across the aisle from me and started talking. Of course, I didn't really understand much of what he was saying. But it turned out he owned a coffee/banana farm and a coffee warehouse and was an important man about town and an incredible tour guide. He gave us his contact information and we arranged an amazing tour. His name was Hernán Marin, and I highly recommend finding him if you ever go to Jardín.

Young salesman
Jardín is Spanish for garden, and for good reason. The village was beautiful and lush, surrounded by mountains full of sugar cane, banana trees, and coffee plants.

When we arrived, I checked into my hotel (Hotel Valdivia Plaza) and then we did was grabbed lunch at a place recommended by Hernán called El Zodiaco, just off the main plaza. 

Lunch at El Zodiaco

Overlooking the main plaza from my hotel

The church, taken from the balcony of my hotel 

The main square - a bustle of activity! 

The main square in front of the church was where the town gathered to sit and talk. There were lots of tables and chairs, and plenty of vendors selling fresh juices, empanadas, arepas and chorizo. 

Sitting in the plaza eating papaya, just outside my hotel
After lunch, we did a tour in the moto-ratón across town. Just off the square, drivers were readily available in little rickshaw-like vehicles to take you all around for a quick tour of the village. 

From the backseat of the moto-ratón
The next morning a jeep came to pick us up bright and early to head towards Hernán's house where we'd put on our boots. Little did I know how much we'd need these!

Will with our vehicle for the day

Hernán's house (BTW, he has a nice, cheap room if you need one)
After putting on our rubber boots, we hopped back in the open-backed jeep and headed first to a warehouse where coffee is sold. Hernán showed us how it is inspected for quality and told of of all the potential defects they look for to ensure the quality is at its finest.

Coffee beans

Inside the warehouse
Hernán with a coffee plant

The red coffee beans are the ripe beans
Growing coffee plants for planting
 After Hernán showed us what to look for in a coffee bean, he showed us what to look for in a coffee plant for planting, and explained the process of planting the seed to grow a coffee plant before planting it on the hillsides.

Afterwards, we climbed back in the jeep and rode up into the hillside, away from Jardin, where we had stunning views.

From there, Hernán selected horses for each of us, and we ascended even further up the mountains, on some pretty steep, narrow, muddy terrain covered in ruts. My horse was by far the clumsiest of the horses. As it turned out, most of the horses were quite used to this kind of treacherous terrain, but mine was pretty used to just going around circles in a corral. He fell twice -- the first time I thought he'd be injured and we'd have to shoot him. By the second time, I was pretty used to it. We both landed in the mud, so I was pretty dirty for the rest of the day. 

Valencia's pic of me

A pic from Karol - I'm still clean. 
Selfie with Gabbiotta, my clumsy, muddy horse
We rode up to a little store where we could by beers and we corralled the horses and took this group shot, which shows off all my mud.

After a bit of a rest, we took a pretty demanding hike down through the woods to a beautiful cave and waterfall (Cueva del Esplendor).

Fun hike!

Entering the cave

Outside of the cave, we stopped for lunch which Hernán had packed. I thought we would have sandwiches or something, but he pulled out individual lunches wrapped in banana leaves which his wife had cooked. It included a chicken leg, ground beef, rice, plantains, a boiled egg, potatoes, yucca, a a weiner. 

Lunch Pack

 After lunch, we hiked back up to where the horses were corralled then made the long journey back down. This time, my horse did not fall.

The view of Jardín down below as we headed down 
After returning to the Jeep, we rode to Hernán's farm, still high in the hills above Jardín where we walked through the coffee and bananas. He showed us how the coffee beans were peeled after they were picked. Because of the great weather in Jardín, coffee can be picked pretty consistently. In fact, there may be ripe beans on a plant next to a plant that is just flowering, so workers come through at least every 20 days to manually pick coffee beans.

Hernán's coffee farm
Coffee and bananas as far as one can see

Below, Hernán shows us how the beans are "peeled" and the good beans are separated from the bad beans. Then, they are dried under a hot rooftop covered by plastic. 

Photo courtesy of Karla
Peeled coffee beans drying

Bananas and pigs
We rode back with Hernán into town, me still covered in mud, and had a very fine Colombian coffee at a little coffee shop in the square. (In fact, I bought a couple of pounds there later that day and was drinking it at the beach as I was writing this today.) Walking through the square, all covered in dirt, I felt like I had been working hard on the farm all day. I felt pretty authentic.

We cleaned up and had dinner at Las Margaritas, right on the square. I had the parmesan encrusted trout (trucha apanada) which was one of the most delicious things I had the entire trip. That night, I sat out on the square until everything closed, enjoying a few cervezas and more aguardiente on my last night in Colombia.

The next morning, we saw off the part of our crew left for Tolú, and I had a few more hours before I needed to bus back to Medellin, so I returned Las Margaritas for breakfast, I had the "Desayuno Casero" - the "house breakfast." It was delicious, especially for $3. 

Desayuno Casero at Las Margaritas in the Plaza
After breakfast, Karla, Valencia and I did one more ride through the town on the moto-ratón. We had decided that our other friends' driver, Antonio, gave a much better tour. So we found him, and took his tour. Along the way, we saw this cable car which the locals actually use to go up the mountain:

Cable car
The area traversed by the cable car
We also stopped by the famous 'sweet shop' of Jardín-- Dulces del Jardín where I bought a few chocolates which I've also enjoyed this week.

Dulces del Jardín
After a final 'so long' to this beautiful town, I packed my things for the bus ride back to Medellin, to fly out to the US via Bogota that evening. 

So long, Jardín! Until next time!
[Interested in touring with Hernán? Contact him at hernancuevadelesplendor at hotmail  dot com ]

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