Mexico City – Your Food and Culture Guide

I know, I know. Some of you are angered by that title.

No avocados?! How could I go to Mexico and not eat copious amounts of avocados?!

You totally should! My point is there’s more to Mexico City than guacamole. I got to explore this recently when the Le Meridien Mexico City invited me to come shadow the brand’s James Beard award-winning pastry chef, Johnny Iuzzini. He would be visiting from Brooklyn, searching the city for inspiration for his locally-inspired Le Meridien eclair recipe, part of Le Meridien’s Eclair Diaries series. Also in tow was world-renowned coffee connoisseur Esther Maasdam, in charge of training Le Meridien’s food and beverage staff on the art of coffee making and turning them all into Master Baristas (a program by Le Meridien).

Basically, I was in good hands to explore cuisine, coffee and culture in Mexico City.

The Stay Experience

The first thing I noticed when entering the Le Meridien Mexico City was the festive holiday decor (my stay was in December). A winding staircase allowed for fun shots of a giant Christmas tree accented by bulbous lights, not to mention a holiday tree crafted from books near the open bar.

My 13th floor room was even more spectacular, with aerial city views, free Wi-Fi, a full mini bar, unique Malin + Goetz bath products (cilantro conditioner, anyone?), and a big comfortable bed showcasing a plush robe which I lived in for my stay. Being a Starwood rewards member — Starwood owns Le Meridien — I also got a free drink in the bar, which I sipped in the deep soaking tub while reading a book (a simple luxury I never seem to have the time for at home).

Expert Tip: Signing up for loyalty programs is one of many ways to save money and earn travel points. Here are 34 more.

LE MÉRIDIEN MEXICO CITY MOMENTS

A Delectable Mission: Mexico City Market Exploration

I didn’t spend all my time in the hotel room, though. Remember, one reason I was there was to explore Mexico City flavors with Chef Iuzzini, and see how the destination influenced his latest eclair recipe.

The eclair is a traditional French pastry typically filled with chocolate or fresh cream and gowned in chocolate icing; until Iuzzini gets his creative hands on it. We headed to Central de Abasto, the world’s largest wholesale market with over 2,000 vendors and 500,000 visitors per day, to look for ingredients and inspiration. We also brought along husband and wife chef duo Jared Reardon and Sonia Arias of Mexico City’s Jaso Restaurant to help give context to what we were looking at and negotiate with vendors.

Love Mexican cuisine? Check out these amazing #food & drink experiences in #Mexico City. CLICK TO TWEET

Still, it was up to Iuzzini to craft a dessert that provides guests with a traditional taste of Mexico that’s also atypical. Explained Iuzzini on the way to the market, “Picture a traveler that comes to the Le Meridien and wants to experience all the flavors and textures of Mexico without leaving the hotel. I also want to get away from the typical ingredients like avocado. Maybe we can’t get every Mexican state in the eclair, but maybe five very special ingredients, including vegetables and spices.”

As we wandered through the market’s 16 kilometers of walking areas, we smelled, touched and tasted an array of ingredients. These ranged from tangy Oaxaca cheese to produce I’d never heard of before, like zapote negro and mamey sapote. There were also giant barrels of mole powders from various regions, which Chef Iuzzini thought would work well on the shell, the spice tamed by a cooling fruit filling. Each time our senses interacted with a new local ingredient, Iuzzini scribbled into his notebook like a hungry mad scientist.

CHEF JOHNNY IUZZINI HAVING A COCONUT BREAK AT CENTRAL DE ABASTO

A Traditional Mexican Meal

After four hours exploring the market, I couldn’t wait to see what Iuzzini had come up with, though the final recipe wouldn’t be unveiled for a few days. In the meantime, we had hungry stomachs to fill. And so we headed to a late lunch/early dinner at Restaurante Nicos. Sonia described the Claverai neighborhood venue as “casual, but the food is extraordinary,” while Jared commented that “it’s all in the sauce, and Nicos has great sauce”.

As soon as our waiter came over to prepare our table-side guacamole — okay, so there’s a few avocados in this travelogue —I was immediately hooked. And my palate’s happiness only continued with dishes like river fish steamed in a corn husk followed by tender barbecue rabbit. There was also delectable plates of organic pork and organic turkey — each topped with different mole sauces. I’ve had mole before, though never realized you could travel Mexico through the palate sampling all the regional moles.

A DELICIOUS LATE LUNCH AT RESTAURANTE NICOS

Desserts ranged from the traditional Mexican Buñuelos to a quirkier bowl of popcorn gowned in pumpkin gelato and zapote negro sauce, spiced with anise, mandarin and cinnamon. Table-side Mexican coffee was the perfect ending, and watching our server use his entire body to stir the natural cane sugar-laced java in a clay pot was like seeing a Broadway show. Like mole, the spices added depend on the Mexican region you’re in, ranging from sugar and cinnamon to cacao.

I went to bed fat and happy.

Exploring Mexico City Culture & Coffee

The next day, while Iuzzini was holed up in the kitchen to experiment, I met up with the lovely Esther Maasdam, Le Méridien’s coffee connoisseur extraordinaire visiting from the Netherlands. Together we spent the day partaking in Le Meridien’s Destination Unlocked program. In each city they operate in, Le Méridien partners with a local cultural institution to provide free entry to their guests.

In Mexico City that partner is Museo Tamayo, located within the expansive Chapultepec Park. The leafy green attraction is home to picnicking, paddle boating, splash pads, cycle paths, a free botanical garden, outdoor movies and really interesting al fresco cultural performances. I mean, check out this Danza de los Voladores (Dance of the Flyers) performance below, which includes grown men falling from a 30-meter pole and flying through the air attached to bungee cords. A fifth man stays at the top playing the flute and drum.

DANZA DE LOS VOLADORES

The park is also home to 17 museums and galleries, including the Museo Tamayo contemporary art museum. Here art ranges from Oaxaca-born Rufino Tamayo’s well-known painting of watermelons (an ode to his childhood selling fruit) to multi-media works and even a peaceful vacant pink room with bird sounds playing.

While I loved perusing the pieces, my favorite experience was playing on the modern outdoor playground.

Gringo Tip: Adults are apparently not supposed to climb the jungle gym below, as was shouted to me in Spanish by a security guard.

CLIMBING MUSEO TAMAYO’S “JUNGLE GYM”

Actually, my favorite museum experience may have been lunch at their eatery, Restaurante Tamayo. While the previous day introduced me to traditional Mexican cuisine, this exquisite venue provided a modern take. A few playful dishes on the menu included hibiscus flower and cream cheese tacos, chicken stuffed with cuitlacoche and goat cheese over pinto beans, and a ribeye with a four chilies crust.

Oh, and I can’t forget the huauzontle cakes — batter fried huazontle (like quinoa) with Chihuahua cheese in a black Oaxaca mole sauce and green tomatillo salsa. The dish was also laced with chipilin, an edible legume typically used as a spice. I saw huauzontle cakes on a few menus in Mexico City, so if you see it during your stay definitely order it.

RESTAURANTE TAMAYO.

Within the park we also visited Castillo de Chapultepec (Chapultepec Castle), the very place where Mexico City started. If you’re into history make sure to hire a guide to really understand what you’re looking at as you tour the many 19th-century furnished rooms of Emperor Maximilian I and his wife Empress Carlota. Here you’ll also get excellent aerial views of the city from 2,325 meters (7,628 feet) above sea level.

An Elevated Coffee Break

When we finished with the park it was 3pm, and neither Esther nor I had had a coffee since 8am. For me this wasn’t ideal, but for Esther this was plain madness. I mean, the girl lived for coffee. And because I was with the queen of coffee we weren’t settling for just any java.

That day we’d learned an amazing local tip. Some of you may have heard of Pujol, a trendy restaurant in the Polanco neighborhood with a waiting list of over six months. Getting into this eatery was Esther’s #1 goal in Mexico City, though she couldn’t land a reservation; however, what we could do was head to Eno Petrarca, their attached counter culture coffee shop.

SIPPING JAVA CONCOCTIONS AT ENO PETRARCA

If I didn’t think Esther was a celebrity before, the fact that she was recognized from her Facebook page by the barista in Eno Petrarca — who came up to our table and eagerly asked her to do an impromptu guest barista session — proved it. We were also provided a few extra speciality coffee beverages along with our latte art-adorned orders. The most interesting drink was an iced Infusion Fria de Cafe with almond milk and lemon. They also offered everything from frozen lattes to atole with amaranto, a boiled Mexican drink featuring  milk, amaranth seeds, cinnamon and sugar.

Wandering Mexico City’s Roma Neighborhood

With caffeine flowing through our veins, we happily headed to Mexico City’s hip Roma neighborhood, located next to the also trendy neighborhoods of Juárez (where the Le Méridien is located) and Condesa. In Roma, we simply wandered without a plan, making fun and delicious discoveries along the way.

ARCHITECTURE IN MEXICO CITY’S ROMA NEIGHBORHOOD

A few of our favorites stops included:

  • Libreria Atico: A cozy weathered store that looks like a professor’s dusty attic. A cute black cat roamed the venue as we perused everything from The History of Man in comic book form to business help books (in Spanish). Prices ranged from about 15-60 pesos (~$0.75 to $3 USD).
  • Aurora: I’m obsessed with single spirit focused bars, and Aurora offers a ultimate gin experience. Pair your gin cocktail with a tasty pizza and live music.
  • Folk Diseno Artesenal: This fun artisan market allowed us to practice our Spanish and learn about Mexican products from mescal and coffee to hand-woven ponchos.
  • Alvaro Obregon & Insurgentes Sur Cross Streets: There’s an entire block off these cross streets (on Alvaro Obregon) showcasing numerous street vendors and locals eating at makeshift sidewalk bars. Local Tip: Esther and I were shown the proper way to eat a street stall taco. You’ll get double shells to catch any spillage, and as you bite you should stick your butt out to avoid splatter on your shirt. If you can picture a high class Brit drinking a cup of tea, you should also keep your pinky out to maneuver the taco as it gets smaller.

STREET FOOD IN ROMA

  • Bizarro Cafe: We didn’t drink at this fun-looking dive bar, but one of the bartenders noticed us gringos and excitedly pulled us inside to show us the decor. The table tops and walls are covered in classic rock posters, while the wall behind the live music stage showcases fake skulls.
  • Licoreria Limantour: After consulting with a number of Esther’s local contacts in the food and beverage industry about where to go for cocktails, it was an unanimous Limantour. Aside for upscale restaurants, Mexico City apparently doesn’t have many craft cocktail bars, though this place is a standout. Even if you don’t speak Spanish, almost every drink on the menu comes with a beautiful photo and recipe card. You can also order a custom creation. Gringo Tip: Don’t use the word “caliente” to mean “spicy” or you’ll be given something akin to a hot toddy. Lesson learned.

A “VICUNA” COCKTAIL AT LICORERIA LIMANTOUR

  • La Bodega: This restaurant is actually in Mexico City’s Condesa neighborhood, though from Limantour we walked there in 15 minutes. Along with fantastic Mexican food and superior service, the super quirky decor turned the eatery into a maze of fun exploration. What To Get: Anything with mole Poblano sauce, as well as any of the seafood. The “camarones gigantes” are not lying when they say gigantic shrimp! Afterwards, dance it off to their live music.

Turning Food & Drink Into Art, Literally

On my final day in Mexico City, Chef Iuzzini unveiled his final Mexico City eclair recipe.

Explaining the concept, he said, “You don’t have to speak the same language to understand the food. All the flavors in the eclair will be those you understand, but the combination is what makes it different. These ingredients were all unfamiliar to me, so I experimented with different combinations and forms. I wanted to deliver something unexpected, and you may think I’m a bit loco with this recipe.”

What Iuzzini said next did sound loco, but also absolutely delicious. Picture this: A hollow Pate a Choux dough base flavored with Oaxaca mole powder, which gets injected with a filling of mamey and Veracruz vanilla, then gowned in a tamarind and lime glaze. This is garnished with sweet and crunchy crystallized huitlacoche, creamy red banana, and a Mexican-inspired peanut brittle caramelized with local piloncillo sugar and spiced with mole powder.

Not only is the unexpected flavor combination a work of art, but so is the presentation. I love a dessert that’s so beautiful you feel bad eating it (but hey, that’s what Instagram is for).

Washing down the sweet masterpiece was an equally artistic latte made by Esther. Not surprisingly, her grandfather was an artist, so she grew up drawing and painting. Since she wanted to practically apply her creative skills, she was educated in graphic design; but when she became tired of sitting behind a computer, Esther decided to apply her skills to her passion for coffee through latte art.

ESTHER’S AMAZING LATTE ART

Not only can Esther time your espresso and craft your foam to perfection, but she can make intricate designs — sometimes even using food coloring — to bring the drink to life. While visiting the Le Méridien Mexico City, she used local inspiration to etch cactuses, wrestling masks and even the national emblem onto delicious java drinks.

A foodie guide to exploring #Mexico City & local #culture – check it out! CLICK TO TWEET

Farewell For Now; But I’ll Be Back

I left for the airport with tight pants, as well as a desire to return. By hanging out with Chef Iuzzini and Esther Massdam in Mexico City, I was able to explore cuisine from the traditional to the modern, and really see how local culture can influence what we eat and drink.

If you enjoy culinary and cultural travel, Mexico City should be on your list. Sure, there are safety issues to think about (more on that below), but it’s not as dangerous as it once was. And if you use common sense you can have a really great time; on a budget, too, as even a ribeye at a nicer place like Restaurante Tamayo costs only $15 (and that’s on the high end of what you’ll pay for food!).

PINK TAXIS FOR WOMEN IN MEXICO CITY

Logistics:

Le Meridien: Starting rate is $120 per night.

Currency: Mexico Peso. As of January 2017 the exchange rate was about $1 USD to $20.74 Pesos.

Airport Transfers To/From The City Center: Along with taxis, you can book a round-trip airport shuttle for $19.99 (recommended). There’s also a metro station at the airport, though this only makes sense if you’re traveling with little luggage.

Airport Tips:

  • Coming in, customs lines can be very long (it took me over an hour). Just be patient and bring a book. Also, do not lose your customs card or you’ll have to pay $42. Your airline will collect this when leaving Mexico.
  • Leaving was much quicker — you don’t even need to take off your shoes at security. To maximize comfort and budget, I highly recommend Priority Pass (10% off with this link). Even at the lowest tier, you’ll pay $99 per year and $29 per lounge visit (plus $29 for a guest if you have one) to have access to Wi-Fi, free food and booze, comfortable seating, showers and sometimes even spa treatments. It’s accepted at over 1,000 airports around the world, so you won’t have any issues finding a lounge that accepts your pass.

Public Transport: Public transport in Mexico City isn’t the best, and Mexico City is huge and spread out. Other than renting a car or hiring a driver guide (you can contact the tourism board for this), Mexico City has Uber (get a free ride with this link) and a bike share program called EcoBici (90 Pesos/~$4.42 USD per day; here’s a map)

Of course, you can also walk. Neighborhoods like Roma, Condesa and Juaraz, the neighborhood of Le Méridien Mexico City, are easy to explore on foot.

Safety (For Women): Along with recommended safety gear like a ROBOCOPP Personal Alarm ($6 with code “JOURNEY10”) and Clever Travel Companion Pickpocket-Proof Garments, Mexico City has a number of women’s safety initiatives in place. There are myriad pink taxis for ladies driving the city, women-only cars on the subways and front seats on buses reserved for women, disabled and seniors. My guide also told me that men with feminist ideals wear pink to show women their support.

~ By New York city based award-winning travel blogger, Jessica Festa. Find her at Jessie on a JourneyFacebookTwitterGoogle+ and Pinterest

Why Volunteering In Thailand Can Be The Best Travel Experience

Thailand is one destination that does not really needs a reason to visit. Being regularly featured in most of the “Top Destinations to Visit” lists, its popularity in travel fraternity is not unknown. Then why should you be thinking about volunteering in Thailand? You might wonder.

Volunteering abroad is a form of traveling overseas that allows a traveler to gain experiences that are not possible on a regular holiday visit. There are things one gets to do, see, and feel that are unlikely during a regular trip.

So, what exactly are these differences? What makes a volunteer trip to Thailand better than a regular travel expedition? Here’s the answer to it all…

Living

One of the primary things that differentiates a volunteer trip to Thailand from a regular trip is the living arrangements. It varies drastically in many aspects; including style, area, facilities, and most importantly, the budget.

guest house thailandVolunteer in Thailand

  • Accommodation provided in a volunteer house placement.
  • Meals are provided at the accommodation itself.
  • Rooms allotted on same gender sharing basis.
  • Day starts fresh and early.

Regular Travel Experience

  • Living in a hotel room.
  • Have to arrange and pay for each and every meal of the day.
  • Day starts when you want it to (could be at noon as well).

While for a regular trip to Thailand, one need to do all the bookings in advance and pay for each meal and facility; for a volunteer trip, it’s a one time payment done in the form of program fee. It’s more like living in a home away from home, literally.

Networking

This is one of the most interesting differences between a volunteer travel and a regular trip to Thailand. It is known that Thailand is also denoted as The City Of Smiles, and that is for a reason. Volunteering in Thailand lets you discover that reason in its most genuine form.

Volunteer in Thailand

  • Get to interact with the natives on a much closer and personal level.
  • Get to make friends with people from across the globe while living together.
  • Get to learn a word or two of the local language.
  • Get to understand and immerse in the local culture.

Regular Travel Experience

  • Little to no interaction with the locals (unless you to stop to ask for directions).
  • Friends/family/partner (or whoever came along) are the only travel companions.
  • Get to witness the local traditions and culture, but without any insights to its roots; let alone getting to immerse yourself in it.
  • The only opportunity to learn something of the local language is either from the menu card of a local restaurant or billboards.

Local Guidance

This is a key aspect of volunteering abroad that makes the entire trip a great success. A regular holiday would certainly take you to some of the best places that your guidebook has mentioned. However, a guidebook is the result of a traveler’s findings and can provide only limited information and insights.

Volunteer in Thailand

  • A dedicated local coordinator appointed throughout the tour.
  • Recommended places to visit that one won’t find in guidebooks.
  • No need to hire a tour guide.
  • Help in making arrangements for weekend tours.
  • First point of contact in case of any problem or emergency.
  • Support and guidance throughout the sojourn.

Regular Travel Experience

  • Have to hire a local guide for each monument or tourist site.
  • Have to book your own tours and visits to tourist sites.
  • Have to rely on guidebooks for exploring.
  • Embassy is the only point of contact in case of any problem or emergency.

volunteer in thailand
Overall Experience

There are some travelers who crave for adventure, some like to explore the heritage and culture, while others just want to post those selfies to burn their friends back home. Volunteering in Thailand provides you an opportunity to experience all these things along with a few more, unmatched experiences, especially the experience of making new friends.

Volunteer in Thailand

  • Give happiness while making a difference.
  • Experience local living.
  • Learn to cook Pad Thai the authentic way.
  • Make friends with elephants.
  • Gain international work experience.

Regular Travel Experience

  • Limited adventures
  • Visiting heritage sites mentioned in the guidebooks.
  • Little to no interaction with the natives.

One volunteer travel abroad experience for me, gave me a new perceptive on life, and made me realize that this is the way I want to travel. I haven’t looked back ever since.

Dave in ThailandIf you have been to Thailand before and are planning another visit, try making it a volunteer trip this time and experience the difference yourself. And, if you haven’t been to this paradise ever, plan your visit now.

Resources for volunteering in Thailand:

Volunteering Solutions

A Comprehensive Guidebook

~ By guest blogger, Dave Dronacharya. Dave is a full time travel writer/blogger. His passion for traveling got him into the habit of writing, which soon turned into a profession. He writes and shares his personal experiences and facts in his articles with only one objective in mind; motivating others as well to travel as much as they can. His work is published on The Huffington Post, SocialEarth, VolunteersMagazine, and Cultural Trip. Follow Dave on Twitter

10 Financial Tips Every Gap Year Traveler Should Know

Today’s young adults are faced with many pressures that make the transition between important life stages overwhelming. From juggling a packed schedule of classes, sports and extracurricular activities in high school to graduating college with unmanageable debt and an uncertain job market, it’s no wonder more students than ever are taking a break to travel, explore and recharge during what’s called a “gap year.”

Taking a year off between high school and college or college and a first job to travel has become increasingly popular with an estimated 30,000 to 40,000 young adults doing so these days, according to the American Gap Association. If you or your child are considering a gap year during this back-to-school season, follow these financial tips to make this dream a reasonable reality.

1. Budget wisely.
Before you figure out how you’re going to fund your gap year, you need a plan and a rough budget to determine how much money you will actually need. Take into consideration living expenses, transportation, food and entertainment when working up your expenses. If your parents decided to chip in, find out how much they are willing to give toward your trip and factor this into your estimate.

2. Select a destination thoughtfully.
Certain destinations offer incredible value for young travelers on a budget, whereas others can be extremely costly and limit a student’s time away. In Thailand, for instance, you can expect to pay as little as $5 per day on food, while one meal in Australia alone will cost anywhere from $15 to $20. Details like these are incredibly important when planning your gap year and estimated budget! For more help, review PriceofTravel.com for a list of the world’s cheapest cities along with exchange rates to find a destination that fits your needs and budget.

3. Apply for a scholarship.
Most people don’t realize that financial aid opportunities are available for students looking to take some time off from school and the real world. The American Gap Association provides a list of available scholarships and grants, some of which require college credit to qualify. Even though a gap year is intended as a break from your academic track, getting some extra credit while traveling ensures you graduate on time and get the funds you need for the trip of a lifetime! You’re not limited to only one scholarship, so apply for as many as you can and begin your research early.

4. Fundraise.
Think outside the box and consider making money by fundraising. For those who are planning to volunteer during their gap year, use VolunteerForever.com to launch a fundraising campaign to share your mission and collect donations for your trip. You can also use sites like Kickstarter or GoFundMe, or go the old-fashion route by calling organizations in your area for support. Gap Year also has a great list of creative fundraising ideas.

5. Stash away cash gifts.
Once you begin thinking about taking a gap year, it’s important to start saving. Open a separate account where you can stash away cash gifts you receive for birthdays, holidays and graduation. When loved ones ask you what you want as a gift for a celebratory occasion, be honest about your desire to travel and that you’d appreciate support towards your gap year. At Tendr.com, you can create a cash registry for your trip as an alternative to a graduation or birthday gift wish list and share it with loved ones eager to help make your dream a reality.

6. Pick up a part-time gig.
If funds are low, picking up a part-time gig is one of the best ways to ensure you have enough money for your time off. Beef up your savings by working on the weekends or evenings after school. You can find babysitting gigs through BabySitterExchange.com, dog sitting and walking jobs through Rover.com, or help people run various errands like grocery shopping at TaskRabbit.com. Otherwise, scope out jobs at a nearby retail shop, grocery store or bakery where you can pick up a few shifts per week.

7. Book early.
One of the most expensive parts of traveling is airfare and timing is everything when it comes to saving money on flights. Start tracking flight prices through Yapta and check SkyScanner.com, which specializes in finding the cheapest flight anywhere in the world. Also, websites like CouponSherpa.com offer great deals on travel expenses including discounts on hotels, airfare and travel agencies. For example, you can currently score a flight as cheap as $496 from Boston to Barcelona through Vayama, an online travel agency.

8. Think outside the box for lodging.
After airfare, finding a place to live will be your second biggest expense. Luckily, lodging alternatives like couch surfing, bedroom rentals and home swapping services make it more affordable. Use CouchSurfing.com to connect with a host and score free digs! This is a great way to experience a true cultural exchange and learn about a way of life unlike your own while making friends along the way. You can also swap your apartment or home with one in your desired destination through HomeExchange.com to live like a local and save big bucks.

9. Seek out student discounts.
Whether you’re graduating high school or just finished college, your student status can help you save money when traveling. Keep your I.D. handy and always ask if there are any student discounts available before you pay. Consider picking up an International Student Identity Card (ISIC) for student discounts in over 133 countries on travel, restaurants, and attractions worldwide. Use the ISIC global app to find and view thousands of benefits worldwide plus those nearby or at a location of your choice. Even if you’re not a student but under the age of 30, pick up a Youth Travel Card for similar benefits and discounts.

10. Get a credit card with no foreign transaction fees.
Credit cards will become an important financial tool when you’re traveling, but beware of foreign transaction fees. Around 90% of credit cards charge a foreign transaction fee for purchases made outside the U.S. and these fees can add up quickly. Capital One and Discover have eliminated foreign transaction fees and they offer more levels of fraud protection, so this would be a great alternative to help you overseas.

Andrea Woroch is a money-saving expert who transforms everyday consumers into savvy shoppers by sharing smart spending tips and personal finance advice. Check out Andrea’s demo reel or visit her website at AndreaWoroch.com. You can also follow her on Twitter or Facebook for daily money tips.

11 Ideas for Multi Generational Family Getaways

1. Galapagos – being so close to these animals and birds thrills people of all ages.

And there are great opportunities to charter small boats for large families (10-16 people). In addition to the Galapagos, staying on an Estancia in the highlands or going to an Amazon Lodge is a great add on to the Galapagos trip and fun for the whole family.

2. Patagonia – Thrilling beauty!

Tours can be as active as possible for the adventure folks, while the family members who like a more relaxed pace, can do more cultural or soft adventure activities. Everyone then meets back up for dinner for some great food, and great wine.

3. Safari South Africa


Explore great parks where you can see the big 5 – lion, elephant, cape buffalo, rhino and leopard. Many of these parks are Malaria free, so if taking malaria medication is a concern, we can pick a safari lodge in a Malaria Free zone.

In addition, some of the concessions we work with have small properties that a family can take over, with private guides and staff just for your family. In addition, Cape Town, Victoria Falls, and the Wine Route are great additions for the whole family.

4. Costa Rica 

Just about everyone would be thrilled to see a Toucan or a Macaw from their outdoor shower, or find squirrel monkeys in the trees right outside their rooms. During a small hike through a rain forest you might stumble upon a scorpion being devoured by an army of ants, and if you slow down, the adults will be thrilled to see the excitement of the kids in the group. From relaxing in the hot springs from Arenal Volcano, to walking along the sea, to dolphin watching in the Gulfo Dulce, the whole family will be happy here.

If time permits, we can plan a trip to a wildlife rescue center where you can get up close with the animals and see how these organizations are working hard to save the lives of these animals and working with communities to educate them on saving the environment.

5. Uruguay 

Stay on an Estancia or at the beach.

There are activities aplenty to choose from, and they can be tailored based on the different needs for each member of the group. Try cooking classes, Stand Up Paddle Boarding, canoeing, kite surfing, and horseback riding. Or for very active families we can do a biking tour for 4-5 days.

6. Cambodia and Thailand

One of Yampu’s favorite family itineraries combines Siem Reap in Cambodia with Chiang Mai and Phuket in Thailand. Go “Tomb Raider” style to the Angkor Archaeological Park. Depending on the interests of the younger members of the group choose to tour by bike, ATV, elephant, or van. Visit a school and a history museum as well as artisans. Then off to Chiang Mai, where we offer a flight of the Gibbons, giving alms with the monks, visiting local villages, and best of all cooking lessons.

In Bangkok and in Phuket, follow in James Bond’s footsteps to the floating villages of Bangkok, a tuktuk tour to temples, then to James Bond’s Island in Phang Nga Bay (except instead of hurling across a zip line like James Bond, we will take a long boat and a kayak).

Luxurize this trip with special experiences like a VIP picnic breakfast set up just in front of Sras Srang “Pool of Ablutions,” outside of Angkor Wat, once reserved for the King and his wives. Or take a Thai cooking class where a local well-known chef shares cooking secrets in a family atmosphere.

7. Peru Educational Trip

This may be our best family trip because it has everything. The bucket list Machu Picchu, learning Spanish, lots of activities like biking, hiking, pottery, weaving, a cultural visit to a family, and rafting (not very strenuous so okay for most family members)and finally a giving back day working in a school. Remember all of our tours can be customized so if any of this does not work for any members, we can change it.

8. Cruises! Our top cruises for families:

The Amazon River in Peru or Ecuador; the Mekong River, the lifeblood of South-East Asia; Halong Bay in Vietnam; or around Cape Horn of Chile and Argentina (penguins without the expense of Antarctica).

Glide through rainforests and wonder at the wildlife of the Amazon: hundreds of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and thousands of freshwater fish. Explore the floating villages and markets of the Mekong Delta or navigate the fantastical topography of Halong Bay in Vietnam.

9. Rainforest and Snorkeling Belize

Tropical forests rich with wildlife, majestic mountains, mysterious Mayan temples, and snorkeling in the longest barrier reef in the western hemisphere await you in Belize.

Take an unforgettable cave-tubing excursion in the “River of Caves” — seven miles long, and all of it underground. Go swimming in jungle-clad rivers, canoeing or crawling through mysterious caves, observing the birds, butterflies and other wildlife.

10. Tanzania and Zanzibar

There is something about game drives, lazy afternoons at the pool, sundowners and the cell phones and wifi either not working or very slow that brings families together. This can be done at different budgets, from amazing basic tented camps to luxury camps. While the options are limitless in Africa, Tanzania offers something for every age group. However, Botswana, Zambia, and Uganda, can also be amazing, depending on the ages and interests of the family.

11. Comfortable Trekking 

For families with adult kids we offer luxury trekking in many of our destinations. This is exciting because you can hike and see some fantastic scenery in the daytime and at night have a comfortable bed and a gourmet meal. Luxury options are available in Peru (enjoy a luxurious trek staying at unique Mountain Lodges as you follow paths from Cusco to Machu Picchu), Zambia, Chile, and Bhutan. Basic Options are available in Peru, Chile (trekking in Torres del Paine), Costa Rica, Tanzania (Kilimanjaro trekking), Nepal (Kathmandu valley), and Thailand.

~ Guest contribution by Yampu Tours, specializing in custom family tours around the world. Reach them at Toll-free at 888-YAMPU-01(926-7801) or info@yampu.com

The ABC’s of Volunteering in Belgium

When I was given the opportunity to reconnect with my childhood nanny last summer, I couldn’t say no. At 15 years of age, I said goodbye to my comfortable and familiar home in the suburbs of Atlanta, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean alone to travel to Belgium. The plan was for me to spend two weeks with my former nanny, her husband, and her adorable two year old daughter in the Belgian countryside. Since she is a preschool teacher, I would also have the chance to spend weekdays helping my x-nanny in the classroom.

I was excited to do something where I could rack up community service hours for my school and brownie points for my college applications, but I did not realize that I would take away much more than that. After two weeks of sticky toddlers, drama on the playground, and animal cracker snack time, here are my ABC’s (in the spirit of preschool) of volunteering with children abroad.

volunteer in BelgiumA is for Accepting Awkward Conversations

Probably the biggest fear of most volunteers as they venture overseas is the language barrier, and it’s a realistic fear to have. How are you supposed to make a difference in these children’s lives if you can’t speak to them?

Well I am here to tell you two things: 1) You probably won’t be making much of a difference in their lives (but that will be discussed later) and 2) it is entirely possible to communicate without knowing the language.

In my case, I was volunteering in a region of Belgium that speaks French. I take French at school and hear it around the house since my parents speak French with each other, however I cannot speak it well, just merely understand it. Let me tell you that these three year olds were not speaking any kind of French I have ever heard! It was an entirely new language to me. Regardless, after coming to this realization I embarked on a journey of attempts at French words that they didn’t understand and progressed into hand gestures and physical demonstrations. I am not going to lie; it was awkward at first. However, after a while you recognize body languages, and can perceive what the children want from you. Once the language barrier is broken, and you just accept the awkward incidents, it is much easier to find yourself as a productive volunteer.

B is for Being Open-Minded

When traveling abroad, volunteers will probably find themselves in a place that is very culturally different. In the United States, we experience a lot of what is called ethnocentrism. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ethnocentrism is based on the idea that your own group or culture is better or more important than others. This concept can be shocking, especially to a volunteer with only the best intentions. Without intending to, I found myself acting in an ethnocentric way during my days at the preschool.

For example, on the first day during lunch I tried to make conversation and joke around with the kids as we were eating. Immediately, the teacher (my old nanny) hushed us and said we needed to focus solely on eating our food. Personally, this was surprising to me. Wasn’t meal time a time to converse and laugh? I then saw a different way of doing things I thought were so normal. Even in Western Europe, which I thought had similar culture as the United States, the expectations during meals were much different than what I was used to. Subconsciously I was implementing my own cultural doings onto these kids without realizing that it was going against their own culture. For me this was an honest mistake, however I learned that as a volunteer you are placing yourself in a new environment with new practices and it is extremely important to open your mind and be respectful to other ways of doing things. Just because it is different does not mean it is wrong.

high school student volunteer vacations in BelgiumC is for Creating Lasting Impressions

Now to address what I said before: you probably won’t be making much a difference in the children’s lives. As harsh as it sounds there is a positive side to this. They will probably make a huge difference on your life instead!

I only spent 2 short weeks with the kids in Belgium, and even though they were not noticeably in need or impoverished, I still went in with the mind-set that I would be helping them. Looking back, I realize how skewed my outlook was. I was only a part of their lives for a few days. Sure we had some laughs together choreographing the end-of-school dance while dressed up in neon suspenders, but the children will most likely soon forget they even met me. For me however, I am sitting here in Atlanta, a year later still reminiscing the things these three year olds showed me. That is a pretty good representation of how much volunteering with new cultures (even if they may not seem all that different as in my case) can open your eyes to.

With all that I have taken away from my first time volunteering overseas with children, I have adapted my expectations and appreciated the opportunity to get a slightly broader look at what the world has to offer. I look forward to meeting new people and basking in new experiences very soon, and I hope that I have helped you to do the same.

~ Livia Gobbi is a senior at Walton High School in Marietta, Georgia. Her interests include traveling, writing, singing, playing soccer, and documenting food outings with her friends. She has traveled to 19 countries and hopes to visit 10 more before she graduates from college. Still undecided, Livia is considering an undergraduate degree in international relations, business, or journalism. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

From Traveler to Change Maker

In July 2015, my husband and I headed to Rwanda, a country that suffered one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen – more than 800,000 people were slaughtered in 100 days. We met a small group of women there that were living in terrible conditions and had faced the most unimaginable circumstances. Many are victims of rape, are widowed, orphaned and lost children of their own. These women inspired us to do something drastic.

M&A Rwanda

To give a clear picture of the whole story of how we ended up in Rwanda, let me first rewind to November 2014, during our first trip there, a journey we were inspired to embark on after spending the last 14 years traveling around the world. A writer and a photographer duo, we took the time to deeply connect with many fascinating people we met along the way and to learn more about incredible cultures we came to love. We saw the juxtaposition between wealthy and poor and it gave us that unsettled feeling of enjoying something that was only available to those who could afford it.

As travelers, it is important to us to leave the planet a better place. Our journeys abroad brought a richness to our life that no material object ever could. So we thought – why not return this good to the world and pay it forward?

So back to that drastic life-changing thing we did.

Last year, we launched Humanity Unified International, a nonprofit organization that empowers communities to rise above poverty through education, food security programs and economic opportunities. We started by investing in women.

Humanity Unified International

I gave up all my opportunities to earn an income through my online magazine to focus solely on building the organization and our current project in Rwanda. For the past year, my life has been completely dedicated to serving and empowering the women involved in our project.

Humanity Unified International

Now when my husband and I travel, we spend our time doing something meaningful and impactful in Rwanda. We’ve chosen to work with a local NGO that is leading a women’s farming cooperative project with us. Our approach to sustainable development lies within investing in local organizations and stepping away from our own ideas and beliefs of how things should be or what development should look like from a Western perspective. We trust our partners and we know that they put the needs of the community first.

As a travel writer, I knew I could write stories to help spread awareness about the work we are doing with Humanity Unified Int’l. I’ve been sharing our story with people all over the world in hopes that it will inspire those drawn to our mission to get involved and to come together in making this planet a kinder, gentler, fairer place for the good of humanity.

Become part of our story of empowerment. Learn more at humanityunified.org

 

~ By Maria Russo, writer, editor and co-founder of Humanity Unified Int’l, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to lifting vulnerable populations out of poverty through education, food security programs and economic opportunities. Follow Maria on Twitter @MariaCultureist

Africa – Full of Promise

On the 9thof August, I attended Go Eat Give’s Destination West Africa at the Clarkson Community Centre. It was quite a mind blowing experience even for me, having roots in East Africa. I realized just how culturally diverse the African continent is and the special attributes of different regions that set us apart in a special way. Unfortunately, I haven’t travelled vastly in the continent of Africa, but this event definitely piqued my interest to explore West Africa in the future.

The guests arrived in large numbers and dressed for the occasion. The ensembles were quite impressive and most people went out of their way to showcase African fashion with glamour and poise. I interacted with a lot of people who had visited different African countries and some of them even spoke my mother tongue, Swahili.

Conun Drums, an Atlanta based all women’s group opened the event with a spectacular percussion performance of West African rhythms. They engaged with the crowd and had everybody singing and dancing along. The group of four women and two little girls was clad in colourful African attire, embellished with vibrant print and patterns. Needless to say, they have mastered the art of playing drums.

conondrums

Owokoniran Taiwo, a renowned Nigerian musician based in Atlanta, who has been performing for over 30 years entertained the guests with some African tunes. His band is very popular among the Nigerian community and has been known to perform in different events, festivals and weddings. He sang and played the keyboard beautifully. He was accompanied by a skilful drummer. I was surprised to hear him play a popular Swahili song titled Malaika, which means Angel, with such great ease. He sang it like a native. The other Nigerian tunes he sang were very soothing and made me quite homesick. I thought to myself how my father would have enjoyed Owokoniran’s genre of music.

The keynote speakers made great speeches with strong conviction. I was especially moved by the Honorary Consulate of Mali Vince Farley’s and Nigeria’s Ambassador to the US Geoffrey I. Teneilabe’s speeches. They emphasized on the social and economic potential in Africa at the moment and how sustainable trade and tourism will contribute to the growth of the continent. They applauded Go Eat Give’s efforts at promoting cultural awareness and community service with their programs and Teneilabe called for more trips to West Africa in the near future. In the recent past, all that was heard from West Africa was the Ebola Crisis and this negatively affected the region. Teneilabe was keen on reminding the guests that the crisis has been dealt with in the region and Ebola is no longer a threat, which I am sure was a great relief to many.

vince farley

Their speeches resonated with me because they told a positive story of Africa. I have had the opportunity to travel around the world, and I have seen how the danger of a single story can have adverse effects in a society. Most people I have interacted with during my travels have usually had an unfavourable perspective of Africa, thanks to the media. Therefore I have taken it upon myself to always tell of the other positive stories that exist in my beloved continent whenever I get the chance. Also, most people group the continent into one entity, which is entirely false. We have thousands of diverse tribes, languages and cultures. I was happy to see Mr Vince Farley hang a map of Africa during his speech and pointed to different countries where he has visited and worked. It was very educational. He has served as the deputy ambassador in the Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Niger, South Korea, and Yugoslavia.

ambassador of nigeria Geoffrey I. Teneilabe

After the keynote speech the guests lined up to serve the delicious mouth-watering dishes prepared by Chef Okon James from Nations Café restaurants. I was eagerly anticipating the food because it was my first time to sample West African cuisine, and I must say I was quite impressed. My favourite dishes were fried plantain and Jollof rice, a popular fried rice dish in West African countries especially Nigeria and Ghana. Every dish was rich in flavour. I also tried Banku, a popular Ghanaian dish consisting of fermented corn and cassava dough mixed into a paste. Its acidic taste went well with the fried tilapia topped with bell peppers.

Other dishes included Chichinaga (meat Kebab), Vegetable Samosas, Puff Puff (an African snack similar to a doughnut), Ugba (fermented African oilbean seeds), Mafe (tender beef in peanut sauce), Grilled Boneless Chicken Breast, Fried Tilapia, Moi Moi (steamed bean pudding), and Red Red (black eyed peas cooked in palm oil). The dishes vary significantly from what we eat in East Africa. However, I was more than happy to indulge.

After dinner, we enjoyed a Manga African Dance performance by Ramatu Afegbua and her team of agile dancers. They moved the crowd with their ethnic sounds and body movements. Manga is actually a registered non-profit organization founded in 1990 by Ramatu with a mission to teach and preserve indigenous African cultural arts through dance, drums, songs and more. This was my most favourite performance of the day. They executed the true African spirit through dance and music.

manga dance

To close off the event, Sucheta Rawal made some closing remarks, thanking everybody for their role and participation to make the event a success. I extremely enjoyed myself and was honoured to be a part of such a great cause. I believe a lot of people left Destination West Africa having gained so much more knowledge, understanding and appreciation for West Africa, and more importantly, Go Eat Give’s mission.

~ By Christine Okwaro, event planning and fundraising intern at Go Eat Give. Christine grew up in Nairobi, Kenya and has lived in China and Switzerland. Her personal blog is www.thetravellers.de

6 Tricks to Get 86% More Chipotle Burrito (for free!)

It’s basically a universal truth that the only thing better than Chipotle is…more Chipotle. I’m no religious scholar, but I’m pretty sure heaven is just one big Chipotle restaurant where the guac and chips are ALWAYS free and hell is just some Taco Bell. So when one of my co-workers at Apartment List brought up the question of how to hack Chipotle to get the most burrito for your buck, I was intrigued. If ever there was a noble intern task, this was obviously it.

Through a lot of burrito research and even more company write-offs and office burrito donations, I’ve discovered these 6 tips that can increase the size of your burrito by 86% without spending any more money.

You’re welcome, world. Please send the Nobel Prize to my mom’s house.

The Experiment

apartmentlist-ordering-burritos

So I took my geeky love of data and my black hole of a belly to Chipotle for several days and ordered 5 burritos each day (35 burritos total), then returned to the Apartment List office to meticulously separate out and weigh the ingredients. Finally, I combined all the best methods to confirm the total burrito size increase. Additional methodology footnotes are below, but for now – on to the meat of the experiment (pun intended).

Tip 1: Get a burrito bowl  with a tortilla on the side

Tip 1

At its onset, Chipotle introduced the innovative burrito bowl that combined its authentic Mexican cuisine with the ease of knife-and-fork dining. Burrito legend has it that the bowl’s lack of tortilla constraints influences servers to give burrito bowl customers huge portions in general. In my experiments, I found that this method alone gets 15% more ingredients across the board, without changing anything else about the order. Still craving that full burrito experience? No problem – you can easily ask for a tortilla on the side. Which leads to our next tip…

Tip 2: Double wrapping (asking for two tortillas)

Tip 2

This method of calling in tortilla reinforcements was initially introduced by Chipotle to save burritos that busted open their first tortilla, but Chipotle sometimes lets you ask for a double wrap for free, which adds another 4.25 ounce tortilla to your burrito (ask for the tortillas at the end, when the staff just wants you to go away). Congratulations, your burrito just became 25% bigger. Ordering tortillas on the side and wrapping it yourself may be a daunting task for some, but if you value the time it takes you to wrap the burrito at $0 per hour (hey, burritos are worth your time), then you should add this method to your burrito maximization arsenal.

Tip 3: Order both kinds of rice

Tip 3The next time your server asks if you want white or brown rice, request both types – you’ll get almost 93% more rice, at no extra cost. This carbo-loading method increases the overall weight of the burrito by 23%. As an ancient American proverb puts it: more burrito, more food, more happiness.

Tip 4: Order both types of beans

Tip 4Just like rice, there are two different types of beans we can choose from: black and pinto. If you really want to maximize burrito weight, asking for both kinds gets you 92% more beans (another note: we aren’t responsible for the gas you’ll be having afterwards). With this method, you get a 16% burrito weight increase.

Tip 5: Half/half meats

Tip 5

In theory, asking for half chicken, half steak should yield one full serving, but our tests showed that you actually get 54% more meat – basically 3/4 scoop of each. This increase in meat grows the burrito’s weight by around 9%. You must note, however, that you’ll be charged for the more expensive of the meats, but we’ve put the many finance and accounting degrees here at Apartment List to good use and determined that it’s still financially worth it.

Tip 6: Ask for fajita veggies and corn salsa

Tip 6

Hidden away and rarely mentioned by servers, the fajita vegetable mix and corn salsa are free to add, and taste good to boot. These underappreciated ingredients will cure any feeling you might have that your burrito might be lacking in terms of a balanced Food Pyramid. Grilled veggies and corn not only add more color and flavor to your burrito, but they also add around 2.55 ounces, increasing the weight by about 15% (vs. the standard burrito). Not only do you have more burrito, but you can also tell your friends and family that your burrito is totally 100% healthy.

Add it all together and you get….

apartmentlist-maximized-burrito-on-scale

Doing all the tricks together (you’ll have to double-wrap the burrito yourself) gets you a giant burrito that weighs almost 32 ounces, at no additional cost! You’re going to need a course to learn how to wrap all that. Don’t worry about finding one: we got you covered.

See below for the change in weight, by ingredient:

TableSo, in a nutshell:

There you have it. By using each of the six tricks I suggest, you may end up with a little less cheese and salsa (that comes at the end, when your bowl will already be pretty full), but you get a lot more rice, beans, and meat. My final burrito weighed 86% more than the control. Sounds like it’s time to go to Chipotle! 

Methodology:

I ordered a lot of burritos.

Every day for about two weeks, I, the intern, set off to the same Chipotle around 3 P.M. to order five of the same burritos from the same shift of workers. The control burrito I compared everything to was a white rice, black beans, chicken, mild salsa, and cheese burrito. I excluded guacamole and sour cream from all burritos so that separating ingredients wouldn’t be such a hellish nightmare that would make me cry into the burrito and mess up the data. The weights I use are an average across these five burritos. Yes, that does mean I ordered 35 burritos.

It’s okay, though, it was all a write off.

 

writeoff

There was no need to worry about wasting food afterwards because after I was done with the burritos I left them on the office kitchen counter and they all mysteriously disappeared within a few minutes. For some, my five burritos per day offering didn’t fully satisfy, so some coworkers and I had a contest to see who could get the biggest burrito (that we’d get to eat). The winner didn’t even use Tip #1 and got a 30.25 ounce burrito!

Overall, I worked quite a few hours to gather all this data and consequently received funny looks from coworkers. It was then that it hit me how strange it was to be separating burritos at an apartment marketplace company. I have this irking feeling that my boss just didn’t know what to do with me and let me pursue my passion, but that would never happen to an intern. Though, with these astonishing results and all those dirty looks, I’d say it was totally worth it.

~ By guest blogger  at Apartment List. Click here to see original post. 

Top 10 Reasons to Visit Cuba

Whether you’re looking for delicious food, vintage car rides, architectural gems, or lively dance, Cuba has it all. Here are the best reasons to visit Cuba…

1. Tour Havana in a classic American car. Drive through Havana in a vintage Chevrolet convertible for a once-in-a-lifetime experience! Adolfo, our guide/driver of a bright pink Chevy, tested our Spanish by explaining details of each site. Highlights include: the stunning view of Havana from La Cabaña (The Fort); photo ops in front of a massive marble statue of Jesus Christ, called Cristo de la Habana in Spanish; sampling delectable scoops of ice cream for four cents at the government run Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor; and meeting the official “Lennon glasses guardian,” Juan Gonzalez, who is in charge of putting Lennon’s famous wire-rimmed glasses on his statue.

old cars of cuba
Vintage American taxi

 

2. Drink a fabulous Cuban mojito or daiquiri. Mojitos are refreshing Cuban drinks with five key ingredients: rum, sugar, lime juice, sparkling water, and mint. Outstanding mojitos are available at nearly every restaurant or bar in Cuba. My favorite mojito was at 5 Esquinas (5 Corners) Restaurant in Old Havana because I got to watch the bartender make it! Daiquiris are cocktail concoctions with three key ingredients: rum, lime juice, and sugar. Bananas or strawberries can be added to the mix for additional flavor. Ernest Hemingway’s favorite Havana joint, El Floridita, also known as “The Cradle of the Daiquiri,” whips up frozen daiquiris, made with blended ice and maraschino liqueur.

3. Smoke a Cuban cigar. Even if you’ve never smoked in your entire life, there’s a first time to try everything! Start with the best by trying a Cuban cigar at a family-run tobacco plantation in the town of Viñales.

A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.
A tobacco farmer in Viñales shows how to make the perfect Cuban cigar.

4. Dine at a traditional Paladar. Paladars are intimate family-run restaurants with a delightful ambiance. These cozy restaurants serve traditional Cuban food, along with wine and delicious desserts. I had a lovely dinner at Paladar Los Mercaderes, located inside a charming colonial building in Old Havana. I walked up a staircase with pink rose petals and took a seat at my table underneath stained glass windows. As I enjoyed a scrumptious meal of succulent lobster with pineapple sauce, I listened to a violinist and guitarist strum “Guantanamera” in the alcove. For dessert, I enjoyed a layered chocolate and wafer treat with a caramelized edge.

5. Stay at a family-run casa particular. These bed-and-breakfast-style casas are everywhere in Cuba. A casa particular typically has a few private rooms, each with its own bathroom, situated inside a family’s home or apartment. You can rent the room at a very reasonable price, usually around $30 per night. The casa’s family members cook breakfast, assist with luggage, and even pick guests up from the airport or bus stop. Staying at a casa is just like visiting a relative for the holidays, except you get to chat about life over mojitos and learn a few rhumba dance moves from the family! It’s a fun experience and you get a chance to bond with local Cubans.

6. Walk along the Malecón and watch an incredible sunset. The Malecón is Havana’s famous thoroughfare where locals gather to chat with friends and enjoy spectacular ocean views. From here, you can see gorgeous sunsets and watch the Malecón’s colonial buildings light up in bright pink and orange. Everyone I met in Havana told me that if you haven’t visited the Malecón, you haven’t seen Cuba!

A couple admires the view from the Malecón.
A couple admires the view from the Malecón.

7. Dance. In a small Havana alleyway called Callejón de Hamel, crowds gather every Sunday at noon to take in the energetic rhythms of Afro-Cuban music. Here, people dance to the beats of pounding drums, spirited singers, and enchanting rhumba dancers moving their hips to the beat. If you’re lucky enough to sit close to the stage, you might find yourself dancing with the group!

8. Visit the town of Viñales. Here, you can photograph soaring evergreen trees and giant limestone cliffs at the magnificent Parque Nacional Viñales. It’s also designated as a UNSECO World Heritage site. Viñales is famous for tobacco plantations, historic caves, and beautiful greenery. Take some time to relax in a rocking chair on the porch of your casa particular and watch the world go by.

A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.
A rainbow peaks lights up the limestone cliffs of Viñales.

9. Admire Cuban architecture. Only in Cuba will you find a mix of different architectural styles ranging from baroque to modern art deco. Stroll past ancient churches, narrow alleys, and cobblestone plazas to admire the colorful architecture. In an open top bus tour (which is only $5 per person), you’ll drive by art noveau buildings in central Havana’s hip neighborhood of Vedado.

The National Capitol Building in Havana
The National Capitol Building in Havana

10. Check out the art. It’s everywhere. Cuba’s art scene is vivacious and unique. The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes (The National Museum of Fine Art) hosts intriguing exhibitions from Cuba and abroad, including a recent art show from the Bronx. I was in town for the Havana Biennial art celebration in May, so all the galleries had amazing art shows on display. I also visited a hip, new gallery called Clandestina, started by a young graphic designer named Idania del Río. Her shop in Old Havana is full of colorful posters, T-shirts, and other fun items.

Havana Skyline

In the Kitchen with Chateau Saigon’s Phuong Nguyen

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Phuong Nguyen, manager and chef for Chateau Saigon Vietnamese restaurant in Atlanta, to learn about his food and culture. Phuong’s friendliness and sincerity was evident from the beginning of our conversation, and I was fortunate to learn firsthand about the food, sights, and culture in Vietnam. Phuong also opened up to share his favorite memories of Vietnam, his thoughts on coming to America, and the story of how he came to Chateau Saigon.

Here is what we discusses:

Q: What are your favorite memories of Vietnam?

A: My favorite memories are from when I visited the North of Vietnam with my friends. We would spend time relaxing and hiking in the mountains. I’m from the south, and there are a lot of differences between the north and south. The north has more nature, mountains. The rice fields are different in the north and the south because of the geography. In the south, rice fields are planted on the mountains, which is interesting to see in contrast to the flat fields in the south. The food is also different, like pho – it’s sweeter in the south.

Q: What Vietnamese dish do you like best?

A: Pho (a Vietnamese soup dish made with noodles, herbs, and meats). I could eat pho every day and not get tired of it.

pho_chinQ: What is your favorite place in Vietnam?

A: My favorite place is in the mountains, in DaLat city. DaLat is about an 8 hour bus ride from Saigon because of the geography in the mountains. It’s very different from Saigon; there are three main differences. First, there are no traffic lights in all of DaLat. Second, there are no rickshaws, which are everywhere in Saigon. It would be impossible to use rickshaws in DaLat because of the mountains, so people use motorcycles to get around. Lastly, there is no air conditioning in DaLat. The weather is much cooler there than it is in Saigon, and there is no need for it. When I go to DaLat, I spend time riding bikes around the big lake, relaxing, and going on tours of the palaces. There are three palaces in DaLat that used to belong to the French. There are also two villas, and people now believe the villas are haunted.

dalat_viewQ: How did you come to work at Chateau Saigon?

A: I was able to make a connection to the restaurant through my aunt. She was the one who sponsored me to come to America, and she actually sponsored my whole family. The process for me to get here took a long time – 12 years. It began when I was still young; my parents did not say anything about moving to America until it actually happened. I wasn’t sure I wanted to come at first. My sister and I had a shop in Vietnam, and even though we probably would not have made as much money there as we would here, we would have made a pretty good living.

There was also the issue of needing to learn English. In Vietnam, I studied for four and a half years to get my degree in civil engineering, and I am taking English classes now for a program at Kennesaw State University. My whole family, my parents and sister, are now here in America, except my wife. I knew my wife from school and had been dating her for years when I moved to the United States, and we got married during my last trip to Vietnam. Now we’re working on the process for her to come to America.

Q: What is your favorite part about working at Chateau Saigon?

A: I really like being able to talk with other people. It gives me a chance to practice my English, and I enjoy meeting people.

Q: What are some things about Vietnam that most people probably don’t know?

A: Vietnam has a lot of great street food. People use motorcycles for their main transportation there, and they can stop and get something to eat from a street vendor when they get hungry. Street food includes meatballs and fresh fruit, and some places serve rice, eggs, and noodles. The food in Vietnam is also fresher than it is here in the United States, especially seafood. In Vietnam, some restaurants have tanks where they raise fish or octopus to cook. Another thing is that we actually have pizza in Vietnam. The sauce used on the pizza is sriracha. You can get pizza with octopus or calamari as toppings. Vietnam loves seafood and spices.

top-10-Street-FoodTaste Chef Phuong Nguyen’s authentic recipes at Go Eat Give Destination Vietnam on June 23rd, 2015 7pm at Chateau Saigon restaurant. Tickets at www.destinationvietnam.eventbrite.com

~ By Sarah Margaret, a student at Emory University pursuing a major in History with a concentration in Law, Economy, and Human Rights. Margaret loves to travel, and she is currently learning Italian to prepare for studying abroad in Florence in the fall. Her hobbies include hiking, photography, and learning to cook.