Portugal: Small Country, Big Value

Portugal may be a small country in Europe, but it is packed with things to do, food to eat, wines to drink, and trails to hike. Not to mention the beaches, the cities, and a rich historical past.

Chris on the Camino Portuguese, an alternate route to Santiago de Compostela

I first visited Portugal in 2008 when I was teaching school in Angola, so I was already familiar with the cities of Lisbon and Porto. For this trip, Chris and I flew in to Lisbon and spent just a few days there. We joined a walking tour, explored the Chiado and Alfama neighborhoods, and ate as many pasteis com natas as possible. We went out to the Tower of Belem and the Monument to the Discoverers, and walked back along the river for a while before hopping on one of Lisbon’s ubiquitous yellow trams. At night we walked through alleys with the sounds of fado singers spilling out, and smelling of baked bacalou from the kitchens.

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Six steps for getting in your steps while on vacation

I rarely have enough discipline to follow much of an exercise regimen when I’m traveling. I do, however, follow an eating regimen; mainly, I eat everything I want in a new place for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Throw in some happy hours and some wine tastings, and that’s a lot of excess calories.

Pastel Com Nata in Lisbon? Yes, please!

However, there are ways to combat the battle of the bulge when visiting Europe or any other new place. All it takes is some good walking shoes, a hat or umbrella, and some sunscreen. Here’s how you can continue to get in your steps while you’re traveling- and keep eating all those delicious new foods.

1. Use public transport

When we arrive in a new country, rather than take a taxi straight from the airport to our hotel, we generally opt for public transport. That usually means walking to one end of the airport, and scouting out the metro, train, or bus stop closest to arrivals and departures. Finding a ticket machine takes a few more (hundred) steps, and then we’re on our way. Once we arrive in our neighborhood, it’s often another few blocks to our accommodation. Day one: we’ve added at least 1000 steps getting to our new “home”.

In Frankfurt, it’s easier to take the train!

2. Visit a museum

Every national capital, plus most other cities in the world, boast some museum that they are very proud of. We love to walk through these museums and learn about the history of the area, all while (usually) enjoying the air conditioning. Some museums literally take more than half a day to go through thoroughly, while others may only take an hour or two. But either way, you’ve upped your total steps for the day by walking through all those exhibits. Keep an eye out for a day of the week or month that most museums are free!

The Mexican Anthropology Museum will take hours to fully visit

3. Take a free walking tour

About ten years ago, the concept of the free walking tour started rippling across Europe, then Asia, then South America. The idea is that you join a group tour at a designated meeting spot, the guide shows you all the city they love, and you pay whatever you think the tour was worth. I have only very rarely seen people skip out on paying the guide- most people seem to enjoy the tour and pay the guide anywhere from $10 to 20€ per person. Over the years, we have taken free walking tours everywhere from Beijing to Cuzco, and have never had a bad time. A walking tour can last from 2-3 hours, and can easily add 6000 to 8000 steps to your day.

A free walking tour in Delhi showed us the famous sights, as well as recommending us a fantastic place for lunch!

4. Ride the bus out, walk back

A great way to see part of a new city while getting in your steps is to once again utilize public transport. We will identify a neighborhood that looks interesting, then take a subway or bus ride to a sight in that area. A one way ticket usually costs less than $2. Then, we spend the rest of the day leisurely wending our way back to our place. We stop at bookshops, restaurants, parks, or bars along the way if we get tired. If you don’t have a local SIM card, no problem. Download the maps.me app, and you’ll have offline maps all the way.

Take the iconic yellow Lisbon trams all the way to the end- then slowly roam back

5. Take a day hike

A hike through a national park or a state park is a perfect way to spend a day of your vacation. Be sure to carry plenty of water, and a snack or picnic lunch if there’s no food to purchase within your park. If you’re less sure of your own ability to navigate a hike in the wild on your own, see if there’s a guided ranger walk- inquire at the visitors center. We’ve had some fascinating ranger walks at national parks and learned a lot.

Plitvice National Park in Croatia was a fabulous day hike

6. Make your vacation a long-distance hike

This one’s a bit drastic, but it does work. Consider turning your entire vacation into one… long… walk. If you’re okay with carrying a tent, sleeping in the wild, and cooking your own food, consider a long hike such as the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail- or even just a section of it. If you are already shaking your head NO NO NO, then consider a hike such as the Camino Santiago, or hiking a circuit in Nepal such as the Annapurna. Known as “teahouse” hiking, these kinds of hikes mean you sleep indoors every night, and go to cafes or alburgues for your meals. All you have to do is walk each day!

Chris hikes from Mexico to Canada on the PCT

What are some of the ways you get in your exercise while you travel? As for us, we are currently in Portugal, and starting next week, we’ll be on the Camino Portuguese. Check back soon for an update!

San Miguel de Allende: The Jewel of Mexico

San Miguel De Allende cathedral

You may have noticed the small town of San Miguel de Allende popping up on your travel radar often in the past few years. In 2008, the city was granted a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. It’s been voted “Best City in the World” by Travel and Leisure Magazine in 2013, 2017, 2018, 2020, and 2021. Conde Nast named it “Top Small City in the World” in 2021. All this is to say if you are looking for a beautiful, picturesque town, filled with history of the Mexican Revolution, and ornate, Gothic-style cathedrals, then you will certainly find it here. But if you are looking for a simple, Mexican village, with cheap prices and family-owned cafes, then you will have to look long and hard to find it in San Miguel de Allende.

The Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel at Sunset

With over 10,000 expats moving to San Miguel de Allende over the last ten years, it is easy to see why locals call the main pedestrian area of the town “Gringo Gulch”. Join a walking tour and you will be surrounded by forty white North American faces, many of them clutching matching tote bags to commemorate the destination wedding they have all flown in for. At night in the main Jardín Allende, competing mariachi bands play for tips in each of the corners of the square. From our hotel El Portal’s rooftop patio, right in the heart of the main plaza, I counted four different mariachi bands waiting to play their tunes. Each evening we walked far beyond the central walking area, trying to find a simple taco stand, rather than polished chrome and glass rooftop bars where “Mexican Margaritas” go for $20 each.

Gentrification is nothing new to San Miguel de Allende. From the Spanish conversion of the Chichimecas starting in 1552, to the De La Canal family financing of the parks and plazas of the town, to the recent influx of expatriates, San Miguel de Allende has benefited from its location along Mexico’s silver mine route, its proximity to the capital, and its reputation as an artists colony. In 1937, a young man from Chicago wandered into town and was captivated. Along with a friend and a Model T Convertible, Sterling Dickinson was making a six-month tour of Mexico, and when he landed in San Miguel, he found a home for himself. By 1938, Dickinson had founded an art school in town, and after serving in World War II, he persuaded many soldiers to study art in San Miguel with their GI Bill, where the cost of living was low and the weather was beautiful all year long. For better or for worse, Dickinson helped put San Miguel de Allende on the map, and it has only grown busier, more crowded, and more touristic in the passing years. The average house in San Miguel now costs approximately $520,000.

the cobblestone streets of San Miguel de Allende
The Cobblestone Streets of San Miguel de Allende

All of this is not to say that San Miguel is not a lovely place to visit. It is! But I couldn’t help but feel it was hard to find a unique and authentic experience there. We did go on a walking tour, which benefits Patronato Pro Niños (tour departs at 10 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and costs 300 pesos). On this tour, led by the knowledgeable guide Dalí Amaro, we learned a lot about the history and culture of the city. It was definitely worth going on the tour to get a look behind the stone walls and gates of the city.

We also found the map for a recently-created art tour of some of the barrios of San Miguel. Although the Fat Bastard Art Walk only goes on Saturdays, he helpfully created a map of 5 different walks visitors can self-navigate and see the street art that adorns other quarters of the city. We enjoyed the walks through these neighborhoods, away from the central walking zone, and eating in the cafes we found along the way.

As always, I suggest taking a local bus to really see the area. San Miguel has a huge traffic problem- so much so that it is in danger of losing its UNESCO heritage designation- so I would urge all visitors to try to refrain from cabs and Ubers, and use the excellent local bus system (8 pesos per ride and as each route makes a circuit, you really can’t get lost). Take the #8 or #9 up to the mirador for a great sunset view, or the #6 to get to the central bus station to go to another city. We had an excellent experience using BajioGo to get a shared ride to the new Queretaro airport- they charged the same as an Uber and less than our hotel’s offer of a shuttle, and we got to meet two other travelers on our way and chat with them.

For a glimpse of the real village life, look in the outer barrios of San Miguel

If you are leaving San Miguel and returning directly to the United States and need a Covid test for re-entry, you can get one at a kiosk in the parking lot of the Hotel Rosewood for 550 pesos. They take about one hour and results will be emailed to you.

Three Days in Leon, Mexico

Leon Mexico Templo San Juan de Dios

Spending three days in Leon, Mexico is the perfect amount of time to get to know this city in Central Mexico. With the Silao international airport just 20 minutes away, Leon is an excellent side trip if you’re already spending time in Guanajuato or San Miguel de Allende, or as a destination in and of itself.

The Triumphal Arch of the Causeway of the Heroes

For our recent trip to Leon, we stayed in the Othelo Boutique Hotel, located at the southern edge of the Central Walking Zone. It was a very modern, very cute hotel, with about sixteen rooms, featuring a library (named Yago) and a roof-top breakfast bar (named Desdemona). At under $50 a night, it is a bargain. The staff there are super nice and attentive; we enjoyed our stay there.

Othelo Boutique Hotel

Leon has a hop on/hop off bus tour, but it only runs on the weekends. Instead, we decided to create our own walking tour over the three days we were there. On day one we focused on the Centro Historico, the next day we explored the Conjunto Poliforma and the Zona Piel, and on our last day, we stayed near the Barrio San Juan de Dios.

Day One: Centro Historico

The Centro Historico is about eight blocks long, and four north-to-south. The interior streets are pedestrian-only zones, so you can wander through the two main plazas, enjoy an ice cream, listen to the musicians play, and gaze at the Cathedral of Leon to your heart’s content. Leon’s main neoclassical cathedral, called Basílica Metropolitana de La Madre Santísima de la Luz, was consecrated in 1866. Outside the gates of the Cathedral is a wonderful art exhibit of artistic photographs of some of Guanajuato state’s most interesting sites. Within the Centro Historico, shops run from basic everyday items to luxury jewelry, clothing, and formal-wear. There is also the Museum of the City of Leon, and the Theatro Manuel Doblado. At the far end of the Centro Historico, the Triumphal Arch of the Causeway of the Heroes starts the next walking zone of the city.

Day Two: Conjunto Poliforma and the Zona Piel

On day two we started at the edge of the Centro Historico, at the Triumphal Arch. Passing through the arch and enjoying the jumping water spouts, we headed down the promenade towards the Conjunto Poliforma. This multi-purpose area includes a university, an ecological park, the Museum of Art and History, and a sports stadium. After spending the day meandering through these, we returned by way of the Zona Piel- the leather zone. Leon is considered the leather capital of the world and people come from all over to purchase hand-crafted boots, shoes, jackets, saddles, and more. The leather zone stretches for several blocks, and dotted in between the hundreds (literally hundreds) of small stores are cafes, smoothie stands, cervezerias in case you get thirsty during your leather goods shopping.

Day Three: Barrio San Juan de Dios

For our third and final day in Leon, we stayed closer to our hotel and explored the immediate neighborhood around the Templo San Juan de Dios. This modest church, still showing damage from bullets from the Mexican Revolution, anchors a large park where you can sit on a bench, eat an ice cream, and watch the people of the neighborhood gather for walking, chatting, dancing, and eating. For dinner we ate at Tamales LuLu, a small mom-and-pop place across the street from the church. Afterwards, we sat in the park and watched musicians play as residents of the barrio antigua danced with each other under the rising moon. An ice cream and churro combination from Churrería Las Duyas is a delightful way to cap off dinner, before heading over to Harry’s for a chelada or a michelada.

Have you been to Leon? If so, what did you enjoy there? Answer below in the comments:

From Hope to Hot Springs

Hot Springs Arkansas National Park Visitor Center

Anyone who has been to Texas can tell you that it’s hard to road-trip out of this state- in some directions you can drive for 10 hours and still be in Texas! For our long MLK weekend we were looking for a road trip to a place we hadn’t been to, out of Texas, and on the way to DC. Bonus points if we could tag a national park! We settled on Hot Springs, Arkansas.

After an overnight visit with friends in DFW (thanks Ken and Kristina for the hospitality!), we drove to Hope, Arkansas- which is the birthplace of our 42nd president, Bill Clinton. His childhood home, where he lived with his mother and grandparents for his early years, has been preserved by the National Park Service, and is open to visitors daily, with a tour every hour.

Birthplace of William Jefferson Clinton

From Hope, it was just a couple more hours driving to get to Hot Springs, Arkansas. A light snow was falling, and the visitor’s center was about to close, so we popped in quickly to get some info about the area (visitor’s centers staff always have great suggestions). We had dinner at Picante’s Mexican Grill and then checked into our motel for the night, Dame Fortune’s Cottages (yes, I picked it solely for the name).

Formerly Fordyce Bathhouse (est.1915), now the Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center

The next morning, we were up early to get in line at the public bathhouse. As of January 2022, the only open bathhouse is the Quapaw, which dates back to 1922. Visitors can book for private baths, massages, and other spa services, or for $20, can access their four public thermal pools, each at a different temperature. The thermal waters that flow into the Hot Springs area have been carbon-dated back to 4000 years ago- meaning that, the waters we were bathing in there had fallen as rain in 2000 BC- as old as the pyramids in Egypt. The water is high in minerals such as silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate, and sulfate. For centuries, these waters have been famed for their healing properties. If you do visit the Quapaw, be sure to bring your own shower shoes, and get there early- they do not take reservations for the public pools- and they are closed on Tuesdays.

Chris and Deah, inside the Quapaw Bathhouse

After spending a couple of hours in the baths, we showered, dressed, and got ready to explore the rest of the town. First off, a fabulous lunch and craft beers at Superior Brewery, formerly Superior Bathhouse. The main street of the town of Hot Springs is also the national park- in fact, it is the first national lands set aside in the United States (not to be confused with Yellowstone, which sometimes claims that title). The waters and area around Hot Springs were designated national lands as far back as 1832, when President Andrew Jackson set aside the lands as a public reservation. It wasn’t until 1872 that the area really came under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, and by then, several families and businesses had settled and built structures there. After several fires in the wooden bathhouses, the row of Victorian, fire-resistant brick buildings that we see today were built between 1912 and 1932. In 1921, Hot Springs officially became our 18th National Park.

The Quapaw Bathhouse, est. 1922

The row of bathhouses thrived during the first half of the 20th century, but by the 1950s, many of the buildings were in decline. Every one of them except the Buckstaff (still in existence but temporarily closed due to Covid) had closed by 1985. A campaign started to revitalize the area, and various other businesses were allowed to purchase and marginally renovate the eight Victorian bathhouses along Bathtub Row. Now, the buildings have been repurposed into Superior Brewery, the Hale Hotel, the Maurice Bathhouse (currently vacant and available for leasing), the Fordyce, which is now the park’s official visitor’s center, the Quapaw Bathhouse, the Ozark, which houses the Hot Springs National Park Cultural Center, and the Buckstaff. The last building on Bathtub Row, the Lamar Bathhouse, includes a small national parks store, as well as a research library and the park archives.

Buckstaff Baths (est 1912)
Superior Baths (1916)- now Superior Brewery

The National Park’s Visitor Center, housed in the old Fordyce Bathhouse, is definitely worth a visit. All three floors are open to visitors, and you can see the old changing rooms, gymnasium, baths, massage rooms, and resting rooms that the clients of the bathhouse using in the Roaring 20’s. If you go down to the basement, you can see where the hot spring actually comes out of the ground. Original Art Deco stained glass windows and other embellishments are still in most of the buildings along Bathtub Row.

The gymnasium at the Fordyce- available to male clients only when it was open
Fountains, marble dressing rooms, and stained glass windows added luxury to the services

After visiting the town of Hot Springs, and driving out into the park a little- the Hot Springs Mountain Tower has an observation deck from which you can view the surrounding valleys- we wended our way toward Little Rock. I needed to catch a flight back home, while Chris needed to keep driving to DC. We stopped at the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site and learned about the civil rights events of 1957. The school is still a functioning high school, and there is a Visitor’s Center across the street with videos, images, and articles about the turbulent fight to desegregate schools in the south. If you’re in Little Rock, I definitely suggest you spent a couple of hours here. It was the perfect way to end our 3-day weekend and think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, and other civil rights activists.

Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
Little Rock Central High School