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Friday, February 26, 2016

Visitors Guide to Old San Juan

Old San Juan is probably what comes to your mind when you think of Puerto Rico.  Chances are if you cruised the Caribbean, you probably stopped here.  Whether you are on a cruise, or flying to the island for the week, Old San Juan has to be on your "Must See List".  Old San Juan is home to culture, history, and brightly colored buildings.  Forts , food, and cobblestone streets.  To escape the touristy area and prices of Condado and experience some of the history of Puerto Rico, head on over to Old San Juan.

For my first disclaimer....don't get me wrong... Old San Juan is also really touristy. As I mentioned, it is a huge stop for cruises ships and the port can hold 12 cruise ships at once.  Cruise ships dump roughly 3,000 to 5,000 people off (each ship, we checked) at once.  If you venture near the cruise terminal, you will be greeted with overweight cruise going Americans poking in and out of touristy shops.  But don't let this turn you away from Old San Juan.  You can slip into a cafe, or enjoy the sunshine at one of the parks.  You can get lost in one of the cities massive forts.  

But before you do all of that, 
pay attention to my DO's and DONT's of visiting Old San Juan. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

El Yunque Rain Forest - Puerto Rico

One of the best parts about traveling to Puerto Rico (besides the ocean and sunshine) was getting to spend time with friends.  While in Puerto Rico to celebrate Jack and Jill, we extended the trip a few days to enjoy some extra time in the sun, exploring Puerto Rico with friends.  

Friday, a day with no plans before weekend wedding festivities, Chris had been planning on renting a car to check out the rain forest of Puerto Rico.  I was gung-ho to hang out in the rain forest, exploring another beautiful section of Puerto Rico. While you are among tourists, you are far away from the hotels and cruise ships.  El Yunque National Forest is the only tropical rain forest in the national forest system.  It covers roughly 29,000 acres, and has hiking trails, scenic views, historic markers, and beautiful waterfalls.

I asked one of locals from my dive charter about the rain forest and the critters living in it.  Her answer was "birds, reptiles, but as far as mammals.... stray cats". We made sandwiches, grabbed the sunscreen and bug spray, packed into the rental car and headed East to El Yunque.
Rain forest cats, here we come..

Monday, February 22, 2016

Biking the Boardwalk - Pinones, Puerto Rico

Continuing on from my "travel like a local" post, I wanted to share another story of how following the less traveled path to somewhere awesome is always the best option. And also a story of a stroke of bad bad luck. Sometimes I feel like the luckiest person. And then there are those instances that remind you that you still have your stroke of bad luck from time to time. Its really interesting when these moments happen within ten minutes of each other.   

Read along as we venture over to the Pinones boardwalk
the area of cheap beer, good food, and a lack of English speaking locals. 

Bike on the Pinones Path

Quick story:  

(in case you are only here for the pictures, I get it)

We biked to this amazing local spot about 8 miles away full of awesome food and cheap beer.  The bikes had several issues leaving us stranded 8 miles away from our hotel.  The views, food and beer was worth the frustrations.  Lots of stray dogs and garbage everywhere.
More "need-to-know"  info in the NOTES section at the end. 

Friday, February 19, 2016

Confessions of a 28 year old wanderer

Life is lovely. 

 I suppose those are the three words I am going to use to describe revelations and confessions of a 28 year old ...... a 28 year old what?  A 28 year old adventurer, traveler, friend, sister, daughter, and the list goes on.  Now that I have been 28 for a whole 24 hours (dramatic much?), I thought it would be fun to share in some revelations and confessions upon turning 28.  

Breaking the mold and ringing in another birthday with a Candy Apple instead of cake

Where did these wrinkles come from? I swear these wrinkles on the side of my eyes when I smile are new to the party.  And they were not invited.  Time for more expensive eye cream.

The sun is the devil.  I have had this revelation for a while, but I have been slathering myself in so much sun screen that I should probably start buying it in bulk from Costco.  While everyone is laying in the sun, you can find me wearing a hat under an umbrella with a swim shirt wearing SPF 1000 (truth). 

My closet needed a revamp.  All of the sudden the dresses of my younger 20's just seemed insanely inappropriate.  I sent about 20 dresses to consignment and started shopping for outfits like (gasp) interview outfits.  Business casual what?

Eat healthy.  I have always been good about eating healthy, but as I get older (and travel and eat more junk while traveling), I realize I need to fill my body with stuff that makes me feel good.  Most of the time that is.  And also fill it with the things that make me happy like french fries and chocolate, because balance is key my friends. 

Growing old is a privilege, and it is a privilege denied to many.  Look forward to every single birthday, and every memory that comes with it.

Instead of 28 candles, how about 28 apples? 

Most importantly:  
While walking to the wine bar last night for some celebratory bubbly, I looked around at the Salt Lake City skyline and laughed.  

Younger me had a very distinct timeline of her 20 something life.  You get engaged at this age, married at that age, bought a house at this point, had kids at that point.  I haven't met any of societies expectations for a woman in her late 20's.  28 and I just graduated college (again), working part time, living 2,200 miles away from the people I love. With NO idea what's next.

And you know what? 
I am so okay with that.  

I am traveling more than ever (JUST back from a trip to Puerto Rico, and before that Madeira!), get to focus on me-myself-and-I, making new friends all over the globe, and open to the endless opportunities ahead.  28 I am learning that timelines, schedules and expectations do not matter.  That living every day is what is important.  And doing what makes me happy right now is what I need to focus on.  

All of the other milestones, well, they have plenty of time to mark themselves on the Katie Wanders timeline.  And the luxury of enjoying my youth(ish?), of having little obligations and complete flexibility is right where I want to be.  So this means 28 is going to be more traveling and wandering, and more fun in the sun on Katie Wanders. 

Critters, Candles, Chaos, and Candy Apples.  Cheers to another great Birthday!

Cheers to turning 28.  
To growing up, shedding the short dresses, the expectations, and self doubt.  To more champagne, travels, fun, and unplanned adventures.  To spending more time with the people who love and support me, you all know who you are. 

I'm not a selfish person. I just know I've been through enough to put myself first before anyone else. I choose growth.:

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Las Paylas - Natural Slides in Loquillo, Puerto Rico

Las Paylas 
(also known as Las Pailas) 
Natural Water Slides in Loquillo, Puerto Rico 

There are so many different ways (or types) of travel. 
You can take a cruise to join the masses and eat your way across the Atlantic. You can fly to a secluded beach and spend a week soaking in the sun and tackling your reading list.  I am kind of the adventurer travel.  Scuba dive, hike, explore - that is my kind of trip.  Not only do I love to find activities for my active lifestyle, but my favorite way is to travel somewhere and find the spots off the beaten path. The spots where the beer is half the price, the food is amazing, and the locals are friendly. The spots where there are no crowds, but instead you can experience a different kind of culture, eat what the locals eat, and see what people in the area really do for fun.  If you like to travel to the lesser known spots where the beer is a dollar and you can eat mystery meat on a stick, this post is for you.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Scuba Diving - Fajardo, Puerto Rico

If I am traveling to an island, I am absolutely planning a day to dive (this land locked girl gets giddy around ocean tides and sea spray).  While traveling to Puerto Rico to celebrate a wedding of a good friend from home, I snuck away before all of our friends arrived to spend some time under the surf.  

When diving alone in a new place, without the comfort and security of my dive friends from home, I try to get a recommendation or do some research on highly rated dive charters. Puerto Rico seemed to be a place you can dive while you are there, but not a big destination among the dive community.  My friends had never been diving there and didn't know of any respected dive companies on the island.

I was going to have to ask some locals. 

Reef around the Spanish Virgin Islands 

Monday, February 8, 2016

VIDEO and Travel Guide to Madeira (Portugal)

The island of Madeira is well known among the European tourists.  
Not so much with Americans.  

You will most like be one of few (if the only) American traveling around the Island of Madeira.  Everyone I talked to about Madeira really had no idea about the island but a little bit about the wine.  If you are looking for a European island getaway to Madeira, then this guide is for you.  I have included some important information, our day by day itinerary including GPS locations, and important information.  This guide also includes links to all my posts about our various trips around the island.   

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Ice Castles in Midway, Utah

Ice Castles
Midway, Utah

I have never been a huge fan of winter. January 1st I am over the cold and the snow and would be very happy if we could just get right to spring. However, I will say that winter in Utah is a little less miserable than winter on the east coast. For starters, the cold and snow is useful here, especially when you live within 30 minutes of several of the countries best ski resorts. 

If you aren't into skiing, there are plenty winter activities you can enjoy like snow shoeing, sledding, tubing, cross country skiing, ice climbing, and on and on. One thing pretty unique to Utah that you can only enjoy in the colder months, is the Midway Ice Castles.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Dog Friendly: Rattlesnake Gulch Winter Hike in Millcreek Canyon, SLC

Rattlesnake Gulch to the Pipeline Trail 

Ending at the Salt Lake Overlook 

Pipeline Trail 

Rattelsnake Gulch itself is only a 1 mile segment from the trailhead to the junction of the Pipeline Trail. Even though its short it is steep, gaining about 730'. When you get to the end of Rattlesnake Gulch Trail, you will see a small sign and take a left to the Pipeline Trail. You will follow this flat trail 1 mile on the edge of the mountain, ending at the Salt Lake Overlook.  This is a great spot to have lunch before returning the way you came. 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Diving with Scuba Madeira -- Madeira Island, Portugal

If you read the blog often enough, you already know I love to be on in and around the water.  And I especially love to go scuba diving wherever my travels take me.  Back in 2013 I went diving in the Azores, the other portuguese owned island in the Atlantic, and I was excited to see what Madeira was like beneath the coastline
 (You can read about diving in the Azores here ).  

Before heading to Madeira, I did a little research on where to go and which shop was the best, as I would be diving without my lovely friends and in a foreign country.  And then after a few weeks of research, I just ended up walking over to the closest place next door at the hotel.  Being able to walk to a place near the hotel district made it so much easier.  No car needed.  I had read some TripAdvisor reviews, checked out their website, and emailed with the dive guides. I had an amazing dive with Scuba Madeira, and so can you!

Scuba Madeira is located inside the Hotel Pastana Palms. When I emailed them about a dive they were quick and courteous to respond. I was told that: "Daily dives except Sundays we have Dives from shore and Boat, We meet at 10:00AM or 14:00PM. One Dive full Equipped is 42 Euros , boat fees are to pay extra depending on Distance from 8 to 18 Euros. Dive package is 3 Dives 110 Euros, with 2 Dives we don’t have a Pack. Just come by to meet us, or just tell me when you like to Dive".  We decided on 10am one tank dive off the house reef.

 * * Book your dive with Scuba Madeira HERE!  * * 
Not certified?  
Thats okay, you can do an introductory without a certification, 
or get certified in beautiful Madeira with Scuba Madeira. 

Scuba Madeira
 Hotel Pestana Palms - Rua do Gorgulho 17 - 9000-107 Funchal - Portugal
Phone: Dive-center : (00351) 291 709 227 - Mobil:(00351) 910 864 147 - e-mail:

The shop has free nitrox, and had a few options for a single dive on a Thursday morning. I could head out on the boat to the nearby nature reserve, or do a dive on the house reef right here at the center. Because I had family waiting for me to go on another adventure, I decided to dive on the house reef right off the hotel to save some time. 

42 Euros ($47) got me a guided dive, just me and two of the guides, and included all the gear needed (I just brought along my computer and mask). 

We dove about 50 minutes, to about 60 feet and the water temperature was about 66 degrees.  I wore a 7 mil with a hood. The staff were all very very friendly and while the dive center was small and basic, it had everything needed including rinse tanks and locker areas to hold your stuff. The gear was all in great condition, although I was initially shocked by the front zipping wet suit and lack of gloves (gloves are allowed but my guide convinced me I wouldn't need them).

We took a giant stride off the deck and descended down to 10', where we followed the rocks and slope down to about 60' where the rocks met the sand. Along the way we saw nudibranchs, octopus, sea horse, cuttle fish, sea urchins and various other fish. At one point, my guide put a sea urchin on my palm and felt it crawl around before releasing it back to the sea floor. My guide was kind enough to point out all the various critters living in the waters off the island of Madeira.  The visibility was great, the water a little chilly, and there was plenty of sea life around us.  


Check out my video including some diving clips on YouTube Here or Below!


Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Grutas de Sao Vicente- Lava Tubes and the town of Sao Vicente

I know I said I was wrapping up Madeira posts, but then I realized I forgot to talk about this amazing spot.  If you have been reading along, then you know that Madeira is a volcanic island. It is basically a few large volcanic rocks sitting in the Atlantic Ocean.  The island has its dramatic volcanic peaks and cliffs, with some of the most fertile soil for raising crops.  

To learn more about the history of how the island was formed, and about volcanism in general, we headed to the north cost of the island to Sao Vicente and the Grutas de Sao Vicente, the caves/lava tubes open to the public on the island. 

Price:  Adults 8 euros Children 6 euros 
Hours:  10am to 7pm
About:  A two part exhibit, 30 minutes through the tubes
 and another 30 minutes in exhibits and movies after 

Dont have a car?  You can rent a harley and visit the caves.  Book here!

Bridge leading to the caves/lava tubes 

Water flowing under the suspension bridge 
Views around Sao Vicente 
Views around Sao Vicente 
One of the many stray cats that lives at the welcome center
Views from the welcome center lot 
"The Archipelago of Madeira was created through a "Hot Spot".  Volcanoes formed the islands when the Eurasian Plate moved over a hotspot in the same way the islands of Hawaii formed. The lava that formed Madeira reached above the ocean’s surface about 5.2 million years ago.  The island is only the top quarter of the entire volcanic system. The first phase of volcanic activity began about 18 million years ago.  Two other phases formed the volcanic cliffs of the northern and southern shores. "--Madeira Geology
Exit leaving the caves/lava tubes 
Exit leaving the caves/lava tubes 
Inside the lava tubes 

The São Vicente Caves were formed during this last phase of volcanic activity. The caves were the result of an outbreak of lava that cooled and solidified on the surface creating a tubular cavity while lava continued to flow in high temperatures and speeds through these newly created underground “pipes” until the volcano no longer had lava to flow."--Madeira Geology

The caves were first reported in 1885 by locals, and opened to the public on October 1st, 1996. They were among the first volcanic caves to be opened to the public in Portugal and may be visited by following an underground route running for over 1,000 m. The height of the caves varies between 5 and 6 metres.  Visit Madeira

short lava tube 
We had to wait about 10 minutes for the next tour to start through the lava tubes.  An English speaking tour guide lead about 20 people through a 30 minute tour of the lava tubes.  The tour was very informational, pointing out the various forms of lava, the construction of the tubes, and other information on how the tubes and the island were formed.  

lava dripping from the ceiling of the tubes 

water in the lava tubes, dripping through the ceiling due to irrigation and rain above us. 
walking path through the lava tubes 
"At the end of the tour, visitors may access the Volcano Centre, a pavilion offering a range of educational and entertaining audiovisual displays that recreate the geological evolution of the caves, the eruption of a volcano and even a simulation of the birth of the Madeira Islands". Visit Madeira

Views of the river again, leaving the tubes 
Arriving on the north coast- Sao Vicente 
After leaving the Lava Tubes, we followed the road north until we reached the North Coast of Madeira.  The water was rough but the landscape was gorgeous.  This part of the island was very quiet, and we settled into a small cafe.  On our way out of the restaurant, we asked our server about a waterfall we had seen in a picture on my guide book.  She told us it was just around the bend, and we made one last stop at the Sao Vicente waterfall before heading back to Funchal.  We took a few pictures and enjoyed the views.  If you stop at the waterfall to take pictures, beware of the cars speeding out of the tunnel (one of about 150 on the island). 

Bridge and tiny chapel in Sao Vicente 
Waterfall in Sao Vicente 
Waterfall in Sao Vicente 

Monday, February 1, 2016

Eating and Drinking on Madeira Island

Its my last post before my final recap/travel guide itinerary for the island of Madeira.  So lets go out with a bang and talk about all the amazing traditional food you will see on Madeira Island.

Because Madeira is a big tourist destination, they have many options for food ranging from pizza to Indian food.  Unlike the Azores, there is a larger variety of restaurants to chose from, especially where all the hotels are.  However... if you are 100 percent Portuguese and with your Portuguese family, you will avoid the tourists traps and spend your week eating authentic Portuguese food, which is exactly what we did. We fully immersed ourselves in the traditional dishes of Madeira Island

Lets start with drinks.  
Madeira has a few traditional drinks on the island, and of course we will start with the most famous, Madeira Wine. 

Sipping Madeira Wine after dinner 

Madeira Wine isn't your average bottle of table wine, but instead, a fortified wine (addition of brandy, think dessert or cooking wine) that comes in variations from dry to sweet.  Madeira Wine is unique to the Island of Madeira, and its distinctive taste is due to the heating process of the wine.  The heating process is key in bringing out flavors like nuts, fruit, caramel and toffee.  Madeira wine can be sipped cold, or how we had it, after dinner warm as a dessert wine.  It is also popular for cooking when de-glazing pans or creating sauces and dressings.  A few of the restaurants (like Frango da Guiia above) brought out samples of Madeira wine for the table on the house after a large meal.  You can find it at virtually every restaurant and shop around the island.  The prices range from affordable to very very expensive depending on the year and type. 

Bottles of Madeira Wine to purchase

"During the 1600 and 1700s, wine often spoiled and needed to be fortified (by adding a little brandy) to survive the voyage at sea. At the time, the island of Madeira was an important provisioning point for journeys to the Americas and the East Indies and shippers would load up on Madeira wine on their way to England and the Americas. The casks of Madeira wine would be heated and cooled as the ships passed though the tropics. Shippers noticed how the wine’s flavor deepened and became better and called this sea-aging “Vinho da Roda.”" Wine Folly

The different types of Madeira wine


Poncha is the most famous drink on the island of Madiera.  While the world knows about Madeira Wine, few know about the poncha, unless you actually on the island.  
While the drink started in the fishing town of Camara de Lobos, drank by the espada fishermen before a night at sea, it can be found throughout the entire island. Be warned, it is delicious and very strong. 

Poncha from Madeira 
The drink is traditionally made only from brandy cane sugar while adding equal amounts of sugar and lemon peel. Honey is now added to the mixture instead of sugar and you can find variations that include orange as well.   If you are on the island of Madeira, you have to try a poncha, but maybe just one.  The drink is very very strong and it is said that after a few ponchas, anyone can speak Portuguese. 

Beers on Madeira 
Beer and wine are also common on the island, and can be found on every table at lunch and dinner.  It is very common to see a table of women sharing a bottle of red wine over a long lunch.  You will basically only find Coral on tap (light beer) and a Super Bock and Corral in the bottle.  The variety isn't spectacular but it is all very cheap (1-3 euros) and easy to drink.  

Spread of food and drink at Gaviao Novo- one of the best seafood restaurants in Funchal
View from lunch
Breakfast at Melia Madeira Mare
Breakfast was included with our hotel stay at Melia Madeira Mare and was always a gorgeous spread of exotic and local fruits, meats and cheeses along with your more traditional eggs and omelets.  I have to say it was quite lovely starting every day with a mimosa with local champagne and a splash of pineapple juice. 

Chestnuts at Vale das Freiras in Curral das Freiras 
One of the appetizers we ordered was the traditional roasted chestnuts in the Valley of the nuns.  They were peeled, roasted, and heavily salted.  A delicious way to start a meal and order more drinks like poncha. 

Fresh Fish display at Gaviao Novo- one of the best seafood restaurants in Funchal
The seafood on the island was probably (no, it was definitely) the highlight for me.  Restaurants had displays of their fresh catch of the day out in front to lure you in.  The popular fish on the island was the eel like fish called espada, the parrot fish, limpets (one shelled mussel if you will), squid, shrimp, and other white fish. You could also find traditional salted cod, swordfish, tuna, and your more typical fish. Everything was local and fresh.  The espada was definitely the group favorite.  There are many traditional dishes including Espada with banana (too sweet for me) and bacalhau (salted cod with potatoes, delicious).  Every fish we had melted in your mouth especially the espada.  

Be warned a lot of the fish comes whole, and even the filets tend to have bones.  If this is not your cup of tea, the chef can probably filet it for you.  But if you order fish, it is more than likely coming chock full of tiny tiny pin bones. 

Grilled Squid entree 
Grilled squid with side salad 
Steak eggs and fries 
You can also find the classic steak and eggs, or your seafood and rice dishes around the island and at nearly every restaurant.  The combo of the steak, eggs and fries is always amazing but your steak will most likely be served well done.  And if you order shrimp, its also likely it will come with its head still attached. 

Seafood and rice plate 
Espada (scabbard fish) fried 
Espada with banana and passion fruit 

Whole grilled parrot fish

Bacalhau - salted cod with bones 
Bacalhau - salted cod with bones 
Three fish filet sampler at Gaviao Novo

Salad at Gaviao Novo
Less cooked (and better prepared) veggies at Gaviao Novo

overcooked veggies at one of the restaurants
The sides were always your standard salad, and a display of vegetables that were cooked to death and beyond.  The Portuguese cook everything well well well done to the point that the vegetables were often a brown pile of mush in a platter.  It was also very traditional to have fries or boiled potatoes, served with olive oil as a side. 

typical side salad that came with meals 
Large table of food at Frango da Guiia
As you can see, whatever you ordered came with about 3 different plates (each!).  This is what our table constantly looked like, just ordering one meal per person.  When we needed a break from the fish, my hiking guide recommended we tried the chicken at Frango de Guiia and it did not disappoint. 

Amazing spice rub chicken at Frango da Guiia

 Whole grilled sardines 

The food on Madeira, all in all was great.  The fresh fish was always the best option.  The sides were very hit or miss as the Portuguese overcook their veggies.  Chicken was a nice break from the fish as well as steak.  Pork was not an option on most menus.  It may be a difficult island for vegetarians unless you stick to the more touristy restaurants.  The food was always much more affordable than our entrees here in America.  A nice dish at a nicer restaurant was usually in the 10-15 euro range, with generous portions and sides.

 Sticking to the more authentic restaurants, the food was great.  Our only complaint was that each restaurant seemed to have the same type of food, same entrees, and it was a little monotonous after a while.  Make sure you try all the local fish and put lots of olive oil on those boiled potatoes.  And you cannot leave the island without trying the Madeira Wine or the Poncha.