A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: UnMejorHOY

Low Impact Tourism

This was really a new term for me- one that I just learned a few weeks ago, but that has since made its presence (or lack-thereof) very obvious. A picture from the New York Times of tourists posing with sea turtles in Costa Rica brought tears of rage to my eyes as I read about people taking selfies with these gentle beasts and placing their kids on their shells. Of course these tourists completely interrupted egg-laying this season, possibly even scaring the turtles off for good. Who'd go back after being treated like that?

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While I haven't seen anything that heinous on any of my trips, the idea of low-impact tourism apparently isn't a concern even in supposedly eco-friendly Costa Rica. So what is low-impact, anyway? It's not like any of us (my good readers) purposely stride up in our Merrell/Croc/Converse clad feet and kick off a rock from the pyramid, do we? But what if our good intentions, our desire to know new cultures, see new things and people, make our friends jealous on Facebook, is actually doing more harm than good?

Although tourism is overall very beneficial (job and income creation, community pride, funding for environmental projects, etc.), we also know that tourism can increase crime, extend our carbon footprint and so on. Some of our lesser offenses, such as overwhelming local populations and resources or interrupting local customs and wildlife, are not as discussed.

So how can we participate in low-impact tourism or modify our company so that our travelers don't create such an obvious presence?

At Casa HOY we strive to educate our participants on how to blend in with the local population. Since I'm taller the average local woman and blonde, I understand that this isn't so always easy to do. Here are 5 ways your group can minimize its impact in on a local community:

1) Eat local food. Don't visit McDonald's. You will last a week without a Big Mac. Come on, you don't actually even eat that back home, so why are you craving it now? Tacos, churros, tamales, and chiles rellenos are so much better anyway. Besides, supporting local cooks instead of chain restaurants provides jobs and income and fosters the creation and spread of local cuisine.

2) Take public transportation. As enticing as it may seem to rent a cushy tour van, no one else does that. You are not experiencing the real Mexico if you're in a vehicle with seatbelts and air-conditioning, with soothing classical music playing on the radio.

3) Travel in small groups. If possible, go off in pairs. Nothing like a big tour group in matching neon T-shirts to disrupt local daily activities. Consider capping off your group size and dividing into smaller numbers to work on projects.

4) Don't touch local art and architecture even if locals do. This is kind of a weird one, but in many countries there aren't as many precautions in place to protect art or architecture (glass, tape, marked-off areas). Although I've never seen someone walk up and touch a painting here in Mexico, I HAVE seen people take stones from archeological sites or give statues a quick rub down. Unless you are five-years-old, do your part to preserve these treasures.

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5) Finally, like the case of the poor sea turtles in Costa Rica, respect pets and wildlife even if locals don't. While I truly believe when you visit another country you have to respect their customs, there is no reason for you to go take a picture with the baby puma sprawled across your legs. Travel is part of a cultural exchange- if you treat animals nicely and avoid establishments with chained up miniature horses, people will see that. You don't have to criticize anyone, but it is definitely a conversation that can be held over a couple of chelas with some of your new friends.

This is just the beginning, and even though it may seem obvious there are still people who do it. What advice do you have on how to minimize tourism impact on a community?

Posted by UnMejorHOY 16:26 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Cancun bound, baby. With baby.

Have baby. Will travel. Wait what? Are you sure you want to do that? I suppose it was a momentary lapse of judgment when I bought plane tickets for a 10-day trip to the Yucatan Peninsula. A lack of coffee and/or sleep when the mouse was hovering over the "purchase" button. And now that we're starting to plan our trip, I'm freaking out a little more because there are no good blogs about traveling with a baby in Mexico. The only thing I've found so far is about child-friendly all-inclusive resorts. So here is what we hope will be some useful travel information for parents who still want to step off the beaten path, baby on board.

We don't make sound financial decisions. While the rest of my peers are getting master's degrees and mortgages, we're putting diapers and plane tickets on my credit card. Any time we've ever saved up any extra money it has immediately disappeared on air miles or pizza. Yes, my parents taught me how to save but that just ain't happenin' in Mexico.

Regardless of how financially and logically unsound this trip may be, I am so excited. This is our first trip as a little family where we are not going to see family. It is our chance to test the waters as a family unit outside our home and without family support. It is also our last chance to fly somewhere new with a baby on our laps without having to pay for her ticket.

Also, taking a trip is also a great motivator, of course. I get stressed out and overwhelmed easily and "It's OK. I'm going to Cancun in one month" has been my mantra for the past few weeks. Did the baby just spill mango all over the cleanly washed sheets or rip a hole in my last decent pair of pants? No matter, I'll be in a bikini in 3 weeks. It's seriously the only thing holding me together. It's also a helpful way to curb extra spending. Street food is plentiful here and it's so easy to say forget making dinner tonight, let's buy some tamales. All of those pesos (and carbs) add up, so a beach destination holds up a mirror and is like, um, another piece of sweet bread, C? Are you sure about that?

So what are some things we have to consider when bringing a toddling tot on a 10-day trip?

Housing
Sharing a bunk at a noisy hostel is fine on a backpacking trip or on your honeymoon. And while no one ever wants a dingy, sketchy place to lay their head at night, it's less worrisome when it's just you. Once you have a little one, you're more likely to want your own room and bathroom, as well as a place that's quiet and maybe even has a kitchen. You should also make reservations in advance. When we took our 2-month honeymoon around South America it was fine to waste half a day checking out hotels. But it's not something you want to do when it's naptime, the sun's at its hottest and people are getting hangry. Also, money-savers such as Couchsurfing are probably out of the question (No one replied to my request to host 2 adults + baby). So no 16-bunk, co-ed rooms or rustic hammocks for us.

Transportation
Our biggest obstacles for traveling in the US is cars. I haven't driven much in the past 8 years and my husband doesn't have a license. We have no car and no car seat. We also have no GPS or smart phone service in the US. It's downright embarrassing to be almost 30 and have my little sister driving our rental car. That's why we haven't come to visit you, in case you're reading this and thinking that I'm such a shmuck for going on vacation when I told you I didn't have any money. Mexico generally has a great public transportation system (affordable, effective and clean) with several classes of buses. Taxis are also dirt cheap compared to the US. So while we've got that going for us, we have to keep in mind....

Distances
One thing to consider when you've got a toddler is that they might not be able to handle long distances (read: you might not be able to handle a long ride with a toddler). Whereas my husband and I took a 24-hr bus ride from Buenos Aires to northern Argentina, even a 3-hr ride from Cancun to the northern coast has me worried. If you are going longer distances, make sure you have toys, snacks and water on hand, as well as lots of wipes.

Activities
The great thing about the Riviera Maya is that there's sand and calm waters. Add some shells and seagulls and there's really nothing else you need to keep a toddler busy. But this is NOT relaxing for a parent. You're constantly on guard, on call. And when planning a trip it's so easy to forget that your little one can't go snorkeling or swimming with whale sharks and exploring deep caves or ruins (so, neither can you). We are probably going to give all the happy, childless couples the evil eye throughout our trip as we look longingly at their closed eyes while they sip piña coladas and don't listen for their child screaming.

Traveling with a toddler requires a change of perspective: we are going to the Yucatan to experience life there and to fill up on cochinata pibil. Not to lay on the beach. However much we may want to. But did I mention that we're excited? I've pulled out my Lonely Planet Mexico (from 2006; it was seriously time for another trip!) and started plotting our toddling. Stay tuned for our adventure!

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Posted by UnMejorHOY 14:48 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Tepoztlán Carnival, 2016

On the brink of a new decade. Couldn't have been clearer as I sauntered down the broken sidewalk on the way to the carnival in Tepoztlán and some guys in an SUV could be heard saying in Spanish: "check out that chick in the black skirt. (Who, moi!?) Oh wait, OMG, nevermind, she has a baby." (Yes, definitely moi). Sigh. I don't know about you guys, but my ego has a hard time keeping up with all of the changes that have happened in my 20s.

Biggest of all was having a baby and reminding my body that no, I couldn't climb up the 67 stairs at the pyramids at 8 1/2 months pregnant. After spending more than a year post-baby as a recluse, I've pulled out my Lonely Planet and am itching for something new. That thirst for adventure hasn't gone away, especially now that we're down to 6 months left of not having to pay for the baby's plane ticket.

Since we missed the latest round of flight deals, I had to settle for carnival 2016 in Mexico. (Ok, it's never settling when it comes to carnival!) Last time I was at carnival it was dark, I was single, and I danced til I lost a shoe. This time, in broad daylight, I was pointing out cute toys, trying to keep the baby's fingers out of the endless food stands and of course, still dancing.

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Don't fear, younger 20-somethings. Having a baby only cramps your style if you let it. Here are FIVE things to enjoy at the Tepoztlán carnival if you have a toddler strapped around your waist.

1) Dance with the chinelos. All good Morelenses carry the beat of the chinelo brinco in their blood. It's impossible not to move your feet and pump your arms. Unstrap your toddler and let loose!

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2) Visit the giant Tepoznieves at the beginning of town. You might not have noticed it before having a baby, but there is an awesome indoor playground at Tepoznieves where you can watch your kid safely play around on giant orange and watermelon see-saws. You'll join in.

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3) Buy a soccer/bouncy ball. You are in Mexico! It's the perfect way to connect with other kids or passerby who trip over your wayward kick. At carnival this year, the main food market that is usually crammed with quesadilla and cecina taco stalls had been moved to the main road. The square was open and full of bands of kids kicking around soccer balls or playing with toys.

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4) Indulge in people's cooing over your kid and reciprocate. We met a little boy dressed as a chinelo who wanted to talk to the baby and ask where we were from. Asking about other people's kids is a great way to start a conversation with someone you might otherwise have passed by.

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5) Buy lots of street food. Did I mention I'm here for the food? Maybe it's wrong of me to constantly distract my child with goodies,but on this trip I couldn't even stuff down ONE quesadilla before I was pulled off the bench and into the crowd. Why go through the whole "please sit nicely. Please sit. Just sit." when you can walk through all the stands trying ice cream and esquites and tacos and mangoes with lime?

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And some tips:
- Bring sunscreen and a hat. It might be February but just around the mountains is the City of Eternal Spring and it can get hot.
- Wear your baby if you can. The streets are cobblestone and packed; not worth the hassle.
- Bring a first-aid kit. At least some Band-Aids and ointment. The soccer game will most likely end in tears but it's worth it.
- Stay hydrated, all of you travelers. And no, micheladas do not count, but they can be an extra.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 10:04 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Have Baby. Will Travel.

Getting around Mexico with a toddler.

I've gotten slightly disheartened lately by all of my single friends posts about not having babies. Everyone makes their own decision, or life decides it for them, and I know I shouldn’t take it personally. But one of the pros, people say, of not having kids, is being able to travel. And sure, it's cheaper and easier to jump on a bus, plane, train and sleep in a hostel, tent or floor without a baby on your hip. But at least in Latin America, traveling with a baby is your "IN" to connecting with people.

I was one of those twenty-somethings before. I wanted to fill up my passport before I had kids (if ever). I shook my head at the hip European couples who brought their kids along on the salt flats tour in Uyuni, thinking that they must have spent most of their time tending to their children instead of marveling at the moonlike, otherworldliness of the barren Bolivian landscape. I felt bad for the mothers being followed by their gaggle of geese around the marketplace, town square, city bus, who obviously weren't getting the most of the rich cultural experience I was soaking up. As much as it pains me to admit it, I was a childless travel snob.

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So now I'm on the other side, as a mother of a 15-month old, trying to be a little more sensitive, compassionate, understanding, and HELPFUL to those who have also reproduced, and to provide a little perspective for those who haven't but might possibly or accidentally do so in the future. Here we go, traveling with a baby in Mexico: tips, pros and cons!*

Wear your child. We weren't ready when my baby was born. Not because we didn't have enough time; reality just never set in. So we had no car seat, no stroller, no carrier. I ended up getting a baby wrap/sling, which we got used to using when the baby was 6 months. Now at 15 months, I can take the baby everywhere- the market, on the bus, around town - without having to worry about navigating the crowds with a stroller. Not to mention the fact that strollers are not practical in Mexico (at least here in Cuernavaca). The sidewalks are a disaster, there are people everywhere, stairs, dog poop…the list goes on.

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There are no seatbelts. Unless you have your own car, forget investing in a car seat. Taxis, buses, subway- the only way to strap your kid in is if you wear them, carry them, or lug them around in a car seat (we tried that once. Not only is there no where to buckle them in, but there is usually no space in restaurants to then set them). You will see parents carrying babies in the front seat, letting them hang out the window (my baby's favorite) or older kids sticking their head out the quemacocos (sun roof).

Let them try the tidbits. Mexican food is awesome for many reasons; in particular, when you have a kid, you can usually pick out things that are healthy and clean. For example, at a comida corrida, you can offer babies rice with veggies, chicken broth/soup, whatever meat you get, and your arroz con leche. If you go to a buffet, there are always soups, salads, and dishes with rice or pasta. Don't stress so much about preparing your own food to bring along with you. Just make sure you go to a clean place, and then let them explore the food on their own.

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People will touch your child. Today while enjoying some fresh-squeezed OJ and sun in the plaza downtown an old man came up and winked at us, then grabbed my baby's cheek. No boundaries. Bring hand sanitizer and baby wipes for when you're in public.
The up side of people noticing your child, though, is interaction. Even though I'm very smiley, I'm generally shy and don't interact much with other people. But now with a baby, everyone from the baker to the woman at the laundromat to the weirdo at the back of the bus says hi, waves, and comments on something. Babies melt boundaries, bridge borders, forge connections. If you are traveling in Mexico, allow your baby to help bridge that gap for you- asking about the other person's family, children, or childhood is usually something people easily share.

Nurse in public. I saved this one for last because I know this is a very, very personal decision, but if you are a nursing mother you can travel SO EASILY. You don't have to steam, boil, wash, measure, etc. And it allows your little one to enjoy more of the travel experience- a little milk will stave off any crankiness and let you wrap up things at the museum or your hike. It can also give you an excuse to step back and relax during a trip, especially if you are traveling with more people or trying to pack in activities.

Traveling with a baby is always going to be more stressful than it was when you were alone or with a friend, but the answer is not to sit at home and stack colored blocks all day. Babies take in so much of their surroundings, and exposing them to adventure at an early age will prepare them for all the trips you'll want to take them on as they get older. Plus distraction is seriously the best way to avoid temper tantrums (at least so far!) And like anything, it will get easier for the both of you as you learn what works for you and what doesn't. Feel free to share your traveling with a baby tips!

  • I understand that these same experiences can happen in the US, or anywhere in the world. This is only a piece about my personal situation.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 14:37 Archived in Mexico Tagged bus backpacking community fiesta alternative communication family_travel cuernavaca mexican_food travel_in_morelos travel_in_cuernavaca volunteering_with_children family_volunteering things_to_do_in_cuernavaca travel_with_baby Comments (0)

Nesting Turtles, Tortuguero, Costa Rica

Part One in Tortuguero

When we planned our trip to Costa Rica we, well, we didn't. We flew into San Jose late at night, got lost on the way to our hotel, and spent the evening deciding which coast to go to. We picked the east coast because I thought it was going to be sparkling turquoise Caribbean waters- which it wasn't, because it was the rainy season. But we also decided we wanted to see the turtles in Tortuguero, and looking back, that was really one of the coolest things I've ever seen.

I described our adventure getting to Tortuguero, the Region of Turtles, here: [link]. And although we had a list of hotels to check out when we got there, we were drawn to the crashing waves on the coast and ended up bunking at the first weather-beaten but cozy hostel we could find to drop our stuff. The actual rooms at La Casona are nothing to write about- in fact, there was no ventilation and the rooms were simple, but the hospitality, tourism connections and food were superb. This family run B&B helped us get our bearings in this north-south little town. Just a few blocks (yards? I'm bad with distance) from the beach, and right off of a soccer field that was busy with games from late afternoon till dark, it ended up being the central location for all of our activities.

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First off, turtles. Tortuguero is the most important nesting site in the Western Hemisphere
. All sorts of turtles come to lay their eggs here- leatherback, hawksbill, green and loggerheads. The Tortuguero National Park offers an extensive shoreline (22 miles!) for turtles to nest. During the summer is when they lay eggs, so we didn't see the little babies, but egg-laying was almost cooler!

Apparently there is lots of competition among tour companies- turtles are the main attraction, obviously, and there are locals who run tours from a little kiosk by the water and then many other operators. Locals complain about outsiders taking away their business, but many of the local guides we heard later only led tours in Spanish and didn't seem to interact much with their groups. We really didn't know who to go with, and we wanted to support the local economy, so in the end we decided to do a tour with a guide who some other girls at our hostel had booked on the second night of our stay. Seeing the turtles cost about $20 per person at the time (2013), and included a sticker whose cost was supposed to go to turtle conservation. However, the owner's son, Andrés, is also a tour guide and runs his own eco-tour company (Aventuras Neotropicales, although their Facebook page doesn't look active anymore), and just happened to have 2 open spaces on one of his tours the first night we were there, so we jumped at the chance to be able to see the turtles twice!

Seeing a turtle lay eggs is awe-inspiring. I've held turtles before in the Cayman Islands and seen them on countless occasions, but seeing them here, vulnerable and in the wild, is just amazing. First of all, these creatures are HUGE. Not the little turtles they sell at the pet shop or even the ones you might see at Sea World. They are enormous. They drag themselves up the steep shore, slowly, majestically, and find just the right place to lay their eggs.

Any number of things can convince them to turn back- light, for one. If there is a full moon or a particularly bright moon, or any light on the beach. Which is why developed beaches full of sky-rise hotels can completely decimate a turtle population. Another issue is predators- big cats love turtle eggs, and unfortunately so do humans. Luckily there is enough movement on the beach here in Tortuguero that sneaky humans are rare. I kept my eyes out for felines as we walked through the jungle, but they must wait until the tours are over to stalk their prey.

We got to see several turtles over the two nights we went out. It was so cool to see them come up from the water, or to see them lumber back from the tree line. They dig with their enormous flippers, and drop eggs like ping-pongs balls. Hundreds. I just wanted to hug these big mamas and say thanks making this journey, for making these little turtle babies! It was definitely an amazing experience. They are so peaceful and wise, and I actually teared up both nights as I watched this ancient ritual.

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Although this turtle-watching business seems to be pretty well regulated, there were still a few issues we saw. People don't follow the rules. Both nights our tour guides told us that we shouldn't turn on any lights while out on the beach and that we should be respectful. But there are always dingbats who turn on flashlights or cell phones, or who make noise and disturb the turtles.

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Also, there are way too many people on the beach. A turtle can get spooked for many reasons, but I definitely wouldn't climb up onto a beach full of dark silhouettes milling about. People were walking across the turtles paths and of course, we get up in their rear end to watch them lay eggs. Cool, but embarrassing at the same time. And finally, alcohol!? The second night our tour guide picked us up for our tour with a beer in his hand. He drank it as he walked us to the waiting area. We didn't have the chance to really connect with anyone in town to ask if this was typical or just our guide, but it was very unprofessional and caught us off guard.

All in all, turtles are a must-see in Costa Rica, and I'm so glad we were able to do it. If you do your research, you might actually be able to volunteer with a nonprofit that works with turtles, or donate more money to their conservation. Dropping your money around town at different shops and supporting tiny B&Bs on the coast will also help support the turtle population that comes back to this mud-colored, sandy coast year after year.

Posted by UnMejorHOY 11:59 Archived in Costa Rica Tagged turtles costa_rica tortuguero conservation family_travel into_the_wild nesting_turtles Comments (0)

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