Well, if you know us at all, then the obvious answer is A!
Candace likes to use TripAdvisor when deciding where to eat. There’s a convenient feature where you can typically also read the menu for the restaurant. Some of the highest rated places were either not open or served more of a deli style meal￼. We firmly believe you should eat the local cuisine when you are traveling as much as possible. This log cabin looked promising, and it certainly did not disappoint!￼
Be sure to ask for the specials. The shrimp and grits was simply phenomenal. One of the best we’ve ever had. At first, we thought the bacon on our breakfast dish looked burnt, but we were definitely wrong. It is a maple glazed bacon which was chewy and perfectly delicious. We are now on a hunt to find more of this style bacon.￼ The atmosphere in this small restaurant was a special part of the experience. If you go, we recommend sitting in the loft.
Helpful tip: the restaurant only takes cash although there is an ATM inside. There is a three dollar fee. All in all, we highly recommend Timbers Log Cabin restaurant.￼
While answer C sounds great, we were ready for a meal at a restaurant. If you ever choose answer B, we just can’t be friends.￼
2. What should we do in the national park?
A. Check out the visitor center
B. Enjoy some short hikes
C. Drive to one of the high points
Our answer was A and B this time!
Unfortunately, Travis wasn’t feeling well. However, it was still an amazing day in the park. ￼ we always recommend going to the visitor center when visiting a national park. It is not only important for your safety that you know about any closures or other important announcements, but there is always information to be gleaned from the knowledgeable Park Rangers as well as park volunteers.
Another of Candace’s favorite things to do is to watch the National Park video played on a loop at visitor centers in every national park. You will always get a great overview of the area, some important regional history, and an idea of things you might want to do while in the park.
Immediately inside the park, there are numerous trails of varying difficult and very near Sugarlands Visitor Center. You can even take a trail all the way back into the city center of Gatlinburg only a couple of miles away.
Be sure to check out the informational signs about the various flora and fauna. The boys loved seeing a “gum tree.”
3. Which of the famous gravity coasters should we ride?
A. Rowdy Bear Mountain Coaster
B. Gatlinburg Mountain Coaster
C. Whatever is cheapest!
Our pre-trip research meant we planned ahead for option B!
While there were several other options for an adventure including other gravity coasters, we did our research. TripAdvisor highly recommended specifically Gatlinburg mountain coaster. The reviews were very good. However, prices are definitely cheaper for other options. If you mention competitor prices, they will offer you a 10% discount.
It was pretty expensive, but Travis was not feeling well and this was high on his priority list. We simply had to go for it. We were glad we did! It went much faster than expected and felt like a theme park roller coaster. It went faster than we expected!￼
4. Should we try the Tennessee moonshine?
A. Yes, of course
B. No, we don’t like it
While moonshine isn’t our thing – it’s Tennessee! Answer A, of course!
We didn’t have the time, or honestly the inclination, to do one of the famous moonshine tours where you travel to multiple different distilleries. So, we opted for a popular option in downtown Gatlinburg, which also allowed us to check out the incredible Christmas spirit of the town.
The sampling at Sugarlands Distillery was a memorable experience! Your $5 wristband allows you to taste 10 different selections, but then the five dollars can be used towards any purchase at the location.￼ The city has tight regulations on the industry, and we were glad that they were very serious about checking everyone’s ID and not allowing people to share the alcohol. Even though it was extremely busy, there was virtually no wait as their process was efficient and well organized￼.
You can ask for a half portion of a sample, but actually each sample is already quite small. Neither of us enjoy sweet flavors, so we were worried that this would not be enjoyable as almost everything was quite sweet. However, it was still a great experience, and we were surprised that we did like several of the options.￼ A good sized bottle is $25, but there are also various specials if you want to take away multiples. We opted for the root beer moonshine to take back to our neighborhood poker friends. We also really liked the ones you could add to coffee, but it just isn’t our thing. There is also a first responder and military discount of 20%!
5. Where should we go to see the best Christmas lights?
A. Along the country roads
B. In the city center
C. Down the main road
D. Absolutely anywhere in Gatlinburg
The answer was clear – D! Gatlinburg had the best Christmas decorations for an entire city that we have ever seen!
Around every corner, down every street, and in every shop you will see an unforgettable dedication to the Christmas spirit. From large scale lighting structures to huge Christmas trees on every street corner, you will be surrounded with holiday cheer.￼￼￼
￼During the day, every shop has its own celebration of the Christmas holidays, but the real magic is at night. The entire city is committed to the festivities of the season.￼
6. Where should we stay?
A. Hotel in the city center
B. Lodge in the mountains
C. RV AirBNB
D. Camping in a tent
While all of those options sound good, we opted to bring the travel trailer! Answer C
Candace researched several different options, and she decided on another great Air BNB spot. The location allowed very quick access into the national park, and it was just a couple of miles into the city￼.￼￼ The best part, however, was the ambience!
Although our 11-year-old thought we might get arrested, we had an uneventful evening in a Target parking lot on Christmas night.￼ It was our first boondocking experience, and it was easier than we expected!
1. Be sure to park far away from the main entrance￼￼
Walmart stores across the country do allow people to sleep in their parking lots with only a few exceptions. However, as we found ourselves driving late at night through northern Alabama, there was not a Walmart in our area. So, we tested out a local Target parking lot. Be sure to park far away from the entrance as you might get trapped by cars arriving in the morning. It is also more polite for the store.
Edit: It is important to call ahead to the store to be polite! We have actually never been told no, but it is a good practice!
2. Make a purchase
Luckily, this particular Target store had a Starbucks inside. We also needed to buy some medicine for a sniffily kid, so it worked out well that the store open right at 7 AM. It is somewhat of an unwritten rule that if you use the parking lot for the night, you should become a patron of the store in the morning.
3. Inverter and batteries make all the difference
While your RV does come with a basic set of batteries, it is unlikely to last for the night. We upgraded our batteries and also purchased an inverter to extend the use of electricity while Boondocking or camping off grid.￼
The battery box is a NOCO Marine Battery box. Brian cut the old single 12 volt battery box and welded added support angle iron for the weight and size of the box.
This inexpensive inverter is from Harbor Freight. It’s 2000 watts. There are better models out there, but we have had no issues with this one.￼
These small additions to our rig allowed us to stay overnight using the furnace in moderately cold weather, watching a movie, and running a few appliances. While you are still unlikely to be able to use the microwave or run a hair dryer, most other electricity uses will be OK.￼
4. What if we run out of water? Check this trick!
While it may not be for the faint of heart, you can reclaim your gray water and use it to at least flush a toilet. Brian found a large oil container, and we have re-purposed it to use for flushing a toilet while off grid.￼￼
Just as with any time you are handling gray water, you must be sure to maintain sanitary practices. We always use bleach and hand sanitizer to keep our RV a clean environment.
5. Dry shampoo, deodorantwipes, and hand sanitizerare game changing! ￼
￼Small creature comforts can make a big difference especially if you have a long day of driving after your overnight camping in a parking lot. Since most freshwater tanks are pretty small, you might not be able to have a hot shower in the morning. In order to stay fresh and ready for travel, Candace always uses dry shampoo when showers aren’t an option. We recommend this brand: Not Your Mother’s Dry Shampoo. ￼ Its well priced and works great!
You can also conserve your freshwater by using hand sanitizer. Deodorant body wipes are another great way to feel fresh in the morning before heading out.￼
Sam Houston Jones State Park is located just a few miles outside of Lake Charles Louisiana. The site has a variety of options for stays including overnight cabins, RV campsites, tent campsites, and group pavilions. There is also a boat launch, picnic area, and multiple playgrounds.￼ The park is named for the Texas folk hero who traveled extensively through Louisiana as well as Texas.
Helpful and Knowledgeable Staff, No Gift Shop
The staff in the small visitors center were very friendly and helpful, but do not expect a typical state park gift shop. There were no items available for sale or snacks to purchase. There were several bathrooms throughout the park which were all clean and well taken care of.￼￼
There are two different boat launches which will allow you access to a river connecting to a lake about 20 miles away.
Consisting of about 8 miles, there is a decent amount of highly accessible trails for those interested in hiking or trail running. There are a few closed trails which are unfortunately the ones closest to most camping areas. However, you must be on the lookout for alligators. It is Louisiana, of course. There are also several wide and well-maintained roads throughout the park.￼￼￼￼
Great but Small RV Campsites
We stayed in the RV park area. The prices are very reasonable starting at $20 a night up to $33 a night for a premium site which had sewer and pull through. We arrived late at night, and it was extremely difficult to see where our campsite was located and also the best way to enter and exit each site. It took around 30 minutes to identify our site and park our RV the night. However, the next morning, the layout of the sites made much more sense with the light of day. Each spot is fairly close to others around you, but everything is in excellent working condition and there are numerous bathrooms and laundry sites all around.￼￼
With over 1000 acres of soaring trees and meandering rivers, Sam Houston Jones State Park is a beautiful stop for a few nights on any trip or a great place to stay while visiting Lake Charles. With the amenities of a big city so close by, you can enjoy both the serenity nature￼ and modern conveniences.
1. Visit the capital building, El Capitolio, in central Havana !
You can’t miss the capital building during a trip to Havana. Most likely, you will pass the building several times on various cab rides. It is quite easy to work into your plans and is in a very pedestrian friendly area with plenty of shops, hotels, and restaurants nearby. We were immediately struck with its similarity to the US Capitol, but it is not exactly the same and has more color and character. It is, however, very similar. As you can see above, the capital is under construction and has been since 2013. The building’s restoration is a slow process to be used for Cuba’s National Assembly.
You might find it hard to get tickets at the last minute during a peak travel season, so you can plan ahead and get tickets for the tour a day or so in advance. We were lucky and found a guided tour with two spots. Tickets were about $4 per person with the guided tour. We highly recommend using the guide, which was both in Spanish and English. We learned that women make up nearly half the National Assembly! There were lots of questions being asked and the guide was able to answer each one. We were very pleased with the quality of the experience and the break from the heat!
2. Almacenas San Jose Artisans’ Market is a essentially a flea market on the water, a great stop!
If you are looking for souvenirs, this is the perfect one-stop shop. We aren’t really into buying the typical tourist items when we travel, but this place was more than just a tourist trap. It was very pedestrian friendly, filled with local artists, had great food, and a perfect location for a stop. You can find anything from cheap souvenirs and beautiful, original art.
There is something for everyone at Almacenes San Jose Artisans’ Market. We were out of cash by the time that we made it over there, so we weren’t really looking to bring home a large piece. Instead, we opted for some photographs which we will frame back home as a memento of our trip! This way, we travel lighter, save money, but still supported the local art scene.
3. Be sure to see Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, the national art museum!
The museum is easily located and very near the Plaza de la Revolucion. You can easily see both in the same day. Consisting of two buildings, one dedicated to Cuban artists and one to universal art, you will see a huge diverse selection of pieces. The substantial scope of local art was incredible considering the size of Cuba. This museum was easily our favorite in Havana.
The interactive exhibit above was one of several experiences that really made the museum come to life. There were no instructions, and you simply encountered the experience on your own. The headphones shared various pieces of music which correlated to performing artists on video. Below are a few of our favorite pieces from the afternoon!
The entry fee is low, even the tourist rate is lower than we expected at around $5 per person. You can also get a guide in either Spanish or various other languages for an additional $2-$3 at certain times. We suggest at least two hours as it is a substantial museum with several interactive experiences.
4. Venture to Vinales!
We had an amazing experience with a day trip booked through Air BNB. A taxi picked us up at our casa particular early in the morning and we headed on the long but nice drive to Vinales. (Our taxi was a large vehicle, but at six feet tall Brian absolutely did not fit in the back seat. It would have been fine for a short trip to city center, but to drive a longer distance it was very uncomfortable and he eventually moved up front. If you are tall, be sure to get a larger taxi or sit in the front!) Vinales is a tiny village, but you can chose to spend the night out there as well. It is very quaint. We saw a tabacco plantation, took a horse ride in the mountains, saw a massive painting, and went a boat ride through a river cave. The food and drinks every where were very, very tasty and fresh. They crushed the sugar cane right in front of us to make the drinks.
Our entire trip included absolutely everything for about $85 per person. We felt this was a great bargain and enjoyed that we didn’t have to do any planning at all. We also paid before leaving the US, so we didn’t have to spend much cash at all on this day. It was a great way to pay for something ahead of time that didn’t require using our little supply of cash once we were there. Through Air BNB’s site, you can send questions back and forth with information for pick up, etc. However, because cell service is very, very minimal, this could have posed issues. Luckily, we found a cafe with free Internet where we were able to confirm our details the day before. We did hear about other groups who weren’t so lucky.
5. Cannon ceremony at Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabana was a brilliant surprise!
After we arrived in Havana, we made a relaxing plan for our first night. The owner of our house for the week highly suggested dinner in the city and then seeing the ceremonial firing of the cannons. You will need to take a cab to the other side of the bay, which is about $10 for the short ride. Our driver was willing to meet us again afterwards, so we didn’t have to look for another cab. We ended up splitting the ride back with some Europeans to save money, which worked out well! You can pay a small fee to tour the fort, which was, well, a fort and interesting but not too much to see. There were lots of vendors everywhere. Then, we headed to see the ceremony. Everyone was crowding around the cannons quite tightly, and ended up on the side of the fort quite close to the edge, and there was no wall. If we had gotten there earlier, we definitely would have found a different vantage point. However, we did get to see everything easily. A group of men in the military dress in period costume and sing about the tradition. They have various military exercises and march during the singing. Then, promptly at 9pm, they light a cannon and shoot it into the bay every night like clockwork.
The ceremony is historic and is a recreation of a tradition where a cannon was fired to let the city know the gates would be closing, and the city would be safe from pirates for the night. It is a colonial ceremony and one of the oldest traditions in Cuba. We were surrounded both by tourists and Cubanos eager to watch. The energy was exciting and made a great first night in Havana! You simply cannot miss El Canonazo de las Nueve!
6. Plaza de la Revolucion and El Museo de la Revolucion was a unique experience as an American!
We weren’t really sure what to expect, but it is hardly a trip to Cuba without visiting this museum. Housed in the palace of the former president, the museum wasted no time in proudly sharing the history of the Cuban revolution, interference of foreign powers, and reverence for its leaders from the past and present. There is a large indoor portion of the museum which is dedicated to the history of Cuba including pre-Columbian culture, through the fight against Batista, to society today. Then, another portion of the museum, pictured below, is an outdoor area with planes, tanks, boats, etc used in the revolution.
In the center is the small boat which brought 80 revolutionaries, including Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, from Mexico to Cuba. The planes and tanks were used in various important moments in military history of Cuba and each had explanations and information about the history of the piece.
The museum costs about $4, and we recommend at least one hour but we took two! There was so much to see and read, and it was quite an education to hear another narrative about your own country, which we, of course, expected. Brian has experienced living in communist countries, but this was a first for Candace. You simply can’t go to Cuba, without an experience like this one! The museum is part of the Plaza de la Revolucion. The square is commanded by the massive memorial tower to Jose Marti, standing over 350 feet tall, which is in front of the government buildings.
The square stretches out to the sea and the Malecon, making it a great part of your day on this side of Havana. You can easily walk to the sea and to the National Fine Art Museum, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes.
7. Callejon de Hamel offers the most colorful moment in Havana!
Everywhere you look around this little street is packed with vibrant art and the joyful people of Cuba! It is really just a narrow alley but simply packed with the beautiful taste of local culture. It is an Afro-Cuban style from artist Salvador Escalona.
The alley is a small and beautiful little moment in Havana that you don’t want to miss. Our guide also said that this is a hub for practicing Santeria, a widely practiced religion in Cuba. Plan for about thirty minutes to see the alley, and there is no cost associated with it. It is located between Calles Espada and Aramburu.
8. Explore the local neighborhoods on a walking or bike tour!
Whenever you find yourself in a new city, it can be very helpful to get an overview on a bus tour or with a local guide. Unlike many other major world cities, there was no clear system for easy public access to a typical tour of this type. We booked the tour through Air BNB before our departure from the US, which was also great because we could pay in advance and save the all important cash while in the country. We arrived in a neighborhood early and selected among quality bikes. Brian was a bit bored with the 4-5 hour tour and was happy to escape with the guide toward the end and race down hills with technical turns. Candace was more interested in a leisurely tour and stayed with the group. We were able to see the University of Havana, a small art district Callejon de Hamel (described previously), Plaza de la Revolucion, some local parks, and get a general idea of the layout of the city and some places where we wanted to return later. While it was a great exposure to the city on our first full day in Havana, we would have chosen a slightly shorter tour if we returned for this particular excursion.
9. Walk and dine down Calle Obispo or O’Reilly!
The colors, the people, the vitality of Havana is intense down Obispo or O’Reilly streets. There are several ways to get there, but it is anchored by El Floridita, the famous bar (which is overrun by tourists like no other place we saw), and the second location of the National Art Museum. So, you can take a taxi to these spots and just start walking. The tourists shops are tucked in among local stores and markets which makes the experience unique to other shopping districts in major cities as locals are completely around you everywhere you go. This a great place for people watching, a good meal, some live music, and Internet!
While we love to unplug during travel, it is helpful to check on the family after a few days and confirm your bookings for various excursions. We found a cafe with free Internet, a terrace, and a great lunch offering. It was the perfect reprieve from the heat, and we were glad for the opportunity to have a mojito and message the family back home. There were several of these cafes but they aren’t necessarily widely advertised, so just ask around and read the signage. Another key thing to look for is shade! Just on the other side of the street, people looked miserable on the balcony with the sun glaring down on them, but we were quite comfortable in the shade.
10. Meet the locals!
When in Havana, the people will absolutely be a highlight of your trip. Everywhere we went, the locals were incredibly kind and welcoming. Our tour guides were all studying or teaching at the university as biologists or engineers. In fact, just about everyone we met in the tourism industry was a doctor, lawyer, or chemist and had multiple advanced degrees. They told us that it was a quite hard to make money in Havana, and this was their way to get ahead. Most worked 7 days per week. One of our guides described his goal of getting hot water in his house. This made it very important to tip. Cash is a great way to give these hard-working people your gratitude for sharing their beautiful city. While you won’t meet very many people in the streets who speak English, any guide will have excellent skills. Candace’s Spanish speaking skills were very helpful in navigating the city, negotiating cab fare, and understanding prices and directions, but we had no issues communicating with everyone in the tourism industry. Some were eager to question American politics and better understand the American mentality toward Cuban, but most were just happy to share their country and their hearts with us. Everyone went above and beyond to make sure we felt comfortable, knew where to go, and left wanting to come back. We are so eager to return with our boys one day soon!
1. The city is a maze, and there are no standard addresses!
Throughout Havana, there are five majors neighborhoods Centra Habana, Habana del Este, La Habana Vieja, Miramar, and Vedado. Although the city is easy to walk around and not very big, you can easily get lost if you are expecting to see clear addresses. Here is a picture of the general area of our casa particular where we stayed (more on that later!).
There are essentially no house numbers, so every address is a combination of streets and side streets. You can see in the image above that the address is made up of two streets and no clear numbers. Also, cell service is not reliable at all, so your driver will likely roll down a window and ask people on the street for advice if he or she doesn’t know the area.
2. Toilets (well, maybe)
Occasionally, you will get a western toilet at a restaurant or museum in the city, but be prepared for anything! Sometimes, it is a more of a hole in the ground than a toilet, and you will often need to bring your own toilet paper.
There may also be someone standing outside the bathroom. This means you need to pay to use the toilet. Some change is usually enough, but this is considered a tip for the person and often it means they will give you some toilet paper. The very most important thing – do NOT flush the toilet paper EVER. This is common in many countries, and a vital rule in Cuba. At first, Candace was worried it would be a huge odor issue, but in the nicer areas and certainly in hotels, this is not the case. However, yes, it can be very smelly, and some parts of town have a poo smell in the air. Sorry, no other way to describe it.
3. Casa particular over a hotel any day!
We read a lot about what to expect and where to stay before we headed to Havana, and we opted for an Air BNB spot, La Llave del Golfo for less than $50 per night! Hotels are certainly much more expensive, and you get a very sanitized experience. Whereas, in a casa particular, you are staying among the people of Havana in a local house. It is basically a bed and breakfast. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We also LOVED having a private pool to cool off in the evening. It is very, very hot in Cuba in the spring, summer, and fall, with a small reprieve for winter. It was amazing to come back and dip in the pool. At this house, we were also able to order dinner and eat a homemade Cuban meal for a great price every night. The owner of the home took care of everything for us and gave us great advice all the time. We simply adored the home. It was historic, clean, massive, safe, and located just outside the city. While cab fare each day was a lot more expensive than we expected (easily $30 per day), we still would chose this spot again. When looking to save money, you should consider cab fare as part of your expenses if you want to stay outside the city. While the nightly rate will be less, you will spend the money every day getting into Havana anyway. We loved having a cheap beer and a mojito cold and waiting for us as soon as we walked in the door each night. The stay also included a fresh, hot breakfast every morning whenever we wanted it. One morning, we had to leave very early, so a neighbor came over to put on the coffee for us. They have a great system, and we felt very lucky to have found this casa particular La Llave del Golfo.
4. Taxis can be tricky.
Yes, you can pay for a taxi in one of these vintage cars that is in pristine condition. They will drive you anywhere you want to go, but you will pay a lot! However, basically every taxi is a vintage car, so you will ride in one that is in good condition for a much more reasonable fare. A 15-20 minute drive was around $10. You can also get a Coco Taxi, which looks like a coconut (pictured below).
These are a little cheaper and get around quite easily, but it is also just fun to have a ride in a coconut shaped taxi. Unfortunately, we did have one taxi driver try to take advantage of us and charge $50 for a trip where he intentionally took us to the wrong museum. We simply refused to pay. We paid him a fair rate, and then we walked into the museum. We weren’t sure if there would be any issues with this, but he simply drove away. That is absolutely the only situation we observed or experienced where we felt unsafe or cheated. You can ask your hotel or casa particular for advice about how much to pay. They will also book your taxi for you if that makes you more comfortable.
5. There is a tourist rate at most places.
In order to support the locals, there is a tourist rate at most museums and important buildings. It is drastically more than the local rate; however, we were happy to pay. Most locals have very, very little income on a monthly basis, so these important parts of their culture would not be available to them without this cheaper rate. In general, the rates were what you might expect for a quality art museum in any major city. We paid around $7-$10 entry for most of the places we saw. Stay tuned to hear more about each stop!
6. Americans can NOT get cash. Bring lots of cash!
Once you land in Havana, you can go to the airport to exchange your currency. We typically take about $100 per day when we travel abroad, but then we can typically supplement with Visa for larger purchases or expensive meals. However, this will NOT be an option for Americans in Cuba. Seriously, it is not possible. We unwisely assumed that it might be difficult but not impossible. Nope, it is impossible to use American credit cards or debit cards literally anywhere. You must bring cash. We don’t buy tourist items, and we don’t eat at fancy restaurants more than once on a trip. We needed more like $150-$200 per day to cover entry into museum, cab fare, lunch or dinner, drinks, small items, and tips. Cab fare will eat up your cash fast, so you should definitely plan for that as well. If you are not American, then you will be able to use a bank kiosk in town to get cash from your bank. Also, some places will take your credit card. The exchange rate for the dollar is quite poor as they basically charge an extra 20% fee for American currency. It is much better to exchange your dollars for euros and then carry euros to the airport where you can get local currency. We know this is an extra step, but it will save you a huge amount of money in the long run, especially if your bank stateside will do the currency exchange for free.
7. Stray cats and dogs are everywhere.
The dogs and cats are certainly all over Havana, but they aren’t a nuisance. They are polite and seem to understand an unwritten rule that they can not beg for food or jump on you. They were happy to get a little bit of sandwich, and they locals also look out for them in the streets. We did donate a bit of cash to a local effort to care for the strays. Consider sharing your leftovers with the local creatures!
8. Food prices vary greatly.
Check out this local menu! You won’t find prices this cheap in the center of Havana, but this was just outside the city center. CUC is the column you will use as it is the tourist currency. One CUC is more or less $1, so the prices are much better than we expected for food. Of course, you can also go to a more upscale rooftop restaurant in downtown Havana (which we highly recommend) and pay a little more for a good dinner and drinks.
We really enjoyed the shade from the other buildings, and the great mix of locals and tourists from all over the world in this little restaurant recommended by the owner of our casa particular. We tried several local drinks, and the had the waiter bring whatever he recommended. It was about $50 for a few courses and drinks.
9. Don’t be afraid to try new foods!
We had tons of fresh seafood, which was always well prepared and often had citrus flavors and herbs. We had Cuba libre (Coke, rum, and lime), mojitos, (rum, sugar, lime, soda water, and mint), and local beers each day, and we never had a bad drink. Ask for recommendations and try daily specials. Most places have a small menu where they rotate the offering based on what is available and fresh in the market that day. You can find familiar foods like a sandwich, but we enjoyed just about everything we tried. Don’t expect food drenched in sauces or constantly fried, because you won’t find much of that in Cuba. The foods are freshly made, simple, and delicious.
10. Don’t miss out on a Cuban cigar!
Brian got a lesson on how to smoke a cigar like a Cuban! They were very impressed with his ability to turn the cigar and keep a long ash, which is apparently the sign of an experienced smoker. We also learned that some Cubans like to dip their cigars in a bit of local honey. We have brought this tradition back home with us! At the time of our travel, you could bring back 50 cigars per person. Check the rules to see what the rules are when you plan to head out to Cuba. We paid $4 per cigar at the plantation, but prices were much higher in the city. And, many sellers are tricking tourists with fake cigars. Be sure to study up a bit if you aren’t sure how to spot the fakes. They told us to feel the texture for a soft exterior and press down to ensure the cigar gives a bit and does not have a crunching sound, a key sign of a fake. Back at our casa particular, the owner said he could get us a cheaper rate directly from a friend, but we were short on cash by the end of our trip and weren’t able to buy the maximum.
Check us out on social media! Send us your questions about Cuba!
On our summer trip to Sequoia National Park, we had a little extra time one morning, and we wanted to check out Cat Haven. We only knew about it from passing the signage on the way into Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, but we have three cat lovers in the family and had to check it out. We researched a bit online, and the reviews were good. We did think (based on the pictures) that we would get to interact personally with the cats, which wasn’t the case. However, everyone was glad we chose this excursion.
We started the morning with a cheetah run!
We started the day with a cheetah run! It was an extra cost, but we got a close-up and personal look at a morning exercise and social routine for the cheetahs. The played games and got in lots of running time. We also got to see them eat breakfast.
Cats, cats, cats
There are a huge variety of cats at Cat Haven and all are injured animals which needed homes. They are from all over the world, but each cat can tolerate the climate of the region. Many have friends in their enclosures and get regular social interactions, exercise, and have balanced diets. The facility is large and spacious, and we got an in depth detailed tour from an experienced guide. We all learned so much!
The facility promotes conservation and preservation in native habitats. They are focused on education, youth programs, and outreach, and we saw this first hand during our time at Cat Haven!
You’ll never see the bottom of this gorgeous, secluded lake in New Mexico!
An absolute gem hidden near the outskirts of Roswell, New Mexico, you will be hard-pressed to find anything like this oasis in the entire region. This lake, with Caribbean like greenish blue waters, will surprise you as you travel through a desert to find the cold waters of this small escape.
A sunset here is not to be missed! But, one the best parts is the price! Even the best spot for your RV with full hook-up is still only $18 per night. The spots all have a great view of the cliffs and the water. Each camping site is a short walk right to the lake. You can also hike to the other lakes in the area, but this is the only one that allows swimming.
Sinkholes and Caribbean waters – How is this possible!? Check it out in a paddle boat!
The state park also offers paddle boats for those too nervous to take the plunge. Even on a busy summer day, you won’t see too many other people around. We had the place seemingly all to ourselves. These pictures are from July when you would imagine the place to be packed with tourists at this state park!
This is an image from our RV spot. You can see the ground near the lake entrance is a sandy, rocky texture and has very easy access. The lake is actually formed from sinkholes, and the greenish-blue color is created by a variety of aquatic plants living in the water. These plants, the color, and the depths, which go up to 90 feet, all give the illusion that the lake is bottomless!
Could it be aliens?!
We may never REALLY know, but you can certainly check out the alien conspiracies in nearby Roswell! Bottomless Lakes State Park is only 14 miles from the small city of Roswell, where the theory of aliens in the area is taken very seriously. Enjoy this incredible state park and the fun in Roswell!
You might be looking for a break from the heat during your stay in Big Bend National Park. We highly recommend heading up to the area near the Chisos Mountains Lodge for a welcome reprieve from the heat. In November, we definitely needed long sleeves up there, but the next day it was even colder. You will feel a major change in temperature. The view all around the area is extraordinary! See the picture above! Be sure to plan for several pictures in this area. You will get a great sneak peak of The Window Trail which every one raves about. It is two miles of elevation so plan for more time than you think. It is absolutely gorgeous here! The lodge is very quaint and well-maintained but only offers basic amenities. It is the only restaurant inside the whole park, so many people figure in a stop at this famous spot. Traffic can be quite bad, so you might schedule a less busy time of day if you are there in peak season.
2. Do plan a hike!
This is the quintessential Window Trail picture. You can see the gorgeous rock formation in the background. You will also get hundreds of perfect moments along the way. The trail descends over 800 feet in a fairly short distance, so the hike is a little challenging. If you are going to head that way, you should plan for about 2.5 hours for the hike. However, there is plenty to see around the Chisos Mountain Lodge area if not everyone in your party is able to make the hike. The picture above was snapped right off the roadway before hitting the trails.
3. Don’t be afraid to head to Boquillas, Mexico!
Our favorite experience in all of Big Bend National Park was our day trip to Boquillas, Mexico, a small village just over the border. Bring your passport for adults or valid ID for children. We brought their birth certificates. Then, you will head down to the river where you can pay $5 round trip per person for a boat ride across the river. Be careful getting in that canoe! You can also hike the river, but it was flowing very swiftly when we there. Definitely not an option! Then, you can also pay $5 for a roundtrip burro ride to the town. Of course, it is only a short walk of about half a mile, but the burro ride is fun especially for kids. Once in the village of Boquillas, there are a few small shops for tourists and two restaurants. A local guide might offer to take you around for which they will expect a tip.
One restaurant is more authentic and quiet, and then on the river side of town there is Jose Falcon’s, which was more commercialized but still had a great atmosphere and served local foods. We especially enjoyed the sangria and margaritas. There is a better view and live music at Jose Falcon’s, but the food at both restaurants is great. At either place, you can easily get lunch for about $8 and the drinks are well-priced at $2-$3 per beer and around $5 for fresh cocktail.
You can walk around the town a bit to see local life, but be sure that you are not intrusive. This village has doubled in size since the border crossing here reopened. You will feel very safe, and there is no need to worry. There was a heavy presence of Mexican military there to be sure everyone was safe both locals and travelers. You can also ask a local about the hot springs on this side of the Rio Grande. We heard the hot springs in the national park were packed with the cooler weather, so we took the opportunity and went for the hot springs, which was almost like a swimming pool, right there about half a mile outside Boquillas! There is signage, but we think it is a bit easy to get lost. It is worth asking a local to take you there and offering them a tip. The village lives off the traveler economy, so you will easily find someone to take you. Upon return to the US, you will be interviewed via phone and camera with border security. They were very helpful and kind, but it did take a little longer than expected. There was about 15 people in line, but it took around 30 minutes. The bathrooms are clean, but there are no other amenities at this border crossing area. There is the nearby Boquillas Canyon, which is a beautiful site if you have a little more time. The nearest area for gas, food, and visitor information is another 20-30 minute drive.
4. Don’t skip the visitor center
There are tons of great informational exhibits, but both the knowledge of the park rangers and the video on the history of the park are key experiences in the park. While the Big Bend National Park video is not the best one we have seen, it shares a very unique history and an understanding of what makes the Big Bend region so spectacular. You will hear about the near extinction of the black bear due to farmers poisoning them. You will hear how the land was originally owned by the state park. You will hear how the flora and fauna are among the most diverse of any place on the planet. There are also great interactive things for kids and regular sessions with the park rangers. DOn’t miss the night sky talk! The region is considered one of the best night skies anywhere as there is very, very limited light pollution.
5. Don’t forget to fill up on gas anywhere and everywhere you can!
There are VERY limited options for gas in any direction two hours from the park area. Once you leave I-10, it is very sparse. There is a gas station in both Terlingua and Lajitas, and park map will show locations within the park boundaries where you can get gas. Don’t get caught, especially in the summer heat, on empty. It is not nearly as expensive as we have seen in other parks, but it can still get pricey. You should also always keep water with you for each person in your group. It is, after all, the desert. You need to plan for emergencies and be smart. Big Bend is very remote and rugged. We certainly don’t want to change that. Once you visit the locals, you will better understand keeping the wildness of the Big Bend region.
6. Don’t be afraid of the wildlife!
We saw so many incredible creature. From the javelina pictured above to the family of bears we saw in the state park, it was a great opportunity to see the creatures both great and small. Seeing a tarantula up close and personal for the first time was a huge, unexpected shock! We saw a few more during our week stay at Thanksgiving. We also saw antelope, a variety of fish, goats, lizards, eagles, jackrabbits, ground squirrels, road runners, and even more. (In Terlingua, we visited Starlight Cinema, where we hated the long wait, but enjoyed the antelope.) It was likely the most diverse animal sightings we have experienced at a national park.
7. Don’t miss the state park next door!
We can’t lie, we loved the state park, Big Bend Ranch State Park, even more than the national park. In fact, we chose to stay in the state park because it was more rugged and isolated. It is right next to the national park, and there are a ton of great views and hikes just a short ways past Lajitas. If you are taking river trip, you are likely to drop in somewhere in the state park with river access. The state park is more rugged and wild, and it is also deeply secluded and quiet with canyons entirely to yourself. You can lose yourself in the plentiful stars so easily. We highly recommend the Closed Canyon Trail (pictured below) and the Hoodoos Trail. Check out our other post about Big Bend Ranch State Park.
Keep close to the nature’s heart… and break clear away once in awhile and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean. -John Muir
The entrance to Saguaro National Park is conveniently located right outside the city of Tucson. You can easily take a short trip if you are passing through or stop for a few days to really see the sights. We were quite lucky to find an Air BNB that was a quick walk to the entrance of the park! Then, it is a just a few miles to the visitor center, which we highly recommend.
Saguaro Cactus EVERYWHERE!
Expect to see these giants absolutely everywhere. Yes, you may have seen them on the highway, but there is simply no comparison to what you will see inside the park. It is stunning in every direction. The park ranger we met explained that some are deteriorating, but that the crop is absolutely in good health. They live a very long life, but they do not stay up forever. We certainly saw the whole life cycle of these gorgeous structures. You should stop by the visitor center and check on any upcoming lectures or guided walks as they are not to be missed. We were very glad to learn more about the flora and fauna of the region, and even the kids loved hearing from the experts.
There are a huge variety of trails to chose from. We wanted advice from the park rangers as we were inexperienced with the topography and were concerned about the heat during our July visit. We were sure to get there early in the morning to miss the heat, but there is almost no shade during hikes. For this reason, we opted to follow the park rangers instructions and chose 3-4 hours of hikes and sites that he recommended above is one amazing view we discovered along the way!
Flora: The mountain paired with the variety of colorful flowers and blooms all around made this particularly unique setting one to remember. We picked up a coloring guide from the visitor center inside the park and enjoyed drawing and painting what we saw. We didn’t expect such color and variety in this climate!
Sunsets: The colors abound in every sunset photo we took. It gets cooler at night even in July, which was a welcome reprieve from the summer heat. We can’t wait to return to watch even more of these deep sunsets.
Petroglyphs: These ancient works of art made a fun game for the family to spot. Along the trails, you can often spot these designs in the sun. We enjoyed imagining how they were made and who might have made them. Be sure to hear from the park rangers about the unique history of these works of art. They can be described as carvings, as they are made by etching away at the surface of the stone. We found suns, animals, arrows, and other designs.
Everybody needs beauty as well as bread; places to pray in and stay in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.
— John Muir
Big Bend Ranch State Park is an extraordinary experience. It easily rivals its younger sister park Big Bend National Park. We found the quiet and rugged wilderness a welcome reprieve from the busier national park. Be sure to check out our highlights below while planning your trip!
Hoodoos Trail: An easy trip from Lajitas and Terlingua where you can see a completely different topography. The flora and fauna here are something different than anything you can see in the area. The wind and rain have shaped many incredible features among the rocks. You are right in a bend in the Rio Grande which provides the green grasses and trees. It is less of a trail and more of an area to explore. You can also bring a picnic for the covered area right off the highway. It is easy to get around but hilly, so walking sticks and/or proper footwear are recommended. Plan approximately one hour.
Closed Canyon Trail: Believe it or not, this is actually a wider part of the canyon. There are moments you can easily reach out to touch both sides at once. We loved scrambling over the boulders and sliding down the smooth rocks. It is about one mile until the turnaround where you could keep going if you had mountain climbing equipment (and skills!). We found the trail perfect for kids and active families, but it can be challenging. However, there is only one way in and out, so you can easily separate the group if some want more of a challenge. The rocks can also be slippery, but we had no issues. There is a picnic area right off the highway, and you can get here easily from Lajitas and Terlingua. Plan for about one hour.
La Cuesta Campsite: Can you spot our RV, Millie Falcon? We were completely secluded at this campsite in Big Bend Ranch State Park. We LOVED being away from the crowds and busier areas. We never had a neighbor during our Thanksgiving week stay, which is a busy season. The only downside is that this is dry camping. You might bring in extra water and generator if that is important to you. We had wonderful weather and didn’t need heat or AC at all. We enjoyed the escape from civilization! You can take a 4-5 minute walk down to the Rio Grande River, which was something we did each day. We didn’t try fishing here, but it is allowed. The local tour company uses this river entrance for many of their trips, so you will see lots of groups coming down to the water to begin their journey!
We deeply enjoyed our stay in Big Bend Ranch State Park! It was beautiful in every way and a welcome escape from the big city. Although the dry camping was an adjustment, we would absolutely do it again to have the solitude and ruggedness we found in the park. It is hard to pick, but we just might like the state park even more than the national park next door!