FriFotos: places I’ve called HOME around the world! (photo essay)

To travelers and nomads, home is typically a state of mind. However, for FriFotos this week, I wanted to take you on a photographic journey to some of the places I’ve called HOME around the world. From sailboats to hammocks; concrete blocks to tiki huts: ¡Bienvenidos a mi hogar!

Home around the world: FriFotos photo essay

Home around the world, Puerto Rico

My humble home in Puerto Rico. Solid concrete = hurricane-proof!

The beginning and the end: my parents house and neighborhood in Gurabo, Puerto Rico. Closer to the city of Caguas, though!

Home around the world, Puerto Rico concrete houses

The neighborhood I grew up in! A dead-end street with beautiful palm trees and mountains in the vicinity.

Due to hurricanes, most houses in Puerto Rico are made of solid concrete throughout:  including walls inside the home. Only the wealthy can afford intricate homes, as it is more expensive and difficult to build and mold concrete houses. However, if you just want one big concrete box, that won’t be too expensive!

The million-dollar home in Tampa, Florida

Home around the world, million-dollar home Tampa

The pool area, part of a yacht, the lake, and other million-dollar homes in the area.

In the summer of 2010, I was lucky enough to score a housesitting and pet sitting gig in an affluent neighborhood in Tampa, Florida.  For 2 full months, I lived like a rock star!  A yacht, a boat, fun neighbors, great food! I also got to hang out with the amazing family when they were around every couple of weeks. I bonded with my hosts so much that I now call them my American family. I even call the married couple mom and dad!

Whenever I can’t go back home for Christmas, I spend the holidays with them 🙂

Home around the world, American family

My new American family!

Don’t worry though, my first familia will always be in Puerto Rico. I simply call them mami and papi to differentiate my 2 sets of parents 😉 lucky to be surrounded by so many wonderful people—much love indeed.

A hammock, overwater hostel, and a sailboat in Panama

Home around the world, Aqualounge Hostel Bocas del Toro

Aqualounge Hostel in Bocas del Toro, Panama. Only reachable by boat!

Home around the world, Bocas del Toro hammock

My bed for a couple of nights in Bocas del Toro, Panama

While this hammock and overwater hostel in Bocas del Toro were my home for less than a week, I had an amazing time! Great drinking specials, quirky characters, and fun parties.

Home around the world, sailboat Kuna Yala

View of Kuna Yala village from my sailboat cabin

More about this trip: Panama, my last college spring break! (photo essay)

This trip got even better with 4 days sailing down the San Blas Islands—in great company as well. Just imagine this bubbly Puerto Rican, a loopy captain, 2 diplomats from the US foreign service, 2 retired lawyers, and a Kuna Indian fisherman…!

College campus in Morocco

Home around the world, Al Akhawayn University Morocco

The gorgeous campus of Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco (Amina Lahbabi)

In the fall of 2009, I studied abroad in Ifrane, a small town by the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, for 4 months. The American-style college is called Al-Akhawayn University and I had a blast! Gorgeous grounds, architecture, and people. The dorms were even better than in most colleges I’ve seen in the USA, which was crazy!

Home around the world, Moroccan college dorms

One of the dorms! Photo courtesy of Munir Sayegh

I felt most at home in the classroom of my World Religions class with Portuguese professor Jacques, though. Handsome, wise. He taught me so much about unknown cultures, religious traditions, rites, etc. I haven’t been that happy in many other places! Unfortunately, no photo of handsome Jacques available.

 Cluttered roofs and sleeping on an ancient felucca in Egypt

Home around the world, Cairo apartment

Cluttered roofs and dirty apartments — commonplace in otherwise-fascinating Cairo, Egypt

I must have moved about 4 times during my year of Arabic studies in Egypt.  Issues ranged from roommate conflicts to sketchy bowaabs (building doorman)—you name it! And even though my digital camera died within the first week in Cairo, my first flatmate—Natalia—took a good picture of one of the apartments (photo above).

Umm yeah…with my student budget (relying exclusively on a scholarship), I couldn’t afford a maid to keep the apartment dust-free nor a better view than that one. All in all, a very humbling experience. Seriously, cleanliness…one of the many things we take for granted everyday.

Home around the world, sleeping on a felucca

Relaxing morning, sleeping on a felucca!

It goes without saying that where I felt the most at home during my year in Egypt was while drifting down the Nile on a felucca for 3 days and 2 nights.  Absolutely magical.

Home around the world, felucca sunset

Sunset during my 22nd birthday (by Aswan, Egypt)

This photo essay is almost 800 words now, so enough of home for today! 😉

Hope you enjoyed it.

Felucca Sunset Egypt

Yup, that’s me on the felucca once more. Had to save the best shot for last!

Where’s home to you? How many countries have you lived in?

A year in travel (and life): My 2012 roller coaster ride

Welcome to the roller coaster ride of my year in travel — and life. 2012 was full of not only travel bucket list adventures, but also several struggles and personal growth. In fact, it was one of my toughest years to date. Let’s take a look back and breath in the positive, breathe out the negative, learn from the mistakes, and most importantly: move forward!

year in travel, my first snowfall

There’s no rainbow without some…SNOW! 😉 My very first snowfall in Frisco, Texas

Local tourism: Tampa Bay’s Mardi Gras and the Dalí Museum

As I currently live minutes away from downtown, I took part of the Gasparilla Parade (Tampa Bay’s Mardi Gras) on January 2012. “The Invasion” celebrates the legend of José Gaspar (better known as Gasparilla). Rumor has it that the Spanish pirate captain invaded Florida’s west coast between the late 18th – early 19th century. No evidence of such “attack” or even the capt. himself appears in writing until late 20th century though, which makes his existence dubious. But who cares? It is still a heck of a party!

year in travel, Tampa Bay Mardi Gras Gasparilla

“The Invasion”! (Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures)

Also, I finally went to the new Dalí Museum in nearby St. Petersburg. It was an amazing experience see the works of my favorite painter, in addition to having some random fun by the Tree of Wishes in the courtyard!

Year in travel, Dali Museum Florida

By the courtyard and Tree of of Wishes of the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida (Matthew Paulson, Flickr)

My first travel conference: The NY Times Travel Show

In March 2012, I went to the New York Times Travel Show for the first time. For being my very first travel conference period, I feel it was a success! I later contacted some of the media agents I connected with throughout the weekend — and even got some comped trips later in the year. The networking that ensued forced me to think about my brand, how I market myself, and where I want LatinAbroad to be. Professional and personal lessons.

Also, I finally got to meet some fellow travel bloggers! Including some of my “idols” 😀

year in travel, NY travel Show Expedia party

NY travel Show Expedia party with travel bloggers @CaptainandClark @MidlifeRoadTrip @live_for_travel

year in travel, New York Times travel show

Top: Woman travel session (with legendary @JourneyWoman, Evelyn!). Bottom: Asia section with lovely dancers from Sri Lanka (left) and Thai display (right)

Life after studying abroad: My post-travel depression

Around April, my life after studying abroad was starting to get to me. More often than not, I was quite sad, unable (or unwilling?) to accept my new life. This post-travel depression hit me hard. I started to fight a lot with my new beau. In fact, it was one of those fights that helped me see that I really had to improve my day by day.

While I still struggle from time to time,  I keep reminding myself that my long-term goals will allow me to travel for the rest of my life! I just have a wee-bit left to get done stateside 😉

year in travel, Tampa FL local tourism

Local tourism in Tampa! Part of my life after traveling the world

American work culture and illness: More struggles ahead

In May, even more hurdles were put on my path. I struggled with the difficult American work culture and a new illness: RSI/carpal tunnel. Due to not having health insurance, I have still not been officially diagnosed, but the pain in my hands and dainty fingers doesn’t lie. I found a way to move forward by buying voice recognition software and learning to relax. A journey, not a destination…

Year in travel, American work culture

Stressed.Out (Deborah Leigh, Flickr)

June: More domestic tourism, TBEX and my 1st Blogiversary

I define domestic tourism as traveling to states or provinces of the country you are living in. This summer, I saw more of America by visiting the number 1 beach in the USA and going to the West for the 1st time. Where to? Keystone, Colorado for TBEX!

Year in travel, Siesta Key Beach FL

Me at Siesta Key beach FL: Number 1 in the USA

While TBEX was my 2nd travel conference, it was my 1st (official) travel blogger trip. I got to meet even more of my travel blogging idols and long-time online friends face-to-face. Among them, the legendary Lola DiMarco, Jodi Ettenburg, Michael Tieso, and Stephanie Yoder. Furthermore, I got my first translation deals! They are still on the works (none have gone live), but I know 2013 will bless me in that department 😀 As a TBEX 1st timer, this meant a lot to me.

Year in travel, TBEX conference

Me (bottom) surrounded by some big names and travel bloggers! Guess who?

You know what else happened in June? It was LatinAbroad’s 1st anniversary! I can’t believe my baby travel blog is over a year old already. Thanks to YOU for all the support! This will keep going for years and years, I assure you 😉 I love it too much.

Year in travel, TBEX Colorado

Champagne and a view: Couldn’t ask for a better ride! (Photo: Jennifer Huber)

Puerto Rico gringo invasion — and partial media trip!

In July, I had the great opportunity to go on a partial media trip to my island, Puerto Rico. With my gringo in tow, we visited my family and other quirky attractions in the island. The highlights?

The sensual Hotel OK and Motel Villa Arco Iris:

Year in travel, sex Hotel OK Puerto Rico

Hotel OK suite: Complete with stripper pole, heart-shaped Jacuzzi, and the mandatory ceiling mirrors over the bed and hot tub!

Year in travel, Puerto Rico sex Motel Villa Arco Iris

Our romantic suite at Motel Villa Arco Iris. And yup, that’s a ceiling mirror over the bed — and over the Jacuzzi as well!

Going down the tallest zip line in the world:

Small plane ride over the ocean from mainland Puerto Rico to Vieques:

Year in travel, Vieques plane ride

Gorgeous views of mainland Puerto Rico! This flight was courtesy of Vieques Air Link

Laid-back Vieques Island beaches:

Year in travel, Vieques Beach Playuela

Entrance to hidden gem Garcia Beach in Vieques, Puerto Rico

 …and my gringo trying to drive!

A Russian restaurant, the Olympics, and a patriot’s dilemma

The end of the summer brought an unexpected local outing. I got to travel through food and visit an authentic Russian restaurant in Florida. I drank some Soviet-era vodka and ate some interesting Eastern European food.

year in travel, Russian food

I ate the Eastern European lobster pierogi. It was an interesting cream sauce with caramelized onions, plus the perioges seemed to have been stuffed with crab too

Additionally, I got into some arguments around the Olympics due to my strong Puerto Rican patriotism and ignorant Americans’ inability to understand it.

year in travel, Puerto Rico patriotism

Who would have thought this moment would cause so much commotion — in a negative way!?

A new travel cooking series — and financial anorexia

October brought with it some exciting new plans — and some old struggles. Hostel Cooking recipes debuted thanks to my good friend Josh Snore; while the Black Dog showed its ugly face again. I even accepted I suffer from financial anorexia. However, I pulled through — and they won’t beat me!

Year in travel, hostel cooking

Never thought you could cook Moroccan chicken with couscous in a hostel, did you? Get the recipe here!

Playa Del Carmen, Mexico: My 2nd trip to the Yucatán Peninsula

In November, I had another great opportunity to go on a partial media trip to check out 2 of the boutique Xperience Hotels. This time, I would be heading to Mexico for the 2nd time to check out the laid-back beach town of Playa Del Carmen! I was beyond excited, as I could not see many attractions my 1st time around.

I sampled Mayan cuisine, went rappelling and tubing in a cenote, visited the lesser-known Ek Balam Mayan ruins, and even got a 70-minute beach massage for only USD $18! Oh, and sure thing, la gente esta muy LOCAAA in Playa Del Carmen nightlife (and I absolutely loved it).

year in travel, cenote rappelling

Cenote rappelling! Don’t I look excited?!

year in travel, cenote tubing

Our group tubing in a cenote. Of course, I’m the one posing pretty haha

year in travel, Ek Balam Mayan ruins

Ek Balam “Jaguar” Temple: Mayan carvings

Christmas in Texas — and MY FIRST SNOWFALL!

Last month, my partner surprised me with tickets to go see his family in Texas for Christmas. It was a pretty laid-back trip, but with some great highlights!

Right out of the airport, I was taken to sample some good ol’ Texan barbecue. Omg.

year in travel, Texas barbecue

O.M.G.

year in travel, Texan BBQ

Texan brisket and sausage

The Downtown Frisco musical light show and surrounding homes brought out the kid in me. I squealed like a little girl, I was so happy! 😀

The next day it was all about the spanking-new Perot Museum of Science was so much fun — but extremely crowded. I recommend you be the first through the door and have fun at the bottom floors first, as they are the most interactive. My favorite sections were the oil drilling and minerals, in addition to the human anatomy floor. There, you could see the many wonders of the human body via some excellent experiments and quirky gadgets. It was so unreal —  perfect for kids, by the way.

Then, it was Max Donuts. And family banquets. Just SO. MUCH. FOOD.

Year in travel, Max Donuts TX

Max Donuts and other delicacies

Year in travel, veal sausage

Southern veal sausage: spicy, juicy, delicious

Year in travel, southern brisket

Southern brisket right out of the oven

Year in travel, Texan bacon cheeseburger

Just look at that sexy Texan bacon cheeseburger

Year in travel, Midwestern food

Midwestern food in Texas

Year in travel, Southern biscuits

Southern biscuits: garlic, cheese, herbs, and a lot of butter!

But nothing, I mean NOTHING this year could top this one off:

MY VERY FIRST SNOWFALL!

That’s right: up until Christmas 2012, I’d never seen snow fall from the sky. Ever. And yes, it snowed right on Christmas Day! It was so so perfect, I even teared up a little, especially as my partner stepped outside in order to kiss me under the snow 🙂

Year in travel, my first snowfall

It started to snow! It started to snow!

Year in travel, my first snow storm

This is what extreme happiness looks like. Very 1st snowfall in my life, I even teared up!

Indeed, happiness is an understatement here. So of course, I had to shoot not one, but 2 videos. It was freezing cold, but I was so overjoyed I couldn’t even feel it!

New Year’s in Tampa Bay

In comparison to other years, the last few hours of 2012 were very laid-back. However, I spent them among friends and, most importantly, the man I love. 2012 taught me that I could love again, even though travel and a broken heart had stripped hope.

year in travel, fireworks

A great start to 2013 <3

And so, with a kiss and embrace, we said goodbye to 2012 — all while watching a good ol’ firework show over Tampa Bay:

2012 resolutions: Moving back to Egypt, Arabic degree, Oceania — FAIL

Last, but definitely not least, are my failed 2012 resolutions. Last year, I wanted to not only improve my Arabic and even earn a Master of Professional Studies degree, but also move back to Egypt. Plan A didn’t happen, as the federal government stopped funding that program and the situation in Egypt deteriorated (so did my job prospects).

What about Plan B, to become a flight attendant and fly all over the world, or even Plan C,  which involved me moving to Australia and traveling all over Oceania? Well…

I started to take my finances so seriously that I set a plan to get rid of all my debt (about $50,000 of it) in 3 years or less. I just wanted to be free, be free of all Western world strengths and the flawed American work culture.

I decided I want to be a full-time nomadic translator, travel writer by 30.

And, most importantly: DEBT-FREE by then!

It might not be a perfect plan, but it didn’t matter in my head — it still ruled out Plan B. Then, I got a promotion in Florida and decided to stay put longer, as the new salary and benefits were in line with my new financial & other important long-term goals. There went Plan C

But was my toughest year yet ruined because of all these changes? As you could see throughout this post, definitely not. Yes, I struggled. Yes, I didn’t travel as much as I wanted to.

But I grew. I learned a lot.

(AND I SAW SNOW. AND LOVE)

So: Cheers to 2013! I’m ready to learn, to be amazed, and to be blessed once more. Shall this post be a reminder of John Lennon’s words:

Year in travel, John Lennon quote

A motto to remember

How was your year in travel (and life) in 2012? Share your milestones!

Where to stay in Playa Del Carmen: My personal recommendations

As you all know, I’m a budget traveler. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean I am cheap — it means I also seek value. So let me tell you right now: when thinking about where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, keep in mind that there are so many wonderful, locally-owned guesthouses and budget boutique hotels.

Do not go for the international chain hotels!

They are typically located outside of the center. Yes, the website might say it is located just a few miles away from Quinta Avenida — but what they don’t tell you is that is in a completely different complex. You can’t just walk down the middle of the highway to join the action now can you?

Where to stay in Playa Del Carmen: from boutique hotels to hostels

That being said, I spent 2 nights at the wonderful Aqualuna Boutique Hotel, just off Quinta Avenida (5th Ave.), on 10th and 14th St. It is literally steps away from all the action of 5th, yet a world away. From my room (number 1), I could hear nothing but the gentle sound of the courtyard fountain.

**Unfortunately, this Playa hotel is closed as of July 2016 🙁

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Aqualuna

Aqualuna Hotel from 10th St.

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Aqualuna bed

Bed inside my room. Firm, but comfy

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Aqualuna room

Rooms from the hotel’s courtyard or “patio interior”

Additionally, there were several local restaurants within walking distance of the hotel, away from touristy 5th. This meant I saved quite a bit of money eating out. I would go back to this budget boutique hotel in a heartbeat.

You can read my full review of Aqualuna here

I also stayed at a sister property, Hacienda Paradise, for one night. A more upscale hotel, this is where I would have my breakfast or take a dip in the pool during my stay at Aqualuna as well. While I enjoyed my stay at Hacienda, I feel the location and total lack of noise at Aqualuna make it my favorite of the two.

My full hotel review of Hacienda Paradise

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Hacienda Paradise

Hacienda Paradise courtyard and pool area from the lobby

Hacienda Paradise room, where to stay in Playa Del Carmen

My Hacienda room. Very nice!

On my last night, I decided to try one of the local hostels. I stayed at Hostel 3B. Absolutely loved the gigantic lockers (they even fit my carry-on with wheels!), silent dorms, comfortable beds and crispy clean linens. Excellent location, just a few steps away from the beach and 5th Avenue. Staff at reception was very helpful and friendly as well.

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Hostel 3B

Hostel 3B: Cheap and Chic!

My only complaint is that the bathroom smelled terribly once I got there. I saw someone cleaning them, but the problem is that they have no ventilation whatsoever (I stayed in the old female dorm number 5, by the way). This made humidity stall. It had great water pressure, though. Why do I recommend it, then? Because I had the best sleep (and hot shower) I’ve had at any hostel, ever. And I seriously fell in love with the lockers…

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, hostels

Hostel 3B’s massive locker. I could even fit the new wheeled carry-on I bought later that day!

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Hostel 3B dorms

Hostel 3B female-only dorm

Other wonderful hostels that come highly recommended are Hostel Rio Playa, Green Monkey, Hostel Playa, and Hostal Vive La Vida.

Another Playa Del Carmen accommodation option: Condo hotels

Just walking down 5th Avenue, I noticed several condo hotels in Playa Del Carmen. Rooms are similar to short-term rentals (more like apartments), while the grounds and amenities resemble a hotel. As a matter of fact, most of them are more luxurious than a B & B! A perfect example is Maya Villa Condo Hotel & Beach Club, the top-rated hotel of its kind in town.

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Maya Villa pool

Maya Villa’s gecko pool (Photo: Tripadvisor)

where to stay in Playa Del Carmen, Maya Villa

KITCHEN of one of the “flats” at Maya Villa Condo Hotel. Photo: Roberto B, Tripadvisor

Where to stay in Playa Del Carmen? Share your recommendations!

Special thanks to Xperience Hotels for offering a complimentary stay at Aqualuna Boutique Hotel and Hacienda Paradise. I was not paid for a positive review and all comments are my honest opinion, though.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs: La gente esta muy LOCA…WTF?

Remember those sweet plans I had in mind, to swim with turtles in Akumal? Well, that travel bucket list item will have to wait. We can blame Playa Del Carmen nightclubs for that.

Seriously, they got me singing: “la gente esta muy LOCA…WTF?”

When I signed up for the Playa Crawl, I figured I would be out and about until 3 AM. Given the fact that I had gone on a tour the day before on 4 hours of sleep, plus the lengthy nap I had taken earlier that day, I thought I could party and make it to Akumal by 8 AM.

That didn’t happen.

I should have known beforehand. Not only am I a quarter of a century old, but I’m not a college student anymore. And after reading what the Playa Crawl entails… What was I thinking?!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, bar crawl

Best choice to get familiar with Playa Del Carmen nightclubs? Going on a bar crawl with Playa Crawl

You read right: Includes any cover charges, 5 hours of open bar, 3 different clubs, and unlimited bottle service on 2 of the venues. Furthermore, there’s no wait in line + you get a VIP booth at every club. And at the third club you don’t get bottle service? We got 3 rounds of SHOTS (in addition to the 2-3 rounds of drinks we got in-between).

LOCOOOOO!

For only US $69.99 per person, saying it is a bargain is an understatement. As a solo traveler, it was also a great way to meet other travelers. Our group consisted of 13 people (including our guide and Jorge). Our guide, Pepe, was a blast as well. He has been traveling the world, by getting instructor/guide seasonal gigs, for the past 10 years — he knows what he’s doing!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review: Playa Crawl group

Our PlayaCrawl group! I’m in the dead center, strapless black dress

So…I got home at 7:30 AM.

And by the time we left, the party was still going! Yes, we saw the freakin’ sunrise from the last club. That’s the best part of the tour by the way: You get to stay at your VIP seating area at the last stop of the crawl until that club closes. Granted, drinks will be on your tab by then, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be all good at that point.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs and lounges: Which did you go to?

What I really liked about Playa Crawl is that it truly encompasses Playa Del Carmen nightlife. Every night there’s a bar crawl, the venue selection changes. This is tailored to the group and night of the week. For instance, if it’s an older crowd, the guide will skip the loud dance clubs and head to the chill beach clubs instead. From the get-go, Pepe saw that our group was full of partiers, and so we visited the following clubs:

Kartabar (hookah lounge): Calle 12 and 1st Ave. corner

Kartabar was the perfect warm-up: A hip hookah lounge playing oldies Americana music and even some good 90’s pop and hip-hop. We were there by 1045-11 PM and stayed for 1 hour and 20 min. (this is the duration of every stop of the bar crawl, by the way).

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, belly dancer

Belly dancer at Kartabar

During our stay, we were graced by the performance of a beautiful, talented belly dancer in 2 occasions. As far as drinks go, we got 3 rounds of shots: One of tequila and 2 of what seemed to be a Blue Curaçao concoction. Other travelers had about 2-3 rounds of drinks themselves, in addition to the shots. Yours truly simply had an additional margarita (in true lightweight fashion).

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Kartabar view

View of 12th Street from our table at Kartabar

Mandala (dance club): Calle 12 and 1st Ave. corner

Before entering this night club, our guide Pepe said: “party begins now.”

I absolutely loved Mandala: From the red lights, to the colorful dance floor, to the semi-outdoor set-up. The impressive Buddhas were a nice touch as well. Our group was escorted to the second-floor balcony, half of which is roofless. The DJ played American Top 40s, with some reggaetón tracks to spice up the mix. On the few trips to the bathroom, I listened to some of the music on the bottom floor — more of a local, Latin mix.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Mandala interiors

Mandala’s bottom dance floor early in the evening

At Mandala, we had our first unlimited bottle service. While our waiter was mostly attentive, he kept forgetting about our pineapple juice. Once Pepe was firm about the request though, it was delivered right away. Also, even though we were in the VIP section, it felt somewhat crowded. Still, we had a blast!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Mandala's Buddha

one of Mandala’s Buddha at the 1st floor bar

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Mandala dancefloor

Facing where the stairs to the 2nd floor are located

Palazzo (dance club): Calle 12, between 5th and 10th Ave.

Another hotspot of Playa Del Carmen nightlife, Palazzo was extremely crowded by the time we got there (around 1 AM). It rivals any (small) club in Miami or Cancun: Huge chandelier, comfortable VIP balconies, great electronic music.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Palazzo

Palazzo entrance

At first, we were placed in one of the lower VIP tables. But…they were too small for our group. After simply making a comment, Pepe went ahead and talked to the manager of the club, who swiftly moved us to the upper VIP balcony. Score!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review: Palazzo VIP balcony

Palazzo VIP balcony from the bottom floor

Service was superb. Here: We never ran out of bottles and even got a premium tequila bottle for shots. From here on…extremely LOCO!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Palazzo VIP balcony view

Palazzo VIP balcony view

Bonus – La Santanera: Calle 12 Mza 30 Loc 2, bet. 5th & 10th Ave.

If you are lucky enough to be hanging out with the owner or one of his family members that night? A 4th stop bonus! After Palazzo, our group was escorted to La Santanera. Owned and operated by the cousin of Playa Crawl’s Jorge, it is a breezy club where you will find more locals than foreigners. The music is outstanding (deep house + lounge upstairs). It is basically the place you go to party until the sun comes up.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs, La Santanera bar

La Santanera bar. Loved the decor!

And I have nothing else to say about this hip club because… all I remember is dancing to great music, drinking from our vodka bottles at our VIP section until I saw the SUN come up. I didn’t get back to my hotel until 7-7:30 AM!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs, La Santanera VIP

With my favorite Aussie in the group! Sitting at La Santanera VIP section. Pretty sure this was close to sunrise!

Alternatives to Playa Del Carmen nightclubs

Personally, I had a blast at all the clubs visited during the Playa Crawl. However, Playa Del Carmen nightlife offers a plethora of other options. Throughout my vacation, I also found the following venues to be quite attractive and fun:

Coco Bongo Playa Del Carmen
Calle 10, M31 L5 221, Playa del Carmen 77710

Yes, Coco Bongo is also a dance club, but they put on an amazing show. I had the pleasure of going to the one in Cancun. Too much fun to describe in words. Pricey, but totally worth it!

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Coco Bongo

Coco Bongo Playa Del Carmen (Dan, Flickr)

Mamitas Beach Club
Calle 28 Norte Mza. 10 Lote 8 between Zona Federal Maritima and 5th Av.

Trendy, casual, and an amazing semi-outdoor experience. I personally love sipping cocktails and dancing while staring at crashing waves 😉 By the way, David Guetta will be here for New Years! The one night Mamitas will resemble one of the other nightclubs I mentioned (instead of its usual laid-back self).

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs alternative, Mamitas

Miss Spain contestants at Mamitas Beach Club (Noticaribe, Flickr)

Blue Parrot
12th St N & 1st Ave N | Blue Parrot Hotel

Laid-back beach bar that even has fire dancers. Watch the video below to sample of the some fun. The crazy fast dancing starts at 0:30!

Coco Maya Beach Club & Lounge
Calle 12 and Beach Front, Playa Del Carmen

Another casual club by the ocean, in the likes of Mamitas. It is BIG inside — loved the decor (swings by the BAR!), sand floor, and dancing space. There’s also a balcony to look at the waves 🙂 typical music played is hip-hop/R&B by the entrance; house by the beach.

Playa Del Carmen nightclubs review, Coco Maya dance floor

One of Coco Maya’s dance floors early in the evening

The drinking specials for ladies are even better: Every night, no cover and open bar until 1 AM! This includes tequila, vodka, and rum with respective non-premium (i.e. no Red Bull). I would say they still live up their “every night is a ladies night” motto 😉 Guys only pay US $35 for a bracelet that includes cover and similar open bar. Yes, Coco Maya can become more like a crowded dance club after midnight. Still, it is relatively laid-back in comparison to the other Playa Del Carmen nightclubs I went to.

Playa Del Carmen nightlife, Coco Maya Beach Club thatched ceiling

Coco Maya Beach Club’s thatched ceiling by 2nd dance floor

Playa Del Carmen nightlife review. Coco Maya

Coco Maya lounge area

Have you experienced Playa Del Carmen nightclubs? Tell us!

Special thanks to Jorge and Playa Crawl for the complimentary bar crawl. I was not paid for positive Playa Del Carmen nightclubs reviews, though. Comments are my honest opinion.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins: Temple history and FriFotos from the PEAK

Having just returned from Playa Del Carmen, I have many wonderful photos from the PEAKS of Mayan temples and ruins. Thus, finding out that is the theme for this week’s FriFotos was a delight! While I visited Coba as well, today I will focus on Ek Balam Mayan ruins — one of the lesser-known Yucatán Mayan sites.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins panorama

Loved this viewpoint at Ek Balam!

Ek Balam Mayan ruins: Brief overview

Not only in Ek Balam, but throughout most (if not all) Mayan sites in the Yucatán, you will find that doorways have “peaks” — they are not perfect arches. They are called corbel arches.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization states that the Mayans created these type of arches, with 9 layered vaults, in order to represent what they believed to be the nine layers of the Underworld. The addition of a keystone, or 10th layer, would be a representation of a body outside the Mayan cosmos (Examiner.com).

Ek Balam Mayan ruins, doorway

Ek Balam Mayan ruins: Corbel arch

Ek Balam Mayan ruins is one of several sites built by the Yucatec Mayans. Located 32 miles (51 m) from its famous cousin Chichen Itzá and 30 km north of Valladolid. It is an easy day trip from several resort towns on the Riviera Maya.

As you know, I visited the Ek Balam Mayan ruins on a combo day trip (including Río Lagartos) from Playa Del Carmen. I felt I had plenty of time at the site and was not rushed at all. Thus, it is quite possible to combine a visit to other site on the same day you visit Ek Balam.

Ek Balam Mayan ruins, main temple

Ek Balam’s main temple

Ek Balam Mayan ruins: Climbing to the top of the main temple

Unlike Chichen Itzá, tourists are still allowed to climb to the very top of the main temple at Ek Balam Mayan ruins. The views from the jungle and other ruins throughout the site are amazing! A *little* scary to climb down, but I believe the steps are big enough for you to have plenty of room to step firmly and safely. I had doubts about climbing for a second or two, but went for it anyway! So glad I did 🙂

Ek Balam Mayan Temple climb

At the top of the Ek Balam Temple!

Ek Balam Mayan ruins top view

Me on top of the Ek Balam Temple! So glad I made it

Ek Balam view top

Ah!

Ek Balam Mayan ruins jungle view

View of the jungle from Ek Balam temple top

Ek Balam jungle

Don’t forget to visit the Mayan burial temple on your way up —  or down!

The temple (tomb!) of Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ was quite fascinating. Its entrance is shaped like the mouth of a jaguar, teeth and all. In fact, the name Ek Balam means “Black Jaguar” in Yucatec Maya language — thus the name of this Mayan ruins site.

I never thought I would see such beautiful carvings inside Mayan ruins before. Clearly, my knowledge about the civilization was very limited! I was like nothing I had ever seen before (i.e. Chichen Itzá). Thus, if you’re thinking about skipping the Ek Balam Mayan ruins because you are visiting Chichen Itza or Cobá, think twice before doing so! I’m sure these images will change your mind:

Ek Balam Mayan ruins, jaguar teeth

The “jaguar teeth” at Ek Balam temple’s

For a very cool interactive panorama of this Mayan temple, click here.

Ukit Kan Le'k Tok' temple, Ek Balam Mayan ruins

Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ temple, also known as El Trono in Spanish (“The Throne”)

It is believed that Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ was one of the rulers of Ek Balam. What I found the most fascinating about this character, and Mayans in general, though? The reason Ukit Kan Le’k Tok’ rose to power is because he was cross-sighted and possibly albino.

According to our tour guide, Mayans venerated anyone who was different — thus his rise to power. It is believed that certain objects were placed on the nose or the middle of the foreheads of children in order to try and make them cross-sighted. What for? In the hopes that they would become someone important one day. Oh, how have times changed!

Ek Balam Mayan ruins, carvings

LOVED the well-preserved Mayan carvings

Ek Balam Mayan ruins carvings

Beautiful

Take your time to explore other ruins throughout Ek Balam

You’ll have to walk through other ruins before you reach the main temple at Ek Balam, so take the time to look at the intricacies and differences between all structures. I found it fun to draw comparisons between the structures I had seen at Chichen Itzá and Ek Balam. Additionally, trying to capture the nuances and different angles in photos is a game in itself 😉

Ek Balam Mayan arch

Mayan carvings at Ek Balam

The temple at Ek Balam is too wide to fully capture!

Definitely add the Ek Balam Mayan ruins to your travel bucket list!

Salsa music history and videos: Travel playlists

There are many misconceptions about salsa music history and its true origin. For this reason, I decided to write about my favorite Latin music genre for this week’s Cultural Tidbits Monday. Additionally, I have included some of my favorite salsa music videos for you to spice up your travel playlists. Enjoy! 😀

Salsa music history: From Cuba or Puerto Rico? Settle already!

As a Latina, I StumbleUpon this debate all the time: Did salsa music originated in Cuba or in Puerto Rico? I’ve seen Cubans and Puerto Ricans alike go head-to-head about who is right, who can take credit for this amazing contribution to Latin music and culture. The truth of the matter is, neither is 100% right.

Salsa music history, Fania All-Stars

“In 1971 the Fania All Stars sold out Yankee Stadium” [Steward, Sue (2000). “Salsa: Cubans, Nuyoricans and the Global Sound” pp. 488–489]. Photo: Tommy Muriel, Wiki

Salsa music history can be traced back to New Yoricans (Nuyoricans), or Puerto Ricans living in New York City, in the early 70s. While it was very common for any type of Latin music to be categorized as “salsa” (even mariachis!) since the 30s, it wasn’t until Johnny Pacheco, creative director and producer for Fania Records, fine-tuned a balanced mix of Latin sounds and created what we know as salsa music today. Back then though, the Fania sound was known as New York salsa.

Yes, Cubans will still scoff at the term and say that salsa was/is nothing more than a mix of old Cuban sounds. However, many fail to acknowledge that the salsa genre we know today was truly a mix of Cuban and other Caribbean sounds — thus the term (salsa = sauce, a concoction of ingredients). Even musicians that only played Cuban music changed the name of their genre to salsa “as a financial necessity” (Wikipedia, salsa music).

Salsa music videos: Travel playlist ideas

Heading to the Caribbean or Latin America soon? I recommend you add these explosive salsa mixes to your travel playlist! They come directly from my personal favorites collection 😉

Héctor Lavoe tribute by Mark Anthony, from the acclaimed film El Cantante. I recommend you download the entire album! But my favorite track is definitely “Aguanile”. No salsa music history article is ever complete without it. You may listen to it at the beginning of the video:

Another classic salsa music history group that has been around for decades is El Gran Combo de Puerto Rico. I had the privilege to have them play at one of my proms in high school while living in the island. Superb! This is what I would call top-shelf salsa music 😉

What did you know about salsa music history before reading this post?

Arepas El Cacao review: Venezuelan food in Kissimmee (photos)

Today’s Venezuelan food joint Arepas El Cacao review is brought to you by Mr. B, with short commentary by yours truly. Tomorrow, for Traveling Through Food Monday, I’ll be talking more about the origin of arepas and cachapas. Additionally, I’ll give you some delicious recipes to try at home. This post though…it is just the humorous account of a gringo’s first encounter with Venezuelan food. Enjoy!

Arepas El Cacao, Co
3283 S John Young Pkwy
Kissimmee, FL 34746

Arepas El Cacao review: Venezuelan food in Kissimmee

Venezuelan food is a lot like the country: Full of amazing resources, but serious violence once you are deep inside. We walked toward Arepas El Cacao, a place with a giant cherry on the top of the building (these guys know what they are doing). There were only two side windows, both plastered with massive menus that covered them in their entirety. We stood confused at where the entrance was when, magically, a window opened and a boy of the ripe age of 9 was ready to take our order.

Maria led the way, as I assumed the language of origin of the people inside was Spanish. But even this edge did not help with the completion of our order. We were allowed to stuff 5 things into the cachapas (actually, the arepas Mr. B) or whatever and we decided on some meats. Additionally though, I decided to add some handmade cheese (queso de mano) because it confused me (I thought cheese came from cows?).

Arepas El Cacao review menu

Arepas El Cacao menu is plastered all over the windows – and prices upon request only

Yet, before we could make our fifth choice, the 9-year-old was off — back into the abyss of blackness that was the kitchen. We asked if they accepted cards, since they didn’t have a sign to say otherwise. And…surprise! Only cash accepted. Luckily, Maria and I dug out the amount of money needed, we were handed over our ¾ finished order, and we were on our way.

When we finally sat down and started eating, we had some major realizations: 1) We got ripped off. HARD ($14 for an arepa and a cachapa? Umm, no bueno) and 2) One looked like a pancake wrapping around italian cheese, while the other looked like a hard tac biscuit with some meat from the Walmart tubs in it.

Arepas El Cacao review, cachapa mixta

Cachapa mixta: The only good thing we tried from the Arepas El Cacao menu

When I started to eat the flapjack (umm, the cachapa, Mr B), it was a pleasant surprise. You can taste corn, meat, cheese, and with the weird mayo-ketchup mix it was top notch. The hard tac (aka the arepa) on the other hand was a tad harder to chew. It seemed to be crunchy in all the wrong ways. Meaning, it was a tad stale. However, the cheese that came from the 9-year-old-boy’s hands was great.

Arepas El Cacao review, arepa photo

Arepa stuffed with handmade cheese, chicken, and pulled pork

Overall, we are glad we gave Arepas El Cacao a try. I mean, I see it every time I drive down to see my woman, so it was nice to finally cross it off the list. Unfortunately, I have put it on the Never Go Again list as well. I felt bull coming out of my a** about 30 minutes after I ate there…no bueno!

TLTR: Flapjacks (cachapas mixtas) are nice, hard tacs (arepas) are not, and a couple Venezuelans ripped us off.

Arepas El Cacao review: The Latina pitches in

While Mr. B was pretty spot-on with his Arepas El Cacao review, I must admit that I would probably hit this joint again. If just to have another cachapa mixta. It was good. But…but…at $7 a pop, it is not a Venezuelan fast food place in Kissimmee you want to visit often. Specially when you are trying to pay off $40,000 worth of student loans in less than 2 years, as your annual salary is about that more or less…

All this said, though, I found out that there are two Arepas El Cacao joints: The one we visited in Kissimmee and a food truck in International Drive. I read many rave reviews about the latter, by the way. Maybe we should hit that one up next time we visit the theme parks in Orlando. Seems like their arepas are much better!

Kissimmee Arepas El Cacao review

Say no to an arepa (top); say yes to a cachapa mixta (bottom) at Arepas El Cacao. Ironic, si…

Got a different Arepas El Cacao review? Have you tried cachapas?

Cigar City Brewery Tampa: My favorite USA beers (photos and history)

Another busy week in the life of professional juggler Maria 😉 I’m still tied up in several travel writing projects, business strategies, etc. Yet, I couldn’t help but join this week’s FriFotos theme “Brands.” Finally, the perfect time to introduce you to my favorite USA beers! Ladies and gents, here’s the sexy Cigar City Brewery Tampa.

Cigar City Brewery Tampa glass

Photo: Dave Goldberg, Flickr

Overview

I can’t believe that the Cigar City Brewery Tampa does not even have a Wikipedia article. So! Here’s my attempt at a short history lesson…

While Florida is commonly known as “beer wasteland,” there have been some fine breweries around. The first was the Florida Brewing Company, which was founded in 1896 and carried on until 1961. Then, other breweries emerged (although not for long).

Finally, Cigar City Brewery Company (most commonly known as Cigar City Brewery Tampa Bay) began operations in 1994 in Ybor City. It remained there until 2003. on this location is where the famous Ybor Gold Amber, Brown Ale, Gaspar’s Porter, Calusa Wheat and Light were brewed. However, following the move from Ybor City to West Spruce Street, these brands were bought by the Florida Brewing Company in Melbourne, FL.

Ever since Cigar City Brewery Tampa moved its operations right to the middle of my current bus route from work to home, it started brewing my favorite USA beers 😀 Among them are:

Maduro Brown Ale

With a higher alcohol content than the regular English Brown ale, the Maduro features  flaked oats in its malt bill, giving it an outstanding silky-smooth feeling in your mouth and down your throat. It is as orgasmic as it sounds!

Cigar City Brewery Tampa Maduro beer

My dark lover, Maduro (Photo: Christer Edvartsen, Flickr)

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Brown Ale

As weird as it may sound, this is the most surprisingly-delicious beer you are lips will ever touch. It really tastes just like an oatmeal raisin cookie! What’s funny is that, whenever I go to the Cigar City Brewery Tampa tasting room, bartenders say that this is one of the most popular beers–particularly among men. It is only brewed seasonally, and whenever they do, it is sold out within a day. And so, whenever I get the chance to get another taste of this beauty, I rejoice in celebration. It is not easy to come by!

Cigar City Brewery Tampa oatmeal raisin cookie beer

Label of one of my favorite brown beauties (Photo: Humble Elements, Flickr)

Cubano-style Espresso Brown Ale

You’ve guessed it: I love my brown beauties 😉 Whenever my usual lovers are not available, I cheat on them with this Cuban-style beer. It is roasted with rich espresso beans, sweet caramel, toffee, and a touch of dry nuttiness. Yet, once poured, one can also taste notes of chocolate, then caramel, finishing off with some vanilla aftertaste. Ohhh SI.

Cigar City Brewery Tampa Cubano-Style Espresso Brown ale

My only Latin lover (Photo: naiserie, Flickr)

That’s it for today! If you wish to know more about other Cigar City Brewery beer varieties, click here. You will see other available beers and their ingredients on menu on the left.

Have you tried Cigar City Brewery Tampa? Which is your favorite beer?

Hurricane Season: Happy birthday to me! Tropical Storm Debby came to party

Hiii! I know, was supposed to write a brilliant Cultural Tidbits Monday post. However, I went to bed at 3 AM last night (yes, work) to wake up at 6:40 AM to Tropical Storm Debby and still be required to work from home (yes, on my birthday). So! I’m pretty exhausted and have a minor case of cabin fever. My roommates went for supplies as I worked and looked at flooded neighborhoods nearby on the news. Is it that time of the year for Hurricane Season Florida, Gulf region and the Caribbean…? Yup:

Welcome to the Hurricane Season! June – November 30th every year

Oh: We had tornadoes because of it, too!

Those are your tidbits for today 😉 I’m safe, don’t worry, I’m just exhausted and have not much to do on my birthday other than, well, keep working. Bah Hurricane Season…

Orrrr…maybe a bubble bath will be welcomed as a birthday gift by my yearning body?

Have you experienced Hurricane Season? What’s your story?