Tag Archives: Nature

The Monarchs of Mexico

I dreamed I was a butterfly, flitting around in the sky; then I awoke. Now I wonder: Am I a man who dreamt of being a butterfly, or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a man? (Zhuangzi)

As I sit here watching my little girl on our baby monitor all cocooned up in her sleep sack, I’m reminiscing about our trip to Mexico City this past December. Since we traveled there to celebrate our anniversary, Matt and I surprised each other with special experiences in or around the city. I took him on a walking street food tour. He booked the excursion of a lifetime: visiting one of the winter stomping grounds for the migrating Monarch butterflies. The food tour was awesome, but I think Matt won this round.

Our tour was privately booked with Mexcity Tours, so we were picked up early in the morning from our hotel. Our original driver, Leo (the company owner), threw his back out, so he sent one of his other guides instead. Our guide, Luis, was a sweet and funny guy and we immediately knew we’d enjoy spending the day with him.

He drove us out of the city, beating most of the morning rush hour traffic, and up to Toluca. Toluca is the state capital of the State of Mexico (the state in which Mexico City is located). It’s also the highest city in Mexico and has one of the fastest-growing populations in the country.

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Toluca’s nickname is “La Bella” (the beautiful) and it has some gorgeous 19th century colonial architecture downtown. We didn’t have long to explore, but we were able to take a stroll through the Cosmovitral Botanical Garden.

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Gorgeous stained glass windows cover the ceiling and wrap around the building, lending a surreal feeling to the football field-sized greenhouse. Though just one long room, the more than 500 plant species growing there are arranged in delightful little gardens that showcase many of the native plants in Mexico.

After a leisurely stroll through the gardens, we hopped back in the car and continued on our journey up to the Piedra Herrada Sanctuary. Unfortunately our guide got a bit lost on the way, so we ended up taking a little detour through the Pueblo Magico of Valle de Bravo. Tucked away in lush, green mountains, this picturesque little town looks is the perfect place to get away from the hustle and bustle of daily life. It perches above Lake Avándaro and would have been a lovely place to enjoy for a day or two if we weren’t on a mission to see the butterflies.

Eventually we got back on track and arrived at the sanctuary. Pulling up, we were greeted by a green pasture climbing up a hill to the edges of a thick forest. A barn with horses that are available to help you make the climb up the mountain sits at the foot of the hill. A little further up was a cluster of food stands selling traditional food. The smell of the cook fires dancing in the air was mouthwatering (and it didn’t help that we were extremely hungry by this point).

We opted to fuel up with a quick bite before beginning the hike up to see the butterflies on foot.

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Nopal and cheese quesadilla

Since we had baby girl with us, riding horseback was not an option. So, she hitched a ride in her carrier on mommy’s chest and pretty much slept the whole way up.

The butterflies nest in trees at the top of the mountain, so the approximately 4km hike is pretty much straight up. You should definitely be in decent shape if you decide to make the trip on foot. We were pretty much drenched in sweat by the time we reached the top, but the climb was worth it.

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The face of a man lugging a camera bag and diaper bag up the side of a mountain.

The butterflies nesting here have traveled nearly 2000 miles from the Eastern U.S. and Southern Canada. They arrive in November and stay through March. How they actually make it to Mexico is a mystery because those that leave the country in the spring are at least three generations removed from the ones that will come back in the fall.

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The yellowish-gold clusters on the trees are all butterflies!

The butterfly area was quiet and peaceful. We were instructed to talk only in hushed tones and to be as quiet as possible. Though a bit early in the season and later in the day, there were still a lot of butterflies floating through the air. The sound of their wings flapping was like a soft whisper of wind. We stood quietly in awe watching the majestic insects flutter around. Even baby girl woke up and was able to see some of the butterflies that landed on leaves near us.

Though they certainly don’t do justice to the experience, I’m going to let some of my pictures do the talking for a moment.

The experience of so much peace and beauty in the middle of the forest felt akin to taking a hot soak in a tub or drinking a great glass of wine; a moment of pure Zen in a crazy world. If you ever get a chance to visit one of the Monarch sanctuaries in Mexico, don’t pass it up.

Quick travel note: If you do go, be sure to tip your guide and food servers generously. There are about 75 guides that work at the sanctuary and they are paid about 100 pesos (or about 5 USD) per round-trip. If they are lucky, they will get in two round-trips in a day—so they work hard for the tips.

We tipped both our guide and the woman who served our food. The woman who served our food couldn’t believe we had given her a tip and told us she wished we could come every day. She and the others working at the food stands operate as a co-op, so they split any money that comes in each day. On the day we were there, it was us and one other couple, so you know they weren’t making much that day.

I don’t know what had us counting our blessings more that day; seeing one of the great wonders of nature or knowing we made the day of a hardworking woman at the sanctuary.

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Moher Adventures in Ireland

If I close my eyes, I can almost feel the chilly breeze whipping my hair and smell the salty ocean breeze mixing with wind-blown grass. Memories taking me back to the day we stood on sheer cliffs and stared out at the wide-open expanse of the Atlantic Ocean.

Our fourth day in Ireland was slated to be a trip up the Wild Atlantic Seaway, past the Cliffs of Moher and towards Galway. We didn’t have a solid agenda, just stops we wanted to hit along the way. Adventure at its finest.

We left Blarney early in the morning and took the N20 towards Limerick and then headed west to the coast. Along the way we took in breathtaking views of mountains and farmlands and passed through a couple of rain showers which ended with the requisite rainbow.

Just outside of Shannon we noticed a castle towering off the side of the road. Now, driving through Ireland you see your fair share of ruins; castles, churches, monasteries, etc., but this one was different. Even from the road, we could see it was clearly intact. Having been on the road for a little over an hour at that point, we were both ready for a break, so we decided to take a detour to the castle, which we soon learned was called Bunratty.

We parked outside and made our way to the entrance to buy tickets and scope out a restroom. We were expecting to go on a typical tour of a crumbling, partially restored castle. What we found instead was so much better.

Bunratty Castle, originally built in 1425, was restored in 1954 to what it might have looked like in the 15th and 16th centuries. It sits amid a “Folk Park” depicting Irish life in the 18th and 19th centuries; from farmhouses and cottages to a beautiful mansion on the opposite side of the property.

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We strolled past a few of the old farmhouses before making our way to the castle, getting treated to a sample of freshly made soda bread along the way.

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Reaching the castle, we first entered the dining room where we could practically smell the foods and hear the music that would have been part of courtly life.

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Off the side of the room, a small set of stairs led down to a dungeon. It must have been torture for the prisoners to smell and hear the activity above them while they sat chained just steps away.

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We made our way up the great hall where gorgeous tapestries decorated the walls and a fireplace was dug into the floor in the center of the room. The fireplace was not only used as heat and light for the room, it also had two stakes on either side on which peat would have been burned to scent the room. Probably smart considering baths were far and few between in those days.

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Our tour took us up many winding staircases (definitely not my favorite part of old castles) and into the well-restored rooms of the lord, lady and household staff who used to live there.

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This castle was one of our favorites so far that we’ve visited in Europe because the restoration made it possible to imagine what life must have been like back then. Dresses stretched on the bed and game strung up in the kitchen made it feel like perhaps the family was just temporarily away and would soon be back to entertain the many guests visiting. I had fun imaging the swish of my own gown as we wandered around the castle.

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The view from the top was quite stunning as well.

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After we were done visiting the castle, we made our way to the village where we peeked into an old schoolhouse and doctor’s home. We even stopped at the pub for a glass of mead (big surprise, I know).

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We wandered out to the mansion, but only peered at it from a distance as we still had a lot on our agenda for the rest of the day.

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Before we left, however, we made sure to stop for a bite at the tea room where we dined on pulled pork sandwiches (we could smell and see lunch roasting on a spit outside) and fresh apple tarts that we saw two women preparing in one of the old houses.

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IMG_3680After lunch and our much enjoyed detour, we headed to the Cliffs of Moher. The Cliffs are one of the most visited natural attractions in Ireland and it’s easy to see why. They tower 702 feet at their highest point above the Atlantic Ocean and stretch 5 miles along the western seaboard of County Clare. Standing atop them, you can view the Aran Islands, Galway Bay and beautiful ocean as far as the eye can see.

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The Cliffs were quite busy when we arrived, but it was still easy to get around and see the stunning views they have to offer.

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Walking along the edges of the Cliffs is not for the faint of heart. I tremble even typing this thinking of the daring souls who were brave enough to perch on the side to pose for a picture. Since there were no real guardrails, I stuck as close as possible to the inside of the winding trail that worked its way along the tops of the cliffs. I’m not sure if the twisting in my stomach was from the height or stunning views.

After the Cliffs of Moher, we drove the narrow roads along the coast as we made our way up to Galway. The roads of the Wild Atlantic Seaway wind and twist up the coast, leaving barely enough room for one car to get through–yet the roads were two-way. The terrain seemed to shift and change every few hundred feet, giving way to wide, flat areas dotted with rocks and mountains that rose above us.

We stuck as close to a van driving in front of us as was safe and hoping he would claim right of way from any oncoming traffic. Fortunately we didn’t run into any other vehicles on that narrow stretch of drive.

Eventually we made our way to The Birches Bed & Breakfast just outside of Galway. It was neatly tucked into a cute little neighborhood on the edge of the village of Oranmore. We were welcomed graciously by our host, Marian and she immediately treated to fresh coffee and banana bread after showing us to our room.

The town of Galway is a cute, seafaring town situated on the coast. We took a cab the touristy area of Quay (pronounced “key”) Street, which was lined with jewelry shops selling Claddagh rings, pubs and restaurants.


It was dinner time, after wandering the streets a bit we made our way to Mc Donagh’s. Being right on the coast, we had to get seafood. I got the fish and chips while Matt enjoyed a plate of shrimp, mussels and scallops.

IMG_3749 IMG_3752Fueled up, we headed out to check out a few of the local pubs and ended up at Taaffes Bar. It was packed and only got busier as the night went on. A band set up to play music and we squeezed our way back to the stage to listen. It was all fun and games until a drunken bachelorette party stumbled into us, spilling beer all over us. We decided to find a much quieter bar and hung out there until we decided it was time to hail a cab home.

After four long days in Ireland, I’m sure we slept hard that night–and we still had one to go! Stay tuned for our final adventures in Dublin, including attending the All-Ireland Gaelic Foodball semi-final match.

Memories of Marseille

This weekend we celebrated an anniversary of sorts—two years since our first trip to Europe together. We took a European cruise in 2013 and that cemented, not only our love of world travel, but our love of seeing the world together.

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Marseille, 2013

We departed out of Barcelona that trip, but our first port was Marseille, France. We headed back there this weekend to relive the fun memories of that vacation and to make even more!

We left Friday after Matt got home from work and what should have been a three hour trip ended up taking us six hours because of horrible traffic most of the way there. With the weather getting cooler and the leaves already starting to change, I guess a lot of other people had the same idea to get in one last hurrah at the beach.

While the drive was long, we went through countryside we’d never seen before. At one point I squinted off into the distance and asked Matt, “Are those mountains? I think that might be the foothills of the French Alps.”


Sure enough, we crossed the Rhône River and soon those foothills began to tower over us. We were in awe of their regal beauty, especially in the light of the quickly setting sun.

It was nearly 10:00 by the time we pulled up to the hotel that night. Apparently we arrived just after a large bus of tourists and, after we checked in, we found ourselves staring at an elevator bank packed with at least 40 people trying to go up to their rooms at the same time. We had two options: wait in the hallway with the rest of the guests until it cleared enough for us to catch a lift or head to the bar for a quick drink while the masses cleared. We opted for the second option.

Luckily, after we finished our drinks, the lobby was clear and we could get an elevator up to our floor. Once in the room, we ordered room service and collapsed on the bed in an exhausted heap. Sometimes you can’t beat a night in after a long drive.

Saturday morning we woke early, got dressed and made a beeline down to the port in the hopes of scoring tickets on a boat to tour the Calanques. The calanques are a series of steep-walled inlets etched out in the massive limestone cliffs that line the coast between Marseille and Cassis. Many of these inlets have become popular–if isolated–beaches with beautiful, turquoise water—others feature impressive caves and rock formations cutting into the sides of the sheer cliffs.

We were lucky and able to get tickets for a three-hour trip that would take us by each of the calanques. As we bought the tickets, the woman at the booth cautioned us that it would be a bit choppy out there, but having survived a bumpy whale watch in Boston a few months ago, we figured we could handle it.

Tickets in hand, we went in search of breakfast. We ended up at a cute little brunch place where apparently the kitchen wasn’t open, so we settled for not-so-petit dejeuners of bread and butter, eggs, pain au chocolate, fresh juice and, of course, a cappuccino (green tea for Matt). The sun was out and the temperature pleasant, so we sat outside where we had views of both the port and a little square up the street.


Once breakfast was over, we set off on a mission: find Les Savons de Saint Victor so I could load up on my favorite body washes. I discovered this store when we first visited Marseille and immediately fell in love. The soaps are handmade and, while scented, they don’t irritate my skin like many others do. Oh, and the woman working the shop the first time we went joked with me in French–and I understood, which made me feel like a rock star. I think I’ve got a theme going here with the joking in French (not to be confused with French jokes).

I probably could have shopped for hours in the little store that is tucked neatly away in the shadows of the Abbey of St. Victor—an easy walk from the port, but not so easily found unless you know what you are looking for. However, we had a boat to catch and wanted to drop off my goodies at the hotel before we left, so I quickly wrapped up my shopping left with, oh, maybe just half of the store.


After the soaps were deposited, we headed back to the port and to a little restaurant where we had a carafe of wine two years before. If it really was going to be choppy, we figured a little liquid courage wouldn’t hurt. We sat there and sipped on our wine until we could see the line moving for people to get on our boat. We were nearly the last to board, but were able to get seats (I guess if sitting on the place where they loop the rope is a seat) on the back of the boat where typically it’s a bit less choppy.

The sun was out, there were few clouds in the sky and the breeze began to pick up as our boat gained speed. The views surrounding the harbor, including Notre-Dame de la Garde, glowed in the sunlight and we took pictures, shielding the camera from the occasional spray of seawater as the boat climbed and fell over waves slowly increasing in size.

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Once we cleared the safety of the harbor and began making our way out into the open waters of the Mediterranean, things began to get really interesting. Suddenly the occasional sprays of water became constant gushes as the boat began to pitch from side to side with mounting intensity. I gripped the rail of the boat as a rush of water gushed over my feet. Things were getting real.

Yup, that was pretty real alright.
Yup, that was pretty real alright.

Matt, who had moved back by the stairs to protect the camera from the water, grabbed my hand and we climbed to the second level where I gripped the rails for dear life. This was more than a little choppy. I quickly ran through escape plans in my head should the boat decide to tip too far to one side. Matt just laughed and said everything would be okay. He didn’t have a dream about a tidal wave the night before.

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This was “sailboats turning sideways” choppy.

Just when I thought I might not be able to take it anymore (though I really didn’t have a choice since we were so far out at that point), we sailed in between two cliffs and the waters calmed a bit. We were still rocking, but the gushes of water coming over the side of the boat slowed in their frequency. I was able to look out and admire the rocky cliffs rising above us.

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The next couple of hours took us in and out of the coves that make up the calanques. They were truly beautiful and awe inspiring in their sheer size and natural glory. Here are some of the photos we took—just like the Grand Canyon, however, pictures (at least mine anyway) do not really do what we saw justice.

Suffice to say we made it back to the port and I eagerly jumped back onto land. We immediately went in search of a beer and a bit of food to help calm our my nerves and ended up at a little restaurant serving burgers that overlooked the port. While we were sitting, suddenly we heard the roar of a military plane and saw two soar by and over the hill opposite us. Though initially a bit unsettling, we soon learned the French air force was putting on a show and we sat back to relax and enjoy the view.


 When we went on our cruise a couple of years ago, we never imagined we’d be back in Marseille, but it was fun to have another adventure in the beautiful, yet gritty city on the Mediterranean.